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Ranting in Pictures

Ranting in Pictures (photo)

Who says criticism is dead? On video essays, mash-ups and "The Phantom Menace Review."

“‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ was the most disappointing thing since my son.”

That’s the daffy opening line of filmmaker Mike Stoklasa’s “‘Star Wars: The Phantom Menace’ Review,” an insightful, rudely funny takedown of George Lucas’ prequel. And it’s as good a place as any to start an appreciation of a hybrid of the video essay and the mash-up — an emerging format that’s often more entertaining than the work it cannibalizes.

Let’s start by distinguishing straightforward mash-ups and video essays from works created by Stoklasa and his siblings-in-spirit. The term “mash-up” was first applied to musical works that combined existing pieces of recording music in order to create something new. The YouTube equivalent is defined by Wikipedia as a work that “combines “multiple sources of video — which often have no relation to each other — into a derivative work, often lampooning its component sources or another text.” (Examples include those now-ubiquitous clips in which somebody puts, say, Joe Pesci’s “Funny how?” monologue from “Goodfellas” into the mouth of Elmo, or turns Stanley Kubrick’s “The Shining” into a heartwarming family comedy with music cues by Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman.)

Video essays, on the other hand, tend to be more straightforwardly analytical: criticism in pictures. Their theatrical forerunner is the “essay film,” a ruminative, often first person nonfiction format practiced by Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, Werner Herzog, Ross McElwee, Chantal Akerman and Agnès Varda, among other notable directors. Some of the more striking examples concentrate on film history and theory: Mark Rappaport’s documentary-drama hybrids, for instance, and Thom Andersen’s film and architecture meditation “Los Angeles Plays Itself.”

In the YouTube age, the video essay evolved into film criticism written with pictures. The format’s digital-era pioneer is my colleague and occasional collaborator Kevin B. Lee, whose analytical/historical pieces inspired me to do my own video essays for The L Magazine and Moving Image Source. Other committed practitioners include Eric Faden, Jim Emerson, Christian Keathley; Ben Sampson, who’s done superb breakdowns of “A.I.” and “F for Fake”, and Sophie Fiennes, who put Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst Slavoj Žižek at the center of “A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema.”

But while the terms “mash-up” and “video essay” cover a fair bit of ground, they don’t capture the peculiar intensity of the hybrid filmmakers I’m spotlighting here.

01202010_thx.jpgThe best work by my colleague Steven Boone, for instance, evades such labels the way The Flash ducks bullets. His pieces always have a critical purpose, and sometimes Boone foregrounds it — as in the plainly titled “Low-Budget Eye Candy #1″, which annotates a chase scene from George Lucas’ 1971 debut “THX 1138″ to show how a clever director can make a cheap film look pricey.

But other Boone essays are more confounding and poetic. They combine movie scenes, news clips, pop music cues, on-screen text and voiceover narration to create stylish shorts that can be enjoyed as both digital-era criticism and freestanding art. Boone’s “Wolf City High and Low” for example, doesn’t just quote “Woodstock” director Michael Wadleigh’s 1981 horror flick “Wolfen,” about Native American werewolf spirits stalking 20th century New Yorkers; it stirs Ennio Morricone’s score for “Violent City” (1970) and audio from local TV news reports into the mix, sketching 21st century New York as a hellhole in which the rich treat the poor like animals.

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