Thoughts on the art and purpose of the video essay after a year in the trenches.
It seems I’ve settled into a niche. Somehow I managed to make more video essays this past year than in the five previous years combined that I’ve been doing this work. By the end of 2012, I will have produced 45 video essays for Keyframe, over three times as many as I produced for this site last year. Additionally, I produced 20 video essays forIndiewire Press Play, three forSight & Sound magazine, one for the Cinema Guild DVD of Hong Sang-soo’s The Day He Arrives, and one for the Frames Cinema Journal’s inaugural issue on film studies in the digital age. That’s seventy video essays this year, or roughly the length of a Bela Tarr film.
In the wake of all this production, I’d like to take an end-of year moment for reflection and assessment. I've singled out five videos that I consider my most representative work for Keyframe this year, examples that most vividly illustrate the kinds of issues and problems I worked through in making video essays during this period.
I’m grateful to have had the opportunity to be as focused on this little subgenre of film criticism, to better understand its properties, explore its possibilities, and develop some principles for my own practice. This process benefitted greatly from many conversations and collaborations with a host of people who are also engaged with the video essay form, including: Jonathan Marlow and Susan Gerhard at Fandor; Matt Zoller Seitz, Ken Cancelosi and Max Winter at Indiewire Press Play; Nick Bradshaw at Sight & Sound; Catherine Grant at Film Studies for Free and curator of the indispensable video essay channel Audiovisualcy; Ryan Krivoshey at Cinema Guild; fellow video essayists Matthias Stork and Steven Boone; Michał Oleszczyk, who invited me to present video essays at the OFF Plus Camera in Krakow;Roger Ebert; Jonathan Rosenbaum; Nicole Brenez; Ignatiy Vishnevetsky; and Michael Baute and Volker Pantenburg, two of the most passionate advocates of essayistic cinema and who especially have opened my eyes to its history of treasures.
Special mention goes to Nelson Carvajal, a young filmmaker with tremendous enthusiasm for video essays and who produced a couple for Keyframe (Re-Opening Greenaway’s Windows and Damon Packard: Modern Underground Horror Awaits) while I was busy getting married, the other big production of my year.
Five Personal Favorites:
Looking vs. Touching
In some ways this work embodies what I think is the most soundly fundamental approach to the video essay: hard observation of factual detail that gradually and naturally builds towards greater insights on the film in question and on cinema as a whole. Over the course of the year I’ve become less interested in video essays based on a pre-written script, at the same time that this mode is seeming to become the default. These types of videos play like a paper being read aloud while video clips roll like background filler (I call this the “video wallpaper” or “decorating with video” technique). Film criticism has been a slave to text long enough; isn’t the point of the video essay to re-engage it directly with the cinematic medium? If so, then words need to spring from images, not the other way around.
With this video, I started off with no idea what I wanted to say about these two films, Lady Chatterley and In the City of Sylvia, just a vague notion that they both shared the theme of love, the motif of looking and a highly sensual audiovisual texture (one that prompted me to use a non-voiceover narration so as to preserve those sounds). They’re also the kinds of films that give the viewer time and space to reflect on how one is reacting to them, which produces the experiential account detailed in this video. Perhaps then, this is the video essay at its most organic.
Matt Porterfield and the Art of the Question
Another instance of concrete observation leading to insights, now with an auteurist bent. I’ve read comments about how today’s criticism is too auteur-centric, and the most popular video essays are no exception. But auteurism is still valuable if there’s something illuminating to be learned from it, whether for viewers or even for the filmmaker. From what I understand, Matt Porterfield didn’t know his first two films Hamilton and Putty Hill were full of so many questions until he saw this video essay (at least that’s what I recall him saying on Twitter). In turn, engaging with his films helped me find a really effective hook for kicking off a video – start with a question. (Or five.) And using supercut techniques to line up the questions like dominoes is always fun.
As mentioned above, I’ve become wary of too much dependence on elements like script and narration; at the same time, I am increasingly drawn to the notion of being able to have images speak for themselves. But this has proven to be much more challenging than the standard voiceover-and-clips method, which is why I’ve done it only rarely. This video offers five different approaches to this problem, while also trying to wrest spectatorial control of the image from the most controlling and manipulative director of our time.
Mapping the Long Take: Bela Tarr and Miklós Jancsó
Seeking alternative methods of exploring images inevitably leads to the creation of new images. Looking for a way to graphically depict and explore the cinematography of two Hungarian masters led to me creating some basic maps in Power Point and moving a camera icon over them using keyframe animation in Final Cut. I refined these techniques later for the video essay exploring cinematography in Paul Thomas Anderson’ s films.
100 Masters of Animated Short Films
On the surface, compilation videos like this one, as well as Abraham Lincoln in Movies in TV and 50 Essential Chinese Movies seem like a pretty cut-and-dried order of simply gathering and arranging clips. But for each of these videos, this process resulted in some of the most time-consuming projects of the year: finding each clip, honing it to the few seconds that worked best in the montage, creating a rhythm. Still, there is great pleasure in watching as the sequence builds and reveals itself. While creating these videos don’t require as much critical thinking as writing a script from scratch, there is a critical line that emerges through montage, as the images engage with each other in dialogue (historical in the Abe Lincoln and Chinese videos; aesthetic in all three).
Originally published in Fandor. See a full categorized index
of all Fandor Keyframe video essays produced in 2012.