Videographic Deformations: PechaKuchas
I’ve spent the last month working on an essay called “Videographic Criticism as Digital Humanities Method” for the second edition of Debates in the Digital Humanities. The full essay should be online soon for open peer review, but I want to share three excerpts that feature numerous video examples, as the blog is an easier site to embed and control the layout, and I am including more examples here than will be in the book version. Plus these are presented as “conversation starters,” so I hope they provoke some comments here!
The first excerpt frames the mode of “research experiment” that videographic work can do, via the PechaKucha form that I previously presented as part of our summer workshop – here it is:
Where the possibilities of videographic method get most intriguing is via the combination of the computational possibilities of video editing software with the poetics of expression via sounds and images. The former draws from scientific-derived practices of abstraction that is common to digital humanities: taking coherent cultural objects like novels or paintings and transforming them into something less humanistic, like datasets or graphs. The latter draws from artistic practices of manipulation and collage: taking coherent cultural objects and transforming them into the raw materials to create something more unusual, unexpected, and strange. Videographic criticism can loop the extremes of this spectrum between scientific quantification and artistic poeticization together, creating works that transform films and media into new objects that are both data-driven abstractions and aesthetically expressive. I will outline three such possibilities that I have developed, using case studies of films that I know well and have used in the classroom, hoping to discover new insights into familiar texts.
The model of poeticized quantification that I am proposing resembles the vector of literary analysis that Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann call “deformative criticism.” Such an approach strives to make the original work strange in some unexpected way, deforming it unconventionally to reveal its structure and discover something new from it. Both Stephen Ramsay and Mark Sample extend Samuels and McGann’s model of deformances into the computational realm, considering how algorithms and digital transformations might create both new readings of old cultural objects and new cultural objects out of old materials. This seems like an apt description of what videographic criticism can do: creating new cultural works composed from moving images and sound that reflect upon their original source materials. While all video essays might be viewed as deformances, I want to explore a strain of videographic practice that emphasizes the algorithmic elements of such work.
One way to deform a film algorithmically is through a technique borrowed from conceptual art: imposition of arbitrary parameters. From Oulipo, the collective of French artists who pioneered “constrained writing,” to proto-videographic artworks like Douglas Gordon’s 24 Hour Psycho or Christian Marclay’s The Clock, to obsessive online novelties of alphabetized remixes of films like ARST ARSW (Star Wars) and Of Oz The Wizard (The Wizard of Oz), artists have used rules and parameters to unleash creativity and generate works that emerge less from aesthetic intent than unexpected generative outcomes. We can adopt such an unorthodox approach to scholarship as well, allowing ourselves to be surprised by what emerges when we process our dataset of sounds and images using seemingly arbitrary parameters. One such approach is a concept that Christian Keathley and I devised as part of our workshop: a videographic PechaKucha. This format was inspired by oral PechaKuchas, a form of “lightning talk” consisting of exactly 20 slides lasting exactly 20 seconds, resulting in a strictly parametered presentation. Such parameters force decisions that override critical or creative intent, and offer helpful constraints on our worse instincts toward digression or lack of concision.
A videographic PechaKucha adopts the strict timing from its oral cousin, while focusing its energies on transforming its source material. It consists of precisely 10 video clips from the original source, each lasting precisely 6 seconds, overlaid upon a one-minute segment of audio from the original source. There are no mandates for content, for ideas, for analysis—it is only a recipe to transform a film into a one-minute video derivation or deformance. In doing videographic PechaKuchas ourselves, with our workshop participants, and with our undergraduate students, we have found that the resulting videos are all quite different in approach and style despite their uniform length and rhythm. For instance, Tracy Cox-Stanton transforms the film Belle du Jour into a succession of shots of main character Séverine vacantly drifting through rooms and her environment, an element of the film that is far from central to the original’s plot and themes.
Or Corey Creekmur compiles images of doors being open and shut in The Magnificent Ambersons to highlight both a visual and thematic motif from the film.
In such instances, the highly parametric exercise allows the critic discover and express something about each film through manipulation and juxtaposition that would be hard to discern via conventional viewing, and even harder to convey so evocatively via writing.
I started using this exercise in my teaching last semester – in a narrative theory course, students were asked to make a PechaKucha of one of the films we had viewed together in the course, with the only requirement that they not try to retell the same story as the film presents. For a sense of the range of possibilities, here are two PechaKuchas for Barton Fink, created by different pairs of students:
Such PechaKuchas follow arbitrary parameters to force a type of creativity and discovery that belies typical academic intent, but they are still motivated by the critic’s insights into the film, aiming to express something. A more radically arbitrary deformance removes intent altogether, allowing the parameters to work upon the film and removing the critic’s agency. I devised the concept for a videographic PechaKucha randomizer, which would randomly select the 10 video clips and assemble them on top of a random minute of audio; Mark Sample and Daniel Houghton executed my concept by creating a Python script to generate random PechaKuchas from any source video. The resulting videos feel like the intentionally designed PechaKucha videos that I and others have made with their uniform length and rhythm, but the content is truly arbitrary and random, including repeated clips, idiosyncratic moments from closing credits, undefined sound effects, and oddly timed clips that include edits from the original film. And yet they are just as much of a distillation of the original film as those made intentionally, and as such have the possibility to teach us something about the source text or create affective engagement with the deformed derivation.
Just as the algorithmic Twitter bots created by Mark Sample or Darius Kazemi produce a fairly low signal-to-noise ratio, most randomly generated PechaKuchas are less than compelling as stand-alone media objects; however, they can be interesting and instructive paratexts, highlighting elements from the original film or evoking particular resonances via juxtaposition, and prompting unexpectedly provocative misreadings or anomalies.
For instance, in a generated PechaKucha from Star Wars: A New Hope, Obi-Wan Kenobi’s voice touts the accuracy of Stormtroopers as the video shows a clip of them missing their target in a blaster fight, randomly resonating with a popular fan commentary on the film.
Another generated PechaKucha of Mulholland Drive distills the film down to the love story between Betty and Rita, highlighting the key audio moment of Betty confessing her love with most clips drawn from scenes between the two characters; the resulting video feels like a (sloppy but dedicated) fannish remix celebrating their relationship.
A generated PechaKucha of All the President’s Men is anchored by one of the film’s most iconic lines, while the unrelated images focus our attention on patterns of shot composition and framing, freed by our inattention to narrative.
There are nearly infinite possibilities of how algorithmic videos like these might create new deformations that could help teach us something new about the original film, or constitute a compelling videographic object on its own merits. Each act of deformative videographic criticism takes approximately two minutes to randomly create itself, generating endless unforeseen critical possibilities.
Next time: a videographic take on another film studies deformance, Nicholas Rombes’s 10/40/70 project.
 Lisa Samuels and Jerome J. McGann, “Deformance and Interpretation,” New Literary History 30, no. 1 (1999): 25–56.
 Stephen Ramsay, Reading Machines: Toward an Algorithmic Criticism (Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2011); Mark Sample, “Notes towards a Deformed Humanities,” Sample Reality, May 2012, http://www.samplereality.com/2012/05/02/notes-towards-a-deformed-humanities/.
Filed under: Academia, Film, New Media, Open Access, Publishing, Videographic Criticism | 5 Comments
Tags: All the President's Men, Barton Fink, Belle du Jour, Magnificent Ambersons, Mulholland Drive, Star Wars