Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Conceptualizing, Organizing

I basically understand how to sequence black and white photographs in order to build up a stronger statement. At least those images that contain humans. I'm basically not interested in landscape or cityscape. I'm invested in what's conveyed in body language, the slump of the shoulder, turn of the head, expressions of the face and body, gestures. And, of course, I'm make assumptions based on the culture I've grown up in.

I intuitively do a fairly good job of understanding, without adding the layer of conceptualizing and verbalizing (intellectualizing), what's going on, how to chose the images that convey the meaning I, the photographer, want. I've done this for 50,000 years and taught it for almost as long. What I pass along to students seems to make sense, most of the time. I enjoy the surprises when they're trying to 'say' something with a group of photographs that has nothing to do with the way most people would 'read' them. The work of the fellow from Tibet particularly amused me, and so did his ability to understand messages in other student's work that no one in a million years would get. (Students read a lot into their work that we just won't understand by those dumb, flat, black, white and gray things that are pinned to the wall.)

But I don't understand how to edit, sequence, a video. This is a whole new ball game. One really interesting woman, a video doctor, talked for two days about how to make a trailer, the preview which sells the idea to the grant makers. She was marvelous. One exercise was for all of us in the audience to join hands and rock back and forth. This was, if I remember correctly, a physical marker so that we could remember that the tension in a documentary video should see-saw to keep the viewer interested.

I just received the second rough cut of the video of my ex-husband (the briefest marriage in recorded history) and I talking about an abortion I had when we were in college, 1960. (We married after he graduated. I dropped out of school.) So, here's the problem. She, Elizabeth, is a very good editor. She pulled together a disparate amount of footage a colleague and I had taken of a friend of mine, eighty-nine and from Guyana. And I need her to do that with this piece because it's too complicated for me, too interwoven a story of these two old folks talking about what happened 50 years ago before abortions were legal.

In this latest version, she's allowed the viewer to follow a longer arc of our lives, the disappearances (of me) and the comings back together. That pushes the idea that I did become capable, even successful, forward. What I think (at the moment) that what I want is more of the fallacy of memory, an emphasis on the way these old people remember differently about those formative events, and something about how their opinions about it differ. But I am obsessed with memory. Is that an adequate justification for this video?

The video is already too long, 44 minutes. How long would anyone watch two heads talking (with some relief of photographs, etc, superimposed)? Probably 25 minutes. Just the story, please. I asked for some revisions after the first rough cut and it stayed the same length, and took on more about the later paths our lives took.

So, I'm trying to understand how each segment functions. How it pushes A VERSION of the story forward. It's easy to get what we're saying. In the beginning I transcribed all of that, laboriously. What I find, ironically, is that I have to ignore what our faces convey. Mine is always quite forlorn unless I'm actively gesturing or smiling. His is usually rather neutral and he has the voice of a television personality. It's not that he doesn't sigh, or look into the distance, but that he conveys a more stolid appreciation for the historical facts. And it's probable that I look as if they ran me over, which they actually didn't. I'm still here, working like a demon.

So, for the last two days, I have been editing a version which is more along the line of differing memories. Not that I think this is the right way to go about this, but because I want to check out my gut instinct -- which dog knows, may not be the right way to go about this. That's why she is editing it.

I've watched her second edit three times, taking notes about what I think each scene conveys. And I'll watch it more. Take out my notes about the first edit and watch it more. And put what I'd done into a DVD and watch it more, making notes. And then I'll hope that three people I trust will look at this second rough cut and compare it again the way I organized the material (assuming that much of what the editor has done will remain) and help me decide whether it's a good enough of story to just see these two seventy-year-olds talk about the past in different ways, the ways their childhood's and the abortion, effected them. And, of course, I need the editor's opinion about whether, should I decide that's the way to go, focus on the abortion and then our each falling into having children with different partners is enough to make an interesting documentary.


  1. This documentary sounds fascinating. I love reading about the process of putting it together. Not an easy one by the sound of things.

    I, too, share your fascination with memory, it's unreliability, the way two people in the same room can see an event so very differently, almost as if they were in different rooms and this only ten minutes after the event.

    It must have something to do with perspective and capacity. For this reason so much of what we remember is constructed anew each time we remember it.

    I find this fascinating, too. It's a way of redeeming the past from its sheer awfulness. It helps me to make the unthinkable thinkable.

    I suspect it's a process similar to what happens when we remember our dreams. We force them into a coherent shape.

    You seem to be doing this in some ways with your documentary. It's your vision and I think it is at least fifty percent of what will in the end bring the stories to life. Your selection of images and their sequencing which is idiosyncratic to you, colours the experience for each viewer, but each viewer will in turn bring their own view to bear. It's like ripples in a stream ever widening. I love it.

    Thanks so much for this, Melissa.

  2. First, I'm so glad you are pursuing this project. I remember reading your post about this late last year. I think you are going about this the right way. See-sawing between the objective editor and your subjective point of view. Of course YOUR message is the one that must prevail. How to get there is the hard part. I don't think there are shortcuts, there never is when it comes to quality. Keep going!