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Excerpt: "Iconophobia: How Anthropology Lost It at the Movies"

Anthropologists have been making films since the beginning of cinema, but the film medium is still not widely accepted for presenting anthropological research.

In his 1996 essay "Iconophobia: How Anthropology Lost It at The Movies," Sweetgrass co-filmmaker Lucien Castaing-Taylor reasons that ethnographic films -- films produced by anthropologists to present their cultural research -- permit observation that isn't possible in written form, the traditional means of documentation.

In this excerpt from "Iconophobia," Castaing-Taylor discusses the indexical nature of film, or the way it directly represents something that occurred in front of a camera, and the possibilities for realism the medium provides.

Filming the filmmakers: Longole, from 'A Wife Among Wives' (1982), pictured shooting David and Judith MacDougall. (Fieldwork Films)

Filming the filmmakers: Longole, from A Wife Among Wives (1982), pictured shooting David and Judith MacDougall. (Fieldwork Films)


Iconophobia: How Anthropology Lost It at the Movies

By Lucien Castaing-Taylor

The indexicality of ethnographic film makes it open-ended, and thus susceptible to differing interpretations in a way anthropological writing is not. In view of this indexical "excess" -- one that is latent within shots as much as it is generated by their juxtaposition -- one could argue that film is not more, but less bossy, one-eyed, distorting, simplifying, disarming, imposing, and so on, than text. Indeed, one could make the further argument that since an observational aesthetic has for some time now enjoyed pride of place among ethnographic filmmakers -- an aesthetic that favors long takes, synchronous speech, and a tempo faithful to the rhythms of real life, and that discourages cutting, directing, reenacting, interviewing -- their films are unusually open to multiple interpretations. In particular, the aesthetic of long takes is more realistic than the "psychological montage" of continuity cutting, which fragments events in such a way as to simulate the shifts in our attention if we were present, because (so the neorealist argument goes) it does not suppose that events have a singular meaning and dictate the attention of viewers accordingly. On the contrary, this "technical realism," as André Bazin put it, restores to the viewers some of the autonomy they have in interpreting reality when they are confronted with it as witnesses in real life. It allows action to develop within a single shot, over an extended period, and on several spatial planes; it constructs relationships within frames as much as between them; and it honors the homogeneity of space by preserving the relationships between objects rather than substituting the abstract time and synthetic space of montage. Long takes, by exhibiting a deficiency of authorial intelligence (for which they have been taken to task by nearly everyone since Sergei Eisenstein), reflect an ambiguity of meaning that is at the heart of human experience itself.

An observational aesthetic, then, does not relinquish authorial control entirely, but it does so differently from other documentary forms. Observational films are still authored, but less authoritatively. They are still reductive, but watching observational films is a more digressive experience than watching other documentaries. In these regards they empower the film's subjects and the spectators alike: the subjects are less mutilated by the montage, and the spectators may garner meanings or simply come away with sensations and impressions that are at odds with the maker's. It is not exactly that observational films permit "aberrant" or "alternative" readings, for there may be no correct, dominant or intended writing to which they may be counterposed: the metaphor of reading/writing, with its connotations of scientific rhetoric and decipherment, is inappropriate. But certainly observational films are open in the sense and to the extent that they permit multiple viewings.

Lucien Castaing-Taylor's Iconophobia: How Anthropology Lost It at The Movies originally appeared in the journal Transition (No. 69, 1996) and appears here with permission from the publisher, Indiana University Press.

Additional Notes
» ^ André Bazin was a French film critic who played an important role in the acceptance of cinema as an art form. Bazin felt that photography, and therefore cinema, had a special obligation to reality, given its ability to record the world objectively.
» ^ Sergei Eisenstein was a Russian film theorist and director who helped pioneer the Soviet montage film movement. He was interested in how the juxtaposition of shots via editing could create abstract connections.