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10/40/70 - Cameraperson

In the book 10/40/70, author Nicholas Rombes recognizes the necessity of constraint as a means of liberating film criticism in the digital era. In this section of my reviews, I will be deploying the same techniques utilized by Rombes; analyzing the contents of the frames a film contains at the 10 minute, 40 minute, and 70 minute marks. These reviews will be posted every Wednesday.


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Cameraperson (Kirsten Johnson, 2016)


The medium is the message. This phrase, coined by English professor turned new media guru Marshall McLuhan in his immaculate work Understanding Media, was one that always evaded an understanding by myself. In an academic sense, I could spout some definition or give some abstract examples of what McLuhan was getting at, but it never full crystalized in my mind as something that I was inside of. Something that enveloped me such that I could understand it intuitively. I wanted to "get it."


Since McLuhan coined the term, there have been innumerable writings on how that applies across all forms of media. These were all by writers and on topics that I have been obsessed with for the majority of my media-conscious life (which I estimate is from 16/17 onward). But it was only upon watching Kirsten Johnson's Cameraperson that I finally developed an understanding of the term that transcended mere explanations and definitions.


What Johnson is truly getting at is at the deep, wondrous core of that beautiful, twisty phrase. Her medium is her message.


10 Minutes

Sometimes, the 10/40/70 method will yield what feels like a perfect result. It seems to gives you exactly what you are looking for. The arbitrary stopping points bring forth a set of images that feel as if they would be the three frames that individually and collectively embody all the film has to say if I were to carefully comb through and select the images myself.


This first image, squarely at the 10 minute mark, feels totemic. We have a woman walking across the frame along the sidewalk, while Johnson discusses discusses with a second female offscreen voice whether or they are allowed to shoot people in public without permission. This is not voiceover. This dialogue is added after the fact from some sit-down discussion. Johnson and her collaborator are present, yet unseen. The machine is sentient. Johnson confidently proclaims yes, you can shoot whatever you want in public spaces, but that she tries to make a connection, to look these people in the eye when they look in hers, and develop some sort of unspoken bond where the human acquiesces to becoming the subject. This issue is at the heart of Cameraperson, a collection of scenes shot for films Johnson worked on as a cinematographer throughout her 25-year career.


These scenes were not necessarily parts of the films from which she took them from, and yet they exist. They are the outtakes, side conversations, and "unusable" footage that most viewers never consider when watching. In these documentaries that she worked on, the viewer is intentionally made wholly unaware of her presence. She is a craftsperson, not the "filmmaker.' And yet, her film establishes that there is in fact a heart, a mind, a soul behind the mechanical device which records reality. She was there all along. The camera is her gaze. She is always present in these images.


The words "DON'T FORGET" are emblazoned in red graffiti on the building behind the solitary woman. This film also focuses on memory, what is lost over the years and how someone who is actually capturing images for a living is in fact capturing their own memories at the same time. The medium of documentary filmmaking has allowed Johnson to literally go back into the images that are normally just stored within the mind, and actually view them. The vast majority of people don't have the privilege of experiencing in their life, especially when one develops neurological disorders that make remembering even those closest to you nearly impossible.


Johnson's mother is also in the film, as scenes throughout the film document her descent into and eventual succumbing to Alzheimer's. Will Johnson fall prey to the same degradation of the mind that befell her mother? Is this image a reminder to herself to remember? Is it a physical manifestation of what constantly must be sitting in the back (or at this point, maybe the front) of her mind? Don't Forget.


A car also moves throughout the frame, blurred in the frozen image of a screenshot. This car is continually moving forward, even in a still moment, just as time will perpetually flow, regardless of all human desires to stop it, capture it, and hold it in their hands.


40 Minutes

Another totemic frame, capturing succinctly the dilemma of the documentary cinematographer. She is constantly at war with what others will and will not allow her to capture. Here, we see three military tents in full, just as Johnson is being told by another offscreen voice that she can only capture three. Why only three?


There are two unseen presences in this film. One of those is clearly Kirsten Johnson, the cameraperson. The viewer is made aware that Johnson exists, through her hand reaching up to clean a smudge off a windshield, among other moments, but what is this other presence? This things that is unnamable that exists in the empty spaces that Johnson's camera chooses to shoot and linger on. This image gives us a hint. That presence is something that transcends human sense-perception. It exists in the silence, in the wind as it passes through an open field, in the space where the world trade center once stood, in an empty roadside ditch that was once a mass grave, and here in a trinity of lifeless tents, that somehow feel as though they contain something more than which they are able to hold.


In the Catholic faith, images of three represent the holy trinity; the father, the son, and the holy spirit. In this image we have such a trinity: three identical tents that make up one whole image. Johnson fills that frame with images pointing to Christianity and Catholicism, from young girls dancing around an Easter cross to shots of her own handwritten prayers to God as a child. This prensence may be that transcendent being.


But the image of the trinity used to mean something much different in pre-Christian times. It was female before it was male, representing the Mother, Maiden and Crone of the neo-pagan triple goddess. This goddess signified the three life-cycles of a woman in relation to the phases of the moon. This film contains so much about the life cycles of women, featuring a young black woman struggling with an unplanned pregnancy, Johnson's mom suffering from Alzheimer's, and various woman throughout discussing the trauma of various women who have suffered merely because of their gender. All of that feels present in this image, as Johnson seems to be grappling with her own life-cycle, as this film is an act of looking back on the woman she was and what she saw as the maiden and then as a young new mother. It also looks forward at the woman she may become in the form of her now-deceased mother, while simultaneously being right in between those in the reality existing outside of the frames of the film.


All of this, these past images that she has collected, the experiences of the people she has met, the stories she has shared, the relationships she has formed, and who all of these people will become, are not only present in this film but within Johnson herself. She saw it all. She CAPTURED it all. The camera's lens is her eye, the film strip or SD card her mind.


70 Minutes

The sad, dejected face of a woman. The frame is now in a much tighter 1.33:1 aspect ratio, compared to the wide 16:9 images that have previously been seen throughout. This isn't an image about the exterior, but rather the interior of the woman. This woman in the frame is also a documentary filmmaker, with this scene being taken from a personal film she made reflecting on the death of her mother by suicide. This image becomes a reflection of Kirsten Johnson herself. She is both the viewer and the viewed in this moment. The audience is watching a movie (Cameraperson) that is in part about a woman (Johnson) dealing with the death of her own mother, while Johnson herself is also watching a woman (the filmmaker on screen) make a film that attempts to process her own loss. It is in this image that one can now realize that this film is more than just Johnson's memory, it is Johnson.


I'm reminded of a line from a song by the band mewithoutYou, a post-hardcore band that frequently writes songs dealing with memory, identity, and transcendence. The line is both contained within and the title of the song: "a glass can only spill what it contains." Here, Johnson can only spill that which she contains for the audience to see. She isn't interested in the mere representation of her interior world, as is the case with many narrative filmmakers. She is not just giving us ideas from her mind, or even feelings and emotions, she is giving us the literal images of the experiences that have come to make her the person that she is today. This film is the story she tells herself within her own mind as she attempts to process these experiences, just as we all tell ourselves stories about who we are, who we've been, and who we want to become.


I believe it was Robert Bresson, the famed French director, who said something to the effect of "the shot is truth, the cut is the lie." So while there is clearly editorial comment going on here in this film where there are decisions that have to be made as far as when to cut and how to order the various scenes she has pulled from her life's work, Johnson can still only spill what she contains, which is the truth that exists in these shots.


This is not a film about Kirsten Johnson. This film IS Kirsten Johnson. The medium isn't even "film" proper. The medium is Kirsten Johnson herself, and the message is just that: all that she contains.