On September 19, I went to a salon-style event organized by the MIT Open Doc Lab where author and film scholar Scott Macdonald talked about his new book The Cambridge Turn. The book looks at the development of a tradition of documentary filmmaking in the 1960s and 70s right here in Cambridge, MA, exemplified by the work of filmmakers like John Marshall and Ed Pincus. I’m looking forward to reading the full book when it’s published, since the films he’s studying really resonate with me. As well as the connections between these films Prof. MacDonald is looking at the intellectual context behind them; he pointed out a potential link between the categories of filmmaking that flourished in Cambridge, which he defined as Personal and Ethnographic (in a way “different sides of the same coin” since they’re both rooted in the filmmaker’s direct experience), and the development of experience-based Pragmatism philosophy in Cambridge.
Since The Cambridge Turn is so place-specific, it raises the question: why here? One answer to this might be the strong connection between academia and the filmmaking that comes from this area. Prof. MacDonald pointed out that the most prestigious universities have been slow to accept cinema as an intellectual arena, but whether institutions are proudly fostering filmmaking or leaving their cinema departments to their own devices, the structure and resources of Cambridge universities like Harvard and MIT have allowed many, many filmmakers here to learn and develop, and to produce influential documentary work.
MIT Comparative Media Studies professor William Uricchio hosted the informal discussion group, which included folks from MIT’s Comparative Media Studies department, AIR/Localore, and the MetaLab at Harvard; some of the organizations with a stake in documentary in Cambridge today. The questions I took away from the event were: what are the conditions that produce kind of work – work with exciting qualities – discussed in Scott MacDonald’s book? How can institutions and the media makers working within the academic system reproduce the spontaneity and freedom of Ed Pincus and Ricky Leacock’s MIT Film Section, for example? Where are little flurries of activity happening that are adding new life to the documentary tradition right now, and how can they be encouraged without being squashed by over-formality? I look forward to more DocLab discussions in the future to keep me thinking about these questions!