It seems that video essayists are emerging every day—and if it isn't a new talent crossing our radar, it's someone whose extraordinary work we've somehow missed. The latter is the case with Joel Bocko, who's been making video essays since 2009. It's remarkable whenever someone is able to establish a kind of signature with their work in this still nascent form of online video. In the videos made by Bocko that I've seen, it's clear to me that he is a weaving artist.
In "Comedy Countdown," his two part video on Modern Times, Bocko weaves together voiceover tracks based on insights by three great writers: Otis Ferguson, Roland Barthes, and Graham Greene. Even more impressive is his video comparing Brian De Palma's Hi Mom!, Carrie and Scarface, weaving together their respective bloody demises. The contrast between Carrie and Scarface is especially evocative as feminine yin and masculine yang: ejaculatory vs. menstrual rage. Bocko's tastes are eclectic, as evidenced by his video essay on Marco Bellochio's underseen "Fists in the Pocket."
Taken by Bocko's work, I interviewed him via email to learn more about how he got interested in making video essays and his approach to the form.
Joel Bocko: I do not work professionally in film (aside from some fleeting freelance experiences years ago), though I would like to. I mostly learned about filmmaking and editing in childhood and high school, first when my father had a Hi-8 home video camera and later when I was able to use Final Cut Pro in my public high school's media lab. In the first instance, I was as fascinated with home movies (seeing my family on TV) as I was by big-screen films in theater. And I always saw the two as being linked. I used the Hi-8 technology to make a sort of video mixtape when I was about 15, hooking up wires from VCR to the camera and editing together clips of my favorite movies in chronological order, from The Gold Rush to Schindler's List, a sort of cinematic panaroma. But with that technique there were a lot of hiccups. When I discovered Final Cut and digital editing, the ability to time something to the frame it was thrilling, a real lightning-bolt moment.
Kevin: How did you become interested in producing video essays?
Joel: The roots were probably there in those early clip tapes, but the first self-conscious video essay I recall seeing is one of your own, maybe around '07. I loved the idea, which seemed the logical next step after DVD commentaries and film-clip documentaries. Nonetheless, I kept putting off doing one of my own. "Directed by De Palma" was my first video essay, although I didn't consider it one at the time (since it didn't have narration and had a more impressionistic than analytical vibe), and then it was two years before I created online video content again. In 2011, I launched a chronological video series highlighting clips from many of my favorite movies, in 32 different chapters. It was an extension of that VHS mixtape I made as a kid. It was followed by another impressionistic video essay on 42nd Street, but it was not until last fall that I finally made a narrated video essay. I think it took me so long to turn my excitement into action because I approach filmmaking and criticism with different mindsets, and narrated video essays combine both approaches. It's both right- and left-brained and thus presents a real challenge, I find.
Joel: Both. One precedent for the video essays is an experimental film I made at 21, which freely cut between old home movies, found-footage (particularly a cartoon adaptation of Wind in the Willows), and original content shot by myself. It was scored with offbeat pop music like My Bloody Valentine and Massive Attack, and it followed an autobiographical theme. So this is how I think not just about video essays, but filmmaking—and film-watching—in general. It's a way of seeing art, and perhaps the world: I love diverse formats and perspectives, but I'm not a postmodernist, at least in my understanding of the word, so I try to find some way to tie these divergences together, to discover their links. I'm fascinated by the infamous Lumiere/Melies dichotomy and I think great movies contain both approaches. This goes back to being a little kid, simultaneously fascinated both by home movies and big-screen blockbusters. When you find films with something in common, you're also better able to highlight what's different. I do this in written pieces a lot too, for example using This Sporting Life and Billy Liar to examine a split in the British New Wave around '63, or comparing Felix Salton's novel Bambi to the Disney adaptation, which tells you a lot about both authors. Bouncing objects or ideas (as in the Chaplin piece) off of one another sparks more creaitivity and insight, in my experience.
Joel: The video was created for Tony Dayoub's Brian De Palma blogathon in 2009. I knew many people would be covering the films I was interested in and did not want my contribution to seem redundant. So for one thing, I wanted to cover several films instead of just one, and I wanted to take a visual approach. Initially I thought I'd do a screen-cap visual tribute, and then had the idea of setting screen-caps to a music/sound collage like a sideshow. Eventually I abandoned the idea of using only still images (except for the first minute or so), I guess because De Palma's images are so kinetic and visceral they demand movement. Scarface was always my favorite De Palma, even when I wasn't that keen on him as a director, Hi Mom! was a very recent discovery which led me to value him more as an auteur, and Carrie I hadn't actually seen yet when starting the project, but I sensed I'd like it. Before I watched it, Tony mentioned that the split-screen would have great visual potential in an image tribute, which may have led me to the idea of incorporating the other films into the split-screen in the climax. The points of intersection were turned up while editing the video rather than being pre-determined—evidence that there are definitely common themes and motifs running through these movies.
Joel: As noted above, the connections were discovered rather than expected. It's hard to re-trace the process now, but I remember that in addition to Tony mentioning the split-screen, Glenn Kenny had a piece in the blogathon comparing Robert De Niro's shower monologue in Hi Mom! to what is basically a re-enactment of that scene (visual instead of verbal) in Body Double. That may have led me back not only to that scene in the earlier film, which I included in the video, but also the theme of sexual shame or jealousy. The masculine/feminine aspect arose out of the material, and the fact that at first I was preoccupied with Carrie before finding a way to bring Scarface in. Tony arrives at the moment when the sense of insecurity and vulnerability is at its height—his hypermasculine machismo is both a counterpoint to Carrie's initial shyness and also its flip-side; he is just as insecure and sensitive as she is, but has a different way of dealing with this—a way (violence) which eventually becomes her way as well (with the conversation between De Niro and Salt serving as a kind of bridge between these two gender-coded ways of dealing with hurt and anger). Most of the specific links, the details like the stabbing sounds and the gunshots, or the footage of the Hi, Mom home invasion matching the security TVs in Scarface was discovered in the process of editing. I don't think you can plan most of this stuff out, you just keep an open mind and antenna up and it's amazing what you'll find.
What did I discover? Working on this project really solidified for me that De Palma was not just a flashy surface stylist, as I had once thought—his work is full of deeply-felt themes and raw visual motifs, even if these ideas and emotions are hidden by self-conscious film references or a comic-baroque playfulness. As for the video essay format, and what I discovered, that's a longer answer. I am a bit more conscious about overall structuring than individual moments, and I had several very strong ideas informing the video's creation. One was that I had to build up to the climax, so I wanted to take my time at first and include several long sequences. There can be a tendency to want to put your own stamp on something when "sampling" a film or song, but sometimes it's best to allow the material room to breathe and express itself in its own voice—take Carrie walking down the stairs to her mother or the extraordinary "Be Black, Baby!" sequence in Hi, Mom! However, at certain points, I really wanted to mess with the footage, intercut it, and do new things with it, to make the montage viscerally and kinetically my own, harnessing De Palma's energy in an fresh way. Primarily with the ending, where all the films kind of converge into one metamovie, all the pent-up sexual energy finding its outlet in savage violence, against big groups of people (all three films have a warlike climax). At that point I would actually look for things to replace or swap out, like how you see Al Pacino getting shot but hear Piper Laurie getting stabbed. There's an indescribable delight when you find two things that aren't supposed to go together and they just click. That's the thrill of montage right there, in a nutshell.
Joel: That idea came very last-minute. I was assigned Modern Times in the comedy countdown on Wonders in the Dark by Sam Juliano, but the thing is it isn't really one of my favorite Chaplins. I'm fascinated by the themes, and I have a crush on Paulette Goddard, but I connect more with the comedy and pathos of The Gold Rush and City Lights. Reading essays on Modern Times (beginning with Roland Barthes', which a commentator named Shamus turned me on to), I was more fascinated by their voices than my own and eventually decided I should roll with that. Jeff Pike and Greg Stevens volunteered to send me audio clips for Barthes and Otis Ferguson, to complement my own reading of Graham Greene, literally in the middle of the night, when I put out a call on my blog about 12 hours before the video was due. I edited the whole thing that night, by highlighting certain passages (Ferguson in particular lost a lot of text), linking them in a call-and-response form so that Barthes discusses the film's political outlook and Greene naysays the film's socialism and then Barthes makes a subtle distinction between Chaplin's consciousness and the film. The clips were chosen because they were interesting, without knowing where I'd use them, and once they were imported I chose appropriate moments from my selections. The video track was cut to fit the soundtrack for the most part, as is often the case (even in the visually-driven De Palma tribute, there are far more cuts in video than audio, which tends to be laid out continuously; for example, when you "hear" De Niro firing the gun at the end, that's actually the firehose snapping in Carrie, whose soundtrack provides the backdrop for most of the video's climax). That's a very documentary approach, which I find works for video essays, especially narrated ones.
Kevin: When you first made me aware of your work, you didn't refer to the DePalma video as a "video essay" because it didn't feature narration. Do you feel that narration is an essential feature of the video essay? Or more broadly speaking, how would you define what a video essay is and is not? What does it need to accomplish?
Joel: Good point. I think of video essays as being more akin to film criticism than filmmaking, which means—to me—that they arise more out of an analytical, intellectual process than an imaginative, impulsive urge, although the best will balance both. Since the De Palma video was created more in the way I'd create an experimental film, it didn't seem like a video essay to me at the time. When I finally created narrated video essays it was really tricky to find my way around the form. I tried to edit visuals first and then add narration but it just didn't work. So it's a different game. Still, I think maybe these are just two different forms of video essay—the De Palma piece definitely has a point to make, an analysis to apply, it just does so through juxtaposition rather than verbal articulation. I'd like to experiment with the balance of this in future pieces; say, a video essay that's 10% non-narrated/visual, 90%narrated/analytical, or vice versa, or 40/60, 25/75, whatever. I do think even the most heavily analytical video essays need to give the visual track space to breathe; it can't just be a lecture unfolding simultaneously with film footage playing as "background." Which seems like a trap the form could fall into, although I haven't seen enough yet to know if it's a common one.
Joel: Yes and no. On
the one hand, they tend to articulate pre-existing attitudes and
interests rather than shape new ones; in fact, if anything, they've returned
me to a more hands-on, formally-conscious, intuitive approach to film
appreciation which too much analytical writing can distance me from. On
the other hand, they have had a big impact on myself as a filmmaker
rather than a cinephile; after creating my first narrated video essays, I
created a short film which was, in a sense, a video essay in reverse,
applying a fictional narration to nonfiction material (in this case,
real snapshots and home movies) rather than vice-versa as is the case
with most video essays. How this will impact my future films is hard to
say, but I've always known that making video essays would be a step
toward making my own movies - which is maybe one reason I nervously
procrastinated so long before taking the plunge. But there's no turning
back. I think the future of movies, both in terms of cinephilia and
filmmaking, is on the internet. One way or another video essays will be
at the center of that nexus. There's still a lot to explore—I've only
begun to watch the many videos that are out there—and it's a very
exciting time; death of cinema, maybe, but also a radical rebirth.
Joel Bocko is a 29-year-old writer and filmmaker living in Pasadena, CA. He has been blogging for five years at Lost in the Movies, recently completed the short film "Class of 2002", and is working on a feature screenplay to be shot on a shoestring (or credit card) later this year.
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.