Author: Abbie Rosenbaum

Do Pay Attention to That Man Behind the Curtain by Mariska Graveland

This video essay by Mariska Graveland dives into several instances of “the man behind the curtain” in films spanning many decades and genres. In a sort of supercut, Graveland shows us all the different ways scenes with projectionists doing their work or in a projection room relate to their greater films and to cinema as a whole. In a lot of the sequences, the movies being projected are somehow related to the projectionist’s real life, such as the projectionist who is struggling to take a drink while an actor is crying out in thirst on the movie screen. Other times, the projectionists exercise power upon the real world through the fantastic world of the movies they are projecting, such as the porn inserts in Pulp Fiction, the fire in Inglourious Basterds, and Buster Keaton in Sherlock Jr. It seems like the most fervent and dramatic times in these projectionist’s lives are ironically happening while their movies are playing in the background and no one below in the audience has a clue. The projectionists are an invisible force, forgotten by the average movie-goer, but we get a peak into their intimate moments behind the curtain in this video. There is also a lot of sexual subject matter and violence that unexpectedly occurs in the projection room as well.

The original phrase that the title plays with, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain”, is from The Wizard of Oz. In the movie, we find out that the man behind the aforementioned curtain is not who we think he is; not an all-powerful wizard, but a little man like everyone else. As an audience we have certain ideals about who that man is, but usually he is not what we pictured and we’re disappointed. Also of note here is that in almost all of these examples of projectionists in the video essay, only a couple are female. This is perhaps a commentary on the overwhelming number of male voices in the film industry and the scarcity of female perspectives, since the video essay creator is also female.

This video essay adeptly makes use of the videographic form’s ability to be reflexive, in this case, as a video projection referring to examples of itself: cinema talking about cinema.

Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman by Dara Birnbaum

Technology/Transformation: Wonder Woman’s feminist critique of gender representation in popular culture remains relevant even 40 years after its creation. Dara Birnbaum deconstructs the oppressive cultural ideology surrounding women in the media using choppy repetitions of Wonder Woman’s spinning transformation from secretary to superhero. The isolation of explosion images mixed with Wonder Woman’s repetitive actions is mesmerizing. This video shows how having parameters lends structure to video essays: I assume Birnbaum chose scenes from the original 1970s WW television series that show her spinning into character, performing her WW duties (protecting a timid man behind a tree), and running in her superhero costume. The repetition and deconstruction of these female-gendered images from popular television acts like a mirror – much like the hall of mirrors in the video – of society’s artificiality and obsession with fixed identity. The following lyrics and accompanying funky song Wonder Woman Disco by The Wonderland Disco Band further highlight the hyper-sexualized Wonder Woman persona: “Show you all the powers I possess… And ou-u-uu-uuu make sweet music to you baby… Ah-h I just wanna shake thy wonder maker for you,”  which when spelled out on the screen, is very troubling. Birnbaum’s unapologetic isolation of the elements that make up WW’s identity highlight the subtext: WW’s entrapment by popular culture. This video reached so many people it even has a Wikipedia page. Video essays, no matter how abstract they may be, can have profound impact on understanding culture and the most perceptive of video essays can still be analyzed against current society and ring true. On the “stutter-step progression of ‘extended moments’ of transformation from Wonder Woman,” Birnbaum says, “The abbreviated narrative — running, spinning, saving a man — allows the underlying theme to surface: psychological transformation versus television product. Real becomes Wonder in order to “do good” (be moral) in an (a) or (im)moral society.”

What is Toxic Masculinity by Jonathan McIntosh

When watching this, I could easily see how McIntosh could have written this essay about toxic masculinity in popular culture on paper; however,  the power of visual images makes this topic very compelling on the screen, since his example, Biff from Back to the Future,  is from a movie itself. Here we can see what makes visual essays so great: when our example is from the screen or very visual, it works really well to talk about it visually versus in writing since it matches in essence.  I believe employing this tactic  sets up McIntosh for the best argument possible.

That being said, his video comes across a bit lecture-y. We see his face on half the screen most of the time talking to us, but not in a way that seems like we’re figuring this out together in real time, but  like he’s already prepared everything and he’s simply informing his audience. He goes through defining the words “toxic” and “masculinity” within culture, and then what it means when the two words are put together: “As a shorthand to describe behaviors linked to domination, humiliation, and control”. Then he talks over his examples of Biff exemplifying all of his definitions within the movie. Overall, the video essay is pretty simple in its structure: explanation by Jonathan, clear formula for toxic masculinity, example shown on screen. It’s not very creative or visually striking, but he gets his point across.

It’s definitely a video essay, but more in the literal sense than a lot of the video essays we’ve been watching and commenting on in class. It’s literally an essay in video format about a cultural topic that can be explained through a movie example. I learned something, I just wasn’t super enthralled by the approach.



Commentary on “How does an Editor Think And Feel?” By Tony Zhou

I was drawn to this essay  because of it’s title: the question made me think I was going to learn something and the subject matter interests me a great deal. I loved the way Tony went about this piece, because he took an informal approach to describe the ways of a formal discipline in the film industry: editing. He starts out how he always does: “Hi, my name is Tony,” and I can never get over this. The sentence primes the viewer for his impending video by explaining his informality, personality, and personableness in just the first few seconds.

The beginning of the piece feels like the videographic trailers we made for our finals in that he poses a question. He starts off by telling us an anecdote and that he needs to find out the answer to a question. He says someone asked him about his editing process the other day, as if he’s talking to us in a coffee shop, off-hand, casually, and that it made him think. He gets down to the nitty gritty stuff quickly: “How do you know when to cut?” He follows a format of posing a question and then getting through it using examples and industry professionals’ interview footage and goes through it a few times. It’s so simple that I can understand what he’s saying without having to watch the 9-minute clip over again. I really appreciate this and I bet I’m not alone. This in itself is a remarkable feat and the proof of a seasoned videographic essayist.

The use of voiceover here is definitely the right choice, since his arguments hinge upon the video’s visuals and leans on our attention spans. I love how he asks us to look at a cut right before he shows it, then shows it without voiceover, and asks us what we thought. This is a great technique to take note of. It feels like I’m in class but it’s a class I thoroughly enjoy. He asks us how we feel and how we think, and then shows examples of how real editors do their work and their processes, putting us in their shoes. It’s fun!

Although editing is classically supposed to be “invisible” to the viewer, I appreciate how he puts forth examples of movies where editing is meant to be jarring, as well as other examples that show how crucial good editors are for the emotional reaction of the audience and the overall success of a movie. I would recommend this video for everyone. Anyone could find something to learn within it.

KOGONADA “Mirrors of Bergman”

“The idea of Plath watching and engaging the women of Bergman is almost too much to bear. Who would have more to say about these women than Plath?”

This is a beautiful video essay for the criterion collection that seems like a combination of our supercut and voiceover exercises. Kogonada puts together some very poignant and revealing scenes from Bergman’s films of women looking into mirrors, which feels like a kind of supercut. Then, a woman reads Sylvia Plath’s poem, “The Mirror”, aloud in the background with a Vivaldi classical piece, informing the women as they look at their reflections. The tone of the poem is sad and haunting, which creates a sad yet beautiful tone to the video as well. The images seem to unite together as one, and the poem expresses all of their thoughts harmoniously. They are never looking happily into the mirror and are almost always sad, in fact, one woman even writes on the mirror the word “lonely” in another language (Kogonada wrote text next to it to translate). Kogonada has really hit upon a perfect marriage between these two mediums. I love the way he chooses to begin with the shot of a woman gargling and lets us hear her gargle in front of the mirror, and then show the title, and then the poem starts as she bends down to spit. It is more striking this way. A woman is doing her every day routine in front of the mirror, it’s not pretty, it just is, and it’s also a weird shot to film for a movie anyway, since it seems so inconsequential, like showing a character going to the bathroom – there’s no point – or is there? All of these bathroom scenes in which women are grimacing at themselves or fixing their makeup and hair, serve no classical purpose, such as to advance the plot . The only explanation is to show these women’s mental statuses and their inner thoughts. Even though the camera can depict their images reflected in the mirrors, we have no idea who or what they see, what they’re really thinking, and why they shouldn’t love what is reflected back at them; they are beautiful but they can’t see it. Since Kogonada does not give us any context for the Bergman films, all we see are these short scenes of women of all ages prodding a themselves, full of distaste and curiously, longing to change their images. As the poem says:

A woman bends over me,

Searching my reaches for what she really is.

Then she turns to those liars, the candles or the moon.

I see her back, and reflect it faithfully.

She rewards me with tears and an agitation of hands.

Questioning the Human Machine – Allison de Fren

Even though I consider myself a near-expert on this film since I chose it for my exercises, Allison de Fren still teaches me about many new aspects of Ex Machina in her video essay. This new knowledge comes quickly in the form of voiceover – calm and measured, just like the background music. Right away, she hits me with “Most of the dialogue is composed of questions” and  “Every question is a test for the characters but also the audience.” That was crazy for me to hear. I had not thought about it that way before, but it’s true. Before, I just wrote off the questioning style of the dialogue as true to the form of the Touring Test that Caleb, the main character, has to perform on Ava, the AI machine. It’s a test, so naturally, there should be questioning. But she’s right, the questioning goes so far beyond just the Touring Test; it permeates through virtually every conversation between Caleb and Nathan, the mastermind behind Ava, too. The movie is mainly a huge mind game that Nathan is playing on Caleb, but it is also a mind game that the movie is playing on the audience. We only come by crucial bits of information at the same time as Caleb does, with Nathan almost always five steps ahead. We have to ask questions in order to understand the movie at all, or else we would be lost. 

Allison de Fren uses scenes to augment her voiceover, as a kind of explanatory mode. Once she brings up an idea, she explains it through the dialogue between characters; for example, when Nathan explains the Touring Test to Caleb. She tells us the facts first and explains through the scenes after, causing the viewer to glue their eyes to the screen; they don’t want to miss this chance to see Allison’s words proven visually. In this way, the video essay completely assumes the role of a teacher instructing viewers, it feels very explanatory, almost lecture-y, but mesmerizing, not dull. Her voiceover complements the movie so well since her lullingly smooth voice and pacing matches Ava’s robotic yet human voice. This video is so successful, I can’t begin to get into her use of outside sources; it just flows so seamlessly through even though the sources are so different. From connecting Ex Machina to Blade Runner to the Bechdel Test to citing pictures of reclining naked women in artwork throughout history. Adding these extra elements really convinced me of her point, just as if she were writing an essay on paper and gathered pieces of evidence from all over.

“Fear Itself Clip 1” composed & performed by Jeremy Warmsley, from the 2015 horror movie essay film, directed by Charlie Lyne

This horror movie essay felt like a movie in itself, with the beginning creating suspense using visuals and voiceover just like the beginning of most horror movie beginning teasers. Then the title “Fear Itself” appearing in white font camouflaged under a mass of black, smoky nothingness really amplified the horror element and makes the video essay more like a movie itself by following the classic movie sequence. You don’t ever get to read the full title out because of the black covering the words, but you know what it says anyway and this is powerful and keeps the viewer paying attention. I had never thought to structure a video essay like this before. It is intriguing,  suspenseful, and very fitting for its subject matter.

Everyone says it is super important to strike the right tone and personality with voiceover – I think this essay does a great job at that. The voice is female and sounds frail, as if she is about to burst out crying, and her serious, slow tone makes me hold on to every word she says. She talks about the feeling of watching a horror movie, feeling fear, and not knowing where it comes from or when it will set in. Everyone knows horror movies are just constructed sequences to make us cringe or jump out of our seats, but despite this knowledge, we feel fear all the same. The shots in the beginning are of women and men in different horror movies who look afraid, and we align them with the speaker in the voiceover as well as with ourselves and our experience with fear. We don’t hear much in terms of the source film’s audio – except when we need to. For example, the voiceover says “They [horror movies] make you wonder what else is out there, just beyond your grasp, by giving you just enough sound to hear the silence…” as a man shuts a door and then the volume goes up and we hear it creak in a scary way. The visuals connect to the voiceover too, as if they are working together. In the same sequence, the voiceover continues, “… And giving you just enough light to realize how dark it really is,” as the black and white visuals show a bright light appearing in the distance of a dark sky. The essay also does a superb job in actually scaring the viewer just by showing all these clips where scary moments are about to happen, and juxtaposing that with the voiceover’s explanation of how we define fear and what it feels like.

Kogonada “Kubrick // One-Point Perspective”

The first thing I noticed about Kogonada’s “Kubrick// One-Point Perspective” was the sound. It is very dramatic and suspenseful. It makes you feel like you’re being chased. The music is a familiar score and it enhances the already dramatic tone of Kubrick’s famous movies. 

The cuts are very fast in the beginning and of the same subject matter – a supercut – to convey the overall idea that Kubrick uses an insane amount of one-point perspective shots in his movies. Due to the sheer number of instances presented here in the 1 minute 44 second video essay, this point comes across even stronger. Kogonada’s point is conveyed all through visual elements and stylistic choices instead of voiceover or dialogue. 

The cuts of graphic scenes in the movies are timed well with the music’s pace, some scenes flashing for less than a second and others wavering for more time depending on the music. This creates a sense of visual balance and establishes a connection/ a through-line between the visuals – which come from all different Kubrick films – and the audio, which is not a part of a Kubrick film at all. 

In most of the shots, there are characters who are in the middle of a movement. Kogonada puts specific shots together that express a common movement between them, such as standing still, walking, or running. He matches the pace of the song with the pace of the characters, getting more frantic as the song gets more frantic. This added to my awe of the piece. It works so well! This serious yet dramatic tone made me sit up and pay attention to each frame. I noticed that the characters in the shots on the whole begin to move more and more throughout the video, creating a buildup to the end of the essay. Then Kogonada quickly juxtaposes scenes on Earth with scenes that place the one point perspective between colorful walls in space one after the other (I’m not sure which movie that’s from, 2001: A Space Odyssey?) and even overlays the images with scenes from space at the climax of the video.

This video shows you that Kubrick’s films are not only filled with one-point perspective shots, but also that the subject matter is intense, driven by movement and style. The videographic form can bend to fit both visuals and audio, even connecting the two with editing. For me, that trick Kogonada uses here of matching music to the editing made this video essay really fantastic. 

Commentary on “The Marvel Symphonic Universe”

I really enjoyed watching this video essay entitled “The Marvel Symphonic Universe” by Tony Zhou. The title alone got me hooked, since I am a huge fan of the Marvel franchise and, as the video shows, many others are, too. What is so interesting about this video is that the simple questions he poses: “Could you sing any music from Star Wars… Harry Potter… a Marvel Film?” yield such different answers. He asks people on the street to sing the familiar scores off the top of their heads and they easily come up with classic music from the first two, but for the Marvel movies? Zilch. Crickets. Everyone is embarrassed because they say they love the movies so much, but they can’t think of anything that makes their music distinct. Tony goes on to give examples of music in scenes from marvel movies, playing around with it in a fascinating way; he takes the music out, then listens to the music without dialogue, then even replaces the it from music assigned to an entirely different scene. The process of experimentation and discovery was amazing for me to watch. Tony critiques Marvel’s “safe” decision-making around scoring their films without outright saying they’re doing something wrong, simply suggesting better options to tug on the heart-strings or convey a stronger idea. It is heartening to see that a mega-corporation like Marvel with so many successful films under its belt can be taken down a level by a video essayist on Vimeo. The video’s clear format paired with well-executed evidence and some humor mixed in makes the video successful and illuminating. Now I can see that Marvel doesn’t do everything right, they play it safe by creating scores that fade into the background so much so that they’re forgettable.

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