Jason Mittell’s 12-minute video “Adaptation.’s Anomalies” uses scholar Mikhail Iampolski’s concept of the anomaly to explain two strange and ill-fitting details from Adaptation. (Spike Jonze, 2002). The video is very successful in its mode of inquiry, effectively using a variety of techniques such as multiple split screens, still shots, on-screen text, soundtrack, and voiceover in order to offer a close reading first of a confusing bit of written quotation and then a repeated sound cue. “Adaptation.’s Anomalies” uses a particular videographic format to explore ideas that remain resistant to the standard “straightforward endeavor” of written criticism. This is not just because, as Mittell writes, the two moments he discusses “bely clear explanation,” but also because a purely textual examination is bound to fail: in the first instance because the anomaly is already textual and in the second because it is auditory and non-linguistic.
Mittell’s voiceover and accompanying text suggest that, while scholarly and authoritative, his video is also an investigation in progress. That is, like Adaptation., where (in Mittell’s words) “the film we are watching being written is the film we are watching,” the formal structure of “Adaptation.’s Anomalies” is also ouroboric, evident in the investigative shots of Mittell scrolling through pages of IMDb and Orlean’s book that contrast with the more scholarly professorial mode of voiceover which offers a clear explanation for the film as a whole (“the film becomes much more strange by becoming much more conventional”). And yet, while Mittell was already able to make sense in general of the film’s complexity with careful attention and logic, those two details remain stubborn to traditional methods, and they become the generative moment for his videographic approach.
In addition to his own discussion of the film, Mittell makes use of Mikhail Iampolski’s narrative concept of the “anomaly,” textual moments which invite interpretation but that do not ultimately fit into a larger narrative. For Adaptation, these include the post-credits appearance of a quotation from a fictional script and the recurring sound effect of a car door’s beeping. But for Mittell, Adaptation. is perhaps the exception that proves the rule, since he argues that while normally one would need to look “in the realm of intertexuality” for an explanation of the anomalous, since Adaptation.’s parts are already highly intertextual, the ambitious critic might be able to explain the anomalies with enough detective work on the film itself. Thus, the mysterious post-credits text becomes a highly veiled reference to author Susan Orlean’s fictional döppelganger “Cassie” and the 145 repeated car door beeps are a hidden clue for us to turn to page 145 of the movie tie-in paperback of The Orchid Thief in order to find the shortest sentence on the page and wait-a-minute: just what’s going on here?
Mittell ultimately clues viewers in that he is only being semi-serious with how far we should pursue an explanation of this anomaly (although I would need to offer a fairly close reading myself to argue that point). His video, however, could easily be misunderstood as an example of a developing subgenre of video essays, what I might call (borrowing from Salvador Dalí) “paranoiac-critical.” In these, such as the well-known Room 237 (Rodney Ascher, 2012), subjectivity becomes an important critical quality that blurs the boundary between amateur and expert. The intensification of detail, the abandonment of hierarchies of information, the equal intellectual weighing of every filmic grain or pixel: with ready access to video material and editing software, film anomalies such as the ones Mittell discuss become ever easier to explain by the contemporary video essay. As such, the paranoiac-critical, investigative video essay threatens traditional scholarship and the reception of film texts in ways that are often uncomfortable for professionals, as David Bordwell notes in his discussion of Room 237: “claims that won’t fly in mainstream or specialized cinephile publications can flourish in fandom.”
But Mittell is not (just) a fan here, and I agree with his argument that his video is not “fake” analysis (with reservations about what burden of professional accreditation is hidden within his scare quotes). Rather, I think it exemplifies the paranoiac-critical, and, rather than try to make room for the intertextual anomalous, the video enacts how a film like Adaptation. in particular demands that we tie the knot of interpretation even tighter. Concerns over amateur, “fake” video scholarship were of course less threatening way back in newly-millennial and finally post-postmodern 2002, Adaptation.’s year of release, but as videographic criticism expands, scholars will no doubt need, as Mittell has done in his video, to further develop evolving strategies for articulating authority and persuasiveness when discussing narratively anomalous moments.
This is an excellent audiovisual essay in a mode I think of as ‘discursive’, rather than strictly pedagogical, because it is part-storytelling and part-analysis. Jason Mittell has used the form to explore (as he informs us in his supplementary ‘note of intention’) some details and aspects of the film Adaptation. (2002) which he found he could not easily address in a more conventionally written, academic-monograph form. These details take the form of two ‘anomalies’ in the end credits of that tricky ‘meta’ film Adaptation., directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie Kaufman: an on-screen quotation from the script left behind by a fictional character who is Kaufman’s brother, as incarnated by Nicolas Cage (and who ended up with a strange life of his own beyond the film); and an odd, atmospheric sound effect of a beeping car alarm – itself seemingly a parody of those tiny ‘sound grabs’ that end many contemporary films over the very close of their credits, when presumably most paying customers have either left the theatre or shut off the DVD.
Mittell uses Mikhail Iampolski’s theory of intertextuality (as expressed in his great book The Memory of Tiresias) as the tool to dig into these details: not, in this case, an intertext that extends very far from the film, but several internal, textual clues that take us, in particular, to the Susan Orlean's book The Orchid Thief on which the film is (complexly) based/adapted from. Mittell counts numbers (of the beeping alarm) that take him to a page of that book, and then to the shortest sentence on that page …
As in the audiovisual work of Christian Keathley (such as Pass the Salt) or the creative writings of Gregory Ulmer, a tone of irony and a sense of humor put in doubt the seriousness – but not necessarily the validity – of the analysis. Mittell is playing here, in an assured way, with the type of ambiguities in what Salvador Dalí triumphantly called a ‘paranoiac-critical’ interpretative approach: are the meanings that an interpreter ‘reads’ into a text (in this case, a film) its true, hidden logic (and hence wholly objective), or purely a phantasm conjured by an overactive mind (hence wholly subjective)? Mittell’s piece answers this simply with: “I’m not sure” – which is a completely justifiable response, since such a vacillation functions also as a spur to greater creativity on the analyst’s part, here becoming a storyteller as well as a montage artist. The playfulness of this piece is its greatest and most charming virtue.
There are no changes needed to this audiovisual piece. It is well edited and arranged (sometimes with multiple screens to bring out specific comparisons); the voice track is well recorded and delivered/acted out. Carter Burwell’s music score from Adaptation. is used conventionally as ‘moody aural atmosphere’, but it fits in well with the overall design of the piece. And it definitely adds something new to our scholarly knowledge about both the oft-analyzed Adaptation., and the possibilities of the audiovisual essay form today.