Closing Event of the Audiovisual Essay Conference at the Frankfurt Filmmuseum, November 24, 2013
DISCUSSION PANEL: Have Your Cake and Eat It, Too
With Cristina Álvarez López, Catherine Grant, Carlos Losilla, Adrian Martin, Manu Yañez
Catherine Grant: This is the first conference to focus on this specific form, the audiovisual essay. Other conferences looked at cinema remixes and media mutations; but this is the first one to focus on the idea of an essay form which is audiovisual purely or in large part, in a multimedia context of contemporary online publishing and film culture.
So, for me, it has been a brilliant experience as somebody who’s been working on this, as it has really magnified the amount of discourse available about this subject. We are really forging some concepts that I’m sure we’re going to be taking forward; we are talking about the kinds of new knowledge that audiovisual essays themselves can produce, the things they do differently from written film studies or film criticism. But we’ve also been adding to the discourse about what audiovisual essay theory is.
I’m going to start with a few remarks about things that have occurred to me, before asking each of the speakers if they can tell us something new that they have discovered as a result of this discussion and everybody’s papers.
We really have been looking at practice and theory, which I think is very important, because up until now there hasn’t been such a great amount of discussion about practice. A lot of the earlier pieces of writing on this form — Christian Keathley’s [essay ‘La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia’, in Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, (eds), The Language and Style of Film Criticism (London: Routledge, 2011)], in particular – focus on what audiovisual essays did or looked like, or on the kinds of forms that were emerging in them. But, even if Keathley had made videoessays of the type he had written about by then, he wasn’t especially reflecting on his own practice.
I’ve done so a little and tried to reflect about that; and I know Cristina has done it a bit in some of her articles at Transit. So it was great to hear some more words about that. And I think it was particularly important for me that Adrian and Cristina talked so much about montage. Because one of the things that struck me is that, not only they were describing their experience as practitioners, they were also providing new thinking about montage in cinema, in audiovisual forms generally — not only reminding us of some of the concepts from the 1970s, but also describing those concepts and reapplying them in ways that actually are very generative and productive when we are looking around audiovisual culture now.
So I think that this is one of the claims that I would make for the audiovisual essay confidently, as a result of this workshop: that it isn’t just about us playing with these little forms because they are nice, they do certain things really well, and they’re beautiful to watch; they are actually new ways of thinking about cinema. Now, they are not completely new, as we have all argued: the film essay has done this for many years before us, and film scholars like Laura Mulvey and others, working in film and in writing, have used it to think through questions of film theory. But we are working in a different landscape now, and the digital context, which has very much come through all our discussions, has really changed things. So, what we used to say about film isn’t as straightforwardly true or applicable when we look at the audiovisual essay.
I was also interested in the way that an existing debate about the audiovisual essay resurfaced in this conference, including in a previous session: the idea of different poles of the spectrum on which this work situates itself. We came up with many more words for it: Chris Keathley’s classic explanation for it is the explanatory at one end, and the poetic at the other end. But Adrian and Cristina produced some new words, and also Manu who talked about the didactic end and the poetic end. We’ve also seen how we are in danger, perhaps, of some mischaracterisations or easy characterisations of science at one end and poetry at the other end — which seem to bespeak this idea of scientific thinking and rigour at one end, and magical thinking at the other end. And I think we need to be respectful — we all have tried to be in these discussions — partly because many of us are more at one end of the spectrum than at the other at this conference. But, none the less, this is a wonderful area of exploration; none of us have a final answer or will ever have a final answer. But we are beginning to be aware of what our work is doing, and what the work of others is doing.
Adrian Martin: One of the things that has really come out for me was prompted by Manu’s talk, where he used the ideas of Georges Didi-Huberman — how, in his work, he’s looking at this nexus of political history, personal history, art, the unconscious and subjectivity. He tries to put all that together, history and the psyche; it is a powerful thing in his work. Of course, Huberman himself has only recently commented on video essays, because he’s been working on Godard, and he brings out the same ideas there. I’ve started to think more about this aspect of the subjective and personal — even the psychoanalytic aspect of it. I know it’s something you’re interested in too, Catherine: many video essays begin (and we’ve all said this in different ways) from a memory that haunts us, such as a moment of a film that has captured us, that won’t go away. It’s one way for us to “act out” (as you put it, Catherine), one way to work through our personal obsessions which perhaps we don’t even understand; but we know that there are these bits of film lodged in our psyche and therefore also in history — as Huberman would say — and that anything that’s stuck there in the head is also going to be a sign of something else going on in the world and in society. This is interesting, particularly for people in a university world, to admit: that our work is driven by haunted memories, these fragments of memory, things that we are obscurely obsessed with. But I think, in fact, that many audiovisual essays are based around this, that they are prompted by these types of obsessions which are lodged in us.
Cristina Álvarez López: To follow on from Manu, I liked the association he made between the audiovisual essayists and the filmmakers of the body, the way he stressed the idea that filmmakers of the body use the bodies of their actors in a similar way as audiovisual essayists use the material (images and sounds) of the movies. This relation would never have occured to me, but I think it’s true and, in my practice, I definitely feel closer to the filmmakers of the body than to the directors of the essay-film. I also liked how Vinzenz talked about the audiovisual essay as a completion of the artistic work — another idea to which I can feel related because, for me, in some way, all film criticism is about this. From Carlos’ intervention, it struck me that, being the only speaker who took cinema itself (rather than the audiovisual essay in particular) as a point of departure, his paper has finally been the one that has related best, in one way or another, with all the other individual papers that each one of us gave. Katie said that she was a bit skeptical about using the term video essay, which made me think about how such a word (even if I use it and like it) can condition the viewer too much into expecting that the audiovisual essay works, or has to work, like a written essay. And I think that even if we can say that we “write” with images and sounds, it’s not the same kind of writing: we’re using different tools and techniques and achieving different effects. So, maybe the term video essay is indeed a bit dangerous or problematic because, being an adopted term, it points too much in the direction of the written essay, making the viewer think that these pieces will or should work in the same way as written essays.
Manu Yáñez: From my point of view, beginning as an observer of audiovisual essays — not as someone who makes them, but as someone who loves to watch them and study them — after these two days, I’m more interested in trying to make them. In this sense, for me it has been interesting that, during these days, while watching different ways of how to do them, I’ve seen many different possibilities and approaches, different options, different ways of where to begin. For example, I found it interesting that these pieces are sometimes conceived purely as audiovisual essays: beginning from the movies themselves, experiencing them, discovering things while watching them, as a work in progress. But we also have seen examples of (in some sense) adaptations of theoretical or written pieces, which can somehow be recreated in an audiovisual form. I think that it would be really interesting, and pretty difficult too, trying to adapt Carlos’ ideas … As he said at the end of his paper: “The possibilities would be infinite”. So, I think you all have established some different and interesting possibilities of approaching this.
Carlos Losilla: First of all, I want to congratulate the organisers of this event, because I think that, as Cristina said, all the lectures are very well interconnected. And, from these connections, there have arisen concepts that can inspire further readings and studies. And this, too, is a montage, an important labour of montage. All the lectures and sessions have touched upon something that is crucial: the changes prompted in film criticism itself because of the audiovisual essay — what has changed and how. The fact that images are substituting for words makes me wonder — and I ask this of all of you — if this means that the role of literature in film criticism/analysis is disappearing, vanishing, or at a low level? This question is very important for me, because it could indicate a radical change in film criticism/analysis. And I think this is the most important thing signalled by all your contributions.
C.G.: There is, in a sense, a note of caution here. It is, of course, a risky period. The context of this burgeoning online film criticism in audiovisual form is, as Adrian has written about before, a feeling of novelty, with everyone trying it out. Somehow, other practices are being forgotten or marginalised — especially in an area where film criticism itself is undergoing a crisis on the level of professionalism and paid work. A lot of what we are doing comes for free online — not exclusively, but certainly some of it. So there are some notes of caution to be struck or, at least, thought about. And I have a few thoughts that have occurred to me thanks to everybody’s papers and discussions. One of them has not come up directly (although Adrian has mentioned it), around the idea of the subjective aspects of the audiovisual essay, and hence its connections with fan culture. I don’t necessarily think, as a bottom line, that this is a bad thing. But I believe it’s something we have to think a lot more about, because of the way that type of culture can open itself to charges of solipsism. If it’s all about what I think and my film experience — which is certainly a charge that could be made about some of my videos, because I have been trying to explore autobiographical elements in them — then we have to be able to rebut that argument. In response to that — because I am having to respond to that kind of charge — I would just say that, ultimately, what we are doing is what a film critic has always done: bringing an audience to experience our view of the film. The scientific view adopts a methodology which is different to that. But, as we have said all along (and as Adrian was just suggesting), every single film critic is drawn to studying particular things, which they have to choose from all the different options of things we could look at. And of course, we are drawn to studying particular things; even if we are drawn by scientific motives, there may be something else there, bubbling up underneath. And unless we acknowledge that, our science is going to be flawed, as our personal criticism is also going to be flawed. So, I think that we are all hyper-aware of these kinds of things, perhaps because, for the first time since the 1970s, film critics and film studies scholars are playing with forms that are new to them. But I’d like to ask the panel: are there any dangers, risks or threats that you’d like to respond to or think about aloud for us?
A.M.: Another thought that has occured to me, completely out of the blue — and it responds to what you have just said, Katie — is that a lot of video essays, including the ones that Cristina and I make, come out of an experience of loving a particular film, liking or appreciating it — it’s not necessarily always the foreground aspect, it’s not that we explicitly make a video essay in order necessarily to say ‘we love this film’ — but often, there is this overwhelmingly positive quality to many, many videoessays. Because, of course, you have to work with this thing for a long time, and you’re drawn to things that you like, that give you pleasure to work with. But the question I ponder is: are there any absolutely critical videoessays? Not critical in the way that we usually mean that term (considering, analysing the work), but really critical: ‘Here is a video essay about a film I hate, and here’s why’. That’s something that must exist, a completely hate-filled critical video essay — but I can’t think of an actual example right now. This would be an interesting thing to make, I think. It would actually be hard to make, because of this investment that you put into the work. But I know I can write a piece about a film I hate; it’s not the thing I most like to do, but I’ve done it, for all kind of reasons, at various times in my life. Long, long essays about a film or a director I didn’t like … but I’d find it hard to make a video essay on a film or filmmaker I don’t like.
C.A.L.: This depends very much on the monetary question, so let’s put that on the table. If I’m getting paid for it, I can write a critique of a movie I don’t like. But for personal pleasure, I would never do it. In Transit, the magazine I co-edit (which runs on no budget), we have a principle: we ask people to write only about what they like; only very rarely have we published texts that are against films. And this is because we find it more rewarding to write about something that awakens our interest, about something that we love. So, if someone comes here and puts money on this table for you to make a video essay about a movie you don’t like, I think you probably would do it, in the same way and for the same reason that you can write a piece about a movie you don’t like.
A.M.: I think you may be right!
C.G.: I have had to make a video essay about a movie I didn’t like and, to crown it all, it’s been the most viewed of all my videoessays! But it was a really interesting experience. It was a Five Obstructions-type experiment that the film critic and scholar Nicholas Rombes — a really brilliant participant and practitioner in many experimental, digital film studies online — set out: we had to discuss a certain number of frames from a movie that he decided, and we were assigned the frames at random. I hated the film: Darren Aronofsky’s Requiem for a Dream; sorry if you like it. (LAUGHTER). And I was so lucky because I had to write about one frame of the first split-screen that appears in the film. Because I’m interested in split-screen, the exercise was very generative and productive for me. Nicholas wasn’t expecting a video essay, he wanted a written piece — so I made a videoessay! It helped me think through an awful lot of things connected to split screens that we’ve been talking about in this conference.
M.Y.: But were you explicit, in your video essay, about not liking the film?
C.G.: Ah … No. (LAUGHTER) Because it wasn’t a piece about film criticism; it was a critical film study that didn’t have to say whether I liked it or not.
C.A.L.: I wanted to say something in relation to this fear that Carlos was posing about images taking on film criticism. I think that there are some things that you can only do by writing a text, and there are other things you can only do through an audiovisual essay. For me, it’s not a matter of choosing one or the other and sticking with it. Adrian and I like to use both and, if we can, bring them together in the same piece. Also, I always feel the need to go back both to the written and the audiovisual essay. I think these two forms can approach films differently, each one can do things that the other cannot do so well. For me, the good thing, the most enriching thing as a film critic, is to work in both fields.
M.Y.: There’s a question of the crisis of professional criticism which, in this case, could become a problem in terms of the absence of collective efforts related to the audiovisual essay. There’s a huge shift in critical film culture: we have gone from a time when criticism was organised by (for example) big influential magazines, to now when it has become a more dispersed form of thinking. The danger is that this dispersion results in a dissolution of any theoretical background which could sustain it all. I think that the work which has to be done is the work of creating a theoretical basis — which is what all we’ve been trying to do here. But I don’t know if that can happen just in the work of individuals doing video essays. At the same time, I think that the place where video essays are published, the online sphere, is a place where you can establish dialogue more easily than before. Many of these video essays offer the possibility of making comments; also, while researching for my lecture, I found it was very easy to go from one piece to the other, because Vimeo itself gives you that option. It’s very intertextual.
C.L: I think one of the most important questions is whether the audiovisual essay owes more to film analysis or to film criticism. By now, maybe, it is more to film analysis — but I think that we will also find a form to make film criticism with images. I’m convinced of that, because I think that the image can make the failures or virtues of film evident. On the other hand, I think that the video essay can bring a strength to film theory that we haven’t seen since the 1970s, because these images then become concepts, thoughts about cinema — concepts that form a bridge with the ideas of the 1970s. It’s evident that the video essay is not structuralism or semiotics, it’s nothing like that. It’s not a systematic theory — because, today, it can’t be, anymore. But these fragments of the theories of the 1970s and surrounding decades are now being applied to images, or come to us through images.
Question from the audience: I think that Carlos raised a very interesting question about subjectivity and authorship. If we think of the theory of the essay film, one of its main characteristics is subjectivity, and linked to this subjectivity there’s authorship. In written film criticism, the author is identified with the narrator — nobody would read an article and say: there’s an author, but the narrator is someone else, someone we can’t identify. So, my question is: does the audiovisual essay as film criticism change something about the postmodernist statements about the death of the author by Roland Barthes and Michel Foucault? And, if so, how do we deal with that?
A.M.: In terms of the theory of authorship and subjectivity in relation to the theory of the essay (whether in written or audiovisual form), there is a very interesting idea that Raymond Bellour has been working on for many years: the self-portrait, which comes through the literature of Montaigne or the cinema of Chris Marker and others. Basically, the idea there — which finds a large echo or resonance in the audiovisual essay — is that yes, there is a narrator, an author, a subjectivity, but it’s also disguised, it’s in the shadows. It’s the traces that subjectivity leaves behind which a work is based on. In other words, it’s not literally Marker on the soundtrack saying ‘Hey, I went to Africa in 1967’. No, he writes a text for someone else to read under a fictive name; then a woman reads this text – so it gets more and more displaced from himself. But there are the traces, sometimes enigmatic traces of his past, his itinerary through life, through history, politics, and so on. Actually, I think that many audiovisual essays, knowingly or not, are in this area. Because, in a sense, they are all dealing with the traces that have affected us — traces of films, in the first instance — and we are linking those traces to other traces. I think this connects very much to Carlos’ idea about absent images and invisible narratives — the traces in us are triggering precisely that. So, I think that the audiovisual essay particularly relates to this conception of authorship; not the conventional, classical idea of the author-narrator who speaks and you know who he or she is, but the shrouded author, the author in the shadows of their own work.
C.G.: There are also important considerations about the context in which this work is distributed. Now, I am an author in weird ways. When I started out, to be an author meant: I published this article, I did this PhD thesis, etc. Today, my authorship is: I’m an account on Vimeo, I’m an account under a different name on YouTube, I have various blogs, I’m an academic with a webpage at my university, I still publish in academic journals, I have editorial responsibilities, and so on. My authorship is very dispersed, and that’s mirrored in my audiovisual essay production as well. Sometimes I work alone, sometimes I work very personally, sometimes — as you could see from some of the things I showed yesterday — I copy work. I copy Pam Cook’s work, I take an epigraph and I make a videoessay about it; I read an article by Lesley Stern and I make a crazy adaptation of it. I’m also making didactic/explanatory work, often in collaboration with other scholars. I’ve made a recent video essay (it’s not at all that explanatory) with Andrew Klevan, on his written analysis of a scene from Stella Dallas. I’ve made a 40 minute videoessay in conversation with Tom Brown; he wrote a book about direct address, and so I made a kind of documentary about that. So, there’s a dispersal here, and I see that I’m actually acting out something that I wrote about back in 2002, in the most wonderful film book that I had the privilege of publishing in, which was For Ever Godard [eds. Michael Temple, James S. Williams, Michael Witt (London: Black Dog Publishing, 2004)]. I wrote an essay there on the collaborative authorship of Godard and Anne-Marie Miéville — which I am very reminded of today when I see a new collaborative partnership forming [LOOKS AT C.A.L. & A.M.] that seems to have some intriguing similarities with theirs. (LAUGHTER). And, in a footnote, I describe the entirety of their careers as less those of traditional auteurs, but very much those of self-conscious, multimedia artists, installation artists. Their work being an ongoing, virtual, but also material form of artistic installation, with all of these different elements, and their own authorship, dispersed throughout it. There was no centre to this work. But it was nonetheless linked to a particular space and time in history, because I think one thing my work has always looked at is this: what is it possible to say or to make at a particular place and a particular time, what are the constraints, what are the creative, generative elements of the context? What is different about much new work is this multimedia dispersal method of authorship: it’s excentric and a-centric rather than centric.
C.A.L.: I would say that in written film criticism, too, the identity of the author is, or can be, a bit concealed. For instance, for me it’s very difficult to use the first person when I write. I don’t feel very comfortable doing it, but I get very angry when people say to me that it’s not personal. Because I feel it’s very personal, very subjective and, in a way, very mine. But I think one of the main differences regarding authorship in written and audiovisual film criticism is that, when you write, you choose your own words — or, at least, let’s say that you choose words which don’t belong to another individual. On the other hand, when you are working in an audiovisual essay, you are using images and sounds that are not yours. Even if you decide how to edit, structure and organise these images and sounds, the primary material is not yours. Because you are working in the same medium, with the same materials and tools as the filmmaker/s, in some cases, this can make it more difficult to establish where his/her authorship ends, and where yours begins — so the identity of the author becomes even more blurred and concealed.
C.L.: You talked about postmodernism. The audiovisual essay is at the frontier or limit of postmodernism and whatever comes after it. Because the audiovisual essay is returning materiality to images and, therefore, to film analysis. I think this is important in contrast to the immateriality and lightness that dominated postmodernism in the 1980s and ‘90s. The audiovisual essay is bringing back the materiality of the classic and modern cinema, and playing with this.
A.M.: There’s a curious canon that comes with these audiovisual essays: fixations on certain films like Vertigo, Preminger’s movies, The Night of the Hunter, the film noir genre, and so on. A canon tied primarily to the 1940s and ‘50s, both Hollywood and art cinema — but not first experienced then by various generations of cinephiles, only maybe 20, 30 or 40 years later. When I heard your talk, Carlos, I thought: wow, we had exactly the same experience, we watched Bonjour Tristesse, Hiroshima mon amour, Laura — but we saw them when we were teenagers, probably during the 1970s. You actually saw them in a cinema, but I saw them on a primitive, old television set — so I didn’t quite appreciate that Bonjour Tristesse is in both colour & black and white; it was all black and white to me! But we were both marked by these very intense experiences of cinema or (as you’ve written about) the ‘end of classical cinema’. Or rather, this ambiguous moment when the classical begins to morph or transit (and never entirely so) into the modern. Much of your work is about that moment. An inexhaustible subject, because you and I can keep going back to it for the next hundred years. But in five years time — according to generational and cultural shifts — there will be a different set of ‘old’ favourite films that people will play with. This canon will be reconstructed in and by audiovisual essays.
Question from the audience: Catherine, you talked about the circumstances in the academic world in relation to the poetic approach to audiovisual essays. Another interesting thing going on is the question of acceleration, the speeding up of access to classical theory. You mentioned that the shorter your videos are, the more plays they get. During the last few decades, there was never time to read everything that was published. So, my question is: could there be a chance for the video essay to offer faster access to classical film theory?
C.G.: I’m glad to have such a positive take on the question of linking film theory with audiovisual essays — certainly, that’s where I’m coming from. I definitely see how amazing these forms are, not only personally, but also working in the classroom as well. I’ve been teaching them these last years, so have Christian Keathley and Michael Witt. When we’ve done that, we’ve all had our ‘eureka!’ moments making them, but also with students as well — they’ve been having that moment, too. It’s a brilliant exercise to get students to engage with theory. Jen Proctor is a teacher in America who asked her students to work with Laura Mulvey’s classic “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, using clips, annotating and re-editing them in order to explore the work of that article. I have to say it’s a lot better doing that, more enjoyable and productive, than it is just asking them to read it! The question of acceleration is also very interesting. I think that accelerationism is interesting as part of the whole “post-cinematic affect” discussion that’s going on at the moment. One of the video essays that’s most been viewed is a three-part series by Matthias Stork called Chaos Cinema, which was as significant as Steven Shaviro’s written work in generating a public debate about continuity and aesthetics in contemporary cinematic and audiovisual culture (David Bordwell, in his blog essays, has also looked at accelerated continuity). So, it seems to me both a part of something, a cultural Zeitgeist at the moment, and able to make an intervention into that context. Stork’s series is the most viewed work emerging from an academic context. So I see lots of exciting possibilities generating new interest. It’s difficult to judge that, of course; 72, 000 people watched [Erlend Lavik’s video essay] Style in The Wire, more than 100,000 people watched Chaos Cinema —but who are these people? Are they all academics? I don’t think so; maybe there’s a vast body of academics not interested in this work at all. At the stage we are at, various prominent people, like Bordwell, Thompson and Shaviro, are interested in this work. But it’s hard to quantify, because not only is the amount of film theory hard to quantify and ungraspable as a body of work; I think our discipline is also so dispersed that it’s hard to talk about it with any confidence.
A.M.: I would like to add, as Carlos said, that we are going from images and sounds to concepts, and these are bridges back to theory. That began in the 1980s with Gilles Deleuze’s books on cinema, because that is precisely how they proceed. Deleuze was a real cinephile, he really did watch thousands of films in his lifetime. A John Ford film would suggest to him a concept, something about space, time, the land, the body. He’s not about building a grand theory; rather, it’s an enormous array or taxonomy of concepts. That has set the tone for the world of theory we are in today. I don’t believe it’s a matter of going back and establishing an absolutely systematic theory anymore; it’s about building mosaics from concepts.
Question from the audience: I wonder why ‘fans’ seems such a dirty word compared to ‘cinephiles’ — which is, of course, the good term. We would all say we are cinephiles, but fans … well, I don’t quite know. Are there any criteria for establishing quality (which might also be a dirty word)? Also, I wonder about the role of gatekeepers. Catherine, whether you want it or not, you are gatekeeper with your channel on Vimeo. How do you go about selecting or not selecting something? And would there be an established way of presenting an argument about this work to other scholars? At the moment, we are on the brink of it, a lot of people are interested, but I think it’s not quite established yet …
C.G.: This is, for me, the most important question at the moment. The webpage you were refering to is Audiovisualcy, which I set up in 2010; it’s a Vimeo group. I’m the founder of the page and there are two dozen co-curators. We can all add videos that then get collected. The criteria are really quite open. They remind me of Manu’s idea of limits. If we want this work to aspire to some value, then limits are important. Manu’s limits were very straightforward, and they are the same as those on Audiovisualcy: people have to say which sources they are using; and it should be apparent what the function of the video is. We’ve added a vast number of things that people would find difficult to describe, in some way, as film studies or film criticism. One of the pieces I most thought about and was most enthusiastic about was a piece by Elaine Castillo. She’s made the most fantastic videos which use publicly declared sources like Wong Kar Wai films, using them in a cine-poem style, in ways that I think are relevant to film theory. Hers were the first non-traditional or non-conventional work that I added at Audiovisualcy. At that very experimental, curatorial stage, inclusion was important — not to close the gate or keep it too narrow. But we are at a different stage now. It is one year since I first peer reviewed an audiovisual piece for Frames; this journal issue collected about seven peer reviewed pieces, among which was Richard Misek’s Mapping Rohmer. For that process, I had to think about what it meant to peer review such work. But we are about to move into a different stage; various publications are interested in setting up video essay sections with their imprimatur, so we are at the stage of asking what the gate will look like and who is the keeper. I’m interested in opening up a space that is as broad as possible in relation to the scope and focus of work. There are also a lot of technical production details to be discussed; we are entering a period of more focus on curatorial activity that will hopefully get the dialogue going, allowing space for comment at every stage, inviting people to participate. And then we will move into a phase where more people will see this work as academic, and produce it themselves.
C.A.L.: Leaving aside, for a moment, the academic perspective, but still related with the scholarly value of the audiovisual essay, I believe that we should further encourage the close analysis and study of particular audiovisual essays. Sometimes, the viewer will spend only a few minutes with an audiovisual essay and, precisely because it is audiovisual, won’t take enough time to really think about what the author has done in that piece. The connections and ideas of an audiovisual essay are not always on the immediate surface, not always spelt out by the voice-over — they are forged through montage, and thus require further viewings to be discovered, considered and appreciated. What Christian Keathley did in his text that we have been talking about is salutary: he takes two audiovisual essays (Notes Towards a Project on Citizen Kane by Paul Malcolm and Listen to Britain by Victor Burgin) and comments on them extensively … This is something we should try to do more, because it enlightens the viewer about how an audiovisual essay is made and structured, what decisions are in play, what the relations are that they establish with the material they use, how their different elements relate with each other: all the things brought out by an audiovisual essay …
A.M.: That was the motivation behind Cristina and I picking Godard’s trailer for Mouchette; it’s 98 seconds long and we did a very abbreviated analysis of it. That’s an unbelievably rich 98 seconds of montage. You can do a total structural breakdown, a complete aesthetic and political analysis of that work. So I agree that it would be productive to study audiovisual essays. This objection came up in a previous session: audiovisual essays interpret a film, and now the audiovisual essay itself needs an interpretation! It lengthens the chain of interpretation. But this, for me, is OK; I like to ‘have my cake and eat it, too’.
C.A.L.: In written film criticism, this also happens. To understand a text, to understand how a text works, you really need to analyse it. Film criticism is not only what you say about the film, but also how you construct and structure your argument. In your class, Adrian, you do this a lot; sometimes I realise that I have read texts but not understood them completely. For instance, you have done this with texts by Nicole Brenez that are quite complex, but you decompose them in a way that is super-illuminating! It’s not only audiovisual essays that need to be interpreted; some texts demand this, too.
A.M.: I think, in fact, this is another trend. The Language and Style of Film Criticism by Clayton and Klevan, which is a series of essays on critics’ work, is a very new type of book. It’s doing something that we have hardly ever done before. I think there will be a small explosion of such books now, on criticism as itself rhetoric, creation, precisely as literature. Even though we’ve always known that, for example, Roland Barthes, Meaghan Morris or Manny Farber are great writers, we have now reached the point of trying to work out exactly how someone writes as a great writer. We disassemble criticism in the sense that Vinzenz described the act of critique: to appreciate how it functions, and thus to complete it, in that sense.
C.G.: This, for me, is perhaps the most important context of the audiovisual essay, regardless of its own, intrinsic benefits and value: there has been a move (an often controversial, polemical one) from theory to methodology; not just methods, but methodology, the theorising of our methods. That is certainly exemplified in Clayton and Klevan’s book, but it also goes back to Bordwell and Carroll’s Post-Theory, which was like a little bomb in film studies, blowing up all its assumptions and values, in order to direct attention to smaller-scale projects, less grand, master narratives than those of the 1970s and ‘80s. This is an important shift, and it is such a beneficial one for pedagogy as well as for research methods. If there is one thing I hope this conference has communicated — as well as some new theory and words about this practice — is the importance of process. Whether or not our work aspires to be, or even ends up being, in the finished form of an audiovisual essay, the process that it takes to make one, the process it enables us to engage in with the film(s), is actually valuable in itself. It may be that not everyone can be an audiovisual essayist or will want to be — but everybody playing with clips and sequences, juxtaposing them and making aesthetic decisions about how to present them, is touching on the kind of processes some of us are engaged in at the moment.
Transcription and preliminary editing: Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin
Edited by Catherine Grant