OBSERVATIONS OF A GENERAL NATURE
by Robert Gardner
This book presents selected writings by Robert Gardner. There are journals he wrote during stays in different parts of the world, observing and reacting to diverse ways of life, traditional and modern. There are his accounts of film projects envisioned and planned but not completed. There are essays, more formal and systematic than the journals, on ways of life in pre-modern cultures that Gardner has observed first hand. We also read his voiceover narrations from the films Dead Birds (1961) and Rivers of Sand (1975), which come to life in a new way on the page. And in an interview, letters, and articles, Gardner addresses the subject of filmmaking—his own and that of others—and reflects on film’s relation to anthropology and, more broadly, to the very project of human beings to understand reality.
The material here, most all of it previously unpublished, is presented in three sections. In Parts I and II we see Gardner in the practice of just representation, or aiming at it. In Part III we see him talking about just representation, the concerns and the issues of it, specifically in his own filmmaking work and to some extent in that of others. He talks about filmmaking, not writing—but the writings of Parts I and II cannot be disentangled from filmmaking. There is the same sensibility and drive to expression at work. And as Gardner’s brief introductions to each piece make clear, the writings come out of filmmaking situations, out of preparation for or work on various filmmaking projects. The writings extend what the filmmaking does, complete what the filmmaking does not complete, take byways from the filmmaking and make new discoveries—and, of course, feed back into the filmmaking. The writing and filmmaking complete each other.
Gardner is fascinating to read. He puts himself into difficult and telling situations, goes where most of us want to go, at least mentally, and gives account with his eye for important detail and, always, his penchant for evaluating the motives that drive people and the forces that bear down on them, as they live their lives and create what they create. Gardner holds a unique place in our culture. He stands for a certain humanistic anthropology, in filmmaking and in writing. I can search myself, he seems to say, and find what binds me to another and what thus can give insight into another—we are of a kind, after all, and participate in a general nature. This self-search and making of connection realizes itself in the techniques and expressive means of the films, and in Gardner’s distinctive way with words in the journals, reflections, and self-reflections making up this book.