Teaching with Film

By Holly WillisMarch 28, 2019

Teaching with Film
WHAT CAN MOVIES teach us about writing?

I think about this question a lot, in part because I have the unique luck to teach a graduate workshop called Creative Critical Writing in the Media Arts + Practice program in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. The intention of the class was to loosen up our PhD students as they embark on their dissertations. Faced with an immense project that requires integrating critical theory with their own particular art practice, my students sometimes freeze, especially with regard to the writing portion of the endeavor. Even bold artists are prone to headlong retreat, letting a sea of other voices overwhelm what they might have to say about their own work.

The writing workshop shakes things up a bit. It is willfully impractical and playful; I refuse to discuss how to make an argument, cite a source, or review the literature. In place of citation, we shamelessly borrow and steal. And rather than consider bolstering a disciplinary system through proper academic behavior, we revel in undoing, unmaking, unraveling. We talk about voice by whispering and screaming. We feel the punch of punctuation. We chant our favorite words until they dissolve into meaninglessness. We get a little feral and we write and write and write.

And, because we are within the cinematic arts, I bring out the movies. This is one of the best parts of the workshop. Below, I offer a few examples of how we borrow techniques from moving images to catalyze and even reimagine our writing practice.


“Automatic Writing” | William Kentridge | 2003 | 3:00

South African artist William Kentridge has created a series of short animated films in which he draws a scene with charcoal, then smudges and erases portions of the picture, captures a film frame, and then redraws over the rubbed out image, before capturing yet another frame. Through this painstaking process of sketching, erasure, and redrawing frame by frame, a world emerges and then fades away, only to materialize again, but changed. Traces of the past remain in the flux of marking and making.

Our example in class is Automatic Writing, Kentridge’s beautiful 2003 film in which we watch the play of appearance and dissolution as the artist conjures buildings, a fountain, a living room, and a nude woman, among other things. Images and scenes appear and then dissolve into the next sequence, the black marks rubbed to a dull gray. At one point, the only movement in a room stuffed with furniture comes from the flickering fins of fish in a bowl. The film also includes abundant amounts of handwriting — words, scribbles, diagrams — and it is as if we are moving through the quickly paced reveries of a distracted mind.

After viewing Automatic Writing, the participants in the workshop talk about the artist’s process, which suggests the messiness of writing, to be sure. We also discuss the technique of automatic writing, derived from Surrealism, in which writers register their thoughts without pausing for a set amount of time, allowing the unconscious to reveal itself. But more than either of these motifs, the film seems to embody the mercurial flow of writing, the ways in which writing can only be achieved through the fundamental act of putting pencil to paper (or fingers to keyboard). Further, while we may sit down to write something — a poem about love, perhaps — if we let it, the writing will scurry elsewhere. Kentridge may know where he is going, but moment by moment, the drawing is in a state of becoming indelibly tied to what was previously on the page. And it is this becoming-writing that is so magical. Finally, the film underscores the idea that erasure may be as significant, if not more so, than the writing itself. This is a challenging lesson for academic writers, who are encouraged to go long and dense. But elision and cutting away can render a lean, or perhaps elliptical, piece.


“A Man and His Dog Out for Air” | Robert Breer | 1957 | 2:00

The flowing contour drawing created by American animator Robert Breer in his extraordinary 1957 short film A Man and His Dog Out for Air restricts its perspective to a small area of the screen, revealing only a tiny bit of the world at a time. As the constantly moving, black hand-drawn lines morph and twist, they begin to disclose an entire streetscape, and slowly, we glean that there is indeed a man and a dog out for air. However, the setting and our characters appear only through a limited point of view, ever so gradually.

The visual illustration of how to restrict point of view is another welcome tool for writing. Breer cleverly narrows the horizon in his film to pique our interest; we are called on to solve the mystery of the story unfolding before us. In fiction, this technique can bring us in close to characters as we witness only what they see and hear. In nonfiction, we can be limited to the view of our narrator, and to powerful effect. The world becomes quite close and intimate.


“Hand Movie” | Yvonne Rainer | 1966 | 8:00

Filmmaker, dancer, and choreographer Yvonne Rainer has made an extraordinary collection of films, the earliest of which is simply titled Hand Movie. Created as an experiment, the eight-minute piece was shot in 8mm black-and-white film in 1966 by fellow artist William Davis and features footage only of Rainer’s hand held up in front of the camera. The hand begins to move, with the fingers bending, wrapping, pushing, and rubbing throughout the full duration of the film. The hand gradually transforms from a familiar body part to some strangely contorted and even grotesque shape before resolving back into its simple hand-ness. It is nearly impossible to watch Hand Movie without feeling the hand’s movements in your own body.

Inspired by Rainer’s focus, what can you discern through absolute attention to one thing? It may be a part of your body, or it may be some other material object. Can you bring discipline and extreme patience to the act of looking at what is before you and writing what you perceive? Can you let go of assumptions, names, and categories and let the thing’s thingness become strange and new to you?

Stop and Circle!

Play>>” | Liisa Lounila | 2003 | 5:00

One of the most dazzling cinematic techniques in recent film history involves slowing time down in order to circle a specific moment. Time, in a sense, becomes space. Known as bullet-time, the filmmaking technique was perhaps most famously used in The Matrix in 1999, when Neo (Keanu Reeves) dodges a bullet, which he sees coming toward him in slow motion, while the camera arcs up and around him in a balletic swoop. To create the bullet-time effect, filmmakers stage an array of cameras around the scene to be filmed, often in a semi-circle. The cameras are triggered simultaneously, capturing an instant on each. Then, in post-production, the images from each camera are stitched together and — voila! — a single moment in time can be moved through spatially. We travel around the scene, sweeping through the space of a moment.

Bullet-time has a rich history prior to The Matrix, from the sequential images captured by photographer Eadweard Muybridge to the playful distortions of time and space in the music videos of Michel Gondry, but for our purposes, it serves as yet another visualization of a writing technique. In class, I use the work of Finnish video artist Liisa Lounila, who has made a handful of intriguing bullet-time short films using pinhole cameras. In Play >> (2003), for example, the camera seems to prowl through a gathering of young revelers carousing at a party. However, the celebration remains eerily suspended in time. We move, but nothing else does in the scene; through this meandering, however, we have time to learn more about the quiescent scene around us.

Translating bullet-time to our writing, we can analogously stop a scene and move through it more slowly, stepping outside the flow of the narrative in order to reflect and elaborate. We can also shift our attention, moving from one topic or object to another, or shift point of view, examining the world from changing narratorial perspectives. Imagine walking through the scene in slow motion and looking around the slowed unfolding of the event: what else might be visible?


Removed | Naomi Uman | 1999 | 7:00

In her 1999 film Removed, filmmaker Naomi Uman took a segment of found porn footage, painted nail polish over everything but the images of the nude female bodies, and then doused the polished footage in bleach, thereby removing only the unpolished imagery. The result is a porn film in which the body of the woman disappears. In its place is a writhing, pulsing washed-out shape, the absence that conditions the rest of the image. Removed lets us see the footage anew; things that we may have ignored in the unadulterated imagery now become visible.

How can we use this technique in our writing? Of course, appropriated texts provide rich resources, and the borrowed form is a well-known device in both fiction and nonfiction. In addition, Uman’s clever play of covering one portion of the image and then dissolving a different segment suggests a manner of both safeguarding and destroying our source material. If you appropriate a piece of text, what elements can be “covered” and the rest “dissolved”? And how does removal forever change what remains?

Many writers cheerfully sit down and write without a problem. However, some of us can use a little help in the form of techniques that defamiliarize the writing process. Through tactics culled from fellow artists, we can step outside of our habitual approaches and play a bit, and perhaps see the world ­— and write it — anew.


Holly Willis teaches classes in writing, film, and new media in the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.


Banner image from Automatic Writing.

LARB Contributor

Holly Willis is a professor in the Media Arts + Practice Division in USC’s School of Cinematic Arts, where she teaches classes on digital media, post-cinema, and feminist film. She is the author of Fast Forward: The Future(s) of the Cinematic Arts and New Digital Cinema: Reinventing the Moving Image, as well of Björk Digital, and the editor of both The New Ecology of Things, a collection of essays about ubiquitous computing, and David O. Russell: Interviews.


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