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

Regarding the ontology of the video essay

A panel discussion on the video essay took place at Ebertfest 2013.
The panel featured an array of critics and scholars, including Kevin B. Lee, Pablo Villaça, Matt Zoller Seitz, and David Bordwell. When Bordwell was asked to briefly define the video essay, he suggested that it is an “ill-defined genre”, made up of “think pieces” that followed from a literary tradition of explorative opinion and reports; principles of which were then transposed onto other media like photography, and now found their way to video. He noted the form is based around “meditating and reflecting” and “may have an argument, may have something that is more associative, [but is] always an effort to engage an audience with ideas, and the author’s personal take on these ideas” (at around 02:40 – 03:48). The ensuing discussion lingered on the poetics and purpose of the format, as well as copyright issues. In general, it became evident that the current disposition toward the possibilities of producing Videographic Film Studies is dominantly geared at spreading and sharing film appreciation. The practical results of the combination of such creative enthusiasm, paired with lack of theoretical control, are that the current practice consists largely of open-ended videos, where the author’s exploratory efforts often trump informational quality, traceability, and at times even legibility, much in the vein of the personal essay.
            ​When [in]Transition, the joint platform of MediaCommons and Cinema Journal, launched in 2014, another international panel discussion on the topic of the video essay took place.
The panel again consisted of both critics and scholars, this time featuring Matthias Stork, Catherine Grant, and Drew Morton. Despite the more hands-on and forward-looking talks during this particular discussion (about a year after the Ebertfest-panel), the same tendencies proved dominant: uncertainties with regards to conduct were outspoken, as well as arguments favoring ‘poetic’ videos with emphasis on associative creativity. Similar to when his videos first surfaced, Stork stood out with his capacity for reflection on the current position and future possibilities of the form. Firstly, Stork rightfully addressed how the field of video essays has been dominated by a group of ‘usual suspects’, and consequently mused on the discrepancy between a supposed “digital revolution” and a reality where only a handful are taking the reins (Part 2, at around 33:30). He was also keen to note that “the medium is inherently and substantially technological”, that “we need to offer more classes, and document them”, and “curate [a] selection of how-to-guides” to show “the techniques, and […] how we can put them to use” (ibid, 34:00; 35:50; 36:30).

All things considered, current video essays often disregard written theory and reference only films or other video essays. In turn, written theory refers to films and written theory, but not video essays. From both vantage points, theorists are missing out on productive insights that could strengthen their arguments, regardless of the medium they are adopting. Perhaps the discrepancy between an established written tradition and the prepubescent videographic paradigm is what generates and maintains the gap. While in the written tradition there are more lucid ways of recognizing and assessing different writing genres, such discussions about videographic film culture still seem shrouded in foggy definitions.
            ​At the Ebertfest-discussion, Matt Zoller Seitz introduced the distinction between personal and analytical categories, and stated that “the most powerful” videos are those that encompass both these qualities (Ebertfest 2013 video, at around 51:00). This might be true; however, from a scholarly point of view, we would argue to look more in the direction of a dichotomy tested by Morton, namely poetic versus argumentative, the very semantics of which indicate the constructive principles of a video rather than the approach taken (as with personal/analytical). Though the definitions are not fully developed, the distinction poignantly reveals the two polar-opposites of the rhetorical and aesthetic pillars of Videographic Film Studies.
            ​We believe it is important to safeguard the freshly-forming standards of Videographic Film Studies, particularly while it is still growing. One way to do so is to closely monitor and discriminate the ways in which current produce is presented, referenced, and contextualized. Over time, we are sure that the stylings adhering to different genres will come more and more into their own, but in the meantime we have to take into consideration that video is a medium that needs to be stylized even on a technological level: there are no guidelines yet that are analogous to the ‘baked in’ nature of footers, headers and footnotes as with text, let alone screen positions and proportions for layout elements, visuals, text and the interplay of audio. The mere process of formulating hypothetical ideals will create demarcations for the actual videos to fit in or spill over.

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