Films interfere with the identities we make for ourselves – Conversation with Serena Bramble on video essays and classic cinema

Serena Bramble will be represented at NexT 2015 by the video essay White Knights and Bad People, included in the program NexT Is Feminist, which will screen Friday, April 17th, 8 30 PM, at the Elvira Popescu cinema in Bucharest. This interview is an occasion for her to tell us more about the video essays she has been working on for the past few years as well as her perspective, as filmmaker, critic and viewer, on cinema.


How did you get into filmmaking and, particularly, making video essays?


I’ve always loved film, for different reasons; I was a very shy, introverted child (and still am at age 25) so getting lost in a movie was a much easier way to understand people than interacting with them—plus, my parents didn’t have cable and renting VHS was the next best alternative. So I’ve always loved film as a viewer, and as a teenager wanted to be a film critic; after falling in love with classic Hollywood movies when I was 17, I started being able to see their place in our culture from a historical standpoint. So I began to make little fanvideos/montages and post them on YouTube, the most famous of which, The Endless Night: A Valentine to Film Noir, caught the attention of many and opened a lot of doors for me. The great thing about video essays is that it marries my three loves, editing, writing and films. I became involved with that world at around 2011 when Matt Zoller Seitz recruited me to be part of his new blog Press Play, before we really knew what it was called, and I’ve been getting work in that field ever since.


Tell me a little bit about your Valentine to Film Noir. I was wondering whether it was a spontaneous decision to make it – and you went back through your favorite noirs to look for material – or whether you remembered a series of recurring motifs and shot compositions?


The idea first came to me when I was riding with my mother, who delivers newspapers so she works in the hours of darkness when most people are either asleep or commiting crimes (or working, in her case). I was with her one night on her paper route when she was playing the album Mezzanine by Massive Attack. The eeriness of that opening song Angel, the beats, the slow build up, had a very cinematic quality to it, and of course it being played at night aided the images of film noir being brought to the forefront when I heard that song. That was the summer of 2008, and over the next few months I rented many, many film noirs, some I’d seen and others I was discovering, watched them, took notes of certain lines or images that I felt could work, imported them, and began playing around in iMovie HD. It helps that gunshots go really well over drum beats.



Is there an audience for video essays, apart from the Internet, and if there is one, are its rules stricter? I can imagine copyright issues for the clips and music can be an obstacle, so is the image resolution for something designed to play online that makes it to the big screen. I see that there are video essays making tours of festivals, and I know that The Endless Night screened at Noir City pretty soon after it was made.


The progression of video essays, and hearing that the Endless Night piece has travelled far and wide have been amazing—some of the best YouTube comments I receive are from people who say that they saw it in an art class or a film class at an Ivy League university. I think that classrooms are going to be where video essays live on outside of the internet, as Powerpoints have started students on a visual essay of sorts, but video essays are more engaging and fun than lectures on Power Points. Video essayists have to adhere to copyright laws and make sure that their essays fall under the Fair Use doctrine, which states that copyrighted material can be used if they are in an educational/learning setting. That means that we can only use music taken from whatever movies/clips/interviews we’re pulling from, and I’m personally diligent about citing at the end of my essays. There are many montages out there that do not fall under this provision, and I have heard many horror stories, but I hope and believe that copyright owners are realizing that the myriad of video essayits or people who post fan videos on YouTube are not stealing property, but actually promoting it—if I had a dollar for every time someone asked me about a clip from Criss-Cross in my noir video, I could have paid for college on my own.


Is film noir still a thing? Is it more actual than other late thirties-early forties Hollywood genres like the screwball comedy and western? I’d figure it’s omnipresent at least as far as iconography goes, but there might be something bigger at stake, its sensibility might have been more modern than that of its contemporary genres.


I believe that noir is still very much part of American culture. It’s certainly debatable as to when film noir truly began and ended, but I always felt that it began with WWII and ended in the mid-50s, which covers some seriously morally unstable territory with the ghosts of WWII and then the distrust of McCarthyism and the blacklist. My generation, in the US, is certainly defined by the events of 9/11, and the aftermath with the War on Terror, which have brought back that same moral ambiguity, of taking a detour to the American Dream, if it ever really existed in the first place. Modern movies with elements of noir that pay homage to the past while being thoroughly actual include Zodiac (a detective story about an unknown, indefinable evil), Gone Girl(bringing in the femme fatale iconography in a central question as to what defines marriage), and Nightcrawler (exploitation as a means to the American Dream). Because film noir dares to expose the deeper layers of both human identity and the American Dream, I think its place in modern film history will be secure for some time, if only because of the age-old saying that cynicism ages better than sincerity.


I’d personally love to see screwball comedy make a comeback. Even though our films have become obviously more flooded with images of sex and nudity and even as the idea of marriage has certainly changed since the days of The Philadelphia Story, the way we fall in love is still pretty similar. The biggest delight of screwball comedy is how it subverts our notions of what good storytelling is; while one indicator of a good director is one who shows and doesn’t tell, screwball comediesare all about what you say – or don’t say, namely your true feeling – rather than what you show –or don’t show, namely sex. Screwball comedy and comedies in general don’t often have an interesting or identifiable visual scheme like film noir does, but one thing I always take away from those old movies that I believe is missing from whatever we define today as “chemistry” between modern leads is that Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell occupy the same visual space, the same frame in His Girl Friday that is lost in our quicker shot-reverse shot editing style. You can truly see an umbilical cord between romantic leads in a way that’s harder to see today.


Is making video essays a form of expressing your love of movies or do you see it shaping up as an autonomous activity? Would you be interested in exploring a previously unknown type of cinema if you were commissioned to make a video essay on the topic?


It’s absolutely a way to explain, sometimes non-verbally, my love for films and my appreciation for good films, or to explain what’s wrong with bad films. While having a familiarity and appreciation for whatever films I know I’m going to excerpt from certainly cuts down on my research time, I love exploring new films or TV shows and always welcome the challenge of working outside my own comfort zone or taste—every year for Noir City, Eddie Muller hands me the program and sometimes some DVDs and he tells me to run with it. I often stumble upon a really great film I’d never seen before, such as Woman on the Run, which was the Film Noir Foundation’s restoration project of this year and to be included in this year’s opening montage that I crafted.


More and more people are making video essays, with widely ranging subjects and techniques. Would you say there is a community of video essayists, maybe grouped around such venues as the IndieWire Press Play blog, or is it rather disengaged?


Film editing is a very solitary environment, it means being at a computer for hours on end, so it’s often easy to stay a lone wolf, and I do consider myself very much an introvert; but the great thing about the internet is that it unites a lot of artistic people when it comes to professional networking (the tragedy about the internet is how often this unity is mistaken for real intimacy). I’ve made many contacts via Facebook, collaborations on video essays, becoming aware of fellow video essayists, some of whom also produce essays at the same outlets that I do, but have never met in person. I’m actually going to be attending a film festival where I’ll be on a panel with fellow video essayists that I’ve known about or been friends on social media for years but have never met, including Nelson Carvajal and Kevin B. Lee; it should be fun to have four video essayists in the same room together.


I was impressed after seeing the White Knights and Bad People video primarily because it takes the less beaten path of video-esssay-making in editing together bits of movies according to a political/ideological stance. It also has a sophisticated approach in claiming that movies showing respect for (idealized) women aren’t necessarily feminist. Could video essays open up new possibilities for ideological criticism? The fact that they’re audiovisual products means, to say the least, that it makes reiterating unquestioned convictions impossible – something that, in my humble opinion, could only breathe life into a form of discourse associated with academia and niche readership.


I certainly hope that video essays dare to take a more political/ideological approach. It would have been easy to write the White Knights piece in written essay form, but I feel that actually seeing those clips sampled together makes it more powerful and confrontational. Film should be confrontational, because it’s such an important part of our culture, how we consolidate our own identities imitating what we see on-screen. And often, you might find yourself confronted with a very naive idea broadcast to a very wide audience, which was the case with White Knights—I had long, long abhored the trope of staging an attempted rape scene for the sole purpose of having a hero swoop in and save the day, but it was the immediate aftermath of a now very infamous scene of Game of Thrones, in which a rape scene, changed in adaptation from a consensual scene from the novels, was denied as such by its creators and stars, that compelled me to try and express my frustration with that trope. Roger Ebert once said that he was against censorship in any form, because he believed that there is going to be one filmmaker out there who can take a taboo subject and turn it into something thoughtful and meaningful. I agree with that sentiment—while this very artistic freedom sometimes produces masterpieces rooted in moral naïveté such as D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation and Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the least a viewer can do is to realize what they’re being exposed to, and begin a conversation instead of idly taking fiction for truth, accepting that we are defined by what we watch.   

Featured photo credits: Lynne & Janelle Fried

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