Cherish the Thought – Foreword to Daniel Binns’ Material Media-Making in the Digital Age
This essay was written as a Foreword to the excellent 2021 book Material Media-Making in the Digital Age, as kindly requested by its author, the genial Daniel Binns. I am reprinting it here in my original version because the publisher (Intellect) fails to mention the existence of me or my Foreword in any of its official promotional materials for Dan’s book, including the Table of Contents.
The question, really, is not ‘how can we marry media theory and practice, at long last?’ The true question is why we ever thought it was a good idea to split them apart in the first place.
The divide between theory and criticism in most of the arts (and especially in the teaching and/or training of them) yawns like a seemingly unbridgeable abyss. How did we arrive at this sorry pass? Every day we encounter the resistances, the complaints, the justifications and the so-called common-sense arguments on this battlefield. Music departments have the respected branch of musicology, for example – but I have heard music students literally object to their professors: ‘I’ve no time for theory – I need those precious hours to practise my oboe!’ Theory is the irrelevant cherry on their cake of practice.
When it comes to art (painting, sculpture) and film/media, one is more likely to hear the ‘individual inspiration’ excuse dimly inherited from the long and venerable, even dusty tradition of Romanticism. ‘If I have too much theory in my head, I will be affected and unduly influenced, and I shall no longer be able to spontaneously create!’ More cynical students in these fields, believing the same credo but keeping it silently to themselves, decide to play the theory-game only as much as they reckon they need to in order to win their degree: externally, they spout a few theoretical keywords (‘the gaze’, ‘hybridity’, ‘decolonisation’ and whatnot) while, internally, they desperately seek their personal Muse. Good luck to them.
Even a mainstream American director as smart and sophisticated as Blake Edwards (of the Pink Panther movie series fame) chose to put this old ‘keep that theory away from me!’ chestnut into modern, neurosis mode. Once, swatting away questions from an Australian interviewer about how scholars and critics had analysed his work, he essentially replied: ‘OK, I’m a neurotic, and I don’t understand myself at all. I’m a fine mess! But I don’t want to be cured. My problems and neuroses are me – they compel me to write and direct the way I do, and I’m successful at what I do. If you analyse me and tell me what I’m really all about, then my career is over! Get outta here!’
And boy, was I ever surprised on the day at the progressively-minded Rotterdam Film Festival, circa 2002, when I timidly introduced myself to one of my all-time cultural heroes, the essentially avant-garde (but feature narrative) French filmmaker, Philippe Grandrieux – who, I figured, is a pretty serious and intellectual guy. ‘I know you possess several books, catalogues and journal issues where I have written admiringly about your work, Monsieur Grandrieux, and I just wanted to ask you …’ – at which point he cut me off with a polite but firm gesture. ‘Look,’ he patiently explained, as if to an ailing child, ‘You seem like a nice guy and I’m sure your work is good. I’m glad you’re doing it, I appreciate it, it helps my career along in places like this festival. But I’ve never read it. I never will read it. I make my films from impulse, from intuition, you know? I can’t have your words about themes and signs and meanings bouncing around my skull when I pick up my camera on the set. I just don’t read any of that stuff about my own work, by anyone. I just can’t. Sorry, man …’.
Perhaps only in the professional sphere of creative writing courses – and I am sure not always without difficulty, even there – have theory and practice reached some plateau of rapprochement, or at least détente. Writing – whether of fiction or non-fiction – seems to come with the obligation to know and play with at least some basic rules, structures, procedures. This can be rationalised by the sceptics as the essential, prerequisite craft skills needed to do and achieve anything in an artistic area (such as music or dance) – but the best teachers of writing (usually, of course, already practitioners themselves) know that it’s but a small step from the craft of the well-turned sentence, the sequencing of paragraphs or appropriate word-choice to the theory of point-of-view, the ethics of creating fictional characters, and the ambiguity of meaning.
Theory is a word that appears to scare many people from the outset, before they’ve even attempted to grapple with it. This prejudice has been hardwired into us by the surrounding Western society, it seems, from birth. Theory is too rational, too systematic, too prescriptive, too calculated, too elitist, too inhibiting! It goes with the general caricature of the figure of the intellectual we see all the time in ads, sitcoms, talk shows, David Williamson plays: the egghead, all brains and no heart, graceless and foolish, stupid in the ways of human nature – or else, and more frequently in these post-Weinstein days, a conniving, abusive manipulator, a Hannibal-like mind-fucker. (I was once asked to audition for a panel-type chat program – on ‘quality’ TV! – where there would be four or five hilarious, ‘edgy’ comedian-types, and one serious critic-type – i.e., me – to provide a bit of necessary gravitas to the quick-fire discussion of arts and current affairs. Quickly realising I would likely become the butt of every joke in every episode, I politely declined the offer.)
It shouldn’t be so frightening, really. Theory is thoughts, ideas, concepts, histories, extrapolations. Cherish the thought! Theories of all kinds naturally arise in and around the making of any art object. I deeply dislike the binary opposition that people often pose between text (the art work itself) and context (the ways in which it is taken up, used, read within the social-political world) – because that, to me, simply reformulates the hard and fast distinction between a practice which is unthinking (wholly spontaneous, intuitive) and a theory that then goes to work on art, from its Olympian distance, with the muscle of its complicated, cerebral procedures.
Let’s scamper back to those little rays of light and hope offered by the moments in the transmission of musicology or creative writing when doing and thinking in art more naturally connect, without undue or contrived forcing. For the ancients like Aristotle (remember him?), that’s what, indeed, the whole field of poetics was all about: procedures for making. And procedure here does not mean rule. It refers to experimentation, not necessarily in a lofty, avant-garde sense (although that, too, is permitted), but certainly in the sense of trying-out, tinkering, sketching, drafting, taking a look at the provisional outcome and then thinking about where to go and what to do next …
There are two books called, after old Ari, Poetics of Cinema. Both of them are good. One comes from the scholarly side, by American Professor David Bordwell. He’s fascinated to discover the often officially unspoken secrets of filmmaking craft, especially in the more-or-less mainstream area of narrative genres. Sure, there are formulae, conventions, standard structures underpinning these movies – the kind of structures we see roped and tied down in ‘how to write a successful screenplay’ manuals – but there is also almost infinite wiggle-room for inventive variation, even at times outright subversion of these so-called codes. For Bordwell, the constraint of communally shared and recognised procedures among filmmakers leads to an invigorating one upmanship. And it is up to scholars to trace back and understand the conditions of this hothouse creativity.
The other Poetics of Cinema book is by a great and prolific filmmaker, Chilean-born Raúl Ruiz (1941-2011), who is completely welcoming of theory – that is, theory on his own, magpie terms, drawn from traditions ancient and modern, profane and sacred, commercial and metaphysical. Where Bordwell leans toward cognitive psychology as his principal orientation, Ruiz is more of a natural-born surrealist. Cinema is both an amazing history of precedents and an enduring blank canvas for him, something that we can always reinvent from scratch. The practical exercises he set for his students (such as ‘stage and film a sequence that makes sense when played both forwards and backwards’) boggled their minds – and all our minds surely need boggling these days.
The common denominator linking these tomes of audiovisual poetics is also shared by Daniel Binns in Material Media-Making in the Digital Age. That common denominator is play. Play can involve everything from the highest, most honed craft skill to the most casual, seemingly unfocused messing-about. In every case, the framework is the same: let’s make a move and see what happens. Does something in the game itself change, do we encounter something surprising, unexpected? All throughout, the theoretical mind seeks to question what has been handed to us, assumed as a given convention: why does one kind of framed shot (a close-up, say) have to be associated with one particular mode or significance, and not its complete opposite? Can we take things that are already mind-numbing clichés in the mainstream industry – like the ubiquitous drone shot mapping out the grid of a big city at night – and turn them into more mind-boggling propositions concerning the relation of sight to feeling, humanity to landscape, space to time? This is just what Chantal Akerman or Jean-Luc Godard did from their very first short film exercises: playfully interrogate the tool, the technique, the technology, the second-hand form or convention – and, in the process, bend it right out of shape until it becomes expressive of a new idea, a new sensation, a new emotion. Material Media-Making in the Digital Age offers many helpful hints as to how to kickstart such a process.
Every book that, like this one, offers a transversal view of film and media creation also provides – wittingly or not – an auto-portrait of its maker. The examples chosen to form the corpus of examples and case studies reflect a special, lived history of cinema, such as is constituted by the unique, unrepeatable viewing experience of every single individual. I am not talking about a identikit profile of the writer’s tastes and opinions, a reconstructed chronology of their travels, or anything so banal. Rather, it’s about seeing through the surface of the argument to the deeper logic of how – experimentally, playfully – this individual has pieced together the possibilities of cinema (past, present and future) for themselves. That’s influenced by factors of time and place, of opportunity and absence, of history and generations and all that, of course; but the outcome is always idiosyncratic, personal in a beyond-whimsical sense.
This also means that, to meet the book at hand, every reader must step outside their own pre-constituted history of film and media, and even of cinephilia itself. Cinema According to Binns is not (primarily) Classical Hollywood, or 1960s New Waves, or the more recent World Cinema associated with Abbas Kiarostami or Kelly Reichardt. Where my personal touchstones include Akerman and Ruiz, Philip Brophy and Bérénice Reynaud, Otto Preminger and Ida Lupino, international film festivals and Positif magazine, Dan spreads himself around works, figures, tools and occasions as diverse as Maya Deren and Hollis Frampton, Annihilation (2018) and Ivan Sen, Giuliana Bruno and Sean Cubitt, Leandro Listorti’s The Endless Film (2018) and Casey Neistat’s YouTube videos. I’ve never even heard of some of the stuff he mentions! But that’s all well and good; we all need to move beyond our comfort zones, which can too easily become prisons rather than maps.
The good news in this is that there’s no single cultural canon, no royal road to the meeting-place of practice and theory. Material Media-Making in the Digital Age, however, can inspire, help and encourage you to beat your own path there.
© Adrian Martin August 2020