The video essay is a fluid form. A form that is too young to be pegged down in a definition just yet. It’s short (often), it’s online (most of the time) and it says something about film or television (until it doesn’t). That’s about as close to a definition you’ll get without excluding lots of interesting work that still bills itself as a video essay. That shifting nature is also evident in the various fields the video essay associates itself with: academia (in audiovisual research), entertainment (in a lot of the popular YouTube channels) or the arts. This particular piece by seasoned practitioner Conor Bateman fits in the latter category, crossing over from conventional audiovisual criticism into video art.
Bateman’s video essay was commissioned by Prototype, an Australian online platform for video art curated by Lauren Carroll Harris. Prototype bypasses the classic art venues (museum, galleries) and aims to bring digital and video art straight to the viewer via its website. Runtime is a great addition to their growing catalogue of short films and video art.
Bateman crafted this 13-minute piece using schlocky movie scenes set inside movie theaters. Movies have been self-reflexive since their advent, but most metafilms have focused on film production (behind-the-scenes stories) rather than film distribution or exhibition. Nevertheless, Bateman found eight scenes in which audience members meet a gruesome end while they’re watching a movie and he has strung those together into an unending loop. Using some ingenious masking (and painstaking effort, without a doubt) each audience is watching the prior grisly sequence. Every new onscreen audience is watching the previous one perish in a mise en abyme of theatrical horrors. This creative intervention shatters the escapism we usually associate with watching films: for these film audiences there is no escaping the cinematic carnage. This dovetailing of the scenes also produces an ironic yet haunting soundtrack, one which often reverberates with the screams of not one but two trashy scenes. The end result (although there is no real end to this Escher-like loop) is a mischievous montage that floats the idea that film audiences and film makers are in a symbiotic relationship… one that involves feeding off each other in more ways than one.