The utilization of digital technologies and audiovisual materials to present film and media research and analysis is gaining increasing acceptance as an alternative to the written scholarly essay. Whether called the “video essay,” “audiovisual essay,” or “visual essay,” videographic criticism presents an exciting opportunity for media scholars to think and write using the very materials that constitute their object of study—moving image and sound. This new initiative at Film Matters aims to highlight the excellent, innovative video essays being made by undergraduates, and to encourage students—as well as faculty— to create and share their audiovisual scholarship.
The audiovisual essay is a descendent of the “essay film,” a form toward which film critic and director Alexandre Astruc gestured in his 1948 essay “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde” when he heralded cinema as a caméra-stylo or camera-pen, “a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions, exactly as he does in the contemporary novel or essay” (Astruc 13). Film essays specifically on cinema would, however, not truly blossom as a genre until film archives became widely available, first on analog and then digital video formats. The result were essay films, such as Mark Rappaport’s Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) and Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), which have continued to be influential, but were at the time largely relegated to film festivals and arthouse cinema. As digital editing programs have become more affordable and user friendly, and as the internet and social media have opened up channels of dissemination and distribution, film scholars increasingly find themselves “in a position to respond to Astruc’s call—using new technologies to invent new audio-visual critical forms” (Keathley 179).
The audiovisual essay has no fixed or dominant style or structure, and it can vary from the experimental and poetic to the more traditional and expository, inviting innovation and creativity in addition to analytical precision. While its scholarly parameters are still being debated, it has continued to gain academic legitimacy, signaled most notably by the first peer-reviewed journal devoted to videographic criticism, [in]Transition, which launched in 2014. For this inaugural videographic issue of Film Matters, we asked for undergraduate work that mounted an identifiable argument and substantially transformed the audiovisual material used through editing and other means. All our submissions were vetted by a board of four students participating in an independent study at Occidental College, and the essays that moved on to the next stage were each individually reviewed by both a student and film scholar.
The work featured herein has, we believe, achieved a synergistic integration of form and content. In “Identifying (with) a Murderer: Six Steps Towards Sympathy,” Ciara Wardlow of Wellesley College argues against a moralistic reading of Fritz Lang’s M (1931) by meticulously demonstrating the film’s tactics for eliciting audience sympathy for a child murderer. In “Reversing the Gaze: Empowering the Other in Wes Anderson Films,” Shannon Shikles of Eckerd College debates the received understanding of hegemonic whiteness in the films of Wes Anderson by both highlighting the structuring role of the gaze of non-white characters and problematizing the control and privilege of the white protagonists in his filmography. In “The Eye Is the Heart: Metropolis and the Kino-Eye,” Sophia Kornitsky of Wellesley College attempts to resolve the contradictory depiction of modernity and technology conveyed by the German silent film Metropolis (1927) via Dziga Vertov’s concept of the kino-eye and by drawing out the thematic similarities between Fritz Lang’s fictional dystopia and Vertov’s more celebratory nonfiction film Man with a Movie Camera (1929).
While these selections make convincing, well-researched arguments, they also perform visual analyses that utilize their chosen texts as audiovisual objects, showcasing the power of this new form for capturing and communicating complex critical ideas. They not only serve as examples of excellent undergraduate film scholarship, but also are powerful contributions to the growing corpus of videographic criticism.
Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo.” The New Wave. Ed. Peter Graham. New York: Doubleday, 1968. Print.
Keathley, Christian. “La Caméra-Stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” The Language and Style of Film Criticism. Eds. Alex Clayton & Andrew Klevan. London: Routledge, 2012.
Identifying (with) a Murderer: Six Steps Towards Sympathy (Ciara Wardlow, Wellesley College)
Reversing the Gaze: Empowering the Other in Wes Anderson Films (Shannon Shikles, Eckerd College)
The Eye Is the Heart: Metropolis and the Kino-Eye (Sophia Kornitsky, Wellesley College)
Open Call for Undergraduate Videographic Film Scholarship (Issue 2, 2018)