The Essay Film: Problems, Definitions, Textual Commitments – Laura Rascaroli

  • unorthodox, personal, reflexive “new” documentaries
  • widely used, but under-theorized, even more so than other forms of nonfiction
  • hybrid form that crosses boundaries and rests somewhere in between fiction and nonfiction cinema
  • it is self-reflective and self-reflexive (Nora Alter)
  • Theodor Adorno and Georg Lukács – foremost theorists
  • Jean-Luc Godard is widely considered to be an essayistic director; –  stresses the importance of the reflective component of the essay form

  • subjectivity is so important to the essay that Montaigne’s motto was, famously, “I am myself the matter of my book”; he wrote not in order to “pretend to discover things, but to lay open my self” ( Michel de Montaigne, The Essays of Montaigne, trans. Charles Cotton, 3rd. ed. (London: Printed for M. Gillyflower et al., 1700), 254.)
  • the idea of the possibility of expressing subjectivity through film can, in truth, be traced back to the very origins of film theory—in particular, some of the French pioneers influenced by poetic Impressionism (Carduno, Delluc, Epstein)
  • in the late 1940s the reflection on cinematic subjectivity clearly emerges in European film theory, preparing for the formulation of the Nouvelle Vague’s auteur theory of the second half of the 1950s.

A Certain Tendency: The Emergence of the Essay in Film Theory and Film Practice

  • the term “essay” in a cinematographic context occurs in Eisenstein’s notes on his own work – The Capital project -> October 
  • first contribution explicitly devoted to the essay film is probably Hans Richter’s “Der Filmessay, Eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms”, April 1940
  • “Freed from recording external phenomena in simple sequence the film essay must collect its material from everywhere; its space and time must be conditioned only by the need to explain and show the idea.” (Richter, quoted in Jay Leyda, Films Beget Films: Compilation Films from Propaganda to Drama (New York: Hill & Wang, 1964), 31)
  • Alexandre Astruc  “The Birth of a New AvantGarde: La Caméra-Stylo.” –  announcing the birth an authorial cinema that is able to produce a variety of linguistic and discoursive registers, including the essayistic one, and that applies itself to a range of topics and disciplines, precisely as books do. This is possible because cinema is “gradually becoming a language”
  • scriptwriter and filmmaker must merge
  • 1940 – the law of the Vichy government boosted the production of nonfiction in France, with an increase from 400 documentaries made during the German occupation to 4,000 made between 1945 and 1955
  • the new postwar poetic documentaries, including works by Resnais and Franju, were made in a climate in which, thanks to the Surrealist (and, one should add, Impressionistic) antecedents, the boundaries between documentary and fiction (as well as art film) were fluid, and the filmmaker’s personal style in the approach to reality was valued, in contrast to other established documentary practices

Definitions – 4 definitions

  • Phillip Lopate – “In Search of the Centaur”:  “An essay film must have words, in the form of a text, either spoken, subtitled, or intertitled”; “The text must represent a single voice”;   “The text must represent and attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem”; “The text must impart more than information; it must have a strong, personal point of view”; “The text’s language should be as eloquent, well written and interesting as possible.”
  • Timothy Corrigan  (1) a usually—but not necessarily—short documentary subject, (2) the lack of a dominant narrative organization (although narrative may provide one of several patterns in the film), and (3) the interaction of a personal voice or vision, sometimes in the form of a voice-over. In the essay film, the interaction of that subjective perspective and the reality before it becomes a testing or questioning of both, and the structure of the film, like the literary essay, follows the undetermined movement of that dialogue.
  • Michael Renov – While all documentary films retain an interest in some portion of the world out there—recording, and less frequently interrogating, at times with the intent to persuade and with varying degrees of attention to formal issues—the essayist’s gaze is drawn inward with equal intensity. That inward gaze accounts for the digressive and fragmentary character of the essayistic, as André Tournon’s assessment of Montaigne’s Essays suggests: “Thought can abandon its theme at any time to examine its own workings, question its acquired knowledge or exploit its incidental potentialities.”
  • Paul Arthur –  film essays fracture epistemological unities of time and place associated with documentary practices from John Grierson and Thirties New Deal tracts through Sixties vérité. The binding aspect of personal commentary is typically constituted by voiceover narration enhanced by musical selections, editorial as well as factual intertitles, and is often reinforced by compositional devices. When spoken narration is either subdued or absent, other traces of authorial presence may replace direct speech.

Theorizing the Essay: Heresy, Form, and Textual Commitments

  • At the level of textual commitments, an essay is the expression of a personal, critical reflection on a problem or set of problems. Such reflection does not propose itself as anonymous or collective, but as originating from a single authorial voice
  • The authorial “voice” approaches the subject matter not in order to present a factual report, but to offer an in-depth, personal, and thought-provoking reflection.
  • enunciator who is very close to the real, extra-textual author
  • The essay film constructs such spectatorial position by adopting a certain rhetorical structure: rather than answering all the questions that it raises, and delivering a complete, “closed” argument, the essay’s rhetoric is such that it opens up problems, and interrogates the spectator
  • The spectatorial position is not that of a generic audience; it is not in the plural but in the singular—it is the position of a real spectator, who is directly and personally addressed and summoned
  • The structure of the essay film is that of a constant interpellation
  • each spectator, as an individual and not as a member of an anonymous, collective audience, is called upon to engage in a dialogical relationship with the enunciator, to become active, intellectually and emotionally, and interact with the text
  • ask question, does not offer clear-cut answers
  • Humanism is, indeed, implicit in the essay structure—the assumption of a certain unity of the human experience, which allows two subjects to meet and communicate on the basis of this shared experience. The two subject positions, the “I” and the “you,” determine and shape one another.

The Inscription of Subjectivity in the Essay Film: Voice-over, Interpellation and the Question of Authority

  • The presence–absence of the enunciator is a key point of the essay film. The inscription of the authorial figure can be very direct, for instance by making the filmmaker’s body visible and his/her voice audible. Other times, it can be more indirect, for example through the use of a narrator/ spokesperson, or of intertitles, or of musical commentary, camera movements, etc. However, one of the key elements of the essay film is the direct address of the receiver, and voice-over is the most simple and successful way of actualizing such address
  • The use of voice in an essay film can be: contrapuntal or ironic or polemical, as well as a means to convey information

The Place of the Essay Film

  • essay film = the crossroads of “documentary, avant-garde, and art film impulses”
  • being informal, skeptical, diverse, disjunctive, paradoxical, contradictory, heretical, open, free, and formless, the essay truly is the postmodern “matrix of all generic possibilities.”

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