Film Studies in Motion: From audiovisual essay to academic research video

Chapter I: From Scribe to Screen

Reflections on projections: that is essentially what we are investigating. More specifically, we are centering our inquiries to the media through which these reflections on film (projections) are relayed. This leading chapter will provide a rough sketch of the various developments that lead to the video essay as it exists today. Our exploration will move from words written and printed on a page up to digitally enabled modes of communication that exhibit themselves on various screens. We will consider anything from consumer-targeted audio commentary to intricate database systems that exist at the crossroads between scholarship and artistry. The final section of this chapter aims to illustrate the onset of the relatively recent trend of video essaying. In other words, we will trace the means of Film Studies from scribe to screen.

As mentioned in the Introduction, our general interest lies with the medium-specific means of audiovisual conduct, while our specific focus will be on the explanatorily argumentative mode of inquiry. This includes implications for the way in which film analysis and interpretation can be practiced. Before moving through said progression diachronically, however, we first need to place today’s prosperity of audiovisual essaying practice in an often-neglected perspective. While acknowledging the manifold and ever-growing scholarship on video essaying, laying out arguments about the digital turn as a pivotal moment in Film Studies, we plea for a wider scope that could consider additional (mostly historical) aspects of present practice.
            ​First off, our aim is to complement current studies that often pay little attention to past examples of consumer-grade technology and their impact on the fusion of the personal essay and film. Erlend Lavik’s seminal article ‘The Video Essay: The Future of Academic Film and Television Criticism?’ (which will be addressed more thoroughly later on) comes closest to this wider contextualizing inquiry. Lavik’s work is not only very informative but also is highly accessible and does a great job of providing an outline about the rise of videographic film criticism and analysis. His article is, however, quite brief and thus inevitably leaves something to be desired in terms of scope. It is exactly this scope that we hope to open up further with this chapter and that we aspire to widen with the sections that follow. For instance, consumer-targeted additions of film products (most often, commentary tracks and other bonus materials) are commonly left out of scope when sketching the origins of videographic film criticism, despite their contribution to the idea of extending, also medially, the primary film experience and their incentive for ‘home education’ that now, arguably, rivals academia as well as film schools (Trope 2008). Scrutinizing earlier attempts that combined theoretical inquiry and available technology and studying trials that sought to shape audiovisual rhetoric, we believe, may be indicative for a better assessment of present practices. This provides an overview of these phenomena indirectly but clearly offers the argument that technological advancements (recently facilitating trans-medial gathering and processing of texts and decentralized modes of distribution) are not exclusive to the ‘digital age’.
            ​Similar to early writings about film, current audiovisual engagements often lack the clear demarcation between theory and criticism, between analytical and poetic modes of address, or between explorative experimentation and rounded off argumentation. Film’s coming of age as an art form prompted philosophers and cultural critics to reflect on and analyze the ‘new’ medium’s effects and affordances, while inciting writers and filmmakers to conjure up manifestos and formulate poetics. Some worked from multiple angles, combining these theoretical and practical attitudes, which is an approach that characterizes today’s practice too.[15] While Dudley Andrew’s article ‘The Core and Flow of Film Studies’ is more concerned with the assimilation (and thus dilution) of Film Studies into one of various facets that comprise Media Studies, it also shows the long history of academics and “sophisticated cinephiles” working within the same intellectual territory (Andrew 2009, 887). International histories, he concludes, exhibit “the selfsame tension (…) between the cinephilic and the disciplinary” (888). But whereas creative practice serves as a blueprint for something that will later on appear on screen, analysis, theory, and other reflective writing have always been innately plagued by a technological dissonance. Writing about moving images, or representing moving images through writing is, by its very nature, reductive. Granted, when a certain amount of focus is desired, reduction can be a productive workaround or byproduct. However, as we will get to by means of Raymond Bellour, the fact that medium specificity often gets ‘lost in translation’ means that reduction entails consequences far beyond its benefits. Although the realization came early that writing about an audiovisual experience is an anomaly (probably earlier than the first theoretical reflections appeared in the 1970s), the written form remains the dominant format of film criticism, analysis, interpretation, and theory until today.

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