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Function and Flair: Key Words in David MacDougall’s Transcultural Cinema

Defining key words in academic writing might sometimes seem like a chore in comparison to the more exciting work of analysis. But key words are the building blocks of any good argument: only by attention to the micro-language of words and meanings can a writer construct a complex macro-language of analysis. Key words are like touchstones, places of necessary return for writer and reader alike, to continually revisit and refine concepts. The key words the writer selects and defines serve an important function in the argumentation of the paper. Perhaps less obviously, the key words present an opportunity for artistic flair as well. In the presentation key terms, the writer can build an idiosyncratic lexicon and style that lays the groundwork and enhances the larger goals of the work as a whole.

The key word is not just an excellent opportunity for orienting; it can also be an excellent opportunity for argumentation. In this passage from the opening chapter of Transcultural Cinema, filmmaker-anthropologist David MacDougall shows how the writer can put key terms to work at both function and flair. Here, he describes a key phrase, “to the quick,” in its colloquial sense, then appropriates the term to his own purposes. His definition, given in a series of progressive, dictionary-like entries, might seem excessive at first reading. But he reins himself in, and in the second paragraph quoted here, converts the intensity of this expository capital into argumentative currency: going to the quick is not only a way of understanding the experience of films for viewers, but also a way of understanding the creation of films by filmmakers themselves.

— Myrial Holbrook ’19

Our bodies provide certain metaphors for what films do. People frequently speak of going to the heart of the matter, which in documentaries usually means arriving at some useful social observation or description. In considering the “filmic,” however, it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of going to the quick. In English “the quick” has in fact a constellation of meanings. It is that which is tender, alive, or sensitive beneath an outer protective covering; that which is most vulnerable; the exposed nerve of our emotions; that which moves or touches us; which is transient, appearing only in a flash; which renews, fertilizes or “quickens” with life; which is liquescent like quicksilver: molten, bright, avoiding the touch, spilling away, changing form; that which, like quicklime or quicksand, devours, dissolves and liquefies; that which has a quality of alertness or intelligence, as of a child to learn. Out immediate impression of the quick is of an uncovering, or revelation. We experience it as a sudden exposure, a contrast between dull and sensitive surfaces.

            The quick not only provides an analogy for film experience but has a physical basis in the filmmaker’s vision. Just as the quick implies the touching of surfaces, so the filmmaker’s gaze touches—and is touched by—what it sees. A film can thus be said to look and to touch.

 (David MacDougall, Transcultural Cinema, [Princeton UP], 49-50)