In 2012 I made more video essays than in any other year yet still couldn’t maintain a living with this type of work. Little did I realize that the subjects of one of my first video essays of 2013 was suffering a similar fate on a far greater scale, despite winning an Academy Award that year.
The CGI production company Rhythm & Hues was breaking new ground in photorealistic animal special effects; I’d been so impressed with its Oscar-winning work in The Life of Pi that I produced a video essay for Sight & Sound charting its 20 year history of developing computer generated animals for movies. This involved the greatest amount of research I had performed for a video essay to that date: I interviewed several employees of the company and acquired proprietary test footage from several of their past projects. I wonder if one reason why they were so cooperative was that the company was in fact on the brink of filing for bankruptcy, and they were looking to tell their story to sympathetic listeners.
The company was one of several Hollywood special effects firms being run into the ground due to unfair financial arrangements with big budget production companies, despite these productions going on to make hundreds of millions of dollars. (Their story is told in an episode of the podcast series Freakonomics which can be found here.) These were industrial considerations of filmmaking that my video essays to date hadn’t really explored, including this one. But it would become more of a concern as the business aspects of my own work would become more pressing in my mind.
What this video focuses on instead are questions of how reality and affect are constructed and programmed on screen. These were questions I had been pursuing as early as The Spielberg Face, but now with a nascent curiosity in the uncanny, as I was auditing a course on the subject taught by Tom Gunning at the University of Chicago. In his class, Gunning skillfully staked out the terrain of the uncanny – one of uncertainty, irresolution and in-between states – and enabled his students to occupy it attentively.
I produced this video essay on one of the films explored in the class, Carl Dreyer’s Vampyr, after which I became convinced that between this and Dreyer’s subsequent films, his body of work contains some of the most exquisite mysteries of cinema. Perhaps the proof of this is that there have hardly been any video essays made about his films, while his contemporaries like Ozu and Bresson have had their works chopped and spliced into attractive supercuts and other attractive video packages. It gets to the point that I’ve started to cherish the films that can resist and withstand these reductive strategies as the sites where “true” cinema might be found.
To be comfortable in the gray zone, to resist the easy and convenient: somehow these virtues as explored in Gunning’s uncanny course really spoke to me. Maybe it had something to do with a growing frustration I was having with video essays as they were proliferating and popularizing at that time. The videographic age has done as much to oversimplify our understanding of cinema as it has done to expand it, thanks to such conventional interpretive strategies as supercuts, compilations, side-by-side comparisons and how-tos. Too many of them settle for simple explanations or visualizations of how movies work, as if movies are like a household appliance that needs an instruction manual, rather something that holds the mysteries of life. Even the video essays that try to embrace that mystery may indulge in platitudes, typically lavishing praise upon the almighty auteur, so that these video essays resemble ritual acts of worship.
These misgivings may account for why I found myself increasingly drawn to experimental cinema over mainstream fare. This interest led me to attend the Flaherty Seminar for the first time, which proved to be one of the most unforgettably exhausting experiences of my life. Seven days of watching, discussing and thinking about experimental non-fiction from morning to night, with intense debates over the moral and political implications of every creative decision found in the films we watched. I staggered out of that week to produce this video essay halfway across the world. It may not make complete sense without reading the text that accompanies it, but it exemplifies where I was at this point, restlessly seeking new ways to conceive of my work.
This search continued with a video essay I made for Sight & Sound on the occasion of a monthlong retrospective of essay films at the British Film Institute. After years of having a casual engagement with essay films in loose association with my own work, this was a special opportunity to dive more intensively into the question of what an essay film is. The answer I came up with was that this form is exactly what can express dissatisfaction with everything that’s conventional, complacent and conformist in contemporary film and media. This video amounted to a personal motivational tool to build upon these convictions and push forward with them.
This renewed spirit of questioning would bear upon my work at Fandor as well, as I became more sensitive to the peculiarities behind the company’s business model, as reflected in the films I was given to work with. One of the most vivid examples was when the first film ever shot in the extreme widescreen format Cinerama became available on Fandor’s streaming service. This sparked a lot of questions about the incongruity of 1950s big screen moviegoing with the 2010s small screen streaming experience. The resulting video exhibits an awareness of the business aspects of the aesthetic experience that I had overlooked in my CGI animals video from the start of the year. I was now engaged in a new set of ontological paradoxes dealing not just with what was on the screen but with the entire industrial apparatus behind it.
But what really kicked these investigative impulses into high gear was my enrollment in graduate studies at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in the fall. I simultaneously pursued an MFA in the Film Video New Media and Animation department and an MA in Visual and Critical Studies. I was initially more intent on the MFA since it’s a terminal degree and many accomplished filmmakers have come through the FVNMA department (Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Jodie Mack, Ben Russell, etc). The MA degree seemed like a nice add-on that could augment my film critic practice. What I didn’t expect was that the introductory VCS course stimulated much of the thinking that would drive my creative endeavors throughout my time at SAIC.
The course, taught by esteemed art historian and visual studies scholar James Elkins, offered generous helpings of readings and theoretical frameworks related to VCS, more than anyone could hope to process in one semester. This overwhelming amount of material prompted me to try to find a top-level view and map all of this material into a scheme that could work for me. As it happened, that system came in the form of types of questions that this material seemed to be asking. By sorting all this material into questions, I could start to see what were the lines of inquiry that were most engaging to me. Through this, I began to realize what interested me most about visual studies, as well as video essays, filmmaking and just about any creative or critical endeavor: what are the most interesting questions you can ask through them?
This video was my final project for the course. The assignment was to write a 17 page paper; instead I submitted a 17 minute video.
As with the uncanny course with Gunning and the Flaherty Seminar, my classroom experiences at SAIC fed into my for-hire work with Fandor, as if I had spent 2013 engineering an ideologically-driven professional enrichment regimen. Through all this time in educational settings, I began to notice the pedagogical aspects of the films I was watching: how each one functioned as a mini-classroom with its own embedded lesson plans to train the viewer how to see, think and respond.
More than ever, the cinematic apparatus was feeling less like something to submit to and more like something to overcome. This feeling would reach fruition with my major school project completed in the following year.