The Inward/Outward Turn
You can’t relate what you have seen, you can only tell it, and that has no connection with seeing.
— Jean-Luc Godard (1978: 135)
Like many cinephiles, I maintain a keen interest in obsession — as a feeling, as a state, and as a practice. Not only are very many fine films (dramatic and comedic alike) centred on this topic; cinephilia itself as a ‘condition’ is often described as an obsession, magnificent or otherwise. I began researching this subject seriously, in relation to cinema, back in the mid 1980s, when I set about analysing a fistful of films including Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958), James Toback’s Fingers (1978) and Jean-Luc Godard’s Passion (1982) (see Martin 2004). And it is to my collaborator on that ancient project, Ross Harley, that I owe the helpful distinction between inward-turning and outward-turning obsession: the first (which can be malignant) is the kind which takes you further into yourself; while the latter can help to get you out of yourself (which is sometimes a good place to be).
This distinction offered a way to break the reflex habit of conceiving extreme obsession as being, in the final instance, narcissistic, in-grown and solipsistic — i.e., a dirty word. The value of an outward-turning obsession (under which label I would like to hopefully categorise cinephilia itself) was corroborated for me in 1993, when the filmmaker Raúl Ruiz remarked, in the course of an interview, that we must “follow our obsessions, which are like birds” (Martin 1993: 60). So, if obsession is about ‘finding yourself’, it is not in the comfortable, New Age sense, but finding yourself outside of yourself, in the field of the wide world.
Within the large, interdisciplinary context of that creative and scholarly activity sometimes known as ficto-criticism — in the history of which the audiovisual essay can be seen as writing a new chapter — the role of research takes a prime importance. In the many generative techniques proposed and theorised by Gregory Ulmer, for example — such as the mystory (combining history, mystery and ‘my story’) or the popcycle — the ‘research phase’ is fundamental; research is closely concatenated with memoir, storytelling, across-media translation, and the general ‘stewing’ over time which his methods advocate (Ulmer 2005). In the work of Ulmer and all those inspired by him (including, in cinema studies, Robert B. Ray, Christian Keathley and Rashna Wadia Richards), research is again linked to passion, and even obsession: the emphasis (via Roland Barthes’ famous set of terms in Camera Lucida ) is always guided back to the personalised punctum (rather than the conventionalised studium), to the particular detail that intrigues, that stings, that stays with you.
This is the type of academic research that draws me, and the audiovisual essay facilitates it. True research — and this is a process we too rarely impart to our students — is rarely a matter of ticking off items on a pre-set bibliography of great and authoritative tomes; it is, rather, a case of plunging down obscure paths, tracing impossible mysteries, following serendipitous clues, and necessarily flattening every hierarchy of ‘academic’ and ‘vernacular’ sources. (I am intensely suspicious of the snobbish use of the word vernacular in many academic humanities circles at present.) In research, we jump from one train to another constantly, not exactly knowing where the journey will end. The screenwriter (and sage of the screenwriting art) Jean-Claude Carrière (1995) corroborates this: he enthusiastically advocates the detour of many months’ research — into a historical period, into a way of life, into someone’s cloudy but tantalising biography — which may only result in a single line included in your ongoing script; all the same, he declares, that is worth it.
In the making of audiovisual essays, I see two kinds of research involved.
First, there is research into the film-object itself: analytical work. I have lived through several decades where film analysis meant, essentially, watching and listening (with a print, video or DVD), rewinding, making notes, and then going some place else, at another time near or far, to write up those notes into a publishable essay. Sometimes it also meant making frame enlargements, the laborious equivalent of today’s easy-click, digital screenshots. But words were the essential funnel, and memory (backed by the degree of reliability of your notes) the primary guide for this work of intellectually processing films, in the manufacturing sense — i.e., turning them from the medium of recorded image and sound into the medium of readable language.
In his recently unearthed and translated improv lectures of 1978, Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television, Godard gives a withering account of this type of critical-writing process, including in his complaint even the type of (generally benevolent) group analysis involved in a post-screening discussion: this is, he bemoans, comparing a memory with an image, not an image with another image immediately. And this characterisation would, in fact, be true of the vast majority of film criticism and analysis, now as in previous generations.
The audiovisual essay offers a new opportunity to reinvent analytical work by telescoping its steps and cutting out some of its cumbersome — sometimes untrustworthy and misleading — relay mechanisms. Rather than annotate a written list of images that contain a certain motif, for instance, you directly assemble them into your editing timeline, and work with them from there (see the text in this [in]Transition issue by Cristina Álvarez López for an elaboration of what this work, in an analytical and conceptual sense, involves). In Timo Cromm’s comparison of Bully (Larry Clark, 2001) and The Big Lebowski (Joel Coen, 1998) that I have curated here, one can see the benefits of such direct tinkering, both pedagogically (Timo is a student in the Goethe University class on audiovisual essays that I co-teach with Cristina) and analytically: vague, literary evocations of the ‘mood’ or ‘feel’ of either film (such as I wrote in my own newspaper reviews of both works at the time of their theatrical release in Australia), however poetically pitched, can tell us little compared to this montage that concretely aligns their differences in pace, gesture, framing, bodily posture, colour scheme, musical selection, and insertion of silent pauses— and, consequently, how much more precise we can now be in our exploration (also usually left at a vague, generalising level) of terms like alienation, anomie, or ‘slacker’ laziness in the way these filmmakers picture particular, (sub)cultural lifestyles.
Second, there is the type of research that I have evoked above – into wherever the film leads you. In the case of my audiovisual essay, premiered here, on They Live By Night (1948) and I Know Where I’m Going! (1945), I began from a personal punctum — hearing, for the first time, the music of the latter all over the former — and then let myself research many things, in the new, intransitive spirit and with the new means that the Internet allows: the history of a folk song; the often overlooked and overlapping phases of Nicholas Ray’s pre-film career; the different ways and forms that They Live By Night has been quoted and evoked in its critical and filmic after-life. And so on.
I shudder at the thought that someone might come along and re-categorise my two kinds of research as pertaining, respectively, to ‘text’ and ‘context’; the hard-and-fast distinction between these two realms has, in my view, done more harm to institutionalised cinema studies than any crackpot, esoteric theory you might care to cite. But text is always inside context, and vice versa; they should never be separated, even in the course of an abstract, categorical taxonomy. My own experience making Where I Come From, Where I’m Going bears this out: studying the form (in history) of a song led me to freshly attend to the music score and sound design — the auditory, filmic form — of Ray’s movie, literally (in my case) excavating what had merely streamed past my eyes and ears on several, previous viewings.
There is no ‘text and context’; there is inward-turning research and outward-turning research. Both turns are obsessive by nature; and we need to marshal them both, in an active spiral of performative research. The audiovisual essay takes its form in that spiral.
- Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981).
- Carrière, Jean-Claude. The Secret Language of Film (London: Faber and Faber, 1995).
- Godard, Jean-Luc. Introduction to a True History of Cinema and Television (Montreal: Caboose, 2014).
- Martin, Adrian. “Never One Space: An Interview with Raúl Ruiz”, Cinema Papers 91 (January 1993): 30-35, 59-62.
- Martin, Adrian. “Grim Fascination: Fingers, James Toback and the 1970s American Cinema”, in Thomas Elsaesser, Alexander Howarth and Noel King (eds), The Last Great American Picture Show: New Hollywood Cinema in the 1970s (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2004), 293-308.
- Ulmer, Gregory. Electronic Monuments (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005).
© Adrian Martin, August 2014