Lost in the Movies: The Polemic as Poem: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 3 of 3) on the future of video essays

The Polemic as Poem: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 3 of 3) on the future of video essays

Part 1 of this interview covers Kevin's award-winning video essay Transformers: The Premake while Part 2 covers the aesthetics of making - and watching - video essays.

In the final installment of my 3-part interview with video essayist Kevin B. Lee, we cast the net wide, discussing specific video essays, overall trends in the video essay world, and the future of the form. As an introduction to the conversation, I would recommend watching What Makes a Video Essay Great? (featured immediately after the jump) Kevin's 2014 recap which illustrates many of the topics we will discuss, including Dina Fiasconaro's The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese's Work which he compares to another Scorsese video using similar clips. Her video and others discussed in this interview are embedded at the end of this post.

What Makes a Video Essay Great?
Warning: this video includes disturbing real-life footage at 4:40-4:55 including a mass murderer's video manifesto, used to provide context for a video essay under discussion

Do you feel the different categories of video essays should be clearly delineated? It almost sounds like people are saying, with somebody like kogonada, this is a supercut or it's an artpiece, or it's a commercial, etc? Do certain categories have a tendency to eclipse, like if it's one thing it can't be another?

I think they bleed together more often than not and that becomes interesting when one person's art is another person's trash or another person's eyecandy. For me it's just trying to see if those dots can be connected. Why are there these disparate perceptions and definitions of a given work? That's always been the challenge for me. The video essay Big Bang happened a few years ago and since then it's just getting bigger and bigger and bigger. The more people get involved in it, the more varied sets of considerations they bring into the collective conversation. It used to be that I would know who was making video essays. I could count them with one hand but now it's just way beyond anyone's ability to keep tabs of everything that's worth paying attention to. I tried to do that with this end-of-year article on Fandor last December. I just spent a lot of time looking at different websites that had compiled them, where you could find them very easily and just breeze through hundreds of them. I don't know if I'd be able to do that again. It would be almost pointless. At the same time, it almost had to be done. The moment had come to recognize or make a larger audience recognize that this was a thing, because a lot of people still didn't recognize it as a thing, to establish this as a thing that was here and here to stay. And then beyond that to start to get at different modes of making them, different ways that they're being seen, different considerations that they have, all this in a basic set of categories that could help us understand the different ways that they're functioning. It's just going to get more complex from this point on. If I do this again at the end of next year, I'm just gonna go with the assumption that I have not seen a lot of stuff that's worth being seen. I've seen a lot so that I can pick up on these tendencies or these trends or these developments and just put those out there. Stuff like Tony Zhou's hypernarration is a new thing for me. And seeing other people do it in their videos, you can already see the influence that he's having. I used to feel like that type of narration was too fast. But it actually works to the advantage of the narrator because kids especially are used to that. Just absorbing information both visually or aurally as fast as possible. When you talk that fast you actually sound like you really, really know what you're talking about. It's just this sense of enthusiasm and assertiveness that comes through in his voice that really got my attention. It was just like yes, ok, this is legit.

nesting within nesting: What Makes a Video Essay Great? (2014) by Kevin B. Lee, featuring Edgar Wright - How to Do Visual Comedy (2014) by Tony Zhou (including Step Brothers clip) and The Spielberg Face (2011) by Kevin B. Lee (including Close Encounters of the Third Kind)

It's working for people.

This is a new moment that we're in now. For me it's trying to keep track of those moments. It's always a question of what's working for people and what does that say? It doesn't always necessarily mean it's a good thing if people are grooving on something. How profound or how deep is this given video essay that everyone's talking about? But it becomes an occasion to think about why these things are having the effect they're having on certain audiences. The exciting thing is it's never gonna be static, you know? It's gonna be a constantly moving target and that's gonna be frustrating and exhausting for people. I feel exhausted sometimes. Is what I'm doing relevant? There's new, exciting stuff happening all the time and how do you stay connected to that? How do you tap into that energy? Or do you just not even bother, and keep doing what you're comfortable doing and developing that? The answer is a bit of both, I think. At least for me. At the end of the day I'm not going to compromise things that are very dear to me, like my particular set of values that I've devised for myself, what I want to get when I make a video essay, what's in it for me. But at the same time I look for ways to be pushed and to be challenged and new tools that I can employ that I feel are worth incorporating. So it's this constant process of intake and outtake. And I think that's what life's about, life's about finding ways to be challenged and to grow from them. And not just be content with what it is that you think you've got for yourself. At least for me.

Have you ever made a video series where it formed one thing, basically like the Journey Through Twin Peaks type thing? Like multiple videos on one topic?

I guess the closest would be the Oscars, Who Should Win. Those videos are in a strange kind of no man's land because they're not fluffy. Most Oscar content is just fluff that's just a lot of industry talk about who will win based on prognostication, the best indicator. In some ways they're the most optimistic videos I've ever made because it's still holding onto this faith that...it's not merit-based at all, but what if it were? If you watch them those are the most thoroughly engaged pieces I've made about acting. I'm a huge Julianne Moore fan. And the first time I saw Still Alice I thought yeah, this is amazing, this is great. I was making the video essay with the intention to put her as the best actress. But then when I watched it again I was looking for clips to actually solidify my argument, I couldn't find the clips I wanted! And things just started to unravel. The more I spent time with it, comparing it with the other actors...especially Rosamund Pike, who I ended up endorsing, who actually was my least favorite performance on first viewing! But the more I paid attention to it the more I noticed all of these things going on in the performance. That to me is proof of what video essays are good for. Even before they get shown to anybody else, for me to go through that process of transforming my own preconceptions and feeling like I really discovered something in the process.

The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese Films (2013) by Dina Fiasconaro, featuring The Aviator (2004)

I wanted to address a work featured in your 2014 round-up: Dina Fiasconaro's Scorsese video [depicting the treatment of women in his films]. She qualifies it quite a bit and almost apologizes for it on her page, saying, this is meant to be a component of a lecture, it's not a standalone. To me it works really well as a standalone. You said in the article that it struck an unpopular tone with Scorsese. Did you feel that it was a critique of Scorsese, that it functioned as an explicit, didactic critique of Scorsese's choice of subject, or approach to that subject?

I would say so, because, I think there are plenty of happy moments regarding the depiction of women in Martin Scorsese films. The video doesn't really include those clips. Every category has a derogatory...


Yes, exactly. There's definitely a polemic being constructed here and it's a very provocative one and it's one that definitely takes you aback. When you witness acts of subjagation, dominance, and violence on women characters in movies, what are you supposed to think about that? Do you just take it as dramatic moments, it's just movies? Or is it just he's just showing how it is between the men and women in the world that he explores? It's the documentary aspect of Scorsese which people celebrated, how realistic his films are compared to other Hollywood movies. But there's another side to that coin which is, when you portray that stuff and you posit it as real then are you not in fact reinforcing this paradigm of how we show women? And that gets accepted as, well, this is what quality cinema looks like. You look at this current crop of brand-name auteurs like Paul Thomas Anderson. It becomes a perpetuating thing so it's important to think about that, in the greater landscape of gender politics and relationships that's happening now. There's all kinds of battles being fought, and things that have exploded with regard to how women are treated both in real life and onscreen. So this is just another manifestation of that. But yeah, the blowback that she got. I put it on my Facebook and I got all these comments, mostly from people who are like, this is totally distorting Scorsese's films. Scorsese's films don't condone violence against women, they're just showing it. It's really a critique of male behavior. Scorsese is as much a feminist as anybody. But I don't know, that critique doesn't totally sit well with me. Because you show that enough times and it becomes a sort of ritual. But just because Scorsese has this kind of canonical status, he's above reproach. How dare we even cast aspersions on how he shoots his movie, or how he depicts his characters. But you know, those are exactly the kinds of exalted figures that deserve to be questioned. No one is above reproach, especially if we feel like we have important things to learn from questioning what they're doing.

composite of The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese Films (2014) by Dina Fiasconaro, featuring Who's That Knocking on My Door? (1967)

I didn't take it that way and I also didn't take it the way that the people on the Facebook page seem to have taken it. First of all, the important thing she does is she washes away any protective context and she calls it out by name. She says, almost clinically, this is what this is. This is verbal abuse. This is rape. So there's no sort of getting away from it. This is maybe where she amplifies what Scorsese is doing, I don't think subverts so much as strengthens it. And actually she might improve upon Cape Fear because by removing it from the context of the film and placing it next to Scorsese characters who are [sort of] heroes, it's actually harder to look at Max whatever-his-name-is as a villain. It's not just the evil monster-villain out there [which is an easy way to dismiss the reality of this violence]. The quote I wanted to read is David Foster Wallace from the essay "David Lynch Keeps His Head." He says "And if these villains are, at their worst moments, riveting for both the camera and the audience it's not because Lynch is endorsing or romanticizing evil but because he's diagnosing it. Diagnosing it without the comfortable carapace of disapproval and with an open acknowledgement of the fact that one reason evil is so powerful is that it is hideously vital and robust and usually impossible to look away from." You talked about questioning auteurs, and what this video did, to me, was almost rescue an auteur. Even if that wasn't her intention. Because it takes him out of this celebratory "Aw, gee, Uncle Scorsese on TV promoting something" to a guy with his finger on the pulse of the most raw, visceral emotions. It's not an easy subject matter and he's treated it with honesty. She in isolating it even further is treating it honestly and maybe even making him more honest.

Well, I like that David Foster Wallace quote because in a weird way it ties together what he's saying about Lynch and I guess by extension Scorsese.

It's a different thing with Scorsese, but yeah, same principle.

Scorsese as a diagnostician of these awful... What you're ascribing to these two directors in a weird way dovetails with what we're talking about when we talk about what we want out of video essayists. And I think "diagnostician" is a great word to apply to a great video essay that really diagnoses a film or a set of concerns about cinema. I think it's nice to kind of have that be the throughline in terms of what great art could be, in relation to the thing it's looking at or its subject matter, as a diagnosis of something. It certainly appeals to the intellectual side of things but it doesn't have to be too intellectual, it just has to be lucid. It has to make things clear in some way, a sense that we understand something.

desktop view of Histoire(s) du cinema (1988-1998) by Jean-Luc Godard, featuring The Birds (1963)

Do you think the video essay is on its way to plugging back into the essay-film [for example Sans Soleil by Chris Marker or Histoire(s) du cinema by Jean-Luc Godard]?

Absolutely, absolutely. Right now it's just...

Like joining a broader stream that's been flowing for a long time.

Yeah. The thing is it's doing so many other things besides that. It's a way for fans to express their adoration for their favorite movies. It's for the scholars to engage in scholarship using the material itself. By and large the majority of people who are doing it in this mode are still getting their hands around it, still figuring out what's possible. What we're talking about now, that's next-level stuff that maybe some of these fans are going to get to that point. Maybe some of these scholars are going to get to that point. When I was in Toronto last year I met this guy who was resentful of film scholars doing these more poetic video essays. He was like, well, you know, experimental filmmakers have been doing this for years and now these film scholars come along. They don't even know who Stan Brakhage or Martin Arnold or Matthias Muller are and they're just so naive with their little poetic exercises and slapping all this film theory on top of it to make it scholarship. Same goes for a lot of fans who are making stuff that they consider really beautiful works of art and getting blowback from people like, don't even pretend, you're just messing around with your favorite films. So there's a kind of weird innate skepticism or mistrust. I guess that's natural. When everybody gets excited about something new, they start reveling in the possibilities. I realize that some of this stuff, they may not be aware of stuff that's gone on before but it's not where you are, it's where you are going that matters. And I don't hold it against anybody who wants to just to keep exploring, and see what's possible. What annoys me is people who rest on these assumptions of what things are. They think great art is over here and fanboy stuff is over here. These things slip into each other a lot more easily than you might think.

I knew you were originally a short filmmaker and made several documentaries, made a fiction film as well...I think you said Eraserhead meets Hou Hsiao-Hsien.


Would you say The Premake is a step back into filmmaking, or have you been doing filmmaking as well at the same time?

Well, again, define filmmaking.

Do you see yourself moving into shooting things on your own, using the video essays as a springboard? Or are you even interested in doing that?

I'm interested. I feel like I've come upon a set of concerns that really fascinate me. That's the most valuable thing to have is fascination. I feel like with these last few projects, after all the work I've done, and the false starts I've made over fifteen years of making some kind of film or video or other, I have a pretty well-defined set of interests. Right now they seem to serve essay filmmaking and to some extent, nonfiction filmmaking. But they could morph back into fiction. You're right, I did make fiction shorts. That sort of fell away. I guess this issue of reality has always been interesting to me, how movies relate to reality. To try to make fiction films about that was somewhat interesting, but not what I was naturally inclined to do...but being very open with this idea of what is fiction, what's nonfiction, what is documentary, what's staged, what's real. It's all very fluid. And I think not to get caught up in those categories so much as well. What's in it for you to begin with? Finding the right way to express that, the form will find itself if you are fascinated enough. So that's where it is for now. We'll see where it goes. It's great to be alive and to care deeply about things and to just want to keep pushing things further. And I feel like I've reached that point with the work I've been doing lately and it's super-exciting.

Warning: most of these videos contain spoilers and The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese Films contains graphic and/or disturbing images.

Edgar Wright - How to Do Visual Comedy by Tony Zhou
in which he employs "hypernarration" to convey his points:

Who Should Win the 2015 Oscar for Best Lead Actress? by Kevin B. Lee
in which his opinions evolved through creating the video:

The Representation of Women in Martin Scorsese Films by Dina Fiasconaro
in which she contextualizes scenes from Scorsese's films by diagnosing the behavior onscreen:

...and while it isn't mentioned specifically, this video is very relevant to the final part of our conversation, and also might be my favorite Kevin B. Lee essay:

The Essay Film: Some Thoughts of Discontent by Kevin B. Lee


(a fantastic and revealing read, addressed to the late essay filmmaker)
(detailed discussion of his development as a video essayist)
(essay and list accompanying the What Makes a Video Essay Great? video)
(his round-up of essential video essays from a few years ago)
(regarding my video essay directed by De Palma)

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