The Art of the Video Essay

I’ve been diving into the work of Patrick Willems on YouTube recently and I enjoyed his piece on the art of the video essay.

Willems argues that the format is fairly stale at this point. Many video essay-ists are actually filmmakers in reality, but their essays don’t reflect the full breadth of their creative abilities. Why not?

I appreciate that Willems is trying to push the medium forward. His subsequent video essay on Star Wars begins to show what may be possible with the medium from a narrative standpoint.

The Definitive Takedown of ‘Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice’

MovieBob (AKA Bob Chipman) has created a series of video essays totaling 4 hours (!) discussing everything wrong with Zach Snyder’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. It is one of the most comprehensive analyses of any film that I’ve ever watched — Chipman covers everything from the film’s aesthetics and structure, to why Snyder’s overall attitude towards superheroes might’ve made him the wrong director for this film.

Most importantly, I think Chipman hits the nail on the head by calling Batman v Superman an act of cultural vandalism. It takes characters who are beloved, revered, and admired, and it completely defaces everything we know about them. That is not inherently a bad idea. Great pieces of art often subvert, deconstruct, and satirize. But in this case, the end result does not make it feel worthwhile.

Batman v Superman was a disaster of a film, but what remains tragic to me is how it has essentially ruined these characters for a generation. If I had a child, I would not take them to go see the film and if I’d seen it when was a kid, I can’t imagine admiring or wanting to be either of these characters. Man of Steel and Batman v Superman created this psychic void of heroism and integrity that these characters used to fill. Watching these video essays helped me reckon with that loss.

This set of videos isn’t without its own flaws — some of Chipman’s points are self-admittedly minor nitpicks, the aesthetics of the videos might not be up to everyone’s standards, and there is a significant amount of repetition — but if a YouTube video essays can be said to be a genre, then this is one of the best entries in that genre that I’ve ever seen. Highly recommended for any film fan.

What makes ‘Better Call Saul’ a successful prequel

Travis Lee Ratcliff has a nice video essay exploring what makes a prequel successful. In short: characters and events in the prequel need to have meaning beyond their original context. Many prequels forget this (including Better Call Saul, at times) but I think Saul has really cleared the bar for creating something new and satisfying out of an existing world.

[Thanks to Søren from the Slackfilmcast for bringing this essay to my attention]


The “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope

YouTube user Pop Culture Detective has created a fairly comprehensive, insightful essay about the film trope “born sexy yesterday,” in which grown (and frequently sexualized) women have the minds of children. From the essay:

“Born Sexy Yesterday” is about an unbalanced relationship. But it’s also very much connected to masculinity. The subtext of the trope is rooted in a deep-seated insecurity about sex and sexuality. The crux of the trope is a fixation on male superiority. A fixation with holding power over an innocent girl. But in order to make that socially acceptable, science fiction is employed to put the mind of that girl into a sexualized adult woman’s body.

It’s a fantasy based on fear — fear of women who are equal in sexual experience and romantic history, and fear of losing the intellectual upper hand to women.

Seeing all the examples laid out like this makes clear how ubiquitous and pernicious this trope really is.

Does Star Wars Take Place In Our Universe? 

Fun essay by the Cracked team, assembling evidence that Star Wars takes place in our universe.

It reminded me of this email below that we received from listener Rian on my Game of Thrones podcast A Cast of Kings. Worth keeping in mind when we watch anything that takes place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away…”

David doesn’t make a big deal of it, but he keeps pointing out how they use “real-world” units of measure in this fictional medieval land. Fair enough, it is noticeable. However, he always mentions it in an almost snide wink to the writers, like he’s all-knowing, but all-forgiving of this, their minor transgression. He’s too smart to let it escape his notice but his beneficence is such that he will deign to suspend his disbelief. What’s worse is that the latest mention of it was in the context of explaining how Westeros is not medieval Earth, but an alternate universe.

In much the same way, I think he’s forgetting the fact that these folks aren’t speaking English. They’re speaking “Common,” and we are watching it from a Common-speaking POV. Perhaps he’s been spoiled by the Battlestar Galacticas of the world where we speed along someone’s dialogue and suddenly they throw us a “I’ll meet you in 15 centons” in the mix. “Whoa! You go, writers! It’s not English, it’s another language in a galaxy far, far away. You just blew my mind, dude!” But I contend that that approach is more flawed. It suggests that those folks are indeed speaking English and that if we were to suddenly materialize into that world, we’d understand everything but their units of measure.

On the Game of Thrones, it should make sense that the units they discuss are ones that we understand. It’s not that they happen to speak English. It’s that we happen to understand Common. Or, if you’d prefer, it’s as if we’re wearing universal translators. So when someone says “The Wall is 700 feet high” in Common, we’re able to understand the sentiment of the entire statement (including the relative height being described) and not a collection of the vocabulary words that happen to exist in translation. If you were a Common-to-English interpreter, and some Westerosi said “Targuna pon sanzu gabagool,” what good would it do to translate that into “The wall is 18 gabagools high”? Not too much. It’s a good thing we all speak Common.

p.s. Apologies to David. I know this comes across as more denigrating than it has to be, but it’s too much fun to take jabs at him. And that seems to be in keeping with the spirit of the show.

How My ‘John Wick’ Video Essay Went from 0 to 30K Views

In late October 2014, I published the above video essay on the action of John Wick. I had a great time watching that film and I wanted to put together a brief video that demonstrated my utter disbelief at the audacity the film’s set pieces.

To create this video essay, I used film clips from John Wick’s Electronic Press Kit. These kits typically include a few videos that broadcasters and videomakers can use as b-roll while putting together packages. They are intended to be shared broadly to generate interest in the film.
Originally, I wanted to run this video essay on /Film but ultimately decided against it because it was a bit too thin. So, I simply published it on my YouTube channel (which has around 4.5K subscribers) and just let it sit there with pretty much no promotion.
I was stunned when I checked the video in recent months, only to find that it had reached 30K views, surpassing the vast majority of video reviews I’d done for /Film. I know that 30K is not a high number, but typically, when I publish a video review at /Film (go here for an example), that review will bring in anywhere from 1K to 15K views.
Curious as to what had caused this traffic, I checked the YouTube stats. By far, the greatest number of people had come from YouTube searches. And what were those searches? Check’em out:


Tons of traffic comes from people just looking for specific scenes in movies. The other top traffic sources were YouTube Suggested videos, and from social sharing sites.
I know this information may be obvious to a lot of people, but when a film becomes prominently and well known for a specific attribute (e.g. John Wick and its fight scenes), then the more you can deliver on that with a video (legitimately), the higher the likelihood that it will be viewed thousands of times. Sometimes, the more specific you are, the better.

Maverick was a phony

Right around when LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson was releasing her biography of Tom Cruise, we discussed how she might go about promoting it. Typically, an author will make appearances on podcasts or do Q&A’s with various publications. I pitched the idea of a video essay instead, and Amy happily obliged.

Unfortunately, I got mired down in random things like a sinus surgery and completion of The Primary Instinct. But I was able to scrape together some time this month to finally put this together and give it the attention it deserves. 

I don’t always agree with Nicholson, but I always find her viewpoints interesting and thought-provoking. I hope you will too.

Interpreting Synecdoche, New York: A Video Essay

I was grateful to be able to chat with LA Weekly’s Amy Nicholson about Synecdoche, New York. Synecdoche has always been one of those films that has mystified me. Every single scene seem feels loaded with metaphor, always on the verge of didacticism. But I have seen few people come up with a satisfying interpretation of much of the movie (with a few exceptions).

This was my first attempt at a long long-form video essay, and while I’m pleased with the results, I don’t know that it’s something that resonated with a particularly large group of people. Nonetheless, what was important to me was hopefully being able to shed light on what is one of the most moving yet enigmatic films I’ve ever seen.