An Introduction to the Video Essays

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

The two pieces in our winter suite showcase the broad range of what is possible in literary video. They also showcase how video essays and cinepoems can make images work for a text in vastly different ways.

“I wonder what happens when you lose it all” says Maya Best in our first piece. “Hands” begins with a pair shot in black and white, performing choreography against a dark backdrop.

The project becomes an ode to Best’s grandmother’s right hand which scribbled, gripped, cleared, rubbed, braided, and reached before a stroke paralyzed it. Best subtly alternates between video from seven years before the stroke and images of her grandmother’s right hand afterwards, “curled into a limp fist.” Overtop of the footage, Best describes her envy of a childhood friend’s broken hand, an uncle’s hand curled by polio, sweaty palms on a long bus ride, and the needle-like hands of Coraline’s “other mother.” By the end the piece seems to conjure a larger, ambiguous loss through what Best calls, twice, “that lonely space in my palms.”

Early on in “Unearthing I, II, III,” subtitles describe a body “soft and folded, everything packed together” while astronauts thread themselves, weightless, through the tight passages of a space craft. Rebecca Nakaba’s cinepoem is about the macro alive in the microsphere. It’s a project interested in “unlit blood produced in unlit bones,” “the rasping drag of a glacier” and in highlighting the fragility shared therein. This piece shows off the cinepoem’s particular capabilities by suggesting, without words, the symmetry between an astronaut climbing out of a spaceship and a frog peeking out of a pond that reflects the sky. The effect on the audience is that we gradually lose our sense of visual scale. “I give you the word membrane,” Nakaba writes near the beginning of the video and again just, before the end. After slow-motion clips of lava becoming rock again (how big?) as it meets cold water, Nakaba’s final line, “Is it enough.” seems very much unlike a question.

What these two videos both capture is the power of unfancy, found footage in the hands of a practiced writer. Together they suggest that the main opportunity of literary video might be inviting the audience to briefly inhabit each author’s distinct perspective. 

Wednesday, January 15, 2020