Friday, July 25, 2008

A response to 'Gates of Heaven'

i've been a teacher's assistant for an introductory anthropology class for roughly three years now. Each year, as part of the course, the students are given the task of putting the theoretical tools they have learned to practice by conducting a mini ethnography. Their "mini ethnography" involves them choosing an American activity or event such as "the culture of going to the supermarket" or "the culture of vegetarianism." To help them narrow their scope, we ask them to identify three specific American values that are expressed in the given activity. Prior to the beginning anthropologists conducting their fieldwork, they are taught key concepts that will hopefully prepare them to approach culture meaningfully.

An important hurdle that one must inevitably face is the problem of tacit, or in other words, implicit culture. Tacit culture consists of those parts of our behavior (as individuals and as a society) that are largely mediated by rules and values we are more or less unaware of. The almighty Wikipedia explains it like this:

"Tacit knowledge is not easily shared. One of Polanyi's famous aphorisms is: "We know more than we can tell." Tacit knowledge consists often of habits and culture that we do not recognize in ourselves. In the field of knowledge management the concept of tacit knowledge refers to a knowledge which is only known by an individual and that is difficult to communicate to the rest of an organization. Knowledge that is easy to communicate is called explicit knowledge. The process of transforming tacit knowledge into explicit knowledge is known as codification or articulation" (click here for direct source. Bold added for emphasis).

For example, while investigating the subculture of video game playing, the anthropologist may ask their subject why they play video games. The video game enthusiast is likely to respond by saying that "it's fun" or "it's just what me and my friends do when we hang out." It is then the responsibility of the person conducting the study to delve a bit deeper, attempting to expose the "real" why's underlying this seemingly obvious activity. The cultural detective will use certain anthropological tools to unearth these motivations or values. They use informants --- interviewees who give them an "in" to the culture. They try to gain both and etic (outsider's) and emic (insider's) perspective through observing empirical data and actually participating in the activity themselves to develop a richer understanding of their subject. After collecting a sufficient amount of data, the researcher sits down with the myriad pieces of the puzzle and instigates a qualitative analysis that will hopefully deconstruct the concealed reasons for participating in given activities, holding certain beliefs, conducting certain rituals, etc. Though the tools and approach may differ, good documentaries do the same thing. This American Life does this. Engaged journalism, such as work by A.J. Jacobs, does this. They don't just present the facts. They try to get at the overarching WHY. They explain, from their analysis, what it all means.

This is going somewhere. Stay with me a bit longer.

To help the students, we give them an article to read by Lowell D. Holmes and Ellen Rhoads Holmes called The American Cultural Configuration. This article investigates tacit American values such as individualism, conformity, competition, cleanliness, materialism, etc. This article, of course, gives them the three American values they are supposed to analyze that i briefly mentioned in the first paragraph. At the outset of their article, they explain the following:

"The point that we are trying to make is not that Mr. or Ms. Average American is stupid or abnormal in any way. The point is that he or she is a product of their culture and social environment, and culture provides ready-made solutions to almost all of one's problems. A person doesn't have to think about how and why one does things. It is easier and often more efficient to follow the regularly accepted procedure. That is what culture does for people.

Because it is natural for people to be like this, they find it fascinating when an anthropologist describes how and why they behave in a certain way. After reading about themselves in a monograph on American culture by Margaret Mead, or any number of other anthropologists, they might very well make the comment "She seems to have us pegged pretty well. I just never thought about it that way." The real point is that our Average American seldom stops to analyze his or her own values and motivations at all" (Holmes 5).

This assignment could be extended to any activity, really. The culture of American dog breeding. The culture of dating in Utah Valley. The culture of the Springville gun range. The culture of the considering the cinema blog. The culture of American pet cemeteries.

Which finally (after an admittedly long intro) brings us to the subject at hand --- Gates of Heaven. Morris' film appears simple, but underneath its understated exterior lies a fascinating peek into how American values and the "American Dream" seep unexpectedly into the lives and identities of the subjects in the film. Morris successfully proves that even the seemingly mundane contains meaning and insight into what it means to live in contemporary America. The initial plot of the pet cemetery (explicit) eventually fades into a rich fabric of dialogue about religion, capitalism, success, failure, love, competition, etc (the tacit). i think that this is the genius of the film. i imagine that someone who only sees the explicit would consider this a boring film that is "kind of about pet cemeteries, but not really." However, this film is about subtext. It's about death. It's about life. It's about freedom. It's about America. Ultimately, it's about YOU. This film is not prescriptive, but rather, leaves it to the viewer to analyze the values and motivations implicitly espoused by the subjects. It is about making tacit culture explicit. A member of puts it well:

"Errol Morris’ The Gates of Heaven tells the story of several pet cemetaries in California and through that device it allows us to meet several fascinating people. Morris precisely constructs the documentary out of a series of interviews with people who talk about the animals in their lives. But they’re not really talking about their animals, but themselves and what they believe in. The film is deceivingly simple but as it progresses you see more and more. Everything is significant in the frame and you start to notice where people are sitting, what is on the desk, the wall and their environment. People are fascinating to watch and Morris gives his interview subjects time to be themselves and draws the story out of them truthfully and with respect (once again, bold added for emphasis). "

i can't help but dismiss any commentary claiming that this film is mocking its subjects. Morris' characters are allowed to share their thoughts, feelings, and views with no intrusive interruptions by the filmmaker. The footage he captured is inspiring for me as an aspiring documentarian. His subjects feel safe. They speak freely. His editing is paced, many times sacrificing the desire to move on in order to provide space for the subjects to finish their thoughts and reveal their true feelings. i've learned, as i've worked on documentaries, that the most interesting things are often said when the camera is switched off. When subjects forget the camera, they begin saying the most compelling things. He doesn't contrive or rely on sentimental spectacle. i believe quite strongly, like the quote above, that Morris depicts his subjects "...truthfully and with respect." The moments Jason cites hardly give credence to his conclusions. The amp at the end seems to me to perfectly capture the young dreamer's lust for freedom. Who brings their amp outside and broadcasts their music over a valley? Someone hoping to be heard.

In an age where so much of our media holds our hands through every fine detail, Morris is refreshing. Both Gates of Heaven and Vernon, Florida demand true engagement from the spectator. In other words, he's not going to spell everything out for you. My problem with so many films is their inability to explore deeper. They settle for cliche and contrivance. They shoot a film about pet cemeteries and think that that is where the story is. i suspect that he doesn't even believe that there is one definitive conclusion we must come to as we watch these early films. But as Mr. Average American, i can't help but relate with the subjects as they express their love, loss, and aspirations. My hat goes off to Errol Morris.

Thanks for reading this. Also, thanks for giving me an excuse to watch this film. i apologize for the somewhat academic tone of some of this post. i hope to tone it down a bit in the future.


Andrew James said...
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Andrew James said...
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Andrew James said...

Great post, Torben. I couldn't agree more. Well said. Ebert's review confirms this as well.

Grabloid said...

Very nice...i agree with your assessment in watching for deeper tacit knowledge in films, especially documentary films. (Even though I haven't seen 'Gates of Heaven', but plan to see it sometime).

I actually felt (very much so) this very same way about the fairly new documentary "The King of Kong". On the surface the doc is about video game nerds intensely competing (ironic that you mentioned video games in your post). If you don't know about video games, and you don't watch closely, the documentary will bore you and will be a bit meaningless. But, on a much deeper level it is about a large list of things...most obviously the human (maybe just American) desire for credit, fame, and recognition...the measures people will go to for that fame/recognition...jealously, self-doubt, discipline, failure, embarassment, etc.

There is also some new TV series/documentary series about some rural town in Michigan that deals with similar things...maybe about sports or something...i'd like to see it. (Torben and I saw clips of it in a class we had last semester). I'd like to take a look at it. Does anyone know what it is called?

I like your model for looking at documentaries very much.