Watch: The 2016 Oscar for Best Actress: One Critic’s Approach

Watch: The 2016 Oscar for Best Actress: One Critic’s Approach

How *do* you determine who should win an award as grandiose as "Best Actress"? Do you flip a coin? Do you murmur an incantation? Is there someone you’re supposed to call, or possibly a helpline? Because surely the process by which the Academy makes these choices is anything but rational. What’s the lay-viewer, or even the not-so-lay-viewer, to do? Kevin B. Lee, in this video essay for Fandor (one of an ongoing series), has taken a quasi-mathematical approach to the choice for Best Actress, looking at the amount of time Cate Blanchett, Saoirse Ronan, Jennifer Lawrence, Brie Larson, and Charlotte Rampling spend on screen, in minutes and hours, and then evaluating how effectively that time is spent. Sort of an equation, sort of… not. Which is about as practical an approach to the decision as I could imagine. Take a look.

Watch: What’s the Body Count in Quentin Tarantino’s Films? Warning: Not Safe for Lunch

Watch: What’s the Body Count in Quentin Tarantino’s Films?

One of the things Quentin Tarantino’s films are known for, aside from their film references, their dialogue, their story structure, their resurrection of actors’ careers, is, of course, their violence. In his newest piece for Fandor, an effort which took him three years to complete, Kevin B. Lee has counted the number of deaths that have taken place in Tarantino’s films to date, to as close a degree of accuracy as anyone could reach. The answer? You’ll just have to watch for yourself.

One thing: don’t watch this while you eat.

Watch: What Is It, Kevin B. Lee Asks, That Makes a Video Essay Great?

Watch: What Is It, Kevin B. Lee Asks, That Makes a Video Essay Great?

This excellent video piece by Kevin B. Lee for Fandor should be of interest to anyone who reads this blog regularly. If you go to the home page for Press Play, you’ll see a quote by Roger Ebert at the (more or less) upper left corner: "The best video essay source on the Web." And, if you’ll notice, a healthy percentage of the content posted here is, well, of the video essay variety. Faces in the work of Jonathan Glazer. What are the links between Martin Scorsese and Elia Kazan? The sublime in Michael Mann’s films. How has the treatment of rape changed in film and television–or has it? What is composition? The experience is simple. You press the play symbol, as the blog’s title suggests, and then what rolls in front of you is either a set of film clips spliced together with a voiceover or a set of related film clips bound together only by a (usually) catchy soundtrack and a fairly broad theme. And, there’s some accompanying text, either a transcript of the video essay’s script, or some text by me or someone else, an interpretation of or rather a response to the video you’re watching. Lee is asking a simple question in this video essay, in an animated and dynamic fashion, alluding to many of the acknowledged masters of the form, such as Matt Zoller Seitz, Nelson Carvajal, and Tony Zhou: what makes one of these pieces better than the other? How do we distinguish a meaningful video essay from a not-so-meaningful one? What’s the value of these pieces? You could learn a tremendous amount by watching Lee’s video: about Lee’s own erudition in film history, about the purposes and forms these pieces may assume, and also about the ways in which we (you, me, the person reading over your shoulder) watch films, these days. We interrogate. We dissect. We connect. We sever. We compare. We measure. We evaluate. The message here isn’t apocalyptic, i.e. Movies are done for! Embrace the video essay! Hug your iPhone, because soon it will be all you have left! Instead, it’s speculative: there’s more than one way to watch films, think about them, or discuss them–in fact, a plethora of ways. And the video essay, be it a 2-minute supercut or a scholarly work with MLA-approvable attributions in the credits, is one of those forms. It’s an enjoyable one, a moveable lecture. Take it or leave it, but give it a chance to wash over you first.

Watch: This Is How You Make a Low-Budget Horror Film–Err, Comedy: A Video Essay on Sam Raimi’s EVIL DEAD 2

Watch: This Is How You Make a Low-Budget Horror Film–Err, Comedy: A Video Essay on EVIL DEAD 2

To say I laughed until I cried while watching Kevin B. Lee’s video essay on the low-budget Sam Raimi horror film Evil Dead 2 would be a misstatement, since I don’t recall any actual tears rolling down my face. But: there are a lot of laughs here. In this installment of his Shooting Down Pictures project, in which Lee (the former Editor of this very blog!) chronicled his viewing of the 1000 greatest films of all time, Lee uses the director’s admittedly over-acted, mawkishly fake, chaotic quasi-masterpiece of after-dinner-theater style horror as a basis for discussion of the value of such films. And in so doing, Lee instructs us on the way this kind of film is actually made. As one fairly artificially constructed special effect is piled on top of another, the scenes we see here acquire a level of absurdity which could be said to be next to artfulness. We laugh, but we’re also genuinely unsettled at certain moments. The drive, the singular energy behind what we’re watching, the focus of the director’s animus, is what causes the disturbance. The giggles come when the car goes off the road a bit–which happens quite often in this film, and others of its type. Lee provides helpful nuggets of information onscreen along the way, such as "fake hand filled with gelatin," as a knife plunges into flesh, or "440 gallons of fake blood used for this scene," as a powerful gusher of blood erupts, wholly spontaneously. And, viewed in this light, with the seams of the film exposed, somewhat, the question is raised: what was Raimi doing here? Is it what it seems like he was doing, or something more complex? And beyond that: at what point could we say that what would seem on the surface to be the opposite of artfulness is actually pushing, perhaps in spite of itself, towards something which is poetic and profound in its own right?

VIDEO ESSAY: Directed by De Palma

VIDEO ESSAY: Directed by De Palma

It seems that video essayists are emerging every day—and if it
isn’t a new talent crossing our radar, it’s someone whose extraordinary
work we’ve somehow missed. The latter is the case with Joel Bocko, who’s
been making video essays since 2009. It’s remarkable whenever someone
is able to establish a kind of signature with their work in this still
nascent form of online video. In the videos made by Bocko that I’ve
seen, it’s clear to me that he is a weaving artist. 
In “Comedy Countdown,” his two part video on Modern Times, Bocko weaves together voiceover
tracks based on insights by three great writers: Otis Ferguson, Roland
Barthes, and Graham Greene. Even more impressive is his video comparing
Brian De Palma‘s Hi Mom!, Carrie and Scarface,
weaving together their respective bloody demises. The contrast between
Carrie and Scarface is especially evocative as feminine yin and
masculine yang: ejaculatory vs. menstrual rage. Bocko’s tastes are eclectic, as evidenced by his video essay on Marco Bellochio’s underseen
Fists in the Pocket.”
Taken by Bocko’s work, I interviewed him via email
to learn more about how he got interested in making video essays and his
approach to the form. 
Kevin B. Lee: Tell me about what you do professionally (to the extent you feel
comfortable doing so). specifically, what is your background in
filmmaking and editing? How did you get to be familiar with the
filmmaking tools and techniques that enabled you to make video essays?
Joel Bocko: I do not work professionally in film (aside from some
fleeting freelance experiences years ago), though I would like to. I
mostly learned about filmmaking and editing in childhood and high
school, first when my father had a Hi-8 home video camera and later when
I was able to use Final Cut Pro in my public high school’s media lab.
In the first instance, I was as fascinated with home movies (seeing my
family on TV) as I was by big-screen films in theater. And I always saw
the two as being linked. I used the Hi-8 technology to make a sort of
video mixtape when I was about 15, hooking up wires from VCR to the
camera and editing together clips of my favorite movies in chronological
order, from The Gold Rush to Schindler’s List, a sort of
cinematic panaroma. But with that technique there were a lot of hiccups.
When I discovered Final Cut and digital editing, the ability to time
something to the frame it was thrilling, a real lightning-bolt moment.

How did you become interested in producing video essays?

Joel: The
roots were probably there in those early clip tapes, but the first
self-conscious video essay I recall seeing is one of your own, maybe
around ’07.  I loved the idea, which seemed the logical next step after
DVD commentaries and film-clip documentaries. Nonetheless, I kept
putting off doing one of my own. “Directed by De Palma
was my first video essay, although I didn’t consider it one at the time
(since it didn’t have narration and had a more impressionistic than
analytical vibe), and then it was two years before I created online
video content again. In 2011, I launched a chronological video series
highlighting clips from many of my favorite movies, in 32 different
chapters. It was an extension of that VHS mixtape I made as a kid. It
was followed by another impressionistic video essay on 42nd Street,
but it was not until last fall that I finally made a narrated video
essay. I think it took me so long to turn my excitement into action
because I approach filmmaking and criticism with different mindsets, and
narrated video essays combine both approaches. It’s both right- and
left-brained and thus presents a real challenge, I find.

Kevin: Based on an admittedly small sample size of three works, I sense that
“Interweaving” is a quality that distinguishes at least two of your
works, the Brian De Palma and Chaplin videos. Is this a trait you’d say
is conscious, in terms of the way you think about how to explore films in a video
essay format, or in the way you think about films in general?
Joel: Both. One precedent for the video essays is an
experimental film I made at 21, which freely cut between old home
movies, found-footage (particularly a cartoon adaptation of Wind in the Willows),
and original content shot by myself. It was scored with offbeat pop
music like My Bloody Valentine and Massive Attack, and it followed an
autobiographical theme. So this is how I think not just about video
essays, but filmmaking—and film-watching—in general. It’s a way of
seeing art, and perhaps the world: I love diverse formats and
perspectives, but I’m not a postmodernist, at least in my understanding
of the word, so I try to find some way to tie these divergences
together, to discover their links. I’m fascinated by the infamous
Lumiere/Melies dichotomy and I think great movies contain both
approaches. This goes back to being a little kid, simultaneously
fascinated both by home movies and big-screen blockbusters. When you
find films with something in common, you’re also better able to
highlight what’s different. I do this in written pieces a lot too, for
example using This Sporting Life and Billy Liar to examine a split in the British New Wave around ’63, or comparing Felix Salton’s novel Bambi
to the Disney adaptation, which tells you a lot about both authors.
Bouncing objects or ideas (as in the Chaplin piece) off of one another
sparks more creaitivity and insight, in my experience.

Kevin: How did you get the idea for interweaving three
Brian De Palma films? Was it easy to find the points of intersection
between them?
Joel: The video was created for Tony Dayoub’s Brian De Palma
blogathon in 2009. I knew many people would be covering the films I was
interested in and did not want my contribution to seem redundant. So
for one thing, I wanted to cover several films instead of just one, and I
wanted to take a visual approach. Initially I thought I’d do a
screen-cap visual tribute, and then had the idea of setting screen-caps
to a music/sound collage like a sideshow. Eventually I abandoned the
idea of using only still images (except for the first minute or so), I
guess because De Palma‘s images are so kinetic and visceral they demand movement. Scarface was always my favorite De Palma, even when I wasn’t that keen on him as a director, Hi Mom! was a very recent discovery which led me to value him more as an auteur, and Carrie I
hadn’t actually seen yet when starting the project, but I sensed I’d
like it. Before I watched it, Tony mentioned that the split-screen would
have great visual potential in an image tribute, which may have led me
to the idea of incorporating the other films into the split-screen in
the climax. The points of intersection were turned up while editing the
video rather than being pre-determined—evidence that there are definitely
common themes and motifs running through these movies.

Kevin: There are quite a few inspired
moments of connection created by the montage (sexual shame and violent
sexual expression in both Carrie and Scarface, one very
vaginal/menstrual, the other very phallic/ejaculatory). Were these
connections you had already made going into the making of the video? Did
the process of making the video yield any unexpected discoveries along
the way for you both in De Palma‘s films and in the video essay medium
Joel: As noted above, the connections were discovered rather
than expected. It’s hard to re-trace the process now, but I remember
that in addition to Tony mentioning the split-screen, Glenn Kenny had a
piece in the blogathon comparing Robert De Niro’s shower monologue in Hi Mom! to what is basically a re-enactment of that scene (visual instead of verbal) in Body Double.
That may have led me back not only to that scene in the earlier film,
which I included in the video, but also the theme of sexual shame or
jealousy. The masculine/feminine aspect arose out of the material, and
the fact that at first I was preoccupied with Carrie before finding a way to bring Scarface
in. Tony arrives at the moment when the sense of insecurity and
vulnerability is at its height—his hypermasculine machismo is both a
counterpoint to Carrie’s initial shyness and also its flip-side; he is
just as insecure and sensitive as she is, but has a different way of
dealing with this—a way (violence) which eventually becomes her way as
well (with the conversation between De Niro and
Salt serving as a kind of bridge between these two gender-coded ways of
dealing with hurt and anger). Most of the specific links, the details
like the stabbing sounds and the gunshots, or the footage of the Hi, Mom home invasion matching the security TVs in Scarface
was discovered in the process of editing. I don’t think you can plan
most of this stuff out, you just keep an open mind and antenna up and
it’s amazing what you’ll find.

What did I discover? Working on this project really solidified for me that De Palma
was not just a flashy surface stylist, as I had once thought—his work
is full of deeply-felt themes and raw visual motifs, even if these
ideas and emotions are hidden by self-conscious film references or a
comic-baroque playfulness. As for the video essay format, and what I
discovered, that’s a
longer answer. I am a bit more conscious about overall structuring than
individual moments, and I had several very strong ideas informing the
video’s creation. One was that I had to build up to the climax, so I
wanted to take my time at first and include several long sequences.
There can be a tendency to want to put your own stamp on something when
“sampling” a film or song, but sometimes it’s best to allow the material
room to breathe and express itself in its own voice—take Carrie
walking down the stairs to her mother or the extraordinary “Be Black,
Baby!” sequence in Hi, Mom! However, at certain points, I really
wanted to mess with the footage, intercut it, and do new things with it,
to make the montage viscerally and kinetically my own, harnessing
De Palma‘s energy in an fresh way. Primarily with the ending, where all
the films kind of converge into one metamovie, all the pent-up sexual
energy finding its outlet in savage violence, against big groups of
people (all three films have a warlike climax). At that point I would
actually look for things to replace or swap out, like how you see Al
Pacino getting shot but hear Piper Laurie getting stabbed. There’s an
indescribable delight when you find two things that aren’t supposed to
go together and they just click. That’s the thrill of montage right
there, in a nutshell.

Kevin: How did you get the idea for interweaving the
words of three writers in exploring the works of Charlie Chaplin? What
was your process in sequencing their words, and in matching them with
footage from Chaplin?
Joel: That idea came very last-minute. I was assigned Modern Times
in the comedy countdown on Wonders in the Dark by Sam Juliano, but the
thing is it isn’t really one of my favorite Chaplins. I’m fascinated by
the themes, and I have a crush on Paulette Goddard, but I connect more
with the comedy and pathos of The Gold Rush and City Lights. Reading essays on Modern Times
(beginning with Roland Barthes’, which a commentator named Shamus
turned me on to), I was more fascinated by their voices than my own and
eventually decided I should roll with that. Jeff Pike and Greg Stevens
volunteered to send me audio clips for Barthes and Otis Ferguson, to
complement my own reading of Graham Greene, literally in the middle of
the night, when I put out a call on my blog about 12 hours before the
video was due. I edited the whole thing that night, by highlighting
certain passages (Ferguson in particular lost a lot of text), linking
them in a call-and-response form so that Barthes discusses the film’s
political outlook and Greene naysays the film’s socialism and then
Barthes makes a subtle distinction between Chaplin’s consciousness and
the film. The clips were chosen because they were interesting, without
knowing where I’d use them, and once they were imported I chose
appropriate moments from my selections. The video track was cut to fit
the soundtrack for the most part, as is often the case (even in the
visually-driven De Palma tribute, there are far more cuts in video than audio, which tends to be laid out continuously; for example, when you “hear” De Niro firing the gun at the end, that’s actually the firehose snapping in Carrie,
whose soundtrack provides the backdrop for most of the video’s climax).
That’s a very documentary approach, which I find works for video essays,
especially narrated ones.

When you first made me aware of your work, you
didn’t refer to the DePalma video as a “video essay” because it didn’t
feature narration. Do you feel that narration is an essential feature of
the video essay? Or more broadly speaking, how would you define what a
video essay is and is not? What does it need to accomplish?

Joel: Good point. I think of video essays as being more akin to
film criticism than filmmaking, which means—to me—that they arise more
out of an analytical, intellectual process than an imaginative, impulsive
urge, although the best will balance both. Since the De Palma
video was created more in the way I’d create an experimental film, it
didn’t seem like a video essay to me at the time. When I finally created
narrated video essays it was really tricky to find my way around the
form. I tried to edit visuals first and then add narration but it just
didn’t work. So it’s a different game. Still, I think maybe these are
just two different forms of video essay—the De Palma
piece definitely has a point to make, an analysis to apply, it just
does so through juxtaposition rather than verbal articulation. I’d like
to experiment with the balance of this in future pieces; say, a video
essay that’s 10% non-narrated/visual, 90%narrated/analytical, or vice
versa, or 40/60, 25/75, whatever. I do think even the most heavily
analytical video essays need to give the visual track space to breathe;
it can’t just be a lecture unfolding simultaneously with film footage
playing as “background.” Which seems like a trap the form could fall
into, although
I haven’t seen enough yet to know if it’s a common one.

Kevin: How has working with these video essays changed
your relationship with movies? Has it sparked new paths of exploration
and interest for you as a cinephile?

Joel: Yes and no. On
the one hand, they tend to articulate pre-existing attitudes and
interests rather than shape new ones; in fact, if anything, they’ve returned
me to a more hands-on, formally-conscious, intuitive approach to film
appreciation which too much analytical writing can distance me from. On
the other hand, they have had a big impact on myself as a filmmaker
rather than a cinephile; after creating my first narrated video essays, I
created a short film which was, in a sense, a video essay in reverse,
applying a fictional narration to nonfiction material (in this case,
real snapshots and home movies) rather than vice-versa as is the case
with most video essays. How this will impact my future films is hard to
say, but I’ve always known that making video essays would be a step
toward making my own movies – which is maybe one reason I nervously
procrastinated so long before taking the plunge. But there’s no turning
back. I think the future of movies, both in terms of cinephilia and
filmmaking, is on the internet. One way or another video essays will be
at the center of that nexus. There’s still a lot to explore—I’ve only
begun to watch the many videos that are out there—and it’s a very
exciting time; death of cinema, maybe, but also a radical rebirth.

Joel Bocko is a 29-year-old writer and filmmaker living in Pasadena, CA.
He has been blogging for five years at
Lost in the Movies,
recently completed the short film “Class of 2002”, and is working on a
feature screenplay to be shot on a shoestring (or credit card) later
this year.

Kevin B. Lee is a filmmaker, critic and video essayist. Follow him on Twitter.

Sell Out the Hallway—Room 237 and the Stakes of Found Footage

Sell Out the Hallway—Room 237 and the Stakes of Found Footage


On a routine visit to the indispensible film blog Observations on Film Art, I was surprised and flattered to see that film scholar David Bordwell linked to the video essay work of myself and fellow Press Player Matt Zoller Seitz in a characteristically insightful probe of Room 237, the new feature-length film about Kubrick’s The Shining. Bordwell’s analysis uses Room 237 as a springboard to consider the practice and principles of film criticism—a topic made all the more poignant by the recent passing of Roger Ebert. We also recently published a piece by Robert Greene that regards Room 237 as a reflection of the unruly nature of the critical practice, and yesterday we published an article by Press Play regular Nelson Carvajal about his recent copyright problems with Vimeo and Disney concerning his viral Oscar video. These last two articles would seemingly have little to do with each other, but they touch on much of what I’ve been thinking about lately, with the release of Room 237 and its bearing on both online video essay works and the legacy of found footage art, as well as the contemporary practice of film criticism. I was recently interviewed by S.T. Van Airsdale on these matters for the Tribeca Film Festival website. Much of that interview went unused, so I am adapting that content here to address these issues.

It’s been intriguing to see critical and popular acclaim gather around Room 237, as smart critics praise it more that I’d expect them to. One even called it “the greatest film ever made about another film,” which is simply a gross overstatement. Even if we disqualify masterful essay films about multiple works, like Godard’s Histoire(s) du Cinema or Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself, even conventional behind-the-scenes docs like Lost in La Mancha or Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmakers Apocalypse are more illuminating about their single-film subject than Room 237. I’d even put Redlettermedia’s multi-part, feature-length viral YouTube takedown of Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace above Room 237 in doing a better job of skewering the obsessive nature of cinephilia, while still making smart, concrete observations on how films are actually made in reality, not just how crazily they are interpreted in people’s minds.

But if we want to talk about truly stunning reworkings of existing films, there’s Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart and Peter Tscherkassky’s Outer Space, to name just a few of the many examples to be drawn from avant garde cinema. Experimental film programmers could have a field day counter-programming Room 237 with more interesting found footage films, one of the richest veins of avant garde filmmaking: we’re talking about Bruce Conner, Matthias Muller, Martin Arnold, Les Leveque, Gustav Deutsch, Dara Birnbaum, Marlon Riggs, Black Audio Film Collective, and Leslie Thornton. Compared to these works, Room 237 amounts to a longer, slicker version of Mystery Science Theater 3000, a pseudo-intellectual minstrel show in which critical inquiry is reduced to freakish obsession. The film bears a strong anti-intellectual impulse, more geared towards ramping up the spectacular weirdness of its interviewees than towards taking their ideas seriously.

But I may have less of an issue with the film than with the culture
that informs it. The fact that there’s more critical and popular
interest in discussing and promoting a film like this rather than any of
the more deserving works listed above says a considerable amount about how our
collective addiction to pop culture sets the terms for what we consider
worthwhile. The fact that it’s about The Shining and Kubrick reflects an
inbred strain of cinephilia built around brand-name auteurs. As
expressed through the terminal obsessions of Room 237’s subjects, this
kind of cinephilia amounts to an oxygen-deprived hermetic practice that
takes people further into the folds of their navels, so that they don’t
have to actually engage with the world. All of the film’s seemingly
socially relevant talk of Holocaust and Native American genocide is inconsequential in terms of what one can actually do with this
insight, reducing the world-changing power of movies to a cinematic
Sunday Times crossword puzzle.

One disturbing aspect of Greene’s piece is that it conflates the
onanistic interpretations of Room 237‘s interviewees with the work of
film critics. I’d like to think that my colleagues are not trapped in
their own existential version of the Overlook Hotel. But when I try to
take the long view on contemporary film criticism and culture, I
sometimes wonder if all we’re doing each week is describing new pictures
painted on prison walls. It’s a prison not of our own making, but born out of a system that encourages us to lose ourselves inside movies as
perpetual consumers, rather than enabling us to look through, around, and
beyond them. This is especially important in grappling with the way found footage is utilized in a film like Room 237, and
to what end, given the special legacy of found footage filmmaking.
For decades, found footage and remix moving image artists have largely
toiled on the margins due to copyright issues, a marginalized status
that persists even today with YouTube and Vimeo takedown notices, as
illustrated by Nelson Carvajal’s incident. This situation leads to a
politically charged dynamic around the act of creation. It raises the
question of who really owns our culture, and who has the right to use it
to create something new and valuable, regardless of how valuable those
derivative works are deemed by the copyright owner. So much of it comes
down to challenging the hierarchy of big media culture, with its
presumed power over the average human being (what they refer to as “the
consumer”), and establishing a new paradigm of cultural fairness. The
irony with Carvajal’s work, a four-minute highlight reel of every Oscar
Best Picture winner, was that it couldn’t have been a more positive
endorsement of Hollywood product, and yet it was still taken down. This
unilateral relationship between self-appointed corporate overseers and
the rest of us brings to mind Charles Foster Kane’s espousal of “love on
my terms. Those are the only terms anybody ever knows.”

nullFor me, Room 237 is more interesting as a commercial case study, along the same lines as Christian Marclay’s phenomenally successful art installation The Clock, a found footage work incorporating thousands of film clips into a functional, 24 hour video timepiece. The Clock has created a sensation nearly everywhere it has exhibited, including its current installation at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where the museum’s twitter feed posts hourly wait times for viewing. Such commercially successful applications of found footage in both The Clock and Room 237 mark a distinct shift in fortunes from how found footage art has been received in the past.

In that light, we can see the release of Room 237—a film deemed unreleaseable when it debuted in the festival circuit, due to copyright concerns—a more positive instance of cooperation between the rights owner and the artist. When the film amounts to a feature length commercial promoting The Shining, they would be idiots not to welcome it. Meanwhile, Christian Marclay makes half a million dollars per installation for what amounts to a 24-hour long YouTube mashup, repackaged as a blockbuster museum gallery carnival amusement. Taking this all in, I think these works have more to say about what commercial interests drive the production, programming and packaging of found footage works to fit the needs of today’s art pop market than they have to say about the art of cinema.

Still, I take heart that there are as many people out there making this work and who are simply excited to be exploring the potential of this format. I’m especially proud that it is the mission of Press Play to feature this work. At the same time, I think everyone should be aware that the cultural ramifications of this kind of creative effort inevitably become political.  Unlike the lost souls in Room 237, we do not live, work or think in a vacuum. There is a system in place that influences the fates of different works, and much of it has to do with how each work serves the needs of that system. Once artists become aware of this, they see that they have a choice as far as which path they want to take and what they want their work to stand for.

Kevin B. Lee is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play. Follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY: Growing up a Bond Girl

VIDEO ESSAY: Growing up a Bond Girl


I am a woman, a feminist, and a hardcore James Bond fan; I've even written a book on the Bond movies. But when I meet fellow fans, they are often startled that a woman is among them. When I tell feminists that I am a Bond fan, their shock is as great, and often accompanied by disgust. In either case, I'm subtly, or not-so-subtly, being told that James Bond is not meant for me.

But Bond, and the sexy, wild Bond girls that populate his movies, are for me. My video essay speaks for the influence of Bond movies; their women and their world, on me as I was growing up and developing my identity, my values and my sexuality. They were, without qualification, a positive influence as I grew up female, feminist, and queer. I am forever proud to be a Bond girl.

[The following is a transcript of the video essay Growing Up a Bond Girl.]

I was 18 months old when the first James Bond movie, Dr. No, was released. I grew up in the 60s. The TV shows I watched showed women almost exclusively as housewives, secretaries, or nurses. No matter how exotic the situation was, the women always seemed to be servants to their husbands, trapped in secretarial roles, or even slaves. But I loved "I Dream of Jeannie!" At 8 or 9 years old, I didn't have magic feminist glasses. I didn't know what it meant to call a man "Master." I just liked the outfit and the bottle. I had no thought that being "exotic" could be more satisfying than that.

Then I saw a Bond movie. 

In late 1970 and '71, my father was impaired by bronchial asthma. He had difficulty walking more than a few steps. We went to a lot of movies, since he could be with his kids while sitting. One day we saw a triple-feature of Thunderball, You Only Live Twice, and Goldfinger at the Queen Anne Theater in Bogota, New Jersey. We came in partway through Thunderball, watched the next two, and then stayed to see the beginning of Thunderball again. Six hours in a dark theater, awash in the world of James Bond.

I saw women who were pilots, spies, and powerful villains. All three movies blurred together. I had no understanding of plot or character. just pictures and feelings. My initiation into the world of Bond was shaped by this onslaught of imagery. It was beyond my understanding, yet somehow I picked up on it.

Bond women were sexy in a whole new way. 

At that age, I may not have known what "sexy" really meant. I just knew that when a Bond girl did something, it felt grown-up and powerful. In Bond movies, women were strong, assertive, and exciting, while on TV, single women were always virgins, and usually coy. When I thought about "sexy," it was like that: passive, pretty, and weak. The movies of those years were full of Doris Day and Jane Fonda defending their virginity at all costs. 

As late as 1977, Looking for Mr. Goodbar told us exactly what a woman could expect if she dared to sleep around. 

Into that world walked the very first Bond girl, Sylvia Trench. She was assertive, attacking Bond as a competitor, and then flirting with him. She strolled through the world in an evening gown like she owned the place. Then she showed up at Bond's apartment and changed into his pajamas! You'd think a woman of that era might be punished for such blatant sexual aggression, but no. She was back for the next movie!

Was there sexism in the Bond movies? Absolutely. But I grew up in a sexist world. There were many sexist things I rejected, and many others I never even noticed, because they seemed so normal. Feminism isn't just a self-conscious rejection of sexism. It's also about showing girls options; letting them see a world they can look forward to, where the person they might want to be is up there, larger than life, on-screen. Even today, girls don't get a lot of that.

Women in Bond movies outsmarted Bond, fought him, and slept with him. What I saw in the Bond girls was adventure, power, and a sexuality that was bold – and maybe a little bit bent. In Goldfinger I saw something I'd never seen on TV. Somehow, at age nine, I realized something that still escapes most people today. Pussy Galore was gay.  And it thrilled me. That blond pilot she's talking to? I wanted to be her when I grew up.

In 1971 I saw Diamonds Are Forever, my first "new" Bond. It was just as exciting, just as sexy—and even gayer! Two women, Bambi and Thumper, lived in this amazing house, romping with James Bond and each other. They were bodyguards; beautiful, strong, and wild. My fate was sealed. 

When Connery walks down the beach at the beginning of Diamonds are Forever, telling a soon-to-be topless sunbather his name is “Bond, James Bond,” he is still, somehow, always talking to me. I am still responding to the seduction of Bond, of Bond girls, and of the exotic world of 007. Bond girls gave me sexual possibilities: Seductive men like Bond himself; seductive women like Pussy Galore. They can seduce or be seduced by a gorgeous man, or woman, and wear gorgeous clothes, but they don't have to live in a bottle. 

Bond girls speak to the part of me that is both feminist AND femme. The Bond girl became my archetype of an independent and exciting woman; a vision of who I could become that was purely fantasy, but still spoke to the real me. As I grew up, she remained my role model and my fantasy self. 

The woman I am today: writer, Mom, feminist, and professional, is still, deep down, a Bond girl.–Deborah Lipp

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book.

Kevin B. Lee is the Editor-in-Chief of Press Play.

VIDEO ESSAY: A Death Foretold: Foreshadowing in MAD MEN

VIDEO ESSAY: A Death Foretold: Foreshadowing in MAD MEN

This video essay and its accompanying text also appear today on Vulture, the blog of New York Magazine; the staff of Vulture asked Press Play's editors to contribute a piece on Mad Men, and this was the result.

[Editor's note: this article and the accompanying video contain spoilers for all of season five of Mad Men. Read or click at your own risk.]

Now that Mad Men has drawn to a close and we prepare to spend the rest of the summer looking back on a particularly dense season, we can reflect on all the clues that led to one of this year’s biggest plot turns — Lane Pryce’s suicide. The show’s death obsession dominated recaps and comments threads throughout the last twelve weeks, and with good reason. Every episode contained one or more hints that a major character would die. Indeed, more so than any other season of Mad Men, this one earns the adjective novelistic. No single episode can be considered wholly apart from any other; each chapter replenishes the death/mortality motif in imaginative, sometimes playful ways.

This video essay, titled "A Death Foretold," collects a few of the more obvious and subtle predictors from season five. The piece is a joint effort by me; writer Deborah Lipp, who recaps the show for my IndieWire blog Press Play and co-publishes the Mad Men–centric blog Basket of Kisses; and Kevin B. Lee, the site's editor-in-chief and in-house cutter. It's not meant to be comprehensive; we originally compiled a three-page list of death references, then realized if we put them all in one video it would have been as long as a Mad Men episode! But we hope it'll offer the show's fans another pretext (as if we need any) to pick apart the show’s narrative architecture and argue about whether a cigar is just a cigar.

A critic, journalist and filmmaker, Matt Zoller Seitz is the staff TV columnist for New York Magazine and a finalist for the Pulitzer prize in criticism. He has worked as a movie critic for The New York Times, New York Press, and New Times Newspapers, and as a TV critic for The Star-Ledger of Newark. His video essays about Terrence Malick, Oliver Stone, Kathryn Bigelow, Budd Boetticher, Wes Anderson, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann and other directors can be viewed at the The Museum of the Moving Image web site. Seitz is the founder of The House Next Door, a website devoted to critical writing about popular culture. His book-length conversation with Wes Anderson about his films, titled The Wes Anderson Collection, will be published in fall 2012 by Abrams Books.

Deborah Lipp is the co-owner of Basket of Kisses, whose motto is "smart discussion about smart television." She is the author of six books, including "The Ultimate James Bond Fan Book."

Kevin B. Lee is Editor in Chief of IndieWire’s PressPlay Video Blog, Video Essayist for Fandor Keyframe, and contributor to Roger Follow him on Twitter.

VIDEO ESSAY: Kevin Brownlow, Film Essay Pioneer, on D.W. Griffith

VIDEO ESSAY: Kevin Brownlow, Film Essay Pioneer, on D.W. Griffith

Next week the San Francisco Silent Film Festival will present the complete 5 1/2 hour version of Abel Gance’s epic Napoleon. It is truly a singular event: Due to the expense, technical challenges, and complicated rights issues involved, no screenings are planned for any other American city. This monumental event is being presented by SFSFF in association with American Zoetrope, The Film Preserve, Photoplay Productions, and the British Film Institute.

This full version of Napoleon is restored by legendary film historian and filmmaker Kevin Brownlow, whose epic documentary D.W. Griffith: Father of Film (1993) is available on Fandor. Directed by Brownlow and David Gill, the film tells the story of one of cinema’s most monumental figures, D.W. Griffith. It shares Griffiths’ life and legacy through biographical narration, interviews, and behind-the-scenes looks at his movies.

Of the vast array of material presented in this film, most fascinating are the moments where they analyze Griffith’s filmmaking, revealing his innovative techniques and how he brought them into being. Here is an edited and recontextualized compilation of those sequences distilled from the longform biography of this legendary artist.

Originally published on Fandor.

VIDEO ESSAY: A close analysis of the Season 1 title sequence from THE WIRE

VIDEO ESSAY: A close analysis of the Season 1 title sequence from THE WIRE

[EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the very first video essay collaboration between Press Play founder Matt Zoller Seitz and editor-in-chief Kevin B. Lee: an analysis of the opening credits for Season 1 of The Wire, exploring how the images highlight themes of the season and offer predictive snippets of future plot twists. It was originally published at Moving Image Source in 2008. The piece is narrated by critic Andrew Dignan, from a written essay originally published at The House Next Door. To read the original article in full, click here.]