THE ONE AND THE MANY
Making Sense of Montage in the Audiovisual Essay
By Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
The field of the audiovisual essay, as it exists and grows today, comes in two main forms, with two major tendencies.
The first tendency is towards what we might call pedagogical demonstration – an enhanced form of the illustrated lecture, using new tools and means. To value and appreciate this form of the audiovisual essay, we believe it is important to place it within an entire, expanded history of film criticism that has navigated between text commentary and quoted/excerpted audiovision. This history would include: the live, multi-media lecture; film magazine design and layout; audio commentaries on DVD; in-depth television segments devoted to cinema; and much else (see, for instance, the research assembled at the website Kunst der Vermittlung: http://www.kunst-der-vermittlung.de/).
The second tendency is more obviously artistic, because it belongs to the history of cinema, video and digital media pieces that make collages from found footage and other sampled material. This is the tradition, very often, of the cine-poem – we call it the sublime tradition.
In an epic such as the Histoire(s) du cinéma series (1988-1998), we find Jean-Luc Godard drawing equally on both of these major traditions, willy-nilly – to the point that it is hard to tell where demonstration ends and cine-poem begins.
Where both these forms of the audiovisual essay meet is in the material they use to compose themselves: excerpts or extracts (sometimes very small slices) from pre-existing audiovisual works. Putting those pieces together to form a new work, pedagogical or poetic, is always going to be a matter of montage. Montage considered as a charged activity or practice goes well beyond, of course, mere, mechanical editing or simple joining end-to-end. Montage, as we all know (at least in theory!), makes meaning, forges connections, creates juxtapositions.
The Australian artist/writer Philip Brophy once said something profound about the practice and theory of montage. He asserted, in the course of a public forum on video art, that it does not matter how good a critic you are, how deep a theorist or how extensive a historian of film you may be; unless you have sat down and actually grappled with what it means and what it takes to cut two images and their accompanying sounds together, you will never understand what montage is, or the processes it entails. Cristina and I, as (initially) mainly text-based critics who then started to explore audiovisual montage, can testify: Mr Brophy is absolutely correct on this point.
What makes two images, or an image and a sound, or two images and two sounds, go together or work together – what creates the frisson of a montage connection? This is often a mystery – you can only solve it by doing it, as so many great artists have provisionally solved the mystery for themselves, each and every time, in action. But it is also a vast, endlessly explorable material practice with a huge number of variables, some of which we hope to sketch in this text.
Think of the Big Question in this way: what creates a good match, a good cut, a good connection – and what results in a bad match, a faux raccord or mismatch, not in a limited technical-professional sense of classical editing, but in an extensive aesthetic, rhythmic, emotive, graphic and even political sense? Bound up in this Big Question is another, which we think is germane to all current reflection on the audiovisual essay. Do we want to fuse our array of diverse, sampled elements into a ‘seamless whole’ (as it is often, tellingly, called) – or do we want the seams, intervals, gaps and discrepancies to not only be visible, but also play a driving, energetic, formative role in the finished work?
We find it useful, for the sake of a new reconsideration of audiovisual montage, to mine some terms from the film semiotics of the 1970s. In particular, the twin notions of homogeneity (smoothness, fusion, unity) and heterogeneity (evident internal difference).
We take it as axiomatic, from the material, semiotic perspective, that any piece or element of cinema is inherently, irreducibly heterogeneous ‘at birth’, as it were, in its raw state. (This was also the basis of Paul Willemen’s life-long argument  against critical discernment on the basis of ‘richness’: any fragment of any film, he protested, is ‘rich and complex’, precisely because it is heterogeneous!)
Every element we pluck out has many simultaneous levels, and multiple channels or tracks. When we confront any two elements, we are confronting two heterogeneous, internally multiple blocks. Montage means – and every editor knows this intuitively – finding which channels or tracks across these two pieces can be connected in some way, creating a ‘through line’, a passage or movement.
It is as if editing is all about, at heart, finding a means to ‘turn down the volume’ on some of the channels of a fragment, while simultaneously upping the volume on those that are important for you – and then forging that connection in the cut, making the channel flow on and forward a little more.
We could propose (somewhat provocatively) that the audiovisual essay, in its current state of evolution, is menaced by two major threats: on one side, too much homogeneity in the montage; and on the other side, too much heterogeneity! Meaning: on the one hand, smoothing things out too much, creating an overly fused, self-enclosed, too perfect object (such as we see often on television); or, on the other hand, having too much chaos and not enough connection – just bad matches and a lack of generative, productive correspondence between the pieces.
Let us consider a very brief work which offers an intriguing balance of homogeneity and heterogeneity – something between a good, simple, elegant gag and a radical critique. It is the trailer, only 98 seconds long, that Robert Bresson invited Godard to make for his film Mouchette in 1967. History does not record Bresson’s reaction to this trailer, but surely he got more than he bargained for.
Like many of Godard’s ultra-short works, this is a highly structured piece, but with a penultimate twist that deliberately breaks its own structure (a frequent tactic of the obsessively systematic but also anarchically anti-systematic JLG!). Godard has boiled down Bresson’s feature film to the following list of elements: the name ‘Mouchette’ uttered six times by different characters; nine image clips, selecting key moments of violence, tears, sexuality, religion and everydayness; and a song from Mouchette. Godard arranges this material in several alternating, tightly meshed chains: the song, line by line, is superimposed on the images; while a sequential text, printed on the screen in silence, forms a single, chopped-up description, leading us to the delightful statement that Bresson’s Mouchette is ‘in short, a Christian and sadistic film’ – a summary interpretation that the selection of images has by now suggested, or even made evident.
The trailer is bookended by the audio samples of voices calling ‘Mouchette’, which first bring the ‘coming soon to this cinema’ title card onto the screen word by word, and eventually also banish it word by word. Also just before the end, to smash the perfectly symmetrical system, is one of two sync shots retained from Bresson’s original, this one with dialogue – which, when wielded by Godard, has the sudden force of an abstract, political declaration: ‘You can count on me. I hate them. I’ll stand up to them’. A politics possibly absent from Bresson’s own film!
Note the absolutely brutal editing on a technical as well as aesthetic level. Godard has simply cut into and joined up, in his devised mathematical pattern, images and sounds from the print of the film supplied to him: there is no sound mixing, no smoothing-out of the transitions from one fragment to the other. It is an instance of what was later called, in the video era of the 1980s, crash editing – and the result is disjunctive, violent, yet tight and highly unified at the same time.
The Mouchette trailer creates its own work from the ruins of Bresson’s work (which, remember, did not even exist publicly when Godard’s intervention was first shown in theatres); it regards and refracts the original with both tender admiration and trenchant critique. It offers a model of how the audiovisual essay can create something new from something ‘old’ – even if that previously existing thing is, in fact, current.
To explore further the theoretical/practical idea of homogeneity and heterogeneity, we would like to analyse a piece titled Games. It is the first audiovisual essay I (Cristina) made, in 2009. It uses two well-known sequences from the films Germany Year Zero (1948) by Roberto Rossellini and Ivan’s Childhood by Andrei Tarkovsky (1962).
The original idea that inspired the making of this piece was very simple. It was a matter of using a double screen to compare two sequences that I had always put together in my memory – in particular, the two scenes in which the child protagonists are left alone and, using objects to hand in order to interact with the space they inhabit, each invent their own game.
Germany Year Zero and Ivan’s Childhood have many similar elements that work towards a homogeneity: with two boy protagonists of the same age forced to live in extremely hard conditions, both films are requiems for a lost or stolen childhood, films about orphans who desperately seek a father figure. In the two scenes that I wished to compare, there are also many punctual links (in movement, action, content of the games, etc.). In particular, there is a semantic connection which is especially powerful: in both cases, the game ends up turning into something more, into a reflection of the reality of war that surrounds each child, as well as a trigger that pushes them either to catharsis (in the case of Ivan’s Childhood) or to action (Edmund’s suicide in Germany Year Zero). Both scenes share the idea that, for a child, the deep realisation and recognition of a traumatic situation, and the open expression of their feelings about it, can only happen, almost unconsciously and indirectly, through the act of playing.
When I started to work on the editing of this piece, I realised, despite the many analogies between the films, that these fragments also exhibit significant differences, especially on the stylistic level – differences which are dictated mainly by the point of view adopted in each case.
In Ivan’s Childhood there is a subjective point of view. The spectator is drawn right into the centre of Ivan’s game. What we see and hear are what he sees and hears in his head. The hallucinatory, nightmarish style of the scene is a direct consequence of this, precisely corresponding to Tarkovsky’s desire to situate us in the position of his character, to show us the world as he sees it, to make us feel as he feels.
In Germany Year Zero, on the other hand, there is an objective point of view – we observe the scene from outside. André Bazin, in his beautiful 1949 text about the film, referred to this as ‘psychological objectivity’ (Bazin 1997: 124), the realism of its style. He wrote: ‘If we do know some things about this boy’s thoughts and feelings, however, it is never because of signs that can be read directly on his face, nor even because of his behavior, for we get to understand it only by inference and conjecture’ (Bazin 1997: 123).
When I started to edit, I realised that my initial idea – which was a comparative one, based mainly on uniformity and analogy – hit a crisis once the heterogeneity of the two fragments became evident. It was not that I was entirely unaware that these differences existed; rather, what I did not foresee is how they could become a problem in the audiovisual essay’s making. This is a crucial difference between audiovisual and written criticism: in a text we can leave aside what is not of our concern and focus only on the aspects that we wish to analyse; in an audiovisual essay, on the contrary, we need to work also with those aspects that do not fit our approach (especially if they are formal aspects). We cannot ignore them because they appear on the screen or on the soundtrack. We need, thus, to work with them, attenuating or incorporating them creatively into our discourse.
But, at a given moment, during that process of trial and error known as editing, I also noticed that, thanks to the distinct nature of the scenes, a dialogue sparked between them which I had not anticipated: a kind of telepathic communication between two children, between the madness of war and the devastation of the post-war. So I decided to explore that path, to investigate what one film could give to the other when they entered into dialogue.
What I discovered is that Tarkovsky’s film thus becomes a sort of reverse shot of this mystery that, in Germany Year Zero, was so crucial for Bazin: the inner reality which we never see. (Bazin: ‘In this mise en scène, the moral or dramatic significance is never visible on the surface of reality’ [1997: 124].) The images and sounds of Ivan’s Childhood penetrate the other film, devour it, transformed into an unconscious voice that calls to Edmund, activating a shift in his consciousness and dictating his movements. Whereas Edmund, on the other hand, becomes the embodiment of all that the Germans mean to Ivan – death, murder, horror – thus becoming a figure who symbolises Nazism itself, a figure against which Ivan projects his total rage.
If we compare the original idea that I started from for this piece with what it ended up becoming, we can find a sketch of one of the most exciting challenges facing a film critic when she or he launches into the practice of the audiovisual essay. A challenge very well expressed in a text by Gina Telaroli (2012): the putting-in-crisis of the hierarchy of thought and action.
The form that Games finally took is a mix of comparative analysis and invented dialogue. The comparative analysis would probably have also worked in a written text, because it is an idea that can to be developed and refined. It is difficult to completely enunciate and articulate it without language, since it belongs to the realm of the mind, the sphere of logic and argumentation. It is conceptual in a classical form and sense, like a theorem.
Conversely, the new path that I incorporated – to examine how the images and sounds of one film could affect those of the other, in a dialogue – is something that only the audiovisual essay can put into practice; it arises directly from working with the images and sounds. Here, in contrast to a written text, action precedes thought. If, when we write, it is a matter of giving shape to a thought or concept, here it is a matter of finding (to paraphrase Godard) a form that thinks – a form capable of generating ideas in motion. And in the audiovisual essay this is always, necessarily, a question tied up with montage.
In making this claim about montage, we must bear in mind the tools that digital editing programs put at our disposal, known as post-production tools. These now become, as much for the filmmaker who works in the found footage sphere as for the audiovisual essayist, genuine production tools.
On the one hand, these tools are what make the audiovisual essay into precisely an essay. By this, we mean that they are the tools allowing us to write with images and sounds – a new incarnation of Agnès Varda’s ideal of cinécriture (1994). On the other hand, they also work as tools of mise en scène – of photography, sound, and so on – because, with them, we can join two shots, but also alter the framing, magnify details, darken or eliminate parts of the image, modify the lighting, colour or contrast, play with the speed of movement, delete, change or add sounds and music, create superimpositions that did not exist in the original material …
Let us take the example of Pass the Salt (2006) by Christian Keathley. This audiovisual essay is devoted to analysing and interpreting part of a scene from Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder (1959). In it, Keathley makes extensive use of a zoom to enlarge and isolate a number of details in the shot (refilmed from a TV screen), while hiding others. In this fashion, he ensures that our attention is focused on those particular elements of the shot that he is commenting on at any given moment. He also alters the sound, raising or reducing its volume for specific purposes. Occasionally, so that the spectator can be made to concentrate on the audio track, Keathley opts for deleting the image altogether, and plays a sound loop over a black screen.
In his text ‘La Caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia’ (2012), Keathley distinguishes, principally, two registers of the audiovisual essay: the poetic and the explanatory (or what we have termed the cine-poem and pedagogical demonstration tendencies). For him, there are a number of advantages and risks associated with both registers. The poetic mode explores more thoroughly the audiovisual potential that this kind of new criticism offers – but runs the risk of being too dull or cryptic, of not being understood and, above all, not being accepted as criticism. The explanatory mode, on the other hand, tends to be clearer and more comprehensible, but usually its audiovisual potential is relegated to a secondary level, subordinated to verbal and written language.
Pass the Salt is an exemplary case of an audiovisual essay which can, without abandoning the explanatory mode, construct a fruitful combination of scripted voice-over (on the one hand) with the filmic images and sounds that constitute the object of study (on the other hand). While, in this piece, the greater part of the argument rests on the text that is read out, the material from Anatomy of a Murder is extensively treated, interacting with the commentary at each moment. The images and sounds are far more than an accompaniment or just a backdrop. In fact, they transcend the category of mere illustration to become crucial evidence, creatively manipulated to demonstrate Keathley’s argument.
In the annals of film theory and analysis, montage has become a relatively neglected term. Not forgotten, exactly, but untended, undeveloped – or taken in many, dispersed directions (such as Artavazd Pelechian’s somewhat obscure concept of distance montage, 2011). Montage can often feel, to many of us, like something inventoried and solved long ago as an aesthetic problem – by Sergei Eisenstein (1959) in the 1930s, or Noël Burch (1973) in the 1960s. Yet montage means today, in the digital age, more than just one shot following another. It is more than cutting and splicing, more than a simple succession of elements. In fact, it was always more than this – but changes in technology allow us to see such a truth more clearly.
Film history has often tried to oppose montage to mise en scène – understood as the spatial and pictorial organisation of the frame. But, in the digital age in which we are immersed, editing and staging not only shake hands, they also merge and form a whole. Eisenstein already had this intuition when he coined the chain of terms mise en scène, mise en shot and mise en série, referring not only to the staging and then photographic composition of what is inside the frame, but also to where that shot is placed in relation to those that precede and follow it.
Today, when we speak of montage, we no longer refer only to its narrative or sequential function, but also to the global, changing, dynamic arrangement of all the elements that compose a piece: multiple tracks of audio, multiple screens, inclusion of written or spoken text, etc. In other words, montage is not only something that creates a continuity between shots, but also everything that relates to the disposition, the setting into dialogue or conflict of different materials. (Hence the contemporary term dispositif to describe installation art – see Martin 2014.)
Harun Farocki, who frequently worked in gallery installations that employ multiple screens, proposes a distinction that proves very useful: hard montage versus soft montage. Hard montage corresponds to the classical conception of montage, where one image follows another. Soft montage, by contrast, is the type of montage that occurs when various screens are exhibited simultaneously. For Farocki, ‘one image doesn’t take the place of the previous one, but supplements it, reevaluates it, balances it’ – and thus soft montage has the advantage of combining different perspectives that establish ‘a general relatedness, rather than a strict opposition or equation’ (Heuser 2004: 302).
This relatedness to which Farocki refers is crucial for us, because it connects with the idea of channels mentioned earlier. We could assert that the success of an audiovisual essay depends, for the most part, on how we work with and modulate the different channels that exist in the fragments used. Normally, if we pay little or no attention to these channels, if we overlook their importance, the result is adversely affected. When we work with different extracts, we cannot play on all the elements at the same time – because some intensities interfere with others. We should learn to control and measure the components, deciding which to put in the foreground and which to relegate to the background.
We believe that the idea of channels is powerful because it is always in operation – not only during the strict production of an audiovisual essay but, indeed, much earlier. When we establish, as spectators, an association between two films or two scenes, what we are doing is, precisely, emphasising some channels and attenuating others. Or, in Farocki’s terminology, we are concentrating on their degrees of relation (‘relatedness’) over and above their degrees of separation.
This is exactly what happened with the two scenes from Germany Year Zero and Ivan’s Childhood in Games: favouring those channels that allowed communication between both films, and those degrees of relationship that united them, it was, at first, convenient to erase all their differences, so as to preserve the idea that the two sequences were a perfect match. However, the material, working process revealed the inadequacy of this mental assumption.
This is something that happens to us all the time as spectators: the scenes of a film turn out to be not quite as we remembered them. The affect that certain films create causes us to emphasise some elements and overlook others. We create layers, burying under the surface those elements we do not need, while bringing to the surface what really matters to us. This process can result in close-ups that we magnify, senses of duration that do not correspond to the actual film, and even shots that do not exist, that we have invented. Absent images and invisible narratives, in the terms suggested by Carlos Losilla (2014).
At other times, however, the opposite happens: films that, in principle or theory, seem far away from each other can reveal surprising degrees of relation – communicating, via multiple channels, with a fluidity we did not expect.
This is precisely what happened to us with the work Angst/Fear (2013). It is an audiovisual essay formed from two scenes, one in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha (1974), the other in James Foley’s American thriller Fear (1996).
In this case, we have two moments that present the same figural situation – a couple on a roller coaster ride – and the association of this situation with an extreme emotion experienced by a woman. As we started to study the fragments closely, we realised that they had almost the same duration, and followed a similar narrative arc. The colour design and the work with movement, the rhythms and pauses, were also surprisingly similar. Dealing with two films coming from very different traditions (European art cinema on one side, and American popular cinema on the other), it seemed to us a suggestive, provocative exercise to try to bring the two fragments together, and then mix them in such a way that it is not always easy to recognise which film each element belongs to – thus creating, between them, an imaginary scene unfolding in continuity.
This imaginary scene could, in turn, bring out a hidden or buried aspect of each film. Thus, Fassbinder’s film unmasks the presumed spontaneity of the moment of masturbation in Fear, showing us the more sinister side of the male courtship ritual. While Foley’s film, for its part, makes manifest the fact that Martha’s fear and anguish, which prompt her to vomit once the ride is over, are, at the same time, a perverse source of pleasure – even ecstasy.
We have discussed the semantic connection between fragments of different films. In general, a useful pedagogical idea for film studies is that, out of all the various channels that run through the heterogeneous medium that is cinema, three tend to dominate: the semantic, the stylistic and the narrative. Audiovisual essays can be grouped and compared in relation to which of these three broad streams they favour, via the selective, filtering work of their montage.
Many audiovisual essays are based, for instance, on stylistic correspondences: the echoes between certain shots from apparently very different films, certain arrangements of colour, certain gestures or music cues – this has often been explored, for instance, by Catherine Grant in her videographic work. It is a version of what Eisenstein once called overtonal montage.
It is rarer, however, for found footage audiovisual essays to really mine what we could call a narrative through line. It is the eternal dream of filmmakers to take pieces from many movies and somehow string them together to form what would be perceived and experienced by the spectator as a single, flowing narrative (however surreal this narrative might be) – a kind of ‘master text’ that would evoke the typical scenes, situations and plots of all narrative cinema, or at least narrative cinema in its most familiar and stereotypical forms. The best known example of this in recent years is György Pálfi’s ambitious Final Cut – Ladies and Gentlemen (2012) – from a director mostly renowned for his fiction films, Hukkle (2002) and Taxidermia (2006).
This ‘supra-fiction’ effect is, as it turns out, incredibly difficult to actually achieve convincingly. An audiovisual collage artist such as Craig Baldwin has tried it in works such as Tribulation 99 (1991), but he quickly discovered that he needed a rather heavy, insistent voice-over narration, written by himself, telling the story he invented, to cohere (or maybe force) the through line connections between the image fragments. Of course, the spectre of heterogeneity – of scattered bits and pieces pillaged from everywhere – is not a problem for a punkish artist like Baldwin: he likes the gaps, the bashed-together nature of his practice, to show.
By contrast, the Hollywood version of this game, as exemplified by Carl Reiner’s strange filmic object Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid (1982), tries (with elaborate techno-craft) to seamlessly blend clips from many predominantly 1940s films noir into one, parodic fiction – and there, the cohering factor is actor Steve Martin, interpolated as the reverse shot to everything or the mobile special effect inside everything. Without that starring anchor, it would still be just bits and pieces.
The complete reverse tactic was employed by Martin Arnold in his experimental video Deanimated: The Invisible Ghost (2002): there, all bodies are digitally removed, airbrushed out of scenes from The Invisible Man (1941). And many experimental makers of cine-poems have taken this route more directly: by isolating the frames, the parts of scenes where actors or people or bodies are absent, a cine-poem on architecture, living spaces or props can be more fluidly assembled. And this could probably again be classified as a stylistic, overtonal or sub-narrative correspondence between works.
In both Angst/Fear and another piece of ours, Intimate Catastrophes (2013), we too play a little with this dream of the composite narrative – evoking the flicker of a continuous fiction across fragments, without ever entirely erasing the difference between the films we use. But Intimate Catastrophes is less a strict fiction or single, homogenous story than a kind of cine-poetic fragment that alludes to certain aspects, tropes and types common to much fiction cinema, in general. In fact, in the brief text we wrote to accompany its appearance online, we called it ‘a fragment of cinema’ (Álvarez and Martin 2013).
We often begin our audiovisual essays not with a fully-formed thesis, but an idea or hunch, a dare or challenge to put some things together and see how they interact. This is a collage process described immortally by the Italian multimedia artist Gianfranco Baruchello who declares that, when he places diverse, heterogeneous objects on a canvas or in an installation, or even when he buries them in the ground, what he is looking for is ‘the secret of what all of them can mean together’. He muses: ‘Maybe one day I’ll make […] an inventory of all the things that clutter up my mind in a way that implies that each of these things is a complement of all the others, and that what they’re looking for is the secret of what all of them can mean together’ – but, in the meantime, ‘I think I’m just going to put it over there, just put it there and see what happens’ (Baruchello and Martin 1985: 38).
In the case of Intimate Catastrophes, here are the diverse elements, the amorphous sensations or hunches we started with. There was an idea about the workings of architecture, space and place (particularly property and real estate) in cinema, and the dramas of bodily movement, encounter and collision in tightly constructed fictional spaces that these conditions enable. There was an interest in the ‘eternal triangle’ plot of melodrama: one woman between two men, one man between two women. There was a fixation on certain small, crucial, intense moments of upset or trauma: moments where tiny, personal, close-to-the-body things (such as a necklace) break, or are dropped.
As usual, we wanted to go across historical periods, across genres, across so-called popular cinema and art cinema examples (as in Angst/Fear) – to find the figural connections where we could tie up our chosen elements. In this instance, we jump from Boris Barnet and Josef von Sternberg in the 1930s to Jean Epstein in the 1940s and then ahead to Alain Resnais in 2006.
Intimate Catastrophes is a concentrated, cryptically poetic example that is working simultaneously on the three different kinds of patterned connection we have been discussing. It has the sense or shape of a story, even though it is not a singular storyline you can actually synopsise: that is the narrative level. Then there are the semantic connections leaping from film to film, such as the necklaces breaking, the pearls falling, the drink tray unsettled in motion. Then there are stylistic nodes, which speak to a subterranean history of forms in cinema: how Resnais recreates, in his dissolve-superimpositions, the magical crystal ball of Jean Epstein, which we then use to frame the sketch-story of this fragile cinematic world that is breathed into being at the start, and then smashed to pieces hardly three minutes later.
The work, as a whole, is also about memory, a specific memory-experience of cinema – call that cinephilia, if you wish. Like Grant and Keathley in their 2014 collaboration, ‘The Use of an Illusion: Childhood Cinephilia, Object Relations, and Videographic Film Studies’, we worked with so-called ‘cinephilic moments’ that seemed, for us (and particularly, in this case, Adrian), to be mysterious events, nodal sensations lodged inside a filmgoer’s unconscious imaginary. They had ‘stuck’ because they suggested some obscure, psychic point of origin. But, rather than psychoanalyse that evidence of origin ‘backwards’, in what Paul Ricoeur (1978: 181) calls a ‘regressive decomposition’, to an individual’s mind and lived history, we decided to track it forwards, teleologically, into the material, embodied, figural form these sensations take in particular achievements of audiovisual art. (For a fuller account of this methodological distinction between decomposition and teleology, see Martin 2012a.)
A wonderful quotation from Raymond Bellour (2012: 25) is pertinent to this research: he proposes that a film – a good, rich film, at any rate – ‘offers an irreducibly singular configuration, in which the singularities of space intersect with the fatalities of time’. It seems to us that the audiovisual essay form offers a way to understand, appreciate and also multiply the singularities of cinema as we have always known it – and maybe even a way to alter and reconstruct some of its famous fatalities. Because, as Serge Daney once reminded his readers: ‘Fantasies are the least personal thing in the world. They are collective. And dreams only become troubling when they are retold, as in Buñuel. When you recount your dream, you are no longer yourself. A dream is only a montage of coded elements, obeying precise, impersonal rules’ (Daney 1991: 60). So, in this light, the cinematic signs of a particular individual’s psychic origin may well be the key to a shared ‘historic disturbance of memory’, to adapt the title of Marcus Bergner’s 1987 experimental animation.
As mentioned, Intimate Catastrophes comes with a brief, written text – barely 700 words. All of our audiovisual works, in fact, come with text, because we like words, and we hold to the conviction that all the media – images, sounds and language in all its states – need to be drawn into a multiple game in order to enrich this new type of film criticism (see Martin 2012b). And also because different forms and formats can do and explore different things, we like to have this diversity happening in a multi-channel way, whenever possible.
The text accompanying Intimate Catastrophes is titled ‘Troubles Every Day’. In an attempt to match or meet the audiovisual part of the work, the writing we provided is deliberately elliptical, telegrammatic, aphoristic, drawing its various motifs together in a poetic swirl:
Cinematic memory and the physicality of place enchant one another. Cinema is nothing without its weights and measurements, its openings and impasses. When nothing will have taken place but the place itself, the narrative of the encounter will still echo there. Rewriting Italo Calvino, we can say:
‘The film, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of the streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.’ (Álvarez and Martin 2013)
A final thought. As Gilberto Perez expresses well in the main title of his book The Material Ghost (2000), films are both solidly material and tantalisingly immaterial things. We can nail them down in frame-by-frame analysis; but they will also, always, be fleeting, vanished experiences of affect and memory. In the language and theory of montage, cinema is both continuity and discontinuity, and every film is irreducibly both one and many.
All worthwhile film criticism, in whatever form, it seems to us, is trying to find a way to catch, describe and account for, both of these things, these sides or essences of cinema: both the materiality and the immateriality. The audiovisual essay offers a stereophonic, two-fisted way to help us get a hold of this phantasmatic cinema which we shall always enjoy watching escape from us.
Álvarez López, Cristina and Adrian Martin (2013), ‘Troubles Every Day’, Transit (14 February), http://cinentransit.com/catastrofes-intimas-2/. Accessed 20 July 2014.
Baruchello, Gianfranco and Henry Martin (1985), Why Duchamp: An Essay on Aesthetic Impact (Kingston: McPherson).
Bazin, André (1997), Bazin at Work: Major Essays and Reviews from the Forties and Fifties (London: Routledge).
Bellour, Raymond (2012), La Querelle des dispositifs (Paris: P.O.L.).
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Edited by Catherine Grant
© Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin November 2013 / July 2014.
Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, ‘The One and the Many: Making Sense of Montage in the Audiovisual Essay’, The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, September, 2014. Online at: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/frankfurt-papers/cristina-alvarez-lopez-adrian-martin/
Cristina Álvarez López is the co-editor and co-founder of the Spanish online film journal Transit: Cine y otros desvíos, and co-curator of the section on audiovisual essays at NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies. Her critical writing and audiovisual essays have appeared, over the past six years, in the following international publications: Transit, LOLA, Trafic, Caimán: Cuadernos de cine, MUBI Notebook, Screening the Past, De Filmkrant, Frames, Shangri-la, Contrapicado, Gobshite Quarterly, Lumière, Blogs & Docs, La Furia Umana and Desistfilm. She has translated numerous critical and theoretical texts on film. She also has written chapters for the following books: Chantal Akerman, Paul Schrader: El cineasta frente a los tiempos, Max Ophüls: Carné de baile, Philippe Garrel. With Adrian Martin, she co-organised the conference The Audiovisual Essay: Theory and Practice (November 2013), and co-teaches a course on audiovisual essays at Goethe University, Frankfurt.
Adrian Martin is Professor of Film Studies at Goethe University (Frankfurt), and Monash University (Melbourne). He is published internationally and has been translated into over twenty languages, with regular columns in De Filmkrant (Holland) and Caimán (Spain). He is the author of six books (Phantasms, Once Upon a Time in America, Raúl Ruiz: Magnificent Obsessions, The Mad Max Movies, Last Day Every Day, What is Modern Cinema?) and is Co-Editor of the online film journals LOLA and Screening the Past, as well as the books Movie Mutations and Raúl Ruiz: Images of Passage.