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


In a scholarly context, it would take some twenty years before another significant development would rise, but only to falter almost immediately. Whereas inclusion of stills provided sole visual embellishment, the advent of ‘hypermedia’ allowed for visuals, audio and audiovisual materials that could be organized and presented seemingly independently from any predisposed text-driven logic. Thus, the technological modalities at one’s disposal were much more than simply complimentary to the rhetorically and argumentatively dominant writing. This way, the technological possibility to relay information beyond written word allowed for (and thus brought with it) a departure from conventional organizational and structural principles as found in literature.
            ​The terms ‘hypertext’ and ‘hypermedia’ were coined by Theodor Holm Nelson as early as 1965 in a paper that proposed complex structures for digital file-management, bearing a close resemblance to the logic we use to organize and access files on computers today (Nelson 1965). Though ‘hypertext’ became almost synonymous with ‘Internet’ through its Hyper-Text Markup Language (HTML) used for coding, ‘hypermedia’ remains more elusive. Throughout the 1980s, several software packages were developed to provide inter-medial possibilities, offering “professional and easy-to-use visual software specifically designed for the creation, management, publishing of any type of hyperlinked, electronic documentation” (functionality that is similar to what we would consider customary of websites soon thereafter). Examples are VisualVision’s Hyper Publish, its follow-up PaperKiller (the source of the above quote),[22] and Eastgate System’s Storyspace [Figure 5].
The use of Storyspace for film analysis is exemplified in a discussion written by Australian New Media scholar Adrian Miles (2004).[23] Miles, struggling with the Bellourian dilemma but recognizing Storyspace’s position and potential, admitted that “writing about the cinema has relied upon the formal written essay, it has always been extremely difficult to describe, explain, or illustrate, what aspect of a film – or the cinema – is being discussed” (Miles 2004). Therefore, the software was hailed as “a new paradigm for writing about the cinema” since it (finally) allowed its users to “incorporate still images, digitized video, and sound into their work”, the results of which could easily be “shared and linked” (ibid, our emphasis). Initially, the new platform seemed to work: four years after its launch in 1987, Storyspace was used in many universities, though these were mostly affiliated to the workplaces of Storyspace developers who themselves worked at “institutions of higher learning” (Engst and Neuburg 1991). The problems with this kind of software, however, were (and are) numerous. First of all, Storyspace worked in a closed user environment, meaning that ‘author’ and ‘reader’ (for lack of better terms) both needed the software to access the hypertext.[24] Furthermore, the platform was neither intuitive, nor user-friendly: the skillset one needed to acquire had a learning curve that is applicable only to this software, as opposed to general insight on video editing or traditional writing forms. Adding to an initial threshold, the software was and still is costly.[25] These elements combined prevented the platform and its novel practice from far-ranging dissemination, consequently hindered a formation of wide(r) user community.[26] As a result of these limitations, publication of research outcomes was problematic, as only the software developer had the platform to showcase created works, and, due to their limited range of readability, the texts themselves cost either the same or even more than an average book.[27]

At this point, keeping in mind the chosen scope and perspective of this book, it is important to note that the hypertext-format itself is fundamentally opaque and open-ended, whereas autonomous videographic work (essayistic or otherwise) should aspire lucidity and a closed (reading) experience (these aspects will be explored in-depth in Chapter III). In fact, the initiation of hypertexts was geared at the exact opposite. As, in his article ‘The Expressive Shapes of Arguments and Artifacts’, Randy Bass explains: a hypermedia essay can be “read right” when “read wrong”, meaning that the inherent architecture of this technological platform is what inspires readers to ‘stray off the path’ (which is a rather different logic than what a traditional – serial and linear – reading experience offers). Here, the linked nodes allow the user to consume the information in a different order than the author might have originally envisioned. However, the mode of this construction also presupposes, by default, that such freedom never really leads to ‘wrong’ readings, meaning the author is ‘confined’ to undemarcated distribution of his or her information, allocating an associative field, not a point-A-to-point-B argument. The statement on ‘reading a text right when read wrong’, however, works only in theory: in practice, due to the decentralized character of hypermedia’s informational ordering, one might venture into hours of reading effort without any clear goal or payoff. Therefore, it makes sense that Bass would proclaim that a hypermedia document “should not be read as an argument that is trying to coerce or seduce you into seeing it [a certain] way” (Bass 1999, 276). In reality, though, a hypermedia document is very much ‘trying [to] coerce or seduce you into seeing it a certain way’. Though it may seem ‘non-coercing’ to the traditional eye, a hypermedia document invites one into an open-ended, non-linear reading experience. Though not as rigid as a linear text, the fact that the construction that is inherent to the hypermedia format counteracts linear reading is an argument to see things a certain way in its own right (at the same time, one could argue that ‘not-coercing’ a forged path is an equally coercing quality). All in all, a hypermedia document opposes traditionally structured text both in form and argumentation; the mechanisms employed in it favor a reading experience without a clear center or ending. Louise Krasniewicz and Michael Blitz’s robustly titled article, ‘Why We Did Not Produce ‘Dreaming Arnold Schwarzenegger’ as a Book, Several Articles, an Encyclopedia, a Video, an Annotated Bibliography, and a Museum Installation (or Did We?)’, offers a palpable example regarding working with hypertext:

Hypertext seemed to us a medium full of such detours or interconnections between the personal, embodied nature of information and the larger, cultural, context where the narratives of our research have to reside. Our interest in producing a hypertext construction of our work on Arnold Schwarzenegger was sparked by the very idea that hypertext – as broadcast on the Web – is a cultural circumstance made of detours. (Krasniewicz and Blitz 1999, 259)

Because of its associative characteristics and linking possibilities, the hypertext could very well serve preliminary, exploratory, or even organizational means when utilized for scholarly purposes. More than anything, it is built to present an associative or connotative curated field of information. As Bass explicates, the main substance of a hypertext “is in essence a tailored archive of primary materials” (Bass 1999, 282). Nevertheless, at least for academic purposes, this would not absolve the need for an author who would need to streamline content, and provide a rounded-out and retrievable argument by utilizing the affordances of the hypertext logic.[28] In fact, practice showed that thesis-driven experiments still leaned towards “the traditional rhetorical model where artifactual evidence is subordinated to the argument, and subsidiary arguments subordinated to a single overarching thesis”, despite the fact that “digital environments might facilitate, even instigate new modes of argument” (277). Conversely to the ‘read-wrong-to-read-right’ principle, we believe that in order to efficiently progress ideas (or at least, be able to work with some plan of where the ideas might land), one needs texts/artefacts that provide closed-off argumentation of matured ideas, not fragmentary or unbound thought-processes. The technological possibility to experiment with forking structures may be exciting, but in terms of informational, theoretical and didactic logic, such practice’s relevance is questionable.

Practically speaking, software built around hypertext is now obsolete by power of the Internet.[29] In turn, the format of hypertext/hypermedia itself may be reinvigorated because of the very same developments that pushed its heritage off the map. A prime example of this is the online publishing platform Scalar, ​which facilitates the distribution and consumption of enriched texts (as this very project demonstrates). Broader study of video essays calls for rich text structures and incorporation of hypermedia. Therefore, it is very likely that we are on the brink of converging what we now call the eBook, and what we consider webpages with ‘hyper-content’. Similar to early hypermedia software, eBook formats have the ability to homogenize different types of media within a uniform container, yet struggle with compatibility issues regarding different platforms (like Windows vs. Mac and iOS vs. Android, or on a more abstract scale: notebook vs. tablet vs. phone etc.). On the other hand, webpages are freely accessible from any device; yet often lack the elegance and usability of more restricted applications.

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