Breaking Boundaries With Videographic Scholarship

A video essay by professor Desirée Garcia offers new insights into early American film—and was selected to screen at an international competition focused on audiovisual essays and videographic criticism.

A video essay by Desirée Garcia, an associate professor in the Department of Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean Studies, was selected to screen on June 15 at the Marienbad Film Festival, an international competition in the Czech Republic focused on audiovisual essays and videographic criticism.

The video, What Happened in the Dressing Room, premiered this spring in the 10th anniversary issue of [in]Transition: Journal of Videographic Film & Moving Studies. The first academic journal of its kind, [in]Transition invites scholars to craft criticism using the same materials that constitute their objects of study: moving images and sounds.

Although Garcia trained in video editing just two years ago, in 2022, she has already joined a growing number of film scholars who are supplementing their traditional research publications with videographic essays.

Garcia's black-and-white, under-six-minute What Happened in the Dressing Room draws on research she conducted on a genre she calls "dressing room films"—movies that take place exclusively or primarily in the dressing room. Dressing rooms became an "object of fascination for the general public," she says, in the late 19th and early 20th century, in large part because of the rise of popular entertainments like variety, vaudeville, and musical theater.

Garcia discovered 31 dressing-room films released between 1897 and 1910. Of those, she viewed 21 of them at the Library of Congress and excerpted 13 in the video essay.

When she began working with the files in editing software and "playing with them, moving them around, and seeing how they sit next to each other," she grappled with the poor quality of the images caused by aging and limited preservation.

"Then I started to embrace those imperfections, and it really became part of the video itself," says Garcia, who is also a faculty affiliate in the Department of Film and Media Studies. "Moving past and through those imperfections to try to find who's in the dressing room became a kind of subjective entry point for watching these films and putting them into conversation. There's an element of discovery in finding these films and seeing what they're about in the same way that there's an element of discovery when you go into a dressing room."

The video essay will complement Garcia's forthcoming book, The Dressing Room: Backstage Lives and American Film, a study of race and gender in backstage film narratives.

"Because the book is structured thematically rather than chronologically, I wanted to use the video essay to compliment the book by putting these films into conversation," she says. "These early films are sprinkled throughout the book, while the video hones in on this moment of early cinematic production and why the dressing room was such an important space right at the beginning."

Garcia's fascination with dressing rooms in film evolved from her research on American movie musicals, which resulted in two earlier books: The Movie Musical for Rutgers' Quick Takes series and The Migration of Musical Film: From Ethnic Margins to American Mainstream, which traces the history of early sound era musicals from the makers of African American films and the transnational networks of Yiddish and Mexican cinema.

"One of the reasons why I find dressing rooms interesting is that they tell us about specific social actors that we find there, whom we see again and again in these films," she says. "For instance, we see the wife and mother who's torn between her ambition for a stage career and her commitments to her husband and children in dressing rooms across the history of American film. Another social actor is the Black maid, a character in a lot of these films who only occupies the dressing room and no other space within the film. She's restricted to that space because of her race, class status, and sexual identity."

Another chapter in the book examines groups of women sharing dressing room spaces who are often in competition, such as the terrifying scenes in the 2010 thriller Black Swan—a topic Garcia references in another recent video essay.

For Garcia, videographic criticism offers a refreshingly direct way to express an argument.

"When you're working with a film and elements like sound and image that elicit an emotional response, it makes for a powerful mode of delivery because you're using those same tools to make an original argument," she says. "And it comes across in ways that are more direct and more felt than if you were reading an academic book on the same topic."

The genre also encourages Garcia to harness her own creative freedom.

"There are ways in which my individuality can be registered in videographic scholarship that are usually discouraged in scholarly articles and books," she says. "Even in the humanities, there's still an impulse toward objectivity and the idea that if you're not objective, then you're not being scholarly enough. In the videographic world, there are all of these ways in which you can use the tools to try to create a sense of feeling with scholarly work."

Garcia received training in video essay production when she attended the Scholarship in Sound and Image workshop at Middlebury College in 2022, a program that has been especially popular among film scholars. Soon after, she began introducing her Dartmouth students to videographic criticism and video editing.

"Students love learning editing skills and engaging in a really material way with the films I show them," she says. "It's almost like they kind of have to take the film into their bodies in a way that's much more active than if they were just sitting and watching a film at a distance."

Garcia and her students sometimes call their video-editing work "breaking the film"—an expression she suspects may not be appreciated by film creators.

"You break the logic of the film," she says, "and in that process, you get to know it even better. You understand why the choices are there and what they're doing, and how if you alter one little thing, the entire meaning of a scene could change."