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Commentary: Here and There… of Anthropology at Home and Abroad

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Robert Gardner at Work
Robert Gardner at Work

The ethnographic films of Robert Gardner and anthropology in general resonate quite powerfully with me, although I’ve hardly ever had a chance to become broadly or deeply acquainted with either. My first encounter with Gardner’s Dead Birds, his best-known work, made a deep impression on me, not only because of the film itself, which was reason enough, but because of the odd circumstances in which I first discovered it.

When I was a freshman in college, a friend spoke about it enthusiastically and told me that it was being shown on a certain evening. I set out, thinking I knew where I was going, and joined a familiar enough Cambridge crowd in one of the usual campus screening rooms. Nothing gave me reason to believe that I was in the wrong place, until the screen filled with dark, agitated black and white images, accompanied by dire music. A figure was escaping from a comfortable house in the night, running under trees until he came to a wall, which he decided to climb. I can’t remember everything, but I can say that the fellow, an attractive, but antagonistic young man, was caught and found himself soon enough in confinement. Was it a prison, as he thought? No, rather an insane asylum. The young man experiences institutional life, learns that he has been declared insane and will never leave. He makes friends. Eventually he escapes again, and the rest of the film is a manhunt. In the end he learns that his own father had him committed, for financial reasons, if I remember correctly. The film was La tête contre les murs (1959), a noir nightmare by Georges Franju, a co-founder of the Cinématèque française, a true master, who is not nearly as well-known today as he should be. I had never seen a film, or read a novel, in which the world was quite so out of joint. No relationship was what it appeared to be, and none conformed to traditional behavior or feeling. There was a plot to banish an innocent young man from society, basically for the sake of money. The wronged protagonist had to set things straight through daring and the fulfilment of his love interest, embodied in the irresistible Anouk Aimée. College freshmen—young men within touching distance of adulthood, but not yet emancipated—respond as readily to hints of conspiracies, as to beautiful young actresses, and I took the film very seriously. I could easily picture myself in the young man’s situation. Today I can see that I may not have had much reason to fear his fate, but I have not forgotten the film, even though I haven’t had a chance to see it again. (I’m happy to see that it is available in the UK in the Masters of Cinema series, and I’ll revisit it very soon.)

What about Dead Birds? I knew there was going to be a second screening, and, after La tête contre les murs came to an end, I set out to find the film I had missed. I found I had come in time and settled in for a view of life in the Western Highlands of New Guinea. To my amazement, everything in Dani society was the opposite of the suburban Paris I had just visited. Traditions and customs provided checks and balances to individual situations, even if they are problematic—youth, illness, poverty, old age—and everything functioned properly. Society seemed to support the needs of the individual with remarkable efficiency. After Franju’s gripping vision of a corrupt society I could not have been more impressed by the harmony among the Dani. The film even begins with the story of Weyak, who was given his name—which means “wrong,” because he had a bad temper in his youth—rather like the protagonist of the thriller I’d just seen, but Weyak had overcome it and earned a respected place in society. As we learn more about him and the young swineherd, Pua, and others, the whole society, past and present, unfolds before us, like the recurrent bird’s eye views of their land. Of course the foreign visitor has only a very limited opportunity to look beneath the surface. Their society was stabilized by their constant state of war with neighboring communities. Watching for enemy attacks is the primary job of the menfolk. In a space three miles across the Dani pursued a highly ritualized form of war, which was demanded by the “ghosts,” as translated in Dead Birds, who would sap the life-force of the community, if the death of a member were not avenged. Every mature male’s attention was concentrated on this endless game. (We know all too well how war, as waged by Reagan, Thatcher, the younger Bush, and now Obama, can prove to be effective stabilizing forces in society and inspire citizens to do thing they wouldn’t consider as sensible private people.) This is not the place to discuss this recognized masterpiece of some forty-five years ago in detail, but it is truly remarkable how Gardner balances suggestive thought and images with expositional clarity and a strong, absorbing narrative. Its simplicity conceals a subtle art. As I made my way back to my room around midnight, I mulled over the close intermeshing of these two, entirely different films. Even birds played an important role in both of them. I couldn’t help taking an anthropological view of Franju’s hard-edged entertainment, and the dramatic aspect of Dead Birds is self-evident.

After that, I dabbled in anthropology a little, and the perspective, if not the discipline, kept returning in later years—among unexpected circumstances, for instance, as I was laboring through the process of putting together a topic for my doctoral dissertation. At the time, I was fascinated with Euripides’ late Ion, in which he evokes the atmosphere of primeval Athens with such color and elegance. Often a narrow topic presents a bigger job than a broader one, and I found myself, via Euripides’ fragmentary Erechtheus, writing on this whole body of local myth and cult, which concerned the Athenians’ origins and identity. As Athens’ fortunes declined in the final stages of the Peloponnesian War, there seemed to be a resurgence of interest in local traditions, as refurbished by a rationalistic, even scientific treatment based on Sophistic methods: the beginnings of anthropology. The ancient cults had always existed, but, in the classical period more through formal repetition than understanding and enthusiasm (rather like everyday American Christianity in the 1950’s): the holy places had not been forgotten, but at that time they were enclosed in elegant new structures like the Parthenon and the Erechtheum, which was still under construction. This building project itself could account for the interest. This superb temple embodies the attention given to marking the venerated loci, which were celebrated in Attic cult and myth. All this stuff about primeval kings, who were half-human and half-serpentine and who emerged from the earth itself, harked back to a form of myth far more primitive than the Olympian gods and their quintessential playground, the Trojan War and its aftermath. In any case, as Athens descended into the downward curve of the Peloponnesian War, these primitive traditions were celebrated by Euripides’ sophisticated, ironic tragedies and architecture of the rational spirit and stylistic urbanity of a Wren church. If one is interested in this very early stratum of local myth, using the surviving classical sources is not unlike studying Homeric myth with no sources earlier than Joyce and Picasso.

While pondering all this I picked up a collection of essays and lectures by the great Polish anthropologist, Bronisław Malinowski. There I found several basically similar myths of origin, tied to specific locations, particularly trees, just like the Attic myths, and that opened up a whole world of anthropology and myth, in which the observable and recordable activities and stories of “primitive” people was understood to be a key to the past. (I’ve always thought there were reasons to question this assumption, but no matter.) The link between my dissertation on The Autochthonous Heroes of Athens from the Classical to the Hellenistic Period and Robert Gardner lies in Malinowski’s preparation of his audience in “The Role of Myth in Life,” the first lecture of his series, Myth in Primitive Psychology: “The anthropologist is not bound to the scanty remnants of culture, broken tablets, tarnished texts, or fragmentary inscriptions. He need not fill out immense gaps with voluminous, but conjectural, comments. The anthropologist has the myth-maker at his elbow. Not only can he take down as full a text as exists, with all its variations, and control it over and over; he has also a host of authentic commentators to draw upon; still more has the fullness of life itself from which the myth has been born.” While Malinowski presented this as a nostalgic journey back to his early days in the Trobriand Islands (aided surely by voluminous notes and photographs), Gardner’s experience will always be fresh to our eyes and ears in his poetic, but keenly observant films.

In my research for my review of Robert Gardner’s Human Documents, I discovered an aspect of his work I had not known before, Screening Room, which ran on a Boston ABC affiliate station for almost ten years, from 1972 to 1981. In this Gardner turned his attention to film-making itself. These interviews with important independent film-makers included screenings, which included animation, documentary, and experimental films. Welcoming such artists as Derek Lamb (1973 & 1975), Jan Lenica (1973), John & Faith Hubley (1975), Emile de Antonio (1973), Jean Rouch (1980), Ricky Leacock (1973), Jonas Mekas (1975), Bruce Baillie (1975), Yvonne Rainer (1977) and Michael Snow (1975). Frequently, guests such as Octavio Paz, Stanley Cavell, and Rudolph Arnheim appeared as well. Nearly 100 programs were produced, and thirty-three of them are available on DVD through Documentary Educational Resources or as Amazon VOB through Reframe. If you watch the excerpts available on YouTube, you will become as addicted to them as I am. The intelligence, imagination, and seriousness of Mr. Gardner is admirable. Screening Room surely represents what was best about the 1970’s. Imagine a network affiliate presenting something like that today!

An anthropologist might well find exercise and entertainment in Edward Steichen’s fashion and celebrity photography. A pile of old Vogues or Vanity Fairs found at a flea market is an artefact that makes the material aspirations of certain strata of society quite transparent. Later, in his famous exhibition, The Family of Man, Steichen reached out for some ethnographic photography, only to juxtapose it with superficially similar subjects closer to home. The hugely popular exhibition was largely detested by professional photographers and critics of the right, like Hilton Kramer, who wrote a bracing diatribe against it in Commentary in 1955, which makes some telling points before ending up with his familiar political agenda. Whatever one thinks of Hilton Kramer, he has succeeded in staying on message for longer than anyone would have thought humanly possible. I recommend Bill Jay’s intelligent and balanced discussion of the exhibition.

Another photographer, Alen MacWeeney, who has continued Steichen’s tradition of technical excellence and brought it to new heights both in commercial photography for the same outlets as Steichen, but also to a thoroughly honest but formally polished kind of documentary photography. Both for the amateur and the professional, there is a thrill in taking up one’s camera bag and walking out the door, whether one is headed for the airport and Afghanistan or simply down the block. Over forty years ago, back in his native Ireland to make a photoessay on W. B. Yeats, he encountered a huge camp of travellers, the wandering Irish, whose caravans used to be found all over Ireland. He made a connection with the people there and returned often to talk, photograph, and to record stories and songs. While his book, Irish Travellers, Tinkers No More, is a moving document of the travellers he came to know back in the mid-1960’s, the film he recently made about his return to Ireland to trace the people he photographed provides a full view of the story from the point of view of the sitters. Alen’s humanity and genuine affection for them is as moving as the photographs themselves. The film, Traveller, is so simple and quiet in style, that one doesn’t immediately recognize its subtlety or realize how much sheer information has been packed into it. The thread proceeds from the sitters to the photographs, and each tells his or her story, including, Nell Ward, the subject of MacWeeney’s famous image. Beyond that, we learn a good deal about traveller society and how it has changed over the years, materially for the better in some cases, but culturally and spiritually for the worse. The Irish government has made housing available, while making it impossible for the travellers to pursue their traditional way of life, which is itinerant and above all based on proximity to animals. The policy seems to be to eradicate traveller culture entirely. One obvious comparison is the treatment of native peoples in the US and Canada. Violence has risen among them as well. Disagreements that were once settled in man-to-man fistfights behind the pub have now become open-ended clan feuds, carried down from generation to generation. I have already drawn parallels between his book and Robert Gardner’s Human Documents. The all-too-brief film, Traveller, accomplishes many of Gardner’s filmic goals as well.

But let me tell you more about my doctoral dissertation…no I’ll spare you that…but at one point I wanted to get my mind off the Athenian autochthonous heroes at all costs. I decided to spend 17 days in the Soviet Union and perhaps to make a hobby of learning Russian. As I explored Red Square and read about traditional Russian towns, I began to notice the pattern of numinous spots all around, and I was back in the world I’d attempted to flee.

All I have to say is that my dissertation never got me an offer from Hollywood. It was perfect for Roger Corman, and he never so much as nibbled at it!

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