Lizard Train

Curator's Note

I have a theory that the best gialli create a logical problem around the limits of knowledge by pitting cognitive understanding against dream intuition. Characters struggle to understand a mystery that they have already intuitively solved and the giallo highlights their failing efforts to use objective knowledge borrowed from scientific or police work. Our novice detectives ratiocinate like Auguste Dupin, only realizing (occasionally too late) that they are not in a Poe short story and that they should have trusted their irrational dream knowledge all along.

Thus, in A Lizard in a Woman’s Skin (1971), Lucio Fulci juxtaposes mechanical, objective knowledge (police’s projectors, photographer’s special camera flashes, and psychoanalyst’s microphones) with intuitive, dream knowledge (the train sequence that begins the film by projecting the viewer into our protagonist’s anxious psyche). This film is organized to teach a lesson about using the wrong kind of mechanical knowledge to try to come to the “realization” of what was already intuitively known.

This was brought to mind after watching Catherine Grant’s pulsing Carnal Locomotive (2015), which explores the haptic possibilities of rhythmic “groove” as a video-critical strategy by way of a train sequence fromLe Jour et l’heure (René Clément, 1963), suggested to her by film critic David Cairns. In her reflective essay, Grant describes the decision to explore the phenomenology of embodiment through videographic criticism, using the very frame I described of the giallo: because she “did not know what [she] was going to say… ; [she] just began with (bodily) feelings and only the merest hint of a (cognitive) hunch.”

Is this not the most proper direction for the contemporary scholarly video essay, an audiovisual genre still working to find its best means of knowledge discovery, production, and general mystery-unearthing beyond the shadow of the traditional written essay? Further, I argue, the sub-category of what Jason Mittell and Chris Keathley have called the “videographic epigraph” (which “requires noticeably altering the video, manipulating or replacing the soundtrack, and featuring a quotation from a work of criticism or theory via onscreen text”) in particular raises the same knowledge problem that the giallo does: do we trust what we see, hear, and feel, or do we trust what we read? Because the videographic epigraph foregrounds the problem of the relationship of text to image and sound, it embodies the dissonance between bodily feelings and cognitive hunches which I identify in the giallo and Grant’s work. In this reading, then, the form of the videographic epigraph itself questions the idea that argumentation in videographic work requires text that is consonant with or explanatory of audiovisual material (including even this research statement).

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This is one way I understand my reviewers’ dissatisfaction with an earlier draft of Lizard Train.

In her helpful review of my work, Tracy Cox-Stanton suggested I select different quotations that would more clearly convey the argument that was better articulated in my research statement. I initially justified my choices by writing:

The quotations I chose push against Grant’s juxtaposition of bodily feeling and cognitive hunch as mutual actors: Artaud suggests that the organ-ization of the body is responsible for those “automatic reactions” keeping one from true freedom. The inside out frenzy of dance halls, our heroines’ panic of pushing through a crowded corridor, suggests a productive alternative to a repressive, organized cognitive experience. Likewise, Barthes suggests that duration, the central filmic quality I borrow from Grant, is what paradoxically transforms voyeurism into something more embarrassing than provocative. Slow motion calls attention to bodily spectacle, advertising and thus exorcising any performative shock.

However, in truth I really wanted to make this video more like a giallo, where objective knowledge (in this case, text used to explain audiovisual material) is by itself insufficient alongside intuitive knowledge. In other words: I wanted to resist using quotation as an explanatory element superior to the audiovisual material and hoped to structure the quotations as a series of pulsing fragmented clues rather than as a solution to an intellectual puzzle.

The larger question this raised was: how can one use text in videographic work without the need to include additional extra-videographic paratext to account for that text? And how to do that if, like Grant, one is compelled to explore videographic work “in the mode that Walter Benjamin describes as ‘criticism’—that is to say, by performing ‘an experiment on the work of art itself’”? Thus, I was pleased in a way that Adam Hart in his review was compelled to seek out the un-fragmented quotations for clarification. Given the duration of quotation in Grant’s and my work—that it takes so long to get to the end of the sentence—the textual phrases at any moment take on something of the quality of gnomic captions one might find in advertising.

131 words in 5 and half minutes, 24 words per minute: far below the average of 200 words per minute for average readers.

This is no way at all to read a sentence for meaning and does not match the typical experience of reading texts onscreen or in print. By intentionally making quotation more difficult to understand in its entirety, pulsing videographic epigraphs like mine and Grant’s work against the indexicality of scholarly sources. Like the giallo hero who scrutinizes each new clue in isolation, trying to read these four sentences two or three words at a time counteracts the way that sentences make sense. The exaggeratedly oppressive duration of textual striptease renders the epigraph as strange as the manipulated film.

What the videographic epigraph requires, before anything, is a decision about the relationship between the alphabetic and the audiovisual; the default is a logocentrism that puts text in an objective, explanatory position over whatever else is seen, heard, or felt: in terms of the giallo, privileging the cognitive over the intuitive.

I start to quote to support this claim—Barthes’s well-worn “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author”—but it is here, in this analytical moment, that I awake stuck in a giallo: using the mechanical knowledge of videographic criticism to reveal an intuitive knowledge already felt.

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Presented are an original “dream intuition” draft and a “reviewer’s cut” which emphasizes “cognitive understanding.” The latter has different quotations (Deep Red and Freud), different text-image interaction (subtitle-styling and then a quadrant pattern), different pacing (quotations displayed at uniform lengths), but the same image and soundtrack.

 

References

 

Roland Barthes, “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 142–8.

David Cairns, “Shakes on a Plane,” Shadowplay, February 4, 2015. Accessed November 20, 2016. https://dcairns.wordpress.com/2015/02/04/shakes-on-a-train/.

Kevin L. Ferguson, “What is the Giallo about?,” Typecast, October 27, 2012. Accessed November 20, 2016. http://typecast.qwriting.qc.cuny.edu/2012/10/27/what-is-the-giallo-about/.

Catherine Grant, “Film studies in the groove? Rhythmising perception in Carnal Locomotive,” NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Spring 2015. http://www.necsus-ejms.org/film-studies-in-the-groove-rhythmising-perception-in-carnal-locomotive/.

Jason Mittell, “Making Videographic Criticism,” JustTV, July 1, 2015. Accessed July 15, 2017. https://justtv.wordpress.com/2015/07/01/making-videographic-criticism/.

 

The author

Kevin L. Ferguson is assistant professor of English at Queens College, City University of New York. He teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on digital humanities, college writing, contemporary literature, and film adaptation. His film writing has appeared in Bright Lights Film JournalCamera ObscuraCinema Journal, Jump CutScopeThe Journal of Medical HumanitiesCriticism, and Digital Humanities Quarterly. His book, Eighties People: A Cultural History of a Decade (Palgrave 2016), examines cultural strategies for fashioning self-knowledge in the American 1980s.