Deep focus: The essay film | Sight & Sound | BFI
In recent years the essay film has attained widespread recognition as a particular category of film practice, with its own history and canonical figures and texts. In tandem with a major season throughout August at London’s BFI Southbank, Sight Sound explores the characteristics that have come to define this most elastic of forms and looks in detail at a dozen influential milestone essay films.
The Essay Film From Montaigne, After Marker Timothy Corrigan
once claimed an essay was "a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything". Essay films exploit this freedom and possibility, exulting in the opportunity to avoid the hermetic specialisation that characterises much academic scholarship, and to draw on ethnography, autobiography, philosophy and art history. A case in point is Otolith I (2003) by the Turner prize-nominated , whose co-founder Kodwo Eshun will deliver a keynote speech at BFI Southbank: it uses the mass demonstrations against the second Iraq conflict in London as an occasion to think about political collectivity, and deploys an elusive, eerily compelling compound of science fiction, travelogue, epistolary writing and leftist history to do so.
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.
The label "essay film" is encountered with ever-increasing frequency in both film reviews and scholarly writings on the cinema, owing to the recent proliferation of unorthodox, personal, reflexive "new" documentaries. In an article dedicated to the phenomenon that he defines as the "recent onslaught of essay films," Paul Arthur proposes: "Galvanized by the intersection of personal, subjective and social history, the essay has emerged as the leading non-fiction form for both intellectual and artistic innovation." Although widely used, the category is under-theorized, even more so than other forms of non-fiction. In spite of the necessary brevity of this contribution, by tracing the birth of the essay in both film theory and film history, and by examining and evaluating existing definitions, a theory of the essay film can be shaped, some order in its intricate field made, and some light shed on this erratic but fascinating and ever more relevant cinematic form.Following, Michel Chion, I propose that essay films be thought of as vococentric (5-6). Vococentrism is Chion's term for the cinematic sound track's prioritization of the human voice over sound effects and music. Hence, essay films, as presently elaborated and theorized, are vococentric. Furthermore, they are so in emphatic or special manners. First, they are vococentric is the sense intended by Chion: that is, their soundtracks are dominated and arranged around the human voice. Second, the very rhetoric of film, its framework, is constructed by the logic and nature of the voiceover. The same can be said for expository, classical "voice-of-God" documentaries. Yet, essayistic voice-overs disavow the epistemological mastery put forward by classical documentaries, originating with the work of social reformer and filmmaker John Grierson. Propagating a practice of "objective" documentaries that endeavor to avoid offense while soliciting a wide audience, the Griersonian model minimized the presence of subjectivity, and with it, the traces of authorial presence. On the contrary, the essay articulates a perspective largely determined by the nature, orientation and temperament of a particular subject position. Put differently, essay film voice-overs do not proffer what Jacques Derrida has termed auto-affection, or the illusory idea that the human voice confers self-transparency of expression, presence and a bedrock against the supplementarity and immateriality of signification (Of Grammatology, 165).Most of the existing scholarly contributions acknowledge that the definition of essay film is problematic, and suggest it is a hybrid form that crosses boundaries and rests somewhere in between fiction and nonfiction cinema. According to Giannetti, for instance, "an essay is neither fiction nor fact, but a personal investigation involving both the passion and intellect of the author." Arthur's framing of such in-betweenness is particularly instructive: "one way to think about the essay film is as a meeting ground for documentary, avant-garde, and art film impulses." Nora Alter insists that the essay film is "not a genre, as it strives to be beyond formal, conceptual, and social constraint. Like 'heresy' in the Adornean literary essay, the essay film disrespects traditional boundaries, is transgressive both structurally and conceptually, it is self-reflective and self-reflexive." [End Page 24]The Essay Film Festival is an annual celebration of this elusive, disruptive, and dynamically hybrid form. The aim of the festival is to expand the visibility of the essay film, not as a fixed genre but as a spectrum of possibilities, shifting between registers and playing with conventions. Bringing together the most striking, innovative examples of essayistic filmmaking – both contemporary and historical – from around the world, the festival complements the screenings with in-depth discussions with filmmakers and special guests.Nevertheless, I mean to assert that the vococentric essay film is not what Astruc had in mind when imagining his caméra-stylo. Speaking of his own 1955 film Les...They are similar to documentary and non-fiction film in that they are often based in reality, using words, images and sounds to convey a message. But according to Chris Darke – co-curator of the of the great essay filmmaker Chris Marker – it is “the personal aspect and style of address” that makes the essay film distinct. It is this flexibility that has appealed to contemporary filmmakers, permitting a fresh, nuanced viewing experience.