The Audiovisual Essay: My Favorite Things

Curator's Note



The Audiovisual Essay: My Favorite Things

We invite the submission to our journal of original videographic work created using film, or other moving image, excerpts. The work, which can be of any length, should produce new knowledge about its subject, or about film and moving image studies, through its audiovisual form. ([in]Transition editors, “Contribute to [in]Transition”)

As [in]Transition throws open its doors to welcome submissions of videographic film and moving image studies (see the full guide to our open peer review process here), we devote its third issue to a timely set of meditations on the practice and theory of the audiovisual essay as a creative, critical or scholarly form. The aim with this issue was to generate lots of new reflections on videographic essaying, and on the new knowledge potentially produced as a result by scholars and critics who have taken up making and also teaching these processes and forms, in some cases, after many years of publishing their research solely in written formats.

So many valuable reflections were produced that a companion website has been created to archive a number of these by authors of videos curated in this issue. Indeed, every video featured in this [in]Transition issue has its own, written, “Making of” supplement (all are listed and linked to below), including one which problematizes the need for such supplementation. The auxiliary website also houses the papers and screening program from an international conference on The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory, which took place in November 2013 in Frankfurt, a city long associated with important considerations of the essay as a form (see Adorno, 1959). This conference very much inspired the shape that [in]Transition 1.3 has taken, and its two organisers, Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin (of Goethe University/Monash University), were the first members of our esteemed editorial board to accept an invitation to curate (and to make) work, individually, for this issue – they delivered a joint paper at the Frankfurt conference. They are joined, as guest curators, by fellow board members Ian Garwood and Miklós Kiss who also generously share their experiences of making or teaching film studies videos.

While Martin and Álvarez both reflect on the use of experimental audiovisual research methods that take the researcher, as the former puts it, “wherever the film leads you”, in their individual entries Garwood and Kiss account for a process in which the research might pre-date, at least to a greater extent, the exploration of an audiovisual presentational form. While certainly still open to and interested in more “poetic” video essays, in their reflections these latter authors conceive of videographic film studies, in part, as a matter of transmedial scholarly adaptation or translation. Yet even the most tightly pre-scripted approaches to the audiovisual essay can be challenged in interesting ways by videographic processes, as Garwood is certainly happy to acknowledge. As my fellow [in]Transition co-editor Drew Morton also writes, in relation to the follow up video he made on Kubrick’s The Shining after his explanatory study of Scott Pilgrim (which I have curated here):

While I still began with a script, my approach differed this time around because I decided to begin the production process with a video track. I found I was seeking aesthetically more creative ways of bringing out observations through dissolves, superimpositions, and split-screens. I was attempting to reinvent my own videographic language and, by doing so, I had found a tone that engaged with Stanley Kubrick’s film on its own ambiguous terms.

The pioneering online video-essayist Kevin B. Lee writes of a similar transformation in his audiovisual essay work, this time because of a video he made four months prior to The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots (which is the work of his I have chosen to showcase here):

[It was] a critical homage to Harun Farocki titled Interface 2.0 […]. At this time I had been making video essays for five years, mostly amounting to cinephile appreciations of different aspects of canonical films and filmmakers. Engaging with Farocki’s acutely observant, systematic yet poetic approach to analyzing images engendered new priorities in my own work.

If, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, all criticism is an experiment on the work of art (Benjamin, 1919, cited by Hediger), then, as Umberto Eco puts it,

The poetics of the “work in movement” […] sets in motion […] a new mechanics of aesthetic perception […]. It poses new practical problems by organizing new communicative situations. In short, it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art. (Umberto Eco, 22-23)

For me, despite some small reservations about nomenclature, these experimental, indeed, at times transformational aspects of audiovisual research testify to the utility of retaining the notion of the “essay” in relation to it: while, as a noun, that term carries a (not always helpful) association with writing, as a verb it importantly conveys a sense of tentative exploration, of making attempts. This kind of essayistic open-mindedness ought to be as essential to the field of scientific realist explorations as it is to many forms of artistic or poetic practice. As Robert B. Ray writes,

If, instead of thinking about the avant-garde as only hermetic self-expression, we began to imagine it as a field of experimental work waiting to be used […], then, we might begin to apply certain avant-garde devices for the sake of knowledge. (Ray, 10)

Of course, not everyone is comfortable with academic work carried out in avant-garde, or “exploratory registers” or forms, as Jackie Stacey and Janet Wolff note in their recent collection Writing Otherwise But, in the UK, the country from which these authors and I write, there is a lively and relatively well established academic tradition of film research by audiovisual practice – and even a tradition of peer-reviewing that work for academic publication, often on the basis of similar criteria–say, originality, significance and rigor–as those used to judge written scholarship (see the peer-reviewed journal Screenworks for an influential example).

Partly because of this, a significant number of scholars cross over between writing and filmmaking in their academic work. This is certainly the case with Michael Chanan (author of the video I have curated for this issue on the films of the late Brazilian documentarist Eduardo Coutinho), even as he acknowledges that he is relatively new to the procedure of exclusively using extracts from the film work studied, especially in an unscripted context. As Chanan writes,

I confess I was not at all sure I could fashion these elements into a satisfactory whole. […] There is no argument being made, and there is no big story being told, only an accumulation of lots of little ones. A bit like the meandering temporality of free improvisation. I was surprised as the video came together that it took on the same feel. Even selecting the most telling clips, the material was diffuse and dispersed and yet refused to shed its particularity and individual identity. But this is exactly the world as Coutinho pictures it, and I remain happy at the thought that maybe this small digest of his films indeed manages to communicate something of the sentience of Coutinho’s filmic vision.

As Pam Cook argues, in relation to her own exploration of videographic film and television studies (which I have chosen to represent in this issue with her very concise but potent video Mildred's Kiss), audiovisual work can produce

a ‘writerly’ experience à la Roland Barthes in which viewers / readers / essayists generate their own meanings. The video essay constitutes an event; it transforms existing material to fashion an open-ended process of re-reading and re-writing.

For me, one of the most compelling demonstrations of the full potential of this kind of videographic open work is my favorite video essay: Christian Keathley’s 50 Years On. This is not the first time I have curated it: I did so at my blog just over three years ago shortly after the video went public online. If I look back at the note I wrote then, I see that, much as I appreciated it straightaway, the unusual form of this essay made me anxious to situate its meaning within its verbal film studies thread. My first impressions weren’t inapt. In holding onto them quite so tightly, though, I believe I closed the work down. I wrote:

[50 Years On] beautifully posits and explores the idea of two different viewing strategies in the cinema: what Keathley calls a "literate" mode in which "a single-minded gaze is directed toward the obvious [cinematic] figure on offer" on the screen; and a "non-literate" mode, less narrowly focused, roaming instead "over the frame, sensitive to its textures and surfaces".

But it isn’t Keathley who directly names anything in this video – even though he performs the voice over. He–the video–works instead through citing and siting: interspersing, in surprising ways, black screens with fragments from favorite film sequences and beloved accounts of cinema from a range of writers and filmmakers, withholding their sources and identities until the end. A regular editing rhythm is established, then, as soon as we begin to rely on its rules, it is modulated. The visual track similarly shifts between: plungings into darkness; flashings of light; dense textures; the interval of a blink; space for searching looks over staging in depth; foregrounding; surfaces; figures moving quickly, singly, in crowds; meanderings and stillness. We experience modernity, anachronism, synchronicity, asynchrony.

Above all, 50 Years On is an essay film about cinephilia. It is successful as an experimental adaptation of, or supplement to Keathley’s influential 2005 book, Cinephilia and History, Or the Wind in the Trees – performing the function, in my view, of a (concise) audiovisual Passagenwerk of personal and collective film history. It also stands alone. I watch it quite often and it has become as cherished an object as any of my favorite (cultural or intellectual) things. I find I am still curious about it, and gripped by its thrilling and insightful cinematic expedition through the terror of the unfamiliar to the comfort and, at times, pleasure of the familiar – and the other way around, too. But, almost unbelievably, one of the last things I really noticed about how the video works turns on one of my favorite things in it: a favorite song, from a favorite film scene. The soundtrack throughout is provided by John Coltrane’s jazz recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). In that film, this is the song Maria (Julie Andrews) comes up with to settle the children’s terror about the storm – it’s a hymn to, and performance of, the powerful effect of distraction, and the reassurance of immersion in (memories of) comforting objects when faced with anxiety. In using Coltrane’s improvised version, with its “quality of something so recognizable being edged toward unrecognizability (without falling into it)”, as Keathley puts it in his fascinating account of the video’s making, 50 Years On becomes an exploration of how cinema does and doesn’t comfort us. How the contract we buy into when we begin to watch a film involves us sort of knowing where it will take us, and not knowing at all, but going (or not) with the flow, relying on our curiosity and our senses to make our way. In the first (fruitily) spoken words of the video (“I am told […] that you have some views for sale”) I am now reminded of Steve Neale’s brilliant insight in his 1980 BFI booklet on Genre: “What the consumer buys at the box office isn’t a film as such, but the right to view a film […] a process not a product.” (54) The video and its music (like the cinema) create a reflexive container, or frame, for this experiential process, for its anxieties as well as its pleasures – a more or less safe, but usually exciting ride.

There are many more things I could write about 50 Years On, about its intertextuality with film studies, or about the new things it makes me think and feel. It is a video in which formal and semantic complexity are held in communicative balance throughout. It also helps me to understand deeply what Cristina Álvarez and Adrian Martin mean when they write of their own audiovisual essay editing process:

Every element we pluck out has many simultaneous levels, and multiple channels or tracks. When we confront any two elements, we are confronting two heterogeneous, internally multiple blocks. Montage means – and every editor knows this intuitively – finding which channels or tracks across these two pieces can be connected in some way, creating a ‘through line’, a passage or movement.

It is as if editing is all about, at heart, finding a means to ‘turn down the volume’ on some of the channels of a fragment, while simultaneously upping the volume on those that are important for you – and then forging that connection in the cut, making the channel flow on and forward a little more. (Álvarez and Martin, 2014)

Improvisational making and open-ended reading may make us more anxious than research in a more conventional, explanatory, demonstrative mode does, especially when we have to evaluate it as part of a publication process. However, as I noted in a recent interview about [in]Transition and videographic studies (alongside my co-editors Drew Morton and Christian Keathley for the Aca-Media podcast [2014C]), we should really have more confidence in our form (the audiovisual), and in our knowledge of it and of how it works, even as we undoubtedly have a great deal more to learn about it. Videographic film and moving image studies may not be for everyone. But rigor is not only demonstrated by footnotes, or length, or by the other conventional signifiers of “quality” in written scholarly work; it is equally visible (and audible) in capable and effective handling of audiovisual material and procedures, in thoroughgoing and thoughtful approaches to videographic research. Illuminating audiovisual accounts and arguments can be vertical as well as horizontal, associative and poetic as well as linear, as Maya Deren might have put it (1953; Zera, 2013). Or, as Martin Heidegger might have said, new knowledge, new thinking, can be meditative and material as well as explanatory and calculative (1966: 47; Grant, 2014A).

Videos curated by Catherine Grant

Other entries at [in]Transition 1.3, 2014

Works Cited


Cristina Álvarez López's picture

The Role of Montage

Thanks, Katie, for your wonderful introduction and for the variety of videos curated here which, I think, gives a very exciting view of the possibilities and many different approaches that audiovisual essay can take/adopt. I feel your comment in your last paragraph is especially important, because while explanatory audiovisual essays are more easily accepted as scholarly, and probably pose (at least apparently) less difficulty in terms of evaluating them, the more poetical and experimental approaches are also, as you defend, producing knowledge about films. And I think it’s important to not underestimate this: to see how montage, in all its forms and particularities, works in the production of this knowledge. This is also true for the more explanatory audiovisual essays where, I believe, it is even easier to overlook the role of editing, precisely because the main argument usually comes from the written/spoken text. But even when written/spoken text plays a prominent role, we shouldn’t forget that this is only one of the many elements that can be involved in the creation of these pieces, no matter which side of the spectrum they belong to. I think that, for instance, Pam Cook’s ‘Mildred’s Kiss’ is a very good example of this: the quotation from the novel plays an essential role, but equally essential is the way that this quotation is layered (in terms of rhythm, time, composition), and the way it interplays with the images, sounds and music of the original film.
Adrian Martin's picture

Beyond Alienation

Katie, thanks for a fantastic and passionate intro to this issue; we all stand under your umbrella, as it were! One small comment, about what you term “capable and effective handling of audiovisual material and procedures”. This triggered for me a memory, and a realisation of one important ‘step’ I personally took into the fully audiovisual realm: let us bear in mind that, during the working lives of most film/media academics, they have been put into (and often come to unconsciously accept) a position of total alienation in relation to how their written words will ‘interface’ with any ‘audiovisual material and procedures’. What I refer to is simply this: for most of my writing life, I have had nothing to do with choice of images ‘illustrating’ my text, their layout or captioning: that was the responsibility of the editors, and I usually left it to them; even when my opinion was sought (mostly ‘where can we source some images?’), I knew I had no real ‘say’ in their final selection and presentation. This has bred some truly bad habits in academics: they’re not thinking, from the outset, about visuality, graphic presentation, and so on - and we see this clearly in their conference presentations, often! Now, I am talking about a pre-Internet culture, and for some practitioners of film analysis, nothing much has changed with Internet culture: academic journals rarely use images and, when they do, they tend to be the same old useless ‘production stills’ that Godard so mercilessly mocked back in the late 1970s: idiotic non-images to remind us (as he drolly puts it) which film we blind fools are talking about! However, in my own history, the big difference came with simple screenshot technology: suddenly, I could pick my own images to interact with my text (and I had to really think about what that means, in terms of text/image economy, which many people do not yet do) - and, at least in some instances of digital publishing, I can easily persuade my editor (who is sometimes myself!) to actually use them (and I can easily enter into a dialogue as to how they will be graphically presented and laid-out). So, in my case, the ‘leap’ into the Audiovisual Essay began with the modest finger-click of my first screenshot!!
Pam Cook's picture

Transtextual encounters

A wonderfully thought-provoking collection and intro Katie! I’m struck by the diversity (in terms of concept, approach and execution) of these examples of new audiovisual research and, above all, by the creativity and technical ingenuity of the videographers. It’s exciting and inspiring to witness these imaginative encounters with audiovisual texts, images and scholarly writing. So much thought, care and passion, based on knowledge and experience of the history of moving image studies, has been lavished to produce personal reflections that also contribute new ideas to research and teaching. For me, all the essays employ a sophisticated understanding of transtextual/transmedia relationships - some in the interests of formal analysis (Keathley, Lee), others to bring together different media to explore wider issues (Morton, Chanan) - and all shed light on those relationships as well as their own aesthetic strategies. As Cristina suggests in her comment, poetic reflection, the juxtaposition of unfamiliar ideas and material, can play a significant role in academic scholarship. I believe work like this has the potential to re-energise and re-imagine moving image culture.