By Jennifer Proctor
Posting a 28-minute scholarly, experimental, textual film to the web might be a losing proposition. Only the most dedicated, the most intrepid, the most rugged of academics and lovers of the avant-garde will endure. But, this is a video essay evolved from the work of Michael Snow – creator of the seminal 45-minute zoom film Wavelength (1967) and the epic four-and-a-half-hour visual pun-fest Rameau’s Nephew by Diderot (thanx to Dennis Young) by Wilma Schoen (1974) [see endnote i]. So’s Nephew, like so much of Snow’s work, is inescapably about time and duration, and the pleasure (masochistic and genuine) that a slow, even tedious, narrative unfolding can provide. Snow’s work requires a surrender to his control, but a control that is fortunately peppered with great humor and a wink or two. The reward of So’s Nephew, too, is sticking it out.
I’ve long been interested in the practices of remediation, remake, and adaptation, and translating Justin Remes’ essay into video form provided an opportunity for an experiment: to discover what is gained, and what is lost, in remediating a scholarly article as textual film. In this case, I took as my script Remes’ conference version (presented at a Society for Cinema and Media Studies conference) of the essay, which offers a more conversational tone better suited to such an adaptation. Still, as a textual film, Snow’s So Is This is relentlessly self-referential and conspicuously aware of its status as a film, a characteristic lacking in Remes’ essay – because, simply, it was not conceived as a film. So, what does it mean to write FOR a textual film, as opposed to other venues? What is the textual film’s status as a literary medium? It is my hope that So’s Nephew, in part, provides fodder for exploring these questions.
Part of the allure of adaptation, for me, is its convergence of, and ambiguity about, authorship, and this video essay raises intriguing questions about such issues. While the film consists largely of Remes’ words, I’ve introduced my own intonation through durational emphasis, font choice, and text size, in addition to directly addressing the viewer and providing my own reflexive meta-commentary on the cinematic experience of the work. Of course, the video also integrates quotes from outside sources in graphical form, along with footage from referenced films, creating seams between my (and Remes’) role as authors of the essay and the authors upon whom we build. While a traditional print essay seeks to suture its quotes into the original writing, this essay instead places them in visual relief, highlighting the diverse authors at work in its creation.
This remediation of a scholarly essay in digital form also introduces questions about the status of digital video as a medium for the textual film, especially in a (interactive) web context. As Remes briefly notes, authorial control remains elusive on the web, as viewers are free to pause, scrub, and jump through a video, or to simply click away. At 28 minutes, this essay will no doubt prompt many viewers to respond in this way (and Michael Snow recognized the demands of such short attention spans with his cheeky, and shorter, re-invention of Wavelength: WVLNT (Wavelength for Those Who Don’t Have the Time) (2003). That’s OK. On some level, the experience retains the element of duration – it just shifts the control.
Because the video acknowledges the unlikelihood of a viewer sitting through a minute-long static paragraph reproduced from a print journal, it instead encourages the user to take advantage of the tools of the web and pause the video as needed – to set their own durational limits. And while the video seeks to preserve the original graphical presentation of many quotes from the essay’s bibliographical sources, it employs screenshots of digitally highlighted passages – a common practice in social media when seeking to share a particular point from an online article – to home in on the quote under scrutiny.
So’s Nephew further seeks to acknowledge linguistic shifts in the consumption of text on the web – and to thwart them, in some cases. Emoji, for instance – the ideograms popular online and in mobile messaging – use imagery as a stand-in for emotional and visceral experiences and operate not unlike a rebus in textual communication. In a textual film, imagery can feel like a cheat or a shortcut, a betrayal of the form. In So’s Nephew, however, imagery stands in for the traditional verbal explanation of cinematic content in a scholarly essay and calls out the failures (especially in cinema studies) to adequately capture cinematic experiences in words. It seeks, instead, to more directly provoke the original visual sensation. Interestingly, Duchamp’s use of spiraling roto-reliefs in Anemic Cinema suggests an avant-garde, subversive precursor to emoji – graphical representations that produce an emotional response but with ambiguous, frustrated meanings, in keeping with the absurd and Dadaist language of the rest of the film.
As a natively digital work that directly quotes a classic film, So’s Nephew provides an opportunity to more deeply investigate the ontological status of textual works (regardless of medium) on the one hand and digital work, specifically, on the other. While Remes differentiates textual from photographic imagery, the photographic nature of Snow’s text in So Is This shapes the experience of textual cinema in a way that digital video doesn’t. Snow, because he was working with celluloid, filmed his text, resulting in subtle inconsistencies and variations in position, horizontal level, and scale. Conversely, none of the text in So’s Nephew is photographic, but created natively as digital assets in AfterEffects. Even the quotes sourced from book and journal publications are digitally scanned and screen-captured – not photographic in the traditional sense. Film projection, additionally, introduces minor jitter (dare I say movement?) and fluctuations in focus absent from a digital context. Thus, the materiality of celluloid emphasizes text AS photographic imagery, with a maker behind a camera, while digitally produced text effaces authorship.
Finally, this video essay seeks to provide proof of concept for some of Remes’ (and others’) observations about the kind of text(s) that can be placed in a moving picture, and to help respond to questions about what therefore constitutes a film. Rather than simply explore a thought experiment about something like Warhol's Bible, this video contains the entire print text of Milton’s Paradise Lost. It goes by fast, but again, in a digital age, a committed reader could pause the video every two frames and read the poem in its entirety. The video also shifts between print text and spoken word – do the same claims about textual film apply when the words are spoken rather than visualized? How do the texture, tone, and “voice” change when sound is introduced? And, a question that I adore: is a film with sound only – what Matt Hulse has called “audible pictures” and “audio works for cinema” [see endnote ii] or the Third Coast International Audio Festival has called “filmless” works [see endnote iii] – still a film?
It is my hope that So’s Nephew, taking Michael Snow’s inimitable wordplay as its cue, is provocative as well as funny (and punny). As a firm believer in context for the richest experience in viewing a film, I recommend this video essay be experienced in tandem with, of course, Justin Remes’ essay in Cinema Journal, and Snow’s So is This, which can be seen in its entirety at Ubuweb.
With many thanks indeed to Justin Remes, Catherine Grant, and Michael Snow, and with apologies to Scott MacDonald for tearing pages out of his wonderful book Screen Writings: Texts and Scripts from Independent Films. I promise I taped them all back in.
[i] At the now defunct Cinematexas Film Festival, we screened Rameau’s Nephew. It was free to enter, but you had to pay $5 if you left before it was over. We made a few bucks that day.
[ii] See Matt Hulse’s web page for the Audible Picture Show. Online at: https://anormalboy.wordpress.com/2009/02/01/the-audible-picture-show/.
[iii] More about the annual Filmless Festival can be found here: http://www.thirdcoastfestival.org/happenings/filmless-festival