Despite its seemingly innocent composition, the term ‘essay film’ tends to perplex those newly introduced to it. The words ‘essay’ and ‘film’ are often understood as juxtapositions: the audio-visual versus the symbolic and the semantic.
This is no wonder, I suppose, when we consider the rigidity with which an over-arching, more conservative art-ideology teaches us to consider different forms by their respective conventions; it is famously taught in many film-schools, for example, that one must “show” and never “tell” in cinema. What then, is the essay film? A medium whose name and indeed, whose nature, implies the conjunction of two such conflicting forms?
The essay film has remained notoriously ambiguous and difficult to define since its conception in the late 1890’s, at the beginning of cinema itself. Having said this, a quick elucidation of the term is due before I proceed any further. The essay film is generally understood as a sub-genre or a relative to the documentary; Unlike the documentary, however, the essay film assumes a different, often more personal position and perspective on its subject and on the world. If the aim of the documentary is to demonstrate an argument and to communicate an implicit, objective ‘truth’ about a given subject through a clearly and coherently constructed narrative, the essay film generally shies away from any such direct message, agenda or structure. The essay film speaks more subjectively and often possesses a unique meta-perspective on the form of film-making and storytelling itself. It could be a series of musings, reflections, an exchange of personal letters, a travelogue, a diary – or of course, an essay – amongst any other number of forms. Critic Andre Bazin eloquently summarises the nuance of the genre in his writing on the celebrated film essayist Chris Marker: “The important word is “essay”, understood in the same sense that it is in literature – an essay at once historical and political, written by a poet as well”. This amalgamation of subjectivity, poetry, history and politics is the essence of the essay film.
The essay film, through its radical treatment of the subject, calls our attention to the grey zones and the gaps in our categorization of art and storytelling, and awakens us from the passive comfort of our rigid classification systems. To delve into these muddy waters where form and content, medium and theory, and essay and art can all blur symbiotically, is not only inspiring, but essentially liberating.
As a cinephile, book-lover, and pretentious enthusiast of anything “avant-garde”, my first encounter with the essay film was one of total ecstasy. In the first year of my film studies bachelor we were shown Chris Marker’s Sans Soleil (1983) – a film that I urge you to seek out. It was fascinating to come across a form that so shamelessly threw all convention out of the window, that didn’t care about the difference between telling and showing, that treated both images and words, and writing and cinema in a radically analogous way. That same year we also learnt about the cine-semiotic debate, a discussion that boils down to the question that artists and academics have been discussing since the conception of film: is cinema a language? Some theorists drew up direct parallels between cinematography and words, suggesting that a shot could be compared to a letter, or a sentence, or even a paragraph. Kuleshov, a celebrated Soviet filmmaker from the 1920’s, tried to assert that each separate shot in a film acted as a “complex letter”, per his example, something like a “Chinese character”. My personal favourite is the shot’s comparison to the hieroglyph. Reading these debates about cinema and semiology – ranging from the imaginative to the absurd – sparked a vivid imagination in my understanding of the relationship between cinema, literature and language, and eventually led me back to the essay film. To what extent is the essay film a conjuncture of these practices, and how can this radical genre help us to understand the relationships between them?
What interests me the most in exploring the film essay, however, is not necessarily going into the technical details of a cine-semiotic discussion – an interesting, but often dead-end debate. It is rather to explore and appreciate the provocative nature of the essay films method, and to contemplate how it can, if at least momentarily, shatter the limiting ideological structures we have built around art, form and language. The essay film, through its radical treatment of the subject, calls our attention to the grey zones and the gaps in our categorization of art and storytelling, and awakens us from the passive comfort of our rigid classification systems. To delve into these muddy waters where form and content, medium and theory, and essay and art can all blur symbiotically, is not only inspiring, but essentially liberating. As previously mentioned, even the name ‘essay film’ provokes us, and makes us question: What is its language? How does it speak? Is it documentary? Is poetry? What if the line between these forms is a tight-rope and the essay film is a fearless acrobat? What if we stopped thinking of books as books and films as films and we embraced a world in which language is not set in stone, is not measured by words or shots, but can melt like a marble, and elude rigidity?
In order to demonstrate the unique capabilities of the essay film, I now want to elaborate on its functions as they are demonstrated in The Seasons of Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, a poetic cinema and essay film biopic about the prolific writer and artist that was released this past year by Tilda Swinton, Colin McCabe, Christopher Roth and Bartek Dziadosz. The Seasons in Quincy offers us a new perspective on a subject that is unique to the capabilities of the essay film, as facilitated by its cross-pollination of languages.
The Seasons in Quincy creates a meta, non-linear narrative essay about storytelling itself, through its particular treatment of subject, language and form. This is poignantly demonstrated in the film’s first chapter, ‘Ways of Listening’, by Tilda Swinton.
In a Q&A session at Sheffield Doc Fest in 2016, Swinton spoke about the complex relationship that their film, and the essay film in general, has with “narrative procedure”. She spoke of the human need for storytelling, and how this pursuit to create and communicate, is ultimately “in a way, the subject of this film”. This narrative about storytelling itself is constructed through a complex and beautiful layering of languages: the audio-visual of documentary, the linguistic and symbolic of written words, and the language of painting and process.
[…] if the essay film is worth at least trying to explain, then it is because it truly does lie in the mystical and liminal space of the ‘Beyond’. Beyond cinema, beyond essay, beyond singular language and beyond all convention.
The Seasons in Quincy demonstrates the self-reflectivity and self-consciousness of the essay film: the suggestion that the processes of storytelling, of filmmaking, of writing or drawing, are as remarkable as their results. It portrays a unique awareness of its own form that is simultaneously communicated through the film’s images, structure, and dialogue: more of a genuine display of a process than just the sly wink of post-modern meta cliché. The chapter’s title, which is an overt reference to Berger’s famous work ‘Ways of Seeing’ – a four-part television series later translated into essays – punctuates the start of Swinton’s chapter in italic text. Naming her chapter in homage to Berger’s work is more than simply a pastiche reference; it is a symbolic mirroring and a signal of active reply. Using the written form of inter-title as a reference to one of Berger’s own written titles is a subtle communication that this chapter, too, is an essay, and that it wants to approach Berger with his oeuvre of work in mind, but from a new angle.
Moreover, in this chapter, not only do we observe Berger’s artwork, but we witness the process of painting itself, the black ink of Swinton’s portrait drying on a white page as she holds it up to her face.
It is impossible to communicate the poetic instant of this moment in the film: The painter studying his subject and representing her, whilst the filmmaker observes her subject in return, both through the lens and with her own eyes within the frame. They are both in the immediate, vulnerable and intimate space of being captured by the artist. It is a beautiful moment about process and storytelling, and the intimacy of being ‘drawn’, whether through a paintbrush or a camera. Furthermore, this moment between Tilda and Berger foregrounds the meta-narrative of the film by featuring the audio-visual presence of the filmmaker, alongside the subject. We thus become aware of the process of storytelling and are encouraged to reflect upon how it functions.
Finally, alongside the written title, the visual subjects and the visibility of process, Berger also verbally reflects upon storytelling in his own words: “If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen. For me, a storyteller is like a passer someone who gets contraband across a frontier”. We hear this contemplation in Berger’s own voice, and so the words are free to move beyond text: the rasps, the breath, the accent, even his subtle laugh, add yet another layer of language. His reflection on storytelling as heard through sound encourages us to listen, as the chapter title does. Thus, the written inter-title, the audio-image of film, the visual-representational of painting and the process of painting, and the spoken language of Berger, all combine to “write” the film’s meta-reflective essay about storytelling.
In the end, I suppose that this attempt to capture in writing what is unique to another form of language – or even, simultaneous languages – is deeply ironic. It is arguably impossible to explain how the wealth of languages spoken in The Seasons in Quincy are all so interwoven in time and space that they become intrinsically inseparable and essential to communicate their “essay”. On film’s website, producer Colin McCabe writes about the film:
“The Seasons in Quincy shows how film can move beyond text, and beyond fine art, to offer a multifaceted and multi-layered portrait. These are more than documentary films – they are exercises in thinking in film”.
I want to conclude with this notion of the film ‘beyond’ text. Because if the essay film is worth at least trying to explain, then it is because it truly does lie in the mystical and liminal space of the ‘Beyond’. Beyond cinema, beyond essay, beyond singular language and beyond all convention. The profound poetics, radical perspective, and the dissolution of boundaries that construct the essay film make it a mind-opening experience, and one in which we should indulge ourselves with as much fearlessness as the films themselves possess.
Visit http://seasonsinquincy.com/ to find out more about the film.