28 October 02004

Towards a taxonomy of 'making of' features

I'm reading Ashley Kahn's A Love Supreme: the Story of John Coltrane's Signature Album, and finding it fascinating. Kahn provides pictures of his sources, from the handwritten covers of the session tapes to the records of which musicians got paid how much for each session. The album was conceived in '64 and released in '65, just like I was, and the book recreates the cultural era of another time, place and race.

Which leads me to ponder what makes a valuable essay on the making of an artwork. Particularly in the DVD age, these 'making of' accounts are increasingly common. Here's a list of a few I've come across — mostly recent ones, with no claims to be the best in their field — and what I think distinguishes them.

  • The online exhibition of Photographs of Tom Phillips' Studio by Sara Sackner is a fairly minimal document, just eight black and white photographs of the making of Phillips' Dante's Inferno book. But it gives an insight into the physicality and the teamwork of producing a book, a process which I'd tacitly assumed to be more similar to Phillips' own picture of Virgin in his study.
  • Les Blank's Burden of Dreams documentary traces the jinxed filming of Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo and arguably eclipses it as a tale of one man's single-minded struggle to complete a monumental folly, no matter what the odds. This is still the best of the sub-genre of features about nightmare film productions.
  • The Cowboy Junkies' Anatomy of an Album CD-ROM charts the making of their recent One Soul Now album. It includes successive work-in-progress recordings of songs, drafts of lyrics, and, riskily, the writers' own critical analysis and explication of the themes of some of the songs.
  • Forced Entertainment's Imaginary Evidence CD-ROM offers an openly chaotic and messy 'reading through' of several themes which link their (at that point) 17 years of work together, as well as a more ordered archive of materials. It's not strictly a 'making of' feature, but I happen to know something of how it was itself made, so that's why it's in this list!

I haven't worked out anything you could call a proper classification of these different examples, but the following dimensions seem to be relevant to various degrees in different instances.

  • Was the 'making of' feature made by the creator of the original artwork, or by a third party? Usually a first-person account is assumed to have greater authority, but there are also advantages from a third-person version. Burden of Dreams would have surely lost some of its effectiveness as drama had it not maintained a certain distance from Herzog, the assumed 'auteur' at the centre.
  • Was the feature made contemporaneously with the artwork, or was it after-the-fact?. Ashley Kahn's book misses out on the immediacy of having been there at the recording of A Love Supreme, and has some gaps, but can put in historical perspective the life and work of a black musician at the time of the Civil Rights movement.
  • Often linked to the previous points, was the feature 'officially' commissioned and authorised or was it independently produced?. These days I guess few big movies are made without commissioning a 'making of' feature, aiming to use this a means of promoting DVD sales. I haven't seen many of these, but I imagine most are correspondingly bland and self-satisfied. In most cases compromises are necessary. Kahn was researching over 30 years after his subject was created and after its creator had died. But he developed good relations with Coltrane's family and band members. There was clearly some tie-in with Coltrane's record label, who stood to benefit from any cross-promotion between Kahn's book and their deluxe re-issue of A Love Supreme. How many 'making of's are fully independent from their subjects? The Cowboy Junkies and Forced Entertainment, as independent producers, effectively commissioned themselves to make their own features. When I asked Forced Entertainment why they were doing this, they said that they felt the need to create some discourse around their work — principally because few others in critical circles were doing that for them.
  • To what degree is the approach fly-on-the-wall as opposed to edited snapshots? At one extreme, the Sara Sackner's photos of Tom Phillips' Dante's Inferno are so sparse and elliptical that they hardly justify a 'making of' tag (none has been claimed by Sackner or Phillips; it's just my attribution). I suppose the opposite extreme would be a 'reality TV' approach — though even this (and Les Blank's, Cowboy Junkies' and Forced Entertainment's approaches) are heavily and selectively edited.
  • All 'making of' features tell a story of sorts. Is the focus of the story a creative genius or geniuses creating out of nothing, or is the social and cultural context that gave birth to creative activity and product?. Because Werner Herzog (and his partner in crime, Klaus Kinski) present themselves, even unwittingly, as unique eccentrics, it's hard for Burden of Dreams to do anything other than put them at the centre as fonts of creativity. Conversely, as I've already said, Sackner's photographs of Phillips' team at work probably make him seem less central to most viewers. Kahn puts Coltrane in cultural and social context, as well as defining more precisely what made him unique. And Forced Entertainment reference the experiences, techniques and inspirations that inform their creative practice.

A lot of these distinctions bear in some way on the distance and perspective that the 'making of' feature has from its subject. But I think it may still be helpful sometimes to tease out some of the nuances of this spectrum.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Curatorial, Ideas and Essays, Reviews on 28 October 02004 | TrackBack
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