The Trouble

Sightlines: Filmmaking in the Academy Issue 3 2021

Patrick Kelly: Producer, Researcher
Film: The Trouble
Length: 8 minutes
Year: 2020

RESEARCH STATEMENT

The Trouble is an 8-minute film resulting from my queer practice-led research through screen production. This methodology (Baker 2011) embraces notions of performativity (Haseman 2007; Butler 1990) and self-bricolage (Rabinow 1997) in its application. Drawing on Foucault (1978) and Rabinow (1997), Baker positions creative practice, research and subjectivity as “intertwined and mutually informing each other” (2011, 34). As such, my film (and this statement) aims to intertwine my own creative practice, research and subjectivity, whilst exploring the notions of failure, camp and normality.

In this film, I reflect on my own body of creative work in queer screen production, which began with my short experimental documentary What’s With Your Nails? (2018), made in the wake of marriage equality in Australia, as well as a forthcoming feature-length documentary about a queer performance community in Melbourne named Honcho Disko.

I “intertwine” this with the influence of other creative practitioners’ works, such as Peter Wells’ short film Good Intentions (1989), whose use of playful, yet reflective voiceover I invoke in The Trouble, as well as Ronnie Scott’s novel The Adversary (2020), which, in a post-AIDS crisis era, suggests that stories about a queer person’s character might be a ‘better way to define a man, rather than who they fuck…’ (Polites 2020, n.p.).

In the film, I point to moments from my lived experience here and there, like growing up in Queensland, painting my fingernails just after the Australian Marriage Equality Postal Survey in 2017, going through a break-up, and having an argument with someone close. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when such experiences triggered me to investigate queer theory, but I cannot stress enough how predominant an influence such experiences have been on my doing so. Halberstam’s notion of the “queer art of failure”, Sontag’s (1964) notion of camp, and Warner’s (1999) notion of normal were the key queer theories I drew on in the making of this work.

Baker writes:

[F]uture scholarship needs to be undertaken to explore the nuanced relationships between subjectivities and creative arts consumption and production. This can be done, in part, by employing a form of PLR [practice-led research] that is influenced by Queer Theory, in particular the notions of performativity and self-bricolage (2011, 48).

I have presented a film that employs such a form and explores such nuances. In doing so, this film contributes toward understandings of how Baker’s queer practice-led research can be enacted in the field of screen production. My contribution is by no means exhaustive and I enthusiastically call on others to explore this queer methodology within screen production.

This intertwining is a holistic, complex, rewarding, and continuing process – and it is difficult to explain it succinctly here. Some of this can be understood from watching the film. I intend to expand upon these ideas at length in future publications but, in short, my drive to explore queer ideas as I find them in theory and existing creative practice is a result of my own experiences (great and small) as a queer person, and all of this influences my creative practice.

References

Butler, Judith. 1990. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.

Baker, Dallas J. 2011. “Queering Practice-Led Research: Subjectivity, performative research and the creative arts.” Creative Industries Journal 4 (1):33-51. doi: 10.1386/cij.4.1.33_1.

Foucault, Michel. 1978. The History of Sexuality (trans. Robert Hurley), vol. 1, New York: Random House.

Halberstam, Jack. 2011. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press.

Haseman, Bradley C. 2007. “Rupture and recognition: Identifying the performative research paradigm.” In Practice as research: Approaches to creative arts enquiry, edited by Estelle Barrett and Barbara Bolt, 147-157. IB Tauris.

Kelly, Patrick. 2018. What’s With Your Nails?. Motion picture.

Polites, Peter. 2020. “What I’m Reading.” Meanjin, 29 April.

Rabinow, Paula. 1997. Michel Foucault: Ethics, Subjectivity and Truth. New York: The New Press.

Scott, Ronnie. 2020. The Adversary. Melbourne, Australia: Penguin Books Australia.

Sontag, Susan. 2018. Notes on Camp. United Kingdom: Penguin Books.

Warner, Michael. 1999. The Trouble with Normal: Sex, Politics, and the Ethics of Queer Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Wells, Peter. 1989. Good Intentions. Motion picture.

 

PEER REVIEW 1

The research that results in the short film The Trouble presents issues of extreme relevance and interest, especially when we consider the scenario of queer documentary production of an autobiographical/autofictional nature. Investigations into Queer Cinema and autobiographical documentaries tend to appear in quite different settings and, for this reason, appear less frequently in works that combine these fields of research. Particularly, I have an interest in this kind of combination of research fields because I am a queer researcher in the area of ​​autobiographical documentary and I need more readings and references about queer cinema.

In the statement, the research focuses on authors who are recurrent in gender and sexuality studies, such as Butler and Foucault, finding other applications of their concepts based on artistic practices. In the film and in the statement, the queer identity is explored through the constant questions of the narrator about himself and how to build a narrative of himself. The film and the research expose the failure of this attempt, highlighting aspects that are very present in the contemporary world, such as doubt and the remix of images.

Another interesting point in the film is how the artist explores the notions of failure and uncertainty in the face of his own subjectivity, as these aspects end up unfolding in a playful tone with himself. The field of documentary (mainly autobiographical) constantly explores a tone of seriousness and melancholy that becomes, often, repetitive and tiring. When the director chooses to make uncertainty and imprecision elements that can be explored through lightness and laughter, he is able to bring a less solemn and sober look to the field of documentary.

One of the aspects that appear quite clearly in the short film, but are not mentioned in the research, are authors who deal with the filmic form itself and the artist’s aesthetic choices. These choices appear subliminally through authors who deal with ‘camp’ and performance, but the research could be enriched if the artist includes in the investigation authors who deal with the cinematographic language, mentioning the narrative, sound and visual resources.

For example, the way the short film develops its narrative structure is very much in line with the aesthetics of the film essay, even if the artist and researcher does not mention them directly. In it, the artist’s subjectivity and performance, the play with the montage between images for the construction of a discourse, the exercise of reflexivity through the exposure of the cinematographic device are quite evident. These elements appear quite strongly and clearly in the film and, if the researcher wishes to continue the investigation, I suggest reading about the forms of film writing that the essay film allows.

Some authors I recommend are Theodor Adorno, Timothy Corrigan, Gabriela Almeida, Robert Musil, Jean Starobinski and Antonio Weinrichter. I believe that with the reading of these authors, the researcher will be able to go deeper into the formal aspects of his aesthetic investigation, placing more appropriately on elements such as narrative, archive and editing, for example.

Please provide feedback/suggestions for changes to the research statement or creative work

My suggestion to Patrick’s research statement is to read and use authors that have published theories about the essay film essay. Then, I believe that his creative work will, naturally, find other ways of narrative uses of image, sound, music and voice.

 

PEER REVIEW 2

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

At the core of the film and the artist statement by Patrick Kelly is a personal exploration in visual and written form of notions of normality, camp and failure. This is part of a larger (life-long?) project of doing queer practice-led research through video art. In The Trouble (video) there are some poignant moments of visual analysis in the voice-over (especially the questions it poses and the referral to the creative potential of failure). One such key moment is the opening shot and how that is repeated throughout the video as to mimic a very typical film analysis method of watching a scene or sequence over and over again to understand its full meaning in a film and its place in the overall narrative. By the repeated appearances in the film of this particular shot, and the reflections on it by the artist in the personal voiceover, the film successfully becomes a meta-text about what “doing film studies”, here specifically “doing queer film studies”, can look like.

Does the submission live up to its potential?

Only partly. In his artist statement, Patrick Kelly mentions that his drive to explore queer ideas as he finds them in theory and existing creative practice is a result of his own experiences. While I appreciate that general premise and the queer auto-ethnographic nature of the piece, for this to be a true research-creation piece, I miss a broader historical and theoretical framework, with some key references to historical examples in film (can be Australian Film only) and relevant theoretical works (for instance by using quotes), particularly in the video. The accompanying artist statement is slightly better grounded in queer and performance theory as it references some key authors and relevant works such as Judith Buttler’s Gender Trouble and Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, but here again, Kelly only briefly mentions these key texts: the author does not really engage with the ideas in a meaningful way to support his argument or explain his method. As a result, both the video and the text are predominantly autobiographical, and only a reflection on the artist’s own body of work in queer screen production, not on what this means for exploring queer methodologies within screen production at large, or in terms of developing new ideas in theory and practice.

How does the submission expose practice as research?

One final idea that occurs to me, is the question of what would happen if the author/filmmaker Patrick Kelly would continue his exploration of queer practice-based research not in an inductive manner (from the personal to the theoretical) but in a deductive way (from the theoretical – and the historical – to the personal/practical). A deeper exploration of the queer archive as an archive of feelings (Ann Cvetkovich), or of queer rhetoric as a self-conscious and critical engagement with normative discourses of sexuality in the public sphere come to mind as possible points of departure.

 

RESEARCHER RESPONSE

I would like to start by immensely thanking the peer reviews for their considered responses to my work. Especially given the iterative and ongoing nature of my queer creative practice – indeed, as one of the reviewers noted, this piece is just one part of a potentially life-long project – I greatly appreciate the opportunity for dialogue around my work, so I can take the feedback forward as I approach the next creation.

First, I would like to share that I have made some minor changes to the film since receiving the peer reviews. These changes include edits to the voice-over for the purposes of overall clarity of phrasing, earlier explication that the film was made during COVID lockdown, the removal of the additional research question, ‘What are the affordances and constraints of producing a queer Australian documentary within the academy?’ (as I feel it blows out the scope of the work) and to include a reference to Alexandra Juhasz’s work in the field of queer documentary.

I’m grateful that the reviewers appreciate my approach to making The Trouble a meta-text that demonstrates what ‘doing queer film studies’ can look like, as well as my use of ‘lightness and laughter’ in a field that often sees more ‘solemn and sober’ takes on the field of documentary. As one reviewer noted, this does lead to an uneven tone at times, and this is part of the process of attempting to unpack the complex ideas and feelings to do with this work. I thank Reviewer #2 for the gentle nudge to read Cvetkovich’s An Archive of Feelings (2003). On a similar note that connects this examination of feelings with the uneven tone, the broader project I have been working on seeks to borrow an analogy from Alexandra Juhasz on AIDS activism through documentary practice. Juhasz (2015) says this practice is “committed to defying the logic of the [AIDS] virus: repopulating feeling, repurposing memory, recirculating activism” (330). Similarly, while noting the clear and nuanced differences between AIDS and post-Marriage Equality activism, I consider how I might defy the logic of the Australian Marriage Equality Postal Survey through this broader project of mine. In alternating between a playful dialogue around my screen practice and a more melancholy reflection on the Postal Survey (all of which was recorded during the global pandemic), the tone of the film does become quite uneven, which I purport becomes an illustration of the ‘failure’ that can occur in queer creative practice.

With this film, I wanted to embrace a moment in the middle of production of another, larger filmic work about the ‘Honcho Disko’ queer performance community to explore through an autoethnographic, inductive, queer practice-led research approach that embraces, as I previously wrote, the work of Baker (2011) and Haseman (2007). In thinking about this larger process, I recall two films made by Tony Ayres in the 1990s that seem to work in tandem with one another: China Dolls (1997) and Sadness: A Monologue by William Yang (1998). These films are linked by the presence of renowned photographer William Yang and the exploration of the intersectional experience of queer Chinese-Australians. Ayres plays quite a performative role in the former film, and it comes across that the first film almost lays the foundations for the second – focusing on Yang’s perspective allows for a more in-depth examination of an intersectional experience. Through my various filmic works, I explore subjective perspectives to alternating degrees of comprehensiveness, forming a broader project that includes smaller, individual works that speak to one another.

This is one film in a broader project that, especially at this – what I hope is an – early stage of this potentially life-long project, seeks to engage ‘aesthetics of queer becoming’ (Tan 2016); personal filmmaking usually taking place outside of the mainstream and/or industrial filmmaking processes, which often embraces emerging technologies together with subjective storytelling. This, of course, also points to ideas and forms like the essay film, and Astruc’s famous 1948 notion of the Camera Stylo (2009), which Leo Berkeley also embraces in terms of using smartphones for essay filmmaking (2014). Writing with audiovisuals forms a central part of my meta-textual practice.

The messy, an often unsuccessful superimposed material, as well as the low-resolution titles, point to the amateur nature that is often part of an aesthetic of queer becoming – and the emergence of quite pronounced pixels(!) is a hurried nod to what the use of motion graphics techniques might result in if one were to embrace Halberstam’s notion of ‘failure’. Knowing that Butler (1996) points to the way that selves embody culture (and vice versa), in The Trouble I also wanted to experiment with the different ways I might place myself within the film – through the voiceover, my presence in the club photographs, and also through my own mobile video selfies (filmed during Melbourne’s second COVID-19 lockdown, while walking the dog – a nod to 1980s New York video artist Nelson Sullivan’s selfie videos filmed whilst walking his dog Blackout (Montez 2017)). This is a topic that may form the focus of, at least, an entire separate journal article.

Ultimately, I created The Trouble as an inductive, experimental, exploratory film that seeks to problematise the field of queer screen production (yes, an incredibly broad term), which I hope leads to a vibrant, creative, and inconclusive discussion with others working in this field. I’m so glad that Reviewer #1 also highlights the need for more readings and references about queer cinema – I echo this statement and highlight the need for such work that focuses on screen production as creative practice.

 

Additional References

Astruc, Alexandre. 2009. “The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: Le Camera-Stylo.” In The French New Wave: Critical Landmarks, edited by Peter Graham and Ginette Vincendeau, 17-23. London: Palgrave Macmillan.

Ayres, Tony. 1997. China Dolls. Motion picture.

Ayres, Tony. 1998. Sadness: A Monologue by William Yang. Motion picture.

Berkeley, Leo. 2014. “Tram travels: Smartphone video production and the essay film.” In Mobile Media Making in an Age of Smartphones, edited by Marsha Berry and Max Schleser, 25-34. New York: Palgrave Pivot.

Cvetkovich, Ann. 2003. An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Juhasz, Alexandra. 2015. “Digital AIDS Documentary.”In A Companion to Contemporary Documentary Film, edited by Alexander Juhasz and Alisa Lebow, 314-334. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons.

Montez, Ricardo. 2017. “Virtuosic Distortion: Nelson Sullivan’s Queer Hand.” ASAP/Journal, 2(2): 395-421.

Tan, Jia. 2016. “Aesthetics of Queer Becoming: Comrade Yue and Chinese Community-based Documentaries Online.” Critical Studies in Media Communication. 33 (1): 38–52. doi: 10.1080/15295036.2015.1129064

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