Frames of Mind

Curator's Note

A Case for Writing Visually
In making Frames of Mind, our chief goal was “to write” an audio-visual essay that stands on its own. Frames of Mind therefore aspires to the ideal condition of needing no accompanying written text. Indeed, a video essay of the argumentative/expository kind such as ours should speak for itself, not unlike a written essay. Academic videography being in its infancy, however, it may be helpful to provide the user of Frames of Mind with some contextual information and reflections.
1. Our approach to creating Frames of Mind was greatly influenced by our respective roles in education. We were in search of an academic exercise that would invigorate two conventions of cinema studies. Our solution came in the form of a video essay. Frames of Mind is a seamless collaboration between film history/theory and video production. Here is a negotiation of two pervasive traditions, one invested in text and the other in the creation of image/sound. Both forms tell a story of research and intellectual exploration, but — in the case of our visual essay — one form is not distinguishable from the other. The two methods of cinematic investigation are completely infused as a single intellectual entity. This involved a good deal of taking apart and putting back together. Our process began as it usually does: with viewing. Research and conversation ensued, forming the basis of our written text: the script. This was the document that gave visual elements their scaffolding. Then, the process went back and forth between word and vision until these two components unified harmoniously.
2. In our search for an academic exercise, pedagogical concerns always took center stage. With Frames of Mind, we wished to encourage students to combine their observations on any thematic or formal element with an informed, well-researched attempt at squeezing some theoretical juice from such observations. Let us say we wanted to give our students this little speech: “Did you notice a lot of door shots in Rome Open City? Very well. So what? Stringing them all together might be a first step, but more is needed. A viewer’s digest of intriguing gestures and memorable signifiers is not all a video essay can accomplish. So, try to see what criticism and theory have done with your film/group of films (as you would writing a paper), and then dare formulating a hypothesis. Verify the extent to which a film is a form that thinks.”
3. We chose Rome Open City for a variety of reasons. Its director, Roberto Rossellini, was singled out by the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma as a milestone on the path towards modern cinema’s essayistic tendencies. Speaking of Voyage to Italy (1953), Jacques Rivette’s 1955 “Letter on Rossellini” argued that “the film opens a breach,” and “with absolute lucidity, at last offers the cinema, hitherto condemned to narrative, the possibility of the essay.” [1] Thus, on the one hand we wanted to show that already in Rome Open City, enmeshed as this film was in melodrama, Rossellini’s cinema was a cinema of ideas (focused on opening breaches); on the other, choosing a film of this kind would facilitate our task of showing to our students how film is a form that thinks.
Furthermore, Rome Open City is a canonical text in the history of the medium, has been subjected to contested readings, and has a somewhat ambiguous relationship to one of the film movements that allegedly revolutionized postwar filmmaking. To the best of our knowledge, the door subtext has been mentioned, somewhat in passing, only by Cristopher Wagstaff’s definitive study [2]:
Apart from the SS round-up at the apartment building and the torture scene in Via Tasso, the rest of the film mainly consists of people coming in (or going out) through doorways: this is how scenes of dialogue are endowed with dynamism, and because of this there are only two temps morts in the film: the dialogue between Pina and Francesco, and the first minute-long shot of Marina in her dressing room.
By producing a relatively fresh look at Rossellini’s film and its relationship with neorealism, Frames of Mind strives to prove that videography can be used to revisit films as thoroughly combed over as Rome Open City and continue to reframe their significance.
4. Recycling Benjamin’s “optical unconscious” seemed to us important not only to give students a captivating catchphrase and implicitly demonstrate the power of analogical thinking at its best, but also to put what we call ‘liquid theorizing’ on the map. All discussion about videography’s use and potential must confront the thorny question of the relationship between thought and image. In Rome Open City, mise-en-scène and framing, spatial arrangements and graphic blocking, they all construct an argument that resonates with a lot of Marx-influenced theorizing, from Benjamin (and the Frankfurt School) through John Berger’s Ways of Seeing to Pierre Bourdieu’s La Distinction.
5. In a teaching dossier on the video essay [3], the following questions were raised: “What are the pedagogical benefits of video essays compared to paper writing assignments? (…) What equivalencies can be established between a research paper and a video essay, in terms of length, composition, and academic rigor?” Among other things, Frames of Mind is also our attempt to visualize and demonstrate an answer to these pressing questions.
[1] Rivette’s letter originally appeared in Cahiers du Cinéma, n.46, April 1955. Here we are using Tom Milne’s translation in Rivette: Texts and Interviews, London, BFI, 1977, pp.54-64, now to be found at http://www.dvdbeaver.com/rivette/ok/letteronrossellini.html.
[2] Italian Neorealist Cinema: An Aesthetic Approach, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2007, p. 115.
[3] http://www.teachingmedia.org/the-video-essay-assignment-cinema-journal-teaching-dossier-vol-12/