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

Essay / essai / criticism / analysis / theory / research paper / experiment / play

At this point we would like to return to Erlend Lavik, who aptly stated that

it is [hard] to gauge the internet’s impact on the quality of film and television criticism, mainly because developments are so diverse and contradictory. Online criticism ranges from brilliant to banal, and it is as easy to argue that film criticism has never been better as it is to argue that is has never been worse. It merely depends on where we cast our nets and on what evaluative criteria we bring into play. (Lavik 2012)

Subsequently, he expresses his hopes for the development of the audiovisual essay-form as follows:

First and foremost, I would like to see the audiovisual film criticism offer more ideas, in greater detail and greater depth[.] It is a tall order indeed, of course, but it is possible to envisage audiovisual work as densely informational and intellectually ambitious as a traditional scholarly article. (ibid, our emphasis)

While we profoundly sympathize with this expression – it is in fact this shared wish that prompted our book –, Lavik’s statement is problematized directly by his own hand, in two-ways. Firstly, note the title of his manifesto: ‘The Future of Academic Film and Television Criticism’. While it is perfectly fair to perform ‘academic criticism’, we have set our hopes for something more elaborate. Secondly, following the criteria Lavik sets up after this definition, it is not hard to see why we would prefer the inclusion of ‘academic’ to propel works of ‘theory’ or ‘analysis’, and why the precise exclusion of these terms is both problematic and telling. It denotes the dominant tendency within audiovisual reflection on film: critique. Mapping authorial tendencies and themes is not academic work in itself; furthering analytical insight informed by existing theory is. But perhaps the best signifier for the work to be done is the way in which Lavik compromises his own instigation: his own otherwise rather superb audiovisual efforts fall short of the high bar he himself wishes to set.[67] This distinguishes Lavik’s case from that of, for example, Catherine Grant, who actively and openly steers away from translating principles of academic writing and autonomous video altogether.[68] In any case, Lavik’s observation that “the video essay is still in its infancy” (Lavik 2012) is arguably still relevant some years after it was formulated, despite vehement efforts to progress the form. As we hope to illustrate, this is, in part, because of the reluctance to emulate more established forms of research with audiovisual means. Those currently working in the form are repeatedly stating they are in search of new ideas, strategies, and criteria. We would argue, however but not against these voices, that translating established principles will garner these new ideas when molded to the new audiovisual form of expression.

During the [in]Transition launch, Catherine Grant posited a rhetorical question; one that can be regarded as undercutting the alternative as a viable option; one that practically disputes the method taken in our plea directly:

Here is a ridiculous rhetorical question: ‘should we be aiming to ‘translate’ written Film Studies into audiovisual ones? Or should we embrace from the outset the idea that we are creating ontologically new scholarly forms?’ I genuinely believe that despite the fact that this work has an enormous tradition and comes from various different strands of audiovisual work from the past, actually it is ontologically new, because of the digital online context. That added, really spices up the mix a lot in ways we don’t really understand yet. ([in]Transition launch-video, Part II, at around 08:25)

This statement explicates what is excavated in our first two chapters. Though we have tried to provide a relatively descriptive diachrony of mediatized Film Studies in those chapters, we would now like to elaborate on the theoretical lacuna that inspired this book. The inclusion of media beyond text in Film Studies has served to attain a mode of research where the object of study and the results of study could fold into one another. The shorthand we used earlier for this was ‘Bellourian’, due to the fact that it resembles the construct Raymond Bellour mused on in a time when this was technologically impossible. However, and without dramatizing the situation, one could say that the moment when we were finally able to achieve this ‘Bellourian’ mode of film analysis marks exactly the moment that signifies a scholarly wish of disconnecting from traditional scholarship. If we follow these scholars’ train of thought, from this point on, Film Studies resembles creative efforts like personal filmmaking or multimedia paratexts more than a written presentation of scholarly findings. Earlier we ascribed this to the fact that new technological possibilities usually incline their early adopters to dive into the medium specifics, but in the light of the build-up to a ‘Bellourian’ possibility of Film Studies, this disconnect becomes historically ironic. We will discuss the relativity of this shift and the intricacies of film’s multimodal character in greater detail later on.[69] But first let us consider the second part of Grant’s statement: despite the fact that videos could suffice without online connectivity, the ‘2.0’ (however dated that term may seem) interconnectivity is ingrained in their structure. We have touched upon one side of this question in our Introduction,[70] and now we will regard another. The following example serves to illustrate the ease by which online sharing can instate a fast spurt of production, and stress both Grant’s statement about the yet unknown potential and workings of the form, as well as our disclaimer according to which it is impossible to make this book an encompassing work. Shortly after we started to write the first draft, a succession of videos surfaced that, to us, signified a new phase in the video essay development – one of re-mixing and re-essaying others’ video essays.
            ​On March 17th, 2014, Kogonada uploaded Wes Anderson // Centered, a compilational supercut-video displaying a succession of shots with central compositions, taken from Anderson’s oeuvre to date.[71] To accentuate his point, at given moments Kogonada superimposes a dotted line from top to bottom down the center of the screen, lining up perfectly with Anderson’s tableaus.
Two days later, on March 19th, film student Megan Devaney uploaded Wes Anderson // Mirrored, showing the same video, only now with half of the image folded onto the other side of the dotted line, thus further underpinning the centralized character of Anderson’s compositions, as well as playfully referencing Kogonada’s work.[72] 
This, in turn, inspired Luis Enrique Rayas’ Wes Anderson // Kaleidoscoped, which was uploaded on Vimeo two days after Devaney’s video (March 21st).
Rayas’ version says little about Anderson’s work anymore, but all the more about the ability to pull footage off the Internet, remix, and then (re-)upload it.[73] Precisely so, in an attempt to broaden the lexicon in video essays considering ‘auteurs’ and users of central composition, Vimeo user LaurentG made Peter Greenaway // Centered, presented in a similar fashion as the initial Kogonada video (with the added goal of having someone outside of the ‘usual suspects’ – Wes and Paul Thomas Anderson, Kubrick, Tarantino, etc. – being featured in a video essay on film visuals). This work was uploaded only one day after said Centered video.[74]
With each successive reincarnation, the manifestations moved away from analytical work, and become reconfigurations of the medial representation itself, rather than of the source material. They signify explorations of presentational form, not the content of ‘the film object’ [Figure 34].
Obviously, this phenomenon is yet another example of an instance where attention for the medium overrides the original intentions of the analytical work, and, to a certain degree, overshadows its informational possibilities. More importantly, this particular example illustrates that the 2.0-elements of video essaying do not necessarily bring about the benefits of collectivity from an academic point of view (except for those studying the video essay form itself, or those upholding less rigorous criteria for what constitutes academic research). Connecting this back to Grant’s statement, one can see that evaluation as presented in this book can validly re-direct or re-purpose trends in video essaying: Grant on the one hand advocates to “embrace from the outset (…) that we are creating ontologically new scholarly forms”, while, on the other hand, admitting that the elements that make this format ontologically new mix things up “in ways we don’t really understand yet.” It would be advisable to at least not fully ignore the scholarly tradition that preceded video. Most of the video essays today present themselves as ‘ontologically new forms’, but they are by no means automatically ‘scholarly’ – the only aspect warranting that at the moment would be the fact that a scholar produced and often annotated the video, however, the outcome of these efforts is almost indistinguishable from non-scholars.

This page has paths:

This page references: