I was interested in taking a look at the video essays of Tony Zhou, whose work was mentioned in Kevin B. Lee’s “What Makes a Video Essay Great?” “In Praise of Chairs” is short but effective, an interesting watch that immediately piqued my interest in his other videos. In five minutes, Zhou outlines three typical ways set design—which in this case is manifested in the humble chair—expresses itself on-screen. Chairs which work as an expression of the on-screen world—the Iron Throne in Game of Thrones (2011) is an excellent example from the video—make a statement about where the characters live, and what sort of circumstances they inhabit. Zhou makes the point that the chair, though humble, commonplace, and often cheap, works to characterize the world by demonstrating to the audience an attention to detail, and a consistency of vision, which can make on-screen settings convincing and compelling. The humility of the chair itself actually tells us how humble things are used and treated within the setting of a film. Likewise, when a chair serves as an extension of a character, it often appears to be a sort of manifestation of that character’s psychological state. In Up (2009), for instance, a pair of mismatched chairs owned by Ellie and Carl matches their characters’ visual appearance—one blocky, the other taller and more expressive in its design—but also matches the characteristic distinction between the free-spirited Ellie and the more down-to-earth, reserved Carl. A chair might also reveal what a character wants, or what his insecurities are. Last—and by Zhou’s reckoning, best—a chair might serve as an extension of a situation. In The Godfather: Part II (1974), for example, Fredo’s impotence and pathetic nature during an argument with his brother Michael is reflected by the flimsy chair in which he sits, which doesn’t let him fully sit up. Even better, the chair constricts his action and his posture, physically reinforcing his miserableness of character. Even by dictating a character’s position and range of motion, a chair can symbolize and contribute to on-screen scenarios simultaneously.
As a piece of videographic criticism, “In Praise of Chairs” is an interesting blend of supercut and video essay. While it is essentially just a collection of shots with chairs in them, it makes effective use of voiceover narration to grant insight into the exact principles of production design that it puts under the microscope. While we might get a similar sense—that chairs are important—without the narration, the “text” of the essay allows Zhou to split the supercut into three distinct sections with three categories. Traditional supercuts are challenged in delivering this kind of complexity or clarity of insight. Likewise, while the narration would deliver the same information if read as text, without moving images, it would cut out the most important part of this video: experiencing what it feels like to see, as Zhou puts it, “a great chair” on screen.