Tuesday, July 16, 2013 at 7:30pm
Ray L. Birdwhistell's Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos + Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon's The Ax Fight

155 Freeman Street, Brooklyn

Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos, Ray L. Birdwhistell, digital projection, 1969, 34 mins
The Ax Fight, Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon, 16mm, 1975, 30 mins

American anthropologist Ray L. Birdwhistell pioneered the analysis of nonverbal communication with the invention of “kinesics,” a new field devoted to the decipherment of body language across cultures. His work included an elaborate system of symbolic transcription for human movements, and he proposed that virtually any gesture, no matter how seemingly minor or incidental, might have expressive potential. Cinema played an important role in kinesics; after recording everyday social activities on film, Birdwhistell later employed the footage for motion study, sometimes performing the interpretation live in classrooms by using an analytic 16mm projector allowing for slow-motion, freeze-frame, and replay.

Though Birdwhistell produced a number of documentaries and filmed lectures around these concerns, his most inventive work is undoubtedly Microcultural Incidents in Ten Zoos. The film uses footage of families interacting with animals at zoos throughout the world: London, Paris, Rome, New Dehli, Hong Kong, Tokyo, San Francisco, and Philadelphia. This material is then shot off an auditorium’s screen as Birdwhistell lectures to a meeting of the American Anthropological Association on the meaning of each gesture, while instructing the projectionist to vary the frame rate. At the end of the film, Birdwhistell stops to reflect upon the biases of his own crew, noting that “filming gave us data about ourselves as observers and filmmakers.”

Contemporaneous with the structural turn in experimental cinema—and particularly reminiscent of Ken Jacobs’s Tom, Tom the Piper’s SonMicrocultural Incidents gained notoriety in its day beyond anthropological circles, screening at the Berlinale and the Whitney Museum’s “New American Cinema” series. Hollis Frampton also cited Birdwhistell’s work in “Incisions in History / Segments of Eternity” (1974), where he writes:

Birdwhistell states that rigorous examination of such films requires, on the average, about one hundred hours per running second of real time. He also points out that, within a family, many thousands of such brief, wordless exchanges take place every day.

If there is a monster in hiding here, it has cunningly concealed itself within time, emerging, in Birdwhistell’s film, on four frames...that is, for only one-sixth of a second.

If it is dragons we seek, or if it is angels, then we might reconsider our desperate searches through space and hunt them, with our cameras, where they seem to live: in the reaches of temporality.

Timothy Asch and Napoleon Chagnon call to mind Birdwhistell’s dragon-hunting techniques in their canonical and controversial study The Ax Fight. The film documents a single event in a Yanomami village: a sudden, violent quarrel erupting between residents and visitors from another settlement. Asch and Chagnon first show their eleven minutes of footage uncut, in which the conflict appears chaotic and inexplicable; then, the same event is shown in optically-printed slow-motion, revealing the dispute as “a ritualized contest, not a brawl,” carefully orchestrated to minimize harm. Finally, an edited version of the fight is shown, demonstrating how the use of montage introduces bias.

Both Microcultural Incidents and The Ax Fight ultimately work as meta-ethnographic studies of how film can introduce new ways to parse empirical data, yet they also strike notes of skepticism about the application of direct cinema to anthropological inquiry.

Tickets - $7, available at door.

Please note: seating is limited. First-come, first-served. Box office opens at 7pm.