Indy Vinyl investigates two related research questions. The first focuses on debates about the ‘subcultural’ identity of contemporary American Independent Cinema, exploring the representation of vinyl as a visual, aural and narrative expression of that identity; the second interrogates the value of using videographic film criticism, alongside writing, as a methodology particularly suited to disclosing research insights on this topic. The project, therefore, revolves around a niche theme (record-playing moments in 148 American Independent films), in order to intervene in scholarly debates in two broad areas: the identity of contemporary American Independent Cinema; and the use of audiovisual research methods in film studies. Further discussion of these research questions follows below:
- How has the recurring depiction of vinyl contributed to American Independent Cinema’s identity as a distinctive film movement?
This question arises from an initial observation about industrial and cultural trends emerging in the late 1980s/early 1990s: (1) the usurping of the record as the most popular music-playing format, and its subsequent reinvention as a niche consumer choice; (2) the rise of American Independent Cinema in its contemporary manifestation, buoyed by the emergence of Miramax and landmark indie breakout successes such as Sex, Lies and Videotape (d. Steven Soderbergh, 1989) and Reservoir Dogs (d. Quentin Tarantino, 1992); and (3) the increasing occurrence of record-playing moments in American Independent films, as expressions of vinylphilia became a marker of the films’ non-mainstream sensibilities.
This research question is tackled through historically-situated close textual analysis in the chapter, ‘Vinyl Noise and Narrative in CD-era Indiewood’. The narrative significance of the record-playing trope is also examined, through a particular instance, in the video essay ‘The L/Song Take in Before Sunrise’. The supercuts act as a form of ‘distant reading’ of the record-playing trope, demonstrating its ubiquity across a longer period than covered in the ‘Vinyl Noise’ chapter and in a wider selection of films than addressed in the Before Sunrise video essay. The videos collected in the ‘Supercuts’ section experiment with different ways of presenting the material audiovisually, but are all arranged chronologically. This allows patterns of representation to be tracked across time and enables the identification of mini-cycles within the corpus (e.g. the spike of films about vinylphiles around the millennial turn, the spate of movies featuring record-playing supernatural beings around 2013/14, and the recurrence of older women playing records in films released between 2015 and 2017).
Specific issues to do with the identity of American Independent Cinema, as represented through this film corpus, are investigated in the two more overtly ‘critical’ supercuts, ‘Indy Vinyl on The Clock (and the clock)’. and ‘Indy Vinyl, Interrupted’. The former focuses on the typical narrative scenarios that follow from iconic needle-drop moments, thereby revealing the place record playing holds within the operation of American Independent film as a predominantly character (rather than action or genre)-based cinema. The latter uses the motif of the scratched and stuck record to consider how revelations around American Independent Cinema’s toxic production culture need to be taken into account, even in an investigation that is seemingly focused on the films’ fictional premises and textual details. The ‘Sleevenotes’, culled from social media posts, operate in a critical space between the close scene analysis of the Before Sunrise video essay and the broad sweep of the supercuts. Each explores a particular aspect of the phenomenon of record playing in American Independent Cinema, seen through the lens of an individual film.
2. What are the possibilities and limitations as academic film research adopts audiovisual forms borne from online film culture?
Whilst there is a history of practice-as-research within film studies, the specific form of videographic film criticism employed in this project has its roots in popular forms of online audiovisual cinephilia, enabled from the mid-2000s by the development of user-friendly editing systems, the availability of films in digital – and therefore editable – form, and the emergence of video sharing platforms (e.g. YouTube and Vimeo). Record playing in American Independent Cinema provides a suitable object of study through which to explore the potential of these forms for academic research. American indie auteurs, such as Wes Anderson and Quentin Tarantino, account for a disproportionate amount of online videographic cinephilia – Anderson’s films, for example, have probably generated the most online supercuts of any filmmaker (this supercut suggests this is so!). These videos tend to be purely celebratory and this leaves room for the intervention of criticism that makes use of the same formats as the existing cinephilic work, but does so with the critical intent typical of scholarly research.
The focus on representations of record playing also provides an apt vehicle through which to test the academic repurposing of formats that, in their most popular forms, have tended towards the celebratory or uncritical. The revolving turntable, the shine of light off vinyl, the drop of the needle into the groove: these are all the kind of aesthetically pleasing images that tend to be seized upon in popular videographic work, which often obsesses over visual detail. The concept of obsessive collection connects the digital cinephile and the vinylphile, a figure who, due to the movement of vinyl from the commercial norm to character-defining lifestyle choice, has increasingly populated American Independent Cinema as a ‘type’. My employment of videographic methods of research takes into account all these factors, allowing for a self-reflexivity that treats record playing in US indie cinema as an object of study in its own right, but also as a conduit through which to interrogate the affordances of online videographic formats for the pursuit of critical practice.
To this end, the project is highly self-conscious in thinking about the applicability of its chosen forms for academic research, as it is commonly conceived in film studies. Critical reflection on this is provided in this written article, published in the open-access journal NECSUS. The self-reflexive approach is also ‘written’ into the audiovisual work itself. This is partly evidenced by the decision to utilise different videographic formats: the ‘explanatory’ mode of ‘The L/Song Take in Before Sunrise’; the accumulation of videos in the ‘Supercut’ section, which allows for a comparison of the different types of knowledge they may yield about their object of study; the two more overtly critical supercuts, ‘Indy Vinyl on The Clock (and the clock)’. and ‘Indy Vinyl, Interrupted’, both of which enter into a dialogue with other artists/critics making use of found footage for particular ends; and the social media artefacts collected in the ‘Sleevenotes’ section, each of which experiments with the affordances of platforms such as Twitter as spaces through which to conduct and disseminate videographic criticism. This project website represents a best attempt to gather together the multiple research artefacts in one place and to suggest ways viewers/readers might plot their way through them.