Beyond Tautology? Audio-Visual Film Criticism
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Michelangelo Antonioni once memorably said that a film you can explain in words “is not a real film.” The Italian auteur might have been an especially susceptible candidate, then, for what film critic Adrian Martin has evoked as “[t]he seductive lure of the [film critical] audio-visual essay, such as it sweeps over us at present, [with] ‘the heady illusion it offers, for a moment or two...that fragments of cinema, sparked into life by our montage of them, will magically ‘say it all.’”
Film criticism today is certainly enticingly enriched by readily available digital post-production and distribution tools, which facilitate audio-visual forms of film analysis and publishing, and favour creative/critical methods that turn on immersion and immanence. Indeed, to paraphrase Walter Benjamin, a champion of such methods, if all criticism is an experiment on the work of art, contemporary film criticism is literalizing that experiment, and digitally generating new audio-visual frames for the kinds of perceptual possibilities also invoked, some twenty-five years ago, by Italian critic-scholar Umberto Eco: “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.”
My video essay Un/Contained—a very modest exemplar of this, still novel (if not new), relationship-in-motion—is certainly a beneficiary of this ever evolving film-critical context. Forged from digital material, with digital tools, and through digital material thinking, it can also, very fortunately, be published, and not merely cited, in this inaugural digital issue of Film Criticism. The video offers up a dense yet concise study (and experience) of the intricate poetic-cinematic patterning of Andrea Arnold’s 2009 film Fish Tank as it is disclosed in a few fleeting shots from the film that I explore in relation to psychoanalyst-theorist Wilfred Bion's understanding of the “Container-Contained” (a theorization of the idea that we need the minds and bodies of others to contain our deep existential fears, from the very moment of our birth onwards, in order to properly develop our own emotional and cognitive capacities). It is a piece of heavily audio-visual analysis and comparison that I could have chosen to translate into words—or, rather, to have translated into even more words—and published in a conventional written film-studies format; there is certainly plenty more to say, or write, about what the video asks, and argues, about Arnold’s film. But I would maintain that this wouldn’t have worked as compellingly, or been as convincing, in such a ‘reported’ version, or, indeed, in any form that didn’t actually use this micro-material from Fish Tank as (immanent or inherent) evidence.
As I have noted before, the “sensuous methodologies” of audio-visual essays often frame particularly persuasive kinds of phenomenological possibility for time-based media studies, enabling
their viewers to experience for themselves linear or synchronous moving image and sound juxtapositions in real time. As well as an exposure to audiovisual argumentation (involving selection of evidence, montage and mise en scene, titling, sound editing and other creative effects), they offer an active viewing process, one of live co-research, or participant observation. Unlike written texts, they don't have to remove themselves from film-specific forms of meaning production to have their knowledge effects on us. And we can feel, as well as know about, the comparisons these videos enact.
Like Adrian Martin and probably everyone else working in this field, I don’t believe such works will ever completely replace conventional written forms of film studies, nor would I want them to. Indeed, 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. Let us welcome and explore the new critical constellations they offer without knowing exactly where they will lead us.
Author’s note: Un/Contained: A video essay on FISH TANK was first shown at the 7th Annual ‘Contemporary Directors Symposium: On Andrea Arnold’ event at the British Film Institute (Southbank), London, May 13, 2014. Thanks to Michael Lawrence and Joe Tompkins for making possible, respectively, the screening and publishing of this work.
Catherine Grant teaches and researches Film Studies at the University of Sussex. She established (and continues to curate for) the open access campaigning website Film Studies For Free, and the Audiovisualcy video group, and is also founding editor of the academic digital publishing platform REFRAME. Grant has published widely on theories and practices of film authorship and intertextuality, and has edited volumes on world cinema, Latin American cinema, digital film and media studies, and the audiovisual essay. A relatively early and prolific adopter and practitioner of the online short video form, she is founding co-editor of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies. This new peer-reviewed publication was awarded the Society for Cinema and Media Studies’ Anne Friedberg Innovative Scholarship Award of Distinction for 2015.
Adrian Martin, “In So Many Words,” Frames Cinema Journal, (Inaugural issue on Film and Moving Image Studies Re-Born Digital?), 1, 2012, accessed November 1, 2015....http://framescinemajournal.com/article/in-so-many-words/.
Vinzenz Hediger, “What Makes an Excerpt? The Video Essay as an Experiment Performed on the Work of Art” [FRANKFURT PAPERS], The Audiovisual Essay: Practice and Theory of Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies, September 2014, accessed November 1, 2015....http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/intransition/2014/08/26/audiovisual-essay-my-favorite-things.
Catherine Grant, “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea? Videographic Film Studies Practice as Material Thinking,” ANIKI: Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image, 11, 2014, accessed...http://aim.org.pt/ojs/index.php/revista/article/view/59/html
Catherine Grant, “Déjà Viewing?: Videographic Experiments in Intertextual Film Studies,” Mediascape, Winter 2013, accessed November 1, 2015....http://www.tft.ucla.edu/mediascape/Winter2013_DejaViewing.html