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

Writing (about) film

In an attempt to answer our leading question, first we can look at the established traits and rhetoric of written scholarly work, and evaluate their usefulness, in terms of applicability, in the audiovisual essaying practice. Naturally, our focus is once again restricted to Film Studies. In Writing About Movies (2013), Karen Gocsik, Richard Barsam, and Dave Monahan offer a comprehensible overview of the basic principles and strategies of writing about film. To secure proper conduct right away, the book opens with a sub-chapter called ‘What is academic writing?’ – a fundamental question we would suggest to take as a starting point for studying film in video form as well. Already in these initial pages, where academic writing is defined as “writing done by scholars for other scholars” and that “[b]eing a scholar requires that you read, think, argue, and write in certain ways” (4), one can find a ‘problem’ regarding today’s video essaying practice. Current videos may be produced (in part) by scholars, but the (targeted) audience (or at least appeal) – due to lack of these audiovisual works’ general academic recognition as scholarly output – is (to) cinephiles in general. As mentioned before, part of the problem here is that there is a lack of controlled platform – however, with the rise of more scholarly profiled online journals, there may be a change in recognition, and from that change there will likely be a shift in conduct, too. Gocsik, Barsam, and Monahan describe ‘academia’ as an ongoing conversation at a dinner table where one joins in in-medias-res, and figures out the proper etiquette in order to contribute. While this might be the case, the protocol seems to have gotten confused as scholars took a seat at the cinephile table, instead of inviting video-guests to the academic discussion. In fact, this convergence of motifs and execution is one of the main causes for our attempt to untangle and unpack the various elements in the discussion of Videographic Film Studies output: the audiovisual essay marks a convergence of fandom, criticism, academia and film consumption. Within that light, the fact that a principle such as “[y]ou will need to make and support your claims according to the customary expectations of the academic community” (5) is once again neglected in current audiovisual produce comes as no surprise. When looking at the list of these established and widely agreed on principles of academic writing, we find that they are most often not adhered to in current video essaying practice. Instead, personal association or investigation is headlined (also due to the lineage of personal essaying), and rather than having a framed perspective on a case study, it is currently the other way around: the case (study) dictates what is being presented.
            ​With the traditional (written) form of Film Studies, one of the fundamental principles is that authors place their work within the lineage of their field of expertise, and do so in an informed manner that respects and follows consented modes of their scholarly discourse. This way, they can “‘place’ [their unfolding] argument within the ongoing critical conversation” (6). Clearly stated, this is “not an invitation to allow your personal associations, reactions, or experiences to dominate your paper” (7). Contributions should be built around “informed argument” that is of “analytical rather than personal” nature and “framed in a critical rather than a personal way” (ibid). Personal reaction is, of course, a necessary starting point of every scholarly work, but only when it is systematically and theoretically evaluated does it contribute to proper research. Nevertheless, the lineage of personal documentary is evident. One can even speak of a ‘personal turn’ as a natural result of technological advancement in research possibilities (in Film Studies). Yet, we think that merging artistic self-expression and affordable and user-friendly access to technology have led to a problem that is solidified by the fact that film scholars are generally (and hopefully) cinephiles at heart as well.[79] Additionally, such aca(demic)-fan critics are currently the most prolific group producing video essays, and they fall somewhere in between of the scholar and the fan/cinephile (in terms of stature, authority, as well as theoretical and canonical literacy).[80] A good percentage of current audiovisual essays fail to address these established principles that are grounded in the written tradition. Personal preferences are all too quickly celebrated and there is not enough ‘placement’ of the developed argumentation as to set it within the larger context of the field. It appears, up to now, as if the paradigm of research that has been published on paper is not worked into video. In most cases, it is simply omitted or perhaps even overly neglected.
            ​Going by the examples, a general ‘consensus’ has seemingly developed that videos do not need a classical exposition, introduction or ‘entrance’, because a film clip can be used to set the mood. Usually, such an opening excerpt is used to denote the case study, and implicitly convey the point of emphasis, or at the very least the atmosphere of the film (which then also informs the aesthetic of the analysis). Though this is not (yet) a popular stance, a major part of this book is based on the idea that the videographic movement in Film Studies will develop in ways more entangled with academic writing. But even if this will turn out to not be the case, it is still important to regard the principles that were dominant in Film Studies (or film culture and criticism even) prior to these new audiovisual semantics. Therefore, we will now consider several reflections on writing in regards to cinema, while at the same time trying to ‘update’ them by drawing parallels to contemporary audiovisual works.

As the guidelines of Writing About Movies delineate, a proper analysis should start by summarizing and discerning what is relevant for the taken approach. This, then, could leave room to “articulate the reasons from your personal response” and to compare and contextualize these findings within a larger scope, which ties in with the earlier discussion of preliminary considerations (Gocsik et al 2013, 8-10). As stated before, current video produce mostly presents datasets. When considered closely, even a video like Kogonada’s What is Neorealism? (which is, rightfully, regarded as a mature case) fails to live up to these established standards of scholarly analysis, which would break down ‘the film’ into observational units, let alone properly discriminate and clearly present them. Having missed these initial steps, more thorough argumentative synthesis is also often absent.
            What we need are videos that “create an umbrella argument – a larger argument under which several observations and perspectives might stand” (12). This is something that, for instance, David Bordwell does in his Bresson-video (see the discussion in Chapter II, explaining how Bordwell moves through various examples before arriving at his actual case study). In order to deliver such an ‘umbrella argument’ one needs to adopt a rhetorical stance that precedes work on the case study. Similar to preparatory work for “an academic paper, you must consider not only what you want to say but also the audience to whom you’re saying it” (13). One’s own position as well as the audience’s stance and biases need to be considered. Namely, there are questions that need to be answered – as Gocsik and his co-authors formulate: “What values, expectations, and knowledge do[es your audience] possess? For whom are you writing, and for what purpose?” (ibid). The answers to these questions, in turn, help set a tone and style that is “[appealing] to the reader, even while it maintains an appropriate academic style” (16-17).
            ​Gocsik, Barsam, and Monahan list different approaches, for example ‘formal analysis’ with the possibility to explore meaning by delving into form and content (mentioned by them as separate instances, whereas strict formalists would argue that form equals content, something that is very subtly and elegantly exhibited in the works of David Bordwell), ‘cultural analysis’, ‘genre studies’ which could be interpreted in a broader sense as comparing and contrasting, which in turn is similar to ‘historical analysis’ (33, 46, 51, 62, 75). These modes need not be mutually exclusive, but should provide focal points for setting up film analyses. This brings us to a problematic aspect that we mentioned earlier: whereas academic writing often adopts a combination of numerous theoretical and methodical approaches, audiovisual essays are generally exercises in underlining a single presentational mode (even the more complicated ones, like the video lecture).
            ​Notably, the three authors are keen to instate that a thesis sentence preconfigures all that comes after – it “asserts, controls, and structures the entire argument. Without a strong, persuasive, thoughtful thesis – explicit or implied – a paper might seem unfocused, weak and not worth the reader’s time” (123). The properties of such (a good) thesis sentence are as follows:
  1. “A good thesis sentence makes a claim” – “develop an interesting perspective that you can support and defend” (ibid). For instance, Kogonada’s Kubrick // One-Point Perspective seemingly provides an implicit thesis, but in actuality it merely presents a given aspect, which is by no means up for debate. The same goes for Nelson Carvajal’s Pacino: Full Roar, which video’s essayistic qualities (let alone status of bearing the title of ‘essay’) are doubtful too. However, video lectures are too much founded upon the lecture format; they are more informative than argumentative. Though their presentation of facts is often founded upon a claim, video lectures thus far have trodden well-known territory and therefore ‘claim’ very little.
  2. “A good thesis ​sentence determines the scope of the argument” (124). Looking at the same example, Kogonada’s Kubrick-videos hardly determine anything – they describe a dataset. Problems with such haziness was explained earlier when we discussed Ali Shirazi’s There Will Be Blood / Through Numbers, in which video the ‘thesis’ is vague: there is a claim but no real means of providing an argument; the inconsistency and opaque nature of the presented phenomenon makes it that any ‘scope of argument’ is up for grabs.
  3. “A good thesis sentence provides a structure for the argument” (125). It should signal “not only what your argument is but how it will be presented” (ibid). Viewed strictly, actually Kubrick // One-Point Perspective does this: in this video there is no further classification, and Kogonada presents only footage that features one-point perspective. However, again, this is not an argument. For instance, there is no ‘this or that happens when central perspective is employed’, which would offer a falsifiable, or at least arguable claim. What is missing is a functional evaluation of the video’s implicit claim: there is no explanation about the possible reasons or effects of Kubrick’s frequent use of central perspective in his films. It can be stated that current video conduct circumvents argumentative structure by adopting a single presentational mode, despite the fact that this complicates development of the three main principles as described here. Which begs the question: if a piece (be it written or audiovisual) does away with these three very basic preconfigurations, to what extent can they be essayistic?
Nevertheless, ​sometimes the goal of argumentation is not to substantiate claims, but to open a topic up for discussion (124). One could argue that supercut videos do this, but, as mentioned in the conclusion of Chapter II, their questions and points are not presented in an open and clear way as scholars (should) do, but more as artists might conceal them in a work of art: veiled, indirect and arbitrary – the exact opposite of what academic conduct (ideally) is about. The problem is that these possible points of discussion are hardly posed as questions in the first place, and are rarely followed up on. One could argue that a thesis in videographic work need not be explicitly mentioned, as it could be clearly implied through consistent visual communication (e.g., repetition). While writing this book (summers 2014 through 2015), the videos in circulation have generally not shown this as a compensatory measure when not verbally explicating a thesis. Therefore, the need for either verbal explication of a thesis, or additional embedding and contextualizing of the topic to be investigated remains (126). It should be noted, once more, that our criticism is not geared as an attack on these videos – as they are all valuable and highly enjoyable audiovisual contributions to film culture –, but we do wish to bring nuance to the idea of considering them as valid scholarship that could substitute academic essaying practice, and could live up to such practice’s established and agreed academic standards.
            ​We will not go into detail about thesis construction. There are plenty of resources available, and we consider composition as a skill to be developed in institutionalized learning facilities, and by students and scholars (and others interested) themselves through practice. In addition to all the written guidelines that are available in print and online, composition classes are offered at high schools, universities and other institutions of (higher) learning.[81] These recommendations concerning construction and rhetoric provide general guidelines, but also offer various means for concretely shaping and formulating theses. In most video-essays, however, even basic set-ups seemingly go unused: approaches like conceptualization, or comparison and contrasting stay somewhat underrepresented.

In his Viewer’s Guide, David Bordwell broke writing about films down into three types: descriptive screening report, evaluative review, and argumentative analytical essay (Bordwell 2001).[82] If we were to adopt this categorization, roughly speaking, current videos would move more towards ‘reports’ than ‘analytical essays’ – even those that are in fact analytical in nature (as an ‘analytical’ report is not the same as an analysis). While Gocsik, Barsam, and Monahan wrote a 256-page book about writing about films, useful in providing guidelines for elementary film scholarship, in their work there is actually very little attention devoted to the actual construction of a text. The most potent pointers are those elicited above in quotes or references, which are more theoretical recommendations and less guided by the practice of analysis. Bordwell, however, is more hands-on and concise, especially with regard to the ‘analytical essay’ (17) and ‘organization and writing’ (21-25).
            ​The Viewer’s Guide posits the following: “You can sum up the structure of an argumentative essay in the acronym TREE: Thesis supported by Reasons which rest upon Evidence and Examples” (18). As for such essay’s outline, Bordwell provides that “[b]roadly speaking, an argumentative piece has this underlying structure:

          Introduction: Background information or a vivid example, leading up to:
          Statement of thesis
Body: Reasons to believe the thesis
          Evidence and examples that support the thesis
          Conclusion: Restatement of thesis and discussion of its broader implications” (21).

When we combine and apply this simple layout of basic constituents with the concepts of writing as set forth by Gocsik and others, we are approaching a viable springboard for setting up a theoretically potent and structurally neat audiovisual essay.
            ​Yet even with the aforementioned elements in place, one should be wary of superficial representations that can be issued as compact representations. A clear-cut point Bordwell stresses is the importance of contextualizing one’s findings, and to watch for ‘the whole film’ in order to justify and ensure such finding’s relevance and integrity (1-2, 24-25). For example, he takes the famous lines – “Show me the money!” and “You complete me” from Cameron Crowe’s 1996 Jerry Maguire, noting that they have become clichés and, “[t]aken by themselves, they are easy to mock” (1). Within the film, however, the meaning of these key lines alters throughout several events taking place in the narrative. Plucking them from their respective environments and putting them up as a singular, de-contextualized trope diminishes their value dramatically. Despite the fact that audiovisual ‘essays’, for example (and most notably) on Wes Anderson and Stanley Kubrick, aim to examine, analyze, tribute, and ultimately celebrate filmmaking auteurism, they in fact also provide unintended caricatures of these directors’ local and well-rounded aesthetic choices, which specificity and contextual association then disappear in the cinephile playfulness of supercuts and mashup practices.[83] Honoring the context of presented findings not only respects the original artwork, but it also allows for properly fleshed out argumentation.
            At this point we are still left with a relatively sparse guide for setting up our structure. For instance, in the case of any type of analysis moving beyond formal analysis, we would say that a description of the theoretical framework and methodology / approach is commonly inserted in between the introduction and the body text. Naturally, this is a given in any composition class, but current tendencies in video essay-workshops and literature indicate that this insertion is often overlooked or dismissed.

As a more definite and detailed guide, Laurie G. Kirszner and Stephen R. Mandell’s The Wadsworth Handbook (2005) provides a wealth of information on all aspects of academic writing. Running the gamut from superstructure to interpunction, we wish to refer to this book as a go-to reference guide for academic writing. It should be noted that while consulting the Handbook, we have no intention of providing an ultimate ‘how to write an essay’-guide. Instead, what we are interested in is to show how the practical conduct of audiovisual essaying holds up to the theoretical principles of writing well-rounded academic argumentation.
            ​Directly and mainly relevant for our project is the visual and modular system of composition that Kirszner and Mandell propose for those who are “visually oriented” (Kirszner and Mandell 2005, 54). Incidentally, the authors actually provide a proper tool for laying the groundwork for videographic work. Acknowledging it as a term and process borrowed from filmmaking, they suggest, “[s]toryboarding is a way of graphically organizing material into a series of boxes or panels” (ibid – italics are bold in the original). The method is powerful, because

Unlike a strictly text-based outline, which uses words, phrases, or sentences to plot the organization of material in a linear way, a storyboard uses pictures and diagrams, either electronically generated or drawn by hand, to map out an arrangement of material. (ibid)

This is an obvious hint that composition of scholarly video and writing need not be (considered as) wholly dissimilar from each other: this potent way to visualize, shape and organize an academic text factually results in a script that mirrors what is the most likely groundwork for a video essay. If anything, after having prepped such a document, translating it onto the timeline of an editing program seems like the next logical step. What this method also illustrates is that text writing can borrow from filmmaking and vice-versa (as they are both – textual or visual – products of the same creative thinking process). Although hardly translated, the approach of storyboarding a written essay lends itself directly for planning (‘to map out’) a video. Constructing an audiovisual essay calls for economical rendition of the various building blocks that make up an argumentative text with explanatory quality. These building blocks will now be rendered multi-modally, and therefore a scripting method as described here can help to visualize an organized workflow. Ideally, the multimedial relations within and between these building blocks have been explored before they are processed in editing software.[84] Revision with video is more laborious, certainly in technical terms, than with written words only. Also, finding the right economical balance in informational depth and tempo is necessary, as one demands a fixed amount of time of video-viewing audience, as opposed to a written text that one can skim or read at one’s own tempo. Even with skimming, pausing et cetera, video dictates a certain time frame.
            ​Notwithstanding reasonable concerns about ‘digital literacy’ (Marshall 2013), we are convinced that (the lack of) technological skills will stand in the way of the spreading of the audiovisual essaying practice less and less. Our students have shown to find little problems in basic computer skills like ripping clips, trimming and editing scenes. However, the final results have shown that guidance in more advanced technical and audiovisual language expertise, such as properly recording voice-over and recognizing audiovisual flaws and inconsistencies, matching aspect ratios, leveling sound, exporting formats, etc., is necessary.[85] Momentarily, even discussions hosted by the practice’s frontrunners indicate that practical ‘audiovisual literacy’ is still very much in development. Nevertheless, some traits of video are self-organizational, and yield advantages of classical writing. Despite the fact that digital literacy may not be where it ‘needs to be’ at the moment, objectively speaking, this should not be an excuse for abandoning the principles as discussed above. Looking at the bare facts, the authors of Videographic Film Studies would be scholars, with an audience of scholars, both of which are trained in a specific mode of thought, methods, and a set of theories. Understating the matter somewhat, it is arguably only the carrier of the information that changes. Like with other technological advancements, there has been an early interest into the mechanics of the carrier itself. Momentarily, however, it feels as not the most fitting questions are being addressed and not the best directions are being pursued. To reiterate, questions at the Ebertfest and [in]Transition panel can be paraphrased as ‘how can one use the intricacies that we have found (thus far) in the carrier?’, whereas we feel that video essayist scholars should be looking at how can one improve argumentative fluidity with the current carrier in order to attain a level of information that was the bar prior to, and regardless of this technological shift? (consider this an alternative rendering of our book’s main question). Additionally, when Videographic Film Studies become more cultivated in their production, a logical by-product is that we can then start to formulate more distinct criteria for their evaluation.

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