On Video Tributes

Curator's Note

On Video Tributes

Ever since digital technology allowed any user to appropriate and recycle images from movies or TV programs, the number of videos devoted to remembering, celebrating, and paying homage to films or cineastes has exponentially increased. Video tributes, however, are also becoming a sub-genre for the field of videographic film studies and criticism, with interesting consequences. Many of the tributes devoted to a specific filmmaker, actor, or other film professional are born out of the contingency of public events, such as retrospectives, anniversaries, awards, deaths. Or they simply emerge from the cinephiliac impulse to pay tribute to a given film, actor or filmmaker, maybe after stumbling upon a beloved movie late at night on TV.

It is the kind of experience that resembles the one that Laura Mulvey attributes to “the fetishistic spectator," one that “becomes more fascinated by image than plot, returning compulsively to privileged moments […]” (165). The tribute evokes a connection with its object that is more emotional than rational, “on the threshold between cinephilia and fandom” (167). Even if initially motivated by a theoretical impulse, the tribute may go on to engage more in a seductive, captivating way as it presents its object, one that evokes a subjective experience of spectatorship. This is the reason, I suppose, why so many tributes seem to be driven towards the poetic end of the videographic spectrum, rather than the expository one. Also, their often contingent nature makes it easier, more natural for them, to develop around aesthetic choices, or even formal constraints: these parameters are often what shapes the tribute in the first place, rather than analytical discourse. Let’s look at some recent examples.

Nelson Carvajal’s tribute to the work of the cinematographer Gordon Willis, “In Memory of Gordon Willis,” is a good example of a video that employs the unifying power of music to assemble a compilation of some of the best shots in Willis’ career. The association of micro-motifs – the curtains, the running, the violence, pensive character close-ups versus faces expressing fear or pain – with the intimate music of Klute (1971) and the more solemn soundtrack of The Godfather (1972) creates a crescendo that allows us to perceive how Willis’ work with light was strongly devoted to a sympathetic observation of human emotions.

For his first attempt at making a poetic visual essay, Drew Morton chooses to dedicate his tribute to the acting career of David Bowie, “David Bowie: On Film.” Even though music is still very important in this video essayist's work – especially considering the strong connection made between the image of Bowie as a music star and the roles he plays in films – Morton creates an interesting mix of background music and the movies’ original soundtracks. His careful selection of scenes, gestures, and lines works to emphasize the eccentric, borderline nature of Bowie’s acting. Bowie’s star persona emerges in Morton’s complex interweaving of his performances both as a singer and as an actor: in the video Bowie appears most of the time as alien(ated), out of place, about to disappear.

The compilation video, in its attempt to incorporate as many exemplary moments as possible, might seem the tribute form par excellence. However, Catherine Grant’s homage to Shirley Temple – “Mechanised Flights: Memories of Heidi” – focuses instead on a single scene, from Allan Dwan’s Heidi (1937). There are two main formal choices that shape the video and confer upon it a strong resemblance to avant-garde and experimental uses of found footage: the glitchy quality, the altered motion of the images – re-filmed using QuickTime's capture tool – and the use of both black and white and colorized versions of the film. The result emphasizes the automata-like performance of the child-star, and the Wizard of Oz effect of putting together the b/w and colorized versions in the dream sequence also evokes a connection between Temple and Judy Garland. Again, it is the formal dimension that prevails here in the first place, and that establishes an uncanny feeling that then requires deeper reflection.

The uncanny, estranging effect of the last example contrasts with the more accessible and cohesive character of the other two videos. Of course, this is related to the different nature of the tributes: Grant’s work is also connected to childhood memories and experiences, while the perspective of Morton and Carvajal is that of informed cinephiles who want, respectively, to praise an acting career and to pay tribute to a prolific cinematographer. What all the videos have in common is that the poetic way in which they isolate and reassemble the images “‘unlocks’ the film fragment and opens it up to new kinds of relations and revelations” (Mulvey: 179). These revelations are not delivered to the viewer in an explanatory form, but rather are evoked in a way that recalls the subjectivity of cinematic experience, and ultimately remind us that images “do not always willingly subordinate themselves to the critical language that would seek to control them” (Keathley: 189).

At its best, the tribute form does not just confirm what we know about films or cineastes. Quite the opposite: it can even revive the wonder of a first encounter. François Truffaut once suggestively described this feeling, and his words might be an apt conclusion for this brief overview. In his famous book on Alfred Hitchcock, the French director and critic recalls his participation in a gala homage to Hitchcock in 1974. About the tributes he saw that evening he wrote:

"For some three hours, we were shown a hundred film excerpts displaying his virtuosity and grouped into categories like 'The Screen Cameos' (Hitchcock’s appearances in his movies), 'The Chase' (pursuit sequences), 'The Bad Guys' (killings and love scenes), plus two brilliant sequences: the clash of the cymbals in the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the plane attack on Cary Grant in North by Northwest, which I had been asked to present. […] I knew all of these movies by heart, but upon seeing the excerpts isolated from their contexts, I was struck by the sincerity and the savagery of Hitchcock’s work. It was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes. I knew his work; in fact, I thought I knew it very well. Yet that evening I was awed by what I saw on the screen: splashes of color, fireworks, ejaculations, sighs, death rattles, screams, blood, tears, twisted wrists. It occurred to me that in Hitchcock’s cinema, which is definitely more sexual than sensual, to make love and to die are one and the same” (345-346).

Works Cited

Keathley, Christian. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” In The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, 176-191. (London: Routledge, 2011).

Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006).

Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. trans. Helen G. Scott (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984).

Comments

Corey K Creekmur's picture

The Critic and the Fan

This is a very interesting commentary to me because I at first considered discussing “tributes” (I was thinking of calling them “homages”) in my own contribution to this issue: I assume Kogonoda’s “Hands of Bresson,” which I discussed more as a poetic essay on a director, could just as easily be called a tribute, although I wonder if it’s specific focus on hands in Bresson to the exclusion of any other elements still renders it more of an analysis (even if, again, poetical) than tribute. But the other issue raised for me is whether the creator of a tribute video should be understood as a critic or a fan (or the more elevated cinephile): many tribute videos seem to me designed to in fact allow a critic to be a fan, to drop some of the professional expectations (including distance, judgment, discrimination, etc.) and to reveal and celebrate one’s fandom. Put another way, tributes are of course as much about the person paying tribute as the figure being honored (as you note here about Catherine Grant’s work, as much about her as about Shirley Temple, surely). In short, you have me pondering the relationship inherent in the tribute, and the thin line at times between the scholar and the fan in the realm of the video essay.
Drew Morton's picture

THE CRITIC AND THE FAN

Corey, Responding to your second question: I can only speak from my own experience, but I would agree that the tribute video allows a critic to be a fan. In making “David Bowie: On Film,” I was very consciously making a video essay that did not have the intellectual rigor, structure, and argumentation that I typically approach my VEs with. On a pragmatic level, this resulted in a film that took me a couple days to make versus a month to make (my pieces on SCOTT PILGRIM and THE SHINING took much longer). I think Chiara’s analysis of the piece is fair (I found certain themes during the editing that I wanted to bring out with each subsequent re-cut), but I didn’t go into the Bowie video with a pre-determined plan. It was, as your comments infer, a exercise purely designed to let my hair down. That said - and I know you’re not dismissing this work, but I want to put this out there because I think it’s a helpful reminder - I learned more about the software (Adobe Premiere), editing generally, and form when I did this piece and the “Bad Dads” essay (http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/video-essay-diptych-good-dads-bad-d... - all the drafts can be found here: http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/2014/06/happy-holidays-round-up-a...). There’s a technical polish in this piece that is sorely lacking in SCOTT PILGRIM and the techniques I refined with these two tribute videos will no doubt aid me when I return to a more argumentative mode. More specifically, the tribute videos helped me think about visual alternatives to making an argument, as my pieces were typically over-reliant on voice over. I think I began to find a balance of the poetic and expository in THE SHINING, but I feel much more confident with that impulse now. I bring this up because the experience of making a fan video - an exercise I was initially a bit prejudice against for the same reasons you mentioned - has pushed me to reconsider some of the work I’m assigning in my course on video essays. I think such an assignment might be a great way to introduce tools to students because the giddiness of fandom can perhaps serve as a balm to alleviate the stress of learning a new application. In short, for those teaching VEs or interested in making them, I strongly recommend the tribute video as a learning exercise.
Jennifer Proctor's picture

A few questions

This is all quite interesting to me because, of course, we’re discussing what happens when we use the medium we’re critiquing to perform a critique, and all the meta-questions that gets into. Part of what comes to mind as I read your responses is the question of technical and aesthetic quality (production values, essentially), and what role those play in the video essay, especially as academics not necessarily trained in production start to move into this form. And, this, of course, plays into the notion of intentionality - fan videos, for instance, always contain some kind of analysis or critique, but not necessarily at a conscious or intentional level on the part of the maker. And it seems to me that intentionality or deliberateness becomes an important element of the video essay if we’re to think of it as a scholarly argument (and maybe that’s not the way to go!). If the editing is crude, is that part of the argument? Or simply a demonstration of a certain level of training? What expectations do we have for the media studies scholar working in this form - do we hold them to the same technical standard of academic practitioners working in video? I really love Benjamin Sampson’ss “Layers of Paradox in F FOR FAKE” featured in the inaugural issue of [in]Transition, which demonstrates strong attention to high production values and a unified aesthetic approach. But then it wades in territories related to ethical considerations in documentary - what do we make of the use of music in several passages of the video essay? On the one hand, I was somewhat put off, because I felt it was guiding my emotional response to the content inappropriately and in a way that made me uncomfortable in an academic essay. And on the other hand, I deeply appreciated it as a way of engaging me emotionally in the content, and providing a uniquely cinematic context for the quotes (visual, audio, and text) contained in the piece. Obviously, I’m still asking questions rather than suggesting answers, but I’ll close with the suggestion that theorizing the video essay (especially in terms of tributes and the use of found footage) might also benefit from drawing in theoretical work not only in documentary, but in experimental film and remix/mashup culture, as Corey suggested in his post on Compilation and Found Footage Traditions.
Drew Morton's picture

Quality

Jennifer, At SCMS, I used Kelli Marshall’s rubric to talk about evaluating video essays (http://www.teachingmedia.org/grading-rubrics-and-assessing-the-video-ess...) in our workshop and the co-editors and I spoke about how our editorial process is going to evolve as the journal goes forward. I think we’re all in agreement that aesthetic quality is a criteria, even if the VE is purely in the expository/scholarly mode. In a broad sense, aesthetic quality becomes analogous to usage and mechanics in a written essay. In order to peer review a piece properly, I imagine that a fair method would be opening up PR to 2-3 reviewers (one production expert, one academic VE expert, and maybe one expert in the piece’s specific field - if the academic cannot fully speak to that aspect). That said, I’m still working out to what degree aesthetic quality should be weighted. I don’t necessarily think it would be productive to hold the pieces to the same standard established by video artists simply because there is a learning curve involved here. But the form does typically inform the content, even at micro-level of voice over recordings and vocal delivery (which makes a tremendous difference). I’ve invited Ben to speak to your second point more specifically. My own approach to music and the VE is that it serves the same function as vocabulary or writing style. It provides an attracting power and momentum the same way some academic writers do (I’m thinking of a writers like Vivian Sobchack - whose prose veers towards the poetic - and Scott Bukatman’s latest book about play and comics, which appropriately has some playful prose!).
Chiara Grizzaffi's picture

Some remarks

Thanks to all of you for your interesting and brilliant comments. I will try to address some of the issues that are emerging from your questions. Corey, you are making me think more on what a “tribute” is. I underlined the aspect of contingency because for me the tribute is something that seems to originate from a urgency, rather than an analytical reflection. But there is a thin line between analysis and homage, as your example of kogonada’s Hands of Bresson demonstrates (but we could also mention the Elsaesser’s videos published in the first issue of [in]Transition). This might also depend on the fact that, as far as I can see, the authors of audiovisual essays seem generally more keen on working on what they like (I have never seen a negative v.e. so far), and their engagement inevitably emerges in their works. Moreover, I think that we associate almost automatically some poetic forms with the homage: there is a sort of rhetorical structure in many of them (I am thinking of the association of suggestive scenes with a powerful soundtrack) that immediately evokes the tribute. The videos I chose for my curatorial statement, in my opinion, challenge and enrich this ‘formula’ adding some clever analytical insights. I completely agree about your observation on the blurring boundaries between fans and scholars. One of the aspects of the video essays practice that captured my attention in the first place is exactly their hybridity, and thus their connection not just with both the artistic practices mentioned in your statement, and the documentary - as Drew underlines in his curatorial statement for the first issue-, but also between the v.e. and other fandom practices. Some of the scholarly literature on fans and user created contents underlines how activities like vidding have an analytical impulse. I am thinking about the essays of Francesca Coppa, or the book of Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: they both argue that vidding is also a form of close reading and analysis. The (con)fusion between scholars and fans might be really fruitful, a way to create a dialogue with generations of students fully immersed in a digital environment. I think is possible to relate also to video essays what Pam Cook writes about fan websites: “Such convergences have already had an impact on the way scholars perceive fans; they could also play a part in reconfiguring moving image education to take on board non-hegemonic participatory models in which traditional boundaries between expert and lay knowledge are re-evaluated.” (“Labours of Love: In Praise of Fan Websites”, in Frames #1, http://framescinemajournal.com/article/labours-of-love-in-praise-of-fan-...) Thank you Drew for your remarks about making your tribute, I completely agree with you when you affirm that those kind of exercises could alleviate the stress of editing. I am still learning how to make videos, and I found that focusing on illustrating other scholars’ theories or experimenting with formal aspects is a way to really break the ice with the editing process. I would also like to add something, more in general, about the explanatory/poetic mode’s opposition and about Jennifer’s consideration on v.e. and documentary tradition. I feel that, in some ways, a certain orientation towards slightly more poetic and subjective forms preserve these works from imposing their view using images as indisputable evidences. I am more intrigued by those analyses that do not conceal the subjective experience of the author, even if they are conducting a rigorous investigation on their object. The word “essay” applied to these works might be problematic, but nonetheless reminds us of what Adorno writes about the essay as a form, which is something that “reflects a childlike freedom that catches fire, without scruple, on what others have already done”. The essay implies a subjective process of discovery, and involves the same creativity and playfulness that are necessary to make v.e.