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A still from Mirrors of Bergman, a profoundly moving audio-visual essay. Vimeo.

Explainer: the exciting new genre of the audio-visual film essay

During March, the renowned film scholar Adrian Martin and the film critic Cristina Álvarez López are conducting a series of public workshops and lectures on a new and exciting phenomenon of digital film culture: the audio-visual essay.

Barely ten years old, the audio-visual genre has generated thousands of international works. The growing number of forums for it, such as AUDIOVISUALCY, which contains more than 1,000 essays, demonstrate the scale and diversity of this new genre.

Audio-visual essayists intensively re-edit and recombine images and sounds from preexisting film, TV and digital works.

Coinciding with the rise of YouTube since 2005, the format was first embraced most enthusiastically by film fans, who could pay homage to their favourite works by capturing the thematic preoccupations of a director or the peculiarity of an actor’s performance.

Such analyses and homages might privilege particular scenes, gestures or looks – that kiss between Kim Novak and James Stewart in Hitchcock’s Vertigo (1958) or the cigarette that Humphrey Bogart lights, again and again, in To Have and To Have Not, The Maltese Falcon and The Big Sleep.

Humphrey Bogart and that cigarette. Flickr

But the new creative and critical potential of the audio-visual essay was also gradually appreciated by film critics, cinema scholars and educators.

Many universities now offer courses on audio-visual practice. Several online film-studies journals, along with the educational blog Film Studies for Free, publish curated sections dedicated to audio-visual criticism.

Since critical and theoretical writing on cinema developed in the early 20th century, there have been three elements to the standard film studies “toolkit”: plot summary; vivid, descriptions of film style; and static, single-shot illustrations extracted from the film.

Single-frame illustration technique was perfected in the 1970s as a methodology of “frame by frame” analysis. It put together sequences of consecutive frames to “get closer” to nuances of facial expression, degrees of movement or interplay of light and shadow.

The emergence of VHS tapes and, later, of DVD allowed greater access to film material, as well as – in the case of DVD – information in the form of commentaries, featurettes, cuts and out-takes.

But it was only with the development of non-linear, video-editing programs (allowing you to dismantle the original footage, even separating image and sound) that it became possible not only to demonstrate and comment on certain features of the film, but to transform it.

Thus digital technology allowed scholars and critics to engage with screen material in a way that was impossible for the most of the 20th century – by directly working on the film’s moving image and sound.

This has led to the development of an innovative performative practice that generates new types of insight, particularly in relation to the way a film evokes feeling and emotion.

Some audio-visual essays relate to a film-maker’s themes or elements of style, such as visual motifs, recurrent settings, or a specificity of framing.

Adrian Martin and Cristina López’s essay Melville Variations astutely identifies a number of props used by the French director of the “noir” era Jean-Pierre Melville, including guns, phones, fedora hats, white gloves, and black and white tiles. It assembles them into a visual montage accompanied by a soundtrack of the signature tune of Le Samourai by François de Roubaux.

Other audio-visual essays are more theoretically oriented, often combining visual excerpts with textual commentaries. Catherine Grant’s work shows how feminist issues, queer issues or interest in the body and affect can be explored through video-graphic work.

Another audio-visual essayist, working under the name of KOGONADA, demonstrates how film history can be illuminated by illustrating the differences between Italian approaches to film-making after WWII and Hollywood cinema of the classical era.

A third group of audio-visual essays tries to do something entirely different – taking the original footage as a point of departure for a deeply reflective, poetic and creative transformation.

What happens if we trace how Ingmar Bergman treats the motif of female characters looking into mirrors in various films and superimpose on these excerpts a reading of Sylvia Plath’s poem The Mirror? KOGONADA’s Mirrors of Bergman is a profoundly moving work that pays homage simultaneously to both Bergman and Plath.

The proliferation of audio-visual essays has prompted various interest groups to pose some anxious questions.

How are we supposed to understand authorship under these new conditions? What is the relative impact of the original author versus the producer of the audio-visual essay?

What about respect for the original work and its integrity or cohesion, which essayists feel increasingly free to cut and splice, dismantle and recombine?

There are also complex questions about fair use or fair dealing for non-commercial, scholarly and critical purposes and contexts.

The audio-visual essay has also been met with confronting questions within the academy. Is it really a form of film criticism and theorising or is it just a testimony to the fan’s imaginative play – not much different from mash-ups or remixes?

There is still considerable resistance to the genre from a large group of scholars who believe that film analysis should remain what it has been for decades: writing that is grounded in methodologies and infused with theoretical concepts, and only invoking the film material as “evidence”.

Another camp believes that the most productive use of the audio-visual essay format for scholarly purposes is one that combines it with more traditional textual explanation, reflection or commentary.

While these debates will no doubt rage for a while yet, we can be sure of one thing: the rise of the audio-visual essay is now unstoppable.

Its rich and varied artefacts are testimony to the fertility of the encounter between passion for cinema, digital technologies and the tradition of film scholarship within screen studies.

Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López will be giving a public lecture, Hitting the Target: Hou Hsiao-hsien Style, at Monash University on March 15, 5pm to 7pm.

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