The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker
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Why have certain kinds of documentary and non-narrative films emerged as the most interesting, exciting, and provocative movies made in the last twenty years? Ranging from the films of Ross McElwee (Bright Leaves) and Agnès Varda (The Gleaners and I) to those of Abbas Kiarostami (Close Up) and Ari Folman (Waltz with Bashir), such films have intrigued viewers who at the same time have struggled to categorize them. Sometimes described as personal documentaries or diary films, these eclectic works are, rather, best understood as cinematic variations on the essay. So argues Tim Corrigan in this stimulating and necessary new book. Since Michel de Montaigne, essays have been seen as a lively literary category, and yet--despite the work of pioneers like Chris Marker--seldom discussed as a cinematic tradition. The Essay Film, offering a thoughtful account of the long rapport between literature and film as well as novel interpretations and theoretical models, provides the ideas that will change this.
“Blindness as Insight: Visions of the Unseen in Land of Silence and Darkness.” The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History. Ed. Timothy Corrigan. London: Methuen, 1986. Kritzman, Lawrence D. The Fabulous Imagination: On Montaigne’s Essays. New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2009. Lacan, Jaques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: Norton, 1978. Lane, Jim. The Autobiographical Documentary in America. Madison: Univ. of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
in different material media, taking account, for instance, of how a print discourse describes and interpellates subjectivity differently from that of an imagistic discourse. Across these historical and representational differences, however, the essayistic concentration on images of self and self-expression has produced two of its most prominent and ubiquitous versions of the essay film: the portrait and the self-portrait essay. Similar to the interdisciplinary heritage of other essay films, this
unprecedented political visibility and power for that community before he is assassinated by Dan White, a political associate who successfully mounted the infamous “Twinkie defense.” The Van Sant film prominently appropriates documentary footage from the Epstein film (and other documentary sources) that provides a kind of concrete historical ballast and background against and through which the charismatic figure of Milk asserts himself as the agent of a new historical and political consciousness.
Catherine Russell identifies as a “split subjectivity,” various representational doublings, and struggles to conceive and articulate the death of the subject (Narrative Mortality 71–88). These are representational doublings and splits that, in this film, become a portrait of, in Bernardo Bertolucci’s words, “the boundless frivolity of people about to die” (5).10 If essay portraits confront one subject with another as an inter-view and interval that is quintessentially a mortal space,
through which audiences critically engage films has first been demonstrated by newspapers. “With the growth and extension of the press,” he notes, an increasing number of readers … [have] turned into writers. It began with the space set aside for “letter to the editors” in the daily press, and has now reached a point where there is hardly a European engaged in the work process who could not, in principle, find an opportunity to publish somewhere or other an account of a work experience, a