Saturday 11 July 2009

Video Essays on Films: A Multiprotagonist Manifesto

'A Fair(y) Use Tale' by Eric S. Faden. Faden is an Associate Professor of English and Film Studies at Bucknell University (Lewisburg, PA). He studies early cinema and digital image technologies, and creates film, video, and multimedia scholarship called "media stylos" that imagine how scholarly research might appear as visual media. See his 'A Manifesto For Critical Media' (essay) and 'The Documentary's New Politics' (media-stylo) in Mediascape, Spring 2008; and his wonderful 'Media Stylo' about cinema 'Tracking Theory:The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance' By Eric S. Faden, Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, Volume 2 Issue 2, Winter 2007

Opening with Eric Faden's inspiring work, and following on from its own numerous championings of the online video essay as a hugely promising tool for Film Studies, Film Studies For Free is very happy to present, today, a 'Video Essay Manifesto'. It humbly hopes that it will both inform its readers and stir them to try out this critical/pedagogical genre for themselves ('How to' information-links are given at the foot of the post).

Immediately below, there are lots of pointers to as well as little snippets from useful and stimulating reflections on the video essay by those who have pioneered it in virtuosic online forms (Kevin B Lee, Steven Boone, Matt Zoller Seitz, Jim Emerson, Eric Faden, and Christian Keathley), by others who have commented on such work, and a few other key interventions on offline "films (or videos) about films" by critics, activist filmmakers, and theorists (Hans Richter, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Alexandra Juhasz, Jean-Luc Godard, and Slavoj Žižek).
  • [T]he film essay enables the filmmaker to make the ‘invisible’ world of thoughts and ideas visible on the screen. Unlike the documentary film that presents facts and information, the essay film produces complex thought—reflections that are not necessarily bound to reality, but can also be contradictory, irrational, and fantastic.
Hans Richter, "Der Filmessay: eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms" (The Film Essay: A New Form of Documentary Film) paraphrased by Nora Alter, “Memory Essays”, Stuff It: The Video Essay in the Digital Age (ed. Ursula Biemann, Zurich: Edition: Voldemeer, 2003), 12-23, p. 13

  • [S]ometimes when I try to convey something about my experience of movies -- filtered, as always, through reflections and contrasts between images, memories, themes, styles -- what I really want to do is make a movie about it. That seems like the shortest, most direct way from imagination to articulation. The movie itself (as Godard famously suggested) is the criticism, the analysis.
Jim Emerson, Close Up: The Movie/Essay/Dream, Scanners, October 17, 2007

  • Beyond simply having movies on DVD, the full range of digital video technologies enable film scholars to write using the very materials that constitute their object of study: moving images and sounds. As Victor Burgin has demonstrated, digital technologies have “expanded the range of possibilities for dismantling and reconfiguring the once inviolable objects offered by narrative cinema.” Thus, while such technologies provoke a new way of watching and thinking about films, they also offer a new way of conducting and presenting film research.
'The Scholarship of Sound and Image: Producing Media Criticism in the Digital Age', presented by Christian Keathley (Middlebury College), Andrew Miller (Sacred Heart University), Eric Faden (Bucknell University), and Jason Mittell (Middlebury College), (also including material produced by Craig Cieslikowski (University of Houston) Session Proposal for MIT6 - Stone and Payrus, Storage and Transmission International Conference April 24-26, 2009

  • [This] is the next important step in film criticism. We can now "write" using the very materials that constitute our object of study: moving images and sounds. But doing this demands re-thinking conventional critical forms. Lots of experimenting must be done [...].
Christian Keathley, Comment on Close Up: The Movie/Essay/Dream, Scanners, October 17, 2007

  • Digital technologies that enable the combination of images, sounds, and written text invite us not just to move critical discussion into a new presentational context, but demand that we re-imagine the very relationship between an object of study and critical commentary about it.
Christian Keathley, 'A Whirlpool of Things', in media res, May 14, 2007

  • [I] liked the video essay's refiguring of artist and audience relationship. While the idea of "interactive" media has been much hyped in recent years, it seems to me the "essay" film has long existed as an interactive form. Unlike traditional Hollywood narrative and its more homogenous, disposable, and formulaic approach, the essay film intentionally invites the audience to probe, re-view, and question the film's content and style. For me, much of today's interactive media design requires interactivity of hands and mouse but not necessarily the brain. I wanted to use a familiar, perhaps even dated, media form (the movies) but in a different way (the essay).
Eric Faden, Author's Statement 'Tracking Theory: The Synthetic Philosophy of The Glance By Eric S. Faden, Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, Volume 2 Issue 2, Winter 2007

  • One could argue that the decline of film criticism in recent years — observable in the habits of most newspaper and magazine editors in both Europe and North America as well as most films academics in North America — is not so much a reflection of the changing tastes of audiences (as these editors and academics often insist) as it is the power of multicorporations to eliminate everything that interferes with their promotion. Just as the so-called “American independent” filmmakers promoted by the Hollywood studios via Sundance usually means the filmmakers who have lost their independence, “film criticism” in the mainstream now refers mainly to promotional journalism; true independents and critics have to function in the margins. On more ways than one, the traffic is moving underground. Philosophically speaking, Histoire(s) du cinéma is a dangerous work because it dares to raise the issue of whom cinema, film criticism, and film history belong to. Truthfully, they belong to everyone today with a VCR [or DVD player], but contractually, they belong to the state, and the state today — especially from the standpoint of an American like myself — is Disney. It is Disney and its client states such as Miramax that set our cultural agendas and rewrite our official film histories and critiques via the mass media. By writing his own film history and criticism on video, using means that are readily available and relatively inexpensive, Godard is proposing a direction that filmmakers and video artists everywhere could explore with benefit — the direction of appropriation, a movement already inaugurated by the critical and historical reappraisals of the New Wave, and continued in Histoire(s) du cinéma by other and more subterranean means, such as poetry and autobiography. Recalling Paris Belongs to Us, Jacques Rivette’s first feature, I propose a slogan: Paramount belongs to us.
Jonathan Rosenbaum, 'Trailer for Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinéma',, May 21, 2009 (also see: Jonathan Rosenbaum, 'LE VRAI COUPABLE: Two Kinds of Criticism in Godard’s Work',, May 14, 2009)
  • If the potential for essayistic images shadowed much of the twentieth century and began self-consciously and definitively to articulate that potential at the mid-point of that century, today, I believe, the essayistic flourishes especially in the expansion of new technologies and changing venues for imagistic spectatorship and reception. Through the technological play, layering, and interactivity offered by new kinds of films, new media, and the Internet, the essayistic can now fully embrace its love affair with experiential contingencies of all sorts--from the privacies of dying on film or the public media events that propel wars to, ultimately, the very activity of film scholars as they engage their own objects on their own terms.
Timothy Corrigan, 'Expression, the Essayistic, and Thinking in Images', Vectors: Journal of Culture and Technology in a Dynamic Vernacular, Volume 2 Issue 2, Winter 2007
  • In 2007 I started my blog Shooting Down Pictures to chronicle the completion of a typically obsessive cinephile project: to finish watching the 1,000 Greatest Movies of All Time as determined by They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, a website that compiled over 1,800 lists by critics, filmmakers and scholars to create what is supposed to be the most authoritative consensus of great films. (As of this writing I have seen 962 of the films). For each film that I watch, I write a review, compile quotes and links to writings on the film, and embed video clips of the film that are online. As the project progressed, I felt the urge to comment directly on some of these clips, or to combine my reflections on the film with clips to directly illustrate my observations. By applying my filmmaking and editing background to the current digital technology that allows for ripping/copying and editing video and uploading it to the web, my work in the video essay format thus began. So far I've produced over 50 video essays, most of which can be accessed on my blog and my YouTube channel. With each video, I try to take a different approach that reflects the film and its impact on me. The focus may be on a single sequence (i.e. La Haine; The Saragossa Manuscript), a performance (Un Coeur en Hiver), music (And the Ship Sails On), sociological context (The World According to Garp; Gran Torino), or even autobiographical reflection (The Hour of the Star; America America). In some cases I film original footage to supplement or highlight an aspect of the film (And God Created Woman; The Vanishing compared to Zodiac), or work with footage of an event associated with the film (a midnight screening of El Topo; a group viewing of Duel; an interview with Paul Schrader and Ed Lachmann regarding their film Light Sleeper). I've used text inserts to highlight areas of the frame (The Evil Dead II), a device that fellow video essayists Steven Boone and Matt Zoller Seitz have taken to greater lengths. I've even given voice to the honorable dead, with a narration of the late Susan Sontag's immortal essay on Hitler: A Film from Germany set to footage illustrating her insights. There is no strict guiding principle to my approaches concerning the format of these videos other than a deathly fear of repeating myself and a desire to increase the level of sophistication with each attempt at this new form of film criticism.
Kevin B Lee, 'The Viewer as Creator', Kunst der Vermittlung: Aus den Archiven Filmvermittlung Films”/“The Art of Mediation: Films About Films,” April 2, 2009
  • New forms of distribution of the internet and the digital technologies have made all means for the production of movie-commenting movies easily accessible for today’s web-prosumer. Vast numbers of feature-films and other cinematographic productions exist as digital footage, recording- and editing devices in various complexity are availabe for everyone. When it comes to working with this treasure, the pertinent questions are analogous or even identical to those that authors of movie-commenting movies are confronted with: Which elements of an existing movie can I work with? What can be used, what am I allowed to use? What is a citation, what is a copy, what is a transmission? What is —in the broadest sense—legally or even morally interesting or possible, what is aesthetically interesting or possible in the working-with or the deictical gestures (the showing)? And who should watch all this? To be more specific: What is the difference between digital footage found on the net and the tangible footage collected in movie archives or found in the dustbin of history? What is algorithmic and what is intellectual indexicalization? We have been looking for various forms and formats of movie-commenting artefacts in the internet. Starting from these we are going to discuss the questions mentioned above with Sebastian Lütgert (pirate cinema). The film selection focuses on works created within the frame of American Weblogs – particularly “Shooting Down Pictures”, the project of our special guest, the filmmaker and critic Kevin B. Lee. Examples include video essays on current and classical films by Nicole Brenez, Kristin Thompson, Jonathan Rosenbaum, Matt Zoller Seitz, and others.
'Films About Films and the Internet': Programme Description of "The Art of Mediation" Session on Internet 'Films about Films and the Internet', Shooting Down Pictures, April 16, 2009
  • Each video takes anywhere between 8-20 hours to produce (one I'm working on now, which I hope will be my best, most sophisticated yet, has already crossed the 30 hour threshhold). I don't make any money off doing this. What I do get is: the geeky filmmaker satisfaction of having worked through a movie by literally working it inside out; collaborating with an ever-growing roster of fellow cinephiles whose generosity of insight is often humbling; and finally, sharing all this with a global audience that appears to get something out of this as well. One of the greatest sensations in life is when one feels he is learning and growing through what one does, especially in the company of others. That to me is what this is all about.
Kevin B Lee, Comment on 'Copy Rites: YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee', The House Next Door Online, Tuesday, January 13, 2009
  • Kevin [Lee]'s trailblazing example inspired me to give up print journalism last year and concentrate on filmmaking, and make video essays—criticism with moving pictures—a key part of my new life. I've been privileged to work with Kevin on video essays for The Museum of the Moving Image, which believed in the critical relevance and legal sturdiness of the format and asked us to do series on the films of Oliver Stone and the opening credits of HBO's The Wire. Many other critic-filmmakers have followed in Kevin's footsteps, including Jim Emerson, publisher of Scanners, who dove into the pool with a wordless video essay tied into The House's "Close-Up Blog-a-thon," and who recently uploaded a ripped DVD clip from Warner Bros' The Dark Knight to augment his recent series of articles attacking the film for narrative and visual sloppiness. Can a critic argue without clips? Sure. Film criticism has largely done without external accompaniments for a century and can continue to do without them. But it's important to note that clips and still frames have been a central part of cinema studies since its inception. Anyone who's attended a film history or theory course knows how valuable they are. Clips often determine the difference between learning something and truly understanding it. They're quotes from the source text deployed to make a case. Take them away, and you're left with the critic saying, "Well, I can't show you exactly what I mean, so I'll describe it as best I can and hope you believe me." This, in a nutshell, is the defining difference between criticism pre- and post-millennium. For the first time ever, when someone says to a critic, "Show me the evidence," the critic doesn't need to unlock a film archive vault or even haul out a DVD player to produce it. He can call it up online anytime, anywhere, for anybody. The implications are astounding. The technology's potential has only begun to be tapped. And as you know, there's more to it than classroom-style argumentation. Digital editing software and DVD-ripping technology permits anybody with filmmaking skill and the right tools—say, Handbrake to rip discs, MPEG Streamclip to convert them to edit-able format, and iMovie or Final Cut to put the pieces together—to manipulate commercial media in all sorts of ways, then post the result on the Internet.
Matt Zoller Seitz, 'Copy Rites: YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee', The House Next Door Online, January 13, 2009
  • ["The Pervert's Guide to Cinema" takes film criticism in yet another direction. It's an essay in the form of a documentary, incorporating clips and placing the critic (Slavoj Žižek) into the film-worlds he's examining and interpreting. As I wrote from the 2006 Toronto Film Festival]:
    • This isn't quite the first film of this sort ("A Journey Through American Cinema with Martin Scorsese" springs to mind) -- but there ought to be more. The genre of movies about movies -- in-depth appreciations and evaluations of films that go beyond clip reels like "That's Entertainment!" into something deeper and, well, more entertaining -- is something I hope will blossom over the next few years. It's something I've been thinking about a lot: film criticism needs to expand beyond mere words, and make better use of other media, including the web and film/video itself, where the images themselves can be seen while they are analyzed.
    Jim Emerson, 'TIFF: The Pervert's Guide to Cinema', Scanners, September 9, 2006
Also see:

1 comment:

Calum Tingham said...

Okay. This video is awesome. It's not enough to have descriptions of what Fair Use it. It's great to get an example of it, which explains it at the same time. Really makes it clear.