The Age of the Video Essay

Said Scorsese, “Recreate Movies.”
By  · Published on August 20th, 2017

Said Scorsese, “Recreate Movies.”

When asked by BAFTA for his advice to young filmmakers, Martin Scorsese didn’t hesitate: “Make your own industry,” he said. “Recreate movies.” The patron saint of cinema didn’t rattle off a list of classic movies to watch (though he’s done so elsewhere) or admonish youngsters to learn film history (though he’s done that too). Rather, he recommended what the very best filmmakers have always done: “Break it open. Break open the form.” Scorsese’s study of film history taught him that everything about movies — from length, to subject, to style, to story — is contingent, based on historical circumstances. It didn’t have to be this way, and given a change in circumstances, it could be different.

Nowhere is this more evident than online, where new forms of media are evolving all the time. Much of this work is loose and ill-considered, but already one particular form is beginning to coalesce: the video essay. The form isn’t exactly new, as many video essayists have pointed out. Master filmmakers from Orson Welles to Chris Marker to Jean-Luc Godard have all tried their hands at “essay films.” But in its current form, as practiced on YouTube channels like Nerdwriter and Every Frame a Painting, the video essay is fast becoming a discrete artistic category, replete with conventions and techniques all its own.

Necessity, so the proverb goes, is the mother of all invention. The particular necessity that video essays first swooped in to fill was the problem of film analysis, which for decades had been ill-served by the written word. As rewarding and illuminating a great film writing can be, one always comes up against the limitations inherent in trying to capture the nuances of a visual and auditory medium with mere language. In the end, one is forced to either limit one’s analysis to character and theme, or else to waste paragraph upon paragraph describing visual details that bore the reader to death. But with the video essay, the viewer apprehends all the relevant visual information instantly, leaving the narrator to highlight and explain.

Some video essayists, like Every Frame’s Tony Zhou and Sight & Sound’s kogonada, have elevated this craft to an art form, bringing their own artistic sensibility to the recombination and analysis of others’ films. Zhou’s snappy pacing, colloquial narration, and incisive analysis have helped introduce a broad audience to the finer points of film form. And kogonada recently released his debut feature, Columbus, which premiered at Sundance to heavy acclaim. One can trace a direct line from the subjects covered in kogonada’s essays, such as the editing of Neorealism and the architecture of Ozu, to the assured style of his feature debut.

But is this the end goal? Should we view the video essay as a tool for the film critic or a stepping stone for the narrative director? This, I think, would be to commit the same mistake Louis Lumiere did when he declared cinema “an invention without any future.” Despite having helped invent the medium, Lumiere didn’t have the foresight to see its potential as anything more than a carnival amusement. Likewise, if we limit the potential of the video essay to strict film analysis, we’ll prematurely foreclose on the wide range of possible topics and techniques to be explored.

Vox, for instance, has already begun to churn out polished video essays on a wide variety of topics, from the opioid epidemic to the vocal experimentation of Kanye West. The Vox style, which by now has been refined to a recognizable palette, borrows techniques from the worlds of design and documentary. Talking heads, motion graphics, and kinetic typography are combined to create tiny visual packets of information and commentary that rival many text articles. And unlike text articles, which often require a “news hook” to draw eyeballs and prove relevance, Vox’s video essays make use of the sheer excitement of the medium to interest their viewers in less timely topics like human evolution and 80s music.

Many of Vox’s essays are “explainers,” a particular genre of video essay that focuses, unsurprisingly, on explaining some curious cultural phenomenon. Explainers often call upon research and expertise to explicate a narrow subject in objective, specific terms. This fits well with the model of essay writing many of us learned in school — the ones with topic sentences and bibliographies and grades. But as Paul Graham points out in “The Age of the Essay,” this particular style of essay writing is just as historically contingent as the two-hour narrative feature. It grew largely out of the structure of universities dating back to the 1800s.

Graham notes that the original use of the word essay dates back to 1580, when Michel de Montaigne “published a book of what he called ‘essais,’” rooted in the French verb essayer, “to try.” An essay, in Montaigne’s sense, is a kind of attempt, beginning with an evocative question. It is fundamentally searching, meandering, and personal. It is a way, as Evan Puschak of the Nerdwriter puts it, of figuring out what one thinks.

Puschak is among the few video essayists currently taking this open-ended approach to the medium, but already he has inspired others. Newcomer Will Schoder recently put together an affecting piece on a letter he received from his grandfather, and vloggers like Bobby Burns have begun combining the confessional style with bits of commentary and analysis. It’s in this combination of the emotional and analytical, the personal and the cultural, the visual and the verbal, that the video essay truly shines.

The need for a personal touch is compounded by the fact that, in our age of informational abundance, perspective is the scarcest resource. Each of us is confronted daily with myriad streams of information, but picking out what is useful, important, or interesting requires a point of view. Just as a narrative director curates the work of various collaborators and department heads, the video essayist curates culture itself, reorganizing it into something meaningful and valuable.

Perhaps this is what it might mean to “recreate movies” for our era — not to replace current forms, but to expand them. We no longer have to struggle through laborious and expensive productions to generate the raw material for creation. Words and images, as Scorsese has pointed out, are now so plentiful as to have become meaningless. The video essayist has the ability to re-enliven us to meaning, to impose order on the chaos of the information stream. So break open the form, and make something new.

Writer, filmmaker.