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

Per paratext

Finally, we will turn to what is arguably the last key aspect of the development that gave shape to the current video essay practice: the inception of paratexts. 1984 saw the first multimedia extension of film ‘text’. Whereas literature (studies) had built a tradition in annotated editions, cinema was later to catch on. Meta-expansion of film came in Bellourian form: where a work of literary text is annotated with additional writing, audiovisuals of film were expanded by visual menus and metadata provided via audio. In this way, meta-efforts were adopted into the original text-body similarly to literary efforts: they extended beyond the original text, but were comprised of the same technological and medial fabric. The very first materialization of such a paratext (or ‘paratrack’) was the possibility to play a commentary audio-track on Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack’s Criterion LaserDisc edition of King Kong (1933). This particular commentary track featured Ronald Haver, a scholar who had seen King Kong close to 200 times (!) and who had known Cooper and several others working on the film personally, but had not worked on the film himself. His commentary was comprised of second-hand anecdotes and trivia, unlike later incarnations of commentary tracks, which most often feature the director and/or actors. Looking back on this first attempt, the novelty of the practice of voice-over commentary becomes apparent in the probing decorum featured at the very beginning of the track:

Hello ladies and gentlemen, I’m Ronald Haver, and I’m here to do something, which we feel is rather unique. I am going to take you on a lecture tour of King Kong, as you watch the film. The LaserDisc technology offers us this opportunity and we feel it’s rather unique, the ability to switch back and forth between the soundtrack and this lecture track[.] I’ve seen the film almost 200 times since I first saw it in 1952, and I do have a great deal of knowledge that I think would be fairly interesting to most of you, especially about, like I said, behind the scenes and the making of the film[.] I think that all of the information that I have been able to gather throughout the years, I’d like to be able to get across to you on this particular lecture. Now, I won’t talk constantly; there will be stretches of silence. So don’t think there is anything wrong with your player, it is just that at that particular time there isn’t really too much to say. (our selective transcription of Haver’s opening sentences)[36]

It should be noted that the motivation behind these ‘paratexts’ was (and still for the most part is) not scholarly, rather than providing ‘added value’ and prestige aimed at the consumer market (Bertellini and Reich 2010, 103). Despite the fact that the 12” LaserDisc format was a short-lived commercial flop (it was clunky in use and prone to damage), together with VHS (which LaserDisc was intended to render obsolete) it laid the groundwork for later DVD- and Blu-ray-extras. From here on out, paratextual content would start to evolve from commentary tracks to extra materials that went beyond what was visible in the given film: behind-the-scenes photos and documentaries; talking heads of video lecture introductions; screenplays, shooting scripts and storyboards; documentaries; deleted scenes and alternative cuts made it that the actual film itself became part of a kaleidoscopic view on its immediate context (104). Bonus materials oftentimes provide “suggested readings” either explicitly through, for instance, accompanying video lectures, or implicitly by means of contextual information offered in commentary tracks, making-of videos or behind-the-scenes documentation (105). These extensions allowed for the study of film outside the institutional context of Film Studies; paratextual bonus materials gave way to information that, at the time, was hard to come by. Before the times of the Internet and its abundant open access information overload, complementary materials became invaluable sources for aspiring filmmakers that did not have the opportunity to go to film school, or those interested in theory and analysis without being enrolled in an educational organization. In no time the quality and attainability of bonus information gained such momentum that Alison Trope very convincingly observed that the enthusiastic self studies of these paratexts started to rival the benefits of educational institutions geared at both productional (filmmaking) and analytical/receptive (studying film) ends (Trope 2008). The Criterion Collection was the first and perhaps the best-known provider for these types of paratextual extensions, including director’s cuts and originally restored prints. In 2012 the label’s efforts converged with scholarly work, when, for their tenth edition of Film Art, David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson partnered with Criterion.[37] Having access to Criterion’s archive, Bordwell was able to produce video essays on classic films with high quality video, and, in exchange, Criterion scored yet another valuable exposure for academic circles. But whereas since its start from 1984 Criterion’s canonizing releases focus more on establishing a collection of “important classic and contemporary films (…) in editions that offer the highest technical quality”, other ‘mainstream’ or commercially oriented Blu-ray releases feature the ‘Maximum Movie Mode’, which can easily be seen as a logical successor to audio commentary. ‘Maximum Movie Mode’ first appeared in 2009 for Warner Bros’ Watchmen release (Chacksfield 2009). It featured Zack Snyder being seen on-screen; commenting, freezing, zooming and annotating the film as it plays, illustrated by super-imposed graphics – “offering a lot more than the usual audio or visual commentary tracks” (Sciretta 2009) – see [Figure 8].
Down the historical line, broadband Internet would facilitate cross-medial proliferation. DVD and Blu-ray extras could be shared and viewed outside of their original carrier, for example when uploaded to YouTube channels or other online platforms. Customers’ home cinema sets and smart televisions became capable to explore the possibilities for Internet connection: from 2008 special ‘BD-Live’ and ‘BD-Live 2.0’ Blu-ray editions allowed consumers to upgrade their first generation ‘BonusView’ offline extras and even create and share additional content (Moskovciak 2008). A website like Film School Through Commentaries literally distils paratexts into DIY study materials. But the web also provided a platform as the initial place to develop paratexts. Studios and filmmakers created websites as elongations of their films that allowed audiences to deepen their film experience or get more detail of the narrative. One of the earliest and best examples is the accompanying website to Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko (2001) which, among other features, incorporated audio, visual and audiovisual materials, and allowed, or even empowered, ‘forensic fans’ (Mittell 2009) to get a deepened understanding of the goings on in the rather puzzling storyworld presented in the film. The site was built around clusters of nodes that could be clicked in a non-linear fashion. Each node gave way to a (series of) pop-up window(s), gradually expanding navigational possibilities for the user. This particular paratext is most reminiscent of the earlier discussed hypertext software, where navigational freedom is offered almost fully to the user.[38] This additional hypermedia allowed for non-end-to-end-controlled user experience where the linear narrative of the film nevertheless served as a spine to all additional information, safeguarding its holistic purposes (a construction bearing resemblance to ‘hyper video’, which we will discuss in Chapter II). A more current example for this practice is ‘Two ways through life’, a website that was erected to accompany Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life (2011). Here users can navigate through the footage themselves, resulting in something between a controllable supercut and an index of extended scenes as would normally be found on a DVD or Blu-ray release.
            ​Ultimately, not only do these extensions provide a platform for deepening knowledge about and scrutinizing movies from home, they are also developing in shape and affect in a manner similar to the way film scholars and self-erudite cinephiles seek to render their analytical work audiovisually as extensions of the studied film.

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