Metropol Tide (2012)
Produced under the guidance of Professor James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology at Yale University, Metropol Tide is an ethnographic film of the New Haven seaport that is as much a profile of the diverse community of Striped Bass fisherman that cast their lines in these waters as it is a portrait of urban decay and industry removed.
Notes on Metropol Tide: Towards an Anthropological Filmmaking
In anthropology, the visual has long flourished as a metaphor. Early anthropological works popular amongst the general public generally used photos as a substitution for a more abstract or esoteric knowledge, one that would satisfy the audience’s desire to situate themselves on a scale between civilized man and animal. Features such as nakedness and animal products indicated how close people were to nature. In this way, visual signs were often far more visceral than the mere “anthropology of words.” As David MacDougall says in his book, The Corporeal Image: Film, Ethnography, and the Senses, the visible is always powerful because “the visible emphasizes what is not.” Thus, images, or in this case the poetics of cinema, can bring new meaning to an anthropological work by way of identification, implication, visual resonance, or a shifting of perspective, all of which diverge radically from what is known to be capable in anthropological writing. But there has also been problems with the visual in anthropology: there is something disquieting about a visual image that seems to show everything at once, and yet remains resolutely mute. Images can distort their worlds and mislead their viewer; few would argue for the uncompromising presence of a photograph. But even still, a greater awareness of visual systems can direct our attention to anthropological elements previously unavailable or unattainable through the written word. To borrow two terms from Bertrand Russell, anthropological cinema allows us to represent the lives of others because visual media allows us to construct knowledge not by “description,” but by “acquaintance”—constructing this knowledge requires the application of a rigorous methodological approach toward ethnographic filmmaking.
In brief, sensory ethnography is the marriage of the audio-visual aesthetics of filmmaking with ethnography; it attempts to reach an anthropological mode of documentation without the use of verbal sign systems. A more revealing approach might be to consider what sensory ethnography is not. It is not a documentary film in the traditional sense: there is no single voice or narrative. Documentary films approaching the inclinations of broadcast journalism are wrought by an authorial presence that ultimately undermines the anthropological integrity of the work. Simply asking questions and constructing a narrative is already too presumptuous of the sensory ethnographer. It is not an art house film in the tradition of avant-garde cinema either. Although it often borrows formal elements of the avant-garde, which inherently distances and estranges the viewer in a productive capacity, the sensory ethnography avoids artistic impulses that aren’t deeply infused with the real. At its core, sensory ethnography is observational cinema employing provocative recording techniques and the sensory ethnographer shows, rather than tells.
When I set out to make a sensory ethnography of the New Haven seaport, I deliberately attempted to leave my lens open to any and all narrative and formal possibilities. I knew the seaport was still a major artery of economic activity in New Haven, but I also knew the landscape had undergone years of post-industrial decay over the past half century. The aesthetics of these two worlds, best summed up by Gramsci’s “crisis [that] consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born,” is what originally drew me to the seaport. But upon a few days of scouting I was immediately struck by panoply of stimuli, all with a unique story to tell. There were the shipping terminals, with their high security loading docks and constant flow of petrochemicals from oceans away; there were the lobstermen who hadn’t caught a lobster in over ten years (something he blamed on pesticides); there was the Buchanan Marine shipyard where they hoisted and repaired barges the size of small soccer fields, and there were the striper fishermen, who thrived amongst it all. My immediate authorial crisis was determining what should and should not be included, for some elements would have to be left on the cutting room floor. Ultimately, I decided to focus on this small, tightly knit community of urban fishermen practicing their craft in the most unlikely of places.
Cisco knows Moe, Moe knows Big Jon, and they all go to Dee’s Bait and Tackle Shop. Although urban in character, I found this community of fishermen, women, and children to have many traits of a “traditional” society, especially in their pursuit of the Striped Bass. Often times, these fishermen would engage in trade beneath the purview of the greater economic system. I encountered many instances of men catching and selling their own bait, carving their own jigs and lures, and perhaps most importantly, dealing in the sort of information trade that might best described by James Scott’s metis, a distinctly local knowledge that can only be attained through daily practice and experience. The information in this exchange—what locations are fishing particularly well at the moment, what lures or baits are proving particularly attractive, or what time of day has yielded the best results—is relentlessly local. Many of the fishermen held this information close to their chest, and would only disseminate it based on certain specifics of the social structure. Dee’s Bait Shop in East Haven was a hub of such traditional knowledge.
Considering these closely guarded secrets, all the more ritualized in societies of fishermen, filming a group of “traditionalists” whose community has yet to be infiltrated by media was a particularly daunting task. Many of the subjects were uncomfortable with the camera, and many others took time adjusting to its presence. Still others were born performers, which my recording methodology intended to extort. I rarely asked questions of my subjects, and would often just place a camera down in front of them in order to elicit a reaction. For the shy among them this proved rather traumatic, but for the others it hopefully proved to be an empowering experiment; ideally, each and every one of the subjects should be able to exercise a critical amount of agency in dictating the content of the film. In a sense, employing this methodology leads towards an "indigenous" director of the film, which has the potential to blur the cultural boundaries between the subjects themselves and the potential audience. For the sensory ethnographer, the directorial participation of the subject is inextricably intertwined with the methodology. Disregarding the objective and replacing it with an indigenous subjective ultimately leads to a richer, and perhaps more honest portrait.
Lastly, this approach should not completely displace stylistic flourishes of the camera. Once we—the filmmakers, the subjects, and the audience too—recognize the process of filmmaking as central to the product, only then are we able to transcend the limitations of film to communicate the ethnographic. The cameras, recording devices, and filmmakers are not, and never will be flies on the wall, so there’s no need to promote this destructive façade. Once we recognize the hand of the filmmaker, we’re able to more easily discern where he or she ends, and the poetics of chance, the magic of the setting, begin. The first step to ridding the work of the author is accepting their presence. Observational at its core, my recordings making Metropol Tide actively attempt to include the audience in the recording process. My hope is that this led to a more honest, and thus more revealing portrayal of the seaport and its citizens.
Over the course of the filmmaking process I had to constantly remind myself to avoid the narrative impulse. I used a brief thought experiment, thinking that one could watch the entirety of the film without any one specific beginning or end, in order to constantly lead myself toward a more abstract formulation. I believe I was largely successful in this regard, and yet as I conclude with the process, certain patterns and narratives have certainly begun to emerge. This said, like the early role of the visual in anthropology, I hope to elicit a fundamentally visceral, personal reaction from the audience (although hopefully not one quite as destructive as the aforementioned Social Darwinism). In many ways, the poetics of cinema offer us an untold, and still largely undiscovered medium of expression. Building this language from the ground up will likely be the future of anthropology in a mediatized world. Enjoy.