Video Essays from 2008 – Collaborations and Aspirations

I’m progressing through my project of archiving and cataloging every video essay I’ve produced since I started making them 10 years ago. Previously I reflected on the first videos I made back in 2007. In 2008 I produced 37 video essays, all of which can be found in this album I curated on Vimeo, except for one made with Karina Longworth on the film The Draughtsman’s Contract (The video is no longer online and I don’t have the file with me in Berlin to upload). But that is just one of many video essays from 2008 that I made in collaboration with a fellow film critic or cinephile – or in the unique case and location of the video below, multiple critics at once:

31 of the 37 videos I made in 2008 were collaborations. This was a period when I was using this form to connect more closely with members of the online film criticism community whom I held in high esteem. By inviting them to work on a video essay together, I’d absorb their individual ways of looking at films, and then adapt their insights into an audiovisual form. It was a very enriching process, not unlike a self-designed series of video essay tutorials on film analysis with the best possible thinkers.

That same year the film journal Cineaste invited me to participate in a symposium “Film Criticism in the Age of the Internet,” which was an early attempt by an established film publication to acknowledge and engage with those critics like myself who emerged from the blog culture and social media of the mid-2000s. In my response to the questionnaire, I wrote the following with regard to the collaborations I was producing at the time:

This to me is the full potential of online cinema culture: to be expansive and connected all at once. This is one of the guiding principles of my own blog, and is a reason why I invite a variety of individuals to collaborate on my video essays, each one lending a different voice and perspective to a given film. This perspective is all the more important to nurture if cinema culture itself is to have a future beyond the specialized online cul-de-sacs to which many cinephiles have already migrated, and maintain its relevance within culture at large.

Here are the critics and cinephiles I collaborated with in 2008 and their respective video essays. It is worth noting that two-thirds of these collaborators were based in New York City in 2008, also where I lived, so it provides a snapshot of my local network that at the time. At the same time there’s a wider national and international representation of collaborators: Nicole Brenez (Paris), Chris Fujiwara (Tokyo), Andrew Horbal (Pittsburgh), Jonathan Rosenbaum (Chicago), Girish Shambu (Buffalo), Paolo Cherchi Usai (Italy):

Nicole Brenez (By the Bluest of Seas)
Richard Brody (Not Reconciled)
Dan Callahan (The Go-Between)
Mike D’Angelo (Un Coeur en hiver and El Cid)
Chris Fujiwara (Night of the Demon)
Andrew Grant, Steven Boone and Keith Uhlich (Duel)
Andrew Horbal (Burnt by the Sun)
Karina Longworth (The Draughtsman’s Contract)
David McDougall (O Lucky Man!)
Preston Miller (Days and Nights in the Forest)
Vadim Rizov (Grey Gardens)
Jonathan Rosenbaum (The Sun Shines Bright and Gertrud)
Dan Sallitt (Le Boucher and Une Femme infidele)
Girish Shambu (The Woman in the Window)
Paolo Cherchi Usai (Seventh Heaven)
C. Mason Wells (Two English Girls)

But there was no collaboration more significant in 2008 than the one I had with Matt Zoller Seitz. Initially I invited him to provide commentary on two video essays as part of the Shooting Down Pictures project, They Died with Their Boots On and The Outlaw Josey Wales. He was so inspired by making these videos that he pitched The Museum of the Moving Image to have the two of us produce video essays for their online journal The Moving Image Source, then edited by Dennis Lim. Thanks to Matt’s negotiations, this was the first time that I was hired and received compensation to make a video essay.

We started with a five-part series of videos analyzing the credit sequences for each season of The Wire, one of the rare instances that I’ve made a video essay on a television series:

These Wire videos were written and narrated by Andrew Dignan, adapted from an article he published on Matt’s blog The House Next Door. I took his voiceover recordings and edited them to footage from the credit sequences while Matt facilitated their publication with Moving Image Source. Matt took a more hands-on approach in our next collaboration for Moving Image Source, a four-part series of video essays related to Oliver Stone, one of Matt’s most revered filmmakers. He and I would meet at my day job office in Midtown Manhattan after my colleagues had gone home, and we’d work late into the night, alternating as script writers and editors on each installment.

It was odd to think that a film critic as talented and established as Matt, who had also directed a feature film, was taking lessons from me on how to make video essays. At the same time, I was getting a lot of ideas from him in terms of how to narrate and edit less deliberately, and open up to a more genuine sense of rhythm (which may be partly attributed to the fact that Matt’s father is an accomplished jazz pianist). Our work together remains my most intensive video essay collaboration to date, and at this point it’s probably safe to say that it’s the most formative collaboration I’ll ever have. Some years later when I started following the series Breaking Bad, I felt some deja vu as I’d watch Walter White and Jesse Pinkman spending countless hours in their lab perfecting their product. I’d say that I was Jesse to Matt’s Walter. Though I started with nominally more experience in making video essays, Matt took things to another level.

Over the next couple years my production would dissipate, partly due to my increasing involvement with Chinese cinema (more on this in an upcoming post on my video essays of 2009), and possibly because I was losing inspiration for how to take this work further (aside from figuring out how to keep making income from it.) Meanwhile Matt was just getting started. He would become the Moving Image Source’s most prolific producer of video essays for the next two years, most notably with his five part video essay series on Wes Anderson’s style. This series led to Matt getting offered to write a book inspired by the video essays, which would go on to be the first of two bestsellers Matt published on Anderson’s films. Last year he wrote a book on Oliver Stone, inspired in part by the videos we produced together.

I’m proud of and inspired by Matt’s success and how he used the video essay form as a way to launch into a greater set of achievements as a celebrated critic and bestselling author. I also admit to being a bit envious at the time, that I hadn’t figured out how to use this form to advance my own career as much as he had. Looking back, I am grateful that in one year I got to work with so many esteemed critics, and thanks to Matt’s efforts I started to earn income through these videos. But for all my efforts to reach outward, there was still an inhibition, or even a resistance to pursue what I was doing to its full potential. Knowing the tortured relationship I’ve had with success for most of my life, it could be that my engagement with video essays wasn’t just to make popular or successful work, but to question what it even meant to be popular or successful in the first place.

This internal conflict surfaces in the first video I made in 2008, which is my favorite of that year, despite it not counting among the many collaborations (unless you count secretly filming my mother while she was watching TV as some kind of teamwork). This is also the first video essay I made that played in a film festival (The New York Asian American Film Festival), and consequently it became the first to get a rave review. It’s also a rare instance of unabashedly personal video essay making, and some who’ve seen this video ask me why I don’t make more in this vein. I wonder about this myself.