Essay film is a relatively recent concept used to define a cinematographic (and video) genre that has been gaining growing recognition as a distinct branch of international film production. In its broadest meaning, it is a hybrid medium which falls between, and to an extent combines, the two dominant film categories: feature film and documentary. Like its literary and philosophical ancestor, the written essay, it ignores generic borders or chooses to transgress their norms conceptually and formally. It is generally shorter than standard feature films; its length may vary from one to 90 minutes and over, with an average perhaps of about an hour. The international scope of the essay film results in a great diversity among its many forms of inspiration, but its manifestations tend to have in common a sustained self-reflective questioning both of the subject position of individual filmmakers and of the global imaging technologies themselves, not only of film and video but also, increasingly, of digital electronics. Coming after a long history of film, the essay film readdresses, from a new audiovisual perspective, several basic questions raised by earlier forms of cinema about the tension between verisimilitude (documented reality) and artifice (free imagination). In that process, the essay film problematizes various traditional concepts such as narrative fiction and historical record, truth and fantasy, blurring the boundaries between the stable genres and calling into question all simplifying binary categories of representation.
Conceptually, the essay film can be traced back to a 1948 plea for its autonomous status as the most contemporary of media by the French film theorist Alexandre Astruc.
Astruc claimed that if Descartes were alive today his Discours de la méthode (1637;
Discourse on Method) would take the form of a 16mm film: that is, it would be “written” as an essay film. However, the essay film has become not merely a filmic rendering of a philosophical text; rather it has developed as a new form of cinema which, with its dual audio and visual dimensions, is progressively transforming the nature of the traditional philosophical discourse just as that discourse, were it filmed, would be transforming the nature of traditional films. The essay film is, moreover, not only a particular genre of film production, albeit one resisting generic norms, but also a hermeneutic procedure, that is, a
way of viewing all films.
Astruc promoted the notion of a camera-stylo (camerastylus) that would, in the essay film, “break free from the tyranny of what is visual, from the image for its own sake, from the immediate and concrete demands of the narrative, to become a means of writing, just as flexible and subtle as written language…more or less literal ‘inscriptions’ on images as ‘essays’.” Some essay films have included actual writing or graphic inscription on the celluloid. The result is a multilayered product: an image track, a soundtrack, and a written track often accompanied by a voiceover reading of the written text. The properly textual track or layer is sometimes in direct contradiction with the image track, creating within the total filmic text a jarring collision of opposites and complex levels of meaning which the audience must coproduce.
In response to its literary and philosophical origins, the essay film can also borrow and translate into audiovisual dimensions various classical rhetorical devices. For example, the rhetorical figure of chiasmus (the oscillatory crossing between categories), an integral feature in the work of the German philosopher and promoter of the essay, Theodor W.Adorno, has been adapted to the cinematographic medium in several German essay films. Similarly, the painterly technique of anamorphosis (whereby a change of perspective alters manifest meaning) has been adapted as a methodological tool by film essayists everywhere, insofar as they use various techniques of layering images and sounds.
The earliest examples of the essay film can be found in cinema produced many years before Astruc coined the term and formulated its theory. Most of these early film essays—such as Walter Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphonie einer Grossstadt (1927; Berlin: Symphony of a Great City) or the Soviet Dziga Vertov’s Chelovek s kino-apparatom (1929; Man with a Movie Camera), both of which articulated images and music tracks with considerable self-reflective artistry—were still mainly filmed in the spirit of documentary. Conversely, the surprising Tabu (1931) by F.W.Murnau and Robert Flaherty remains essentially a fictional feature film despite its documentary orientation, cultural displacement, and essay-like aspects. More importantly, perhaps, unlike the literary essays, few of these early movies presented an ideological argument, an explicit justification of their production as essays rather than as exclusively audiovisual works of art. It is arguably with Les Statues meurent aussi (Statues also die), by French directors Chris. Marker and Alain Resnais in 1953, that the combination of formal and thematic
innovations with a clearly subversive (and in fact censored) ideological agenda (anticolonialism) was conceived and received as a major illustration of what an essay film could and ought to be. This medium-length film offered remarkable photography of African art, a dislocated narrative, a mixture of fact and imaginative speculation, and a sharp critique of the colonial project and its cultural legacy on location in Africa and in contemporary European museums. The model—always slightly subversive, most typically from a leftwing perspective—was set for future essay films.
In 1979, the Hamburg Declaration of New German Filmmakers officially called for an end to the artificial separation between “the feature film form [and] the documentary” and between “films that reflect on the medium (in a practical way as experiments) [and] the narrative and commercial films.” The resulting hybrid was to uphold the transgressive spirit of that declaration: for instance, joining all manner of avantgardes, promoting all sorts of artistic and political causes (particularly on the left), and maintaining a certain sympathy for gender struggles and for cultural cross-fertilization.
Internationalization of the new genre followed rapidly. Soon it became impossible to categorize the essay film on the basis of the nationality of filmmakers working alone or together in several countries at the same time—in filmic versions of a postmodernist mode of production. Most question or reject the notion of a fixed identity as filmmaker,
be it national, sexual, or cultural. Many, like Chilean-born but Paris-based Raul Ruiz, or Vietnamese-born, French-educated, and U.S.based Trinh T.Minh-ha, have been working in exile. It may even be argued that it is this state of “in-between-ness” which leads these filmmakers to adopt the essay film as a medium of expression in the first place. Falling themselves between categories, more or less finding a home in multicultural lands, they have been inspired, if not forced, to look for their inspiration to a similarly multilayered practice of filmmaking.
There are other ways to order the seeming proliferation of essay films. Some categories—with considerable overlap between them—are basically thematic, corresponding to an inferred intention on the part of the director. For instance, many essay films adopt a “travelogue” or “ethnographic” format as a means of mapping psychological space and time onto geophysical space and time. Issues of tourism and travel in foreign countries emerge on the surface of epistolary films such as Chris Marker’s Lettre de Sibérie (1958; Letter from Siberia) or frank “filmed diaries” such as the German Wim Wenders’ Tokyo-Ga (1985). Markers’ early film contains a famous sequence, seminal for the essay film, in which one image track is replayed three times, each time with a radically different, ideologically coded, voice-over. Wenders’ film, although filmed on location in Japan, problematizes national identity in part by confronting national cinemas with video and television as transnational forces. In short, these films explore problems of cultural displacement, ideological conviction, and cinematographic technique formally as well as thematically. Following the theory of Claude Lévi-Strauss, this mode of essay film tends to become a form of “anthropological bricolage”—offering escape from some of the conceptual limitations of “national identity,” but encountering new limits at home and abroad. In some instances, when travel is impossible, the subgenre is parodied, as in the French omnibus production Loin du Vietnam (1967; Far from Vietnam), Jill Godmillow’s Far from Poland (1984), and Trinh T.Minh-ha’s Surname Viet, Given Name Nam (1989). In the latter two films, manipulated and/or fabricated documentary footage and interviews are successfully presented as being “authentic,” duping the audience until the end, when the artifice is revealed.
A related strategy motivates “journalistic” essay films, which offer an alternative view to the representation of current events by traditional journalism and television. This is the case for the depiction of the Romanian Revolution in German Harun Farocki’s Videograms einer Revolution (1991; Videograms of a Revolution), of German reunification in French Marcel Ophüls’ November Days (1991), and of the AIDS pandemic in the German Rosa von Praunheim’s Silence=Death (1991). These reportage films counteract the spectacular nature of such world events as covered by other, more powerful media, seeking to communicate greater depth and ambivalence. Together with other types of essay films, they create a half-factual, half-imaginary public sphere that competes with, and undermines, both the ostensible objectivity of documentaries and the commercial subjectivity of fictional features.
Contributing to that subversive—or corrective—effect are various “historical” essay films that focus on both history in general and film history in particular. Like other subgenres, they entail the use and manipulation of documentary footage, but particularly focus on old film clips and soundtracks. This category has expanded tremendously in
recent years, as the cinema celebrates its centennial, drawing attention to its own past.
The most notable explicit examples are French: Jean-Luc Godard’s Histoire(s) du cinema (1988; History of Cinema) and Chris. Marker’s Silent Movie (1995). But many essay films reflect on historical figures and problems in a manner that might be called “auto/biographical.” Marker’s Le Tombeau d’Alexandre (1993; The Last Bolshevik) explores the problem of representing a filmmaker who is also a party member. Some films take a clearly solipsistic autobiographical turn, as does Godard’s JLG/JLG (1994;
JLG by JLG).
An equally complex development is offered by the “philosophical” essay film, which claims to contribute to (Western) philosophy, to cinema aesthetics, and to their interaction. The films of Farocki (Wie man sieht [1986; As You See]; Bilder der Welt und Inschrift des Krieges [1988; Images of the World and the Inscription of War]), Wim Wenders (Notebooks on Cities and Clothes, 1989), Hartmut Bitmoski (Reichsautobahn, 1984; VW Komplex, 1989), Godard (Photo et Cie. [1976; Photo and Co.]), and Valie Export (Unsichtbare Gegner [1976; Invisible Adversaries]) tend to question, in diverse ways, not only differences between film and rival imaging technologies but also, in the field of public visual representations, differences between visual representation and the modern man-made environment. The essay film is thus poised to trace the history of “mechanical reproduction” since the Enlightenment, contrasting “vision” with “visuality” on the one hand, and with the “reconfigured eye” of digital manipulation and synthesis on the other.
Another important topic of essay films is centered on problems of sexual identity and gender roles. As has been noted by critics, the more traditional written essay itself can be viewed as a “feminine” form because of its rejection of categories fixed by patriarchy.
Applying their general policy of cultural transgression, some essay films deconstruct the a priori binary opposition of male versus female, heterosexual versus homosexual. They question the conventional imagery of patriarchal structures, relativize the image of women, sometimes promote feminist theses, and offer probing views of lesbian, gay, or transvestite milieux. Among the best known of these filmmakers are Chantal Akerman
(News from Home, 1976), Derek Jarman (Blue, 1992–93), Isaac Julien (Looking for Langston, 1989), Rosa von Praunheim (Anita, Tanze des Lasters [1987; Anita, Dances of Vice]), Yvonne Rainer (Journeys from Berlin, 1971, 1980), Helke Sanders (Redupers [1977; All Around Reduced Personality]), Monika Treut (Female Misbehavior, 1993), and Valie Export (Menschenfrauen [1979; Humanwoman]).
These essay film contributions to modern cinema are paralleled by its equally significant influence on general film production. Many documentary and feature filmmakers follow developments in the essay film, and are increasingly adapting its new themes and forms into works that reach a mass audience. For example, Marker’s La Jetée (1962) has clearly inspired Terry Gilliam’s commercial Twelve Monkeys (1996).
Furthermore, many prestigious feature film directors (e.g. Godard, Wenders, Werner Herzog, Orson Welles) have interspersed their commercial productions with low-budget, nonprofit essays in which they carry out experiments on their more innovative theories of representation. Many avant-garde “investigations” eventually find their way into feature films, such as Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers (1994). In that sense, the essay film participates in the contemporary form of what Russian and Czech formalists used to call the “canonization of the junior branch”: the perpetual circulation between “high” and “low” cultural production and consumption. In this sense, the comparatively unknown essay film irrigates, fertilizes, and stimulates the cinematographic field in an increasingly post-literate technoculture, keeping the critical impulsion of the literary and philosophical essay alive under hostile conditions.
The future of the essay film is linked to the evolution of the major factors that generated it, such as the dispersion of national units into tribes, fragmentation of belief structures, skeptical questioning of values, breaking of traditional boundaries and genres of all types, appeal of irrational ideas and movements, multiplication of political, social, technological, and cultural debates, and the erosion of the public sphere by the mass media. There is no reason to expect a moderating change in the impact of these factors.
Nor is it likely that any form of cinema will escape the process that leads aging art forms, tired of creating, to a self-reflective cannibalization of their own past, and to a more or less discrete and obsessive poaching from other disciplines. The essay film or video will likely share for some time the current successes and failures of the literary and philosophical essay, fueled by similar cultural and political disturbances around the globe.
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Barsam, Richard M., Non-Fiction Film: A Critical History, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992 (original edition, 1973)
Bellour, Raymond, editor, L’Entre-image: Photo, cinéma, video, Paris: La Différence, 1990
Bensmaïa, Réda, The Barthes Effect: The Essay as Reflective Text, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987 (original French edition, 1986)
Blümlinger, Christa, editor, Sprung im Spiegel: Filmisches Wahrnehmen zwischen Fiktion und Wirklichkeit, Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1990
Blümlinger, Christa, and Constantin Wulff, editors, Schreiben Bilder Sprechen: Texte zum essayistischen Film, Vienna: Sonderzahl, 1992
Boetcher Joeres, Ruth-Ellen, and Elizabeth Mittman, editors, The Politics of the Essay: Feminist Perspectives, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993
Chion, Michel, Audio-Vision: Sound on Screen, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994 (original French edition, 1990)
Conley, Tom, Film Hieroglyphs: Ruptures in Classical Cinema, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991
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Godard, Jean-Luc, Son+Image, New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1993
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University Press, and London: Associated University Presses, 1990
Halbreich, Kathy, and Bruce Jenkins, editors, Bordering on Fiction: Chantal Akerman’s D’Est (exhibition catalogue), Minneapolis: Walker Art Center, 1995
Images Documentaires issue on Chris. Marker, 15 (1993)
Marker, Chris., Commentaires I-II, Paris: Seuil, 2 vols., 1961–67
Marker, Chris., La Jetée: Ciné Roman, New York: Zone, 1992
Marker, Chris., Silent Movie (video installation catalogue), Columbus: Ohio State University Wexner Center for the Arts, 1995
Mueller, Roswitha, Valie Export: Fragments of the Imagination, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994
Nichols, Bill, Representing Reality: Isues and Concepts in Documentary, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1991
Nichols, Bill, Blurred Boundaries: Questions of Meaning in Contemporary Culture, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994
Non-Fiction: Über Dokumentarfilme, Cinema special issue, 39 (1993)
Renov, Michael, “History and/as Autobiography: The Essayistic in Film and Video,” Frame/Work 2/3 (1989):6–13
Renov, Michael, editor, Theorizing Documentary, New York and London: Routledge, 1993
Rosenthal, Alan, editor, New Challenges for Documentary, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988
Trinh T.Minh-ha, When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics, New York and London: Routledge, 1991
Versuch über den Essayfilm, Augenblick special issue, 10 (1991)
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