“Use the Force, Luke!”: Teaching Videographic Criticism to Students and Colleagues
Drew Morton / Texas A&M

using the videographic force

Use the videographic force, Luke.

My first year as an Assistant Professor was defined by an obsession of needing to have every syllabus and every lesson pre-planned, down to the most minute detail. When I talk to other junior colleagues, this seems to be a reoccurring trend. In an effort to preemptively address every question, we fall into “Stanley Kubrick mode” and trade being in the moment for the safe, mechanized, distance inherent in an overly calculated script. Yet, while this approach to preproduction might work well for 2001: A Space Odyssey, an academic article, or a video essay, it tends to rob pedagogy of energy and momentum. After all, how can one easily adapt when he or she is clinging to lesson plans like a life preserver? I quickly noticed this in my own teaching and asked a senior colleague for advice. She suggested that I leave my intricate lesson notes in my office for once and, like Luke Skywalker, use the Force and take the shot without the assistance of the targeting computer. I found that my lesson, while being slightly less polished, was more energetic. Moreover, I was more receptive to the needs of my students because I was present and adaptable. Yet, I found I still clung to it in another sense: my syllabus design.

The first time I taught my upper division course on videographic criticism, my syllabus was centered on New Media theory. [ (( i.e. Bolter and Grusin, Lev Manovich, Henry Jenkins, a unit on video games, etc. ))] Students were assigned to write short response papers to the readings and, in the final weeks of the course, use one response paper as a spring board for a five minute video. The first time around, I found that the students were grasping about half the reading. [ (( You can find the old syllabus here ))] Because of this, I staggered the timeline the second time to provide some assistance. However, fifteen weeks are fifteen weeks and staggering the reading took a couple days out of their video production schedule. After a heart to heart with my students and some colleagues, I realized I was simply trying to do too much. As Jason Mittell writes in a fantastic column on teaching theory to undergraduates, I had given into the temptation “to emulate the graduate seminars that may have provided years of intellectual rush.” In short, I was teaching a class that was designed more for me and less for them.

I say this not to be an apologist for students complaining about the workload in an upper division course, but to introduce a number of factors that are important to consider when designing a class that is a hybrid of theory and practice. Mainly, think about your department’s curriculum, course sequencing, and the trajectory of the average student. Given that I teach in a Mass Communication department than encompasses a breadth of sub disciplines (Public Relations, Advertising, Journalism, Media Studies, and Production), one of my main pedagogical obstacles was that I needed to teach a class that addressed an extremely diverse population: the students who take critical studies classes, the students who take production courses, and the smaller demographic that take both. That is one hell of a pedagogical Gordian knot. If I been teaching it in the smaller sandbox of a Cinema and Media Studies department (that also might require production classes), I think it is safe to hypothesize that the outcome would have been more fruitful.

When I sat down to prep it the third time around, [ (( I’m slated to teach it in Spring 2016, so you won’t find a draft of my syllabus and a reflection upon the results here, unfortunately. ))] I asked my [in]Transition co-editor Christian Keathley about his course on videographic criticism and I was shocked to find that his answer was philosophically in-line with “using the Force” and “turning off the targeting computer.” He explained that he spent much of the first day of class getting the pulse of the students. What was their background in Cinema Studies? More importantly, what was their background with film production and software? After this informal gathering of information, Chris wrote a draft of the syllabus but always emphasized that it was a draft. If the class found they needed more time to unpack at article or to put the finishing touches on a piece of videographic criticism, it could be discussed and perhaps altered. It was more of a collaborative workshop and less predetermined.

Based on Chris’s feedback, my “third time is the charm” redesign is a bit more modest in scope. I have decided to use Timothy Corrigan’s Short Guide to Writing About Film as the primary course text, supplemented by readings and screenings focusing on videographic criticism (there are more now than there were in 2012!). Instead of supplemental readings and response papers based around New Media, students are expected to research a film of their choosing and to produce a series of videos about it.

The first video assignment prompt asks students to take one film term and illustrate it with a clip from the chosen film (a video dictionary entry, if you will). For example, how would a student illustrate a “long-take”? We’re still in the introductory stages when it comes to the theoretical side of the course, but we’re pairing it with application on the practice side. Depending on the make up of your students, you can also “push” the assignment a bit further by adding some aesthetic obstructions. For instance, you can prohibit the use of voice-over and on-screen text. How does one illustrate the concept of “long-take” purely from a visual standpoint? All of a sudden, it is not as easy as putting up a shot from Touch of Evil or Children of Men. After all, someone might confuse “moving camera” and “long-take.” This variation demands more of an aesthetically informed compare and contrast.

CROSS-CUT from Drew Morton on Vimeo.

The second assignment is a videographic summary of a scholarly article about the chosen film (they must submit the reading to me in advance for approval). How would a student summarize Laura Mulvey’s “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema” in a two minute video (I tend to allow voice over or on screen text with this assignment!). This assignment challenges the students to analyze the article indirectly. After all, two minutes does not allow the student to engage in bulk quotation (as many are apt to do with sophisticated readings!). The scripts for their videos have to be extremely concise – without becoming an overly dense lecture – due to the constant balance between visual and aural elements. The third assignment is a videographic rebuttal to a scholarly article, about three to five minutes in length, that demands that the student both summarize an article and find visual evidence to refute and/or elaborate upon the original author’s work.

From the Panel to the Frame: Style and Scott Pilgrim from Drew Morton on Vimeo.

The final project is a five to eight minute analysis that can either be argumentative or poetic in its form. Both require an artist statement, similar to those published at [in]Transition. The former assignment looks a lot like the video version of a research paper – I expect a thesis, supported by evidence gathered in the research process and textual analysis. In this case, the artist statement, like a mathematical proof, simply shows the work, explains the rationale for the construction of the piece, and/or perhaps explores avenues that may have been omitted for time. In the case of the latter, the statement becomes much more significant because the two pieces must work in tandem. I structure the assignment this way to discourage those students pursuing the poetic option from producing philosophically superficial supercuts or mashups. How did your research guide and inform this interpretation? What can be gathered from combining Supernatural and Nosferatu beyond a few chuckles?

Free Will in Kubrick's THE SHINING from Drew Morton on Vimeo.

The sequencing of the assignments progressively raises the bar from a technological standpoint. [ (( The first assignment only requires one or two clips and rudimentary editing while the final requires a much more intricate and thoughtful arrangement of materials – both clips and, perhaps, scholarly sources. ))] This initiates those unfamiliar with Adobe Premiere at a fairly moderate pace. Moreover, starting with the foundational nuts and bolts of film terminology, progressing through the same skill sets of complex reading comprehension and analysis, and ending with an artifact with a unique and original thesis is essentially the same design of any upper division humanities course. I am simply changing the analogue assignments (short response papers, a final research paper) to a digital project. Obviously, such a design demands a small class size and deadline workshops for the students to screen drafts and get feedback from the class and I. Moreover, one final tip I would add: I tend to find that the “Follow the Bouncing Ball” of teaching software skills to students tends to backfire after a prolonged period of time. After about thirty minutes, eyes glaze over and they start exploring the software (or worse – Facebook) on their own. So I try to limit such class meetings to a handful of introductory demonstrations and, instead, allow them to explore the tools themselves while being available to answer their troubleshooting questions.

While perhaps a bit frustrating in its fluidity at first glance, this dialogical manifestation of theory and practice has been extremely productive thus far at [in]Transition. The foregrounding of analysis – in the form of open peer review – facilitates a digital discussion (we have a comment section that often involves the artist, reviewers, and readers). We have found this not only demystifies the production process and makes videographic production more palatable to the uninitiated, but also challenges preconceptions of how this criticism can manifest itself. Christian, Catherine Grant (our other co-editor), and I described this as being open to how knowledge is produced on the Aca-Media podcast. I have often drawn the analogy that asking us to concretely define academic videographic criticism is like trying to define film in the 1890s when faced with both George Méliès’s fantastic narratives and the actualities of Edison and the Lumières. While this degree of ambiguity can be terrifying to the obsessive compulsive instructor, I believe the young and multifaceted subject and methodology of videographic criticism requires it for the time being.

“Let go, Luke! Trust me.”

Image Credits:
1. Use the videographic force, Luke.

Please feel free to comment.




Interactivity and Awkward Comedy: It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia Live!
Drew Morton / UCLA

cast

The cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

“I suggested that the scene be staged in the center of the auditorium to re-create the same circumstances under which a real boxing match takes place. Thus we dared the concreteness of factual events. The fight was to be carefully planned in advance but was to be utterly realistic…While the other scenes influences the audience through intonation, gestures, and mimicry, our scene employed realistic, even textural means…Illusionary scenery gave way to the realistic ring…and extras closed around the ring.”-Sergei Eisenstein, ((Sergei Eisenstein, “Through Theater to Cinema,” in Film Form, ed. Jay Leyda (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1949), 7. )) “Through Theater to Cinema.”

“[“The Nightman Cometh” is] sort of like a hybrid of Al Jolson and Bell Biv Devoe, with just a little bit of Aaron Copeland and a dash of Yanni.”-Charlie Day, ((Nicole Campos, “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia LIVE,” LA Weekly . )) executive producer/writer/actor of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

On the nights of April 18th and 19th 2009, the cast of the FX Network program It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia (2005-Present) performed their season four musical inspired finale “The Nightman Cometh” live at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, California. Tickets to the event quickly sold out with tickets being scalped on Craigslist for upwards of $150 which prompted me to ask myself “What is this audience expecting?” Filing into benches atop the rather intimate venue (capacity of roughly 400 people), I found the surrounding benches inhabited by a handful of the character actors who inhabit the show’s signature location, Paddy’s Pub. The question became more personal: “What was I expecting?” Leafing through the paper program made by the always awkward Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) and finding the show’s musical numbers listed, I assumed it would simply be an embellished version of the musical that occupied the final ten minutes of the episode (also titled “The Nightman Cometh”). As the band began to play the show’s title music, the show’s wannabe thespian Artemis (Artemis Pebdani) came on stage and filed through a series of presentation cards: “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. 7:15 P.M. On a Friday. Philadelphia, PA.” it became clear that this would not just be an extraction of the musical from the episode but a live re-enactment of the episode itself.

Live re-enactments of television programs do not seem to be out of the ordinary. For instance, such events have taken place at San Diego Comic Con and a live read-through of the Family Guy (Fox, 1999-2002, 2005-Present) episode “Airport ’07” was filmed and accompanies the DVD release. Yet, what I found odd about “The Nightman Cometh” was the role the audience played in the production: spectatorship with a dash of interactivity. As the show progressed and Charlie asked his unwitting love interest, the waitress (Mary Elizabeth Ellis), to attend his musical, the event fell in line with the narrative trajectory of the episode with the audience simply filling the role of a non-diagetic audience. Yet, once the musical section of the episode commenced and the Waitress sat down on the bench next to us, the mode of spectatorship the audience was engaged in began to shift. We became part of the diagetic world through this staging technique and all I could think of was Sergei Eisenstein’s theatrical production of The Mexican, no doubt an odd high/low connection given that “The Nightman Cometh” has several musical numbers about raping a small boy.

As Eisenstein describes in the quotation that begins this article, his staging of The Mexican involved a similar shift. Instead of staging the play’s climactic battle in a ring spatially segregated from the audience, he staged it directly in the venue. This resulted, according to Eisenstein, in a transition of space and the audience’s engagement as “In the fight scene the audience was excited directly…Illusionary scenery gave way to the realistic ring…and extras closed around the ring.” ((Eisenstein, ibid. )) Yet, as Eisenstein notes in his further description, this type of staging can be problematic as the shift allows actuality to overpower the production and take “things into its own hands.” ((Eisenstein, 8. )) A similar result occurred with “The Nightman Cometh.” Once the audience had been cued and invited into the diagetic world of the performance, they felt encouraged to interact on a greater scale. Laughs and claps of encouragement gave way to shouts and chants. As Charlie sprang into the musical’s final number, in which he proposes to the Waitress and is rejected, the audience turned on the Waitress (who was still sitting amongst them) and screamed “No! Say yes!” and “What a bitch!” There was a slightly awkward pause as cast discarded the reaction and finished the performance as written, pushing against the audience’s interactivity.

I found this interaction telling not only for its shifting mode of interactivity but as a wider implication of the relationship between televisual liveness and contemporary audiences. In the live re-enactments I’ve encountered, the audience dynamic falls more in line with television programs that tape in front of a live studio audience. Contemporarily, live tapings seem to have become increasingly less common for non-variety show programs, It’s Always Sunny included. This aesthetic trend in sitcoms seems to emphasize the contemporary approach to comedy as emphasizing the awkward à la Curb Your Enthusiasm (HBO, 2000-Present) The Office (NBC, 2005-Present), and Eastbound and Down (HBO, 2009-Present). In this form, the audience has to ride out the time and space following a joke, which is normally embellished by silence that both underscores the awkwardness of the situation and provides a placeholder for laughter. The cast of It’s Always Sunny seemed to literally have a hard time re-formatting their interactions because the live audience had fixed themselves onto a handful of memorable moments such as Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito) singing “The Troll Toll” and Mac (Rob McElhenney) showcasing his “cat eyes” and raping Dennis (Glenn Howerton). The audience’s interaction, even when drifting towards minimal interactivity of cheering, laughing, and the occasional quotation, came close to derailing portions of the performance.

Yet this spectrum of interactivity produced a space for the awkward where it had been previously absent. On the show It’s Always Sunny, discomfort is a product of the removal of the audience but in the stage version, the instatement of the audience produced a similar characteristic in the performance. This is not a critique of the cast’s performance but a point meant to illustrate that one of the essential traits of It’s Always Sunny rests in this awkwardness, as expressed via its political incorrectness and lack of a laugh track. The stage version was in need of a similar formal characteristic to underscore discomfort and the cast produced an environment for one. Did they realize this potential when they staged the show in such an Eisensteinian fashion? Perhaps their discomfort was a performance as it is on the show itself. Artistic intent may be irrelevant in this context. The audience wanted awkward and awkward is what they got.

Image Credits:
1. The cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia

Please feel free to comment.




Comics to Film (And Halfway Back Again): A DVD Essay

by: Drew Morton / UCLA

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Superman

Superman

Being an avid reader of comic books and graphic novels and taking a closer look at cinematic adaptations of such materials, two aspects struck me like a good old Superman punch to the face. First, when and how had comic book adaptations began to take on the aesthetics of its source? Looking back at the 70s and 80s, most specifically Superman (1978) and Batman (1989), adaptations commonly took the source material (Bruce Wayne=Batman, rich millionaire, dark side, parents killed by criminal) while leaving the formal characteristics (panels, splash pages, spatial direction) at the wayside. Contrast these adaptations to films like Sin City (2005) and 300 (2007), both of which have been touted as being the cinematic equivalent to the original, both in terms of style and content.

Secondly, why had few scholars within cinema and media studies taken a closer look at comics? As Erwin Panofsky once wrote, “The comic strips–a most important root of cinematic art.” Regardless of this similarity, aside from pieces comparing comic books to storyboards and discussions of fan culture, critical study of the medium has almost exclusively come from workers within the industry: Art Spiegelman toured various college campuses on a lecture tour entitled “Comix 101,” graphic artist Scott McCloud published two books of theory between 1993 and 2000, and Chris Ware guest edited a volume of Timothy McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern focusing solely on graphic art in 2004. Are comic books so similar to storyboards and film that they can be dismissed? Taking a cue from Art Spiegelman who quipped “Comics are not storyboards for movies at their best,” I would argue not.

Catwoman

Catwoman

I do not believe this oversight stems from an issue of high/low culture but rather the a lack of a theoretical vocabulary. After all, it’s not that comics have been ignored by those within the academy. Aside from the fan studies and comics as storyboards, Henry Jenkins has looked extensively at comic books as a form of trans-media storytelling and the last three annual Society of Cinema and Media Studies conferences have all featured panels regarding comic books. No, this isn’t an issue of high/low culture or complete ignorance but rather a redirection.

Taking these two thoughts, I began working on a paper for a seminar on media convergence I was enrolled in. During this time, I was also enrolled in a workshop with the end goal of producing a DVD essay. I had begun by segregating the two pieces. While I was working on the comic book adaptation paper for the convergence seminar, the DVD essay was going to be my visual crutch for my SCMS paper on American independent film and Steven Soderbergh.

However, this is not the path this project ended up on. My comic book paper was becoming far too visual to just throw a couple of still images into the blocks of text and, conversely, my indie film essay was perfectly fine on paper. Moreover, while I was researching the comic book project, I came across Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which I had been familiar with but never completely engulfed myself in. I found McCloud’s approach, to ground a working theory of comic books into the medium itself, the main source of inspiration, creating a large, explosive, thought bubble over my head.

As the project progressed, I realized that it would be ideal if the two projects would supplement one another. The visuals of the DVD could fully exemplify what I was attempting to describe, rather poorly, on paper while the analysis of the paper could elaborate on a utility belt full of topics that time and technological constraints had forced me to cast aside in favor of the viewer’s ability to audibly sort through much of the theory and quirks of the comic book medium (hence my attempt to make the visuals of the essay re-enforce the audio track). While both pieces function rather well on their own after extensive re-working, they both buckle to the constraints of their respective mediums, which one can only expect.

After the essay was completed, I had a lively discussion with my cohort (fellow Flow-ite Adam Fish included) regarding the reception of such pieces. While much of this discussion circled around issues of fair use, many of us shared the lament that, aside from an interactive conference paper, there lacks a venue for visual essays. While media studies publications often pride themselves at being ahead of the curve by diving into popular culture and new technologies, the only magazine to come out with a DVD of visual essays and short films (to my knowledge) has been Wholphin, the quarterly DVD magazine from Dave Eggers and the crew at McSweeney’s. However, if YouTube and the nickelodeons of the internet have shown us anything it is that there is a outlet for anything: be it Channel 101’s Yacht Rock or the video diaries from Iraqi soldiers. Why shouldn’t those within cinema and media studies throw their hats into the A/V ring as well?

While such a format may be dismissed on the grounds that only technophiles are able to grapple with the interfaces of programs like Adobe Premiere and Final Cut Pro, the technology, while frustrating at times, isn’t that fickle. Moreover, one could easily use iMovie or the standard Windows equivalent to cut together an essay. The only advantage to using a higher-end product lies in the bells and whistles and there volumes of “How-To” guides filling bookshelves at Borders that explain how to master these techniques much more eloquently than yours truly.

All aspects considered, perhaps the most beneficial is that by constructing visual essays, cinema and media studies scholars dip their hands into processes they think and write so much about. Why should theory and criticism be separate from filmmaking? As Sergi Eisenstein and Jean-Luc Godard have demonstrated, there is much to gain from the pairing of theory and praxis.

Useful Links:
1. Download Free Golden Age Comics
2. IGN: “300 in Film.”
3. IGN: “Best & Worst Comic Book Movies.”
4. IGN: “Building the Ultimate Bookshelf.”
5. Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: “Comics Jump to the Screen.”
6. Scott McCloud’s Webpage
7. Time Magazine’s Comix
8. UWM Post: “High and Low.”
9. Wholphin
10. Winsor McCay’s “Little Nemo” Short

Useful Image Links:
1. 300
2. American Splendor
3. Batman Animated
4. Hulk
5. Sin City
6. Superman Returns

Image Credits:
1. Superman
2. Catwoman

Please feel free to comment.