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Screening Room with Robert Gardner: Alan Lomax (Dance and Human History)

1975 (original), 2005 (DVD)
Distributed by Documentary Educational Resources, 101 Morse Street, Watertown, MA 02472; 617-926-0491
Produced by Robert Gardner
Director n/a
DVD, color, 75 min.
Sr. High - Adult
Anthropology, Dance, Music, Film Studies

Reviewed by Bonnie Jo Dopp, Performing Arts Library, University of Maryland

Date Entered: 3/20/2007

This DVD should be marketed as “Dance and Human History: Movement Style and Culture #1, with commentary from the filmmaker and Robert Gardner.” It is a helpfully tracked, digitized, commercial-free episode from a1970s Boston television program called “Screening Room,” where filmmaker Robert Gardner invited fellow filmmakers, intellectuals, or scholars to discuss their work or that of other filmmakers and to submit to his artful questioning between film-viewing (‘screening room’) segments. In this episode from 1975, ethnomusicologist Alan Lomax is the guest and viewers are treated to a partitioned screening of his path-breaking 40 minute film Dance and Human History: Movement Style and Culture #1, accompanied by short interludes of Gardner/Lomax discussion before and after each segment. It is a kind of ‘lecture-demonstration’ version of the film. Skillful editing keeps viewers attention away from the fact of Gardner’s smoking most of the time.

This is the only separate DVD of Dance and Human History available for new purchase now, though a videotape of it appeared in 1990, and many libraries own it. A blurb describing the film on the Alan Lomax (now Cultural Equity) website says, “This introduction to Choreometrics illustrates important scales by which dance can be measured, then utilizes the scales to classify dance into ethnographic regions. Also analyzes the influence of economic productivity and the division of labor between the sexes on dance.” The film was the first in a series of four, now called “Rhythms of Earth,” and it is offered for sale only as one of a boxed set of four DVDs from the Association for Cultural Equity web site. The commentary interwoven into the Screening Room showing of the film, here under review, will be important to today’s audiences as an aid to better understanding what Lomax was aiming to do by helping to develop the movement measurements of Choreometrics, which enable analysis of gestures across cultures. The final talk segment of the TV show introduces his concept of ‘cultural equity,’ which can be further explored on the website.

Digging into original scholarly reviews of the film reveals that while many welcomed it, in certain circles it was criticized as being far less detailed in its analyses than it could have been. It appears simplistic, with its focus on five kinds of movement (three for limbs and two for torso) where the full Choreometrics scale allows for 200, and possibly ‘racist,’ though the latter would never have been Lomax’s intent. Lomax comes across in this DVD as a popularizer of cross-cultural news, teaching just enough in this film to communicate a basic message, to validate a method of research and theorizing, and to ensure that anyone who sees the film will see the world anew because of it.

That ethnographic films were made of people in cultures worldwide while they were at work and while they danced and that these were then were studied by people trained to look for patterns of movement is a fact we can celebrate as the world's cultures become ever more homogenized. Lomax clearly demonstrates his main points in this film: movement is expressive of culture as surely as spoken language is. It can be analyzed and patterns of cultural movement can be seen that indicate that a culture’s dances mimic and stylize its movements in daily life. More broadly applied, these patterns can be compared across cultures and large ‘movement families’ can be seen to exist. The commentary provided by the interview segments with Gardner helps to clarify Lomax’s motives and achievements.

The DVD is tracked for film and commentary so only the film or just the 35 minutes of interview can be viewed, in sequence.

Libraries that have seen steady use of the videotape of the Lomax film should buy this DVD, which offers insights from the filmmaker not available elsewhere, even if they are also considering buying the boxed set mentioned above.