"By now every visible corner, wrinkle and crack of her being had been photographed and the camera was useless.
One day as she slept, so still was she, it seemed even her death would defy the camera. I realized it was for this I was waiting, for a sign of death, not life, a flower falling back into the earth, not opening out of it.
She lived." -Gardner, A Human Document, 1957
The great Robert Gardner passed this weekend. His ethnographic films were a huge influence when I was sitting in Chicago trying to figure out how to make Raw Music work. I watched his films throughout the fall, read his field notes, thought of how his lifetime of work could apply to a couple semi-stoned months in Kenya.
His first major work, Dead Birds, looked, on the surface, like your standard ethnographic film -- omniscient narrator tells you about primitive tribe in authoritative Harvard voice. But even then there was art. There were recurring themes, a narrative plot and a sensitivity to the plight of women and children. The film, like all great films, was about something more universal than its subject. Gardner didn't hide behind the imposed rigors and limits of science. He wasn't scared to feel or say something larger about our general condition as human beings.
And from there he bust out. While everyone else was trying to document the "essential facts of life for Tribe X," Gardner put together experimental, almost hallucinatory films and montages that managed to convey so much more than the strict objective accounts. His films showed me that it's possible to say something true and powerful while transcending the tedium of mere facts and figures*. They were art first, and, as a result, were more telling and enlightening than any traditional anthropological film.
"I saw your dazzling Forest of Bliss the other night. Life has no subtitles or voice-over commentary; that Forest of Bliss didn't makes it so much stronger and more involving." --Susan Sontag, letter to Gardner, 1985
Gardner was also an academic -- a Harvard man his whole life. The films were aesthetically beautiful, but they were also theoretical. No shot, no camera move, made the final cut without careful reasoning. Sometimes it got to be too much ("That's just a dog, man, it doesn't represent death"). But it was useful. Reading his careful notebooks helped me think about not just the role of the filmmaker, but the role of the camera itself. He taught me symbolic imagery and how, in an edit, each image affects the images that come before and after it. Years later, when I spent a summer running around a film set and reading everything I could about making movies, I realized I'd learned many of the most important lessons from Gardner's field and edit diaries.
"I sometimes feel l talk like a missionary and maybe I am one. Largely, however, I think the good relations we presently enjoy have to do with the rapport built by us as people who are at bottom generally nice but do strange work." - Gardner, Dead Birds field diary, May 31st, 1961
Gardner was constantly aware of his own presence and the effect he had on the people around him. He understood himself as both an individual and as a representative of a culture that would inevitably overwhelm and destroy the worlds he made films about. He was careful not to exert undue influence, but he was also comfortable with change. Death and rebirth -- of humans, customs, entire societies -- were his obsessions. And like everything he did, he depicted change with nuance, thoughtfulness, artistry.
"Afraid of ghosts on his way home, one of the young boys who visits us regularly slept under our cots. He listened to the singing of joy that an enemy was dead, and to a typewriter as Peter Matthiessen wrote about it." - Gardner, Dead Birds field diary, May 30th, 1961
I always planned to write him a letter to say thanks. One day when I get good enough at this stuff, I'll just have to make him a movie.
"Men wept for the dead son, and women ran and jumped for joy over another lady's man being burned. Children watched and sang. The spectacle was vivid and affecting, seeming almost to justify war." - Gardner, Dead Birds Field Diary, May 11th, 1961
* The power of art to tell higher "truths" not made available in scientific or objective accounts is a theme many filmmakers and anthropologists I admire have dealt with. My Columbia professor Michael Taussig drove us into the world of ficto-criticism -- where the tools of fiction elevate anthropological observation. "Aren't novelists the best anthropologists? Who observed better than Proust," Taussig might ask. Werner Herzog took it even further with his glorious distinction between fact and "ecstatic truth" -- "a truth that is the enemy of the merely factual." For Herzog, to an even greater degree than for Taussig and Gardner, who are academics at heart, fiction can be more true than the truth itself -- art can tell you more than the facts. He isn't afraid to use constructed scenes in his documentaries in order to achieve this "ecstatic truth"-- more here