Video Essayists: the Self-Proclaimed Revivers of Film Criticism

This piece was originally published in German at kino-zeit.de. Julia Cooper-Mittenstädt was so kind to translate and work with the text. As there was some confusion with publishers concerning the nature of this text: No, it is not an overview about the status quo of video essays. Neither is it a text which in any way strives for scholarly argumentation. It is a reaction. Reactions are weak. They provide readers with targets and act as if cinema (in this case) were alive. One can and should react to reactions. Reactions are not safe, they contain mistakes and emotions. Reactions do not come about through a dead writer. In my daily work, I often have to encounter people who know better. They take the soul out of texts, in rare cases bringing it to a higher, more precise level, in most cases acting on subjective impulses, exchanging words randomly and thinking way too much about what their “readers” want. They fail to articulate why they made their changes or what they didn’t like. They just change and uphold a standard for journalistic or academic or whatever kind of writing. They are proud of it and dislike any form of writing that is not edited as strictly as their own. I get bored three sentences into every one of those over-edited pieces. I can’t feel the author, I can’t feel the film anymore. Their principles of elimination are: Redundancy, choice of words, information. Those three elements or their lack speak about emotions towards a film or writing.  

A few weeks ago the Süddeutsche Zeitung celebrated video essayists as the new superstars of film criticism. After almost ten years on the scene, this movement of cinephiliac and academic internet culture has made it to the feature pages of German newspapers. “Well done,” one could say, if the article in question was not written with such a lack of reflection. The author can hardly help it, seeing as he ultimately takes up the very same repetitive treadmill of arguments heralded by the proponents of this form of film mediation.

In recent years, video essays have been characterized by fragmentation and popularization rather than formal development. The term “video essay” actually refers to a great number of very different things. Cristina Álvarez López, who, together with Catherine Grant and Adrian Martin, belongs to the pioneers of the pursuit and discussion of the practice of working with film in a manner driven by subjective editing has identified two tendencies within the genre. The first concerns pedagogical demonstration. More often found in the academic field, it almost always includes voice-over commentary and focuses on very precise, strict analytical work. Álvarez López connects the second tendency to the term “cinepoems,” relating it to an artistic impulse. One only needs to think of the numerous supercuts available online. In the virtual mass of videos flooding the internet on a daily basis, these two tendencies have multiplied several times over and branched into further subcategories. This may seem like a pointed assertion, but a look at the daily video output reveals fairly simple ideas and a playful joy in montage which tell us far less about the films “in question” than they do about the technical skills of the essay maker. These function on a short-term level and are easily digestible for social media (meanwhile, an increasing number of one-minute videos keep cropping up; see example below), but ultimately have nothing to do with their purported subject matter.

Transformers

Moreover, the nerd culture, which was the first to tackle the possibilities of digital film files and editing programs in the internet age, has by now become an institutionalized and professionalized product hankering after as many clicks and likes as possible. The best example is Kevin B. Lee, the rightful recipient of the Harun Farocki scholarship, whose essays on Fandor have long since stopped showing the candor and love for detail they had so regularly demonstrated when he first began publishing video essays on his blog. The same Fandor deleted dozens of video essays from their website during a recent restructuring. Meanwhile, Lee drifts from one film museum to the next as a live remixer. Some of his colleagues hold the incentive of artistic creation far too dear. They often aim for visual seamlessness rather than nurturing a capacity for discovery or suffusing their work with deep resistance, two qualities film criticism should contain. On the contrary, the pure beauty of edited images is just an exercise pretending as if cinema itself were obsolete or, in the best case, creating the effect of a commercial. Ultimately, the same holds true for video essay making and writing: there is the good and the bad, and there is probably something for everybody. One way or another, this form enables a discourse even if, in many cases, it includes viewers only insofar as it allows for them to manifest their own pleasure, subjectively supply “missing” films in the comments or recognize films in the video. But the constant, compulsive reinvention and self-thematization within the video essay field needs to be questioned, as the aforementioned article in the Süddeutsche Zeitung goes to prove.

The following sentence calls for scrutiny: “Instead of writing texts describing what the reader can then try to vicariously imagine, video essayists work directly on the film material.” Time and again, the performative aspect of the work involving editing and its corresponding tools is argued to be one of the crucial advantages of video essays. It is also claimed that video essays are concerned with a practical understanding of films. Another, more active kind of critical analysis is purported to emerge in the moment a theory is put to the test on actual images and sounds belonging to a film, which is said to bring the analysis closer to the actual film. This should, of course, also affect the viewer of the essays.

Materials

However, the use of the term “material” is more than dubious. In fact, as a rule, working with MKV files or DVD rips is in no way synonymous with working with film material. Quite to the contrary, unlike the films of Martin Arnold or Bill Morrison, which are perfectly comparable with video essays, this kind of work in no way concerns the material, focusing instead on the content and form of the films in question. Even if one were to agree that the digital was a material, the conditions of editing previously produced images would set a whole new work in motion. This would in no way guarantee a comprehension of images that could enable an exact seeing. Video essays do not truly argue in the “language of films,” as Lee once asserted. In fact, they serve as more of a language aid.

Video essays are also often credited with redefining film criticism. It has been rightfully pointed out that there truly is nothing new in the form of these essays. One only needs to think of names such as Bruce Conner or Jean-Luc Godard. Educational films by critics have a long tradition of their own, stretching from Helmut Färber to Serge Daney. Then again, this renewal above all concerns a historical point in the development of film criticism: the present – the transitional phase, the crisis and the search for new possibilities attuned to the medium in question. But which medium should film criticism attune itself to? The medium it takes shape in or the one it bears witness to? Possibly both?

The technical innovations of the times would seem to call for video essays, as would the needs of the users of film criticism. However, one could somewhat cynically argue that this demand has already passed. Twitter reviews and images are better suited for smartphones than videos are. As good as the possibilities of an audiovisual encounter with films may be, what motivates a comparison of such an analysis with writing remains obscure. Especially since it is repeatedly suggested that video essays make the subjective experience of a film visible. For example, it is possible to bring two apparently entirely unrelated films face to face, eliciting a spontaneous association between them in the viewing process. Such impulses should be checked, particularly when it comes to realizing childish desires of hearing music from Aladdin play alongside Pulp Fiction and so on. The same is possible in writing, it only looks different.

The Gap Between Viewer And Film

What’s more, in such cases, the video essay seems to be missing something essential: the gap between viewer and film. Rather than recognizing this issue, weight is confidently placed on analytical objectification, which time and time again leads to simplified pigeonholing. A rigorous belief in the image is at work here, one opposed to associating cinematic experience with any kind of translation work, claiming instead to have done away with translation altogether. This is misleading for a variety of reasons: video essays are not composed of films, but of fragments, often stemming from low resolution digital files, and the experience of a streaming player has nothing to do with cinema. These problems are commonly ignored, as if experiencing a film were equal to collecting motifs. Unlike motifs, memory is completely negated, including the deceptive memory that is such an integral part of every cinematic experience. Everything one has seen, although it was not even there, is erased by the integrity of the images (with a few notable exceptions such as Roger Koza).

Many video essays are the result of superficial scrutiny, maintaining that films can be measured and placed into grammatically solvable categories. Few think of the fact that films are often concerned with what happens between the images. While it is certain, also in view of the important work done by researchers such as David Bordwell, that it is good to have another manner of accessing film analysis which is made possible by digitization, it is neither better than any other approach, nor does it inevitably lead to a form of film criticism. Furthermore, writing includes a great deal of montage work. The ability to reflect on editing has nothing to do with technical means. Word combinations can reflect the working methods of films too. It cannot be claimed that writing is theoretical work as opposed to the practical work of creating video essays. Both forms demand theory as well as practice.

F for Fake

So, should critics reinvent themselves in this transitional phase? Is there going to be a change of form in film criticism? Only those who see film criticism as an industrial product rather than a frame of mind can make such a claim. This point brings us back to the struggle for survival we are involved with in the present. It is not to be expected that a good author will feel equally comfortable with editing, talking, or tweeting. The combination of tools is an even greater issue. Videos, texts, images, links – all of these could enable an interlocked, modern flow of film criticism. However, that is a matter for the publisher, not the authors. In order to achieve that, as the author for the Süddeutsche Zeitung makes a case for, much would need to change in the legal situation in Germany. Even so, it is no less modern to limit oneself to one form of analysis. As Jacques Rivette once said: “The only true criticism of a film is another film.” Whereby he was not referring to the idea behind video essays as much as he was alluding to the necessity of translating thoughts and feelings between cinema and the world. This occasionally impossible transfer of thoughts takes place only at a distance, a distance that enables critical potential, regardless of whether it is in analytical, educational or artistic work. The mass of video essays and their advocates would do well to invoke the common ground of such a discourse instead of promoting the ideals of market-oriented or analytical superiority.

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