Dossier | Reconfiguring Found Footage Film
Reconfiguring Found Footage Film
By Pierre Rannou
The cinema most often associated with the idea of waste is undoubtedly that produced from “found footage.” Films qualified by the term are generally said to “autonomize the images, favour direct intervention on the film as material, and become attached to different sites (layers of emulsion, for instance) and forms of editing.” (1) During the 1950s and 1960s, the comments and self-descriptive writings of many directors producing these films—as in texts by the Lettrists Isidore Isou and Maurice Lemaître—emphasized the fact that the film stock utilized in this way had indeed been found in the trash or editing room bins, a fact that lent their work an undeniable aura of the avant-garde. Interest shown by certain critical writers in this kind of production gradually began showing a semantic slippage in the notion of found footage, which might designate, in Yann Beauvais’ words, “as much the object—a found sequence—as a practice that consists in producing films by appropriating found, lifted, sampled, and subverted elements not shot by the filmmaker.” (2)
The slippage also appears in the critical studies of films produced along these lines: authors sometimes focus on the mechanisms and modes of representation employed, and sometimes on the manifest content of the appropriated images. However, with the publication of William C. Wees’ 1993 Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films, (3) the balance between the two approaches clearly seems to have shifted. This hugely important work, now a reference in the field, was especially significant for its attempt to delimit the phenomenon of found footage film.
Wees broadens the field considerably by including ready-made films (its best known example being Ken Jacobs’ 1986 Perfect Film), along with edited films, which he groups into three categories—compilation, collage, and appropriation—, and films that rework shots and sequences, or entire movies, using various techniques of optical printing or physical or chemical manipulation. His work is all the more rich and fecund for giving significant space to each of the practices he identifies, emphasizing the characteristic qualities of each while paying due attention to the nuances in this kind of exercise. Unfortunately, given its title, the book encourages a shift toward the notion of recycling, and thus toward an analytics of content rather than an interrogation of the modes of representation or consideration of aesthetic issues. He isn’t alone in taking this path, of course. French theoretician and filmmaker Yann Beauvais, for instance, concluded his definition of the practice of found footage by explaining that the director “recycles the found images.” (4)
In their defence, however, one must admit that, since the 1980s, many found footage filmmakers have lost interest in merely questioning conventional filmic representations, leading many authors to read these films as the straightforward recycling of audio-visual material we are regularly confronted with, whether it be through television, cinema or, increasingly, cyberspace. Some go so far as to apply this reading, with no historical or theoretical adjustment, to older works, whose concerns were rather articulated around notions of subversion, reprise, or integration.
In a series of interviews with Bernard Stiegler, French philosopher Philippe Petit remarked: “We are living at a time of terrible doubts about artistic work, scientific discovery, religious feeling.... These doubts are expressed through a cultural recycling so laden with meaning that we fail to grasp the form of the recycling itself.” (5) This widely shared feeling seems an invitation to try to understand both what is meant by the concept of recycling and the significance of the practice, as well as why so many authors draw upon the concept in their treatment of the films.
While the use of found footage, often consisting of actual refuse, may indeed be conducive to thinking of film production in terms of re-use, this in no way allows us to conclude that the images have been recycled, as so often claimed in recent studies. For there to be true recycling, the first use of the images should be considered outdated or at least perceived to be outdated, thus allowing them to be incorporated in a new cycle of meaning, perhaps light years away from their original use. In the cultural field, as Sylvestra Marinello points out, “the concept of recycling suggests... an already outmoded value system.” (6) Yet this is rarely the case in found footage films, which generally rely on the appropriated images for their own reconstruction. So why do critics almost reflexively call upon this notion in their analyses of films?
From the outset, two major explanations seem to emerge. On the one hand, recourse to the idea of recycling may conceivably be explained by the growing prevalence of digital technologies in image production. One need only recall how these burgeoning technologies have enabled new ways of conceiving, making, and playing with images while developing practices of appropriation, sampling, and sequencing, to the point of defining, if not a new field in contemporary creation, at least a creative process that differs considerably from conventional practice, one that necessitates a reconsideration of formal and aesthetic issues of the moment. This has likely influenced critical thought regarding found footage. On the other hand, another possible explanation lies in one’s perception of a phenomenal proliferation of images produced, which has led to the development of a discourse tackling this whelming of the collective imagination. This impression is further reinforced by a feeling that it is increasingly difficult to do without this serial image production and that one is sinking further and further every day into a heap of visual refuse. Not surprisingly, recycling may seem to be not just a valid aesthetic option, but also an especially desirable one, as it might help slow the deluge of new images.
In any case, the concepts of found footage and of recycling are undeniably intertwined in film commentaries, and the study of Canadian found footage tradition does in fact provide examples that support the rationale of such an association. The work of Richard Kerr, for instance, whose Collage d’Hollywood (2003) is constructed from found movie trailers, might appear a very good example of the recycling aesthetic, as the filmmaker does not seek to subvert the ads’ meaning so much as to “recompose abstract moving forms.” (7) And as the images have no archival or artefactual value for Kerr, he may use them for his own stylistic and aesthetic purposes.
Many other cases, however, provide clear examples to the contrary. In the early 1960s, for instance, Arthur Lipsett, (8) an exemplary figure for found footage in Canada, began producing film collages (termed such because they differed considerably from the typical compilation films of the time) from visual and audio elements “found” in the archives and editing rooms of the NFB and other public and private institutions, combining them with fixed and moving images of his own making. In early works, such as Very Nice, Very Nice (1961), borrowings are few in number, but the process becomes systematic in such later productions as N-Zone (1970). In A Trip Down Memory Lane (1985), for example, while the images he selects are used for a discourse other than that for which they were first produced, their original meaning remains unchanged. Here, using discarded audio-visual snippets, he shows characters waiting to address the camera, just before they formally begin to speak, or as we hear the director’s voice putting an end to the shot. Through extremely creative audio and visual editing, Lipsett manages to produce entirely new and often unexpected effects of meaning.
One of the most convincing and better known scenes in his work comes from the start of his film Fluxes (1968), a sequence that uses images from the trial of Adolf Eichmann in which he replaces the testifying defendant’s voice with one from a sitcom character asking if this is serious—thus turning the episode itself into a sitcom, complete with canned laughter. Rather than debunking the images as such, these manipulations allow the filmmaker to express his own point of view on what they represent.
In the same vein, Caroline Martel’s Le fantôme de l’opératrice (2004) offers another highly interesting case. Entirely constructed from existing visual material (of which Martel sought to preserve the testimonial character), the film first appears to be a typical compilation film. Through rich, intelligent editing, however, Martel gives shape to a genuine reflection on the values conveyed in the material—the original intent of which was to vaunt the merits of industrial production—and on the very nature of these representations. Martel believes that “the concept of found footage doesn’t apply to Fantôme, because this material was specifically sought.” (9) We might well concede her point, as there is certainly an enormous difference between finding footage in the dustbin (even that of a lab) and specifically searching for it in archives, (10) but there is no doubt to my mind that this film, though not adhering to a recycling aesthetic, is part of the immense and on-going reassessment of the practice that has been taking place for fifteen years.
Such is also the case with the work of Karl Lemieux. After acquiring a copy of an old western, Lemieux created a performance screening during which he physically manipulated the film before and during its run through the projector, snipping, degrading, and burning it, while filming the outcome on video. From this recorded material, he selected the more stimulating elements and reworked them to produce a film that plays on material filmic qualities, which he titled Western Sunburn. Rather than denounce the values and ideological orientation of Hollywood westerns (the direction usually taken in this type of film), Lemieux strives to show the extreme vulnerability of emulsion-based film, staging moments of great intensity in which the film disintegrates before our eyes and seems practically to implode. A sense of nostalgia pervades the experience, which suggests reading the film as an allegory for the disappearance of cinema, and not simply as an attempt to recycle outdated images.
The revival of found footage film is certainly good news, and diversity clearly seems to be its most promising asset. Some filmmakers concentrate on the ideological content of the appropriated images, while others play on formal elements, and still others are concerned with issues of presentation and display, providing virtually infinite avenues of exploration. Unfortunately, as already pointed out, critical treatment of their work hasn’t shown the same creative diversity and has largely kept to the well-trodden path. One may easily see in the attempt to read these films as recycling operations a desire to connect them with political and social values and to draw filmmakers of diverse backgrounds into a community of citizens—at a time, too, when progressive practices clearly seem to favour more autobiographical approaches, articulated around notions of intimacy and self-mastery. Yet, such strategies tend to overly minimize aesthetic aspects of the productions and the visual experiences they offer, considerably limiting their diversity, while development of the latter could, over time, prove a much more productive political choice.
[Translated from the French by Ron Ross]
1. Nicole Brenez and Pip Chodorov, “Cartographie du Found Footage,” Exploding, special issue “Tom Tom the Piper’s Son de Ken Jacobs” (n.d.): 99.
2. Yann Beauvais, “Films d’archives,” 1895, No. 41 (October 2003): 5.
3. Williams C. Wees, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993).
4. Beauvais, 5.
5. In Bernard Stiegler, Économie de l’hypermatériel et psychopouvoir: Entretiens avec Philippe Petit et Vincent Bontemps (n.p.: Mille et une nuits, 2008), 51.
6. Sylvestra Marinello, “Introduction,” in Recyclages: Économies de l’appropriation culturelle (Montréal: Éditions Balzac, 1996), 9.
7. Matthieu Chéreau, “Re-voir: Usage de la citation dans la vidéo contemporaine,” Cahiers du cinéma, No. 591 (June 2004): 73.
8. For a general overview of Lipsett’s work, see Brett Kashmere, “Arthur Lipsett,” Senses of Cinema and William C. Wees, “From Compilation to Collage: The Found-Footage Films of Arthur Lipsett,” Canadian Journal of Film Studies / Revue canadienne d’études cinématographiques, Vol. 16, No. 2 (Fall 2007): 2-22.
9. Éric Legendre, “Spectres documentaires et voix d’archives: Le fantôme de l’opératrice. Entretien avec Caroline Martel,” Nouvelles “vues” sur le cinéma québécois, No. 5 (spring 2006), www.cinema-quebecois.net/numero5/pdf/entrevue_martel.pdf.
10. Here too, though, one should distinguish between searching for a film excerpt to incorporate in a movie, which suggests prior knowledge of the sought-after segment, and searching with no preconceived idea from a databank of stock footage where discoveries tend to be random and haphazard.