Monday, 29 August 2011

Touching the Film Object? Notes on the 'Haptic' in Videographical Film Studies

TOUCHING THE FILM OBJECT? On Haptic Criticism
A video collage by Catherine Grant.

TOUCHING THE FILM OBJECT? offers a brief audiovisual exploration of issues of sensuous proximity, contiguity or contact in experiencing or studying films - what theorist Laura U. Marks called 'hapticity'. It quotes from Marks' 2004 essay 'Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes' and meditates upon a slowed sequence from a video copy of Ingmar Bergman's 1966 film Persona (its cinematography by Sven Nykvist). The music is excerpted from Robert Lippok and Beatrice Martini's 2009 collaboration 'Branches' (available at the Free Music Archive under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License). 

[Laura] Marks derives [the concept of] haptic visuality, from the art historian Alöis Riegel’s “distinction between haptic and optical images.” ([The Skin of the Film,] 162). But how does cinema appeal to senses it cannot technically represent, such as smell and touch, that is, what does haptic visuality ‘look like’? Marks defines haptic visuality as containing some of the following formal and textual qualities: grainy, unclear images; sensuous imagery that evokes memory of the senses (i.e. water, nature); the depiction of characters in acute states of sensory activity (smelling, sniffing, tasting, etc.); close-to-the-body camera positions and panning across the surface of objects; changes in focus, under- and overexposure, decaying film and video imagery; optical printing; scratching on the emulsion; densely textured images, effects and formats such as Pixelvision [...]; and alternating between film/video. The haptic image is in a sense, ‘less complete’, requiring the viewer to contemplate the image as a material presence rather than an easily identifiable representational cog in a narrative wheel [...]. [Donato Totaro, 'Deleuzian Film Analysis: The Skin of the Film', Off Screen, June 2002]
[W]hen our eyes move across a richly textured surface, occasionally pausing but not really focusing, making us wonder what we are actually seeing, they are functioning like organs of touch. Video, with its low contrast ratio, capacity for electronic and digital manipulation, and susceptibility to decay, is an ideal haptic medium, its graininess a lure for the roving gaze Marks describes.
     Film, however, may also invite a haptic look by speeding up or slowing down imagery, enlarging grain, or deliberately enhancing already deteriorating nitrate. [Melinda Barlow, '[Review of] Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media', Canadian Journal of Film Studies, Fall 2003]
Haptic criticism keeps its surface rich and textured, so it can interact with things in unexpected ways. It has to be humble, willing to alter itself according to what it is in contact with. It has to give up ideas when they stop touching the other’s surface. [Laura U. Marks, 'Haptic Visuality: Touching with the Eyes', Framework" the Finnish Art Review, No. 2, 2004, pp. 79-82, 80]
Marks's notion of haptic visuality as a *non-instrumental* way of seeing is important for visual theory as well as for work on the senses more broadly. [Melanie Swalwell, 'The Senses and Memory in Intercultural Cinema', Film Philosophy, Vol. 6 No. 32, October 2002]
As a longtime devotee of observing from a scholarly distance, I had never been grabbed before -- or, indeed, 'clasped' or 'fastened' (the original meanings of the Ancient Greek verb haptein) -- by Laura Marks' notion of 'haptic visuality'. But after I had made some video essays about films, the desire to explore hapticity and its workings took hold. This is how the above video/text collages and the below notes came into being.

While I still believe that Marks' concept could benefit from a more thorough thinking through in relation to audiovisuality, hapticity -- a grasp of what can be sensed of an object in close contact with it -- seems to me now to be very helpful in conceiving what can take place in the process of creating videographic film studies. It can also help us more fully to understand videographic studies as objects to be experienced themselves.

In the old days, the only people who really got to touch films were those who worked on them, particularly film editors. As Annette Michelson (1990) and others have argued, the democratization of the 'heady delights' of editing (Michelson, 1990: 22) was brought about by the introduction of video technology in the 1970s and 80s. Now, with the relatively wide availability of digital technology, we can even more easily share 'the euphoria one feels at the editing table [...] a sharpening cognitive focus and [...] a ludic sovereignty, grounded in that deep gratification of a fantasy of infantile omnipotence " [Michelson, 1990: 23].

But, are there other ways in which 'touching film' is just a fantasy? In videographic film studies, do videographers actually touch or handle the real matter of the film? Or are we only ever able to touch upon the film experience? Our film experiences? Do video essays only make objects of, or objectify, our film experiences, our insuperable memories of them, our own cinematic projections?

These questions may not flag up significantly new limitations. Film critical video essays do seem to work, it seems to me, in the same 'intersubjective' zone as that of written film criticism. As Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton argue of this zone, 'we are immersed in the film as the critic sees it, hence brought to share a deeply involved perspective' (2011: 9).

Yet, in videographical criticism, is there not a different intersubjective relation, a more transitional one, to the physicality or materiality of the objective elements of films that the video essays reproduce? Like written essays, video essays may well '"stir our recall"' (Klevan and Clayton, 2011: 9) of a film moment or sequence, but they usually do this by confronting us with a replay of the actual sequence, too. How might this difference count?

If nothing else, this confrontation with, or, to put it more gently, this inevitable re-immersion in the film experience, ought to make videographic critics pursue humility in their analytical observations with an even greater focus, make them especially 'willing to alter [their analyses] according to what [they come into] contact with [...] give up ideas when they stop touching the other’s surface' (Marks, 2004: 80).

A further, built-in, random element in non-linear digital video editing -- the fact that this process frequently confronts the editor with graphic matter from the film (e.g. thumbnails) that s/he may not specifically have chosen to dwell on -- may also encourage a particularly humble, usefully (at times) non-instrumental form of looking that Swalwell (2002) detects in Marks' notion of hapticity.
      As Marks writes, 'Whether criticism is haptic, in touch with its object, is a matter of the point at which the words lift off' (2004: 80). Haptic criticism must be what happens, then, when the words don't lift off the surface of the film object, if they (or any of the other film-analytical elements conveyed through montage or other non-linear editing techniques and tools) remain on the surface of the film object, as they often do in videographic film studies. In addition to this, video essays on films may often be an especially 'superficial' form of criticism, frequently using slow motion or zoom-in effects to allow those experiencing them to close in on the grain or detail of the film image.

      With so many words, or other filmanalytical strategies, simultaneously available to be sensed on the surface of the image and, in terms of sound strategies (such as voiceovers or other added elements), seeming to emanate from it, videographical film studies may be curiously haptic objects, then. It is useful to remember that the art historical concept of haptic visuality emerged from the scholarly and artistic traditions of formalism, which made procedures such as defamiliarization central to their practice. Defamiliarization -- the uncanny distancing effect of an altered perspective on (such as a hyper-proximity to) an otherwise familiar object -- may be one of the greatest benefits of the particular hapticity of videographical film criticism.

      Finally, does TOUCHING THE FILM OBJECT? practice what it preaches? Or, does it only practice one of the things it preaches? It isn't, primarily, a piece of haptic film criticism produced in close contact with the film. Instead, it's a film-theory object which 'grabs' from it, transforms what it grabs, and lifts off, or not, from there. 

      Persona doesn't exactly disappear, though, either from the literal or metaphorical frames of the collage. Like many of Ingmar Bergman's works, this 1966 film treats (and inhabits) the perilous zone of borderlines between one person and another, its characters act out extreme forms of projective identification and introjection. Indeed, Persona explores some of the real psychological dangers of 'hapticity', of not being able to separate, or to see others detachedly - 'optically'. Some of those perils still find themselves evoked in the elements I selected for inclusion.

      But, by selecting one sequence from others, by slowing it, and by replacing the film's soundtrack, the video collage does mitigate those dangers. It suspends them in order to close in on a visual track which simultaneously presents a 'haptic image' (the blurry, interchanging faces - made more haptic, possibly, by the slowed motion and zoom in) and an 'optical', or more clearly defined one (the Rückenfigur-esque image of the boy, who is himself pictured having a haptic experience). The combination of these images may well hint at Laura Marks' (and my) ideal critical frame. Marks writes,
        'I take advantage of this moment to beseech those who are newly encountering haptic thinking to keep alive the dialectic with the optical! [...]The goal of haptic and sensuous criticism is to enhance our human capacities, rather than entirely replacing critical distance with haptic intimacy. I suggest we embrace and cultivate all our perceptual and cognitive and feeling capacities, keeping in mind the meanings that motivate them' (Marks, 2004: 82).
        Selected online bibliography:


        Offline bibliography:
        • Christian Keathley, 'La Camera-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia', in Clayton, Alex and Klevan, Andrew (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism. London: Routledge, 2011 
        • Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton, 'Introduction', in Clayton and Klevan (eds.), The Language and Style of Film Criticism. London: Routledge, 2011
        • Marks, Laura U. The Skin of the Film: Intercultural Cinema, Embodiment, and the Senses. London: Duke University Press, 2000
        • Marks, Laura U. Touch: Sensuous Theory and Multisensory Media. London: University of Minnesota Press, 2002
        • Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. trans. by Colin Smith. New York: Humanities Press, 1962 
        • Michelson,  Annette, 'The Kinetic Icon in the work of Mourning: Prolegomena for the Analysis of a Textual System,' October 52 (spring 1990)
        • Sobchack, Vivian. The Address of the Eye. A Phenomenology of Film Experience. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992
        • Sobchack, Vivian. ‘The Scene of the Screen: Envisioning Cinematic and Electronic “Presence”’, in Materialities of Communication, edited by Hans Ulrich Gumbrechts and K. Ludwig Pfeiffer, 83-106. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994
        • Sobchack, Vivian. ‘Phenomenology and the Film Experience’, in Viewing Positions: Ways of Seeing Film, edited by Linda Williams, 36-58. New Brunswick: New Jersey, 1997
        • Sobchack, Vivian. Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004
        • Winnicott, D.W, 'The Location of Cultural Experience', Playing and Reality. London: Routledge, 2005
        TOUCHING THE FILM OBJECT? was made according to principles of Fair Use (or Fair Dealing), primarily with scholarly and critical aims, and was published under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License in August 2011. 

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