Video Essays from 2009-2010 – Rights of Passage

My project continues to archive and catalogue all of the video essays I have made over the last ten years.  Previous entries looked at 2007, when I began, and 2008, when I engaged mainly in collaborations with different critics and began to make video essays for pay.

First, here’s the Vimeo album of the video essays I produced in 2009. I produced 20 video essays in this year, but only 16 are accounted for in this album, for reasons explained further below.

In 2009 I made the last video essays for Shooting Down Pictures, the personal blog project that initiated my video essay production in order to more deeply investigate the films I was writing about. I continued collaborating with others, such as with film scholar Kristin Thompson on the silent film classics La roue and Varieté; and a video essay on Greta Garbo’s first starring role, with commentary by Swedish film scholar Jan Olsson.

I also collaborated with a longtime internet friend Christianne Benedict, with whom I had interacted for years from the now-defunct message boards of the Internet Movie Database. We produced this video essay on The World According to Garp, which I’m particularly fond of, because it was my first real experience learning about and appreciating issues of transgender identity, specifically within film history. In light of recent setbacks for trans and LGBTQ rights under the current US administration, I think this video essay is as relevant as ever.

Just a couple days after this video essay was first published on YouTube in January 2009, it was taken down – but not because of anything to do with its transgender subject matter. This video – and every video I had made up to this point – came up against another kind of rights issue when YouTube shut down my account due to a new copyright policy they had adopted overnight. For the two years leading to this incident, I had no problems uploading my videos on YouTube, but in one day they adopted a new policy flagging any videos with content linked to copyright owners as an automatic violation, and a “three-strikes” rule that automatically shut down any account with three such violations. Having uploaded dozens of videos by that point, my account was immediately shut down.

Fortunately, my work had engaged enough film critics and cinephiles by this point that a number of individuals expressed their outrage with this policy, none more vocally than Matt Zoller Seitz. His article “Copy Rites: YouTube vs. Kevin B. Lee” is a stirring defense for the right of video essay to use found footage, written at a time when this form was still relatively obscure. Within a couple days of this publication, YouTube restored my account status and eventually implemented a new fair use counterclaim procedure so that uploaders can respond if their video is taken down over copyright infringement claims.

As an unexpected benefit of all the publicity generated by this incident, a number of outlets approached me to give me the opportunity to produce video essays for them, such as The Film Society of Lincoln Center, GreenCine and Reverse Shot. The most prominent outlet was Focus Features, which hired me to produce video essays in 2009 on some of their notable releases such as Jim Jarmusch’s Broken Flowers, Sofia Coppola’s Lost in Translation and Michel Gondry’s Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Unfortunately the video essay on Broken Flowers is the only one that is still accessible; just last month Focus Features revamped its website and removed much of its old content, including my video essays, and I don’t seem to have them on my drives in Berlin. The start of this year has been one of hard lessons about the instability of the internet as an archival resource; even my faith in a site as sturdy as Vimeo to host my entire catalog can’t be unconditional.

I think my most significant work of 2009 was a two-part video essay on the cinema of the first 17 years of the People’s Republic of China, produced for the Moving Image Source on the occasion of a major retrospective of early films from the PRC. This may be the first video I made to have a more “authoritative” narration. Up to this point, the “authoritative” video essays I made were usually due to the contribution of a collaborator who would assume that role and bring that dimension to the production. In contrast, the video essays I made on my own were more inflected with personal reflection and less concerned with giving an expert account. For some reason, this project brought out an impulse to be more authoritative.

It’s ironic then that a clear model I had in mind for making this video was the deeply subjective “A Personal Journey with Martin Scorsese Through American Movies.” It’s clear that I borrowed this documentary’s thesis of certain Hollywood directors “smuggling” their personal obsessions into studio-produced films, and I applied this auteurist framework for celebrating certain Chinese filmmakers in the early period of Communist film production.

My interest in Chinese cinema, and China in general, was intensifying at this time due largely to my involvement in dGenerate Films, the first distribution company specializing in Chinese independent film. The following year I would go to China for several months to work on a film project of my own, which to date remains unfinished. This time of increased involvement in Chinese cinema and my own attempt to make a film in China led to a major decline in video essay production – in 2009 I made 20 video essays (nearly half as many as 2008’s output); in 2010 I only made two. I think in my own mind I felt I had done enough with video essays and needed to produce a “real” film (which may inform the more authoritative and professional quality of the Chinese cinema documentaries, compared to the video essays I’d made earlier), and to become more professional in general.

The ongoing search for how to make a career of filmmaking continued. In 2011 this quest would take another turn, one that would keep me occupied for years.

Earlier entries from this series can be found on 2007 and 2008.