17 Essential Movies For An Introduction To Essay Films
9. Handsworth Songs (1987) dir. John Akomfrah
Recently screened as a reaction to the nationwide British riots of 2011 by the Tate Modern, Handsworth Songs is a compilation film constructed via archival television broadcasts to portray civil unrest in Handsworth, Birmingham and various racially tumultuous urban centres of London.
Much like Chris Marker, Akomfrah uses archival footage to historically (re)present and assess memories of incidences in a mode wider than traditional historical documents. Much too like Marker, Akomfrah relies on collective filmmaking.
Co-founder of the Black Audio Film Collective, Akomfrah employs this harmony in cinematic construction to ideologically power his film: as opposed to being conceived by a single mind, the film is the product of many, a compilational diatribe against racism and classism in 1980’s England.
The film however retains cultural relevance; its aggressive condemnation of events can easily be redirected against the lack of critical socio-cultural assessment in today’s mainstream media. Handsworth Songs still rings true in its refusal of class stratification, its importance only enhanced by lack of such social commentaries commissioned by British televisual institutions (the films production by Channel 4 seems increasingly alien).
10. Images of the World and the Inscription of War (1989) dir. Harun Farocki
Through the images taken by American WWII fighter planes, combined with a much wider body of archival images, Farocki deconstructs notions of spectacle and gaze as a means to explore the status and implication of an image. The image for Farocki has become inextricable from means of destruction – finding this within warplane photography that documents enemy targets, their bombing and subsequent destruction.
The foundation of this idea is that Auschwitz, and other concentration camps, were photographed by Americans in their reconnaissance of German factories and other targets. The existence of the camps in these photographs was unacknowledged until 30 years after the war had ended. As his narrator tells us the photographers ‘were not under order to find Auschwitz, thus they did not find it’ despite having photographic evidence.
Farocki’s film then affects photography as a means of historical (re)construction, and with photographic and computer based imagery now inherent in the processes of war (see his films Serious Games I-V and Videograms of a Revolution) it becomes apparent that these constructs must effect the everyday as well.
11. Histoire(s) du Cinema (1988-1999) dir. Jean-Luc Godard
Perhaps Godard’s magnum opus, taking 10 years to complete, Histoire(s) du Cinema is an 8 part video essay, broader in scope that anything he has made before or since and so dense as to make repeat viewing not simply fruitful but essential.
The title itself sets the tone for the piece, a pun whose parentheses make the translation potentially four-fold: The History of Cinema, Histories of Cinema, The Story of Cinema and Stories of Cinema. The fallibility and ambivalence of language thus permeates Godard’s personal, political and culture history, a history revealed at blistering pace for 266 minutes as a history of and by the cinematic image.
To succinctly portray Histoire(s) du Cinema without doing it an insulting injustice is impossible. As a work that concerns itself with the entirety of 20th Century history, and histories, it is idiosyncratic and shows all the Godardian tropes that define him as the centries most distinctive auteur: erudition, passion, humour and the certainty of being relentlessly uncertain.
12. Close Up (1990) dir. Abbas Kiarostami
Picking up where Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968) left off, through the true story of a man impersonating his fellow Iranian filmmaker Mohsen Makhmalbaf, Kiarostami’s elusive amalgam of fiction and fact continues to beguile and entrance.
Cinema-verite to the last and steeped in narrative ambivalence, Close Up is a subtle, nuanced contemplation of identity and self-definition, whose use of documentary footage, re-constructions and staged events realises the portrait of a man becoming more and more entranced by the role he has decided to play.
By observing Hossian Sabzian, the Makhmalbaf impersonator, slipping further and further from the personality that is attached to his own name, Kiarostami exposes the fallibility of identity. Sabzian provides a vessel through which to explore this meaning but the film eventually evolves into a compassionate social critique of the confusion of the poor in Iran, their inability to earn and thus to find room to define themselves.
Contrasted with the arrogance and ignorance of the family who take the impostor to be a famous Iranian filmmaker, Kiarostami suggest this cannot but end in blind, confused idolatry for Sabzian in the face of his hunger and destitution.
13. Blue (1993) dir. Derek Jarman
Relentlessly personal, the raw intimacy of Jarman’s Blue creates a portrait of physical fragility documenting the filmmaker’s increasing loss of vision due to infections caused by the AIDS virus. Legendary for its complete lack of image, it is simply a blue screen for its duration, the film is mesmeric in its ability to play on its spectators’ preconceived notions of imagery to create internal vision.
A blend of autobiography, prose poetry and music, the aural becomes paramount in the negation of the visual as Jarman attempts to evoke the multiplicities of physical and emotional reaction rendered by his loss and sight.
He implores his audience to be released from a world conceived in images and thus shifts the focus onto the narration; a narration that explores the fragility of the human condition, evoking the prose of Samuel Beckett in its explorations of the intense instability of the self through marked visual minimalism.
14. Les glaneurset la glaneuse (2000) dir. Agnes Varda
In her decision to abandon all high-end equipment in favour of small, portable handheld cameras, Agnes Varda allowed herself infinite mobility. This mobility is central to the her film’s ability to track, as if reactionary of the moment, the daily travels of the titular gleaners.
Through these scavengers a history is explored, a history of class and of those designated to poverty. Varda’s history however is respectful, a judgement on those who create the cultural necessity the scavenging as opposed to those forced into acting upon it.
While the English title separates Varda from the gleaners, the original French outlines her collation, her kinship, with them (translated as the gleaners and the female gleaner), her means of gleaning however is photographic: where the gleaners forage for vegetables in the dirt, she forages for images in her surroundings.
As a document of grand humanism, Les glaneurset la glaneuse is Varda’s most beloved film. Her role as kindly and sweet is relentlessly endearing but does not belie the films opposition to wealth disparity and while by portraying herself too as a gleaner she undermines the reduction of human dignity that is forced on those who live by unconventional means or in unestablished manners.
15. Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) dir. Thom Andersen
A combination of film images and Andersen’s own footage, Los Angeles Plays Itself is an exploration of the effect of the moving image on the perception of Los Angeles and how the city’s inexorable relationship with cinema has shaped how its inhabitants see the world that surrounds them.
Andersen’s film is a practical embodiment of Debord’s ‘society of the spectacle’ (as mentioned before) slating how in a world of images the most photographed city on earth cannot but be a breathing embodiment of the movies. Not a depiction of a city through images but instead the creation of a cultural environment of images, Los Angeles exists for Andersen as a reification of a city whose economic, cultural and social reliance on the cinema industry has rendered it mythical image-scape of hyper-modernity.
Narrated with a melancholic gravitas by Encke King, reading from Andersen’s script, the film is finally available in legal form, 11 years after its release (the licensing issues created by the use of a wealth of clips from copyrighted films meant that the film was only seen in screenings presented by Anderson, or via illegal file sharing). Newly re-mastered, the film looks better than ever, although the irony is not lost when conceding that Andersen presents these stunning images as inauthentic and essentially false.
16. Two Years at Sea (2011) dir. Ben Rivers
Living an idyllic life in the Scottish highlands, like Thoreau in his cabin at Walden, is Jake Williams, the protagonist of Two Years at Sea. Jake is totally self-sufficient, living alone in a house buried deep in the woods and spending his down time napping in a caravan balanced in a tree, or paddling into the centre of a lake in a homemade raft, only to have another nap.
In River’s film however, these are only half-truths. Riffing on Werner Herzog’s concept of the ‘ecstatic truth’, River’s film in fact is a series of poetically slow, but intricately structured scenes of isolation. While his film is almost abstract in its lack of narrative or dialogue, Rivers himself is well aware of the ambiguous relationship to the truth that he has constructed for his film.
An ethnographic docu-fictional study of a life lived alone,Two Years at Sea is a poetic lament to a lifestyle entirely lost. It is in fact its negation of fact in any literal sense that engenders the film with this poetry, and an ephemerality, that creates a rhythmic melancholy which is able to wash over the spectator: a wordless visual letter to cosmopolitanism from the other side.
17. Patience (After Sebald) (2012) dir. Grant Gee
Assessing the most definite subject matter of all the films on this list, Patience (After Sebald) is a visual essay exploration of W.G Sebald’s epic psychological travelogue The Rings of Saturn, and in turn the landscapes of East Anglia from which the book was written.
Film as a medium allows Gee to reflect on Sebald, the man, and his writings via meta-image. Images within image address Sebald’s ruminations on death, knowledge, perception, and memories, which are all conceived via historical image.
If Sebald’s work is the paramount example of late 20th Century psychogeography, then Patience is a worthy visualisation of many of its themes which in its lucid presentation, essayistic in the most traditional of senses, is able to traverse the intricacies and ambivalences of Sebald’s work without relying on them for self-sufficient comprehension, nor purporting to provide a key to the writer’s sprawling prose of historical reference.
Somewhere between documentary, portraiture and essay, in true Sebaldian fashion the film balks at the notion of genre definition and is all the better for it.
Author Bio: George Jepson is a cinema MA student from Stockholm University, he likes the films of David Lynch, Chris Marker, Claire Denis and Chantal Akerman.
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