One of the goals of The Video Essay Podcast (perhaps the chief goal) is to answer an ultimately unanswerable question: what is a video essay? I have asked some version of this question to (I think) every guest I’ve had on the show. Chloé Galibert-Laîné has provided one of the most compelling answers thus far:
“I’m not sure I know exactly what a video essay is or is supposed to be… We are using this term as a way to bring a community together.”
Grace Lee, Ariel Avissar, and I began the introduction to this year’s Sight & Sound poll of the “best” video essays with Chloé’s quote as a way of framing the list, which included documentaries, essay films, performances, online video essays, gallery installations, and more. The selections ranged in length from 51 seconds to 4.5 hours! While there are many problems with list-making, I think one of the benefits is that someone generally familiar with the concept of “video essay” might walk away from the list more unsure of what a video essay “is” than when they first started reading. Thus, the question becomes not “what is a video essay?” but “what can a video essay be?”
And here is the question I wish to pose today: are video essays films? I know many have already weighed in on this question. Catherine Grant has called video essays, “short films about films” or “liquid criticism.” I raise this question in part because I noticed recently that several video essays have made their way on to Letterboxd, which draws its metadata from The Movie Database. I noticed this first when looking at kogonada’s Columbus on Letterboxd, which you see beside “Eyes of Hitchcock” and “What is Neorealism?” below:
I began searching some more names and found that the same is true for Mark Rappaport, which is not surprising for a work like Rock Hudson’s Home Movies (1992) but is perhaps so with his more typical video essay, “The Empty Screen.” Eight works by Kevin B. Lee are on Letterboxd, including, of course, Transformers: The Premake (2014), but his vast body of online video essay work is mostly missing. The same is true for Chloé’, whose desktop documentary Watching The Pain of Others (2018) is one of five works listed. There are two works by Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin. Shannon Strucci (our most recent guest!) has only one work listed, and that is her epic, two-hour-long video essay, “Fake Friends Episode 2: parasocial hell”, which we discussed at length on the show. Other video essayists, including Catherine Grant, Tony Zhou, and Michael Tucker have no work listed (or at least none that I could find)!
I have not checked-in with any of the persons mentioned above, so I do not know how or why their work was or was not added. Perhaps it was added by others? Or perhaps larger projects were added instead of more traditional online video essays? I don’t know! (Please let me know!) And this is not to suggest that Letterboxd or the The Movie Database is an arbiter or what is or is not a video essay or a film, or that work found on Letterboxd is better or more significant than work not found on the platform. But, I do think it is an interesting way to think about this question of whether video essays are films.
On a recent episode of the show, Leigh Singer and I discussed kogonada’s video essays, and how any study of him as a filmmaker would have to include his videographic work, just as it is difficult to discuss Truffaut’s body of work without mentioning Hitchcock. (If he were alive today, Truffaut would definitely be a video essayists btw.) kogonada’s video essays reveal not only his potential influences, but also how he thinks as a filmmaker. Many video essayists (myself included) often go out of our way to say somer version of “I’m not pretending to be a filmmaker!" when discussing our work. It’s an important distinction for many reasons, chiefly because it acknowledges the amount of labour that goes into making, say, a feature film. However, I do wonder whether we do videographic criticism a disservice by drawing such a firm distinction. After all, the video essay never pretends to be a feature film, nor would anyone mistake one for the other. And, as I have already mentioned, videographic criticism requires one to think and edit like a filmmaker and cultivate an individual style. The discussion of such styles is at the heart of the podcast.
If Letterboxd is any indication, it seems that video essayists by filmmakers are more likely to be labeled films or short films, whereas video essays by non-filmmakers (I use all of these terms very, very loosely) seem to sit in more of a grey area. What are we to make of this? Should more video essays be uploaded to The Movie Database and available to log on Letterboxd? I think so! I think what matters more than labeling video essays one thing or another is that they are in conversation with all kinds of moving images, and a platform like Letterboxd is key to facilitating those viewing experiences. What do you think?