This video essay by Catherine Grant uses shots from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) which feature what Grant calls “liminal moments,” moments which involve nearing or crossing a boundary. In practice, these moments involve moving through doors, corridors, or passageways. Typically, the protagonist, played by Joan Fontaine, is a prominent feature in these shots. Accompanied only by Franz Waxman’s score, this video is a testament to the power of minimalism and restraint in videographic film criticism.
‘Rites of Passage’ imparts two lessons. The first is about liminality and liminal spaces. All of these shots share a darkness about them. Many have very few—if any—clear horizontal lines in their composition. Hitchcock also emphasizes the darkness and shadow of these moments, as passageways and half-open doors spill light in uneven, constricted shapes. Fontaine’s face is almost constantly obscured in these moments, contorted by the lighting into peculiar and even grotesque shapes. This imagery reinforces the symbolic instability and uncertainty associated with liminal spaces, a sensation the rest of the film reinforces for Fontaine’s unnamed character and for the viewer. The second lesson this essay teaches is about Rebecca itself. This is a film wherein clarity and certainty is hard to come by. The repetition of these moments, and the stark imagery that accompanies them, reinforces the idea that Rebecca is a story in which liminality is a source of misery, mystery, and vulnerability. Fontaine is outside her “comfort zone,” outside familiar settings, and well outside “ordinary” romance. This sense that she is dangerously near to a precarious and inscrutable boundary shows how Rebecca builds tension even from the very start, and in the most mundane of moments.
My takeaway from this essay is less a “big lesson” about how video essays should be than it is a point of reflection for my own work in this class. In ‘Rites of Passage,’ Grant uses minimalism to great effect. No voiceover, no onscreen text, just a series of images from Rebecca with the film’s score in place of diagetic sound. This focuses one’s attention on the specific motifs she’s trying to reveal. Too much at once can be distracting; simplicity and repetition can be profound. I often try to do “more”—I try to include as much information as I can, especially with very long voiceover—and I think this has two big drawbacks. Obviously, it can be distracting from my argument, but another thing is that it sort of stymies my process of actually putting a video essay together. When I have lots of voiceover to record and edit, my patience for empty space with “just” images in my video is lessened. I’m less inclined to go back and record different dialogue, and less willing to let myself be pulled in a more creative direction when I’m actually sitting at a computer editing things together. Simplicity is good. It’s okay to focus sharply on just a few elements, especially when the alternative is distracting my audience and myself with a whole bouquet of techniques.