Reflexivity in film making is a tricky thing. It is very easy to fall into self-indulgent and narcissistic pits – why should our own struggles be interesting to anyone else? The specter of the wealthy dilettante, fooling themselves that they are some sort of artist (and pandered to because they are wealthy and privileged) is horrifying. Yet reflexivity can add an element of warmth and humanity, or serve as a gripping focus that draws us in to an otherwise mundane story. In a sense, reflexivity is inherent in all good cinema – the camera angle, lens choice, framing, and editing all implicitly reflect someone’s viewpoint.
How to manage this? The modern history of reflexivity in cinema traces to the work of Ross McElwee, especially his breakout Sherman’s March. This film is very autobiographical, an almost verite look at the making of a thesis film on Sherman’s march through the South. But does it have a place as a tool in material that isn’t autobiographical?
I think there is. Probably the earliest and most famous instance of reflexivity is Dziga Vertov’s Man With A Movie Camera, a ground-breaking 1929 Ukrainian film. And Brechtian techniques have been used to break the fourth wall in fiction and documentary film alike.
In Sherman’s March, the real story is about McElwee and his love life. The film’s overt subject – Sherman’s rapacious five week march to the sea from Atlanta to Savannah – is almost a MacGuffin, in that it might just as well be about the recovery of alligators or modern cotton production. But I want to turn that around – the real story is a biography of Alan Steinbach, but as a device and foil I inject reflexive, autobiographical bits that then form a framework for the film.