When Video Essays Stop Being Essays and Don’t Need to Be Videos

In recent years, the “video essay” format has become increasingly popular on platforms like YouTube and Vimeo as an avenue for film criticism and analysis. Distinct from the “dude rambles in his bedroom” genre of film reviews and the ever popular “dude playing a guy who hates movies yells at this movie”, the production values and air of academia to the word essay allow the people behind them to present their arguments or criticisms with a greater level of professionalism and in a way that is more accessible and shareable than traditional written essays.

However, this focus on aesthetic trappings also invites copycats, stylistic appropriations that understand what makes something look like a video essay more than if it should be. I don’t doubt that plenty of these works come from that same desire to share a perspective on a piece of work but the medium’s place as a genre of content culturally distinct from written essays which have more established expectations of tone, style and content allows for a greater exploitation of that framework. In the last 2/3 years this has become especially prevalent with a new bizarrely successful essayist popping up each week, lo-fi hip-hop soundtrack and provocative title ready to go. I’m in no way trying to dissuade anyone from talking about their passions but I think it’s important to understand movements within criticism and what we’re actually consuming.

Before getting into what isn’t a video essay, I think it’s probably important to define what exactly is and where they came from. In the simplest terms, a video essay is an argument in support of a thesis, an essay accompanied and supported by the medium of film, though some examples of the medium take a more explorative and less rigorously structured approach to making their points. Film as a subject of analytical essays is far from a new phenomenon, these videos serving as an extension of the models of film analysis established by early film theorists in the early 20th century, the aim is generally not (or should not be) to simply review or objectively inform, but to argue some point about the piece of art in question. While elaborating on the definition of something most people learned at 13 may feel redundant, this expectation of structure is part of why I struggle with the majority of what is pushed as “video essays”. While the most well known essayists; the Lindsay Ellises and Every Frame a Paintings for the most part adhere to these rules, the endless whack a mole of identical dudes with opinions on superhero movies do not. And while this is not to say that art or opinions must follow rules of presentation in order to be valid, I do believe that this subtle and largely unconscious erosion of the medium’s form can also be felt in the quality of its content.

Put simply, most video essays are not essays. There is no thesis, no introduction or conclusion and no development or explanation of an argument and all this leaves us with is assertions, “hot takes” backed up by 30k subscribers and the reputation of the format. People with audiences holding opinions is far from a problem in itself but the idea that their validity can be reinforced by their external presentation above a reasoned argument results in a bizarre feedback loop of appeals to one’s own authority over coherent arguments.

This June, culture publication Jezebel published an article titled simply “Actors Who Are Bad at Acting”, the piece is a bullet pointed list comprised of practically nothing but 26 names and the implication that these actors are in fact, bad. This, quite obviously is not a video essay but I think that same assumption is present. The piece makes no argument, it provides zero commentary and it doesn’t even provide any context or terms by which to measure its claims of good or bad. Outside of anyone with a particularly targeted hatred for an actor mentioned, the article was met with near universal criticism, its validity as journalism questioned and its contents hotly debated. But to call it a failure would be to misinterpret its value, the piece did not exist to change minds, it existed to provoke reactions, to yell its opinions in a public place then run away.

The article’s contents

This is emblematic of my problems with this trend, not simply that I think the videos are bad as pieces of content or even that I find myself disagreeing with their arguments but with the inherent egoism behind the way they make their points.

The format of these videos is well established by this point. A neon green thumbnail and a clickbaity title starting with “why” or “you’re wrong about” all but challenging people to waste 12 minutes of their life on being condescended to about whatever recently released or classic movie was just name-dropped. Then the video itself will be a barely structured ramble with vague gestures towards the titular thesis and a far greater focus on asserting the essayist’s base perspective as being somehow inherently more valuable than any other.

While I think I’ve made my case that these pieces of content are really not essays, I would also argue that outside of masking the frequent lack of substance, they do not need to be videos and that the assumed endorsement of that aesthetic is as much of a contribution to their recent over-saturation. I don’t mean to suggest that the actual production and editing of these videos is easy, maintaining professional quality and entertaining to watch videos of a decent length on any kind of consistent basis requires skill (or skilled contractors) and the actual work behind it cannot be faked. However, the rapid emergence of these video essays as a trend has also very visibly led to a sense of hegemony in the way they look and feel. Pastel colours, minimalist sans serif fonts, the lowest fidelity beats no money can buy and flashy editing that make the 200 word scripts last longer than 30 seconds. While again not inherently bad, this aesthetic familiarity is a major contributor to this recent deluge of these videos. There’s a sense that if something looks right and is explained with the excitement of an amateur ASMRtist, the video’s existence as content to be consumed is less important than any argument or conclusion.

The typical argument of these video essays will not be one of information or explanation, there is very rarely a focus on sharing understanding of a text or topic and though that is not a necessity, the viewpoint a lot of them take instead is one of a simple good or bad conclusion. While this line of reasoning absolutely can be argued through the format of an essay, the fact that these videos are not essays means they massively trend towards arguments of objectivity. It should go without saying that film, as with any art cannot be objectively judged however the presentation of specific criteria with the implication that they are based in established film theory regardless of their actual reflection of any understood concepts creates the image of certain things as requirements for a film to be good. It should go without saying that the encouragement of these kinds of requirements will only lead to unfair treatment of art that intentionally rejects them. Though justifying in your own words whether or not a film is good is the definition of a review, the fact that these videos intentionally distinct themselves from that with the implication of factual backing feeds into a worrying trend within film criticism that presents subjective opinions with the reinforcement of largely artificial analytical structures designed to imply objectivity through an appeal to an entirely constructed authority. This binary good/bad positioning does not represent all of these essays but the attitudes that lead to someone feeling confident enough to make that argument are deeply entrenched into this trend.

Though I don’t want this to read as a hit piece and it is definitely not exclusive to any one video or creator, it would be kind of pointless at best and flagrantly hypocritical at worst to make this argument with 0 reference to specific instances of the things I’m talking about.

How to Make an A24 Movie is a video published by YouTuber and film critic Karsten Runquist last July. It’s an at least somewhat comical piece comparing films distributed by A24 and coming to a conclusion about the artistic intents of those films and why the company has built such a following.

The video in its own words states that “[an A24 movie is] a movie with no barrier between the art and the artist” and “its ability to portray a specific group of individuals”. The implication here being that despite differences in form and content, all of the movies released under the A24 name have this level of personal significance to their filmmakers that translates into a relatability that is responsible for their films being so widely loved.

The video was by any useful metric largely well recieved with 150k+ views and a high 90s like/dislike ratio at the time of writing.

However, the core argument of the piece, the suggestion that this is what is needed to “make an A24 movie” is so deeply flawed that the video is functionally nonsense. A24 had acquired the rights to and distributed 39 films before they ever produced one (Moonlight, incidentally the video’s thumbnail). This fact is entirely ignored for the sake of his point, films like Barely Lethal and Tusk that don’t fit this definition of an ‘A24 movie’ are not mentioned at all and films that the company only distributed are held up as representations of this artistic motivation with no mention of that distinction because it would topple the entire point.

This is not intended to be a targeted criticism as I’m sure there was no intentional desire to mislead and I imagine his ultimate conclusion about why these films work for so many people despite the context it was developed is not far from the truth but this I think is a perfect example of this trend. The argument is largely a series of baseless assertions with very little reference to the individual texts and there’s a sense that the video was written backwards from an idea that became the conclusion with very little interest in actually arguing for or against that idea. The video is not an essay about the inner workings of a pretty successful film distributor, it’s a flashy presentation of an assumption of the image they have created.

Arguably these videos are harmless, for the most part they serve more as background fluff more than culture shifting works of genuine analysis like their formal predecessors and it seems like people that aren’t me seem to like them. However while they seemingly haven’t destroyed film criticism as we know it just yet, I think it’s a worrying precedent to set that the most widely digested pieces of film writing are Why Citizen Kane Objectively Sucks (Part 1 of 5). If the success of cinemasins and their format of reinforcing what is to the writer a foregone conclusion can be understood as an uncomfortable trend then I don’t think the same thing but they watched Nerdwriter once should be free from criticism.

Thank you for reading.

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