Analyse and Invent: A Reflection on Making Audiovisual Essays

By Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin

Not only is the work we do para-textual in relation to the usual academic work on film; we ourselves are para-academics, in the sense that (like many other people) we are freelance film critics who find ourselves involved in occasional lecturing and teaching, programming, translation, the editing and publishing of magazines or journals, and so forth. Alongside all the different types of writing we do, individually or collaboratively, much of our energy these days goes into the ongoing, entirely domestic production of audiovisual essays. Cristina has been a pioneer in this field since the inception of Transit online magazine in 2009; Adrian joined the fun in 2012. Together we have signed 23 audiovisual pieces; there are also solo excursions.

The current trend of the audiovisual essay is the fruit of a complicated and diverse history or genealogy that various folk are still sorting out – usually according to their own polemical or institutional agendas. Suffice it to say, whether we nominate the founding texts as Jean Epstein in the early 1920s or Marshall McLuhan in the early 1960s, the contemporary push toward ‘doing’ media analysis in an audiovisual form emanates from a widely shared sense of a need to embrace multi-modality: to not restrict ourselves, as scholars or critics, solely to the (considerable) powers of the written or spoken word. For the Scandinavian initiative Audiovisual Thinking, since 2010, the audiovisual essay looks to the twin legacies of semiotics in communication studies, and documentary media (see the 2012 survey “Reflections on Academic Video” by Thommy Eriksson and Inge Ejby Sørensen); for radical theorists and practitioners of contemporary literary translation, the inspiration comes from artists’ books, design, and music – all the varieties of linguistic and pictorial collage. For us, looking to a more specifically cinematic heritage, montage is king – mixed with notions from a century of appropriation art, and a philosophy of aesthetics that stresses the spectator’s ‘reading’ (or interpretation) of an audiovisual text as always, already a remaking or a figural ‘completion’ of it in some other form.

The audiovisual essay remains – uneasily for some – a hybrid form, in-between art and scholarship. Not yet artistic enough for certain artists and curators, too shackled by exposition and rational argument; too arty and open-ended for conventional scholars of the publish-or-perish variety. Widespread fear that the international copyright police will close in and shut the game down at any moment helps to stall this appropriation revolution. The audiovisual essay is likely to remain nervously wedged in this strange inter-space. But multi-modality does not mean (as it is sometimes, kindly or unkindly, taken to be) the ruthless suppression of all written/verbal/logically argued rationality; it signals, rather, that all elements and media are available to us as critic-analysts, and that we should use them in diverse combinations and permutations. In our experiments, we constantly try to shift our working dispositif into new shapes, along the already famous continuum between creative/poetic and explanatory/pedagogical.

Our deepest conviction is that in-depth analyses can indeed be formed and carried within a ‘pure’ audiovisual montage, without voice-over commentary (a device often used badly and clumsily). We insist (in our teaching as well) on the radical extremity of such montage action: on principle, we constantly break both the horizontal (linear) and vertical (image-sound synchronicity) dimensions of whatever we analyse; it is never simply a matter of arranging untampered-with ‘blocks’ (which is more common in video art). It has become clear to us that such works pose a new challenge to spectators, even long-trained academics: unlike some written articles, they cannot always be grasped or digested on just one ‘go through’. They demand a different kind of viewing, listening and apprehending skill – just as many movies do. Cristina’s Small Gestures (2014) on Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le silence de la mer (1949) is one such essay, made initially as a classroom demonstration:

We have often used a combination of writing-on-screen – taking in the main title, intertitles, and other graphical inserts of language – with audiovisual montage. This is the case with Phantasmagoria of the Interior (2015), viewable on subscription at Fandor website, or on the Arrow DVD/Blu-ray of The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (1981); and Felicity Conditions: Seek and Hide (2014), our essay on Fritz Lang’s Secret Beyond the Door … (1947):

The somewhat simpler mode of such analysis often takes the form, in our work, of the audiovisual ‘study of a motif’ – not simply laid out in its repetitions (the super-cut temptation), but arranged in its transformations, the logic of which we aim to bring out and develop. Our piece on dance in the films of Philippe Garrel, All Tomorrow’s Parties (2014), follows such a method:

Accepting a commission from [in]Transition and Cinema Journal – to respond audiovisually to a written, scholarly, refereed text on Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep (1977) – we decided to dissolve our own prejudice; we worked, for the first time, with a scripted, voice-over narration, and the result was Against the Real (2015):

This assignment got us interested in the possibilities of voice-against-image, and the mix of this voice with a pre-given soundtrack. Just as, in our regular series for MUBI, we explore what it means to ‘accompany’ or collide an audiovisual essay with a critico-poetic text, here we quickly learnt that scripts must be savagely pared down and played off, in timings of literal micro-seconds, against the chosen audiovisual elements. We have since made, in this vein, five separate essays on Hou Hsiao-hsien (three of these commissioned by the Belgian Cinematek), including this one at Fandor, Stirring In: A Scene from Millennium Mambo (2015), originally prepared as part of a live ‘performance lecture’ (like our earlier work in 2013 on Leos Carax):

Finally, toward the more poetic end of the spectrum, we frequently investigate the notion of what we call an imaginary scene: the combination of fragments from two or more films that, to some extent, are fused into a new unity, while still underlining their different properties for comparative analysis. To Begin With … (2015) investigates what it means to ‘open’ a narrative film; the unfolding of its elements, in audiovisual time and space, mirrors (and this is what we always aim for) the steps of its implicit ‘argument’:

And in Shapes of Rage (2015), we began from the simple observation that certain key scenes in David Cronenberg’s The Brood (1979) reminded us closely of passages in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963) – and proceeded to work intensively, via re-montage, on ‘superimposing’ the two. Only out of this process did the logic of an analysis emerge: one of the great advantages and joys of audiovisual essay work is that theoretical constructs no longer pre-exist and overdetermine what we find in the films (which is the sorry condition of a great deal of academic screen study). On the contrary, it’s our belief that audiovisual essays can take their makers in two directions simultaneously: both deeper into the text that they discover anew, and beyond it, into the necessary challenge of inventing a new, hybrid work of their own.

Notes on Contributors

Adrian Martin is a film critic and audiovisual essayist who lives in Vilassar de Mar, Spain. His most recent book is Mise en scène and Film Style: From Classical Hollywood to New Media Art (Palgrave), and he is co-editor of LOLA magazine.

Cristina Álvarez López is a film critic and audiovisual essayist who lives in Vilassar de Mar, Spain. Her work appears in (among other publications) Fandor, Mubi, Transit, Trafic, The Third Rail and Sight and Sound, and she is co-editor of the audiovisual essay section in NECSUS.


The Birds (Alfred Hitchcock, 1963)

The Brood
(David Cronenberg, 1979)

Killer of Sheep
(Charles Burnett, 1977)

Secret Beyond the Door
(Fritz Lang, 1947)

La Silence de la Mer
(Jean Pierre-Melville, 1949)

The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Miss Osbourne (Walerian Borowczyk, 1981)