Update 1/14/2015: To my dismay I realize that I neglected mention of one of the most outstanding video essays of 2014, Parallel, made by one of the most outstanding practitioners of the essay film, Harun Farocki. An entry with video is now added below*
As a follow-up to our recap of the forty-six video essays published this year on Keyframe, here’s a larger look at what’s happening in the ever-expanding world of video essays. The year 2014 was explosive in terms of both the number and variety of video essays produced. Their preponderance prompts the occasion to take a step back and reflect on new developments and trends in the field. What makes a great video essay? I explore this question in the following video by using the same “desktop documentary” approach I developed earlier this year. As the video shows, the answer is only getting increasingly complex.
What follows is a list of video essays from this year that I found especially noteworthy. One could spend the length of a feature film watching these videos—and perhaps get more from the experience than from watching the majority of feature films made this year. Watching a great video essay is like being handed a new pair of eyes with which to watch a movie. Along those lines, among these twenty-five outstanding videos, I’ve picked five that I find truly exceptional: not just by providing new insights in how to understand a given film, but also in breaking new ground in how the emerging art of the video essay might help us to see things anew: and not just the movies, but the world in which both we and they exist.
Tony Zhou: “Edgar Wright: How to Do Visual Comedy”
In the video above I go into detail about what I think makes Zhou’s videos so effective—no doubt his work has brought new sophistication to this emerging form, while demonstrating an implicit understanding of how people engage with online content. My favorite is still the one that first gained him popular attention. His subsequent videos on David Fincher and Jackie Chan have relied more on found footage interviews with his subjects as a way to lend authority to his claims, but here Zhou purely relies on his own words, back by his formidable deployment of footage to make a stinging critique at the formal ineptitude of most Hollywood comedy. I couldn’t watch The Interview without this video playing in the back of my mind.
* Harun Farocki: Parallel II, III, IV
In 2014 we lost one of the most important contributors to essay filmmaking, Harun Farocki, whose works and theories on cinema have had a profound influence on my own practice. Shortly before he passed away he gave this lecture on the constructed reality of video games and other computer animation environments. In the second half of the lecture, he plays three new chapters to his 2012 video essay Parallel. (The Parallel videos start at the 40 minute mark, but it’s certainly worth listening to his introduction). In contrast to Zhou’s web-friendly, utilitarian approach to the video essay, here we have a more contemplative inquiry into the logic and reality of virtual images. It shows that at age 70, Farocki possessed tremendous curiosity and engagement with the images that saturate our daily lives. The power of images was something he never took for granted and interrogated to its core.
L.J. Frezza: “Nothing”
Also mentioned at length in the video overview above, this for me is the one compilation video of 2014 that mattered most, the one that broke through the supercut’s superficial, instant gratification, like-retweet-and-forget social mechanisms, bringing us face to face with the compulsiveness of pop culture.
Chris Luscri and David Heslin: “Out 1—From Conspiracy To Conspiracy”
In 2014 the Melbourne International Film Festival, in partnership with the website MUBI, became the first film festival to my knowledge to sponsor a series of video essays related to their programming, specifically the Jacques Rivette magnum opus Out 1: Noli me tangere. This ongoing and innovative collaborative series is produced by alternating teams (Adrian Martin and Cristina Álvarez López; Chris Luscri and David Heslin; and me and Jonathan Rosenbaum) in a chain-letter sequence, as a video produced by one team inspires the next by another. My favorite so far has been this one by Luscri and Heslin, for its wide-ranging set of techniques (found footage, desktop recording, original street footage). Standing as a microcosm of the video series as a whole, this one unpacks one of the most all-consuming works of cinema and reimagines its relevance to our lives and times.
I forget where I first discovered the next two videos. It may have been on the website [in]Transition, an exciting new online journal devoted to the academic study of video essays, organized by Catherine Grant, Christian Keathley or Drew Morton. Or it may have been Audiovisualcy, a special curated Vimeo channel started by Grant to spotlight noteworthy new video essays. Both of these are invaluable resources, especially for those seeking to explore the video essay as both research into moving images, and as a new form of moving image in itself.
Michael Chanan: “Spirit of Coutinho“
This year we lost many notable figures in the film world, from Philip Seymour Hoffman to Lauren Bacall to Robin Williams, which in turn inspired numerous video essay tributes to each. But the video essay tribute that truly impressed me is dedicated to Eduardo Coutinho, a major figure of Brazilian cinema who has yet to receive his due elsewhere. This video essay may go a ways to rectify this oversight: it brilliantly uses footage from Coutinho’s body of work to not only celebrate his filmmaking but also to critically dissect it. Throughout his entire life, Coutinho was fiercely committed to showing the lives of Brazilians in as honest and transparent a way as he could. Film scholar Michael Chanan skillfully re-organizes Coutinho’s efforts, resulting in a video that not only exalts an undervalued director but serves as a vivid case study in the ethos and aesthetics of documentary filmmaking.
Miriam Ross: “Vertical Framing Video Essay”
I consider these five video essays to be standouts for how they changed my way of seeing, my attitudes and values towards the moving image. Perhaps none did this more than Miriam Ross’ fascinating defense of vertical framing, which totally changed my perspective on this format. For years we’ve been told that holding a smartphone upright to take a video was the wrong way, a mark of stupidity and a lack of respect for the horizontal cinematic frame. This impressively researched video lays an argument for the vertical frame’s aesthetic value, and how it signifies a turning point in a user-generated media culture. Could it be that in the future, movie theaters may need to change their orientation?
The Rest of the Best:
a) Single film essays:
“Journey Through Twin Peaks,” Joel Bocko [note: this video was served with a takedown notice on YouTube on behalf of the copyright holder of Twin Peaks. Bocko protested the takedown notice and successfully retained the video on YouTube.]
“Understanding Art House / Snowpiercer,” The NerdWriter
“The Unloved: The Village,” Scout Tafoya (RogerEbert.com)
b) Thematic essays:
“Blue Christmas,” Michael Koresky and Casey Moore (Criterion Collection)
“Dear John Grierson: A Postscript To The Story of Film,” Mark Cousins (Sight & Sound)
“Memories and Broken Panes,” Pasquale Iannone
“What Is Composition?,” Matthew Cheney (Indiewire Press Play)
“The Art of Nonfiction,” Robert Greene (Sight & Sound)
“First Person Shooting—POV in Movies,” Leigh Singer (Indiewire Press Play)
“Representations of Women in the Films of Martin Scorsese,” Dina Fiasconaro
“They Shoot Deers, Don’t They?,” Roberto Amaba (Banda TRANSIT)
“TV Takeover,” Nelson Carvajal (RogerEbert.com)
“Wes Anderson—Centered,” kogonada
“Intersection,” Catherine Grant, Chiara Grizzaffi and Denise Liege
“Martin Scorsese Shot by Shot,” Antonious Papantoniou
“Refraction,” Cristina Álvarez López (Banda TRANSIT)
“PlayTime: Anatomy of a Gag,” David Cairns (Criterion Collection)
“Projections,” Ian Magor
Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic, video essayist and founding editor of Keyframe. His video essay Transformers: The Premake will screen at the 2015 International Film Festival Rotterdam and the Berlinale International Film Festival Critics’ Week Program. He tweets at @alsolikelife.