Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime

Creator's Statement

Four years passed between the production of my last videographic piece – a commission by the University of South Australia for a ‘mentor text’ in Fall 2018 – and production on this work in Fall 2022.  

When I packed my small carry-on bag in March of 2020 to go spend spring break with my wife back in Los Angeles, I had enough knowledge of COVID to think to bring my dog Pabst with me. However, as you might recall, the initial analysis was that this would all be over in a couple weeks or, at most, by summer 2020. As the pandemic lingered on, I realized I was developing a combination of the Adobe Premiere equivalent of muscular apathy and a bit of ‘maker’s block’. By Summer 2022, I think my good friend and colleague Catherine Grant had read between the lines and encouraged me to take a Facebook post I wrote on teaching Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004) and to try to adapt it into videographic form.  

Of course, the post was written in a voice very unlike my scholarly writing because of the venue. Like my scholarly writing, my videographic criticism tends to embrace the objective voice of expository documentary storytelling. It’s normally performed in an energetic enough fashion, but I typically do not reflect much on myself or my own position. Since the founding of [in]Transition, I thought – like scholars Thomas van den Berg and Miklós Kiss in their digital manuscript Film Studies in Motion – that in order to legitimize a new form that didn’t exactly walk like a duck that you had to at least make it talk like a duck.  

However, after making largely argumentative and expository pieces for a decade, I felt I had served that obligation. So I decided to set myself a professional challenge and make a piece that was unlike any I had ever made before – a deeply personal and poetic piece that would capture that voice and firm up those atrophied Adobe muscles. I sought to make a piece might doubly serve as the same function as a textbook in the classroom – taking base level Media Studies knowledge that could be defined and illustrated through an engaging application – and as an invitation to my colleagues to consider putting their pedagogy and videographic criticism in dialogue with one another in order to make it more accessible, chiefly because so many of our students are watching mainstream video essayists already. I also wanted to challenge myself and prepare for my videographic book project by making a piece that was completely self-contained – a piece that did not need a creator’s statement to be understood. You can see it here. 

The first round of peer reviews response to the piece – which again, did not initially have a written statement – encouraged me to make the linkages between teaching and subjectivity more explicit, a very fair critique. However, I was unclear on how to compromise the poetic voice with the desire to be more rhetorically overt. I struggled and procrastinated for about three months, brainstorming ideas and potential changes that would meet both my own goals and the expectations of my peer reviewers.  

Thankfully, I found inspiration in the work of my videographic peers at 2023’s Society for Cinema and Media Studies Conference. I attended every panel I could find with videographic work featured on it in order to try to find a solution to my revision riddle. Many of the panels included members of the post-COVID lockdown Middlebury workshop cohorts and while their work was incredibly polished, dynamic, and grounded, I also noticed at the time – as did many in attendance – that nearly every piece shown had moved away from the explicit expository and argumentative modes that had held such a tremendous grip on the first decade of videographic practice. They offered up not only deeply personal reflections on movies like Desert Hearts and Wanda that were thoughtful, but some – like Jason Mittell’s piece on The Rehearsal (2021), the panelists on ‘The Accented Voice in Digital Audiovisual Practices’ workshop, and Samantha Close’s provocative paper on integrating fan vid aesthetics into our practice [published in this issue] – were also offering up meta-reflections on how we can rethink our rhetorical models as practitioners. It was Jeffrey Middents’s talk on accented and competing voice overs in particular that helped me finally create a solution.  

Jeffrey’s presentation highlighted how using formal choices like replacing snippets of voice over in the diegesis of Y tu mamá también with other narrators (swapping a man with a woman, for instance) pulled at the text to deconstruct it a bit. His examples reminded me of one of the other notes I received during peer review – that Clementine has more voice in Gondry’s film than Drew’s wife Nicole has in this one. Thus, my revision offers up a competing voice over where Nicole speaks for me in order to work through the larger issue in a poetic sense while also revealing something deeper about the film itself, another turn of the screw if you will.  (If you’re curious – I wrote the first draft of the voice over so that she would know what points I thought were important within the framework of the larger piece, but then encouraged her to rewrite it and embellish as she saw fit. Since she’s relatively camera shy – I decided to take the location of the beach – a setting that is both key to Eternal Sunshine and Nicole’s favorite place to go – as her on screen presence in the final section.)  

Despite not initially intending this piece to have a statement, I hope that this commentary assists in making the production process transparent, showcases how these pieces evolve, thanks to the collaborative nature that the open peer review process at [in]Transition inspires, and also acknowledges the importance of this warm and collaborative community of videographic critics we’ve assembled over the last decade. 

My thanks to my fellow co-editor Chiara Grizzaffi for handling the correspondence and peer review process on this submission and preserving the integrity of our open peer review process


Drew Morton is associate professor of mass communication at Texas A&M University–Texarkana. He is author of Panel to the Screen: Style, American Film, and Comic Books during the Blockbuster Era, published by University Press of Mississippi. His publications have appeared in Animation: An Interdisciplinary Journal; Cinema Journal; [in]Transition; Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics; and Studies in Comics. He is cofounder and coeditor of [in]Transition, the award-winning journal devoted to videographic criticism.

In 2010, Adrian Martin wrote a brief yet provocative piece on diverse approaches to voice in the newly developing academic practice of videographic criticism. In his view, the standard professorial voiceover conveying critical observations is a voice that 'leads' by claiming an authority greater than that of 'the original images and sounds' of the source text(s) (2010). Seemingly preferring the poetics of displaced, decentered, and resistant voices in Godard’s film essays and the traditions of expanded cinema, Martin argues for the elimination of the ‘explaining voice’. 

Ian Garwood’s well-known 2016 video essay, 'The Place of Voiceover in Academic Audiovisual Film and Television Criticism', carries this discussion of the scholarly voice/voiceover forward by performatively calling into question the need for rigid taxonomies such as the poetic versus the explanatory mode and attempts to demonstrate the value of his approach through his essay’s hybrid form. The work incorporates the polemics that Van Den Berg and Kiss call for, as well as the 'loosening up' advocated by Keathley and Mittell.

At SCMS in 2019, six Middlebury Video Campers from the class of 2018—Lisa Henderson, Maria Hofmann, Neepa Majumdar, Hoang Tan Nguyen, Susan Harewood, and I—explored the scholar’s voice in audiovisual criticism, framing our roundtable discussion with questions about the potential for re-appropriating and also reappraising auteurism;  the ways in which accented and queer voices might (and must) challenge expectations about scholarship and authority; and whether the poetic approaches favored by would-be aca auteurs may abdicate key pedagogical and political responsibilities.  We acknowledged the ways in which video essays depend upon authors’ vocal performances, as Keathley and Mittell observe, writing ‘in a videographic essay that disembodies the speaker, the quality of the vocal delivery is immediately conspicuous, and whether a viewer keeps watching depends in large part upon whether they want to keep listening’ (12). 

These discussions, coupled with my interest in the relationship between the voice and auteurism, evolving from work on singer-songwriter rock docs to video essays to film theory  (the latter appearing in my chapter on auteurism and feminist film theory in Women in New Hollywood [ed. Hunter and  Shearer, 2023]) establish the context for my reading of [in]Transition co-founder Drew Morton’s essay 'Everybody’s Gotta Learn Sometime: Teaching Subjectivity and Ambiguity in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind: A Videographic Reflection on Pedagogy in an introductory American Film History Course'. 

The essay is ambitious: it not only explores Gondry’s film in ways that would be useful for students entranced by radical and yet somehow appealing narrative and visual dislocations, but also poses equally interesting questions for those of us who teach film about why we teach the texts that we teach. We all rely on examples that we believe ‘work well’ for students, but these objects must also work well for us.  Morton’s essay speaks to his shifting experiences teaching Gondry’s film over more than a decade and prods us to consider the relationship between teacher and text more honestly, even as he underscores the personal stakes of this work by acknowledging that first encountering and then teaching the film over the years leads him to reflect on his relationship with his partner and wife, Nicole.

Initially, I proposed that Drew’s stated focus on pedagogy was a key element of the piece but also seemed to be serving as a proxy for—or, in the terms of vocality with which I’ve framed this analysis, was being asked to voice—the less acknowledged, potentially more interesting, and not-unrelated issue of autobiography in both teaching film and making video essays. My obvious point is that we choose the films we teach because of who we are, and that is always changing. I argued the unique authorial activity of autobiography was functioning as an somewhat unacknowledged third term mediating Drew’s teaching practice and what he hoped students would glean from Gondry’s film. Given the film’s juxtaposition of an intensely romantic sensibility with serious questions about the nature of coupled relationships, owning this essay’s dependence upon autobiography seemed both obvious to me and also a source of vulnerability. Furthermore, a coupled person’s autobiography is not just their story.

A recent video essay exploring this fraught nexus of projected subjectivity (into films, onto our partners, onto students) in terms of the process of making video essays rather than teaching, is 'Laterally' (2023) by Maria Hofmann. Hofmann’s voice over—distorted and doubled in ways that Adrian Martin might applaud—asks us to consider video criticism to be a reading practice that exists in the space between play and destruction, fiction and non-fiction, offering us a way to force our subjectivities back into the visual field of films that increasingly exclude spectators in their address. This intermediate space, Hofmann argues, is populated by the film object, the video essayist, and the spectator—and demands a uniquely active and interactive engagement.

In this formulation, I am the spectator and Drew is the video essayist. Within Hofmann’s intermediate space, I am forced to consider my relationship to Drew, to Gondry’s film, and to the autobiographical lens of the essay, which is trained on questions of desire (for film, for partners) and the changes that may be chalked up to the longevity of our loving encounters with film and with partners. Drew’s frankly courageous revision of the essay, which is the version published here, moves close to realizing the potential I initially saw, by owning up to cinephilia, film analysis, and our relational engagements as autobiographical practices (but also more than that), and by ethically responding to my question about the status of Clementine and Nicole in works by Gondry and Morton; and, more specifically, if Clementine can only be understood as a figment of Joel’s dislocated memories, how should viewers understand Nicole, as another woman figured by a partner in act of creative generativity, and then again, someone more than that.

Works Cited

Garwood, Ian. 2016. 'The Place of Voiceover in Academic Audiovisual Film and Television Criticism', NECSUS: European Journal of Media Studies, Autumn, https://necsus-ejms.org/the-place-of-voiceover-in-audiovisual-film-and-television-criticism/

Hoffmann, Maria. 2023. 'Laterally'. In: Zeitschrift für Medienwissenschaft, ZfM Online, Videography, 30. Mai, https://zfmedienwissenschaft.de/online/videography-blog/laterally.

Keathley, Christian and Jason Mittell. 2016.  The Videographic Essay:  Criticism in Sound and Image. Montreal: Caboose.

Martin, Adrian.  2010.  'A Voice Too Much', De Filmkrant, June, No. 322. Originally online at: http://www.filmkrant.nl/av/org/filmkran/archief/fk322/engls322.html. Now online at: https://reframe.sussex.ac.uk/audiovisualessay/reflections/adrian-martin-a-voice-too-much/.

Van den Berg, T. and Kiss, M. 2016. Film studies in motion: From audiovisual essay to academic research video. Scalar: http://scalar.usc.edu/works/film-studies-in-motion/index

I first encountered Drew Morton's videographic exploration of how Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind helps us understand larger issues around repetition, change, and ambiguity in an earlier version. Morton revised that video into the one you see here and with that he also changed his original creator’s statement from a discussion about teaching to one that explained his creative process. So I, as a reviewer, also needed to revise my original comments. My previous review was based on that now scrapped statement, which I saw as an invitation to both question the videographic essay form and to find ways of including videographic texts in my teaching. I want to quote from it to begin exploring the changing nature of interpretation generally and his work in particular.  Here’s a small part of what Morton said in his original statement, 

I’d like to encourage my colleagues to considering making more videographic works for classroom use, as teaching tools with pedagogical value and as models for assignments. At a historical moment when the usefulness of a degree in the Liberal Arts seems to be in constant doubt, I would argue that one of our greatest rebuttals can come in the form of Videographic Criticism.

While this statement seems pretty straight-forward, he actually ended it with this parenthetical in bold font, ‘(Note to my fellow editors – I am more than happy to publish this piece without a written statement.)’

It was this appended note when positioned alongside his statement and the videographic essay itself that opened up my initial interpretation. I saw this parenthetical comment not as an editorial aside to be kept among the editors and reviewers but as an invitation and provocation to explore the possibilities of videographic essays for teaching and to consider them as a medium for communication and cultural inquiry. Indeed, in the spirit of Morton’s essay and that note, I rewatched the video trying not to consider the written statement. Did I take the same message that the essay was an argument for using videographic essays in teaching? No. But I liked the way that the artist statement expanded the parameters of the overall work. I also realized that his pedagogical argument was the message I needed most from his work at that time because when I encountered it, I was approaching a new semester and was needing inspiration. In other words, at that time I found my greatest value in the video and written statement by reflecting on them together through my perspective as a professor. 

That understanding led me to begin exploring other works in the journal through the perspective of the questions Morton’s parenthetical implicitly asks, which is, what is the relationship between written commentary and a video? And how much do our particular circumstances at a given time shape our interpretations of any text? And those questions led to so many other questions about the use and the form of videographic essays and of the act of interpretation itself. Ultimately, it was the provocation of his parenthetical note that opened up the possibilities of his essay to me. It was in the unsettled space of the implicit questions among form, content, and pedagogy that Morton’s essay became so successful and honored his larger argument that in a kind of vulnerable ambiguity we can find art in cinema and in our lives.

While his revised video retains its lovely vulnerability, the new creator’s statement and video taken together actually shuts down that open-endedness and broad applicability of the overall work. Taken together, the new project depicts the open-endedness that is an inevitable part of both film criticism and relationships but it no longer enacts it. Now it feels like Morton’s work uses film-pedagogy scholarship as a way to make definitive arguments about Eternal Sunshine as well as about relationships and film interpretation. The final dedication, ‘For Nicole’ reinforces the neatness of his interpretation, as does Nicole’s narration. If his video and statement argue that interpretation of a film depends on viewers’ subjective ways of seeing a work at particular time in their lives, the current creator’s statement and videographic essay revision shut down the many possibilities suggested by his text—paradoxically because they announce their conclusion about ambiguity with no ambiguity. 

The final product remains a successful essay—it is persuasive, interesting, and relevant. But the uncertainty that it had previously enacted is now lost. As Morton says, ‘I hope that this commentary assists in making the production process transparent.’ But in gaining transparency, do we lose some of the joy of interpretation? Is there a deep relevance in engaging with work that asks unanswered questions as much as it ties up loose ends?