An Interview with Scott Richmond
The Cinema Studies Institute welcomes one of its newest faculty members Scott Richmond, who teaches the courses CIN260H1F Selected Topics in Cinema Studies (New Media), CIN340H1S Special Topics in Cinema as Social and Cultural Practice: (New) Media Aesthetics, CIN360H1S Special Topics in Theory and Criticism (Media, Technology, Control), and CIN450H1F Advanced Study in Theory and Criticism (Feelings and Networks). We asked him to tell us a bit about himself.
What's your background in cinema? What are your areas of specialization, and what drew you to those areas?
My background isn’t only in cinema, but also new media. Let me tell you about both.
I mostly learned to be a cinephile in graduate school—in particular, I found that I loved avant-garde and experimental film. (If I am trained in specific body of films, I am trained in that.) Effectively, experimental film works try to push at the limits of what you can do with or in a cinema. When filmmakers turn to those questions, their work also helps us, as critics and theorists, also come up with new and interesting answers to that question. Film theory has often taken Hollywood film as its prototype for understanding what the cinema is; I have found that, in writing theory, experimental and avant-garde work is much more fruitful. In my estimation, both experimental film works and film theory ought to hold open the question of what cinema is, or can be. We want more, different answers to that question—and more and different ways of answering it.
In new media studies, I have a somewhat peripatetic background as a computer programmer. In fact, trying to save my programming practice is what got me into media studies in the first place (and led me to a PhD in cinema studies). Making software is boring—so I thought I’d make art with computers instead. In my new media art work, I started studying others’ art and reading critical and theoretical work on new media. This encounter with the conceptual, rather than practical side, of new media aesthetics drew me into media studies and film studies. (Also, as it turns out, debugging code is no fun no matter what the code is for.)
My current work focuses on what I think of as “new media aesthetics”—not just new media forms, but the aesthetics of those forms, and in much the same spirit as my interest in experimental film. How do digital media shape our experience of the world? What new forms of experience do they give rise to? Both media theory and experimental media art are involved in multiplying the possible answers to these questions, and the possible forms of questioning. My hope is to contribute to that project.
What are your top 3 favourite films of all time? Why?
Koyaanisqatsi: Life Out of Balance (Godfrey Reggio, 1983). Film people love to hate this film, but it’s got everything for me. It’s non-narrative and frankly experimental (which I like), but it’s bombastic and over-the-top (which I also like). It’s the stupid summer blockbuster of experimental documentary, and that’s a pretty good way of describing the sweet spot of my taste. My love for this film has been both faintly embarrassing and tremendously productive. (I also love Phillip Glass’s soundtrack.)
Line Describing a Cone (Anthony McCall, 1973). No other film gives its viewers an experience of cinematic space like this one. If you can ever see it, clear your planner. The projection space is filled with haze (a “hazer” is like a diet fog machine; it lets you see laser lights, or in this case, the projector beam). The film itself projects a point that slowly elongates into an arc, and then a whole circle. It takes a half hour. But what you see, in the space, is a line of light running from projector to screen that slowly becomes a cone. The haze shimmers in the light. It is astonishingly beautiful, and completely reorganizes our sense of how to be and what to do in a cinema.
The Gang’s All Here (Busby Berkeley, 1949). Berkeley’s last film as director, and his only film in color, this film is a hallucinatory fever-dream mashup of Berkeley’s signature regimented musical numbers and Carmen Miranda’s acrobatic headpieces. The last number is effectively an especially weird short abstract essay film on polka dots (fittingly titled “Ode to the Polka Dot”). The great midcentury film critic Parker Tyler suggests that Hollywood film is interesting to the extent that a few glimmers of humanity make it through the vast industrial machinery of Hollywood’s production system; this film is unusually rich in this sort of humanity. It’s frankly bonkers, and I have no idea at all how any of it got made.
And, as a bonus:
My favorite video game is thatgamecompany’s Journey from 2012 (on PS3 and PS4). It’s one of the more astonishing games produced. It’s a multiplayer network game that limits your communication with others to a wordless chirping. It’s only ever collaborative. You can’t die. Instead, you move through a brief story (that’s nevertheless of mythic proportions) with unknown others, helping along the way. I try to find every excuse to play it in my classes.
Tell us about your courses.
This semester I’m teaching a 200-level intro to new media and a 400-level special topics course called “Networks and Feelings,” which asks the question: what happens when our emotions become networked phenomena? When networks become emotional phenomena? And how do we make sense of that? In an equation, it's media theory plus affect theory. Next semester, I’m teaching a 300-level history of experimental media practices since World War II, entitled “(New) Media Aesthetics,” which traces the history of aesthetic experimentation with technological media including (but not only) film, tape-recorded sound, video, computer animation, net-art, and social media. Next semester I’m also teaching another 300-level course called “Media, Technology, Control,” which asks how contemporary media technologies have political effects, mostly turning to Michel Foucault to help us understand both the question and its possible answers.
In the future, I’m hoping to teach a “Queer Media Aesthetics” course that would look at queer investments in a variety of media forms as well as queer media practices, and a course I’m thinking of as “the Frankfurt School now,” in which we’d read the Frankfurt School’s debates about aesthetics and politics in the 1920s and 30s for news about our current situation.
What films are you looking forward to seeing in the future?
I’m going to answer a slightly different question: I’m especially excited about the upcoming (imminent) release of Drool's Thumper, an indie game for several different platforms. It’s one of the first games for Playstation’s VR platform. It’s a collaboration between an experimental musician and an indie games developer. It looks and sounds like a darkly psychedelic version of Guitar Hero or Dance Dance Revolution, or a heady, noisy game adaptation of 2001’s Stargate Sequence.