A Conversation with Brian Bouldrey and John Bresland
I can think of no better way to take on the problems of being alive right now than to write
this way,with a pen in one hand and a lens in the other.
—John Bresland, “On the Origin of the Video Essay"
If I seem to hasten childhood’s end, do not think me perverted or cruel, think of me as
a dark heart, its chambers as bloody as the one from which all children are brought, and
just as life affirming.
—Brian Bouldrey, “Hook.”
M.A. Keller: Brian and John, what was the genesis of the video essay “Hook”—which appears in our Gallery in this issue of Blackbird—how did the two of you come together to collaborate? And once the project was underway, can you explain the roles each of you played in the making? For instance, did Brian do any shooting or video editing? On this piece, did John have a hand in the narrative text? Was there a division of “writing with the pen” and “writing with the lens?”
John Bresland: I teach at the same university as Bouldrey. We work in the same building. One day he came into my office with a fully formed idea for a video essay about children’s literature and that was that. I’m pretty sure I never would have, and probably never could have, taken on the subject alone. That’s probably the most tangible benefit of collaboration, being able to draw from someone else’s intellectual arsenal.
|We certainly could have
adapted Brian’s original text,
but we opted instead
for creative destruction.
Brian wrote pretty much the entire essay before shooting began, then added a few things—notably, the Bouldreyized terms like “hung jury” and “Dick Butkus”—as the project began to take visual form. With Brian doing all the writing, it only seemed fair that I do the shooting. I wouldn’t describe shooting as easier than writing, exactly, but it’s a lot more fun, so I think I got the better deal.
Brian Bouldrey: It’s absolutely true that my idea was “fully formed.” However, I knew John’s work prior to this and knew I could trust him to change my mind, and even change my meanings. There is an old B. Kliban cartoon in which a chart shows the human figure seemingly at rest, but in fact, all of his “anti-jump” muscles are flexed. This seems a metaphor for collaboration. I wrote a script, and once John and I went through it and he helped me understand that a video essay can err on the side of “too textual,” I was thrilled to learn how less can be more. I’m a novelist at heart. Imagine how that lesson can change a writer.
For years, I have talked to my students about the beautiful possibilities of collaboration. Universities are always encouraging collaborations between faculty and students or across departments, but rarely do they bless actual proposals with time or funds for such. And really, what models do we have? Pop stars asked to pitch in by singing “We Are the World” were asked to “Check Your Ego at the Door.” I don’t think we had to check our egos, so much as discover how many ways there are to enter into the creative process.
This is a vast generalization from somebody outside the field of film, but I have been impressed, even daunted, by the creative process of filmmakers, especially documentary filmmakers, who must shoot a lot of footage and leave more on the cutting room floor than what finally appears on the screen—like a sculptor who must find the shape in the stone. My writing process, of course, requires that I cut and winnow, but I tend to revise by expansion rather than cutting.
That’s where John had the strongest influence on the narrative text—there was a point late in the game where we had made so many discoveries of what was hidden in the essay that I was writing new material. John did not say, “No, we can’t have that,” but he showed me that it wasn’t going to work in the end. His gentle but clear working methods were a revelation to me.
John’s a perfectionist, but not a megalomaniacal perfectionist.
JB: I think, by the way, this division of labor could have been a disaster. Just about everything I shot exerted some kind of pressure on Brian’s text. Sometimes the visual sits neatly beneath the word, as it does during the long shot of the moon while Brian relays the anecdote about his misadventure in the park. But usually, Brian’s original tone—and his intent—is subverted by the image, or distorted.
His opening line, “I like to be the guy who introduces kids to dogs,” sits pretty innocuously on the page. The slavering dog image, though, and the ominous drone, exaggerate the line, give it a bizarre comic menace. Brian was generous to allow me so much freedom with his text.
We certainly could have adapted his original text, but we opted instead for creative destruction.
BB: I love that—“creative destruction.” It seems to speak to that “winnowing down” I find the best filmmakers do when shooting a lot of footage. John, of course, is far more than a filmmaker—his understanding of how text/words enter into the mind and heart more slowly, but perhaps more deeply than image, and even sound, has opened up huge possibilities in my craft as an artist in the broadest sense of the term.
MAK: In the video essay, I expect (or am, at the least, not surprised) to hear the voice of videographer/videowriter, see him or her, and/or have at least one moment where I see the mechanism(s) of shooting: the camera itself, the camera lens cap, the shadow of the camera or videowriter, etc. Marilyn Freeman discusses this in “On the Form of the Video Essay” as “reflexivity,” as she asserts that the video essay, unlike documentary, is “transparently self-questioning and self-conscious.”
Does your break from the formal voiceover early in “Hook” function in much the same way? To bring us to an awareness also, in this instance, of the meta-level of two individuals cocreating?
The break I'm referring to happens 40 seconds in when Brian is standing beside and then touching a gargoyle.
Brian: Did you ever see Rosemary’s Baby?
John: [off screen] Yeah.
Brian: What have you done to his eyes?
Was this a scripted or planned moment? Or is this banter that found its way in, a trickster-figure-moment that prepares us for the humor to come?
BB: First of all, I like to think of that moment with the gargoyle as a fond “chucking under the chin.” But no, it was not a planned moment, insofar as it was part of the text of the essay or John’s plans for each segment. But the serendipity of it, the off-handedness of that moment (John had come over to my house to “look for clues,” to find good locations and material for the visual and aural aspects of the essay. He was shooting that from the roof of his car, as I recall, and just getting a light reading) becomes vitally important to what happened in the creation and what happens in the experience of “Hook.”
I think it works in the moment (things get pretty dark there in the first minute, with the slavering dog—which, by the way, is one of the sweetest dogs in the park—and the low rumbling chords beneath the dark words); that break oddly lightens things up, puts things into perspective.
“Oh,” we want the viewer to think, “It’s that kind of spooky.” In that way, too, it includes the viewer in the meta-level of cocreating. I would hope that the viewer sees that little moment as a way into the process: everybody is refocusing their own camera lens in that shot.
MAK: The red eyes of the gargoyle appear again in the drawing of Oedipus, and are implied in the account of the blinding of the Italian child. Were these associations storyboarded or discovered in process?
BB: This unscheduled moment was also serendipitous to the discovery process for us. We were both elated, and fascinated, that so many examples of missing body parts informed the work. This was entirely unplanned. But you get those eyes, then you get Oedipus’ lost eyes, and the Italian boy’s; but you also find examples in Captain Hook’s lost hand, the Italian boy’s lost hands, the idea of dogs without teeth—all of these contribute to a notion that incomplete things will always reach for a state of completion.
It was very exciting to discover these things in the process. It confirmed that this was truly an essay, an exploration of something, and that the creation of the work was as important as the product.
MAK: Staying with the topic of discovery and planning, was the Jolly Roger kite, which seems the perfect visual to the narration, purchased for the video footage or something already in hand?
BB: The kite was John’s purchase (I owe him for it). John, was that Jolly Roger planned?
JB: Funny thing about the kite. My son had just gotten old enough to fly one, and he was pumped about having his own. So we went to the toy store where they had, of course, nine hundred different kites. Among those nine hundred was the Jolly Roger that flies in “Hook.” When I saw it, I thought of Brian’s essay text, which we had just begun to film. At the time I didn’t know if we’d use the kite, or how we might use it. I think I was just relieved that my kid was as happy to fly the flag of a pirate as I was.
BB: Yes, what was not in the plan was Juneau’s sheer ectasy as he ran with that kite.
I would venture to say that there was always a plan, if not storyboard, behind each segment of the essay, but John knows how to allow for serendipity and discovery every time he shoots. There are things we haven’t even discussed in the outcome—for example, we live on the same street right on Lake Michigan, and that geography—a body of water so large you can’t see the other side—has elemental and thematic influence, I think. How many times a week do we say to each other, “God I love that lake?”
MAK: Collaborations, even great ones with amazing outcomes, can be punishing. Was there ever a moment of disagreement between the two of you in the process? How did it resolve?
|I’m sure there is, out
there, somewhere, a
print essay—and poems
and short stories and
novels—authored by two
or more people, and not
just as a gimmick, but as
a beautiful work of art with
a singularity of purpose.
But I’m having a hard time coming up with any.
BB: I would like to think that there was no disagreement during the process. I’d rather think that both of us respected the other’s work so much that we were compelled to always put our best foot forward. A magician (and perhaps especially two magicians) should never reveal how the trick works, but I can say that John had dozens of brilliant ideas for combining image and sound with my script that were original, astonishing, and promising. His is a deep well. It makes me want to collaborate with him again, and as soon as possible. But I’m trying to play it cool. “Yeah, John. I’m available this weekend. Maybe I’ll see you at the JV game.” Don’t want to look desperate, you know!
JB: Brian’s being gracious, as usual. I do think, if he were a different kind of writer, one committed to seeing his writing more strictly adapted, we would have ended up fighting. But we didn’t. At all. The fact that we had as much fun as we did is almost worrisome. I’ve done a couple of collaborative essays with Eula Biss, too, and those were equally free of conflict. Makes me wonder if I’ve developed a secret sauce as a collaborator. Well, here’s my recipe: seek out talent equal to or greater than your own and do your best to honor it.
BB: And there’s John being modest. Something that seems right to say here is pertinent to what John said earlier about subject matter. There are certain subjects and themes that scare me, or I’m not quite ready to explore in my writing. I find that when I’m scared of a subject, I will use any number of what I call “oven mitts”—tactics and strategies for keeping myself unscorched by the thing: humor, experimental forms, sentimentality, traditional forms, nonsense. In most collaborations, you double up on the oven mitts. In my collaboration with John, all mitts are off. John does not suffer mitts gladly. That’s a key ingredient of his secret sauce.
JB: Scratch that, I just spoke to Eula Biss, and she said that we did, in fact, have at least one fight when she was recording the voiceover for one of our projects, “Ode to Every Thing.” Turns out my secret sauce is a fraud.
MAK: When I think of the essay, print or video, I think of its creation as a solitary act (acknowledging that we all have readers and editors who advise us to greater or lesser degrees, but who do not cosign the piece.) Before I ask more about collaboration in general and the ideal for the video essay, let me ask if you can think of any collaborative print essays?
JB: I’m sure there is, out there, somewhere, a print essay—and poems and short stories and novels—authored by two or more people, and not just as a gimmick, but as a beautiful work of art with a singularity of purpose. But I’m having a hard time coming up with any. Which tells me that the print product, when authored by more than one, tends to become something else, a collage or a mash-up, like the US Constitution. As good as the Constitution is as a work of prose, it’s no Gettysburg Address. Maybe it takes one writer, one consciousness, to write something distilled and perfect. I’m guessing Brian, though, will come up with fifty examples of how I’m wrong on this.
BB: Actually, John is right, most of the examples of collaborative work I can think of have lightness or even silliness as a destination—“Exquisite Corpse” projects. Even serious artists collaborate when they want to goof off. That’s not to say that such endeavors aren’t worth enjoying by a reader/viewer (one of my favorite minor novels is A Nest of Ninnies by James Schuyler and John Ashbery.) When I think of more serious collaborative endeavors, it’s a “written by/illustrated by” situation—Satty’s strange collages for Edgar Allen Poe; A.A. Milne and Walt Disney.
When I consider composers who set poets’ work to music, I feel as if one or the other is a mere vehicle, and not a true participant—just add rubato. But I would truly hope that the outcome of our collaboration is more than a goof and more than an experiment. I think we’re both pretty serious in the end.
|For someone working in a mongrel space like the video essay, I’m not exactly a champion of genre purity.|
JB: For me, good writing functions as a dialogue between the writer and the reader. It’s an intimate act. As more collaborators are brought into the enterprise, as more voices are cooked into the text, it’s not hard to imagine less space allowed for the reader’s own voice. Maybe this is why interviews don’t tend to qualify as literature. An interview might be fun to read. But no matter how good it is, the reader’s status is downgraded from cocreator to . . . something more passive—gleaner, maybe.
BB: I agree with John here—my favorite works of art across the board set up a conversation, or an argument, and built into those two words is the understanding that both creator and viewer/reader are active in the process, pushing back, interpreting. “What do you think that cloud/ink blot/word looks like, John/Michael?”
MAK: John, in “On the Origin of the Video Essay” (Blackbird v9n1), I think you are paraphrasing Philip Lopate when you write that “Film is collaborative; the essay is not,” but I’m trying to get a clearer sense of your position (or preferences, or evolving thoughts) on the video essay and collaboration, especially in light of this later statement [emphasis below is mine]:
The act of writing has always been a personal pursuit, a concentrated form of thought. And now filmmaking, too, shares that meditative space.
In your body of work, you have some video essays that are collaborative and others—in which you apparently are the sole author— that are products of such “a personal pursuit.” Help me out here. Is the idea of the solitary videowriter wielding her digital camera or cell phone a purer enactment of the genre—is it an ideal for the video essay?
JB: For someone working in a mongrel space like the video essay, I’m not exactly a champion of genre purity. But maybe it’s worth noting that the best essays I’ve seen authored for the screen are by individuals. Ross McElwee’s “Time Indefinite,” for one, is so perfect that even its flaws are perfect. What I love about McElwee’s work, and what I love about the personal essay in general, is that it can go beyond tracking the movement of the author’s mind. It can show us how that thinking ramifies.
Orwell did this all the time. He would meditate on some idea—like our consumption of coal, say, as he does in “The Road to Wigan Pier”—then go on to implicate himself. When you read Orwell, you’re witness to a first class mind, sure, but also actions and behavior that are flawed, lagging. For me, the most exciting essayists confront their thinking in a direct way, and they never come up clean.
BB: Sticking my nose in on this one, but Orwell is a great example. He sure loved to meditate—and then wallow among his bedbugs when he was Down and Out in Paris and London and Wigan Pier and Oceania.
MAK: Is it possible that the video essay (under pressure from the DNA it carries from a film tradition) actually invites collaboration more naturally than the print essay? Or is the video essay, even with the democratization of tools, so complex in its layers (text, sound, still image, moving image, score, editing and production) that collaboration provides a more ready and/or more satisfactory path to a final product?
JB: Film is still so new. Compared to the technology of language, film is in its clunky infancy. When I went to college in the early 1990s, one could be instructed in writing, or one could be instructed in making films. But not both—unless I double-majored, but even then, the two disciplines would be walled off from one another, their traditions and their ambitions almost totally discrete.
|I can’t wait to see what
kind of essays will be made
by this generation growing
up without our old-fashioned
bifurcate sense of either
images or text, as if
one hasn’t been the other
I remember breaking into the video editing bays at my campus and using their equipment illegally because the video department wouldn’t avail its gear to non-majors. It seemed perverse to me then, and still does, that so many English departments shy away from visual expression.
But this is changing now, and quickly. Nearly every major university has some course, right now, today, that takes the camera seriously as a composition tool. Which makes you wonder if, during these next ten years, what we mean when we use the word “writing” will be different, somehow. Less logocentric. There is, as you say, Michael, added complexity when sound, image, editing and production are brought into the mix. And I agree that image and sound and graphic design invite collaboration in a big way, and in a way that doesn’t necessarily crowd out the viewer’s imagination.
MAK: Is the product of a collaboration a different animal in some essential way than a solo video essay? Is “Hook” in the same genus as your earlier “Les Cruel Shoes,” or “Mangoes?”
JB: I don’t think my genre-detection gear would see “Hook” any differently than any other video essay I’ve made. If “Hook” is different to me at all, Michael, I would attribute those differences to the sound of Brian’s prose, and to the workings of his mind.
“Hook” is also something of an upgrade over previous works, and not just with respect to Brian’s stellar voice. Two extraordinary British musicians, Carim Clasmann and Galia Durant, aka Psapp, contributed two songs—“The Counter” and “Marshrat”—from their album Tiger, My Friend, which I heard at some point on French radio, and I’m still counting our blessings for their generous help. And another British artist, a brilliant painter named Tina Gibbard, drew up those beguiling sketches of Peter Pan.
As a collaboration, “Hook” went far beyond Brian writing and me shooting.
MAK: All this said, might there someday be an an occasion for “On The Origin of the Video Essay 2.0”?
JB: Honestly, I would love for this speculative essay to be written by some nine-year-old kid who’s just beginning to edit video on whatever mobile device her school makes available. I can’t wait to see what kind of essays will be made by this generation growing up without our old-fashioned bifurcate sense of either images or text, as if one hasn’t been the other all along.
MAK: I just gave a guest presentation on the video essay to a traditional undergraduate advanced composition class and showed them “Les Cruel Shoes,” “Mangoes,” and “Hook.” This experience has me wondering how quickly—or widely—video essay practice and scholarship will cross into what have been previously text-centered classrooms (and text-centered departments). How are you and Brian bringing the video essay (or other forms of experimental/hybrid composition) into your own classrooms?
|I think print essayists
have no problem getting
permission to experiment
with form. Where they
seem to run into trouble,
I think, is when they
experiment with fact.
JB: Last year I taught an MFA course in the video essay here at Northwestern, and about half the class—within weeks of finishing the course—went on to publish terrific pieces at various literary journals. Defunct, a really great journal edited by Robin Hemley, didn’t actually feature video work until Karen Zemanick submitted her video essay, “Surfing for Ink.” Leave it to a magazine called Defunct to lead the charge into literary digital media. And Julianne Hill’s video essay, “So, Mary” was featured at Requited.
Nowadays, the class is a blast. It wasn’t always. Teaching the video essay used to be something of a pain, administratively. There was just too much technology involved, too much fiddling. But Northwestern supports the enterprise well with hardware and human beings. And I also think digital technology has finally caught up with writers. We’re no longer chained to high-end computers and heavy-gauge camera equipment. As long as a student’s got a smartphone or an iPad—and an idea they’re committed to seeing through—they can do great work.
I’m reminded now of something Coppola wished for decades ago, before the digital era really got going. He longed for a time when the so-called professionalism of movies would be destroyed forever. Only then, he felt, would it become a vital art form.
Video editing and shooting are still a big part of my classroom, and those practical skills matter because they get students jobs. But we still devote the bulk of our time to thinking our essays through, to finding our way forward as thinkers. The difference now is that the search is expressed not just as text, but as everything else, too.
|Watching a video essay,
you realize the sculptural,
even poetic possibilities
BB: The question made me realize how I’ve been using “Hook” as a calling card in my classrooms. I taught a course this summer I called “Genre Envy: Finding Narrative in Everything Else.” We looked at music that wanted to be noise, novels that wanted to be poems, paintings that had an element of time in them, and Gertrude Stein. On the first day of class, I showed “Hook” as a way of showing that I could put my money where my mouth was. Also, it’s the only work I’ve written that my fifteen-year-old nephew has read.
MAK: In coming years, can you imagine the print essay changing in some fundamental way, influenced by the video work? In other words, will the video essay give permission for the print essayist to experiment with form?
JB: Interesting question, because it’s hard to imagine a Montaigne—with his elliptical, cheeky, conversational style—without a printing press, without some easy means of production and distribution, and without the chokehold of the church. Still, I think print essayists have no problem getting permission to experiment with form. Where they seem to run into trouble, I think, is when they experiment with fact.
BB: At a certain age, one begins to get a bit of a crank in the world of creative endeavors. “There’s nothing new under the sun” and all that. When I first met John and saw his video essays, I immediately saw how there was something new, and that it might one day overtake—in a good way—so many aspects of the familiar essay.
I guess I might compare the development to the way the traditions of film rose from the traditions of the stage—for the longest time (until the invention of Terry Gilliam, perhaps), film kept to the same confines of a stage. People entered stage right or left. Only in (silly?) cartoons did an Acme anvil fall on Wile E. Coyote.
Watching a video essay, you realize the sculptural, even poetic possibilities of prose. It can progress forward, but it can move crabwise, too, or expand, or rotate. It brings to prose a whole new rhetoric, figures of speech and thought and questioning that make text more fulsome, and yet still clear room for the reader and viewer to bring another intelligence, another imagination.