Tuesday 20 March 2012

Video Essays and Scholarly Remix: Film Scholarship’s Emergent Forms - Audiovisual Film Studies, Pt 2

Catherine Grant will discuss the above companion piece to her video essay Touching the Film Object? at a workshop on "Video Essays: Film Scholarship’s Emergent Form" at the 2012 Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference, 5pm on March 22, 2012 in Boston.
     Her fellow workshop participants will include Christian Keathley (Middlebury College), Girish Shambu (Canisius College), Benjamin Sampson (UCLA), Richard Misek (University of Kent), Craig Cieslikowski (University of Florida) and Matthias Stork (UCLA).  
In her book Death 24x a Second, Laura Mulvey considered how the intersection of cinema with various digital technologies has changed film studies in recent decades.  Most obviously, DVDs allow film scholars unprecedented access to high-quality copies of our objects of study, and the internet has supplemented this with a wealth of online critical and archival material.  As a result, these various digital tools have significantly enhanced film scholars’ research and teaching.  But this intersection of cinema and digital technologies has brought not just accessibility, but the potential for dramatic transformation in the study of film.  Mulvey wrote, “New ways of consuming old movies on electronic and digital technologies,” she wrote, “should bring about a ‘reinvention’ of textual analysis and a new wave of cinephilia."
One place where this ‘reinvention’ of analysis and revived cinephilia can be seen is in the emergence recently of a new scholarly form -- the video essay.  Practitioners of this form are exploring the ways in which digital technologies afford a new way of conducting and presenting film research -- for the full range of digital technologies enables film scholars to write using the very materials that constitute their object of study: moving images and sounds.  Examples of this video essay work can be readily viewed online, especially at the Moving Image Source website, and at the vimeo site Audiovisualcy .  But most of the work in this new form is being produced by scholars outside academia (with some key exceptions), in part because the strictures of written academic discourse pose a challenge for this nascent form of multi-media scholarship.
This workshop -- which will include presentations by film scholars who are also video essay producers -- will consider the challenges faced in legitimizing the video essay as a valid form of academic scholarship.  The participants will address such issues as: How does the use of images and sounds in the presentation of scholarship demand a rethinking of the rhetorical strategies employed by the film scholar?  How does aesthetics play a role in an academic discourse that aims to produce knowledge and emotional response?  How would teaching courses on video essays help legitimize the form, and how might such instruction be undertaken?  How might emerging scholars situate themselves as leaders of this emerging academic mode? [SCMS workshop proposal drafted by Christian Keathley, author of the must-read essay 'La caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia', in Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism. London: Routledge, 2011]
[H]apticity -- a grasp of what can be sensed of an object in close contact with it -- seems to me now to be very helpful in conceiving what can take place in the process of creating videographic film studies. It can also help us more fully to understand videographic studies as objects to be experienced themselves.

In the old days, the only people who really got to
touch films were those who worked on them, particularly film editors. As Annette Michelson (1990) and others have argued, the democratization of the 'heady delights' of editing (Michelson, 1990: 22) was brought about by the introduction of video technology in the 1970s and 80s. Now, with the relatively wide availability of digital technology, we can even more easily share 'the euphoria one feels at the editing table [...] a sharpening cognitive focus and [...] a ludic sovereignty, grounded in that deep gratification of a fantasy of infantile omnipotence " [Michelson, 1990: 23].

But, are there other ways in which 'touching film' is just a fantasy? In videographic film studies, do videographers actually touch or handle the real
matter of the film? Or are we only ever able to touch upon the film experience? Our film experiences? Do video essays only make objects of, or objectify, our film experiences, our insuperable memories of them, our own cinematic projections?

These questions may not flag up significantly new limitations. Film critical video essays do seem to work, it seems to me, in the same 'intersubjective' zone as that of written film criticism. As Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton argue of this zone, 'we are immersed in the film as the critic sees it, hence brought to share a deeply involved perspective' (2011: 9).

Yet, in videographical criticism, is there not a different intersubjective relation, a more
transitional one, to the physicality or materiality of the objective elements of films that the video essays reproduce? Like written essays, video essays may well '"stir our recall"' (Klevan and Clayton, 2011: 9) of a film moment or sequence, but they usually do this by confronting us with a replay of the actual sequence, too. How might this difference count?

If nothing else, this confrontation with, or, to put it more gently, this inevitable re-immersion in the film experience, ought to make videographic critics pursue
humility in their analytical observations with an even greater focus, make them especially 'willing to alter [their analyses] according to what [they come into] contact with [...] give up ideas when they stop touching the other’s surface' (Marks, 2004: 80).

A further, built-in, random element in non-linear digital video editing -- the fact that this process frequently confronts the editor with graphic matter from the film (e.g. thumbnails) that s/he may not specifically have chosen to dwell on -- may also encourage a particularly humble, usefully (at times)
non-instrumental form of looking that Swalwell (2002) detects in Marks' notion of hapticity.
As Marks writes, 'Whether criticism is haptic, in touch with its object, is a matter of the point at which the words lift off' (2004: 80). Haptic criticism must be what happens, then, when the words don't lift off the surface of the film object, if they (or any of the other film-analytical elements conveyed through montage or other non-linear editing techniques and tools) remain on the surface of the film object, as they often do in videographic film studies. In addition to this, video essays on films may often be an especially 'superficial' form of criticism, frequently using slow motion or zoom-in effects to allow those experiencing them to close in on the grain or detail of the film image.
With so many words, or other filmanalytical strategies, simultaneously available to be sensed on the surface of the image and, in terms of sound strategies (such as voiceovers or other added elements), seeming to emanate from it, videographical film studies may be curiously haptic objects, then. It is useful to remember that the art historical concept of haptic visuality emerged from the scholarly and artistic traditions of formalism, which made procedures such as defamiliarization central to their practice. Defamiliarization -- the uncanny distancing effect of an altered perspective on (such as a hyper-proximity to) an otherwise familiar object -- may be one of the greatest benefits of the particular hapticity of videographical film criticism. [Catherine Grant, 'Touching the Film Object', Filmanalytical, August 29, 2011: citing Laura U. Marks, 'Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes', Framework" the Finnish Art Review, No. 2, 2004 (large pdf - scroll down to p. 79); Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton, 'Introduction', in Clayton and Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism. London: Routledge, 2011; and Michelson,  Annette, 'The Kinetic Icon in the work of Mourning: Prolegomena for the Analysis of a Textual System,' October 52 (Spring 1990)]
One of the elements that Film Studies For Free appreciates most about online audiovisual film studies (film studies in digital video forms) are the phenomenological possibilities they offer viewers for the experiencing of moving image and sound juxtapositions in real time. We can synchronously feel, as well as know about, the comparisons they make. In other words, unlike written texts, they don't have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us. [Catherine Grant, 'Garden of forking paths? Hitchcock's BLACKMAILs - a real-time comparison', Film Studies For Free, March 12, 2012]
What interests me most in academic study is the exploration of what Gérard Genette called "transtextuality", that is to say, "everything that brings the text into relation (manifest or hidden) with other texts" (Genette, Palimpsestes, 1992: 81). Sometimes this interest alights on matters of cultural influence and film authorship (see here, for example), but often it focuses itself on the issue of the recognition of cinematic interconnectedness.

Now, in an age of digital and multimedia scholarship, how better to explore filmic connections of different kinds than to use the format of the video
mashup? [This video essay on Peeping Tom and Code Unknown] is, then, the first in a series of "scholarly mashups" [...] examining the obvious and obscure connections between particular films in ways that are both striking and, hopefully, more precisely illuminating with regard to their form as films, than comparisons performed purely in non-audiovisual formats might be. [Catherine Grant, 'True likeness: Peeping Tom and Code inconnu/Code Unknown', Filmanalytical, June 26, 2010]

Here is the second entry in a mini-series of posts here at Film Studies For Free on the practical possibilities for, and the critical debates about, audiovisual film studies research and 'publication'.

Today the focus is on two of film scholarship's emergent forms, much loved by FSFF: video essays on, or scholarly remixes about, film. The above quotations draw attention to the range of issues these forms  raise for film studies: from the changes they involve in the processes of film studies research to the questions they pose about its publication forms and knowledge effects, as well as the possible roles for creativity and affect in our discipline.

The occasion for this latest meditation is an upcoming workshop discussion at the annual conference of the U.S. Society for Cinema and Media Studies. But  there are also a whole raft of online developments in, and other important, recent, publications on, this genre that FSFF wanted to flag up. Those are listed below.

Beneath all the links you will find embedded versions of some of the online video essays by FSFF's very talented, fellow workshop panellists and respondents in Boston. (You can find all of FSFF's audiovisual essays here).

If you are able to come to the workshop, hurray! Do please say hello to us all at the end! If you can't come but would like us to discuss any questions you have about video essays, do post those in the comments below. Thanks.

FSFF will take a little blogging break during and after the SCMS conference, but will tirelessly tweet during the conference, reporting on panels attended and other events. So do please follow @filmstudiesff if you'd like those updates.

Otherwise, see you back here sometime in early April.

Christian Keathley, Pass the Salt


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