Creating Content / Creating Context

September 23, 2009

Film is the great American medium. When it came along, we were still struggling to attain approval of our literary and cultural production from a withholding Europe. As an epicenter of the creation of the film industry, we were able to develop “languages” and styles that have become a major part of defining what filmic expression is. Among current filmmakers, the documentarian Ken Burns and director Quentin Tarantino could arguably be considered two of the greatest distillers of American culture within this medium, even though they take such radically different stylistic approaches. While their base approach is much the same – the consumption and reworking of archival/cultural materials – their presentational styles reflect the differences in what they are trying to accomplish. Both men work under a system of appropriation. Burns appropriates the actual materials, whereas Tarantino appropriates the aura of the materials — styles, themes, the experience associated with viewing film…

In this clip from Burns’ upcoming documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea airing on PBS we see his standard use of archival materials: panning across period images paired with a dramatic reading of some writing from around the same period or a commentator’s gloss on the topic:

Of course, Burns leans on the aura of the materials as well, but he is concerned with the kind of aura we typically associate with the Archive — the sense of uniqueness, of history, of a piece of the past preserved that we grasp at to try and understand but that remains not entirely tangible. Leaving any critiques of this method aside, we can see that one result of his style is the transference of the aura of the archive to his own work. That warm feeling we have towards the historical building blocks of the piece extend to the work as a whole. This is one of the great values of archival materials that more and more filmmakers are relying on — the use of items that often have less expensive licensing fees compared to commercial works but that have an immediate cache of seriousness and high culture.

Compare this then to Tarantino, especially his most recent works which have become less and less homage as their elements of pastiche have increased. Compare this clip from Jackie Brown which recalls 70s heist and exploitation films:

with the preview from Kill Bill that throws together incongruous styles from Kung Fu, Japanese crime, and Anime films (for starters):

The ultimate expression of this manner of appropriation is Grindhouse (with Robert Rodriguez and others), an attempt to recreate a very specific movie-going experience of viewing a B-movie double feature in a run-down theatre, complete with “damaged” film, missing reels, previews, and plenty of gore & sex (though you do have to provide your own broken seats, sticky floors, and disturbing odors).

In the same way Burns does, Tarantino relies on extra-textual meaning to add context/depth to his work. This is a basic tenet of art, but, depending on one’s own proclivities, Tarantino’s approach may be seen as either less significant than Burns’ (it relies on pop culture, not serious culture) or more significant than Burns’ (it relies on low culture, not more canonical historiography).

We could perhaps, then, almost consider Tarantino the more austere Archivist as compared to Burns. In our field, in trying to navigate some of the ideologies adopted from traditional archival theory of paper-based works, we deal daily with the conflict of preservation of the original item versus preservation of only the content. This issue is being pushed to the fore with the increase in the creation and preservation of digital assets. In one approach, part of preserving the original is the idea of preserving the experience — the look, the feel, the great intangible whatsit. Without content we would not have memory or history, but it is often the emotional/experiential connection to the past that drives preservation efforts. There are many reasons to preserve, and many ways to advocate for a collection. Is there a single “stylistic” approach that works?

— Joshua Ranger