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Awash in Images

I will never forget the first time I watched Rebecca (1940). I had never seen anything like it. I loved the drama of it all. The lighting. The way Joan Fontaine navigates the halls of Manderley. How the camera does the same. Maxim’s confession. And everything about Mrs. Danvers. Even before leaving the screening, I knew I had changed. I rushed to tell my friends about what I saw. I desperately wanted to share my experience and debrief with others. What had happened to me? Did others feel the same way? Could I even articulate what I felt? In more ways than one, I think my compulsion toward criticism began that day. I have been chasing that high ever since.

Much of my work centers on the history and theory of audiovisual criticism, or video essays. Since 2019, I have hosted The Video Essay Podcast, which features interviews with filmmakers, critics, scholars, and other leading practitioners of the form, and the various traditions from which it builds, including found footage and essay films, the avant-garde, and the documentary. Among my hopes as a member of the Berlinale Talent Press is to seek out films that operate within these rich cinematic traditions. I have experience talking about such works, but writing and covering them in a festival context is a different experience entirely. I look forward to discovering new-to-me artists and learning from their works.

Kevin B. Lee offers the following definition of audiovisual or “videographic” criticism: “works of media that use other media to create critical thought.” In a world awash in images and sounds, such criticism is not only useful for the critic, but, I think, increasingly necessary. Not all critics must be so-called video essayists. But we live in a world governed by cameras. They are everywhere, watching. Who knows how many millions (billions?) of moving images are generated each day: security camera footage, TikToks, cable news shows, whatever Mark Zuckerberg is up to, and films made for the Berlinale. As the moving image grows more dominant, the critic must find new ways to bring heads above the water so that we might get a clearer view of the expanding sea of images. At its best, audiovisual criticism can be a radical act, a way to reclaim the image, remix it, and then re-release it to give the viewer a new way to hear and see that which was once familiar in new ways.

When I think about how the role of critics can evolve and expand moving forward, I think about the control corporations increasingly have over moving images and sounds. Critics are uniquely positioned to probe, magnify, and ultimately work to undermine the monopolistic tendencies of corporations in pursuit of such control. Of course, capitalism has always been … terrible. But writers like McKenzie Wark argue that with the role that big tech now plays in modern life, we have entered an era that is different and worse than capitalism. From streaming services to photo- and video-sharing apps, big tech has near-endless control over moving images and sounds. The challenge before the critic today is to unpack the implications of this control and, at least in my view, push back in any way they can.