Cinephilia of the Internet age has produced its own form of active and productive appropriation, in the form of the video essay: a genre that combines the history of compilation films, of found footage films and of the essay film, argues Thomas Elsaesser.
Appropriation is a varied concept, and it can carry very different meanings. For instance, turning our focus from the film-maker to the film-viewer, appropriation can be a more vivid term for reception and spectatorship in general, especially if we think of the active and interactive role we now tend to assign to the spectator - as viewer, as user, as player - in light of all the different screen activities that are involved in the consumption and apperception of moving images. These include going to the cinema, watching television, using the screens of our laptops and tablets, and acquiring the skills needed to play video games. In short, spectatorship as appropriation acknowledges the active participation of the viewer in the process of the reception of films and the consumption of visual displays and spectacles.
Appropriation and cinephilia
Cinephilia of the Internet age has produced its own form of active and productive appropriation, in the form of the video essay: a genre [...] that combines the history of compilation films, of found footage films and of the essay film: all genres that try to make films reflect on their own conditions of possibility, and that enrich our experience of cinema by creating forms of para-cinema, post-cinema and meta-cinema.
In the cases of cinephilia - as a gesture of love, and as an act of acquiring expertise - appropriation implicitly includes a claim to ownership, and this in turn can be either legitimate or illegitimate ownership, which is one way in which the question of ethics arises. Ownership may be understood in legal terms, as copyright or intellectual property right. But ownership extends to other modalities as well: ownership as the physical possession of the object "film" - something only possible in relatively recent times, in the form of a DVD or a video file - or the right to do with the object as one pleases: interfere with it, re-edit its scenes and images, or alter it via commentary or soundtrack. But ownership can also manifest itself in the sense of trying to "own" a film's meaning and interpretation and thus claim a particular kind of power over it. Several of these forms of ownership would seem to shift the question of appropriation from the realm of reception back to an act of production, but as we shall see, when it comes to appropriation, reception can become productive (as in the video essay), and production can be a form of reception (as in found footage films) - and both come together in the concept of digital cinema generally as post-production. [...]
What is Found Footage: Love and Theft
When we move to found footage films, the first questions to ask are of course: What is a found footage film? And how can we identify the different variants, genres and sub-genres? Found footage films not only need to be distinguished from compilation films, but also from so-called stock footage, used in television reportage for historical narratives, to illustrate the voice-over commentary, or to accompany the narrative of talking heads, simulating the impression that a camera had been the silent witness to what the person is narrating or commenting on. Known in the U.S. as the Ken Burns method, and in Germany associated with Guido Knopp, stock footage usually comes from a commercial archive, where it is catalogued and classified according to theme, location, date and setting. But under pressure to find fresh and previously unused images, television has begun to aggressively plunder national and regional film archives, as well as private collections, including home movies, to feed its seemingly insatiable appetite for visual material that makes history "come alive". [...]
Found footage, both from known and unknown sources often finds itself combined in the so-called essay film, a genre where Chris Marker has been a towering figure, influencing many other essay films, among them not only those of Harun Farocki, but also Jean Luc Godard's magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinéma, in which he edits across and between images, as well as over and within images. Marker's found footage/essay film masterpieces are Grin Without a Cat (1977) and Sans soleil (1983). Grin Without a Cat is three hours long and takes "the appropriation art form to the next level, culling countless hours of newsreel and documentary footage that he himself did not shoot, into a seamless, haunting global cross-section of war, social upheaval and political revolution. Yet, what's miraculous about Marker's work is that his cine-essays never fell victim to a dependency on the persuasive argument." [...].
Found Footage between Obsolescence and Abundance
The technical facility of non-linear editing, and the ready availability of the appropriate software has - depending on one's point of view - either democratized filmmaking tools and put post-production skills within reach of more people than ever before, or lead to a massive de-professionalization of editing both sound and image, as well as of writing text and commentary in the field of the essay-film, as well as compilation and found-footage films. Examples of the latter can easily be found on the web, where found footage films, whether authentic or fake - especially in connection with horror effects and shock-schlock film - have become (since the success of The Blair Witch Project and Paranormal) the new indie genre Hollywood is trying to appropriate. It's not surprising, therefore, that avant-garde filmmakers and other trained artists have been cautious about using the Internet as their exhibition platform and distribution channel, preferring to align themselves with museums, galleries and art spaces in general, still considered to be the guardians and gatekeepers of recognized standards and secure artistic reputations. Christian Marclay's The Clock is perhaps the most illustrious example of an artist creatively using an art space for an exercise of compilation more commonly associated with the Internet, thereby pushing both the gallery and the mash-up to its limits.
With The Clock we encounter another paradox, namely the fact that one of the last public spheres where a cinema of the avant-garde and of auteurs can be discussed and debated, and can find a serious public, are the traditionally elite cultural sites of the art world (including) biennials and festivals, rather than the massive reaches of the digital public sphere of the internet and the dedicated sites just mentioned.
Here the video essay tries to break new ground, in order to resolve some of these paradoxes. A practice that has established itself in the refreshingly fluid zone between academic film studies, cinephile essay and fan-based appropriation, the video essay is very much an online phenomenon, even when it is picked up by film journals such as Sight & Sound or DVD companies such as the Criterion collection, who think they need a strong online presence in order to survive. Taking advantage of precisely the ease of access to films of all genres and periods, and their abundance online, video essay authors can work on the images and sounds themselves and they allow the film fragments not only to "speak for themselves" but to "think cinema" with their own sounds and images, often concentrating on the stylistic patterns and peculiarities of recognized auteurs, such as Stanley Kubrick or Wes Anderson, Yasujiro Ozu or Brian de Palma, but also such popular directors as Steven Spielberg and Michael Bay. In a short space of time, a substantial body of work in this new genre has emerged, with its own rules, reflections and reigning champions. That the genre is not without its controversial aspects is acknowledged by one of its foremost practitioners, Kevin B. Lee, who writes: "I cannot recall how the term ‘video essay' came to be the adopted nomenclature for the ever-increasing output of online videos produced over the past few years by an ever-growing range of self-appointed practitioners (including myself ). My own entrance into this field was an organic synthesis of my backgrounds as a film critic and a filmmaker, two modes that had competed with each other in my mind until I started to pursue the possibilities of critically exploring cinema through the medium itself. This practice is readily possible in an age when digital technology enables virtually anyone with a computer (not even a video camera, as images are overly abundant and accessible) to produce media with nearly as much ease as it is to consume it. Does this type of production herald an exciting new era, enacting Alexandre Astruc's prophecy of cinema becoming our new lingua franca? Or is it just an insidious new form of media consumption? At least that's how much of what lately is termed ‘video essay' strikes me: an onslaught of supercuts, list-based montages and fan videos that do less to shed critical insight into their source material than offer a new way for the pop culture snake to eat its long tail."
Kevin B. Lee, in other words, points out the ambiguous role of the consumer as producer. This brings me back to my opening paragraph about "appropriation" being perhaps the proper name for spectatorship in the digital age, when all production is post-production and consumption has mutated into the excesses and addictions of binge viewing television series like The Wire, Mad Men or Breaking Bad. [...]
Let me come back to what I said about the shift from production to post-production, of which I think the issue of appropriation and its increasingly apparent paradoxes are both a symptom and a consequence. [...] a film created around postproduction has a different relation to the pro-filmic. Whereas analog filmmaking, centered on production, seeks to "capture" reality in order to "harness" it into a "representation", digital filmmaking, conceived from postproduction, proceeds by way of "extracting" reality, in order to "harvest" it. Instead of disclosure and revelation (the ontology of film from Jean Epstein to André Bazin, from Siegfried Kracauer to Stanley Cavell), post-production treats the world as data to be processed or mined, as raw materials and resources to be exploited.
In other words: the move from production to post-production as the center of gravity of filmmaking is not primarily defined by a different relation to index and trace, to materiality and indexicality (as claimed by those who miss the index in the digital image). Rather, a mode of image-making, for which post-production becomes the default value, changes more than mere procedure: it changes the cinema's inner logic and ontology. Images and image-making are no longer based on perception or a matter of representation: post-production's visuality is of the order of the vegetal; that is, not only is it comparable to the growing and harvesting of crops, or the extraction of natural resources, but it lines up with the manipulation of genetic or molecular material, in the scientific and industrial processes of biogenetics or micro-engineering. If this is indeed the case, the ethics of appropriation will take on a whole other dimension.
Thomas Elsaesser is Professor Emeritus at the Department of Media and Culture of the University of Amsterdam and a Visiting Professor at Columbia University. Among his recent books are: German Cinema - Terror and Trauma: Cultural Memory Since 1945 (2013) and (with Malte Hagener) Film Theory - An Introduction Through the Senses (2nd edition, 2015). Lecture at the Amsterdam Film Academy, 26 November 2014, unpublished, fragments published with permission of the author.