Vice: The Essay Film and the Creativity of Adam McKay

Vice: The Essay Film and the Creativity of Adam McKay


“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
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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,
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91 thoughts on “Vice: The Essay Film and the Creativity of Adam McKay

  1. Time not to be productive for the next 14:32 minutes.

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  3. Alternative title of Vice: “let’s vilify the Republican Party as if they were evil demons”

  4. Vice is what you get when a man who used to make smart dumb movies thinks he can make a legit smart movie but ended up making a dumb smart movie.
    It's a movie by vvery condescending person who thinks that the average Joe can I ly understand things if it's presented via a SNL skit.
    He's the /r/iamverysmart of filmmakers and should stick to making funny consider and keep the grownup topics for more nuanced and wise filmmakers like Scorsese.

  5. Didn’t care for vice. Felt like the director just threw every movie making trick at the screen to see what stuck and was still boring

  6. I really enjoyed Vice and while I understand it's not all facts, it does paint a convincing portrayal of what happens when someone has unchecked power.

  7. I still prefer screenprism over the take :/

  8. I didn't love The Big Short, but Vice was okay. It probably should have won for Best Editing because that's what kept me engaged. I mean…Its about Dick f*%$ Chaney. SOMETHING better keep me engaged, lol.

    Btw, not a lot of people are really rushing to do videos about Vice, so thanks for this. 😊

  9. Loved this movie

  10. Thinking about showing this video to my 7th grade students.Thanks!

  11. Hey don't diss on Wolf of Wall Street. That movie is fantastic and Scorcese is a far better filmmaker.

  12. God bless screenprisin 🙏🏿

  13. His last good movie was The Other Guys.

  14. This is brilliant.

  15. Are there any examples of films that combine the docu style of real life like a Michael Moore film, mixed with the fictional styles of essay films like Vice?

  16. FINALLY

  17. You girls are amazing

  18. 3:42…. As an Indian it got me excited… Screaming hey that's "Pyasa". I would have recommended it but foreigners would not be able to understand the storytelling through beautiful song. Translation is no good for those songs…..

  19. this movie was so creative and so underrated 🙁

  20. It’s not just my business if I disagree with McKay’s arguments or not when his films are riddled with falsehoods and partisan hackery. Misinformation is dangerous and destructive and it should be called out with vigor whether it’s Dinesh D’Souza, Adam McKay, or Michael Moore.

  21. I didn’t necessarily like Vice but you ladies make a good case for it

  22. Vice is Smear campaign for The Republican Party and Bush Admistration its not factual or accurate

  23. other guy end credits

  24. I was more engaged than expected when I watched Vice, especially by the ways in which it played with film convention. More than by its subject matter, in fact. Not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.

  25. The Take should analyze the art of Contrapoints and her videoessays

  26. This video could have been 5-10mins long. Good video but you ladies stretched it way too long.

  27. I love all the productions that you made… Mantengan siempre esa calidad, chicas/compañeras!

  28. While I did like and enjoy The Big Short, I just feel that Vice should have had a different approach to its subject. I feel like a more direct, less comedic, political thriller could have had a bigger impact.

  29. Obviously I'm a fan of this format, whether the medium be movie, youtube video or written article. I've seen W. I'll have to give VICE a try.

  30. I loved The Big Short and really enjoyed this one. The constant use of the fishing analogy was a little overboard…like if they just would have established that he liked to fly fish and then used it in the Bush scene, that would have been perfect. Definitely think it should have won best editing Oscar. I didn't get the heart thing. Thanks for the great insight as usual.

  31. Seeing Anthony Bourdain made me really sad 😔 I loved him and his series so much. RIP

  32. I'm a fan of Michael Moore films. Especially, Where to Invade Next

  33. Powerful stuff! 🥰😍🥰😍

  34. Help: What is that scene with Kal Penn talking about government from??? A doc? What's it called…looking for it.

  35. Even though I recognize it is a good movie, I didn't like The Big Short. It is just Adam McKay's style that doesn't work for me. However, I don't think Vice is a good movie. I still admire that Adam McKay takes risks, which is good, but this movie is just messy and boring. The editing was really confusing, and the characters were empty, except for Dick Cheney. The movie tries to show what kind of bad person he was, and it is all so in your face…That is one of my critiques on The Big Short, but in this movie it seems even more thrown into your throat. There were some entertaining moments, but the tone was inconsistent, the script was a mess, the directing was nothing special and the soundtrack sucked. I think this movie is worse than Bohemian Rhapsody and the worst Best Picture nominee of this year.

  36. Not gonna lie, the new name isnt as good as the old one.

  37. I might be the only person I know that LOVED Vice. Other than the over the top post-credits scene, I was so engaged and entertained. I’ll have to watch it again to decide if I liked this more than The Big Short or not- He does so many interesting things in Vice in terms of challenging the creative process.

  38. Wolf of wall st is what Adam McKay wishes he could make.

  39. Spike Lee is a video essayist! (seems to be). He's probably one of the more famous essayists making feature-length popular films of this type. Blackkklansman was so good! :-O

  40. Seriously great video!

  41. I find it really troubling how his style gives him the creative liberties of a fictional retelling of history while at the same time grants him the credibility of a documentary.

  42. This was my favorite film of the year. I thought the editing was so good

  43. I've really enjoyed all your videos on the Oscar nominated movies 🙂 Will you be doing Green Book? I'm very curious to see what you would talk about, as that movie is quite thin analysis wise and surrounded by a ton of controversy. The Favourite and Black klansman are both much more layered and complex stories. Maybe you could do a video on Green book by talking about the white saviour trope in cinema? Or by looking at the history of the buddy film?

  44. Vice was a very confusing movie for me; it seemed like a biographical drama about a Tommy-Wiseau-turned-accidental-Emperor-Palpatine of many post-9/11 issues we're facing today, yet it also seemed like a scattershot of experimental cinematic techniques to throw curveballs at the people watching.

    I really like how this video was able to explain what kind of film Vice is: an essay on the mind of invisible "puppet masters" of our daily lives, and the exploitability of power grabs amidst social disarray.

    It also makes me enjoy seeing The Big Short a little more, what with its ability to explain why the crash of 2008 happened, and why the economy is so hard to understand.

  45. 5:50 in a what sense ??
    12:47 new speak

  46. Vive l’intelligence!

  47. Hmm…I don't know. I love you guys, I love your channel, I love your Mad Men videos, but I think you're seriously reaching here. Vice was an incredibly flawed film that, to me at least, revealed McKay as being somewhat of a hack. His style allows him to have the creative control of a purely fictional film but maintain the credibility of a documentary. I think this is very dangerous, as it allows him to grandstand his opinion and convince audiences that it's fact. Any filmmaker who does this needs to be called out. And this exists on all sides of politics. Professional Trump supporter Dinesh D'Souza is an absolute disgrace because his 'documentary' films present false facts and D'Souza's own opinions all while convincing audiences that it's all factual. Michael Moore does the exact same thing for left-wing opinions. And now Adam McKay is doing the same thing. Vice is full of lies and manipulated facts but it treats itself as a factual, evidence-based essay film. Citations are pointless if the citations are falsified or manipulated. D'Souza uses interviews with people who already agree with him to try and add credibility to his argument, McKay talks down to his audience and misexplains complicated ideas to do the same. It's ironic to me that McKay criticizes Dick Cheney for using the label 'War on Terror' to confuse people by misrepresenting a complicated concept when he did the same exact thing with this entire movie.

  48. Please do a Green Book analysis without mentioning the fake controversies.

  49. Okay ladies, you're absolutely correct about Adam McKay being a very clever man who uses biting wit and genuinely engaging comedy to soften the blow he's simultaneously delivering to your entire moral fibre by slowly revealing the contempt those in power have for the people with no power and thus no recourse. He's one of the most compelling directors around right now. But comparing what Scorcese did with Wolf of Wall Street to what Adam was doing in Big Short and then suggesting Adam's way is the superior path, that's a step too far. Scorcese had his own goal and he accomplished it perfectly, but it wasn't about using comic relief to facilitate hard truths. It was about capturing a feeling, an atmosphere, the zeitgeist of that particular cranny of spacetime. The Big Short literally teaches you something complex in a concise way while making you chuckle and/or giggle. Scorcese let you experience vicariously what it was like to be those people at that time, living those extremes. In order to accomplish their totally distinct goals, the two directors used a smorgasbord of different techniques and comparing them just because the premises are similar does a disservice to both, I think. Just my two cents, but I'm on numerous illicit drugs right now so I'll concede I might be talking out of my ass.

    Edit: upon reflection, I'm jumping at spectres, your vid doesn't imply McKay is more subtle or nuanced than Scorcese, you were just trying to establish that what he does is what you do only with a massive budget. I can dig that. I think given the same opportunities as McKay, the people who research, write, edit and narrate your essays would make content comparably engaging. Peace out yalllllll.

  50. This is not your take. This is another one of many shades of color filtered through the prism of a screen.

  51. EXCELLENT!!!!!! Thank You for a GREAT work!!

  52. Just call yourselves screen prism again. I don't recognize when videos are posted under the new name.

  53. The end of Vice with the focus groups was genius.

  54. This was so good, you guys! I'm proud to be a fan 😀

  55. I love the depth of VICE. I also love that you guys take the time to analyse this

  56. These two white girls seem like there Mormon robots or something. Suzanna is being held captive in a Mormon cult camp

  57. Vice was not a good movie

  58. Love this! I did a video essay on Adam McKay and why he’s such an exciting director. Please watch it on my channel.

  59. Mubi is free for Students btw. It's pretty awesome.

  60. Can anyone identify the film at 3:45 with the asian man and woman?

  61. This movie pissed me off. It went way overboard with the irony and self references. That sort of thing worked with The Big Short because of the era and subject matter, but with VICE it came across as self satisfied and condescending.

  62. I really appreciate you taking a shot at wolf of wallstreet…that sums up how dumb that movie was….the movie is promoting the very thing it claims to be cautioning against.

  63. This film was straight up propaganda.

  64. Can you please please please please do Disney’s Princess and The Frog!!!!

  65. no.

  66. The movie was boring imo

  67. Vice, also know as the underapteciated oscar movie of 2019

  68. Why was there no credit for the Kal Penn show you used multiple times?

  69. trump 2020

  70. Please do an in-depth analysis of Phantom Thread.I would love to get your take on it.

  71. If we want to be "a more informed citizen of our world" then Hollywood is not the place to find that.

  72. That's what i find so intriguing about video essays. It strings together its own narrative by playing with other's.

    Another great video! This is the level of video essays I aspire to!

  73. i love this movie

  74. PLEASE do an video series on 1967’s The Graduate! It is such a relevant movie the more time progresses and I would love to hear the squad’s thoughts on its ending an in-depth analysis on characters specifically Mrs. Robinson and Ben and stuff!!

  75. Wonderfully meta. Loved this one.

  76. Recruiting a bunch of celebrities to explain some financial topic isn't ingenius. Putting Margot Robbie in a bathtub to explain something about subprime mortgages is actually quite lowbrow.

  77. Keep up the great work!

  78. Vice was extremely sloppy. Please. Big short was really interesting with a good screenplay but vice felt more disconnected and rushed!

  79. When is the Green book analysis

  80. I wasn't a massive fan of The Big Short or Vice, but I appreciate and understand the films more because of this video. Thanks!

  81. Vice is a very problematic movie just like this video. You spend too much time explaining what an essay is and it quickly gets boring.

  82. I’m not sure anyone could be taken seriously by attempting to defend Dick Cheney.

  83. Adam Mckay is like the magician who revealed how people get tricked by his colleagues on TV, except is not magic is economics and politics, magicians are actually politicians, and people are not getting tricked they're getting f*cked!!! Thanx, girls. Great video as usual!!!

  84. Vice is like the tethered version of The Big Short. So pissy, pompous, and up its own ass, it’s a wonder it was made by the same creative forces.

  85. I really appreciate your channel!

  86. This oddly is similar to the lonely chemists video on Adam McKay

  87. Too pretentious. Like quentin tarantino

  88. This film was NOT worthy of Best Screenplay, director or picture… Best Actor and Make Up but that's it. Must've been a desperate, slow year.

  89. The difference is, in a video essay like this, we are meant to know it is your opinion, and take it as such. In Vice, we are given a lot of conjecture as if it were fact, and that skews the audience understanding, especially the average person, who does not put much thought into a movie beyond watching it and remembering parts.

  90. *insert shameless plug

  91. movie for libs

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