By Christian Keathley

Curated at [in]Transition, 1.3, 2014 by Catherine Grant


Notes on 50 YEARS ON

By Christian Keathley

This video has existed in several versions. I made a first draft in 2008, when the department I teach in moved into a new building along with several other humanities departments. The college decided to celebrate the new facility with a day-long series of presentations by faculty in those departments on the theme “Sites of Memory.” I didn’t much like having this topic imposed on me. So I gave something of an experimental presentation instead: I selected film clips (“Sights of Memory”) that I projected in alternation with my live reading of unattributed quotes (“Cites of Memory”) regarding memories of cinematic details. Several people in the audience quite loved it; most seemed baffled.

A few years later, I revised and retitled the piece for the 50th anniversary of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies and presented it at the annual conference (again, in lieu of reading a paper). This subsequent version was trickier. To make it work, I imposed a number of formal constraints. First, as it was the 50th anniversary, I limited myself to using clips from films released in 1961, the year SCS was founded. Also, I decided that each clip had to consist of a single shot (no editing within the clip), and that these shots should (if possible) not possess any features that would immediately define the source film – that is, no close-ups of famous actors or giveaway sets. I wanted the quality of suggestiveness that comes with such shots – the feeling of half-recognition (at best). I was trying to partly unmoor these shots from their narrative anchor so that they invited a posture of reverie, fantasy, imagination.

The process of organizing the clips and quotes demanded further constraints. Color and black-and-white shots would alternate, and I had to place two clips between each quote, so that images and voice-over would roughly balance overall. While I wanted the pattern of the piece to be clear, I also wanted the lengths of the clips and voice-over quotes to vary so that there was some quality of unpredictability. The exception here is the very long shot (nearly two minutes) from Cinderfella, which I placed at the exact center of the video. This shots was balanced by the first shot, of a door opening, and the last shot, of one closing. These formed the frame around which I organized the other clips.

I was particularly pleased with the last shot’s shadow of a camera crane, which seemed also to match nicely with another part of the opening, the voice-over from Peeping Tom – “I’m told by a friend that you have some views for sale” – which seemed a wonderful definition (for my purposes) of what the movies give us: not just stories, but image-moments. The last voice-over quote – from Jean Epstein: “I am looking” – was placed as still another balance to the opening quote.

The quotes I used were culled from a number of sources, but most all of them show up at some point in my book, Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees. The attempt to simulate in this video the kind of cinephiliac moment that I describe in my book was quite deliberate. Though I worried that the text might dominate, I was trying to create a piece wherein the viewer was left always wanting more images, so that even when the point of the text was understood by the viewer, they were anxious to get to the next shot. I added a few words of text-on-screen for each of the voice-over quotes, partly to add a graphic element to the black screen; and my selection of a random phrase was to add another very small layer of anticipation and unpredictability to the pattern.

In the first version, the music score was soundtrack from some silent films. In spite of the fact that it seemed a logical choice – the use of movie music as soundtrack for an essayistic piece about cinema – it didn’t work, mainly because the silent film score was cued to action from its source film, and the rise and fall of that music didn’t match the evenness across the whole of my video that I wanted. At some point, I heard the John Coltrane version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “My Favorite Things,” and it felt like it would fit. I liked the idea that a very familiar tune (especially one from a popular movie) was being imaginatively reworked in such a lively way. The quality of something so recognizable being edged toward unrecognizability (without falling into it) would fit with what I was hoping to achieve in my selection and arrangement of images.

Cinderfella (Frank Tashlin, 1960)
Peeping Tom (Michael Powell, 1961)


Christian Keathley is Chair and Associate Professor of the Film & Media Culture Department at Middlebury College, Vermont.  He is the author of Cinephilia and History, or The Wind in the Trees (Indiana University Press, 2006), and is currently completing a second book, The Mystery of Otto Preminger (under contract to Indiana University Press). He is one of the founding co-editors of [in]Transition, the first ever peer-reviewed journal of videographic film studies.