Monday, April 6, 2015

The Rise of the Video Film Essayists

Initially I was planning to do this post in a list format, spotlighting some of my favorite online film critics and commentators who create digitally distributed videos to discuss films and filmmaking.  However, upon reflection I decided that the topic really needed more of a proper write-up.

There have been online movie reviewers with their own web programs for a while now, and various film commentary web series that analyze films, mostly comedically.  The popular Red Letter Media dissections of the "Star Wars" prequels are a good example.  They're often described as reviews, but are really analysis pieces.  They go into far more depth and detail than you'd want for an opinion piece meant to inform the viewer about whether or not they're likely to enjoy watching the films.  I was never much of a fan of Red Letter Media because I wasn't too fond of the serial killer persona he adopted as his main gimmick.  However, his basic arguments and his nicely edited presentations of them appealed to me.  This was somebody who was really using the looser, free-form web video format to its fullest.   

However, recently we've seen a new crop of content creators whose first goal is to inform rather than entertain, while using many of the tools of the mashup culture.  The most prominent of these is Tony Zhou, creator of Every Frame a Painting.  The series is about analyzing filmmaking techniques, mostly cinematography and editing.  Some of the early entries had snarky voice-over and digs at bad filmmakers, but over time the commentary has been refined and focused so that the explanations and examples of various filmmaking concepts remain center stage.  Zhou is excellent at breaking down films into their basic components and showing how they work.  Each installment is devoted to a particular artist or element of film.  My favorite of his videos so far is his look at the work of Jackie Chan, particularly where he compares Chan's Hong Kong films to the ones he's made in Hollywood.

Then there's Kyle Kallgren, whose webseries Brows Held High initially started out as a more typically comedic commentary series, meant to poke fun at the pretensions of arthouse films.  However, over time the videos became less about mocking the arthouse and more about exploring it.  With an academic background in film, Kallgren creates videos that are well researched with lots of cultural and historical context to back up his analyses.  I knew he was someone to watch when I found one of his early videos on the notoriously vile exploitation pic, "A Serbian Film," contained an impressive rundown of the history of Serbia as part of the commentary.  Kallgren still employs his share of gimmicks, but it's all in service of bridging the gap between casual film viewers and the often alienating world of highbrow cinema.  His more recent  videos have been his better ones, including an analysis of Gus van Sant's "Gerry" that turns into broader look at how recent films have started incorporating the visual language of video games. 

However, the video that really got me excited was something completely different from the traditional web series   It was the latest installment of critic David Ehrlich's annual top 25 countdown of his favorite films from the past year.  Countdown videos are extremely popular, and they're a common first project for new web talents trying their hand at making web videos.  Ehrlich is the Senior Editor of and writes text reviews like a traditional critic.  However, his countdown video is in the style of the year-end movie supercuts created by amateur editors like Matt Shapiro and Gen I.  There's no voice over and barely any onscreen text at all in this thing - just the names of the films and a few title and credit screens. What drives it is almost solely the editing - films clips and music.  And it's so much fun to watch.  Clips of the Japanese comedy "Why Don't You Go Play in Hell" set to Redbone's "Come and Get Your Love," recently heard in the opening of "Guardians of the Galaxy," were a better recommendation for the movie than Ehrlich's text review.  He completely reinvigorated both the supercut and the year-end critic's top ten list by mashing them together.

The term "video essay" has popped up to describe the new crop of informative film-related web videos in this vein, and they're quickly becoming popular with my fellow media nerds both as an educational resource and as conversation pieces.  Pop culture comedy commentary like "How it Should Have Ended" and "Honest Trailers" are still a lot of fun and have plenty of fans, but I really like the new trend of more substantive content that's been emerging.  We have so much more access now to the classics and to world cinema, and it's great to see more informed, more thoughtful pieces starting to emerge, reflecting that.

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