Moments of a film that linger with a spectator long after initial viewing are also the reasons why one returns to that film: to rediscover those moments, recalibrate one’s perspective and understanding of them, and reposition their thematic and audiovisual relationship with the rest of the film proper – and even with the rest of the filmmaker’s filmography.
Returning to those moments is a process that takes many forms. They range from the purely mental process of conjuring them in one’s mind or physically re-viewing them via an electronic/digital device – at times rather obsessively – arguably the quintessential cinephilic act.
A strand of the development of one’s cinephilia is how one moves from a passive conjurer/re-viewer of those moments to an active writer and/or speaker about them. Or further yet – following Laura Mulvey – to a possessive spectator who is no longer content to conjure or re-view but must isolate and manipulate those moments, thanks to digital technology, all in the name of shaking out of those moments of a film the whys and hows of their lingering in our minds and emotions.
Elaborating her notion of a possessive spectator, Mulvey states in an interview published in Aniki: Portuguese Journal of the Moving Image in 2014,
I found that my longstanding cinephilia could be renewed by watching films (particularly ones that I already knew and loved) by transforming them, mutating them, through the digital, into different kinds of configurations or patterns. […] I discovered unexpected new pleasures of spectatorship out of stopping, returning, repeating, and then repeating and repeating again certain scenes, sequences, fragments, moments, etc. Out of that process I discovered that there were other ways of watching movies that I knew really well – which seemed to reveal unexpected secrets (87).
Mulvey speaks of the way digital technology has symbiotically redefined habits of viewing films and habits of writing about films. And herein lies the significance of the audiovisual essay, or video essay.
This format addresses and combines Mulvey’s twinned concerns of redefined habits of viewing and writing about films via digital technology. Above all, it constitutes a most acute manifestation of possessive spectatorship in that it also becomes a mode of (co)authorship. ‘Forged from digital material, with digital tools, and through digital material thinking’ in the words of Catherine Grant in a 2016 piece, ‘Beyond Tautology? Audio-Visual Film Criticism’), the audiovisual essay as the re-editing of and/or concentrated look at moments of a film is an attempt to make visible and concrete not just the filmmaker’s vision or the spectator’s own vision but rather the collision, or interaction, of these two visions and habits of seeing the world (of/through film).
My own experience with the audiovisual essay has been shaped and inspired by several things. One, Mulvey’s work on the possessive spectator, born (initially) more from fascination with a scene or sequence than the analysis of it, and embracing this fascination. As with writing, audiovisual essaying is a way to connect fascination and film analysis. Two, Janet Bergstrom’s UCLA seminars on the format, DVD authoring, and film theory, in which I took part as a Cinema and Media Studies graduate student in the late 2000s. Three, video essays produced by the video magazine The Seventh Art as an exemplary model of linking fascination and film analysis without sacrificing one or the other.
As a film critic, it is only recently that I have (finally) reacquainted myself with the format with the following audiovisual essay, ‘Dance in Wong Kar-wai’s Films: An Audiovisual Essay in Six Moves (2016).’ A kind of test case, this piece is my attempt to work through my long-standing fascination with several extra/diegetic sequences of dance found in several Wong Kar-wai films and outtakes into a mode of analysis of some of Wong’s more prevalent themes, mainly cross-cultural, cosmopolitan movement, encounters, and identities.