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VIDEO ESSAY: The #1 Textbook on Film, Now with Video

Video
by Kevin B. Lee
April 10, 2012 10:01 AM
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Walk into just about any introductory film studies class in the United States and you are bound to find students holding a copy of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson's Film Art: An Introduction as part of the syllabus. Since it first came out in 1979, the film has been an essential film studies resource, as well as an innovative one: it was the first intro level film textbook to use actual frames from movies rather than publicity stills in order to give an accurate illustration of film technique on screen. For the new tenth edition, Bordwell and Thompson have taken the book into the new dimension of online video.

Through a partnership with the Criterion Collection, Bordwell and Thompson, with the help of filmmaker Erik Gunneson, have produced an hour-long series of twenty online videos called Connect Film. The videos, meant as companions to the Film Art textbook, explore major concepts of mise-en-scene, cinematography, editing and sound, through films mostly from the Criterion Collection: Breathless, Seven Samurai, Shaun of the Dead, M. Hulot's Holiday, M and several others. They also explore concepts in computer animation through a couple of independently produced animated films, My Dog Tulip and Sita Sings the Blues. A full list of the videos can be found on Bordwell and Thompson's blog

The complete set of videos will be released this summer along with the publication of the new edition of Film Art. They have made one video available, an analysis of eliptical editing in Agnes Varda's Vagabond, embedded at the top of this entry.

It's worth noting how they adopt a simple, modular approach to the video. It opens with a brief synopsis of the story illustrated with still images instead of moving film footage. As a video essayist who generally prefers to use moving rather than still images, I was struck by this decision to go the opposite direction. It's notable how the montage of still images moves briskly alongside Thompson's narration, with specific images accompanying the points being made in her voiceover. To do this with moving footage would have required more length and spacing out of the narration, in order to let the moments play out. 

But this introduction is really intended to set up the central section in which eliptical editing is featured and analyzed in a sequence lasting a little over two minutes. It's worth noting how the sequence is left intact without editing, commentary or annotation, a contrast to most online video essays I've seen. The commentary on the sequence is saved for the final third of the video, where Thompson's commentary is again accompanied by still images, this time from the sequence. Here it's particularly interesting that stills are used in place of footage as Thompson describes actions rather than having the footage illustrate them. This approach benefits Thompson's analysis as some of her obsrevations are underscored by the expressive qualities of a freeze frame: the quality of Mona's smile while in the tent, the "No Tresspassing" sign, the friendly expression of the supposedly vicious dog. This approach also seems carried over from Bordwell and Thompson's extensive use of still images in textbooks; in this sense, longstanding techniques are made anew in the video medium.  

To see how differently one can approach the format, watch the video essays I produced with Thompson on La Roue and Variety back in 2009 as part of my Shooting Down Pictures project. In these videos her voiceover runs through footage of the films. In those instances the technique I used, which one could term "interwoven", "immersive" or "invasive" (depending on how positive or negative a connotation you want to append to it). could be more justified as the commentary is directed more towards the film in general rather than focusing on a specific sequence. The approach used in the Vagabond video has an admirable cleanness and precision that preserves the audiovisual integrity of the scene and also establishes an observational distance between the narrator and the work.

The exciting subtext that lies beneath the analysis above, and beneath the very fact that two leading film scholars have produced a formidable body of video work, is that the line dividing filmmaking and film analysis is collapsed and the areas of theory and practice are integrated as never before. This perspective, that film students and enthusiasts are filmmakers and vice versa, is espoused in vivid terms by Bordwell and Thompson themselves, in the first chapter of the new edition of Film Art, as quoted from their blog:

Films are designed to create experiences for viewers. To gain an understanding of film as an art, we should ask why a film is designed the way it is. When a scene frightens or excites us, when an ending makes us laugh or cry, we can ask how the filmmakers have achieved those effects.

It helps to imagine that we’re filmmakers too. Throughout this book, we’ll be asking you to put yourself in the filmmaker’s shoes. This shouldn’t be a great stretch. You’ve taken still photos with a camera or a mobile phone. Very likely you’ve made some videos, perhaps just to record a moment in your life—a party, a wedding, your cat creeping into a paper bag. And central to filmmaking is the act of choice. You may not have realized it at the moment, but every time you framed a shot, shifted your position, told people not to blink, or tried to keep up with a dog chasing a Frisbee, you were making choices.

If you take the next step and make a more ambitious, more controlled film, you’re doing the same thing. You might compile clips into a YouTube video, or document your friend’s musical performance. Again, at every stage you make design decisions, based on how you think this image or that sound will affect your viewers’ experience. What if you start your music video with a black screen that gradually brightens as the music fades in? That will have a different effect than starting it with a sudden cut to a bright screen and a blast of music.

At each instant, the filmmaker can’t avoid making creative decisions about how viewers will respond. Every moviemaker is also a movie viewer, and the choices are considered from the standpoint of the end user. Filmmakers constantly ask themselves: If I do this, as opposed to that, how will viewers react?

These are words well keeping in mind for all the video essayists, film scholars and movie fans out there.

In addition to the videos I made with Kristin Thompson, you can also watch a video essay I produced based on David Bordwell's review of Oxhide II.

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog and contributor to Roger Ebert.com. Follow him on Twitter.

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