Author: William DiGravio

Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Stairs

As I watched this video essay I was reminded of one of the many videos I have found on my late-night YouTube deep dives. It is this video of Roger Ebert asking Alfred Hitchcock, on behalf of a graduate student, about the role of staircases in his films. Hitch delivers a very Hitchcockian answer, “I think staircases are made to go up and down.” He then goes on to describe how staircases can be very pleasing to eye aesthetically, especially in their ability to show movement.

This video essay, “Alfred Hitchcock’s 39 Stairs,” is a wonderful illustration of Hitchcock’s use of the staircase in his films. He is the master of it. In fact, he’s so good at it he makes us forget just how difficult it is to make something as simple as walking up a flight of stairs so suspenseful: the camera movement, blocking, pace of the action, and camera angle all must be in perfect harmony in order to create the maximum dramatic effect.

The composition of this video essay helps to illustrate this dramatic build up. We start with shorter shots, where a character may only walk up or down a few steps. As the film progresses, the shots of the staircase get longer and longer. The video essayist also alternates between shots of a character going up the stairs and shots of a character going down the stairs. This beautifully illustrates not only how important the staircases are in Hitchcock’s films, but also movement, and how the character gets from point A to point B.

It also shows us how movement up or down a staircase can change depending on the pace of the actor, as well as their body movement and expression. We have contrasts like the one between Cary Grant bounding up the steps in To Catch a Thief and Joan Fontaine slowly building up the courage to walk up the stairs in Rebecca; we have Tippi Hedren confidently walking up the steps in Marnie, and Ingrid Bergman nervously walking down the stairs in Spellbound.  This essay does a great job not only in providing us with 39 great and different examples, but also in illustrating how Hitchcock is able to masterfully use such a mundane object and turn it into the most suspenseful part of his film.

360° Zoetrope: The Horse In Motion (1878)

This video essay is absolutely memorizing. I found myself watching it again and again and again. I think of all the video essays I’ve seen this may be the most artistic. The way it utilizes images, movement, and 360 degree exploration is truly unique and unlike any video essay, let a lone a traditional academic essay.

The video essay is a digital recreation of a zoetrope and allows the viewers to experience what those machines were like in a beautifully remastered way. It speeds up and slows down in order to illustrates how the movement of the images create the illusion of motion. And the the 360 degree exploration allows us to distort and manipulate the images as they speed up and slow down. If one of the key things about video essays is the exploration, then this one takes the cake. The interactive elements of the essay itself allow the viewer to explore and experience the essay. You can watch it several times (as I did) and take away something new each time.

While the interactive and aesthetic aspects of the essay are great, it’s simply the content that make it so compelling for me. One of the most exciting things for me about the videographic form and criticism is that it allows us to reexamine old, great, and important films and produce criticism and scholarship that is new. How much has been written about The Horse in Motion, and how much more could possible be said. It’d be beating a dead horse (haha). In all seriousness, this allows us to rediscover films and revive them. Video essays are making them relevant again and they’re allowing us new ways to view these films and understand film history and the evolving nature of film.

Journey of a Sound: Signal 30 (Mad Men)

As I watch more and more video essays I’ve come to realize that the ones that draw me in best and most capture my attention are those that utilize sound in interesting ways, whether it be using sound to enhance the imagery on screen or dissecting the sound of the films themselves. It goes without saying that the difference between the video essay and the traditional academic essay is that the former uses images and the later only words. However, for me, the most exciting part of the video essay is the chance to explore and use audio to articulate an argument. To my mind, sound, even more so than images, is the great differentiator between the two.

As I was watching the above scene from Mad Men that Michael Mclennan dissects in his video essay, “Journey of a Sound: Signal 30 (Mad Men),” I was thinking about how I would go about making his argument in a traditional academic essay. The crux of his essay is basically following a similar/sometimes identical sound that follows Peter Campbell throughout the episode, paying special attention to how the sound is used expressively. As I watched the essay I was trying to think about how I would describe the sound. I’ve described how things look before, the visuals, but I don’t think I’ve described a sound before. Sounds are far more nuanced, and thus much more difficult to describe. If we are to write, to borrow the sounds explored in the essay, that a “whistle sounds” or “water drips,” our language is limited only to that person’s understanding of what that sound is. They can only “hear” what they remember as water dripping, or what they perceive as a whistle. This is limiting, and thus makes it so an argument cannot be fully articulated to its fullest ability.

One thing I also like in this video essay is the use of text on screen. It is a great example of how to illustrate an argument while also letting the sound and images do the talking.

How Alfred Hitchcock Blocks A Scene

Here is yet another example of how video essays distinguish themselves from traditional academic essays. In “How Hitchcock Blocks a Scene,” the essayist creates his own video, in this case, an animated representation of the scene from Vertigo he dissects, to accompany Hitchcock’s film.  

This is different than the other multiscreen projects I have seen, where typically we have some other element of the film, or another film altogether, juxtaposed on screen. However, here, we have a graphic that completely supplements the source images and illustrates how the scene is blocked.

What’s interesting about this essay is that we have three elements at play here: the voiceover, the animated graphic that represents the room, and the film itself. As we begin watching the essay, our attention is firmly drawn to the video and the voiceover, with period glances towards the image illustrating how the scene is blocked. However, as the essay progresses, we begin to focus on the film, and more on the essayists recreation. We become more concerned with the bird’s eye view the essayist recreates rather than Hitchcock’s film. Because the graphic does such an amazing job in illustrating where Jimmy Stewart and Tom Helmore are in relation to one another and the objects in the room, it captures our attention, and we only glance back at the film itself when we need to reaffirm what the narrator is telling and showing us. It’s so captivating because it allows us to understand scene construction in a way that is so clear and precise, anyone would be able to understand it. Yet, this is no small feat.

Hitchcock makes blocking a scene seems easier because he is the master of it. By actually dissecting it, we begin to see how complicated a process it really is, and begin to appreciate Hitchcock’s skill in this area of filmmaking

My main takeaway with video essays is that perhaps its main advantage is its ability to integrate other digital technologies, whether they be old, current, or future ways of representing sounds and images.

Alfred Hitchcock // Point of View

I’ve watched this video three or four times and I find it absolutely memorizing. I must admit, when we first started watching and crafting video essays, I was skeptical of the split screen as a tactic. It just felt odd to minimize and alter masterpieces and divide our attention. As I said in my last post, they often make my head hurt and I don’t think they’re always the most effective way to get a point across.

However, the more I watch the more I realize I was wrong, and this essay was absolutely the turning point. This essay uses 24 films to examine Hitchcock’s use of eye line matching and point of view shots. It’s one of those shots that’s so common in film we don’t really think about it, however, this video essay illustrates how there is in an art to crafting these types of shots. I think this goes back to video essays being a laboratory, where we are able to take apart films and see what makes them work. Here, we’re able to see Hitchcock, the master craftsman, at work.

This piece of criticism compliments the video essay I watched a few weeks ago , “Eyes of Hitchcock,” in which kogonada brilliant illustrates how essential the human eye is in Hitchcock’s films. In “Alfred Hitchcock//Point of View,” we see many of the same shots kogonada uses, however we get to actually see what the characters are looking at, and shows us how the image of the eyes are only half of their affect. The beautifully framed eyes in Hitchcock’s film lose their affect if we do not have an equally compelling image to match them with.

It seems obvious, but these shots also provide a kind of one, two punch. The best example I found in this essay was the side by side shots of Mrs. Danvers at the end of Rebecca. We see her surrounded by the flames that are rapidly engulfing Manderley. She is running around Rebecca’s room, clearly disoriented by the smoke. We then cut to a point of view shot of the flaming ceiling falling down on her. This allows us to feel her death, and has a tremendous affect. And this is clearly illustrated in this wonderful video essay.

From Script to Screen: The Joker Interrogation Scene in “The Dark Knight”

I stumbled across this video essay by accident. In fact, I’m not even sure it’s meant to be a “video essay,” however, it is. The essay is pretty simple. It utilizes split screen to have a scene from The Dark Knight on top and the film’s screenplay on the bottom. The screenplay scrolls from bottom to top as the scene progresses.

I’m generally not a fan of the split screen video essays, not because I think they do a poor job articulating ideas, but because I often find them confusing and they sometimes make my head hurt. However, I think that stacking the videos on top of one another makes them easier to read and go back and forth.

This essay is incredibly effective in showing the role of a screenplay in film, and how much it changes when it goes from paper to film. It shows how actors will often eliminate certain words or will ignore certain actions. In short, they do what feels right and natural in the scene. For example, in this scene featuring the Joker, the screenplay says that he should laugh at certain parts, however, Heath Ledger chooses not to do so. As you watch the scene unfold and read this in the script, you start to insert that dialogue into the scene and you can feel how awkward an inorganic it feels.

The essay does a wonderful job of illustrating how a screenplay is very much a working document, that changes several times by the time the screenwriter, director, and actor are done with it. It shows how much the three rely on one another, and how actors and directors engage with and will often alter the script. We are able to see how directors are able to use the script as merely a rough outline or guide, and how actors are able to tailor it to fit the scene to their emotions and what flows naturally. In screenwriting classes, we are told that the script is merely just a blueprint. In this essay, we are shown that this is true in a simply, yet incredibly effective way.

“Eyes of Hitchcock” – By kogonada

Though this video essay is not even two minutes long, it is full of engaging material and provides great insight not only into the role of the eye in the films of Alfred Hitchcock, but also in how to craft an impactful video essay.

When I first watched this essay, I forgot to turn the sound on. Once I realized my mistake, I turned it on and watched it again. I was disappointed. The sound in the video essay is a just a random creepy song, and detracts from the images on the screen. The sound is meant to mimic that of a Hitchcock film and add suspense to the video essay, however, it comes across as cheesy and forced. When I watched the essay without the sound, I found it to be far more impactful. Without the sound we’re forced the stare directly into the eyes of whichever character is on screen. We feel a deeper connection with them because we’re forced to confront the emotion(s) on their fact, not the emotion the music may be trying to elicit. In Hitchcock’s films, he often uses silence as a way to make his audience feel even more uncomfortable because we expect someone to scream or cry or yell. In a video essay, we expect there to be some kind of sound, whether it’s narration, music, or sound from the film itself. I think this essay would have been more impactful had it not used sound.

One of the things I really enjoyed about the video essay was the way in which it was edited. The film clips are edited in such a way that the eyes of the different figures are all in the same quadrant and general location on the screen. If you make eye contact with the first set of eyes, you don’t have to move your own to make contact with the rest. This allows us to better focus on the eyes themselves, which, of course, is kogonada’s intention. It may seem weird to edit a great work of art, however, it’s essentially because the video essay turns the film into something else, and editing is quite necessary. By taking Hitchcock’s work and editing it to fit the essay, to create a feeling, we are able to derive new meaning from his work.

“Pass the Salt” – By Chris Keathley

At the outset of Prof. Keathley’s videographic essay, “Pass the Salt,” he breaks the fourth wall by inviting his audience to go along on a journey with him. By beginning his essay with this invitation, Keathley is mimicking a common narrative tactic, thus allowing all audiences  to learn and appreciate the argument he articulates in his video essay. One of the things I don’t like about traditional academic essays is how they tend to be exclusive, meant only for fellow scholars or those who have a very specific  kind of expertise. Keathley’s essay, like others we have seen, allows for the articulation of ideas to take place in a more accessible format.

He continues to make his argument accessible throughout the essay. Before he gets to his thesis about a scene from Anatomy of a Murder,  Keathley provides background information on the film itself.  In some video essays we have seen, the essayist assumes the audience is familiar with the film. In “Pass the Salt,” Keathley provides plot info and a brief analysis of Paul Biegler, the lawyer played by Jimmy Stewart. This not only makes the film more accessible, but it enriches and strengthens the argument he makes.

Another tactic Keathley employs in his essay is using the same sound throughout, that of the machinery used to mine iron. He begins his essay with the crunching sound of the iron ore machinery, before he even introduces the film, let alone the scene. In doing so, Keathly utilizes another convention of film: highlighting a sound/object early on to emphasis its importance. This allows the viewer to more easily engage with the argument, and to be more interested in how the video is going to end.

Once again, Keathley mimics film by saving his main point, the crux of his argument, for the end. He creates drama and a suspense in his video essay, something that a traditional academic essay hardly ever does. Keathley’s essay is effective because it utilizes story elements to articulate a complex analysis in a compelling and engaging way.

Martin Scorsese – The Art of Silence

In his video essay, “Martin Scorsese – The Art of Silence,” Tony Zhou explores the power of silence in cinema, specifically focusing, as the title suggests,  on the films of Martin Scorsese. The essay uses footage from 17 Scorsese-films, and relies heavily on scenes from Raging Bull (1980), Goodfellas (1990), The Departed (2006), and The Last Temptation of Christ (1998). Zhou’s essay uses Scorsese’s wide-ranging filmography to illustrate the variety of ways silence can enhance the narrative structure of a film.

Zhou’s essay shows how effective silence can be in portraying the thoughts and feelings of a character, and how it can be the central dramatic beat of a scene.  Zhou illustrates this point by examining one of the most famous scenes in Goodfellas, where Henry (Ray Liotta) is silent after Tommy (Joe Pesci) “angrily” confronts him for saying he is funny. The silence makes the viewer feel as if they are in the room, and allows them to feel the tension between the two men. The silence is drawn out in such a way that we believe something violent is going to happen. However, just as we are on the edge of our seats, the silence breaks, Henry tells Tommy to “shut up,” and they all laugh.

Silence also gives the viewer permission to enter the world of the film, to become a character. Zhou articulates this point through another famous scene, when Jake LaMotta (Robert De Niro) fights Sugar Ray Robinson in Raging Bull. In this scene, LaMotta stands with his hands by his sides in the boxing ring and allows Robinson to punch him repeatedly in, as Zhou says, a kind of religious slaughter. The silence of the scene is contrasted by it’s location — Madison Square Garden, a place that is anything but quiet. The lack of noise allows us to become LaMotta, join in his numbness and pain.  The silence allows us to connect with a character on a more intimate level.

The videographic form that Zhou’s piece of criticism takes allows us to better understand the nature of silence. In a traditional written essay, Zhou would have to describe to the reader the aforementioned moments, however, in the videographic form, we are able to see and feel them for ourselves. As a result, the video essay communicates to us what the written word cannot, since it is crafted using the film itself.

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