What We Talk About When We Talk About Movies 12.10.2008, 4:24 PM
posted by dan piepenbring
Wyatt Mason, the keenly observant Harper's literary critic, blogged last week about the difficulties inherent to film criticism. "[B]ecause film is a waterfall of particulars," he believes, a movie review "is the hardest place to get any serious critical footing." He's frustrated by attempts to verbalize what he sees and hears:
I tried, not so much valiantly as in vain, to put into words what I thought of the movies of Tennessee Williams. There are a great many of them, and they are very unusual, or so it seemed to me. Trying, though, to explain that particularity proved disabling. Rather than write eight lines, I wanted to play eight seconds of a scene from Baby Doll, so I could point to the glint in Eli Wallach's eyes, and say something wise like, "Wow, look at his eyes." Alas, that was not a means at my disposal.
But what if it were? Mason's insights accent the coming sea change in our dissection of films. Given the ascendancy of digital video and the ease with which we share media, why can't more scholars and critics say, "Wow, look at his eyes"? The technology for close, second-by-second readings of films is readily available. In classrooms and critical organs alike, though, few seem to have taken up the practice. (This is not to say that video clips aren't finding their way to more blogs and websites--far from it. But in my experience, the clips are seldom cinematic: instead, there's a lot of television floating around. As a part of their ongoing feature on "The New Cult Canon," however, The Onion A.V. Club has embedded excerpts from the films in their reviews, and the results are worth exploring.)
We've grown all too accustomed, it seems, to talking about films without really quoting them. The capacity to quote is a terrific boon, no doubt, and yet few film buffs are tossing their hats in the air. Legal hindrances might be largely to blame--it's hard to display film fragments publicly when you don't have the rights to cite them--but I think there's also some head-scratching as to how film quotations might alter the nature of the criticism. Being able to include the salient clips in, say, a digital paper on Tennessee Williams's movies would completely upend one's analytic strategy. Readers, too, would find themselves with more freedom in digesting a critic's approach alongside the film itself; the critic's interpretation becomes increasingly palpable as the reader is immersed in the source material. Mason indicates as much:
...[A] classroom--equipped with projector and laser pointer--would seem the best environment in which to take apart a moving picture. One can watch; re-watch; isolate; conflate; pause to listen, intently and with closed eyes, to a moment in the score, and then open those eyes to see how what was heard underscores the seen.
An arresting possibility, yes, but I see no reason that such dedicated viewing can't occur outside the classroom, too. In this sense, Mason's notion of "the best environment" raises some excellent questions: how best to replicate the studious solitude of the classroom on a networked screen, in a way that engenders conversation and annotation? Presented with this more dynamic (and, presumably, more efficacious) mode of criticism, what changes obtain in the mission of the critic and the expectations of the reader?
Posted by dan piepenbring on December 10, 2008 4:24 PM
Daniel Anderson on December 10, 2008 7:48 PM:
We just completed an assignment somewhat along these lines in an English class I'm teaching. Essentially the idea is to write an essay using clips and voice over. My example is at http://thoughtpress.org/daniel/node/107
Your note about the legal issues is spot on. Several of the student versions of these projects have already been taken down from YouTube--in some cases, they may not have pushed the analysis and remixing enough to get to fair use, but in others I think there are just studio spiders contesting anything that shows up with footage in it.
This was a first time for this project for us, but next time around we'll build more fair use checks into the revision process and then host the clips on our own somewhere.
Jurgen on December 10, 2008 8:42 PM:
Take a look at Kevin Lee's video essays: http://alsolikelife.com/shooting/
Chuck on December 13, 2008 12:00 PM:
Part of the problem for new movies may be the availability of appropriate clips online, but there is certainly a rich tradition of film bloggers who quote from movies using stills or moving images.
I'd also argue that practices such as this video clip, Rising to the Occasion (via Liz Losh), function as a form of vernacular film criticism. Like you, I'd like to see more of it, but I think there are also some great examples already out there.
james on December 13, 2008 4:57 PM:
no take a look at these esssays: