Posts Tagged ‘Agnes Varda’


So many fascinating write-ups about Tom Wolfe and This American Life (the made-for-TV version) last week, that I felt compelled to post a few extracts. What many of you noted was how a finished literary text — already compressed and, I think most of us agree, already perfect in its God-given form — can be compromised by images and sound.

One filmmaker in the class on how the image can destabilize a text:

I think any time images are added to a pre-existing text — a text that can stand alone — there is a risk of the image weakening the impact of the text. In the case of This American Life, I think it’s dangerous to see the subjects of some of these pieces. We have so many prejudices that can be exploited by the image… judgments about how people look, how and where they live, what the spaces they inhabit look like. The image clutters and overwhelms the message; the stories are given much more breathing room in pure audio form. The challenge, here, is to find images that are quiet enough, concise enough, to offer their own meaning without drowning out the text with accidental messages.

And another student, a nonfiction writer, on the superfluity of the image:

The [Tom Wolfe] passage is so dense and rich as it is — to pair images of a plane crash with it would kind of insult the intelligence of the viewer. I don’t know what Tom Wolfe would say about the video essay, but my instinct tells me that some writing might work too well as writing to justify video. We talked about how video and sound have a more direct impact than text — but when the text is as hard-hitting and intense as this passage, the other stuff becomes superfluous.

Another class member, a journalist, sees an opportunity in wedding images to text:

One of the main visual challenges of This American Life was that some of the ”acts” had already been aired on the radio. When I sat down to watch, I immediately recognized the story about Chance the bull. I wondered if the visuals would taint the original audio version, but they just made it better. I think this is because they captured moments that they may not even have anticipated — like the second time bull attack. The visuals enhanced the experience because I could see the denial in this man’s eyes. I felt so much more connected to the story…

And lastly, a German language student imagines Tom Wolfe so disgusted by the video essay genre that he (Wolfe) would, somewhat unaccountably, tear off his own clothing:

In my interaction with both of these works, I sharpened my feelings on what I see as a weakness of the video essay: the problem of superfluity. If I talked to Tom Wolfe about the video essay, I feel like he would spit all over me. “Pawn your video camera and spend the money on LSD!” he would shout. “I captured all that motion, that intensity, that fear and glory you apparently need an A/V crutch to pursue, and I did it with words!” Then he rips off his white suit in disgust and walks away.

All of these are great points. And if my interns weren’t on vacation, I’d have published them all en entière. Here’s my question, though: is this superfluity a weakness of the video essay form, necessarily, or merely a pitfall? And are we alert to this issue now mainly because we’re dealing with an adaptation, of sorts, in the form of TAL, which was (at times) retrofitted for the screen? Nobody brought this up after viewing Varda’s work. Would anybody rather simply read her screenplay and do away with the image of her heart-shaped potato? Her paper-like skin? The encroaching mold on her ceiling? How did she make the image and the language and the subject coexist seamlessly? If in fact she did.


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Not all egoists are good essayists, but all good essayists have egos. And the video essayists? Supersized.

When you decide to craft an essay, video, print or other, you do so because you feel like what you have to say is supremely important, or at least important enough that the public should be consuming your work and thinking, “Wow, that’s important.” From that moment on you’re constantly walking the fine line between indulging your audience and indulging yourself, something that I find is much more easily distinguished in video than in print. With video, you have control not only over words, but also over image and sound, both of which contribute to the total finished product. The viewer can see when you place yourself in the frame, hear when you record a voiceover and read what you choose to dub and caption.

I made the mistake of watching both the Moore and the Spurlock in a single night, and by the time I was finished I wanted to give up on essay writing altogether, eat a bowl of wheat germ and call it a night. It wasn’t that either of them were intolerably obnoxious, rather, I just got tired of watching them prance around being hyper self-aware of themselves and their cameras. What is so endearing about Varda is that she just plays in front of her camera—she eats grapes, looks at her hands holding heart-shaped potatoes, looks at her hands, all with a sense of wonderment, which you can hear in her voice. The beauty of Varda is that she’s just so wonderfully uncalculated. She has a thesis of sorts (which, as another classmate put it, had “something to do with stooping”), but past that point she seems to abandon all planning and just rolls with it, much like her cameras.

My problem with Supersize Me is that I think this could have been a fine project without the part where he actually goes and eats McDonald’s for 30 days. That was the part of the Spurlock that I found to be a little too much—this was the product of some guy who wanted to see himself on camera. At least, that’s the impression I got, and it turned me off. It doesn’t interest me that your girlfriend can tell that your (very purposeful and intentional) consumption of 5,000 fat calories a day is affecting your sex life. I do, however, find it hilarious that of the 8 times you were asked to supersize, 5 of them were in Texas.

Similarly with Moore, I understand that you wanted to make a film about Flint because it’s your hometown, but I just don’t need the sound of many minutes of droning voiceover clouding my experience. I got the impression Moore found his monosyllabic, sarcastic tone quite droll, which just annoyed me even more. I think one of the funniest moments in Roger & Me was when Miss Pets-or-Meat was like, “Yeah, I’m going back to veterinary school. There’s lots of animals that need taking care of.” This, of course, after we just witnessed her casually clubbing a rabbit with a baseball bat, not to mention skinning and gutting it. Shit like that, straight from the economically down source, that’s golden. It’s your job as the essayist to seek out those gems. Put your subjects before yourself, or else claim YouTube as your home turf.

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