By Adrian Martin
There’s a utopian idea I occasionally stumble across, proposing that film critics should only ever speak or write about the movies that they like, or love – that their labour should be that of a fan, driven solely by enthusiasm. There are days when I fully agree with this idea, at my happiest evoking feelings of elation, surprise or enthrallment prompted by the discovery or re-discovery of a film.
But there are just as many days when I am convinced that the vocation of a film critic is precisely to be a critic, to tackle the films that one does not like – maybe even the films that one really hates. I don’t mean by this that critics should be dismissive, superior or sneering towards movies – attributes which, generally, I dislike in reviewers. Rather, I believe that there is a case for working from a spirit of what I’d call irritated engagement – a feeling of having been provoked and troubled and upset. And it’s in that spirit that I’m going discuss an Australian film that I didn’t enjoy one, little bit – Robert Gibson’s Video Fool For Love (1996). It is a film little shown beyond its initial screenings, anywhere in the world, but it makes for an intriguing case study in retrospect, after so many years of ‘first person cinema’.
Video Fool For Love is constructed from a video diary. We are told that, for ten years, Gibson carried around a compact video camera and filmed everything happening to him and around him – conversations, travels, car rides, sex, arguments: a lot of juicy, action-packed stuff. Most of the ten years fly by in a flash at the start, until we settle into the complications of a particularly difficult love triangle, when Robert is in his early 40s. First, there’s Robert and his troubled lover April, who flies off to stay in England. While she’s gone, Robert meets Gianna and they begin a wild relationship.
Almost always unsure of himself and his emotions, and equally unsure of his partners, Robert dithers for a while between April and Gianna, between England and Sydney. He visits April and becomes engaged to her, but eventually spills the beans about Gianna, and so that relationship breaks up messily. Back in Sydney, Gianna moves in with him, but eventually that union falls on hard times, too. Love really hurts, for this guy.
Video Fool for Love was produced and distributed by the prestigious Australian outfit Kennedy Miller, for whom Gibson has extensively worked as a film editor. In the press kit for the film, George Miller is quoted as saying: ‘Robert differs from all other filmmakers in that he’s the first to put himself between his camera and his subject. He is, in the same moment, cameraman and actor’. Now, Miller is a terrific film director – lord knows, I’m a huge Mad Max fan – but I do think his sense of film history may need a little fine-tuning on this point.
Robert Gibson is definitely not the first filmmaker to put himself in front of his camera, or to make himself the subject of his own video-film, or to record his daily life, or any of the things that you see in Video Fool for Love. If I’m getting a bit hot under the collar correcting this exaggerated promotional claim, that’s because such exaggerations go on all the time in the film world, and I find them pernicious.
To put it in a nutshell, making a candid-camera video-diary might well be a new idea for people who have essentially spent their entire, adult lives within the cloisters of mainstream, normal, industrial filmmaking. If a person’s idea of the cinema is restricted to Schwarzenegger and Spielberg, Twelve Monkeys and Babe, then I guess that imaginary person would find Video Fool for Love a bit radical, new or confronting. But in other kinds of filmmaking – in other, less well-publicised sectors of the cinema, like experimental or independent film, student production, even documentary – this kind of intimate exploration of a filmmaker’s daily reality has been going on for a long, long time.
As early as 1968, the film-diary craze was already being parodied and examined in Jim McBride’s clever David Holzman’s Diary. And these days, premier film-diarists such as Jonas Mekas are honoured in vast retrospectives at Festivals and art galleries around the world. I daresay that Gibson’s film might have been a lot better if it reflected some familiarity with the years of work and writing, and the many miles of film and video, that have already been devoted to this cinematic dream/ideal.
The irritation which I feel on this point reminds me of another golden moment in the annals of mainstream cinema: the end of the documentary Hearts of Darkness (1991), when Francis Ford Coppola comments that his kind of mega-budget filmmaking will soon be obsolete, because ‘right now’, as he generously hypothesises, some ‘fat little girl from Iowa is probably shooting a masterpiece on domestic Hi-8 video in her backyard’. But such masterpieces had already been made, in a dozen different ways, years before Coppola deigned to imagine and laud them. They were already a reality – in equal parts fascinating and mundane – before Coppola decided to turn the idea of them into a grandiloquent, redemptive fantasy.
I am talking here about the history of what is called personal cinema. It has a long and involved history, with many different styles and tendencies. Those acquainted with the marginal sectors of film production in Australia know well the local versions of this personal cinema, from Gary O’Keefe’s beautiful, super-8 observations of everyday life and Corrine Cantrill’s intimate utobiography In This Life’s Body (1984) to Dirk de Bruyn’s journeys in search of his past (Homecomings, Conversations with My Mother).
Perhaps the most widely admired example of personal cinema comes from documentary filmmaking: the American film Sherman’s March (1986) by Ross McElwee. Like Video Fool for Love, Sherman’s March is a ragged, romantic comedy cut from the cloth of the filmmaker’s real encounters and conversations with women. Its emotional keynotes are neurosis, suspicion, self-doubt and a man’s chronic inability to commit. McElwee’s film also has, far more successfully than Video Fool, a political, historical dimension woven into the personal journey. But Sherman’s March, good as it is, is just the tip of the personal cinema iceberg.
The very idea of personal cinema needs a bit of explaining. Once upon a time, a long time ago, it was apparently a scandal to suggest that movies – industrially produced and financed entertainment films – could reflect and express the personalities and preoccupations of their directors. That’s why the auteur theory/policy swung into action in the 1950s, in order to argue that even Hollywood directors on contract to a studio were expressing themselves artistically, just as much as the directors of art films in Italy, Japan, France or Russia. Nowadays, the polemical battles fought around this idea are old news, barely comprehensible to today’s generation of young film students. Of course, we all know that Spielberg is an auteur, that he reveals himself in his films as much as Orson Welles or Ingmar Bergman – we know it, and Spielberg knows it, too (and he knows that we know). So, in that sense, the notion that there is something personal, a personal dimension to film art, is now a simple, accepted fact.
But personal cinema per se is something a bit different and more special. It tunnels deeper than the auteur theory ever imagined that any filmmaker could. Personal cinema is all about staking a unique intimacy between the filmmaker, his or her material, and also, finally, the viewer. Personal cinema can be defined by a certain kind of content: everyday life recorded off the cuff, warts and all, complete with all the small spectacles and vicissitudes of sexuality, illness, work and boredom – plus a hundred fleeting, little epiphanies glimpsed out the window.
In fact, when I contemplate the history of personal cinema, I immediately think not of Sherman’s March, but a marvellous short film from the 1970s by the kooky American avant-gardist George Kuchar, a film called Wild Night in El Reno (1977). This is one of the many films or videos Kuchar made which are just, basically, glimpses of the changing weather seen through his apartment window. But what a hyper-dramatic glimpse it is!
Personal cinema, however, isn’t just defined by these (sometimes tawdry) areas of content or intimate subject matter. Even more crucially, it’s defined by a particular kind of effect that arises from how the film treats, sees and records this subject matter. Personal cinema strives to be not so much raw and naked in its effect – although it is sometimes that – but, more importantly, it strives to be fresh. It proposes a type of filmmaking uncontaminated by the conventional rules, codes, methods and clichés of narrative (as well as documentary) cinema. Personal cinema aims for an experience of revelation, an experience of seeing something in the everyday world as you’d never normally see it, or sense it. This is very fragile dream, easily disturbed and perverted, but it’s a dream that can come true; you sometimes see it spring to action on a screen.
I remember now another film: a short Japanese film shot on super 8 and video called Like Air made by Naomi Kawase in her early 20s. This incredibly delicate, quiet film about Kawase’s search for the father she had never known spends the majority of its time with the tiniest sensations of everyday life – lke the rustling leaves of a tree, or the shadow Kawase casts on the ground as she films. These sensations express everything, all the emotions, encounters and events to which the film otherwise simply alludes.
There are many kinds of personal films within this area I’m describing. At one extreme. we have works like Nanni Moretti’s whimsical Caro Diario (1994), or the painfully autobiographical films of Philippe Garrel – films which have the intimate, revelatory feel I associate with personal cinema, they give you that frisson of brushing up against something real and material, with the directors sometimes there in the flesh, in front of the camera. But these particular examples are completely scripted and staged, not improvised; they don’t employ a wildly roving, cinéma vérité style. In the middle-ground of personal cinema there are tentative pieces such as Dennis O’Rourke’s The Good Woman of Bangkok, essay-films that try to play with the paradoxes of mixing documentary elements with fictional/staged/re-enacted levels. This documentary-fiction combo is a popular playground for independent filmmakers today.
But right over at the other extreme of filmmaking, we have the soil where the idea and practice of personal cinema really took root and grew – and that’s all the arty Super-8 films, and the low-band, low-tech video diaries that have been made since at least the 1960s. Here you get the rawest stuff – the virtually pornographic sex films, masturbation films, the obsessively and grubbily voyeuristic films – the kind of subject matter that Video Fool for Love very gingerly and fleetingly evokes. But, over the years of this extensive Super-8 and video experimentation, a very sophisticated practice has also developed – the genre of the self- portrait. This is a form in a which a self, an individual’s life or sensibility, is evoked not through raw documentary evidence, but a highly idiosyncratic arrangement of the traces, the various souvenirs that have been collected or left by that individual. One of the better known (and most elusive) self-portrait’ films is Chris Marker’s 1983 masterpiece, Sunless.
Now, if personal cinema can be defined by a certain kind of content, and a particular treatment of that content, Video Fool For Love is a movie I find sorely lacking on both counts. Often, diaristic films/videos are enlivened by qualities of wit and insight, and especially of epiphany – the sudden, offhand glimpse of something, or a comment made by a someone, that serves to throw everything we’ve so far seen into perspective. Gibson’s film is utterly bereft of wit, insight or epiphany. Gibson himself, as the central narrator-hero of his own work, is no Nanni Moretti or Ross McElwee – and the comparison that is sometimes made by reviewers between Gibson and Woody Allen seems to me way off the mark … because he’s more like Henry Jaglom!
So, he tries to compensate with tricks at the filmmaking, post-production end. Every now and then, Gibson as the filmmaker departs from the raw ‘vidéo vérité’ documentary effect of his footage, turning on some supposedly dazzling display of editing skill. In these sections of the film, he overlays ironic rock songs on the material; or, as in one awful section, he injects images filmed off the TV screen of the Gulf War starting up – which leads to the conceit of him referring to his ex-lover April, and her nasty heartbroken letters, as a ‘scud missile’: ho, ho, ho.
Most viewers who don’t like the film pick on that scud missile business. But I thought there was an even more terrible bit of business elsewhere. I mean the scene where Gibson takes a shot of Gianna complaining that his video diary has no structure. He takes that shot, and then he intercuts it, interrupts it, with a shot of himself whining about his fear that he can’t give her an orgasm. So we get a mocked-up conversation that obviously didn’t happen: ‘You really have no structure, Robert’ / ‘I just want to give you an orgasm, Gianna’. The whole contrivance manages a painful exhibition of both Gibson’s maudlin-masculine tendency and his aggressivity – his ability to manipulate this material and master it (and thus his lovers) any damn way he wants to.
But I don’t want to get too moralistic with my own line of criticism here – moralistic about either Gibson’s personal behaviour, or his personal, tyrannical control over his film. Because all of that is completely on the surface and admitted to – Gibson openly displays his bad romantic manners, his self-indulgence, and his knack of making things come out just the way he wants them to. There’s always been such grandiose, self-flattering, deceitful, evasive aspects inherent in personal cinema, whether it’s Gibson or Jean-Luc Godard or Jonas Mekas at the helm; all acts of autobiography are inevitably self-serving, in sometimes complex and devious ways.
But Video Fool For Love goes a bit further than just simply being candid about these dimensions of the video diary project. Gibson also steers his film towards fiction, towards a kind of Tabloid TV, quasi-investigative re-enactment – with after-the-event reflections by himself and his parents. He keeps talking, in the film, about how he wants to make his life a ‘multi-media event’. And he deliberately leaves in bits where he is blatantly trying to direct and shape real events. So you have a planned tension in the film between the raw reality of things and these sorts of lordly, fictional contrivances. (On this point, see Monica Zetlin’s excellent review of the film in the Australian magazine Cinema Papers, Issue 109, April 1996.)
Cast in this somewhat generous light, it could be argued that Video Fool For Love plays with the idea that ‘life is a movie’, that life is contaminated or at least influenced by movies, TV, pop songs and whatnot. That allows Gibson to play up the love story and romantic comedy clichés in an ironic, knowing way, as if putting his own life in quotation marks. Of course, many mainstream Hollywood romantic comedies, since at least Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), have been doing just that kind of ironic schtick; it happens a great deal in Jaglom’s films. But sometimes this knowingness is itself just another kind of mask: at the end of Video Fool For Love, when Gibson reels back through his favourite video memories of Gianna, freezing them and pinning them up on his wall, I don’t think he’s being ironic at all, anymore; he’s just being sentimental in a rather lazy, uninspired way.
Life is a movie, OK – that’s a fair premise for a film about modern romance, which is what Video Fool For Love wants to be. What I really want to know is this: when exactly is life behaving like a good movie or a bad movie, a useless, damaging movie or a truthful, profound one? The worst thing about Video Fool For Love is that life comes out as even less than a bad, stupid movie – it comes out as pure TV cliché. Watching this film I remembered an early 1990s comment in an exhibition catalogue by Jacques Aumont, who once wryly observed that we live in the age of ‘generalised biography, of permanent, mediatised autobiography – that is, when all is said and done, the age of advertising’. I don’t entirely share Aumont’s general pessimism about the media, but I do think Video Fool For Love is a spectacularly distressing instance of permanent, mediatised autobiography.
Here’s what I mean. Every real person in this movie – especially Robert and Gianna – play-acts for the camera. They project themselves as if they were larger-than-life screen characters. Their decisions to fall in love, go on a holiday, get married, try out some new sexual position – all of this seems to be lived out in a bizarrely performative, exhibitionistic, superficial way, as if in the strenuous attempt to follow some kind of witless, TV soap opera script. When, at a climactic moment, Gibson virtually forces himself to cry for his own camera after Gianna has left him – that’s the utter nadir of this empty, acting-out principle. People seem to have no connection, no commitment to their own life actions here, beyond a vague sense of whimsy or an equally dim desire for some drama. There is, in short, a terribly soulless and alienated quality to the whole damn parade. (An aside: I actually disagree with those critics of the film who say it’s misogynistic to the extent that the male filmmaker, Gibson, allows Gianna no voice and no space of her own. To my eyes at least, Gianna seems completely complicit in this whole crazy game of skin-deep, let’s-pretend emotions.)
The video camera, with its ubiquitous presence, is definitely a party to this all-round alienation. But the camera, alone, does not create it. You get the feeling that, even if the camera were not on, these people would still behave in the same way. Because the alienation is already deep in there, imbedded in these media-saturated, peculiarly Sydney-side, inner-city, arty lifestyles. (I know it’s a lazy, glib comment and all that, but I have to agree entirely with the fellow Melbournian who said to me after a screening of Video Fool For Love, ‘It’s a very Sydney film, isn’t it?’) Once again, I’m trying not to be too moralistic about this: if I thought that the film was offering me this spectacle of alienation as something to ponder, I might applaud it. Maybe.
But, seriously, when I get to this extreme point in trying to nut out my hostile, critical feelings about Video Fool For Love, I start to suspect that the film perhaps doesn’t really deserve to be judged before the grand history of what I’ve called personal cinema. Perhaps it has a lot more in common with what’s recently been called ‘camcorder culture’. That’s not a cinema phenomenon at all but a TV trend, which started with the intimate domestic snooping of Sylvania Waters (1992) and marches on with a wave of TV series here and overseas where so-called ‘ordinary people’ are being asked to record and then compress their own lives into snappy self-portraits for television. What I’ve seen of this Reality TV trend so far, I don’t like – because it gives us just about nothing except the spectacle of people deliriously happy to present themselves as TV clichés for TV consumption.
The late Serge Daney described this trend on as one in which the TV medium is finally handed over to the people, but only on the condition that people hand themselves over to TV – that they become body-snatched tele-people. Aumont saw it as the triumph of advertising; Daney sums up the trend as ‘the marketing of the individual, the disappearance of experience’. It all sounds grim, Gothic and defeatist, maybe too much so.
But there is a critical point to this grimness. For it’s the green ray, the moment of truly individual experience, that has made the dream of personal cinema a precious ideal for so many of us. I can hardly see any truly individual experience in Video Fool For Love.
And that’s why it depresses me.
First broadcast on ‘The Week in Film’, ABC Radio National, Australia, April 1996.
© Adrian Martin April 1996