On Monday, I was one of a group of individuals invited to speak as part of a two-day online conference, “The Aesthetics of the Video Essay”, organized by Kevin B. Lee for students at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. Charlie Shackleton, Grace Lee, Chloé Galibert Laîné, Jessica McGoff, Ariel Avissar, and I talked and answered questions for about an hour each. Chloé, Grace, and Charlie participated in a similar event curated by Kevin at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart in December of last year. (Chloé, Grace, and Charlie have also each appeared as a guest on the podcast!) My talk was more or less divided into two parts. The first was dedicated to my own videographic work and the second was about the podcast. I believe the talks were recorded, so if they are made available at some point in the future I will share them here.
In my portion of the seminar, I discussed my ongoing project, Seeing Truffaut’s Hitchcock, which is my attempt at an audio-visual adaptation, for lack of a better term, of Truffaut’s Hitchcock. The problem with — or strength of — Hitchcock Studies is, of course, that so much has been written about Hitchcock. How is one to contribute? As I grappled with my own obsession with Hitchcock and Hitchcock, I realized that any project had to be videographic for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason was that far less audio-visual criticism has been produced about Hitchcock than written criticism. (I should note that Hitchcock is among the directors most examined by audio-visual critics, myself included. This imbalance is both good and bad, and a subject I would like to tackle another time.) The second was that the video essay allows for the abstraction of individual film moments, the extending of fragments into critical objects. I know that scholars have grappled with similar questions for years, perhaps most notably Laura Mulvey in Death 24x a Second. Naturally, much of my thinking here has also been shaped by Victor Perkins, and the brilliant essay collection Film Moments, co-edited by Tom Brown & James Walters and published by the BFI in 2010. (Please send me book and essay recommendations!)
Audio-visually speaking, the work of Christian Keathley and Johannes Binotto were particularly influential. Chris’s “Pass the Salt” and Johannes’s “Juxtapositions I: Truffaut repeats Truffaut” and “Facing Film” are among my favorite video essays. (Johannes and I discussed both of these essays at length on the show. And he has a brilliant new essay “Follow the Cat” in this style and the essay is, as always, a must watch.)
With the aforementioned videos in mind, I turned to Truffaut’s Hitchcock and looked for individual moments, sentences or sentence fragments that could be transformed into small audio-visual essays. For example, Hitchcock tells Truffaut that Rebecca is “not a Hitchcock picture.” *eye roll* Anyway, I took this quote and knew that I could, of course, challenge Hitchcock's claim. I kept exploring and came to the moment when Hitchcock says Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo engages in “a form of necrophilia.” I thought to myself, ‘Is that not what Mrs. Danvers does in Rebecca?” And so, I began piecing together this short video, “A Form of Necrophilia.” Read the longer discussion in Seeing Truffaut’s Hitchcok on Scalar, here.
The project is comprised mostly of videos in the style of videographic epigraphs (which podcast listeners are now making!) and by design is meant to bring the image and text as close to one another as possible in order to understand the interplay between the two. As Catherine Grant wrote in the statement accompanying her video essay “UN/CONTAINED”, on Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank in Film Criticism:
“…what excites and compels me about the possibilities digital video essays offer (inter alia) are precisely their new or expanded forms of juxtaposition of audio-visual material with text (inside and outside their frames), and their often more inclusive and involving film analytical contiguities and interactivities.”
Pedagogically speaking, one of the things that I think makes Hitchcock’s films such fertile soil for learning audio-visual criticism is, in addition to his accessible use of film language, his films are the subject of so much written criticism that one almost has to explore this interplay, and think audio-visually to drill deeper and beyond the written word. At least that is what I tried to do here!
Jason Mittell has used the phrase “a lab of sounds and images” to describe the part of the video essay-making process in which one explores and tinkers with the object of study within an editing program like Adobe Premiere. In my talk, I likened videographic criticism to an archaeological dig. Imagine the existing Hitchcock scholarship as the ruins of an ancient Roman city, the work of past archaeologists who excavated and preserved the site as they tried to understand its history, culture, and people. I consider myself a member of a new team of archaeologists, combing through the excavation site looking for bits of artifacts in an attempt to further contribute to knowledge. The power of the video essay as it relates to such gestures, moments, and fragments is that it reveals and amplifies the affective power of that which is already there.
Anyway, this is how I think of my own work, and how I approach making audio-visual criticism about canonical films and directors. As I wrote in the previous newsletter, the point of this weekly essay is to prompt discussion and informally share what’s on my mind. What do you think? Has what I said resonated with you? Do you disagree? Have other scholars and critics tackled similar questions? Let me know! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. It would be cool to publish short responses in next week’s newsletter!
News, Notes, and Links
FILMADRID in partnership with MUBI is accepting submissions for their non-competitive video essay section until May 18.
The journals Hors champ and Offscreen launched Zoom Out, a new electronic platform publishing new forms of expression and presentation of content on cinema, including audio-visual essays, podcasts, sound works, and more. Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López have a video essay in the inaugural issue.
The audiovisual essay journal Tecmerin issued a new CFP and is accepting submissions until August 1, 2020.
Be sure to check out FilmScalpels’s “Recommended Reading” section on their website.
The journal Images seconds has extended their CFP for an issue on post-cinema until May 20. Proposals for video essays and other forms of non-traditional scholarship are encouraged.
The Small Film Festival is accepting submissions until May 30th.
Kevin B. Lee shared a playlist of desktop/smartphone/internet narratives in film and video art. The playlist was made for his “Screen Stories” class at Merz Akademie.
ICYMI: A new issue of [in]Transitionwas published on Monday, featuring videographic work on a variety of topics, including steadicam aesthetics and history, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Cuban cinema, and more!
Did I miss something? Have news you’d like to share in next week’s newsletter? Email me at email@example.com.
Student Spotlight: A Q&A with Diana Smeu
Each week, the newsletter will aim to feature a video essay made by a student along with a short Q&A. Is there a student or former student of yours you would like to see highlighted? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diana Smeu studies Screenwriting & Film Studies at UNATC Bucharest. This video was created in a course coordinated by Irina Trocan and Andreea Mihalcea.
Will DiGravio: This essay very nicely balances film history and your personal history and relationship with these films. Was that difficult? How did you negotiate that balance?
Diana Smeu: The structure of the video essays resembles very much the ‘therapeutic’ journey I had with myself when I tried to face the strange screen-related ritual I had as a child (covering my eyes when film characters are kissing). Some writings of Pauline Kael inspired me to dig into the causes of my fear. Yet I’m not sure why I was covering my eyes, because I remember very well I was dying to see that romantic exchange. I was incapable of looking. On a personal note, it was indeed difficult (and fun) to see those kisses over and over again, remembering my shame. But the structure emerged itself. All I had to do was to challenge myself to watch and collect kisses (which in the end, it proved to be a very pleasurable work to do for an exam). I have to say I had some qualms about choosing only Hollywood films, but they are the films I grew up with.
WD: The ending is brilliant. How did you come up with that idea? At one point in the process did you decide to include that portion of the video and how did it shape the video overall?
DS: The ending was the first visual part I thought of and I would love to call it a reenactment. The dive into film history came afterward (when I decided the video should have a didactical side, a part that anyone would find useful and revelatory, regarding the evolution of Hollywood cinema). It was impossible to discuss my past habits and not trying to practice them now (even for a short demonstration). The ending got me thinking about how deformed our watching behavior could be or may become, due to different causes. Usually, when a film contains violent graphic images we tend to close our eyes and it is incredible how the society I grew up in (a deeply religious one) influenced my mind to believe that a kiss can be just as shocking. Now it’s even a more personal video essay.
WD: How did you go about selecting the films for this piece?
DS: Choosing exclusively Hollywood films was a compromise. They were the very first films I saw and, for many years, the only ones. Also, Hollywood cinema is a distinct place when talking about sexual allusions or representations on screen. The infamous Hays Code, its enforcement, and its dissolution completely reshaped the form and lengths of the kisses. As you will see, the most recent erotic interactions between characters last longer than the early ones – and it’s perfectly justified by history and censorship. Moreover, Hollywood is the place to attack for its lack of diversity: in most of the films, the leads are white heterosexual couples (and for the earlier ones, that was mandatory). It was also tragic to see that the films I enjoyed as a child/teenager were dominantly directed by white men.
WD: What was the most challenging aspect of making this video? What surprised you most while making the video?
DS: The most challenging aspect of the process was to create a chronological and evocative evolution of the kisses that reflects both general and personal history. I tried to be fair with the course of the film history and with my personal Hollywood encounters throughout the years. As I haven’t seen many contemporary romantic comedies, you won’t find any reference to them in the video, even though they had a huge influence in the romantic mainstream genre. What surprised me the most during the process was the realization that I had engaged myself in some sort of film criticism back in the days, when I used to count the films I had seen with or without kisses. This separation between films helped me understand the patterns of specific genres and film clichés.
The videographic epigraphs are coming in! For links to videos and information on how to make one yourself, click here. Here’s a wonderful example by Erin Hogan:
For those who have not yet listened to the two most recent shows, we are currently making our way through the videographic exercises created by Catherine Grant, Jason Mittell, and Christian Keathley for the Scholarship in Sound & Image Workshop. The exercises are all outlined in great detail in their open-access Scalar book, The Videographic Essay: Practice and Pedagogy.
The Video Essay Podcast
Don’t forget to listen to our most recent episode with Leigh Singer! Leigh is a UK-based film journalist, programmer, and video essayist. On the show we discuss his most recent essay, “The Movies Behind Your Favorite GIFS” and kogonada’s 2014 video essay, “Linklater // On Cinema & Time.” Click here to access the videos and more information.
Our next guest will video essayist (StrucciMovies and Scanline) and podcaster (Critical Bits and Struggle Session) Shannon Strucci. We will discuss Shannon’s 2018 video, “Fake Friends Episode Two: parasocial hell” and Harry S. Plinkett’s (Mike Stoklasa) review of Star Wars Episode I: Phantom Menace, a seven part video produced by Red Letter Media.