Other Ways Around

Some sketches of the essay film
by Andrew Tracy  posted November 5, 2009
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Unlike most mythical beasts, it is generally agreed that the essay film exists, even if no one has ever truly seen one. More than most generic tags—or dare we even refer to it as a genre?—the term is dauntingly elastic, unto the point of complete taxonomic incoherence. This indeed may be the only point of agreement among those who would attempt to classify the thing, as Jean-Pierre Gorin duly acknowledges in his program notes for Cinematheque Ontario's two-part retrospective The Way of the Termite: The Essay Film. "We know or pretend to know what fiction and documentary are, and we live a content viewer's life inside this dichotomy that seems as old as the confrontational staging of Louis vs. Georges, Lumière vs. Méliès, in the wax museum of film histories," says Gorin. "Introduce the notion of the essay and this certitude is blown to bits." Naturally, Gorin then proceeds to introduce his own notion: as per the program's Farberian evocation (another once valuable notion that an effusive legion of enthusiasts are quickly ushering into the wax museum), the essay film is "unruliness itself," "the meandering of an intelligence that tries to multiply the entries and the exits into the material it has elected"; as against the "dreams of concentration and coherence" that define film fictions and documentaries, the essay film is "condemned to playfulness. . . . It is surplus, drifts, ruptures, ellipses and double-backs."

An eloquent notion indeed, illuminating its subject all the more by being largely inapplicable to any number of its iterations. Limiting ourselves to the program on view, while Gorin's thumbnail sketch nicely fits Marker's quicksilver genius (Sans soleil), Luc Moullet's wry buffoonery (The Origins of a Meal) or Welles's cine-prestidigitation (F for Fake), where is the surplus or meandering in such resolutely concentrated and coherent works as Night and Fog, or Gorin's own collaboration with Godard, Letter to Jane? Their respective meanderings aside, where resides the playfulness in the oft-blistering rhetorical assault of Pasolini's tellingly titled (and recently restored) La Rabbia (Rage) or Guy Debord's In Girum Imus Nocte et Consumimur Igni? Its ample playfulness aside, what ruptures and ellipses intrude upon Alain Resnais's wittily reverse-engineered widescreen ode to plastics, Le Chant du Styrène? And apart from their ruptures and ellipses, where is that most immediately "essayistic" quality of the essay film—the ruminating, intervening, ordering (if not necessarily governing) voice—in the charged silences of Vertov's Man With a Movie Camera, Vigo's À Propos de Nice, or Raya Martin's A Short Film About the Indio Nacional?

Such refutations could of course be multiplied ad infinitum, all to the rather sterile revelation that Gorin is not incorrect, but simply, and knowingly, defeated by the protean nature of his object (as he himself avers before embarking on his inevitably ill-fated definitional voyage). The program's termitic moniker is nonetheless apt, if we transfer its maxim from screen to viewer. The essay film's boundaries can only be charted by innumerable, self-directed burrowings through its profoundly irregular terrain. No matter then the temptation to merely survey the varied pleasures on view in this particular garden; it's best to actually follow one of its forking paths, though it leads only (as Sans soleil's pseudonymous Sandor Krasna remarks in Hitchcock's vertiginous San Francisco) to one other way around.

Marker/Krasna's Hitch worship aside, it could be ventured that one of the essay film's unique potentialities is its ability to jostle certain cinematic pieties; indeed, to jostle the very notion of "cinematic" itself.. André Bazin's admiring appraisal of Marker's "horizontal montage"—in which the voice, "the beauty of what is said and heard," gives shape to the image, "intelligence flow[ing] from the audio element to the visual"—indicates that even this early revelation of the "essay film" noted that its functions placed it at a right angle to "cinema" proper. The commentative function that (let's pretend) is implicit in the essay form upsets one of the more privileged of cinematic hierarchies: that sound could precede image—that intelligence could precede emotion—is undoubtedly something of an anathema to a goodly number of the cinephilically inclined.

Indeed, the magpie aesthetics that Gorin evokes ("It feels perfectly at ease quoting, plundering, hijacking, and reordering what is already there and established to serve its purpose") seems to arise from the essay film's willingness to assume the role of adjunct, collage, reorganization, or reconstitution rather than asserting itself as an integral work in its own right. Thus Godard-Gorin's Letter to Jane serves as an often acid complement to their collaboration with the titular Fonda on Tout va bien, while Ici et ailleurs resurrects their unfinished 1970 pro-Palestinian cine-tract Victory as a critical investigation of its own self; the witty flights of fancy of Resnais's Chant, following time's arrow backwards as a plastic dish returns to its origins in the fossilized lakes of petroleum beneath the earth, come to us courtesy of a plastics factory eager to advertise its wares; Marker's AK haunts the fringes of Kurosawa's Ran. Even the process of restoration, the mediated return to an original (or illusory) whole, testifies to the essay's fragmentary nature: shorn of Giovanni Guareschi's original right-wing companion piece courtesy of Giuseppe Bertolucci, Pasolini's La Rabbia—a newsreel compilation of assorted geopolitical sins scored to Pasolini's lyrically despairing commentary—has been made an ever deeper textual palimpsest, now accompanied by a speculative reconstruction of its missing first half and a further series of newsreels turning the camera back on Pasolini and the poisonous atmosphere of mockery and disdain that surrounded him.

Perpetually referring to an object or objects outside itself, often parasitic of sounds and images that preceded it, the essay film abandons the aesthetic autonomy of une vraie pièce de cinéma before it even begins. Indeed, perhaps what the essay film illuminates most presciently is the progressive desacralization of the cinema that's been accelerated by digital film culture, steadily leeching away cinema's aesthetic sovereignty even in the process of consecrating it. As with the endlessly digressive voice of the essay, not only is any given film (as delivered via DVD) becoming more and more commensurate with what is said about it, as commentary tracks, video essays, scholarly liner notes, and interviews render the film itself one text among others. Further, digitization remakes the film as a ghostly reference to its own original self, the physical imprint of light reconstituted and reorganized as so many millions of particles of information, intelligence not only preceding emotion but giving it shape. It is this seemingly irreversible process of decentering that the essay film so keenly understands, the illusion (however necessary) of the cinema's definitional borders that it blithely overturns, its nostalgic fiction of the speaking "I" knowing full well, in the pilfered sounds and images it has assembled, that it is another.

The Way of the Termite: The Essay Film runs from November 6 to December 3 at Cinematheque Ontario. 


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The Criterion Collection
Sans soleil, directed by Chris Marker
Photo Gallery: Other Ways Around


November 6–December 3, 2009 The Way of the Termite: The Essay Film


Andrew Tracy is the managing editor of Cinema Scope and a contributor to Cineaste, Film Comment, and Reverse Shot.

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