When I first read Will Webb's memory, I was thrilled to realize that it resonated with a recurring question in my research: how the same image can get reframed and perceived differently depending on the context in which it is encountered. What the narrator first sees as a horrific creature gets transformed into a harmless puppet through the magic of collective perception. Fear is the affect the narrator was expecting to experience, based on their mother's warning; but the socially appropriate response to the film gets redefined during the viewing as the narrator's friends demonstrate hilarity, allowing the narrator to suddenly see through the cinematic illusion.
In a series of interviews I conducted to study how expected and disruptive emotions during the viewing impact how a film is remembered, I was struck by the importance, in many testimonies, of the viewing context (Galibert-Laîné 2020). As Annette Kuhn had already observed in her own 2002 research on film memories, spectators tend to remember where, when and with whom they watched a given film much more clearly than they recall who the main character was or the names of the actors. As if what surrounded the screen ultimately had more importance than what was projected onto it. I found that in Will's memory: to me the anchor of the text, its punctum (Barthes 1980: 49), was the laughter of the narrator's friends, emphasized by the author's decision to isolate and accentuate the verb with an exclamation mark (“Laughing!”). Something that was happening offscreen, yet had the power to redefine what was happening onscreen.
This prompted me not to edit any clips from existing films in my videographic interpretation of this text, but rather explore, through original footage, a fictional offscreen space that I imagined might have made up the rest of the narrator's field of vision while watching the film. It might also have been inspired by some of my own experiences with frightening movies, when I would attach my gaze to any object close enough to the screen that I could still get a sense of what was happening through my peripheral vision without having to face it.
Thinking about how to convey the sudden reframing of the terrifying creature as a grotesque puppet, I had the idea to create a music score that would convey that shift in the atmosphere of the video. After exploring quite a large corpus of puppet-based films from the 80s and 90s, I had decided that the text might have been referring to Joe Dante's 1984 movie Gremlins – why not? I thought it would be both helpful for me, as the music composer, to take the film's score as a starting point, and interesting for viewers that certain musical elements might be recognizable, as music is one of the elements of the cinematic language that we do tend to remember better than others. I also liked the idea that the music would be able to convey parts of the story that I then wouldn't need to spell out in my narration, such as the reference to the Simpsons episode.
While working on the music score, I started to imagine rewriting the original text as a sort of nursery rhyme that could be sung. This was meant to evoke a sense of childhood that I felt quite strongly in Will's memory, though I don't know exactly how old the narrator was. I had fun rewriting the text as a French poem (in alexandrins), then translating it back again into English with the help of a friend, the English and Musicology scholar Iulia Dima. For the English version we adopted accentual verse because of its commonness in children’s lullabies, though it required a distancing from the French version, which was already an interpretation rather than a translation of Webb's original text. For the subtitling I decided to appropriate elements from the aesthetics of karaoke video, with words changing colors once they are sung, as a way to inscribe the singing into the visualization of the text. The synchronization with the voice was difficult: having chosen two distinct modes of versification in both languages, the sentences tended to have different lengths. I now appreciate this never-closing gap between sound and image as rather humorous (whoever would like to try and sing the video in English might find themselves in some trouble!), but it can also be seen as a reminder of the video's plurivocal origin. Having had to put my videographic feet into someone else's memory shoes, it only makes sense to me that the result of the experiment should present a form of unresolved discrepancy. The written and sung words are related yet they don't entirely overlap – as does Will's memory with some of my own, or probably anybody's formative cinema experiences.
Barthes, Roland. 1980. La Chambre claire. Note sur la photographie. Paris, Gallimard-Le Seuil, 49.
Galibert-Laîné, Chloé. 2020. ‘Émotions et souvenirs de film : entre l’intime et le collectif,’ Théorème (32), Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 63-74.
Kuhn, Annette. 2002. An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory. London, I.B. Tauris, 2002.
Chloé Galibert-Laîné is a French researcher and filmmaker. They are currently working as a Senior Researcher at the Hochschule Luzern in Switzerland and as Visiting Filmmaker at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst, USA. They hold a practice-based PhD from the ENS de Paris (SACRe) and have taught at institutions that include the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague, the Ecole des Beaux-arts in Marseille and the California Institute of the Arts. Their work explores the intersections between cinema and online media, with a particular interest for questions related to modes of spectatorship, gestures of appropriation and mediated memory. Their video essays and desktop films have shown at festivals such as IFFRotterdam, FIDMarseille, Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, True/False Festival, transmediale, and the Ars Electronica Festival.
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