AUDIOVISUALCY: How to “Perform” the Video Essay

AUDIOVISUALCY: How to “Perform” the Video Essay

In “La caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia” , Christian Keathley argues persuasively that the current landscape of video essays, including commercial DVD supplements and web-embedded features, is defined by a continuum of explanatory and poetical works. Explanatory video essays follow a thesis and are language-based: “Images and sounds – even when carefully and creatively manipulated in support of an argument – are subordinated to explanatory language.” Essays that lean more towards the poetical register, by contrast, are driven by the basic language of cinema: “These videos resist a commitment to the explanatory mode, allowing it to surface only intermittently, and they employ language sparingly, and even then as only one, unprivileged component.”

Keathley’s text provides a useful framework to assess the video essay as an emerging form of criticism. And it emphasizes that it is more than just an explanation or a poetic meditation. It is a performance piece. The critic uses the film’s very own properties to write cinematically (hence the reference to Alexandre Astruc’s pioneering concept of the caméra-stylo). But, more than that, the critic also uses her voice, her actual voice, in addition to prose, both written and cinematic. Voice-over commentary, the way an essay is narrated, has a profound effect on its impact.

The essay that we are highlighting today is one of the most beautiful examples of the form, and not simply because it remediates a film by Steven Spielberg (and a longtime project by Stanley Kubrick). A.I. Artificial Intelligence – A Visual Study, produced by Benjamin Sampson, a doctoral candidate in the cinema and media studies department at UCLA, is an exploration of some of the titular film’s essential themes and aesthetics. It projects a lucid and cohesive argument with captivating imagery. Sampson uses minimal voice-over. He chooses his words carefully and the deliberate pace and soft pitch with which he narrates the essay lend the presentation a nostalgic, almost magical note.

The essay is, overall, driven by an aesthetically judicious style. The themes are broached verbally, but the full communication occurs via the film’s scenes and Sampson’s own editorial work. Except for chapter breaks and the credits, the essay uses no textual inserts and instead relies on elegantly rendered dissolves, split screen effects, and superimpositions. Sampson manages to create an aesthetic space where the film comments upon itself. The essay seems so natural, so organic, it could be mistaken for a poetic, explanatory epilogue. This is probably why it prompted me to revisit Spielberg’s film, to find new appreciation for it. Is this not the best kind of criticism? Beautiful, stimulating, impactful, all the while in sync with the work it critiques. A.I. Artificial Intelligence – A Visual Study inspires new or awakens old curiosity about the film. And it does so by virtue of an exceptional performance.

Matthias Stork is a film scholar and filmmaker from Germany who is studying film and television at UCLA. He has an M.A. in Education with an emphasis on American and French literature and film from Goethe University, Frankfurt. He has attended the Cannes film festival twice (2010/2011) as a representative of Goethe University's film school. You can read his blog here.

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