THE CINEMATIC ESSAY: THE CINE WHAT?
Notes for a Lecture by Peter Thompson

 

In the fourth grade, Miss Rich taught us how to write an Essay. This is what she taught:

• no personal experience! (irrelevant),

• no personal pronouns! (irrelevant),

• don’t state what you think! (who cares?),

• state your premise! (which Miss Rich had given us),

• gather your evidence! (which Miss Rich had given us),

• discuss the premise by ordering the evidence! (Miss Rich had numbered
everything on the board the week before),

• make smooth transitions! (up to us),

• re-state what you have done.

 

This, then, was her formula for The Essay. It took quite a while to realize that Essays as a genre were only partially served by Miss Rich, as well as by most of the succeeding trustees of the form that I encountered. They were all apologists, without naming it, for the Formal Essay.

I didn't know that there was a tradition of the Informal Essay which was personal and always proudly walked tightrope over failure. It was alway a species of Grand Attempt. Indeed, flirting with failure is in the origin of the very word: essai, from essayer-- to attempt, to try--and not necessarily to succeed. The Informal Essay is not a form for the fainthearted; it is for those who have experienced experience, which, as we all know, includes failure. The originator of the modern essay, Michel de Montaigne, used the term essai to describe his writings because they were attempts at understanding that were eclectic and showed great curiosity, love, anger and reverence toward the world and were risky in their personal unzippings.

A practitioner of the Informal Essay tradition can therefore treat anything: personal experience, history, culture, his or her own body. Reportage and Journalism are implicated in the Death of the Formal Essay. Journalism started borrowing aspects of the essay in an effort to expand itself while still remaining "objective". In the 1960’s and ‘70’s, the movement called New Journalism expanded the tradition by borrowing from other arts and allowing its writings to become more subjective. It took from Fiction the right to be personal. It took from Travel Literature real events in the world. What came out were marvelous hybrids like the works of Hunter S. Thompson and Truman Capote’s IN COLD BLOOD. In a time when the written word and its audience is shrinking a bit, when poetry and fiction are becoming more and more academic and chewing off less and less with tinier and tinier bites, the Informal Essay is the genre of choice for writers who want to approach and appropriate the world and their experience.

Flexibility--it can change forms of narrative address on a dime and speak directly and very simply to its audience--unlike a short story author who generally creates a character to be his or her mouthpiece. The essayist can, in other words, step out of character.

Self-reflexivity--it can acknowledge the presence of the author.

Self-criticality --it can acknowedge, analyze and critique its own processes as it writes itself. Its territory can stay small or expand to fit the mind of the essayist as it evolves there. An essay can be linked with other essays and other fictions, or non-fictions.

Blurred narrative boundaries---it can absorb or incorporate different genres and tones and themes. It can incorporate biography, autobiography, history, culture, poetry, fiction, criticism, photographs, drawings, cinema.

Cinema?

The marvelous, flexible qualities of the contemporary Informal Essay have now found their ways into contemporary cinema in the form of the Cinematic Essay, the newest film genre which incorporates the other three (documentary, fiction, and experimental) as appropriate.

How does the Cinematic Essay work? Well, for example, what the previous generation of documentary filmmakers took as their "subject"--a passive subject as compared to the "active" fictional subject--film essayists can now take as their theme in which the subject is a particular development or an interpretation of that theme, and one which has a determining influence upon the form of the film. The theme thereby becomes extremely active in that the cinematic essay is often a meditation on ideas in conflict and these conflicts actually suggest the form that the film might take. "The cinematic revolution now in progress is based on what is essentially a very simple idea: that a subject can engender form and that to choose a subject is to make an aesthetic choice." (Noel Burch, "Non-Fictional Subjects", from THE THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE).

Some aspects of the modern Cinematic Essay as a form:

• Meditation on a Theme Substituted for Plot

• Disunity of Time, Space, Tone, Materials, Style

• Modularity

• Suspension of Belief (as opposed to Suspension of Dis-belief)

• Self Criticism/Self Reflexivity

• Non-Anticipatory Camera

• Medium shots

Editing strategies varied

 

SOME ANTECEDENTS TO THE CINEMATIC ESSAY

GEORGES MELIES

1902 film of Edward VII’s coronation in which real shots of Westminster Abby are mixed with a reconstruction in Paris of the coronation.

BERTOLT BRECHT
Brecht’s career started in the 20’s with Lehrstucke: anti-illustionist, didactic plays. The later Brecht emphasized the dialectic mode, or the alternation of anti-illustionist and illusionist elements. Example: in 1955, Brecht and director Wolfgang Staudte worked together on a film version of "Mother Courage". They worked well together during the script stage. Then there were differences: Brecht wanted to have print stock which flickered like the old Edison cylinders matched to modern sound. Staudte didn’t because he believed in the uniformity of elements. Brecht wanted to contrast word and image. The project ended because of the disagreement.

Brecht’s Epic Theater: he strove for a "demonstrating", non-illustionistic style of presentation, which broke stories into modular units or central moments. Brecht wanted to use documentary film in theater as a kind of "optical chorus". That is to say, documentary film would function like a commentary medium. This is a surprising use of documentary because we tend to think of the genre of documentary as objective, factual. Brecht wanted to "undocument" the genre, to subject its subject to overt manipulation by the filmmaker.

Hans-Berhard Moeller: "Brecht and ‘Epic" Film Medium" in WIDE ANGLE: "The salient point in the documentary chorus example, in Brecht’s incorporation of film projections into plays and in the Brechtian film is the separation of elements." "The basic method of the Brechtian film is thus to polarize action, sound, accompanying music and the narrative voice, to bring them into conflict. Unity should be discontinuous, contradictory, dialectical".

George Lellis: "I am convinced that in terms of what kind of fiction films should be made, Brecht is the theorist to contend with. The central question of how form affects content is one of the knottiest of our time, and no other writer about theatrical aesthetics calls into question what the relationship between film and spectator should be with the same degree of modernity."

 

SOME POST-BRECHTIAN FILMMAKERS

ALEXANDER KLUGE’s separation of elements in "Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed" (1968) used footage of Hitler reviewing the Wehrmacht accompanied by the Beatles’ music.

MICHEL VERHOEVEN’s "Matings" (1968). Scenes are depicted in completely different color gels. In "The Ditch" (1971) the protagonists break character and discuss problems confronting them in their professional lives. In "OK" (1970) the actors are introduced into the film, play their parts, and then are reintroduced back out into the real world at the end of the film. It is a Vietnam film played in Bavaria with the GI’s speaking Bayerisch with intertitles and voice over narration.

STRAUB-HUILLET’s films.

 

SOME THEORETICAL TOOLS

SERGEI EISENSTEIN
Eisenstein hoped to make KAPITAL, a film of intellectual reflection on Marx's opus DAS KAPITAL. Later, in "Film Form: New Problems" (1935), he reassessed his earlier wish to do a film on Das Kapital. Intellectual montage, he felt, represented the overdevelopment of the montage concept. He now argued for the theory of the inner monologue to replace that of intellectual montage: the sensual image, images which embody thought processes (meaning different narrative modalities within the same work), embodied thinking:

"A COURSE IN TREATMENT" (1932)

Nothing gets created from pre-conceived methodological positions.

Nothing gets created from the tempestuous stream of creative energy unregulated by method.

E. excoriates the short film for the graduate student. Useless.

E. wonderfully describes the course of thought in creating a screenplay. p. 105. This is E.’s theory of the "inner monologue" in action and it is right out of the literary tradition of stream of consciousness (see also "Film Form: New Problems", below).

"FILM FORM: NEW PROBLEMS" (1935)

E. tries to rationalize the loss of the formal brilliance of early Soviet films because Soviet filmmakers are now absorbed in "deepening and broadening the thematic and ideological formulation of questions and problems...." (Note: this was the time E. was filming "Bezhin Meadow".)

E. questions his prior formulation of Intellectual montage which had as its task "restoring emotional fullness to the intellectual process." E. now feels that intellectual montage represented a hypertrophy of the montage concept.

The specific content of intellectual montage--the movement of thoughts as the substitute for story (an exhaustive replacement of content) does not justify itself.

The theory of the inner monologue now replaces the theory of intellectual montage--sensual image thought processes, embodied thinking, are the base of creation of form. (For an example of what E. means by "inner monologue", see p. 105 of "A Course in Treatment", above. The inner monologue is within the tradition of "steam of consciousness".) E. then looks at synecdoche (the substitution of a part for a whole and uses as his example the doctor's pince-nez in "Potemkin".)

The effectiveness of a work of art is built on a dual unity: the penetration of sensual thinking into consciousness by means of the structure of the form.

George Lellis: "I am convinced that in terms of what kind of fiction films should be made, Brecht is the theorist to contend with. The central question of how form affects content is one of the knottiest of our time, and no other writer about theatrical aesthetics calls into question what the relationship between film and spectator should be with the same degree of modernity."

SIGFRIED KRACAUER

Sigfried Kracauer in his THEORY OF FILM comments on the "found story": one in which the filmmaker discovers patterns in an open-ended way, unstaged, indeterminate (what Paul Rotha called the "slight narrative"). Kracauer's comments on the "sleuthing motif", which is that of seeking out the truth and driving the filmmaker into the raw material of life and upholding the importance of the world. The sleuthing motif involves the accidental, refers to scientific inquiries as a model, looks to material clues closely, and involves the chase.

 

CINEMATIC ESSAY FILMOGRAPHY
* film in the Columbia College Film and Video Collection.
** film available in video at Facets Multimedia

Chantal Ackerman, LETTERS FROM NEW YORK

Luis Bunuel, LAND WITHOUT BREAD *

Jonathan Demme, SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA *

Harun Farocki, IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR, 1989, 75 minutes.

Georges Franju, LE SANG DES BETES *

LE GRAND MELIES

MONSIEUR ET MADAME CURIE

HOTEL DES INVALIDES

Jean-Luc Godard, MASCULIN-FEMININE *

Jill Godmilow, FAR FROM POLAND *

Werner Herzog, FATA MORGANA

LA SOUFRIERE *

Jon Jost, SPEAKING DIRECTLY: SOME AMERICAN NOTES (1973) **

UNCOMMON SENSES: PLAIN TALK & COMM0N SENSE (1988)*

Marcel Ichac, ANNAPURNA

Alexander Kluge’s short films made for TV.

Claude Lanzmann, SHOAH *

Louis Malle, PHANTOM INDIA

Chris Marker, SANS SOLEIL (1982)

THE KOUMIKO MYSTERY

CUBA, SI

SOY MEXICO

THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE SINGER--YVES MONTAND

THE ABYSS OF THE AIR IS RED IF I HAD FOUR CAMELS

LE JOLI MAI **

SUNDAY IN PEKING

LETTER FROM SIBERIA

DESCRIPTION OF A COMBAT

AMERICA DREAMS

STATUES ALSO DIE

Ross McElwee, SHERMAN'S MARCH * V7629 (2 tapes)

SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE WALL (1990)

Errol Morris, THE THIN BLUE LINE *

FAST, CHEAP AND OUT OF CONTROL

Pier Paolo Pasolini, NOTES TOWARD AN AFRICAN ORESTES (1970) *

Yvonne Rainer, PRIVILEDGE (1991)

Alain Resnais, NIGHT AND FOG *

Jean Rouch, JAGUAR (1967)

Michael Rubbo, WAITING FOR FIDEL (1974)

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, OUR HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY

Kidlat Tahimik, THE PERFUMED NIGHTMARE

Peter Thompson, UNIVERSAL HOTEL (1986) *

UNIVERSAL CITIZEN (1987) *

Trihn, Min-ha T., REASSEMBLAGE (1982)

NAKED SPACES: LIFE IS ROUND (1985)

Peter Watkins, EDVARD MUNCH

Orson Welles, F FOR FAKE (1973) (VD729)

Wim Wenders, NICK'S FILM: LIGHTNING OVER WATER * (V7671)

TOKYO GA*

Michael Verhoeven, OK (1970)

THE DITCH (1971)

 

BOOKS AND ARTICLES ON THE CINEMATIC ESSAY


Alexandre Astruc, "The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: La camera-stylo", in THE NEW WAVE, Doubleday, NY 1968. (classic article written in 1948 which began it all...)

Noel Burch, "Nonfictional Subjects", in THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981. (examines the history of the non-fictional film and centers on two promising contemporary forms, the essay film and the ritual film.)

Italo Calvino, "Cinema and the Novel: Problems of Narrative", in THE USES OF LITERATURE, New York, Houghton, Mifflin, (speaks to the essay-film as the form which seems most rich in its narrative possibilities).

Louis Giamatti, "The Cinematic Essay", in GODARD AND THE OTHERS: ESSAYS IN CINEMATIC FORM, London, Tantivy Press, 1975.(very readable, insightful essays on aspects of forming the film essay with immediate applicability to filmmaking.)

Chris Marker, COMMENTAIRES, volumes I, II, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1967. (in French; extremely creative translations of film-essays in written and photographic forms).

Jonas Mekas, "The Changing Language of Cinema", MOVIE JOURNAL: THE RISE OF A NEW AMERICAN CINEMA, 1959-1971, Collier Books, NY, 1972. pps. 48-50.

Jonas Mekas, "The Changing Techniques of Cinema", MOVIE JOURNAL: THE RISE OF A NEW AMERICAN CINEMA, 1959-1971, Collier Books, NY, 1972. pps. 91-93.

Jonas Mekas, "In Defense of Godard", MOVIE JOURNAL: THE RISE OF A NEW AMERICAN CINEMA, 1959-1971, Collier Books, NY, 1972. pps. 204-205.

Hans-Bernhard Moeller, "Brecht and ‘Epic’ Film Medium: The Cineaste Playwrite, Film Theoretician and His Influence", WIDE ANGLE, 19--.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Looking for America: Uncommon Senses", THE READER, August 26, 1988. (a look at some of the salient characteristics of the contemporary film essay by the guy whose got my vote as the finest working film critic in America.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Girl with a Camera: Videos by Sadie Benning", THE READER, November 15, 1991.

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY, Farrar, Straus,-.Giroux, NY, 1982. (the complete screenplay, with photographs, of the seven- hour film essay).

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, SYBERBERG, Paris, Cahiers du Cinema, hors-serie, Editions de l’Etoile, February, 1980. (in French; an account of the making of

OUR HITLER, including the frontal projection techniques in that film).

Wim Wenders and Chris Sievernich, NICK’S FILM: LIGHTNING OVER WATER, Zweitausendeins, Frankfurt am Mein, 1981. (the complete screenplay, with photographs, of the film essay).

 

SOME WRITTEN ESSAYS OF INTEREST TO FILMMAKERS


Paul Auster, THE INVENTION OF SOLITUDE, Penguin Books, NY, 1982. (an extraordinary mixture of forms—memoir, fiction, news stories, diary)

James Baldwin, NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME, 1961

THE FIRE NEXT TIME, 1963

Elias Cannetti, THE VOICES OF MARREKESH, Continuum, NY, 1972. (fabulous, circular travel essays of the West meets East variety by a Nobel prize winner—see especially "Encounters with Camels" and the last one called "The Unseen").

Joan Didion, THE WHITE BOOK, ------

SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM,-----

SALVADOR,-------

Annie Dillard, editor, THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1988, Ticknor and Fields, NY, 1988. (this is a very fine anthology of very different and stimulating approaches to the form. Excellent intro, too--a must-read).

Loren Eisley, "The Star Thrower", —- ?, 1969.

William Gass, ON BEING BLUE: A PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY, David Godine, Boston, 1979. (tour-de-force variations on the theme of "blue-ness").

Peter Handke, A SORROW BEYOND DREAMS: A LIFE STORY, translated by Ralph Mannheim, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977. (extraordinarily, deeply felt essay on the girlhood, adult life and suicide of Handke's mother, and of his relationship to her and to her loss).

Maxine Hong Kingston, THE WOMAN WARRIOR (this, too, is a mix of forms, including creating a fictional character out of a real character.)

Barry Lopez, DESERT NOTES, ---------.

ARCTIC DREAMS: IMAGINATION AND DESIRE IN A NORTHERN

LANDSCAPE, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY 1986.

"The Raven", ----------.

James McConkey, COURT OF MEMORY, ------, 1981.

Herman Melville, "The Encantadas", in THE PIAZZA TALES, NY, Doubleday, 1961. (travel essays so dense and finely wrought that they have often been mistaken for fiction).

Michel de Montaigne, ESSAYS, Penguin Books, NY 1976. (THE classic).

Jan Morris, DESTINATIONS: ESSAYS FROM ROLLING STONE, New York, Oxford University Press/Rolling Stone, 1980.

Richard Selzer, LETTERS TO A YOUNG DOCTOR, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1982. (essays by a doctor-writer on the issues of learning and care that come out of his own life. Very good.)

Gay Talese, editor, THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1987, Ticknor and Fields, NY, 1987.

Diane Wakowski, ESSAY ON REVISION, Santa Barbara, Black Swallow Press, 19--. (brilliant, informal example of a piece of art about the process of recognizing its own theme and creating the piece itself).

 Look for other essays written by:

Cynthia Ozick,

Francine du Plessix Gray,

Elizabeth Hardwick,

Edward Hoagland,

Edward Abbey,

Peter Matheisson,

May Sarton.

Look also for the magazine of international writing in English called GRANTA which publishes fabulous contemporary examples of the essay form. (subscription address: Subscription Service Department, c/0 P.O. Box 909, Farmingdale, NY 11737).

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

THE CINEMATIC ESSAY: THE CINE WHAT?

Notes for a Lecture by Peter Thompson (draft: 3/23/98)

 

 

I remember when Miss Rich announced, "essay exam!" that my heart skipped beats because I knew what "Essay" meant:

• no personal experience!

• no personal pronouns! (both were irrelevant),

• don’t state what you think! (who cares?),

• state your premise! (which she had given us),

• gather your evidence! (which she had given us),

• discuss aspects of the premise by ordering the evidence! (she had numbered everything on the board the week before),

• make smooth transitions! (up to us),

• re-state what you have done!

This last was especially difficult because we had taken such pains to beef everything up by writing very large and using phrases like, "In other words (comma)it is the conclusion of the evidence (comma) therefore (comma) that..."

So what can we say about the Informal Essay as a form? It can be characterized by several qualities:

Flexibility--it can change forms of narrative address on a dime and speak directly and simply to its audience, unlike a short story writer who generally creates a character to be his or her mouthpiece. The essayist can, in other words, step out of character.

Self-reflexivity--it can acknowledge the presence of the author.

Self-criticality --it can acknowedge, analyze and critique its own processes as it writes. Its territory can stay small or expand to fit the mind of the essayist as it evolves there. An essay can be linked with other essays and other fictions, or non-fictions.

Blurring narrative boundaries---it can absorb or incorporate different genres and tones and themes. It can incorporate biography, autobiography, history, culture, poetry, fiction, criticism, photographs, drawings, film. Film? Filmmakers have long craved to produce works embodying all of these qualities.

ANTECEDENTS TO THE CINEMATIC ESSAY

JACQUES FEYDER

Jacques Feyder hoped to adapt Montaigne's essays to film.

SERGEI EISENSTEIN

Eisenstein hoped to make KAPITAL, a film of intellectual reflection on Marx's opus DAS KAPITAL. Later, in "Film Form: New Problems" (1935), he reassessed his earlier wish to do a film on Das Kapital. Intellectual montage, he felt, represented the overdevelopment of the montage concept. He now argued for the theory of the inner monologue to replace that of intellectual montage: the sensual image, images which embody thought processes (meaning different narrative modalities within the same work).

Some of Eisenstein's essays which have elements which apply to the cinematic essay:

"A COURSE IN TREATMENT" (1932)

Nothing gets created from pre-conceived methodological positions.

Nothing gets created from the tempestuous stream of creative energy unregulated by method.

E. excoriates the short film for the graduate student. It is a useless exercise, he says.

E. wonderfully describes the course of thought in creating a screenplay, on p. 105. This is E.’s theory of the "inner monologue" in action and it is right out of the literary tradition of stream of consciousness (see also "Film Form: New Problems", below).

"FILM FORM: NEW PROBLEMS" (1935)

E. tries to rationalize the loss of the formal brilliance of early Soviet films because Soviet filmmakers are now absorbed in "deepening and broadening the thematic and ideological formulation of questions and problems...." (Note: this was the time E. was filming "Bezhin Meadow".)

E. questions his prior formulation of Intellectual montage which had as its task "restoring emotional fullness to the intellectual process." E. now feels that intellectual montage represented a hypertrophy of the montage concept.

The specific content of intellectual montage--the movement of thoughts as the substitute for story (an exhaustive replacement of content) does not justify itself.

The theory of the inner monologue now replaces the theory of intellectual montage--sensual image thought processes, embodied thinking, are the base of creation of form. (For an example of what E. means by "inner monologue", see p. 105 of "A Course in Treatment", above. The inner monologue is within the tradition of "steam of consciousness".) E. then looks at synecdoche (the substitution of a part for a whole and uses as his example the doctor's pince-nez in "Potemkin".)

The effectiveness of a work of art is built on a dual unity: the penetration of sensual thinking into consciousness by means of the structure of the form.

 

BERTOLT BRECHT

Brecht’s career started in the 20’s with Lehrstucke: anti-illustionist, didactic plays. The later Brecht emphasized the dialectic mode, or the alternation of anti-illustionist and illusionist elements. Example: in 1955, Brecht and director Wolfgang Staudte worked together on a film version of "Mother Courage". They worked together well during the script stage. Then there were differences: Brecht wanted to have print stock which flickered like the old Edison cylinders matched to modern sound. Staudte didn’t because he believed in the uniformity of elements. Brecht wanted to contrast word and image. The project ended because of the disagreement.

Brecht’s Epic Theater: he strove for a "demonstrating", non-illustionistic style of presentation, which broke stories into modular units or central moments. Brecht wanted to use documentary film in theater as a kind of "optical chorus". That is to say, documentary film would function like a commentary medium. This is a surprising use of documentary because we tend to think of the genre of documentary as objective, factual. Brecht wanted to "undocument" the genre, to subject its subject to overt manipulation by the filmmaker.

Hans-Berhard Moeller: "Brecht and ‘Epic" Film Medium" in WIDE ANGLE: "The salient point in the documentary chorus example, in Brecht’s incorporation of film projections into plays and in the Brechtian film is the separation of elements." "The basic method of the Brechtian film is thus to polarize action, sound, accompanying music and the narrative voice, to bring them into conflict. Unity should be discontinuous, contradictory, dialectical".

George Lellis: "I am convinced that in terms of what kind of fiction films should be made, Brecht is the theorist to contend with. The central question of how form affects content is one of the knottiest of our time, and no other writer about theatrical aesthetics calls into question what the relationship between film and spectator should be with the same degree of modernity."

 

SOME Post-Brechtian filmmakers:

• ALEXANDER KLUGE’s separation of elements in "Artists Under the Big Top: Perplexed" (1968) used footage of Hitler reviewing the Wehrmacht accompanied by the Beatles’ music.

• MICHEL VERHOEVEN’s "Matings" (1968). Scenes are depicted in completely different color gels. In "The Ditch" (1971) the protagonists break character and discuss problems confronting them in their professional lives. In "OK" (1970) the actors are introduced into the film, play their parts, and then are reintroduced back out into the real world at the end of the film. It is a Vietnam film played in Bavaria with the GI’s speaking Bayerisch with intertitles and voice over narration.

• STRAUB-HUILLET’s films.

 

SIGFRIED KRACAUER:

Sigfried Kracauer in his THEORY OF FILM comments on the "found story": one in which the filmmaker discovers patterns in an open-ended way, unstaged, indeterminate (what Paul Rotha called the "slight narrative"). Kracauer's comments on the "sleuthing motif", which is that of seeking out the truth and driving the filmmaker into the raw material of life and upholding the importance of the world.

The sleuthing motif involves the accidental, refers to scientific inquiries as a model, looks to material clues closely, and involves the chase.

 

SOME QUALITIES OF CONTEMPORARY CINEMATIC ESSAYS

The marvelous, flexible qualities of the contemporary Informal Essay have now found their ways into contemporary cinema in the Cinematic Essay, the category of film which incorporates the other three: documentary, fiction, and experimental.

How might that actually work? Well, for example, what the previous generation of documentary filmmakers took as their "subject"--a passive subject as compared to the "active" fictional subject-- film essayists now take as their theme in which the subject is a particular development or an interpretation of that theme, and one which has a determining influence upon the form of the film. The theme thereby becomes extremely active in that the cinematic essay is often a meditation on ideas in conflict and these conflicts actually suggest the form that the film might take. "The cinematic revolution now in progress is based on what is essentially a very simple idea: that a subject can engender form and that to choose a subject is to make an aesthetic choice." (Noel Burch, "Non-Fictional Subjects", from THE THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE).

I want to look at some aspects of the modern cinematic essay as a form and do so by focussing mostly on Godard's work.

Meditation on a Theme Substituted for Plot:

Godard has referred to his films as individual chapters in on on-going investigation. Godard's characters are modeled on genre characters, but genre films tend to have tight narrative structures with roughly pre-determined outcomes. Because Godard is a Marxist (which used to imply actively making one's choices and therefore one's fate), Godard moved away from genre binds and so has placed less and less emphasis on plots. His films evolved into experimental essays. His narratives lack traditional plot coherence because he mixes genres: documentary, fiction, tableaux, propaganda, lectures on art and culture. Godard flirts with chaos.

Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s OUR HITLER is a 7-hour series of meditations.

Disunity of Time, Space, Tone, Materials, Style:

Godard’s MASCULINE FEMININE (1965) was the consolidation of his experiments. It is a masterpiece of eclecticism, uniting a wide range of techniques into a new kind of structure: the film essay. Discursive freedom. Godard likes to discover his structure and plot as he shoots. Influenced by cinema verite (there are 5 interviews in Mas-Fem.), but with subjectivity.

Modularity:

Godard was influenced by Brecht and his overt moral and political didacticism. "Verfremdungseffekt." He therefore carefully controls the viewer's emotional identification by de-emphasizing the plot. Each scene exists as a separate module loosely strung together with other modules. Godard does not like artistic neatness. Works dialectically. Presents one side of an issue , then the other. M/F constructed in polarities: sexual and political. Themes: pain of love, lack of genuine communication, loneliness, social commitment, personal identity, debasement of culture.

Suspension of Belief (as opposed to Suspension of Disbelief):

Jill Godmilow's "Far from Poland"--reenactment of a printed interview by an actress playing the subject of the interview, Anna", in color and sound on a lifelike set, followed by newsreel footage in bl/white of the "real" Anna.

Self Criticism/Self Reflexivity

Godard's interview with "Miss Nineteen". Godard interview: presents its own antithesis, self-sabotage of dramatic continuity. interview by a main protagonist with a single transitional link ("You work with Madelaine?") to the preceeding drama.

Non-Anticipatory Camera

In a ficitonal setting, Godard avoids the anticipatory camera which would be at odds with the characters and their freedom of choice. His camera is prepared (ex. cafe scene which includes a couple and a man in the frame. The man is never given an action). Shallowness of mise-en-scene (gains technical ease, speed of execution, intensity of concentration.

Medium shots:

Because long shots are technically tricky. He therefore avoids reshooting. One or two takes. Avoid long shots because they are too objective. Avoids angles. Frontal, eyelevel.

Editing

Godard shifts in rhythm mid-scene, unmatched shots, abrupt tone breaks, jumpcuts, lack of transitional shots, long takes, unmatched visual with continual soundtrack.

Actors encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, play themselves.

 

THE CINEMATIC ESSAY: GOOD STUFF TO READ, OR SEE:

(Compiled by Peter Thompson. Revised: 3/22/99)

 

 

* film in the Columbia College Film and Video Collection.

** film available in video at Facets Multimedia

 

Chantal Ackerman, LETTERS FROM NEW YORK

Luis Bunuel, LAND WITHOUT BREAD *

Jane Campion, PASSIONLESS MOMENTS (1984)

Jonathan Demme, SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA *

Harun Farocki, IMAGES OF THE WORLD AND THE INSCRIPTION OF WAR, 1989, 75 minutes.

Georges Franju, LE SANG DES BETES

LE GRAND MELIES

MONSIEUR ET MADAME CURIE

HOTEL DES INVALIDES

Jean-Luc Godard, MASCULIN-FEMININE *

Jill Godmilow, FAR FROM POLAND *

Werner Herzog, FATA MORGANA

LA SOUFRIERE *

Marcel Ichac, ANNAPURNA

Jon Jost, SPEAKING DIRECTLY: SOME AMERICAN NOTES (1973) **

UNCOMMON SENSES: PLAIN TALK & COMM0N SENSE (1988)

Alexander Kluge’s short films made for TV.

Claude Lanzmann, SHOAH *

Louis Malle, PHANTOM INDIA

Chris Marker, SANS SOLEIL (1982) SOY MEXICO

THE KOUMIKO MYSTERY CUBA, SI

THE LONELINESS OF THE LONG DISTANCE SINGER--YVES MONTAND

THE ABYSS OF THE AIR IS RED IF I HAD FOUR CAMELS

LE JOLI MAI ** STATUES ALSO DIE SUNDAY IN PEKING LETTER FROM SIBERIA DESCRIPTION OF A COMBAT AMERICA DREAMS

Ross McElwee, SHERMAN'S MARCH *

SOMETHING TO DO WITH THE WALL (1990)

Errol Morris, THE THIN BLUE LINE *

Pier Paolo Pasolini, NOTES TOWARD AN AFRICAN ORESTES (1970) *

Yvonne Rainer, PRIVILEDGE (1991)

Alain Resnais, NIGHT AND FOG *

Jean Rouch, JAGUAR (1967)

Michael Rubbo, WAITING FOR FIDEL (1974)

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, OUR HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY

Kidlat Tahimik, THE PERFUMED NIGHTMARE

Peter Thompson, UNIVERSAL HOTEL (1986) *

UNIVERSAL CITIZEN (1987) *

Trihn, Min-ha T., REASSEMBLAGE (1982)

NAKED SPACES: LIFE IS ROUND (1985)

Peter Watkins, EDVARD MUNCH

CULLODEN *

Orson Welles, F FOR FAKE (1973)

Wim Wenders, NICK'S FILM: LIGHTNING OVER WATER *

TOKYO GA*

Michael Verhoeven, OK (1970)

THE DITCH (1971)

 

BOOKS AND ARTICLES ON THE CINEMATIC ESSAY:

(Revised: 11/16/91)

Alexandre Astruc, "The Birth of the New Avant-Garde: La camera-stylo", in THE NEW WAVE, Doubleday, NY 1968. (classic article written in 1948 which began it all...)

Noel Burch, "Nonfictional Subjects", in THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE, Princeton, Princeton University Press, 1981. (examines the history of the non-fictional film and centers on two promising contemporary forms, the essay film and the ritual film.)

Italo Calvino, "Cinema and the Novel: Problems of Narrative", in THE USES OF LITERATURE, New York, Houghton, Mifflin, (speaks to the essay-film as the form which seems most rich in its narrative possibilities).

Louis Giamatti, "The Cinematic Essay", in GODARD AND THE OTHERS: ESSAYS IN CINEMATIC FORM, London, Tantivy Press, 1975.

(very readable, insightful essays on aspects of forming the film essay with immediate applicability to filmmaking.)

Chris Marker, COMMENTAIRES, volumes I, II, Editions du Seuil, Paris, 1967. (in French; extremely creative translations of film-essays in written and photographic forms).

Jonas Mekas, "The Changing Language of Cinema", MOVIE JOURNAL: THE RISE OF A NEW AMERICAN CINEMA, 1959-1971, Collier Books, NY, 1972. pps. 48-50.

Jonas Mekas, "The Changing Techniques of Cinema", MOVIE JOURNAL: THE RISE OF A NEW AMERICAN CINEMA, 1959-1971, Collier Books, NY, 1972. pps. 91-93.

Jonas Mekas, "In Defense of Godard", MOVIE JOURNAL: THE RISE OF A NEW AMERICAN CINEMA, 1959-1971, Collier Books, NY, 1972. pps. 204- 205.

Hans-Bernhard Moeller, "Brecht and ‘Epic’ Film Medium: The Cineaste Playwrite, Film Theoretician and His Influence", WIDE ANGLE, 19--.

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Looking for America: Uncommon Senses", THE READER, August 26, 1988. (a look at some of the salient characteristics of the contemporary film essay by the guy whose got my vote as the finest working film critic in America.)

Jonathan Rosenbaum, "Girl with a Camera: Videos by Sadie Benning", THE READER, November 15, 1991.

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, HITLER: A FILM FROM GERMANY, Farrar, Straus,-. Giroux, NY, 1982. (the complete screenplay, with photographs, of the seven- hour film essay).

Hans-Jurgen Syberberg, SYBERBERG, Paris, Cahiers du Cinema, hors-serie, Editions de l’Etoile, February, 1980. (in French; an account of the making of

OUR HITLER, and the frontal projection techniques in that film).

Wim Wenders and Chris Sievernich, NICK’S FILM: LIGHTNING OVER WATER, Zweitausendeins, Frankfurt am Mein, 1981. (the complete screenplay, with

photographs, of the film essay).

 

SOME WRITTEN ESSAYS OF INTEREST TO FILMMAKERS:

Paul Auster, THE INVENTION OF SOLITUDE, Penguin Books, NY, 1982.

(an extraordinary mixture of forms—memoir, fiction, news stories, diary)

James Baldwin, NOBODY KNOWS MY NAME, 1961

THE FIRE NEXT TIME, 1963

Elias Cannetti, THE VOICES OF MARREKESH, Continuum, NY, 1972.

(fabulous, circular travel essays of the West meets East variety by a Nobel prize winner—see especially "Encounters with Camels" and the last one called "The Unseen").

Joan Didion, THE WHITE BOOK, ------

SLOUCHING TOWARD BETHLEHEM,-----

SALVADOR,-------

Annie Dillard, editor, THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1988, Ticknor and Fields, NY, 1988. (this is a very fine anthology of very different and stimulating approaches to the form. Excellent intro, too--a must- read).

Loren Eisley, "The Star Thrower", —- ?, 1969.

William Gass, ON BEING BLUE: A PHILOSOPHICAL INQUIRY, David Godine,

Boston, 1979. (tour-de-force variations on the theme of "blue-ness").

Peter Handke, A SORROW BEYOND DREAMS: A LIFE STORY, translated by Ralph Mannheim, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1977.

(extraordinarily, deeply felt essay on the girlhood, adult life and suicide of Handke's mother, and of his relationship to her and to her loss).

Maxine Hong Kingston, THE WOMAN WARRIOR (this, too, is a mix of forms,

including creating a fictional character out of a real character.)

Barry Lopez, DESERT NOTES, ---------.

ARCTIC DREAMS: IMAGINATION AND DESIRE IN A NORTHERN

LANDSCAPE, Charles Scribner’s Sons, NY 1986.

"The Raven", ----------.

James McConkey, COURT OF MEMORY, ------, 1981.

Herman Melville, "The Encantadas", in THE PIAZZA TALES, NY, Doubleday,

1961. (travel essays so dense and finely wrought that they have often been mistaken for fiction).

Michel de Montaigne, ESSAYS, Penguin Books, NY 1976. (THE classic).

Jan Morris, DESTINATIONS: ESSAYS FROM ROLLING STONE, New York, Oxford University Press/Rolling Stone, 1980.

Richard Selzer, LETTERS TO A YOUNG DOCTOR, Simon and Schuster, NY, 1982.(essays by a doctor-writer on the issues of learning and care that come out of his own life. Very good.)

Gay Talese, editor, THE BEST AMERICAN ESSAYS 1987, Ticknor and Fields, NY, 1987.

Diane Wakowski, ESSAY ON REVISION, Santa Barbara, Black Swallow Press, 19--. (brilliant, informal example of a piece of art about the process of recognizing its own theme and creating the piece itself).

 

Look for other essays written by:

Cynthia Ozick,

Francine du Plessix Gray,

Elizabeth Hardwick,

Edward Hoagland,

Edward Abbey,

Peter Matheisson,

May Sarton.

Look also for the magazine of international writing in English called GRANTA which publishes fabulous contemporary examples of the essay form. (subscription address: Subscription Service Department, c/0 P.O. Box 909, Farmingdale, NY 11737).

 

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Alternative Narrative Structures

Alternative Narrative structures (e.g., Peter Thompson's "Universal Citizen", starting with "It is time to leave Guatemala" and ending with "and walk to Tayasal one last time"): images which in minima project their own past which is non-culmulative and does not go forward. We are given details the ground of which has not been prepared, but which have a history of its own. These images/narrations invite the viewer to rewalk all the paths YESTERDAY, not into the future.

Audience Involvement:

Audience is the recipient of a dual direct address. How it feels to take each part, to be CAST in each character's role. (e.g., Jonathan Demme's "Smiwwing to Cambod

 

CONTEMPORARY FILM ESSAYS

The marvelous, flexible qualities of the contemporary Informal Essay have now found their ways into contemporary cinema in the film essay, the category of film which incorporates the other three: documentary, fiction, and experimental. What the previous generation of documentary filmmakers took as their "subject"--a passive subject as compared to the "active" fictional subject-- film essayists now take as their theme in which the subject is a particular development or an interpretation of that theme, and one which has a determining influence upon the form of the film. The theme thereby becomes very active in that the film essay is often a meditation on ideas in conflict and these conflicts actually suggest the form that the film might take. "The cinematic revolution now in progress is based on what is essentially a very simple idea: that a subject can engender form and that to choose a subject is to make an aesthetic choice." (Noel Burch, "Non-Fictional Subjects", from THE THEORY OF FILM PRACTICE). I want to look at some aspects of the modern film essay as a form.

MEDITATION ON A THEME SUBSTITUTED FOR PLOT

Godard has referred to his films as individual chapters in on on-going investigation. Godard's characters are modeled on genre characters, but genre films tend to have tight narrative structures with roughly pre-determined outcomes. Because Godard is a Marxist (which used to imply actively making one's choices and therefore one's fate), Godard moved away from genre binds and so has placed less and less emphasis on plots. His films evolved into experimental essays. His narratives lack traditional plot coherence because he mixes genres: documentary, fiction, tableaux, propaganda, lectures on art and culture. Godard flirts with chaos.

Hans Jurgen Syberberg’s OUR HITLER is a 7-hour series of meditations.

DISUNITY OF TONE, SPACE, TIME, MATERIALS, STYLE

Godard’s Masculine-Feminine (1965) was the consolidation of his experiments. It is a masterpiece of eclecticism, uniting a wide range of techniques into a new kind of structure: the film essay. Discursive freedom. Godard likes to discover his structure and plot as he shoots. Influenced by cinema verite (there are 5 interviews in Mas-Fem.), but with subjectivity.

MODULARITY

Godard was influenced by Brecht and his overt moral and political didacticism. "Verfremdungseffekt." He therefore carefully controls the viewer's emotional identification by de-emphasizing the plot. Each scene exists as a separate module loosely strung together with other modules. Godard does not like artistic neatness. Works dialectically. Presents one side of an issue , then the other. M/F constructed in polarities: sexual and political. Themes: pain of love, lack of genuine communication, loneliness, social commitment, personal identity, debasement of culture.

SUSPENSION OF BELIEF (as opposed to Suspension of Disbelief)

Jill Godmilow's "Far from Poland"--reenactment of a printed interview by an actress playing the subject of the interview, Anna", in color and sound on a lifelike set, followed by newsreel footage in bl/white of the "real" Anna.

SELF-CRITICISM/SELF-REFLIXIVITY

Godard's interview with "Miss Nineteen". Godard interview: presents its own antithesis, self-sabotage of dramatic continuity. interview by a main protagonist with a single transitional link ("You work with Madelaine?") to the preceeding drama.

NON ANTICIPATORY CAMERA

Godard avoids the anticipatory camera which would be at odds with the characters and their freedom of choice. His camera is prepared (ex. cafe scene which includes a couple and a man in the frame. The man is never given an action). Shallowness of mise-en-scene (gains technical ease, speed of execution, intensity of concentration. Medium shots: because long shots are technically tricky. He therefore avoids reshooting. One or two takes. Avoid long shots because they are too objective. Avoids angles. Frontal, eyelevel.

EDITING

Godard shifts in rhythm mid-scene, unmatched shots, abrupt tone breaks, jumpcuts, lack of transitional shots, long takes, unmatched visual with continual soundtrack.

Encouraged to improvise much of their dialogue, play themselves

PETER THOMPSON: UNIVERSAL CITIZEN

Alternative Narrative structures (starting with "It is time to leave Guatemala" and ending with "and walk to Tayasal one last time".): Certain images in minima project their own past which is non-culmulative and does not go forward. We are given details the ground of which has not been prepared, but which have a history of its own. These images/narrations invite the viewer to rewalk all the paths YESTERDAY, not into the future.

 

JONATHAN DEMME: SWIMMING TO CAMBODIA

Audience Involvement: Audience is the recipient of a dual direct address. How it feels to take each part, to be CAST in each character's role.