By Jacob Cutler
Philip Lopate once said that the essay is “a search to find out what one thinks about something,” that an essayist is simply working out “some mental knot.” I don’t know if I’ve come across a better definition for the genre and it was about two years ago that I started to think about working through that process in a medium other than the printed page. While there certainly exist many films or videos that are “essayistic,” I had never seen anyone approach the personal essay as film in any sort of formal or acknowledged way. And I thought it was time someone tried.
With the help of some very talented people I created a video essay—The Summer We Stole from the Cookie Jar—and then began sharing my idea. And in the fall of 2011 I found someone that could help me do something with it.
Patrick Madden (a magnificent essayist who has taught me most of what I know about the form) listened to what I had to say, liked the idea, provided many of his own, and has been fundamental in getting our little project to where it is now. Madden was also the one that pointed me to the work of John Bresland at Northwestern University who, as it turns out, has been working on this hybrid genre for some time now. I can’t say I was surprised and, although I admit that I had liked the idea of being some sort of pioneer, it is certainly a good thing that someone else had already made so much progress in the development of a young genre that seems ready to explode.
It will be the work of future video essayists that will eventually help us understand what exactly the video essay is, but I think Lopate’s definition of the written essay is a good place to start. Bresland agrees: “In its intent the video essay is no different from its print counterpart, which for thousands of years has been a means for writers to confront hard questions on the page. The essayist pushes toward some insight or some truth. That insight, that truth, tends to be hard won, if at all, for the essay tends to ask more than it answers. That asking—whether inscribed in ancient mud, printed on paper, or streamed thirty frames per second—is central to the essay, is the essay.”
I believe that mental process is what makes the essay so compelling. As writers wind down some mental path we, as readers, can’t help but follow along. And by following we are taken to places we may never have experienced otherwise. I also believe that we will see more and more writers embark on these searches, ask these questions, and attempt to untie these mental knots on screen because the video essay seems capable of accomplishing something not found with text alone—an extra emotional sway produced through word and sight and sound.