“The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.”
– Aristotle, apparently
For this presentation/project, I’ve really wanted to explore the purpose behind Morris’ use of collage in the film American Dharma. It is my opinion that he continues to collage and craft the narrative of the section of the film, “What Have I Done?” to tell a multi-lamellar story that involves not just Steve Bannon, or his toxic website, or Trump, but a story that involves all of us too, and yet also all of those things. To me, it feels as though Morris is putting a macro lens on the #war of the 2016 election… Into view comes Steve Bannon, with all his self-imposed grandiosity and questionable motivations, and as the camera pans out, and the interface gets wider, we the audience see a bigger and more complex portrayal of reality. More and more events, people, and occurrences quilt together to form this blanket of abject confusion that is our reality now. A world that seems to exist outside of time.
Obviously, this is not a story I could ever hope to tell in 15 double-spaced pages. It is for that reason that I have decided to try and only tell a small piece of it, some and only some of the “What Have I Done?” section of the film. In particular, for the presentation, I’ll be focusing on the visuals of this. I think to focus on the structuring of the whole thing would take far too long. Wish me luck!
***Note: I absolutely cannot get the formatting to comply on Rampages, so my apologies for the bold-ed citations!
American Dharma. Dir. Errol Morris. Utopia, 2018. Film.
I hope this doesn’t require too much explanation, but as the film I’m presenting on, I’d consider a citation for it highly relevant!
Banash, David. Collage Culture : Readymades, Meaning, and the Age of Consumption, BRILL, 2013. ProQuest Ebook Central, http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/vcu/detail.action?docID=1402859.
This book was really helpful to me, particularly because of the overview it provides of collage within film in the 20th century, as well as the way the digital world may have affected this. A lot of the ideas are really interesting, and Banash himself is a Ph.D, so I do think he is relatively reputable, however, a main driver of his perspective is that of consumption, mass production and capitalism. I don’t think that is necessarily irrelevant to American Dharma, however I do think it is a bit narrow in scope to what American Dharma the film is actually trying to accomplish. However, there are many times that Banash provides analysis outside of this scope of various works and that is what I found compelling. He suggests that collage can manifest as a technique to “make whole” what is fragmented, giving the example of T.S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. He also examines the Benjaminian theory of aura as it plays into digital media. I am still not entirely sure, what, if anything, to do with this analysis, but I found it illuminating, regardless.
Deren, Maya. “Cinematography: The Creative Use of Reality.” Daedalus, vol. 89, no. 1, 1960, pp. 150–167. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/20026556. Accessed 28 Apr. 2020.
This essay was quite helpful to me in trying to formulate my paper. In particular, I have chosen this essay to use in my presentation because Deren speaks very specifically on the concept of slow-motion and how that can work to make meaning in a film context, and how that interplays with conceptions of time. Because slow-motion is an important element of the so-called “collage-d” scene I am going to examine in my presentation, I think it is quite relevant to include here.
Elder, R. Bruce. DADA, Surrealism, and the Cinematic Effect. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2015.
Elder’s book has been instrumental with helping me develop my argument. Elder himself is a film critic and analyses collage in a film context, in multiple ways, throughout this book. One concept that I think is pivotal to the film, American Dharma, is the way he speaks of collage and its dichotomous meaning. On page 146, he writes,
“But the key quality of film “collage” also characterizes collage in other visual arts: the object glued to the surface has an ambiguous status; it is divided between being a real-world object and being an element in an autonomous form; between evoking a particular moment and a timeless higher unity…”
I think it is this dualism that makes the collage used in American Dharma so interesting. Morris doesn’t have just a single purpose in mind when he enmeshes these films, this digital aesthetic together with Bannon, who himself is similarly “glued” into the 12 o’ Clock High film set.
Rosenbaum, Ron. “The Museum of Modern Art with Ron Rosenbaum.” Errolmorris.com, 1999, www.errolmorris.com/content/interview/moma1999.html.
I chose this interview specifically because, as it would turn out, a lot of my research of collage in film came up with a lot of stuff about postmodernism. Morris intentionally refutes this, specifically in this interview, and claims an objective reality. I think this is extraordinarily important to American Dharma in particular because I think one can claim an objective reality and still argue that all that exists within that objective reality is not “true.”
Wilkinson, Alissa. “Errol Morris Thinks He May Have ‘Assumed Too Much’ with His Steve Bannon Documentary.” Vox, Vox, 5 Nov. 2019, www.vox.com/culture/2019/11/5/20943437/errol-morris-interview-steve-bannon-american-dharma.
I think there is indeed an element of self-justification from Morris in American Dharma. He says in this interview that “if you can do it as a magazine article, you shouldn’t do it as a movie. You should be able to justify why is this a movie, and not a magazine article. Bannon was not a magazine article. It was a movie, with its own visual tropes. It was a movie about movies and about the interpretation of movies.” I think this is important because it not only establishes some of what Morris finds the movie to be about it, it also backs up this idea.