[Program notes for a Pleasure Dome screening I curated in 2004. Give Up the Ghost, Jean-Paul Kelly; Burnout, George Kuchar; Blot Out the Sun, Harrell Fletcher; and Draft 9, Dani Leventhal. The first paragraph was used for publicity — the notes proper follow.]


The New Everyday (The Day Before Tomorrow)


What is the difference between art and life? I have no idea, but when life is removed from its luminous death (as is inevitable) the remainder, the residue, is art. The process, unfortunately, isn't reversible. We cannot begin with art and get anything like life (life-like) out of it. Still, there is no reason not to attempt this impossible task, and here are four videos that make the valiant attempt. While documentary merely aims to represent life, to capture it, these videos attempt to reconstitute life, to encompass, invaginate and cannibalize it: to render it unto its luminous death.




In his seminal Representing Reality, published in 1991, Bill Nichols identified four modes of documentary. These modes — expository, observational, interactive and reflexive —also constitute a history of the genre. The expository documentary (1930s), often referred to as voice-of-God, directly addressed its subject through didactic narration. The observational documentary (1960s), also known as fly-on-the-wall or (sometimes) cinema verite, eschewed voice-over, interview or any type of commentary and simply, "objectively" observed. The filmmaker tried to erase herself as an active determining presence in the work. In the interactive documentary (1960s — 1970s) the filmmakers actively interrogated their subjects, usually through interviews, in order to retrieve history and reclaim aspects of the social world. In the reflexive mode (1980s) documentary itself was interrogated formally, politically, intellectually. While previous modes took for granted that something real exists and can, if only in part, be captured or represented through documentary, the reflexive questioned these assumptions.

A few years later (1994), in Blurred Boundaries Nichols introduced a new mode, the performative:

Things change. The four modes of documentary production that presented themselves as an exhaustive survey of the field no longer suffice. The final mode, reflexive documentary, might be expected to return us to a modified version of the first, expository, mode, but this has not proven the case. Instead the reflexive mode as first conceived seems to harbor within it an alternative mode, a mode that does not draw our attention to the formal qualities or political context of the film directly so much as deflect our attention from the referential quality of documentary altogether.


Nichols sees the performative as having been harboured within the reflexive, like a virus or Trojan horse that deflects the documentariness of documentary, sabotages the possibility of documentary representation.

Performative documentary suspends realist representation. Performative documentary puts the referential aspect of the message in brackets, under suspension. Realism finds itself deferred, dispersed, interrupted, and postponed. These films make the proposition that it is possible to know difference differently.

Nichols goes on to list some of the precursors to his new mode, which include expository documentaries which were, rather than didactic, primarily poetic (Basil Wright, Joris Ivens); avant-garde confessional or diaristic autobiography (Mekas, Deren, Brakhage); and, perhaps especially, works which "combine elements of autobiography and the poetic in a documentary form to which a situated, embodied sense of political testimony has been added" (Mona Hatoum, Rea Tajiri, Richard Fung). It is with these works, Nichols asserts, that the avant-garde and documentary have been blurred into a single enterprise.

The four works in The New Everyday (The Day Before Tomorrow) are performative documentaries, I think, but there are other categories, other discursive nets, which might be even more appropriate. Nichols is most concerned with what I've called, perhaps a little comically, "the documentariness of documentary." He is invested — as his unconvincing protests to the opposite attest — in the idea that the proper concern of documentary is the social, political world. The works tonight all engage, though in quite different ways, with the social, political world (the documentary world) through the strangely slippery, almost liminal category of the everyday.

Whatever its other aspects, the everyday has this essential trait: it allows no hold. It escapes. It belongs to insignificance, and the insignificant is without truth, without reality, without secret, but perhaps also the site of all possible signification.
— Maurice Blanchot, "Everyday Speech"


For Blanchot the everyday is the site in which everything happens, but that everything does not carry significance, does not have the weight of truth or the substance of (documentary) reality. Perhaps the (not-necessarily literary) genre best suited to depicting the everyday is the Montaignean essay.

And so the opinion I give is to declare the measure of my sight, not the measure of things.
— Montaigne, Essays


The world is but a perennial movement. All things in it are in constant motion . . . I cannot keep my subject still . . . I do not portray being, I portray passing . . . If my mind could gain a firm footing, I would not make essays, I would make decisions, but it is always apprenticeship and on trial.

— Montaigne, "On Representation"


Michael Renov, though he does not explicitly discuss the everyday, takes the Montaignean essay as a starting point for what he calls "the new autobiography" in film and video in his excellent The Subject of Documentary (2004). The Montaignean essay has "codetermining axes in which the descriptive and reflexive modalities are coupled."

Axis x: descriptive — the measure of things — objectivity — documentary representation

Axis y: reflexive — the measure of one's sight — subjectivity — avant-garde

Subjectivity and objectivity (self and object) are not distinct things which are held apart, but form a mutually-dependent circulating structure in which self and object organize each other. (Montaigne may seem to favour axis y, but we can easily gloss his assertion to read: "And so the opinion I give is to declare the measure of my sight in regarding things and not things in themselves.")

One last quote then, to finish things off and to return to the concerns of my original program description at the top of the page, which was written, as is my preference, without thinking, but seems to me, despite the fact I could not say what "luminous death" might be, other than the fact one would most likely find it among the dustballs of the everyday, right (and as straightforward as possible). The quote is from Derrida and Autobiography and is one of the few points in which the young British professor (whose name I forget, you can email me for it if you like, or simply look it up) springs into a full-blown literary mode:

When I come to write my life, it will be like this: I address myself, the circulation of death masks begins, sitting in a sort of mass grave, almost like home, where I can only begin by classifying, and, above all, finding my own place, the classification which belongs to me, according to a proper name that will never cease to escape me.