On Video Tributes
Ever since digital technology allowed any user to appropriate and recycle images from movies or TV programs, the number of videos devoted to remembering, celebrating, and paying homage to films or cineastes has exponentially increased. Video tributes, however, are also becoming a sub-genre for the field of videographic film studies and criticism, with interesting consequences. Many of the tributes devoted to a specific filmmaker, actor, or other film professional are born out of the contingency of public events, such as retrospectives, anniversaries, awards, deaths. Or they simply emerge from the cinephiliac impulse to pay tribute to a given film, actor or filmmaker, maybe after stumbling upon a beloved movie late at night on TV.
It is the kind of experience that resembles the one that Laura Mulvey attributes to “the fetishistic spectator," one that “becomes more fascinated by image than plot, returning compulsively to privileged moments […]” (165). The tribute evokes a connection with its object that is more emotional than rational, “on the threshold between cinephilia and fandom” (167). Even if initially motivated by a theoretical impulse, the tribute may go on to engage more in a seductive, captivating way as it presents its object, one that evokes a subjective experience of spectatorship. This is the reason, I suppose, why so many tributes seem to be driven towards the poetic end of the videographic spectrum, rather than the expository one. Also, their often contingent nature makes it easier, more natural for them, to develop around aesthetic choices, or even formal constraints: these parameters are often what shapes the tribute in the first place, rather than analytical discourse. Let’s look at some recent examples.
Nelson Carvajal’s tribute to the work of the cinematographer Gordon Willis, “In Memory of Gordon Willis,” is a good example of a video that employs the unifying power of music to assemble a compilation of some of the best shots in Willis’ career. The association of micro-motifs – the curtains, the running, the violence, pensive character close-ups versus faces expressing fear or pain – with the intimate music of Klute (1971) and the more solemn soundtrack of The Godfather (1972) creates a crescendo that allows us to perceive how Willis’ work with light was strongly devoted to a sympathetic observation of human emotions.
For his first attempt at making a poetic visual essay, Drew Morton chooses to dedicate his tribute to the acting career of David Bowie, “David Bowie: On Film.” Even though music is still very important in this video essayist's work – especially considering the strong connection made between the image of Bowie as a music star and the roles he plays in films – Morton creates an interesting mix of background music and the movies’ original soundtracks. His careful selection of scenes, gestures, and lines works to emphasize the eccentric, borderline nature of Bowie’s acting. Bowie’s star persona emerges in Morton’s complex interweaving of his performances both as a singer and as an actor: in the video Bowie appears most of the time as alien(ated), out of place, about to disappear.
The compilation video, in its attempt to incorporate as many exemplary moments as possible, might seem the tribute form par excellence. However, Catherine Grant’s homage to Shirley Temple – “Mechanised Flights: Memories of Heidi” – focuses instead on a single scene, from Allan Dwan’s Heidi (1937). There are two main formal choices that shape the video and confer upon it a strong resemblance to avant-garde and experimental uses of found footage: the glitchy quality, the altered motion of the images – re-filmed using QuickTime's capture tool – and the use of both black and white and colorized versions of the film. The result emphasizes the automata-like performance of the child-star, and the Wizard of Oz effect of putting together the b/w and colorized versions in the dream sequence also evokes a connection between Temple and Judy Garland. Again, it is the formal dimension that prevails here in the first place, and that establishes an uncanny feeling that then requires deeper reflection.
The uncanny, estranging effect of the last example contrasts with the more accessible and cohesive character of the other two videos. Of course, this is related to the different nature of the tributes: Grant’s work is also connected to childhood memories and experiences, while the perspective of Morton and Carvajal is that of informed cinephiles who want, respectively, to praise an acting career and to pay tribute to a prolific cinematographer. What all the videos have in common is that the poetic way in which they isolate and reassemble the images “‘unlocks’ the film fragment and opens it up to new kinds of relations and revelations” (Mulvey: 179). These revelations are not delivered to the viewer in an explanatory form, but rather are evoked in a way that recalls the subjectivity of cinematic experience, and ultimately remind us that images “do not always willingly subordinate themselves to the critical language that would seek to control them” (Keathley: 189).
At its best, the tribute form does not just confirm what we know about films or cineastes. Quite the opposite: it can even revive the wonder of a first encounter. François Truffaut once suggestively described this feeling, and his words might be an apt conclusion for this brief overview. In his famous book on Alfred Hitchcock, the French director and critic recalls his participation in a gala homage to Hitchcock in 1974. About the tributes he saw that evening he wrote:
"For some three hours, we were shown a hundred film excerpts displaying his virtuosity and grouped into categories like 'The Screen Cameos' (Hitchcock’s appearances in his movies), 'The Chase' (pursuit sequences), 'The Bad Guys' (killings and love scenes), plus two brilliant sequences: the clash of the cymbals in the second version of The Man Who Knew Too Much, and the plane attack on Cary Grant in North by Northwest, which I had been asked to present. […] I knew all of these movies by heart, but upon seeing the excerpts isolated from their contexts, I was struck by the sincerity and the savagery of Hitchcock’s work. It was impossible not to see that the love scenes were filmed like murder scenes, and the murder scenes like love scenes. I knew his work; in fact, I thought I knew it very well. Yet that evening I was awed by what I saw on the screen: splashes of color, fireworks, ejaculations, sighs, death rattles, screams, blood, tears, twisted wrists. It occurred to me that in Hitchcock’s cinema, which is definitely more sexual than sensual, to make love and to die are one and the same” (345-346).
Keathley, Christian. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” In The Language and Style of Film Criticism, ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan, 176-191. (London: Routledge, 2011).
Mulvey, Laura. Death 24x a Second: Stillness and the Moving Image (London: Reaktion, 2006).
Truffaut, François. Hitchcock. trans. Helen G. Scott (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984).