The Viewer as Creator
On »Shooting Down Pictures« Video Essays
In 2007 I started my blog Shooting Down Pictures to chronicle the completion of a typically obsessive cinephile project: to finish watching the 1,000 Greatest Movies of All Time as determined by They Shoot Pictures, Don't They?, a website that compiled over 1,800 lists by critics, filmmakers and scholars to create what is supposed to be the most authoritative consensus of great films. (As of this writing I have seen 962 of the films). For each film that I watch, I write a review, compile quotes and links to writings on the film, and embed video clips of the film that are online. As the project progressed, I felt the urge to comment directly on some of these clips, or to combine my reflections on the film with clips to directly illustrate my observations. By applying my filmmaking and editing background to the current digital technology that allows for ripping/copying and editing video and uploading it to the web, my work in the video essay format thus began.
So far I've produced over 50 video essays, most of which can be accessed on my blog and my YouTube channel. With each video, I try to take a different approach that reflects the film and its impact on me. The focus may be on a single sequence (i.e. La Haine; The Saragossa Manuscript), a performance (Un Coeur en Hiver), music (And the Ship Sails On), sociological context (The World According to Garp; Gran Torino), or even autobiographical reflection (The Hour of the Star; America America). In some cases I film original footage to supplement or highlight an aspect of the film (And God Created Woman; The Vanishing compared to Zodiac), or work with footage of an event associated with the film (a midnight screening of El Topo; a group viewing of Duel; an interview with Paul Schrader and Ed Lachmann regarding their film Light Sleeper). I've used text inserts to highlight areas of the frame (The Evil Dead II), a device that fellow video essayists Steven Boone and Matt Zoller Seitz have taken to greater lengths. I've even given voice to the honorable dead, with a narration of the late Susan Sontag's immortal essay on Hitler: A Film from Germany set to footage illustrating her insights. There is no strict guiding principle to my approaches concerning the format of these videos other than a deathly fear of repeating myself and a desire to increase the level of sophistication with each attempt at this new form of film criticism.
The most rewarding aspect of this project has been the involvement of dozens of film critics and scholars as collaborators on many of these videos. I realized early on that I couldn't possibly come up with interesting insights for all of the videos, and called upon others to lend their commentaries and creative ideas on titles they cared about deeply. Thanks to email and online social networks, it doesn't take much effort to reach just about anyone I am interested in contacting. Through this project I've become acquainted with a vast array of afficionados with diverse backgrounds and interests: silent film scholars (Kristin Thompson; Paolo Cherchi Usai) veteran critics (Jonathan Rosenbaum; Nicole Brenez; Richard Brody), filmmakers (Dan Sallitt, Preston Miller, Christoph Hochhäusler) and online cinephile community stalwarts (Girish Shambu; Keith Uhlich). Some of the best videos were with young professional or non-professional critics (Vadim Rizov on Grey Gardens; C Mason Wells on Two English Girls) whose voices testify to a long future for impassioned, intelligent cinephilia.
What amazes me is that all of these contributors have given their time and talents freely, exhibiting their enthusiasm to explore this new area of film criticism and culture. Respecting their voluntary effort, I try to accomodate their working style: some come prepared with a written script (Chris Fujiwara's precise narration of Night of the Demon reads like poetry), others prefer to improvise their observations while watching the film (Dan Callahan on The Go-Between. With some I have worked remotely: the video essay for Burnt by the Sun with Andy Horbal makes a point of our virtual collaboration and how it parallels the disconnected spaces within the film itself. Some specify which clips they want included in the video; others leave the montage entirely to me. Most commentators give me much more than I need to produce a 5-10 minute video, in which case I select what I feel are the most compelling comments that lend themselves best to video illustration. Sometimes the commentary will reveal a unique form and pattern for the editing, such as Jonathan Rosenbaum's comparison of The Sun Shines Bright and Gertrud, in which his observations go back and forth between the two films and particularly on their final moments, which he lingers on as much as the films do.
One tendency towards which I have gravitated is to be more selective with the commentary in order to give room for the film's footage to speak for itself, which allows the video to breathe (commentary = inhalation; footage = exhalation). But this may amount to a temporary orthodoxy; it really depends on what technique best serves to illuminate the film. Sometimes I'll slow down footage to linger on a moment and dig into all of its compositional and thematic implications (O Lucky Man!); other times I will speed it by several times to convey its duration (The Woman in the Window). There's perhaps always the risk of violating the integrity of the film as the author intended. Then again, the simple act of watching the film runs that risk as well. What's perhaps most instructive about these videos is that, in a sense, they are less about the films than about how we watch films, which is a creative act in itself. These videos are a testament to the viewer as creator, a mostly private activity that these videos carry into a public discourse.
On the topic of public vs. private, I should comment on the controversy over my videos that occurred at the start of 2009 when YouTube temporarily suspended my account after receiving complaints of copyright violation by a few corporations whose films I had showcased in my videos. Thanks to an outcry among my peers and the digital rights community over my right to distribute the videos under the provisions of fair use law, I was able to successfully counter the complaints and regain my account. I want to make clear that I support the right of artists to maintain their copyright and be rewarded for their work; if anything, my videos are produced with the intent of celebrating and promoting the work of these artists. It is clear from visiting the the many user-created videos on YouTube or other video sites that we have quickly entered a new era of cultural production where the audience has as much means to create as the artists, leading to a more open and perhaps even more democratic means of creative exchange. Parties who wish to profit in today's world, whether they be individual artists or corporations, have to acknowledge this new reality, and learn that they probably have more to gain from learning how to embrace and harness its energy rather than resisting or surpressing it.