Every essay has “voice,” but the introduction of audible voice, music, and visual art adds dramatic dimension to the message. Effective video essay must still have a story, but these additional layers really emphasize the narrative. Interdisciplinary artists sometimes spring from documentary background, but an essay remains an exploration and pursuit of deeper truth or insight. It’s not objective. Multimedia essays quicken the speed of having print alone; there is no pausing to reflect and consider. Questions and contemplation are still part of the process of getting into the author’s mind — but more quickly, like jumping on a roller coaster in motion.
The impact of language is a major consideration in the difference of print and aural essay. Amy Tan’s piece would have less effect if we had not heard her read it aloud. Her voice softens almost to a whisper as she speaks of family and ghosts and listening. When she uses Chinese-accented English, there is special emphasis and attention. Tan knows how to bring the reader along through print, but hearing her brings us closer. Hearing her creates greater intimacy.
Listening to a reading is still just listening to the print version, appreciating tone and accentuation, but not adding visual accompaniment. The next level might be photography. I was surprised that I could sit for half an hour and listen to why a narrator does not like her name Marilyn. Her visual narrative is embodied in different people, men and women, who speak for her. She is disembodying herself, disassociating “Marilyn” from the specifics of a certain person by circulating her identity. Print could not as effectively accomplish this un-birthing, but the video was repetitive, and made me wonder how the rules of editing differ from print to multimedia.
With “Baptism,” music becomes an important ingredient, more than background noise. Music is mood. In “The Fracking of Rachel Carson,” it is the soft and steady voice that draws the listener to consider environmental dangers of underground chemical injections. A more strident voice would have a different effect. Multimedia presentations can make difficult subjects more palpable.
“Zidane” uses the gradual build-up of tension visually and musically, with the visual at a slower pace. I felt as though two narratives were going on and would soon intersect, that her process was a conversation. Experimenting with reactions is an outcome of essay, and “Zidane” is structured to ask the observer to see sides, visually and metaphorically, and to evaluate consequences. She ventures into cultural critique.
The “Six Video Essays” give a good range of work. I laughed at the little boy who held up his ice cream cone, just as the Statue of Liberty does, and compared the persistent sound of chalk tapping on a blackboard to bird voices. I felt and heard the narrators’ stories. Image and sound are great bedfellows, and poetic language is enhanced with audio. In “The Wren,” the poetic language IS the image.
Essays are sometimes prompted by what someone else says, as in John Bresland’s landlord and his interpretation of manly father habits in carrying a baby. Bresland’s own thoughts are bounced off the landlord’s, compared and contrasted, contributing to his internal conflict. The visual interview with the Harley-biker-smoker-mustashed-macho fat guy in dimly lit grim surroundings adds respectful comedic tone to the less than earth-shaking topic at hand. He provides a reason to continue the dialogue.
Bresland calls multimedia essays “language-driven visual meditations” — a perfect summation. He notes that essays are not collaborative the way a film is, but new technologies are allowing broader use of essay delivery and expanded genre categorization. To make something visible is to make it more powerful and understandable, alerting more senses to respond to it. He also observes that “there is a degree of distance between what is said and what is shown and what is heard, and within that distance, the audience is allowed its own ample share of imaginative space.” When a reader becomes an “audience,” the experience is changed, and the response is more complex to allow our “imaginative space” more latitude.
David Sedaris is a focus of my separate multimedia assignment, but he came to mind when I received a letter recently. The man who makes essays about tapeworms and Jesus shaving, could surely have some funny thoughts on defending the humble comma. I wrote to Alex Trebek, distressed that the TV show Jeopardy! consistently misuses commas and quotation marks. 100% of the time they put the comma — and period — outside of quotation marks in their answers. While semi-colons and question marks vary in position with specific use, commas and periods do not. I can just feel Sedaris winding up on the importance of this.
Over a year later I received a personal letter from the show’s Writing Staff, which included: “While we know that putting the punctuation outside the quotation marks is contrary to standard American style, it was a choice made early in the show’s history. It was deemed to look much better graphically in our all-capital-letters style. It also, in most cases, is more logical, since the comma or other mark isn’t usually part of the quote. We understand that this quirk does bother some viewers, but we hope that it does not interfere too much with your enjoyment.”
So punctuation is a “quirk” and a choice, used primarily for aesthetic impression. I feel a multimedia essay being born that would require the vocal wonder and irony of a David Sedaris.