Reconnaissance (1986)



Canada Council Film Production Grant Application
Project Description “Reconnaissance”
November 1986

Over the past three years, I have produced a series of four films which I’ve come to call “Narratives of Egypt” (Prologue: Infinite Obscure; In the Form of the Letter X; Cartouche; and Farrago.) Briefly, these films are concerned with issues of identity and origin; with the problematics of the proper name, its itinerary and effects; with the establishment of a form of cinematic writing based on, or developed from, the hieroglyphic; with desire and death and their mutual articulation. In designating them narratives, I hope to suggest the implication of some of the thematic concerns of these films with narrative issues: the notions of origin, identity and the name, for instance, are closely connected to the rise of the dominant form of narrative art practice in the novel (think, for example of Tom Jones or any of Defoe’s novels). Taken together, I believe these films represent both a coherent investigation of some important contemporary artistic (and philosophical) concerns, and a unique and challenging address to some of the dominant modes of characterizing Canadian experimental/avant-garde cinema (not the least of which would be the idea that this cinema is profoundly and incorruptibly anti-narrative).

With the film I’m proposing here, “Reconnaissance,” I want to shift my work on to a more decidedly narrative (though still investigative and experimental) terrain. While the question of the origin of this project (like any origin) will always be in doubt, I would propose two beginnings for the idea of the film. The first is an expression my Lancashire-Irish grandmother used to employ with alarming frequency: “None a yer stories, now!”, which meant “Don’t make a fuss!” My interest is in the relation this colloquialism poses between the telling of stories (narration/narrativization) and making a fuss. (Interestingly, there’s a similar expression in French — pas d’histoire — which has the same colloquial meaning but a broader range of resonance — no stories, no history, no fussing; also step or dance of history, of a story.)

Telling a story, making a fuss. A number of compelling questions can be generated out of this association: does telling a story cause a fuss or does fussing necessitate the narrative? To what extent is a narrative a story in my grandmother’s sense — a dodge, a screen, an excuse, a pretense? Might not a film be construed as a multiplicity of texts, or at least textual vectors or channels, secreted within in a pretense of narrative? (This is a notion that might be suggested by investigations of narrative such as those undertaken by Roland Barthes in S/Z.) And finally, could we conceive of narrative construction as a paranoid gesture (paranoia seen here as the operation of a certain interpretative excess, and the mounting of delusional fictions, both of which function precisely as dodge, screen, pretense) so that storytelling becomes at last so much narrative fussing, so much fussing over narrative?

But maybe this is just one of my stories.

The Title
The second beginning I can cite for this project is the title of the film itself: “Reconnaissance.” In previous work, I’ve made considerable use of words (as titles and for other purposes) which allow for a diverse array of rich etymological, semantic and homonymical resonance (eg. “Cartouche”: a cartridge, a funerary monument; a partial inscription of my own name; a touch; an “ouch”). This practice continues to be important here. The most apparent sense of “reconnaissance” in English would be “reconnoitering,” “surveying the ground” or “taking in the scene”; or the military usage: searching for valuable military information, surveying behind enemy lines, as in “aerial reconnaissance photography.” But the word is originally French, and the French meanings have an important and different force.

Many tendencies within narrative film criticism seem to share the (often unannounced) idea that we can or should expect a knowledge from cinema, from its stories; and that this knowledge is either commensurate with the propriety of the realism or “reality-effect” produced, or else it is “impossible” except as a necessary delusion. I would want to argue that we can expect from a narrative film no more than a “recognition” (in French, réconnaissance), but one which is at best a “re-cognizing,” at best a repetition of “knowledge” (in French, connaissance). We could exhaustively translate this recognition as a re-co-naissance” (‘birth’ in French), a “knowing again that we are born together.”

It’s this final sense of the title, “knowing again that we are born together,” that interested me most as a starting point for this film, and I want to try to elaborate it further. Who (or what) is born (or perhaps “borne”) together in “Reconnaissance,” and who (or what) knows or recognizes it? Placing the determinant stress on “together” would suggest the collective and the social; the film would be about the recognition that we are social beings, that our “identity,” the propriety of our “birth,” is exactly “togetherness”: it is only through our insertion into the network of social relations that we become ourselves. More narrowly defined, the “we” could simply be the viewers of the film who are “borne” (in the sense of “carried away”) together by the story, the narrative. Pushed further (and admittedly, though unabashedly, toward the absurd), what is born together could be the film and its audience in the sense that neither can have its meaning as such without articulation with the other. Finally, the “we” could refer to the two aspects of the so-called “individual” (so-called in the sense that this word means “undivided,” and yet what it designates can readily be regarded as precisely and radically “split”), namely the self, the ego, consciousness on the one hand, and on the other the unconscious, the id, the “Other”; these poles could be further specified as the imaginary and symbolic registers, the realms of belief and knowledge. That the two are “born(e) together” points to their mutual necessity, their mutual constraint, their mutual articulation within the person, and within the text, the film, the narrative.

I spoke above of paranoia as interpretive excess and delusional fiction-making, and clearly my rendering of the multiple “meanings” of my title is both fictional and excessive. However, I hope my elaboration of “reconnaissance” provides something of a “survey” of the range and terrain of experimentation and investigation entailed in this project.


Scenes, Stories and Dreams
The scenes that carry the narrative of “Reconnaissance” revolve around a ten-year-old boy, Julian, and his relations with the adult world of his parents and their friends. His parents have long been separated, live with new partners, and have joint custody of Julian. I say that the scenes “revolve around” Julian deliberately, for he is at the centre of events, but in a sense doesn’t participate in them. He’s a detached centre, though not a disinterested one.

The scenes “take place” in two main locales: the tiny house in Hamilton which Julian’s father, Mick, is trying to renovate; and a canoeing/fishing trip taken by father and son in Northern Ontario. They mainly involve Julian’s observations of his parents and their friends as they articulate and work out their social, psychic and sexual relations. (see notes on visual treatment below)

Julian is faced with a doubling of the fundamental terms of the Oedipal situation. His parents have new partners, and he spends equal time with each set. This situation causes some confusion (on the level of the unconscious) as to just who at any given time occupies the position of mother or father. In addition, Julian is called “Julie,” and thus not only his engenderment, but his gender, is written over with a certain doubleness, a certain contradiction.

It is on the stage of these contradictions that Julie operates the “stories” and the “dreams” of the film. He tells stories based on his life with his parents, and occasionally his dreams are depicted. Both the stories and dreams have different visual representational strategies which separate them from each other and from the “scenes” of the film. (see notes on visual treatment below)

The point of the “story” is that there is no story (or perhaps that there is only one story): there is only “reconnaissance” – there is only the possibility of recognition. Julie’s coming to knowledge, his telling of stories, his anxiety (fussing) is the result of his “taking in the scene,” his forays behind enemy lines, into the terrain of the “other” (both literal others – his parents – and the big “Other,” the unconscious, the other side of himself.)


Mode of Production/Social Relations
The “hook” (or trick, joke, gaff, snare, dodge, screen, lure, etc.) of this film is that the actors portraying the characters depicted in the narrative are themselves involved with one another “in real life” in situations very much like those represented in the film. However, they do not play themselves, but rather they play their counterparts, their doubles. (Julie would be the exception to this rule, as he will play himself). For example, the father of the child and his new partner play the role of Julie’s other and her lover (not respectively of course). This opens another register of paranoiac excess, undoubtedly, and raises some questions concerning the status of the narrative of “Reconnaissance,” and also regarding the actual production of that narrative.

Since it can be said of the events or “scenes” of the film that it is in fact “their situation,” questions can be raised of the nature of those “scenes”: who speaks? Whose words are spoken? Whose images and sounds? The relation between fiction and documentary would be of interest in this sense. The plan for the production of the “scenes” of the film involves the actual participation of the actors, the interrogation of their memories, emotions, desires, etc. as the means by which the details of the scenes will be established and finally “written.” We could call these “script development sessions.” These sessions will be videotaped, and an edited version of the tapes will be filmed and used as a frame for the film proper, thereby registering the documentary element with the viewer.

Probably the forgoing sounds rather confusing, sounds like some sort of excessive psychodrama, like rather a lot of fuss. I would want to draw your attention to its relation to the themes of the film, to the various permutation of “reconnaissance.” I would want you to know that the principals involved, the actors, have agreed to participate both in the “sessions” and in the “scenes” of the film, and will do so without fee. I would want to say that the sense in which this particular “mode of production” calls into question the notion of “authorship” of a film is important to me, has been important to my previous films. That “authority” could be spread out between director and cast (and ultimately beyond them to the viewer) touches upon the themes of “Reconnaissance” in rich and useful ways, I think.

I guess I would also want to put before you the possibility that all of this is a narrative, a story, a bit of making a fuss.

Visual Treatment/Mise-en-Scene
The bulk of the film, its narrative “scenes” (witnessed by Julie but not shot from his point-of-view) will be shot on fairly fast black and white negative stock, aiming at a sort of “documentary” look. The camera will commonly adopt an attitude of surveillance, taking up positions and movements with respect to the scene that are more in keeping with those of security cameras, aerial reconnaissance, or spying. The camera will operate (seemingly) autonomously from narrative demands, employing high angles and frequent 360 degree pans or longish tracking shots. Occasionally, certain gestures, facial expressions, etc. will be repeated and slowed down (by optical printing) to allow for close scrutiny, as if the spectator was more than the ordinary cinematic voyeur, but was rather engaged in an act of surveillance, or military reconnaissance.

In addition, I’ve chosen to shoot the major portion of the film in black and white to effect a sufficient contrast with the stories and dreams of the child. These sequences will be shot in colour, and the dreams will be further specified by an extreme use of optical printing (repetition, negative flips, etc.) I want to suggest in these sequences a different visual idiom analogous to Julie’s different verbal idiom (i.e. different from the adults in the film, as well as from the film’s general narrative strategy “originating” in its supposed “author”). The surveillance mode of the camera will be completely effaced from the colour sequences.

The “documentary” frame mentioned above will consist of the videotaped “sessions” played back on video monitors in a studio, with the “director” of the film watching them. This sequence will be shot in colour and placed at the beginning and end of the film.

The dominant “figure” of “Reconnaissance” is the double, and figures of doubleness will be prevalent within the mise-en-scene. Mirror and window reflections, photographs and paintings, television, signs, statues, etc. will feature in the visual design.