Video essay here: https://vimeo.com/107821650
Jean Rouch said that a camera functions like a confessional. In one sense, we’ve seen this in countless reality television programs from Survivor (2000-), to Big Brother (2000-), and constructed documentaries such as Coal House (2007). In these programs, the confessional closet grants performers the space to give a testimony or a recounting of events – the contestants or participants on reality TV provide an account of their day’s behaviours or feelings for entertainment purposes. These reflections on the day are most amusing when the scene shifts from a heated confrontation between or amongst participants to the confessional closet wherein one of the performers, in a rage, informs the audience that their fellow contestant was acting like [bleeped expletive].
In another sense, Rouch meant that the camera enables individuals to perform. We see this in films as diverse as Steven Soderbergh’s Sex, lies and videotape (1989), Ulrich Seidl’s Jesus, You Know (2003), and Werner Herzog’s Grizzly Man (2005). These works – one fiction and two documentary – demonstrate that the camera is not merely for commonplace testimonies nor a medium which allows spectators to identify with performers’ emotions. The camera, while asking or commanding persons in front of the lens to perform, is also like a therapist.
Cameras and therapists are alike in their silent and non-judgmental nature, a nature which allows performers to divulge their secrets, desires, and confessions. The technology is silent, thereby providing an uninterrupted time and space for performers to bring their psyches to language and to work out a problem for themselves. The added benefit of being recorded is that it demands an individual to perform not just everyday life, but reflect on the fact that in speaking and acting for the camera, everyday life is a performance.
In Sex, lies and videotape, Graham’s camera is a substitute for sexual intimacy. Unable to get or sustain an erection, Graham videotapes women revealing their most intimate sexual encounters, desires, and preferences. In his session with Cynthia, a woman who had already been characterized as sexually adventurous, Graham’s questions about her first sexual experience sparks not just her visual and aural memory of that initial encounter, but moves her bodily as well. She eventually removes her clothes and, in a later scene, Cynthia reveals that she had touched herself. As to why she did so, she tells her sister, “I wanted to. I wanted him to see me,” a sentiment Catherine Breillat’s female protagonist would echo in Anatomy of Hell (2004).
The passive gaze of Graham’s camera allows Cynthia to perform in three interlinked ways: for Graham, for his camera, and for herself (in full knowledge that both man and camera are observing her – Walter Benjamin had said, “… the audience takes the position of the camera,” and it is possible if not likely that the performer is aware of this during her own performance). Yet, to state that Cynthia wanted Graham to see her where she is unwatchable, to invoke Breillat’s phrase, misses the mark. It would be more accurate to say that she wanted to see herself, although not referring to the final cut of the tape. Cynthia wanted to imagine herself performing as herself, and this is why we see the most intimate part of the recording session from the camera’s grainy perspective. This is Cynthia’s virtual perspective of her performance.
Jesus, You Know features a number of performers reciting their prayers. They each present their respective interpersonal problems, ask Jesus for advice, and through two or more sessions in front Jesus and Seidl’s camera, the individuals have minor and major revelations about their (love) lives. While Sex, lies and videotape is a thoroughly fictional film, Jesus, You Know is a documentary feature. These are real individuals with what we assume to be real problems – the veracity of this is shown by cutting to domestic scenes between protagonists and their friends and lovers. Yet the truthfulness of verbalized prayers is called into question by Seidl’s form and the structure of the film. First, he does not attempt to mask the performances of his actors: they are shown walking into churches, taking their seats in pews, acting out everyday tasks, wavering between a gaze at a crucified Jesus somewhere behind the camera and at the camera itself, and the tableau-aesthetic of each scene clearly marks its staginess. The participants bring their performance to the camera and Seidl has positioned the performers in aesthetically appealing ways. Seidl’s style counters the anti-aesthetic imperatives and discourses of sobriety that the documentary genre has historically commanded.
Second, we suspect that while some of the performances were prepared in advanced, the individuals’ lives are also shown to develop into their own narrative from the centrifugal force of their prayers. The move from prepared speech to tears or revelation exhibits the power of the camera. At least one woman, for example, begins with an emotional discussion about her cheating husband and ends a later session – and the film – with an optimistic speech that rivals the best scripted fiction film has to offer. Independent, en route to a meaningful life apart from marriage, and content with mortality, this woman’s story formed a narrative that concluded with a happy ending. The camera-therapist was perhaps a key part in her story’s resolution.
As Herzog makes clear in his commentary, Grizzly Man offers the most interesting case for documentary performance because the performer, Timothy Treadwell, more or less performs solely for himself. Hours and hours of footage was shot, first-hand, by Treadwell. He acts as director, writer, performer, and cinematographer in each scene. Towards the conclusion of the film, Treadwell presents himself as three different performers within the same scene. He begins as the level-headed director of the film, shifts to his onscreen persona, then in a surprising move explodes into a series of expletives against the United States government – this is followed by a return to the kind, onscreen persona to wrap up the segment. The question is where we locate a “real” Treadwell, i.e., one we would recognize off-screen. But this is a cliche psychological problem. There is no authentic self, but the many selves captured by recording technology. The camera, in this instance, offers Treadwell not just one but three ways to perform himself, and each performance is no less authentic than the other.
Benjamin wrote that unlike the theatre-actor, in which a performer is required to act out a whole scene and story, the film-actor is fragmented into shots that are often shot non-chronologically. Real individuals are far from the perfected whole person on the stage; rather, similar to the film-actor, our life is comprised of pieces and put together by those viewing us. Thus the camera, used in these three films as a kind of therapist whom enables us to speak freely with the self-reflexivity to contemplate the words and sentences we utter, demonstrates that being filmed is a positive experience. These films suggest that the camera-therapist functions in three specific ways: it allows the performer(s) to act out several identities or problems at once, in sequence or out of sequence; to assemble personal test performances; and discover the senses in which performance is a part of everyday life. To help us live with our symptoms, cope with our problems, fix our broken relationships, or call up pleasures from our childhood, such things we must perform – and the camera helps to turn us back on ourselves and confront whatever confessions we reveal.