I am rereading the 1994 transcript from the Amsterdam Filmmuseum Workshop on “Non-fiction from the Teens,” kindly given to me by Nico de Klerk during my spring screening visit to the Eye Film Institute.

The opening remarks by Nicola Mazzanti (one of the curators at Il Cinema Ritrovado) resonate in surprising ways with the (many) discussions of digital media we had last weekend at Screen.  Of early non-fiction films, he writes:

“This material provokes a deep crisis in the way you’re used to looking at the material your’re familiar with – at fiction films.  You’ve probably come to the viewing table well organized in your thinking and decision-making.  This material tends to destroy that, tends to pose new questions and impose new kinds of decision-making,” (12).

Although Mazzanti pivots from this crisis to reassert the archive’s questions and historical control (Which film should be saved, should be preserved?), he begins with the disruptive quality of the non-fiction film image, its capacity to overturn the viewer, to elude the reasonable question, and to destroy our historical methodologies.

The initial, radical ambiguities of film seem to have softened.  Or perhaps we have created the appearance of stability in our historiographic approaches.  The digital now operates as simulacrum, while film offers good histories, secure documents, well-behaved copies.  Indeed, in his plenary talk, Jan-Christopher Horak of UCLA argued that “digitisation obliterates history.”

On a different (but perhaps related note): the workshop report is itself a fascinating historical document, carefully preserving a moment in disciplinary history.  It includes the complete workshop schedule, the screening schedule, the list of participants and affiliations, and a transcript of every post-screening discussion.  Tom Gunning (then at Northwestern) and Miriam Hansen (Chicago) spar over their senses of simultaneity. Stefaan Decostere seemingly stuns the empiricists among the crowd with a meditation on melancholy. There is an historiographic method implicit even in ancillary documents such as these.


One day left in the Screen 2011 conference.  The theme for this year is “Repositioning Screen History.”  Two days in, I wonder: where are we willing to move our thinking of history and what positions are available to us when we do?  There have been some startling/sharp contributions this year, but the invitation to reposition history seems to have reinvigorated some tired disciplinary positions.  History and real labour on one side, “high theory” and intellectual waste on the other.  Digital anxiety is high, celluloid fetishes abound, model images/origins sought after, 1980s New History approaches perhaps about as radical as we are willing to push/reposition.

A few initial (not-so-radical) thoughts:

I consider film history to be many/multiple and in process (of decay, restoration, remediation).

Digital media is a part of film histories, a site of intersection/exchange, rather than a threat to its recording.

The archive makes (a) film history, as much as it preserves one.

Both the analogue and digital image are fragile, imperfect visual forms.  I (would like to) write with the instability of these media, rather than against or in spite of their eventual obsolescence.

Most depressing conference fact: the UCLA film archive spends $80,000 per month on electricity to cool its film storage units.  We also need a history of film preservation and the environment.

Final thought: the film-as-body figure should be interrogated more carefully.  Film is not a dead/dying fleshy body, the screen is not skin (without some critical/analytical work), etc. The body seems to quietly haunt (some nostalgic, melancholy, anxious) histories.