Watching the Watchmen: Adapting Formalism into Videographic Criticism

Curator's Note

Having just finished my second article for Cinema Journal’s “In Focus” section, I cannot help but think back to an adage one of my mentors told me: “Writing short is hard. It is so much more difficult to write a ten-page article than it is to write a thirty-page article.” Writing an “In Focus” essay requires economy, brevity, and – when you’re writing about interdisciplinary subject matter like motion comics – a unique knack for providing just enough context so that the generalizations that such short writing demands have enough nuance and specificity to come across as being credible and plausible. Then you layer on another complication. While you’re a Formalist, you actually have to do Formalist analysis in a short article. Formalists have their own unique road to hoe. When I was shopping my recently published manuscript Panel to the Screen to publishers, I would inevitably find myself in a conversation where I had to defend being a Formalist. The eyes of editors would glaze over; something that sounded sexy and fresh (comic books!) had suddenly gotten clinical and dry. It takes a special gift to be a Formalist – an attention to detail that must be matched by conciseness. Good Formalist analysis requires the mind of a poet. I have attempted to use videographic criticism as a means of rehabilitating the image of Formalism, a way of bringing – as Justin Timberlake once sang – “sexyback.” I think the medium is especially well suited for Formalist analysis due to the critic’s ability to show rather than tell; she can manipulate the footage to illustrate an argument where words will typically fail. As Raymond Bellour famously said, As “The text of film is indeed an unattainable text….The text of the film is unattainable because it is an unquotable text.” Unlike our colleagues in Art History or English, we cannot quote film in a manuscript. We can put a couple still images next to our prose, but we lose the temporality and motion – the context – of the images. When I adapted my articles on motion comics into videographic criticism, this was especially important to me. In order to grasp the idiosyncrasies of motion comics, you need motion. The stilted starts and stops and suggested movement of the limited animation is difficult to convey in words alone. In still frames? They just look like comic panels.

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