Monday, February 27, 2012

Video Essays

I'll be attending the Society for Cinema and Media Studies (SCMS) conference in Boston next month. I made my first trip to this conference last year, when it was held in New Orleans. It turned out to be a lot of fun and very rewarding, both socially and in terms of the diversity of conference presentations I was able to catch. I resolved to become a regular and return each year.

This year, Catherine Grant and Christian Keathley asked me to join them on a panel called "The Video Essay". Especially with the efforts of critics such as Matt Zoller Seitz, Kevin Lee and Jim Emerson, this form of criticism has witnessed a great flowering in the last few years. Press Play, the site published by Matt and overseen by Kevin, has been remarkably prolific. Catherine's site Audiovisualcy has gathered a great and diverse group of pieces, and is growing steadily. I'm looking forward to a stimulating conference session on this topic. (The entire conference program is available on PDF via this page.)

* * *

In the recent collection "The Language and Style of Film Criticism," edited by Andrew Klevan and Alex Clayton (I blogged about the book a few months ago), Chris Keathley has a chapter on the video essay. In it, he proposes that video essays work in two modes: explanatory and poetic.

The explanatory mode, while being extremely valuable, is also the more common. It is guided by language, both written and spoken. "Images and sounds," he writes, "are subordinated to explanatory language."

He then quotes Adrian Martin's Filmkrant piece "A Voice Too Much":

It is instructive to compare both DVD audio commentaries and video essays to what Jean-Luc Godard does in his massive Histoire(s) du cinéma. In fact, Godard has complained in an interview that he hates it when the voice - the law of the written/spoken text - dominates in a filmic 'essay': there is a lot of vocalising in Godard, but it is always displaced, decentred, at war with all the other elements of the work. It is not a voice which legislates or pontificates, which closes down meaning.

Keathley adds:

Godard's video uses language (both spoken and written), but it is one component among many, and these components are not unified into any explanatory discourse. Explanation vies with poetics in a collage of images and sounds, words and music, sometimes gaining the upper hand, sometimes losing it.

Keathley provides a couple of examples of video essays that work in a different register, that of the poetic mode. One of them is Paul Malcolm's "Notes to a Project on Citizen Kane" (2007), available at Another is Victor Burgin's "Listen to Britain," originally a 2001 gallery installation piece but now available on the Criterion DVD of Powell/Pressburger's A Canterbury Tale (1944).

Practitioners of the video essay form, Keathley proposes, need to take up and explore both modes in order to truly mine its potential.

* * *

I wonder if you might recommend some of your favorite video essays -- examples of the form that you find particularly interesting or illuminating or useful. We might be able to draw upon these examples during our discussion at the conference. Thank you!

* * *

Links to recent reading:

-- David Hudson's "Daily Briefing" posts at MUBI are simply the essential cinema reading for me each day. Here is a link that takes us to several of the most recent posts. Also: David collects links to pieces on Theo Angelopoulos, who died recently. And here is a group of recent Robert Bresson posts at MUBI. It includes Danny Kasman's post on two mysterious edits by Bresson (with an interesting discussion in the comments that follow).

-- Mike D'Angelo's post "Why I Pirate Movies: A Self-Justification" has generated a vigorous, interesting discussion in the comments.

-- Ben Sachs of the Chicago Reader has quickly become one of those critics whose pieces I eagerly look forward to and enjoy without fail. Here is a collection of his recent columns on subjects that include Zalman King, George Kuchar, Neveldine/Taylor, Mikio Naruse and Yilmaz Güney. Speaking of Guney, as the retrospective makes its way around the country, Bilge Ebiri's post on his films is sure to come in handy.

-- The new issue of Filmkrant features its annual "Slow Criticism" section, which is introduced by Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López. I join several other critics, including Chris Fujiwara, Richard Porton and Gabe Klinger, in contributing a piece to the section. David Hudson rounds up the pieces for us, with links.

-- (via Zach Campbell) Hilarious: Hennessy Youngman's "What is Post-Structuralism?". Also: "Gallo vs. Clooney" by Chris Fujiwara.

-- J. Hoberman in the Guardian: "Hugo and the Magic of Film Trickery"; Robert Kolker on Hugo at the OUP blog (via Kevin Lee); and Hoberman's "A New Obama Cinema?" in the New York Review of Books. At Film Comment, there is an interview with Ken Jacobs and his former projectionist Hoberman.

-- Nicole Brenez has curated a series called "Internationalist Cinema for Today" for Anthology Film Archives in NYC.

-- Several fascinating pieces at Jonathan Rosenbaum's blog, including reviews of films by Shohei Imamura, Zhang Yimou, John Sayles, Nina Menkes and Danny De Vito.

-- At Sight & Sound: Filmmakers such as Olivier Assayas and Bruno Dumont on the influence of Robert Bresson on their work; Graham Fuller on Jean Vigo; and B. Kite on David Lynch's Mulholland Drive.

-- Adam Nayman and Trevor Link both make me want to run out and catch the new David Wain comedy, Wanderlust. Via Trevor: Allan Fish's "A Plea for Criterion Eclipse Sets of the Future".

-- Stumbled upon this: "80 mainstream movies from the last 30 years that were either commercially or critically buried".

-- The new issue of Cineaste magazine.

-- Serge Daney's piece "Nick Ray and the House of Pictures" has been posted in the comments section at Kinoslang by Laurent Kretzschmar.

-- Ignatiy Vishnevetsky takes "a close look" at the new Michael Mann/David Milch series "Luck"; and notices an unusual shadow in Rivette's Paris Belongs to Us.

-- (via Anuja Jain at NYU) A 1981 Cineaste interview with Satyajit Ray.

-- (via Phil Coldiron) At n+1 magazine, an interview with Pedro Costa during his visit to Indiana University, Bloomington, for a retrospective of his films.

-- A fresh set of Michael Sicinski reviews up at The Academic Hack.

-- At the Film Comment blog: Robert Koehler's report from Sundance; and Violet Lucca's post "On SOPA and the Future--and the Past--of Film".

-- Catherine Grant has a post on "Alexander Kluge Studies"; and Candace Wirt interviews Alexander Kluge at MUBI. Also: Catherine's recent post "Pandora's Box? On Digital Conversions and Rebirths".

-- (via Brian Darr) A detailed interview with Frank Tashlin about his animation work.

-- Dennis Lim reports from Rotterdam at Artforum.

-- Fergus Daly at Experimental Conversations: "Under the Paving Stones, Redondo Beach: Post '68 French Cinema in the 80s and 90s".

-- At Frieze: "Nine Theses on Slapstick" by Brian Dillon; and "Call Yourself a Critic?" by Sam Thorne.

-- Richard Brody discovers a 1926 Virginia Woolf essay on cinema.

-- (via David Hudson) Rob Latham in the Los Angeles Review of Books on the career of Philip K. Dick.

-- At Film Quarterly: A discussion between Rob White and Amber Jacobs on Todd Haynes' Mildred Pierce.

-- An entertaining 2002 interview with Abel Ferrara by Scott Tobias.

-- I learned from the essay "German Desire in the Age of Venture Capitalism" by Marco Abel, available at the Cinema Guild site, that Christian Petzold's character Yella was named for Yella Rottländer, the unforgettable child actor from Wim Wenders' Alice in the Cities (1974).

-- (via the Celluloid Liberation Front) The archives of the film magazine Vertigo.

-- At Putney Debater, Michael Chanan revisits "the theory/practice debate".

-- David Phelps on William Wellman at MUBI; Nick Pinkerton on Wellman's pre-code films at Moving Image Source.

-- A conversation with Adam Curtis at e-flux.

-- Ehsan Khoshbakht interviews Geoff Andrew about Abbas Kiarostami.

-- At IndieWire: Peter Bogdanovich on Red River and My Darling Clementine.

Robert Bresson's Une Femme Douce (1969).


Blogger girish said...

(Ack: Meant to put this in the links section but forgot!) Good news: Srikanth Srinivasan makes his MUBI Notebook debut with the post "A Tale of Two Paths: "Agneepath", Its Remake and Bollywood."

February 27, 2012 1:22 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

I share the bias toward the non-narrated video essay over the primarily explanatory one - both have their value, but I feel the latter gets too much play over the former.

I have no idea if others will find it worthy (though it's the post I'm proudest of) but several years ago I created an impressionistic video piece focusing on the way sexual frustration develops into violence in Brian De Palma's films. It is closer to being a found-footage film than a critical analysis, but I believe both can - or should - fall under the aegis of "video essay":

Very nice to see Srikanth expanding his reach - not only is he a talented writer and very knowledgeable cinephile, he's simply one of the blogosphere's nicest personalities.

February 27, 2012 11:53 PM  
Blogger Daniel Kasman said...

Thanks for all the generous links, Girish!

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention one of the best video essays I've seen, Gina Telaroli's PHYSICAL INSTINCTS (

February 28, 2012 10:49 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jimmy Joe Roche's deconstruction of Schwarzenneger movies, ULTIMATE REALITY, is essential viewing.

I think the beginning of it is here:

February 28, 2012 11:48 AM  
Blogger Otis said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

February 28, 2012 2:22 PM  
Blogger Otie Wheeler said...

Right now, Tag Gallagher seems to be master of the (poetic yet informative) video essay.

February 28, 2012 2:24 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thank you, Joel, Danny, Anon, and Otie!

February 28, 2012 7:37 PM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

I liked Jim Emerson's demonstration on what was wrong with The Dark Knight. It was amazing what I missed when I saw that film, perhaps deliberately, by the filmmakers. It was also interesting to read of the reaction by fanboys who thought Emerson ruined that film for them.

February 29, 2012 10:50 AM  
Blogger Steven Rybin said...

One of my favorites is Matt Zoller Seitz's series of videos on Michael Mann:

Seitz rehearses familiar information about Mann (biographical info on the director, production background), but this is punctuated throughout by original critic insights on the films. Essential stuff for anyone interested in this director.

On an unrelated note, one question I'd throw out there for the conference discussion: how do those using the video form *cite* scholars/critics who have come before them? One potential problem with the non-textual aspect of the video essay is that it is difficult to tell how the video fits into the history of scholarship, since the use of the video makes citation difficult, or at least awkward.

March 01, 2012 7:31 AM  
Blogger Catherine Grant said...

Great and generous post as ever, Girish. Thank you and see you in Boston!

Steven, that's an excellent question and it's sure to be raised by the SCMS panel. I take two or three approaches to this matter in my own little experiments. I happily use text, for instance: see this scholarly tribute I made to Elizabeth Taylor as a child star and this "theory essay" on haptic film criticism. Otherwise, I think the video essay form works well as part of a multimedia approach: see my audiovisual comparison of Powell's Peeping Tom and Haneke's Code Unknown. and this analysis of split screens in Aronofsky's requiem fora Dream. Personally, though, for me the video essay is most eloquent when it works entirely through montage, as it does in Matt Zoller Seitz's brilliant videographic study of Dennis Hopper's persona and performance work. Ideally, videographic film studies and criticism should not have to be seen exclusively as having to compete with, or somehow as having to replace, scholarly writing.

March 01, 2012 11:46 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, let me post a link to Jim's collection of Dark Knight posts here.

Steve and Katie, thank you for weighing in. Yes, this is a good question for us to take up in our conference discussion.

Katie, I thought you might be interested to know: All Palgrave MacMillan journals have free online access this month! (I discovered this via the medievalist scholar Eileen Joy.)

March 01, 2012 2:13 PM  
Anonymous Christian Keathley said...

Thanks for this post, Girish.

To respond to Steven's question: I would tell the students in my video essay class that incorporating scholarly citation is an opportunity to think about the ways in which we can integrate text into video as a graphic as well as reference element. Font style, font size, color, motion of text -- the graphic/aesthetic qualities are obvious in a video essay just as much as they are invisible in a traditional written text. I would say, you can use that visibility to your poetic advantage.

March 01, 2012 5:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Catherine's new post, very relevant here, is on audiovisual practice-based research.

March 06, 2012 2:33 PM  
Blogger Catherine Grant said...

Thanks again, Girish! More on Audiovisual Film Studies coming up shortly at Film Studies for Free. But I just wanted to let people know of a new video essay on Ferran's Lady Chatterley and Guerin's In the City of Sylvia by Kevin B. Lee - using text, not voice-over, to very good effect.

March 08, 2012 6:13 AM  
Blogger Gareth said...

I'm also participating in SCMS, though in a not-great timeslot first thing on Wednesday. I'm hoping to be at the video essay panel on Thursday.

If you have any questions about Boston, let me know: I live here. There are a few good vegan places here, albeit not many that are especially central; for that, it's more about finding places that do at least some vegan food.

March 14, 2012 8:37 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Catherine, congratulations on the launch of your new column at Press Play! I eagerly look forward to following it.

Gareth, I might arrive a little too late to catch your panel but I look forward to meeting you in person. Good luck with your paper!

March 15, 2012 4:42 PM  
Blogger AHansen said...

What I love about Gallagher's essays is how he finds a moment, a look, a gesture, comments on it then simply replays it again and again. The power it contains sinking in further with each repetition, until it has no choice but to burst in some kind of reaction (in my case usually joy or wonder).

It's a process that boils cinema down to its barest core. Its something we watch, internalize and process (consciously or not) and then allow to flow back from the depths, whether it be tears, laughter, smiles, or anger.

March 19, 2012 9:53 PM  

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