The Video Essay
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The Video Essay

In the winter of 1992, Phillip Lopate published a groundbreaking piece in the Threepenny Review titled "In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film." Lopate's attempt to define the essay elevated the form's words over its images. This centaur might be a hybrid, but it should "represent a single voice," possess a "strong, personal point of view," and be "eloquent, well-written and interesting."

Lopate acknowledged the limitations of his approach and reminded readers he was a literary essayist and "not a film theorist," but his admissions did not stop film critics such as Paul Arthur, Laura Rascaroli, and Timothy Corrigan from criticizing Lopate's criteria as subjective and logocentric. Arthur pointed out, for instance, that because "film operates simultaneously on multiple discursive levels—image, speech, titles, music—the literary essay's single determining voice is dispersed into cinema's multi-channel stew."

Lopate also fretted about how few essay-films there were. The form's rarity, he argued, resulted from film's collaborative nature and high production costs, and the medium's resistance to "verbal largesse" and tendency to catch and preserve unplanned images. These factors, he said, pulled the final cut away from the filmmaker's singular, essayistic vision.

Of course, since 1992, when Lopate wrote, we've experienced a digital revolution. Lopate's essay-film is no longer rare, nor is it always as "literary" or word-centered as he thought it should be. Small, inexpensive video cameras, free editing software, and the Internet have made it easy to make and distribute videos. As John Bresland, one of a number of fine young video-essayists experimenting with this new technology, puts it, "Today, to make a small-scale personal film, you can shoot the thing on an inexpensive digital camera and upload it to any number of free video sharing sites.... You can shoot and edit video, compelling video, on a cell phone." Essay-films have become video essays, and they're everywhere. Facebook posts link to them. Online magazines devote special issues and regular sections to them. They've begun to appear in both literature and essay-writing classes. At universities such as Ohio State, Kentucky, Denver, and Florida State (where I teach), students are creating video essays in new, interdisciplinary programs that bring together editing, writing, rhetoric, and digital and media studies. High school students include video essays in their college applications.

These popular, easy-to-use technologies allow millions of people, including many who consider themselves essayists first, to bypass production teams and wrestle individually with the problems Lopate raised. The results are exciting, but they are not usually feature-length films, though filmmakers that Lopate discussed such as Michael Moore and Ross McElwee have continued to produce important and longer work.

Lopate (like most of the critics who have discussed the essay-film) did not address the question of length head-on. He wrote admiringly of the work of Chris Marker, for instance, but when he did, he did not talk about the question of length, even though Marker's work would seem to raise it. Lopate referred to the "essayistic tendency" in Marker's films Sans Soleil (1983) and Grin Without the Cat (1977), but did not mention the fact that the former is a hundred minutes long, the latter four hours. Video-essays today are more likely to be six minutes long, a length more in keeping with the print essay's tradition of brevity. Just as the Top 40 format of AM radio militated toward the two-minute single, so has YouTube led to the proliferation of the short video.

Though video essays are available on YouTube, they are often collected first on the websites of video essayists or online magazines. If you are new to the form, a good place to start is the piece by John Bresland that I quoted above. Titled "On the Origin of the Video Essay," it introduced a suite of six video essays that Bresland curated for the spring 2010 issue of Blackbird magazine. In addition to Bresland's "Mangoes," a meditation on gender and fatherhood, the group includes pieces that use documentary montage, animation...


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