This week it was time for us to submerge into so-called observational cinema through three different films. First was the Salesmen by the Maysles brothers, the second was Titicut Follies by Wiseman and the last one was Forest of Bliss by Gardner.
Salesmen is about Bible salesmen who go all over America to sell special editions of the Bible. This film is one of the prototypes of American observational cinema. The camera and the film makers are basically invisible and they try to observe and film the subjects natural behaviour. As Anna Grimshaw says in her article 'Rethinking Observational Cinema' this was a revolution in ethnographic film making that tried to make visual anthropology more scientific by not creating a narrative and letting things just happen in front of the lense of the camera. As she puts it, observational cinema is "...a form of scientism in which a detached camera served to objectify and dehumanise the human subjects of its gaze."
This aesthetic definition clearly clearly fits Salesmen and Forest of Bliss but not Titicut Follies. Titicut Follies was shot in an asylum for the criminally insane in the state of New York and it tries to explore the fine line between normality and insanity. Wiseman's film has elements that fit observational cinema perfectly still it has a very clear message and agenda to criticise psychiatry and institutionalisation of people. Through these aspects Titicut Follies fits the anti-psychiatry movement of the 1960s, 1970s too. Many social scientists and psychiatrists, led by Thomas Szasz
questioned the methods and the validity of psychiatry and the existence of mental illness during these decades, and Wiseman does the same thing in this film. He uses methods that make his film look like observational cinema but the editing and the narrative that is sewn into the film send a clear message. He questions the normality of the staff of the asylum and contrasts it with the insanity of the patients or inmates. His portrayal of the place, the interaction between people and the brutality of several methods make the audience question the normality of the personnel. Wiseman tries to show that mental illness is socially created many times and that normality is highly subjective.
We don't really see any of that in Gardner's Forest of Bliss which was the worst movie experience I've ever had. It wasn't my worst experience because it is bad bad film necessarily, but the way it was done was so in-your-face that I felt like my senses got attacked. I felt violated by the things I was being shown and the sounds that were very overdone on purpose.
Forest of Bliss shows the life of an Indian city without any kind of explanation about the events and things that are happening in front of our eyes. We have some main characters like the slightly crazy healer or the very antipathetic guy who ran the place where people took their dead to get chremated, and the film has a loose narrative that follows the events that lead up to people's funerals. Although many people argued in class that the film was about life and death, light and dark, I didn't really see that. I got the feeling from the film that life in India is all about death and nothing else.
Which wouldn't have been a problem, on the contrary, I liked the film up until around the 50th minute, by tha time it was perfectly clear what the film was about, I got the whole picture in my head and I just wanted it to stop; the scenery, the sounds, the events; everything. By the end of the first hour of the film I thought: I get your point, just leave me alone.
I think for me that fact that nothing was explained made the whole thing worse. I was shown horrible poverty, squalor, death and they were all presented in a very emotionless and brutally stripped way without any kind of explanatory tools. Because of this I hated the film but I can say that it very well fits the criteria of observational cinema that has been very widely criticised.
I've already mentioned Grimshaw's article, but I haven't mentioned her critique of observational cinema. In her, and other's, opinion pure observation that records natural behaviour is impossible.