Teaching Videographic Film Studies

Christian Keathley

 

The Cine-Files, issue 7, fall 2014

 

Several years ago, I wrote an essay titled “Teaching the Scholarly Video,” which appeared in Frames Cinema Journal. At that time, I had twice taught a course on videographic essay production at Middlebury College, and in this essay, I offered a report on my experience. I outlined the approach I took to the course, described assignments, and presented several exemplary student videos. But another production course I recently taught encouraged me to change my approach to teaching videographic film studies. This essay offers an updated report.

The class that prompted my rethinking was an introductory level video production class called Filmmaking with Limits. Inspired by a similar course taught at Bucknell University by my friend Eric Faden, this course offered students a series of short production assignments, each distinguished by a set of rigid formal parameters. This was a departure from my earlier approach to the course. The first few times I offered it, my introductory video production course consisted primarily of short exercises that began by introducing some cinematic feature (e.g., the dynamic between on screen and off screen space), then asking students to produce a short video on some subject (e.g., a childhood memory) that explored this feature. But in my experience, students have great difficulty in thoughtfully imposing cinematic form on their story ideas. They get too preoccupied with their subject, and the formal element gets lost.

The exercises in Filmmaking with Limits dispense with any content prompt. I give students only the form – they decide what to put in it. Typically, students would work in groups of three to complete the assignments. Here are two examples:

For this assignment, you are to produce a short video (1-2 min.). Every person in your group should appear in the video, but only one person can be on screen at a time, and every cut must be motivated by an eyeline match.

 You are to produce a video consisting of 15 shots. The first and 15th must be the same, the second and 14th must be the same, the third and 13th must be the same, and so on. Only the eighth shot will be completely unique. By “the same,” I mean the same framing of the same location. The content of the shot can change a bit. For example, someone present in shot 1 might be absent in shot 15, or movement can reverse direction.

The great effectiveness of this approach is that, in the resulting videos, not only does form maintain a place equal to content, but students come to understand that commitment to a form can serve to generate content.

The success of this class led me to rethink my Videographic Film Studies course. Also, around this time I was noticing that the video essays I liked the most seemed to be organized around a set of self-imposed formal parameters. Further, these parameters were being employed spontaneously by a variety of makers such that a set of minor genres seemed to be developing. I focused the second issue of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, of which I am co-editor, on video essays that were marked by such formal boundaries.

But that was after I had reorganized and taught my own video essay course, and seen for myself that assignments based on a set of parameters work just as well for making video essays as they do for making more traditional video works. This approach gives students the focus they need, while allowing them freedom to follow their interests. For this revised class, I began by asking each student to select three films – ones they already knew well – to work with throughout the term.

I would like to offer here three of the assignments that I used in my class, along with an example of especially strong student work. In addition, I have asked the students to write a brief statement about their own process of making.

  1. Because many videographic essays involve voice-over narration, I wanted an assignment that would give the students a chance to practice narrating in two different ways so that they could understand first-hand how vocal performance (however subtle) is crucial to the effectiveness of a videographic essay.

Version A: One of the most common forms of voice-over narration that students encounter is the director’s commentary that is included on many DVDs. I asked the students to select a short scene from one of their movies and record a commentary as if they were the director. They should select certain specific elements of the scene to focus on, though I wanted this video to have something of the quality of a scene analysis, offered in the conversational manner of the director commentary. Here is Stella Holt’s director commentary for a scene from Drive (2011)

Version B: For the second version, I asked them to take the same scene and tell a story over it. What kind of story? I didn’t know – just a story. It was up to them to decide what kind. Some of the students extended the director commentary and spun some fictionalized anecdote about difficulties they had while shooting the scene. But Stella did something completely unexpected.

Comments by Stella Holt:

I had been working with Drive for several weeks. I chose to work with Drive because I remembered watching the film a year or so before and recalled the stunning quality of the cinematography. I decided it could be rewarding to work with such beautiful images. As anticipated, I found great relief in sitting down to edit each assignment, knowing that the media I created would at least look good, an unfamiliar sentiment for most film students. With that in mind, I went into the commentary and anecdote assignment somewhat uninspired as I worried it would yield a limited creativity and thus an unsatisfactory product.

I went about the assignment backwards and tackled the anecdote portion first. I figured I would be able to add a director’s commentary to any scene in the film, but the importance for that same scene to work with an anecdote reigned supreme. I started looking for stories online including poems, fables, and finally children’s stories. Soon after, I started thinking about the recording quality of the anecdote. I wanted richness in the audio that would match the richness I was finding in the film, and I feared I wouldn’t be able to create such a soundtrack with my own reading of a story. When I found the Disney recording of “Ferdinand the Bull,” I knew I had my “anecdote.” The recording contained layers of sound – including the wonderful animated narration – and it had an authentic quality that reminded me of my own LP copy of Ferdinand the Bull, complete with a tattered exterior and pages brittle from countless reads. As I listened to the recording, I began to realize that Ferdinand shared numerous qualities with Gosling’s character, The Driver.

Both Ferdinand and The Driver are placed in violent situations in which they want no part. While Ferdinand wants nothing more than to “sit quietly and smell the flowers,” The Driver desires a happy and quiet relationship with Irene. While Ferdinand is forced into the bullring, The Driver becomes involved in a mob heist that eventually leads to betrayal and violent retaliation.

I chose the violent hotel scene in Drive because of the pacing in the action. I was fascinated by the buildup of the scene, combined with the explosion of violent and graphic action. This scene is also the first in which we see The Driver retaliate violently, signifying a turn in his character. As I began to place the two together I was bouncing in my seat as I realized the ways in which the two elements began to mesh. The original audio recording was over seven minutes long, while my scene lasted only some three and a half minutes. While I did lightly edit the scene in order to make it fit with the audio, most of my editing took place through the cutting and blending of the audio track. I stretched some sounds and cut a great deal of the story to make it fit with the scene with the aim to poetically parallel the visuals at times while pulling away at others.

I loved the way the story introduced Ferdinand and I edited the audio to similarly do so with our introduction to The Driver in the scene. This paralleling and pulling away happens time and time again throughout the piece. The Driver’s aggression with the woman matched the growing of Ferdinand, and when Ferdinand didn’t look where he was sitting matched with The Driver’s look behind him while sitting on the bed. This was followed by the explanation of “a bumble bee,” which matched with the rattling of the doorknob, and so on. One of my favorites of this matching comes with the brief calm in the tone of the story as well as The Driver’s moment to himself as he leans against the wall (beginning at 2:15). Just as the story begins to ramp back up with the parade in the bullfight, it is as if The Driver realizes the immediate danger and speed at which events are happening in the hotel room. This is followed by a very carefully matched sequence in which the sound effects of the story and that of the film seem to inform one another. I then decided to match each of the people The Driver would subsequently kill with the accentuation of the names of the different players in the parade in the story, beginning with the Banderilleros, then the matador, and finally the bull. Likely my favorite moment in the entire piece comes with the matching of the humming of the narrator with the zoom in on The Driver’s face, panting and covered in blood, timed with the end of the zoom and the slow reading of the name, “Ferdinand.” Finally, we watch The Driver retreat into the darkness behind the wall of the bathroom and disappear just as we are informed that Ferdinand is “very happy.”

When I had reached the completion of my first pass of editing on this piece, my previous apprehension of the assignment had completely disappeared and I was absolutely ecstatic about the direction of the video. I took that enthusiasm to the sound recording room and spent some time watching the scene and jotting down ideas that seemed like something a director might say during a commentary. I started to look at color and pacing and eventually came up with the loose thesis about the film as told in my commentary piece. While I wrote down ideas, I did not compose a script, as I wanted the recording to maintain a casual quality.

I found both components of the assignment to be valuable for my learning in different ways as they each helped me to learn and see things in Drive I had not noticed before. The anecdote pushed me to edit aurally rather than visually, a practice I had done little of in prior assignments. The commentary forced me to imagine the thought that may have gone into the film on an aesthetic and thematic level. I would describe the primary characteristic of both components to the assignment as that of discovery. Throughout the entire process, I felt I was uncovering even more parallels between Ferdinand the Bull and Drive, as well as parallels between the scene and the specific recording of the story, in addition to finding and then articulating thematic and aesthetic elements of Drive.

 

  1. Some years ago, or so I am told, Dušan Makavejev taught a course at Harvard in which he would screen two films side-by-side to bring them into dialogue with one another in unexpected ways. When I was doing an M.F.A. at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the mid-‘90s, one of my professors borrowed this idea, screening Persona (1966) alongside Battle of Algiers (1966). It took only about five or six minutes for the two films to start ‘talking’ to one another through their images and sounds – mirroring, contrasting, blending. Most uncanny were those moments in which a character in one film spoke, only to be ‘answered’ by a character from the other film. Digital technologies have radically facilitated such dialoguing between films, and such recombinations have become one prominent sub-genre of videographic essays. With this assignment, I asked students to do something similar, creating a dialogue between two (or even all three) of their films. Cade Schreger was working with Moon (2009), but went off book for his other film.

Comments by Cade Schreger:

Why do robots, cyborgs, androids, and the like consistently appear in science fiction? I believe that my perpetual fascination with characters such as these arises from the unique perspective from which they interact with aspects of humanity. I have found that science fiction – regardless of its medium – is often able to provide a perspective into our most human qualities in a particularly forceful way. Within the genre, the lines between human and artificial become blurred – and it is this aspect of sci-fi that I sought to explore through the integration of these moments from Moon and 2001: A Space Odyssey. Thus, my intent in creating this videographic essay was to examine the effect garnered from mixing certain tonal phenomena that we consider to be inherently, and exclusively, the domain of humans – such as intrigue, concern, deception, and guilt – with characters who are anything but human: Gerty (Moon) and the character to which he pays direct homage, Hal 9000 (2001).

In compiling the clips themselves, I attempted to locate clips without music or much diegetic background sound, as I wanted the direct focus of the video to be centered around the conflict between tone, one which is naturally “robotic,” and content – an indeterminate conversation, albeit one that clearly harbors severe implications for the two characters. For me, it was not the intricacies or specifics of their conversation that I was concerned with, but rather the underlying concepts and emotions – ones that I hoped would carry a tangible weight to them. Similarly, I wanted the context of their conversation, what had occurred prior to these moments in both films, to become inconsequential; the viewer’s attention would ideally be transfixed by the severity of the present moment, one that would be hard to believe could be elicited by “robots.”

 Additionally, while I believe the dialogue to be the primary motivating force of the video, I endeavored to solely employ shots that reveal little – if any – of the background world or setting for either of these characters. With the exception of several insert shots that reveal the ambiguous “uncovering on the moon,” the widest frame with which we see either of these characters is in a medium shot. In one sense, this decision was made to additionally heighten the importance of the dialogue by removing cluttered or particularly dense shots that might capture the viewer’s attention; however, it was also implemented as an additional layer through which to view a certain anthropomorphism of these characters. Similar to the way in which stars and protagonists are often framed in close-ups, driving the attention of the viewer to the character itself rather than their accompanying background, these clips bid to focus the viewer on these characters solely. In these moments, the artificial intelligences have become the stars. Thus, my ultimate goals in creating this video were to explore not only how the anthropomorphism of artificial characters alters our reading of particular filmic moments, but also to present what might typically be viewed as a conversation between two mechanically-created entities and engineer it rather into a discourse between two integral characters.

  1. On a panel at the 2014 SCMS conference in Seattle, Ben Sampson screened a very effective video in which Matt Zoller Seitz and Kim Morgan adapted Roger Ebert’s review of Mike Figgis’ 1988 film Stormy Monday. As Ben noted, the video doesn’t simply add images to Ebert’s words – though it does do that. It also develops its own points through the careful selection and combination of image and sound, moments that are not addressed by Ebert. I decided to borrow this video as the model for the students’ first assignment, mainly because I liked the way that adapting written criticism into an audiovisual format functioned as a kind of half-step toward working exclusively in an audiovisual form. I asked the students to locate a review for one of their selected films and set about adapting it. Here is an ‘adaptation’ by Josh Swartz.

Comments by Josh Swartz:

This video essay emerged from deeply-rooted frustration. I had been working with Spike Lee’s Do The Right Thing (1989) all semester but nothing I had produced to that point had adequately underscored the film’s continued social relevance. It is that quality of social immediacy and urgency 25 years after its initial release that strikes me as the film’s most important legacy.       

The assignment was to use an existing film review in harmony with the subject of that particular review (the film) to create a video essay. I knew three things going into this process. First, I knew I wanted to make a piece about Do The Right Thing (1989). Second, due to other assignment deadlines I knew I would have to finish the piece in one sitting. And third, I knew that I didn’t want to use a film review as voice-over narration. That is a more traditional strategy, which would have made the chosen review the authority over my piece and limited subsequent analysis to focusing on how well I re-edited the film to match the voice-over. I began the project without an outline or thesis, as one might for a written essay, hoping to draw inspiration from the process of construction itself.

The crux of the film involves white cops murdering a young black man, Radio Raheem, and a mostly black crowd trashing a pizza shop in response. I chose to focus on this part of the film because it closely imitates the type of police violence and response that plague this country and captivate the national consciousness for months at a time. The Trayvon Martin murder and ensuing George Zimmerman acquittal was the story in the news as I sat down to make the video. Two grand jury decisions, released nine days apart, not to indict the white cops responsible for killing Michael Brown and Eric Garner, respectively, are making headlines as I write this essay. In fact, Eric Garner’s murder, caught on videotape, so closely resembles Radio Raheem’s that Spike Lee actually recut that scene from the film with Eric Garner’s videotape to produce an unsettling comparison not unlike the one I strive for in my piece.

I read Roger Ebert’s original review of the film in which he writes “…[Do The Right Thing] comes closer to reflecting the current state of race relations in America than any other movie of our time.” After reading that line I did a double-take and checked the date of the review: June 30th, 1989. I half expected it to have been written in 2014. But other initial reviews condemned the film for fear it would incite “young urban audiences” (read: young blacks) to riot. The very stereotypes underlying these reviewers’ condemnations of the film (fear of black lawlessness, for one) are issues examined in the film itself.

I created three separate parts to my video essay, each intertwining aspects from the film with different media objects related to Trayvon Martin. I identify those three sections as ‘Radio Raheem and Trayvon Martin’s murders,’ ‘the Zimmerman and Do The Right Thing riots,’ and lastly ‘the end quote and timeline.’ I will describe each section separately to more accurately reflect the process of construction. Though my below descriptions include more in-depth analysis than I was able to make at the time of assemblage, I realize now that these analyses underscored a ‘gut feeling’ at the time of construction that compelled me to make the decisions I made.

Trayvon Martin’s murder at the hands of George Zimmerman had occurred 14 months prior to this assignment and Zimmerman’s acquittal was still making waves in the news. I stumbled onto a news report of one juror’s explanation of the decision to acquit George Zimmerman of all charges. In the report she emphasizes the police’s use of “reasonable force” to control an unpredictable “230-pound man.” I decided the audio from the news report and the visuals from Radio Raheem’s murder were the two most compelling aspects of each object. When I layered the audio from the report over the visuals from the film I appreciated the way the two objects interacted with one another. The juror seems to acknowledge the presence of the on-screen visuals by mentioning a ‘videotape.’ But the visuals actively undermine what the juror is saying. They depict a similar event to the one she describes (cops kill a large, intimidating – implied black – man), except the cops on-screen clearly use intentional, excessive violence instead of “reasonable force.” Even though the viewer knows beyond a doubt that one object is fiction and the other is a news report, the uncanny parallels between the two inevitably cast doubt over the veracity of the juror’s words.

Next I found a recording of the 911 call placed by one of Martin’s neighbors seconds before Zimmerman shoots him. Though it’s poor quality, you can hear shouting in the background and eventually gunshots. The call is chilling in its immediacy and because we now know exactly what was happening at that moment. This time the visuals mirror as opposed to juxtapose the audio. The action on-screen could pass as the action from the background of the phone call. The most notable of these matches is when a cop aggressively kicks Radio Raheem, who is lying dead on the ground. The kick and simultaneous exclamation from the officer happens to coincide with a particularly loud shout from the call. This is one of those moments that I can’t claim to have planned, though its unintentional nature reinforces the parallel I attempt to draw between the murder in the film and police violence in real life. Next I decided to add a recording of the actual verdict to acquit Zimmerman following the 911 call. This recording possesses a finality that matches the shot of the cop car pulling away from the crime scene carrying a dead Radio Raheem. I added an increasingly red hue to the visuals in this entire sequence for reasons similar to Spike Lee’s in choosing to make his whole film look “hotter” – to emphasize increasing tension.

After Radio Raheem’s murder occurs the much debated ‘riot’ scene. Many of the reviews I read argued about whether Mookie tossing a trash can through the window of the pizza shop, and therefore supposedly inciting the ensuing riot, was the ‘right thing to do.’ From my perspective it’s frustrating that a debate even exists. Too many people express outrage over the destruction of the pizza shop but fail to condemn the police officers who had murdered Radio Raheem just moments earlier, what I consider the true catalyst of the riot. The immediate valuation of private property (specifically white property) over human life (specifically black life) happens all the time and reflects society’s priorities. I even hesitate to call property destruction violent in light of the truly State-sanctioned violence towards human beings that precipitates these responses in the first place.  

I found a news report of riots in L.A. after the Zimmerman verdict was announced in which the reporter recounts the devolvement of a nonviolent protest into a riot. She says, “a group of mostly younger people start marching but soon run wild in the streets of L.A.” The report shows footage of mostly black youths jumping on cars and ripping down fences. This type of media coverage is problematic in many ways and gets at much of the issues in Do The Right Thing. The footage and language used in the report perpetuate the stereotypical criminalization of black and brown bodies. It also forgoes any serious examination of the hundred-plus year legacy of racial hierarchy and class exploitation in this country that serves as primary motivator for those sorts of riots. Specific instances of brutal, often unpunished violence against marginalized populations are rallying points for communities to acknowledge and unite against that violent legacy. As Martin Luther King said in 1968, riots are the “language of the unheard.”

I decided to incorporate footage from the film riot scene midway through the news report to blur the line between fiction and reality. Even though the details of his reporting clearly don’t match perfectly to the action onscreen (particularly since it is supposed to be aerial coverage) it seemed close enough to make an effective comparison. The most ironic and saddening line of the news segment occurs when the reporter says, “someone could have been hurt here this evening,” in reference to the rioting, ignoring the hurt which triggered the filmic and actual riots in the first place.

I also included scrolling quotes from negative (even racist) reviews of the film in the news report alongside footage from the riot scene. I hoped this contrast would show how similar our responses to these incidents are today as compared with 25 years ago (news report vs. quotes), as well as how differently some people perceived the movie when it was first released as opposed to today (when it is considered one of the greatest movies of all time). There’s a lot going on in this section with two separate sets of visuals in addition to audio. I think the chaos presented by the three simultaneous streams of information is fitting based on the subject of that information – the riot – and allows for a re-interpretation of the film in light of its position in a new context.

The last section includes a long scrolling quote and timeline – all in white text on a black screen – set to the main theme from the film’s score. These decisions were largely intended to emulate the original film, which ends in a similar way, with two quotes about violence from Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. The quote I use as a scrolling text paragraph is the quote from Ebert’s original review, which initially motivated me to create the piece.

I hesitated to include the timeline because these have a way of seeming all-inclusive, while inevitably skipping over and/or simplifying events of great importance. But a timeline proved useful for presenting the events discussed in the piece in a chronological context. I also decided to include the date on which the film was added to the AFI list of the 100 greatest movies of all time. While a primarily white organization acknowledging the importance of a film about race relations may suggest this country has made great progress in recent years, I intend to introduce doubt to that assumption and emphasize that there is still work to be done by placing that date next to the latter dates about the Trayvon Martin case.

When I was asked to write this essay about my process in making this video, I considered re-editing the video to remove Rodney King from the timeline. I was originally planning to use news footage from the Rodney King riots, and when I decided not to I forgot to update the timeline. I then considered re-editing to include dates related to the killings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Renisha McBride, Amadou Diallo, and others. In fact, there are hundreds of names I could have included because, according to a report from the “Malcolm X Grassroots Movement” (MXGM), a black person is killed by police, security guards, or self-proclaimed vigilantes every 28 hours. But I chose against re-editing because I realized that my usage of Trayvon Martin’s case in parallel the film is in no way intended to gloss over all the other incidences of police violence that have occurred (and will likely continue to). Much to the contrary, my intention was to make one comparison that will hopefully illuminate, at least in part, gross instances of injustice that happen too often in real life and are depicted so vividly in this important piece of cinema. In making this comparison I was able to better understand why Do The Right Thing has retained and even increased in relevance in the 25 years since its release.

It is worth noting that, in each case, the student’s first step was to follow the approach of the course and impose limitations of their own. Stella didn’t want to use her own voice for telling a story, Cade didn’t want any soundtrack music or wide shots, Josh didn’t want to have his selected movie review read in voice over. As with the assignment itself, these limitations help lead them to imaginative means for organizing their videos. These aesthetic choices are analogous to the rhetorical choices we make when writing an essay – which bit of evidence to put first or last, where to insert quotations for greatest effect, and so on. Such formal choices shape the meaning of the videographic essay just as they shape the argument of a written essay. With this, the works employ the very methods used by their objects of study – motion pictures.

One of my colleagues here at Middlebury has an expression he uses whenever a student does exactly what is asked by an assignment – no more, no less. “They have completed the contract,” he says a bit sadly. The most exciting student works we read or watch do not simply complete the contract – they do more. Or even better, they bend, stretch, and even disfigure the contract such that it fits what they want to do. Each of these students did something more and other than ‘complete the contract’. Assignments such as these facilitate such bending and stretching because the parameters are sufficiently rigid and sufficiently flexible. In each of these student works, I got what I asked for and amazed at all the other things they brought along.

 

 

Christian Keathley is Associate Professor in the Film & Media Culture Department at Middlebury College. He is a co-founder and co-editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies.