Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Media Production Experience: Goals for Class

My goals and initial objectives for a "Media Production Experience" course are:

  1. To complete a reasonable review of concepts, skills, and roles that I learned as an undergrad (in TMA 185, 285, and others) to help me refresh those items my brain may have misplaced for lack of use.
  2. To feel reasonably confident undertaking a moderate single-creator video project, from pre-production through post production. 
  3. To increase my proficiency in using equipment and software I will continue to have access to after the course ends.
  4. To increase my pedagogy arsenal for teaching the skills covered in class to others in the future.
  5. To create several things that provide me with the benefits of "carpentry" discussed by Ian Bogost.
  6. To see a measurable increase in the production value of projects I create over time.
  7. To engage in critical discussion about the decisions that go into the creation of media. 
  8. To feel/be qualified to instruct an absolute beginner in acquiring basic video production skills. 

Video Examples of short/compelling stories

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Documentary Final: Helix

One of the potential strengths of any documentary, is that the process of making it forces the maker to reflect more deeply on the concept they are illustrating than they may have had cause to using other mediums. In the process of constructing an intentional metaphor, the many creative decisions that fall to the filmmaker are also positioned to ask the filmmaker many difficult questions about what they are trying to communicate.  Bill Nichols[1] noted,  “One… generalization about recurring topics in documentaries is that they involve those concepts and issues we need metaphors to describe.” This common use of the medium, to use images, subjects, juxtapositions, and audience expectations to initiate a discussion about otherwise abstract ideas, is inherent in the nature of storytelling, and doubly inherent in the nature of telling “true” stories. 

As was discussed by Nichols and by Broderick Fox[2], there are a number of fluidly categorized ways – modes – that filmmakers regularly use to present these stories or ideas to their audiences.  For this project, given the logistic constraints (mainly of time) involved in the undertaking, it seemed to be in my best interest to make as many decisions before shooting as possible.  This pre-meditated approach lent itself to an essayistic mode, combining elements of the poetic, reflexive, performative, and autobiographical modes.  

The poetic mode is perhaps an unavoidable component of essayistic documentary.  Nichols said that in poetic mode, “The filmmaker engage[s] with the film form as much as or more than with social actors.”  This prevalence of form over subject was also a component of the essayistic mode insofar as it was explored in class.  The subject, in this case myself, becomes less important than the idea, or affect being emphasized by the filmmaker’s creative decisions. 

There are reflexive moments in this project where the presence of the camera and its operator are acknowledged, as well as a certain thematic reflexivity, wherein “Reflexive documentary sets out to readjust the assumptions and expectations of its audience, more than to add new knowledge to existing categories.” (Nichols)

Large portions of this project became performative, largely out of necessity.  In order to capture the appropriate tasks and actions for this essay, many of them had to be staged.  They were all things that happen regularly without the camera present, but because it was my own life, there was no way to enter the space and capture those tasks in an observational style.  In some cases I was able to turn a camera on to capture something that was happening anyway (making my bed) but in other cases I had to stage actions, because capturing them otherwise proved prohibitive. (The laundry basket being filled was clearly staged.  Leaving my camera set up in the hall to capture an actual time lapse would almost certainly lead to the death of said camera.)

But the performative mode isn’t employed merely because of staged tasks, it’s also relevant because the staged tasks are illustrating a hypothetical idea that would be difficult to convey without some kind of embodied subject.  But given the nature of that idea and the way it is communicated, the fidelity of the featured actions has little weight to the validity of the complete piece. In this case, performative documentary “demonstrate[s] how embodied knowledge provides entry into an understanding of the more general processes at work in society.” (Nichols)

The Autobiographical elements of this film are pretty overt.  The voiceover is my voice, my words, speaking in the 1st person about my own experience.  (Though through the process of recording it multiple times and never liking how it turned out, I’m finding out how subjective and constructed that can be.)  I am the subject of many of my shots, and nearly all of the content comes from the context of my day-to-day life. I think this piece imperfectly fits Fox’s parameters for Autobiographical documentary, that ”baring one’s self to the public is at the heart of the autobiographical mode. The emotional and personal life experiences of the producer become the documented reality.”  I don’t feel that I was able to be as raw or vulnerable as the “best” autobiographical documentaries defined by Fox, wherein “the autobiographical mode not only closes the gap between photographer and subject, but also the space between filmmaker and audience – brought together through a subjective familiarity and an invitation to know the “I “ behind the camera.“

Because of that, I feel comfortable describing this piece as primarily essayistic.  Fox said that essayistic mode is “an active one, in which a proposed idea or question is tested by a range of means and intersecting lines of argument.”  This film does not entirely fit the template of “an experiment” as outlined by Fox, but it does explore an idea thematically, rather than a story chronologically. 

If the “written or documentary essay hinges upon integrating personal experience, history, and social critique with taut, kinetic progression toward a synthesizing claim.” (Fox) then I think that is where this piece ultimately fits best.  The synthesizing claim made here is a pretty abstract idea, and a lot of the nuance of it is communicated non-verbally. But ultimately, the entire film progresses to support a reflection on it.  (At least that was my intent.)

My intent, if it is relevant for a viewer, was to compose a media essay about how and whether there is value in repeated, prosaic tasks.  Such endeavors make up a majority of my days and this created for me a meaningful way to reflect on content I had suitable access to for filming.  This project allowed me to further a democratizing idea that acts don’t have to be extraordinary to be worth telling a story about.

[1] Nichols, Bill. Introduction to Documentary. 2nd ed. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 2010. Print.
[2] Fox, Broderick. "Movements and Modes." Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. 40-44. Print.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Documentary: Mode Activity 3

This doc mode assignment consists of the exposition for my final project.  The modes I was trying most to embody were autobiographical, performative, and essayistic.  There are also moments of observational mode, and a few reflexive moments, so if the ultimate result succeeds in being essayistic, then I’ve successfully embraced the marriage of modes that Fox attributed to essayistic documentaries.

The autobiographical elements are obvious.  The content for these shots come from my real-life.  About half of them are reenactments of things I actually do on a normal basis, and the other half are me turning the camera on things that were going to happen anyway, although they inevitably happened differently with a camera rolling, if only because we had to pause to set it up and press record.

Also, I feel that because the images here become subservient to the voice-over, that the shots take on a performative mode within the context of the whole piece (this may become more apparent in the final film, where there are more whole-heartedly performative elements).  The shots of daily tasks become more about an essayistic idea being conveyed than about my particular unique experience.  At least I hope I ultimately manage that.  I’m trying to emphasize the universality of my experience, rather than the singularity of it.  The voiceover feels like the element that ultimately renders the essayistic mode dominant for this piece, though that may be a stronger thread running through the finished piece than it is through this exposition.

I did find the autobiographical mode, turning the camera on myself, to be an intensely tricky endeavor.  When I’m the one authoring the piece, and I’m also the one providing almost all of the social acting, figuring out both what I want to capture and how I’m going to provide it for myself, there is an internal conflict of interest in everything I do. With limited control over my environment anyway, to be torn between my embedded social acting -trying to manage how I am perceived - and my need to portray myself as a character - having less concern about how I am perceived than about how best to tell the story – was an exercise in extreme discomfort and awkwardness.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Documentary Online Response #8: Essayistic Mode

Today (June 6th) being the anniversary of D-Day, I had a very dear friend, whose grandfather was present at and medalled for June 6th on the beaches of Normandy, proclaim to the world we ought to be more reflective about the forgotten details of WWII, and she suggested that the best point of entry was Ken Burn's documentary The War.  Burns, being generally perceived as the conservative king of expository documentary, covers his material very carefully, but his use of voice-of-God voiceover always masks the subjectivity of his filmmaking voice.  I suggested a few other WWII films I knew of that ventured into other modes, but wasn't aware of much that wrestled specifically with D-Day.

Fast forward 12 hours, and a link lands in my inbox that points me toward A Fuller Life, a documentary about Samuel Fuller, made by his daughter Samantha Fuller.  From the articles, clips, and trailers I was able to dig up, it seemed to me like a perfectly postmodern approach to a very personal account of how WWII (and Normandy in particular) came to define the identity of a single human being, and how he wrestled with his war experience as a terrible muse.  Samantha Fuller uses multiple modes here - performative readings of her father's autobiography by other filmmakers (a reflexive move), mixed with archival WWII footage shot by Samuel Fuller, with several shots that remind me of the techniques described by Barnouw(1) as being used in the film The Titan about Michaelangelo.  Human-less shots of intimate spaces made meaningful by their connection to the context of the film and its subject.

A Fuller Life teaser from Samantha Fuller on Vimeo.

While it may not ultimately prove to be a perfect model of the Essayistic Mode; when comparing Samantha Fuller's approach to Ken Burn's, it was easy to sense that she had explored an unconventional mix of modes in telling this personal story.  It's an approach that fits several of Fox's (2) descriptions of essayistic mode.  "(The essayistic) mode is an active one, in which a proposed idea or question is tested by a range of means and intersecting lines of argument."  And Tim Roth's face and voice as he reads Samuel Fuller's words about Normandy ("I saw a man's mouth. Just a mouth for Christ's sake, floating in the water.") is far more nuanced and open to multiple interpretations than the authoritative voiceovers typical of Burns.

Fox proposes that the"art of great written or documentary essay hinges upon integrating personal experience, history, and social critique with taut, kinetic progression toward a synthesizing claim," yet he also allows that "quite often an essay does not arrive at a finite conclusion, yet the ideas discovered during the process may reshape and reinform the initial query in unforeseen ways."  Certainly this was true of Ross McElwee's 6 O'clock News.  McElwee weaved his way between personal experience, social critique, and historical events in a manner that felt cohesive, but never conclusive. He remained firmly reflexive about his role as the person asking the question, but never became more than momentarily autobiographical, the film wasn't about his personal quandary. It was about the larger idea of his quandary, as a tension universally experienced by parents, but coped with in a spectrum of ways, none of which he went so far as to endorse with his film.  As opposed to an expository voice, prone to saying "This is what happened and why," McElwee's films seems to say, "Let's look together at what is happening, perhaps you can make sense of this... I certainly can't."  It is a much more transparent, reflexive combination of moments.

Ultimately 6 O'clock News nails Fox's criteria for what Essayistic mode does "at its best."  It fits a complement that Fox paid to Varda's The Gleaners and I, "Initial curiosity about a painting (or in this case about television news) weaves outward in an ever-widening investigation to form a surprising humanistic tapestry, the documentary whole far greater than the sum of its parts."
(1) Barnouw, Erik. "4. Clouded Lens; Chronicler." Documentary: A History of the Non-fiction Film. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1993. 202-05. Print.
(2) Fox, Broderick. "Movements and Modes." Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. 40-44. Print.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Documentary: The Case of the Grinning Cat (2004)

Chris Marker  - Essayistic exploration of symbols/images/art and where they intersect with public voices and fads in activism.

Documentary: The Gleaner's and I (2000)

Agnes Varda - Essayistic Mode - Asking questions, making inconclusive connections

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Documentary: Six O'Clock News (1996)

Ross McElwee - essayistic quandary about tragedy on global and personal scales.  

Monday, June 2, 2014

Documentary Online Response #7: Autobiographical Mode

Our in-class conversations about the Autobiographical Mode had my mind regularly revisiting the writing of Dr. Brene Brown, who specializes on the mechanics of vulnerability and shame, which are hot spots that an autobiographical film seems destined to have to deal with.  In her book Daring Greatly Dr. Brown wrote “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can't survive.”

When crafted with care, it seems that an Autobiographical documentary is ideally constructed to foster the kind of empathy and understanding that would counter or destroy the threat of shame that might make such a vulnerable enterprise become too vulnerable to undertake.  Describing Vanalyne Green’s Saddle Sores: A Blue Western (1998), Fox(41) says that “Putting her own face (and body) onto the taboo subject of sexually transmitted disease, Green disarms us, makes us laugh, and ultimately prompts us to think… exploring public taboos about venereal disease and perception of the diseased…”

This process described by Fox seems like a template for effectively approaching a topic typically judged harshly or dismissed.  First, the filmmaker disarms their audience through the transparent subjectivity of their story.  By completely foregoing any “voice of authority,” the filmmaker disarms the audience from their prejudices of what is and is not “knowledge,” rendering friction between opinions moot, because the filmmaker is not sharing their “opinion” per se, but rather their “lived experience,” which is not so easily argued against.   This disarmament was also prevalent in 51 Birch Street, where Doug Block’s premise of telling about his own family of origin set the stage for exploring more universal frictions.

Secondly, Fox credited Green with making her audience laugh, which has been a key to constructing a sympathetic character throughout most of the history of narrative.  Once an audience is primed not to resist the filmmaker because of the filmmaker’s claim of subjectivity, they are then helped to invest in the filmmaker’s subjectivity as the character of the filmmaker in their own film becomes a sympathetic one.  The usefulness of this tactic was well illustrated in McElwee’s Sherman’s March, as McElwee several times dwelt on the humor of his situation through visual irony, timing of sound, and a general sense of the character and thought processes behind the person to whom all commentary to the camera was addressed.

Once arguments against the film’s perspective are disarmed, and the filmmaker’s voice is rendered sympathetic, the autobiographical film becomes uniquely poised to “prompt us to think” about situations and perspectives that a viewer might otherwise have been prone to dismiss. Certainly this seemed to be the goal of  Rea Tajiri’s History and Memory: to re-orient the viewer’s sense of history to include an often omitted chapter, one to which many people might have had a defensive answer in place, had Tajiri’s film had any pretense of objectivity.  Thus her film becomes an effective vehicle for provoking thoughtful reflection on an oppressed and choleric perspective, allowing a vulnerable story to be told in a way that shields it from shameful repercussions

Fox, Broderick. "Movements and Modes." Documentary Media: History, Theory, Practice. Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2010. 40-44. Print.

Documentary: History and Memory: For Akiko and Takashige (1992)

Clip available here.  Somewhere between Performative, Poetic, and Autobiographical.

Documentary: Scott Christopherson

In class we watched his film "Convert", but also discussed this project in the context of autobiographical documentary.

Only the Pizza Man Knows from Scott Christopherson on Vimeo.