Transformative Retelling?: The Story of Wei Wuxian

https://criticalcommons.org/view?m=yzzBJaWRz

(click through to Critical Commons for the video)

For the last couple of months, I’ve been working on several remix projects that synthesize vidding and videographic criticism in different ways. I’m ready to share one of them now–a 30 minute telling of the 50 episode Chinese drama, The Untamed, set to Sergei Rachmaninnof’s Piano Concerto No.2 in C Minor, performed by Valentina Lisitsa & the London Symphony Orchestra.

I set out to bring together these two instances of epic, romantic creative work: Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto no. 2, which has been dear to me since I was young, and The Untamed, the hit Chinese web series based on the web novel Mo Dao Zu Shi. I was thinking about questions of genre, and initially, I wanted to see what happened when I brought these two highly emotional and beloved works together, as a ship vid on steroids, in a sense. What type of transformation comes out of this synthesis of very different sources that yet seem to share some inherent ethos?

As I began to work, immediately I realized how much the evolving piece resembled another early influence of mine–silent cinema, at least as we experience it now through scores, either recorded or in person. And so I also began to think about what connections there might be between the way we’ve thought about emotion and engagement with narrative in silent cinema and in contemporary engagement with serial drama (and maybe this is also relevant in terms of the transcultural experience of engaging deeply with a drama when you’re dependent on subtitles because you don’t know the language well/at all).

As I thought about how to retell The Untamed in just thirty (well, thirty two) minutes, and how I would need to focus on certain narratives and characters over others, and whether I wanted a fully linear approach or not, I also began to contemplate the way the narrative structure of The Untamed, with its flashbacks within flashbacks and time shifting, speaks to fans accustomed to moving easily between multiple instances of the same story in fan fiction, fan video etc. And on top of that, with the release of the Special Edition on top of the book, manhua, donghua, and web series, The Untamed/Mo Dao Zu Shi itself offers us various ways through the text just as fanworks do.

And finally, as I edited, I became very aware of the aesthetics and narratives norms of vidding as they might differ from the needs of more traditional storytelling and recapping, and also to some degree of classical music. I found myself torn between very tight, quick editing following the assumed “rules” of vidding and a style that was tied somewhat more loosely to the audio to create the feel of watching a silent movie. I also found this tension between re-editing but reconstructing continuity editing so scenes and actions make sense vs. deconstructing continuity editing to follow emotional and thematic logics, as we more commonly do for vidding. I tried to hold an uneasy balance between these approaches, so that the result would be a synthesis rather than siding with one approach or the other.

If you, amazingly, watch this all the way through, thank you! A 30 minute remix is a tough ask I know. I hope though that this piece can be experienced in part or in whole. I wonder now about the difference between the experience of watching the three sections separately and watching the whole thing in one sitting. I’d love to hear your thoughts on any or all of these questions. Thanks for watching and reading!

Interdisciplinary Introspection: Fan Studies Meets Videographic Criticism (and my FSN Premiere)

With this project, I’m not just bringing together vidding and videographic criticism, but also fan studies and videographic criticism. And this is a fascinating but challenging combination. There’s something potentially vital in the interdisciplinary synthesis of fan studies and videographic criticism. Fan studies is an introspective field — acafan or scholar fan perspectives advocate for considering your own personal investment in media, participation in fandom, and fannish history. And like fan studies, videographic criticism asks that we bring the personal to academic study to some degree, even if the personal in this case is our personal creative exploration of the text, our visual preoccupations, our aesthetic sense, or even our own voice. How do these two areas’ emphasis on the personal and the emotional intersect, and how do they differ? What can videographic criticism offer fan studies specifically? What new insights into fandom, fan engagement, and fan affect can videographic explorations help us to access? Do we need to deploy the tools of videographic criticism differently when working with questions of fandom, or with fan works themselves? Conversely, does fan studies offer up new avenues for videographic criticism?

Emotional and explorative dimensions of videographic criticism can help you understand why you love something, and your love can tell you something about the source itself. But can it tell you something about fandom–perhaps with you as proxy—as a very specific example of a fan with particular transcultural and personal placement?

And indeed what about doing videographic work with fan work itself, with fic, or art, or vids? I’ve tried three times myself (here, here, and one a draft video I’m not quite ready to share), and have found that I have to fight a discomfort in reworking a fan work, a feeling that paradoxically doesn’t come up for me when I’m videographically reworking the source itself. There’s a palpable affective difference, for me at least, in implementing videographic tools on fan works. I thought it might be more clear cut if I were performing a “videographic deformation” — enacting an algorithm of sorts on a body of fan work — but actually I found it more compelling when I was working in poetic conversation with other fan works, as I did in my FSN-NA premiere, “No Limits.”

I’ve found working with fan texts videographically to be a challenging but also potentially rewarding undertaking. I do think there’s something there, something for us to learn, by digging creatively into the materiality of fan texts themselves. I’d like to think and write more about this–what questions can we ask of fan texts, videographically? What videographic tools could we deploy, and in hope of what insights/with what purpose?

I’ll close with my FSN NA 2019 vid/eographic premiere, “No Limits.” In this video I wanted to get at the multiplicity of poetics in fan vidding–both aesthetic patterns and the significance of the multiple reiterations, with difference, of beloved images within a given fandom that we see in fanvids shared on YouTube. I can’t imagine getting at these ideas *without* working with fan works… I used some of my own vids as well here to position myself within rather than outside of these patterns of authorship and media engagement.

Experiments in (fan)videographic criticism

For years I’ve been dancing around doing the five videographic exercises offered by my colleagues Jason Mittell and Chris Keathley as part of their recurring Workshop on Scholarship in Sound and Media in (affectionately known by participants as Video Camp) and most recently in the new edition of their book The Videographic Essay: Criticism in Sound and Image (Caboose, 2019). I actually took a stab at the exercises once before, about a year ago, with Twin Peaks: The Return, but ran into a wall with the voiceover exercise, and then the semester began, and well, you know how that goes.

But now, I’m on sabbatical, and beginning to dig into a large multimodal project on transcultural fandom and fan video, and doing these exercises seemed like the perfect way to kick start this project. And wow, was it ever. If you’re stuck with a media-related project (be it academic of fannish), or having trouble in some way, I cannot recommend these more! I feel like they’ve ignited my brain and my creativity, my academic work and my vidding.

So I thought I’d share my exercises here, one by one, and some of my early thoughts on them and the ideas they touch on. If you click through to each exercise’s individual post, I’ll include additional thoughts on each one there.

I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments, and if you decide to do the exercises yourself, please do share the results (if you feel comfortable doing so, of course)!

Videographic Exercise 1: The Pechakucha

GUIDELINES: Pechakucha. Create a video of exactly 60 seconds consisting of precisely 10 video clips from a single film, each lasting precisely 6 seconds, assembled with straight cuts. Audio should be one continuous sequence from the same film with no edits.

Videographic Exercise 2: Voiceover

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/Lstein/clips/the-untamed-videographic-voiceover/

GUIDELINES: Voiceover. Produce a short (3 minute max) video on your selected film using your own voiceover. The voiceover should relay an anecdote, tell a joke, read from some piece of writing, or otherwise provide an independent channel of material not overtly related to your film. The content can be your own original material or reading something others have written / spoken. The project must also incorporate some sound from the film itself. Video should be one continuous sequence from the film; duration and/or scale can be manipulated, but it should include no new video edits.

Videographic Exercises 3: Epigraph

GUIDELINES: Epigraph. Select a sequence from your film, and a quotation from a critical text (not specifically related to your film) of no longer than 10 sentences. Alter the video sequence in some noticeable way using at least two different types of transitions or effects. Either replace or significantly alter the soundtrack. The quotation should appear onscreen in some dynamic interaction with the video. The video should not be longer than 3 minutes.

Videographic Exercises 4: Multiscreen

GUIDELINES: Multiscreen Video. Use a multiscreen process to create a short piece (3 minute max) responding to at least one other video.. The video must contain moments of both fullscreen and multiscreen, with including images from the video(s) you are responding to. All audio and visuals must come from your film or the videos you are responding to. (I’ve adapted here for beyond the camp/class context, and yes, whoops, I didn’t follow that last rule…)

Videographic Exercise 5: Abstract Trailer

GUIDELINES: Videographic Abstract Trailer. Produce a short (no more than 2 minute) abstract trailer of a larger videographic project. This videographic abstract trailer should convey the topic, approach, and tone of the larger project to be (per an article abstract), and relate to the form of the film trailer in some way. One key goal of this video is to make us want to see the larger project. It might also function as a kind of “proposal” that will help you develop the larger project. Think about parameters. (Again, I’ve adapted this slightly to work beyond the class/camp context.)

The Untamed – Abstract Trailer

For my videographic abstract trailer I decided to work with fan videos for The Untamed, rather than with The Untamed itself. I did not try to be comprehensive, but just chose five of my favorite The Untamed fan videos (and ones that I thought would work well for this) in combination with two of my own videos.

I was somewhat torn by how to work with these pieces—how much to cut into and control them. My strong impulse was to leave them intact because what is a vid if not its editing? (Well, and its song, so I’m disrupting that too!)

In the past I’ve made one video/vid which was almost like a deformation, in which I attempted to keep both song and structure as much as I could. I brought together a plethora of vids made from a wide range of fandoms to Florence and the Machine’s “Cosmic Love,” and attempted to keep the visuals from the vids with their original musical association, selecting from where they appeared in each fan vid in relation to the song (though this was complicated somewhat by the fact that I was using a remix of the song :D) Within this structure, I attempted (with the connecting thread of Florence herself) to create an emotional and even semi-narrative flow & meta argument about fandom.

But that approach is very restrictive and can only get you so far, so in the spirit of videographic experimentation, I’ve decided to take a looser approach here and see what poetic exploration might teach me about vidding, transcultural fandom, and The Untamed. I’m happy with how the trailer came out, and excited to dig into the larger piece, which I believe will feature a careful dosage of multiscreen images as well… Stay tuned for that!

The Untamed – Multiscreen

Where to start with this? The Multiscreen exercise asks you to use multiscreen techniques to put your source in conversation with other sources, specifically the sources used by others in the video camp or class cohort. Now, I didn’t have a cohort exactly, doing these as I am on my own from the porch of my house in Vermont. I’m in the right town, wrong time. So I thought: who is my cohort? And I immediately thought of at least one: Lori Morimoto, who did these exercises herself back in 2015 and posted about them here.

But rather than work with her exercises specifically, I had sudden inspiration, and I knew exactly what I had to use: her video essay, entitled hannibal: a fanvid, that I had been one of the open reviewers on for In Transition. hannibal: a fanvid considers affect in the televisuality of Hannibal itself, as the title suggests arguing that the source itself has fanvid-like capacity, but at the same time Morimoto’s video essay argues through its form for a consideration of what videographic criticism and vidding might share, as aesthetic forms. So, Morimoto’s piece is very closely related to everything I’ve been thinking about here. BUT on top of both of those (and perhaps related to the first) both series have key climactic scenes in which one or both main characters fall from cliffs, with cinematography that lovingly dwells on their faces and bodies while also taking in the sweeping mountainous landscape. So clearly these were the scenes to juxtapose—or rather, Morimoto’s vid zeros in on that climactic scene in Hannibal, and so I zeroed in on its counterpart in The Untamed, and let the parallels and disjunctures emerge from there. I was so excited about this parallel that I forgot that the exercise asked that I used some moments of full screen as well, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to interrupt the visual parallels to do so. I realize though that the constant divergent double images might lose some viewers, especially those not familiar with both or either text.

Multiscreen is actually a technique I especially want to dig into in this project. It’s a technique used frequently in videographic criticism and video essays to show parallels and map visual or thematic relationships, but it is rarely used in vidding. I can think of very few exceptions, but I would be remiss not to point to Sisabet’s stunning Twin Peaks: The Return vid, Digital Witness. This vid is a masterpiece, and I’m constantly fascinated upon each rewatch with how the different images speak to one another and guide your eye from one to the next. But I’m curious as to why fan video in its many forms has for the most part resisted multiscreen, and what multiscreen vidding could look like.

Re: the quotes—I made an epigraph out of this as well, or a dual epigraph, and I don’t know how successful that is, but these are exercises, and I’m also using them to work through my thoughts about this project. I opened with the quote from “An Inventory of Shimmers” about variations and journeys of affect and bodies and touch because I wanted to plant a seed about how the images from both series depict the emotional, intimate physicality of two main characters in a moment of epic crisis, bodies mapped on landscapes, and further about how we as viewers in diverse contexts respond to these visuals both in the source and in their repetition (and those images are much repeated, as you might imagine!) in fan video.1 I closed with Bertha Chin and Lori Morimoto’s quote from “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom” about the various investments that could drive transcultural engagement; I was stuck by the parallels between these stylistically visualized elements of intimate physicality, emotion writ large (pain & love) shared across these two texts, one a US television series based on a series of American suspense novels, and the other a Chinese web series based on a Chinese Danmei (Boys Love) Xianxia web novel. What identifications might both of these sets of affective images evoke in viewers coming from a range of national and cultural locations?2 Despite their national and genre differences, both Hannibal and The Untamed have active fandoms, and this multiscreen juxtaposition might start to get at some of the reason why.

Finally, the music, Veronica Zanchi’s beautiful cover of “Love Crime”: I wanted to pay homage to Morimoto’s video essay and to Hannibal itself (and the notion that this song by Siouxsie was created for Hannibal itself), but I also wanted to deviate, to offer a different tone. I discovered this cover by Veronica Zanchi and fell in love with it immediately. There’s something about this cover—how it’s ethereal yet throaty, soaring yet intimate: I felt it created the perfect audioscape for this piece, and I loved that again it was one re-creator beyond the source, so that the whole piece is composed of adaptive ripples of The Untamed, Mo Dao Zu Shi, Hannibal, “Love Crime,” and Lori Morimoto’s video essay work.

(I loved the song so much BTW that I couldn’t resist also making a vid to the whole song, since I only used half the cover here. You can find the vid here.)

  1. Seigworth, Gregory & Melissa Gregg. “An Inventory of Shimmers.” The Affect Theory Reader. Ed. Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg. Durham: Duke UP, 2010. 1-28.
  2. Chin, Bertha and Lori Morimoto, “Towards a Theory of Transcultural Fandom,” Participations: Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, 10(1): 92-108 (2013).

The Untamed – Epigraph

My epigraph quote is from Petra Rehling’s essay, “Harry Potter, wuxia and the transcultural flow of fantasy texts in Taiwan,” which looks at the transcultural reception of Western fantasy novels in Taiwan. This essay considers how the Wuxia traditions of traditional Chinese fantasy map on to the fantasy traditions in Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings. I was drawn to use this quote and this essay for a couple of reasons:

1) In a way, the essay offers the flip side of what I’m looking at in the reception of Xianxia fantasy (a modern offshoot of Wuxia) in English language fandoms, thus suggesting a larger uneven transcultural circuit of myth and fantasy.

2) The epigraph quote offers an alternative to Hiroki Azuma’s contention in Otaku: Database Animals that contemporary fan culture (specifically, Japanese otaku culture specifically, in the early 2000s) represents an abandoning of the “grand narrative,” in favor of a “animalistic database.” While I find much compelling in Azuma’s larger imagining of the database, I’ve been thinking about how fans create and reiterate new myths through and within the database, how fannish database(s) seem to me the space for fostering the birth and growth of new myths. This is likely part of why I’m drawn to these sweeping, epic narratives like The Untamed and Guardian, and the many mythic fan works that they as a result inspire, and also why this quote from Rehling’s essay resonated.

Finally, my music choice:

I’ve loved Rachmaninoff’s second concerto since I was very young. It was one of my first pure musical experiences and loves, at least that I can remember. Its sweeping mix of religiosity, romanticism, and moments of quiet intimacy seem the perfect match to The Untamed and the perfect sonic landscape to explore the creation of new yet quickly beloved romantic myths through popular culture.

Actually, after I’d only seen a couple of episodes of The Untamed, I had already decided that I wanted to vid all fifty episodes to the full concerto in a sort of vid-recap, which I still hope to do as part of this project. So this was my first test drive, to see how the piece works with the visuals and with the series’ thematic preoccupations and emotional tone. What do you think, should I go for the whole long-form vid?

The Untamed – Voiceover

While this video is under dispute on YouTube, it thankfully can reside at Critical Commons, here:

http://www.criticalcommons.org/Members/Lstein/clips/Beloved-the-untamed-videographic-voiceover

The voice over videographic exercise was the one that tripped me up when I first tried to do the videographic exercises to Twin Peaks: The Return last year. There definitely is something challenging about hearing your own voice recorded, and while I’ve done the occasional podcast interview and obviously I get up in front of a classroom to speak all the time, recording audio to edit in my own creative work was basically a non-starter the first time round.

But this time, I changed my approach. I decided I wanted to do something more conversational and more personal. I love that this assignment asks for your voiceover to be about something specifically other than your visual source. Once I fully let go and let the voiceover be its own thing, it actually came quite easily. Of course this means that there will necessarily be seeming disconnect between the visuals and the audio, especially since you’re not supposed to cut into the video, though you can manipulate it. I took advantage of the manipulate clause to lower the opacity and add in some VCR-esque effects; this allowed me to cut out an annoying side character who was really disrupting the piece 😀 and also helped to merge the aesthetic of The Untamed with my memories of watching Dirty Dancing on VHS.

I also made this a bit of a (very rudimentary) epigraph, but with a quote from a space of public media scholarship (rather than a formal academic essay), The Mary Sue. I thought Abby Norman’s piece was a wonderful meditation on how our fannish engagement changes and yet sometimes stays the same over our personal histories. And that is akin to the ideas I hope to get at in this piece: the uneven and messy ways in which I’ve been drawn to different media and characters over time, the complexity of identification, our capacity to identify with multiple characters, our capacity to identify across cultural chasms, the messy space between self-recognition and identification.

And did I have mapped out in my head a whole comparison between Dirty Dancing and The Untamed? Hmmm, not one that holds up if you poke it with even a short stick, but I’d love to read this AU if someone ever writes it!

The Untamed – Pechakucha

So the first exercise, the videographic pechakucha, I found curiously both quite restrictive and almost too open, though I think this is very much by design.

Basically, once you’ve identified your source (in my case, two episodes of The Untamed), then you need to find 10 six second clips, and set them against 1 minute of uninterrupted audio from the series. The exercise description doesn’t specify what guidelines you might use to choose the clips or the audio—and so you can be as free-wheeling or as rule-imposing as you choose as you set about the process.

I actually struggled with this quite a bit at first, and made an initial pechakucha that I didn’t share (okay until now, I’ll link to it here just for the purpose of comparison…). My initial instinct was to use the audio from the opening sequence of The Untamed, in which we hear of the myth of the notorious Yiling Patriarch (who actually turns out to be our lovable and not really that fearsome main lead, Wei Wuxian) told through gossip and through a teacher’s lecture. I thought it would be interesting to juxtapose this gossip/myth making with intimate or daily moments of Wei Wuxian’s life that showed him to be more human and less devil incarnate/stuff of legends.

BUT I ran into a problem that had everything to do with my (trans)cultural situation as an English speaker, non-Chinese speaker, as well as with the distribution of The Untamed. The only video files that existed had the Chinese hardcoded into them, and if I wanted my English-speaking audience (and myself) to understand, I would need the English subs as well, which I burned in so both would be visible. And then on top of that I wanted my audio selection to have subs too, so that the remixed visual and audio could speak to one another, so I created those subtitles myself. This amount of layered audio-visual information (my own manual English subs for the audio, and the Chinese and English subs for the video) turned out to be serious information overload for my test viewers, and also warred with my vidder aesthetics, where I’m always seeking out the most HQ, least busy, logo-less, sub-less source I can find. In the end I had lots of ideas in mind with these juxtapositions, but the video that resulted really just felt like a hot mess.

So I went back to the drawing board with a more instinctive approach. I let myself leave out the English subs and crop out the Chinese subs. I realized that I could engage with those transcultural layers elsewhere—that not every video had to do everything. And I turned back to the spirit of the exercise, which seems designed to let patterns emerge from the source itself and to maybe more intuitively see what limitations you yourself bring to your clip choosing process. This time, I chose audio that was instrumental only, no dialogue, and I chose clips that felt like we were sweeping in and out of the show, high angles and low angles, long shots juxtaposed against close ups, for a sense of movement. I really like what resulted—I felt like it conveys a sense of the series emotional range and thematic and visual preoccupations, all compressed into that 1 minute.

And if my initial version wanted to juxtapose the grand myths being told about Wei Wuxian with his more human reality, then really my preoccupation with the sweeping and intimate found its way into my pechakucha anyway, just more intuitively through my formal choices and through the makeup of the source text itself, rather than through didactic intent.