FMMC0334 - Fall 2017, MW 8:40-9:55am

Author: Noah Liebmiller

‘The Art of Editing in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ Video Commentary

This video essay by Max Tohline exhaustively unpacks the famous two-and-a-half minute standoff from Sergio Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It covers the 65 shots in this standoff, during which no one speaks all three main characters move very little. He notes that the chief actor in this sequence is the editing, and argues that, from a certain perspective, film is at its best when it “isn’t telling a story at all.”

 

This is a really, really thorough breakdown of this short-but-important scene. Tohline walks through three different ways the editing develops and operates within the sequence: it reveals mathematical patterns, it visualizes the main characters’ thoughts, and it cooperates with the music to construct a nearly-hypnotizing rhythm. This essay demonstrates that in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Leone was doing more than telling a rollicking Western adventure—he was playfully experimenting with the medium of film itself. So many so-called “spaghetti Westerns” have at their core a genuinely artistic motivation, wrapped in a box office-friendly story full of action and adventure. This essay demonstrates how Leone strikes this difficult balance, especially without the benefit of a melodramatically profound or socially incisive script.

 

As a video essay, this works nicely as an instructional piece of positive criticism. It is wonderfully constructed—the enormous time commitment producing this must have taken is certainly visible. This essay could be great viewing in a college-level film studies class, especially one about genre films or editing techniques, because of its exhaustive exploration of how shots, eyeline matches, and music are combined to such extraordinary effect. I did take issue with one of Tohline’s big-picture theses: he says that film is at its best when it isn’t telling a story at all, but spends a good deal of time in his essay explaining why this nearly three-minute sequence, which includes no dialogue or action, informs and improves the story solely through the techniques of filmmaking. A substantial portion of his analysis proves not that the best thing about film is when it revels in technique, but when it uses uniquely cinematic techniques to develop a story, rather than relying solely on its script. There is a dissonance between his more abstract, artistic insight and his actual analytical work, which indicates to me that the motivating factor here is the desire to explore and praise the sequence and its editing techniques specifically, and not to make some grander statement about the power and possibilities of cinema the Leone captures. I think that dovetails with another more banal criticism that might nonetheless be more important for those of us taking a video essays class: this video isn’t that entertaining to watch. It’s beautifully put together and very instructive, but it doesn’t engage or stimulate the viewer. Some of the best videographic criticism, like “Carnal Locomotive” or “Every Frame a Painting,” is thought provoking, profound, amusing, or some combination of the three. This has the advantage of making your audience better appreciate your point, because they are paying closer attention to what you say. Video is an inherently fun medium; a video essay should use that entertainment value as a resource to engage the audience.

‘Rites of Passage’ Video Commentary

This video essay by Catherine Grant uses shots from Hitchcock’s Rebecca (1940) which feature what Grant calls “liminal moments,” moments which involve nearing or crossing a boundary. In practice, these moments involve moving through doors, corridors, or passageways. Typically, the protagonist, played by Joan Fontaine, is a prominent feature in these shots. Accompanied only by Franz Waxman’s score, this video is a testament to the power of minimalism and restraint in videographic film criticism.

 

‘Rites of Passage’ imparts two lessons. The first is about liminality and liminal spaces. All of these shots share a darkness about them. Many have very few—if any—clear horizontal lines in their composition. Hitchcock also emphasizes the darkness and shadow of these moments, as passageways and half-open doors spill light in uneven, constricted shapes. Fontaine’s face is almost constantly obscured in these moments, contorted by the lighting into peculiar and even grotesque shapes. This imagery reinforces the symbolic instability and uncertainty associated with liminal spaces, a sensation the rest of the film reinforces for Fontaine’s unnamed character and for the viewer. The second lesson this essay teaches is about Rebecca itself. This is a film wherein clarity and certainty is hard to come by. The repetition of these moments, and the stark imagery that accompanies them, reinforces the idea that Rebecca is a story in which liminality is a source of misery, mystery, and vulnerability. Fontaine is outside her “comfort zone,” outside familiar settings, and well outside “ordinary” romance. This sense that she is dangerously near to a precarious and inscrutable boundary shows how Rebecca builds tension even from the very start, and in the most mundane of moments.

 

My takeaway from this essay is less a “big lesson” about how video essays should be than it is a point of reflection for my own work in this class. In ‘Rites of Passage,’ Grant uses minimalism to great effect. No voiceover, no onscreen text, just a series of images from Rebecca with the film’s score in place of diagetic sound. This focuses one’s attention on the specific motifs she’s trying to reveal. Too much at once can be distracting; simplicity and repetition can be profound. I often try to do “more”—I try to include as much information as I can, especially with very long voiceover—and I think this has two big drawbacks. Obviously, it can be distracting from my argument, but another thing is that it sort of stymies my process of actually putting a video essay together. When I have lots of voiceover to record and edit, my patience for empty space with “just” images in my video is lessened. I’m less inclined to go back and record different dialogue, and less willing to let myself be pulled in a more creative direction when I’m actually sitting at a computer editing things together. Simplicity is good. It’s okay to focus sharply on just a few elements, especially when the alternative is distracting my audience and myself with a whole bouquet of techniques.

‘Lessons from the Films of 2013’ Video Commentary

This video essay by Kevin B. Lee examines how some of the best films of 2013 use cinematic technique to “teach” audiences how to view them. He zeroes in on two scenes in particular, one from Hannah Arendt and another from Springbreakers, both of which focus on scenes of lectures given in an educational setting. Cleverly, he notes that these scenes use the tricks of filmmaking to unconsciously instruct us how to view them; we, as an audience, are also being educated by the film. In the case of the first scene, protagonist Hannah Arendt makes an impassioned defense of her worldview in front of a crowded lecture hall, the thesis of which is that free thinking will be the salvation of mankind. While the sophisticated script wants us to think for ourselves, the filmmaking manipulates us—the camera shows us a sympathetic young woman in the audience who fiercely agrees with Arendt, as well as a skeptical, snooty-looking fellow who seems to doubt her. Of these two characters, the young woman is the one we want to root for, and she is definitely in Arendt’s camp. Lee observes that the script alone is compelling and convincing; we don’t need the film to manipulate us in this manner in order to agree with Arendt. This video very lucidly illustrates how the distinctive elements of film—like cuts and shot composition—can, if used in an unthinking fashion, contradict the performances or script of a movie, or even the ideology of the director.

 

As a video essay, this works very nicely for two reasons. First, it creates a good balance between the two films it analyzes. Both are given roughly equal time structurally, and both are discussed as relevant to Lee’s overall point as well as within their own contexts. At no point does this essay feel like a piece chiefly about either Hannah Arendt or Springbreakers which merely makes reference to the other film. The upshot of this balance is that it strengthens Lee’s overall argument, about how films teach your unconscious how to view them. The second reason this piece is effective is that it urges you to take his argument with a grain of salt. He warns that making video essays has put him in a position of seeing “too much” in film; that analysis of how a movie works can override his enjoyment of it. It’s a plea for a diversity of viewpoints and an urging not to blindly accept what he gives you. In addition to being an interesting argument about the video essay as a critical form, this approach also creates a modest, reasonable tone that makes the video pleasant to watch.

‘Snowpiercer – Left or Right’ Video Commentary

 

This short video essay by Tony Zhou explores the relationship between lateral movement within a frame and the visual construction of choice in film narrative. Zhou argues that in Snowpiercer (Bong Joon-Ho, 2013), movement leftwards and rightwards onscreen is given a powerful symbolic dimension. While lateral movement can impart some unconscious ideas, when contextualized by narrative it can become a compelling force within a film. Snowpiercer takes place on a train, and the goal of the protagonist (played by Chris Evans) is to make his way from the rear of the train to the front. Along his journey—a more dangerous one that that plot summary suggests—he is visually shown to be moving from left to right, even as he is often pulled back towards the left, where live those for whom he is struggling. Zhou notes that this right-left balance—between a goal and the things that anchor and contextualize that goal—allows the director to show Chris Evans making important, irreversible binary choices. These are choices between left and right, and between the different outcomes those directions are made to symbolize through the design of the film. This is a much more effective means of displaying the struggle of a difficult choice than using dialogue alone, both because it draws on film’s particular visual strength, and because it gives the audience a chance to experience the feeling of responsibility and indecision with which a character may be faced.

 

As a piece of videographic criticism, I think this video shows how to effectively use a brief runtime. Its brevity gives it a sense of momentum and focus. The fact that this video isn’t even three minutes means that a substantial majority of it can be filled with exactly the right images—in this case, shots that show the right-left dichotomy Zhou puts under the microscope. It allows this particular visual trick to stand out prominently and engagingly, without having to repeat images or resort to “filler” footage. It also means that Zhou doesn’t have time to use voiceover alone to make his point. He relies on voiceover to shade and focus the audience’s interpretation of his chosen images. This makes the video very focused. This focus makes it memorable and clear—it may lose the ability to look at the issue more deeply or with more substantial sophistication, but that’s an intentional tradeoff, not a weakness.

‘Coen Country’ Video Commentary

This video essay by Steven Benedict traces and juxtaposes favored tropes and motifs from the films of Ethan and Joel Coen. His stated purpose—that “the characters talk to one another across the films so we can more clearly hear the Coens’ dominant concerns”—is effectively realized, and without relying on voiceover he makes a lucid and surprisingly sophisticated argument.

 

As a work of film criticism, “Coen Country” economically weaves shots from just about every single Coen film (minus the not-yet-released Hail, Caesar!) together to demonstrate how the concerns of their characters overlap between stories. The three Coen fixations addressed here are identity, miscommunication, and morality. The repetition of related images and the sound of remarkably similar character dialogue shows both the almost universal relevance of these themes throughout the Coen’s catalogue. It also demonstrates that the Coen’s rely heavily on dialogue to present these motifs. Less talented writers might make the mistake of putting the subtext of what the characters say directly into a character’s mouth. This piece shows that the Coens are far too smart for that. It clarifies how they make a statement or convey and idea solely using miscommunication, awkwardness, and misunderstanding. Less flatteringly, it shows that the Coen’s put a big burden on their actors, as using miscommunication within a film to communicate a theme to that film’s audience is a substantial undertaking—and because the film then relies on their success or failure to work. Since the Coens have a remarkably good success rate, it contributes to the popular notion of the Coens as “actor’s directors” who make good use of good actors in good roles. Is it because they attract top talent? Because they have a keen eye for casting? Are they just good at directing actors? Perhaps it’s a combination of all these factors.

 

This short video essay is easy and fun to watch, but also prompts a lot of thought about the Coens’ catalogue. Part of how it achieves this dual effect is with rapid, energetic editing. It also makes great use of dialogue, by layering a voice from one film over the images of another. The characters sound like they’re in dialogue with each other, and the lines, down to the exact delivery, often sound as if they must surely be from the same scene—even though they aren’t. The dialogue Benedict uses is also just well put together. The “voiceover” moves organically from theme to theme, which encourages us to think about how these motifs fit together and reinforce each other. This really reveals the power of deciding against voiceover: by making a video more about experiencing an association of sound and images, Benedict makes it more interpretively dense.

‘Linklater // On Cinema & Time’ Video Commentary

This video essay by Kogonada withholds analytical, expository voiceover and onscreen text in favor of foregrounding the sounds and images of Richard Linklater’s Before trilogy, as well as numerous other films which deal with and interrogate the concept of time in cinema. This creates an effective and affecting video, one that delivers far more meaning and invites far more engagement than a less abstract viewing experience might produce. Kogonada in this piece examines not merely how time is treated as a theme in great films, but also how film itself captures and embalms time. He posits the premise that cinema is “the art of time,” and explores how, through that mentality, Linklater and others—most obviously Francois Truffaut in his four Antoine Doinel films—use film to sketch the development of characters across their lives. Time is imagined in these films as a fleeting and insubstantial thing; in Linklater’s vision, we are visitors in the world for the brief period of our lives. This does not result in a nihilistic conception of reality or a pessimistic directorial style however. Rather, it imbues brief and irretrievably passing moments with a deep meaning and profundity. This mentality lies at the heart of Linklater’s best works, and ties his films together—not through a distinctive visual style, idiosyncratic narrative structure, or favored choice of subject matter, but rather through a core cinematic DNA which uses captured and embalmed moments of time to have a filmic conversation about the nature of time.

 

As a work of videographic film criticism, this piece benefits enormously from its more experimental style. Though hardly avant-garde, this video essay has very little direct narration—Kogonada sparingly deploys clips of a phone interview he conducted with Linklater, but these sounds neither distract from the juxtaposition of film visuals nor tell us directly how we should interpret a given work. Instead, Kogonada demands more of his audience. He asks us to draw connections between great films—like Truffaut’s Doinel films and Linklater’s Before trilogy—and, more importantly, probe what in Truffaut’s work inspired Linklater. Kogonada’s interview, as well as generous character voiceover, suggests that it’s the multilayered relationship between film and time which has prompted this imitation. Because Kogonada refrains from spelling out his precise ideas about the subject, he leaves more room for interpretation in the mind of the viewer, allowing them to draw connections to beautiful-but-fleeting moments in their own lives, or perhaps imagining concurrent examples in other films. One clever trick Kogonada uses to encourage this interpretation is to use audio from one Before film—mostly Before Sunrise (1995)—over images taken from the subsequent films in the trilogy. This draws the three films, which were made with nine year gaps in between them, much closer together. Simultaneously, it prompts those who know the films well to consider how the characters changed throughout the series, and why such juxtaposition feels narratively jarring even as it reinforces Kogonada’s thesis.

‘Inglourious Basterds – The Elements of Suspense’ Video Commentary

 

This video essay by Michael Tucker is part of a substantial series of YouTube-published pieces called “Lessons from the Screenplay” which, predictably, focuses on the way a story is crafted and dialogue is presented, rather than the cinematography, editing, or mise-en-scene within a given piece. This installment focuses on one of the greatest scenes in all of 21st century cinema—the opening fifteen minutes of Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, wherein SS Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz) confronts Perrier La Padite (Denis Menochet), a French dairy farmer who is hiding Jews from occupying Nazi forces. Tucker examines this scene from a strictly textual point of view—rather than look at how the sequence is shot and edited in such a way that it lingers on Menochet’s sweaty, petrified face and Waltz’s calm, almost friendly one, for example, he focuses on how the screenplay proceeds and how it builds on fundamental elements of tension and suspense. Tension and suspense, he explains, occur when instability and uncertainty—and very high stakes—are introduced into a previously stable situation. He examines how the La Padite family’s life is subtly shown to be stable and peaceful, and contrasts that with Col. Landa’s threatening, faux-polite intimidation tactics. He also explains the difference between tension—a diffuse sensation of stress—and suspense, which presents to the audience a number of troubling possibilities which induce anxiety.

 

This video essay might stick a bit to the “basic” side in its analysis, but there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s clearly aimed at a beginner audience, one not as well-versed in the particular building blocks of a screenplay as film students might be. I think that’s actually a strength of this piece—it has a good sense of what audience it’s looking for, and tailors its level of sophistication specifically to that perspective. It’s very ambitious, or totally impossible, for a video essay to comprehensively cover every detail in a scene at every level of sophistication. It’s far better to tailor your video’s approach, and crucially, to have a certain sort of viewer in mind. This degree of focus is also seen in Tucker’s exclusion of any analysis of details not relevant to the Basterds screenplay. Rather than overwhelm and confuse the viewer by noting every subtle cinematic tactic used to ramp up the anxiety in this scene, he limits his voiceover analysis to elements from the screenplay, but still shows various other elements—like the stressfully building musical score—at times that make the viewer aware of how they contribute to the scene. Combined with a high level of polish in the production of the video, all these choices create a slick and confident video essay, even without a film-scholar level of sophistication.

‘The Film Before the Film’ Video Commentary

 

This video essay by Nora Thos and Damian Perez explores the history of opening credits and the artistic and technological approaches used to present them. While it serves as a good example of a student-level video essay, it lacks the precision and the depth of analysis found in the best of that category.

 

Thos and Perez begin by tracing the evolution of early opening credits, which were initially just a few frames of crude signage which served only to establish copyright and ensure contractual obligations. Eventually, pioneering credits designer Saul Bass, who worked with visionaries like Otto Preminger and Alfred Hitchcock, set a much higher bar, using creative illustrations and effects to reinvent credits. In Bass’s formulation, opening credits could be visually engaging, artistically stimulating, and narratively useful. However, I think Thos and Perez overstate Bass’s level of influence in introducing this concept—compelling opening credits sequences had been around well before the 1950s (the ominous outline of a man on a crutch in Double Indemnity’s credits is a personal favorite of mine). Eventually, Thos and Perez explain, the advent computer-generated effects led to a “second renaissance” for opening credits, allowing for much more elaborate sequences and third-dimensional effects.

 

This video essay is a capably paced and very well-produced piece, which shows a deep familiarity with the history of the subject matter as well as confidence in the technical elements of producing such a piece. On the downside, unfortunately, is a comparatively unrefined script and a somewhat shallow intellectual approach. The ending of the piece, especially, feels as though the creators were floundering for a conclusion that left the audience with a “big picture” understanding, or a deeper thematic takeaway. The final minute flits between a brief exploration of a single trend in opening credit design, Woody Allen’s minimization of the opening credits, the similarity of approach between two 90s thrillers (Se7en and Mimic), and the experimental style of modern filmmaker Gaspard Noe. None of these ideas feel connected, and all four are under-explored. Thos and Perez would have benefitted by exploring more similarities in credits design across the decades of film history, and by examining why a trend might be popular by suggesting the effect it has on the audience. That would give this piece more substance and coherence, beyond its effective exposition and effective use of sound and image.

‘The Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots’ Video Commentary

This video essay by Kevin B. Lee traces the evolution of Paul Thomas Anderson’s style across his early career through five examples of his famed use of Steadicam-shot long takes. Lee pays special attention to the movement and speed of the camera, the composition of the shots, and the staging of the scene in trying to isolate and describe the essence at the core of each shot. In the first example, for instance, from Hard Eight (1996), the long-take tracking shot under examination follows a swaggering, dynamic protagonist through rows of “zombie-like” gamblers sitting in front of slot machines. This is a shot meant to tell us about what separates our main character from most other people in the world of the film. Across his early career—including in such classic films as Boogie Nights (1997) and its famous introductory shot—Anderson slowly discards the flashiness of the hectic and highly mobile long-take tracking shot and instead gravitates toward subtler and perhaps more sophisticated camera movement. In There Will Be Blood (2007), for example, the tracking shot Lee offers for examination contains remarkably little camera movement, but its ensemble staging and elegantly minimalist tracking toward the characters and lateral pans draws out and builds the tension in the scene. Lee does excellent work to illustrate the power of the long take to situate the audience within the world of a film, making them feel surrounded, in the case of Boogie Nights, say, by the exuberance of 1970s Southern California. More importantly, Lee clues us in on something that Anderson does with perhaps singular skill: pairing camera movement with character movement and positioning to consciously and unconsciously clue us in on the mental state of a film’s characters.

 

As a work of videographic criticism, this piece is engagingly and effectively rendered, but it falls short, particularly in its conclusion. This essay claims to sum up “the Career of Paul Thomas Anderson in Five Shots,” but really only presents five shots with insightful analysis and cursory comparison. There is no genuine attempt to summarize or hypothesize the evolution he puts on display. He’s made a wonderful essay looking at five distinct scenes, but I’m interested in hearing what the broader takeaway is from Lee’s point of view. What might have prompted the evolution seen in these shots? Is Anderson’s development wholly positive, or has he left something important behind? What does this change in Anderson’s career portend for those films he’s yet to make, or for those who look to his work for inspiration? What’s frustrating is that Lee gives the impression that he has some “big-picture takeaways” from these shots that he expects the audience to draw. This might be a misreading on my part, but in any case this essay would benefit from a larger thematic discussion than “here’s some film school analysis of great shots. PTA is a genius.”

‘In Praise of Chairs’ Video Commentary

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.

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