Lost in the Movies: The Voice of the Video Essay: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 2 of 3) on video essay aesthetics

The Voice of the Video Essay: conversation with Kevin B. Lee (Part 2 of 3) on video essay aesthetics

Part 1 of this interview covers Kevin's award-winning video essay Transformers: The Premake.

There are many ways to design, and many ways to watch, a video essay. In the following discussion, Kevin and I discuss his work, my work, and that of other videomakers. When does a video need narration to make its points, and when does narration get in the way? Should the essayist intervene in the film clips at every available chance, or occasionally allow the original work to play without interference? What defines a video as clickbait vs. artpiece, fan tribute vs. scholarly analysis, criticism vs. filmmaking? Can it be all of these things at once?

• • •
You follow the explosions at the end of Transformers: The Premake with this quiet, cool montage of people filming, and asserting their own presence in the area. There was one shot specifically that really interested me which was the two guys up on the roof. What did you like about that clip?

That's actually one of my classmates, his name's Bow Ty. He is a performance artist and he was like oh, they're actually filming on my rooftop and I'm like, really? So I gave him a Go-Pro camera and he put it on his head and just went on the roof and started talking to the guy. This is the kind of stuff that I wish I could spell out, this is what's going on here, this is why it's significant. But I don't spell it out because it would've disrupted what I had to establish.

No, it's much better. That's the tricky thing about a narrated video essay. You have to figure out what needs to be said and what doesn't. And in this one you don't have any narration and sometimes you don't need any. Sometimes the material, especially when you're manipulating it as heavily as you are, speaks for itself. Plus you can come up with your own interpretation which is valid. That's the nice thing about a non-narrated video essay, you almost have three levels to it: You have the original movie, you have the person filtering that movie through their own sensibilities, through montage or juxtapositions or the rhythm of the material or the scene they choose to highlight. Then you have the viewer, getting their own experience. So you're having these three levels of interpretation going on, just co-existing. It's very cool. Narration can be more problematic.

I think the video essay series that you made about Twin Peaks raises this paradoxical question of, does this work bring you closer to Twin Peaks? Or does it actually take you further away from the primary experience of watching it? It's a weird philosophical effect because on the one hand, we're more absorbed into Twin Peaks through all of the thoughts and observations that you generated. But in a weird paradoxical way, all that reflection, it potentially takes you away.

Journey Through Twin Peaks - Chapter 1: The Show About Everything (2014) by Joel Bocko, featuring Twin Peaks (1990)

I agree completely.

It's a weird paradox. And it's very much this paradox that we find ourselves in with this extra layer of meta-cinematic activity. All these video essays, it's just us talking back to the screen and that one-way-receiver's-end experience of cinema has given way to something that's more interactive or more responsive, and brings out more creativity or expressivity on the part of the viewer. That is a radical shifting of the dynamic. It's not our father's or our mother's cinema. Anyway you cut it.

You have something that's the phenomenon itself, the work itself, which you have to mediate with your own experience. You don't just want to smother that with analysis. A good example would be the murder halfway through the show. I actually cut to black and then inserted a 5-second snippet almost to consciously show you what you were missing. And I did that again with the Black Lodge sequence - every single time I cut, I inserted a second of black between the fragments. For me that was a conscious highlight of the fact that you are not getting this whole sequence. It's that question of how you express the singularity of the work while also meddling with it?

Well, there's so many ways to cut that. It's actually been something on my mind. My general position is if people want to watch the film, let them watch the film. It really is a springboard for me to be invasive, I basically have no compunction anymore about letting people - I don't let people watch the film. For me it's Heisenberg. Once you enter this realm, you might as well just go all the way. You're interfering, you're getting into it, so for me it's about celebrating that. You have to earn it. You have to earn your place alongside that work. Whatever your interpolation or your intervention in the work is, it really has to stand on its own as an expressive act that's worth its time to be watched. Not in a long time have I let the scene play in the way you're talking about.

Actually following the scene where I cut to black [the murder], I then let the following 3-minute scene play out entirely because that worked in that context. That was something I felt I should show the viewer, and they should experience the duration and get it. Whereas if I showed the previous scene out of context I was distorting it in a way that did not assist the argument I was making. You know what I mean? It's this weird balance.

I know what you mean. I think you're very respectful of the film, just trying to be mindful that there is a film that exists, irrespective of what you have to say about it. And you want to let the film speak for itself.

composite of Journey Through Twin Peaks - Chapter 9: Scene of the Crime (2014) by Joel Bocko, featuring Twin Peaks (1990)

Not even so much the existence of the film as an entity as the existence of the emotional phenomenon that can take place within the viewer's head when they watch it in that way, if the purpose of the video is to reflect that. And on another occasion it could be to distort it for another purpose. I could actually flip the situation on its head. We can talk about respecting the work, but in terms of your own work, when do you decide, for the argument you're making, for the appropriation that you're taking... Are there situations where you feel something should play out but not for reasons of honoring the work?

I'll always end up with some sort of intervention. The last few video essays I've published for Fandor, one of them is the opening sequence of A Hard Day's Night which is about three minutes long. And I let it run in real time but I break it up into quadrants, spatial quadrants. There are four areas of activity going on, there's the Beatles running around, there's the fans that are chasing them, there's Paul McCartney and his grandfather lurking about and there's this comic [scene] with this guy trying to open up a carton of milk. So I designate one quarter of the screen to each of them. It plays out in real time but it's just showing spatially how that scene plays out between the four characters, or four sets of characters. So it becomes a study of how that sequence creates relationships between these different people and how much you see of each one of them effects the overall dramatic effect of the sequence. And then this other video I made a couple weeks ago on Eric Rohmer's Summer's Tale, I looked at three scenes, each one's about two minutes long, but I think I push the scenes to the side a little bit and add some text to comment on what's happening. I do more split-screen stuff. So there's always this sense of the scene being watched. The act of watching manifests itself in the arrangement of the clips even if it's playing in real time.

It's like a DJ, sort of.


Yeah, there's varying degrees. A remix artist might be a better way to put it, you can let it play out or you can just mess around with it.

Yeah, it's definitely remixing.

Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots (2012) by Kevin B. Lee, featuring Boogie Nights (1997)

It could be like, messed up, messed up, cut back, let it play for a little bit and suck you in, and then pull out again. There's a rhythm to it.

One of the most popular videos I did was Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots. Those are shots that play out more or less in real-time. But I have a map for each one. And I'm showing how the camera moves within the map of the set that I made for each one. So even with the real-time, I always feel like there's got to be some other layer. Because for me that's what distinguishes it from just watching the film. Like if you want to watch the film, you can watch the film. Ironically for you to have those clips run in their entirety, uninterrupted, uncommented on, it's like you are trying to substitute for the film, it's like saying all right now you can watch the film and I'm going to let you watch the film right now. You know what I mean? For me it's like if you want to watch the film, watch the film, here's a bit of it, here's what I've done with it. Maybe it's just how I think about it.

I think the interesting theoretical problem, the thing that intrigues me about letting something play out is to what extent does the fact that you've included it within a larger montage, so that you've re-contextualized the surrounding area of the clip, if the clip itself is intact, to what extent is that in itself already sufficient re-contextualization? Furthermore, where does one draw the line and say now we're just letting the scene play out? And at what point do we say we're compressing it to the smallest needed unit? How big can a "unit" be, and still be a unit and not an intact whole? That's something I like to test the boundary of. Can you throw a two- or three-minute sequence in and say, this is just a bigger version of me using Cooper's reaction shot earlier for two seconds. That was the right pace for that moment. For this moment, I need to let it play out. There's that borderline there that's fascinating for me. Because everything has got that duality to it in a video essay. It's a unit that you're using and it's a piece of the whole.

Matt Zoller Seitz, especially his earlier videos, had big chunks of the films for you to watch. Sometimes he would have all these annotations on the screen which were really awesome. Other times he would just let the scene play out for a minute or more, and somehow it just kind of works with his style. He's kind of leisurely in the way he talks, especially compared to Tony Zhou or kogonada. You and he are sort of on the same wavelength: the enjoyment and the respect for the film in itself, giving room for the film to speak.

directed by De Palma (2009) by Joel Bocko, featuring Scarface (1983) and Carrie (1976)

At the same time I like to go to the other extreme as well and do a complete reinvention. So for example, in my DePalma video, there's a sequence where Tony Montana is getting shot and it uses the knife sounds of Piper Laurie being stabbed from Carrie. That whole sequence, every single thing I could do to possibly alter the clips I did. So I feel like it's a contextual thing. And this is something you talked about too, in the podcast [with Peter Labuza], the different modes of video essays. You're a lot more conscious of it than I am. I didn't think the DePalma tribute was a video essay when I made it, even though now I think it was. At the time I conceptualized it as...a found-footage film I guess you could say. Which is kind of what a video essay is anyways...

Those borders are quite porous. You ask kogonada what he makes, a lot of people call them supercuts. That's a term he actually rejects, because he finds it kind of common. He's really trying to move towards presenting himself as an artist and as a legit filmmaker who works in this mode that's a cut above the rest. He's super-popular but at the same time... I mean, he's a really fascinating case study because different people see different things in what he does. Some people think it's super-viral clickbait that's just really well-done, really polished. Some people think it's commercial work and he's actually gotten these gigs making ads for Criterion Collection or the BFI. They love what he does because it's very watchable. There are some people who think it's really great twenty-first century new media remix art. And other people think it's just eyecandy. It's very up in the air, how these works get perceived and how they get interpreted. Because they definitely play multiple functions in contemporary visual culture so...

What's your take on that? On the multiplicity of what a video essay can be?

It's like the whole issue of YouTube and rights - who gets to call the shots in terms of what's good or not. There are definitely different factors in play here. I try really hard to avoid taking any sort of hardline position. I'm trying to be in this place where I can appreciate everything that's going on and I think it's important to just support this type of activity as a whole. But when certain videos get super-popular I always wonder, why? As opposed to other ones that seem to take as much if not more work, more time, and more thought that just kind of languish in the margins? These are definitely things to not take for granted, and to really be aware of. Not just these issues of letting the clip play on or just being very invasive and cutting it - that's a very important set of questions that a bunch of us are just starting to get our heads around. But at the same time there are these larger issues of how do these videos actually find a life out there in the world? What they're being used for, how they're being seen, how they're being received, it's all connected. Certainly form, content, it all connects to who the audience is, how they value it, how they use it, how they respond to it. It's important to have that in mind.

The conversation concludes tomorrow with Part 3, discussing a broad range of video essays and the possibilities for the form.

Warning: most of these videos contain spoilers and directed by De Palma includes some graphic and/or disturbing images

Journey Through Twin Peaks, chapter 9: Scene of the Crime (killer's reveal) by Joel Bocko
in which I experiment with cutting to black to emphasize what we aren't seeing, as well as allowing a scene to play out in full without interference:

Journey Through Twin Peaks, chapter 19: The Lost Detective (Black Lodge) by Joel Bocko
in which I cut to black between clips:

A HARD DAY'S NIGHT Opening: Multicam/Screentime Version by Kevin B. Lee
in which he plays clips in real-time but rearranges them on the screen:

Rohmer's Guessing Games by Kevin B. Lee
in which he writes comments alongside a clip as it plays out:

Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots by Kevin B. Lee
in which he accompanies the clips with maps of camera movements:

Zen Pulp, Pt. 1 by Matt Zoller Seitz
in which he allows extended clips to play, evoking the mood and style of the works he is sampling:
(Unfortunately, I can't embed this video; please follow the link above to view.)

directed by De Palma by Joel Bocko
in which I go out of my way to "interfere" with clips, especially overlapping sound, during the closing montage:

Eyes of Hitchcock by kogonada
in which he creates a montage that could be seen as new media art and/or internet eyecandy:

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