Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

The Object of Film Analysis

Academic journal article Millennium Film Journal

The Object of Film Analysis

Article excerpt

The essay you are about to read marks the first time in history that an analysis of movies in a print journal refers to individual frames of those movies by number, with readers having a playback medium that allows them to display the frames and sequence cited in the text. This is not a trivial development. It represents a historical turning point in the evolution of the cinematic apparatus.

- Gene Youngblood, "Metaphysical Structuralism: The Videotapes of Bill Viola," Millennium Film Journal 21/22 (Fall/ Winter 1988-89).

Scholars make use of DVDs, Blu-Ray discs, or Vimeo uploads for the analysis of films all the time. While the list of experimental films released on commercially distributed DVDs continues to expand, it represents a tiny fraction of the work being made, and scholars writing about the work of living filmmakers also benefit from artists' willingness to make films not otherwise available in these formats available for study. The changes that have facilitated these exchanges between artists and scholars are: the move to digital editing by a number of filmmakers who shoot and show their work on 16mm film; the choice, by other artists, to shoot on digital video; and the desirability, for both, of having digital files that can be sent in any number of formats to curators or festival programmers.

Today, the film scholar wishing to write about contemporary Hollywood cinema, or just about any other of the world's cinemas, watches films at home, on the same kinds of screens and in the same video formats that most people watch them. Caetlin Benson-Allott makes the point that as far as Hollywood is concerned "movies are now primarily videos for both their makers and their viewers."1 "The spectator," she writes, "has left the theater."2 Not only is this not the case for experimental film, there is no reason to think it ever will be. The people who go to experimental film screenings do so because they think it is important to see films in the circumstances filmmakers imagined for them when they made them, and because these are the only circumstances in which the vast majority of them will ever be available to be viewed. What makes writing about experimental film different from writing about other types of cinema is that while experimental films are made for theatrical exhibition, this is not how scholars view them when they want to analyze them. This essay considers some of the implications of this situation. How, for instance, might we understand the relationship between the image of a film after watching it over and over again at home, and the experience of viewing it in a theater with an audience? What are we describing when we analyze a film? If this is not the first time such questions have been asked, they have been less often asked about the analysis of experimental film than about the analysis of other types of film.

The descriptive term 'film' is used in this essay, with reference not to the means of its production but to where it is shown. There are all kinds of ways in which those means matter, and matter not least of all for film analysis; but for most people who make, program, and write about experimental film they are not what makes that work a film. Pastourelle (Nathaniel Dorsky, 2010) and The Pettifogger (Lewis Klahr, 2011) are both films. The questions I want to raise about the object of film analysis are different, then, from those of Dan Streible who, in an essay concerned with questions about the terminology film scholars use

to describe their object of study, writes: "Film historians and Film History [An International Journal] now face a basic historiographical problem of naming their object of study. What will the word film mean from this point forward?"3 The problem, he suggests, with using the term 'film' to refer to works "that never had anything other than a digital existence" is that it contributes to the occlusion of the material differences between "analog film and digital files"- an occlusion that the film industry, with its move to digital projection, obviously benefits from. …

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