Between Freedom and Constraints: What I Learned from Teaching Video Essays

Chiara Grizzaffi

 

The Cine-Files, issue 7 (fall 2014)

 

Although the video essay is the subject of my doctoral research project, it was not until a year ago that I transitioned from theorizing about them to producing them. I always considered myself a “traditional” scholar, adept with the written word and content to explore the video essay as a scholarly object. But last year I spent six months as a visiting research student at the University of Sussex under the supervision of Catherine Grant, whose emphasis on the video essay process led me not only to experiment with the form myself, but also to realise videographic writing’s potential to enable discovery. Grant emphasizes a “trial and error” approach to video production as a research process—a process that can expose our previous ideas to be weaker than we thought, even as new intuitions make their way through the editing timeline. In a presentation at the Audiovisual Essay Conference in Frankfurt, Grant notes that many film theorists were also practitioners who enthusiastically embraced this “trial and error,” DIY attitude:

Some of the most well-known theorists in our discipline were also filmmakers. And they weren’t all filmmakers in the [sense] that they had been trained as filmmakers; they were avant-garde, artisanal, DIY, get up and do it, get money or don’t get money, get equipment, or don’t get equipment, work with people who can do it or don’t: making all of those kinds of decisions about creating things and working through practice to produce new knowledge. And, as I say, we cannot know completely in advance the processes and forms that will help produce new knowledge. We need to have a notion that what we do is not just research, but it’s experimental.[1]

I have kept her valuable advice in mind ever since I came back to Italy, to continue my research and my activities as a teaching assistant at IULM University.

Luisella Farinotti, who is supervising my thesis, showed a great interest in the potentialities that this kind of film analysis and criticism is demonstrating so far, and she proposed to add to her Film Theory course a short laboratory on video essays. My students were all postgraduate students of an MA degree in Television, Cinema and New Media, with both a practical and a theoretical background, but they had not considered, so far, combining the two aspects with the purpose of film analysis. None of them had ever heard of video essays before, although almost half of them had already remixed film or television images.

I designed for them an introductory lecture to provide context and situate video essays in a wider range of practices that use montage as a hermeneutic, analytical instrument, an aspect that I am also trying to emphasize in my thesis. We watched a few extracts from precursors of audiovisual essays, including Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958), Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936), Martin Arnold’s Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy (1998), and Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoires du cinéma (1988-1998). In the other two lessons, I addressed the formal, linguistic and stylistic strategies that audiovisual essays put into practice in order to give analytical insights about their subject—the core focus of my thesis. For example, verbal language can accompany and illustrate images (through voiceover and written intertitles); sequential montage, split and multiple screen can produce associations; and dissolves, superimpositions, stills, freeze frames and slow motion can further result in new ways of understanding the object of study.

Concurrently with these lectures, I also assigned various exercises inspired by my work at Sussex, including Catherine Grant’s ABC game—a video version of the lists that are so popular on Facebook, this one including a selection of ten film with titles all beginning with the same letter of the alphabet. The playful side of this challenge makes it appealing; nonetheless, as Christian Keathley has punctually noticed, this activity is more than just a “virtual parlor game”: “in the best of these ABC Top Ten videos, the participant is not simply offering a list, he or she is making an aesthetic object – one in which selected films are represented not by their titles, but by a carefully orchestrated handful of the images and sounds from their whole.”[2]

I was not sure about the results, and I tried not to give students too many clues about how to proceed. I purposely did not show them any examples of these videos, like the beautiful ones Keathley mentions in his note for [in]Transition. I suggested to students only that they try to make film images communicate with each other. However, even without any recommendations, the majority of their works were incredibly original and inspired. They indeed have the status of aesthetic objects. Let me comment on a few examples.

I assigned Alessandro Giovannini the letter M. M is the initial letter for the Italian word mano, or hand. So Alessandro decided, as one of the self-imposed parameters that Keathley mentions in his note, to choose as a thread for his work hands and gestures in ten movies whose titles begin with M (he originally used the Italian version of the titles). The selected clips are accompanied by written subtitles that identify gestures and their possible functions. The video brings to mind Farocki’s argument about hands in cinema:

The first close-ups in film history were focused on the human face, but the second ones showed hands. […] A close-up of the face is something else entirely from that of the hands. A face can stand in for the entirety of the person (perhaps because the eyes are located there, offering a possible access point to the soul, to the self), while the longer one looks at them, the more hands look like objects, or perhaps like small creatures. Hands often seem to reveal something that the face seeks to hide, such as when someone crushes a glass in their bare hands even as they try to maintain composure in the face of emotional trauma.[3]

A few passages of Alessandro’s video seem to reveal this double nature of hands, seen as both alien and revelatory. The use of written words emphasizes this aspect, because rather than being redundant, his captions are characterized from time to time by a subtle ironic swerve.

Niccolò Beretti, instead, has chosen to create a sort of alternative narrative, assembling the clips from movies with titles starting with P (again, the discrepancy in the initial letters of the titles is due to his use of the Italian title). In his irreverent montage, Niccolò creates imaginary shot/countershot matches that include a Tobey Maguire narcissistically in love with himself, and a sinister Isak Borg driving towards the Bates Motel, in which Norman Bates spies a very alive mother, in a sort of primal scene. Although Niccolò’s work is on the edge between creative juxtaposition and falsification – this being evident in the very first scene he edited, in which Bruce Willis in a dream state watches himself and his future on the TV screen – it also solicits some critical reflections. In his video, we are not just constantly driven towards the Bates Motel: we are also going beyond the surface of films’ apparent meanings. The intertextual connections he establishes have an almost unconscious, nightmarish nature, in which narcissism, voyeurism, sadism – represented by the excess of violence depicted in The Passion of Christ (2004), for which Mel Gibson-the-director seems blamed through Mel Gibson-the-actor by the little child – are directly addressed as hidden aspects of our cinematic imaginary.

Many of the videos focus on emotions, often implying that onscreen feelings mirror the spectatorial experience. The videos often convey laughter, tears, joy, and pain, reminding us of the emotional bond that cinema establishes with the viewer. In this respect, the work of Alice Montorselli on films beginning with G reminded me of the notorious Samuel Fuller’s quotation in Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965)– “film is like a battleground” – and not just because she chooses war as a motive (G is the initial for guerra, the Italian word for war). Life and death, hope and defeat – “in one word, emotion” – are beautifully expressed in her smooth, confident montage, and condensed in the encounter between a young, tough Eastwood and the older one, who purposely sacrifices himself. I discussed this affinity with her, and Alice came out with a title for her video that paraphrases Fuller’s words: Life is Like a BattleGround.

As a second exercise, I asked the students to think about a cinema book, essay or review that they found brilliant and interesting, and then to try to illustrate one of the concepts or analytical insights it presents. Again, this assignment was inspired by my work with Catherine Grant. Taking someone else’s ideas and building your video around them – obviously acknowledging your source – reduces the pressure of making video essays, because at least you already have a valuable content, and you can concentrate on how to present it visually in the best way. Moreover, this kind of exercise forces students to put aside the more playful aspect of their first assignment and to focus, instead, on a more didactic purpose. However, even with this assignment there is a margin for creativity and originality: Niccolò, for example, realized a video[4] inspired by Bazin and Bitsch’s interview with Welles in 1958, and again his video is a sort of “forgery” – directly suggested, indeed, by a fragment of F For Fake (Orson Welles, 1973) as the opening. He even pretends, at some point, to have found “rare footage” of a studio version of Touch of Evil’s (1958) opening scene. But actually, it is a montage he made to recall the difference between suspense and surprise, and to comment on the vital role of editing in Welles’ vision of filmmaking.  As Welles remarked to Bazin and Bitsch, “Directing is an invention of people like you; it is not an art, or at most an art for a minute a day. This minute is terribly crucial, but it happens only very rarely. The only moment where one can exercise any control over a film is in the editing.”[5]

The majority of the students chose a more conventional approach, but again with some interesting results. Barbara Vivino, for example, illustrates the golden rule of cinema according to Hitchcock: show, don’t tell. Starting from a small, apparently marginal aspect, suggested to her by Truffaut’s interview with Hitchcock, she does not just put the accent on the famous director’s style; she also recalls the importance of theatrical properties and how they lend consistency and credibility to a character’s personality and to the fictional world.

Michele Bucci, instead, has taken his BA thesis as a starting point for his video. In a certain sense he “cheated,” because the assignment clearly required to illustrate someone else’s reflections. However, rather than blaming this choice, I understood it. He took this exercise as a chance to use a different, visual approach to his previous work. The result is indeed very effective: combining the elegant, written text with images, he punctuates different aspects in The Thin Red Line’s representation of military hierarchies and social classes. Furthermore, using the split screen, he can effectively show the analogies between The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998) and one of its recognizable sources, Kubrick’s Paths of Glory (1957).

One student confessed that she experienced this second assignment as constrictive, and I think that many of her classmates had the same feeling. But my intention was precisely to confront them with a creative, playful experience and, after that, to direct their energies towards a more didactic, apparently conventional project.

Presently, they have a final assignment: they have to make a video essay for their exams, and this time they will have no specific directions about the subject or the duration. They can choose to make an explanatory or a poetic video (I explained them Keathley’s notion of the spectrum),[6] as long as they have a clear argument in mind and they are able to motivate and justify any single cut. Adrian Martin shared during the NECS conference some valuable advice he and Cristina Álvarez López usually give to their students: take responsibility for your work. I think that this important recommendation should guide any scholarly activity, including making video essays. I also think that Drew Morton’s idea of making drafts of video works and sharing them—he clearly explores the potentialities of this approach in his article Though This Be Madness, Yet There Is Method In It: Notes on Producing and Revising Videographic Scholarship[7]—is very useful, especially in a teaching environment, so I have planned a meeting in which students can share the drafts of their final work with me and their classmates, in order to discuss them with a purposeful attitude.

I am aware that my method is not very prescriptive; to be honest, I cannot even say I have a fully developed method for teaching video essays. I have lessons and assignments rigorously planned, but my students and I are nevertheless experimenting together and learning from each other. The obvious risk is that some of the videos might not ultimately fit within the category of the scholarly video essay, even though we do not yet have a well-established definition of what such an object should or should not be. That is precisely what I wanted to explore with them: the creative possibilities that hide between appropriation and originality, between a fictional and a critical purpose, between an analytical approach and a cinephilic attitude. And what I learned from them in this respect so far is invaluable.

This is why I wish to thank them all, even the ones who were clearly not at ease with video editing, and would probably prefer to go back to the good old written form of analysis. They are surely not to blame for that – I am myself mostly writing right now. But even to realize that you actually prefer your previous means of expression, you have to exit your comfort zone sometimes. I hope it was, for them, an experience as fulfilling and rewarding as it was for me.

 

Chiara Grizzaffi is a Ph.D candidate in Communication and New Technologies at IULM University in Milan, where she collaborates with the activities of the Cinema Department. Her thesis project aims to investigate online forms of videographic film studies. She is a member of [in]Transition’s editorial board and has published her work in journals including Com-pol and the Italian film magazine Duellanti.

 

Notes 

[1] Catherine Grant, “How long is a piece of string? On the Practice, Scope and Value of Videographic Film Studies and Criticism”, The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, September 2014B, http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/frankfurt-papers/catherine-grant/

[2] Christian Keathley, “The ABC of Forms and Genres”, [in]Transition 1.2, 2014, http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2014/06/16/abcs-forms-genres

[3] Wolfgang Ernst, Harun Farocki, “Towards an Archive for Visual Concepts”, in Harun Farocki: Working on the Sightlines, ed. Thomas Elsaesser, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 274.

[4] Niccolò is currently working on an English version of this work. Due to the use of Italian dubbed version of the movies, written quotations and voiceover, the translation of his video is particularly complicated. The same happened with some other valuable works— beautiful, but more difficult to translate.

[5] André Bazin, Charles Bitsch, “Interview with Orson Welles”, Senses of Cinema Special Dossiers, The New Wave Remembered: Focus on Charles Bitsch, translated by Sally Shafto, Issue 46, March 2008, http://sensesofcinema.com/2008/the-new-wave-remembered-focus-on-charles-bitsch/orson-welles-bazin-bitsch/

[6] Christian Keathley, “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia,” in The Language and Style of Film Criticism, eds Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, (London: Routledge 2011), 176-191.

[7] Morton, Drew, “Though This Be Madness, Yet There is Method in It: Notes on Producing and Revising Videographic Scholarship”, The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory in Videgraphic Film and Moving Images Studies, September 2014, http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/reflections/intransition-1-3/drew-morton/