Touch to Deconstruct is an intimate exploration of the nuance of the moving image, which occurs as users manipulate the speed of black and white film footage on a handheld touch screen.
Deconstruction is a method of critical analysis that seeks to expose deep-seated contradictions in a work by delving below its surface meaning. More simply, what we find from picking something apart into fine details.
When it comes to deconstructing cinema, you can deconstruct it as you would literature – looking at its narrative. But you can also deconstruct it on a more experimental level, looking at the medium. Film and video is composed by a series of images or frames. The relationship between each frame is the glue which forms a visual language. People have the ability to read images and the relationship between images. If you manipulate that glue, you can deconstruct the moving image.
There are various ways to do so, and the filmmaker that has inspired me the most is Martin Arnold. He deconstructs old Hollywood films through repetition and scrubbing frames back and forth. He calls it stuttering audio and limping visuals. On a basic level, I’m simply mesmerized by the aesthetic. But he also provides new meaning through his manipulations. By obsessing on every gesture and movement that may otherwise be overlooked, Arnold subverts the original. For example, he reveals Oedipal tensions in what would normally be an innocent embrace in Alone. Life Wastes Andy Hardy.
The artist Bill Viola deconstructs the stages of emotion by utilizes slow motion.
Viola uses slow motion to delve deeper into an emotional moment. Arnold uses stuttering and limping to uncover subtext. Both serve to heighten our perception of ephemeral moments of nuance within the moving image. The result is the discovery of latent themes, emotion, beauty, or something that is simply compelling on a subconscious level, which we are then compelled to observe.
My approach for my thesis was to harness this compulsion to observe nuance. Setting out to develop my project, I sat with footage and observed it in order to see what it has to say and reveal. This is a visceral and intimate process with footage that I have while crafting, which is exactly what I want to replicate for the viewer when consuming the finished work.
I decided to appropriate footage from archive.org. Specifically, an educational film from 1965 called Point of Return about a depressed man who tries to commit suicide. I chose this film because I wanted to handle emotional content, which is only heightened by its stark palette of black and white. There’s also a great sense of curiosity and discovery due not only to the process of exploring ephemeral moments through deconstruction, but the fact that the film itself is ephemeral, as it was forgotten and has long out-lived its original use, but has been saved through the archive.
So I take this footage and I am going to deconstruct it. Again, my goal is to bring the viewer through the same visceral experience with the footage while watching as I had in editing and crafting it. The power to investigate the footage should therefore not lie solely within my hands as the filmmaker. I ask, why is the viewer not an active participant in deconstruction? I believe one answer to how to bridge the gap lies in changing the screen. Specifically to a handheld screen.
The traditional setting for film is a theater. In the theater, one is held captive in a lean-back experience, must tilt one’s head backwards to the sky, and absorb a larger than life image, which is idolized.
However, there is a reversal in power and agency with a handheld screen. The image is smaller than the viewer. One holds it in one’s hands and is therefore master over it. It is a personal space as it’s one screen to one viewer. With this change in agency, let’s take it a step further. Let’s make it a touchscreen because if you can touch it, you feel like you can change it. A touchscreen also increases intimacy with the content as you are touching the image directly.
Touch gestures provide a playful and tactile way to manipulate time and speed. In other words, touching to deconstruct. I equate the act of sliding one’s fingers as the means of manipulating the image. To do so, I used openFrameworks, a toolkit for programming creatively, which gave me frame by frame access to my video files. I tried to make the controls intuitive and non-intrusive. I am defining the available tools for deconstruction as stuttering/limping and slow motion. Sliding one’s finger up and down changes the degree to which those tools are used. Sliding left and right scrubs backwards and forwards in the timeline. In addition, a cursor appears when sliding and its shape represents the selected degree of deconstruction. The piece begins on gentle slow motion, at half speed. Slide upwards to shift into limping/stuttering, the more you slide, the more vigorous it gets. Slide downwards to return to slow motion, and the further you slide, the slower it gets. In addition, sliding right and left scrub forwards and backwards, respectively, allows the user to hone in on the moments that appeal to him.
In addition, to further convey the sense of ephemera, I cut up the larger film into smaller clips and split them into three pathways, each pathway associated with a degree of deconstruction. Limping generally deals more with a frenzied psyche. Extreme slow motion deals with the inability to physically move. The middle pathway lies somewhere in between. When you reach the end of a clip, the next one that it jumps to is determined by the current degree of deconstruction. For example, if you slid your finger upwards, at the transition from one clip to the other, you will shift from the bottom pathway to the top one. Therefore, the journey you take is dependent on the choices you make. It must be run at least three times to see all clips and get the full breadth of emotion, action, and potential narrative.
I’m encouraging one to actively explore the film by manipulating it, but at the same time the user must be receptive to what the image reveals. For example, the man rubbing his face is magnified to seemingly be an attempt to rub away his identity or existence. Who is moving whom? You move the character with your touch, but are you yourself not being moved emotionally? Is your touch aggressive and leading the man to his death? Is it soft and caring? Perhaps it’s sexual, in your control. Maybe obsessive in your quest for all the nuance within.
In conclusion, I was driven by an experimental aesthetic that is simultaneously contemplative and harsh. The act of observing is a meditative practice. Deconstructing is an analytical one. I am empowering the viewer to do both by my choice in changing the screen and introducing touch control. Overall, my project is an intimate experience with cinema that asks you to approach the moving image in a unique way.