Nothing at Stake

Just how much of a video essay’s message is (or can be) communicated via tone? The essayistic mode is very different from other modes (such as the academic or the journalistic) precisely because it allows itself more tonal freedom. Thoughts can wander, and even stray, more freely than they can in an academic piece. Personal opinions and preferences can unrepentingly take precedence over journalistic facts. In the best essayistic pieces, the tone is part and parcel to the point being made.


Kogonada is one of the masters of tone in the video essay world, and this piece for the Criterion Collection on Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma is no exception. The unhurried sentences, carefully interspaced with contemplative silence: they give breathing space to the viewer’s thoughts and comprehension. The almost wistful delivery of the voice over narration: a mirror for the movie’s own melancholy. The success of this video essay is as much the result of this careful wielding of tone as it is of the insights that it presents. That is true of all of Kogonada’s work, even those where he doesn’t use voice over but relies on music and superb editing skills to convey his chosen tone.


The focus on tone doesn’t mean he disregards the formal elements of video essay making. On the contrary: this particular piece for instance uses side-by-side montages to effortlessly and elegantly reveal recurring motifs in Cuarón’s movies, or to point out stylizations within Roma itself. Also, his sound editing is characteristically spot on. It alternates between music, voice and foley in an almost Bressonian way, forcefully bringing each element to the fore in turn.