Speaker 1: WNYC Studios is supported by Park Avenue Armory's Hamlet and Oresteia. Olivier award-winning director, Robert Icke, has just premiered his highly anticipated reinvention of Shakespeare's Hamlet. The New York Times proclaims it's a critics pick and a riveting and powerful tale of musing and mania for our age. The Daily Beast raves, "It's a compelling contemporary spectacle." Alex Lawther stars as Hamlet through August 13th only. Hamlet will play in repertory with Aeschylus' Oresteia, starring Anastasia Hille. More info at armoryonpark.org. WNYC Studios is supported by The Met, hosting Date Night on Friday and Saturday evenings with live music, a rooftop bar, and art from around the world. Learn more at metmuseum.org.
Speaker 2: Listener-supported WNYC Studios.
Speaker 3: Evan Puschak is known professionally as The Nerdwriter. His videos on YouTube have racked up millions of views, dissecting a wide variety of topics from Shakespeare and Tarkovsky to Martin Luther King.
Martin Luther King: I am happy to join with you today.
Evan Puschak: Martin Luther King's I Have a Dream speech is arguably the most important and most well-known speech of the 20th century. It's 1,667 words and 17 minutes long, absolutely riddled with big difficult terms.
Speaker 3: As the name he goes by suggests, The Nerdwriter goes very deep on pop culture as well. He'll talk, for example, about the debt that Bruno Mars owes to James Brown.
Evan Puschak: If you want to understand why at weddings across America and the world this year, thousands, probably millions of people will be lunging their pinky fingers over their heads. You have to go back to 1967.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Our producer Ngofeen Mputubwele is an avid consumer of video essays. He talked with Puschak about this new genre of non-fiction born on the internet. Here's Ngofeen.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: On YouTube, you are The Nerdwriter. How did you end up here? Were you always a very studious learner type?
Evan Puschak: No, I wasn't. In high school, I definitely wasn't. I was a class clown and I'm still really goofy. Even back then, I was obsessed with things that I didn't connect to education. I was obsessed with Superman and comic books and things like that. In college and after college, I became really frustrated with this feeling of not understanding what I believe and think about things. I think at some point in your life, you want to have a sense of who you are. The Nerdwriter and the book are ways of expressing and understanding and working out the things that I believe.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I want us to look at one of your video essays together. Actually, it's an essay-- You write about the same topic or you write about the same universe in your book, that universe being Lord of the Rings. The video essay you have is about Gandalf. Gandalf, for those who don't know, is a magician, the better Dumbledore among other accolades.
Evan Puschak: [laughs] Careful. Careful with that. You're going to anger a lot of people
Ngofeen Mputubwele: [laughs] I'm willing to die on that hill. The video essay is about Gandalf's eyes.
Evan Puschak: In the Lord of the Rings, Ian McKellen's eyes in particular carry a heavy load. Gandalf is the moral center of the story. He's also the one who understands the significance of events in the broadest sweep. This means that Gandalf has to broadcast a whole lot of story information to the audience.
Gandalf: The ring has awoken. It's heard its master's call.
Evan Puschak: I have so much to say about this.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Great.
Evan Puschak: We're talking about the difference between the written essay and the video essay. I don't think I could have done this in a written essay with anywhere near the same justice.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Describe an instance of Gandalf's eyes and his acting in Lord of the Rings that's really meaningful to you. What is it that you feel in your body when you watch that part?
Evan Puschak: The one that comes to mind is when he's sitting with Pippin in the upper levels of Minas Tirith at the end of the battle of Pelennor Fields in the third movie where it's all this war.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: I'm just going to translate. Gandalf with another character. They're in a castle.
Evan Puschak: Yes.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: The movie is almost over.
Evan Puschak: Okay. He's sitting there with Pippin. A battle's raging outside these doors, and there's this moment of quiet and silence where Pippin is feeling despair about the chances. He says, "I can't believe it's the end." Gandalf says, "No, it's not going to be the end. Death, if death comes, is only another path, a path we all must take." He describes what is on the other side of this veil of death. in describing it, what he does is move his eyes just ever so slightly over and up and into the distance, as if he's looking through the veil of death to the far green country that he's describing. As a viewer, what I'm feeling is that I'm seeing this thing he's describing.
When I'm just looking at his face, specifically, I'm just looking at his eyes and I'm getting that emotion of-- let me try to describe this. In the book, I describe that I am not religious. I'm a non-believer. I don't believe there's life after death, but when Gandalf is describing this, these rolling hills in this far green country, this vision of heaven, I feel and believe it that when you're inside a fantasy world, Ian McKellen, his eyes are bringing me to that place. They are immersing me in the story, showing me something I can't see on screen, and making me believe something that I don't actually really believe in the real world.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: In the Gandalf video, it seems like you're trying to convey the same awe that you feel to us as viewers, in the video essay. Is that right?
Evan Puschak: Yes. That's what I want to communicate, the experience I'm having, that I'm obsessed with matching content with form. From the beginning of the Nerdwriter, I've been trying to figure out what is YouTube good at, specifically. What are its strengths and weakness? What sets it apart from TV or books or podcasts or whatever.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: What is YouTube good at?
Evan Puschak: I think YouTube is attracted to breaking things down. It's lot of the classic Marshall Mcluhan, "The Medium is The Message." He was talking about movies, how movies in the theater, it's a very passive experience because you are sitting there in the dark and these giant images are washing over, and it's high-def, and you're just passively engaging with it. Then, compare to that, TV, you're sitting in your home, the lights are on, the windows are open, things are happening, you have the remote in your hand. It is a more active, engaging environment.
TV Excerpt: [background noise] The whole bag of tricks.
Evan Puschak: Mcluhan said that TV was really good at showing processes, which is why you get something like instant replay in sports, because we're just as interested in seeing the process of the play as the result of the play.
TV Excerpt: It's Kobe at the line, after being fouled by Pippin and rattling it home.
Evan Puschak: When you slow time to examine the catch from multiple angles, it's a way of participating in that image and TV is a participatory medium. I think YouTube takes that even further and is even more obsessed with processes. That's a function of the ways we interact with it. You're sitting at the computer, holding your phone. You're scrubbing through the video, you're double-tapping to rewind or changing the speed or whatever. Showing the process of something is really satisfying.
The things I'm trying to describe or understand with my videos are the ways that those pieces of art or those pieces of information or ideas made me feel. I felt some kind of awe or some kind of arresting emotion about this. There there is a famous Virginia Wolf quote. She was an extraordinary essayist, of course. She said that an essay should lay us under a spell with its first word and we should only wake refreshed with its last. That idea of putting you under a spell is part of my aim as someone who's making videos.
Ngofeen Mputubwele: One of the things that, as I've been reflecting a bit on video essay, is I think one of the things that draws me to them is that it feels like [clicks]. I think that if you grow up on the internet, so millennials and younger, you are receiving videos all the time. You're receiving videos constantly, like funny videos, all kinds of videos. I think that there's something about the video essay and the video essayists that I follow where it feels like, "Ah, I get meditative reflection." Because I live on the internet, that's the place where I can get a meditative thought.
Evan Puschak: I actually think what you're describing is what do people come to the essay for. Period. The written essay--
Ngofeen Mputubwele: Go there. Do it, tell me.
Evan Puschak: The essay is not a treatise. It's not a term paper. It's not something systematically covering everything about a subject. It is an inquiry. It is thought articulated, in one case in prose, in this case in audio-visual medium. You don't come to the essay to necessarily become an expert on something. You come to it because you want to see thought articulated. The cool thing about the video essay is that you are seeing these people's thoughts articulated with a whole new toolbox, and the ones who use the specific toolbox of the medium that they're working in are the ones that I am most interested in.
Speaker 3: Evan Puschak, who's known on YouTube as the Nerdwriter. His new book is called Escape Into Meaning, and he spoke with The Radio Hour's Ngofeen Mputubwele.
Speaker 1: WNYC Studios is supported by the Guggenheim Museum. Pleased to welcome Taylor Johnson as its first poet-in-residence. Under the theme Temple of Spirit, Johnson presents a suite of programs engaging the museum's architecture, exhibitions and collection. Visitors of all ages are invited to pop-up readings talks and to interact with poetry and visual art throughout the museum and online. Register at guggenheim.org/poetry.
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