Accidentally admitting you’re dubious about video-essay film criticism is a quick route into an argument, but let’s at least agree that the field is still waiting for a Mozart—someone able to use it more for free expression than just dry description. Or at least for some way to stop the dry description being all the same analysis flowcharts that film criticism took from English Literature departments in the first place. New disciplines are always spurred into life by the creation of new media, but at some point they have to develop new methods as well rather than wing it with whatever they’ve got.
You would go straight from argument to punch-up by suggesting that the academic approach is thriving because many essayists are traditional conservative humanities thinkers using platforms supported by public money—and that TikTok might like a word about relying on a media studies outlook at a time when the best place to study media is outdoors. TikTok is designed to terrify any passing old-timers and rightly so, but a full-throttle remix criticism may well steamroller straight over scholars’ attempts to put limits on what counts as good art in the first place, so the sooner the better.
Buried in all of this is a weird retreat from film criticism being a written thing at all, as if the tired old cliché that film critics just wanted to make films all along might actually be true. Something has to account for the lack of a meaningful print-based fanzine culture bubbling up within film criticism from writers prepared to have their unstoppable free expression flyposted onto the walls of cinemas if need be, since that culture hasn’t died off yet elsewhere.
Comics criticism is every bit as beleaguered as the film version, but there the UK profit-what-profit sector has lately produced two issues of progressive comics criticism in Critical Chips, while US output includes an ongoing authentic fanzine in Bubbles Zine and another that’s very close called Comic Aht, plus a self-published selection of Matt Seneca’s comics essays, which was at least as significant an intervention in his chosen field as any individual film critic has carried out lately, an item made more vital rather than less by arriving as a printed pamphlet.
The same sector also produced LAAB, an art newspaper backed to the tune of $30,000 on Kickstarter combining criticism, comics and cultural commentary in a full-size broadsheet item which contains an invitation from the creators to paste pages of it around your neighbourhood like guerrilla graffiti if you fancy. (LAAB #4 also contains a piece of solid film criticism about the Alien franchise, and an article on meme culture that would be directly relevant to creators of video essays.)
We’ve chosen to focus on print rather than digital for a variety of reasons. Physical objects have a life of their own, independent from any proprietary platform or device. Once you lose them into the world, anything can happen. They can be passed from hand to hand, disassembled, stolen, pasted up, reconfigured. A newspaper can blow into your face as you walk down a windy street; this is in fact our ideal delivery mechanism for LAAB.
Which is another way of saying that video-essays are bad at audience participation and hardly ever feel like anything being passed from hand to hand, both of which are part of arts criticism’s purpose. Some kind of rift has opened up if the natural energies that could spark a work like LAAB in film journalism are instead being diverted into clip-shows complaining about the editing of Bohemian Rhapsody, clips apparently hoping that criticism’s destiny in a time of utter crisis lies in a lecture theatre, rather than on the street outside.