Strangers X: A Proof of Concept

Eric Faden

The Cine-Files, issue 7 (fall 2014)

My modest contribution to this issue is more a collaborative experiment with students than a fully realized video essay. Yet, this experiment directly addresses some of the challenges with creating videographic criticism. For me, videographic criticism has to exceed or, at the very least, offer an alternative to traditional scholarship and critique.

For over 100 years, film theory and criticism has run on a parallel but distinctly different track from its object of study. Scholarship lived in a literary, textual world that operated according to a firmly established intellectual practice of argumentation and analysis.[1] With the exception perhaps of Barthes and Eisenstein, film theory rarely tackled film on its “own ground” – that of poetics and the radical alchemy of photography combined with text, voice, and sound.[2]

Videographic criticism’s potential derives from escaping a text-only mode and instead operating on multiple levels simultaneously (text generally operates only on one) so that both the content and the form work together. In other words, I’m proposing a criticism that engages cinema on its own terms and with its own tools. Importantly, I’m not proposing a wholesale abandonment of writing (you are reading this essay, after all) but I’m suggesting that text now becomes one of several modes or tools for scholarly communication.

Yet this expansion of expression also introduces complexities. Undoubtedly, for scholars and students alike, making video essays proves difficult. The technical challenges of mastering image capture and editing software (not to mention, the aesthetic skills of mixing text, image, and sound together in a visually exciting and intellectually effective way) proves daunting to many.

The far bigger obstacle, however, has to do with form. Text has predetermined scholarship’s form. For example, by the time we reach college we are experts in the written essay. We spent our entire schooling learning the form—an 8.5 by 11 piece of paper with 1-inch margins and paragraphs, an opening thesis followed by argumentation and evidence, the citation of important sources, a smattering of block quotes, all wrapped up with a cautiously decisive but still ever-so-slightly-ambivalent conclusion. The written essay is so entrenched that to imagine any alternative scholarly form seems impossible (or insane).

As such, too often we approach the video essay as simply a traditional scholarly essay “with moving pictures.”[3] That is, we graft video onto a traditional written essay, mixing two radically different (and I would argue, incompatible) modes together to create something new. By contrast, the Strangers X Remix attempts to make a purely visual and sonic video essay that illustrated (and illuminated) certain well-known critiques of Alfred Hitchcock’s Strangers on a Train.

As many scholars have noted, the Hitchcock film plays on the idea of the double or doppleganger.[4] For me, this insightful and interesting scholarship suffered from two disadvantages—first, to really “get” the critique requires reading the material and screening the film almost simultaneously (or better, to be able to randomly access various parts of the film while parsing the text). Second, since these critiques remained divorced from their primary source, I also felt that scholars and critics only scratched the surface of the film’s thematic material. For me, the canonical scholarship on the film dwells on the obvious references but misses smaller, more subtle elements that strengthen their case—textual references, dialogue cues, graphic iconography, and even visual puns—that played on the doppelganger motif.

The work here brings that more subtle material to the surface by highlighting them explicitly with the primary source material itself.  The challenge was to do so without any traditional voiceover or guiding “essay.” Could we simply use the film itself—remixed and modified—to bring the critique to light?

The short video uses a variety of techniques to achieve a new “reading.” Perhaps most obvious is a forced, rescanning of the frame where I enlarge the image to reveal or dwell on particular visual details (the number 2, for instance) that might otherwise go unnoticed. By re-arranging the film through editing and juxtaposition, these seemingly arbitrary and isolated details now take on a kind of accumulation effect, a presentation of evidence. Similarly, superimposition shows common, repeated graphic patterns (crossed lines, and visual “X”’s). Layered onto both of these techniques was a collage of sonic elements from the film including dialogue cues (“a pair,” “crisscross,” “double”) as well as audio signatures (the repeated “ping pong” of the tennis ball as it bounces from one court to another) that highlighted or reinforced the visual patterns on screen.

For me, this proof of concept shows two potentialities. First, it shows, however humbly, that the language and techniques of cinema can make an argument and present evidence. Admittedly, it works differently from the textual essay and likely works only for specific purposes and effects, but . . . it works. Second, the visual/sonic mode here has a pedagogical effect. That is, this video essay’s form can teach viewers how to look at a film differently, to see what would normally be overlooked. My hope is that scholars can develop this path toward a form of critique that complements the object of study.

Eric Faden is an Associate Professor of English and Film/Media Studies at Bucknell University.  He studies early cinema and digital image technologies. His research has appeared in Early Popular Visual Culture, Strategies, Convergence, The Journal of Film and Video plus the anthologies Arret Sur Image and The Routledge Companion to Remix Studies.  Professor Faden also creates film, video, and multimedia works that imagine how scholarly research might appear as visual media.  These experimental films are distributed commercially by Third World Newsreel and The Media Education Foundation and also in the on-line journals Vectors (USC),Mediascape (UCLA).


[1] Indeed, it was not until after 1993 (following the publication of a committee report from the Society of Cinema and Media Studies) that book publishers generally accepted the use of film stills in books as a legal “fair use.” Until that point, many scholarly film studies books contained no illustrations whatsoever as the cost and complexity of licensing film stills proved prohibitive.

[2] I’m thinking particularly of Barthes’ “The Third Meaning” and Eisenstein’s “The Cinematographic Principle.” For me, these essays are both about cinema but also mimic and mirror cinematic concepts in a prose form.

[3] Of course, complicating (and compromising) matters further: the original written essay often transforms into voiceover and thus erases all the advantages of the alphabetic.

[4] See Donald Spoto, The Art of Alfred Hitchcock (212); Robin Wood, “Strangers on a Train” in The Hitchcock Reader (172 – 173); Michael Walker (2005) Hitchcock’s Motifs (146 – 153).