Expression, the Essayistic, and Thinking in Images
University of Pennsylvania
In 1940, experimental filmmaker Hans Richter writes a commentary in which he coined an innovative genre called “The Film Essay,” a new practice which he claimed evolved out of the documentary tradition but which, instead of presenting what he calls “beautiful vistas” aims “to find a representation for intellectual content,” “to find images for mental concepts,” “striving to make visible the invisible world of concepts, thoughts, and ideas,” so that viewers would become “involved intellectually and emotionally.” Very much related, Andre Malraux delivers about the same time his “Esquisse d’une psychologie du cinema” arguing “the possibility of expression in the cinema” (14), and in 1948, in his celebrated “The Birth of the new avant-garde: the camera-stylo,” Alexandre Astruc announces the essayistic potential of film as one of the most important advancments in modern film and media history:
the cinema is quite simply becoming a means of expression, just as all the other arts have been before it . . . After having been successively a fairground attraction, an amusement analogous to boulevard theatre, or the means of preserving the images of an era, it is gradually becoming a language. By language, I mean a form in which and by which an artist can express his thoughts, however abstract they may be, or translate his obsessions exactly as he does in the contemporary essay or novel (159).
With the Paramount Decision of 1948, new lightweight camera technologies with reflex viewing systems (such as the Arriflex systems), and the stirrings of the French New Wave with its auteurist assumptions about cinematic subjectivity hovering through this historical moment, the cinema and the technological image becomes poised, in Gilles Deleuze’s phrase, to get a brain.
The historical legacy for the essayistic is both philosophical, literary, and photographic, extending from at least Montaigne through James Agee and Walker Evan’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. However diverse its shapes and interests, essays have shared a constellation of motifs about glancing contingencies, the folding movements of historical experience, and the necessity for the relentless and provisional pressure of conceptualization and thought—precisely those figures that Eric Faden’s Tracking Theory explores and engages here. From Georg Lukac’s notion of the essay as “judgement without verdict” (18) to T. W. Adorno’s argument that the essay is “methodically unmethodically” (13), representing the “reciprocal interaction of concepts in the process of intellectual experience” (22), the essayistic comes to refigure thought in history as, according to Robert Musil’s 1930 novel/essay Man Without Qualities, "the unique and unalterable form that a person's inner life assumes in a decisive thought" (273).
The cinematic legacy of the essayistic features equally complex turns and returns on its own history. The early precursors of the essay film appear only on the margins of classical film culture, as travelogues, lecture films like Eadward Muybridge’s demonstration of animal locomotion or Lyman Howe's movie travelogues. In the 1920’s, the cine-clubs of the first avant-garde become arenas for continual cinematic debates that would model notions of spectatorship decidedly more active and interactive than classical narrative cinema. In 1948, after viewing Letter from Siberia, Andre Bazin describes Chris Marker as 1:1.33 Montaigne, and from Jean-Luc Godard and Derek Jarman to Harun Farocki to Trinh T. Minh-ha, filmmakers have increasingly engaged modernist concerns with spatial fragmentation and temporal motions as zones where subjective expression and interpretation could reshape traditional realist transparencies as ideas in motion. Quite appropriately, then, it is motion itself and the zones of motion that Faden follows here not through the traditional essayistic medium of a literary language but through images and an inquiring voice that expose and layer thought as a temporal and mobile activity, an activity that shifts across historical moments, different film texts, scientific discourses, and the blurred boundary between realism and digital fabrication.
If the potential for essayistic images shadowed much of the twentieth century and began self-consciously and definitively to articulate that potential at the mid-point of that century, today, I believe, the essayistic flourishes especially in the expansion of new technologies and changing venues for imagistic spectatorship and reception. Through the technological play, layering, and interactivity offered by new kinds of films, new media, and the Internet, the essayistic can now fully embrace its love affair with experiential contingencies of all sorts--from the privacies of dying on film or the public media events that propel wars to, ultimately, the very activity of film scholars as they engage their own objects on their own terms. Perhaps this is where work such as Faden’s technological redefinition of Astruc’s “camera stylo” as an even more personal, expansive, and interactive “media stylo” signals a timely future through which students and scholars of film can better reflect on our disappearing past and present. Perhaps in this way, “writing” about daily experiences, perceptions, and films themselves will begin to identify and recognize different histories where, in the constellations of views that orchestrate those engagements, the image will actually become Benjamin’s “caesura in the movement of thought” (67).
Adorno, T.W. “The Essay as Form,” in Notes to Literature, Vol. 1. NY: Columbia Univ.
Press, 1991. Pp. 3-23
Astruc, Alexandre. “The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: Le Camera-Stylo.” In Film and
Literature: An Introduction and Reader. Ed. Timothy Corrigan. Saddle River, NJ:
Prentice Hall, 1999. Pp. 158-162.
Bazin, Andre. “Bazin on Marker.” Film Comment, 39.4 (July-Aug. 2003): Pp 43-44.
Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project. Cambridge: Harvard Univ. Press, 1999.
Deleuze, Gilles. Cinema 2.The Time Image. Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press,
Lukacs, Georg. “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” in Soul and Form. Cambridge:
MIT Press, 1974. Pp. 1-19
Musil, Robert. The Man without Qualities, Vol. I. NY: Knopf, 1995.
Richter, Hans. “Der Filmessay. Eine neue Form des Dokumentarfilms.” In Schreiben
Bilder Sprechen: Texte zum essayistischen Film. Eds. Christa Blumlinger and
Constantin Wulff. Wien: Sonderzahl, 1992. Pp. 195-198.
Timothy Corrigan is a Professor of English and Cinema Studies at Penn.
His work in film studies has focused on modern American and international cinema, as well as pedagogy and film. His books include New German Film, The Films of Werner Herzog, Writing about Film, A Cinema without Walls, Film and Literature, and The Film Experience (co-authored with Patricia White).
He is presently concluding research on a book-length study entitled The Essay Film, which examines the films of such filmmakers a Chris Marker, Derek Jarman, and Trinh T. Minh-Ha.