Long Future, Short Films - Three Questions For Kevin B. Lee
We explore the works and ideas of thinkers and filmmakers who are answering the call of Miniflix’s mission statement: to push the boundaries of the short film form, both through creation and education
Kevin B. Lee, professor, critic, “video essay pioneer” and recent recipient of Sundance’s 2018 Art of Nonfiction Fellowship, is truly an example of someone unafraid to blur the boundaries between the video essay, film criticism and philosophical meditation. His cinephilia at first convinced him he wanted to be a traditional filmmaker. Over time though, he was drawn into the power of criticism, specifically the form of the video essay.
Kevin now has quite a body of work, from his years as the chief video essayist at Fandor to teaching Documentary Media University of Illinois Chicago to his most recent appointment by the Merz Akademie in a brand new position: professor of Crossmedia Publishing. The university website describes this burgeoning artform:
The new field of study “Crossmedia Publishing” prepares students in a practical way and with a strong theoretical background to utilize all relevant media and technologies: from researching and creating a storyline using the basics of photography, film, podcast and publishing through the newest narratives with virtual reality and live streams.
Kevin B. Lee has covered so many different topics and ideas in his video essays. But the truly refreshing quality of his work is that he’s never just commenting on other films…he’s creating his own visual language and style while he comments on the greater film culture. This has led to many of his video essays becoming widely-circulated and highly-regarded, including the “desktop documentary” Transformers: The Premake, which premiered at several large film festivals and short film festivals. If it wasn’t already evident before, the video essay and the short film are blending together and becoming more synonymous than ever before.
But the work most relevant to us here at Miniflix relates to his thoughts on the “Essay Film” and on “What Makes A Video Essay Great”. These are the rare academic topics to make genuine crossover into the mainstream media space. There are several Youtube and Vimeo personalities who have come to embrace the video essay form as their own (Every Frame a Painting, Nerdwriter) spending five to ten minutes performing a specific analysis of a director, visual style or set of films. Like with all creative forms, there are certain norms that start to establish themselves over time, or certain clichés that come up, even within essays that are supposedly revealing clichés of other films (Cinema Sins, Red Letter Media). They tend to be effective, yet can get stale if relied upon too often.
In Lee’s “The Essay Film: Some Thoughts of Discontent”, he ruminates on the fallout of the mass media’s complete takeover of audiovisual language. Now with, as the narrator in the opening says, “more images and more knowledge than we know what to do with”, Lee hopes for filmmakers that will strive to make something worth viewing and seeing. And this, ultimately, must mean rejecting the current Hollywood system model of:
STORYTELLING. STARS. SPECTACLE.
These are three of the ways in which Lee believes most movies try to think forus. While watching a film just for its “stars” and “spectacle” may feel superficial and obvious, it’s the notion of “storytelling” as a type of tyranny over the mind that’s quite fascinating.
It could be argued that one of the great classical distinctions between a short film and a feature (besides its length) is creating a mood versus telling a full story. While a traditional feature film will follow any number of expected three-act structures or arcs (the Hero’s Journey being the most prevalent among them), the short film has such little time, that any attempt to get through a full character journey often feels forced and hasty. Rather, the best short films revel in a particular moment or feeling that a character is going through. When adhered to, this allows the form a certain atmospheric license.
We ask Kevin B. Lee about this very distinction, and where he sees the role of storytelling in short film.
Miniflix: Do you believe a general bias exists in most film schools towards “storytelling” as the guide to making a movie? If so, in what ways do you think storytelling could actually be the wrong way of going about making a short film versus a feature?
Kevin B. Lee: Certainly film schools tend to emphasize storytelling, along with strong characters and visual spectacle. These are dominant, market-proven modes of audience engagement, as powerful as narcotics. But there are alternative ways to experience and understand life, and it’s those alternatives that essay films and experimental films pursue. This becomes especially important when narrative-based thinking becomes confining, formulaic and artificial.
A friend who graduated from a prestigious screenwriting program in Germany told me that a classmate had come up with a “universal model” for narrative. It was like looking at a diagram for operating a machine. Studios are already developing AI to create stories and write scripts. This may simply be exposing the mechanical, normative operations that have dominated mainstream narrative filmmaking all along. With an increasingly automated future like this, humans may have no choice but resist narrative mechanisms to retain a sense of human agency.
That said, I’m not opposed to storytelling so much as programmatic approaches to storytelling. This semester I’m launching a Crossmedia Storytelling course at my college, where I’ll have students develop narratives that travel across multiple platforms: video content, social and interactive media, and anything else they come up with. I’m excited for this because having the students navigate their story through these different contexts will challenge them to rethink how they tell the story when there are different modes of audience engagement. That’s simply a reflection of the new reality of how we experience media today in all its diversity and fluidity.
Connecting these issues to the short film form, it functions as a perfect laboratory to develop innovative approaches to engage an audience beyond the strictures of narrative. If you only have a few minutes of your audience’s time, why waste it on formulas they’ve seen countless times before?
Another major theme at play in “The Essay Film: Some Thoughts of Discontent”, is the weight of responsibility put upon the creator of a short film (whether it be a video essay or a more traditional short film) in an age of rampant irresponsible media. We also ask Lee about this, and how a film’s use of the visual and auditory language (whether in short or feature form) is more important than it’s ever been.
Miniflix: In the same video essay, you say the following: “we live in a present submerged in audiovisual sensory data…that exceeds the grasp of literary conceptions.” What did you mean by this quote? I got two different impressions. The first was that you meant the literal passage of time revealed that audiovisual sensory data is at a level philosophers of the past (such as Montaigne or Adorno) could not even comprehend. The second reading of the quote was that you actually meant we are at a place in culture that cannot be redeemed or seen anew by literary — or written — attempts at re-orienting our vision, but must come from within the audio-visual medium. Perhaps a third reading is at play here as well.
Kevin B. Lee: My intention was closer to your second reading, though I’m sure Montaigne and Adorno would be dumbstruck by the sheer volume of information, especially the audiovisual, that bombard us on a daily basis. As essayists who mastered the art of developing elaborate trains of thought in the written form, they would be aghast at the how this media hyperstream impedes on our capacity to compose and articulate our thoughts at length, at least in writing.
But what this all-surrounding audiovisual environment also implies is an increasing capacity for people to think and express themselves in audiovisual terms. On a quotidian level, we are already seeing this with emojis, gifs and memes, and with greater complexity in experimental and essay filmmaking. In this sense experimental filmmaking has a greater relevance than ever because it can be seen as a more conceptually developed or critically aware version of these newly popular forms of everyday audiovisual expression.
The crucial question remains: to what extent does does this new regime of audiovisual consciousness truly function as thought, and to what extent does it amount to thoughtlessness?
A great question to consider. Trying to define a “thoughtful” image or a “thoughtless” image is difficult when it’s not always agreed upon what sort of image is meant to create thought. A short film may have minimal dialogue and mostly focus on contemplative shots of nature, where “nothing is happening”, yet one could say that there is plenty of “thoughtfulness” that both went into the images and that audiences got out of the same images. As Lee explores later in the video essay, the more self-referential or aware a film is of its ability to frame images (revealing and concealing things), the more likely it is exploring questions about the medium itself — a subject never devoid of thought.
Kevin B. Lee himself is hyper-aware of the video essay as a medium, especially when he explores his chosen form in “What Makes a Video Essay Great”. In this video, he runs down some of the trends and outliers that existed in the video essay space at the time. Similar to what was explored earlier, Lee asks the question: “…is there room for more meditation or questioning in online video essays, or in culture as a whole?”
He offers some great examples of video essays from that year which did, in fact, question the norms of the form. As exhilarating and watchable as Lee finds the more popular examples to be, he knows the ones with most lasting significance to him will come from the more experimental corners of the internet.
We finally ask Lee about his thoughts on the current landscape of short film, and if the experimental, or thoughtful, short film is possible.
Miniflix: You mostly seem to analyze feature narrative films, documentaries or experimental work (such as essay films, more experimental docs, educational film, etc.) . Have you thought or produced much on the short narrative film? Do you have any particular feelings towards the short narrative film as a medium? For example, what sort of possibilities do you find there that wouldn’t be possible in a feature narrative film?
Kevin B. Lee: The first films I ever made were short narratives, and I have made some video essays on shorts. One I can point to is a video essay on the early shorts of D.W. Griffith and how they invented the editing and parallel storytelling techniques that would become attributed to contemporary filmmakers like Christopher Nolan. I despise the overt racism found in Griffith’s filmography, but it’s hard to argue that few filmmakers did as much to develop narrative cinema through the short films they made.
Most narrative short films that I’ve seen these days function as professional calling cards for entry into the traditional film industry. But the most interesting short content, even ones that feature a story, are usually more interesting for fresh approaches to their characters or innovative use of narrative structure. The best narrative films are the ones that don’t follow established models, and bring fresh air back into movies. In other words, the best narrative short films are by definition experimental.
You can read more about Kevin B. Lee at https://www.alsolikelife.com/.
To watch many of his great video essays, just go to https://vimeo.com/kevinblee.