Playing with ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’

This January I taught – for the second year – a week of audiovisual criticism at EQZE. My program makes enormous sense to me (and hopefully to my students), but it does not follow pre-established paths (no historical itinerary, no break-up into categories, and no distinction between creating and thinking) – my group is studying curatorship, so I hope they’ll appreciate the extravagant lines of my work of curation, here. We watch a number of audiovisual essays made by critics (me included), but also some fragments from film essays and found footage films, plus a couple of clips that are (plain and simple) amazing examples of montage. I use a bit of theory when it helps to illuminate particular approaches, but my classes are strongly based on particular audiovisual pieces that I comment on (thoroughly!) in order to demonstrate how they work. Montage is the keyword of my classes and I insist a lot on looking at how audiovisual essays build their discourses (limited word, but it’ll do for now) via montage operations.

It may not be a secret anymore that I find teaching extremely challenging; I admire people who do it regularly. I’d be unable to because – and this is tragic – I have (I almost write “I’ve had”, but perhaps this would be pushing it too much) a great difficulty enjoying it myself. However, this year, I kind of enjoyed it! Not that I have mastered yet the speaking-slowly technique (and I’ve really tried: one day, I even forbid myself my morning coffee in hope that this would help me to slow down, which it did not); but, despite my internal accelerationism, this year I felt quite good! You can see I’m overjoyed about this feeling because I keep referring to it with exclamation marks. But what you can’t see yet (I’m getting there) is that this enjoyment was, I think, the result of a good number of changes I introduced – most of them, initially, against my will (which is, in itself, an interesting issue to consider).

Last year, I ended my week of classes extremely exhausted, and I think my students did, too. In my defense, I’ll say I can’t be entirely blamed for this: they have a very intense program of activities, and there’s plenty going on besides the classes – they are doing things all the time (see here). So, I realised that keeping their engagement and concentration for four hours in a row, day after day, was really tough. It was tough for me, too; but it’s tougher for them (because, after I’m done I go home and crash onto my sofa, but they have another week of classes coming).

This year, my schedule was slightly different – still twenty hours, but packed into only four days – so I had to re-organise what I had previously prepared. I dropped a lot of material which I thought was great, but also a bit heavy. And, then, because I’m an idiot, I worried about those changes for weeks (I had internalised my previous program so deeply!). But, to my own surprise, my re-structuring worked extremely well – in my always purely subjective perception, my program was more cohesive and less dense this way. I also introduced a practical exercise that the students did across four hours, in two afternoons, and that we discussed in-group during the last class. This was, amongst other things, a great switcher – giving the classes variation, relieving the students (and me!) from my own talking stream.

The truth is (I’m in a confessional mood today, excuse me): I was initially opposed to including practical exercises during my week of classes. What worried me most was that, because the students have totally different backgrounds, I assumed (rightly) that they would have, too, wildly different knowledge levels of how to work with editing software. I’ve done workshops, aimed at people with zero or very little experience, where I introduce, step by step, the most basic editing tools and operations – but those are, obviously, boring and of little use to people who already know the basics. You’ll see that I was facing a deep problem here, one that heavily troubled my days and nights …

Due to the number of computers available in the school’s editing room, I had to set the exercise in couples and my unsolvable problem solved itself before my eyes: I could see how, this way, the students taught each other, how they learned by doing something themselves and by collaborating (that is: in a way that was particular to each couple – which, frankly, was a joy to witness and proved to be more effective, straightforward and fun than if I were trying to explain those things to the whole group). So, it was marvellous!

I’d like to take this opportunity to thank the previous year’s group of students (who, in giving me feedback about the classes, insisted a lot on how they had missed practical exercises). And, since I’m on it, I’ll also thank the brilliant editor Anna Pfaff (who, by telling me about her own approach and the exercises she proposed to her group, also inspired me to start thinking – if I may put it like this – against my own method).

***

I gave my students three things for this exercise. First, a file with Maya Deren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943): I’m in favour of films with a short running-time, because they are more manegeable in the editing timeline and students can come to know their source better; this also happens to be a great film that offers wild possibilities for re-editing, and lots of ideas about unconventional ways of treating your material. Second, a line of poetry from Paul Éluard (a different line for each student): they had to use this line in their piece, putting it in relation with the images in the way they saw best fit – they had complete freedom as to where (start, end, midway) and how (whole, broken up, re-written) to use this line. And, third, another sentence (again, different for each student) that worked as a kind of pointer or trigger about the action: they didn’t have to incorporate this sentence in the piece, just use it as a point of departure.

Here, I must thank Adrian Martin for coming up with the Éluard quotes (see where most of them come from) and the pointers at the last minute, for I was about to catch my train and realised I had forgotten to do so myself! He’s also proudly convinced that a clip he showed at EQZE when he was teaching in the week before mine – a moment in Jacques Rivette’s Duelle (1976) where a mirror breaks and two goddesses confront each other (!) – lodged deeply into the students’ unconscious. And, after having watched that clip myself, I must say I support his thesis.

My first idea for what would become this exercise came from the ‘Workshop of Videographic Criticism‘ at Middlebury, USA – where Catherine Grant, Christian Keathley and Jason Mittell, do a practical exercise they’ve called the ‘videographic epigraph‘: “We asked participants first to select a favourite quotation from some critical text that could serve as an epigraph – not specifically related to the media object they were working on. The quotation could not be more than five sentences long. Next, the participants were to select a continuous scene or sequence from their film object and alter it in some way – through slow motion, image manipulation, or some other visual or temporal effect. The source soundtrack was to be replaced or significantly altered via effects. The selected critical quotation was then to appear as text on screen in some dynamic interaction with the images in the scene, calling attention to the role of design in videographic typography.”

This exercise is great at teaching what it means to put things from diverse sources in contact, letting them inflect each other. By working on the relation between text and image, new ideas, emphases, affects, meanings (that were not formed in the individual materials) can emerge. It is also great to explore qualities such as rhythm, speed, suspension, design, and graphic correspondences in the image-text relation. One of my favourite videographic epigraphs (I love the double ‘graph’, by the way), doing all this and more, is this short piece by Christian Keathley. However, as much as I like this exercise, I feared our schedule would be too tight for the students to come up with the quote, the scene, and the relation between them already formed in their heads. Plus, since this was going to be my only exercise during the classes (at Middlebury they do five different exercises), I wanted my students to explore discontinuity, too. So I started pondering ways of tweaking it.

I found these two posts by Daniel Coffeen very inspiring: “Some Practical Suggestions for Teaching Creative Thinking” is a treasure trove of exercises that has me covered for the next ten years at least – there’s a section on constraints that helped me work out the final form I’d give to my assignment: I would provide my students the materials on the spot, and the two sentences would be assigned by chance, so they would not know anything in advance, and they’d have to sort it all out right there; “Teaching Critical Writing” is a super tactical post that made me consider (how do I put this without being too hard on myself?) the effectivity of my idealism. Let’s admit it: I strive (strove?) for perfection, but this is an agony I don’t want to impose onto other people (being, as it is, pretty off-putting and unproductive). Reading these two posts, I started feeling that exercises are, well, exercises. We are not painting the frescoes of the Sistine Chapel, here! We can all learn from these exercises, but this doesn’t mean they have to be redone ad infinitum or improved until they are spotless and flawless! Why should I be so demanding with my students and with myself? And why should my fear of incompletion be an impediment to letting them experience what happens when you put an image, a sound, a text, together?

(On that note, I’ll confess that the best moment of the week for me happened during the last class. As we were screening the videos, I could hear expressions such as: “Yeah!”, “Coool!”, “Fuck!”, “Whoaaa!”, “That’s great!”, “Crazy!”, “Love this cut!” [that was probably me], “That freeze!”, “The eye!”, “Hmmmm”, “Ahhhhh”, “Ohhhhhhhh”… This is what happens when you’ve hit something that works, that strikes others, that circulates from screen to viewer, producing an effect that is palpable in those not terribly elaborate but very beautiful expressions of pleasure, astonishment, enlightenment – maybe all three at the same time!)

***

Below, I’m embedding the seven pieces the students did. They are accompanied by some brief comments that are a mix of my impressions and their own explanations regarding their work (so, you can rightly consider them co-authors of this section).

#1. By Diego Ginartes & Hella Spinelli.

This piece begins with the discovery of the female corpse in the sofa, covered in blood, surrounded by pieces of broken glass – an image that perfectly encapsulates the trigger Diego and Hella were given (“All was confusion”). This first scene – over which they already start laying out the first part of their poetic line (“She tells the future … “) – functions as a kind of oracular vision. From here onwards, and following the cue of their line (” … And it is up to me to verify it”), they proceed by building up to what will lead to this moment: they turn the female character into a kind of detective investigating her own death. One of the strongest aspects of this piece is the refined selection of material made by Diego and Hella: the fact that the shots they picked share strong formal qualities (pan movements over the house, certain gestural iterations like opening the door or raising the hand, the multiplicity of the female figure) gives enormous cohesion to the piece. They arrange this material to create a narrative that develops by fits and starts, unfolding via repetitions and returns with small advances and revelations – aided by the musical score by Teiji Ito that has some of these same qualities. This piece reminds me a little bit of Chris Marker’s La Jetée (1962), in which the hero returns repeatedly to the landscapes of his past in order to solve the mystery of his own death – a death that is also shown to us (even if disguised) at the very start of the film.

#2. By Sofía Broca & Astrid Villanueva.

Sofía and Astrid wanted to explore a hunch: the connection between Deren and Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon and Nina Simone’s “Sinnerman”. I know this is one of the most pleasurable (even if sometimes maddening) hints to follow: trying to bring out audiovisually an association between film and music – in this particular case, based on certain movements of escape, detouring, repetition and restarting that they saw in both works. Personally, I was fascinated by this idea because, despite the fact they didn’t know about it (which thus makes it even more interesting), David Lynch uses “Sinnerman” at the end of Inland Empire (2006) – a film clearly indebted to Meshes of the Afternoon. The trigger they got (“The pieces of my self dissolved into the world”) informed powerfully their selection of footage: mostly, fragments of the sea and the broken mirror, but also the female’s shadow, reflection, and eye closing. Sofía and Astrid had some technical issues with their computers, and so ended up working a little with an external audio editor, Audacity. Despite being less finished than other pieces, I find very interesting the route they were exploring: instead of just laying out the song, untouched, and relying on the connection between lyrics and images (which is the most common approach, especially for beginners), they re-edited the song heavily according to the qualities of the film: they applied repetitions, fragmentation, sudden interruptions, overlaps, and even mixed it with the original soundtrack of the film.

#3. By Noemí Cuetos & Marcela Hinojosa.

Noemí and Marcela received a very cool trigger from F. W. Murnau’s Nosferatu (“As I crossed the threshold, the phantoms came to meet me”). Their piece depicts the descent into madness of a woman who, upon crossing the entrance of her house, is haunted by the ghosts of her memories. In order to bring out this, they focused on very specific parts of the film in which we see the female character walking on the stairs and losing her balance, sprawling against walls and ceilings, crossing archways and windows, while the camera moves frantically or turns upside down. They built what I would call a nightmare of space as a metaphor for a mental state: with the images of physical disequilibrium alluding to an inner turmoil and the repeated motif of the threshold signifying also the limit between sanity and insanity. They re-wrote their poetic line (“The traveller declares to me that I’m no longer the same. No longer the same!”) and turned it into a broken-up tune of dissociation – giving it a different meaning via the intense fragmentation applied to it. As in the piece by Hella and Diego (where they also turned the “she” and “me” of the poetic sentence into a single person), here, Noemí and Marcela also fuse “the traveller” and the “I” into one figure. This tendency to merge the subject and object of the sentence into one body is clearly propelled by the film itself, by what we came to call “a multiplicity of Mayas”, with its enigmas of identity and perspectival games.

#4. By Anna De-Guía-Eriksson & Daniela Delgado.

Anna and Daniela did something that was actually not allowed: using voice-over. But, since I was in a relaxed attitude, and they seemed so eager and decided, I thought: why not? I’m happy I let them go with their idea, because it turned out really well. I don’t even know when and how they recorded the audio track! Their trigger was: “From this moment, nothing would ever be the same”. And their poetic line was: “In quest of knowledge, I watched night create day, while we seemed unchanged.” You’ll realise that these two sentences are a bit of a challenge because they suggest both change and immutability, as if denying what is affirmed. I’m really impressed at how they tackled these seemingly unreconcilable statements, building a piece that plays, precisely, with this idea of things that repeat, transform slightly, and return to their previous state. Again, this is a great example of what a good selection of material can do: they focused strongly on footage of the eyes, hands and feet of the female character (they saw the body both as a trope of horror and as an element propelling the narrative forward), and also on a few symbolic elements (mainly the key – which they turn into a perfect metaphor for knowledge – but also the knife and the flower). They also broke up the poetic line and created a very particular rhythm, by fragmenting, repeating, suspending and stretching the text.

#5. By Alessandra Boulos & Valentín Vía.

This piece is the longest of all (Alessandra and Valentín went for the whole three minutes allowed), and has a very clear, two-part conception. The first part is modelled on the trigger they got (“I saw it truthfully for the first time”). They used this trigger as a maxim for oneiric self-discovery. This first part is bookended by two shots of the eye: closing, at the start; opening, at the end. We are, therefore, in a dream. In order to introduce us to this dream, they’ve used shots of the sea with flickering black frames, the exploratory movements of the subjective camera through the house, and the reversed soundtrack of the film – which creates a whip sound, similar to the rewinding of a tape. The truth that this dream ultimately reveals is one of multiplicity: the discovery of several selves, several Mayas. Again, that’s not pure imagination: it’s the film itself that propels certain ideas, passing on certain qualities, figures and motifs that the students then incorporate into their exercises. The second part of this piece happens when the woman wakes up and decides to live no more. This part is built on their poetic line (“Sweep me away, world, I’ll have memories”) that they’ve broken up and layered on top of images (some slowed down) of the woman on the stairs. Her death is not seen, but it is first announced (and clearly associated with dream, it comes during dream) and, later, suggested (by the symbol of the flower that gives a title to their piece).

#6. By Marc Barceló & Irati Crespo.

I know what you are wondering: did I give dope to my students before this exercise? The answer is no. They are just like this: wild! I love the irreverent, punkish attitude of this piece. As we projected it in class, Marc and Irati kept telling me: “Louder, louder, it must sound almost unpleasant!” And believe me, I pumped up the volume. This piece has a two-part structure: the first minute is based on certain surrealist elements that they perceived in the worlds of both Deren/Hammid and Walt Disney. The speed-up and re-edited musical theme (mixed with sounds of glass breaking) belongs to the Spanish version of Alice in Wonderland. Their trigger was: “The lowest becomes the highest and the highest becomes the lowest”. This inspired them to use some of the same footage gathered by Noemí and Marcela, but to which they applied different rotation effects, emphasising the total confusion of spatial points. This segment is a kind of hyper-intensified wink to Alice’s fall through the rabbit hole (in the Disney film). The last part of their piece is arranged according to their poetic line (“The heart has but one mouth”). They struggled with it – I could hear them fervently arguing in a very Straub & Huillet style. But they solved it beautifully: instead of a literal, visual transposition of the line, they devised a more fleeting and poetic approach to it (blowing up the shots of the mouth and the hole, intercutting the crystals in the sea with the flickering image of the corpse). They incorporated an incredibly annoying buzz, and did very distinctive work with the pulsating text-graphics. Their final credits, in case you are wondering, are written in Basque language (which is cool!).

#7. By Jone Aranzabal & Mariana Sánchez.

Before going on, let me point out one thing I learnt watching these exercises, and that is worth keeping in mind for the future: I think I prefer the triggers that suggest certain formal qualities rather than the merely narrative ones, because they have a more palpable effect on the approach taken by the students. This piece is a great example. Here, prompted by their wonderful trigger (“Suddenly, everything became intense”), Jone and Mariana embarked on a great exploration of rhythm and crescendo. Mariana couldn’t come to the last class, so she’ll be happy to know that Jone praised her editing skills highly (the beauty of collaboration!). They worked with double screen, without sound, using a good number of short fragments. What I love in this piece – apart from its thorough work of intensification – is how inventively they re-appropriated and re-interpreted the poetic line given to them: “Increasingly, I see the human form as a lover’s dialogue”. They respected the erotic and corporeal premise of the line, but turned it outside-in. For, here, the dialogue is a dialogue of the woman with herself. A dialogue between desire and daydream, lust and danger, touching and walking. Maya fantasises in her couch, her passion conjures up another Maya – a Maya that advances towards her, as if responding to the call. The piece builds up a sexual frenzy, ending with the image of the sea alluding to the climax. So, what we have here, in short, is a dialogue, across two screens, entirely premised on female masturbation (and I don’t think you really need me to elaborate more on how great that is!).

***

I like this line from Paul Valéry (alas, he did not make it into my classes this year, so let him be here): “If I am questioned; if anyone wonders (as happens quite peremptorily) what I ‘wanted to say’ in a certain poem, I reply that I did not want to say, but wanted to make, and that it was the intention of making which wanted what I said.”

I, like Valéry, am often questioned about the relation between exercises like this and criticism. Let me start by saying that I don’t think you can do it all in four hours, and my group has a week of written criticism with the great Manuel Asín – so one thing I was sure of is that I was not going to make them write anything of their own. But, despite all their differences, I believe that there really is one fundamental link between written criticism and audiovisual essays: in the same way that, when you make audiovisual essays, you are performing editing operations with and to the images/graphics/sounds, the moment you are writing you are doing things with and to language. You may have some ideas in advance, yes, but you don’t just write what you have to say. Even a humble (and apparently straightforward) text like this one does more than it says, and it says things that only the writing has propelled. What? Did you think that what I had in mind when I sat to write this is what constitutes the text? No fucking way! The writing makes the text, like the editing makes the audiovisual essay.

So, I get my students writing with the materials provided. By doing this, by manipulating those materials, they become aware of the inherent qualities and develop certain structures, ideas and effects – in other words: they study their sources, and they learn how films work by doing what films do. But what I like, in particular, about this exercise is that it forces them to concentrate on what’s there. They must make sense of what’s there by working creatively on the relations of what’s there (you can read that sentence again, if you wish: the redundancy is intended, and I think this is a great definition of criticism!)

But there’s more. My group is studying curatorship. So, I imagine they’ll have many opportunities to choose which things to put together (they can do that for their final assignment, for instance, to be delivered soon: that’s a reminder). But, when we have to grapple only with what is given, this forces us to concentrate on the how: how do these things go together? How do they affect each other? How can I establish connections between them? Working with things that are disparate, and that you haven’t chosen yourself, often helps to bypass a certain tendency to rely on the already known – triggering relations that are riskier, less obvious, less familiar than those already formed in your head or predicated by common sense. And, hopefully, they’ll remember that, when they have, also, the choice of things.

Well, I’ve expressed my gratitude to a few people in this post – but with good reason (for I really think my joy is a collective endeavour) and with grace (for I’ve interspersed it, so this doesn’t look like an Oscar speech acceptance). So, to end, I’d like to thank this year’s amazing group of students (for being so clever, creative, funny and sweet) and the brilliant team at EQZE (which is incredibly hard-working and efficient, but also kind and caring). Needless to say, I wouldn’t be here trying to figure all this out so openly if this weren’t a school that understands and encourages such figuring-out as integral part of the learning process.

© Cristina Álvarez López, February 2020

2 thoughts on “Playing with ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’”

  1. I really appreciate the way you explore ambivalent feelings about teaching. The rewards are always balanced with exhaustion and pain, even when one really enjoys the activity. I also have to say that the way you highlight the potentially mundane *process* of figuring out what one has to say (in any medium) hits the nail on the head – this piece has tempted me a little to play around with video essays myself!

    1. Thanks, Zach! Glad you enjoyed it. And so happy to hear you are tempted to play around! I think it really is a great way to experiment, not just with the aim of getting perfectly finished pieces, but sometimes just as a trigger, as inspiration, or as an aid when writing/teaching.

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