Daniel Massie completed his PhD this year at Glasgow University under the supervision of Dr Ian Garwood and Professor Karen Boyle.
The video above is an “example of methodology used in PhD research whereby the film featuring an Academy-Award-Winning supporting female performance is re-edited to remove all footage that doesn't directly include the supporting actress. Examples in this video: Kramer vs. Kramer, Tootsie, Michael Clayton, and A Beautiful Mind.”
From Daniel Massie: The thesis combines written and audio-visual analysis to examine, and better understand, Academy-Award-Winning supporting female film performances (from 1936-2015). It uses audio-visual research as methodology, through a series of editorial interventions on the award-winning films (re-editing each film to remove any footage that doesn't directly include the supporting performer), and as outcome (the production of a suite of audio-visual essays). The PhD contributes chiefly to the intellectual field of audio-visual criticism, specifically asking what deformative criticism’s role can be in the study of screen performance. A shift away from role and towards performance allowed the intellectual inquiry of the thesis to engage specific films and performances, with a view to producing three central audio-visual essays that explore: 1) how non-performance factors such as screentime mediate performance; 2) ideas of enactment of support and how this relates to small, easily-overlooked performance qualities; and, 3) performance style, and whether it is possible to discern overall styles across this corpus. The specific practice nature of this thesis, as far as I am aware, made this one of the first (if not the first) of its kind in film studies. I was researching in ‘uncharted waters’ so to speak. This afforded me freedoms and challenges in equal measure. There was, and remains, no template for how to structure a thesis that uses audio-visual work as both research process and research outcome. However, it was my aim that the work inspires future doctoral researchers to try new things: experiment, play, make, reflect – and to do these as part of a different, audio-visual research process.
The following interview focuses on the project generally, which, once it is made publicly available elsewhere, will be included in a later issue of this newsletter. Originally published in Notes on Videographic Criticism on August 24, 2020.
How did you come up with the idea for this project? And what specifically drew you to audiovisual criticism?
My background is fine art - I did my undergrad degree in Sculpture. For my final year degree show I created an installation where I re-edited films in the same way as I do in this research. However, the intent and motivation was different. I’ve always been obsessed with actresses and the oscars, and the supporting female category has always been my favourite, so it was a natural choice. However, it fell more under the umbrella of expanded cinema art installation, with a loose interest in ‘women in cinema’. There really was no research question driving the work. I went on to do a masters in film studies which helped to bridge this critical/theory divide with my past work, and when an opportunity can to apply for a PhD studentship the project sort of emerged naturally from my previous ‘art’ work, but in a context of film studies scholarship and AV criticism.
It is obviously impossible to distill a PhD dissertation down to a few questions, but I'm wondering if you could describe one or two key "aha!" moments during the process of creating your audiovisual essays. In other words, what were some of the critical insights you arrived at through the process of actually editing the videos?
Yes, you’re right, although I suppose I did settle on a few key research questions:
- What does deformative criticism bring to the study of screen performance?
- How can the production of a suite of audio-visual essays, as outcome(s), aid a better understanding of these supporting performances?
In terms of ‘aha!’ moments the first one that comes to mind was making a shift from role to performance. Initially I thought the PhD would be about supporting female roles that were valued by the Academy. However the process of re-editing the films removed narrative context and engagement with other actors (key points of characterisation), so the re-edited ‘data’, if you like, wasn’t able to speak that much to role, instead it spoke to the performances. I had to reorient my research focus and what I thought the PhD overall would be looking at because the editorial interventions ended up generating a critical insight and intellectual inquiry about performance chiefly, not role. This was huge as it changed the focus of all the AV essays and as such the existing literature that the resreach ended up engaging.
Another point is probably more an ‘aha!’ moment for myself as opposed to the field of screen performance studies more broadly. However, through doing the re-edits, watching the re-edits, producing the subsequent AV essays and thinking critically about the performances as just that... performances, I was impressed and daunted by the magic of screen performance. It is so difficult to pin down, define and categories. Really valuable foundational schaolarship contradicts each other, people focus on: actor’s training; audience reception; the actor’s choices and intent (which we so rarely know the dull extents of); how factors like mis-en-scène shape performances; race, agenda, and gender; star studies and so on... Once I embraced the mystery and indefinability of screen performance, my av essays were able to focus on different avenues of insight as opposed to the PhD as a whole adopting one approach to the study of screen performance.
In discussing audiovisual criticism on the show, we've often talked about certain films or directors that lend themselves well to AV criticism, but I don't think we've talked about performers in this way. Were there any stars and/or performances you thought were particularly well suited for videographic criticism?
Definitely. Some of the re-edits exposed how integral the film’s original editing can be for the ‘feel’ of a performance. When you remove everything else and sort of expose the original editorial cracks in the film the performance becomes a really splintered, jarring object. Meryl Streep in Kramer vs. Kramer (especially her courtroom scene) is a good example of this. In the re-edit, the character’s dialogue and the performance becomes distorted or deformed because the scene focuses heavily on a back and forth discussion, and when we remove half of the exchange it more readily highlights the emotional shifts, and feelings of frustration Streep performs. As expected, there was also a noticeable difference in how the performances were originally edited into the films across the decades. My re-edits of more recent films tended to have more of this erratic, disjointed quality, whereas the older performances in the corpus didn’t, likely because there there were less cuts, longer shots, and more sustained periods of speech for the actors. So the re-edits became an interesting ‘way in’ to see how performances valued by the Academy changed over the years in this respect.
Your thesis is highly original, and in your abstract you say that there were "freedoms and challenges in equal measure" to this originality. Could you elaborate?
Certainly. One on hand there was a lack of precedent for how to structure the project, how conventional or unconventional the approach could be. My final AV essays, as outcomes, tended naturally towards more conventional online AV essay style, despite the sprawling nature of the 80 re-edited films. Part of my job really became how to manage this almost unwieldy corpus of study into a structure and process that satisfied the needs of a doctoral thesis. Because the AV essays weren’t a separate outcome that the PhD thesis simply reflected on, but were rather a central part of the process and outcome, I decided on a more conventional chapter approach with an AV essays tackling a different ‘ topic’ or way into these performances because without this structure the corpus and research would go on forever.... In a way, and i think positively, I chose to limit the freedom and limit the possibility in order to finish and present something coherent and understandable. However, that was a challenge as there are always elements and avenues you want to explore, but it became a case of doing too much of everything equalled not enough of anything. But I suppose this could be a problem with any thesis, I just felt it more keenly because it seemed like I had such uncharted choices to make about how the PhD would be structured, how I would use the re-edits, what style or form the AV essays would take, and where to situate the research contributions overall...