Film Studies in Motion: From audiovisual essay to academic research video


As this overview shows, the current field of videographic film culture is pretty much free-for-all. The visible bulk of (semi-)scholarly videos is made by a relatively small group of people, while online repositories and publishing platforms are lenient if not confusingly inconsistent regarding the material they allow within their collections. Additionally (or perhaps thanks to the field’s fuzziness), a lot of videos are hard to demarcate within practical parameters, although the common tendencies as well as general strengths and flaws are visible. Strengths of videos across all makers, platforms, and approaches lie in accessibility, appeal, spreadability and economy of informational distribution. Weaknesses generally lie in rhetoric and the obscure self-categorization of the videos by those that produce them: the term ‘essay’ is diluted through overuse, while videos with more refined essayistic rhetoric are not properly indicated – something which we are trying to do by building categories and definitions that will hopefully be met with positive inclination by our peers in the field.
            Scholarly manifestations seem relatively crude within the greater context of the abundance of audiovisual methods. Most remarkably, the traditional standards of academic conduct are not met – even the most sophisticated videos entail only a single mode of presentation or poorly documented research (if any). More often than not, these videos restrict themselves to the material of the case study as the sole artifact of information, and build-ups hardly venture beyond a single observation that is stressed over and over. Though we are all for conciseness, it seems intriguing that in an era where all sorts of media are only one click away, proper incorporation and contextualizing of media (as found in Bordwell, van den Berg and several of Lee’s videos) is still something that demands attention, if not theoretical preconception. The ‘innovative’ part in Videographic Film Studies is mostly the technological properties that were innate to the medium of digital video a priori, while, in turn, the ‘quotations’ are still very close to what has traditionally been done with stills: one can now illustrate their verbal explications with moving images yet still do little to secure the new format’s ontology (in terms of ‘textuality’ in a Bellourian sense) or its narrative context (it is still very much only ‘showing pictures’). As we will discuss more thoroughly in Chapter III, there seems to be some resistance towards the idea of pairing up Videographic Film Studies with established scholarly writing. Oddly enough, videos presented as ‘essays’ now thrive through novelty and accessibility, but their rhetorical, essayistic, resonance is next to none. The status of these videos is, in turn, something that creeps beyond the direct discrimination of technological property, and, sometimes wrongly so, places them outside of the discussion of informative content: a written equivalent of a Kogonada-video would simply be something of a summary or a listing. In turn, while van den Berg’s video was mostly written as a research paper, it can also feel like it is being read aloud. Honoring the multi-modal character of video, however, we can distinguish videos that can show something text cannot, and allow for the experience of ideas and aesthetics. This is the very strength of a Kogonada-video, but perhaps we should consider whether we want to put a bit more restraint on the term ‘essay’. These videos can convey focal points and preferred readings almost directly from within the source material, as opposed to informing an audience by means of description. It is evident that the novelty of audiovisuality currently excites the cinephile aspect, whereas in the meantime there is a silent slumber of reluctance to look into more technologically advanced methods than splicing and recombining visuals within a single mode of rhetoric and inserting a single piece of soundtrack.
            David Bordwell, perhaps the most established film scholar who pioneered the use of stills and has a long tradition of writing about film, now produces videos that closely resemble a mixture between a lecture and an article. For him, video is a vessel where the aural component is used to sound off lecture-like voice-over, while the visual component is utilized as a sort of PowerPoint presentation on auto-play. It is also remarkable how he leaves his own high standards of consistent quotation and referral at the wayside when venturing into video, which is telling for the state of current scholarly conduct of Videographic Film Studies.
            Exploratory modes of videographically rendered Film Studies that resist the influence of more traditional praxis can arguably lead to the opposite of what they are intended for. Although we do not want to be overly dismissive, this feels like a statement that can be made honestly given the evidence presented in the preceding chapters. Notwithstanding the clear benefits of the novel approach, mainly as a method, the adventurous nature of new audiovisual essaying can yield misinformed or naïve results. One could even state that if the current frontrunners are concerned about the form’s future, present conduct does little to secure its progression. One aspect that is key to the haziness surrounding the ability to assess a video’s quality is the semantics of titles and indications of rhetoric. With this we are aiming at overly loose definitions of words such as ‘essay’, ‘discussion’ and referrals to research materials (see for example our discussion of the Al Pacino: Full Roar vs. De Niro Loses His Shit videos: they are identical in content yet appropriated with different titular indications). In addition, the dominant motivation for video essays on film can be traced to film-appreciation. This is a corner of film culture that has been covered by fans and amateur filmmakers since the heydays of film. But with the advent of the current ‘anyone and anything goes’ status quo, the question arises whether we need additional content in this realm of film culture from critics and scholars: not only could their know-how be better purposed, but audiovisual fandom is already in full-gear, evolving its own style and modes of conduct while critics and scholars are not fully equipping themselves to set their works apart. One could even go as far as to argue that videos show a dilation of Film Studies, if we accept the argument that these videos (or their authors) often resort to implicit meaning-making, blanket their analysis results or simply set forth aestheticized datasets presented as a final product. The fact that these works need supplementary texts for explication (or even additional, actual analysis) only indicates that their content is not yet on par with conventional academic work. From this perspective, ‘criticism’ and ‘analysis’ have moved more into the realm of the field of their study, into ‘art’ and ‘film’, away from the lineage and standards of academic conduct they stem from, where lucidity and structure are paramount. In the meantime, ever so prolific and maturing video makers such as Tony Zhou and Kevin B. Lee are finding very potent middle ground between the appeal of entertaining videos and comprehensible chunks of actual in-depth information (in a way that academics can rarely attain). Even more so than the advent of paratexts, these videographically verbal essayists are giving film theorists a run for their money in terms of productivity, reach, and, dare we say it, quality of information.

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