On the Compilation and Found-Footage Film Traditions of the Video Essay
So (as the kids say) the video essay is a thing now? OK, but what kind of a thing? While the form, or genre, or practice – or whatever it is – of the video essay flourishes, it continues to pose, at least for media scholars, intriguing definitional or categorical questions. Many – but by no means all – video essays are constructed largely and often entirely out of previous films or videos, and thus inherit established cinematic models as much as they invent new critical strategies. In addition to notable precursors increasingly (if retroactively) identified as essay films, video essays derive from other significant cinematic traditions. Whether named compilation or found-footage films, films made out of other films are as old as cinema itself, although they became most prominent as distinctive possibilities via their manifestations in documentary and avant-garde traditions. (I should note that the term “found footage” has recently been misleadingly and unfortunately applied to the subgenre of horror films that present themselves as documentary-like raw footage.) More broadly, since at least the decisive intervention of Joseph Cornell’s Rose Hobart (1936), films edited together from previous films have also been affiliated with larger traditions of modernist collage, or, as in the case of Guy Debord’s films, associated with specifically situated practices such as Situationist détournement. Previous critics of the video essay, such as Christian Keathley, have already identified the principal modes of recent videographic work as “explanatory” and “poetical,” which might simply be broader terms containing the documentary and avant-garde traditions, but I would like to further consider the status of recent video essays that are constructed largely or entirely out of (among other available terms) (re)appropriated, recycled, or borrowed films. (I will only be concerned here with the formal or artistic elements rather than the considerable legal issues relevant to this topic.)
The categories I want to bring into play have notable critical touchstones: Jay Leyda published his pioneering study of the documentary tradition, Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film, in 1964, and William C. Wees published the first extended study of the avant-garde tradition, Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films, in 1993. Both (pre-digital, pre-internet) books are now understandably out of date, although they remain instructive and useful guides that have been supplemented and extended into the present by subsequent studies, including compelling recent work by Jamie Baron, who persuasively argues that the conventional distinction between “archival” and “found” footage – a distinction that once separated mainstream documentaries from experimental films, even though both appropriated existing material – may no longer be relevant in the era of online search engines and YouTube. In any case, the small group of video essays – defined as such initially by the vague principle that “I know one when I see one” – that I’ve curated here are all constructed, almost entirely, out of clips from previous films or videos, and none are what other scholars have called “language-driven” or “explanatory,” which typically means that none rely on the authoritative direction or anchor provided by voice-over narration: all veer towards “poetical” rather than “ideological” modes, to use the distinction Roland Barthes employed to famously distinguishing a “text” from a “work.” (None of the video essays I’ve selected are silent, however: all use music and/or sound significantly, if subtly.) At some level, my main point is a very simple one: all of these video essays are also simultaneously something else. Each can be readily affiliated with another filmmaking tradition, even if their status as a “video essay” seems plausible. This is not just a claim for their typical hybridity (Drew Morton calls the video essay “a hybrid of documentary filmmaking and scholarship”), but an affirmation of the residual historical models that persist in what otherwise seems an emergent form. The “video essays” I have selected are thus always already documentaries (or compilation films), and/or avant-garde films (or found-footage films), or in one case at least, a remake.
I almost intuitively employed another control mechanism in selecting these video essays: each is not only constructed from other films, but is rather obviously “about” cinema, or audiovisual media more generally, or particular films more specifically. They are all, I will claim, adding another layer of identity, also works of film criticism. Thus, "A Movie by Jen Proctor" (2010-2011) takes as its subject a previous, well-known found-footage film, Bruce Conner’s A Movie (1958). Kogonoda’s "Hands of Bresson" (2014) takes as its subject the films of a single director (Robert Bresson): more precisely, it attends to a major motif across the director’s films, his persistent focus on the hands of characters in shots that isolate this part of the human body emphatically. (This is a motif many of the director’s critics have noted, but the video has the undeniably powerful effect of demonstrating what others have described.) Christian Marclay’s relatively early Telephones (1995), anticipating his famous 24-hour installation video The Clock (2011), concentrates our attention to a common but easily ignored trope in mainstream, narrative cinema, the dramatization of the otherwise mundane activity of dialing or answering telephones. (Only an unauthorized upload of Marclay's work is available online.) In a similar vein, Jason Livingston’s "The End" (1998), composed entirely out of the title cards announcing “the end” of a few dozen Hollywood films, takes a familiar but easily overlooked industrial (and narrative) practice as its focus. So, in these cases, a notable film, or celebrated director, or a common industrial (Hollywood) trope provide each video essay with a basic organizing principle and even initial selection categories. Other video essays focus on film genres.
It seems important to emphasize that each of these works seems to require prior knowledge of their subjects in order to be effective: would any of them make much sense to a viewer wholly unaware of the material they draw upon? Insofar as these works engage with and extend our contemplation and perhaps understanding of a key cinematic topic, I will claim that they function – even if poetically – as forms of analysis, drawing our attention to the kinds of concerns already familiar from more conventional film scholarship. Most critical writing on film auteurs, or genres, or narrative conventions presumes a reader already familiar with the topic at hand but seeking a fresh approach or a richer understanding of that previous work: Kogonoda’s video essay, for instance, would not serve as a useful introduction for someone unfamiliar with Bresson’s films (among other things, the films are not identified), but functions as a subtle analysis and appreciation (if not quite interpretation) for those already (more or less) familiar with the director’s oeuvre: like any effective work of criticism, I cannot imagine anyone returning to Bresson’s films without an enhanced awareness of the element Kogonoda has emphasized. While shots isolated from Bresson’s meticulous films may retain much of their basic visual beauty, for devotees of his films these shots are richly evocative of the wholes from which they have been excerpted (the metonymic aim of most film clips, presumably, often “highlights” selected bits to recall an entire film). In other words, the strict focus on shots of hands from Bresson’s films offers exactly the kind of delimited topic characteristic of the essay as a form (unlike the typically more comprehensive book-length study).
In a similar way, I view Livingston’s "The End" (1998) as a suggestive analysis of a common yet critically neglected cinematic convention: the video collects a few dozen of the on-screen titles that explicitly conclude mainstream (mostly Hollywood) films, and – not quite the same thing – the narratives they contain. Most of these are, like corresponding opening logos and titles, what literary scholars (after Gerard Genette) call paratexts, formal yet subtly meaningful devices that exceed the diegesis, like the architecture of a book that contains a story, which we close in a common, repeated ritual of completion a few seconds after the story ends. But quite a few of Livingston’s examples are also superimposed over the last images of the narratives, blurring the line between the end of the story and the end of the film. A surprising number of this utterly conventional device, tacitly shared by all Hollywood studios and genres, are recognizably derived from unique films. Many reassert, at the last second, the movie’s studio affiliations, while others insist that they were “Made in Hollywood, U.S.A.,” once a kind of quality-control assurance. At one level, "The End" is thus a condensation of the massive model of repetition with variation that defined the mode of production of the Hollywood studio system. "The End" literally begins (but unusually remains) where most films end, affirming but also radically attenuating the satisfactions of closure common to the filmgoing experience. The film motivates us to ask: is the pleasure that comes with the ending of an entire film – not just of its story, but of the film as an event, which employs paratextual devices inherited from both the book (printed titles) and the stage (Livingston’s video preserves the musical crescendos that sonically assure us that a work has come to its end) – the same if the final image and final chord are all we get, even when presented as a kind of multiple orgasm? Or is a climax satisfying only when it follows approximately two hours of anticipation and delay? (I can’t help but think of Livingston’s work in conjunction with Roland Barthes’ beautiful essay on his pleasure in leaving a cinema after a film concludes.)
I also have no hesitation in identifying "A Movie by Jen Proctor" as a work of criticism, even if it largely functions – as Jamie Baron and Scott MacDonald have insightfully emphasized – as a somewhat unprecedented remake. (Again, other terms may apply: despite elements of parody, it serves as a tribute or homage, and even as a kind of Duchampian readymade, although it obviously wasn’t “ready,” and has been carefully made…) While the film it remakes, Bruce Conner’s A Movie, is as canonical as any American experimental film can be, it’s perhaps best known to current film scholars and students through the detailed formal analysis of the film that was included in many subsequent editions of David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s Film Art: An Introduction, the most influential and widely-used introductory film textbook in North America. (That analysis, no longer in the latest edition of the book, can be found online). In remaking Connor’s film within a contemporary context, with “footage” found not in the limited collection of battered 16mm prints that Conner reworked, but among the vast archive of the internet, Proctor not only illuminates the underlying structure of Conner’s non-narrative film (the primary goal of Bordwell and Thompson’s analysis), but significantly historicizes it, or, more fully, persistently draws our attention to the fundamental shifts in the media landscape between 1958 and 2011. That historical distance also traces the ontological and cultural differences between film and video as technologies, and to (as Baron emphasizes) the archives that subtend them – in addition to revealing the amusing, troubling, and surprising similarities and differences in the content of images that simultaneously align Conner’s and Proctor’s works and separate them. (See the cited pieces by Baron and MacDonald for detailed treatment of these concerns, and the larger issues her video raises.)
Again, Proctor’s film has been discussed as a “remake,” a term almost wholly applied to mainstream narrative films, and often with a dismissive claim of a lack of creativity and originality. Her video, like few other remakes, fully renders the remake a critical rather than crassly commercial form. While the “originality” of Proctor’s remake (sort of) of Conner’s film might be questioned (though I think that would miss the point), I think its function as a work of criticism – in other words, as a video essay -- seems more significant than its aesthetic status. While retaining, as Baron notes, the basic structure and denotative content (and, importantly, the same soundtrack) of Conner’s “original” (a term we can only now apply, with deep irony, to Conner’s film), it is otherwise wholly new, made up of entirely different images, although, as with Conner’s work, these were not images created or captured by its “director.” Like Conner and indeed all of the other artists I’ve included here, Proctor relied on assemblage, but (as again, Baron details) she assembled her material from a dramatically different kind of archive, and with significantly differently assembling technologies, than Conner’s historical moment allowed. Proctor’s remake is therefore directly concerned with exactly those differences, which are emphatically historical and scholarly preoccupations. In this regard, "A Movie by Jen Proctor" (her title, like Conner’s, obviously has critical functions as well) is an essay, related to a good deal of more conventionally written contemporary film studies, devoted to an exploration of the historical transformation from film to video, analog to digital, black and white to color (as norms), and the cultural conditions that link as well as differentiate, for instance, the bombing of Hiroshima and the terrorist attacks of 9/11 as traumatic – and recorded – events.
Baron, Jamie. The Archive Effect: Found Footage and the Audiovisual Experience of History. New York: Routledge, 2014.
Baron, Jamie. “The Experimental Film Remake and the Digital Archive Effect: A Movie by Jen Proctor and Man with a Movie Camera: The Global Remake,” Framework 53: 2 (Fall 2012): 467-490.
Barthes, Ronald. “From Work to Text,” in Image, Music, Text, ed. and trans. Stephen Heath. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977: 155-164.
Barthes, Roland. “Leaving the Movie Theatre,” in The Rustle of Language, trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1986: 345-349.
Keathley, Christian. “La caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia” in Alex Clayton & Andrew Klevan, eds., The Language and Style of Film Criticism. New York: Routledge, 2012:
Leyda, Jay. Films Beget Films: A Study of the Compilation Film. New York: Hill and Wang, 1964.
MacDonald, Scott. “Remaking a Found-Footage Film in a Digital Age: An Interview with Jennifer Proctor,” Millennium Film Journal 57 (2013): 84-91.
Morton, Drew. “The Visual Essay as Digital Publishing”: http://mediacommons.futureofthebook.org/question/what-are-new-insights-digital-publishing/response/visual-essay-digital-publishing
Wees, William C. Recycled Images: The Art and Politics of Found Footage Films. New York: Anthology Film Archives, 1993.