Object Lessons
Posted Jul 1, 2008

In Paul Auster’s forthcoming book, Man In the Dark, a bedridden old man splits his time between telling himself a lengthy story and watching and discussing art films with his granddaughter. The two characters’ discussions of film extend Auster’s longtime fascination with the language of film and his own ability to render film in language.

Their most involved film discussion concerns the granddaughter’s theory that the most emotionally evocative films make powerful use of inanimate objects that appear as apparent background elements, but signify the characters’ emotional state or the arc of their emotions over time. The most famous examples would probably be Orson Welles’ use of the Rosebud sled to signify the spiritually ruined Charles Foster Kane’s yearning for his childhood state of innocence and grace in Citizen Kane, and Alfred Hitchcock’s use of stuffed and mounted tigers and birds of prey in The Man Who Knew Too Much and Psycho to suggest predatory environments.

Of course, there are subtler examples, like my all-time favorite: the lobster photographs in Annie Hall’s apartment in Woody Allen’s film of the same name. When Annie asks her now-ex-boyfriend Alvy to come over and kill a spider, we see black-and-white framed shots of their hysterical, unsuccessful attempts to get a live lobster into a pot. The camera never focuses on these photos, but they provide a recurring backdrop the scene, recalling happier times when their relationship was new.

Wedding videos use inanimate objects all the time to highlight the details of the day: rings, flowers, candles, a champagne glass, dress and shoes. For the most part these objects are treated as eye candy, visual props, or stylistic touches--items that signify that a wedding happened, that it went off in grand style, and that it was captured in an elegant, cinematic way.

But Auster’s book sent me in search of examples of when objects that aren’t wedding-specific are used in wedding videos to convey the uniqueness of a couple, or their back story, or the emotional tenor of their day in the way distinctive films do. Naturally, the challenges are different with wedding and event video than with film. You don’t get to choose your locations; you don’t get to stage your scenes. Except in the case of concept videos and love stories—which cry out for the use of meaningful objects for thematic effect—you can’t script your shooting environment any more than you can script the actual event.

After reviewing a series of his clips on WedFACT.tv, I discovered that the wondrously talented Greek videographer Lee Bakogiannakis is one videographer who makes striking use of the photographs in his shooting locations to give a sense of family continuity over multiple generations. (And I don’t think I’ve ever seen colors enhanced quite like his—scroll down and check out Antonis & Anita, The Ceremony—there’s something almost goth about it.) One advantage Bakogiannakis has in these clips is that he’s shooting some segments in the bride and groom’s homes; obviously, it’s a lot easier to find objects that will tell you something about who these people are (or who they used to be) in their native environments than in hotels or wedding venues that are elegant and visually rich but are otherwise impersonal. In these 2dg videos, there’s no question the objects speak.

Another great example of the use of an inanimate object as a motif in a wedding video is found in the best wedding clip I’ve seen in 2008, Bill Gaff’s American Wedding Story: Clyde and Monica. In Clyde and Monica, it’s the steps of the church. The bride talks about what the steps of the church where she’s getting married have meant to her throughout her life—not only are they the steps of the church where her parents got married (and Bill makes a nice cut to an old photo of her parents’ wedding there), but, as the bride says, "I grew up running up those steps and ducking under the pews." It expands the meaning of that church beyond a place where weddings happen, and reminds us that life happens there too.

One of the main criticisms of the "heightened reality" approach to cinematic wedding video is that it presents the wedding day, and everything about it, as a thing apart from real, everyday life. And there’s no question that’s exactly how some couples and their families want to feel about it; that’s why so many prospects become clients when they see a demo of an impossibly blonde bride on an impossibly blonde beach, cast for eternity in a moment that probably didn’t happen for her and will certainly never happen for 99.9% of the world who will never be that beautiful or that rich.

For me, there’s something more powerful about a video that connects the beauty and joy of the wedding day to the struggles, pain, challenges, and quieter joys of everyday life. And that’s why I find it so compelling to see things that aren’t necessarily part of the wedding brought into the wedding story, and used to convey meaning in much the way inanimate objects contribute to the language of film. It’s this sort of connection to who the principals are, and who they were—even more than how they looked and what they said on their wedding day— that will make the work speak to the generations to come.

Stephen Nathans-Kelly (stephen.nathans at infotoday.com) is editor-in-chief of EventDV and EMedialive.com and proprietor of FirstLookBooks, a book review blog.