Documentary Unbound: Gardner’s Camera


‘Forest of Bliss’

No one can blame a critic for trying to identify an artist’s precursors, but all too often the taxonomical impulse obscures the complexities of influence: a moment’s reflection tells us that one’s relationship with a mentor, like that with a parent, is never simple. The anthropological filmmaker Robert Gardner, who died last month at the age of eighty-eight, makes for an especially interesting case in point. Many of Gardner’s defenders would have us believe that the problematic aspects of his ethnographic films can be cleanly separated from his poetic sensitivity to pattern, texture, and metaphor. But even if this critical operation were possible—and I doubt that it is—it’s worth wondering if it isn’t precisely the inextricability of these attributes that accounts for Gardner’s relevance.



His influence was especially pronounced within the Cambridge film community documented in Scott MacDonald’s recent book, American Ethnographic Film and Personal Documentary: The Cambridge Turn. MacDonald calls Gardner “a formative figure…in the emergence of Cambridge as a center of film activity,” a designation reflecting Gardner’s prodigious activities as an educator (spearheading Harvard’s Film Study Center) and cineaste (hosting the salon-like Screening Room on Boston public television throughout the 1970s).  Significantly, Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Castaing-Taylor published their anthology The Cinema of Robert Gardner a year before releasing Sweetgrass (2009), the film that instigated critical interest in Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab. Indeed, David MacDougall’s claim in that volume that Forest of Bliss (1986) should be seen as “a prototype: an experiment in a radical anthropological practice that explores the largely invisible interrelations of the visible world by visual (and, it must be added, auditory) means” seems especially prescient in light of subsequent SEL films—the latest of which, MANAKAMANA, was actually filmed using the same Aaton 16mm camera with which Gardner made Forest of Bliss. Sharon Lockhart previously used the same camera for Double Tide (2009), as did Rebecca Meyers for blue mantle (2010). If the circulation of Gardner’s equipment on the one hand simply reflects a close-knit filmmaking community—and, indeed, both Meyers and Lockhart were associated with Gardner’s Studio 7 Arts—the resulting work nonetheless provides an intriguing look at the shifting terrain of documentary lyricism.


‘Forest of Bliss’

The Aaton is only a tool, of course, but the camera does seem possessed with a certain degree of magic in Forest of Bliss. Gardner would later reflect that, “The only way I could see to get away from the visual noise of Benares was to find refuge, almost literally, in the marigolds or the wood or something extremely simple yet somehow charged.” Dogs, birds, kites, bamboo litters, and the Ganges itself provide some of the other unassuming sources of epiphany. A kind of private cosmology emerges, one equally in thrall to shit in the street and baskets overflowing orange with marigolds. Everywhere we look we find metaphors of Gardner’s own activity: a man plucking flowers, a boy flying his kite, dogs fighting for food, and the endless offerings made to the great river. In his appreciation of the film, fellow documentarian David MacDougall notes how, “One sometimes has the experience while making nonfiction films that certain motifs recur uncannily in different combinations, as if they formed a thinly veiled network of underlying meanings.” What is particularly wonderful about Forest of Bliss, MacDougall implies, is that Gardner finds a stylistic expression for this fleeting frame of discovery.


‘Double Tide’

For many of the film’s critics, however, the spectacle of a privileged white male projecting his vision of first reality upon an exotic and untranslated Other cannot help but raise alarms (Edward Said’s Orientalism comes readily to mind). Even with the film’s bracing images of death and decay, Gardner’s evasion of any obvious signs of modernity suggests an essentially romantic sensibility at work—one that, for anthropologists like Jay Ruby, was already badly outdated in 1986. Nearly thirty years later, Ruby’s unsparing critique of Forest of Bliss is part of the film’s significance for a younger generation of filmmakers interested in exploring the aesthetic dimensions of ethnographic cinema—wary of the claims made of so-called direct experience, but warier still of a documentary culture dominated by second-hand reporting. Perhaps inspired by many of the avant-garde filmmakers hosted on Screening Room, Gardner’s attention shifted from the thing perceived to perception itself. Forest of Bill’s depiction of ritual is itself ritualistic, and this vision of documentary cinema as being of rather than about continues to resonate.

The first thing one notices about the recent films shot with the Aaton is that Gardner’s supremely agile camerawork has largely been replaced by static long takes (the camera may be Gardner’s, but the aesthetic owes something to James Benning). This durational emphasis is especially pronounced in Double Tide, a film named for the long summer days during which Maine clammers enjoy two chances at their quarry. Lockhart follows suit, documenting clammer Jen Casad at work in two forty-five-minute fixed-framed shots (the rolls of film are ten minutes apiece, but Lockhart managed to render the cuts invisible by coordinating with Casad via walkie-talkie). Over time our vision settles on the slow changes in atmosphere, the streaking paths of birds and insects, and stillness itself—a stillness greatly enhanced by the water’s doubling of the sky.  The painterly quality of the composition, which is to say its self-consciousness as a representation, plays against the rude sucking sound of clams being wrenched from the mud. The image reflects Lockhart’s work done, the sound Casad’s. Both are marked by a strong independence that is finally transferred to the audience (Double Tide risks boredom rather than obscurity). Considered as ethnography, Lockhart’s film proceeds from the insight that before one can understand anything about clamming it is necessary to know how it sounds.



MANAKAMANA co-directors Stephanie Spray and Pacho Velez place Gardner’s camera much closer to their subjects and in so doing focus attention on the shared experience of time. Eleven times, we sit opposite pilgrims for the duration of the cable car ride leading to and from the titular Nepalese temple—a journey which, fortuitously, lasts about as long as a roll of film. Spray and Velez’s selection of sitters knowingly complicates the ethnographic idiom evoked by their unbroken depictions of a ritualistic journey, ranging from ostensibly “traditional” Nepalese subjects to heavy metal fans and Americans abroad—subjects that Gardner would have rejected out of hand. The fixed frame precludes exposition and frustrates our desire to see anything outside the cable car’s interior frame, but the film feels curiously free in spite of its fixed frame. Perhaps it is the detailed soundtrack, its pleasant hum far exceeding the visible frame, and, in a kind of intermission, even revealing the great temple. Or maybe it’s the result of our ever pliable sense of time wrapping itself around a musical performance or a melting ice cream cone. Certainly it follows from the way that offhanded comments (translated by Spray herself) accumulate into something like memory. Landscape is the conductor, with each passenger’s response stirred by those who came before, each presence marked by an absence.


‘Blue Mantle’

Humanity is more spectral in blue mantle, Rebecca Meyers’ quiet rumination on the oceanic imagination. Meyers situates her own 16mm representations of the Atlantic amidst fugitive traces of paintings, lullabies, and poems. Proceeding less as essay than collage, blue mantle subtly works to counter the idea that vast landscapes are inherently beyond language and memory. To the contrary, in Meyers’ layered rendering of text and image we see how the experience of place deepens when fragments of its past can emerge—most hauntingly in the image of a shipwreck, an especially interesting figure in light of Gardner’s abiding weakness for salvage anthropology. Here, as with the other recent films shot with the Aaton, the thing being recouped is not a people or a culture but rather a way of seeing, a way of using the camera to be absorbed by the world.




Filmmaker Robert Fenz also drew upon Gardner’s equipment during his affiliation with Studio 7 Arts, but his most direct homage was made using a Bolex. Correspondence (2011) passes lightly over many of the same locations of Gardner’s films, including Benares: once there, Fenz need only train his camera on a dog or an oar to evoke the specter of Gardner’s vision. Correspondence vividly conveys the vertigo of influence: the way a great work can, in the deepest sense, make an impression on us—how it can seem that every step out into the wider world might lead us back into its embrace. In his introduction to Making of Forest of Bliss, Stanley Cavell muses that the overwhelming nature of Gardner’s imagery can be understood as offering a kind of catalyst: “This power of beauty seems not unlike the power Plato credited Socrates with bringing to philosophy, the power to make its presence felt by numbing its recipient, stopping thought, showing philosophy to begin by showing you that you are unprepared for it.” Gardner is gone, but we have yet to fully grasp where his films lead.

Did you like this article?
Give it a vote for a Golden Bowtie


Keyframe is always looking for contributors.

"Writer? Video Essayist? Movie Fan Extraordinaire?

Fandor is streaming on Amazon Prime

Love to discover new films? Browse our exceptional library of hand-picked cinema on the Fandor Amazon Prime Channel.