The Definition of Film
by Richard Misek — University of Kent
May 18, 2015 – 04:36
By Richard Misek
This video is a response to Justin Remes’s article ‘Boundless Ontologies: Michael Snow, Wittgenstein, and the Textual Film’, in the current issue of Cinema Journal [i]. The article explores the particular phenomenon within experimental film history of ‘textual’ films – films whose images focus on the written word. Using Michael Snow’s So Is This (1982) as his main exemplar, Remes discusses how textual films play with language and with the very concept of film.
I’ve read the article several times now, and – as with all the best academic writing – have found it to inspire new questions on each reading. One question in particular that it has inspired me first to ask, and then (through this video) to try to answer, is: what precisely, or even imprecisely, does the word ‘film’ refer to? Watching Snow’s idiosyncratic fusion of cinema, graphic design, and word game, it’s hard not to agree with Remes that, ‘[i]n the post-Wittgensteinian universe that Snow inhabits, neither words nor films have single fixed meanings, functions, or essences – rather, concepts are fluid and in a state of continual flux.’
A current example of this semantic fluidity is the word ‘movie’. The word refers both to commercial feature films and to the digital files on which almost all films (and far more besides) now reside. Though an essentialist might regard this as a problem, for everyone else it barely registers. In any particular context, we understand what the word refers to not because of an ontologically-specific definition of ‘movie’ but because of its context.
Is ‘film’ a similarly amorphous word?
I think not – at least, not yet. This video outlines why, in my view, the word ‘film’ retains a certain definitional specificity. It does so through a combination of my own words and those of Hollis Frampton. Frampton was Snow’s contemporary in the American experimental film scene of the 1960s and 70s, and also made films that explored the written (and spoken) word. Though his themes were similar to Snow’s, his techniques were quite distinct. For example, one of Frampton’s recurrent techniques is that of structuring films around a disjunction. In Nostalgia (1971), the disjunction is between sound and image: nine images of photographs are accompanied by nine stories, each describing the image that will next appear on screen [ii]. In Poetic Justice (1972), the disjuntion is between the images in the film and those in our heads: handwritten on-screen text describes a series of scenes that become progressively more difficult for the viewer to visualise. Through such disjunctions, rather than creating an audiovisual harmony in which different stylistic elements (camerawork, editing, music, etc.) speak in one voice, Frampton puts different formal elements of his films into dialogue with each other. Sometimes these elements agree with each other, sometimes they don’t.
To my mind, Frampton’s and Snow’s films exist in a similar dialogue. Perhaps conscious of this affinity, in both Nostalgia and A Lecture (1968), Frampton got Snow to recite his text [iii]. Analogously, the video you are (I hope) about to watch explores the same themes as Remes, but approaches them using a different technique. It’s quite a wordy video, yet still nowhere near wordy enough to be able to respond to Remes’s superb analysis point by point [iv]. Nonetheless, I hope that in some ill-defined way, echoing Snow’s and Frampton’s films, it too may exist in dialogue with the article that inspired it.
[ii] For an extensive account of this common trope in experimental and art film, see Peter Wollen, “Mismatches of Sound and Image”, in Soundscape: The School of Sound Lectures 1998-2001, eds. Larry Sider, Diane Freeman, and Jerry Sider (London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2003).
[iii] A Lecture was presented at Hunter College, New York on October 30, 1968, and reprinted in The Avant-Garde Film: A Reader of Theory and Criticism, ed. P. Adams Sitney (New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1978), pp. 275-289. It’s a shame that Frampton never spoke the text in one of Snow’s own works in return. If he had, perhaps they could have swapped audio tracks and created a truly structuralist dialogue between their work.
[iv] For purely academic interest, this introduction to my video already features more words than the video itself.