Posts Tagged ‘Video Essay’

Taking cues from Von Trier’s The Five Obstructions and also, mainly, Godard’s Letter to Jane, students authored video essays using only still images for their video track. As often happens when limitations are imposed, the results are surprising, funny, poignant, powerful. Here’s a sampling:

Only an Honest Man // by Maxwell Kuehn

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Anywhere but Here // by Clareissa Lopez

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Canoe Trip // by Christopher Poole

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Letter to Justin // by Angela Mears

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Things Remembered // by Alicia Cordova

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The Movie of Your Life // by Samuel B. Prime

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On Laughter // by Camilla Stefl


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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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Here’s a nice snippet from the Believer/Varda interview, in which she gives voice, I think, to the irritation some of you feel in the company of your Michael Moores and your Morgan Spurlocks. The resistance, perhaps, being a reaction to an artist who ventures out of his depth? Into contrivance? Into shtick?

BLVR: You used to make fictional films. Why don’t you make fictions anymore?

AV: I’m not sure I’m in the mood for that. I’m trying to capture something more fragile than a regular story. I love what people bring me. I had a very good time when I did The Gleaners—even though the people are poor, and I was suffering to see the conditions, and plus they are not such lovely hearts. They are tough to each other, they beat each other, they are rude and they are violent and they drink. They’re not sweethearts, you know, but some were so interesting.

With The Gleaners, the problem was bigger than me. I wanted to catch the problem of consumption, waste, poor people eating what we throw away, which is a big subject. But I didn’t want to become a sociologue, an ethnographe, a serious thinker. I thought I should be free, even in a documentary which has a very serious subject. It made me feel very good that I could investigate a certain way of doing documentaries in which I’m present—I’m myself—knowing I’m doing a documentary and speaking with the people, telling them I have a bed, that I can eat every day, but I would like to speak to you. And they really gave me wonderful answers. We got along very well without trying to make me look like I’m what I’m not.

The interview in full is right here.

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