The “video essay” has within the last couple years become an exciting new genre of film criticism that leaps the bounds of the academy straight into the bloodstream of social media. Critical commentary on movies is presented as a visual and audio experience in the same medium as the works it considers, ‘quoting’ scenes from films in a montage that accompanies or works in concert with a voice-over commentary. For some reason these so-called video essays have fastened about film criticism as their preferred subject matter. In this “show-&-tell” form, a critic offers an informed argument about a significant auteur, movie genre, or film technique that is itself a work of art. The video essay form combines written word, moving image, and voice in a highly condensed and carefully constructed performance.
In ENG R397 Visual Rhetoric, students created their own original video essay as the final term project. The broad theme of their video essays had to do with the popular movie genre as a cultural force. Because the movie industry is a popular entertainment form exquisitely calibrated to popular demand, its narratives reflect, indulge, flatter, complicate, and subvert prevalent cultural needs and desires. Its products are therefore a useful index of these desires and needs of mass audiences through time, often tapping into universal human themes (revenge, romance, buddy film), but also reflecting the specific values of cultural and historical moments. Tracking the growth and decline of genres teaches us about the particular cultures that produce them. There are two directions in which genres and culture interact:
- Genres reflect the culture (as symptoms)
- Genres produce the culture (as conditions of possibility)
So the mantra of the course, and the theme of very video essay that students produced, was to ask what kind of cultural work a specific popular movie genre does. Each student focused on a movie genre of their choice, researched its history and its changing historical context, and speculated on its relationship to its cultural moment.