Tony Zhou struck internet gold in 2014. His YouTube channel Every Frame a Painting, with over a million subscribers, produces video essays analyzing nuances in filmmaking, like the Coen Brothers’ reverse shots or the use of silence in “Raging Bull.” Along with other popular channels — CineFix, Nerdwriter, Closer Look and Karsten Runquist — Every Frame a Painting is a major player in a booming market for video essays.
That market, however, is very one-dimensional: A man, presumably in his mid-20s, talks about why a director, often David Fincher, is just so damn great after pointing out a somewhat obvious filmmaking technique. People watch these videos without having seen the movies he’s critiquing and close their laptops feeling smart. Worse yet, they feel like they never have to see the movie at all.
CineFix’s content in particular irks me and is the epitome of why these essays produce a new level of pretentiousness. This channel creates listicle videos ranking the “best” of something, like the most beautiful shots in cinema. One video discusses the most beautiful movies of all time: Stanley Kubrick’s (“Eyes Wide Shut”) “Barry Lyndon” is listed for its shots that replicate paintings. Truth be told, at least 95 percent of the video’s viewers haven’t seen the movie. And a high percentage of that group probably never will.
If those who never saw the movie accepted their ignorance and didn’t act knowledgeable, all would be well. Sadly, this is rarely true. I’ve had conservations with devoted CineFix viewers where I’ll be bombarded with information about how beautiful “Barry Lyndon” is. But when I ask them their favorite scene, they daftly reply, “Oh, I’ve never seen it.”
Watching a video essay does not give you the right to talk about a movie as if it’s your favorite, especially when you couldn’t be bothered to spend 187 minutes sitting through “Barry Lyndon.”
The origins of the rising popularity of video essays likely dates back to Anthony Fantano’s popular music channel, The Needle Drop. Although he’s not producing video essays, per se, his content involves in-depth music critique reflecting his wide, developed taste for just about every genre of music. He paved the way for future video essayists to make their own statements. Fantano, however, doesn’t take himself too seriously, unlike many of his essayist successors.
In many ways, the film criticism community loosening its barriers to entry is a feat. But we’ll always need a decent amount of tweed-wearing academics writing lengthy film critiques. The truth is, a lot of the video essayists’ content is not entirely original and comes from the work of PhD-holding professors. Everyone should be able to express their opinions about films. But not everyone can be a film critic, at least not in the scholarly sense of the word.
Obviously, not all video essays are bad. Kogonada, prominent up-and-comer responsible for “Columbus,” began his career making video essays on Vimeo, that other video sharing website that never fails to disappoint the two times a year I use it. His videos are always expressive and original, making him an important voice in film criticism today. Video essays’ rising popularity is an equalizer of sorts, giving voices to those who deserve more attention but lack the Hollywood connections.
For people looking to blow off steam and watch intellectually stimulating content, there’s nothing wrong with video essays. YouTube becoming plagued with video essayists, however, is off-putting, especially considering the lack of gender diversity within the community.
Watching a movie and having an opinion is essential. Sharing these opinions is always welcome. Watching video essays instead and pretending to be an expert on film is nothing but obnoxious.