Marilyn Freeman On the Form of the Video Essay

Freeman reflects on the sight and sound of the video essay at TriQuarterly Review. The essay accompanies seven original video essays featured in the Winter / Spring issue.

Every time I read that line from “The Essay as Form,” Adorno’s midcentury manifesto, I feel the kind of joy I felt when I accidentally rang the fire alarm instead of the recess bell in seventh grade at St Francis of Assisi in Spokane. I feel guilty, involuntary joy. And I think of the video essay—the brainy, bratty, mixed breed love child of poetry, creative nonfiction, art house indies, documentary, and experimental media art. It is an ascendant incarnation of Adorno’s heresy, and the moment has never been better for it.

As a form the video essay tests the mettle of the literary essay—personal, lyrical, contemplative, improvisational, performative, critical—not on the page but on the screen. And with screens in nearly every hand, every day all day, the video essay exploits and infiltrates the Broadcast Yourself media sphere. It doesn’t pander to a passive audience. It doesn’t aim to entertain. That isn’t to say it can’t be enjoyable, affecting, funny even. Adorno would say play is essential to it. Like its literary parent, the video essay is playful, irrational, and fragmented.
Yet, it takes shape. It has form. And plenty of telltale signs—it is reflexive, subjective, autobiographic, poetic, interdisciplinary.

The video essay’s nature is to mess with our expectations of nonfiction film. This reflexivity is its hallmark; it is transparently self-questioning and self-conscious. The conventional documentarian masks her subjectivity through interviews and voice-of-God authorities in ways we’ve come to expect—the Morgan Freeman or Matt Damon trope. Not the video essayist. She engages directly, speaks directly to the audience. The video essayist says, this is between you and me.

That is, unless she reflexively calls into question basic notions about how films are made as Chris Marker does in his epistolary travelogue Sans Soleil (1983). An intentionally ambiguous essay film, it is voiced by a narrator who relays 128 dispatches from Iceland, Cape Verde, and Japan, mostly, with footage that feels secreted. Just when you think you know what the piece is about—neighborhoods, television, cat temples—it becomes about something else—Hitchcock’s Vertigo, memory, video games. One fleeting meditation after another. Sans Soleil does, I think, what Adorno says the essay wants to do, ”it tries to render the transient eternal.” Marker does this in a way that intrudes on our expectations of how a film is supposed to behave, how it’s supposed to be understood.

Reflexivity interferes with cinematic illusion in all kinds of ways. When Agnes Varda’s lens cap swings in and out of the frame for nearly a minute in The Gleaners and I (2000), it is reflexive. We are made aware. It’s uncomfortable. Wait a minute, that’s her lens cap. We laugh, uncertain. Varda forfeits the authority of the filmmaker, transparently, self-consciously. She tells us, “I forgot to turn my camera off.” In the middle of the film Varda pulls back the curtain and engages us in the making.
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