THE AUDIOVISUAL ESSAY: My Favorite Things
By Catherine Grant
Curatorial Note by CATHERINE GRANT, ‘THE AUDIOVISUAL ESSAY: My Favorite Things’, [in]Transition, 1.3, 2014.
(On Christian Keathley’s 50 Years On [above])
The poetics of the “work in movement” […] sets in motion […] a new mechanics of aesthetic perception […]. It poses new practical problems by organizing new communicative situations. In short, it installs a new relationship between the contemplation and the utilization of a work of art. (Umberto Eco, 22-23)
For me, one of the most compelling demonstrations of the full potential of […] videographic open work (Eco, 1989) is my favorite video essay: Christian Keathley’s 50 Years On.
This is not the first time I have curated it: I did so at my blog just over three years ago shortly after the video went public online. If I look back at the note I wrote then, I see that, much as I appreciated it straightaway, the unusual form of this essay made me anxious to situate its meaning within its verbal film studies thread. My first impressions weren’t inapt. In holding onto them quite so tightly, though, I believe I closed the work down. I wrote:
[50 Years On] beautifully posits and explores the idea of two different viewing strategies in the cinema: what Keathley calls a “literate” mode in which “a single-minded gaze is directed toward the obvious [cinematic] figure on offer” on the screen; and a “non-literate” mode, less narrowly focused, roaming instead “over the frame, sensitive to its textures and surfaces”.
But it isn’t Keathley who directly names anything in this video – even though he performs the voice over. He–the video–works instead through citing and siting: interspersing, in surprising ways, black screens with fragments from favorite film sequences and beloved accounts of cinema from a range of writers and filmmakers, withholding their sources and identities until the end. A regular editing rhythm is established, then, as soon as we begin to rely on its rules, it is modulated. The visual track similarly shifts between: plungings into darkness; flashings of light; dense textures; the interval of a blink; space for searching looks over staging in depth; foregrounding; surfaces; figures moving quickly, singly, in crowds; meanderings and stillness. We experience modernity, anachronism, synchronicity, asynchrony.
Above all, 50 Years On is an essay film about cinephilia. It is successful as an experimental adaptation of, or supplement to Keathley’s influential 2005 book, Cinephilia and History, Or the Wind in the Trees – performing the function, in my view, of a (concise) audiovisual Passagenwerk of personal and collective film history. It also stands alone. I watch it quite often and it has become as cherished an object as any of my favorite (cultural or intellectual) things. I find I am still curious about it, and gripped by its thrilling and insightful cinematic expedition through the terror of the unfamiliar to the comfort and, at times, pleasure of the familiar – and the other way around, too. But, almost unbelievably, one of the last things I really noticed about how the video works turns on one of my favorite things in it: a favorite song, from a favorite film scene. The soundtrack throughout is provided by John Coltrane’s jazz recording of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” from The Sound of Music (Robert Wise, 1965). In that film, this is the song Maria (Julie Andrews) comes up with to settle the children’s terror about the storm – it’s a hymn to, and performance of, the powerful effect of distraction, and the reassurance of immersion in (memories of) comforting objects when faced with anxiety. In using Coltrane’s improvised version, with its “quality of something so recognizable being edged toward unrecognizability (without falling into it)”, as Keathley puts it in his fascinating account of the video’s making, 50 Years On becomes an exploration of how cinema does and doesn’t comfort us. How the contract we buy into when we begin to watch a film involves us sort of knowing where it will take us, and of not knowing at all, but going (or not) with the flow, relying on our curiosity and our senses to make our way. In the first (fruitily) spoken words of the video (“I am told […] that you have some views for sale”) I am now reminded of Steve Neale’s brilliant insight in his 1980 BFI booklet on Genre: “What the consumer buys at the box office isn’t a film as such, but the right to view a film […] a process not a product.” (54) The video and its music (like the cinema) create a reflexive container, or frame, for this experiential process, for its anxieties as well as its pleasures – a more or less safe, but usually exciting ride.
There are many more things I could write about 50 Years On, about its intertextuality with film studies, or about the new things it makes me think and feel. It is a video in which formal and semantic complexity are held in communicative balance throughout. It also helps me to understand deeply what Cristina Álvarez and Adrian Martin mean when they write of their own audiovisual essay editing process:
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. (Álvarez and Martin, 2014)
Improvisational making and open-ended reading may make us more anxious than research in a more conventional, explanatory, demonstrative mode does, especially when we have to evaluate it as part of a publication process. However, as I noted in a recent interview about [in]Transition and videographic film studies (alongside my co-editors Drew Morton and Christian Keathley for the Aca-Media podcast (2014C)), we should really have more confidence in our form (the audiovisual), and in our knowledge of it and of how it works, even as we undoubtedly have a great deal more to learn about it. Videographic film studies may not be for everyone. But rigor is not only demonstrated by footnotes, or length, or by the other conventional signifiers of “quality” in written scholarly work; it is equally visible (and audible) in capable and effective handling of audiovisual material and procedures, in thoroughgoing and thoughtful approaches to videographic research. Illuminating audiovisual accounts and arguments can be vertical as well as horizontal, associative and poetic as well as linear, as Maya Deren might have put it (1953; Zera, 2013). Or, as Martin Heidegger might have said, new knowledge, new thinking, can be meditative and material as well as explanatory and calculative (1966: 47; Grant, 2014A).
- Álvarez López, Cristina, and Martin, Adrian, ‘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/
Deren, Maya. “Poetry and Film: A Symposium.” Speech. Cinema 16 Poetry and Film: A Symposium. 28 Oct. 1953. Cinema 16: Documents Toward History Of Film Society (Philadelphia: Temple UP, 2002), 202-12. Also online at: http://www.virtual-circuit.org/word/pages/Poetry/Symposium_Poetry.html
- Eco, Umberto, The Open Work. Translated by Anna Cancogni (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989)
- Grant, Catherine, ‘The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking’, ANIKI: Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image (Thematic Dossier on Cinephilia) 1.1, 2014A, Online at: http://aim.org.pt/ojs/index.php/revista/article/view/59/html.
- Grant, Catherine, ‘How long is a piece of string? On the Practice, Scope and Value of Videographic Film Studies and Criticism’, The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, September, 2014B. Online at: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/frankfurt-papers/catherine-grant/
- Grant, Catherine, Keathley, Christian, Mittell, Jason and Morton, Drew, ‘Confidence in Our Form’: Interview in Aca-Media Podcast 17, 2014C. By Chris Becker. Online at: http://www.aca-media.org/news/2014/9/11/episode-17-a-confidence-in-our-form
- Heidegger, Marton, Discourse on Thinking. Translated by John Anderson and E. Hans Freund (NewYork: Harper and Row, 1966)
- Keathley, Christian, ‘Notes on 50 Years On’, The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, September 2014. Online at: http://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/reflections/intransition-1-3/christian-keathley/
- Neale, Stephen, Genre (London: BFI, 1980)
- Zera, Caitlin, ‘Vertical Thinking: Building Meaning in Film Through Maya Deren and Martin Heidegger’, Webster University, 2013. Online at: https://www.academia.edu/5331270/Vertical_Thinking_Building_Meaning_in_Film_Through_Maya_Deren_and_Martin_Heidegger
Catherine Grant is Senior Lecturer in Film Studies at the University of Sussex. Author and editor of numerous film studies videos, as well as of written studies of intertextuality, film authorship and adaptation theories, she runs the Film Studies For Free,Filmanalytical and Audiovisualcy websites and, in 2012, guest edited the inaugural issue of online cinema journal Frames on digital forms of film studies. She is the founding editor of the REFRAME digital publishing platform, and is also founding co-editor (with Christian Keathley and Drew Morton) of [in]TRANSITION, a new videographic film and moving studies journal. Her latest project is the website you are currently visiting on The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory in Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies which she hopes will further encourage discussion and practice of this form.
Catherine Grant, ‘THE AUDIOVISUAL ESSAY: My Favorite Things’, [in]Transition, 1.3, 2014. Online at: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2014/09/14/audiovisual-essay-my-favorite-things