Speculations on Openings, Closings, and Thresholds in International Public Media
Wednesday, September 5, 2012
By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies, Ithaca College; co-director, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
I've never been more unsettled, confused — and excited — about documentary.
Everything I have ever theorized, historicized, analyzed, criticized, programmed, and written about documentary in its linear, argumentative, analog forms needs a serious gut job. A total renovation from the attic to the kitchen.
Over the past few years, when I've gone to film festivals or scholarly symposia, it's the new media sidebars — where no one wants to be called a director anymore and everyone is a convener or a designer — that yank me away from the movie theaters.
Example: Helen De Michiel's Lunch Love Community Project — a lush mosaic website of short collaborative videos chronicling the movement for healthy food in Berkeley, California, public schools, produced with the teachers, cooks, kids, and parents.
Three-dimensional spheres of place-based issues and people, these transmedia projects dismantle all of my previous theories — intellectual wrecking balls, if you will. Beyond the trendy tropes of mash-ups, crowdsourcing, user-generated, "produser," and marketing engagement through double-screening, open-space documentaries invite encounters with people, ideas, places and technologies.
Example: Saving the Sierra, produced by jesikah maria ross and Catherine Stifter — a collaborative project charting the stories and voices of Californians and environmental issues in the Sierra Nevada Mountains using radio, community meetings, and innovative story mapping.
Collaborative and shape shifting, these projects open up dialogue, convenings, stories, and a new form of collaborative, grounded space. They migrate fluidly across the analog and the digital, using adaptable platforms and inviting in newly interactive communities.
Example: The Cotton Road Project, by Laura Kissel with Li Zhen, tracing the supply chain of cotton from South Carolina to Shanghai manufacturing, with short video vignettes, multiple stories, and the innovative "sourcemap" that tracks supply chains of commodities through crowd research.
Although I still love their gutsy vigor, long-form doc features loom a bit like skyscrapers from the 1960s — overbuilt and probably not sustainable. In comparison, these more modest, open-space transmedia projects, seem more agile, more adaptable, more alive, more responsive, less predictable.
If you want to dig further into open-space documentary, you can join De Michiel, ross and Kissel for conversation at the working session on "Open Space Documentary" (I will moderate) at this year's utterly alluring NAMAC Conference, Leading Creatively, in Minneapolis, September 6-8.
This conference promises one of the biggest open spaces in the new media ecology.
Saturday, June 16, 2012
By Patricia Zimmermann, Professor of Screen Studies and codirector, Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival
Blue baggy running shorts and dirt-crowned Nike running shoes with black stripes and purple socks. Gray workout pants and a matching windbreaker zipped to the chin. Hand-knitted skull cap in rainbow colors and mittens to match for running in the spine-biting cold of Ithaca. A black lycra face mask, only the eyes and nose unwrapped, vulnerable, open to the winds.
These drifting, out of focus images and shards of workout outfits mark Zillah for me on campus—and off. These clothes map the life of the body—her body, my body, her mind, my mind, and whatever resides in that space between-- in action.
These workout clothes insert our bodies into heat, cold, wind, snow, rain, those immaterial yet material spectres that surround us but also seep deep into us as we breathe, run, walk, talk.
And these gym clothes of Zillah’s, this armor for climate and hills and life beyond the computer and the classroom, mark those hard-wrought passages from inside to out, from classrooms to trails, from books, writing and lecturing to another kind of writing. The body on the hilly landscapes and cracked sidewalks of Ithaca transforms into a pen and a scalpel, writing our bodies with others, through conversation and aching muscles and heavy breathes like the rhythm of a singing bowl in a Buddhist temple.
Zillah’s black tights, gray capri pants, pink running bras, sleeveless polypro yellow workout jerseys fought the confines of the academy—a transitory, oddly lonely place fortified through physical immobilizations behind desks and lecterns. The college’s deliberate isolations of disciplines, buildings, and brutal teaching schedules imprisoned us, cordoning off the solace of others.
When I arrived at Ithaca College in 1981, I was barely 26, just popped out of grad school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Ithaca College felt strange to me—I had never attended and did not quite comprehend a four-year private college campus. Coming from the Midwest with our love of big campuses, Big Ten football and basketball and big political interventions in the streets, I never anticipated the uneasy press of a small place and small college.
Ithaca and Ithaca College felt claustrophobic to me, a disjointed concoction of gray skies like I had never seen, hills, smallness, isolation, elitism, privilege, expensive tuition, and migrating Canadian geese whose first barking I thought was a pack of angry dogs on the loose. East Coast pretensions, unfriendly colleagues, serving students like waitresses in a cheap roadside diner rather than getting lost in big gnarly unresolved ideas yanked me into a rather undefined and unshaped despair: this mess was supposedly the glories of the academy? Oh no. No way.
I had never lived in a place where it was difficult to see the horizon or look into the distance. I did not like being at Ithaca College. It felt tiny.
My colleagues in cinema were all men, and at least ten years older than me. The students spewed a strange neediness and insecurity, spouting an anxious drone about jobs and internships rather than an openness about getting completely lost in the knots of complicated ideas.
I did not like Ithaca back then. It felt like a living reenactment set, a demented Disneyworld of old hippies in Birkenstocks absorbed in tofu, local bluegrass music, and baggy dresses. I liked clothes and punk rock and poetry and political documentaries. I could not find a community. I could not find blue skies, sunlight, or the horizon line.
The very first colleague I met on campus who had a conversation with me that was more than just where I was from and what I was teaching, Zillah was also the very first professor and woman academic I had ever met who wore workout clothes to campus. She taught politics and wrote books on anti-racist feminist theory. She would finish up her feminist theory classes, bolt into the bathroom, and change into her running gear or tennis clothes. She slung two bags: one bag housed her very organized lecture notes in manila folders, the other stuffed with her workout clothes and muddy running shoes.
When Ithaca College offered me a tenure line job, one of my friends at Wisconsin, Tyler Stovall, now a well-known historian researching African Americans in France, suggested that I should get in touch with his former babysitter, Zillah Eisenstein. Their parents were in the civil rights movement together. He said, she is a feminist and has politics, and at least you will know one person out East.
So in September of 1981, two weeks after I endured the new faculty orientation where I learned I should produce a “student centered” worldview, I went to Zillah’s legendary Marxist Feminist Speakers series one evening in a very uncomfortable and stark lecture hall called Textor. I can’t recall who spoke.
After a blistering, energizing lecture about some controversial and unresolved feminist debate, I walked up to Zillah and introduced myself as a friend of Tyler’s. She said we had to get together. She asked if I did sports. I did—in fact, sports and working out seemed the only way to detox my brain from the twisted labyrinths and psychic horrors of writing and teaching.
About a week later, I was really, really alienated from the East Coast snobbery and really, really lonely in my empty apartment with only a desk and a bed. I did what I always do when I don’t know anyone: I took a bucket of balls and my racket and went up the hill to the Ithaca College tennis court to serve balls, thinking maybe I could find a pick-up game.
Zillah, in blue running shorts, hit balls on another court with a colleague who was her boyfriend at the time. She remembered me. She motioned to me to join them. I was so happy to play with other people, the only social interaction I had had beyond strange colleagues and needy students in three weeks. After we volleyed, she invited me to go running with her after teaching. It turned out we had similar schedules, free after 2:35 on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
After her breast cancer surgery in the last 1980s, I knew exactly what to give her: turquoise running shorts and a purple workout jersey. Defying medicalization, that outfit helped me to say to her what I could not then put into words: we will continue to sweat together.
Throughout these three decades plus of deep friendship and weekly workouts, I have always been in awe of Zillah. Like a sorceress, she converts bathrooms, gyms, cars, and offices into nodal points for change. Change of clothes. Change of attitude. Change of political strategy. Change of ideas. Change of venue. Change.
On Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then, later, on Wednesdays, we shifted from our elaborate teaching costumes (she wore flowing dresses with many layers of jackets and vests and jewelry while I liked pants so I could carry film equipment and projectors) into clothes that spoke the secret language of movement with intimate friends. These workout clothes adapted to the seasons, shorts in the summer, lined pants to flout snow and slush. Her workout clothes performed a strange alchemy on my alienations and discomforts in Ithaca and the East. They dislodged the distances. They restored to me a new horizon line, not one you could see from a distance, but one you could sense on the ground, running with a friend, in a swirl of talk about love, life, teaching, reading, thinking, politics, art, cinema, writing.
It was—and continues to be-- a kind of necessary and urgent sisterhood, subverting the insidious architectures of the academy that wanted us docile, alone, distraught.
Through shared sweat, we pushed our legs and hearts to somewhere else, an elsewhere that is nowhere in space but somewhere in time, pounded out by foot and by arm in walking and running and doing aerobics and African dance and yoga and elliptical machines. Most of the theoretical ideas shoring up my own writing emerged from our conversations and debates motored by exercise. With Zillah, sweat and ideas, legs and arms and analysis, need each other the way a bed of irises needs weeding in April to see the flowers breaking out in May.
My bond with Zillah exceeds friendship.
If one can share a DNA and become sisters through the shared rituals of body sweat and mind work, then we are related in ways that science can not identify.
Our connection centers on these nodal points where our bodies move through spaces and histories together. At these precarious and delicate transitory points, loneliness, illness, political struggles, and loss get smashed down to nothing by shared sweat and conversation.
We are costumed like warriors in our workout clothes. Here, workout clothes become something more than a way to work the body and purge it. They bring us to that place that destroys distance and hills, a node where bodies thrive despite all challenges, where words and muscles fuse, and where a sun not found in the sky pounds away the gray.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
Blog written by Patricia Zimmermann, codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival and professor of Cinema, Photography and Media Arts at Ithaca College
Last night in the intimate Iger Recital Hall at Ithaca College in upstate New York, baritone Brad Hougham and pianist Deborah Martin reminded me why I love programming the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival (FLEFF).
Collaboration. Interdisciplinary exchange. Big, messy ideas. Problems to be resolved. Brilliant colleagues. Learning to see, think and hear in new ways. Figuring out how to get new audiences for experimental works. Music. Projected images. Risk.
After a long day of teaching in Ithaca College’s internationally recognized School of Music, Brad and Debbie arrived to do a master class with 50 FLEFF interns.
The purpose of Hougham’s and Martin’s visit to Iger last night: to explain why they are pairing The Rite of Spring (Stravinsky) with the Ruckert Lieder (Mahler)-- two pieces of modernist music at opposite ends of the musical spectrum-- for the opening night concert of the Finger Lakes Lakes Environmental Film Festival on Monday April 11 at 8:15 p.m in Hockett Recital Hall at Ithaca College.
Hougham started with a question: what’s the theme of this year’s FLEFF?
He explained that he, Debbie and Jairo Geronymo, a Brazilian Berlin-based pianist who will also be performing, developed the concept to checkpoint these different musical styles against each other--Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring and Gustav Mahler's Ruckert Lieder.
Both emerged out of the early years of artistic modernism that disposed of classical symmetries and representations. The Rite of Spring premiered on May 29, 1913, to riots from the audience (somewhat disputed by historians, who debate whether it was the music or the experimental ballet that ignited the crowd). Mahler died two years before, in 1911: a historical period where music jumped into new ideas, scales, tonalities, dissonances, structures.
As higher education becomes more and more corporatized with so many dulling-the-senses administrative meetings on policy and curriculum, it’s easy to lose touch with what made us all endure the grind of graduate school in the first place: a love of getting lost in complex ideas beyond the self with others.
I often marvel at how FLEFF forces me to slow down and interact with colleagues across the Ithaca College campus in their professional, more public, more national intellectual and artistic capacities—not as professors on some committee, or teachers overwhelmed by grading research papers. But, rather, as intellectuals and artists alive with risky ideas in conversation with the world. It is an incredible privelege. My music school colleagues' insights into music and their incredible concerts transport me to a place I would never have imagined without them.
Phil Wilde and Ann Michel of Insights International, who are also the FLEFF’s producers and internship coordinators, experimented with projections of ambient media of clouds in a digitally-altered red sky as the students arrived for the interns practica.
Multimedia concerts solve some very difficult outreach problems for festivals, classical music, and experimental works: all face taxing challenges of attracting audiences beyond the committed and the converted.
The alchemy of juxtaposing ambient experimental digital imaging, custom-designed screens built to be held rather than hung, and Stravinsky/Mahler performed live catapults all three into a one-time-only spectacle that pulls in curious, energized audiences. And it aggregates niche audiences into one big one: classical music fans, experimental film/new media mavens, performance art, the curious, rockers, cinephiles. Some people come just to dress up.
It’s not a film that will drop to live streaming a week later, a disposable, migrating commodity. It's not a pirated copy of a concert ready for MP3. It’s live and it lives. And it packs the concert hall.
Wilde and Michel have collaborated with FLEFF and Ithaca College for the last 8 years on the Onward Project, an initiative to explore new commissions and new ways of projecting/performing new music for silent film. Each project presents problems to be solved, new musical idioms to be learned, and new collaborations to gel.
They wanted to test out various ambient and archival images to see what would work for the multimedia projections on traditional screens and mobile screens cut in shapes evoking the graphic angles of early modernism for the actual performance on the opening of FLEFF’s 2001 edition, Checkpoints.
Harkening back to the historical roots of The Rite of Spring as an experimental ballet, FLEFF interns will enter the stage holding these screens cut apart in odd shaped triangles and distorted squares.
The Rite of Spring is primal and violent, the Ruckert Lieder are translucent and transcendent. The Rite of Spring is propulsive disjunction, while the Ruckert Lieder elaborate a unity of feeling. The Rite of Spring is dense, while the Ruckert Lieder evoke an image of glistening transparency.
The music will be intercut, pointing and checking against each other. Dialectics pulse in both pieces. Stravinsky was a Russian living in exile in Paris; Mahler, who suffered profoundly as a Jew in Austria, an internal exile in his own homeland. The Rite of Spring was designed as a ballet but the aggressive syncopated rhythms were undanceable. The sadness and translucency of the Ruckert Lieder suggest what Brad Hougham dubs “smiling through tears.”
As Martin elaborated, contrast between works can “amplify their modalities and strategies, bringing a more dynamic and visceral understanding of musical complexities to an audience. “ The Rite of Spring’s violent energy, dissonances, and polyrhythms amplify more when paired with the Ruckert Lieder’s ethereal, wandering, probing lines.
Martin pointed out that music leading up to The Rite of Spring was inching towards “crossing over the line” to work with a whole new palette of rhythms, tonalities, forms. Stravinsky jumped completely over the line with The Rite of Spring, according to Martin. And, as a result, he wrote one of the defining compositions of 20th century music in the west.
Explaining the subtleties of the Ruckert Lieder, Hougham pointed out that if Stravinsky dove full head-on over the line into an uncharted musical domain, Mahler carefully placed one foot over the line, gentling stretching and morphing the lieder form. With its long lines, the Mahler's melancholy Ruckert Lieder “intermingle an overarching profundity with familiarity,” noted Hougham.
While Martin and Hougham explained the music and performed it, Michel and Wilde projected different images to test out what might work for FLEFF’s opening night performance. Some abstract processed images from Microcinema’s ambitious and one-of-a-kind ambient media that evoked the contours and jagged lines of early modernist art. Some archival film distorted by blurring and slow motion, in loops, of lovers walking in a forest.
Here’s what made me shift from being completely anxiety-ridden and nervous about putting together this multimedia concert that took the almost inconceivable idea of pairing Stravinsky with Mahler ‘s lieder and then making new kinds of screens for projection: Debbie and Brad performed for us in that little recital hall. They gave the interns a way into this gorgeous, complex, evocative, disturbing music.
Martin played some sections of The Rite of Spring on the Steinway in the room, demonstrating the way in which dissonant chords were mounted in complex, syncopated rhythms influenced by modernist interest in primitivism. She pounded out these chords. She played some of the more melodic parts of the score, demonstrating the contrasting elements of this music. She then played a range of ostinato sections (passages where the music idiom repeats), and showed where shifts and turns happen.
Hougham sang Ich atmet' einen linden Duft!/I breathed a gentle fragrance. His left hand waved at the piano, motioning how the piano accompaniment wafted in counterpoint to the musical line of the song.
Wilde and Michel keep experimenting with the abstract projections and slowed down archival images washing the screen behind the performers, working on the right mix. I was struck by how the interns got to see the process of collaboration, how experimentation means trying something out, discarding it, trying again, listening, thinking, brainjamming ideas with others.
Hougham and Martin reminded me that the greatest musicians are so much more than virtuosos (both Brad and Debbie are that, and more). Truly brilliant musicians possess an ability to open up a new world of complex sound and image to us. They invite us to cross that line Martin and Hougham talked about to take a risk with them.
Elegant virtuosos like Hougham and Martin go to the edge of their performances, someplace that is unknown, a bit scary, but gorgeous.
And they ask us to join them in this uncharted place of smooth melodic lines, dissonance, and abstracted projections. And to get lost in it.
* * * * * * *
THE CHECKPOINTS CONCERT FOR FLEFF 2011 is MONDAY APRIL 11 at 8:15 p.m. in Hockett Recital Hall, Ithaca College. Dress is formal, or your version of it.
Saturday, February 19, 2011
Blog post written by Patricia Zimmerman, professor of cinema, photography and media arts at Ithaca College and codirector of the Finger Lakes Environmental Film Festival.
While democracy protesters jammed into Tahrir Square, the Egyptian government cut off and then opened up the internet and Facebook, and British students from the anti-cut movement mounted large demonstrations in the streets of London, the Documentary Now! Conference at the University of Westminster on January 28-30 staged some emerging, key debates about scholarship, exhibition and practice of documentary.
The conference opened with a screening of the feature length documentary 48 (2009) with Portuguese filmmaker Susana De Sousa. Composed entirely of still image portraits taken by various police and security forces of captured political dissidents during the Portuguese dictatorship (1926-1974), the film looks simple but isn’t. As De Sousa noted, she contrasted the official history inscribed in the images with the unofficial history of the sound of the resistance.
The voices of the prisoners, involved in different resistance movements both above ground and underground, describe their political work and how they survived physical and mental torture, including sleep deprivation where prisoners were kept awake for 18 days, endless bouts of dysentary, nails ripped off, bodies assaulted.
We never see current images of the political activists and internees who narrate their stories. Instead, we scrutinize the way the military and security forces rendered their faces into historical records. De Sousa explained that she decided to never show the people "because that would divide the film into times, the present and the past, and I wanted to bring the experience and memories to the present, in a more complex temporality with the images.” The film does not focus on individuals, but instead exposes the system of the fascist dictatorship in Portugal, a history still repressed and silenced.
Organized by documentary scholars Alisa Lebow (Brunel University)and Michael Chanan (Roehampton University), the annual Documentary Now! Conference in London bills itself as a “conference on the contemporary contexts and possibilities of the documentary.” Lebow and Chanan have written extensively on the forms and function of the committed documentary.
Both have championed moving documentary film studies away from its American/Eurocentric axis: Lebow has not only advanced queer documentary, but Turkish Cinema, and Chanan is a leading figure in writing about Cuban and Latin American Cinema. The conference bears their imprint, because its organization refuses to accept safe categories or traditional thinking about documentary. For example, smaller symposia often feature mostly senior, established scholars. But Lebow and Chanan programmed almost as many PhD students as senior level heavyweights.
In the context of the mammoth job-marketing, career-advancing conferences mounted by the likes of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) and the International Communication Association (ICA), the intense collegiality and think tank intensities of a smaller conference like Documentary Now function as a most welcome and much-needed respite. Documentary Now offers a place to test out new edgy ideas, connect with scholars and makers pushing the envelope of scholarship, and engage in conversations about ideas rather than about program cuts, tenure battles, and the end of the humanities as we used to know it.
The three days of panels and presentations mapped the unresolved political and ethical issues contemporary documentary studies engages. An outstanding, provocative panel called “Dis/Embodied Voices” featured scholars Bella Honess (England), Patrik Sjoberg (Sweden) and Laura Rascaroli (Ireland) probing how the fracturing of sound, voice, image, portrait, face challenge the documentary referent as unified, suggesting documentary form as a philosophical, rather than representational, enterprise.
Rascaroli advanced the idea of the “interstice”, a textual and extratextual space, a “crevice that engenders something new.” Sjoberg’s paper queried how “hidden subjects” –like faces covered by the burqa, the mask, the veil, or rotoscoping and animation of social actors, bring to documentary an argument about hidden, defaced, distorted, destabilized identities which foreground voice over image.
In a fascinating panel on “Television and the Everyday,” noted British documentary scholar and intellectual pugilist Brian Winston returned to the Griersonian documentary, threading the relationship between acting, direction, and the realist documentary project. Noting the “utter directorial failure” of the films produced by Grierson for the General Post Office, Winston observed how a film like Night Mail “performed dialogue previously observed.” He contended that the failure of these British films from the 1930s to deal with fascism, war, and depression demonstrated how they ran “away from social meaning.”
A panel on "Musical Docs" raised issues of how music functions in documentary. Does it invoke and rework narrative deployments, where music connects with emotion, or can music function as another layer of textual complexity, challenging and reworking images? Julian Savage (Brunel University) explored how music travels between the exotic, the political, the colonial, the resistant, the postcolonial, and the imaginary in a documentary project about Tahitian music called Upa Tangi Reka. Tracing and tracking Tahitian ukulele bands, he argued for a concept of fissures between the colonized/ savage, the orientalist and the immersive.
Other panels and talks explored the persistent ethical tensions in documentary. At “Authenticity or Artifice” British scholars and practicioners (Angus Carlyle, John Wynne, Pratap Rughani, Paul Lowe) explored field recordings, sound art, documentary narrative, and photography. A panel called "Critical Perspectives" looked at documentary through the lenses of philosophers Walter Benjamin and Roman Jakobson. Michael Renov’s (USC) plenary lecture, “The Compilation Film: The Chorus of Bits and Pieces,” revisited the long trajectory of films constructed from other films as metatextual practices with a nod to Jay Leyda.
But documentary, as envisioned by Lebow and Chanan, has moved well beyond the flat-on-the-wall, fixed analog forms that are the stuff of documentary textbooks.
The complexity and proliferation of new media forms and interfaces not only extends previous documentary strategies, but also unhinges and troubles them. One senior scholar told me that new media and new technology functioned as just another form of “opium” but also conceded he/she would like to actually learn more. Elizabeth Cowie, an influential feminist film theorist, asked, in a spirit of intellectual generosity, how new media and installation can be considered documentary, in that their forms destabilize some central epistemological and definitional tenets.
Keith Marley (Liverpool John Moores University) and Geoffrey Cox (Huddersfield University) presented an ambitious but somewhat aesthetically and conceptually undeveloped live video performance inspired by Vertov’s city film mixed with club culture as an alternative to a traditional academic paper. The panel “From Viewsers to Activists” investigated the internet, YouTube, and Britain’s video activist movent.
The Open Space/New Media and New Documentary Forms Panel (which, full disclosure, I mounted and spoke at) looked at how new media, installation, and user-generated archives in Southeast Asia, a hub for new technology and digital arts, have shifted documentary into a more collaborative, horizontal, iterative modality where technology meets space meets people.
The panel featured Singaporean cutting edge new media artists Michael Tan and Jesvin Yeo from Nanyang Technological Unviersity (NTU), scholar/curator Sharon Lin Tay (NTU/Middlesex University), and filmmaker/curator Nikki Draper (NTU) discussing the Shaw Foundation/NTU funded new media curatorial project, Open Space/Singapore/Southeast Asia, mounted at the ICA conference in Singapore in 2010.
A closing session called “Video Activism Workshop” featured Ann Burton, from the Confederation of Trade Unnions in the UK, as well as Richard Hering and Hamish Campbell from VisionOn.TV, a user-generated, citizen media site, discussing how social media, cheap video technologies, and Web 2.0 revise the definition of “activist media”(note to readers: I’ll be writing another post on this panel, so stay tuned).
Documentary Now in London demonstrated that documentary constitutes one of the most malleable, shape-shifting, platform-crossing, politically-challenging forms of media. And it also showed that lively conversation and debate amongst a heterogeneous group of international colleagues offers maybe the most vital form of social media on the planet.
Wednesday, January 19, 2011
The Big Question
Film studies online? Impossible, you say?
This winter term, I took the dive. I gulped down the red pill and jacked into the matrix of online film studies.
And I am having one of the absolutely most transformative and best teaching experiences of my career as a film studies prof.
I have to thank Facebook for teaching me how to engage by asking questions and responding, rather than lecturing and having positions on everything…crazy, I know.
I nestled my intro film studies course into a participatory Web 2.0 environment. I decided to teach online. Insane? Not quite.
I figure, if students can argue about the delicacies of self-amputation in 127 Hours and the obsessive intricacies of anorexic, self-scratching ballerinas Black Swan on Facebook, they can handle some discussion about Battleship Potemkin and other, well, battleships of film history.
I tossed out all of my graduate-film-school-in–the-1970s-cinephiliac-film must-be- seen-in-a-theater–on-35mm-film-preconceptions along with all of my dog-eared copies of Christian Metz and various imaginary signifiers this winter.
And I dove into teaching an intensive two week winter term course called Introduction to Film Aesthetics and Analysis for Ithaca College. Online. All of it. And, I’m having one of the best teaching experiences ever.
Here’s some context.
Film studies is not one of those intimate, 10-15 person, sit in a circle, know your professor, talk-a-LOT-about-your-impressions kinds of experiences. The topography features a body of knowledge to learn, complex histories to understand, and methods for deconstructing films that require rigor. And reading. Lots of it.
At Ithaca College, our lower level film studies courses are large, like they are at most places that teach disciplinary based undergrad film. My Intro course had 155 students, with “small” (really?) break out sections of 32. I love the large classes. Programming films and ideas for a large, mostly eager, crowd entices intellectually.
But here’s the rub.
I’ve only taught smallish classes a handful of times in three decades of teaching—a couple of 24 person seminars at Ithaca College, and then, some seminars on new media during two different stints at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I’m one of those traditionalists, with lectures, books (more than one, and at least 100 pages a week ), and screenings on big screens, often in the local art cinema on 35mm.
So online, guess how many students I have? 5.
Yes, that’s not a typo. 5.
I know them all. They are reading more than Julian Assange at WikiLeaks.
They write EVERYDAY. I can drill into their exegetical work on the readings as well as their analytical work with much more precision and care than when I have so many more students.
In this context, I can coach them to become more sophisticated deconstructors of cinema, and more persuasive argumentative writers. I’ve seen these students make huge, huge leaps in just two days after absorbing detailed criticism from me in the form of track changes, a system I actually use when doing collaborative research with partners in different parts of the US.
For the last two years, I’ve been working with Sam Gregory from WITNESS, the nongovernmental organization working with human rights participatory media, on a large, on-going research project probing ethics in human rights social media.
We’ve been thinking quite a bit about questions of representation in participatory online environments where images and words circulate, remix, morph, change. In these networks, images can not be controlled.
So questions of who says what to whom in what channel--traditional research questions of communication-- and how and why it said--the domain of traditional documentary studies-- shift a bit. When social media meets human rights meets advocacy campaigns in RL (real life), the body enduring oppression and the bodies recirculating its images in Web 2.0 landscapes end up functioning as equal parts of the equation.
Production and consumption, representation and exhibition, giving voice and sharing voices, merge. And this blend is rife with ethical problematics. The human rights issues of protecting the dignity of the victim get amplified, as images can no longer be controlled, and representations are no longer fixed.
This research has prompted me to rethink how my students engage online with courses.
What parts of what they do in a class should be public, open for circulation and commentary? What parts should be shared in a controlled environment open only to the class? What parts should be private communiqués between professor and student?
Can thinking through the ethics of human rights social media and forms of engagement that connect to important advocacy campagins about rape in the Congo or water rights in Bangalore be mobilized to engage another group that is not part of the power elite, and can also be victimized by networks, i.e. undergraduates?
Is there a way to organize a course to traverse these different kinds of publics, respecting the dignity of the student in a human rights framework? And is there a way to think of teaching as advocacy work for serious intellectual engagement?
My tentative, provisional answer: yes
The third context emerges from my sabbatical teaching at Nanyang Technological Univesrity in Singapore, a country besotted with bad press and postmodern orientalism.
At NTU, one week of every term is MANDATORY (yes, you read that right, MANDATORY) online education, called e-learning week. This week where faculty are instructed NOT to appear in their classrooms was not prompted by some marketing firm telling an institution of higher education to get with the dizzying apps of Web 2.0, or any dreams of creating a profit center to offset the Great Recession.
A small country at the equator, Singapore also boasts of the best public health systems in the world.
Connection, you ask?
Well, it turns out that e-learning week is designed for emergency preparedness in case of punishing monsoons or the need to quarantine to stall the outbreak of deadly diseases like SARS.
Full disclosure: I was quite skeptical about doing film studies this way. But this was a case study in the lessons of cyber-Buddhism. My students taught me something I would never have learned in an e-learning seminar--they loved it.
They wrote more, argued more, watched more, dug in deeper, and engaged complex ideas in a more systematic way. They studied media produced around the war in Vietnam, which, in Southeast Asia, is actually called The American War.
IMPOSSIBLE to hide, and IMPOSSIBLE to not participate (well, I required participation by specifying the number of postings required on Blackboard. ) students just keep on writing, and writing, and writing. I learned that how I structured the discussion board questions made a huge difference: questions need to eschew easy, instrumental answers.
I also learned to just keep asking questions. That’s my Facebook apprenticeship (shout out: my friend and writing collaborator Helen de Michiel pushed me to get on FB about two years ago. She told me to imagine it as a “cocktail party” not a “soapbox.” Thanks, Helen!)
Since I was in graduate school at the University of Wisconsin in the late 1970s, the discipline of film/media studies has pushed and pushed to frame cinema as a “text.”
The convergence of semiotics, structuralism, Marxism and feminism argued films were constructions that obscured power relations, meanings, and ideologies. Doing a decoupage of a film, cutting it apart shot by shot to unpack its structure and meaning, was central.
We were all a bunch of decoupage junkies. The thrill of the deconstructive kill. But back then, it was really hard to do: you needed an archive with a flatbed editor.
As film theorists Charles Acland, Barbara Klinger and Dale Hudson have pointed out, cinephilia has changed. Films no longer function as rare objects in archives. Screens multiply, shrink, blow up, expand, migrate.
Films are finally, after all these years, TEXTS. Literally, figuratively and metaphorically.
Netflix functions as an archive, but then, so too does Amazon, Ubuweb, archive.org, and Facets Media. Films live on DVD and also get streamed.
And, in the space of about five years, it's no longer a Hollywood-only environment—my students purchased Fatih Akin’s Edge of Heaven, Deepa Mehta’s Earth, Jean Luc Godard’s Breathless, each for the cost of sending five text messages from London to Ithaca on Verizon.
In film studies, we have moved from cinema as a place of aesthetic worship to cinema as an object you can collect, dig into, discard, trade, loan, slow down, speed up, take apart.
Rather than lamenting the end of film rental budgets that often support modernist ideologies of artifactual fetishization, maybe we need to explore what possibilities this proliferation of images in a new technological dialectic might offer us. I doubt any of us film profs out there will have our once-ample budgets restored.
And, we can now move cinema studies online, and finally, three decades after the “linguistic” turn in film studies, film is finally, at last, a text. Students can buy them like textbooks or CDs of their favorite indie bands, do close readings, and learn the addictive thrills of decoupage as undergrads, all while jacked into their Macbooks.
In my online class (full disclosure, it’s running while I type these words and students are posting on the use of color in Zhang Yimou’s Shanghai Triad ), I can work much much more closely with students on developing exegetical skills to describe structures of arguments and deployment of facts.
In a world of quick status updates and sharing feelings, systematic exegesis is, uh, undeveloped. A lost art. So is deductive, analytical writing, where one drills into a film (read text) and works through how it negotiates a concept or a history derived from readings in a systematic way.
It’s not about whether you “relate to” or “like” a work ( refrains I hear repeatedly from my hordes of first year students who are experiencing analytical film studies for the first time), but how you engage its structures, and find patterns,and think about meaning.
These two skills—exegesis and analytical writing—constitute the most necessary professional skills for any job, whether in the entertainment industry or selling stocks.
Both require time, detail, patience to learn, a pas de deux of trial and error, gentle coaxing and hard critique, between teacher and student. With less students, it’s possible to function more like an Olympic coach of a top athlete than as a police officer of syntax. And my five students respond like world-class, elite mogul skiers, adjusting and recalibrating based on my constant feedback.
I will admit a few things to you. Teaching film studies online differs from the embodied version. They are not equivalent. They offer different gifts.
The online class slants more towards very very close readings of both the films and the books. While it deemphasizes group viewing, it amplifies writing, an epistolary engagement rather than a performative structure.
The students write so much more than they do in a traditional course. It’s harder. They can’t sit back and plug in their iPods and cruise FB and pretend to listen. They write in public on FLEFF blogs, they write in semi-private on discussion boards, they write to me privately with their assignments. Like my thinking about social media and human rights, it's a process of exchange and respect for what circulates.
I have a suspicion that they are learning something new about how to think about and how to see cinema in a way that differs from their multiplexed pasts.
And I have finally learned, after all the traumas and insecurities of graduate school, that all those theorists from the 1970s had it right: film, and film studies, is a TEXT.
In case you're thinking I'm a cinematic heretic, l do believe adamantly in the power of cinema as a collective experience that can jolt your senses and mind like lightning in a theatrical setting.
Of course. That’s why we became film professors in the first place, its why film festivals intoxicate us, and its why we so passionately and often desperately want to invite our students into a larger conversation about cinema that exceeds the limitations of commercial blockbuster intoxications.
Maybe online film studies teaching can function a bit like e-harmony, a sort of online dating service with conceptual ideas about cinema that are bigger than you, but that you eventually want to meet in the flesh. Or on celluloid!