by Jason Mittell — Middlebury College
March 18, 2016 – 06:56
This video was born in the gap between a book and a film, much as the film Adaptation. itself straddles such a gap. The film portrays the struggles of a screenwriter to adapt a book into a film, and Adaptation. itself appears to be the product of that fraught process of adaptation. My own situation writing a book about a film is thankfully far less dire and hopefully has a less tumultuous third act. But like Charlie Kaufman, I too am a writer working off of source material and struggling to express certain ideas; as a result, I too turn inward toward the meta.
My book is about the film Adaptation. and its relation to narrative theory. This is mostly a straightforward endeavor, as I know the various theories I’m exploring quite well and see their usefulness in analyzing the film. However, I have more to say about Adaptation. than can fit in the book’s confines. Specifically, two minor but seemingly significant elements of the film cannot be illuminated by narrative theory. In fact, these moments are hard to write about at all, as they bely clear explanation and confound the normally rational argumentation of academic writing.
The scholarship that comes closest to shining a light on these moments is Mikhail Iampolski’s work on intertextuality, especially his theorization of the anomaly as the textual fragment that forces “the reader to seek its motivation in some other logic or explanatory cause outside the text” and into the realm of intertextuality (30). But such exploration requires a different type of rhetoric than I am used to employing, embracing a tone of playfulness, uncertainty, and ambiguity that feels foreign to me via the written word.
Thus I turned back to the film itself, as Adaptation. exemplifies such a tone as it becomes increasingly more reflexive and self-obsessed as its narrative unspools. Using the film’s own sounds and images seemed like a more productive rhetorical mode to explore its anomalies than academic writing, allowing a parallelism between object and analysis that echoes the film’s inherent reflexivity. Likewise, Adaptation. uses voiceover as a key element of both narrative and theme, decentering viewers from a position of authority even as it seems to provide direct access to Kaufman’s inner life. My own voiceover takes inspiration from the film, purposely leaving it unclear exactly how much I mean what I’m saying—if Kaufman serves, at least in part, as an unreliable narrator, perhaps I stand as an unreliable critic.
That being said, this video is not offered as a “fake” analysis. I believe it provides real insights into the film, albeit in unconventional ways. And as analysis, it speaks for itself.
Mikhail Iampolski, The Memory of Tiresias: Intertextuality and Film (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998), http://publishing.cdlib.org/ucpressebooks/view?docId=ft4779n9q5;brand=ucpress.
I am part of [in]Transition’s leadership team, serving as project manager for the journal on behalf of its publisher, MediaCommons. This submission fully followed the journal's transparent open peer review process, as included on the left. I am grateful to Kevin Ferguson and Adrian Martin for articulating things about the project that I had not perceived myself.
This video was produced out of the “Scholarship in Sound and Image” workshop at Middlebury College, June 2015, as funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities Office of Digital Humanities. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.
Jason Mittell is Professor of Film & Media Culture and American Studies, and Faculty Director of the Digital Liberal Arts Initiative at Middlebury College. He is the author of Genre & Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge, 2004), Television & American Culture (Oxford UP, 2009), Complex Television: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press, 2015), and co-editor of How to Watch Television (NYU Press, 2013). He co-convened the 2015 NEH-funded workshop, "Scholarship in Sound and Image."