Thursday, December 23, 2010

The experience of studying representational artifacts (like a film)

When I was a freshman at university taking my first Introduction to Film class, the professor said "up until now you've just let movies wash over you. After this class you'll never experience a film that way again."

He was partially right. In that class, we drilled deeply into editing, color, lens length, mise-en-scene, and the hundred other techniques that make up a film, looking at how (for example) the use of sound techniques in one stairway scene in Citizen Kane contained clues that encapsulated the whole complexity of the film's characters and meaning.

Even today I can still pick out such details -- when I remember to focus on them and make a special effort. Otherwise, movies just wash over me like they did before being a film student.

As a film student in those days (late 70s/early 80s), you watched movies in a cinema or on a projector in a classroom. If you were lucky, you saw a film you had to write a paper on twice. Usually it was once, with no ability to rewind, pause, or anything like that. So studying a film as it unfolded was usually a matter of scribbling frantically in a notebook in the dark, and hoping you could make sense of your notes later to reconstruct (for example) the sequence of edits in one scene of a Bergman film.

Capturing "practice" in this way was a challenge, especially making sure you got enough appreciation of both the nuances of technique as well as the sense of the film as a whole, so you could relate the two.

I am hoping that the techniques I've been developing in my research will eventually help participatory representational practitioners to 'read' and reflect on their own practice, the way a film student can (with effort) read a film, and to be able to prise apart the individual techniques, moves, themes etc. and make sense of them in the context of the larger meaning of the situation they're engaged in (the context of their practice).

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