Cameraperson ★★★★

[8]

"The Laura Poitras / Dani Leventhal mash-up you didn't know you'd been waiting for," a called this on Twitter, only somewhat glibly. But the fact is, Cameraperson is a rare viewing experience. Not only does Kirsten Johnson bring together two forms of filmmaking (nonfiction advocacy cinema and poetic / associative diary) that typically have nothing to do with one another. She finds that the two modes can strengthen each other, making something vital and unique, rather than watering each other down into middlebrow pabulum.

As Johnson explains in her opening title, these are the fragments from her own work as a nonfiction cinematographer that have stayed with her. Cameraperson, then, is a compilation of puncta (to borrow Roland Barthes' terminology from Camera Lucida), the moments, images, people and conversations that assert themselves in her mind. This is a twofold effect, since the productions from which these fragments are excerpts and outtakes, represent studia in the most direct sense. For Barthes, a photograph contains the studium, the denotative, direct meaning that anyone would derive -- "here is a hungry child in a desert;" "here is a body in a battlefield" -- and the punctum, the piercing individual detail that jumps out from the image and makes the image connect with the viewer's emotional core -- a sad dog in the corner, a quality of light, a fugitive ironic smile in a tragic scene, a loose button on a soldier's uniform. The punctum is so individual that it is hardly worth remarking on, and yet it is what makes the image a living concern, above and beyond the cliché of reportage.

When I say "twofold," I mean not only that these are emotional fragments that jump out from an overall schema of informational sound / image relationships. There's also the fact that Johnson created these images not as a director but as a cinematographer. In every respect, Johnson was on assignment, and the excerpts she has made her own are taken not from the margins of production, but from somewhere other than the center. In editing these moments together, Johnson provides a compendium that resembles the working of memory, linking them through association and texture.

Many of them retain the informational tenor of the original source material, but shed the objectivity of traditional documentary in favor of direct human connection. (A scene where Johnson and her director comfort a young woman who is ashamed of her unplanned pregnancy is a crucial moment in the film, because it shows proper documentary distance, and its formal language, breaking down.) Cameraperson has affinities with more esoteric essay-films like Sans Soleil, or the recent nonfiction works of Agnès Varda. But like the avant-garde filmmaking of Leventhal or Abigail Child, there is an implicit focus on how these elements tend to signify, through editing choices and juxtaposition. The power of Cameraperson is a cumulative one, because we have seen these building blocks before, but they are usually arranged into a very different kind of edifice, one far less idiosyncratic and alive.

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