fleur de sel: étude numéro 2

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 4 2022

 

Keith Marley: Director, Researcher. Paul Moylan: Music Composition.
Title of work: fleur de sel: étude numéro 2
Year: 2020
Length:  35 minutes 41 seconds

RESEARCH STATEMENT

Research Context

In 1991 film theorist, Bill Nichols, developed a typology of documentary film, which aimed to identify the different types or categories of documentary, by identifying the aesthetic tropes associated with each individual mode. For this project, emphasis is placed on what he called the poetic mode.

The poetic mode has many facets, but they all emphasize the ways in which the filmmaker’s voice gives fragments of the historical world a formal aesthetic integrity peculiar to the film itself (Nichols 2001b, 105).

The major aim of this project is to explore the ways in which the adoption of certain aesthetic filmmaking devices, can shift the focus of documentary film away from exposition and more toward one of expression. Poetic documentaries are more concerned with creating a lyrical impression, rather than imparting knowledge or information about specific events, people or places. The way in which the editing structures the images in particular ways, can be called an associational form, whereby images are sequenced not for the purpose of continuity, rather are sequenced in particular ways, in order to explore patterns and associations based on their spatial, temporal properties. It is a style of documentary filmmaking that appeals to the sensorial over the cognitive.

As such, fleur de sel does not aim to give insight into any particular aspect of life on Île de Ré,  rather it aims to evoke a sense of atmosphere associated with the island. So, for example, in order to signify the rather calm and still atmosphere of Île de Ré, the filmmaker uses long dissolves between shots, offering a more gentle way of transitioning between them, as opposed to the more harsh, direct cut. Here, the use of long takes and extended transitions between shots, alongside the general minimalist aesthetic in terms of the compositional elements contained within the scene, acts as an invitation to the spectator to fully observe the landscape, and, in essence, immerse themselves within that landscape. The duration of shots and their precise compositional qualities, thus act as a poetic device. The sonic accompaniment does not aim to carry with it any particular meaning, rather it is there to encourage this more contemplative mode of viewing, whereby one is able to ‘connect knowing to feel and hearing to viewing’ (Corner 200, 366)

Here the filmmaker is aiming to encourage a re-seeing of the world, in order to create new forms of knowledge, very much in the same vein that Dziga Vertov used documentary film as a way of altering perception. The difference being, rather than assault the viewer with a kaleidoscopic montage of images, as Vertov did, in order to produce a kinetic form of cinema, the filmmaker in this instance aims to becalm the viewer, with a focus on stasis, rather than kinesis.

The overall impact of this project is to encourage the spectator to adopt a mode of viewing not normally associated with documentary, whereby the appreciation of aesthetics becomes the focus of engagement, rather than merely engaging with a documentary film for its expositional potential.

References

Corner, John. 2002. “Sounds real: Music and documentary,” Popular Music Volume 21, No. 3: 357-366

Nichols, Bill. 1991. Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

Nichols, Bill. 2001. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press

 

PEER REVIEW 1

fleur de sel: étude numéro 2 is produced in a poetic documentary mode. The immersive audio-visual experience creates a sense of calm and shifts the viewer’s focus to the atmosphere on the island. In particular, the documentary’s compositions include extended dissolve transitions and slow motion, allowing the viewer to “re-see” the world in this documentary with a specific mood that is created through an original rhythm. Right from the onset of the video, the gradual emergence of shrub’s silhouettes featuring a distinctive sound is well composed. The filmmaker sustains this till the middle of the fourth minute where we see a wide shot and a bird flying from the distance. This breaks the monotonous flow as the scene recedes into the nature reserve through a wide shot. Also, one should note the seamless transitions applied by the filmmaker. As mentioned in his statement the author and filmmaker intend to appeal to the audiences’ sensory rather than the cognitive nerves. At 7:24 the sandy beach merges with the sea and the atmosphere is apt and commendable. The filmmaker captures a submerged boat in yellow and red. A sea bird perched on top of it signifies the message to audiences. The filmmaker engages with his audience through this shot using colour tones of the boat, a direct reference to the colour of the serene beach. At 11:44 the filmmaker offers a three-point perspective where the road on the horizon meets a shadow cast on the sea defence wall. I must say that this picture as captured by the filmmaker is refreshing.

Overall, the audio used in the documentary is very impressive, which is key to stimulating the imagination of the viewer. One major criticism that one could note is the shrill audio that accompanies the captivating sunset shot in the end. I would suggest a more soothing sound to go with that shot as the scene recedes into the end of the film. Perhaps the filmmaker intends to disrupt the mood of his audience which would be equally perfect. The filmmaker is able to demonstrate a poetic documentary modality that breaks away from the linear narrative structure. Throughout this film, the filmmaker merges transition seamlessly to create a certain mood through specific tonalities and rhythms. The treatment of audio enhances this experience. As the author notes, “the sonic accompaniment does not aim to carry with it any particular meaning, rather it is there to encourage this as a more contemplative mode of viewing.”

 

PEER REVIEW 2

Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?

The film is a very good example of a film based on an associational form of editing where pattern is prioritised over exposition or narrative storytelling. As the writer claims, it does indeed evoke a sense of atmosphere, of a land bound and shaped by the sea. fleur de sel: étude numéro 2  is a highly engaging work, beautifully shot and edited and the soundtrack contributes significantly to its strong expressive qualities. This work certainly contributes to the scholarly discussion of creative practice research but it is let down by an artist statement that does not engage with sufficient theory.

Does the submission live up to its potential?

The film is excellent and certainly lives up to its potential, but the artist’s statement is disappointing in that it is generalist, lacks specificity, does not show enough reading and knowledge in the field, and makes no mention of a research question or how the film creates new knowledge.

How does the submission expose practice as research?

I believe the artist’s statement needs to be revised to highlight how the work constitutes creative practice research. There is a discussion of the artistic theoretical fields the filmmaker is working in, but no discussion of what research question the film is addressing, how it is innovative (and I think it is), and what new knowledge, interpretation, insights or experiences it provided the maker and/or an audience. There is also insufficient engagement with documentary texts. Although the writer suggests that the work encourages the viewer to “adopt a mode of viewing not normally associated with documentary” where the appreciation of aesthetics becomes the focus, I disagree. The field of documentary is very broad and many works both short and long prioritise poetics above exposition.

 

RESPONSE TO REVIEWERS

I would like to first thank the reviewers for their learned reviews of my film and accompanying research statement. I am pleased that both reviewers found the film engaging and were, on the whole, complimentary about the techniques on show.

With regard to the project being “let down by an artist statement that does not engage with sufficient theory” (Reviewer 2), I offer the following defence of the original statement:

When writing the statement, I was more concerned with explaining my artistic intentions, rather than providing a theoretical context for the piece. My intention was to create a film that produced a degree of spectator transcendence, achieved through audio-visual aesthetic devices. This was not a film that was to operate on a cognitive level, rather it was a film that aimed to operate at the level of feeling. Therefore, at the time of the submission of my statement, I felt that any kind of attempt to theorise my artistic intentions would not be particularly constructive, nor illuminating for the reader. Attaching any kind of research question or hypothesis did not feel appropriate at the time – the phenomenological viewer experience was what counted to me as the author. Thus, the film itself was to be seen as practice as theory.

I accept that Reviewer 2, in particular, may see my approach as unscholarly, therefore with that in mind, I have produced a new research statement below.

With regard to the film, I have made some changes as a result of some of the comments made by Reviewer 1, especially with regard to music during the final shot of the film – a whole new soundtrack has been written for the entire film, which it is hoped provides a more immersive experience than the first iteration. I have also added a new visual section toward the end of the film, linking this section to what Schrader (2018) calls a decisive moment in transcendental film. This is discussed further in the research statement.

REVISED RESEARCH STATEMENT

Research Questions

  • How can particular film techniques capture a sense of place?
  • Can a film’s aesthetics produce a transcendental experience?
  • Is the slow dissolve an effective aesthetic device with regard to the transcendental style?

Research Context

In 1991 film theorist, Bill Nichols, developed a typology of documentary film, which aimed to identify the different types or categories of documentary, by identifying the aesthetic tropes associated with each individual mode. For this project, emphasis is placed on what he called the poetic mode.

The poetic mode has many facets, but they all emphasize the ways in which the filmmaker’s voice gives fragments of the historical world a formal, aesthetic integrity peculiar to the film itself (Nichols 2001, 105).

The major aim of this project was to explore the ways in which the adoption of certain aesthetic filmmaking devices, can shift the focus of documentary film away from exposition and more toward one of expression. Poetic documentaries are more concerned with creating a lyrical impression, rather than imparting knowledge or information about specific events, people or places. The way in which the editing structures the images in particular ways, can be called an associational form, whereby images are sequenced not for the purpose of continuity, rather are sequenced in particular ways, in order to explore patterns and associations based on their spatial, temporal properties. It is a style of documentary filmmaking that appeals to the sensorial over the cognitive.

fleur de sel loosely follows in the tradition of the city symphony makers, however where it departs from this canon of documentary film is in the style of editing. The city symphonies of the early 20th Century, created by the likes of Vigo, Vertov, Cavalcanti and Ruttman, all used montage as an aesthetic device for capturing the rhythms and kinesis of the city. However, montage editing is implicitly disruptive and distracting, therefore it would not be suitable for capturing the tranquillity of the island. My aim here was to allow the viewer to feel, rather than know, the island. In order to do this, I adopted aesthetics associated with slow cinema: shots were minimal in terms of composition, with an emphasis on the mundane and the use of long takes. I also adopted extremely long dissolves as a non-disruptive style of editing, in order to allow the viewer to absorb the changing landscapes without distraction.

In essence, my film attempts to create what Schrader calls a transcendental style, which he argues has the ability to transport the viewer to a place outside of themselves by creating ‘an alternate film reality – a transcendent one’ (2018, 3). He cites Tarkovsky as being one of the masters of the transcendental style, whereby his use of time, both within the frame and between frames becomes an important distancing device that can evoke such states in the audience. Tarkovsky argued that the most important element in film is rhythm, however, he rejected the idea that rhythm is dictated by editing, as the city symphony makers would argue, rather it is ‘the distinctive time running through the shots’, which determines the rhythm, ‘by the pressure of time that runs through them’ (Tarkovsky 2012, 117). It was this time pressure that I attempted to encapsulate through the use of slow-motion and slow dissolves, supported by the score, which was composed in a way to ‘connect knowing to feeling and hearing to viewing’ (Corner 2002, 366). 

Afterword

To ask why I was trying to do this would be a fair question, however, the answer is quite simple: while sitting in these locations on the island, seeing the sheer beauty and feeling the absolute tranquillity of the place, I felt an overwhelming sense of transcendence. As an artist, my desire to express what I see and feel, through poetic devices, is my way of determining that I do exist in this world; a world where the actual and the spiritual become one and the same thing. If a viewer of my films can get a sense of that, then I become understood, both as a person and a filmmaker.

Bibliography

Corner, John. 2002. “Sounds real: Music and documentary,” Popular Music Volume 21, No. 3: 357-366.

Nichols, Bill. 1991. Representing Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Nichols, Bill. 2001. Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Schrader, Paul. 2018. Rethinking Transcendental Style. California: University of California Press.

Tarkovsky, Andrei. 2012. Sculpting in Time. Austin: University of Texas

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