Guest post by Mark. S. Weiner, co-curator of the current Grolier Club exhibition, Law's Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection.
Museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions today are making sophisticated use of video as a tool for public education. But how should those institutions use film when their subject is books? The answer isn't obvious.
As a scholar and filmmaker, I recently had the pleasure of collaborating on a well-received exhibition for the Grolier Club with Mike Widener, the rare book librarian at Yale Law Library. Four years in the making, the exhibit was titled Law's Picture Books: The Yale Law Library Collection (September 13-November 18, 2017), and it examined Yale's unique collection of illustrated law books, which includes over fifteen hundred items, spanning eight centuries and six continents.
As a rare book librarian, Mike has robust public outreach goals. With that in mind, he and I decided that we would supplement our exhibit with a suite of films displayed on a kiosk in the exhibition gallery, as well as available online. Our conviction was that we could use the special aesthetic resources of film to highlight qualities about books that would be far more difficult to reveal through the text of exhibition labels alone.
"Law's Picture Books" in the Grolier Club Exhibition Gallery, video kiosk indicated.
And therein lay a challenge!
On the face of it, books are about the least cinematic subject imaginable. For one thing, they don't move--and the ability to depict motion over time lies at the heart of film as a medium. They also don't emit much sound. It's no surprise that in Hollywood, books are often important props. But how can they be the stars?
Our collaboration revealed some principles. They won't be applicable to everyone, but they've come to be guiding principles for the production company that's grown from our work together, Hidden Cabinet Films, which is dedicated especially to making films about books for the growing field of public humanities.
Depict books in their materiality, but with ideas in mind.
Books have a physical presence in human life. They are three-dimensional objects calling out to be touched and handled. Films about books should use the essential elements of cinematography to highlight these tactile qualities.
The use of shallow depth of field in still shots, for instance, can underscore how books reside in space. Likewise, close-ups and macrophotography can highlight a book's details and imperfections--stressing the uniqueness of each volume--and they can point to its history of human use by showcasing scuffing and marginalia.
The use of a shallow depth of field renders the foreground subtly out of focus. From "A Philosophical Question"
From "A Philosophical Question"
Yet films shouldn't aestheticize books without cause. The depiction of physicality should be in the service of some argument about the book's meaning or importance. In the case of law's picture books, Mike and I sought to stress that the books we put on display were practical tools used by lawyers in the resolution of human conflicts. They possess a worldly particularity that stands in stark contrast to the abstraction of legal rules.
Films about books should be driven by ideas.
Set books in motion.
A shot that opens with a satisfying crackle. From "A Philosophical Question."
When possible, films about books should show books being opened and their pages turned. Doing so underscores another aspect of a book's physicality, and it also indicates that books exist in time--and thus have a history.
One way to suggest that a book's motion is motivated by an idea--and to give books an immediacy of presence--is to film them against a green screen for later compositing. The shot needs to be in close up, and it requires careful lighting, especially with older books whose fore edges are rough.
When capturing images of books in motion, films also should capture their sound. The sound a book makes may be subtle, but it's essential to how human beings experience it. Failing to capture a book's sound represents a major missed opportunity to use film's special power as a medium.
At the same time, the absence of sound where expected can be used to suggest the kind of interior experience of aesthetic absorption that's at the heart of reading.
An extended shot of a book dealer shaking his head as he flips through a book's pages, set only to music. From "Love & Surprise."
Show that books represent something larger than individual human beings.
Even something as small as a telling camera angle in a consciously composed shot can suggest how book collecting involves collectors in a field much bigger than themselves. Films about books should evoke reverence for the publishing tradition.
From "Two Ways to Work"
Depict human relationships.
People not only interact with books, they interact with each other through books. Films about books should capture the various ways in which books form a third term in a relationship between two or more people.
From "Love & Surprise"
From "Love & Surprise"
Use visual effects, but not for their own sake.
Films about books can use special visual effects to depict ideas, supplementing or replacing the use of talking heads. Visual effects shouldn't be used simply for the sake of entertaining--instead, they should be motivated by and harmonious with the underlying argument of the film.
In "A Philosophical Question," for instance, we show a hand digging into the text of a book with a shovel to reveal an image of Justitia underneath as a way to depict our argument that the western legal tradition contains ideas about visual culture that belie its surface focus on language.
From "A Philosophical Question"
Tell stories, but resist journalistic treatment.
Films about books should be humanistic documents in themselves. Rather than seeking to depict books in the spirit of journalistic documentaries, filmmakers should strive to have their work be placed alongside the books they depict as permanent companions in the interpretive tradition they initiate.
They should take as their model not journalism so much as literary criticism.
Offering a strong interpretive frame, from "A Philosophical Question."