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JULY/AUG 2023 Issue

Documentary Feedback

Documentary Feedback, a program this past spring at Anthology Film Archives, was dedicated to documentaries that incorporate their subjects’ criticism.

Jackie, Sue, and Lynn in <em>49 UP</em>, a film by Michael Apted. A First Run Features Release.
Jackie, Sue, and Lynn in 49 UP, a film by Michael Apted. A First Run Features Release.

“Don’t direct me! This is real life,” a young woman tells someone offscreen. She turns to face the camera and suddenly, with a swift cut, she’s frozen on a TV set, where three talk show guests comment on what they’ve seen: the group includes the film’s director, the woman’s husband, and, years later, the woman herself.

With its startling inversion of the TV’s “inside” and “out,” the scene is typical of the films in Documentary Feedback, a program at Anthology Film Archives dedicated to documentaries that incorporate their subjects’ criticism. The woman watching herself on TV is Carel Rowe, who with her husband, Ferd Eggan, features in one of the most compelling films in the program, Arthur Ginsburg’s The Continuing Story of Carel and Ferd (1972).

Carel and Ferd presents the everyday lives of two veterans of the San Francisco counterculture as they try to maintain their improbable marriage. Ginsburg’s camera and crew are a conspicuous presence, and if it’s about two people learning to live together, it’s also, as Ferd puts it, an extended meditation “the effect of living too close to an electronic medium.” The film’s subjects have the enviable gift of holding our attention while doing nothing. To sense charisma, which we sometimes call star power, is to intuit meaningful relations between the features of a personal style and the properties of the visual medium. It’s not that these people were meant to be on video, or that video was made to capture them. It’s that each brings out what’s salient in the other. What seems salient, anyway. Carel and Ferd are romantics who devote themselves to a truth that’s essentially subjective, private, even unconscious. Video is suited to their purposes, in that it records more of their lives than they could consciously mean to reveal. It’s also instantly replayable as feedback tapes, allowing them to study themselves in their most spontaneous and uninhibited states.

The film is a hodgepodge of daily life and media stunt: After exchanging wedding vows, the couple goes upstairs to consummate their marriage. The wedding guests stay behind to watch the event on a CCTV monitor downstairs. Or rather, they stay until deciding to join the fun on screen. Later, Ferd admits to wishing they’d been alone for this part of the ritual.

Ferd’s half-ironic regret echoes the genuine distress of many of the people who appear in these feedback documentaries. As I watched Michael Apted’s 49 Up (2005), I wondered why so many continued to share their lives with the camera, only later to express anguish at their loss of privacy. The behavior of Carel and Ferd’s wedding guests provides one possible explanation. The CCTV loop seems to destabilize the boundary that separates the video’s subjects from its viewers. In doing so it wreaks havoc on their ability to distinguish between inside and out, private and public. It’s as though the marital bedroom suddenly contained the wedding chapel.

“Feedback” entered the lexicon in the 1950s and ’60s, when theorists of cybernetics, a new transdisciplinary science, turned an old engineering concept into a generic model of circular causal systems: a feedback loop occurs when the output of a process re-enters, in altered form, as a new input, which in turn generates a new output, and so on. The concept lent itself to a virtually limitless range of applications, in domains as varied as sociology, psychiatry, and missile guidance systems.

While feedback as such has no ethical connotations, the series program notes link documentary feedback with attempts to address ethical pitfalls of filmmaking. These overtones no doubt reflect the concept’s dissemination into sixties social movements: as postwar consumer markets expanded the availability of lightweight film and video equipment, “feedback” provided a ready metaphor for filmmaking practices responsive to the era’s social liberation movements. In response to criticism he faced in postcolonial Africa, filmmaker-anthropologist Jean Rouch, subject of a parallel retrospective, used “feedback” to present editing as an open-ended process. A filmmaker could invite subjects to intervene at those key moments where the output of one editing stage became the input of the next.1

However principled, this version of documentary feedback does little to account for the pull of self-display and voyeurism, a recurring theme of people’s comments on the films in which they appear. John, a subject of 49 UP, ironizes the noble pretenses of the documentary built around his life: “It’s actually real-life TV, and with the added bonus that you can see people grow old, lose their hair, get fat.” Unexpectedly, feedback techniques can lead to diminished rather than heightened social awareness. A documentary about social class becomes a record of an individual’s responses to his own televised image.

There’s an inwardness to Carel’s “Don’t direct me!” and not least among the sixties cultural currents shaping these films is the anarchic egoism of the Beats.

Shot in staticky, gray video, Kathy Acker and Alan Sondheim’s Blue Tape (1974) is made up of a series of interviews and staged sex acts. Sondheim is a boyish thirty-one-year-old poet and Acker is a twenty-six-year-old artist. They aren’t shy. In one segment, Sondheim expounds his personal metaphysics while Acker gives him fellatio, trying to derail his performance. Elsewhere, Sondheim helps Acker masturbate, whileshe gives exasperated feedback. The only rule of intercourse is to hold nothing back. The performances bring both to the edge of breakdown. The next day, they try to recover by parodying each other’s personas. Despite Acker’s concern with “power relations,” the pair seem to treat feedback as little more than a tool for turning up public information about the private self.2

InIs this Fate? (1979), Helga Reidemeister presents a remarkable alternative, showing how feedback techniques can enter the intimate realm without giving way to solipsism. (By 1976, Rosalind Krauss was ready to argue that video art was essentially narcissistic).3 The film, which grew out of Reidemeister’s involvement in the West German student movement, presents a series of conversations and interviews with the estranged members of a working-class family in West Berlin.

The film occupies a series of cramped apartments, and the tonalities of black and white reveal the contents of these spaces in the full range of their drabness: the public housing flat where Irene Rakowitz raised her children, the nearby flat of her ex-husband, and the living room where her three teenage daughters have gathered to discuss their mother. Some of these rooms contain all the participants and some don’t. With something of the conversational intelligence she brings to the questions she poses from behind camera, Reidemeister juxtaposes shots as though to stage dialogue between unconnected rooms.

One of the tools that allows her to create such openings is the editing room, where she shows Irene footage from the documentary they’ve been making. In the film’s most difficult scenes, Irene watches her daughters describe her with a callous frankness.

They characterize the film as an invasion of their privacy and ask why their mother would want them to participate. Unlike those who use video feedback to absorb knowledge of their most intimate selves, Irene gains little from the exposure of her personal life, yet her answer hints at the socially transformative effects that might issue from the decision to bring cameras and monitors into the home. Irene says that her daughters “just don’t see that our family’s problems are not unique to us, that they’re not simply the result of our own mistakes and misdeeds.”

Irene's ex-husband, Richard, is a fatalist and an amateur woodcarver, who in a fit of inspiration, likens their children to blocks of wood. But in their estrangement from the woman they resemble, they’re in fact more like the fragments of film that Reidemeister shows her main subject. One wonders whether the difference between these analogies reflects Irene and Richard’s divergent responses to familial suffering: Richard’s fatalist credo assumes relationships in which the raw medium can never be more than what the artist deliberately puts into it. Irene’s commitment to seeing her children in all their horrifying difference may be painful, but enables the refusal of fate implicit in the film’s title. To accept these discrepancies between outputs and inputs is to recognize that we’re not bound to brutal repetition of the same: life can be made anew and better.

  1. Jean Rouch, “The Camera and Man,” in Ciné-Ethnography, trans. Steven Feld (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2003).
  2. Chris Krauss, After Kathy Acker: A Literary Biography (Semiotext(e), 2018), 129.
  3. Rosalind Krauss, "Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism," October 1 (Spring 1976): 50-64.


Finn LeMaitre

Finn LeMaitre is a critic based in New York.


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