Volume 1, Issue 11: Payne's Constraint
New Pod w/ Mittell & Keathley, New Issue of Tecmerin, Rappaport Streaming
In the first edition of this newsletter, I mentioned my desire to publish short essays by subscribers. I’m pleased to share what will hopefully be the first of many such contributions! If you’re interested in contributing an essay, email me at email@example.com. I’m eager to pass the mic to other videographic critics and am happy to talk through any ideas.
A PDF of Alan’s essay can be found here.
On Matt Payne’s ‘Who Ever Heard…?’
by Alan O’ Leary
I really enjoyed Matt Payne’s video essay ‘Who Ever Heard….?’ in the latest edition of [in]Transition (7:1 2020) and wanted to write about it for Will’s newsletter because I think the form of ‘Who Ever Heard….?’ can be useful for other practitioners. The video essay gave me particular pleasure because Matt and I were both part of the 2018 Scholarship in Sight and Sound workshop at Middlebury and it’s obvious to me how the aesthetic of the published piece, including its wit, has developed from the exercises Matt did at the workshop. Matt was already working at Middlebury with the looping and multiscreen (and humour) he has brought to such a high level of sophistication and effectiveness in ‘Who Ever Heard….?’.
In his creator statement, Matt talks of his goal being ‘to draw attention to genre repetition vis-à-vis editing repetition’ and ‘Who Ever Heard….?’ is constructed around sixteen looped 2” chunks from a scene from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (Ford, 1962). These sixteen looped chunks are organised in 6” units (3 x 2”) distributed across a nine-screen grid with special attention paid to the staggered superimposition of dialogue and other sound. Eight of the 6” units play just once; the rest are repeated from three to eighteen times. Here are the chunks, introduced in the sequence they appear in the video essay and numbered to correspond with the nine screens indicated in the annotated screen grab above.
1. Hallie’s rhetorical question, ‘Who ever heard of a man waiting tables?’, that gives the video essay its title and is for its creator ‘the piece’s sonic and rhythmic spine’. 6” unit plays 18 times.
2. Hand picks up whip handle and cracks it down on table. This sound is timed throughout to follow like an exclamation mark Hallie’s question in 1. In fact, while the volume of chunk 1 is reduced from 3 onwards in order to foreground dialogue or other sound as subsequent units are introduced, the volume of the whip sound is maintained as a pulse until the final seconds. This can be seen in the sonic picture of the video essay below in which the tall regular verticals represent the whip sound. Unit plays 16 times.
3a. Valence’s sarcastic ‘Look-eee at the new waitress!’. Again, this statement is introduced at relatively loud volume and then lowered once 4a comes in. As far as I can ascertain, this procedure (relatively louder volume → relatively lower volume) is repeated throughout, with the exception of 2. Unit plays 13 times.
4a. Valence trips Stoddard—sound of breaking crockery and jeering laughter from Valence’s hencemen. Along with 7a, this is one of two chunks that appear to be looped in reverse as well as forwards. (In effect, this makes of 4a two distinct 6” units that are ordered differently, with the second of the two beginning and ending with the reverse loop.) Unit plays 11 times.
5a. Doniphon: ‘That’s my steak Valance.’ Unit plays 9 times.
6a. Valence: ‘Three against one.’ Note how the strict 2” duration of the chunks means that sound can be overlaid in a musical and absurdist fashion, as in the superimposition of ‘Three against one’ onto ‘That’s my steak Valance’, which becomes ‘that’s-my-three-against-one’. Unit plays 7 times.
7a. Valence turns to/from Doniphon, a chunk that is looped in reverse as well as forwards. No discernible sound. Unit plays 5 times.
8a. Pompey cocks his rifle. The fast click-click-click-click of the mechanism is audible but almost subliminal. Unit plays 3 times.
9a. Doniphon kicks Valence’s henchman. Sound of kick and grunt of pain heard only three times as this is the first unit (3 x 2”-chunk) to play just once, replaced immediately by 9b. Unit plays once only.
9b. Doniphon to Valence in two-shot: ‘You pick it up’. Unit plays once only.
8b. Stoddard: ‘Picked up!’ Unit plays once only.
7b. Valence plus henchmen in group shot, Valence’s open-mouthed insolent/uncertain smile (possibly looped in reverse). No discernible sound. Unit plays once only.
6b. Doniphon in implied reverse shot (eyeline match). No discernible sound. Unit plays once only.
5b. Same framing as 7b. Valence’s ‘Fresh steak on me’—for Matt, in his creator statement, a ‘charged, erotic’ remark. Unit plays once only.
4b. Doniphon in implied reverse shot, similar but slightly closer framing than 6b, says ‘Just try it!’ in jokey implied response to 5b. By this point, the staggered cacophony has begun noticeably to thin. Unit plays once only.
3b. Valence hits henchman with whip handle as they make to leave and shouts ‘Get out!’ Unit plays once only.
Matt describes the video essay’s looping of 2” chunks ‘as a technical means of highlighting the kind of symbolic work that genres perform’. This seems to me persuasive, but I’m less interested here in Matt’s commentary on generic codes than in the form he has devised to expedite this commentary.
Let me contextualize and justify my emphasis on the form of Matt’s video essay in terms of the work of the French group of writers known as OuLiPo, short for Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (Workshop of Potential Literature). Founded in 1960 to invent new literary forms and to explore constraint-based approaches to composition, OuLiPo is an important point of reference for parametric, algorithmic and deformative approaches to videographic practice (Mittell 2019). The ‘potential’ in the group’s name refers to the fact that the members of OuLiPo, initially at least, were less interested in writing as such than they were in developing generative structures to enable writing. An example of the one of these is the cryptic fifteen-line poem form known as the ‘quennet’, named (by analogy with ‘sonnet’) for its inventor Raymond Queneau, one of OuLiPo’s co-founders. I won’t go into the specificities of the quennet here (see Burrow 2017 for a good description); the point is that the quennet form has been adopted (and adapted) after Queneau by several other poets. To some extent the ambiguous tone native to the quennet influences the ‘content’ of poems written in the form but in actuality the quennet has been put to quite diverse uses—a fine example is the ‘double quennet’ employed by Valérie Beaudouin to contrast the perspectives of patient and doctor in her ‘Body/Machine’.
In any case, what I want to suggest here is that one of the virtues of ‘Who Ever Heard…?’ is its provision of a form that, like the quennet, can be extracted and adopted for the work of other videographic practitioners. For me, ‘Who Ever Heard…?’ is an example of ‘potential videography’. It offers a form that can be put to many other uses even as its formal character—its use of repetition and its ‘Cubist’ faceting of space and time—will tend to influence the thrust of the analysis performed with it (but when is that not true of a methodology?).
I’m going to refer to the form that I extract from my analysis of ‘Who Ever Heard…?’ as ‘Payne’s Constraint’. This is a misnomer because the form is not a single constraint but really a set of constraints (actually, ‘set of constraints’ is a good definition of form); but I hope the internal /æ/ rhyme connotes a playfulness I wish to retain from Matt’s work.
So, what is Payne’s Constraint? Well, here are the sixteen chunk-units of ‘Who Ever Heard…?’ represented diagrammatically as if on an editing timeline, with each unit given its own ‘track’. As you can see, represented in this way the structure of the video essay is revealed as an inverted ziggurat, and the number of multiples of the 6” units is easier to grasp. (I have standardised the final instance of unit 1 at 01:40 to six seconds but actually Matt truncates it at about three seconds so that the dialogue ends on his title, ‘Who ever heard…?’.)
This imagined timeline offers a crude schematic of Payne’s Constraint, which can be summarized equally crudely in words as follows:
• Sixteen units of a standard length are made from the one or more screen texts chosen for analysis. These units are constructed from (and divisible by) a number of multiples of smaller chunks, again of standard length. Thus, the length of these smaller chunks (corresponding to a visual or sonic motif) determine the length of the unit itself, and ultimately the length of the video essay as whole.
• The first nine units are sequentially introduced (added) on each of the screens on a 3x3 grid. The order of introduction is fixed: from left to right and from top to bottom.
• Once unit 9/screen 9 is reached, the units begin to be replaced and the screens ‘subtracted’. Units 3a-9a are progressively replaced on their respective screens by units 9b-3b (i.e., in reverse sequence). Unit 9a is played only once. Likewise, each unit 9b-3b is played only once before the unit and its respective screen disappear.
• Units 1 and 2 are not replaced, but screens 2 and then 1 disappear in sequence to end the video essay.
Note that I have omitted stipulating the treatment of sound and that I could have derived a number of further parameters from the analysis of Matt’s video essay given above. And note of course that a set of constraints like this can be followed more or less strictly—perhaps the demands of a particular analysis motivates a different order or placement of the nine screens, for example. But the key point for me is that the achievement of ‘Who Ever Heard…?’ has issued a challenge to other videographic practitioners. It says: take this form (call it Payne’s Constraint or whatever you like) and see if you can make with it, satisfying the parameters it imposes; see what can be made with it, allowing yourself to be surprised by the content it generates; and see what you can make of it, allowing the form itself to evolve and be refined.
Beaudouin, Valérie (2019), ‘Body/Machine’ [‘Corps/Machine’, 2014], trans. Philip Terry, in Terry (ed.), The Penguin Book of Oulipo: Queneau, Perec, Calvino and the Adventure of Form (London: Penguin), pp.298-9
Burrow, Colin (2017), ‘On Philip Terry’, London Review of Books 39:14. Available at https://www.lrb.co.uk/the-paper/v39/n14/colin-burrow/on-philip-terry
Mittell, Jason (2019), ‘Videographic Criticism as a Digital Humanities Method’, in Debates in the Digital Humanities 2019, ed. by Matthew Gold and Lauren Klein (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 2019), pp. 224-42
Queneau, Raymond (1975), Morale élémentaire (Paris: Gallimard)
PS. I made a short abstract piece using a colour swatch and sound from a film I’m working on just to try an application of Payne’s Constraint. Here it is:
Alan O’leary is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds (UK) and Guest Professor at Aarhus University (Denmark). His most recent book is a study of The Battle of Algiers (Italy/Algiers, 1966) and he published a videoessay on the same film last year in [in]Transition.
Episode 17. Jason Mittell & Christian Keathley
Released on July 6th
Will is joined by his former teachers and mentors, Jason Mittell and Christian Keathley, who are professors at Middlebury College, two of the co-founders of [in]Transition, co-conveners of the Scholarship in Sound & Image Workshop, and leading practitioners and teachers of the scholarly video essay. Their conversation centers on their collaborations, the history and practices of the workshop, aka “video camp,” and features an in-depth discussion of the videographic exercises that listeners have been making in recent weeks. Listeners are assigned their final (for now) videographic assignment: abstract trailers.
And don’t forget about:
Episode 16. On Publishing the Video Essay
Released on June 29th
We are finally back! This episode is the first of our new roundtable series, which will center on topics related to all aspects of video essays. This episode, “On Publishing the Video Essay,” features Michael Leader of BBC’s Inside Cinema, Adam Woodward of Little White Lies, and Joost Broeren of Filmkrant. We discuss what it’s like to edit publications that publish videographic work, tips for freelance video essayists, what video essays bring to a publication, and more! Listeners are also assigned the penultimate videographic exercise homework: voiceover narrations.
Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist
Cydnii Harris, Kevin B. Lee, and I are continuing to update the Black Lives Matter Video Essay Playlist. Please continue sending in videos! Going forward, I will highlight a piece from the list each week:
Clips from The Giverny Document have been on the list for weeks, but Ja'Tovia Gary just made the full film available on YouTube!
News & Notes
I need your help curating this section!! Have something that should be featured? Email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
Tecmerin released a special issue of video essays on “Censorship & Media,” with work by Niamh Thornton, Agustín Fernández, Daniel Ferrera, Manuel Palacio and Ana Mejón.
From their retrospective on Mark Rappaport, Filmmuseum München is now streaming Sergei / Sir Gay (2016) L'année dernière à Dachau (2020), and Tati vs. Bresson (2016). Click here. (h/t Filmscalpel)
“From ‘video essay’ to ‘video monograph’?: Indy Vinyl as academic book” by Ian Garwood in NECSUS
Also from NECSUS: “A Machine for Viewing,” “a three-episode hybrid of real-time VR experience, video essay, and occasional expanded cinema performance that explores how we now watch films and videos” by Richard Misek, featuring work by Charlie Shackleton and Oscar Raby.
ScreenWorlds and [in]Transition have partnered on a call for video essays, “African Screen Worlds in Conversation with Other Screen Worlds.” Learn more here. The deadline is October 1, 2020.
The audiovisual essay journal Tecmerin issued a new CFP and is accepting submissions until August 1, 2020.
Luke Lewis, editor-in-chief of Netflix UK, put out a call for video essays. More here.
Student Spotlight: Q&A with Alex Hobbs
Each week, the newsletter will aim to feature a video essay made by a student(s) along with a short Q&A. Is there a student(s) or former student(s) of yours you would like to see highlighted? Email email@example.com.
Alex Hobbs created this video essay for ‘The Practice of Film Criticism’ module at the University of Warwick, which was taught and assessed by José Arroyo. He also talked about this piece on José Arroyo’s blog, here. Alex and his work were recommended by Leigh Singer.
In talking about how videographic criticism is different from written criticism, we often focus on the visuals and forget that the medium allows for rich explorations of sound, which, perhaps even more so than an image, is impossible to fully describe in writing. Apart from the obvious, what did this video essay allow you to do that you could not have done in a written paper?
In some ways, I believe video essays have the potential to be more impactful than written ones, largely through the power of editing – a single cut can say more than words in less time. For instance, during the fourth and final segment of my video essay, I faded out from a tiger’s roar into the starting of a chainsaw, overlapping both the image and the sound to the point that it can be hard to know when one ends and the other begins. I believe this relatively simple edit is far more effective at demonstrating a point about sound design than if I had tried to explain the same point with words. So, apart from just letting the viewer hear the music I'm talking about, I would say that the video essay is also more efficient when it comes to analysing sound.
How did you settle on a topic for this video essay? What drew you to the film?
I first watched Mandy at the Warwick Student Cinema, where I was working at the time as a digital projectionist, and I found that the DCP was attached with a note asking us to turn the volume up during the screening. Once I realised the film was scored by the late Jóhann Jóhannsson, I was only too happy to oblige that request! Jóhann’s work always stood out from other composers, and his score for Mandy is, in my opinion, some of the most brilliant and unique music he ever created. Therefore, when it came to deciding on a topic for my video essay, I naturally wanted to find a way to honour his legacy whilst also exploring the world of film scoring and sound design, which I think is relatively under appreciated by video essayists.
Your video is explanatory, but beautifully balances providing enough information about sound and music for a layman like me, and for someone who is more familiar with the terminology. How did you achieve this balance? Was it something you thought about during the creation of the piece?
Personally, I enjoy a video essay more when it avoids overly technical language in favour of accessibility and entertainment, so it was important to me that my essay do the same. One of the main ways in which I tackled this was through the use of visual graphics, which I hope help to simplify any points relating to music theory. Additionally, I tried to demonstrate how these theoretical merits contribute directly to the score's thematic relevance. In other words, if I made a note about something technical - such as that a specific piece is played out of tune - then I wanted to ensure the viewer understands why that is significant to the story.
I really appreciated the visual graphics. How do you make these? What do they bring to the piece?
I could not have created the graphics without the help of some free music visualisers online, as well as the music notation software Noteflight. Once I had designed the graphics using these sites, it was just a matter of overlaying them on top of my chosen footage in Adobe Premiere. Most of the time, I only wanted to use graphics to try and demystify some of the more technical points, such as when I wanted to talk about Jóhann transposing a piece down by 11 semitones (which sounds a lot more complicated than it really is!). That said, towards the end of the video I wanted the graphics to make a point rather than simplify one, which is why I overlaid the audio waveforms over the sequence of Mandy and Jeremiah screaming at each other to provide a visual representation of their battle for dominance over the soundtrack.
Homework: Voiceover Narrations + Abstract Trailers
Don’t forget to make voicover narrations! Here are the instructions from The Videographic Essay (Grant, Mittell, Keathley; 2019):
“For this assignment, we asked participants to select a continuous video sequence from their media object and record a voiceover to accompany it, with the final video running no more than three minutes. The voiceover should relay an anecdote, tell a joke, read from some piece of writing, or otherwise provide an independent verbal channel of material not overtly related to the chosen media object. The content could be the participant’s own original material or something that others had written/spoken. … The video should be one continuous sequence from the film; duration and/or scale could be manipulated, but it could include no new video edits.”
Here’s one from Jemma Saunders, a PhD student at the University of Birmingham:
The final assignment is an abstract trailer. Here are the instructions from The Videographic Essay (Grant, Mittell, Keathley; 2019):
This form asked participants to consider features of both the scholarly abstract (subject and critical approach) and the motion picture trailer (style and tone). One key goal of this video, as with a movie preview, was to make others want to see your final project. We asked participants to spend the weekend producing an abstract trailer, lasting no more than two minutes, of their final videographic project.
Like I said on the podcast, feel free to send in these trailers whenever! And if you didn’t get a chance to make one of the exercises, feel free to make them and send them to me via email and I will add them to the podcast website!