Produced early in the Farocki’s roughly fifty-year profession, Inextinguishable Fire is a critique of the war in Vietnam and the industry’s role in producing deadly chemical weapons. In the movie, the young artist is pictured at his desk, reading a document on both the impacts of napalm and the motives for its wide usage. To depict a minimal illustration of the special effects of napalm, he grasps an off-frame for the scorching cigarette and extinguishes it on his naked forearm. A voice-over explanation records laconically that ‘the cigarette combusts at around 600 degrees Celsius; Napalm does it at roughly 3000 degrees’” (Gustafsson 10).
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The image is grainy and static, and yet, the use of a handheld camera seems to destabilize the frame. There is little to no experimentation with angles, and the visuals of the entire essay are defined by Farocki’s commitment to what he calls “soft montage.” The conversation at the State Department is shot from a distance; later, it becomes clear that the two men conversing about the war are shown through a small window. The camerawork creates the illusion that the viewer becomes witness to something that would have otherwise been hidden.
The sound in Inextinguishable Fire is confined to only two voices: one of Farocki himself and one of the nameless narrator. Farocki’s message has a recipient, which becomes ever more evident when he transitions from reading with his head bowed down to sitting up straight and looking into the camera. This part of Inextinguishable Fire is probably the only one where the viewer’s participation is not elicited as Farocki’s gaze reaches out to the other behind the screen. While the artist conveys some emotionality, the narrator’s voice is dry and describes the observable in a factual manner.
Filmed in 1964 at New York’s Carnegie Hall by Albert and David Maysles, Cut Piece depicts one of Yoko Ono’s most influential and remarkable performance acts. In Cut Piece, Yoko Ono sits motionless on stage after inviting the audience to cut at the clothes that she wears with scissors. Members of the audience come onto stage one after another and cut out pieces of fabric until the woman is left in her vulnerable nakedness. The lighting amplifies the dramatic gesture of Ono’s act as it brings out the contrast between the well-lit stage and the dark abyss of the audience hall. The choice of framing makes it appear as if the participants come from nothing.
The camerawork in Cut Piece is more dynamic than in the Inextinguishable Fire. The camera is handheld, which accounts for the effect of the viewer’s presence in the movie. The directors frequently change shots from long to medium. They display the stage and the main action and then zoom on Yoko Ono’s face to convey the emotional intensity of the experience. At times, the camera circumnavigates the woman’s figure and captures her from above, making her appear even smaller, frailer, and more vulnerable. Throughout the performance, Yoko Ono remains silent, and her almost unsettling tranquillity is strikingly contrasted by some of the participants’ laughter and crass comments. Like in Inextinsguishable Fire, neither sound nor image in Cut Piece is edited, which makes the piece especially raw and intimate. However, Cut Piece lacks a narrator that would reason about the depicted events and leaves the interpretation largely to the viewer.
Research on Context
By the 1960 and the 1970s, the documentary cinematography tradition reached the point where it juxtaposed itself against the polished imagery of studio-based film production. The movements of cinéma vérité and Direct Cinema took advantage of existing technologies not to embellish the subject and entertain the viewer but follow the subject closely and show the unconcealed truth (Kahana 156). Around the same time, documentaries became political weapons as they shed light on the uncomfortable themes and issues and criticized the contemporary systems of oppression (Kahana 178). The two documentaries – Inextinguishable Fire and Cut Piece perfectly illustrate this point.
Farocki’s art majorly points to opposing the obvious and the visible. His political assertion is to portray that in realism, nothing is concealed, sealed, or veiled. The meticulous viewpoint in his approach arises from self-imposed nonage. The pictures do not reflect the conceptual mist or the ontological obscurities of an appearance. His voice-over remarks show that the observable contrasts the evidence (Ružić 280). Moreover, the visualization is stratified by inherent ancient structures that organize the gaze and occasionally blind the viewers’ sight. According to historical analysis, observing with an individual’s eyes is an issue of political battle. Seeing against the ounce of the expected, alongside pieces of evidence and shade spots, is the role that stays in the machines’ world, which has seized human sight.
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Inextinguishable Fire challenges the television account of the impacts of napalm in the Vietnam Conflict. However, as Farocki depicts by snuffing a cigarette on his armrest to provoke empathy, there is no compassion for unimaginable pain. The voice-over points at the consequences of ferocity that will continually arrive too late to avert injustice and suffering. His concern is to combine pictures that can interfere with various events, and transform them (Balsom 358). To achieve such desire, this documentary returns to the plant gates: “When napalm is combusting, it is too late to snuff. It should be fought when it is manufactured in the industry”(Ružić 280). Farocki’s historiography experience is politically simple and topologically complex; all shots encompass a slight messianic suggestion of its counter shot.
One may find many parallels between the two movies shot only five years apart. While Farocki challenges militarism and people’s willful ignorance of the war’s atrocities, Yoko Ono takes a stab at sexism in a performance that would later be proclaimed a form of protofeminist art (Huang 190). Further, both Harun Farocki and Yoko Ono engage in the act of self-harm and self-victimization, either by putting out a lit cigarette on one’s arm or subjecting oneself to the self-indulgent crowd. Although Inextinguishable Fire and Cut Piece exist in the realm of cinematographic realism, their manner of speaking to the audience is through metaphors. The sights of the skin burn and the naked body with torn and cut clothes are vehicles of a louder, broader message about violence and injustice.
However, Cut Piece differs from Inextinguishable Fire due to its display of passive objectification. While Farocki inflicts the injury onto himself, Ono lets the crowd take the lead, so the message is actualized through the other and not the artist (Gallagher 10). Gallagher argues that the performance ultimately demarcates the difference between the strong and the weak, the superior and the inferior (10). In Cut Piece, human communication is robbed of authenticity because mutuality becomes absent (Gallagher 10). Yet, the passive objectification does not allow a straightforward interpretation because while Ono is victimized, she is the host who initiated and encouraged the act.
After analyzing the two pieces, my question is to what extent the filmmaker impacts and, most importantly, impedes the authenticity and truthfulness of a documentary. From the historical context of Inextinguishable Fire and Cut Piece, I learned that the documentaries of the 1960s and the 1970s praised themselves for the unconcealed reality of their subjects as opposed to studio-produced fiction. Farocki and Mayles intentionally reject retouching their shots and confine themselves to simple shots, static frames, and basic lighting. They do not obscure, add, or embellish but rather report and document. Indeed, fiction suspends disbelief while non-fiction instills a belief by showing the unedited world.
Yet, any movie is shot not only through a camera lens but also through a lens of the director’s subjective perception. In one of the interviews, Albert Maysles, one of the two creators behind Cut Piece, was asked about the role of the director in his documentaries. He challenged the common notion that the camera is “a fly on the wall” and argued that the creator initiates a relationship with the subject (Verrano, 2017). This relationship is necessary for the emergence of a meaningful observational documentary. At the same time, Maysles warned against the perils of over-indulging in this bond and influencing the people or the act that a movie is meant to document. Therefore, the question arises as to whether there is such thing as objectivity in documentary cinematography.
Balsom, Erika. “Moving Bodies: Captured Life in the Late Works of Harun Farocki.” Journal of Visual Culture, vol. 18, no.3, 2019, pp. 358-377.
Gallagher, Eva Vidan. “Passive Objectification: Vulnerability In Yoko Ono’s Participatory Art.” Journal Of The Caswriting Program, vol. 8, 2016, pp. 10-14.
Gustafsson, Henrik.“A New Image of Man: Harun Farocki and Cinema as Chiro-praxis.”Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, vol. 13, no. 1, 2020, pp. 1-17.
Huang, Vivian L. (2018). “Inscrutably, Actually: Hospitality, Parasitism, and the Silent work of Yoko Ono and Laurel Nakadate.” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory, vol. 28, no. 3, pp. 187-203,
Kahana, Jonathan, ed. The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism. Oxford University Press, 2016.
Ružić, Boris. “Lost in Narration: Transparent Storyteller and Mobile Spectator in Early Harun Farocki.” Interdisciplinary Description of Complex Systems, vol. 17, no. 2, 2019, pp. 272-281.
Verano, Frank.““Direct Cinema is Anything but a Fly on the Wall”: A Conversation with Albert Maysles.” Doc On-line, n. 20, 2016, pp. 153-161.