Thesis-related digression

This is a digression from the topic of archives, but I have a restless need to broadcast a change of heart I have experienced in the last few days concerning my thesis. For a long time, I have felt that my documentary thesis project represented a concession, in that I couldn’t think of an unusual, obscure corner of life to document, so I adopted a thoroughly familiar subject. Now, I am passionate about my subject, but again, acknowledge little likelihood of shedding any “new light” on it, at least in terms of facts and arguments. Because of this, I told myself that I should produce a unique formal response to the subject, one that was personal and idiosyncratic and that visually addressed ideas about nostalgia, landscape, emotional geography and local identity.

My project was to consist of two parallel elements: audio interviews and a sequence of video images (note, I am implying a certain detachment or disconnect between these two elements, which is why I don’t simply call it a film). Having begun production, I have found that while my audio interviews have been generally successful (and thus encouraging), my videography has been uniformly substandard and plagued by technical difficulties. Discouraging, especially when visual (not sonic) issues are what I want to emphasize in the dreaded written component: I would really prefer to write about some roles of landscape in Canadian film and photography. Although I have seen wondrous video work from some colleagues, in my own amateurish work I find that HD video is characterized by a kind of banal indexicality, with little or none of the magic I associate with cinema. Now, if I had a living human or animal subject whose vitality could be depicted on screen (as in my short film Horse Patrol), any problems with the particular aesthetics of video would seem trivial. But in my work I am emphasizing absence, solitude, empty spaces, and applying a somewhat photographic approach to the depiction of loss; the problem is that while, in my mind, I have vivid, contemplative 4×5 film images, on my video viewfinder I have nothing but trite “b-roll.”  

For my project, the desired cine-photographic “magic” I am seeking is a sense of history/pastness. While it may be possible to produce this using expensive lenses, filters and post-production gimmickry, this misses the point, and I can neither afford the time or money to investigate such things. In this context, my recent epiphany has been to shoot the lion’s share of the project on Super-8. I do not feel this will go over well with my advisors, for a variety of reasons (technical, economic, etc.). But it perhaps would confer on the work the feelings of pastness and longing which elevate a lot of Canadian landscape film, but which are lacking from a lot of contemporary video art. Some of the sites I plan to shoot are non-descript modern apartments and anonymous middle-class houses, but maybe in Super-8 I can transport them somewhere, make them a bit mysterious, sad, innocent.

Or perhaps I am being too messianic about a mere medium (and a humble, low-res, audience-limiting one at that). I am not implying that expertise would come without hard work, or that “lyricism” or “poetry” would gush forth from an otherwise dry well. And I am certainly not looking for an easy way out (quite the contrary; I would like the extra discipline of having to shoot economically with little more than a 2:1 ratio). Furthermore, I do find something intimidating and possibly foolhardy about taking pains to procure access to sites only to shoot 3 minutes of footage with a 1970s home-movie camera. But when one of my profs admonished me in the winter to learn how to “play,” I realized that play is sadly lacking in me, with the result that I tend to produce work laden with conservative cliches and a stifling seriousness. Is this enough justification to think about a shift in medium? Could it assist an emancipation of repressed creativity? Of course, I wouldn’t consider such a route without a good deal of research, familiarization, and experimentation. But I think it might be right for me.

One response to “Thesis-related digression

  1. BRAVO Mark!

    I am also experiencing a serious re-thinking of my thesis project. This is based partially on work done to date, which for the most part, fails to achieve much that is transcendent of the “objects” and their minutia of facts. The other aspect that requires re-evaluation involves the same reason that I switched from film to photography in year 2 at OCA in the 80’s: I can’t do it all well by myself. Interviewing, shooting and sound all require full attention! All are suffering at this point in working alone.

    So yes, this is the time to re-evaluate. There has to be room in an MFA program for ART to emerge, the unexpected, the explorations, the innovations that just FEEL right, regardless of what we’ve planned to do.

    Keep on following your instincts.

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