The Essay Form in Film and Video


In one of the most useful, but also controversial, treatments of “a cinematic genre that barely exists,” the critic Phillip Lopate identified the necessary elements of the moving-image essay: a thesis grounded in a unified and personalized point of view, “an attempt to work out some reasoned line of discourse on a problem,” and a refined use of language. This course considers how the essay form has been taken up within alternative moving-image practices such as art cinema, experimental film, and video art. We will closely examine works that meet these criteria, including Alain Resnais’ Night and Fog and Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil; but the course will also consider other manifestations of the moving-image essay, especially those that foreground reflexive, self-conscious modes of addressing the spectator. We will begin in the silent era, but our timeline of films places emphasis on films from the ’60s to the present. One key issue for our studies will be the moving-image essayist’s tendency to explore theoretical and conceptual issues through structure, form, and style. In other words, we will track how the aesthetic properties of each work that we view are designed to convey or embody important ideas or theses. In addition, we will see that it is often the case that the artist’s process of “thinking through” the work is accompanied by attempts at opening up a space for spectatorial reflection. Through intricate montage techniques, the rhetorical devices available to cinematic narrators and various other means, cinematic essayists have sought to simultaneously embed their own reflections in their work and challenge viewers to alternative forms of engagement and response. Given this, how students respond to essay films and videos will make up an especially important element of the course.