Introduction to the body: the body of your subject; the body of your text; the body of the one you love


[B]ecause you can make anything into an object by treating it this way.[1]  

Conventions of objectivity in documentary film have come to rely on the question of boundaries, the terms of distance between documenter and subject (and subject and viewer); the answer tends to be that the less one intervenes the more authentic the text will be.

Objectify, the word, is usually applied to bodies: the bodies of subjects of art, for instance; sometimes, too, bodies of texts. It is not a bad metaphor, and it has some beautiful and clever uses: “the community of practitioners […] the corpus of texts”[2] ; from this I imagine the practitioners of bodies of texts as editors, their fingers hard at work, cutting and suturing, doing harm and good. 

But why is this objectivity so precious? And why do violations of the conventions that make something objective weigh so heavily on a document? Authenticity is, after all, a kind of treatment. The inevitable proximity (of the camera to its subject, for instance) that documentary filmmaking requires is itself an intervention—sometimes even a violation, the manifestations of which are not always so easily imagined.

This editor wonders: What about the subject? Why should we make such a problem of subjectivity, whose role in film, in art, has the power to elicit some of the most authentic of aesthetic experiences? Why can’t we, instead of viewing it as problematic, come to see the power in the subject as real, as authentic, in and of itself?

I do not believe in autobiography, but every feature film is also, more or less, a documentary. That is, when it’s a film on a contemporary subject.[3]

Antonioni refers to the ways in which a narrative film acts as a document, or a record of the actions of its players, director, producers, etc. Some of his techniques take advantage of this. For example, he was known for filming his actors in between cuts without their knowing. In this dead time he was able to catch what appeared later, through editing, to be performances. In an interview quoted and examined by Anne Carson, he shares another editorial technique applied to the final scene of Story of a Love Affair (1950), starring Lucia Bosé: 

She was enchanting, intelligent, sharp, cheerful. Oh, how many blows poor Lucia had to take for the final scene! The film ended with her beaten up and sobbing, leaning against a doorway. […] She was not an actress. To obtain the results I wanted I had to use psychological and physical violence. Insults, scolding, abuses and hard slaps. In the end, she broke down, crying like a little baby. She played her part wonderfully.[4]

Read alongside his remark about the relationship between documentary and feature film, this anecdote might lead us to believe that Antonioni has taken his meaning to both literal and figurative extremes. Literally, his intervention into Bosé’s role makes of this moment both a documentary (of Bosé’s response to his violence) and, at least in Antonioni’s terms, a performance of the film’s emotional climax. On the other hand, he presumes himself to be a director of narrative (fiction) films (with a pretense against autobiography). After reading his interviews, this moment in particular stands out as very real.[5] “She played her part wonderfully,” he remembers.

When does a subject become an object?

The contradictions are dizzying; but if at first distracting, they eventually settle to form Antonioni’s meaning. “She was enchanting, intelligent, sharp, cheerful,” but “she was not an actress.”

She was “cheerful” and “sobbing.” 

She “played her part wonderfully,” but “was not an actress.”  

If only she’d been an actress…

Bill Nichols has described the historical world of documentary film as a “brute reality” in which “objects collide, actions occur […] forces take their toll.”[6]

And bodies often bear the brunt.

Documentary film insists on the presence of the body. It exerts a relentless demand of habeus corpus. Like the legal system, documentary discourse insists on the principle that we must be presented with the body.[7]

Gruesome discourse. Quite frequently documentary presents us with bodies in their various states of life and death. War reportage, an extreme but pervasive example, does not shy from offering up its evidence. “Like the legal system,” our expectations of documentary film depend on our participation as witnesses.

Frederick Wiseman is a documentary filmmaker whose reportage on tax-supported institutions (Hospital, Public Housing, High School, Basic Training…) has given him (and us) access to some surprisingly violent and uncomfortable moments. In interviews he is often asked to talk about his means of access, of obtaining clearance from his subjects, and of his ethical obligations to them while both filming and editing.

Occasionally there’s a little resistance, but basically if people aren’t cooperative, you can’t make the film. Because if people are going to say they don’t want their picture taken, you can’t insist and I don’t have any right to insist.[8]

But Wiseman does insist.

He insists in his 1969 film Law and Order, in which he follows and films the activities of the Kansas City, Missouri police force. He structures one scene around the arrest of a young, black prostitute who hides in a dark basement before being found.

The scene begins abruptly. The officers kick down the door, and with their lights and sticks, force the young woman out from hiding. Though she does not resist, she is immediately put in a chokehold. As she is pulled closer to the camera, and to the light coming from Wiseman’s rig, she tries to cover her face with a handful of her nightgown. But the officer restraining her uncovers her face, and Wiseman zooms in for a close-up.

The use of violence against her is both physical and verbal; the officers chide her on, ask her questions she cannot physically answer. For more than a minute-and-a-half an officer chokes her. Her gasping face takes up the frame, her eyes roll, and she begins to go limp…

The figurative violence of documentary discourse is here (and elsewhere) applied with literal force. Though Wiseman does not step out from behind his camera and participate in the strangling of his subject, his unwillingness to intervene demands explanation: Why is this happening, and how can it be stopped?

I don’t think people have the capacity – or most of us don’t have the capacity – to suddenly alter our behavior because [our] picture’s being taken. I think if we don’t want our picture taken, we walk away or thumb our nose or say, “no.” But if we agree to have our picture taken, we’re not good enough actors to suddenly become somebody else.[9]

Wiseman insists that his presence does not, could not, alter the actions and attitudes of his subjects. The complication is not that he and his camera are responsible for the events that take place, but that he excuses himself from any responsibility.

Though Wiseman would be right in saying that the officers in Law and Order are not actors, they are, nevertheless, in control of their actions. In front of the camera, they act as they would like to be seen. They act up. The officers, who know they are being recorded, are offering an image of themselves to Wiseman’s film. And it is a powerful one.

The presence of the reporter (the effect is most acute in news reportage) attests to the authenticity of the representation but it is an authentication built on the inauthenticity of the reporter’s own presence.[10]

No matter what the intention, the preferred vantage for terrible scenes is from a distance. But what is the purpose of truth-telling that denies proximity (physical or otherwise) to the experience it tries to re-present? Is there not an ambiguity in the term authenticity that reaches beyond the question of objectivity? It might be more useful, for our purposes here, to call it honesty, or even humanity—an authentic human response to such terrible scenes.

Moreover, Wiseman’s disconnectedness from his subjects does not solve the problem of his presence on the scene, nor the effect it is likely to have on the events that take place. As might be said of a news reporter, Wiseman’s being there is as contrived as is his sense of professional distance.

Experience is a limited tool only. Also, it can make you sterile or distract you. I really believe that one must annihilate experience. Get free of it. Otherwise it lures you, ties your hands, makes you a victim of false promises.  It robs you of that instinctiveness which to me is the most beautiful thing in human behavior.[11]  

If instinct informed Antonioni’s approach to Bosé (his own instinct as director, but also hers in response to his direction), Wiseman seems to rely on the dulling of instinct (though this depends on how we categorize intervention or nonintervention in a near-fatal moment). Wiseman favors an observational approach whose outcome is, supposedly, objective. Both directors pride themselves on a disregard for the subjective experiences that offer a significant subtext for their films. But neither the annihilation of experience nor the betrayal of instinct seems to fulfill their intentions to re-present. 

I did not force its description. I tried to be as objective as possible.[12]

In any case, the descriptions posed by Antonioni and Wiseman used physical force to reach a desired effect. Antonioni’s wonderful moment required the physical manipulation of actress Bosé, and Wiseman’s that he not interfere with the brutal actions of Kansas City police against a young woman.

Should we be shocked to learn that the Kansas City police chief approved of the film, or liked it even?[13] His officers approached their public with callous indifference, and at moments with brute force. No matter, they are given the opportunity to assert their positions of power, and to do it with an audience. Wiseman too is in control; his position behind the camera and in the editing room, makes him so. 

But if Bosé “was not an actress,” neither was the prostitute in Wiseman’s film. 

Watching the tears fall from Bosé after reading Antonioni’s unapologetic interview is uncomfortable; witnessing the strangling of the anonymous woman in Wiseman’s film, terrifying. Both directors are also skilled editors. This is apparent in their choosing to exclude themselves from their frames. But following the requisite moments of choice and explanation (don’t call it instinct), doesn’t some responsibility to the subject remain? 

Or perhaps participating in any moment in which we are the authors or editors of our own actions, if ever it is uncomfortable, is always a privilege.


[1] Anne Carson, “Foam,” Decreation (New York: 2005), 45.

[2] Dirk Eitzen, “When Is a Documentary?” Cinema Journal 35, No. 1, 81.

[3] Michelangelo Antonioni, “A Love of Today,” Film Quarterly, Vol. 36, No. 4, (Summer, 1983), 1.

[4] Ibid, The Architecture of Vision (New York: 1996), 186.

[5] Both in the real sense of the word, and in the film-critical sense, to mean “authentic.”

[6] Ibid, 110.

[7] Bill Nichols, Representing Reality (Indiana, 1991), 232.

[10] Nichols, 90.

[11] Antonioni, “A Love of Today,” 4.

[12] Ibid, The Architecture of Vision (New York: 1996), 259.


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