Some of the most intriguing nonfiction film work being done today isn’t coming out in any theater or on a dedicated VOD platform, but on video sharing websites. In this ongoing column, I’ll be bringing you some of the best recent web documentaries, video essays, how-to shorts, and whatever other cool or interesting work shows up.
“The IMAX of the 1890s” by MoMA
The Museum of Modern Art’s “How to See” series visits the Museum’s film archive for a look at the methods used to preserve ancient nitrate film. MoMA’s collection of reels includes rare footage from the dawn of cinema, snippets of which are presented here in beautiful clarity. The video also works to contextualize how people viewed movies at the time, when the art was young and its potential was only just being discovered.
“My Own Private Idaho” by Brows Held High
Keanu Reeves is having something of a moment. Here, critic Kyle Kallgren revisits Gus Van Sant’s 1991 feature, a New Queer Cinema landmark and home to one of Reeves’ best performances. In particular, he explores the film’s parallels with Shakespeare’s Henriad and Orson Welles Chimes at Midnight, on which it is partially based.
“Climate Denial: A Measured Response” by hbomberguy
The response video is an integral part of YouTuber culture, and no one makes them quite like Harris Brewis, aka H. Bomberguy. Here he excoriates the work of climate change deniers. Rather than simply refute their bad science with good, though (a pointless endeavor, since the science is settled), he goes into the underlying corporate profit motive driving the major climate deniers on social media.
“How Silent Films Invented the Soundtrack” by Sideways
We often overlook how practical constraints can shape artistic movements. We all know the standard sound of a silent film accompaniment, but how did that style come about? This video lays out the context of the times, and how an evolving set of guidelines for professional silent film musicians laid the groundwork for leitmotifs in movie orchestration.
“Broken Orchestra” by Topic
The arts funding situation for Philadelphia public schools is currently dire. One effort to try to amend the situation is Symphony for a Broken Orchestra, which is repairing broken instruments and putting them up for “adoption.” This short, directed by Charlie Tyrell, doesn’t tell the story the way you might expect, foregoing traditional editing to focus instead on long shots exploring the spaces of a public school, with talking heads presented via TV sets. This conversation on a social issue is literally happening within the confines of the issue itself.
“First-Person Shooter: Mysterious Photography in Firewatch” by What’s So Great About That?
Grace Lee is one of the smartest critics on YouTube. Here she applies a film theory lens to the way the 2016 video game Firewatch utilizes its point of view. There’s fascinating ludonarrative friction between the first-person camera, the plot, the world the game presents, and our usual expectations of how games work.
MUBI & FILMADRID’s Video Essays
For several years now, the streaming platform MUBI and the film festival FILMADRID have partnered to present a series of video essays, both screening the videos at the festival and hosting them on MUBI. With this year’s festival currently in progress, a new crop of essays has been coming out, with MUBI posting a new one each day. The subjects of the essays vary greatly. One obscures the main focal points in movie shots to make the viewer consider the composition of the background. Another compares the street scenes of New York as seen in Scorsese’s Taxi Driver and Akerman’s News from Home. The one embedded above is an impressionistic survey of how different films observe people and things — and how people in turn perceive what observes them.
“Deborah Harry Does Not Like Interviews” by Public Interest
Directed by Meghan Friedrich, this is an incisive work of media criticism constructed solely out of creatively edited archival materials. Through a series of TV interviews conducted over the span of many years, we see a variety of show hosts talk down to Debbie Harry. Irritation eventually gives way to triumph as Harry finds a way to turn the tables on them. (Also available on YouTube, hosted by NoBudge.)
If you have a recommendation for a video to feature in this series, or want to submit your own video for consideration, please don’t hesitate to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.