The video essay constitutes an aesthetic form that radically transforms the fields of film criticism and scholarship. A product of the digital age, it allows those concerned with the study of film and media to directly engage with their objects of study through the explicit use of both moving and movable images. A video essay is essentially a mini-movie, a series of manipulated images and sounds specifically arranged to convey an idea. In this respect, video essayists differ from traditional critics and scholars in that they are primarily beholden not to the written word but to the characteristics of the medium they examine. It is apt to see them as critically-minded filmmakers, and their work, by consequence, opens itself to analysis.
Kevin B. Lee is undoubtedly the most prominent representative of the ever-burgeoning group of video essayists. He has made a career out of furthering the form as a practitioner and curator. At Shooting Down Pictures, he popularized the video essay as an innovative critical instrument through a variety of stylistic experiments and collaborations. He chronicled his experiences in video essay criticism at Kunst der Vermittlung in an essay titled “The Viewer as Creator,” a text which has since come to be seen as a quasi-manifesto for the form. Today, he continues his video essay work as an essayist at Fandor Keyframe and in his capacity as editor-in-chief of Press Play, the leading platform for online video essay culture.
“The Spielberg Face” (2011), a critical study of the close-up as an aesthetic motif in the films of Steven Spielberg, is one of Lee’s greatest achievements. Produced in anticipation of the director’s late-2011 one-two punch of War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin, “The Spielberg Face” is a significant expression of what video essays can contribute to criticism. Film scholar Christian Keathley has distinguished two aesthetic modes of the video essay, delineating a spectrum that he describes as shifting between the explanatory and the poetic, a more language-based and a rather sensualist mode of address.1 In the former, voice-over and/or text dictate the rhythm and the logic of the essay; in the latter, the images and sounds selected from the digital database inform our experience of the work. In “The Spielberg Face,” Lee synthesizes these two approaches, using both voice-over and appropriated imagery to create the flow of the video essay. The explicit use of the film itself, along with extra-textual elements such as split-screen, narration, and on-screen text, all afforded by digital technology, illustrates how the video essay form modifies the written word and transforms traditional criticism. In other words, Lee does not merely speak about the filmic subject—he speaks through it.
Accordingly, the essay begins quite cinematically by invoking the mystical allure of Spielberg’s cinema. It offers a series of track-in close-ups compiled from iconic films, accompanied by a distinctly recognizable John Williams score. The aesthetic motif is instantly established and cogently articulated both verbally and audio-visually. And, moreover, the use of image and sound is not arbitrary. Lee chooses audiovisual elements that portray a progression from wonder to mania and horror, foreshadowing a critical shift in his own analysis without overtly pointing toward it. This is subtle, effective filmmaking—or rather, video essay–making—modeled on Spielberg’s own aesthetic. Lee does not use general cinematic patterns. The style of his essay is inherently Spielbergian.
Lee then turns to a more general, concise discussion of the close-up, incorporating relevant historical information about one of the most essential stylistic devices in cinema. (His use of D.W. Griffith, one of cinema’s pioneers, is particularly notable here.) When he afterward cuts back to Spielberg’s work, he does so with a multi-plane, four-quadrant screen to illustrate the consistency with which the director has employed the close-up over time. This communicative, albeit quite short, panel-esque composition is indicative of one of the video essayist’s aesthetic options: the ability to manipulate the image for the purpose of educational clarity and informational intelligibility (not to mention stylistic grandeur). He crystallizes the historical consistency and stylistic viability of the Spielberg Face in the director’s canon by means of one singular yet multi-faceted shot. He also returns to this aesthetic pattern in his discussion of Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977), literally broadening the visual horizon by including 12 frames within the confines of the screen, thereby expanding on his former point. Indeed, Lee’s essay is at its strongest when it exploits the malleability of the digital image, juxtaposing analogous displays of the Spielbergian close-up and allowing them to seamlessly flow into one another.
But as the essay progresses, its tone shifts. Lee moves from contemplation to critique, exemplifying the appropriation (and indeed bastardization) of the Spielberg Face in contemporary blockbuster culture. Lee shows a close-up scene from Transformers: Dark of the Moon (Michael Bay, 2011) and, by digitally altering it through reverse motion, points to the emotional bankruptcy of the overused Spielberg close-up. It is precisely at this moment that Lee transitions into the second half of his argument: the critical examination of the director’s own iconic imagery, the new face of the Spielberg Face, if you will. The first half showed the Spielberg face as an image of wonder, child-like awe, and mysticism. Now Lee focuses on the face’s radical transformation in the era of post-9/11 terror, delivering close-ups of fear, horror, and trauma. These images, according to Lee, are indicative of an auteurist re-examination, as it is Spielberg himself who gives the face a new look and a new connotation. Essentially, he becomes an iconoclast of his own work, deconstructing his own creation. Lee’s video essay captures this development, juxtaposing the aesthetics of early and late Spielberg, and documenting their changing emotional effects.
The final segment of Lee’s vide essay is almost entirely devoted to one of Spielberg’s most underappeciated films, A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), which, through its dystopian view of future technology, represents the last stage not only of the Spielberg Face but the human face in particular, as robotics come to define human evolution. Lee uses this section to address viewers directly, to include us in his essay’s argument. His approach is subtle and controlled: he does not break the illusion of the screen, and Spielberg’s film remains the visual focus of the essay. But Lee’s narration explicitly demands reflection from the viewer, an engagement that goes beyond the mere act of watching and following an audiovisual argument. This is where the video essayist capitalizes on the rhetorical and emotional power of its subject. I find it to be a profound moment within the essay, one that speaks to me through Spielberg and his art.
At the end, Lee’s overarching argument about the Spielberg Face, at least at surface-level, does not feel new. It feels familiar. In fact, it feels so familiar that one assumes it to be common knowledge about arguably the most famous filmmaker in the world. But this is not to the detriment of the essay’s complexity. Rather, it is precisely why Lee’s essay constitutes such a brilliant example of digital criticism. His work has the potential to make the familiar seem new, to explicitly express the unconscious. In the age of media saturation, images and sounds are easily absorbed but seldom sufficiently processed. Even those schooled in the aesthetics of the cinematic image may not always be attuned to its subtleties, its recurring patterns. Lee’s critical work is concerned with highlighting these elements, with reading between the lines of popular culture, or in this case between the frame that puts it in perspective: the mise-en-scene. His work rests at the intersection of the superficial glance and the contemplative look, instilling in the viewer an awareness of the nuances of what visual and aural cues can create on the screen and within the spectator. By turning his analytical lens to the moving images, he explains why they become alive in our imagination, and why we may get even more pleasure from them if they are fully present in our minds. Watching the video essay, we become cognizant of what we have been seeing and what we have been missing. In this regard, Lee may qualify as a cultural anthropologist. He is a maker of images and sounds that ask us to look at screens through our own reflections. And many more video essayists, including Matt Zoller Seitz, Catherine Grant, and Jim Emerson, to name but a few, have followed his lead in their own work.
Overall, Lee’s video essay work shows him to be an aficionado, a fan at heart, with a discerning, cinephiliac eye, and a tool kit to dialogue with what he sees. And I deliberately emphasize the word “dialogue.” Video essays, in my view, need to be seen in Michel de Montaigne’s terms, as essais. They are attempts to appropriate the language of cinema to engage with what is on one’s mind offscreen and how it relates to what one watches on-screen. What lies in between is for us to find out.
1. ^ Keathley, Christian. “La Caméra-stylo: Notes on Video Criticism and Cinephilia.” The Language and Style of Film Criticism. Ed. Alex Clayton and Andrew Klevan. New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.
Matthias Stork is a Ph.D. Candidate in Cinema and Media Studies at UCLA. His doctoral research focuses on the convergence between the film and tech industries through the lens of social media and big data. He is the Co-Editor-in-Chief of Mediascape and the co-editor of Superhero Synergies (Scarecrow Books, 2014). He is also the guy who coined the term Chaos Cinema.