Indigenous Images and Stories: The Case of Eric Michaels

I will weave through a series of juxtapositions in this blog entry drawn from a number of experiences which I have had in the "field" of ethnography and documentary film — a kind of bricolage — or as James Clifford  has put it, an 'ethnographic surrealism'.(1)

In retrospect these fragments are linked in ways which I could not have anticipated before I made the attempt to understand the connections. This kind of reconstruction interests me because it is a combination of personal history, fieldwork and theoretical exploration, evidence of an effort to explore and map the relationships among subjectivity, analysis and experience.

The etymological origin of the term documentary is rooted in the notion of the lesson and is connected to docility, doctrine, indoctrination and didacticism. Docility suggests someone willing to be taught and also someone who is teachable. To be responsive, to be taught, to be open to the information which is presented — information which, if it is to function as document must reproduce in as great detail as possible the world being pictured.

Search a bit further into the etymology and the stronger connection is to doctrine and indoctrination which have roots not only in teaching but in notions of specialization — in the idea of a specialist able to instruct, someone whose knowledge cannot be questioned, the documentary filmmaker.

I bring up this tableau of origins because although a consensus has developed around the definition of "documentary" the debate at this stage pivots on questions of realism almost, though not completely, in opposition to questions of pedagogy. Documentaries however, exist as object lessons in themselves of a desire to teach and thus to enter into a system of communication (or to create one) which links images with specific outcomes or results. The instrumental logic of the documentary is so deeply ingrained that the technology of image creation is now geared to increasing the probability of specific effects upon the viewer.

I am speaking here about the hybridization of light-weight video, film and computers, a kind of postmodern brew designed to make the experience of viewing more immersive, hence more real.

Let me contrast the above with the work of Eric Michaels, a documentary/ethnographic image maker who worked in Australia with Aboriginal peoples. He died in 1988 but the impact of his undertaking will continue to be felt for a long time. His essays and his brilliant monograph entitled, *Aboriginal Invention of Television* (1986) reveal a sensibility closely tied to some radical innovations in documentary and ethnographic thought over the last decade. (2)

Michaels explored the frontiers of one of my major interests, the impact of video and television on indigenous cultures. He achieved this by rethinking the notion of "effects" — the ways in which Western cultures control and attempt to dominate other societies — and not positing anything like a linear model for what happens when new technologies are thrust upon indigenous peoples. Michaels worked on both sides of a complex process. He was aware of the need for indigenous peoples to take control of the media they were being exposed to. He was also very sensitive to the specific choices, which they made with respect to images. His approach interests me because he questioned the roots of instrumental thinking by looking at the way in which another culture responds to the logic of images — to modes of storytelling and representation.

His insights in this regard are very significant. In his essay on Hollywood iconography (Michaels 1988:119) Michaels points out many of the radical differences in understanding, which the Aboriginal group, the Wapiri have with regards to American films and television. Not only are the plots dealt with differently, but the characters in these films are reinterpreted according to the specific exigencies of Walpiri culture and social life.

All of this is of course a way of questioning the role of documentary images precisely as devices of teaching and learning that may have cross-cultural value. It is also about how to analyse the strategic choices, which different cultures make in response to the influences, which they have on each other. The question of vantage point — where and how these choices can be examined was a central concern of Michaels. He tried to draw upon the experiences of non-print media and apply them to the process through which ethnographic knowledge is transferred and transformed into visual and oral documents. He noted the specificity of Aboriginal approaches to images and celebrated the differences in how they interpreted documentary claims of truth and realism.

This is made very clear in his article entitled, "How to Look at Us Looking at the Yanomami Looking at Us," (3) in which he says: "A solution is to address the entire process of visual media as a problem of communication, more specifically in cross-cultural translation." (Michaels 1982:145)

It may be that nothing of value to indigenous cultures can be yielded in the process of translation and that the role of visual media is more important for Western cultures than for colonised ones. But this would presume, as Michaels so often pointed out, that colonised cultures themselves have somehow escaped the influences of modern media, which as anyone who has been watching the growth and development of video for example, knows is not the case.

This still doesn't lessen one of the central dilemmas of ethnographic and documentary work with film and video. For the ethnographer it may be more important to uncover both the applicability and effects of the technology than to let the technology work its way through the society in question and let that society find the measure of its own response.

I think that it would not be too radical an assertion to say that the response of indigenous cultures to cultural phenomena cannot be ascertained clearly until those cultures have devised strategies of response, whatever form those responses might take.

Working its way through — what do I mean? A process perhaps which may not be open to external examination and without wanting to push the point too far, a process which may produce forms of internal and culturally specific images which cannot be judged, evaluated or examined from the outside. I want to be careful here because I am not suggesting that a vantage point couldn't be found which might permit one culture to examine another, but there is the matter, and I consider it to be an important one, of how we go about understanding our own history with respect to modern media, let alone the history of other cultures.

There is a tendency, manifest in many ethnographic and documentary projects but even more so when film and video are put to use, to presume that what other cultures choose as images can actually be translated, and it is this presumption which I think needs to be contested because what is inevitably involved are complex sign systems which our own culture has had difficulty in interpreting for itself let alone for others.

This is a fascinating and perplexing problem. It suggests a kind of opaqueness, which the universalizing tendencies of modern film and television production have not grappled with. We need to celebrate the complex and rather 'different' images, which the Aboriginal peoples of Australia have produced, and which Eric Michaels documented. (3)

(1) See Chapter Four of *The Predicament of Culture* (1988) in which Clifford argues for a redefinition of the history of surrealism in order to show the close if not parallel development of ethnography and surrealist thinking.

(2) I am thinking of the work of Edmund Carpenter (1970); James Clifford (1988); Jean Comaroff (1985); Vincent Crapazano (1980); Michel De Certeau (1984); Johannes Fabian (1983); Clifford Geertz (1988); George Marcus and Michael Fischer (1986); Paul Rabinow (1977).

(3) Eric Michaels (1982). This is an essay in a superb collection edited by Jay Ruby, entitled, A Crack in the Mirror (1982).


Blade Runner 2049: No hope in the dystopia

Editor’s note: This article contains spoilers.

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book explores power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. (Handout)

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book explores power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. (Handout)

I went to see Blade Runner 2049, directed by Denis Villeneuve, with great anticipation. The original was so unique and although I was ambivalent about the film’s story and politics, many of its images have stayed in my mind for over 35 years. I have even used Blade Runner in my film studies classes. Yet, I left the theatre severely disappointed. Blade Runner 2049represents a failure of the imagination. The film is a series of vignettes strung together and is the definition of solipsism — steeped in narcissism, excessive self-absorption, isolation and regressive politics. 

The set up for the original film was brilliantly articulated by critic, Pauline Kael in a 1982 New Yorker review. She wrote that Ridley Scott, director of Blade Runner, “sets up the action with a crawl announcing the time is early in the twenty-first century and that a blade runner is a police officer who ‛retires’ — i.e., kills — ‛replicants,’ the powerful humanoids manufactured by genetic engineers.”

To varying degrees, the original Blade Runner anticipated numerous contemporary debates about artificial intelligence and robots. Philip K. Dick’s 1968 novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, on which so much of the original film was based, is a profoundly dystopian yet ultimately hopeful novel about human engagement with artificial life. 

The dystopia cityscape from Blade Runner 1982.

The dystopia cityscape from Blade Runner 1982.

Dick’s book can be despairing and hopeful at the same time, and it is this tension that actually turned the novel into a rich piece of science fiction. Because in spite of the many challenges they face, the characters actually learn both from each other and from the replicants. They learn that power corrupts and it doesn’t matter whether you are human or robot, but feeling emotions of varying sorts makes the difference between a meaningful life and one that has no meaning. 

While the original Blade Runner provides some insight into artificial life, and the book makes profound comments on power and human relationships, Blade Runner 2049 has none of that. Crucially missing from both the new and the original film, is some history and context. Why are we in such a mess? Why has society degenerated to such a degree?

As if the back story doesn’t matter, Blade Runner 2049 is not really set up at all. Audiences are shown that replicants are everywhere, integrated into society, that blade runner police are ubiquitous and that some of the older versions of the replicants are, as before, still unruly and therefore need to be killed. Society is dominated by a seemingly endless horde of people going nowhere in particular and buildings are rotting in the rain. 

The story is strung together

As the film opens, K, played by Ryan Gosling, a programmed blade runner, is asleep at the wheel of a vehicle he later calls a car, that is flying through the darkness towards an unknown destination. All of this is covered in the one of most expensive fog-and-mist scenes ever produced for a film (the production rings in at just over $150 million). 

The wasteland is interrupted when K reaches his destination and encounters a replicant who is targeted for death and who says before he is killed, “you don’t know what a miracle is.” The miracle he is referring to is clarified a bit later on in the film as the birth of a human child, which he witnessed. 

The entire film then circles around the search for the miracle child with K discovering that he himself might be human, then watching his hopes dashed but not before he meets his supposed father, Deckard, played by Harrison Ford who reprises his original role from 1982. 

Deckard and K develop a relationship and Deckard, of course, becomes a paternal figure to K. Deckard has apparently been living alone for an untold number of years in the remains of Las Vegas. In the portrayal of Vegas lies an implied critique of the reasons for the decay of humanity with Las Vegas representing all that is superficial and wrong about humans. The film does not explain this, it just alludes to the fall of humans as if, because of our past hedonism, we deserve to live in misery, a common theme in dystopian films. 

In this vision of the future, we repeat all the clichés of voyeurism that dominated the previous century. (Handout)

Screenshot 2017-10-15 17.00.52.png

Like the original, the story is unimportant and the approach is also derivative relying on the clichés of dystopias drawn from dozens of similar films. Blade Runner 2049 also suffers from a bad script and some odd stylistic filmmaking choices. It is essentially a series of events, strung together within a special effects universe, that Villeneuve thinks represents another world or another phase of history. Do we care about flying cars and exploding buildings and robots who fight each other shattering into pieces that fly off into the dark landscape? The fetish for special effects is killing the storytelling in Hollywood.

The opportunity for social commentary is lost. How does industrialist Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), maker of replicants, come to have such enormous power? He determines whether real humans should be killed — to preserve, what exactly, his business? His supremacy? The corporate entity over which Wallace rules is so sophisticated that it knows everything about everybody — a not so subtle variation on the original film and a banal reiteration of endless variations on the themes of absolute power and the human response to fascism. Niander Wallace’s actions may lead us to hate him but we don’t understand his motivations and even if his lack of motivation is a shallow critique of industrial capitalism - is it enough to make us care? 

All life leads to death

All the characters, even the holographic ones, live in isolated circumstances with no social encounters of any value. If we accept that it is 2049, then why are women portrayed as sex objects? Why do their nude bodies appear everywhere? In Villeneuve’s dystopia, sex is provided through an illusory construction of desires that are mechanical and mechanized. Yet, even if this were seen as a critique of the society Wallace and his fellow industrialists have invented, it remains a fact that we have screwed ourselves and our planet and how we decide to survive is to repeat all the clichés of voyeurism that dominated the previous century.

Blade Runner 2049 has successfully created a solipsistic universe - where humans are isolated from real feelings, celebrate selfishness with gusto and are completely involved with their own needs, so self-centred that it matters little whether reality or illusion are the guideposts. Either will do because both will lead you nowhere. The overarching principle behind this film is that life is ultimately going to lead to death and all people and robots have to do is survive all the crap in between. 

Here K, the male hero, suffers for the good of others as a consequence of a semi-religious conversion, which means he must make the ultimate sacrifice - his own life. Sound familiar? K’s death solves nothing - and brings no hope - unless the hope is hinting at a sequel. Perhaps Harrison Ford will play God in the next film. Kael suggests that the original Blade Runner was a victim of its own depiction of decay suggesting that it has “nothing to give to audiences,” and this, Villeneuve has succeeded in replicating. 

“Every civilization was built off the back of a disposable workforce.” Blade Runner 2049 Trailer (Warner Bros. 2017)