Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Problems of Being Alive Right Now: A Conversation with video essayist John Bresland

John Bresland
In 1991 Phillip Lopate published "In Search of the Centaur," an essay interrogating the possibilities of the essay-film, a hybrid genre "that barely exists." Writing years before technological advances made film and videomaking an easier and cheaper endeavor, Lopate wrote that "the camera is not a pencil, and it is rather difficult to think with it in the way an essayist might." He dismisses examples of narrative films that don't feel—or, see—like essays, citing the "confusion between a reflective, self-conscious style and an essayistic one," adding, "While an essay must reflect or meditate, not all meditative sensibilities are essayistic." The essay-film, as Lopate sees it, must exhibit five qualities: 1) an essay-film must have words, in the form of a text either spoken, subtitled, or intertitled; 2) the text must represent a single voice; 3) the text must represent an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem; 4) the text must impart more than information; it must have a strong, personal point of view; and 5) the text’s language should be as eloquent, well written and interesting as possible.

Lopate wrote: "I think this sudden frequency with which the term 'essay-film' is being optimistically and loosely invoked in cinematic circles is not surprising."
Right now, there is a hunger in film aesthetics and film practice for the medium to jump free of its genre corral, and to reflect on the world in a more intellectually stimulating and responsible way. When a good film with nonfiction elements comes along that provokes thought, such as [Yvonne] Rainer’s Privilege, it is understandably hailed as an essay-film. And it may turn out in the end that there is no other way to do an essay-film, that the type of essay-film I have been calling for is largely impractical, or overly restrictive, or at odds with the inherent nature of the medium. But I will go on patiently stoking the embers of the form as I envision it, convinced that the truly great essay-films have yet to be made, and that this succulent opportunity awaits the daring cine-essayists of the future.
John Bresland is one of a group of recent filmmakers who has dared. I became familiar with Bresland via his contribution to the anthology Essayists on the Essay, a version of his "On the Origin of the Video Essay" that appeared originally in Blackbird in Spring 2010. I'm intrigued by both the possibilities and the limitations of the video essay. I'm not someone who speaks in/with visual grammar, yet I'm nonetheless taken by the notion of following one's camera gaze, a first-person point of view, into the world of space and time. Why can't a video camera be as idiosyncratic a tool as my keyboard? Where do the two overlap? Part ways? Bresland's voice-driven essays blend the personal (fatherhood, driving) and the social (environmental concerns, the blitheness of a nation watching Seinfeld as Hutu extremists commit mass genocide), knifing through the world with precision, pausing in reflective takes, thinking on (and with) the screen as his camera probes and documents. Any given shot might be clearly a POV—private, autobiographical, personally-grounded—or it might be journalistic—present but detached. It's this blend of sensibility and witnessing, a dynamic to which no essay is a stranger, that intrigues me.

A suite of Bresland's essays can be found on his website:

POV ("Zero Station" screenshot, 2008)
POV ("Zero Station" screenshot, 2008)
Bresland in the world ("Mangoes" screenshot, 2010)

Bresland teaches creative writing, filmmaking, and digital production at Northwestern University. His audio essays have aired on public radio's Weekend America, his video essays have appeared at Ninth Letter, Blackbird, and Fourth Genre, and his print essays at North American Review, Brevity, and elsewhere.  He's coauthor with Marilyn Freeman of Crafting the Video Essay, forthcoming from University of Chicago Press in 2013.

Recently I virtually sat down with Bresland and asked him about his work.   


How did you get involved with film and video making? Has it been a lifelong interest?

I grew up on Chicago’s far south side in Calumet City, where the River Oaks theater now sits vacant. In the 70’s it was one of the best theatres in all of Chicagoland, with a huge curved screen. I saw Jaws there, Star Wars, Logan’s Run. These effects-heavy films were thrilling for all the reasons you’d expect a seven year-old to be thrilled, but in the car ride home and in days following, I spent a lot more time thinking of the technical side than the story or its characters. I wanted to know how that robotic shark worked, how land speeders and light sabers could be made real. The physical and technical aspects of filmmaking have always excited me—the act of making stuff. I was an avid reader of Mad magazine, which taught me how to question the films I saw, and I loved Fangoria and other film magazines that showed how the sausage was made. I was born at the right time. By my early teens, camcorders were affordable. I did all the usual stuff: filmed myself putting cats into microwaves and pulling out—thanks to miracle of in-camera editing—one fully cooked meat loaf. MTV, I’m sure, was a major influence. The idea of lyrics doing one thing while images did another was shocking to me.

How exactly did Mad magazine teach you to question the films you saw? I'm assuming via the parodies? That magazine influenced a generation of adolescents in such different ways. 

One of their legendary writers, Dick DeBartolo, wrote the best parodies. Some of the titles stay with me after decades—Raiders of a Lost ArtRoboslop. As a kid growing up in the 70’s and 80’s, Mad was about the only voice of dissent, the only venue I had access to that suggested something dark happening to popular film. I suppose Hollywood has always been a commercial enterprise. And even the New Wave guys like Truffaut and Godard were intent on making a commercially viable product. But before Spielberg and Lucas came along, personal films like Five Easy Pieces and Badlands and obscurely beautiful films like Vanishing Point—films that were about something—were flourishing. Whatever cultural or market forces that ruined commercial radio, made it so lifeless and irrelevant in my lifetime, have also bled popular cinema. Anyway, Mad magazine made me feel connected to a sort of shadow world that existed beneath or beside mass culture. Of course DeBartolo was making fart jokes, too—a boy’s got to live. But he was questioning everything about our culture of entertainment. Before Mad, it never occurred to me to question anything.

It seems to me that when an essayist travels through the world, mentally, imaginatively, it's a much different experience than a videomaker traveling through the world through time and, especially, through space, with a defined POV shot. You say, "[essayistic] asking—whether inscribed in ancient mud, printed on paper, or streamed thirty frames per second—is central to the essay, is the essay." The impulse to essay may be the same for writers and videomakers, but the methodology is different. How does that impact the video essay?

No argument there, Joe. Print and video are different beasts—though I’d argue there’s a fair amount of congruence between these forms. Right now I’m reading, or re-reading, The Gutenberg Elegies, a beautiful collection of essays about reading in the electronic age—a book all the more impressive because Sven Birkerts published it in the mid-90’s, well before digital books began outselling their physical counterparts. In one essay about the pleasures and limitations of listening to books on tape, Birkerts locates what I believe is the thing that makes the act of reading so powerful, so personal and perfect. “We don’t just read the words,” he writes, “we dream our lives in their vicinity.” Readers have room to pause and re-read and reflect and dream in a way audiences of time-based media can not. Once the film is rolling, the audience is more or less captive to its pace. Blockbusters and TV, generally, leave no room for viewers to dream their lives into the image. One of the reasons Jaws was so good is because we never really see the shark. Not until the end, and when we do, when it’s chomping idiotically on Robert Shaw, it’s disappointing. It’s just a big stupid rubber machine. But until then, it’s a thrilling shark. The most terrifying thing you can imagine.

Balzac said, "If we could but paint with the hand what we see with the eye." What are the video essay's limitations? And what, to your mind and in your experience, can be done in a video essay that can't be done in a conventional literary essay?

I don’t know that time is a limitation, but it certainly shapes the product. If, for example, you wanted to author a poem for the screen, you might have to make some concessions. On the page, the reader can read and re-read a highly distilled poetic line. But if your poem were committed on the screen, and played only once, the audience has only one chance to absorb that line. This, by the way, is why I have trouble when I attend poetry readings. I feel like my role is spectatorial, a downgrade from reading. As the lines get away from me, as the poem becomes a performance, I grow increasingly passive. In any time-based form like film or radio or live performance, I think there’s a risk of pacifying the audience, of doing violence to the imagination. So, how to avoid that? How do you make the video essay or poem as active and co-creative as a literary experience? Is it even possible? I think it is. When I see films by Kubrick, when the image is never quite what it first appears to be, I think it’s definitely possible. And it doesn’t take big budget virtuosity like his. Agnes Varda and Ross McElwee and Errol Morris and Werner Herzog have been doing it for years, on a dime. What they’re doing, I think, is profiting from the screen’s ability to convey—in seconds, sometimes less—rich human moments with a profound visceral power and immediacy. I hate to say the obvious thing, here, but who wouldn’t want to see these two features come together in an art form? Film and literature are already twined in the academy, sharing floor space in the same department. It was only a matter of time before technology caught up.

It's been suggested that a contemporary person sees more images in a week than a Victorian could have seen in a lifetime. If this is true, what are the implications of this for the contemporary essay? 

Well, the more I learn about the Victorians, the less Victorian they seem. A friend of mine once read to me a passage from some Victorian smut, a sort of 19th Century Penthouse Letters. I have a terrible memory, but I remember the line she read verbatim, and this was years ago: I buttered her twice before uncunting. Now, I realize that’s not the sort of image you’re talking about. But when I think about the visual arts in the 19th century in the context of now, of today, I can’t help but wonder if we’re the ones who are deprived. Because our postmodern brains are instructed by the code of cinema, we tend to look at images with one expectation: that they move. For years I used to wonder why, after trawling though museum after museum, I felt so disappointed and helpless. I eventually figured out that I can’t look at, say, a Modigliani nude, without a sense of disappointment that she doesn’t get up, pull a shot of espresso, maybe do some light calisthenics.

I'm curious if you agree with Lopate that an essay-film must have words, in the form of spoken text or subtitles. Could you part with Lopate here? Your films employ voice-over. Can you imagine an entirely silent essay-film? 

The Qatsi trilogy by Godfrey Reggio has no language—not English, anyway, just a smattering of Hopi. I think the first and probably best film of that trilogy, Koyaanisqatsi, comes pretty close to succeeding as a wordless essay. The visuals are almost always evocative—especially the human portraits, where the dignity of human beings, even those in absurd circumstances, suggests reason to be hopeful about our fate. If Koyaanisqatsi is the exception, though, it proves the rule: I agree with Lopate. I subscribe to his view that the video essay features language, in part because we’re talking not just about a form, but a tradition that’s well established. One facet of the video essay that sets it apart from, say, the documentary is its tendency to question the self, to dispense with the myth of objectivity. That questioning, if it’s to go deeper than basic supposition, is probably going to require language. What helped Reggio, I think, was the score by Philip Glass. It’s pretty great. The mistake I made the first few times I heard it—and saw it—was thinking it was music. Well, it’s certainly music, but it’s something else, too. Glass is the questioning voice of that film. His score rarely takes the image at face value; it only ever comments on the image, questions it, argues with it. Glass himself has said that the job of the composer is not to make music that “matches” the image. He believes the composer’s job is to observe accurately the distance between the image and the music. I believe that’s the video essayists job as well—to observe accurately the distance between what is seen, what is heard and what is said. 

You say, "That the image resists the precision of language is indeed a complication for the essayist. Much in the way, I would argue, that pianos complicate singing. That is to say another skill is called for but the payoff can be sublime." This is intriguing. Could you elaborate?

I forget the precise numbers, but roughly one if four Americans right now owns a smartphone. This can’t be true, right? Because if you factor in children and elderly, this basically means everybody is carrying around a smartphone, or will be very soon as all phones will soon be smartphones—capable of acquiring and editing images and sound, not to mention Kindle-capable. Have you been to a lunch counter recently? No books anymore. And few newspapers. Just glowing screens. The primary conveyance now for text is digital. And since digital doesn’t care whether it’s conveying text or images or sounds—it’s all data—our primary means for “reading” is now equipped with images and sound. Predicting the future is a sure way to look stupid, but I have to say: when text and images and sound are all housed together in the same digital environment, it’s inevitable that walls separating those modes of communication will become increasingly porous. In twenty years, I believe we will mean something slightly different when we use the word “writing,” something a little less logocentric. Text—good old literary text—isn’t going anywhere, of course. But I believe fewer and fewer writers will choose to stop there.

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