The lockdown has sent me rummaging through old hard-drives trying to generate videos from fragments of completed projects of the past. I import the rushes from my first feature documentary (2009) into a new Premiere Pro project and start watching the clips. It quickly strikes me how different the footage feels, and the process of editing.
The camera roves across the landscape – you’re waiting for it to settle, panning through undergrowth and across street scenes. A roaming lens hunting for a subject. The long clips of ingested tapes 20 something minutes long feel odd now, accustomed as I’ve become to shorter clips shot on digital cameras. I remember the bins of subclips I created for the film to organise these great chunks of footage. I’m out of practice editing like this.
The camera (Sony PD150) pans and zooms, something you avoid with DSLRs and mirrorless cameras due to the tendency to produce rolling shutter and the clunkiness of the zoom mechanism on cameras designed for stills photography. The limitations of these cameras has produced a style of film-making that has become an orthodoxy, a more studied gaze, measured shots, no more crash zooms and shooting from the hip. The PD150 shares more in common with the 16mm film cameras of Direct Cinema than a DSLR cinematography allergic to spontaneity. It makes me nostalgic for a simpler era of videography.
But I think I can make something from this footage, I’m really enjoying the process – I just have to re-tune my sensibilities to a tape-driven age.
In this 1995 film, Interface, Harun Farocki sits at his edit station explaining in detail the process of video editing. “This is a work station, an editing station, for the reworking of images and sounds”, he says in narration. He is editing footage shot by Paul Cozighian in Bucharest where he pans between the TV playing footage of Ceausecu giving a speech, and the real world reaction to the event on the streets outside his window.
There was something about this relationship between the image on the TV screen with the reaction of the film-maker filtering it through their camera, that put me in mind of John Smith’s Hotel Diaries, particularly Frozen War, shot in his hotel room in Cork the day after the bombing of Afghanistan started in 2001.
What we see in both films is the film-making process laid raw, Smith’s single take video diary, Farocki’s deconstruction of the editing process. I first saw The Hotel Diaries in a retrospective of John Smith’s work at the Royal College of Art in 2010 where all seven films were played on a row of monitors, not unlike those used by Farocki in Interface. It slightly sterilised the intimacy of the film. You could imagine Smith editing the footage on just such a monitor.
Video essays still mostly amount to words commenting on images”
Kevin B. Lee, Interface 2.0
Kevin B. Lee’s video essay, Interface 2.0, responding to Farocki’s original, updates the video editing workflow for the digital age where digital files play from an external hard drive to a desktop computer displaying the two images side by side, rather than tape playing from one machine and monitor to another. It’s a further deconstruction of the production of a video essay, and another film in which the only original footage is of the editor at their work station. However the process is largely the same: the playing of rushes in one monitor to an edited timeline, the use of picture-in-picture, text (on a digital document rather than a notepad), found or third party footage. It’s surprising how little has changed between the production of the two films, the ‘analytic’ retreatment in Lee’s film does little to change the overall effect. It’s an editor engaged in the ‘reworking of images and sounds’.
“QuickTime was one of the fundamental technologies that formed part of the videoblogging practice. Apart from a very small number of users who relied on Windows Media Player, the majority of the independent videobloggers I interviewed relied on QuickTime (both the application and the codec) in some way through their videoblogging practice. As Cubitt argues, ‘there is no internet without the standardisation of internet protocols; and there is no exchange of moving pictures without standardisation of the codecs on which the various proprietary players can function’. I highlight QuickTime because it was such an important codec for the videobloggers to know and understand, and because, as it turns out, the development-cycle of QuickTime was significant to the videobloggers. QuickTime was also the first consumer-based video handler that actually worked, both as video support and as a shared platform amongst a large group of users. Manovich argues that the ‘introduction of QuickTime in 1991 can be compared to the introduction of the Kinetoscope in 1892: Both were used to present short loops, both featured images approximately two by three inches in size, both called for private viewing rather than collective exhibition.’”
“The work was prompted by Leckey’s discovery of a YouTube video of a Joy Division gig he attended in 1979. This led him to speculate whether he could compile a collage of his memories. Acting as a form of self-portrait of his early life, the video explores ideas about personal history and collective memory and how the past has been enhanced and amplified in the digital era.”
Quote from exhibition leaflet for Mark Leckey’s show at Tate Britain O’ Magic Power of Bleakness describing the background to his video work Dream English Kid, 1964 – 1999 AD 2015
Jonas Mekas continues to be a great source of inspiration. At a time when video diaries are deeply embedded in mainstream culture, his work has rarely been more relevant. Maintaining the avant-garde roots of the diary film is important in the social media age.
Here is a wonderful short film with Jonas Mekas from Tate Shots, 2017.
John Smith is one of the most widely screened British artist film-makers, and as one-time drinking buddy, artist Cornelia Parker noted, “Most of John’s films have been shot within a few hundred yards of his front door, or inside his house.” In fact the house itself became the centre of one of Smith’s most poignant films ‘Home Suite’ – a video love poem to his home of 12 years.
“Home Suite is a close-up journey through a domestic landscape and a journey through memory. Playing upon ambiguity and the unseen, the tape uses physical details of the space to trigger fragmented verbal descriptions of associated memories.” John Smith
Composed of three thirty minute single take video monologues, ‘Home Suite’ presents us with an intimate anatomy of Smith’s home in Colville Road, Leytonstone, East London, prior to its demolition to make way for the M11 Link Road. The first two parts of the film examine in detail the toilet then the bathroom, comically describing the life of each room, unpacking its history, zooming in on a crack in the toilet bowl, panning across an eccentric Artex job on the walls. The house seems to be coming apart from the inside out, slowly giving up the ghost, merging with the landscape as Smith shows us where the Russian Vine has forced its way through the window frame in the kitchen and has snaked its way across to the gas pipes.
In the final third we emerge from the respectful silence of the condemned house and step out into the street where the mass ranks of police move in with bulldozers to evict the die-hards camped out in Claremont Road. Smith passes by with his video camera, shaken by the scenes he has witnessed, before crossing the road to walk around the corner to his new flat in a nearby street, where all is calm and as Smith notes, where you’d probably never realise what upheaval was happening over the road.
Smith had built an international reputation as a structuralist film-maker shooting his previous films on celluloid. ‘Home Suite’ was one of his first video works and in the commentary you hear him getting to grips with this new technology.
“Worried and confused, I picked up my video camera and attempted to talk about what was going on inside my head. I had no idea at the time that this spontaneous recording was the start of a project that would occupy me for the next six years.”
He used the Home Suite formula again in Hotel Diaries – a series of single take video monologues shot between 2001-2007 in hotel rooms around the world as Smith toured festivals with his films. The videos chronicle a personal reaction to the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Israel-Palestine. Smith’s trademark wit evident throughout, the banal setting of a hotel room evoking the everyday locales of earlier films (home, a pub toilet, street corners etc.). The camera often dwelling on a detail in the hotel room, a black television screen, ceiling tiles, the unmade bed, an image on the wall, as Smith unravels his improvised voice-over.
Hotel Diaries are either screened as individual single screen works, as a whole series, or as a multi-monitor installation as at Smith’s retrospective solo show at the Royal College of Art (2010).
“I’ve got myself into trouble at film festivals when I’ve won prizes for those films, particularly in Cork when I won the main prize for Museum Piece. I had to make a speech, and I said that it gave me particular pleasure to get a prize for this film because I’m a great believer in economy, and this film cost €7, or the price of one DV tape. And afterwards I had so many really angry young filmmakers coming up to me, saying “I borrowed £10,000 to make my film, and yours is a load of shit!”
Paradox Bullets directed by Van Neistat
Narrated by Werner Herzog
Story and Screenplay by Tom Sachs and Van Neistat
Art Director Tom Sachs
Starring Ed Ruscha (also credited as Location Scout)
Do the easy thing first Do the hard thing first Patience is a virtue Patience is a curse Never Freak out The Virtues of a Freakout Irrational Thoughts Must Be Followed Absolutely and Logically (adapted from ‘Sentences on Conceptual Art’ by Sol Lewitt)