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Frame grab from LE SILENCE DE LA MER (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949)
Thanks Ian and Christian, happy to hear that you found this exercise an interesting one to propose to your students. First, allow me to clarify something: what we proposed in class was a work of condensation of one idea/aspect of the films; then it was Henrike who, for her essay, chose to concentrate on the spatial aspect of ‘Alphaville’, which I think proved especially inspiring in her case. I completely agree with Christian that exercises which have limited and defined parameters help the students to focus on specific elements, and to notice things that usually go overlooked. Concerning the two observations made by Ian: when I wrote about Le silence de la mer, I already explored somewhat these ‘small gestures’ in the film; I mainly discussed three scenes where the hand gestures were especially powerful, because they were not so fragmented and isolated as in other parts (and I extracted three clips of these scenes without re-editing them, just to accompany my written discussion). However, the ‘small gestures’ were not the sole focus of my text, just one aspect of it. I was so fascinated by these gestures that I maintained the idea of coming back to them. The ‘small gestures’ idea may seem very vast but, in fact, I was specifically searching for gestures that expressed something about the characters’ feelings in a film which is, in this sense, very constrained. However, when I began to do this research, I arrived at more than 50 fragments that were meaningful in one way or another. As happened to you with some of the Hoagy Carmichael shots, some of these fragments were noticed only while I was researching with a specific purpose – I didn’t remember them from my previous viewings. I knew beforehand thatbI couldn’t use everything but, in a project like this, where there’s only one film involved and a very specific idea of departure, I prefer to have all these clips and maybe finally not use some, rather than miss them later. In ideal conditions, I very much like to work this way: collecting as much as I can (if it fits my approach, of course), and only deciding what to keep and what to leave once I am constructing the piece. This method gives me more room to play and experiment. It usually happens to me that fragments which look very useful finally do not work so well; while others that I was more dubious about finally fit very well. But many of these things I only discover by trying them out. For instance, there was a shot I really loved: we see the three characters framed in a strange way, only a part of their bodies is in the image, but what we do see in the shot is their hands. For me, this was a great ‘compositional gesture’ (by keeping only the hands in the shot, it is as if Melville was telling us: look what the actors do with their hands to understand what’s going on). However, as much as I loved this shot, and as sure as I was that it would be great in the piece, I had to decide to leave it aside – because I couldn’t make it work. On the other hand, my main audio track, the ‘Beauty and the Beast’ tale, was something that I found thanks to this process of openness. I did clearly remember the scene, but it never came to my mind to use it; the idea was one of those moments of illumination prompted by an association. About your other observation, I also think that there should be a traceable relation between the idea that prompts the research and the final concept of the piece. However, I also think that, many times, when you begin to work, you may expand, modify or even change your initial idea. For us, all this is good and part of the process; we have allowed students to change their first idea if they feel compelled to do so. Another problem can come when the initial idea is presented as a statement that later reveals itself as ‘unsustainable’ or ‘un-do-able’ audiovisually. That’s why we think that, to avoid this, especially in the kind of more experimental exercises that we propose, to express your idea more as an ‘exploration’ than as a ‘formed thesis’ is, whenever possible, more advisable.
Frame grab from CHASING SLEEP (Michael Walker, 2001)
Ian Garwood
Thank you, Miklos, for addressing, in such a direct and informed manner, the possibility for the audiovisual essay to assume a form that is ‘compatible’ with more traditional forms of scholarship, whilst also possessing unique characteristics. The essay you have curated answers one of the questions in my piece: whether the audiovisual essay is suited to the exploration and quotation of other critics’ views, in the manner common to the written academic essay? Thomas’ video does this very extensively and I will certainly use it in class as an example of how text can be used to represent other writers’ ideas.
Frame grab from CHASING SLEEP (Michael Walker, 2001)
Ian Garwood
[contd.] I really like the frequent attention to the context of the classroom across the writing curated for this edition. It seems to me that quite different values underpin the kind of scholarly work evidenced by Thomas’ example and those curated by Cristina. In particular, the notion of ‘researching by audiovisual essay’ seems a less evident part of the process in Thomas’ case, whilst the desire to produce a stand-alone piece seems a lesser motivation in Cristina’s case (by this I do not mean the work of Cristina and her student does not work in its own right, but rather that the viewer would need to have a prior knowledge of Alphaville or Le Silence de la Mer to understand how the video essays relate to them - is that a contentious point?). The differences of approaches highlighted here does underline to me the importance of establishing criteria suitable for particular contexts, so this is all very useful as I embark on writing the guidelines for my new course!
Frame grab from LE SILENCE DE LA MER (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949)
Christian Keathley
Let me second Ian’s point that this sounds like a wonderful exercise for students. I have twice taught a course on videographic film studies and am always on the lookout for exercises that can get the students working with their film — especially exercises that have clear and limiting parameters, and that emphasize formal properties. At their best, such assignments encourage makers to approach their objects of study in ways they hadn’t planned to, and that’s went surprise and invention happen. Next summer, Jason Mittell and I are hosting an NEH sponsored workshop on videographic film production here at Middlebury College (more details about this soon!). I’ve already made the note to work this spatial condensation approach into our lesson plan. Thanks!
Frame grab from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (Howard Hawks, 1944)
Ian Garwood
Thank you very much for these comments, Adrian and Kevin. After Adrian mentioned Martin Scorsese’s Personal Journey through American Cinema, I started re-watching it, precisely to see how clips had been re-edited and how the voiceover was choreographed with them. I haven’t reviewed all of the documentary, but what strikes me is the general tendency to talk alongside the clip rather than engage with specific details - the clips are used representatively rather than broken down on a moment-by-moment level. I do think there is something about the short form of the audiovisual essay, of the kind hosted on Audiovisualcy, for example, that lends itself well to a more intensive form of close film analysis. Having said that, I’m sure there will be examples of long-form work that engages consistently with the details of moments, managing to combine breadth of reference with analytical depth (in fact, the films of Mark Cousins come to mind as I write this). However, there might still be something unique about the experience of seeing a moment returned to ‘obsessively’ in a compressed amount of time.
Frame grab from LE SILENCE DE LA MER (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1949)
Ian Garwood
Thank you very much for this, Cristina. I am about to teach a course on the audiovisual essay for the first time, so, apart from anything else, the exercise you describe here has given me a good example of the kind of thing I could do with my students! I appreciate the clear distinction you make between doing research for the audiovisual essay and doing research by it. This complements very usefully the two-step research process Adrian outlines in his article. I have an observation about each of the research phases you identify. You note that, upon reviewing the film with the audiovisual essay in mind, you noticed a lot more small gestures than you had anticipated - despite all the previous work you had done on the film. I had the same experience when making my essay on Hoagy Carmichael - I wonder if knowing that the audiovisual essay is going to be composed by the object of study’s images and sounds encourages a more intensive scrutiny in this research phase? For example, it was only when annotating To Have and Have Not for my video essay that I noticed that Cricket (Carmichael) crept into the frame in the shot that I use to introduce him in my essay; and I hadn’t noticed previously that he throws a glance at Harry and Slim whilst noodling away on the piano behind them during their ‘break-up’ scene (and, for me, this is the ‘clinching’ detail that helps supports my reading of his role in the video essay). There is a question, however, of where this scrutinising process should stop - I would imagine that, particularly when you are looking out for small gestures, the potential range of material you could annotate becomes vast. I expect the intuition that leads you to look for such material in the first place becomes important in helping you remain selective, at the same time you remain open to being surprised by what you find? In terms of researching by the audiovisual essay, I agree the ‘renewed encounter’ that the editing process brings is an exciting and rewarding one. It is also one that could move the project so far away from the initial idea that inspired it that the link between original idea and concept becomes lost. I only see this as a ‘problem’ in certain contexts, albeit ones that are most relevant to me now, as I set about teaching my audiovisual essay course for the first time - in that context it might be expected that the relationship constructed between audiovisual materials in the video essay can be traced back somehow to the ‘research idea’ the student came up with in the first place (an idea that is based on a critical engagement with the details of a particular film). I guess that’s where I have to be careful about the brief for each exercise and the criteria on which the finished product is being judged!
Frame grab from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (Howard Hawks, 1944)
Kevin Lee
I am extremely appreciative of this essay’s sensitivity and attentiveness to what can be described as the ethical implications of this sort of video essay work and its relationship to its source materials. It’s a fascinating paradox that, on the one hand, videographic techniques allow us to directly “quote” or represent the media in question, offering a kind of direct engagement that is more vivid and even “authentic” than textual descriptions or citations… and yet your meticulous account casts aspersions on such notions and raises a heightened awareness of how someone practicing this work should not take their interpolations for granted, especially if it is to be valued as scholarship. Thank you.
Frame grab from CHASING SLEEP (Michael Walker, 2001)
Miklos Kiss
Thanks Adrian for your important remark. I don’t think (or safer to say, I don’t know) that the videographic format fits better to certain academic approaches while it is less suitable for others. What I believe is that among the many possible advantageous uses (ranging from implied experimental illustrations to more persuasive modes of address), the thesis-driven argumentative style can certainly benefit from the accompanying AV track, which offers a kind of clear-cut but certainly immediate evidence to the reasoning at hand, something that is unfeasible in textual form (this multimedia deficit of the written text might be responsible for writers’ straying arguments…). As for how to do this, that is how to find a lucid balance between a rather dense academic address and the AV format’s multichannel information load is another question. I like how Drew Morton makes this challenge sound easy: “the artist needs to adapt his or her prose to the medium, away from academic prose and towards the aural friendly. That is not to say the academic visual essay avoids engaging in the theoretical; it simply engages in the theoretical in a more accessible and concise fashion.” :)
Frame grab from CHASING SLEEP (Michael Walker, 2001)
Adrian Martin
Thank you for your thoughtful presentation of Thomas van den Berg’s interesting and accomplished work, Miklos (it certainly makes me want to seek out the little-known CHASING SLEEP, that I had never heard of previously!). One thought out of many which are swimming through my mind after reading your piece: might it be the case that the audiovisual essay form is not so suited to particular types of academic arguments that are highly conceptual/abstract/philosophical - and is better suited to (for want of a better word) ‘assertive’ arguments that have more to do with showing (or, at least, suggesting) connections through ‘evidence’? I ponder this because I have noticed, for example, that certain ‘conditional’ turns of phrase, which are very common in academic writing - such as ‘if it is true that X, then it follows that Y …’ - cannot readily or easily be ‘illustrated’ in a montage of images and sounds (if that is what one is seeking to do), and simply ‘reading out’ conceptual formulations like this on the soundtrack can be more confusing than helpful to the viewer/listener (this is something I learnt while writing and delivering radio scripts about film subjects, which also tend to the ‘telegrammatic’ and the assertive, rather than typically literary baroque expression and conceptualisation). Just a thought, I will be interested to get your reaction. Thanks again for your piece & curation.
Frame grab from TO HAVE AND HAVE NOT (Howard Hawks, 1944)
Adrian Martin
Many thanks for your article, Ian, it is super-interesting and illuminating, and resonates with many of the experiences Cristina Álvarez and I have had in working with re-editing films and (most recently) using voice-over. It occurs to me that it would be interesting to look at the most sophisticated examples of TV and documentary work on films & filmmakers (a large tradition which can be seen as another precursor of the audiovisual essay) to gauge how they deal with such re-writing and re-editing, as they surely have done and do all the time. I came upon an interview with the (sadly recently deceased) great critic Michael Henry Wilson, co-director of Scorsese’s PERSONAL JOURNEY THROUGH AMERICAN CINEMA (and their now unfinished British Cinema companion), and he verifies this: he says, working in tandem with editor Thelma Schoonmaker as she cut/reworked the ‘quoted’ clips, he would ‘rewrite the narration up to 20 times to make it fit the image exactly’ (French original is here: http://www.dvdclassik.com/article/interview-carriere-de-michael-henry-wi...) - which he describes as ‘truly surgical work’! Of course, to many viewers, this work would be basically invisible, they see only the end result - which is why your piece is so valuable, in taking us ‘behind the scenes’ of the reworking process. Thanks again.