"I think … of the wonderful impression I received … when confronted with … quotations in which film was taken as the medium of its own criticism",
Raymond Bellour, "The Unattainable Text", Screen, (1975) 16 (3)
For the last five years I have been fascinated by the growing number of videos appearing online that use movie images and sounds as the medium of their own criticism, as the French film theorist Raymond Bellour put it.
In April 2011, I created an open group forum called Audiovisualcy at the Vimeo video hosting site in order to begin to form an online community around an ongoing, crowd-sourced, collection of ‘audiovisual film studies’ that people all around the world are making.Twitter and Facebook versions of Audiovisualcy have also been set up to publicise and discuss video essays published on other sites.
Audiovisualcy aims to collect and share a broad range of videos that have an analytical, critical, reflexive or scholarly purpose behind their use of movie footage. The videos should fully attribute their sources, and be made according to other Fair Use (or Fair Dealing) principles as well.
The ethos of the group is one of enthusiastic openness to the possibilities of this online format at what is still a relatively early stage in its development. In gathering works of professional journalistic film criticism and academic film studies alongside sometimes very personal, even highly experimental videos, a cross fertilization is very much hoped for. The best essays that Audiovisualcy showcases, in my view, inventively cross over some of the boundaries between their different publishing contexts and original intended audiences.
The Audiovisualcy column on Press Play is a collaboration between Press Play's editors, myself, and a series of guest contributors who will take turns to pick particular video essays and to discuss what it is that we like and value about them.
The video that I've chosen to launch this new feature is one that I added very early on to the Audiovisualcy collection: Jefferson Robbins' iMacGuffin: Portable Infotech and Suspense Cinema.
Jefferson’s video was originally published with an accompanying written text in 2010 at the Film Freak Central website. What’s great about it is that it also works brilliantly as standalone, purely audiovisual, work. It is very entertaining, shot through at every turn with Jefferson’s (and also Hitchcock’s) appealing wit. But it also works well, at more than twenty minutes in length, as a very comprehensive video study of suspense-film MacGuffin devices in the age of information technology; it sets out valid categories for its survey and gives examples from all the key films you’d hope to see included.
Best of all, it wears its undoubted expertise very lightly. It uses minimal text, no voiceover, just wonderfully chosen and expertly edited excerpts from suspense movies as well as from instructional videos about the gadgets it discusses. The sound editing is excellent, too.
This video shows just how compelling studies made in this form can be, especially for the purposes of precise, concise, but also wide-ranging comparison. Exact examples can be juxtaposed, not only in order to quote from the films directly — the feature of such audiovisual studies that so impressed Bellour back in 1975 – but also to allow viewers to experience their comparison in real time, to feel as well as to know how the objects under investigation in the video are actually handled, both by the films and their technologically dazzled characters.
Catherine Grant teaches film studies at the University of Sussex, UK. You can watch her video essays on films and film theory at her Vimeo channel and read her discussion of 'audiovisual film studies' at the academic research websites Filmanalytical and Film Studies For Free. At a Society for Cinema and Media Studies Annual Conference workshop in Boston on March 22, she will discuss "Video Essays: Film Scholarship’s Emergent Form" with Christian Keathley (Middlebury College), Girish Shambu (Canisius College), Benjamin Sampson (UCLA), Richard Misek (University of Kent), Craig Cieslikowski (University of Florida), Matthias Stork (UCLA) and others.