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The Video Essay: Celebrating an Exciting New Literary Form

TriQuarterly among preeminent literary outlets for the video essay

EVANSTON, Ill. --- TriQuarterly, Northwestern University’s celebrated literary journal that moved to an online format three years ago, is among the leading literary outlets of the video essay, an exciting new literary form.

"Today's digital technology gives writers unprecedented creative freedom," said Northwestern faculty member John Bresland, who curates the online journal’s video essays. An award-winning essayist working in video, radio and print, he equates the impact of 21st century technology on creativity to the invention of the printing press.

TriQuarterly, an international journal of writing, art and cultural inquiry, is part of Northwestern's degree program in creative writing, one of the nation's few part-time graduate writing programs. The latest issue of the magazine is twice the usual size, and it features a piece by noted author Ron Carlson as well. 

See the new Summer/Fall 2013 issue of TriQuarterly online. 

Writers of every genre who have composed on the page for decades -- novelist Bill Roorbach, essayist and Northwestern faculty member Eula Biss, poet Joe Wenderoth -- now also author works for the screen. Variations of this fast-emerging form of expression are taught in institutions of higher education across the country. 

When Bresland surveyed the curricula of 30 major universities, he found nearly all offered classes similar to video essay courses he teaches in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and School of Continuing Studies. But what he calls video essay, another university might label "experimental media," "multimedia storytelling" or "writing with video." 

That lack of uniformity reminds Bresland that turn-of-the-century cars were once called horseless carriages. "In 1885, we could only name this invention with familiar terms -- part horse, part buggy -- though clearly it was a radically new category that reordered the landscape," he said. 

As today’s literary landscape is reordered by digital technology, TriQuarterly is embracing not just the video essay but a form of visual poetry called “cinepoetry,” a term borrowed from avant-garde photographer Man Ray. When TQ’s latest edition launches July 15, it will include a suite of five video essays and “cinepoems.” 

Bresland’s personal site is jam-packed with video essays and writings about the new genre, including his highly influential  “On the Origin of the Video Essay.” We talked with Bresland and asked him to expand on this revolutionary literary development. 

How are mobile technologies revolutionizing the essay?

The screen of an iPad, for example, isn’t just a substitute for paper. It’s a canvas, a movie screen, an animation studio, a keyboard, a guitar, a microphone, a mixing board. The mobile devices we now use to collect our thoughts and memories don’t care whether we compose using words or images or sounds or all three. I believe the act of writing will always be, as writer Don DeLillo describes it, a concentrated form of thinking. But I also believe that fewer authors in the years ahead will choose to stop at the printed word.”

How do your students respond to this new literary form? 

They go bright-eyed when you tell them writing doesn’t mean strictly words on a page. Most own a mobile device capable of acquiring video and sound. They delight in making sense of their world using the full arsenal of sensory input -- image, text, sound, voice. Not that it’s all wine and roses. I think most students realize, in the end, that no matter the medium, the heavy lifting of real thinking can’t be avoided. 

Where is the video essay appearing?

Today I know of about a dozen literary journals that feature video essays and poems; 10 years ago there were none. I believe Blackbird and Ninth Letter were the first to realize the possibilities of a new kind of literature conveyed with image and sound, yet still had language at its core. Press Play is doing some thrilling work in the form, perhaps altering the rules of engagement between critic and film. TriQuarterly has featured video essays for 18 months. 

Can you describe some the video essays or cinepoems that have appeared in TQ?

One of my favorites is Dinty W. Moore’s “History." Moore is an accomplished essayist who I knew could take great photographs but had never before worked in video. “History” is a memoir assembled from the faces of strangers he photographed in Scotland. It’s just a moving, gorgeous work. 

TriQuarterly often features the still image in video essays. Angela Mears’ “You Are Here” and Bill Roorbach’s “Starflower” are short, brilliant essays built around a single still, and intense meditations likely to alter the viewer’s relationship to that image. 

Kristen Radtke’s “That Kind of Daughter” is another great video essay. Visually it’s animated as a cut-out, one of the oldest animation techniques there is, just flat shapes arranged within a frame. But the text is so good and so densely lyrical and personal that it takes your breath away.

I also really love “Wolfvision” by Robin Schiff, who recently had a poem in The New Yorker, and Nick Twemlow. Assembled from Schiff’s text and from video that Twemlow gleaned from YouTube, “Wolfvision” is a haunting and beautiful essay, if it’s an essay. I do think the video essay lends itself to poetry, often skirting the line separating these two genre categories, if such a line really exists.  

Are there other subgenres of the video essay?

There are at least two that have been getting a lot of attention the past couple years. One, which tends to go viral -- no doubt because it’s such a pleasure to experience -- is the video essay made up entirely of clips from previously released films, often held together and enriched by a sustained voiceover track. A wonderful recent work by Kevin B. Lee, called “The Spielberg Face” is a wall-to-wall compilation of reaction shots from the famous director’s body of work -- full of moments like the one in “Jaws” when Sheriff Brody first sees the shark, right before he utters the greatest line in the history of deadpan. 

Aaron Aradillas and Matt Zoller Seitz have consistently produced compulsively watchable, insightful video essays about the credit sequences of David Fincher films, say, or “Rocky III,” as a test-bed for the popular films of the 1980s that followed it. What’s key is that critics have found a new venue for talking about film that’s not on the page -- their voices overlay the films themselves. It’s the perfect match of subject and form. Before the advent of online video in 2006 or so, this never would have been possible.

Another subgenre popping up all over academia is a hybrid of the personal essay and the old-school academic essay. A few years ago, Tufts University invited applicants to submit video essays that said “something about you.”  Some 1,000 applicants took up the challenge. On the strength of Tufts’ video essay buzz, the number of applicants surged to its highest level in a generation. And now there’s not an admissions dean in America who hasn’t taken note. Dartmouth’s dean of admissions told National Public Radio that there’s no stopping video: “It’s the language of this generation.” As more and more media savvy students enter the academy, more teachers are compelled to speak that language. 

Are there already “masters” of the video essay?

I’ve always loved Agnes Varda, who looks like this nice old French lady but, in fact, makes fierce essays for the screen. Her best might be “The Gleaners and I,” which came out in 2000 and caused something of a sensation in France and was popular here, too. Maybe we’re hungry for films that make us do more than “feel” -- we want to think, too, and we want to act on our convictions. 

Chris Marker’s 1983 “Sans Soleil” is another classic film essay that, like any great work of art, seems to change as we change. But the greats don’t all have French passports. Ross McElwee has been releasing personal film-essays for decades -- “Time Indefinite” in 1993 and “Bright Leaves” in 2003 are among my favorites. What these filmmakers have in common is a knack for making smart, literate films that invite the viewer to co-create meaning. Most films today don’t leave any room for the viewer’s imagination. The smallness of the video essay, the fact that it tends to be the work of a single author or just one or two collaborators, can result in a work that’s less interested in a commercial payoff and more interested in asking difficult questions of others and of ourselves.