by Brian Bergen-Aurand
Essaynoun: essay; plural noun: essaysˈɛseɪ/1. a short piece of writing on a particular subject.2. formal an attempt or effort.verb (formal) : essay; 3rd person present: essays; past tense: essayed; past participle: essayed; gerund or present participle: essayingɛˈseɪ/1. attempt or try.
Essay Films are notoriously difficult to define and delimit. Like documentaries but different, essay films are poetic and argumentative, personal and observational, literary and historical, abstract and concrete. They challenge long-held cinematic assumptions about address and representation while building on our familiarity with those assumptions. Often aesthetically open yet dogmatically closed, they are narrow yet broad, specific yet general. They are a film genre as well as a set of practices that transgress genres. They have a deep history going back to the very beginnings of the cinema and yet remain perhaps the smallest body of films made. They are always located in specific times and places and yet appear within traditions arising around the globe. They are films that attempt to persuade us through their “first-person” voice-over, visual evidence, and a sensual rhythm; however, the actual claims they make on us remain almost always quite opaque. They are films with theses that undercut acts of declaring theses.
Perhaps it is possible only to suggest the obvious description, to say that essay films essay; they attempt, or make an effort to address a particular subject to a particular audience, most often by invoking the whole apparatus of the cinema in the broadest ways, through auteurism, generic devices, montage, realism, semiotics, and formalism–while exposing this invocation at every step along they way. Essays films show and tell as they show and tell, while they make the point that the cinema always shows and tell, even when it tries to hide it.
Indeed, though, as with most things filmic, it is possible to suggest that the best way to ask after the essay film is to leave it an open question. Here, I suggest five films which I believe are the best of the tradition. If we begin with these films, perhaps, we can begin to think through the question: What is essay film?
Dziga Vertov, Mikhail Kaufman, and Yelizaveta Svilova. Man with a Movie Camera. (Chelovek s kino-apparatom.) USSR. 1929. 80 mins. One of the ultimate films about filmmaking, Movie Camera is a film that deploys almost every available filmic technique to depict a day in the life of a city and the citizens who inhabit that city. It compares and contrast bodies and machines, spaces and times, motion and stillness, while maintaining a respect for the mundane and a sense of humor with regard to the grandiose. Throughout, it provokes viewers to side with a camera operator and an editor just trying to get the shots right.
Chris Marker. Sans Soleil. France. 1983. 103 mins. What if the images you see are impossible images? This question haunts Sans Soleil, a series of scenes from around the world spliced together to the rhythm of letters written to a woman who reads them aloud to us as we watch and listen. The cinematographer, Sandor Krasna, shares his letters and images from Japan, France, Iceland, Guinea-Bissau, and the United States to show us where he has traveled and how the very feeling of time is spatially located. We experience glimpses of global life (and many, many cats), but without thematization. Along the way the letters remind us always of the personal (and perhaps impossible) essence of these images composed through Krasna more than by Krasna.
Jay Rosenblatt. Human Remains. USA. 1998. 30 mins. Five Twentieth-Century dictators read aloud from their diaries as they show us images from their home movies. Or do they? While the voices of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Mao speak, an unidentified narration translates their original languages into English This film may deploy one of the most complex deauthorizations of filmic enunciation ever composed. While these dictators speak about their indigestion or love of family and dogs, baked goods, and painting or television, we see almost nothing of their infamy, nothing of the horrors of their regimes. Rather, they remain human throughout the segments, human like us, and, thus, absolutely accountable. The digger who connects the segments excavates and buries, exhumes and entombs. Every shovel of dirt he lifts, falls elsewhere as he works.
Frederick Wiseman. Titicut Follies. USA. 1967. 84 mins. Of these five films, Titicut Follies is the closest to the documentary form we have grown used to experiencing. Here, Wiseman brings us inside the restricted wing of the Massachusetts Correctional Institution Bridgewater. Without voice-over, without authorizing institutional tone, though, this film lets everyone speak: doctors, guards, patients. Perhaps Wiseman’s best instance of “absent observer” filming, we watch and listen intently to the details of ever conversation, every examination, every tube feeding. And, the final “follies” performed before a mixed audience calls into question the line between inside and outside, sanity and insanity, folly and wisdom.
Agnes Varda. The Gleaners and I. (Les glaneurs et la glaneuse) France. 2000. Gleaners are those who gather or collect in a casual way, especially from the debris left by others. For a time, by law, those who harvested crops were obligated to let fall a certain percentage of their crops as a form of social welfare–so that others who could not harvest might glean. This patient study of contemporary gleaners argues for a closeup view of the relation between those who harvest and those who glean, eventually calling into question the very line separating them. Allt the while, of course, Varda, the director of the film is the “I” of the film, who could not make this film without the very gleaners she gleans from in her composition.
After these five, one might continue to consider the essay film in the hands of Harun Farocki, Harmut, Bitomsky, Patrick Keillor, Bruce Connor, Jean-Luc Godard, Aleksandr Sukurov, Pier Paolo Passolini, Michelangelo Antonioni, Jean Rouch, Alain Resnais, Orson Welles, Ruiz, and Werner Herzog. The essay film remains difficult to address, just as its address may well remain its defining feature.