‘No Voiding Time’ is concerned with the sensorium of Inherent Vice (dir. Paul Thomas Anderson), the 2014 adaptation of the 2009 novel of the same name by Thomas Pynchon. The videoessay adopts a ‘deformative’ approach, meaning that it subjects a digital copy of the film Inherent Vice to a set of parametric procedures in order, as Jason Mittell puts it (2019: 231), to ‘make the original work strange’. The analytical activity of deformative criticism is one of ‘making-strange’ through the creation of a new aesthetic object. In this case, Inherent Vice was divided into its individual component shots and sorted into four screens, with the sound retained but adjusted in volume in relation to each other shot. The result is that Inherent Vice is compressed into just over a quarter of its original length and the time of the film gets ‘folded’ back on itself: responses may precede questions in the dialogue, and a long take may continue to play on one of the four screens long after another scene that follows it in the original film.
The commentary that follows the videoessay places ‘No Voiding Time’ in the context of current videographic work in film studies, especially in relation to deformative approaches, and tries to define the character of the ‘propositional’ knowledge provided by the videoessay and by deformative approaches as such. It describes the parameters through and by which Inherent Vice becomes ‘No Voiding Time’, and sets out the videoessay’s point of references in criticism on Pynchon and Paul Thomas Anderson, in films like Timecode (dir. Mike Figgis, 2000), and in cubist painting.
In my vision of the Deformed Humanities, there is little need to go back to the original. […] The deformed work is the end, not the means to the end.— Mark Sample (2012)
1. The Sensorium of Inherent Vice
It’s a truism to say that a film is as much concerned with the construction of an experience as it is with character, themes, plot, and so on. As Roger Ebert is supposed to have said, it’s not what a movie is about, it’s how it is about it. Still, in certain genres and in certain films the experiential is emphasised to a greater degree and encouraged to the perceiver’s reflexive attention by the fact that aspects like plot are rendered elusive or absurd. This is the case with the action movie, say, and it is the case with Inherent Vice (Paul Thomas Anderson, 2014), which, even as it narrates an investigation, immerses the viewer in the protagonist’s own stoner haze. As such, the film is ‘faithful’ to its source, Thomas Pynchon’s historical/detective meta-novel of the same name (Pynchon 2009), a book complex or confusing enough to have inspired a website devoted to the diagrammatic representation of its five plots and its ‘130 characters and their countless relationships’. Jonathan Romney (2014a) comments that Pynchon’s is ‘a type of storytelling in which linearity is only ever superficial, in which chains of events really tend to frieze-like simultaneity’. ‘Frieze-like simultaneity’ is an excellent and paradoxical phrase, because it translates the temporal unfolding of sjuzhet into something that offers itself to be grasped—or at least perceived—in its totality all at once (as the contents of a film or a book cannot be). The film adopts and adapts this paradoxical aspect of Pynchon’s poetics, so that the haphazard enquiry carried out by private investigator Doc Sportello never arrives at a revelation of truth through its succession of conversations (about the nature of the Golden Fang) and concerns (the fates of Shasta and Coy Harlingen). When revelation is deferred and significant information proliferates to the extent that it can’t be grasped, attention comes to settle on aesthetic means rather than narrative ends. As Romney (2015b) puts it of the film Inherent Vice: ‘I found myself listening to the dialogue almost on a purely aesthetic level, as if it were abstract, like music.’
‘No Voiding Time’ is concerned with the experience of Inherent Vice. It is an attempt to allow the sensorium that is the film (its mise-en-scène, performances, editing, voices, sound effects and music) to find distilled expression. I wanted to make the film more like itself, as it were, even as the videoessay compresses the film’s duration to achieve an analytical temporality, a folding time that unveils the film’s frieze-like simultaneity.
2. Scholarly Deformation
In a recent essay on videographic criticism, Jason Mittell (2019: 225) talks of how ‘the past decade has seen a set of norms and practices coalesce around what are often called “video essays”’. This is true: we now have a broadly recognisable set of genres, as described in van den Berg & Kiss (2016, section 3:2), ranging from the illustrated lecture to the supercut, in which videographic criticism is couched. However, there is not yet universal agreement on what constitutes scholarship in videographic criticism, and indeed van den Berg & Kiss’ book is in part dedicated to a critique of the ‘poetic’ mode of videoessay work in which ‘No Voiding Time’ is composed. In words that might be seen to describe my videoessay in ungenerous vein, van den Berg & Kiss (2016, section 3:3) speak of ‘videos [that] restrict themselves to the material of the case study as the sole artefact of information, and build-ups hardly venture beyond a single observation that is stressed over and over’. What kind of research and scholarship, then, is ‘No Voiding Time’, and what is the character of the knowledge it provides?
The answer to the first part of the question is indicated in the videoessay’s subtitle. Named in a programmatic essay by Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann (1999), deformative criticism ‘is a playful method that aims to deliberately transform the texts it engages’ (Buurma & Gold 2018: 146), and one that has lent itself to experimental activities in critical digital humanities and videographic work. Deformative approaches tend to be a combination of interpretation and creative re-elaboration; or rather, they constitute interpretation as re-elaboration or as remix. Perhaps deformative criticism is best described through examples, and I give some below, but Mittell (2019: 231) explains it as follows: ‘Such an approach strives to make the original work strange in some unexpected way, deforming it unconventionally to reveal aspects that are conventionally obscured in its normal version and discovering something new from it.’ Mittell goes on to say that the deformative approach is often ‘algorithmic’, whether in the narrow sense of operating according to a computerized step-based procedure, or in the broader sense of subjecting a work to one or more generative constraints or parameters.
In their article on deformative criticism, Samuels and McGann focus especially on poetry (1999) and offer an illustrative series of ‘deformations’ of the poem ‘The Snow Man’ by Wallace Stevens. They explain that their ‘critical and interpretive question is not “what does the poem mean?” but “how do we release or expose the poem’s possibilities of meaning?”’ (Samuels & McGann 1999: 28). Taking their point of departure from a suggestion by Emily Dickinson that her poems might be read backwards, their first deformation inverts the order of the verses in Stevens’ poem. In the second and third deformations, they play with the omission of certain categories of word (fig. 1).
‘Approaching Steven’s poetry through its non-semantic elements’, they write, ‘we want to show how its pretensions to meaning are not so much a function of ideas as of style’ (Samuels & McGann 1999: 37), and it is the case that deformative criticism orients itself to meaning via a concern with aesthetics. This makes it quite traditional in emphasis if not in method. Moreover, it has been argued that deformative criticism is
in keeping with the principles of conventional interpretation, in that all interpretation reformulates the sources under discussion in the act of interpreting them. As Stephen Ramsay has put it, ‘any reading of a text that is not a recapitulation of that text relies on a heuristic of radical transformation’, in which the critic has ‘paraphrased, elaborated, selected, truncated, and transduced’ the source text.Buurma & Gold 2018: 146
What might be said to distinguish the deformative approach from conventional interpretation is its experimental character. ‘When we run the deformative programme through a particular work we cannot predict the results’ (Samuels & McGann 1999: 36). And it is this experimental element of surprise that has attracted videographic practitioners like Jason Mittell.
Mittell’s deformative experiments with average shot length (ASL) and what he calls ‘equalized pulse’ are particularly notable in this context (they are described in Mittell 2019a: 235-9, and also on his blog (Mittell 2016), where the deformed films themselves are embedded). ASL is the division of the run time of a film by its number of discrete shots. The resulting number may be taken to indicate something about a film’s overall editing pace. Mittell’s ‘equalized pulse’ approach involves forcing ‘a film to conform to its own average by speeding up or slowing down each shot to last precisely as long as its average shot length’ (Mittell 2019a: 236). This experiment might be performed with a whole film, though Mittell has limited himself to scenes or sequences derived from a variety of genres and historical periods, for example the Broadway Melody sequence from Singin in the Rain. The result, claims Mittell (2019a: 237), is ‘very strange—but productively so, both by revealing editing strategies in the original film and by creating new aesthetic objects out of the film’s raw materials.’
For my purposes here, it is this claim that interests me rather than the outcomes of Mittell’s equalized pulse experiments as such. His words suggest that the analytical activity of deformative criticism is one of making-strange, and one, moreover, undertaken and achieved through the creation of a new aesthetic object. But if the vocabulary of estrangement recalls Brecht’s Verfremdungseffekt, then it is important to clarify that the analysis in this case operates on the affective and experiential plane and not just on the conscious or intellectual plane. At the same time, deformative criticism does not aspire to the explanatory ‘redundancy’ of conventional academic writing (as van den Berg & Kiss suggest it should). Instead of making the viewer the receiver of the report and illustration of an argument, the deformative approach elicits the engagement of the viewer in determining the critical registers and analytical implications of the ‘discussion’. Ultimately, the concern with meaning is secondary to that of the creative potentials released. The question that may be raised by the deformative work is not ‘What is it we now know?’, but ‘What next? What can be done with this?’.
3. The Videoessay: Generative Parameters
The deformative parameters according to which ‘No Voiding Time’ was generated from Inherent Vice are set out in the table below (fig. 2-4).
4. Points of Reference and Coordinates
The combination of multiscreen and the ‘Tetris’ editing procedure of ‘No Voiding Time’ derives from a section of a videoessay I made on The Battle of Algiers (fig. 5) in which I used a mosaic format of nine screens to show the development across the film of its carnivalesque moments (O’Leary 2019). My method was less rigorous (in the sense of strictly parametric) there, in that I deliberately selected the shots to use, but each shot was used only once, and the juxtapositions generated were to a great extent random. Having completed that videoessay, I wanted to try something more consistent and thoroughgoing as part of an ongoing research project into historical cinema.
Inherent Vice suggested itself for the reasons explained at the beginning of this commentary, but also because it is a film made up of a high proportion of shot/reverse shot dialogue scenes. My four-screen format would work to ‘fold’ the time of the encounter back in on itself. I thought of this as analogous to the approach to picture design known as ‘analytical cubist’, as in the examples below by Picasso and Georges Braque (fig. 6-7). Paintings like this are usually described in terms of what they do with space, but they can also be seen as modelling the passage of time (as the gaze takes in the head of another person or as one’s body moves around a table), making time tangible and plastic. The videoessay title comes from a phrase heard in Sortilege’s voiceover towards the end—‘There is no voiding time…’—and I aimed in this videoessay to treat, or reveal, time as a volume rather than a void. The treatment of time is a key issue for historical cinema of course (Inherent Vice is set in 1970), and I was also interested in what the deformative procedure would reveal about the relationship between and among the heavily edited dialogue scenes, the longer takes for which Paul Thomas Anderson is renowned, and the brief ‘staged shots, panoramas and “big canvas” moments like The Last Supper’ (Romney 2015b) that allude to and ironize the film’s relationship to historical cinema of the middlebrow sort.
I have said that the multiscreen format of ‘No Voiding Time’ comes from another of my videoessays, but split-screen and multiscreen are in fact a staple, even a cliché, of videographic work, and split-screen in cinema, though infrequently used in feature film, dates back to the 1920s. A famous multiscreen example of feature film was a particular point of reference in my videoessay. Timecode (Mike Figgis, 2000) uses DV cameras to record a series of intersecting stories in single takes and real time (the films lasts ninety-five minutes). Timecode follows the convention (contravened in my videoessay) that the multiple screens show parallel passages in time, but ‘cubist’ effects are occasionally generated when separate cameras, and therefore more than one of the four screens, capture the same characters from different perspectives, as in the two lower screens in figure 8, below (fig. 8-9).
Aylish Wood (2008) has analysed Timecode in terms of how the multiscreen format—or interface, as she dubs it—operates to distribute the attention of the viewer of the film. Attention is cued in various ways: sound, of course, and I return to this in a moment; but other devices include camera movement, focus, gesture and performance, plotting and degrees of dramatic tension, and ‘the growing awareness by the viewer of the potential connections between the different characters’ (Wood 2008: 221). The competence of the viewer of Timecode in managing their distributed attention (which might dwell on one screen, or more than one simultaneously) is initially engaged by the fact that the individual screens are introduced sequentially, with the top right screen occupying the frame for almost two minutes, as dialogue and non-diegetic music compete on the soundtrack, before another screen appears, then a third a minute after that, and the fourth a minute later again. (The first screen appears towards the end of the title sequence, which has already introduced the four-screen format with abstracted imagery alluding to the filmmaking process and technology.) I chose, instead, to have the four screens appear all at once at the opening of ‘No Voiding Time’, for the same reason that I omit the black strip that separates the four screens in Timecode. The videoessay is intended to offer an experience of immersion, and I’m more interested in the gestalt than its facets. (The makers of Timecode are also interested in the effect of the whole, naturally, but they are concerned to keep the facets distinct, as the film builds to a climax, in a way unnecessary for me.)
Still, I have to some extent followed Timecode in cueing attention through the treatment of sound. Timecode sometimes treats sound in a purposely crude manner, abruptly dropping the volume of the dialogue on one screen, say, in order to orient attention to events in another, so that we can see but not hear the actors speak. I do this too in ‘No Voiding Time’, but in a more fragmentary manner, consistent with the editing pace of Inherent Vice itself, increased exponentially by the multiscreen folding of the original. This allows me to isolate interesting effects, as when a response precedes an enquiry, or to emphasise motifs in the dialogue. (My deformative procedure has generated overlapping dialogue throughout, in a fragmentary and nonsensical but I hope musical fashion. Notably, overlapping dialogue in feature film, as in the work of Robert Altman, is typically combined with tableau staging and single takes. This is because it is very difficult to match images and overlapping dialogue in a conventional decoupage of shot/reverse shot.) I also mimicked the punctuation of Timecode by moments where music that is non-diegetic, and therefore not associated with any of the individual screens, comes to dominate the soundtrack. I use this effect in the videoessay, even if the music (for example, songs by Minnie Riperton and Neil Young) originates from a single screen. Again, this generates interesting effects as both the compiled songs and the composed musical score (by Jonny Greenwood) get fragmented and re-emerge unpredictably and out of the order in which they were originally recorded.
I was not aiming for any effect of sense or coherence in the dialogue, but I did feel that an interventionist treatment of sound was necessary to aid the immersive character of the videoessay as whole. Experiments with a strictly parametric approach to my four soundtracks—whether simply superimposing the tracks unchanged upon each other or trying various rules to privilege one track over another—generated distracting results. It is the case, I think, that algorithmic approaches to sound and music (which have a long and complex history) can often be abrasive in effect. Mittell’s deformative exercises in equalized pulse, for example, can be quite unpleasant to listen to, as sound is slowed or accelerated to a growl or screech. It’s notable that in a more recent deformative work, coincidentally employing the four-screen format used in ‘No Voiding Time’, Mittell retains diegetic sound effects but overlays the whole with a rock song, so that the (very satisfying) result has much in common with rock video (Mittell 2019b). My intensive interventions in the four soundtracks of ‘No Voiding Time’, illustrated below with a screen grab of a section of the timeline (fig. 10), were in any case designed better to characterise and encourage immersion in the aural dimension of the film’s sensorium.
Rather than imposing strict arbitrary parameters on the treatment of sound in the videoessay, at least beyond the constraint that the link between sound and image was retained for every shot, I manipulated the sound with reference to a set of three coordinates (as I thought of them). These coordinates derived from my own concerns with historical cinema, from critical writing about Thomas Pynchon’s historical novels, and from reviews of the film Inherent Vice. Here is a summary of those coordinates and an illustrative selection of the quotations that informed them.
1. Paranoia as cognitive mapping
A notion of polyvocal history leads Pynchon to advocate paranoia as a form of cognitive mapping. (Elias 2012: 124)
When Doc’s long and winding investigation of a (possibly) kidnapped real-estate impresario’s whereabouts leads to his stumbling across the aforementioned massive international corporatized criminal conspiracy [the Golden Fang], it becomes clear that it’s actually communism’s evil twin that Doc is battling—that the spectre haunting the world is capitalism, natch. (Nayman 2015: 51)
2. Scales of history
What we get is [sic] shards, some more glittering than others. (Lane 2014)
Anderson’s movie is a sort of meta-period piece — an ironic equivalent of the Technicolor wide-screen Hollywood superproductions that enshrined classic or best-selling novels: Moby Dick, say, or Lust for Life (both 1956). (Hoberman 2015)
What Anderson does not do is stuff Inherent Vice with wads of period detail. It’s much quieter on the senses than American Hustle, say, and, for a major studio production, it’s amazingly low on establishing shots. […] Closeups carry the burden of seventies whimsy (I fast became obsessed with Doc’s telephone, as green as a scoop of mint chocolate chip), whereas the background clutter is relatively spare. (Lane 2014)
Mainly, the movie is a series of one-on-ones between Phoenix, looking like Abbie Hoffman with mutton chops, and a mad variety of ’60s archetypes [..]. Thanks to this overabundance of character acting, Anderson’s Inherent Vice has a cartoon density. (Hoberman 2015)
3. Voice and music
‘“What the fuck” makes me happy,’ says Josh Brolin. (Smart 2014)
The film doesn’t feel narratively or stylistically ‘orchestrated’, but comes across more like a free-associative jam session, a succession of eccentric solos and spiky duets. (Romney 2015a)
Then there are the Byzantine complexities of the film’s dialogue. True to Pynchon’s text, it’s hard to follow in the first place, but it is often almost drowned out by music, either by Jonny Greenwood’s languid, Debussy-esque orchestrations, or by a mix of obscure surf tracks, Les Baxter exotica and cop-show TV themes, a selection prompted by the book itself. Given that Anderson’s cast includes actors not exactly famed for the bell-like clarity of their delivery (Owen Wilson, Benicio del Toro), the dialogue often ceases to be audible as dialogue and becomes abstract music; in a largely whispered scene between Wilson and Phoenix, their voices float airily like flutes. (Romney 2015a)
I used these coordinates to orientate my material thinking in the manipulation of the four sound tracks. The first coordinate marked an interest in a ‘paranoid’ vision derived from Thomas Pynchon, emerging in formal ways as well as in the content of the film (the climax of this theme occurs in the scenes with the dentist played by Martin Short, which deformative luck allowed to play out, in the videoessay, on all four screens). This paranoid vision articulates in (to me) interesting ways with the intimate and mostly interior scale of historical representation preferred in the film (the second coordinate), which in turn finds ironic expression in dialogue peppered with repeated motifs and undermotivated inferences and connections (the third coordinate). The musicality of the dialogue, and its partial subordination to actual music, frustrates the search for sense even as it exaggerates the expressive characteristics of the actors’ speech and phatic elements like coarse language. To speak of the film in this way is to interpret, of course. And, in my interventionist manipulation of the soundtracks and their relation to each other, I was performing a quite conventional interpretative activity of foregrounding certain of the film’s aspects and themes. But this activity was not an exhaustive or exclusive one: the object itself (the videoessay as it exists) has more to say about, and may contradict, the emphases I make in my interpretive manipulation of the soundtracks.
5. What Next?
I have asked, above, what is the character of the knowledge provided by ‘No Voiding Time’, and so also by deformative criticism as such. The answer, I believe, is knowledge that is procedural and not only indicative. Certainly, as Mittell suggests, the deformative approach can and does ‘reveal aspects that are conventionally obscured’ about the object of study, but more exciting than the mere ‘fact’ of the aspects revealed is the potential generated for further research-creation (a term taken from Erin Manning (2016)). To use the terms attributed to Roger Ebert and quoted at the beginning of this commentary, this has more to do with the ‘how’ than with the ‘what’ of the deformative videoessay. What ‘No Voiding Time’ is about is the sensorium of Inherent Vice—the film’s imagining and sonification of history; but the videoessay may be more interesting for how it accesses that subject, for its own heuristic sensorium, so to speak. In other words, while I am interested in what the videoessay reveals about Inherent Vice, I am equally interested in what the study of Inherent Vice has revealed about the potential of the videoessay’s method.
For that reason, I want to conclude with suggestions for just three of the many possible applications or developments of the parametric approach used in ‘No Voiding Time’. Firstly, I can imagine someone with programming expertise generating a looped and increasingly ‘chaotic’ deformative version of Inherent Vice—or of any other film—according to the generative parameters outlined above, whereby as one of the multiple screens plays out the final sounds and images of the original film, the other screens would begin again with images from the beginning of the film, and so on, potentially ad infinitum. (Could a webpage be built to host this infinite essay? Perhaps it would be a gallery installation.) Secondly, I can imagine two or more films being treated on the same timeline according to the ‘Tetris’ procedure, so that the films combine and contrast simultaneously. I can imagine using this procedure to compare tropes and motifs from historical cinema, for example the history film’s typical mix of intimate and macro scales, with love scenes and interiors combined, in the same frame, with epic battles and panning shots across historical landscapes. Thirdly, I want to imagine a version of this deformative approach that starts with the sound rather than image. What surprising relationships would be generated among the images in the multiscreen frame if, rather than the shot, chunks of sound became the unit of division on the multi-track timeline?
It may be unusual in the humanities to imagine research not as the activity of answering questions about a given topic, but as a practical enquiry into the affordances of a method. It is perfectly common in the arts, however. The example of cubism, mentioned above, is instructive: Braque and Picasso, and the very many artists who followed them in adopting cubist methods in the 1910s and 1920s, were engaged in an examination of what cubism, as a means of orientating oneself to the phenomenal world, could achieve. One learned new things about the world with cubism, certainly, but the key impulse was to test and develop cubism itself. Following this model—albeit at a modest scale of ambition and influence—practitioners of deformative methods in videographic scholarship can use their enquiries into film, television, games etc., to further refine and develop the capacities of deformative criticism as such. I conceive of my own applications of the parametric multiscreen method used in ‘No Voiding Time’ as one narrow but productive strand within this community of enquiry.
* * *
- Buurma, Rachel Sagner & Matthew K. Gold (2018). ‘Contemporary Proposals about Reading in the Digital Age’, in David H. Richter (ed.), A Companion to Literary Theory (Oxford: Wiley Blackwell), 139-150.
- Elias, Amy J. (2012). ‘History’, in Inger H. Dalsgaard, Luc Herman & Brian McHale (eds), The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Pynchon (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press), 123-35.
- Hoberman, J. (2015). ‘Splendor in the Grass’ (review of Inherent Vice), Artforum International 53:5, 63.
- Jameson, Fredric (1988). ‘Cognitive Mapping’, in C. Nelson & L. Grossberg, eds, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture (Basingstoke: Macmillan Education), 347–360.
- Lane, Anthony (2014). ‘Swinging Seventies’ (review of Inherent Vice), New Yorker, 15 December.
- Lynch, Kevin (1960). The Image of the City (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press).
- Manning, Erin (2016).’Ten propositions for Research-Creation’, in Noyale Colin & Stefanie Sachsenmaier, eds, Collaboration in Performance Practice: premises, Workings and Failures (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan), 133-141.
- Mittel, Jason (2016). ‘Videographic Deformations: Equalized Pulse’, blog post dated 17 January 2016.
- Nayman, Adam (2015). Review of Inherent Vice, Cineaste,Spring 2015, 50-51.
- O’Leary, Alan (2019). ‘Occupying Time: The Battle of Algiers’. Videoessay and commentary in [In]Transition 6:3.
- Pynchon, Thomas (2009). Inherent Vice (London: Penguin).
- Romney, Jonathan (2015a). ‘Strange Daze’, Sight & Sound 25:2, 18-21.
- Sample, Mark (2012). ‘Notes towards a Deformed Humanities’. Blog essay posted 2 May.
- Samuels, Lisa and Jerome McGann (1999). ‘Deformance and Interpretation’, New Literary History 30:1, 25-56.
- Smart, Jack (2014). ‘Inherent Vice: Interview with Josh Brolin’, Back Stage 55:48, 26.
- van den Berg, Thomas & Miklós Kiss (2016). Film Studies in Motion: From Audiovisual Essay to Academic Research Video (University of Groningen).
- Wood, Aylish (2008). ‘Encounters at the Interface: Distributed Attention and Digital Embodiments’, Quarterly Review of Film and Video 25:3, 219-229.