“I want to work until I’ve made a mark.”
Anand Pandian attributes this quote to Rajeevan, the art director for numerous Tamil films who serves as the protagonist of Chapter Five (“Art”) in his provocative new book Reel World: An Anthropology of Creation. Ever the good ethnographer, Pandian presses Rajeevan to go further, asking how he will know when his mark has, indeed, been made. Speaking of the legendary art director Sabu Cyril (Rajeevan’s mentor), he replies, “They say he can do anything. Just that.” I get the sense that this exchange is quite significant for Pandian—as if Rajeevan has given voice to something that the author aspires to not only document, but himself express. With Reel World, it is very clear to any reader that the author wants to make his mark—to produce a work that can address itself to the “anything” of creation and of life.
Reel World is “just that.”
Cinema itself has forcefully vied to make its mark in modern times—as art, as evidence, as a form of living for its makers and audiences alike. It is safe to say that over the last 120 years the medium has succeeded in etching its mark deep within the substance of contemporary living. Yet how such a mark is made remains, even after all of this time, mysterious. Reel World frames both this mark and the mystery of its making as themselves the empirical elements of what we mean when we say “cinema.” If I have understood the author correctly, this is the whole point of an “anthropology of creation”—it can show us how creation exceeds the sum of parts we would associate with “creativity” and how the forms of life that constantly emerge out of such creation exceed the sum of the facts we marshal as explanations for them. Reel World asks if cinema can tell us about something like “life.” For me, the book has convincingly made the case that it can, even if what it tells us does not in any way resolve itself as a singular “answer.”
The modes of creation under scrutiny in Reel World are made material via the classic strategies of the experiment. Each chapter operates as a separate experiment serving the whole; they make and then test their particular object, just as any version of the experimental method demands. Structured as experiments in sensing, expressed as experiments in writing, Reel World subjects the ethnographic material to the force manifested in deploying the conventions of multiple literary genres over the course of a single narrative. As with all stress tests, some of these experiments buckle or rupture the material—the stream of consciousness, single sentence chapter “Desire” (Chapter Seven) is surely no Eden Eden Eden (Guyotat). Nevertheless, even as they occasionally breach their object or fall apart methodologically, the individual chapters/experiments still consistently yield a valuable, intuitive picture of what is at stake. In short, they succeed as experiments. We are able to think cinema, creation, and life simultaneously in Reel World. Just that.
So Reel World indeed makes its mark. It makes its mark on our understanding of Tamil cinema, on our ability to grasp the resonances between these films and ordinary life in South India, and on our feel for the reverberations across contemporary life that cinema itself broadly generates. This is all clear. What is less clear is the kind of mark the book will have on anthropology. The historically plural methods of the discipline today serve as positive catalysts in the work of creative artists, filmmakers, and even scientists, entrepreneurs, and policy makers. Yet how will the anthropologist, under ever more pressure to be “useful” in a normative fashion, respond to the creative, systematic, experimental energy driving Reel World? Perusing Walter Murch’s foreword to Pandian’s book, I am reminded of a line from Apocalypse Now that was Murch’s responsibility to ensure we heard clearly. Marooned for most of the film on a small patrol boat making its way into the dark heart of the Vietnam War, Willard’s internal line of dialogue reacts to his fellow soldiers having undertaken an impromptu expedition off the patrol boat into the forest, only to encounter an angry tiger.
“Never get off the boat—absolutely goddam right! Unless you were goin’ all the way.”
Of course, Willard does eventually get off the boat, just as Anand Pandian disembarks from the mainstream with Reel World. Can we anthropologists follow? Will the mark this book makes be coded as a sign leading towards a path that once guided anthropologists and, although now overgrown and disused, can be renewed to get us where we must go? Or will we feel this mark as a wound, a painful reminder of a foolish foray into the lair of a tiger? When we think “absolutely goddam right” to ourselves in reference to Reel World, what will we be referring to as right—the safety of the boat or the necessity to get off of it, to split from the program, to make our mark?
Richard Baxstrom is Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Edinburgh. He is the author most recently of (with Todd Meyers) Realizing the Witch: Science, Cinema, and the Mastery of the Invisible (Fordham University Press 2016).