Director: Kirsten Johnson,
Watched on: Film Struck,
I’ve watched Kirsten Johnson’s Cameraperson twice now, although the second time I watched it over three days, a few sections at a time. I kept stopping to ask myself, “Now, what am I not getting here?”
Johnson’s film is a conundrum. It’s not a conundrum because it’s exceedingly obtuse or experimental, it’s because it doesn’t seem to say what the director or the film’s laudatory reviews think it says.
Cameraperson, constructed from leftover footage Johnson shot while working on other documentaries, played in several prestige festivals (full disclosure: Johnson borrowed my camera for several seconds of video she shot in her father’s home in Seattle, where I live). The director received the full artist’s treatment with a Blu-ray release from the Criterion Collection. And except for a negative review from the New Yorker’s Richard Brody and some withering online user reviews on iTunes and Amazon, the movie has been universally praised. I’ll admit to a bit of jealously here. As a longtime cameraman myself, I’ve been working on a similar type of film, re-purposing previously shot footage from around the world into an essay that I haven’t yet quite figured out how to make work.
But all of that is beside the point. In my view, Johnson’s film doesn’t work either, at least not in the way she intends, either as a statement about the ethical responsibilities incumbent upon a filmmaker poking their camera into other lives, or as a rumination on the shifting transactions between the filmer and the filmed. The movie is indeed an exemplary template for the extraordinary breadth of a cameraperson’s work, but as a memoir, or an essay, or a radical piece of non-fiction filmmaking, the movie is puzzling, fuzzy. It can barely sustain a thought from scene to scene.
For Brody, the problem was that Johnson did little to reveal herself in the film, which “presents a person who, from the evidence in the film, is herself much greater, in her skill, her experience, her empathy, and her passion, than the film in which she presents herself.” He goes on to say that the images in Cameraperson show “the documentary-industrial conventions that reduce the complex and personal experiences that go into documentary films into impersonal, processed audiovisual fodder.”
I agree with Brody. I did not find the footage or sound all that remarkable, neither pictorially unique or dramatically compelling. Nor did I recognize anything profound in the way in which the editing returned us again and again to the same locations. Some individual moments and characters were affecting, but not because of any special insight granted by either the framing of a scene or a behind-the-camera comment from Johnson herself. Her decision not to narrate the film is understandable, since she hoped to speak through her images, but the chosen images have little to say. The overheard off-screen conversations and the minor technical adjustments Johnson makes (e.g. removing an annoying blade of grass from the frame), will be recognized by any veteran documentary cinematographer as being all in a day’s work.
So why the acclaim? Was the material revelatory because most critics truly have no idea what goes on behind the viewfinder? Was it because the film mostly played at festivals where viewers and critics had time to read the press notes and director’s statement, and then listen to the post-screening Q&A, where all the mysteries of the film could be explained? Was it the usual Stockholm Syndrome of the festival setting, where you’re told a film is amazing right before the lights go down? This happened before every single screening I attended at the 2018 Hot Docs film festival; they might as well rebrand it as The Amazing Hot Docs Film Festival.
I don’t like it when a movie makes me feel stupid. Even though I want my own essay/memoir film to be part-homage to Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil, I no longer allow his film to make me feel like an idiot for not getting all of it (I don’t think Marker intended this, it’s a result of echo chamber film criticism). After multiple viewings, I’ve given up on the overly wordy narration, the nonsensical allusions, the sometimes less than stunning visuals. But I admire the density of the soundtrack, the epistolary framing device, the husky melancholy of the voiceover, the vague hints of sci-fi futurism. He is making full use of cinema’s grab bag.
Johnson, in contrast, provides little in the way of aesthetic handholds. There are no real layers to peel back. Yet we’re supposed to think something important is going on. It was after finishing up that second viewing that I think I may have hit on what doesn’t work about Cameraperson. The footage was all culled from other directors’ movies, many of which she only shot segments of. It was their vision driving the subject matter, the characters, the locations, the reasons for her being there. Other than the usual eye, experience and listening skills a professional brings to these jobs, the resulting images and how they are used are owned by the director of those films and, at some point, their editors (Cameraperson was edited, adroitly, by Nels Bangerter). Nothing is shaped by your singular authorial vision when you’re working on bits and pieces for someone else.
Through her editor, Johnson is trying to find a new story in these scattered pictures and scenes, but she is reluctant to author that story. The film pleads for context. What it attempts to say about anything is implied and inferred from other sources, such as website text and online magazine interviews, but it is not to be found in the original images, not without some help from the person who shot them. What was she thinking then and what is she thinking now? This is what I’d hoped to learn.
Cameraperson might appear to some to be the interrogative musings of a shy auteur, but to others it may look like a lukewarm smorgasbord cooked in someone else’s kitchen. It’s left up to the viewer to try and make a meal out of it.