On the Form of the Video Essay

Monday, January 16, 2012
Editor's Note

One could argue that text, onscreen, feathered with images and sound, is becoming more like video. And video is becoming more like text. How are writers to contend with this? How does the visceral nature of digital technology—sound, image and the sometimes cruel edgelessness of the screen—alter the writer’s relationship to language? The seven video essays in this collection, curated by John Bresland and Marilyn Freeman, raise a host of thrilling questions, not least: How is writing today different than it was yesterday? What does it mean for writers to build a text with, as Virginia Woolf once cannily advised, whatever pieces come your way?


The essay’s innermost formal law is heresy.
— Theodor Adorno

Every time I read that line from “The Essay as Form,” Adorno’s midcentury manifesto, I feel the kind of joy I felt when I accidentally rang the fire alarm instead of the recess bell in seventh grade at St Francis of Assisi in Spokane. I feel guilty, involuntary joy. And I think of the video essay—the brainy, bratty, mixed breed love child of poetry, creative nonfiction, art house indies, documentary, and experimental media art. It is an ascendant incarnation of Adorno’s heresy, and the moment has never been better for it.

As a form the video essay tests the mettle of the literary essay—personal, lyrical, contemplative, improvisational, performative, critical—not on the page but on the screen. And with screens in nearly every hand, every day all day, the video essay exploits and infiltrates the Broadcast Yourself media sphere. It doesn’t pander to a passive audience. It doesn’t aim to entertain. That isn’t to say it can’t be enjoyable, affecting, funny even. Adorno would say play is essential to it. Like its literary parent, the video essay is playful, irrational, and fragmented.

Yet, it takes shape. It has form. And plenty of telltale signs—it is reflexive, subjective, autobiographic, poetic, interdisciplinary.

The video essay’s nature is to mess with our expectations of nonfiction film. This reflexivity is its hallmark; it is transparently self-questioning and self-conscious. The conventional documentarian masks her subjectivity through interviews and voice-of-God authorities in ways we’ve come to expect—the Morgan Freeman or Matt Damon trope. Not the video essayist. She engages directly, speaks directly to the audience. The video essayist says, this is between you and me.

That is, unless she reflexively calls into question basic notions about how films are made as Chris Marker does in his epistolary travelogue Sans Soleil (1983). An intentionally ambiguous essay film, it is voiced by a narrator who relays 128 dispatches from Iceland, Cape Verde, and Japan, mostly, with footage that feels secreted. Just when you think you know what the piece is about—neighborhoods, television, cat temples—it becomes about something else—Hitchcock’s Vertigo, memory, video games. One fleeting meditation after another. Sans Soleil does, I think, what Adorno says the essay wants to do, ”it tries to render the transient eternal.” Marker does this in a way that intrudes on our expectations of how a film is supposed to behave, how it’s supposed to be understood.

Reflexivity interferes with cinematic illusion in all kinds of ways. When Agnes Varda's lens cap swings in and out of the frame for nearly a minute in The Gleaners and I (2000), it is reflexive. We are made aware. It’s uncomfortable. Wait a minute, that’s her lens cap. We laugh, uncertain. Varda forfeits the authority of the filmmaker, transparently, self-consciously. She tells us, “I forgot to turn my camera off.” In the middle of the film Varda pulls back the curtain and engages us in the making.

It’s hard to talk about the video essay without pointing to Chris Marker and Agnes Varda—the quintessential cinema essayists—and their associates in postwar France. They are long-time friends, both still living and working. They were among the Left Bank film collective along with Alain Resnais and Jean Cayrol, respectively the director and scriptwriter of Night and Fog, the 1955 postmodern, filmic response to the holocaust—an essay film, unapologetically soul searching, self-questioning and self-conscious. The Left Bank artists were less commercial and more experimental, and persistently more political than the French New Wave filmmakers across the Seine but they were all colleagues. New Wave director, Francois Truffaut, described Night and Fog as the greatest movie ever made. At its end we see mountains of bone-thin corpses bulldozed into graves and the film comes down to one central question—who is responsible? The answers are incomprehensible. “I am not responsible,” says the Kapo. “I am not responsible,” says the officer. “I am not.” The disembodied voiceover asks us, “Then who is responsible?” And so begins the end of answers.

“We have a harder time living the kinds of lives that can be given contour and written about.” That feels like the truth of our predicament, the way Sven Birkerts’ puts it in The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again. He goes on, “I’m not suggesting…that we are less happy or fulfilled, only that certain imaginative conceptions of ourselves are harder to keep alive” and I would add, harder to reconcile. He says, “To put it starkly: we are experiencing a crisis of representation in the arts, literature included.”

Fostering self-conceptions, reconciling them, contending with issues of representation—these are all in the marrow, I think, of the video essay. Its affecting multichannel form—literary text, sound and image—lends itself to a ramified personal point-of-view that is fragmented and contradictory. Its subjectivity will often resist or disrupt the first-person singular “I” of the conventional autobiography. Theorist Leigh Gilmore dubs this autobiographics—a feminist theory of self-representation that “is concerned with interruptions…resistance and contradiction.”

Gilmore’s autobiographics sets identity on “shifting sands” precisely as Agnes Varda illustrates in The Beaches of Agnes (2008) with her stunning installation of mirrors on a sandy beach, windy and wavy. In this autobiographic portrait Varda identifies herself as “playing the role of a little old lady, pleasantly plump and talkative,” as “young artist,” as friend, photographer, grandmother, filmmaker, gleaner, widow. Born Arlette, she tells us she changed her name to Agnes. One Varda interrupts, responds to, contradicts another Varda. There is no one Varda, but many, each at home in cinema where she is all “walls and surfaces bathed in light.”

Marker too upends the traditional autobiography. Presented as a memoir, Sans Soleil is narrated by an “unknown woman” who reads and comments on the dispatches authored by an enigmatic and uncannily Marker-like avatar, a world-weary cameraman, whom you’ll find is fictional. Gertrude Stein speaks to autobiographics prophetically in her own Gertrude Stein way in Everybody’s Autobiography (1937), “identity is funny being yourself is funny as you are never yourself to yourself except as you remember yourself and…You are of course never yourself.” Just imagine the video essays Gertrude Stein would make.

Which brings us to odd juxtapositions and the poetic nature of the video essay. Like the literary side of its family, the video essay invites nonlinear, associative thought and digression. It doesn’t try to argue, persuade or solve problems (though it might accomplish such things). But something else distinguishes the video essay’s poetic aspect; it resides in the liminal space between sound and image, and inhabits that space differently than typical movies. Conventional films are made to appear seamless and to move audiences forward along a dramatic line. By contrast, the video essay aims to move audiences deeper. It disrupts the smooth impenetrable surface of standard cinema with unexpected couplings of sound and image. Those couplings open up the video essay to interpretation and invite in audiences to co-create meaning.

The artful tension between sound and image in Harun Farocki’s Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) creates an austere meditation on photography—how both the past and future are present in any image. Segments of softly spoken narration backtrack, revise slightly, and repeat over a variety of images that also repeat—from a portrait series of Algerian women without veils for the first time, to a close-up on a woman’s face having makeup applied, to an aerial shot of the Auschwitz concentration camp. Each pairing alters the meaning of the image; each pairing engages us further in deciphering that meaning.

In an attempt “to visualize thoughts” poet Joanne Kyger abandons all filmic convention in favor of coupling her voice with a stunning stream of video feedback to illustrate “the mind turning thought upon itself” in her enduring video essay, Descartes (1968). One of the first artists sponsored at the National Center for Experiments in Television—a prototype interdisciplinary arts paradise—Kyger uses her prose poem Descartes and the Splendor Of as the script for this inventive video adaptation. Here we freefall in that liminal space between sound and image—uncertain, delighted, involved—in a pioneering interdisciplinary splendor.

Interdisciplinarity is the mongrel beauty of our love child. It insists on creative egalitarianism and engages practitioners without discrimination—the writer, the filmmaker, the painter, the installation artist, the scholar. There is the erasure of the carefully constructed word on the page. There is the intrusion of pop culture optics and audio. The erosion of visual dominance. The imposition of literary text, voiced, sometimes wall-to-wall. There is the lack of hierarchy and the conflated tweaking of the written word, the recorded word, ambient sound, music, low-resolution images, high-resolution images, hand-made images. There is no primacy. The video essay does not privilege literary text over image, nor image over text, or either over sound or vice versa.

It’s heresy.



There it is, my favorite Adorno quote, fire alarm red, pinned to the wall in front of me. Like a dare. I say, test the mettle of the essay, on the page, sure. But don’t stop there.

~ ~ ~

At TriQuarterly, we dared ourselves. With this January 2012 edition we are pleased to introduce our inaugural collection of video essays and their creators: Joe Wenderoth, Dinty W. Moore, Steven Chen, Kristen Radtke, Michael Lent, Robyn Schiff and Nick Twemlow, and Su Friedrich.

Joe Wenderoth’s adaptation of his poem by the same name, Send New Beasts, is a highly reflexive video essay that playfully experiments with the liminal space between sound and image. Wenderoth mixes his adolescent daughter’s irresistible script reading with his voiced interactions and pairs this audio with an abstract visual rendering of organic forms—flowers, worms, a ghostly poodle, aquatic creatures. The best new beast may be the father-daughter relationship that rises up with levity and promise. What may have been a poem that read darkly on the page, here Wenderoth creates a wholly original and imaginative work that invites interpretation.

Writing his way off the page with the deft help of video editor George Stoichev, and beginning with a deep, reflexive breath, Dinty W. Moore reckons with the fragments of his family’s past in History—an affecting autobiographic portrait assembled from the unsuspecting faces of would-be grandfathers and great grandfathers on the sidewalks and in the parks of Edinburgh. Juxtaposed with his travel footage of the Scottish city streets and the still photos he captured of the old men he’s never met, is Moore’s warmly voiced meditation on contradictions, betrayal and missing pieces.

Emerging filmmaker Steven Chen examines fractured identity in Grandpa, an autobiographic reckoning with family, loss, race, and racism. Chen renders visual motifs that parallel his bi-racial embodiment. Old home movies are intercut with new home movies. Studio-based sequences of a stylized Chinese-food dinner party are intercut with everyday family dinners. Subverting the “pressure to take sides” with this meditation on the things unsaid, Chen begins asking the tough questions.

Kristen Radtke’s That Kind of Daughter is an autobiographic nonlinear triptych that is at once lyrical and disquieting. Sequenced stop-motion black-and-white paper cuts visually illustrate, and momentarily reflexively startle, a hushed and dispassionate telling. Radtke as daughter— distant, observing, self-conscious, aware of the impulse to hurt; Radtke as lover—eager for it, tired of it, long from being over it; Radtke as daughter again, but from earlier— engaged, giddy, competitive, even then aware of wanting to be one way but being another. Artfully snugged inside this poetic self-critique is the lingering resistance of a rangy love and tenderness, recognized but not yet internalized.

Originally a painter, Michael Lent turns to the time-based frame with his epistolary collage, October Fire—a daring blend of text, sound and image. Lent formally experiments with layering language, audio, and visuals in a way that evokes the encroaching thickness of smoke. Mixed over hazy beach footage are the reflexive sounds of throat clearing and rustling script pages through which Lent calls our attention to the construction of the work itself and engages us not just in concerns of the historical world but in the difficulty of representing the experience of it.

Robyn Schiff and Nick Twemlow’s Wolfvision is the wild offspring of poetry, art house indie, documentary, and experimental media art. A maximally collaborative composition, Wolfvision is comprised of appropriated footage from surveillance cameras, web cams, and online videos—white shadowy figures loop in a surreal space, a woman removes her teeth, wolves run wild, a limp baby is rushed from a car, unidentified objects fly. Twemlow ties the piece together with Schiff’s lean and poetic wireframe text voiced in a way that plays like a spoken score—moody and stirring.

For TriQuarterly’s inaugural video essay edition, long-time experimental film essayist, Su Friedrich provides a preview from her forthcoming feature-length documentary, Gut Renovation. Here, Friedrich adds to a long cityscape cinema tradition—the city symphony film—a subgenre as old as the moving image. Whereas its silent era origins are often poetic tributes to the beauty and promise of the constructed environment and the human place in it, Friedrich’s depiction of a Brooklyn neighborhood overhaul is a decidedly essayistic critique of the constructed environment and the lost place of humanity in it. This Gut Renovation preview is a surprisingly danceable personal record of displacement, rich with Friedrich’s self-deprecating and reflexive humor.

Sunday, January 1, 2012