It is difficult to comprehend, in 2022, the sheer number of hours I spent shooting, editing, and preparing to show this short not quite five minute movie, my capstone project for the undergraduate seminar English 284, “Popular Narrative: Comics, Films & Television,” a course taught by Donald Ault in 1988. Shot on 8mm silent color film, edited by hand, and finally, nervously projected while simultaneously playing on a nearby CD player the instrumental song, “The Brazilian,” by Genesis, Exit Only is, if nothing else, a testament to the value and privilege of a liberal arts education. I loved that class, not least because students were given such a wide berth when thinking about how to apply what we learned from our readings and lectures.
Professor Ault dispassionately blew my mind every week as we deconstructed (without calling it that – remember this was 1988) the art and methods of storytelling in popular art forms (mostly comics). I couldn’t get enough and I am forever grateful to have had the opportunity to explore and apply what I had learned in a non-traditional way for the final class project. The experience still reverberates.
An obvious, cited influence was Godfrey Reggio’s Koyaanisqatsi (1982). That film, as for so many, opened my eyes to how an experimental approach to the craft of storytelling could have such an impact and how film language itself was far from calcified. I also, simply, fell in love with the film’s astonishing images, the result of film speed manipulation and intentional, subtle camera movements. To be clear: Exit Only is no Koyaanisqatsi, but it unabashedly attempts to create a kindred grammar composed of an intentional accumulation of images, cutting between different filmed sequences, with varying timing, stretched non-linearly over the course of an imagined single day.
With so much raw footage, taken on campus and at various locations throughout Nashville, I needed a framework to help me lay out how the sequences would be assembled. I kept coming back to “The Brazilian.” The song had the perfect combination of dynamism and contrast. Given its underlying mechanical-sounding loop sequence — making a perhaps too obvious a connection to the stop-motion aesthetic of the time-lapse photography as well as my overt commentary on life’s daily repetition and patterns — the song easily delivered the formal structure I was seeking.
Digital filmmaking today escapes much of the hard work this project required and avoids the many technical mistakes which could not be corrected in post-production. Choices I agonized over are now decided with the push of a button, and then undone if the results don’t satisfy. Magic! Certainly both have their place, but access to the requisite tools, the technical know-how, and, importantly, audiences and fellow enthusiasts, is dramatically different today. This access raises the bar on what can be achieved but also what can be discarded, which can be surprisingly counter-productive, as I have commented elsewhere when talking about the lack of scarcity that digital art can perpetuate and represent. While I don’t pretend to long for the good old days of analog media production — I welcomed the arrival of and continue to embrace
all most things digital — I admit there is something inescapably satisfying when I watch Exit Only and think back to the materiality of the experience making it: the uncooperative stickiness of the splicing tape, the clatter of the classroom projector, even the whir of the CD queuing up, waiting patiently for me to press Play.
Alec Soth reflects on his latest book A Pound of Pictures:
For me, photography is fundamentally tied to the physical act of recording. I leave the house and drive into the world. Through the lens of my Honda Odyssey, I watch light bounce off of a million surfaces. One of them catches my eye—the girthiest sycamore in Michigan, let’s say. I park the van, pick my spot, and set up the camera. It’s a simple tool and there’s so much it can’t record. We can’t hear the birdsong nor the crabby farmer who reluctantly gave me directions. My slow shutter can’t even catch the butterfly fluttering near the trunk. We might intuit the tree’s two-hundred-year-old history, but we only see bark, not rings. But, oh, the bark! The film’s emulsion soaks up its reflections like a blanket in the rain. Printing the picture, these reflections coalesce into a body. We hold the weight of a giant in the palm of our hand; flattened and miniaturized, yes, but not a VR genie. Each negative weighs .6 oz.