If You Watch Now What You Read Yesterday: The Video Essay

March 23, 2011 § 3 Comments

Managing Editor Liz Stephens weighs in on a short film by Tucker Capps, inspired by “First” from Ryan Van Meter’s debut essay collection, If You Knew Then What I Know Now (Sarabande, 2011). Stephens questions how nonfiction on the page made into visual work interrupts a reader’s imagination and identification with the author/narrator.  She also confesses her fascination with the inherent possibilities.  Read her brief essay here, and Van Meter’s clarification of his artistic choices versus the important contributions of filmmaker Capps, and and then be sure to view the film (linked at the end):

I find it disorienting to even hear a writer’s voice. The first minute of any public reading (any that isn’t my own, because I adore giving readings; an irony, as you’ll see), I look at the floor waiting to see if the writer is going to alter the way I perceive their work. And I don’t like it if they do.

But sometimes, the voice of a writer awakens work I have otherwise ignored or have lost patience with. I heard Lydia Davis and was electrified by her stylized performance of her work, her grip on the audience with her hip cocked and hands curled on the podium. David Shield’s stutter, out loud, was disorienting, and then, disorientingly, well, sexy, embodying complication, full of intelligence and combativeness. His work on the page is one thing; that work out loud – the insistence of presenting it, against aural difficulty – is another animal altogether. Neither of them, I felt in retrospect, had ever had as their project making my read a comfortable one. Their physical selves showed me that. They are intentionally dissonant, in person and on the page.

That’s pretty personal. But do we ever approach written words impersonally, really, even before they’ve been concretized into a physical “thatness?” And if not, what harm can it do to see the work, have the words take shape?

I watched Ryan Van Meter’s video the other day – yes, that’s right, this writer’s video – for his essay “First,” timed to introduce the forthcoming publication of his book If You Knew Then What I Know Now. Van Meter’s voice was distracting. What a horrible idea, I distinctly thought. But then I forgot, pulled by the tow of story. For one thing, having thankfully read the piece before I saw this film, I remembered it well, but for one aspect: the narrator’s precise age at time of story. Young, I remembered. How young, the natural paucity and laziness of quick reading had omitted. For those who haven’t read the work, a hugely simplified version is that a young boy tells another boy he loves him, and asks the boy to marry him. The parents, overhearing this, tell him, the narrator: no. That’s wrong. That’s not what boys do, they ask girls. No. And the narrator sees his tangible, vibrant, fully-realized hope in half the possibilities of life simply….slip away from him.

The boy, this narrator, is five years old.

It’s one thing to be told this. Seeing the boy – an artful, evocative silhouette in black in the film – the turning down of the head, the other boy’s shoulder hunching away, the hands, held a moment before, drawing sharply back into solitary laps – is heart-breaking. He’s five. He has a cap on. His feet don’t reach the floor. He’s five.

I took out the printed story, and read it again, more slowly this time. The language held up, in fact reasserted itself before me more strongly.

The truth is, I believe that we have astonishing imaginations, flexible and tensile, and that furthermore we are so media-inculcated now that we may automatically rebound from any one version of anything, may recoup images from multiple sources and mesh them together into new stories almost instinctively. My concern, in considering this new thing, is not much with the disturbance of story.

But consider this, a temporal confusion closer to the nitty-gritty of the nonfiction preoccupations that interest me here: in nonfiction, to what degree is the story the author’s to illustrate, and to what degree the reader’s? This answer seems hinged, in some integral but hazy way, to our fluid notion of the truth of the story. Not literal truth, to which we can hope the creative nonfiction writer has done justice, but emotional truth, which builds itself around setting, tone, association, a dreamlike quality that for one person may be predicated on the smell of cut grass and another the inside of a room. Seeing written work made into visual work interrupts our identification with a narrator: it’s no mistake that Van Meter’s film uses silhouettes as characters, leapfrogging the problem. But the filmmaker still makes choices that will not be our own. In other words, the author wants the story, it’s theirs. But it’s made to be given away, right?

Van Meter’s film did not alter any preconceptions I had of his essay. Turns out I hadn’t supplied many of them in the reading after all – which is interesting in itself. But it will be some time before I read the essay again without those images coming to mind. Even so, I don’t regret that the film supplied me viscerally with the grim starkness of a child’s world, in a kind of shorthand, the Lord of the Flies-like nature of learning on the job as you grow up. It reminded me of my childhood hurts and made me see that if anyone took that much hope away, at one whack, from my four-year-old daughter, heaven help them. Nothing could save them from me.

I felt this not because I read the piece, and not because I saw the piece. It’s because I reconsidered it. I spent time with the work I had previously hurried over.

Of course, there are some frightening implications in writers making short films like this, only one of which may be complicating readers’ relationship with the author’s work. It’s also the potential culture of celebrity that concerns me; will bad films lose readers? Will authors who make more expensive and cooler films sell more books? And thus be more famous, get more jobs, in a market where already having a book to get hired is beginning to be de rigueur? Does this take us even further from the valuable person who is devoted to teaching the art, rather than walking the ever-flashier walk? Is this one more tool that the confident, networking, modern writer may use that the shyer, less technical writer may not?

Sure, this move represents the “realities of the market” right now. But the market is not an unaccountable entity. We make it. The push and pull of our desires and our expectations make it. I’m not sure I believe any direction is wrong, but I want to know what it means.

And could the phenomenon distance us ever further from an intimate relationship (I know I keep using that term; it’s not accidental) between reader and writer? Is making a film piling more sensory input on top of an original experience of reading that’s one of the simplest we know, in which the satisfaction rises from the internal voice, which sounds a bit like theirs, seductively new, yet strangely like our own, murmuring in our ear as our eyes cover a page?

This act of making a short film for one’s book or story – I’m aware I could be making much ado over what will amount, technically and culturally, and maybe in about ten minutes, to the beta video tape. But it may be the Internet (“That’ll never work!”). In the meantime, the truth is, I’m watching them. I just can’t tell if I am fascinated with the possibilities (Do I want to make one? Absolutely, yes. Let me go on record here.) or if I’m literally mesmerized by the storytelling, in a new shape, of my favorite form, in a way that I think can also harness the strengths of the original form itself; both essay and short film are brief, saturated with tone and mood, quick to establish momentum, intentionally tactile in the imagery, taking on a similar scope of subject and throwing lyricism at it from all angles. Look at us go, I hear myself giggling. Now we are artists of a whole new stripe. Wheeee.

But then I wonder if, while watching them, I should hear the sound of a shoe dropping somewhere in the background.

I feel all these ways. There’s an essay in that. Maybe a film.

From Ryan Van Meter:

Many thanks to Liz Stephens and Brevity for this kind and thoughtful response to the short film inspired by my essay, “First.” But I want to offer a small but critical clarification. The film was created by a filmmaker, Tucker Capps, for my press Sarabande Books. Other than recording the voiceover (based on a script also created by Tucker), I wasn’t involved in the production of the film, and in fact didn’t see it until about an hour before it was posted on the Web. So the film actually is a reader’s interpretation of and reaction to a writer’s work. Tucker is himself a writer, which surely informs his filmmaking, but he isn’t the writer of the essay to which he was responding. (He’s also made other short films for the purpose of book promotion, and all of them are beautiful.)

Watch for Yourself: Link to the VIDEO


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