Monday, July 07, 2014

On Video Essays, Cinephilia and Affect

Even though I don’t teach in the cinema studies discipline, I have made a habit, in the last few years, of traveling to the SCMS (Society for Cinema and Media Studies) conference each year. It allows me both to socialize with cinephile scholars (which I have come to enjoy deeply) and to get a sense of the directions in which scholarship appears to be headed in the discipline—akin to what traveling to TIFF each fall does in acquainting me with new directions in “world cinema”.

At this year’s SCMS conference in Seattle in the spring, the single best session I attended was devoted to video essays—and their emergence as a new and exciting mode of scholarship. Specifically, I am intrigued by the connection between video essays and cinephilia. It has long been noted that when cinephiles engage in practices such as talking or writing about cinema, they are trying to prolong the experience of cinema—and thus, sustain and extend the special affective states produced in the cinephile’s acts of engagement with cinema.

I am wondering about how video essays fit in here. By which I mean: Is there a special, cinephilic, affective charge that the critic/scholar derives from making video essays? And, correspondingly, that the viewer derives from watching them? What accounts for the allure, the pull, of the video essay both for maker and viewer?

There are some valuable clues to the first question in Catherine Grant’s essay “The Shudder of a Cinephiliac Idea?,” in which she describes the process of making her first video essay, Unsentimental Education (2009). Grant invokes the artist/theorist Barbara Bolt, who advocates for a “practice-based research” in which new knowledge is generated through process, through practice, rather than through “talk”. Bolt draws on philosopher Martin Heidegger’s notion of “handlability,” which refers to a special form of understanding that is achieved “with hands and eyes,” through handling, doing, making.

Grant’s account of making video essays is remarkable for the way it foregrounds the role of affect in generating criticism and knowledge. She signals this with the title of her essay, which quotes Bolt: “the new emerges through process as the shudder of an idea” (my emphasis). Bolt calls this process “material thinking”.

Grant confesses that she had taught Chabrol’s Les Bonnes Femmes (1960) for years, and thought she knew the film well. But once she began working on a video essay on the film, she realized that her motivation to do so was being fed by a very specific desire: to engage closely “with this film’s strangeness—its beguiling yet disturbing affect—a quality to which I have always been (perhaps obsessively) drawn, and one that neither I nor my students had been able to account for effectively in words…”

By using non-linear editing and the ability of technology to reorganize, juxtapose and play with audiovisual material from the film, Grant arrived at a personal critical breakthrough. In particular, reworking a key shot in the film by reframing it caused her to reach a deeper understanding of this moment—and the “implacable logic of the films characters’ captivity in human (and cinema) time.” The conclusion of her essay is touching: she is gratified to have found “knowledge that she once would have disavowed, or denied, as she searched for much more “acceptable” scholarly objects.”

Taking a step back, we can view the affective appeal of video essay production against a wider horizon. In the mid-1990s, an affective turn took hold in the humanities and social sciences. It spread through several disciplines—like history, sociology, women’s studies and cultural studies. In brief, the turn to affect was inspired by a dissatisfaction with earlier theoretical approaches such as post-structuralism which did not allow sufficiently for non-linguistic factors and for individual difference. The move to affect meant a move away from large scale-analysis and social structures, and towards a focus on relationships and encounters with other individuals, technology and the world—and how these relations impact, shape and form us. The multi-disciplinary appeal of affect was also significant: it struck a chord that rippled across the entire field of the humanities—and beyond.

The brilliant, young film studies scholar Eugenie Brinkema has now performed an intervention in this landscape of affect studies with her new book, The Forms of the Affects. In setting the stage for her critique, she recalls the reasons for the ascendancy of affect: its resistance to systematic thought and its recovery of “contingency, possibility and play”. But, she wonders, “have accounts of affects produced more nuanced, delightful interpretations of forms in texts – and have they recovered the dimension of being surprised by representations?”

She notes the powerful attractions and seductive negations involved in taking up affect: “not semiosis, not meaning, not structure, not apparatus, but the felt, visceral, immediate, sensed, embodied, excessive”. But Brinkema also criticizes this turn because it has generally been accompanied by a suspicion of close analysis and of sustained attention to form. For her, a great deal of work under the sign of affect “evades the slow, hard tussle of reading texts closely” and is “incapable of dealing with textual particularities and formal matters”. She admits drolly: “There is a perversity to this [the call she is issuing in her book]: if affect theory is what is utterly fashionable, it is answered here with the corrective of the utterly unfashionable … the sustained interpretation of texts” – something that needs to take place via close reading and deep sensitivity to form.

I think video essays—and videographic film studies in general—might be one modest way to respond to this call. If affects are connected to forces that are released during encounters (as Gregory Seigworth and Melissa Gregg claim in their introductory essay to The Affect Theory Reader), then the extended encounter of working with audiovisual material in a close and sustained manner can be channeled, as Grant’s essay shows, towards the creation of new knowledge through “material thinking”. Laura Mulvey, in her remarkably influential book Death 24x a Second (2006), has proposed the key role that delay plays in engaging with and critically opening up a film or film segment. By prolonging the encounter with moments in a film—through repetition, stopping, resequencing and comparison—the critic/scholar is also able to open up, sustain and extend a special, affectively charged space that leads to thought, all of this occurring in close contact with the formal and stylistic complex of the work being analyzed.

So, I am very curious to hear from you: Is there a special affective charge that is released in the process of making a video essay or of watching/listening to one? How does creating (or watching/listening to) a video essay feel differently to you from writing (or reading) a piece of criticism or scholarship? I'd love to know. Thank you.

* * *


-- Christian Keathley has edited the latest issue of the journal [in]Transition, a collaboration between Cinema Journal and Media Commons. I have contributed a short piece to the issue, along with Corey Creekmur and Chiara Grizzaffi.

-- In her latest post, Catherine Grant features a half-hour interview she conducted with Adrian Martin in Milan recently. The post also rounds up a lot of great reading.

-- A review-essay, by scholar Ingrid Rowland, of the new book Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School by Emily J. Levine.

-- At Photogénie: the essay "The Use of an Illusion," co-authored by Catherine Grant and Christian Keathley. Also: the Photogénie blog features several reports from Il Ritrovato in Bologna.

-- Jonathan Rosenbaum, who has long been on the DVD jury at Il Ritrovato, posts from Bologna on this year's awards.

-- David Bordwell from Bologna: "Reporting on the magnificent Cinema Ritrovato festival at Bologna has become a tradition with us, but it’s become harder to find time during the event to write an entry. The program has swollen to 600 titles over eight days, and attendance has shot up as well [...] In all, Ritrovato is becoming the Cannes of classic cinema: diverse, turbulent, and overwhelming. How best to give you a sense of the tidal-wave energy of the event?"

-- Leo Goldsmith at Artforum on this year's Flaherty Film Seminar; Adam Thirlwell on Pasolini's poetry at Bookforum.

-- Several filmmakers offer short video tributes (subtitled in English) to Henri Langlois. (Via Surbhi Goel on Facebook.)

-- Barbara Hammer on film projection at the caboose website, part of a series that is an oral history of projection: "I never agreed with the makers of the Pathé film camera and projector that defined projection as rectangular [...] I can imagine a camera/projector that takes in images and spills them out in a multiple of graphic configurations that could be manipulated by twisting a dial. Let’s say I’m projecting a moving CT scan of a brain in a circle format and now I’m slicing through space with a sideways triangle much like a head of an arrow. Cézanne would be happy!"

-- Many films by Mani Kaul are available to watch online at the Films Division of India website. (Via Frederick Veith on Twitter.)

-- Jacques Rivette's L'Amour Fou (1969) is now on YouTube with English subs. (Via Brad Stevens on Facebook,)

-- Recent website discoveries: Cine Notebook; and FilmGrab.


Blogger Joel Bocko said...

Yes - for me, creating video essays absolutely feels both different and (in many ways) more powerful than engaging a film with words. Two memorable quotes come to mind, the first by no-one-knows-who, the second usually attributed to Godard. "Writing about music is like dancing about architecture" (feel free to substitue "movies" for "music" - many have) and "In order to criticize a movie, you have to make another movie."

For me, the sensation of truly engaging with a film on its own terms comes across most strongly when fashioning a non-narrated video essay, one which makes its points via juxtaposition or montage rather than explicit narration (for a while, I wasn't totally comfortable calling this form "video essays" at all as the process of creation seemed fundamentally different from criticism, but I've come around on that definition).

One of the capabilities of the video essay that you don't mention above is its ability to fuse - or, to use the more popular term, "mash up" - different films. This is certain the ability that has most appealed to me in the handful of video essays I've edited. For me, the ability to interweave clips from different films calls to mind the Kuleshov effect and I start to see the characters or moments in different films as somehow interrelated - so that one is "reacting" to another, despite being in different movies. In this sense, the video essay is able to unify and link, not just pick apart and detach.

I spoke at length about this a year ago with Kevin B. Lee, in an interview he posted alongside my video essay "directed by De Palma" on Press Play:

Sometimes this effect can also be achieved in subtle ways in a more straightforward montage. A few years ago, I assembled a series of 30-40 second clips from films in my collection into a very long chronological montage, divided into chapters. I noticed that although the order of the clips was determined strictly by annual chronology (with a little wiggle room within a given year) I was still finding connections or rhythms in the single cuts between various moments. In other words, even within tight limits there was room to create a flow of the material. I'm not sure what this says, but I found it fascinating!


July 07, 2014 10:55 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...


I think Godard in Histoire(s) du cinema (an obvious precursor to the emerging age of the video essay) best demonstrates two of the primary modes of video essay-making: the unifying principle, in which he links and overlaps wildly different material, and the detaching capability, in which by isolating or manipulating a fragment he places it into a new context, separates it from the whole, and allows a closer study.

As to the possibility of video essays, I'm not so sure. The concept is certainly appealing to ME, but I can't help but notice that when I post a video essay I get far less views than on a prose piece. I think this has more to do with the "video" aspect than the "essay"...the habit of internet surfing makes it uncomfortable for me to assume a passive rather than active role; while reading an essay, one can control the pace and feel as if they are in the driver's seat - by clicking "play" on a video (at least one longer and more demanding than a short cat clip or the like on YouTube) they are surrendering themselves to the material in a different way. At least that's one theory; I've noticed that I myself sometimes feel this way and have extrapolated from there.

Finally - and with the above observation in mind - I'd be remiss not to note that after a year's absence from the form, I've decided to post a video essay each month and started in June with a tribute to David Lynch. Non-narrated and using clips from his first six films and TV show, it was very much created with many of the above ideas in mind so you and your readers may find it compelling:

Thanks for posting your thoughts on such a fascinating subject, and for sharing Catherine's as well (I've enjoyed her videos and reflections in the past, but don't think I've read this before). Hope there's more to come down the line - it's one of the developments in recent cinema and criticism that, to me, has the most potential and feels the freshest.

July 07, 2014 10:55 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Fascinating. Thanks for your thoughts, Joel!

Another thing that interests me in relation to video essays is where people view them on a spectrum that goes from "criticism"/"scholarship" all the way to "artwork". I tend to view them closer to the former end, and expect them to make some kind of "argument," however loosely defined or poetically/obliquely delivered. But I have friends who study and make video essays who see them as more than just "creative criticism"--and, in fact, as works of art. Video-essay-like works (especially without narration) are not uncommonly found in the contemporary art world--in galleries and museums--so I can see the reason for this split view of video essays. In fact, I think it makes the question of their ontology, the "what exactly is this object?" question, more interesting.

July 08, 2014 4:59 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

Agreed. The process of editing a video essay (particularly a non-narrated one) and a film are close if not identical: the key difference being that - unlike the filmmaker - the video essay editor is accustomed to an a priori alternative assembly of the material being used; also, there are typically no "takes" to choose from when making a video essay. Initially I felt, like your friends, that non-narrated video essays were much closer to artwork than criticism (though questions of authorship, among other factors, would make me personally uncomfortable designating a video essay, at least one of my own, as unqualified "art" full-stop).

While I've changed my mind about non-narrated video pieces as critical video essays (encouraged by that conversation with Lee), I'd state the difference this way: non-narrated video essays make me more aware of the criticism inherent in filmmaking itself (particularly when impressionistic editing is a factor), not just the filmmaking inherent in video criticism. Hopefully that makes sense!

July 08, 2014 5:12 PM  
Anonymous Adrian said...

Comrade. I am shocked SHOCKED that you didn't mention [DE PALMA's] VISION !!!09

July 08, 2014 5:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Haha! Alas, I didn't mention ANY video essays in particular--other than Katie's--because I want to devote a whole other post to gathering examples of great video essays!

But I absolutely adore [DE PALMA'S] VISION. And I am overjoyed to learn that you got a fan note from none other than De Palma himself!

July 08, 2014 5:32 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

And another thought which I don't think has come up yet: how one DOESN'T alter or manipulate the selected material also plays a role in the conception of a video essay as art vs. criticism. To what extent does the video essayist want and/or need to echo the film's/filmmaker's own pace, tempo, and tone? It seems imperative to me, at least in particular contexts, that certain shots or sequences should not be tampered with. For example, in one recent video essay (which ran 23 minutes) I left a full 2-minute sample from the film intact (that's 10% of the essay's running time) because it seemed necessary both for aesthetic dramatic impact and critical revelation/juxtaposition.

Since in these cases much of the essay's emotional/aesthetic power is derived from the original, unaltered material rather than a mixture of the material and its re-contextualization, it feels safer to call the video criticism rather than art. Which makes me suspect that the biggest reservation I have about designating video essays as art is how divorced they are from the production of their images. In "found-footage" films, where the material usually was not intended (or doesn't function on its own) as art, this doesn't seem to be as much of a problem. It becomes more problematic when the "found" footage is already crafted, or already functions, as art.

I guess this is something the fine-art world has dealt with for a long time, and come to accept, to the point where doodling on the reproduction of a Renaissance painting, or even leaving it intact but signing it with a different name, suddenly signifies the reproduction as a distinct work in its own right. Perhaps some would consider any reservations to the contrary an auteurist hang-up, but there it is.

Ultimately, the definitions and debates can become semantic. What seems important in the end is that a video essay work not only analytically but aesthetically - to respect the form being used rather than treating the visuals as a backdrop for spoken word (not that such videos can't be narrated, but narration must be rhythmically well-integrated with the images). In that sense, the video essay MUST function as an artwork to a certain extent, whether or not the video essayist is considered an artist.

July 08, 2014 5:49 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Joel, these are all interesting points to think about.

I find that thinking about video essays is making me reflect what I'm learning about them back on to traditional, written criticism. So, I ask myself: what makes any piece of criticism special? I think that, with written criticism, it has to do with the ‘story’ the piece of criticism is telling; its use of language; its pulling together of ideas; and, overall, its STYLE (whether we want to call that literary or poetic or essayistic) that infuses the entire piece of work. So, even if we are never able to answer the questions "Is the video essay art? Is it criticism?" in a satisfactory way, I think there is value in asking these questions, and it lies in trying to understand what creating art and creating criticism share in common.

When done well, both written criticism and video essays say something, illuminate something, about the material, the films, they take as their subject; and they also take some kind of stance, assume some kind of attitude, about the material they are working with. But this isn’t enough. They also involve the imaginative use of craftsmanship—a creative use of the resources of the medium they are working with.

Of course, I realize that the question “Is it art?” was already answered provocatively a hundred years ago by Marcel Duchamp, when he took an ordinary object, signed it, and put it on display in a museum, thus declaring it to be art. As if to say, if I declare something, self-consciously, as “art,” then it is art. Further, if I declare it under the auspices of an art institution such as museum, then it is (with even greater certainty!) art. But I also find it interesting that these questions are never settled; they continue to return to trouble us and nag at us just when we thought they were obsolete …

July 08, 2014 6:30 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

"it lies in trying to understand what creating art and creating criticism share in common."

Great way of putting it. That's a big reason video essays feel so exciting and revolutionary.

July 08, 2014 7:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to Barbara Hammer's vignette which is indeed wonderful. A few days before that, we posted another one by Denver's Paramount projectionist, Jim Wagoner (, who shares many interesting things as well - about aspect ratios, among others, for example. Points that people who find projection and Barbara Hammer's text interesting might like to read about.

July 09, 2014 1:30 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Marina, it's a great series. Let me provide a clickable link to it here.

July 09, 2014 6:36 AM  
Anonymous charro said...

Desistfilm 006 is online now!

July 09, 2014 12:49 PM  
Blogger alsolikelife said...

wonderful post Girish, especially the summary of Catherine's account of her experience making the Chabrol video and how it enabled her to arrive at a deeper understanding of the film's affect on her. That very account makes me puzzled by Brinkema's contention (as it is represented above) that the espousal of affect is adverse to close reading of a text - Katie's account would prove the opposite, no? In any case the Brinkema book sounds fascinating, I hadn't known of it before, thank you for recommending it.

July 09, 2014 2:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Thanks, Kevin! Hope you've been well.

A quick clarification: Brinkema doesn't take up video essays in her book. The target of her critique is scholarship in affect theory--for example, the kind of work you would find in edited volumes that have appeared in the last 10 years or so, such as THE AFFECT THEORY READER or THE AFFECTIVE TURN: THEORIZING THE SOCIAL (both from Duke University Press).

While reading her book, it occurred to me that the kind of work that Katie is doing can be seen as answering the call made in Brinkema's book--which is why I decided to put up this post.

Also wanted to say, Kevin, that I really enjoyed your "Transformers Premake" video!

July 09, 2014 2:52 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Let me post a clickable link here to the new issue of Desistfilm, with pieces by Adrian Martin (three of them), Dana Linssen, Monica Delgado, José Sarmiento Hinojosa, and others.

July 10, 2014 11:10 AM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

Hi Girish,

I’m coming to your fine blog post very late, so forgive my tardy comments here, but I’m intrigued by your bringing Brinkema into this conversation. Surely, hers is a fascinating, very ambitious book, and yet I would depart from her arguments in one respect—not so much her staking out this interesting methodology for exploring affect, but rather the desire to rid the discourse of the more impressionistic kinds of writing that characterize other affect-related criticism, when she discusses what she terms (in a great turn of phrase) the affective fallacy. She writes, “However thrilling it may be to write and even read the personal accounts of any theorist’s tremulous pleasures and shudderings, it is a signature of work on affectivity that must be resisted, for it tells us far more about being affected than about affects” (32). I don’t do work on affectivity per se, so I’m less likely to be troubled by this tendency, perhaps, than she is, but I suspect we haven’t exhausted the possibilities of this way of working (and in the interest of full disclosure, this is where a lot of my critical interests are going of late). From my perspective, I think it makes the discourse more rich and full to have these kinds of reflections available—but more _in addition to_ what Brinkema is proposing, as well as other more straightforward critical and theoretical discourse, rather than _instead of_. I would say the methods that Brinkema proposes and demonstrates are worth pursuing, but not so as to eradicate any discussion of the ‘pleasures and shudderings’ that are, for the most part, still largely absent from most scholarly studies of film.

And so to come back around to your query on video essays—and forgive my having digressed for quite a while—I think Brinkema’s work would be interested in those video essays that are in line with what she’s proposing, but it would reject those that engage in that “signature of work on affectivity” that, I am saying, in so many words, is not always such a bad thing.

July 22, 2014 11:14 AM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

Perhaps I'm missing something, or misunderstanding the purpose of meaning of "affect," but how exactly can one discuss affect without discussing how one is affected?! An approach which avoids the subjective experience seems to mistake the phenomena for the ephemera - and vice-versa.

July 22, 2014 1:33 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Hi, Dave! Thank you for your thoughtful comments. As always, it's great to hear from you.

I absolutely agree with you when you write: "I would say the methods that Brinkema proposes and demonstrates are worth pursuing, but not so as to eradicate any discussion of the ‘pleasures and shudderings’ that are, for the most part, still largely absent from most scholarly studies of film."

Let me add one observation: it appears to me from reading Brinkema that one of the things she is troubled by is discussion of one's subjective, personal affects unaccompanied by any kind of broader, theoretical reflection that might yield generalizable ideas that apply to (and are valuable to) more than just one person. So, I'm not sure she's necessarily in favor of banishing discussions of all "pleasures and shudderings" (although she comes very close to saying so!) but instead using them to ask broader questions that others find useful and can engage with.

But, of course, this leads to the question of how exactly video essays can ask broad, theoretical questions. I'm still thinking about this, especially since this is a new and emergent mode that I'm still getting to know ...

July 23, 2014 4:20 PM  
Anonymous David T. Johnson said...

Thanks Girish--that's a great qualification I hadn't considered (re: Brinkema's perspective). And Joel, if you're interested in these questions, you might simply check out her book or seek out some of the other readings Girish made reference to here.

July 25, 2014 1:01 PM  
Blogger Joel Bocko said...

After this discussion, I'm certainly curious to check it out although my backlog of books is pretty heavy right now. For the moment I was more interested in clarification of her central point - and I'd say girish's previous comment offered that quite satisfactorily.

July 25, 2014 2:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

A great new links post from Catherine Grant.

July 28, 2014 7:13 AM  

Post a Comment

<< Home