When Netflix tweeted on Tuesday that “something special” would be coming the next day from David Fincher, many were hoping for a third season of Mindhunter. Instead, what followed on Wednesday was a teaser for Voir, “a new documentary series of visual essays celebrating cinema.” The first episode will see its world premiere on November 13 at AFI Fest. Announcing its full 2021 lineup yesterday, the festival lists Fincher as the executive producer of Voir and, as directors, David Prior, the writer and director of last year’s horror thriller The Empty Man; and Taylor Ramos and Tony Zhou, the creators of Every Frame a Painting, one of the most popular series of video essays in the short history of the form.
Drew McWeeny, a former contributor to Ain’t It Cool News and HitFix, quickly followed up on the announcement with a few words about writing the first episode, working with Fincher and Prior, and the open-ended format of Voir. Episodes will run “between ten and thirty minutes,” and each creator will be “tackling a totally different idea, something that intrigues us or upsets us or that has to do with our connection to the movies.” Following “a couple of secret meetings with a group of other critics,” the team will carry on “working on plans for what else we’d like to do, but that all depends on what people think the first time around.”
It’s been many, many years since video essayists have had to make the case for the legitimacy of their work as serious film criticism. An endorsement from Netflix will undoubtedly seem to some like a step up, while others may perceive it as a threat of dumbing down. Voir’s high profile will likely spark another round of inquiry as to just what a video essay is. Any definition of an evolving form will have to be somewhat flexible, but here, even a sliding scale will be inadequate as it implies a mere two directions. Mapping the video essay would require a three-dimensional sphere with a fuzzy outer surface.
At the center of that sphere, we’d likely find something like Every Frame a Painting. Each release of one of Zhou and Ramos’s twenty-eight videos between April 2014 and September 2016 was an event. A handy example would be “David Fincher: And the Other Way Is Wrong,” which has racked up well over 3.7 million views since October 2014. The point of the seven-and-a-half-minute piece is to illustrate and elaborate on Fincher’s own description of his process as “not what I do, but what I don’t do.” Zhou’s narration—“No handheld, no human operating, no unnecessary closeups, no unmotivated camera moves”—is instructional but friendly, and the selection and editing of clips from Fincher’s films is both sharp and smooth.
Moving out from the center, we could head toward the abstract, taking in, for example, Gina Telaroli’s “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a beautiful and disturbing piece from 2012 on the then-ongoing war on terror that incorporates a reworking of scenes from King Vidor’s Northwest Passage (1940). Another direction might take us toward the supercut, a string of shots that, in the best-case scenario, would reveal something enlightening about recurring visual motifs. These can be lovely—see Kogonada’s “Hands of Bresson” from 2014—or clever—the French online publication Trois couleurs is especially good at this—but are they video essays? It’s one thing to point out once again that Wes Anderson fancies symmetry. It’s quite another to trace the origins of his penchant, as Matt Zoller Seitz did for the Museum of the Moving Image in 2009 and again, taking a different approach, for RogerEbert.com in 2013.
For an overview of the current state of the video essay in all its volume and variety, turn to the results of Sight & Sound’s poll, “The Best Video Essays of 2020.” Here, we can sample works ranging in length from less than half a minute to fourteen hours and read notes from some of the most accomplished video essayists—Catherine Grant, Kevin B. Lee, Michael Witt—on why they have selected work by Arthur Jafa, Chloé Galibert-Laîné, Luís Azevedo, Jonathan Keogh, Cristina Álvarez López and Adrian Martin, and so on. Delve deeper by turning to last fall’s special issue on video essays from the Cine-Files or by following the peer-reviewed journal [in]Transition.Will DiGravio, in the meantime, is keeping us regularly updated on the latest developments in the field in his newsletter, “Notes on Videographic Criticism.”
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