Essaying the top 100

I suppose videos like this are always tough to put together. Not only must you choose one film (just one!) as the best of each year, but you must then decide on a single shot from each film that not only epitomizes what makes the film so great, but you must also consider how the shots will flow together. I suspect that a number of these shots (some of which are maddeningly truncated) are also edited with an ear for the soundtrack. All of which is to say that this video is fine (as in, “pretty okay”), but it’s most interesting to me in its capacity to stimulate reflections on the entire process that went into the video.

I’m guessing that other, smarter/cleverer people have already written blogs or articles about this, so I’m not (probably) breaking new ground. But as someone who has grown up with the spread of the Internet and the proliferation of accessible film editing technology, it is astonishing to reflect on the fact that this video is quintessentially a top 100 list. But it’s a top 100 list in a form that, unless I miss my guess, is likely to become de rigeur for any self-respecting cinephile who comes of age in the 21st century. Back in my day (all of what, twenty years ago?), movie fans would have to write out and mail such lists to publications like Film Comment (or the zine/newsletter of one’s choice) to circulate them.

Once net access became widespread, you had your pick: create your own blog, frequent a message board, join a listserv, etc. Even fifteen years ago (I’m once again guessing) you could find films of this sort out there on the web, but they were likely put together by people who were either amateurs or folks enrolled in film programs. More than anything else, YouTube (guessing again!) made it possible to exhibit video essays like this, but I don’t think it was until video editing software became a standard part of OS packages that stuff like this became really widespread.

At this point, we’re spoiled for video essays. Sites like IndieWire, MUBI, and Bordwell’s blog (along with, I’m sure, dozens of others) include video essays as standard fare alongside more traditional essays and criticism. A well done video essay, of course, still requires time and effort. Folks like Matt Zoller Seitz, Tony Zhou, and Kevin B. Lee probably (in all likelihood) don’t just sit down, cram a bunch of awesome shots together with a one-take voiceover, and hit “publish.” At the same time, I’m positive that it takes most video essayists today considerably less time to cut an essay than it did last year—not only because of technological improvements, but because I suspect that video essays are now increasingly part of a standard skill set, the basics of which they have likely mastered due to practice. The result is an embarrassment of riches for cinephiles (and film studies instructors). It’s also, though, a paradigm shift in film discourse.

Years ago, there was a distinction between cinephiles and cineastes. Most of the former aspired to be the latter (if they weren’t the latter already), but I doubt that the distinction has any practical use any more. You might think of Jean-Luc Godard’s legendary Histoire(s) du cinema project. At first, it was the kind of thing only JLG might undertake: an epic personal essay intertwining politics and film history, pinning key moments of the twentieth century to particular images or confluences of sound, image, and text, then upending the entire thing. Or, to be a wee reductionist, it’s a really long montage culled largely from other sources. In either case, it’s the kind of project that required JLG’s particular set of skills: a former critic turned filmmaker whose heyday was marked by a radicalization of politics and aesthetics, who else could mount a project like that? Wading through God knows how many miles of film footage and splicing it together just-so over the course of a decade into nearly five hours of a multipart essay? You may imagine a gaunt, bespectacled Maoist practically mummified in reels of and reels of filmstrip, the dark editing room illuminated by a single French cigarette dangling from his pursed lips.[1] That was twenty years ago. Now? Imagine a couple of undergrad dudebros spending five hours on a Saturday slinging together their 25 greatest times people were told to “Go to hell!” in a contextually ironic situation.

What I’m getting at is that the physically and financially demanding labor of putting together even a montage of brief clips is so relatively easy now that the video essay is not a long-term project, but a discourse in its own right. An increasingly common rhetorical form in that discourse. So common that the aforementioned dudebros could conceivably scrape together something as technically sophisticated as anything by JLG.

When I think about that, I get a little excited and a little sad. Excited, because I love the idea of film nerds talking film in film language. Sad, because I foresee a time in which reading a film essay—I should say, “an essay written about film”—is something you only do if you’re an academic, and even then you’ll never read blogs or magazine articles, because the “real” discourse is done in video essays, not in typewritten language.

That said, there are (I believe) real advantages to talking film in video. All those questions I asked at the outset are concerns that can be addressed by the form of the video essay itself. A top 100 list, however eclectic, however well-written the blurbs are, will lack a certain coherence. In short, a list can almost never be an essay. (Or perhaps it’s simply the case that few great essays are quintessentially lists, even if the essay form doesn’t proscribe list making.) A video essay, on the other hand, through artful editing and layering of images and sound, can create a unity of experience that, in my judgment, exists in few written lists. There is a wealth of possibilities yet to be explored here. While the video posted above is not by any stretch a great video essay, it is exemplary of what it is that video essays can do when they apply themselves to the process of listmaking. The responses they stimulate, I hope, also contain a wealth of as-yet unexplored possibilities.

(h/t Sploid)


[1] Or you can imagine him buried under an avalanche of videocassettes, which is closer to how he actually made the film.



About tardishobbit

Reads. Writes. Watches movies. Occasionally stirs from chair. Holds an advanced degree in heuristic indolence. View all posts by tardishobbit

5 responses to “Essaying the top 100

  • confusedgender

    Interesting stuff as ever and it’s great to see you writing on your blog again.

    One can’t help feeling that the massive difference between JLG and the dudebros though is not just in the technical abilities but simply haveing the weight of knowledge and the ability to use that knowledge in interesting and provocative ways. Sure, anyone can make a video essay but how many people can critique like Godard? Wasn’t the point of Breathless that anyone can make a movie if they pick up a videocamera, get a girl and a gun and shoot them. Godard said those things (and others) back at a time when they had real meaning … if someone came out with the theory of gravity now it wouldn’t look that impressive but it was genius when Newton discovered it. Maybe I’m agreeing with you here, actually … I’m not sure it’s still 7am.

    • tardishobbit

      Great to hear from you, Alex! (And quite an overhaul on your own blog!)

      You make a fair point. I completely agree that JLG has the kind of virtuosic depth that the average dudebro could only aspire to (if said dudebro has the capacity for such aspiration). What I was trying to say was that amateur filmmaking, a la Breathless, is now far more achievable for anyone with a modicum of ambition, and the technical capabilities far exceed anything Godard could have dreamed in the 60s for his budget. So it’s not that Dudebro Schmitt over here could make something as good as Histoire(s) (for instance), but that the question really would be more a matter of personal ambition and knowledge depth, rather than access to the technology or even the time involved to undertake such a project. I think the rhetoric of filmmaking being “democratized” is a bit overblown (access to the hardware, software, and Internet still, last I checked, depends on a certain monetary bar of entry), but it’s certainly more possible for more people than it used to be. So the likelihood of potential JLG’s being able to cultivate their knowledge, so that they can use it in interesting and provocative ways, has increased in proportion.

      Maybe. Or at least the expectation that people — that is, those who may not be professional or even self-identified amateur filmmakers — who want to discourse about film will do so in film language has been raised. So we’re talking about a continuum of discourse more than completely different languages.


  • jubilare

    “because the “real” discourse is done in video essays, not in typewritten language.”

    Somehow I doubt this. I would lean more towards the excitement of the potential of the new territory, but I also suspect that typewritten stuff serves a somewhat different purpose, and so will remain relevant, at least in certain areas of filmcrit.

    • tardishobbit

      I certainly hope that good ol’ writing remains relevant! I’m just wondering in what ways its sphere of relevance is going to evolve.

    • jubilare

      That is an excellent question, and unless we have any true prophets among us I think we will just have to wait and see. I certainly can’t hazard a guess.

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