Diversity in Film Studies: Who Cares About Video Essays?
With the rise of platforms like YouTube and Vimeo, many people have turned to video essays to learn film theory and visual analysis. These videos have become so popular that I would argue that the medium is not separate from, but is now an integral part of academic theory. They are a way of expressing criticism or analysis of film form that is available to anyone with an internet connection. Because they share the visual medium, video essays on film also have a demonstrative advantage over written analyses. As a result, they’re an innovative, accessible method of explaining film to a broad audience.
Because movies are first and foremost visual, having a method of understanding how the aesthetics of cinema translate to the understanding of our world is extremely valuable. However, many video essayists only deconstruct how the technical aspects of film bring thematic and emotional meaning to its viewers. In doing so, they neglect to address what the social and political implications of these choices are. This is particularly ironic as film studies has evolved from feminist, queer, and critical race theory—the very work of marginalized groups that these video essays often ignore.
Video essayist Lindsay Ellis is one of the rare exceptions to this trend. Her ongoing, ambitious project The Whole Plate is set on explaining many of the basic tenets of film theory through an investigation of the Transformers series. A particular standout is her essay on feminist theory and Megan Fox’s character, Mikaela Banes. Ellis comments on Mikaela’s dissonance of framing—the difference between how the character is written in the script versus her depiction on screen. Though Mikaela is written as a hardworking, ambitious woman who knows how to hotwire cars, audiences primarily remember her as the token vacant, hot girlfriend. Ellis explains that this misrecollection is due to the way Mikaela is shot. Because director Michael Bay positions the camera to frame Megan Fox’s body in an overtly sexual manner, her dialogue and character arc are entirely undermined by the perverted visual. Ellis insightfully tackles other critical topics on her channel including analyzing postcolonial theory through Pocahontas and queer theory through Rent.
Though Ellis's work is quite popular, she has bemoaned the lack of other prominent video essayists who are from marginalized communities. Even online, where there are no barriers to releasing content, there is hardly any presence of women and people of colour making video essays—the most frequently viewed ones are by white men by a significant margin. This has led to a highly disconcerting new film discourse that is still predominately shaped by whiteness and maleness. The lack of better socially driven critique cannot be resolved by male essayists merely shifting their focus. To speak to difficult topics like sexism, gender, and racism, learning about film from people who have faced these experiences is essential.
The results of a more intersectional film study are slowly gaining traction in Hollywood. For instance, there are more films now than ever (including Selma, Moonlight, and Twelve Years a Slave) which accurately and beautifully depict black actors instead of washing out their skin colour onscreen. Unsurprisingly, the cinematographers of these films all attribute this to their training in university—which had a strong focus on learning how black skin was represented in art and culture. It's therefore not a stretch to assume that studying film has a drastic and essential effect on the production of more inclusive filmmaking.
However, as universities continue to raise their tuitions, many future filmmakers will be learning parts of their craft online. The open access of the internet is particularly necessary for the underrepresented groups who are the least likely to be able to afford film school. By building a stronger, more inclusive environment online, future filmmakers will be able to learn from video essayists with a wide variety of backgrounds. In doing so, they can better understand the nuances of filmmaking to work toward more inclusive representations onscreen.