‘The point is to pick out and join together the bits of sequential fact, knowing, seeing and hearing precisely what lies between them and what kind of chain holds them together. That is cinema.’
– Andrey Tarkovsky[i]
‘Let us try to compose a video essay from all these images of the void, the pause, and the interval.’
– Carlos Losilla[ii]
‘To create is to understand and to understand is to re-create’.
– Trinh T. Mihn-ha[iii]
I want to tell the story of a video essay from beginning to end, to try to re-create its creation, to understand its collective and contingent origins as well as its particular forms of material thinking.[iv] This kind of practice-led research knows not what it thinks before it begins; it is a coming to knowledge that is ‘not the awareness of a mind that holds itself aloof from the messy, hands-on business of work’, as Tim Ingold writes (following Heidegger), but, rather, ‘immanent in practical, perceptual activity’.[v]
The video essay in question is ‘Dissolves of Passion: A Film Within a Film’,[vi] an eight minute long compilation of slowed down versions of all of the dissolves (or fading in and out, superimposed shots) that I could locate in and extract from David Lean’s 1945 movie Brief Encounter (U.K.) in the order in which they appear in that film. With its procedures largely predetermined by these basic formal, chronological and ‘completist’ aims, the kind of audio-visual assemblage I made may not sound like either the most critical, or the most creative, of film scholarly activities. But in my experience, such parameter-based videographic explorations of elements of filmmaking can turn out to be compelling methodologies for academic research projects.[vii] In this case, the chosen parameter was one that drew on existing ‘found footage’ traditions of compilation filmmaking as well as on film and moving image scholarship.[viii] The resultant video is distinctly derivative – indeed, it is a useful ‘limit case’ in unoriginal creativity.[ix] But through its transformative re-workings, I was able to make some discoveries about the material at the same time as framing a particular audio-visual experience of it.
Although I didn’t connect things up quite so teleologically at the time that I began to make ‘Dissolves of Passion’ in the first half of 2014, the direct formal origins of my video probably lay in two online encounters back in 2010. The first was with artist Aaron Valdez’s 2003 short work dissolve, an experimental 16mm found footage film ‘constructed of hundreds of dissolves taken from old educational films and reassembled to create a meditation on our own impermanence’, as he described it[x] ; the second was with a piece of academic writing about Valdez’s film authored by his partner, artist-filmmaker and fellow material-thinker Jennifer Proctor. She wrote of the rationale and modus operandi of his film as follows:
I had come across, and become entranced by, versions of Valdez and Proctor’s works online as I searched for scholarly resources on film editing for an entry at my blog Film Studies For Free,[xii] an interest that had probably been sparked by my first experiences of editing audiovisual material in the preceding year.[xiii] Yet I don’t believe I thought directly of these encounters again until two years later, when I made the first of my video essays which explicitly treated matters of film editing: ‘Skipping Rope (through Hitchcock’s Joins)’, a videographic assemblage of all the supposedly hidden edits in Alfred Hitchcock's 1948 film.[xiv] It is difficult to see how I would even have had the practical idea of ‘collecting edits’—of making a film out of joined-up joins—had it not been for the example of dissolve. I had seen very few other compilation films by that point, let alone any about editing. So the formal choices of Valdez’s project tutored my own. Where he had separated (or connected) the dissolves in his film with hard cuts, I chose to reverse the technique and separate (or connect) the hard cuts in Rope that I was showcasing with dissolves. One of the aspects in which my procedures completely departed from his, though, was in the realm of sound. We both joined up our compilation films by using a continuous piece of (basically non-diegetic) music, but while Valdez’s soundtrack wholly replaced his source films’ original audio tracks, I chose to retain (and to re-place over the new sound) short extracts of adjacent recorded dialogue from Rope. I slowed down the visual track of the excerpts to twice their running time, but the preserved dialogue played at its original speed. The part-conjunctive/part-disjunctive effect that resulted had both a witty as well an uncanny sensibility that I liked a great deal.[xv]
In conventional narrative cinema, the dissolve traditionally functions as a transitional device signaling specifically a change in diegetic space or time: a shift in historical moment, a change in location. […] However, dissolve adopts the dissolve as its primary unit of enunciation and meaning, shifting its function as a transitional device to that of a transformational device. [… B]y including only dissolving images and eliminating the fully realized head and tail frames that traditionally mark the start and end of the transition, [Valdez’s film] further complicates the notion of the dissolve as a transitional or transformational device. [xi]
I didn’t completely realise it at the time but, looking back, I can see it was by making this procedural variation that my video performed its most original piece of material thinking. By having to handle the sound that often bridged both the hidden and unconcealed edits (indeed, by finding that I could not, and did not want to, disavow its material existence), I was able to acknowledge and represent (possibly for the first time in criticism on Rope) the specific role played by the (at times) ‘fruity’ and periphrastic dialogue contiguously with the edits in the film’s visual sleight of hand rhetoric (part of its withholding/disclosing binary organization). This helped to open up for me even further the ways in which Hitchcock’s film’s much vaunted editing technique ‘acquires all the transgressive fascination of homosexuality’, as argued by queer theorist D.A. Miller (whose 1991 chapter about the edits in Rope had provided the longstanding inspiration and epigraph for my video).[xvi] It was through editing edits that I was discovering not only how much of a film story is told in these spaces between shots, but also just how audio-visual our experience of these (supposedly) in-between-narrative segments can be.
In the years since 2012 I have continued to base quite a large part of my videographic research on the seemingly simple act of collecting and compiling together all of the instances of a repeated feature (a motif, a shot movement, an actor’s gesture, a repeated musical or sound cue) from a film or series of connected films.[xvii] But the next time that my attention was drawn by a collection of film edits—incidentally, from another Hitchcock film— was in late 2013 when my artist-friend Gordon Hon shared with me dissolution, his compilation work (then in progress) on the dissolves in Vertigo (U.S.A., 1958).[xviii] According to his later written reflection on this research, Hon began this project with the question, ‘what would I be left with [in Vertigo] if I discarded everything except the dissolves?’ He became interested in this question, though, because of a reference made by artist-scholar Victor Burgin to an article by Réda Bensmaïa about the long dissolves in Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jetée (France)—a film some regard as a kind of remake of Vertigo. Bensmaïa and Burgin contend—according to Hon—that, in this film’s dissolves,
Hon was more interested in the formal function of the dissolves in the construction of the space of Vertigo, rather than in interpreting them, as Bensmaïa and Burgin appear to prefer with La Jetée. He writes of the compilation methodology he developed in order to explore this aspect of Hitchcock’s film as follows:
we can see the victims of the nuclear holocaust that has destroyed Paris and who are otherwise absent from the imagery of the film. Instead they appear briefly like apparitions, as one image mutates into another, in which for example a blindfolded face dissolves into a faceless statue […].[xix]
When I first saw Hon’s dissolution projected on a cinema screen in his presentation of the finished version of the work,[xxi] I was fascinated by the extreme slow motion (reminiscent of Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho installation),[xxii] the use of fades to black to punctuate the compilation (like the use of black leader in La Jetée), the clarity of the dissolving images (a feature I had not taken too much notice of in Vertigo before), and their enhanced painterly and textural qualities when replayed using these methods. Their formal function was certainly to the fore. But I was also very taken by the particular transformation of the film’s original sound that Hon had chosen to slow in sync with the image—a move that lowered its pitch to create terrifying rumbles, melancholic droning, and a kind of fizzing or hissing stillness, or static, each effect exposing new degrees of the subtle horror and pathos seemingly latent in Hitchcock’s film. As I had earlier played around with applying a digital slow motion effect to a sequence from Vertigo myself, [xxiii] the almost identical sonic signature of our experiments, and in particular their similar degree of verbal incomprehensibility, indicated to me that, while the degree of slow motion varied across Hon’s video (and he had looped or repeated some parts of the dissolves, too), he had generally slowed the film excerpts to around ten times their original length, as I had.[xxiv] The result was a stunning meditation on Vertigo and its dissolves as complex, expansive and affective spaces. As Hon himself concluded of his work:
The first problem was how, or rather where, to edit a dissolve. The most obvious method would be to take the edit from the last intact image before the dissolve, up until the first intact image after the dissolve. However I wanted […] for the transitions to have already begun and to remain unresolved. They also had to be slowed down to make them properly visible. Without their function as transitions, they were no longer, properly speaking, dissolves but super-impositions of adjacent scenes. However the point was that these complex images were part of the visual structure of the film, seen in passing, as it were, like the back projected scenery through the car windows as we wind our way through the labyrinthine plot.
My method was simple: to keep all but the shortest lap dissolves and put them in a continuous sequence in chronological order. What became immediately apparent was their quantity and importance in the psychic fabric of the film.[xx]
I had attended Hon’s dissolution screening with our mutual friend, film and media scholar Mandy Merck. She indicated in our enthusiastic discussions about his video afterwards that she had written extensively about dissolves in her 2007 book Hollywood’s American Tragedies: Dreiser, Eisenstein, Sternberg, Stevens.[xxvi] Following this conversation, in a further sign of my abiding, and still growing, interest in this editing feature,[xxvii] I read her book avidly. I was especially drawn to its coverage of the conception and production history of the dissolve-filled A Place in the Sun, directed by George Stevens (U.S.A., 1951), and in particular to this Hollywood movie’s connection to a British film that I had never really considered in relation to its editing choices (despite the fact that its director had been a film editor in the earlier part of his career). Merck refers to British screenwriter Ivan Moffatt’s script notes to Stevens in which the former flagged up the complex use of dissolves in the narration of David Lean’s Brief Encounter and recommended them as a model to Stevens as part of his championing of the use of a subjective voice in the latter’s film.[xxviii] The significance of the dissolves for Moffatt and Stevens, together with—following on from her discussion of Brief Encounter’s (fictional) film within a film: Flames of Passion—Merck’s own compelling paragraph on the instances of this feature in a scene in Lean’s film surprised me. She writes:
The slowed down, sped up, interrupted, paused and replayed film is not merely a ruined form, it is also a form of ruin. It is a ruin produced by the way it is looked at, and in turn produces new forms of looking. Our relationship to film is not just being altered temporally, but spatially. Films such as Vertigo become available to us as a new form of virtual space in which it is possible to lose ourselves.[xxv]
To my knowledge, few of the scholars who have written significantly on Brief Encounter (before Merck) have had very much to say about this feature, even those who have been most sensitive to the complexities and subtleties of the subjective framing of the film.[xxx] As I hadn’t previously noticed many of the dissolves, or recognized their particular contribution to the form or texture of what had been one of the favorite films of my adolescence, I could barely contain my interest in exploring them more fully and immediately began to do so, by creating a digital file of the entire film that I could import into my digital video editing program.
as a later scene dramatizing [protagonist] Laura's thoughts on the train home reveals, her fantasies are conventionally cinematic. That afternoon she and Alec have confessed their feelings for each other and the elated housewife sits in the commuter carriage gazing through her reflected image at the landscape passing outside its window, gazing—so to speak—into her own head. Her voiceover the scene (a narration which Moffat's earlier memo to Stevens had explicitly discussed) recalls. ‘I imagined being with him in all sorts of glamorous circumstances. It was one of those absurd fantasies just like one has when one is a girl, of being wooed and married by the ideal of one's dreams.’ At this point the camera moves right, aligning the film frame with the train window, in which a series of romantic images of Laura and Alec together (notably dancing in formal clothes beneath chandeliers and riding in an open-topped car) dissolve over her reflection. These images, and their use of conspicuous overlapping dissolves will also figure in A Place in the Sun.[xxix]
When I looked again closely at the film with all the affordances of that interface, I quickly took account of its very large number of dissolves, marking them as I went through them linearly before moving them to the editing timeline in the order in which they appear in Brief Encounter. Once they were there, I was easily able to survey the variety of their functions in the film (encompassing temporal, locational, associational, and subjective/objective-point-of-view transitions, among others). I decided at that point that I could relatively easily work towards making a compilation video that would revisit the curatorial approach of my ‘Skipping Rope’ work, despite there being so many more instances of the features I was exploring on this occasion. In this way, I veered away from Hon’s decision not to compile all of the numerous dissolves in Vertigo, presumably because ‘completism’ was more central to my editorial (or curatorial) criteria than it was to his, or indeed to Valdez’s. I venture to say that this may appear to be an inevitable difference between the ‘film studies dispositif’ that frames the ‘care and concernful dealings’[xxxi] of my approach to handling the audiovisual material, and the more purely ‘artist’s film dispositif’ of theirs. I never counted exactly how many dissolves I encountered in Brief Encounter until after I compiled them, but my finished video consists of 64 separate sequences of varying lengths extracted from the visual track from the film that contain either individual dissolves or complete ‘Hollywood montages’.[xxxii] Unlike Valdez or Hon, I did use the ‘most obvious method’ of selecting ‘the edit from the last intact image before the dissolve, up until the first intact image after the dissolve’[xxxiii]—that is to say I wanted them each to be seen as dissolves (or as the original film’s own pre-existing montages of these) separated by my hard cuts.[xxxiv] Like Hon (and unlike Valdez), I chose to apply a slow motion effect to the segments to enhance their visibility (as well as the spectator’s experience of this visibility), although a much less dramatic one than dissolution’s at just over twice the original running time of Brief Encounter’s dissolves.
Yet if my approach to the selection and compilation of material for the video’s visual track was systematic and consistent in working through the above procedures—indeed, almost reverential with regard to the original context of the dissolves—in every other respect it worked to decontextualize material from the film, to revise it in order to provide a new experience of it. I added a midnight-blue filter to all my extracts from Lean’s film (I believed) to enliven and add further contrast to the slow motion version of the digital copy’s black and white visuals (seemingly unaware as I did so that I might be unconsciously emulating the purple-blue filter artist Joseph Cornell added to his 1936 compilation film Rose Hobart (U.S.A.), a found footage experiment featuring its own beautiful dissolves).[xxxv] As for the soundtrack, this time the audio that accompanied each of the dissolves was slowed to the same extent. But I preserved its pitch and applied a reverberation effect, so that Celia Johnson’s (or Laura’s) bridging monologues still sounded recognizably hers, but more ghostly, somewhat absent and much more melancholic. I also used additional audio from either side of the extracted dissolves (stretching it back or forward along my timeline), or freely extended material from any audio cross-fades, in order to layer sound and dialogue much more, frequently floating Johnson’s voiceover narration over what preceded or followed it. Quite a lot of sound reworking like this was performed to create a palimpsestic auditory feeling. Then, finally, once again like Valdez (and my own approach in ‘Skipping Rope’), I used a piece of non-diegetic music (albeit the famous Rachmaninoff concerto used in and made famous by the film)[xxxvi] to provide a sound envelope to connect (and frame a sensuous experience through) the whole compilation. To do so, I invisibly joined up two separate excerpts, from the beginning and the end of Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2, Adagio Sostenuto, to fit the length of the slowed footage I had appropriated from Lean’s film.
The video may ultimately appear to be less a case of straightforward assemblage, then, and more one of revisionary re-assemblage, destabilizing the original movie’s ‘correct syntaxes’, as Akira Lippit might put it.[xxxvii] My choice of framing music (the first piece of classical music I ever owned, purchased immediately after I watched Brief Encounter for the first time on television in my very early teens), the echoing, multi-layered sound, and affective transformation of color and speed all point to the video’s secondary function for me as an expressive document of my—and quite probably others’— retrospectatorship, Patricia White’s resonant term for a viewing mode shaped by the experiences, fantasies, and memories it elicits in the spectator.[xxxviii] Dissolves of Passion is not so much a détournement of its original film material (like Valdez’s film) as it is a memory work, an act of affective distillation, fascinated exploration or homage to it (rather like Hon’s video). It affords its viewers (and me) a space for a relatively concise audio-visual experience of the intensity of ‘my love of Brief Encounter and the tears it always makes me shed’, as Andy Medhurst so brilliantly put it, on behalf of those of us who are so inclined, in his 1991 article on the ‘special thrill’ of Lean’s film.[xxxix]
But the video is, nonetheless, a work of material thinking, one that brought to the surface of its production new knowledge both about Lean’s film and about this method of re-handling it, and not simply about my spectatorial experiences of it. Through the practical difficulties inherent (even digitally) in being sure to identify, retrieve and compile all of the numerous dissolves in Brief Encounter, the film’s transitions are painstakingly discovered to be part of a highly complex and extensive aesthetic network in the film of ‘inbetweenings’ (superimpositions, reflections, cross fades, and in- and out-layering), which seem deeply connected, semantically, to the film’s many other motifs and signs of projection, reflexive re-viewing, and ambivalence about the fantasy-reality/subjectivity-objectivity spectrum that Brief Encounter presents. As Laura concludes sadly (and self-punishingly) to herself, at the end of her Hollywood montage fantasy on the train: ‘All the silly dreams disappeared’. But they keep on appearing and disappearing until very near the end of the film.Gathered together and joined up, the dissolves from Brief Encounter disclose the extent of their storytelling load and function in the film—again, in part, because they are extensive, and often so full of verbal discourse. This being the case, their compilation has resulted in the production of a narratively meaningful piece of ex-cinema,[xl] a videographic rendering of a ‘film within a film’, excised and re-sculpted from its digital host. Hence my video’s title and subtitle, which obviously nod in the direction of Brief Encounter’s actual film within a film (Flames of Passion). But they also point to the more general insight, which I arrived at through the making of this work, that dissolves—as intrinsically composed audio-visual durational material (a little like fades and wipes, but unlike hard cuts)—are always short films within films. Indeed, they can often be (as they are in Brief Encounter’s not always so brief dissolving encounters) highly affective kinds of microscopic and kaleidoscopic movies.[xli]
My own experiments in material thinking in film and moving image studies compilations, to date, have certainly been affective ones, most often fired by the energy of cinephilic attachments to the films I have been drawn to work on, as well as inspired and informed (as I hope I have succeeded in evoking) by related works and reflections produced by the community of audio-visual artists, critics, and film scholar-practitioners of which I am fortunate to be a part. But, in this, the era of Laura Mulvey’s ‘Pensive Spectator’,[xlii] video essayists are far from the only ones using digital (or domestic) tools that depend on forms of eye-hand-mind coordination to generate more material forms of film critical thinking. I would argue that Average Shot Length measurement approaches can also involve related forms of handling, and clearly require, as intrinsic parts of their material procedures, exploration of the kinds of practical questions I and others have asked in our compilation work (such as: where exactly do shots, or edits, begin and end, especially in the age of digital compositing?). Such approaches have already yielded enormously rich and helpful additions to film editing scholarship, for example.[xliii]
Nonetheless, the sensuous and affective methodologies of videographic material-thinkers mean that the latter often immerse themselves differently, more completely, in the audio-visual forms of the medium they research and can move around to form new (scholarly and other) objects. In this kind of environment, the critical aspects of the work are inseparable from the creative, affective ones, and lend themselves so well, then, to the kind of exploration that Susan Sontag might have been calling for when she wrote: ‘In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’.[xliv]
Post scriptum: The above reflection is dedicated, with gratitude, to my friend and fellow video essayist Kevin B. Lee, whose brilliant compilation documentary about dissolves (‘The Art of the Dissolve’)[xlv] didn’t inform the making of my own video— alas, I didn’t see it beforehand—but has certainly accompanied me, and enlivened all my presentations on this topic since, as his pioneering work and insights so often do.
Copyright ©2016, 2019 by Catherine Grant