By Tara Judah
The image appears to be static, more so since 0s and 1s replaced photochemical film. But even if it is technically sealed, it remains unstable. An image is always in conversation; its referent and meaning are forever in a state of flux.
Writing and talking about film is a job, passion and necessity for film journalists, critics and academics alike. But the video essay offers something else: it opens up a new path for analysis. Aptly, it allows the author to offer a visual explication of what they see.
IFFR’s new (or newly re-instated) Critics’ Choice program is an initiative born of Dutch critics Dana Linssen and Jan Pieter Ekker, designed to “make cinema present and eloquent again”. Having invited some of the most prolific and acclaimed video essayists in the world to select a film, make a video essay, and present both to an audience, the Critics’ Choice program has returned from its hiatus with an expanded vision.
Kicking off the program was Kevin B. Lee’s A Chorus to the Love of Film. Inspired by both his admiration and respect for Roger Ebert as a critic, his own association with Ebert’s television show and, later, as a contributor to the Roger Ebert blog, Lee’s essay is in conversation with Steve James’ documentary, Life Itself (2014). It is also in conversation with the mother of all film critic lists, the Sight & Sound international critics’ poll: that is, it examines film criticism through film criticism.
Still only five years young, Lee acknowledges that there is a lot of debate within the ‘discipline’ as to what constitutes a video essay. Even within the parameters of discussing it, various terms are used, including cine-poem and videographic theses. But, much like the art form it is in dialogue with, the limits put upon it are arbitrary; the format can be as disparate as the imagination of its creator.
More than just a companion piece to the feature length film it is born of, A Chorus to the Love of Film builds on James’ examination of the contemporary role (or crisis) of film criticism. It does what James’ own film cannot and brings Ebert to his audience through his work, rather than a ream of third party talking heads. It is a constructive grenade thrown casually but deliberately into the heady conversation about what film criticism is, how it is evolving and where it might be headed.
If Life Itself makes a case for Ebert as a great storyteller, a charismatic man and a great “Chicago character”, then Lee’s video essay is the intellectual counterpoint, presenting him as an esteemed critic.
Lee uses the voices of nineteen contributors to the Ebert site, read in ten languages, to bring new life and critical attention to Ebert’s writing on his favourite films. Lee suggests that Ebert’s celebrity – something that surfaced from a very particular set of circumstances, at a very specific time – is “not even possible anymore”. To an extent, that is true: the public simply doesn’t esteem film critics in the same way that they used to.
But, within criticism and academia, there is still space for celebrity. And, with more than 200 video essays under his belt, an award-winning, nine-months-in-the-making, programmed at the Viennale, IFFR and Berlinale video essay that’s taken criticism by storm (Transformers: The Premake, 2014), I’d suggest that Lee might just find himself at the helm of a new form of celebrity critic.
The conversation continues and the lines between creator and critic blur. The video essay is a creative, intellectual pursuit – like all good criticism should be.
International Film Festival Rotterdam: Critics’ Choice 2015.
Life Itself, Steve James, 2014 – selected by Kevin B. Lee