Compilation and Found-Footage Traditions

Curator's Note

On the Compilation and Found-Footage Film Traditions of the Video Essay

So (as the kids say) the video essay is a thing now? OK, but what kind of a thing? While the form, or genre, or practice – or whatever it is – of the video essay flourishes, it continues to pose, at least for media scholars, intriguing definitional or categorical questions. Many – but by no means all – video essays are constructed largely and often entirely out of previous films or videos, and thus inherit established cinematic models as much as they invent new critical strategies. In addition to notable precursors increasingly (if retroactively) identified as essay films, video essays derive from other significant cinematic traditions. Whether named compilation or found-footage films, films made out of other films are as old as cinema itself, although they became most prominent as distinctive possibilities via their manifestations in documentary and avant-garde traditions. (I should note that the term “found footage” has recently been misleadingly and unfortunately applied to the subgenre of horror films that present themselves as documentary-like raw footage.) More broadly, since at least the decisive intervention of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936), films edited together from previous films have also been affiliated with larger traditions of modernist collage, or, as in the case of Guy Debord’s films, associated with specifically situated practices such as Situationist détournement. Previous critics of the video essay, such as Christian Keathley, have already identified the principal modes of recent videographic work as “explanatory” and “poetical,” which might simply be broader terms containing the documentary and avant-garde traditions, but I would like to further consider the status of recent video essays that are constructed largely or entirely out of (among other available terms) (re)appropriated, recycled, or borrowed films. (I will only be concerned here with the formal or artistic elements rather than the considerable legal issues relevant to this topic.)

The categories I want to bring into play have notable critical touchstones: Jay Leyda published his pioneering study of the documentary tradition, Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film, in 1964, and William C. Wees published the first extended study of the avant-garde tradition, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films, in 1993. Both (pre-digital, pre-internet) books are now understandably out of date, although they remain instructive and useful guides that have been supplemented and extended into the present by subsequent studies, including compelling recent work by Jamie Baron, who persuasively argues that the conventional distinction between “archival” and “found” footage – a distinction that once separated mainstream documentaries from experimental films, even though both appropriated existing material – may no longer be relevant in the era of online search engines and YouTube. In any case, the small group of video essays – defined as such initially by the vague principle that “I know one when I see one” – that I’ve curated here are all constructed, almost entirely, out of clips from previous films or videos, and none are what other scholars have called “language-driven” or “explanatory,” which typically means that none rely on the authoritative direction or anchor provided by voice-over narration: all veer towards “poetical” rather than “ideological” modes, to use the distinction Roland Barthes employed to famously distinguishing a “text” from a “work.” (None of the video essays I’ve selected are silent, however: all use music and/or sound significantly, if subtly.) At some level, my main point is a very simple one: all of these video essays are also simultaneously something else. Each can be readily affiliated with another filmmaking tradition, even if their status as a “video essay” seems plausible. This is not just a claim for their typical hybridity (Drew Morton calls the video essay “a hybrid of documentary filmmaking and scholarship”), but an affirmation of the residual historical models that persist in what otherwise seems an emergent form. The “video essays” I have selected are thus always already documentaries (or compilation films), and/or avant-garde films (or found-footage films), or in one case at least, a remake.

I almost intuitively employed another control mechanism in selecting these video essays: each is not only constructed from other films, but is rather obviously “about” cinema, or audiovisual media more generally, or particular films more specifically. They are all, I will claim, adding another layer of identity, also works of film criticism. Thus, "A Movie by Jen Proctor" (2010-2011) takes as its subject a previous, well-known found-footage film, Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958). Kogonoda’s "Hands of Bresson" (2014) takes as its subject the films of a single director (Robert Bresson): more precisely, it attends to a major motif across the director’s films, his persistent focus on the hands of characters in shots that isolate this part of the human body emphatically. (This is a motif many of the director’s critics have noted, but the video has the undeniably powerful effect of demonstrating what others have described.) Christian Marclay’s relatively early Telephones (1995), anticipating his famous 24-hour installation video The Clock (2011), concentrates our attention to a common but easily ignored trope in mainstream, narrative cinema, the dramatization of the otherwise mundane activity of dialing or answering telephones. (Only an unauthorized upload of Marclay's work is available online.) In a similar vein, Jason Livingston’s "The End" (1998), composed entirely out of the title cards announcing “the end” of a few dozen Hollywood films, takes a familiar but easily overlooked industrial (and narrative) practice as its focus. So, in these cases, a notable film, or celebrated director, or a common industrial (Hollywood) trope provide each video essay with a basic organizing principle and even initial selection categories. Other video essays focus on film genres.

It seems important to emphasize that each of these works seems to require prior knowledge of their subjects in order to be effective: would any of them make much sense to a viewer wholly unaware of the material they draw upon? Insofar as these works engage with and extend our contemplation and perhaps understanding of a key cinematic topic, I will claim that they function – even if poetically – as forms of analysis, drawing our attention to the kinds of concerns already familiar from more conventional film scholarship. Most critical writing on film auteurs, or genres, or narrative conventions presumes a reader already familiar with the topic at hand but seeking a fresh approach or a richer understanding of that previous work: Kogonoda’s video essay, for instance, would not serve as a useful introduction for someone unfamiliar with Bresson’s films (among other things, the films are not identified), but functions as a subtle analysis and appreciation (if not quite interpretation) for those already (more or less) familiar with the director’s oeuvre: like any effective work of criticism, I cannot imagine anyone returning to Bresson’s films without an enhanced awareness of the element Kogonoda has emphasized. While shots isolated from Bresson’s meticulous films may retain much of their basic visual beauty, for devotees of his films these shots are richly evocative of the wholes from which they have been excerpted (the metonymic aim of most film clips, presumably, often “highlights” selected bits to recall an entire film). In other words, the strict focus on shots of hands from Bresson’s films offers exactly the kind of delimited topic characteristic of the essay as a form (unlike the typically more comprehensive book-length study).

In a similar way, I view Livingston’s "The End" (1998) as a suggestive analysis of a common yet critically neglected cinematic convention: the video collects a few dozen of the on-screen titles that explicitly conclude mainstream (mostly Hollywood) films, and – not quite the same thing – the narratives they contain. Most of these are, like corresponding opening logos and titles, what literary scholars (after Gerard Genette) call paratexts, formal yet subtly meaningful devices that exceed the diegesis, like the architecture of a book that contains a story, which we close in a common, repeated ritual of completion a few seconds after the story ends. But quite a few of Livingston’s examples are also superimposed over the last images of the narratives, blurring the line between the end of the story and the end of the film. A surprising number of this utterly conventional device, tacitly shared by all Hollywood studios and genres, are recognizably derived from unique films. Many reassert, at the last second, the movie’s studio affiliations, while others insist that they were “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.,” once a kind of quality-control assurance. At one level, "The End" is thus a condensation of the massive model of repetition with variation that defined the mode of production of the Hollywood studio system. "The End" literally begins (but unusually remains) where most films end, affirming but also radically attenuating the satisfactions of closure common to the filmgoing experience. The film motivates us to ask: is the pleasure that comes with the ending of an entire film – not just of its story, but of the film as an event, which employs paratextual devices inherited from both the book (printed titles) and the stage (Livingston’s video preserves the musical crescendos that sonically assure us that a work has come to its end) – the same if the final image and final chord are all we get, even when presented as a kind of multiple orgasm? Or is a climax satisfying only when it follows approximately two hours of anticipation and delay? (I can’t help but think of Livingston’s work in conjunction with Roland Barthes’ beautiful essay on his pleasure in leaving a cinema after a film concludes.)

I also have no hesitation in identifying "A Movie by Jen Proctor" as a work of criticism, even if it largely functions – as Jamie Baron and Scott MacDonald have insightfully emphasized – as a somewhat unprecedented remake. (Again, other terms may apply: despite elements of parody, it serves as a tribute or homage, and even as a kind of Duchampian readymade, although it obviously wasn’t “ready,” and has been carefully made…) While the film it remakes, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, is as canonical as any American experimental film can be, it’s perhaps best known to current film scholars and students through the detailed formal analysis of the film that was included in many subsequent editions of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction, the most influential and widely-used introductory film textbook in North America. (That analysis, no longer in the latest edition of the book, can be found online). In remaking Connor’s film within a contemporary context, with “footage” found not in the limited collection of battered 16mm prints that Conner reworked, but among the vast archive of the internet, Proctor not only illuminates the underlying structure of Conner’s non-narrative film (the primary goal of Bordwell and Thompson’s analysis), but significantly historicizes it, or, more fully, persistently draws our attention to the fundamental shifts in the media landscape between 1958 and 2011. That historical distance also traces the ontological and cultural differences between film and video as technologies, and to (as Baron emphasizes) the archives that subtend them – in addition to revealing the amusing, troubling, and surprising similarities and differences in the content of images that simultaneously align Conner’s and Proctor’s works and separate them. (See the cited pieces by Baron and MacDonald for detailed treatment of these concerns, and the larger issues her video raises.)

Again, Proctor’s film has been discussed as a “remake,” a term almost wholly applied to mainstream narrative films, and often with a dismissive claim of a lack of creativity and originality. Her video, like few other remakes, fully renders the remake a critical rather than crassly commercial form. While the “originality” of Proctor’s remake (sort of) of Conner’s film might be questioned (though I think that would miss the point), I think its function as a work of criticism – in other words, as a video essay — seems more significant than its aesthetic status. While retaining, as Baron notes, the basic structure and denotative content (and, importantly, the same soundtrack) of Conner’s “original” (a term we can only now apply, with deep irony, to Conner’s film), it is otherwise wholly new, made up of entirely different images, although, as with Conner’s work, these were not images created or captured by its “director.” Like Conner and indeed all of the other artists I’ve included here, Proctor relied on assemblage, but (as again, Baron details) she assembled her material from a dramatically different kind of archive, and with significantly differently assembling technologies, than Conner’s historical moment allowed. Proctor’s remake is therefore directly concerned with exactly those differences, which are emphatically historical and scholarly preoccupations. In this regard, "A Movie by Jen Proctor" (her title, like Conner’s, obviously has critical functions as well) is an essay, related to a good deal of more conventionally written contemporary film studies, devoted to an exploration of the historical transformation from film to video, analog to digital, black and white to color (as norms), and the cultural conditions that link as well as differentiate, for instance, the bombing of Hiroshima and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as traumatic – and recorded – events.

Works Cited

Baron, Jamie. The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History.  New York: Routledge, 2014.

Baron, Jamie. “The Experimental Film Remake and the Digital Archive Effect: A Movie by Jen Proctor and Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake,” Framework 53: 2 (Fall 2012): 467-490.

Barthes, Ronald. “From Work to Text,” in Image, Music, Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1977: 155-164.

Barthes, Roland. “Leaving the Movie Theatre,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1986: 345-349.

Keathley, Christian. “La caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia” in Alex Clayton & Andrew Klevan, eds., The Language and Style of Film Criticism.  New York: Routledge, 2012: 

Leyda, Jay. Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film.  New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.

MacDonald, Scott. “Remaking a Found-Footage Film in a Digital Age: An Interview with Jennifer Proctor,” Millennium Film Journal 57 (2013): 84-91.

Morton, Drew. “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing”: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/what-are-new-insights-digital-publishing/response/visual-essay-digital-publishing

Wees, William C. Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films.  New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993.

Comments

Girish Shambu's picture

Pre-Histories of the Video Essay

Corey, thank you for this wonderful, thought-provoking piece! I knew the Bresson video essay but not the other two; I am glad to be introduced to them via the rich context you provide here. Your post has got me wondering. Recent accounts of the video essay often stress the *differences* between traditional forms of criticism and scholarship (i.e. print) and the video essay form with its specific features and affordances. Reading your thoughts on the antecedents and pre-history of the video essay has me thinking: Rather than assuming a hard binary between print and audiovisual scholarship criticism, is it possible to find antecedents, pre-historical glimmers, of the video essay in earlier *print* forms? By which I mean: can we think of examples of traditional print criticism/scholarship that quietly gesture towards features that would be more fully exploited by video essays? I know that magazines like CAHIERS DU CINEMA have always paid attention not just to text but also to page layout (mise-en-page), and the way stills and typography are used to create spatial and temporal/sequential effects that perhaps point intermedially towards today’s video essay criticism. I was idly wondering if there were other examples of such print-rooted work that were already, in the 20th c., departing from strict notions of print towards a hybrid visual-text (if admittedly not audiovisual) criticism. Sorry if this is only tangentially related to the subject of your post, Corey, but your piece points in so many interesting directions! Thanks again.
Corey K Creekmur's picture

Film Studies and the Question of Illustrations

Thanks, Girish, for these kind words: I do think there is a history to be uncovered of (what to call it?) unconventional scholarship in the history of published film studies that (among other things) engaged critically and creatively with design, layout, and other visual strategies, often touching upon avant-garde traditions (especially in the wake of Dada and Surrealism, with their extensive histories of book and magazine production in addition to paintings, sculptures, and of course films). There’s the old “problem” in film studies of the status and function of illustrations, especially before the frame blow-up became the standard of accurate, rigorous film studies: prior to that, commercial production or publicity stills were the norm, and while these were often vivid, attractive images their actual relation to the films they were illustrating was of course imprecise and often questionable. In discussing film texts that used illustrations as more than, well, illustration, it’s worth asking (as you do) if these ever served more critical, or artistic, or poetic, functions. Mere citations of inventive uses of illustrations within film books without illustrations won’t be very effective, but here are some worth considering: Jean Epstein’s BONJOUR CINEMA, Stan Brakhage’s METAPHORS OF VISION, and Amos Vogel’s FILM AS A SUBVERSIVE ART. Is it any coincidence that these carefully — even provocatively — designed books are all on avant-garde film? But what about the rich use of illustrations in the series of books edited and designed by Ian Cameron (as well as the journal MOVIE), for more mainstream (and art cinema) topics? While it might not count as scholarship, Kenneth Anger’s scandalous illustrations for HOLLYWOOD BABYLON clearly work as more than mere illustrations of his text, as is the case with the more scholarly (but often audacious) LES STARS by Edgar Morin. These are just works that come to mind right away in response to your query: I’d love to hear others suggested. But they do at least begin to demonstrate for me that there’s a longer history of published, “experimental” film criticism that works as criticism in part via elements of design and illustration.
Drew Morton's picture

2 OR 3 THINGS BOOK...

One book that comes to mind is Alfred Guzzetti’s book on 2 OR 3 THINGS I KNOW ABOUT HER. I think it’s a shot by shot analysis with frame reproductions, but it has been years since I looked at it.
Corey K Creekmur's picture

Film Books and Visual/Video Essays

Yes, that was one of the earlier shot by shot analyses of a full film in book form, from 1981. It followed the 1979 volume on Eisenstein’s OCTOBER by Ropars-Wuilleumier, Sorlin, and Lagny, only translated in part into English, and the studies by Bellour, Kuntzel, Heath, and others that made the shot by shot analysis, with frame blow-ups, the standard for film studies. (There were curious earlier books edited by Richard J. Anobile in the 1970s that were basically just transcriptions of popular films, but which also relied extensively upon frame blow-ups: they were part of the nostalgia market of the era, not critical works at all.) But, as carefully designed as these had to be to be effective, most didn’t appear as “creative” or “experimental” (vaguely defined, I know) presentations of text and image, but in fact as more rigorous, accurate forms of textual analysis. (Kuntzel, it might be argued, created more “poetical” — explicitly Barthesian — criticism, making his shift to video work unsurprising.)
Girish Shambu's picture

Pre-Histories of the Video Essay

FYI, I just remembered an essay in the journal FRAMES by Adrian Martin that makes for interesting reading in the context of our discussion here. Let me quote an excerpt: “When I was a teenager, I was entranced by this passing remark by Jonathan Rosenbaum about Cahiers du cinéma in the ‘60s: in translating a roundtable, collective text devoted to montage, he regretted that ‘it hasn’t been possible to reproduce or approximate this jazzy sort of mise en page’ of the original. (9) It was a lesson I remembered well: when my students read Serge Daney in translation from mid ‘70s Cahiers, I always rub their noses in the often peculiar, innovative, and utterly heterogeneous design layout of main text, images, captions, footnotes and breakout boxes or sections: all of which generate associations inexorably erased in a straight/conventional English translation. And I would refind this same, delightful term – mise en page – two decades later, in the course of Raymond Bellour’s expanded reformulation of the concept of mise en scène in cinema: Godard once again offered the lead, with his graphic design of printed/typed words, stills and superimposed clips exploding in the Histoire(s), but present to varying degrees in all his work. What matters across all the mise operations that Bellour detects in cinema – mise en scène, mise en page, mise en phrase, mise en image, and so on (10) – are the diverse strategies of ‘spacing’ and spatialisation, separation and associative combination, that play between all these levels, sparking thought and emotion. The same goes for the audiovisual essay.”
Corey K Creekmur's picture

Footnotes towards additional comments

No essay is ever finished, of course, and any essay is limited by (among other things) what one has read and seen up to the point of its composition. When I wrote this essay — attempting to think of the terms we employ as well as the legacies and traditions both in view and obscured when we discuss the “video essay” — I had not yet read the very suggestive section on “found-footage essayists” in Michael Witt’s very illuminating book JEAN-LUC GODARD, CINEMA HISTORIAN. It’s clearly a key text for filling in some of the history I merely sketch here. I have also recently encountered the term “handmade readymade,” which perfectly names JEN PROCTER’S A MOVIE, which I was fumbling to locate myself. The term comes from the critic Brian O’Doherty, cited in Hal Foster’s fascinating book THE FIRST POP AGE. There’s always more to read and see, but I’m at least grateful this site allows me to add these as footnotes pending further thought on these matters.