The term “video essay” is a subject of much debate, in particular among scholars. What is the difference between a video essay and an essay film? Is “essay video” a more appropriate name than “video essay”? Unwieldy alternatives such as “videographic film and moving image studies” are bandied about. If anything, this debate indicates the growing importance attached to the form (whatever its name) and its acceptance in wider circles than online fandom.
The naming of the format is being narrowed down (by academics), but at the same time its possibilities are being expanded (by practitioners). When does a video essay cross over into art? That is a legitimate question when one looks at this effort by LJ Frezza. He compiled every shot from every Seinfeld episode (1989-1998) where nothing happens. Deserted exterior shots and sitcom interiors without people to populate them: six minutes long we are treated to an eerily abandoned version of Seinfeld’s Manhattan.
Frezza’s montage first comes off as a gimmick. The chopped up musical cues and scattered laughs from a (every bit as absent) studio audience alleviate the tension. But as the video progresses, those non-diegetic sounds fade. The empty sets are accompanied by a sound track that is just as barren. We are left to ponder the artificiality of the world as presented in this (indeed, in any) sitcom. This is Plato’s cave without the moving shadows.