Critical Contexts

AV in DH

As discussed by Susan Hockey in their 2004 chapter “The History of Humanities Computing,” the field of DH has tended to put textual sources at “center stage” within the development of the discipline. Using computers to analyze and generate new knowledge about/from textual corpora—either by employing “distant viewing,” annotation, or otherwise uniquely digital or computational techniques—has been a mainstay of the field since its earliest incarnations in the mid-20th century. It is only relatively recently that technology with the capacity to run similar computational analysis on moving-images or other visual cultural materials has become accessible to scholars and artists.

Beginning in the early 2000s with Lev Manovich’s groundbreaking work in Cultural Analytics and reflected in other projects such as Frederic Brodbeck’s Cinemetrics, we have seen a slow rise in this subject area within DH. Scott Weingart’s analysis of submissions to the ADHO Conference between 2015-2017 is helpful in quantifying this trend, as the findings shows an uptick from roughly 2% to 9% for submissions within the “film and media studies” subject area, while the “audio, visual, and multimedia” topic jumped from roughly 9% to 13%. While this observational data from one international conference does not necessarily signal a sea change in digital scholarship, it does suggest a growing facet of the field that deeply and meaningfully interrogates visual culture, cinematic history, and the massively proliferating network of digital images which surrounds contemporary life.

Deformative/Deformed Humanities & Digital Surrealism

The lens of “deformative criticism” is useful for conceptualizing digital scholarship within film & media studies and offers multiple, interdisciplinary inroads to this evolving field. First coined in their essay on poetics, “Deformance and Interpretation,” by Lisa Samuels and Jerome McGann in 1999, a deformative approach to literary criticism rejects traditional “reflexive works of analysis” in favor of “responsive works of imagination.” These works (or “performative events”), such as reading a poem backwards or removing all the words except for certain parts of speech, “release or expose the poem’s possibilities of meaning” that would be inaccessible via other forms of close-reading or discursive criticism. Mark Sample succinctly summarizes the value of such an exercise: “Reading backwards revitalizes a text, revealing its constructedness, its seams, edges, and working parts.” What seems truly valuable and revolutionary about deformative criticism is this notion of cracking open a text (or image, or motion-picture, or .wav file) in a manner similar to disassembling a radio or other appliance to see how it works. It is possible to learn more about the object through breaking it down to its constituent parts and laying them out in different contexts and configurations than to study it as a finished, whole thing. This scholarly process is exploratory, creative, and ripe for insight and the generation of new knowledge.

But Sample also argues that this method is constricted by its insistence on “de-forming only to re-form.” In “breaking” a text through a deformative action, the goal still remains to understand the text as an intact, complete thing in its original order or configuration. Rather than remain tethered to this interpretive confinement, Sample suggests a Deformed Humanities approach in which there is no need “to go back to the original text with a revitalized perspective, but to make an entirely new text or artifact” out of its wreckage. In other words, to circuit bend the radio into a new sonic tool rather than reassemble it back to working order, to spawn new texts, artifacts, images, sounds, and meanings than attempt to uphold their original content, structure, or materiality. Artist and media scholar Hito Steyrl, in their seminal essay “Is the Internet Dead?”, situates deformative/deformed practices as part and parcel to the current media landscape wherein digital sounds and images act as “nodes of energy and matter that migrate…proliferate, transform, and activate…morph across different bodies and carriers, acquiring more and more glitches and bruises along the way.” The Deformed Humanities approach operates on similar energy, wherein interpretation is enacted as “doing and knowing, [p]recisely because it relies on undoing and unknowing.”

For the purposes of examining the works of Ozu, and for film & media studies more generally, there is a middle course to be walked between deformative and deformed practices that leverages the strengths of both. The work of Kevin L. Ferguson in the field they have called “digital surrealism” provides excellent examples of this sort of hybridized scholarly/creative methodology that has greatly informed this project. Like the surrealist practices first developed in the early 20th century, digital surrealism “follows in the formal tradition of surrealism by favoring automatic methods and pursuing these in a controlled, systematic way with the purpose to uncover knowledge not immediately perceptible by the rational mind” (Ferguson, 2016, p. 274). This is achieved by first “slicing” a filmic text (evoking the iconic eye-slice in Buñuel surrealist film Un Chien Andalou) “into something wholly new as an object of investigation” (ibid, p. 275) in order to “generate new analytical modes for digital humanists who work with image analysis [and raise] new, comparative, second-order questions that come out of this digitally-aided abstraction” (Ferguson, 2017). Colors of Ozu employs this research methodology in the interest of both augmenting and disrupting “film theory’s rationalist, positivist, semiotic bent” to more fully understand the works of Ozu and as a response to Sample’s call for a more radical form of humanistic inquiry (Ferguson, 2016, p. 270).

The Films & Legacy of Yasujirō Ozu

In Wim Wenders’ documentary Tokyo-Ga (1985), a film searching for what is left of the the now-canonical images of Japanese life found in Ozu’s films in 1980s Tokyo, the German director succinctly and reverently characterizes Ozu’s work as “a sacred treasure of the cinema.” It is true that few auteurs have received the level of critical attention as Ozu, whose name resides in the pantheon of cinematic history and whose more well-known work (namely, 1949’s Late Spring and 1953’s Tokyo Story) often make lists claiming to define the “greatest films ever made.” While it is outside the scope of this project to defend or challenge this standing and, far more importantly, to critically investigate the processes, motivations, and ramifications of these kinds of lists emanating from cultural heritage institutions in the Global North, it is worth acknowledging this fact of Ozu’s legacy simply for the sake of contextualizing this current project within a broader, developed field of study. The sheer amount of scholarship around Ozu’s films provides many useful starting points for our analysis, and while a comprehensive literature review is (again) outside the scope of this project, a few key texts and critical points should be mentioned in the interest of framing the forthcoming analysis within this scholarly discourse.

A great deal of the commentary and criticism about Ozu’s films have focused on the stylistic or formal qualities of the director’s work. Over the course of their career, these features are often written about as solidifying into a distinctive set of strategies related to shot composition, editing style, and camera movement/placement. Adam Bingham helpfully lists these features of Ozu’s “mature (post-1949)” period, some of which include:

It is worth noting that, for the six color films treated in this study, the “predominately static camera” became an entirely static one, as these films do not contain any pans, tilts, or tracking shots.

For those who may not be familiar with Ozu’s work, watching the films released during this “mature” period does induce a kind of déjà vu wherein plots, characters, and familial structures sometimes blur and run together. As noted by Donald Richie, Ozu had “but one major subject, the Japanese family, and but one major theme, its dissolution” (1). While there has been some resistance to this monolithic viewing of Ozu’s films, notably from David Bordwell who contends that “closely scrutinized, his films turn out to be far less alike than people usually think” (2), considering that Ozu repeatedly employed the same actors to play many similar, key roles in their films (most famously, Setsuko Hara and Chishū Ryū), rigorously adhered to specific shooting and editing conventions, and released several films with titles that employ similar evocations of temporal seasons (e.g. Late Spring (1949), Early Summer (1951), Early Spring (1956), Late Autumn (1960), The End of Summer (1961), An Autumn Afternoon (1962)), the casual or non-academic viewer might be excused in forgetting the specific details of these family-centered dramas that usually revolve around generational tensions between parents and children. This narrative and stylistic consistency present in Ozu’s work, far from being a shortcoming, is a deep pronouncement and dedication to craft which is “formal and the formality is that of poetry, the creation of an ordered context that destroys habit and familiarity, returning to each word, to each image, in its original freshness and urgency” (Richie, xiii).

Using the digital tools and methods outlined in the next section, this project hopes produce a similar freshness and new way of looking at Ozu’s cinematic poetry, one that breaks from the confines of traditional viewing and allows for new analytical methods.

Much more detailed and comprehensive analyses of Ozu’s films can be found in many other places. For a few recommendations of where to seek out these commentaries, see the Resources and Learning Tools section on this site.

Next: Methods & Tools

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