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

The web and the video essay

Shortly after amendments were made to the fair use discussion concerning audiovisual materials, the online video essay started coming into fruition. Around this time, technological means for broadband Internet connection, video production, editing, distribution, and paratextual annotation had become exceedingly attainable. Still, it was relatively early, in 2007, when film critic Kevin B. Lee started ‘Shooting Down Pictures’ – a website dedicated to his efforts watching “every film of the list of 1000 greatest films of all time, as compiled by They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They?”. To keep track of his project, Lee wrote blog posts and started sharing video excerpts on his YouTube channel from the films he watched. On April 24th, he uploaded a video with the title While the City Sleeps, accompanied by a description that read “Video essay on While The City Sleeps (1956, Fritz Lang). From Shooting Down Pictures:”. The 5’51” video features a compilation of assorted footage from Lang’s film noir, during which Lee provides general comments via voice-over.
This early video essay already demonstrates the format that most of the upcoming videos would adopt in the following years: the opening of the video only presents an enticing shot, after which we see the film’s title-card, followed by a voice-over. The film’s synopsis is recounted, and then the applied focal point is introduced, which serves as the subject of the video. The voice-over delivers commentary that only roughly corresponds to what can be seen on screen at that specific time. Strategies that are customary in today’s practice, such as snappy (contrapuntal) editing of commentary and images, are wholly absent here; both voice-over and footage demonstrate general comments and approximate impressions, without a real thesis, method, or conclusion. Coherence between commentary and visuals is loose, and the pacing is relatively slow.[39] While spartan in its execution, Lee’s video is highly informative and provides a personally argued access to the film within six minutes, which was then a novelty. More trailblazing attempts from Lee would follow until about a year later when the term ‘video essay’ first appears in the title of the video Shooting Down Pictures #933: Evil Dead 2 Video Essay (though this labeling would not be followed up consistently for some time).[40] 
Later video uploads would range from scenes and excerpts to analyses that mirror traditional DVD audio commentary, like a casual discussion between Keith Uhlich and Lee that is clearly recorded while the scene played out as featured in the Shooting Down Pictures #937: Il Posto – Sequence Analyses video.
By making a guest appearance on Lee’s YouTube channel in 2008, film critic Matt Zoller Seitz debuts with a two-part essay on Raoul Walsh’s 1941 classic They Died with Their Boots On: They Died with Their Boots On w/ Matt Zoller Seitz.
Shortly after Seitz would produce a video series for Moving Image Source, initially together with Lee (on the season 1 credit sequence of David Simon’s The Wire: Extra Credit, Part 1, and the by now classic The Substance of Style series on Wes Anderson’s cinema), and later on his own.[41] Lately Seitz himself became more productive; his videos have begun to take shape of close readings and efforts to trace formal and aesthetic tendencies.
            ​Safe to say, these initiatives mark the inception of the video essay, as we currently know it. Yet, aside from videos from Seitz in 2009 and 2010, Lee would be alone for some time. Only around and after Matthias Stork’s three-part theorization of Chaos Cinema (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) in 2011 would we begin to see more videos, by more authors, in more diverse forms. In addition, Lee’s efforts would show more sophistication in later years, and upgrade earlier modes of formal breakdowns that can now do what, for instance, Bellour intended to achieve in both ‘The Obvious and the Code, as well as in ‘The Unattainable Text’ in 1973 and 1975, respectively (see, for example, Lee’s 2008 close spatial analysis of Paul Thomas Anderson’s shot techniques: The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots - also [Figure 9]).

From then on, thanks to a multiplicity of authors, the shapes and sizes of video essays would evolve, although the hard-core of video essayists would remain relatively stable, as we will point out in Chapter II.

Within the context of institutionalized education, English and Film Studies professor Eric Faden was relatively early to catch on this forming tendency when he wrote ‘A Manifesto For Critical Media.’ As early as in 2008, in a rather determined proclamation, he declared to give up on written film analysis altogether, and to invest his hopes and efforts into mediatized work:

I’m so convinced by this new form’s advantages that I, Eric Faden, hereby renounce my earthly, traditional, literary-bound scholarly practices. I vow to abstain from that most sacred but restricted of intellectual practices – the literary academic essay – no matter the temptation. From here forward I put my faith in media over text, screen over paper. Thus, this is the last essay I’ll ever write. (Faden 2008)

In Faden’s writing we can see the inception of a thought school dominating current video essay production, namely the one that challenges traditional scholarly work. Similar to Catherine Grant, who advocates the video essay as ‘ontologically new’ scholarly form (Grant 2014), Faden writes that “[t]raditional scholarship aspires to exhaustion (…). The media stylo, by contrast, suggests possibilities” – which echoes the problems with hypertexts, as well as the (ambiguous) statements made in favour of personal documentary and essay film. Remarkably, passion and enthusiastic creativity may provide an indirect indication of why audiovisual work in Film Studies is relatively underdeveloped, at least from an academic, explanatory and argumentatively sound point of view: at the advent of new medial possibilities, excitement over the novelty of medium specificity and about unusual affordances momentarily trumps respect for more traditional academic merits (this is one of the core concerns addressed in Chapter III). Rephrasing Tom Gunning’s seminal take on early film production resulting in a ‘Cinema of Attractions’ (Gunning 2000 [1986]), it seems that we live in the age that could be described as an era of the ‘audiovisual essay of attractions’. Gunning writes about early practitioners’ “fascination with the potential of a [new visual] medium” (229). This lure rhymes with recent academic tendencies, as it seems that experimenting with fresh aesthetic and technical approaches is just ‘too attractive’ and may suppress established scholarly values. This way, one can find similar problems as when enthusiasm about hypertext’s associative and technical potential outweighed time-tested rhetoric of conventional research for those dabbling with this novelty. The inherent allure and practical performativity of the audiovisual form too easily become a substitute for critical argument, as much as they may enable those arguments to be articulated ever more potently. Of course, one should not aspire to conservatism, and yes, potent audiovisual essaying allows and also requires some creativity (which may not be for everyone). However, at least in the scholarly context, one must keep an eye out for securing a certain amount of validity, in terms of academic soundness and subjection to evaluation criteria, as well as means to prevent overzealous naiveté. Lavik gave voice to similar reservations:

I find that [audiovisual film criticism] adopts too readily the conceptual abstractionism of the artistic avant-garde, and does not strive hard enough to preserve the particular competencies of film scholars as scholars: the ability to just engage with complex thought, but to pull it into focus, and to articulate and communicate those ideas clearly. (Lavik 2012)

Indeed, the emerging trend’s disregard or disinterest in the historical context (or ‘evolution’) of Film Studies is somewhat concerning. As Andrew notes, “a discipline needs to see current work in relation to the momentum of prior study, just as it needs to look forward to the advancements that graduate students will make when they take up the reins” (Andrew 2009, 884). Again, the look forward is there, without question, but the relation to prior work and established criteria is often underdeveloped and uncritical. In terms of building on and incorporating a theoretical foundation, the tradition of Film Studies is regarded as either problematic or simply irrelevant – which, we argue, it both should not be, at least not by default. One of the ways we can remedy this development is by paying attention to the way video essays are employed in the classroom. The case we hope to have made after Chapter III is that current progressive-minded educators might want to look back on the theoretical tradition a bit more, and that traditionally minded faculties might want to open up their ideas to new means of – audiovisual – scholarship. The first group may benefit from feeding more established modes of research into their new and creative audiovisual explorations, while, alternatively, those who still consider the written word superior may have to reconsider the primacy of their practices. Fortunately, classroom experience with video essays is starting to prompt articles, or video essays for that matter, where educators attempt to define the best ways of teaching audiovisual research practices. Still, finding writings or practical guidelines for how to produce videos is scarce or at least theoretically thin (see the very useful but quite basic How-to Video Essays guide by Greer Fyfe and Miriam Ross) and measurements for evaluation are rather underdeveloped (as for exceptions, see Kelli Marshall’s attempt to create a sample Grade Sheet, and our brief plea for finding well-defined criteria to the new form in order to make it a verifiable scholarly medium – see Kiss 2014). Similar feats can be found in online journals calling for videos, where criteria of evaluation are also currently pending (more to come on this in Chapters II and III).
            As mentioned in the Introduction, online platforms are adapting to video content more and more. Online scholarship is not new in the sense that there has already been a gradual shift where printed paper has been substituted for a screen. However, we would like to see a more optimized ‘graduation’ of that screen, as it were. Out of our everyday experience as digital consumers, we can agree with Eric Faden who sees written scholarship being presented on a screen as “the same dense content only now more difficult to read” (2008). Video on an online platform presented on screens is a new way of producing and displaying information, which subsequently calls for a new way of quality control and exhibition practice.
            ​To date, the most professionalized and academically controlled effort to pull Film Studies in video form takes place on MediaCommon’s online cinema journal project [in]Transition. The website was officially launched on March 20th, 2014, as “the first [online] peer-reviewed academic journal of videographic film and moving image studies”, broadcasted live during a dedicated panel of that year’s SCMS conference in Seattle – the archived stream is broken up into two videos on the SCMS website: Part 1 (Becker, Morton) and Part 2 (Morton, Grant, Stork, Sampson).
The idea behind establishing such a journal was to offer a platform where the above-mentioned problems were to be overcome: to attain quality control through selection and introduction. For the first four issues this was done by appointed curators, and recently by assigned reviewers (on a non-anonymous basis, selected from the members of the journal’s Editorial Board). The SCMS panel featured a group of people that decided to pull their recourses together and launch a single comprehensive website: Christine Becker, Drew Morton, Catherine Grant, Matthias Stork and Benjamin Sampson. Overall, during the panel it became apparent that the discussion surrounding audiovisual scholarship is one that needs to concern itself with production as well as evaluation and publishing. Especially Catherine Grant was up front about the uncertainty that is currently topical. As she relayed, “we don’t know what the relationship between length and substance is yet. We don’t know what the relationship between form and substance is yet” (see around 7:30 into Part 2).

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