How does film feel?
toward affective videographic criticism

Corey K. Creekmur

 

“Ya feel me?” – Omar Little, The Wire (HBO, 2002-2008)

 

1. Introduction: The Affective Turn and the Video Essay 

“ … the affective turn in cultural criticism … has not only made emotion, feeling, and affect (and their differences) the object of scholarly inquiry but has also inspired new ways of doing criticism.” — Ann Cvetkovich[1]

Although the current glory days (it seems) of the video essay trail by a few decades the golden age (I daresay) of academic film theory, the timing seems perfect for videographic criticism to fully align with what has recently been identified as “affect theory” or “the affective turn.”[2] Among other things, the frustrating inability of film criticism to directly quote moving pictures (and sounds) seems at last overcome by the video essay, which provides an unprecedented proximity to something like the “original text” after decades of insufficient descriptions and inadequate still images sought in vain to fill the experiential gap between film spectatorship and analysis.[3] And since actual segments from the films under discussion may now be located within critical texts — or indeed may even constitute virtually the entire content of many video essays — might the work of criticism also now retain some if not all of the emotional charge or “feel” of those films, even as they are reframed in a critical or pedagogical context? In The Videographic Essay, Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell insist “… with videographic work … Analysis must always be conducted, to some extent, on the object’s terms.” As they emphasize, “… when working with moving images and sounds, the poetic force of the source materials cannot be ignored or avoided.”[4] While presented as works of criticism on works of art, does the actual construction of most video essays out of those very works of art then also render them, in some measure at least, as aesthetic objects? Put another way, do (and should) video essays share, transfer, or “transmit” the affect of the work they — also, simultaneously, otherwise — analyze?[5]

Laura Mulvey’s bracing call for feminist film criticism to “destroy” pleasure and beauty – what she summarized as the “ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film” — is perhaps itself now regularly challenged by the desire of some practitioners of affect theory (as well as creators of video essays) to maintain the emotions experienced by spectators of the original work, even as they still seek to mount a feminist (or queer) critique.[6] More specific discussions of “embodiment” or the “haptic” qualities of some media similarly seek to promote or restore (rather than reduce or remove) the physical, material, or phenomenological experience of cinema, including the kinds of once-shunned movies Linda Williams identifies as body genres: horror films, pornography, and melodrama, popular forms which explicitly seek to elicit strong physical and emotional responses, with each genre even marked by the distinct bodily fluids and non-verbal sounds they draw from their audiences.[7] In many instances, it appears, video essays embrace the pleasures (and other affects) that an earlier generation of film theorists was determined to keep at arm’s length.

Each of the following selected video essays appears designed to explore – and perhaps inevitably replicate – the way the films they address feel, a perhaps more risky and nebulous aim than the more familiar consideration of how feelings, or emotions, are represented in the narratives or performances of the films (though these remain worth exploring as well).  We are used to the notion of feeling emotion through the relay of characters – when they weep, we might too – but I am suggesting that these video essays approach the way films feel, the way in which their tones and moods (notoriously vague notions, of course) might be summarized and conveyed. While we are prone to think of affect and emotion as most obviously embodied in actors and their performances, we might consider the “body” of the text or film as itself a source or container of mood or sentiment: a “sad” or “happy” movie might not necessarily be fully reducible to the emotions expressed by its characters or the conventional actions of its plot.

 

2.  The Critical and the Beautiful

“The artist is the creator of beautiful things. … The critic is he who can translate into another manner or a new material his impression of beautiful things.” – Oscar Wilde[8]

While affect theory by no means abandons the work of interpretation, it challenges the notion that cool distance and cold logic constitute the royal road towards determining meaning. (Nor does the shift in focus towards the emotional demand that we abandon the political: quite the contrary, as feminism and queer theory have emphasized all along.) So while the practice of videographic criticism may still be invested in explaining what a film means, we might now recognize that asking how a film feels is another valid means towards that end. And video essays, again, by directly quoting the images, movement, and sound of their objects of analysis may (unavoidably?) convey a film’s “feel,” whatever other critical purposes they desire. While all film scholars are well aware of how easily a clip from a film can be decontextualized and made to resignify its meanings, the sentiment or emotion of the original might also be retained in citation, as when a literary scholar’s direct quotation of lines by Shakespeare is meant to highlight and emphasize rather than reduce or undermine the force and impact of those words.

My impression, if only anecdotal, is that video essays are often praised for their aesthetic as well as their critical strengths: they are just as likely to be deemed “beautiful” or “moving” as “rigorous” or “convincing.” To take a single but overdetermined example, can a video essay on the films of Terrence Malick (there are quite a few of them!), typically built entirely from clips from his films, avoid or at least downplay the famously lush sensuality of his images and soundtracks? Many such video essays are indeed “lovely” but seem to function as appreciations or tributes rather than than as works of criticism. Organized as summations or condensations of his oeuvre, they appear to derive their emotional charge metonymically from his films: for instance Rachel Glassman’s “Malick Motifs,” (2015) elegantly assembles examples of repeated elements in Malick’s films to justify its title, but finally accumulates rather than analyzes. Kogonada’s “Malick // Fire & Water” [2013] works similarly, but with a tighter focus on the director’s repeated images of the two elements in the video essay’s title, presented throughout via a balanced split-screen. Another example, “A Tribute to Terrence Malick’s Visual Poetry,” (2013) edited by Xavi Darko for Generación CinExin lacks the basic organizational structure (specific motifs, a dominant contrast) evident in the other two works, but like the others, it skillfully presents a series of ravishing images. Again, any work of criticism here seems at best implicit (and to be fair, the last of these announces itself as a “tribute”). We might in summary say that these video essays are affective but not necessarily effective — as criticism, as analysis. Again, their “own” affect – Malick’s beautiful images remain beautiful despite being relocated within each video essay – seems secondary, derivative, or metonymic, confirming the assumption that a direct quotation will always carry some of the emotional charge of the original but perhaps without generating its own.[9]

Markedly, Scott Tobias and Kevin B. Lee’s “Terrence Malick: The Art of Voiceover,” (a.k.a. “Terrence Malick: Voiceover Artist,” 2015) while equally appreciative, presents itself as critical by tracing a historical trajectory, and by employing its own neutral voiceover in consideration of and in contrast to Malick’s quirky use of the technique in his own films. Whereas most of these video essays reinforce the sense of a remarkable consistency across Malick’s films (a repetition that conventionally affirms his authorship), Tobias and Lee emphasize significant distinctions (including gender differences, and the shift towards multiple narrators) and thus argue for a stylistic development across what at first glance seems a repetitive device within his work. Notably, whereas the other works, despite manipulation (at the very least, acts of careful selection and sequence), ask Malick’s images to in effect “speak for themselves,” Tobias and Lee carefully intertwine the critic’s voice with the voiceovers in the original films, preventing these from ever awkwardly overlapping but nevertheless supporting their critical commentary with the prominent musical scores from Malick’s original soundtracks, a device which subtly lends their otherwise straightforward delivery an underlying mood coextensive with Malick’s films. While Tobias and Lee’s video essay, like the others, retains the sensual pleasures of Malick’s visually and sonically “moving” films, its explicitly historical and critical component extends their work beyond what might be understood as the reliance on borrowed affect that I find in the other video essays devoted to Malick.

 

3. Touching Cinema

Catherine Grant has described her retrospective recognition of the importance of engaging with affect in the creation of her first video essay, “Unsentimental Education: On Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes” (2009): she reports discovering that her experience of virtually “touching the film object” – actively handling (the notion derives from Heidegger) the technologies of non-linear editing that allow for an exceptionally intimate familiarity with the film’s details — satisfied “a desire to engage even more closely with this film’s strangeness — its beguiling yet disturbing affect — a quality to which I have always been (perhaps obsessively) drawn, and one that neither I nor my students had been able to account for effectively in words …”[10] Her subsequent video essay “Touching the Film Object” (2011), as its title asserts, offers an even more direct contemplation of this topic, simultaneously presenting a verbal definition (via a quotation by Laura U. Marks) and visual demonstration (via a famous segment from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona [1966]) of haptic criticism, which centers on the sensation of physically approaching a film in order to imaginatively traverse the literal and figurative distance film scholars have conventionally assumed was necessary for proper viewing.[11]

However, I think Grant’s exemplary engagement with affect theory in the form of a video essay must be “Carnal Locomotive,” (2015) which draws together two evocative quotations from Claude Lévi-Strauss and Steven Shaviro — themselves cited by Vivian Sobchack, to whom “Carnal Locomotive” pays tribute — which are “illustrated by” (or vice versa: there’s no priority given to text or image) a manipulated sequence from René Clément’s relatively obscure 1963 film Le Jour et l’Heure. Grant’s video essay breaks up the on-screen quotations into slowly-released portions that fade in, slowly float for a second or two, and then fade out over the film sequence, itself rendered dream-like through slow-motion and the removal and replacement of its original soundtrack. The sequence itself, of a man and woman attempting to make their way through train cars packed with other passengers, is extracted from its original narrative, and without that mooring (even those familiar with the film are unlikely to recall it as a major scene) we find that our own working through of Grant’s video essay – again, carefully parceled out – resonates with the buffeted effort of forward motion endured by Clement’s characters. The quotations, encouraging us to slowly ponder the relation between our own bodies, emotions, and perception (including of cinema), are given a pace and materiality embodied by the push and rub and pressure of the close quarters of the crowded train.

Grant’s “Carnal Locomotive” seems to me to demonstrate the ambitious desire I noted earlier to convey how film – not just a film – feels, or, at least, how film can feel or sometimes feels. Once more, by isolating a sequence from its original narrative context, Grant foregrounds tactile qualities within her example as well as our more general experience of cinema, an effect achieved by redirecting our attention to previously overlooked details and through the materialization of the quotations she incorporates. Kogonada’s celebrated “Hands of Bresson,” (2014) works in somewhat similar fashion but with examples from many films that allow for a catalog of instances of a trope that (as previous critics had noted) helps define Robert Bresson’s authorship: however, this work also shifts our attention away from plot and even character, so often linked to the human face (and otherwise central to Bresson’s films), which remains offscreen here. By isolating close-ups of human hands, we are drawn to notice more specific features of skin and bone and, especially, the variations in often delicate acts of touching – of wood, metal, glass, fur, and fabric, as well as the hands of others — that seems to be the real import of these shots. Without verbal commentary of any sort, the overall impact of “Hands of Bresson” (unlike some of Kogonada’s other, more descriptive or explanatory video essays) seems more tactile than interpretive, haptic rather than hermeneutic, although its attention to a single filmmaker necessarily makes implicit claims about an auteur and his oeuvre. It’s a video essay on how Bresson’s films feel, rather than what they mean – though, once more, affect theory reminds us that considering how they feel may be a heretofore-neglected path towards more fully understanding what they mean. (Jorge Luengo Ruiz’s “Hands of Nolan,”[2015], which I first presumed would be a parody of “Hands of Bresson,” turns out to be a surprisingly sincere demonstration of a similar emphasis in the work of an otherwise dissimilar filmmaker, inspired by Kogonada’s work. Part of a larger series, “Bergman’s Bodies: Touch and Skin” [2008] by Thomas Elsaesser, Anne Bachmann, and Jonas Moberg, performs a similar function for another major European filmmaker.)[12]

 

4.  How Capitalism Feels

“Whatever else it is, the affective turn is also a return to thinking about ideology.” –Lauren Berlant.[13]

My own video essay “Work Time” (2015) draws crucial inspiration from Lauren Berlant’s essay “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta” and Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep.[14] My simultaneous pairing and juxtaposition of the opening sequences of Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s films La Promesse (1996) and Rosetta (1999), which respectively center on young male and female working class characters, perhaps enlarges the anxiety already embodied within each film: both films employ the style for which the Dardennes became celebrated in the late 1990s, with a visibly hand-held camera (and noisy non-musical soundtrack) closely aligned with – but rarely occupying the actual point-of-view of – their socially constrained and marginalized characters. After linking these sequences to Berlant’s provocative observation on the visceral forms of contemporary temporality to which these characters are subjected, I provide another quotation, from Crary’s illuminating study of the impact of a globalized economy on the temporal experience of everyday life for more privileged individuals: I then double my initial pairing of the films discussed by Berlant by pairing the opening sequences of the subsequent two films by the Dardennes, Le Fils (2002) and L’Enfant (2005), seeking to emphasize the impact of their ongoing devotion (up to that point) to a technique that plunges their persistently audiences immediately into a social world in which their camera and their protagonist’s bodies are intimately related and similarly jolted. Each of these four sequences is nerve-wracking on its own: my goal in bringing them together and reframing them through the quotations was to retain and perhaps even intensify their assaultive power while simultaneously emphasizing that they demonstrate a persistent, authorial style and matched theme determined to affectively represent the way contemporary economic, political, and social conditions bear down upon and strain especially vulnerable human bodies. A significant emphasis within affect theory has been the exploration of the history of emotions, asking, among other historically inflected questions, how capitalism feels, from its origins to the present. “Work Time” is my modest attempt to enter that discussion via a video essay acknowledging the considerable influence of two major contemporary filmmakers and two major contemporary thinkers.

Usually, the basic analytic tool of comparison and contrast is designed to provide critical distance via a larger view, allowing us to move, for instance, from consideration of a single work to the greater context of a genre, or oeuvre: in this regard, “Work Time” extends from a pair of films (already brilliantly analyzed by Berlant) to a slightly larger group of four films, but all sharing a historical period, nationality, and authorship. But is it possible that the formal technique of juxtaposition itself (as practitioners of collage or montage of course explored long ago) doubles, or multiplies, or (with less mathematical precision) enlarges or intensifies the affect of the single text? While one of my other video essays, “Manderly Motel” (2015) was designed (inspired by the uncanny revelation of Liz Greene’s video essay “Velvet Elephant,” [2015] pairing the openings of two David Lynch films) to reveal and explore the many remarkable formal echoes in sequences from Rebecca (1940) and Psycho (1960), two rarely compared Hitchcock films, many of its viewers have remarked that the director’s signature suspense, constructed within each scene, is ratcheted up (rather than removed via critical distance) when the sequences are allowed to co-exist and intertwine, with their soundtracks left untouched in order to uncannily echo across one another. The visual rhymes and rhythms I wished to highlight do not, it seems, distract from or diminish the building tension at the heart of each scene within its original narrative. While many viewers surely draw upon their familiarity with the full plots of these canonical examples, it’s clear to me that my desire to focus on rhymed events like reverse tracking shots or opening doors when both films appear on screen together cannot deny or diminish the escalated dread and horror that characterize these scenes within Hitchcock’s original movies.  As Grant reported about her own early experience creating video essays, my full awareness of the affective power these films retain in spite of my manipulation was almost entirely retrospective.

 

5.  Conclusion: Feeling the Future of Affective Videographic Criticism

How might videographic criticism inspired by affect theory more fully and directly engage with cinematic representations or expressions of shame or happiness?[15] (Is it really surprising that we have films by both Ingmar Bergman [1968] and Steve McQueen [2011] actually entitled Shame, or Todd Solondz’s Happiness [1998]?) Drawing upon the wide-ranging interdisciplinary work that defines the affective turn, I welcome future audiovisual essays that examine cinema’s vital role in the construction and organization of structures of feelings, or that address mixed feelings, or ugly feelings. The video essay seems a perfect form for concretely investigating the politics of affect, affective mapping, or even ordinary affects.[16] A number of video essays have already employed the techniques of slow motion and repetition (among other devices) to analyze acting – so often of course centered on the expression of emotion – in cinema, especially as embodied by individual stars and their particular bodies: the precise analysis of a specific performer’s facial expressions, vocal inflections, and physical gestures in the transmission of affect would seem an exemplary subject for drawing upon the potentials of videographic criticism, including as a means to view emotions as historical and cultural topics.[17] How, for instance, have fear or joy or anger or despair been staged and performed across cinematic eras, and across national cinemas? I look forward to thinking through as well as being moved by attempts to explore these and other topics in the near future of videographic criticism, which appears to be in (I’m tempted to say) good hands.

 

Corey K. Creekmur is Associate Professor of Cinematic Arts, English, and Gender, Women’s & Sexuality Studies at the University of Iowa: he was a participant in the 2015 NEH-sponsored Workshop in Videographic Criticism at Middlebury College, and has published on the video essay in [In]Transition.  His research and teaching focus on Hindi cinema, comics, and representations of gender, race, and sexuality in American film genres.  He is also the general editor of the Comics Culture book series for Rutgers University Press.

 

Notes

[1] Ann Cvetkovich, Depression: a public feeling (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 3.

[2] Many prominent “affect theorists” have convincingly argued against the novelty of affect theory: for instance, in Depression, Ann Cvetkovich emphasizes the crucial roots of the “affective turn” in feminism (8-10), while Sara Ahmed, while attending to the recent “happiness turn” in The Promise of Happiness (Durham: Duke University Press, 2010), notes that “the science of happiness shares a history with political economy” that extends at least as far back as Jeremy Bentham (4). Similarly, one could claim that affect and emotion have been central to the history of cinema, most obviously in its narrative forms.

[3] This limitation was most famously articulated by Raymond Bellour just as the commercially available VCR began to transform film studies. See Raymond Bellour, “The Unattainable Text,” Screen 16:3 (1975), 19-28.

[4] Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound & Image (Montreal: Caboose, 2016), 7-8.

[5] I am thinking of Teresa Brennan’s The Transmission of Affect (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004) here, though I am perhaps irresponsibly extending her discussion beyond the psychogenic, medical and therapeutic contexts that are her focus. In a blog post, Girish Shambu has pondered the relation between affect and video essays specifically in terms of cinephilia, especially as a form of the latter’s desire to “prolong the experience of cinema – and thus, sustain and extend the special affective states produced in the cinephile’s acts of engagement with cinema.” See Girish Shambu, “On Video Essays, Cinephilia, and Affect”: http://girishshambu.blogspot.com/2014/07/on-video-essays-cinephilia-and-affect.html.

[6] Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Screen 16:3 (1975), 6-18. It’s worth recalling that Mulvey’s key essay calls for critical as well as creative activity, exemplified by her own intertwined career as an academic scholar and experimental filmmaker. Among many attempts to simultaneously embrace and analyze affect, as well as to engage productively with critical oppositions I will cite José Esteban Muñoz’s skillful negotiation of the “collision and imagined collusion” of Freud, psychoanalysis, interiority, and drawing, on the one hand, against Deleuze, affect, surface, and the digital, on the other: see José Esteban Muñoz, “From Surface to Depth, Between Psychoanalysis and Affect,” Women & Performance: A Journal of Feminist Theory 19:2 (2009), 123-129.

[7] Linda Williams, “Film Bodies: Gender, Genre, and Excess,” Film Quarterly 44:4 (Summer 1991), 2-13.

[8] Oscar Wilde, “The Preface,” The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)

[9] These video essays may be viewed here: Rachel Glassman’s “Malick Motifs” (2015): https://vimeo.com/113181485; Kogonoda’s “Malick // Fire & Water” (2013): https://vimeo.com/64063304; Xavi Darko for Generacion CinExin,“A Tribute to Terrence Malick’s Visual Poetry” (2013): https://vimeo.com/64624847.

[10] Catherine Grant, “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking,” aniki: Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image 1.1 (2014): http://aim.org.pt/ojs/index.php/revista/article/view/59/html. Grant’s “Unsentimental Education: On Claude Chabrol’s Les Bonnes femmes” may be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/5392396. On her invaluable website Film Studies for Free, Grant has assembled a helpful collection of readings and resources “On ‘Affect’ and ‘Emotion’ in Film and Media Studies”: http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/2011/11/on-affect-and-emotion-in-film-and-media.html.

[11] See Laura U. Marks, The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000). Grant’s “Touching the Film Object?” may be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/28201216. For another video essay inspired by Marks see Julia Aversa’s “Hapticity, Memory, and Difference in Her,” (2015) which was produced for a class at Swarthmore: https://vimeo.com/120029508

[12] Jorge Luengo Ruiz’s “Hands of Nolan” may be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/28201216. “Bergman’s Bodies: Touch and Skin,” by Thomas Elsaesser, Anne Bachmann, and Jonas Moberg, may be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/87102061.

[13] Lauren Berlant, Neither monstrous nor pastoral, but scary and sweet: Some thoughts on sex and emotional performance in Intimacies and What Do Gay Men Want?,” Women & Performance 19:2 (2009), 263.

[14] Lauren Berlant, “Nearly Utopian, Nearly Normal: Post-Fordist Affect in La Promesse and Rosetta,” Public Culture 19.2 (Spring 2007), 273-301; the essay has since been incorporated into Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 161-189; Jonathan Crary, 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep (New York: Verso, 2013). While rigorously centered on present conditions, for me these works extend a tradition perhaps initiated by Marx’s analysis of “the working day” in Chapter 10 of the first volume of Capital.

[15] Texts alluded to here include: Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick and Adam Frank, eds., Shame and Its Sisters: A Silvan Tompkins Reader (Durham: Duke University Press, 1995); Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003); Sara Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness; Ann Cvetkovich, Depression.

[16] Texts alluded to here include: Raymond Williams, Marxism and Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977), 129-135; Ann Cvetkovich, Mixed Feelings: Feminism, Mass Culture, and Victorian Sensationalism (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992); Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2007); Brian Massumi, Politics of Affect (London: Polity, 2015); Jonathan Flatley, Affective Mapping: Melancholia and the Politics of Modernism (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008); Kathleen Stewart, Ordinary Affects (Durham: Duke University Press, 2007).

[17] The advantage of the video essay for the study of acting now seems obvious: in retrospect, it seems painful or absurd that scholars were forced (in the best circumstances!) to rely on a series of frame enlargements to try to analyze camera movements, or musical sequences (or the soundtrack itself), or, again, the unfolding of an actor’s expressions or gestures.

 

 

The Cine-Files, issue 10 (spring 2016)