Recent Comments

Jennifer Proctor
This is all quite interesting to me because, of course, we’re discussing what happens when we use the medium we’re critiquing to perform a critique, and all the meta-questions that gets into. Part of what comes to mind as I read your responses is the question of technical and aesthetic quality (production values, essentially), and what role those play in the video essay, especially as academics not necessarily trained in production start to move into this form. And, this, of course, plays into the notion of intentionality - fan videos, for instance, always contain some kind of analysis or critique, but not necessarily at a conscious or intentional level on the part of the maker. And it seems to me that intentionality or deliberateness becomes an important element of the video essay if we’re to think of it as a scholarly argument (and maybe that’s not the way to go!). If the editing is crude, is that part of the argument? Or simply a demonstration of a certain level of training? What expectations do we have for the media studies scholar working in this form - do we hold them to the same technical standard of academic practitioners working in video? I really love Benjamin Sampson’ss “Layers of Paradox in F FOR FAKE” featured in the inaugural issue of [in]Transition, which demonstrates strong attention to high production values and a unified aesthetic approach. But then it wades in territories related to ethical considerations in documentary - what do we make of the use of music in several passages of the video essay? On the one hand, I was somewhat put off, because I felt it was guiding my emotional response to the content inappropriately and in a way that made me uncomfortable in an academic essay. And on the other hand, I deeply appreciated it as a way of engaging me emotionally in the content, and providing a uniquely cinematic context for the quotes (visual, audio, and text) contained in the piece. Obviously, I’m still asking questions rather than suggesting answers, but I’ll close with the suggestion that theorizing the video essay (especially in terms of tributes and the use of found footage) might also benefit from drawing in theoretical work not only in documentary, but in experimental film and remix/mashup culture, as Corey suggested in his post on Compilation and Found Footage Traditions.
Drew Morton
Corey, Responding to your second question: I can only speak from my own experience, but I would agree that the tribute video allows a critic to be a fan. In making “David Bowie: On Film,” I was very consciously making a video essay that did not have the intellectual rigor, structure, and argumentation that I typically approach my VEs with. On a pragmatic level, this resulted in a film that took me a couple days to make versus a month to make (my pieces on SCOTT PILGRIM and THE SHINING took much longer). I think Chiara’s analysis of the piece is fair (I found certain themes during the editing that I wanted to bring out with each subsequent re-cut), but I didn’t go into the Bowie video with a pre-determined plan. It was, as your comments infer, a exercise purely designed to let my hair down. That said - and I know you’re not dismissing this work, but I want to put this out there because I think it’s a helpful reminder - I learned more about the software (Adobe Premiere), editing generally, and form when I did this piece and the “Bad Dads” essay (http://blogs.indiewire.com/pressplay/video-essay-diptych-good-dads-bad-d... - all the drafts can be found here: http://filmstudiesforfree.blogspot.com/2014/06/happy-holidays-round-up-a...). There’s a technical polish in this piece that is sorely lacking in SCOTT PILGRIM and the techniques I refined with these two tribute videos will no doubt aid me when I return to a more argumentative mode. More specifically, the tribute videos helped me think about visual alternatives to making an argument, as my pieces were typically over-reliant on voice over. I think I began to find a balance of the poetic and expository in THE SHINING, but I feel much more confident with that impulse now. I bring this up because the experience of making a fan video - an exercise I was initially a bit prejudice against for the same reasons you mentioned - has pushed me to reconsider some of the work I’m assigning in my course on video essays. I think such an assignment might be a great way to introduce tools to students because the giddiness of fandom can perhaps serve as a balm to alleviate the stress of learning a new application. In short, for those teaching VEs or interested in making them, I strongly recommend the tribute video as a learning exercise.
Corey K Creekmur
This is a very interesting commentary to me because I at first considered discussing “tributes” (I was thinking of calling them “homages”) in my own contribution to this issue: I assume Kogonoda’s “Hands of Bresson,” which I discussed more as a poetic essay on a director, could just as easily be called a tribute, although I wonder if it’s specific focus on hands in Bresson to the exclusion of any other elements still renders it more of an analysis (even if, again, poetical) than tribute. But the other issue raised for me is whether the creator of a tribute video should be understood as a critic or a fan (or the more elevated cinephile): many tribute videos seem to me designed to in fact allow a critic to be a fan, to drop some of the professional expectations (including distance, judgment, discrimination, etc.) and to reveal and celebrate one’s fandom. Put another way, tributes are of course as much about the person paying tribute as the figure being honored (as you note here about Catherine Grant’s work, as much about her as about Shirley Temple, surely). In short, you have me pondering the relationship inherent in the tribute, and the thin line at times between the scholar and the fan in the realm of the video essay.
Corey K Creekmur
Girish, your gustatorial (?) query, with the interesting notion of quick and slow release applied to cinema, makes me wonder about my question in my contribution to this issue, (motivated by Jason Livingston’s THE END) regarding another form of delay and satisfaction vs. quick release: I wonder if his montage of the endings (only) of films can retain the pleasure of the, um, climax, or cannot replicate that pleasure if the arrival of the ending doesn’t take time to arrive at a more leisurely pace. Your essay makes me wonder about the hidden connections between the (so-called) “slow cinema” and “slow food” movements, but now perhaps with a different form of delayed gratification in mind as well …
F for Fake
Drew Morton
Thanks for your thoughtful commentary, Chiara. I’ll try to answer some of those questions you posed, which have been often been voiced by Katie and Chris in our meetings together. 1. “One of the things that I was wondering, though, is whether or not the scholarly visual essay should always be partly – or mostly – expository/explanatory? Some extremely playful or poetic audiovisual essays could be part of a research process. Or they could be almost completely reflexive rather than expository.” You’re right. If I’m drawn towards the expository/explanatory, it is because that is the mode I was “brought up” into by Janet Bergstrom and the UCLA approach. It has taken me a long time to become comfortable with the poetic mode because of both habit and software literacy (it took me a long time to get to know Final Cut and Adobe Premiere again and to try to think more creatively about the expressive qualities of the sound and image tracks). Along those lines, my piece on THE SHINING and the two compilations I’ve done have really been liberating from a creative standpoint and, as I would assume would be the case, have helped me rethink my approach to the expository mode. In short, I think there is room for both modes and if I lean towards the expository in theory and practice, it is simply because it the mode I’m more familiar with at this early moment in time. 2. “They could just pose questions rather than giving answers… but is this not something that scholars should want, especially in cases in which the audiovisual work is part of a broader research process, or when it has the aim to challenge some pre-existing, well-established theories?” Again, you’re right. One venue at [in]Transition that I would like to try and grow is a “dictionary” of film terms that would embody this idea. I’m thinking of the audiovisual equivalent to Susan Hayward’s CINEMA STUDIES: THE KEY CONCEPTS book and it could have very simple format rules like: No longer than five minutes. The first minute must introduce a concept/technique, the remaining time should be spent on a poetic illustration of the range that is embedded by that concept/technique. Think about the compilation someone could piece together on “staging in depth” and how that could be used in the classroom? Similarly, I find one of the most difficult formal attributes of film to discuss in class is the jumpcut. A supercut/compilation with the imagery of what a jumpcut actually looks like on the production table would be extremely helpful. 3. “Also, if we consider that visual essays are not supposed to be exclusively a substitute for written analysis, but rather to implement them, or to show something that the written text could not state with the same effectiveness, it might not be always necessary for them to be strictly explanatory – the written words could serve that function. Furthermore, the expository form might not fit into those visual essays that try to convey, along with a knowledge of the subject that could be just implied, a strongly subjective experience.” I’m somewhat cautious of the illustrative VE concept, simply because I worry that it will purely become the moving equivalent to frame grabs. Specifically, many of the conversations I’ve had with scholars in other disciplines about VEs tend to go down the path of “Well, why can’t you write an essay and then just make a visual essay that puts together all the clips you want to analyze?” Judging from the context of your comment, I know this isn’t what you mean. However, I’m extremely protective of the visual essay as being something MORE than an illustration (there is more rigor and thoughtfulness to it). This also leads us back to your first question and the spectrum of modes, but another reason I favor the expository is because I view the VE as a potent tool for making Film Studies accessible to the public in ways that an academic print publication or classes cannot be due to a range of factors (geographical, socioeconomic). In my mind, the VE helps democratize the conversation.
Image from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (Howard Hawks, 1953)
Drew Morton
Adam, Great to hear from you (and I hope you’re well!) and thanks for your interest! As for your questions about the future, we are formalizing our submission guidelines and we will be posting them soon. The first four issues of this quarterly journal will be featuring curated “reprints” (for lack of a better term). As presented, your idea sounds suitable for our journal (given its emphasis on Vertov and Eisenstein). In general, our publication is focused on visual essays which engage with film/tv/audiovisual new media as the primary object of study. Thanks again, Drew
Image from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (Howard Hawks, 1953)
Adam Fish
I’ll be producing a video essay comparing the video works of the hacker collective Anonymous to Vertov and Eisenstein’s films and including interviews with Anonymous video producers. How do you plan to proceed? Are there enough video essayists to warrant a regular online journal? Great idea and one I’d love to contribute to.
F for Fake
Chiara Grizzaffi
I found this curatorial note really useful for my research. Thank you. At the moment, I am writing about the formal strategies of audiovisual essays. I am focusing on voiceover, in particular, and this topic raised the issue of the relationship between documentary and visual essays. As you write, visual essays are a hybrid form: their influences include documentary, as well as art installation. Therefore I wasn’t sure, at first, especially thinking about voiceover, if the modes used by Nichols could also be a good starting point to investigate video essays. Especially if we consider the critiques directed at his modes by Stella Bruzzi, among others. In my opinion, the idea of the spectrum has something in common both with Nichols’ modes – in particular if we consider the second edition of INTRODUCTION TO DOCUMENTARY, in which he describes six modes, including a poetic one – and with Plantinga’s idea of the formal, the open and the poetic voices. However, the spectrum has the indisputable advantage of being more flexible and less monolithic, which is a great value if we consider that digital video essays are still in their developmental phase. But the way you are applying Nichols’ modes is really interesting. You are using them to add further layers to the analysis and interpretation of video essays. More and more often, while scholars and critics are experimenting with videographic film studies, it is possible to encounter visual works that reflect upon the form itself, that try to answer to some existing questions about films while posing new ones at the same time. But there are also some amazing examples of interactive and performative visual essays, too. Audiovisual essays are showing how categories or modes can be more and more mixed, intertwined with each other. They can even challenge some of the preconceived ideas about some formal aspects (let’s think about how both this video and the kogonada one are using voiceover, in a way that is not too didactic or predictable). Sampson’s audiovisual work itself is a brilliant example of a creative use of image and voiceover that goes beyond the idea of an expository documentary in which images are merely illustrating the author’s argumentation. He creates a sort of dialogue between himself and Welles, he treats F FOR FAKE both as an historical document that is the object of an accurate and precise analysis and as something that is still vibrant, alive, that has a voice of its own. So, despite your concerns about defining what video essays are now, you show that it could be fruitful to let them enter into dialogue with more established forms with more established scholarly traditions. One of the things that I was wondering, though, is whether or not the scholarly visual essay should always be partly – or mostly – expository/explanatory? Some extremely playful or poetic audiovisual essays could be part of a research process. Or they could be almost completely reflexive rather than expository. They could just pose questions rather than giving answers… but is this not something that scholars should want, especially in cases in which the audiovisual work is part of a broader research process, or when it has the aim to challenge some pre-existing, well-established theories? Also, if we consider that visual essays are not supposed to be exclusively a substitute for written analysis, but rather to implement them, or to show something that the written text could not state with the same effectiveness, it might not be always necessary for them to be strictly explanatory – the written words could serve that function. Furthermore, the expository form might not fit into those visual essays that try to convey, along with a knowledge of the subject that could be just implied, a strongly subjective experience. I would love to know your opinion about this, especially since I’m researching this emerging topic and because, to me, it seems really hard (possibly even counterproductive) to draw lines around, or boundaries between, works that can straightforwardly be considered scholarly and works that might not be.
Image from BERGMAN'S BODIES: TOUCH AND SKIN from the BERGMAN SENSES Video Series
Drew Morton
Out of sheer coincidence, I happened to re-watch PERSONA last week (thanks to the newly released Criterion Blu-Ray). I immediately sat through the poetic compilation series that Thomas Elsaesser and his team have created around Bergman films and realized how few of them I recognized, as it had been a long time since I saw the “canon” and many of his other films had escaped my film education. Thus, I initially came into the experience having seen maybe 5 Bergman films and returned - one week later - having seen five more. I start off by noting my own subjective context because I feel that the poetic compilation is - in many ways - an aesthetic Rorschach test. For instance, watching the series in the wake of PERSONA, I immediately attempted to link “Bergman’s Bodies” with the film itself and quickly noted how the short mimicked the thematic arc of the film - without the use of narration. Specifically, the first moments capture the combination of silence and arousal that define the first “act” (for lack of a better term) of PERSONA. The opening ten minutes of PERSONA - that seminal moment in modernist cinema - begins wordlessly, with the shuttering of the camera, a subliminal frame of an erect penis, and a collage of sights. As the film progresses, Alma reveals her carnal history to the silent Elisabet. Again, that juxtaposition of silence (on behalf of one character) and sensuality. Both PERSONA and “Bergman’s Bodies” than progress into the thematic stage defined by frustration (as Alma reads Elisabet’s letter and Elsaesser cuts to suffering of Agnes in CRIES AND WHISPERS) and - later - physical harm (the broken glass in PERSONA and Elsaesser’s use of the broken glass from CRIES AND WHISPERS once again). After watching five more Bergman films, the formal and thematic net to which I approached the series obviously went wider, as “Bergman’s Bodies” also hits on the filmmaker’s thematic hallmarks of death (THE SEVENTH SEAL), Existential crisis (THE VIRGIN SPRING and Bergman’s trilogy of THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY, WINTER LIGHT, and THE SILENCE amongst many), and the search for meaning and contact through touch (another running theme of CRIES AND WHISPERS). Thus, even though Elsaesser’s project is minimalist, it does what most “good” poetic visual essays do: evokes the original film through a mimesis of re-appropriation. The one motif that I found strangely absent (or at least under defined) from Elsaesser’s series was Bergman’s repeated use of the written word. Letters and diaries often confront his characters with painful realizations. For instance, Alma’s perception of Elisabet changes in PERSONA after reading the letter; Karin seems to lose hope when she discovers her father’s diary in THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY; Marta’s letter and Agnes’s diary are at the center of both WINTER LIGHT and CRIES AND WHISPERS. Yet, this running theme hardly makes an appearance in the series (at least as it has been produced so far - hopefully there is more to come!). One final note I would like to make about the poetic compilation visual essay. I’ve already attempted to note how this series is a bit more than a compilation - there is implicit catalog of Bergman’s themes here that Elsaesser and his team systematically structure their pieces around. Is there not a way to compromise this aesthetic approach with one that is slightly overt so that such a catalog could aid in research? For instance - and I desire this each and every time I see a compilation - is it not possible to embed a subtitle track (that can be turned ON and OFF) that identifies the original source of the clips? I would imagine this would be quite the resource to the Bergman novice, a scholar who may have overlooked or forgotten a visual theme that appeared across the filmmaker’s sixty films. Again, I don’t want the visual essay format not to be poetic by needing to have an explicit argument. I’m just trying to conceptualize a range of functions each genre can play.
Image from GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (Howard Hawks, 1953)
Nelson Carvajal
[in]Transition is going to be another great resource for the video essay form and a heightened dialogue among its practitioners and viewers. I look forward to this endeavor.