Compilation and critique : the essay as a literary, cinematographic and videographic form

Fletcher, Alex (2018) Compilation and critique : the essay as a literary, cinematographic and videographic form. (PhD thesis), Kingston University, .


This dissertation critically engages the meaning and scope of the category of the ‘essay film’; a term that has gained increasing currency in recent decades in film studies and contemporary art to group a diverse array of moving-image works. Departing from recent literature on the essay film, the essay, as I argue, should be conceived less as a stable generic category, than as a dynamic form and experimental mode of writing and filmmaking, which employs and cuts across diverse literary, cinematic and televisual genres and sub-genres, and which is historically subject to critical transformation as it encounters new social, technological and cultural forms and mediums. The introduction provides a critical survey of some of the leading proponents of the essay film, and outlines a working definition of the essay as a literary and cinematographic form. Chapter 1 examines the history of the essay and criticism as a literary and philosophical form, focusing on the essayistic and critical writings of Michel de Montaigne, the early German Romantics, Walter Benjamin, Theodor W. Adorno and Roland Barthes. Central to the critical and experimental nature of the essay, as the chapter underlines, is the deployment of various indirect, allegorical, and modernist rhetorical and poetic strategies and devices – such as citation, irony, fragmentation, and parataxis – which attempt to engage the reader in the text’s reflective process through the constellation of enigmatic and disjunct moments and perspectives. Chapter 2 explores the emergence of various essayistic forms in the Soviet avant-garde in the 1920s, relating debates around the privileging of literary and photographic documentary montage practices in Soviet Factography to Esfir Shub’s historical compilation films, Dziga Vertov’s experimental newsreels, and Sergei Eisenstein’s project to make a plotless film-essay based on Karl Marx’s Capital. Chapter 3 focuses on Jean-Luc Godard’s film and video essays – from Camera Eye (1967) to Histoire(s) du cinéma (1988-1998) – delineating the crucial shifts in Godard’s various attempts to present a critical discourse on cinema and the media through the montage of image and sound. Chapter 4 investigates the essay films, archival video essays, and essayistic video installations of Harun Farocki, attending to how his works endeavour to render the ciphered social life of images and the historical transformations in technologies and techniques of seeing and imaging available for critical interpretation. Central to my account of the essay as a literary, cinematographic, and videographic form is the question of compilation; namely, how (from Montaigne to Farocki) knowledge and history (whether in the form of text or image) is archived and assembled through the juxtaposition and critical weighing of disparate citations and images. Paramount in relation to Godard and Farocki, as I underscore, is their respective shifts to working with video technology, which afforded both filmmakers the capacity to more freely combine and analyze images from divergent media sources, as well as to devise novel forms of videographic montage based on the construction of historical correspondences between audio-visual elements. I conclude the dissertation with a consideration of the impact of digital technology on contemporary essayistic audio-visual practices, and how issues raised in the preceding chapters – around audio-visual criticism, the spatialization of montage in moving-image installation work, and documentary and archival film practices – have been affected by such technological and cultural shifts.

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