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

The camera-pen(chant)

Let us leave technical questions aside for a while, take a step outside of scholarly context, and look at audiovisual exploration by non-academics. Here, we will talk about two genres, namely the essay film and the personal documentary – practices that share similarities but are also rather different from the argumentative and explanatory research video essays central to our interest in this book. Before scholars and pragmatic critics took to exploring the form, as we now know it (say from roughly 2008 onwards), video essayists considered themselves on a lineage with essay film and documentary (see Lopate 1992 and Bresland 2010). It is, therefore, in these creative circles that we find early examples of integrating ‘essaying’ and film.
            ​Whereas the field of scholarly analysis was focused on (and limited to) writing about the film ‘object’, this personal filmmaking was unrestricted by theoretical demands or qualifying inclinations. The creative approach taken by these personal filmmakers was aimed at artistic (and perhaps social or personal) instead of at academic rewards. While scholarly conduct was concerned with reflecting upon the mechanisms by which filmmakers constructed images and sounds, filmmakers that worked with film in a practical way could go on to creatively explore new ways in which images and sounds could be dissected, combined, and rearranged – no matter how minute or broadly they understood the works of others. In other words, they had the freedom and ability to autonomously write with film itself. Scholars currently involved in video essays attempt to walk the line in the middle: while looking for new means of scholarly methodology and expression, they combine filmmaking techniques with theoretical and analytical considerations. But as Phillip Lopate laconically observed: “the camera is not a pencil, and it is rather difficult to think with it in the way an essayist might” (Lopate 1992, 19). Nevertheless, as long as the technology has been within reach, consumers and (aspiring) filmmakers made use of these devices for inquisitive purposes. Oftentimes the goal was personal expression, and the rhetorical means would blur the line between explanatory and poetic endeavors.[30] Since many scholars, critics, and filmmakers have already shared their thoughts on these matters (see, among others, Bresland 2010, Corrigan 2011, Lopate 2008, Rascaroli 2009, Stuckey-French 2012, Warner 2012), we will rather focus on the medial implications and reverberations of technological use through which expression and rhetoric surface. As will soon become clear, the term ‘essay film’ does not designate a clear-cut, ‘proper’ definition. The term is an amalgam of hazy characterizations stacked on top of one another. Theorization on essay film is murky territory, so we will first try to discern, as objectively as possible, the key constituents of its artistic practice. Since we are trying to establish an overview not only of essay film practice, but also of such practice’s theoretical applications to Film Studies, we will need to extract the main concepts from a selection of theoretical writings on the essay film. While these may have been written down in disparate phrasings, their underlying concepts are very, if not wholly, similar.

True to the developments as described in this book, one of the most recent and comprehensible evaluations of the essay film’s constitutional features comes in the form of a video, namely Kevin B. Lee’s 2013 Elements of the Essay Film.
The communicational mode of Lee’s video is fairly straightforward (see its companion text on ‘A critical engagement with the ‘essay’ film’ – Lee 2013a): text or title cards (or slides) describe a proposition, after which clips are inserted to exemplify the provided thesis. The rhetoric is reminiscent of a lecture, but without verbal speech, letting the condensed written statements work by means of illustration. See some examples [Figure 6]:
However, the matter is complicated by the notion that “words aren’t the only way to create an essayistic mode in a film” (Lee 2013). The point is subsequently exemplified [Figure 7]:
Conceptualized in the way they are above, Lee’s breakdown of these principles makes sense in relation to the essay film. Nevertheless, one can arguably apply these ideas to filmmaking in general just as easily. Once again, we would like to interject here to draw attention to the difference between non-professional (or personal), and scholarly (or academic) audiovisual endeavors: although the statement “words (…) may come from the footage itself” (ibid) is a valid stance when engaging with the viewer, scholarly efforts, in our opinion, should never primarily aim to provide a mere aesthetic experience and leave their arguments at the mercy of the viewer’s subjective evaluation or media literacy. Therefore, with clarity and usability in mind, the use of verbal explication in video essays – through either textual annotation or voice-over narration – should not be discouraged nor automatically considered as some redundant addition, superficial to the expressive richness of the visual. If not the multimedia principle (Mayer 2005), then at least our experience tells that information delivered through multi-channel and in redundant form is prone to ‘stick’ better.[31]
            ​Getting back to our earlier point, the key elements, as conceptualized by Lee, will return later on in this chapter numerous times, albeit in alternative phrasings. In short, the essay film is a so-called self-conscious form in that it is used to engage in the portrayal of something, while simultaneously reflecting on the means through which this portrayal is executed and presented. The key concepts of essay film (theory) are generally found at the intersection between auteur theory and considerations on amateur or personal documentary filmmaking. Rick Warner’s 2012 article, ‘The Cinematic Essay as Adaptive Process’, offers a lucid and informative view on this overlap. Warner conceptualizes the essay film as ‘adaptive process’ of textual performance. He starts this off by tracing the origins of the essay film back to the written tradition of Montaigne’s personal essay (see also Rascaroli 2009). From this lineage, he traces the term ‘essay’ as a derivative of essai, meaning ‘a weighing’, ‘a testing out of ideas’ and ‘attempt’. Subsequent argumentation follows the logic that, given the fact that the essay is experimental (in terms of non-defining, searching, testing) by nature, the innate abstractive qualities of film are both its strength and weakness when adapting the essay form (Warner 2012, 1-2). More precisely, film as an multiaudiovisual -medium is generally less controlled and more associative than writing (both when regarding the process that goes into making such a film as well as the final product). For one, the baseline for argumentation and explication is looser, while at the same time their manifestations can be interpreted more broadly due to the lack of precise and finite (verbal) description (not as if textual or verbal communication would not offer interpretive richness and freedom – we are talking about relative differences in comparison to the audiovisual medium). Lee sneaks this foggy trait in by stating that “words may come from the footage itself” – which, again, might be true yet contentious per instance. All things considered, and however debatable it is, the two core aspects of essay film are in fact the original essai-istic qualities and the abstractive quality that is inherent to the medium of film itself. The combinations in which information and rhetoric are explicitly represented are one of the key foundations for the form’s intrigue and appeal, as well a main component of its problems.
            ​To illustrate his points, Warner dives deep into Jean-Luc Godard’s work around the 1990s. Godard’s works from the ‘90s and onwards are generally regarded as more openly essayistic (as opposed to his narrative period, which also contains ‘essayistic’ qualities, if only by its films’ formal deviance and defiance). Unfortunately, due to his occupation with hermeneutic work, Warner refrains from getting into the formal make-up of essay films – an analytical choice that arguably causes him to overlook the most prominent form-play in Godard’s work. Godard’s editing in Histoire(s) du Cinéma (1988-1998) is contrapuntal to the sound of hammered keys on a typewriter, offering the illusion that Godard is actually writing the history of film, with(in) film itself – a remarkable device to coincide ‘theory’ and ‘object’. In fact, in his efforts to renew and expand the essay film, Godard arguably produced (if only by technological definition) the very first video essay. For his essayistic mashup, Godard requested films on VHS, so that they could be edited together more easily via mixing boards, as opposed to the more intricate and laborious Steenbeck or Moviola flatbed editing machines (Brody 2009, 509-518). From an archaeological point of view, VHS tackled a technological bottleneck by allowing a passive audience to become active viewers, making the play with existing film material relatively easy. Similar feats can be found in Godard’s JLG/JLG: Self-Portrait in December (1994); a film shot on Digital Video (DV), closely related to what Michael Renov would call the ‘new autobiography’ (Renov 2004 – see end of this segment). In JLG/JLG, a DV-camera records another, on-screen, DV-camera, which is, in turn, shown as recording a television screen: the layering and dissolving of perception and perceived lapse into one encompassing view. Here we see an earlier mentioned characteristic of essay film in perhaps one of its most concrete manifestations: showing the means by which the film is constructed becomes part of the construction itself. Although visuals designate only arbitrary rhetoric, these are arguably among the most lucid and least ambiguous examples of personal video essay films, and therefore worth to be mentioned within the scope of our exploration.
            ​Phillip Lopate not only found rooting for his arguments in the tradition of Montaigne, but also wrote his own theory within that particular convention (Lopate 1992). His approach is fairly informative while being personally endowed; his reasoning is often unverifiable and biased.[32] While such subjectivity is unproblematic (and by that no concern here) in regards to the tradition that Lopate’s writing tributes and wishes to add to, it does limit the range to which its content can be borrowed and applied to outside of that category of explanatorily argumentative writing (and this can be argued for current poetic essay videos, for the same reasons). Still, for a long time, ‘In Search of the Centaur: The Essay Film’ remained the seminal text on the essay film, as well as the go-to work for many video essay pioneers (Lopate’s work is often noted when the origins of the video essay are drawn up – see for example Bresland 2010). Aside from its alleged shortcomings, it is an insightful work that deals more with the ontological than formal status of the essay film. Lopate observes that the essay film is “a cinematic genre that barely exists”, and acutely notes that there was, and perhaps still is, no “cinematic equivalent” to the “literary genre” of the essay (Lopate 1992, 19). Commenting on the ‘arrival’ of the essay film, he rightly notices that

Just as its technical moment arrived, the intellectual trends of the hour (...) questioned the validity of the single authorial voice, preferring instead to demonstrate over and over how much we are all conditioned and brainwashed by the images around us. (20)

Lopate regards the films that this early period sprouted as “frightfully intellectual” where “the last thing any of their creators would do is tell us directly, consistently what they actually think about their chosen subject” (ibid). And indeed, the majority of essay films operate through shrouded or symbolic argumentation, and rely – perhaps too generously – on ‘words from the footage itself’. These works are by default indirect, meaning that part of their rhetorical make-up lies precisely in the fact that they lack clear articulation. Actually Lopate sets his argumentation up with similar means; through hazy references and by metaphorical argumentation. It is remarkable that while he deems many essay films inaccessible by seeing them “frightfully intellectual” (20) (as their legibility relies all too heavily on the predisposition and media literacy of the viewer), such criticism could be applied just as easily to his own writing about the topic. Nevertheless, the prerequisite of familiarity with a certain informational field or mode of delivery makes this kind of essay film a communicatively vague, exceedingly personal, and fundamentally subjective affair. Curiously, if not incongruously, Lopate does not acknowledge that the single-voice form is a prime vehicle itself for ambiguous argumentation, not to speak of muddy authorship and traceability. Its only claim to validity is the overall imposed voice, which seems to be accepted similarly in written personal essays as with poetic video essays: external material and references to their sources are exempted without problem. So, despite putting forth generally valid observations, Lopate’s exemplifications of what constitutes good or bad essay films line up with the shortcomings of his own work. Thus, he renders his reflection on essay film equally illusive as the essay films he is trying attribute this quality to.

Perhaps one of the most encompassing takes on the essay film form is Laura Rascaroli’s 2009 book The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film. All the angles taken in Rascaroli’s book have one thing in common: they all underpin that defining the ‘essay film’ is problematic. Like others before her (like, among others, Lane 2002 or Renov 2004), she closely affiliates the essay film to the personal essay as well as to documentary. For the sake of both brevity and clarity, we would like to break her work down as ultimately yielding two salient insights: Firstly, ‘essay films’ form no strictly demarcated genre, but a class of films to which the quality of being ‘essayistic’ can be ascribed on a gradual scale. Secondly, the essay film enacts certain ‘intellectual discovery’, making its audience partake in a dialogical process (this definition is elaborated on in the following paragraph). These definitions subscribe to earlier statements according to which the ‘true essay film’ is an elusive term, and suggest that the formal and rhetorical traits that can be found in films that are ‘essayistic’ are not bound to clear-cut categories.
            ​It seems that the essay film form essentially resists methodological classification. A way of shedding some light on the subject, thus, is to compare it to how a written piece can oscillate between informal and stylized passages and more explanatory and argumentative means. Similar to this mode of essayistic writing, essay films can swing between ‘poetic’ expressions and more ‘objective’ observations, blending the two without distinct demarcation. From this point of view the essay film indeed “enacts the process of intellectual discovery”, so that the viewing process innately spurs “the construction of textual meaning”, similar to the process of reading an essay (12, 85). This is, however, not a solely intellectual enterprise; the essay film is, according to Rascaroli, where “intellect meets emotion” (25). Hence, instead of striving for objective informational value, the sole intention of these essays is the possibility to show, that is, to let an audience experience the audiovisual rhetoric (similar to, again, what Lee mentions as ‘words coming from the footage itself’). As a result, Rascaroli describes the essay film as a form that invites the spectator in a dialogical relationship, where one is called to “intellectually and emotionally (…) interact with the text” (Rascaroli 2009, 35). Thus, the essay film is a cinematic free form bound to scope out a way for its creator to package intellectual and emotional discovery, while at the same time setting up the means to instill this in its audience as well. Therefore, the act of assembling footage is considered performative, and the reenacted process of discovery can be seen as the final ‘performance’ (something we will get back to in Chapter III). Because of the ‘authorial atmosphere’ of the essay film, the product is seen as a mode of ‘performance’ indeed: an opinionated rhetorical exercise through film, a kind of performing avatar of its creator. In a more literal sense, the author often ‘performs’ the film in a physical sense, by shooting, editing and narrating, or sometimes even acting on-screen (like Orson Welles in his 1973 F for Fake). Arguably, these considerations can be applied to filmmaking in general, but contextualized and conceptualized as is, they are as close as we can get to grasping the illusive ‘essay film’.
            ​In the essayistic realm of film and documentary, professional and amateur efforts co-exist. Consumer grade 8mm and 16mm cameras have been around since the 1930s, yet it would take until the rise of avant-garde aesthetics in the 1950s to inspire more insistent forms of personal exploration with the medium.[33] In his 2002 article ‘The Convergence of Autobiography and Documentary’, Jim Lane traces the historical connections that helped in shaping the fusion of documentary film and the autobiographical form, which are aptly conceptualized as ‘personal’ and ‘first person’ documentary. The term ‘essay film’ is not used here, but the ideas set forth point at a corresponding concept: ‘personal documentary’ and ‘essay film’ might as well be synonymous. The convergence of autobiographical aspects into documentary is concentrated through the “voice” that can be “inscribed”, which can manifest itself literally, through voice-over, or implicitly, through the rhetorical means by which the material is organized (Lane 2002, 12); similar to what we explicated before, only with a more dramatic emphasis on ‘performance’. Like Lee exemplified in his video, here too ‘performance’ can manifest itself literally in either the form of voice-over, on-screen presence, either embodied or via text, or simply through authorial imposition of choice of images, sound, and their interplay in editing. Roles that would be disparate in traditional fiction film and documentary here collapse into one. Thus, similar to the written tradition as well as films indicated with an overt label of being an ‘essay film’, external sources and references are absorbed into a smoothed-over singular voice, making the personal documentary a perfect parallel to the written personal essay. The ‘inscribed voice’ functions like a mantle, cloaking all of the original ingredients, sources, quotes and references, and dissolves them into the personalized narration of a singular voice. This subjectifying practice preconfigures the theoretical address of this type of film, conceptualized as a ‘transgressive mode’ of documentary (Lane 2002, Renov 2004, Rascaroli 2009).
            ​Similar to Lane’s argument, Michael Renov (2004) ascribes the potency of the personal documentary form to the hybrid combination of the documentary’s ‘outward gaze’ and the inward, self-interrogative autobiographical form (again, the result of this blend is similar to what Lee and others derive from ‘essay film’).[34] Actually, Renov draws a parallel with the more established essay film. But, as we can now see, ‘personal documentary’ is just as well a quality that can be ascribed in gradual form, similar to what Rascaroli claims about essayistic qualities in film. Both the essay film and personal documentary are, to a certain degree, exploratory forms where composition is not only an intricate part of rhetoric, but also an arrangement that establishes – or even reflects upon – the ontology of the work itself. In addition to providing the scope through which presented information is to be consumed, the construction itself is part of the information that needs to be successfully absorbed in order to fully grasp what is going on. By referring to Graham Good’s book The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, Renov therefore comes to the conclusion that “self and object organize each other” (Good 1988, 4 – quoted by Renov 2004, 105), and “[t]he essayistic bears with it a logic that questions the verities of rhetorical composition and of system, indeed, of mastery itself” (Renov 2004, 106). As a hopeful result of this, Renov muses about a “new autobiography”, a film form that showcases research beyond self-reflexivity; one that signifies “revelation of public history through [presenting the] private and associational” (110). Arguably, this definition rings very close to video essay practices, where known facts are repackaged into personally framed modes of presentation. Although the essay film may have come very close to this statement, amateur enterprises remained dominantly self-interrogative. More so, at the advent of video essays, the self-reflexive components proved to diminish dramatically. But as we will show later on in this chapter, the earliest examples of studying film in video form were in fact revelations of public (film) history through private and associational investigation.

To summarize, the points that are set forth by Bresland, Warner, Lopate, and Rascaroli, as well as those by Lane and Renov all arrive at the same principal concepts: ‘essay film’ is an aesthetic that borrows from technological means of documentary filmmaking, but fuses it with narrative and ‘confessional’ devices. The incentive is personal and the process of creative and intellectual discovery is weaved into the structure of the film. While this aspect is often codified as the film or filmmaker being ‘self-interrogative’, ‘self-reflexive’, or ‘self-referential’, these synonyms answer to the same ideas that have been present throughout all discussions regarding essayistic writing and filmmaking. With essayistic endeavors, be it written or audiovisual, there is a tendency to reflect on the essayistic mode within the work itself. This is something, which is now (autumn 2015) on the rise in video essaying, likely propelled by the fact that scholars and critics alike feel the need to (re-)evaluate the form, in order to purposefully mold it towards its intended purpose. An overtly defined example is the segment devoted to the status of the ‘video essay’ in our own (un)reliable (un)reliability (see the excerpt here - or in the original video essay, between 1:10 – 3:54].[35] Kevin B. Lee even devotes entire essay videos to this end, like his What Makes a Video Essay Great?, a meta-reflection on the form. In essayistic works it is not uncommon that this type of reflection is handled more implicitly, metaphorically or spread throughout the text. This can, for example, be as simple as showing that one is ‘aware’ of the medium and the form, like Orson Welles being surrounded by film cans and Moviolas in F for Fake, and Jean-Luc Godard filming a camera filming a television in JLG/JLG.

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