Videographic Deformations: 10/40/70
This is the second excerpt from my essay draft on “Videographic Criticism as a Digital Humanities Method.” The first laid out my approach to deformative criticism via the format of PechaKuchas. This one moves toward another instance of deformation, inspired by the work of Nicholas Rombes.
Videographic PechaKuchas take inspiration from another form, the oral presentation, but we can also translate other modes of film and media scholarship itself to deformative videographic forms. One of the most interesting examples of parameter-driven deformative criticism is Nicholas Rombes’s “10/40/70” project. In a series of blog posts and a corresponding book, Rombes created screen captures of frames from precisely the 10, 40, and 70 minute marks in a film, and then wrote an analysis of the film inspired by these three still images. Rombes acknowledged that he was deforming the film by transmuting it into still images, thus disregarding both movement and sound, but he aimed to draw out the historical connections between filmmaking and still photography through this shift of medium. The choice of the three time markers was mostly arbitrary, although they roughly mapped onto the beginning, middle, and end of a film. The result was that he could discover aspects of the film that were otherwise obscured by narrative, motion, sound, and the thousands of other still images that surrounded the three he isolated—a clear example of a deformance in Samuels and McGann’s formulation.
What might a videographic 10/40/70 look like? It is technologically simple to patch together clips from each of the designated minute markers to create a moving image and sound version of Rombes’s experiment. Although we could use a range of options for the length of each clip, after some experimentation I decided to mimic Rombes’s focus on individual frames by isolating the original shots that include his marked frames, leading to videos with exactly three shots, but with far more variability in length, rhythm, and scope. As with Rombes’s experiment, the arbitrary timing leads to highly idiosyncratic results for any given film. [I recommend watching the videos before reading the analyses.]
Raiders of the Lost Ark yields a trio of shots without obvious narrative or thematic connection, but in isolation, we can recognize the cinematographic palette that Steven Spielberg uses to create action melodrama: camera movement to capture moments of stillness with an emphasis on off-screen or deep space, contrasted with facial closeups to highlight character reactions and emotion.
Star Wars: A New Hope also calls attention to movement, with consistent left-to-right staging: first with the droids moving across the desert, then with Luke running to his landspeeder, then with Obi-Wan’s head turning dramatically, which is continuous with the rightward wipe edit that closes out the second shot. Both of these iconic films are driven by plot and action, but the arbitrary shots bely coherent narrative, allowing us to focus more on issues of visual style, composition, and texture.
Depending on the resulting shots, narrative can certainly play into these deformations. In Fargo, we start with a shot of Jerry sputtering about negotiating a car sale in the face of an irate customer, which abruptly cuts to Jerry sputtering about negotiating with kidnappers to Wade and Stan in a diner, highlighting the consistent essence of Jerry’s character, underscored by his nearly identical wardrobe across different days in the original film. The scene plays out in an unbroken 80-second static shot, pulling us away from the deformity and placing us back into the original film, as the coherent narrative eclipses the incoherence of the 10/40/70 exercise. But knowing that we are watching a deformation, we wait for the unexpected cut to jump us forward in time, splitting our attention between the film and its anticipated manipulation. The narrative action guides the transition, as Wade impatiently refuses to abide by Jerry’s plan to deliver the ransom himself and stalks away saying “Dammit!” The resulting arbitrary edit follows the most basic element of narrative, cause and effect: we cut to Wade being shot by one of the kidnappers, punctuated by a musical sting and evoking Stan’s earlier line that they’ll need “to bite the bullet.” The final jarring effect stems from the final shot being less than 3 seconds long, a startling contrast to the previous long take, and underscores the contrast between the incongruities of mundanity and brutality, boring stasis and vicious action, that is the hallmark of Fargo and much of the Coen brothers’ work. Although it certainly feels like an unusual video, Fargo 10/40/70 also functions as a cultural object on its own right, creating emotional responses and aesthetic engagement in a manner that points to one of the strengths of videographic work.
It’s interesting to compare Rombes’s results working with stills versus a videographic version of the same film. Rombes analyzes three stills from Mildred Pierce, and they point him toward elements of the film that are frequently discussed in any analysis: the contradictions and complexities of Mildred’s character, how she fits into the era’s gender norms, and the blurs between film noir and melodrama. The images launch his analysis, but they do not direct it into unexpected places.
I find the videographic version of these three moments more provocative, as they create more opportunities for misunderstanding and incoherence. The first shot finds Wally panicking and discovering Monty’s dead body in a noirish moment of male murder and mayhem, but quickly gives way to a scene of female melodrama between mother Mildred and daughter Veda. Mildred’s first line, “I’m sorry I did that,” suggests a causal link that she is apologizing for murdering Monty. Knowledge of the film makes this causality much more complex, as the murder is a future event that sets the stage for the rest of the film being told in flashback; in the frame story, Mildred appears to have murdered Monty, with the flashback slowly revealing the real killer to be Veda. Thus this scene works as a decontextualized confession made to the actual (future) murderer, adding temporal resonance and highlighting how the entire flashback and murder plotline was a genre-spinning element added to the screenplay but not present in the original novel. The third scene picks up the discussion of the restaurant and finances, bringing it back to the conflict between Wally and Monty—if we were to temporally rearrange the shots to correspond to the story chronology, the opening shot of Wally finding Monty’s body would seem to payoff this conflict, and create a closed loop of causality for this deformed version of the film. This brief analysis is no more valid or compelling than Rombes’s discussion, but it is certainly less conventional, triggered by the narrative and affective dimensions cued by the videographic deformation that ultimately seems more suggestive and provocative than the three still images.
And here are a few bonus 10/40/70 videos that I made but did not analyze – feel free to provide your own analysis in the comments!
Next time: a new and provocative mode of deformation, based on the computational method of average shot lengths!
 Nicholas Rombes, 10/40/70: Constraint as Liberation in the Era of Digital Film Theory (Zero Books, 2014).
Filed under: Academia, digital humanities, Film, Media Studies, Technology, Videographic Criticism | 2 Comments
Tags: Fargo, Mildred Pierce, Nicholas Rombes, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Star Wars