“The vice presidency
is mostly a, uh, it’s a symbolic job.” Over the last few years,
director Adam McKay has been quietly and powerfully
transforming what popular visual storytelling
looks like. With his academy-award winning films
The Big Short and Vice, and now the Amazon series
he’s executive producing ‘The Giant Beast that
is the Global Economy’. “Whether you like it or not,
we’re all connected, by money.” McKay has shown himself
to be the master of creating fun entertainment
out of the kind of complex, confusing topics that Hollywood
would traditionally dismiss as far too boring
and difficult to touch. Who else could turn
the subprime mortgage crisis and unitary executive theory
into the stuff of mainstream entertainment? Scorsese makes
a film about finance, and we get lines like this: “I know you’re not following
what I’m saying anyway, right? That’s okay. That doesn’t matter. The real question is this,
‘Was all this legal? Absolutely f—ing not.’” McKay makes a film
about the same subject, also featuring Margot Robbie,
but instead of cutting the boring financial details
in favor of this, McKay finds ways
to make the topic itself come alive for us. “Here’s world famous chef,
Anthony Bourdain, to explain.” “Being the crafty and
morally onerous chef that I am, whatever crappy levels of
the bard that I don’t sell, I throw into
a seafood stew.” He’s like that
really amazing teacher with a knack
for getting through to his students
in their own language. “So now he’s going
to short the bonds. Which means
to bet against.” McKay first made
a name for himself as the director
of Will Ferrell comedies like ‘Anchorman’, “I’m in a glass cage
of emotion.” He also co-founded
Funny or Die, and this is him
and his daughter in the viral comedy,
‘The Landlord’: “I want my money!” McKay’s roots
as a funny guy are crucial
to what he’s doing, as he imaginatively
sketches out scenarios to find humor
in dry material. But another big element
of McKay’s recent work has been around
for a while in cinema, in one form or another,
though its generally been ignored by Hollywood and
most audiences. And that is
the Essay Film. Vice is referred to
most often as a biopic, but it’s really an Essay Film – driven by editing
to put forward an argument, “The vice presidency
is also defined by the President. And if were to come to a, uh,
different understanding.” cutting in real-world footage,
and full of experimental, stylistic flourishes
like going early to fake end credits
or dreaming up a faux-Shakespearean exchange
between the Cheneys. It’s primarily concerned
not with story or reportage— but with ideas and thought. Whatever you think of Vice
or The Big Short, it’s hard not to admire
McKay’s sheer creativity with the visual and
dramatic forms. “And Congress
had no choice but to break up
the big banks, and regulate the mortgages
and derivatives industries.” [shattering] “Just kidding.” By making an essay
out of the raw material of a fictional biopic,
he’s experimenting with what a popcorn movie
or show is allowed to be. He’s challenging audiences
to understand and intelligently engage
with world events. And you might say
he’s a trailblazer for helping this
traditionally more academic form, the essay film,
into the kind of thing you want to watch
with your friends on a Saturday night. “Is there a correlation
between richness and dickness?” So let’s go into
what we mean by ‘essay film’ and
why McKay’s use of the form makes him one of
the most innovative and interesting directors
working today. Before we go on
we want to tell you a little bit about
this video’s sponsor. Mubi is a curated
film streaming service, with a twist. You get thirty films per month,
a new film every day, and these films are
a hand-picked selection of influential movie gems
from around the world. So go ahead and click the link
in our description below to get a full month of Mubi,
for free. [speaking French] Alright, let’s talk
about the Essay Film. You might notice that
you’re watching one right now. Yup, we ourselves at the Take
make video essays. The definition of
an essay film, film essay or video essay is fluid, but typically the form
is defined by things like: editing taking on
a primary role. In the Essay Film,
the author’s voice resides at least as much
in the editing as in the script or production. Blurring the distinction
between documentary and fiction. And it also might
feel personal. Oftentimes the author
takes on a kind of persona that’s involved
in the essay. [speaking French] Creating a direct,
conversational relationship between the author
and viewer. [speaking French] Because of the way
that I’m talking to you right now, you’re aware of a sort of
dialogue between us, you’re aware of yourself –
whereas in a standard fiction narrative you get immersed
and basically forget your presence there. A fiction film generally
doesn’t want you to think about the fact that
there’s someone there editing together and
creating this story, but the essay film
is self-reflexive. It’s making us notice
the cuts, the construction, [speaking French] and by extension
hopefully making us notice, in a Brechtian sense,
the artifices and structures of our world. And that’s the point. To inspire the person
taking in the essay to think. “So what should you trust? Your government,
a shiny medal, a computer code,
or none of the above.” Citation, or drawing
on lots of other sources, like images, films,
or books. If you’re writing an essay
for English class, and you don’t cite some evidence
to back up your points, you’re probably going
to get marked down. Citations in a film essay
serve this purpose, too, and they also create
a feeling of conversing with other works. In Hans Richter’s 1940 Essay,
“The Film Essay”, he wrote that : “ In its effort to
make visible the invisible world
of imaginations, thoughts and ideas,
the essayistic film can tap into
an incomparably larger reservoir of expressive means
than the pure documentary film.” And quote: “With this abundance of means
even ‘dry’ thoughts and ‘difficult’ ideas
assume a color and entertaining quality.” So what Richter
describes here is essentially the heart of what
McKay does so well. He makes the driest of topics
entertaining, and he makes
invisible ideas visible. “Jamie and Charlie
found markets we’ll sell options
very cheaply on things they think will never happen. So when they were wrong,
they were wrong small. But when they were right,
they were right big.” [singing] It’s hard to pinpoint
exactly when the essay film was born as
the definition is so fluid, but it becomes
a more defined genre in the post-World War II period,
in the 50s and 60s. The idea of the “essay” itself
comes from the French write, Montaigne. [speaking French] He took the word
from the French for “to try.” So before our
common understanding of the essay as
a piece of non-fiction writing guided by a thesis,
Montaigne’s idea of the essay was about testing out ideas,
attempting. [speaking French] And
film essayists, like Godard, are very consciously
following in the searching, experimental, playful footsteps
of Montaigne’s essays. And we can see this heritage
also in what McKay is doing. He tries things out in Vice. It strikes him that
there’s a Shakespearean, Macbeth subtext
to the Cheney’s. “All these
Shakespearean themes come into play
very naturally.” They’re driven by
bottomless ambition, and Lynn is a veritable
Lady Macbeth in the way she whips her husband
into shape. “Either you stand up straight,
and you get your back straight and you have the courage
to become someone, or I’m gone.” So McKay decides
to play out these themes in a fake,
Shakespeare inspired scene between the couple in bed. The results are funny,
and obviously not what really happened,
but that’s the whole point. McKay is testing out
different versions of what could have been,
from the plausible to the totally outlandish,
in order to circle around the deeper, unknowable truth
of what was really driving this man
under the surface. This spirit of trying,
testing is what really gives Vice its creative power. It’s not afraid to experiment,
to go off the rails. So just as Montaigne
was thinking through his writing, McKay is thinking
through cinema – he’s making connections,
and encouraging us to make new connections, too. He’s telling us not to tune out
or tell ourselves, ‘Uh, who can be bothered
to really understand all this complex jargon.’ “Mortgage-backed securities,
sub-prime loans, tranches Does it make you feel bored? Or Stupid? Well, it’s supposed to.” Because that’s exactly
what people in positions of power
want us to do. “Wall Street loves
to use confusing terms so that you think
only they can do what they can do. Or even better,
for you just to leave them the f** alone.” [music playing] Another major thing
that defines the video essay in most people’s minds today,
is that it’s making an argument. Michael Moore is
an example of someone who’s mastered
the argument-driven essay. Whether or not
you agree with him, the reason Moore
has made such an impression, ever since
‘Bowling for Columbine’, is that this is a guy
with a true talent for stringing together
footage and voiceover in order to make his case. “He’s also one of
the great people of stringing together
an argument.” There’s a split
among academics over whether an essay film
should be more question, that searching, playful,
personal rumination, or answer,
the evidence-based structured argument. Still, just as a lot of people
would say that a written essay needs to make
a cohesive point, to many folks
the glue that holds contemporary video essay together
is some kind of thesis. So what, then,
is Vice’s argument? We’d say it’s this: That much of what’s wrong
with the world as we know it, can be traced back
to the culprit of Dick Cheney’s incompetent heart. This motif of Cheney’s failing heart
ties the film together: the plot is punctuated periodically
by the character’s comically casual announcements of
his various heart attacks. The whole movie is narrated
by the dead soldier who gave his heart to Cheney. Going back to this idea
of making invisible thoughts visible, McKay gets at this point
that Dick Cheney had too little feeling
for his fellow man symbolically,
via a number of imagined shots
of Cheney’s literal heart, planting a mental question: Would our world
be what it is today, if this heart had not
been so weak, so inadequate,
so greedy and uncaring? “Like a puppet show,
but much more enjoyable.” What if Dick Cheney
had had a heart that worked? .
Out of this argument about Cheney’s heart, McKay is making
a broader one. “This was the guy who had
his hand at the wheel and quietly changed our lives
more than anyone.” He’s asserting,
through editing and visual allusions
to recent events, that many of Cheney’s decisions
and actions led directly to the issues
we’re grappling with now. For example,
seizing on the threat of a national emergency
to expand presidential power. The ever-increasing power
of corporations and politics, and the branding of ideas
to obscure their complexity or true meaning. “Make sure you
work in the phrase we don’t want the smoking gun
to be a mushroom cloud, that focus group
through the roof.” “I kept being astounded
by how much this guy really changed
the course of America.” Whether you agree
with McKay’s arguments in Vice is
your business. But McKay’s ability to bring these
essayistic techniques in a traditional
Hollywood format is exciting for
the film medium. The essay film
has historically been a pretty obscure,
high-brow form or, in recent years,
it’s become a fast-growing field
on YouTube through channels
like The Take. So we have
to give McKay his due for bringing
the essay film into new territory. By merging the essay
with the biopic and showing what it means
to think through cinema, he opens up new,
creative tools for storytellers, and new intellectual tools for us,
as we try to become more, informed and engaged
citizens of our world. “I believe,
we can make this work.” Hi guys this is Susannah. I’m really happy to be
talking about Mubi today, because I’ve actually been
a subscriber for years. I love the streaming service. Mubi is a true treasure trove
of films that you won’t discover anywhere else. They curate exceptional movies
from around the globe and every day
a new film is added, and the oldest
is taken away. So in this world
where it’s very easy to spend hours debating
what you should watch and feel overwhelmed
by all the choice, Mubi is like having
a really cool friend, with amazing
taste in movies, making it so much
easier for you. They feature
hard-to-come-by masterpieces, indie festival darlings,
influential art house and foreign films, lesser known films
by your favorite famous directors, and more. Plus you can even
download the films to watch offline,
and there are no ads ever. One movie you can watch
right now on Mubi is ‘Black Magic’, starring a young
Orson Wells. It’s the story
of a poor man who uses
the power of hypnosis to become rich
and powerful. Point is,
I can’t recommend it highly enough. You can try it out
right now for free for a whole month. Just click the link
in the description below.