A personal essay on moving beyond mere movie criticism with an adult education class in film production.
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It’s been well over a decade since I last set foot in a traditional classroom and honestly thought about building upon day-to-day skill sets. In 2016, I took my love of making mixtapes and playlists (of prog-jazz, mathy avant-rock, neo-psych pop, and video game music) to the airwaves, and learned the radio basics as a community member at WSUM so I could nervously host a weekday evening show to some success. I began writing as a teen to ward off feelings of isolation and perpetual confusion about human behavior, and ended up majoring in professional writing at university. But I never really dove back into the creative side afterward to further develop that cathartic practice. Once in Madison, I just kept openly exploring the geography at DIY venues, hoping to fall in with a crowd of outcasts who identified with the fringes of the musical spheres and international art cinema.
This past winter I was finally liberated from the daily grind, or at least the regimented hours, that a day job brings. Since venues steadily began to resume normal events, I trekked to Arts + Literature Laboratory (ALL) on a few occasions, eventually catching wind of a new workshop and adult education class on found footage and collage cinema. I already knew instructor (and ALL’s new Public Programs Coordinator) James Kreul from his film programming around town at Madison Museum Of Contemporary Art’s summer Rooftop Cinema series and the experimental Mills Folly Microcinema series (of which I am still technically a committee member). Kreul promised a welcoming crash-course in the history of found footage cinema, seamlessly leading into hands-on production. Across six classes that would meet every Thursday for two hours, we’d apply lessons to a five-minute video of our own design by using Adobe Premiere. The class also afforded me a chance to bring together my affinity for multiple mediums: tapping into creative writing and free verse within a video project, if I chose to.
Glancing at Kreul’s syllabus on the first day in late April revealed an interesting synthesis of different periods and forms, touching upon radical philosophies of Abigail Child and Maya Deren on poetic meaning and horizontal vs. vertical movement, respectively, embedded in Tom Gunning‘s forward to Child’s text, This Is Called Moving: A Critical Poetics Of Film (2005). In just a few weeks, we jumped from Bruce Conner in the late 1950s to Naomi Uman in the late 1990s. Bonus viewing material like Jay Rosenblatt’s The Smell Of Burning Ants (1994) and Gunvor Nelson and Dorothy Wiley’s Schmeerguntz (1965) drew thematic links to personal essays (nodding to what I’m writing here) and “provocation.”
While I have indulged in recent experimental shorts by many diverse artists in this year’s online Media City and Prismatic Ground festivals, this class at ALL has given me the opportunity to connect to the roots of the form’s subversion and openly converse about it. Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936) offers one of the earliest glimpses of the avant-garde, a mash-up of clips of the titular actress from the pre-Code adventure, East Of Borneo (1931). Even something as seemingly anodyne as Cornell’s simple re-purposing of footage is ultimately intriguing. Works that followed in the tradition of Rose Hobart so overtly carry the political and social motivations of their directors.
In assembling a work of my own, I shied away from leading with a grand concept, or a desire to manipulate footage of the country’s most vile, misogynistic hatemongers, as fun as it might be to digitally distort and eviscerate them. My intuition and mind’s eye took me in the opposite direction—into the meadows, and into spring-inspired images of botany and nature. For someone who hasn’t studied horticulture or gardening even a little bit, I have this persistent attachment to flowers. Maybe it’s related to my general sensitivity and seasonal allergies, but in the last couple decades I’ve written more than a few poems and short stories about flowers (and watched a number of favorite films that prominently feature them). As I was brainstorming, I felt further compelled to incorporate digital floral imagery, from sources including thatgamecompany’s Flower (2009)—a tone poem transmuted to a wordless indie game—and clips of an arts/crafts video for the legendary white moonflower (a lunar tear) from the NieR game series.
I’ve yet to practically implement any sound design, but I want the soundtrack, much like the visuals, to toggle between organic and synthetic, incorporating weird and personal songs (hear: Yusef Lateef’s “Purple Flower” or Helium’s “Flower Of The Apocalypse“) plainly or metaphorically about flowers. Then, I can progressively intercut withering images dissolving into potpourri and oshibana singed by fire to evoke the decay and destruction of the climate crisis. It’s somewhat ambitious and still very much unrealized. The tentative title, A Floral Fire, alludes to my subconscious passion as much as it does the real possibility of losing plant species to the heat and man’s inhospitable, expansive industry.
Of course, actually getting there, communicating these ideas, requires more than pontificating and theorizing an outline. It’s about the technical stuff, getting things down, and finding familiarity with Adobe Premiere. Creating cross-dissolves, making keyframes, adjusting opacity, inserting black video (or intro slug), shifting window positions, and amassing an analogous library of clips to cut together is going to take more time than this course will offer. But it’s a good foundation to build a bit of confidence, as I find myself ever-drifting and increasingly unmotivated these days, stalled by doom-laden news cycles and vacuous escapism. Perhaps I shouldn’t be clinging to quarantine habits, and instead look towards the basic, radically optimistic act of doing something new as I did in 2020.
We tend to think of summer or other year-long education classes existing on the institutional grounds of universities and community colleges as means to advance in a career. But some of the programs that ALL has offered in recent years, now moving forward in their vast new space at 111 S. Livingston St., don’t need to be seen as definitive stepping stones for long-term goals. They can be appreciated for their community draw and the chance to ignite something in the dissociated.
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