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17 Essential Movies For An Introduction To Essay Films

03 February 2015 | Features, Film Lists | by George Jepson

essay films

Put most concisely by Timothy Corrigan in his book on the essay film: ‘from its literary origins to its cinematic revisions, the essayistic describes the many-layered activities of a personal point of view as a public experience’.

Perhaps a close cousin to documentary, the essay film is at its core a personal mode of filmmaking. Structured in a breadth of forms, a partial definition could be said to be part fact, part fiction with an intense intimacy (but none of these are necessarily paramount).

Stemming from the literary essay as a form of personal expression borne from in-depth explorations of its chosen topic, the essay film can be agitprop, exploratory, or diaristic and generally rejects narrative progression and concretised conclusions in favour of a thematic ambivalence. Due to its nature as inherently personal, the term itself is as vague and expansive as the broad collective of films it purports to represent.

To borrow Aldous Huxley’s definition, the essay is a device for saying almost everything about almost anything. In built then is an inherent expansiveness that informs a great ambition in the form itself, but as Huxley acknowledges it can only say almost anything; whether extolling the need for a socialist state (Man with a Movie Camera), deconstructing the power and status of the image itself (Histoire(s) du Cinema, Images of the World and the Inscription of War, Los Angeles Plays Itself) or providing a means to consider ones of past (Walden, News from home, Blue), the essay film is only the form of expression, which unlike any other taxonomic term suggests almost nothing about the film itself other than its desire to explore.

Below is an 17 film introduction to the essay film that cannot be pinned down and continue to remake and remodel itself as freely as it sheds connections between any of the films within its own canon.

 

1. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) dir. Dziga Vertov

Man with a Movie Camera

An exercise in technical experimentation, Man with a Movie Camera is the pioneering, not to mention most lauded, of Vertov’s filmic polemics: espousing not only a new, necessary way of life, but a means of living that is created through cinema.

Shot by Maurice Kaufman, brother of Vertov, the film is a portrait of a city across 24 hours via bold experimentation based on Vertov’s staunchly Marxist ideologies. Its propagandist structure does not however belie its beauty.

Through masterful technique it became the defining film of 1920’s Soviet Union (perhaps on a par with Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin). Its propagation of film as the means through which life is realised, that the camera is now an unequivocal feature of modernity and too a powerful political tool, creates a filmic love letter to industrialisation and the humanist elements of physical labour.

In opposition to Eisenstein, Vertov is a master of his own brand of idiosyncratic montage which, with its sublime manipulative technique combined with realist images, rejects the opiate affects of traditional narrative cinema, attempting to create instead a cinematic language in which the camera becomes the pen of the 20th century.

 

2. A Propos de Nice (1930) dir. Jean Vigo

a-propos-de-nice

Shot by Boris Kaufman, brother of Dziga Vertov (Man with a Movie Camera), A Propos de Nice is a satirical portrait of life in 1920’s Nice. The leisurely upper classes of French society are the subjects of a portrayal the blind escapism and ignorance created by modernity.

Vigo thus contrasts the bourgeois culture of relaxation with the daily grind of the poor in society. The parodic form of the travelogue as anthropological study is employed as a means of document increasing social and economic disparities which Vigo sought to present as necessitating a revolutionary stance (the likes of which cinematographer Kaufman glean from his brother’s agit-prop, propagandist Kino-Pravda series).

Engrained in the very structure of modern society is, for Vigo, deep social inequality; life in this case masks its own inequalities through ignorance and selfishness. Images of women energetically dancing are reduced to slow modern and thus arises from them the absurdity of inherent inequalities.

Like a Jay Gatsby party, the excitement and laughter only serves to mask a profound emptiness whose own ridiculousness is an unacknowledged form of societal freakshow, which only those on the outside can perceive.

 

3. 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967) dir. Jean-Luc Godard

2 or 3 Things I Know About Her

In a year of 3 Godard diatribes against neo-capitalism, 2 or 3 Thing I Know About Her is the most contemplative; if La Chinoise a document of the soon to be riotous students, 2 or 3 is the suburban families watching the events unfold on their television screens.

Fraught with concern for the disintegration of lexical meaning, Godard’s collage of modern life follows the existentially empty Julitte Jeanson, a bourgeise housewife-come-prostitute, as she contemplates her preconceived societal role and the deadened collective consciousness of everyone whom Godard’s camera encounters.

If language is the house one lives in, as Juliette informs her son, then the house is subject to the blind whims of suited right wing repo men.

The portrait of Juliette is a composite sketch of the modern citizen, replaceable, replicable to the extent that Godard introduces Juliette first as Marina Vlady, the actress who plays her, before acknowledging her as a fictional creation; a less subtle evocation of the resignation to role playing in post-war France, watching death in Vietnam while decided whether or not to go and wash the car.

 

4. Walden; Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1969) dir. Jonas Mekas

Walden; Diaries, Notes, and Sketches (1969)

Walden is the essay film in its most diaristic form. Essentially a suitably handsome extended home video, Mekas’s film, shot from 1964-1969, features a series of chronologically edited video diaries that span from eating Chinese food with John Lennon, footage from the Velvet Underground’s first performance, or just the filmmaker eating a croissant in Marseille.

Given the length, the film could be criticised as an epic exercise in self-gratification (the filmic equivalent of continuous name dropping), or simultaneously as an invitation into the expansive but hermetic world of the New York art scene in the late 60’s, of which Mekas’ himself was a central fixture.

As with Akerman’s News From Home, it is the film’s internal focus, an exposure of the personal, wherein its interest lies. Mekas’ ability to construct a montage that appears at ease with itself in all its fragmentation, relying on meticulous in-camera precision, creates a sea images which with each wave comes harmony and contrast. Walden emerges then as an unpretentious acknowledgment of the inextricability of experience and image, finding within it celebrations of life’s variety and extended harmonies.

 

5. F for Fake (1973) dir. Orson Welles

f for fake film

Welles’s final film is an explosive and intelligent scrutinisation of the filmmaking process and the concept of authenticity in art. Centrally presenting Elmyr de Hory’s career as an art forger, F for Fake transcends basic narrative or documentary expositions to instead philosophise on the ontology of authorship.

Increasingly Welles rejects infallibility in favour of a profound ambivalence that is read across the careers of various forgers to eventually become, as is naturally the case for such a sublime example of the essay film, a personal contemplation of his own career and his self-definition as a perpetual sceptic.

Through rhythmic montage editing and questioning of the structure and the power of the image itself, F for Fake eulogizes the image as a consistently fallible, or deconstructible form, and in true Wellesian style, given it is the form that its director made his career,cannot help but find humour within.

 

6. Le Fond de l’air est rouge/A Grin Without a Cat (1977) dir. Chris Marker

le-fond-de-l-air-est-rouge

Widely acknowledged as the master of the essay film, Le fond de l’air est rouge is a personal rumination of discontent on the progression and dissolution of left-wing politics from Vietnam up until the films release in 1977.

10 years after the Marker conceived Loin du Vietnam, a protest film against the Vietnam war structured in segments from a wealth of French Filmmakers including Godard, Resnais, Lelouch, Varda and Klein, the film is markedly more melancholic, plagued by a scepticism highlighted in the French title (directly translated as the essence of the air is red) that implies the socialist sentiment only ever existed in the air.

Opening with shots from Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925), Marker’s mastery of the appropriated image emerges. The film’s first four minutes are perhaps the finest montage sequence of post-war cinema, commending the bravery of those who fought for the socialist ideal but ultimately acknowledging the inevitability of its failure at the hands of right wing opposition, whose growth in power Marker sees as masked by the outward protests of the left.

Behind closed doors centre right solidarity, particularly in Marker’s native France, was only increased in the face of a scattered, disorganised and self-destructive shouts for power from the left.

Marker’s film is archival re-appropriation at its most controlled, his erudition and poetic narration reinforcing the notion of history itself as recreated and retold by individuals, always having an agenda.

 

7. News From Home (1977) dir. Chantal Akerman

news from home

Borne from the influence of the structuralist filmmakers Akerman encountered in New York (see Michael Snow, Stan Brakhage and Hollis Frampton), News from Home is a portrait of a city as seen through the eyes of a foreigner, as she attempts to come to terms with her new surroundings and the contrast to the life she left in Brussels (constantly referenced in the letters from her mother that are used to narrate the film).

Akerman films New York with the intricate eye of someone completely out of their depth, attempting to survive in a city they hardly know, emphasised by the concern of the letters from her mother. News from Home is a contemplation of the inescapability of the past and how it informs the present viewed from a perspective of awe, confusion and intense deliberation.

Akerman’s stares at New York as if to glean some meaning from its landscape as the letters from her mother cannot help make her feel at once a child and to the unchartered explorer entering a new terrain with bravado and wonder.

 

8. Koyaanisqatsi (1982) dir. Godfrey Reggio

koyaanisqatsi-1983

Koyaanisqatsi, meaning life out of balance, is a poetic ode to absurdity constructed through cinematographic deconstructions of time and space. By slowing down images or speeding them up via time-lapse techniques, Reggio presents the fog of modernity as a means to highlight the absurdity of purported meanings, whether it is mass production of hot dogs or humanities destructive capabilities life lived blindly, perceived without questioning, is insignificant.

The film’s rejection of language forces full focus onto the status and power of imagery, especially when contorted, to suppose passivity and acceptance as a way of life, unsurprisingly drawing influence, like Thom Andersen’s Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle, going as far as to acknowledge him in the credits along with fellow critics of mass communications, big society and the power of technology, Jacques Ellul, Ivan Illich and Leopold Kohr.

As with Godard’s concern for the disintegration of language into base semiotic signifiers, evocative of nothing but materials and the literal, Koyaanisqatsi presents ‘a state of life that calls for another way a living’; a visually stunning but essentially aggressive denouncement of advanced capitalism, its pretence to knowledge and its ability to create an omnipresent complacency that drapes life in a visually pleasing veil, underneath which lies a profound nothingness.

 

 

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