On Monday, I was one of a group of individuals invited to speak as part of a two-day online conference, “The Aesthetics of the Video Essay”, organized by Kevin B. Lee for students at the Filmakademie Baden-Württemberg. Charlie Shackleton, Grace Lee, Chloé Galibert Laîné, Jessica McGoff, Ariel Avissar, and I talked and answered questions for about an hour each. Chloé, Grace, and Charlie participated in a similar event curated by Kevin at the Merz Akademie in Stuttgart in December of last year. (Chloé, Grace, and Charlie have also each appeared as a guest on the podcast!) My talk was more or less divided into two parts. The first was dedicated to my own videographic work and the second was about the podcast. I believe the talks were recorded, so if they are made available at some point in the future I will share them here.
In my portion of the seminar, I discussed my ongoing project, Seeing Truffaut’s Hitchcock, which is my attempt at an audio-visual adaptation, for lack of a better term, of Truffaut’s Hitchcock. The problem with — or strength of — Hitchcock Studies is, of course, that so much has been written about Hitchcock. How is one to contribute? As I grappled with my own obsession with Hitchcock and Hitchcock, I realized that any project had to be videographic for two reasons. The first and most obvious reason was that far less audio-visual criticism has been produced about Hitchcock than written criticism. (I should note that Hitchcock is among the directors most examined by audio-visual critics, myself included. This imbalance is both good and bad, and a subject I would like to tackle another time.) The second was that the video essay allows for the abstraction of individual film moments, the extending of fragments into critical objects. I know that scholars have grappled with similar questions for years, perhaps most notably Laura Mulvey in Death 24x a Second. Naturally, much of my thinking here has also been shaped by Victor Perkins, and the brilliant essay collection Film Moments, co-edited by Tom Brown & James Walters and published by the BFI in 2010. (Please send me book and essay recommendations!)
Audio-visually speaking, the work of Christian Keathley and Johannes Binotto were particularly influential. Chris’s “Pass the Salt” and Johannes’s “Juxtapositions I: Truffaut repeats Truffaut” and “Facing Film” are among my favorite video essays. (Johannes and I discussed both of these essays at length on the show. And he has a brilliant new essay “Follow the Cat” in this style and the essay is, as always, a must watch.)
With the aforementioned videos in mind, I turned to Truffaut’s Hitchcock and looked for individual moments, sentences or sentence fragments that could be transformed into small audio-visual essays. For example, Hitchcock tells Truffaut that Rebecca is “not a Hitchcock picture.” *eye roll* Anyway, I took this quote and knew that I could, of course, challenge Hitchcock's claim. I kept exploring and came to the moment when Hitchcock says Jimmy Stewart’s character in Vertigo engages in “a form of necrophilia.” I thought to myself, ‘Is that not what Mrs. Danvers does in Rebecca?” And so, I began piecing together this short video, “A Form of Necrophilia.” Read the longer discussion in Seeing Truffaut’s Hitchcok on Scalar, here.
The project is comprised mostly of videos in the style of videographic epigraphs (which podcast listeners are now making!) and by design is meant to bring the image and text as close to one another as possible in order to understand the interplay between the two. As Catherine Grant wrote in the statement accompanying her video essay “UN/CONTAINED”, on Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank in Film Criticism:
“…what excites and compels me about the possibilities digital video essays offer (inter alia) are precisely their new or expanded forms of juxtaposition of audio-visual material with text (inside and outside their frames), and their often more inclusive and involving film analytical contiguities and interactivities.”
Pedagogically speaking, one of the things that I think makes Hitchcock’s films such fertile soil for learning audio-visual criticism is, in addition to his accessible use of film language, his films are the subject of so much written criticism that one almost has to explore this interplay, and think audio-visually to drill deeper and beyond the written word. At least that is what I tried to do here!
Jason Mittell has used the phrase “a lab of sounds and images” to describe the part of the video essay-making process in which one explores and tinkers with the object of study within an editing program like Adobe Premiere. In my talk, I likened videographic criticism to an archaeological dig. Imagine the existing Hitchcock scholarship as the ruins of an ancient Roman city, the work of past archaeologists who excavated and preserved the site as they tried to understand its history, culture, and people. I consider myself a member of a new team of archaeologists, combing through the excavation site looking for bits of artifacts in an attempt to further contribute to knowledge. The power of the video essay as it relates to such gestures, moments, and fragments is that it reveals and amplifies the affective power of that which is already there.
Anyway, this is how I think of my own work, and how I approach making audio-visual criticism about canonical films and directors. As I wrote in the previous newsletter, the point of this weekly essay is to prompt discussion and informally share what’s on my mind. What do you think? Has what I said resonated with you? Do you disagree? Have other scholars and critics tackled similar questions? Let me know! Email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with your thoughts. It would be cool to publish short responses in next week’s newsletter!