On my new film/research project and lessons from COMIC BOOK CITY

As I’ve documented before, while “finishing” with Comic Book City, I started work on a new film project, one based on selected writings by J.B. Jackson. Most of the work I’ve done so far has involved going back to Jackson’s essays and drawing out major themes around which to make my film, or films, but as of yesterday I’ve also started to shoot video.

My intention is to use moving images to interpret, comment on and reconsider Jackson’s work. In interpreting his writings, I want to show them in practice, or how landscape looks from the perspective of his essays. In commenting on his work, I want to draw attention to gaps or silences, or unarticulated implications of his writings (one example that I was working with this week while out with the camera was the role of nature or non-human agents in the making of landscape). In reconsidering his ideas about landscape, I want to place his work in contemporary context. I think, for example, that Jackson’s celebration of car culture in the United States bears revisiting in light of how that culture is changing and how the landscapes associated with that culture have also changed in the past 30 years.

I had the idea for basing film and video work on J.B. Jackson’s writings a number of years ago, stemming from my teaching of Landscape in Sight (Yale University Press, 1997) and Everyday America: Cultural Landscape Studies after J.B. Jackson, eds. Chris Wilson and Paul Groth (University of California Press, 2003) in my upper division cultural geography seminar. In particular, I have been thinking about “The abstract world of the hot-rodder” (1958/59) in audio-visual terms for awhile, and also as a work that would be interesting to re-examine in light of changing relationships to modes of transportation in the United States.

Despite this history, I did the work that would become Comic Book City first for a number of reasons, I think. I wanted to do a longer form film, and it still isn’t clear to me what form this film is going to take, or even if it is going to be a film or films. I also wanted my first major academic work in moving images to not only be “feature length”, but also, essentially, straight-forward in terms of design and execution. So, I think, at some level, I understood I probably needed more experience before turning my attention to the J.B. Jackson concept, though I don’t remember making that as a conscious choice.

Whatever the case, I think that the experience of making Comic Book City will be important to my execution of the current project.

First, it helped me to gain confidence in my ability as a filmmaker. Finishing and screening that film, putting my work “out there”, was invaluable in moving me forward to take on what is, I think, a more creatively ambitious work.

Second, I went into making Comic Book City not knowing what I might end up doing with it, especially in terms of peer review, but as a conventional “feature length” film, I at least had a finished product that was simple enough to manage. What I learned from my experience is that working in non-traditional forms like film and video poses challenges for peer review and for publishing, but that it also opens opportunities for connecting across disciplines and that there is a sense of freedom that comes from working outside of traditional formats for scholarly work in geography. In short, ultimately, I was able to do with Comic Book City what I wanted to do, no need to negotiate with publishers about open access or making the film available in other formats. The experience of bringing that film to fruition was liberating, and I think I needed to be set free before returning to thinking about J.B. Jackson.

Third, while I am planning collaborations on the soundtrack, in the field, I am planning to be a one-person crew for most of what I do here. This is mostly question of mobility and being free to work opportunistically, something I wasn’t able to do when conducting interviews and going to specific events for Comic Book City.

Along the same lines, I am not planning on working with human subjects on this project. This will actually make this film more like my non-film work, which has dealt primarily in the interpretation of texts rather than with informants.

I’ve also been thinking about form and how I want to experiment more with “modular” structures. I realized in putting together Comic Book City that the documentary could be broken down into pieces, and I have made many of those pieces available on Vimeo, but that is more incidental than planned. Here I am thinking of an almost fully flexible work, one that could be presented as some kind of a whole, but also as fully realized “modules”. That may change, but editing Comic Book City opened my mind to a number of possibilities that I want to play with more (I am also being more immediately influenced by having taught Jim Jarmusch with my Geography and Film students last Spring).

Most of all, making Comic Book City affirmed for me that, while I still enjoy and want to do traditional forms of writing, film and video are the media I most want to work with, especially in further developing my interests. I don’t think I would be pursuing, for example, insights from Actor Network Theory or notions of affect in papers in the way that I am in film and video. There are many areas of theory in cultural geography that I relate to more meaningfully and creatively in audio visual terms than in words, which is to say, I think I have more of an original contribution to make in my fields as a filmmaker than as a writer.