Nadja Gernalzick, Temporality in American Filmic Autobiography: Cinema, Automediality and Grammatology with Film Portrait and Joyce at 34 (Heidelberg: Winter, 2018), 510 pp.
As the author mentions in the preface and as becomes evident on almost every page, this volume is the result of at least two decades of in-depth research into the complex constructions of temporality in filmic autobiographies. The work is, particularly in its elaboration of theoretical categorizations of aesthetic approaches but also in its encompassing display of knowledge of primary and secondary material, truly exhaustive. Given the meticulousness of scholarly abstraction with which the not just occasionally highly obscure films are discussed, it is, however, also a very exhausting read, one which will be undoubtedly rewarding and, in some ways, definitive for those who are interested in the subject, but also one which can be tough going for those new to it.
The book sets out to develop a thorough theoretical foundation for the analysis of filmic autobiographies first and foremost, as two of the three large chapters are devoted to clarifying definitions of the subject and elaborating time-related terminology, while the third chapter serves to illuminate the preceding reflections with their application to two film examples, Film Portrait (1972) and Joyce at 34 (1972). The book is therefore not a historical overview of the generic development of the film autobiography (even though there are passages and tables that serve as a rough guide), but a provider of an analytical resource for appreciating the way such films create meaning and, more specifically, the way such films broaden the scope of how we conceive time and its many facets and incarnations.
Reading through the text on the back cover, one may be intimidated by the bombardment with scholarly lingo in a proclamation like “[the book] treats automediality in semiotic materiality and transmediality as processuality and relationality of agency at an intersection of auto/biography studies, film studies, and media studies […].” Fortunately, the theoretical chapters are jointly characterized by an assured display of lucid explanations of complex concepts. The first chapter is centrally concerned with defining filmic autobiography. The establishment of the subject is embedded in a variety of generic and discursive contexts revolving around prominent discussions of autobiography, transmediality, filmic modes, and transnationality. The author starts out from a field that has received a wealth of scholarly commentary over the last years, that of autobiography and life writing, and concisely navigates through its most relevant aspects regarding the “processual selfhood” that is at the heart of the genre. At the same time, she stresses the necessity of not simply applying the findings of literary studies to film, but acknowledging the constitutive nature of the medium in the construction of self and world. For many scholars, even if they are well-versed in studies of life writing or documentary film, to name the twin poles of genre / media discourse within and amongst which the author locates her subject, filmic autobiography may seem a rather obscure and marginal phenomenon that has never risen above niche popularity and that has not yielded any widely known titles. But what this first chapter impressively documents is that 1) there is a vast corpus of films that falls under the category and that includes films by directors such as Chantal Akerman, Fatih Akin, Michelangelo Antonioni, Stan Brakhage, Jonathan Caouette, Terence Davies, Maya Deren, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Jean-Luc Godard, Derek Jarman, Chris Marker, the Maysles brothers, Jonas Mekas, Nanni Moretti, Agnes Varda; films that are established classics and films that deserve more attention; 2) within this corpus of films there is a staggering variety of approaches and aesthetic experimentation which warrants a structured account that appreciates the kind and quality of artistic innovation they manifest; and 3) there is already a considerable amount of literature available on the subject, which the author meticulously charts in its relation to establishing a corpus.
The second chapter sets out to elaborate and reflect on a terminology of temporality in cinema. Time is treated in a Derridean fashion as a concept under erasure, which is why the author refers to it as “time” in order to highlight the inaccuracy, malleability, and semiotic fluidity of the concept whilst stressing its necessity (169). The chapter navigates through philosophical and sociological time vocabularies, cinematic time vocabularies, and narratological time vocabularies. A table in the introductory section provides a helpful overview of the concepts to be discussed. The reflections introduce a variety of scholarly takes on time and their conceptualizations, including references to the (revised) earlier work of the author on “photographic mood-tenses.” While these discussions always have the applicability to the subsequent analysis in mind (and the respective concepts will recur), the sheer wealth of different takes on this highly abstract field can be overwhelming. A reader new to the subject would have benefited from a glossary of some sort that provides short definitions of concepts like “proper time,” “absolute time,” “metrical time,” “tensed time,” “mood-tenses,” etc.
While the selection of only two films to showcase an application of temporal analysis may seem slight (and the author actually expresses her regret of not having been able to include more films in the preface), the astuteness of the selection and the meticulousness with which the films are analyzed actually yields an enormous amount of insight into how a time-centered approach can be productive on many levels of discourse. The analysis is divided into three sections dealing with social convention, narrative, and poetical and rhetorical configurations, in which the films are discussed concurrently. What is noteworthy about the analysis is how the constructed temporalities of the films serve as a springboard for insights into issues such as class and gender. For example, the way the two films present the negotiation of “proper time” (time to be used for oneself or Eigenzeit) says a lot about the filmmakers’ / protagonists’ class privilege. Where Jerome Hill’s Film Portrait shows the filmmaker as an established and successful artist hailing from an upper-class family as an agent in charge of time so much so that temporal progression in the film seems abolished, time annihilated, Joyce Chopra and Claudia Weill’s Joyce at 34 present their pregnant protagonist as much more confined and controlled by the demands of time as a sort of indicator of the social and biological obligations that come with pregnancy. The male-connoted self-fashioning of Film Portrait is expressed in a retrospective teleology that presents the artist as a successful agent in having mastered and constructed his own identity, whereas Joyce at 34 stresses the collaborative nature of existence (and filmmaking) expressing a prospective teleology of the forces determining identity. These ideas are expressed in aesthetically innovative film practices that manipulate time in diverse ways, such as reverse motion, still imagery, and various forms of editing, all the while engaging in a consistent meta-discourse about the medium’s role in fashioning and deconstructing time. A helpful collection of film plates in color is appended, but a viewing of the actual films is not only recommended but definitely inspired by the book, and drawing attention to these films is not the least of its accomplishments.
The book closes with a summary of research interests gained from and propelled by the preceding analysis about the polychronicity of the film medium and its implications for automediality. In this way, it serves, despite its epic breadth of the research displayed, less as a closing statement than, more valuably, as a stimulator for further exploration of and thinking about the multifaceted manifestations of filmic autobiography.
Martin Holtz (Greifswald)