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The Contemporary Scholar, Part Two: Moving Image Essay

The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where […]

Tony Conrad, The Flicker, 1965, 16mm

Tony Conrad, The Flicker, 1965, 16mm

The essay is the primary form of scholarly dissemination. An investigative space where a scholar’s ideas meet an audience, the power of the essay necessarily comes from two sources: its narrative articulation and its circulation. Traditionally, the writer and editor would be responsible for narrative, and the publisher for circulation. But in an era where articulation and circulation have become profoundly interwoven through the burgeoning availability of self-publishing platforms, the essay has persevered as a remarkably contemporary form. After all, the conventions of the essay already incorporate crucial attributes of contemporary circulation: translation, interpretation, quotation and citation, and an indefinite lifespan of reprinting (legally or not). And while the essay has continued to be the mainstay of traditional scholarship, its malleability has allowed it to filter into other contexts similarly engaged with issues of narrative and circulation—nowhere more so than “essay film.”

A notoriously murky genre, essay film is nonetheless emphatic about its authorship, often rendering argument through voice-over commentary and presenting images as if they were evidence, despite the fact that essay film draws equally from both fiction and fact. Film critic André Bazin was one of the first to define the term “essay film” in his review of filmmaker and artist Chris Marker’s Letters from Siberia (1957), where Bazin described the film’s persuasiveness as follows:

I would say that the primary material is intelligence, that its immediate means of expression is language, and that the image only intervenes in the third position, in reference to this verbal intelligence.

The essay’s characteristic self-consciousness about process, language, and structure—essentially, its hyper-attentiveness to its own form—is what allowed it to so seamlessly insert into the obsessions of narrative filmmaking, like Marker’s. But there are two key differences of use between essay and essay film: firstly, where the scholarly essay hopes to present a truth, the artist’s essay film seeks to engender vision; and where the scholar maintains the conventions of the essay, the artist regards it merely as a strategy that can be redirected to other ends.

Attentive to such distinctions, artist Thom Andersen examines the porosity between essay film structure and subject in Eadweard Muybridge, Zoopraxographer (1967), a feature-length work on the life and motivations of its titular protagonist, arguably the forefather of moving images. Through voice-over, sequencing, criticism and philosophy, Andersen renders Muybridge as a nebulous character whose biography appears and recedes as much as his photographic work. Andersen notes in voice-over (spoken by an actor):

Each of Muybridge’s exposures lasted only one-hundredth of a second, so less than a thirtieth of the movement is actually photographed. The rest is lost.

Here, Andersen offers up a kernel of his inquiry: the absence of information is a crucial structuring principle of both narrative and circulation. (It’s interesting to note that this is a detail Andersen assimilates into his own filmic medium—16mm celluloid, running at 24 frames per second.)

Although essay film can easily be attributed to the practice of Andersen, Marker, and others including Agnès Varda, Jean Luc Godard (particularly resonant in his new film Goodbye to Language, 2014), Alexander Kluge and Helke Sander, the genre has also produced some unlikely inheritors and contemporary modes. The use of Powerpoint, for example, should certainly be considered as a performative decedent of the film essay, with its mode of montage with voice-accompanied narrative and system of argumentation. Coming to terms with the principles of essay film can also be instructive for assessing the context and role of expanded cinema. In this years’ Oberhausen Short Film Festival, the annual thematic program curated by Mika Taanila was called “Memories Can’t Wait—Film without Film.” Largely examining the legacy of expanded cinema and structural film, Taanila’s programme re-enacted previous artistic attempts at the emptying out of cinematic space.

While the reconstruction of once-radical moments are perhaps always destined to fail—previous radicality always adrift and merely illustrative in a contemporary context—there is something useful about considering expanded cinema not as a turn away from essay film, but as a redirection. Where once essay film was narrative image and sound, committed to celluloid, and passed between cinemas, the expanded film (or the “film without film”) became a repository for the fragmentary narratives of an audience careering towards post-modernity. Muybridge’s strobing images of bodies in movement, projected on a cinema screen, metamorphosed into Tony Conrad’s “flicker”—a field of black and white, able to be projected on to bodies-as-screen. And from there, the strobe and its multiple narratives have been exploded into the split subjectivities of techno space—an essay film on the dance floor.

Earlier: “The Contemporary Scholar, Part One: Two Desks and Multiple Definitions