28 April 2014

Instruments of Vision

Am 4. April 2014 waren die spanische Filmwissenschaftlerin Cristina Álvarez López und der australische Filmwissenschaftler Adrian Martin zu Gast im Hamburger Metropolis Kino. Im Rahmen einer Retrospektive der Filme von Brian De Palma hielten sie einen Vortrag und präsentierten als Weltpremiere den 15-minütigen audiovisuellen Essay „[De Palma’s] Vision“ (Arbeitstitel: „Count It Out“) zu Strukturen und Motiven im Werk des Regisseurs. Die Herstellung audiovisueller Essays, die Verwendung der Bilder und Sounds von Filmen zum Zwecke ihrer Analyse, hat sich für López und Martin zu einer wichtigen Ergänzung ihrer Textarbeit entwickelt. Unter anderem haben sie Arbeiten zu Jean-Pierre Melville, Leos Carax und Philippe Garrel veröffentlicht, derzeit unterrichten sie gemeinsam ein Seminar zur Praxis des audivisuellen Essays an der Frankfurter Goethe-Universität. The Wayward Cloud sprach mit Cristina Álvarez López und Adrian Martin über die unterschiedlichen analytischen Potenziale von Text und Bewegtbildern, über Voice-over und Slow-mo, gute und schlechte Kritik und natürlich über Brian De Palma.


On April 4th 2014 the film scholars Cristina Álvarez López (Spain) and Adrian Martin (Australia) presented their audiovisual essay “[De Palma’s] Vision” (working title: “Count It Out”) as part of a retrospective of the films of Brian De Palma at the Metropolis Kino in Hamburg. For López and Martin the production of audiovisual essays, the use of certain images and sounds of movies to analyse their structures and themes, has developed into an important corollary to their textual work. They have published pieces on Jean-Pierre Melville, Leos Carax, and Philippe Garrel, and this semester they are teaching a seminar on the audiovisual essay at the Goethe University in Frankfurt. The Wayward Cloud talked with Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martian about the different critical potentials of text and moving images, about voice-over and slow-mo, about good and bad criticism – and Brian De Palma.

Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin at the Metropolis Kino
© Regina Nickelsen/Filmteam Colon 

The Wayward Cloud: What’s essayistic about an audiovisual essay?

Cristina Álvarez López: We use the word ‘essay’ for our audiovisual work because, just like in the written form it suggests, we do not just follow a certain preconceived path; we want to find out things while working on it. The idea is to experiment with the material. But the audiovisual essay does not work in the same way as a written one, because the discursive tools are different.

Adrian Martin: For me, the term ‘essay’ also makes sense because it makes clear that what we are doing is closer to criticism than to film. It’s not purely an art piece or experimental film, but an act of film criticism. Like the verb ‘to essay’ suggests, it’s a critical act of experimentation and exploration, of testing the limits. It connects with the long tradition of the literary essay as a form of open exploration from Montaigne onwards through film practitioners like Chris Marker and Harun Farocki. As Cristina said, it is not about presenting a linear argument where you state your premise, prove it and come to a conclusion. It’s another kind of discursive form where you arrange the materials in a different way.

The Wayward Cloud: What do you start with?

Martin: Sometimes we just start with certain scenes that we like; we put them next to each other and see how they work together. It’s just an intuition of something. It’s only when we actually see how different images and sounds react to one another that other ideas are suggested to us. It’s a dialectical back and forth. And sometimes the text part of it is the final thing that we arrive at, after we have experimented with the footage, something that we can distill from it. Sometimes the writing of the text will feed back into our exploration of the films, or certain sentences will be integrated into the audiovisual essay itself.

Álvarez López: The original idea for the De Palma essay was to talk about things related to vision. It was just a broad concept; we didn’t know what exactly we wanted to say. We began to watch some movies and develop some ideas. These ideas mostly come through repetition and variation: certain scenes and motifs reappear in movie after movie. We began to put them together and then we asked ourselves: What are we trying to say by putting these scenes together? Our answers to this question can become part of the text that we are writing in parallel to our audiovisual exploration – maybe just a paragraph that does not find its way into the final text but that can spark off further ideas. It’s a constant intuitive and intellectual movement back and forth between the text and the films. In this process, we slowly arrive at the best way to arrange scenes and frames which, in the beginning, are only an accumulation of footage.

Martin: We are always trying to find the connection between two pieces of film (or rather, snippets of digital files!). We want to find the connecting line, and we want that connecting line to be clear to the person who eventually experiences the piece. We ask ourselves: in going from this scene to the next, is it perfectly clear what we are connecting? Is it a gesture, is it a situation, is it a composition? The challenge is to make this connection as clear as possible, so that it isn’t just a heterogeneous mess of things. If a certain scene doesn’t fit into this line of connections, it has to go – even if we love it.

Álvarez López: This happened, for instance, with a moment from Mission to Mars – I almost cried because we had to let it go. It’s the moment when they have a hole in the spaceship, but they cannot see where it is. They splash some Dr. Pepper and let it go. The astronauts on the inside see where it gets sucked up, and the one on the outside sees it freezing on the hull of the spaceship, and so he can fill up the hole. In some sense, this scene has to do with the idea of blind vision that we explore in the essay; the fluid can also be described as one of the instruments of vision that pop up in almost all of De Palma’s films. But the fragment of film in which the Dr. Pepper is used would have been very confusing in our essay sequence, because it is filmed in a way that the viewer may not recognise its connection with the theme of vision. It is a telling example, but also it’s too different from all the binoculars, glasses and telescopes that De Palma’s protagonists use as visual aids.

Dr. Pepper as an instrument of vision: Mission to Mars

Martin: There are too many things going on in that scene, too many instruments and objects floating around for the viewer to know what to focus on and draw the connecting line to. This is something we reflect upon constantly while working on an audiovisual essay: that every single moment in a film is heterogeneous and has many levels – there are always a million things going on. It’s easy to get lost in the richness of certain moments in a film, but if you start to line up these complex and full moments in an essay, you will start to lose the clearness of connection between details that you want to establish. If you want to make a connection between a camera movement in Welles and one Ophüls, you will have to choose precise moments which won’t get the viewer thinking about the motives of the protagonists.

The Wayward Cloud: Your works on Melville, Carax, Garrel and De Palma are all accompanied by text. Why this insistence on the written word, why not let the audiovisual essay stand on its own feet?

Martin: This is something that I initially adopted from Cristina. The online magazine Transit which she co-founded, and for which I did my first audiovisual essay with her, has a policy that they should always be accompanied by text. I thought a lot about this policy and I think it makes sense for several reasons. First of all, for us the practice of the audiovisual essay is not about proclaiming: text is dead and now we enter the realm of pure image and sound! What we want is a kind of floating relation between different media, between text-based criticism and audiovisual criticism. This is no hierarchical relation; they are of the same importance. They intensify each other; they are both able to pronounce certain things more clearly than the other. But people can also enjoy them separately.

Álvarez López: When me and my co-editors established this policy at Transit, the reason for the insistence on text was to have an introduction or context for the audiovisual essay. The form and the length were free, so there were big differences between the texts. Filmmakers, for example, have much more resistance to written text; they handed in very short pieces and insisted that everything they wanted to say is in the audiovisual essay itself. But for me, the pleasure has always consisted in doing both, in writing and in working with images and sounds. Maybe everything is there in the audiovisual essay, but you always can say other things in words – especially things that are connected with the process of creating that audiovisual essay. Another reason why I like accompanying text is that I think that people don’t take enough time to watch the essays. They usually see it once, but they cannot see everything that is put into it, because the arguments are really compact. If you lose your attention for just one second, you may miss a great moment and insight. The text can contextualise the material, but it can also point to certain insights and guide the viewer to be aware of certain things. What I like about the new online magazine [in]Transition which is edited by Catherine Grant, Christian Keathley and Drew Morton is that they present audiovisual essays with texts which are not written by their creators, but by the editors or other collaborators. The texts are not very long, but they help you to understand why an essay got picked and what is special about it.

Martin: One kind of written text that we do not like and use is the voice-over, a technique where the words are included in the essay. We do not want the images of the film to be over-determined through this voice on top of them, because it can easily turn into a very heavy-handed and overly deterministic, didactic form with the voice telling you what it is all about.

Álvarez López: I would like to try it, but for me the one big problem with the voice is to find a rhythm with the sounds and the music of the footage itself. If we use the voice, then it would be in a very short and poetic way.

Martin: A model for the use of the voice-over would be Godard in his Histoire(s) du cinéma where he talks a lot on the soundtrack, but he treats his voice like all the other elements: he lets it fade, it goes into echo, sometimes it doesn’t make sense, it breaks off in mid-sentence. It’s all over the place, instead of on top of everything.

“De Palma’s cinema condensed in two fantastic shots”: Dressed to Kill

The Wayward Cloud: Which directors and stylistic forms lend themselves easily to an audiovisual exploration, or put the other way around: which are hard to do?

Martin: This is an interesting question that we think about a lot, because we are aware that practitioners of the audiovisual essay all over the world tend to gravitate towards certain filmmakers. Directors like Paul Thomas Anderson or Wes Anderson with easily recognisable styles and flashy cutting techniques are done again and again. So we asked ourselves: How would you do a good video essay on Hou Hsiao-hsien or Béla Tarr? How do you handle long takes, long shots, all these elements of an observational, slow style that you cannot easily cut up together in a fast montage? In theory we should be able to do an audiovisual essay on any director at all, whatever their style.

Álvarez López: The problem with directors who use long takes, elaborate scenes and slow camera movements is duration. If you don’t focus on time as one of the main themes in Tsai Ming-liang or Béla Tarr, you are not going to do them justice. So if you do an audiovisual essay on their work, it has to be itself a long one; you cannot convey an idea about a movie by Tarr in ten minutes.

Martin: The scholar Richard Misek has done a feature length audiovisual essay on Éric Rohmer called Rohmer in Paris. It has the perfect premise for an essayistic film à la Chris Marker, in that it starts from a very personal recollection. 20 years ago when wandering with a friend in Paris, Misek accidentally stumbled on a film crew. Years later, he watched Rohmer’s Rendezvous in Paris (1995) and discovered a shot of himself in it! The film takes off from this freeze-frame of Misek’s image to explore Rohmer’s depiction of Paris in all of his films – something that would be impossible to do in three minutes. I guess there will be more of these longer essays in the future.

The Wayward Cloud: Does an audiovisual essay have to reproduce the aesthetic strategies of a film or filmmaker to be able to talk about them?

Martin: There is no law of mimesis, and I think it can get very embarrassing when a documentary or essay tries too hard to emulate a certain filmmaker’s style.

Álvarez López: It really depends on what you want to talk about. When you want to reflect upon time in Tarr, you will have to take the time. If you want to reflect upon gestures in Tarr, you can use a different approach – for example, you can start to use cuts where there are no cuts in the original footage. For instance, I was sure that we would be criticised for our essay on dance in Philippe Garrel, because we cut up scenes which consisted mainly of single takes in his films. But we were not trying to talk about his use of the long take; we tried to conjure up the specific flow of movements in them. So we were consciously working against his style to highlight a certain insight.

The Wayward Cloud: In the text “Double Lives, Second Chances”, Cristina wrote: “I will not deny that part of the fascination I feel for the video essay has much to do with this idea of a free replay. In the end, re-editing existing film material also gives a second life to the images but in building new bridges, approaches and relationships between them we also alter their destinies. These images will never be the same for us”. Are there really no limits to the re-use of existing images? Have you formulated for yourselves a kind of ethics of replay?

Álvarez López: This is a question that always arises when you use images that someone else created – especially those you love. I had to face this question while working on my first audiovisual essay, which was on Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood. For me there always was a powerful connection between those films, through two scenes in which the kids are playing alone and discover something very important. In Germany, it is the scene of Edmund’s death at the end, and in Tarkovsky it’s the scene where Ivan is daydreaming. When I began to work with the footage of these two movies to work out the connection, there was right away a clash of styles: the expressionistic style of Tarkovsky which rendered all the inner fantasies of Ivan on screen, and the very calm, quiet and observational style of Rossellini which stayed completely outside of Edmund. When you just put them next to each other, the Tarkovsky images devour those by Rossellini, because they are too strong, too richly articulated. Later I reconciled these two styles by constructing a kind of dialogue between the scenes: the one conceived as the missing double of the other, showing what the other cannot. That scenes which were so closely connected in my memory could be so different when put next to each other, taught me lot about the use of images and sounds, and about the search for a form which lets them speak to each other. This also taught me to lose my anxiety about doing injustice to films I love. They continue to exist, unviolated and independent of each other. But I also understood that it’s hard to do justice to certain observational film styles, to really appreciate what a filmmaker like Rossellini is doing.

Cristina Álvarez López: “Games” on Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero and Andrei Tarkovsky’s Ivan’s Childhood

The Wayward Cloud: It seems that, for you, the audiovisual essay is mainly a medium of comparison and not so much of close reading.

Álvarez López: That’s true. So far, we have mostly worked in a comparative mode. But we also would like to explore other forms. Our latest audiovisual essay deals exclusively with one film, Martin Scorsese’s After Hours, so it’s not mainly based on comparison.

Martin: In writing, we both do a lot of close analysis or scene analysis, as I prefer to call it. For example, for Transit we started on a series (in both Spanish and English) called “The Moves”, in which we try to describe all the gestures and movements that occur in one particular scene of a film. The first one was on Pedro Costa’s O sangue, and there are scenes by De Palma and Samuel Fuller in the pipeline. It would be very interesting to do an audiovisual essay on just one scene – but the problem is to find a way to get around a voice-over giving the analysis.

The Wayward Cloud: Taking your work on De Palma as an example, what were some of the things that you learned about him while working on the essay?

Álvarez López: There were a lot of surprising moments. You see and hear certain scenes so many times that you become aware of a lot of things which you didn’t notice before. You begin to see the details: props in a scene, how a camera movement really works, how complex and well executed the whole mise en scène is. Or, you get to understand the gesture of an actor. For example when we were working on our essay on Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha and James Foley’s Fear, we already knew beforehand what a great actress Margit Carstensen was. But to again and again see the way in which she turns around when the man (Karlheinz Böhm) tells her that he wants to marry her – well, we really saw for the first time how beautiful and complex this movement is. To constantly repeat and manipulate a scene gives you a different knowledge about it.

One moment of a complex movement: Margit Carstensen in Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Martha 

Martin: I want to give a really concrete example from the De Palma essay. Everyone who has seen some of his movies knows that there are lot of instruments of vision in them: telescopes, binoculars, cameras. We use this evident idea. But another thing which is not so easy to see are all the reflections of light: in mirrors, knives, shining surfaces. We only saw these instances of reflection and resulting blindness, which pop up again and again and build a complex network of associations in a film like Dressed to Kill, by putting our audiovisual essay together.

Álvarez López: When I watched Dressed to Kill for the first time, I really liked the scene where Nancy Allen sits in the subway, and you can see the killer hidden behind the door to the next coach. But what I did not remember, and only discovered by seeing it again and developing the theme of blindness, was the scene when Allen and a policeman look right and left along the train and, just when they turn their heads, the killer enters the train out of their sight. Maybe it is because the following scene inside the subway car is so long and powerful, it obliterates this smaller moment. So we bring it back to consciousness.

Martin: That was the scene that the audience most reacted to when we premiered our audiovisual essay in the Metropolis Kino. And rightfully so: it’s De Palma’s cinema condensed in two fantastic shots. But it’s not something you necessarily retain from a single viewing. Another thing which helps you discover things is the use of music. We did that really intensively while working on De Palma – who himself always takes particular care in his selection of music, collaborating with some of the best composers ever like Bernard Herrmann, Pino Donaggio, Ennio Morricone, Giorgio Moroder and Ryuichi Sakamoto. We tried to use the music in a very specific, not wishy-washy way. Just like slow-motion, the unthinking use of music which gets heaped on top of images is one of the things I dislike most in many audiovisual essays.

The Wayward Cloud: You don’t like slow motion?

Martin: To be honest, we used it on the train scene from Carlito’s Way, because we wanted to bring out the idea that train windows are like the frames of a film strip. But generally we dislike the technique, because in audiovisual essays these days, basically everything is put in slow motion, it drives me nuts. I do not know why people do it, maybe they want to be like De Palma, maybe they think it’s poetic. It becomes an all-over, all-purpose thing. I like the Kate Bush music video for “Wuthering Heights” slowed down to 36 minutes – that one pushes the technique someplace extreme and interesting!

The Wayward Cloud: In his audiovisual essay on John Ford’s Mogambo, Tag Gallagher says in voice-over: “What’s the point of this analysis? That it pays to pay attention to every little thing Ford does. Every little thing is simple and obvious when it happens but there’s such an endless succession of them, that matters become complicated”. The implicit idea behind this statement seems to me to be the basis for audiovisual essays in general: pay attention to every little detail because it is there for a reason. In its most extreme form, this leads to the kind of paranoiac exegesis exemplified by the documentary Room 237, which presents five different readings of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. All of them are completely different, but all present Kubrick as a kind of infallible artist-god who has complete control over every aspect of his films. But what about arbitrary problems that pop up every day on a film set, what about improvisation, chance, collaboration? How do audiovisual essays account for these matters?

Álvarez López: If someone can really convince you that something you thought arbitrary is there for a reason, then you are dealing with a good piece of criticism, be it a text or an audiovisual essay. I also didn’t like the theories put forth in Room 237; they did not convince me. They were all based on an obsession, not so much with The Shining as with their own theories – the film is used to prove their theories. But still, it all depends on the quality of the argument, whether it is able to connect a lot of seemingly random details into a convincing whole.

Martin: The question of control that a director has over his work is a really interesting one. I think it’s one of the ideals of cinema that the more a director can control his vision, the better. There are certain directors who attempt, even if they may not be always completely successful, to impose his or her will on every detail, to control it, to stylise it. As I said, that’s one ideal in cinema; there are certainly others, but it’s one that I admire very much. When you look at some of the directors we picked – Melville, De Palma, Leos Carax – they are all, I would say, control freaks. In a very interesting book, A Pound of Flesh written by Art Linson, who produced several of De Palma’s movies, he says that De Palma is constantly thinking about how much he can control. He picks his production battles so that he can control what’s in the frame. De Palma also always says that his concentration is on controlling the frame. But, for instance, for directors like Garrel or Rossellini, it’s different. In our essay on Garrel, we did not want to suggest that he controls every single movement; within certain parameters, he just lets his actors go. Rather, we tried to catch a bit of the looseness of this event. That would be an interesting topic for another audiovisual essay: directors who are not so much into control.

Álvarez López: What Gallagher says, that in Ford every little thing is there for a reason, I think it’s not always true, but it could tend to be true. What I have a problem with is not when someone says a detail is there for a reason, but when he claims that it’s there for just this one and only reason. That’s what happens in Room 237; the people have an explanation for something even before they have really analysed the film. Basically they all say: I have an explanation, and I’m going to fit the movie into this. I am explaining the moves of the movie according to my interpretation. It should be other way around: first the analysis, then the interpretation.

Martin: The problem with Room 237 is that people who are not familiar with criticism think that the way those nuts submit a film to their obsessive readings is what film criticism is all about. Identify a figure on the wall and then read all instances of the film as referring to the myth of Sisyphus, or whatever.

The Wayward Cloud: Let’s turn from the bad to the very best: what are your favourite audiovisual essays?

Álvarez López: I like Christian Keathley’s Pass the Salt very much, about a scene in Otto Preminger’s Anatomy of a Murder. First of all, it’s the kind of essay that I myself haven’t made so far: it has a very strong voice-over which carries most of the argument. But this voice is very well combined with the images and sounds of the film. I also like it because the essay mimics Anatomy of a Murder, in the sense that it is constructed in the way that the lawyer in the film develops his legal argument. You have the analysis of a scene, details are presented – but Keathley does not state his interpretation right at the beginning. He is like a good lawyer presenting proof to a jury, slowly, without explaining it all at once, because that would sound too crazy. He slowly convinces us, enveloping us with his words and details until we completely see things his way. The images in this essay are not illustration, they are proof.


Martin: An audiovisual essay that I like very much is the trailer that Godard made for Bresson’s Mouchette in 1967. Bresson asked Godard to do it, he gave the completed film to him before anybody else had seen it and presumably gave him permission to do with it whatever he wanted. And that’s just what Godard did! The trailer is only 90 seconds long, it’s just a series of shots from the film with written text that goes between and with the sound from one scene in which Mouchette is singing a song. The text describes the film as ‘Christian and sadistic’, and what the shots show are basically images of violence. It’s a trailer that criticises the film before people have even seen it, it’s amazing that Bresson let it through. It’s beautifully constructed: very concise, pure and brutal. Maybe there should be more audiovisual essays which are critical of their subject. We all operate in a mode of love. It would be interesting to use an audiovisual essay to prove that a film is badly directed.

© Cristina Álvarez López, Adrian Martin, and The Wayward Cloud, April 2014

Mehr zur Praxis des audiovisuellen Essays auf Wayward Cloud:
“Im Gespräch mit dem Film”, ein Interview mit Michael Baute

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