In an exclusive excerpt from his forthcoming book, The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker (Oxford University Press, July 2011), Timothy Corrigan argues that the essential aim of the essay film is “anti-aesthetic”:
Essay films about art, literature, or the medium of film itself, like Raoul Ruiz’s Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting (there’s an extended analysis of the film in this excerpt), embody a kind of open-ended criticism that “troubles and comments on the aesthetic experience and the subjectivity that articulates it.”
Ruiz’s puzzle film, Corrigan maintains, is about trying to find a “meaningful link between art and the world,” and is a perfect example of what he calls “refractive cinema.”
How does this square with your ideas on the essay film? Or reflexivity in cinema? Or Ruiz?
By refractive cinema we mean the primary narrative is altered by having the essay as the focal point?
You’re expecting a reply? You are an optimistic man Robert, judging from the other threads anyway. I guess we can hope Corrigan will be more forthcoming…
Sort of in the manner of Hegelian dialectic where you have the straw (image) as the thesis, the glass of water as the antithesis ("my work is to question images”) and the (apparently) bent straw in the glass of water (the essay film) as the synthesis?
Corrigan: Hypothesis is about hermeneutics, about discovering a meaningful link between art and the world.
Thus the focal point, that which refraction creates, might be for Corrigan a meaningful link between art and the world.
The straw seems to suggest ambiguity in the meaning of images – is that the synthesis of the essay film?
In that formulation, something like that:
ambiguity in the meaning of images = "my work is to question images”
questioning of images = water
. . . which effects the straw by bending it (apparently )
The “water” breaks the (aesthetic, although not the actual) wholeness of the “straw”:
“I want to argue, the fundamental inadequacy and triumph of the essayistic, asserting that, even in the experience of the essay film “as like” an aesthetic experience, its essential aim is anti-aesthetic, in a way that aims to return the film to the world and ideas about the world . . . essay films depend on the force and pressure of a presumed public experience or, more precisely I think, a public circulation of experience that troubles and comments on the aesthetic experience and the subjectivity that articulates it.”
Pipe + not a pipe = ???
“Pipe + not a pipe = ???”
It’s not a pipe because it’s just an image. A pipe is a thing that you smoke with, one cannot smoke with that image.
Also because “une pipe” is slang for penis, but that’s another story.
Anywho, reflection is now replaced or accompanied by refraction, huh? Awesome!
Yes, I understand what it means, the point was just an illustration of the relationship between the image and the “questioning of image” within the same work—an "essay painting, " if you will.
. . . although, if by “image” we mean “not the actual thing,” then couldn’t one also say that “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” is just a image of not-pipe-ness? Or do we make different assumptions about, for lack of a better term, language-images ?
Which is what Derrida, apparently, is interested in based on how far I’ve gotten into Of Grammatology—logocentrism, or phonocentrism (coming from philosophers who treated written text as “signifiers of signifiers”, the spoken word being the “signifier” signified). Nowadays more than ever I think we privilege text, especially since “encoding” is almost completely literal what with the Internet and all.However, I also sometimes feel like the issue isn’t that big of a deal. It’s an epistemological struggle, for sure, yet we still go about our work trying to communicate anyway. Essay films I think seem a lot more refractive because they are not currently commonly recognized and wide-spread… we still consider, for instance, Michael Moore to be “documentary” but Chris Marker to be “essay film”, when Marker’s work is so much more observational and citing of incidents in real space and time (document, in text-based criticism) than Moore’s calculated interpretations (essay, in text-based criticism).
“Essay films I think seem a lot more refractive because they are not currently commonly recognized and wide-spread”
Right—if the “essay film” were to somehow become mainstream, the whole mode would become much less interesting. They require a dominant (aesthetic) form to be a reaction to.
Sort of. I mean essays are essays, they needn’t be reactionary to dominant aesthetic forms, at least not by my reckoning.
However, I’m in no hurry to start seeing mainstream “essay films” like the cinematic equivalent of blogs, so we’re good on that note.
It seems when the writer is talking about ‘essay films’ he’s specifically talking about films with a meta-element. He’s leaving out films meant to spell out an ideological point with images, such as Sans Soleil.
Essay films differ from narrative films in that your attention is supposed to be at the structure of the film as a whole, rather than at the characters and the action. I enjoy this sort of film because I appreciate films that invite me to explore rather than tell me explicitly what they’re trying to say. I also agree with his comments on Hypothesis of the Stolen Painting. These sorts of films can be great, but you better have a very strong awareness of the point you’re trying to express and also the role of the viewers’ previous knowledge and expectations.
How does this work then for films like Haggis’ Crash? Which is a film that holds a narrative but is also most commonly referenced as being “about” something beyond its narrative? A film like Mann’s Ali would be another example along similar lines. Cronenberg are commonly referenced in some circles as making films that are looking at the world or ideas of the world beyond the boundaries of the film, indeed there are whole branches of critical theory that tend to view all films in just this manner. Wasn’t it Warshow who said that all films are about the time they are made more than the time they “show” within the story? (Or was that Kracauer?) isn’t this as much an issue of reception as one of “intent”? This can feed back into the idea of the essay film not being a mainstream form as those that tend to watch and appreciate the films are the same people who are more likely to perceive films as already speaking beyond the frame. The more “conservative” or traditional audiences are less likely to make that connection even when confronted by the film essay as can be understood from the confusion often accompanying the viewing of certain films by directors like Godard. When does a film become an essay? As Polaris pointed out, Michael Moore makes sort of essay films disguised as documentaries, but they tend to have less of this sort of friction regarding the aesthetics than those by Marker even if Marker’s are the more “real” in some other sense. If there needs to be a sort of label applied to determine what fits within this concept, then it seems it is as much an issue of reception as one of production, mode, or means if I’m understanding what y’all are saying.
I don’t see something like Crash as being “refractive” or “anti-aesthetic” in any way, Greg. As I remember it, the film pretty much lays out it’s narrative and the images and they pretty much directly support and amplify each other. There is subtext and theme and motifs and all that which may suggest connection to extra-filmic stuff, but it pretty much all falls in line.
Perhaps, but the response to the film tended to find a sort of anti-aesthetic in that what was shown wasn’t referenced as an aesthetic event as much as an event about an event. The film virtually demands that it be seen not as it is itself but as a thing representing something beyond itself. I would suggest that it is this double image that made it a success and garnered it awards. It obviously isn’t identical to Hypothesis, but there is a way of thinking about or responding to the film that is not entirely dissimilar either, even if it is in a cruder form of address.
Or to put it another way, what I’m saying us that the conventions of the form as they relate to the conventions of the social society virtually demands that a film dealing with certain subjects be understood as signifying something beyond itself in a way that is similar to what Corrigan is suggesting about the way a film might reference “art” in relation to its own “art” creating a refraction.
“but the response to the film tended to find a sort of anti-aesthetic in that what was shown wasn’t referenced as an aesthetic event as much as an event about an event.”
You mean that people went to see it as a way of confronting the issues raised in the film (its sociological value) rather than because they thought it would be an entertaining film with an engaging narrative, so that, hypothetical at least, the film was a way of combating the societal compartmentalization (which the film explores in mostly in terms of racial prejudices)?
sigh. Not buying it? Alright, I can see why, but I was trying to expand on some of the ideas by suggesting that there the level of refinement of the viewer allows for or even demands a different viewing strategy for certain types of films where the effect can be seen as being related even if that effect is blocked to some viewers due to a failure of experience in form or a refinement of thinking no longer allows a viewer to see a form as it might appear to another. Corrigan was specifically talking about the essay film and films about art that abstract the the act of thinking as a cinematic practice. While I am certainly not suggesting that something like Crash does that precisely, I am throwing out the idea that it does something similar for a certain segment of viewers. The films I’m thinking of do not turn away from narrative, but I think their methods and the understanding and adoption of those methods by certain segments of the public does comment on their “aesthetic experience and the subjectivity that articulates it” as well as force those viewers to confront the world and ideas of the world. It in essence mirrors much of what Corrigan seems to be suggesting, but at a level that those who fit the descriptions he is laying out can’t access due to a heightened refinement of sensibility, just as those who enact a more dynamic relationship with Crash are less able to access the sort of process that Corrigan lays out for a film like Hypothesis.
From what I can gather listening to many people and taking in their experience of Crash or some other roughly equivalent “message” films or shows, they see the film as something that isn’t exactly a film in the more normative sense, they understand it as being closer to the sort of investigation Corrigan describes for Hypthesis. They enact then suspend interpretive judgement and turn to “questions of judgment within other semantic contexts of their public experience, such as economics, politics, technology, reception, or cultural and historical differences. Rather than mimic aesthetic terms and questions, they refract and deflect them.”
This makes the film not a film in the usual sense, instead it becomes an interpretation of film watching for them, which acts as a primitve sort of hermeneutic thinking as they reflect on their experience and the context in which it arose as they follow and attach themselves to each figure in the film and try to fit each perspective into a new internal form. They talk of the film as being something removed from an aesthetic experience but still informed by it. In effect, it seems that this sort of film is understood as being necessarily seen as transcending the aesthetic, while being the best celebration of it. it isn’t a film about art, but it is understood to be an art film before one experiences it in a way, so it then becomes a comment or exploration of art as they understand it, thus creating a sort of refraction, a film that interrogates itself viewed through that perspective.
This isn’t necessarily apparent to one who is better educated in the arts, in fact it often can create a sort of virulent antipathy to the film as the aping of a “high art” process in a “middle art” form creates an impression of profound falsehood. (Just as that goes the other way for those that are not particularly interested or educated in the arts when viewing something like Hypothesis or any number of other “pretentious” films. I know this is outside the area Corrigan is exploring, and it does involve a sense of empathy, which is denied by some hermeneutic thinkers, but his article brought it to mind so I’m riffing on it as I go. The time I’ve spent with those who aren’t interested or educated in certain aspects of “higher learning” has made me deeply curious about the differences in perception and reception of art objects, so I’m throwing the ideas out there to see how they sound. It may strike some as being elitist or something, but I’m not intending a judgmental frame of reference, simply suggesting that the experiential or educational aspect may provide a differing understanding of related, but not identical, aesthetic/non-aesthetic understanding. Or, maybe I just haven’t had enough sleep.
Edit: I didn’t see what you posted before I wrote this Matt, so hopefully this will provide some answers to the question I didn’t know was being asked since i gotta go get some sleep now.
(Sorry, Greg, that I didn’t get to respond while you were still around . . . mouths to feed and all)
Ah.Yeah, I think in some ways what Haggis is going for is something similar to Mikhail Bakhtin’s idea of polyphony— “It is quite possible to imagine and postulate a unified truth that requires a plurality of consciousnesses, one that cannot in principle be fitted into the bounds of a single consciousness, one that is, so to speak, by its very nature full of event potential and is born at a point of contact among various consciousnesses”
I haven’t really had time to think about this in terms of similarities/differences regarding Corrigan’s idea of how the essay film works, but it’s something that might be interesting to explore in its own right.
Well, what triggered the chain of thoughts here is that to a certain segment of the population it seems that art is only achieved when it is no longer experienced as art, instead becoming something like an essay as it enacts a sort of mimesis and becomes effectively “real” to those watching it. It effaces its own artifice in a sense while still remaining a construction. The film then pushes the accepting viewer into adopting a self aware critical reflection on the relationship of the self to cinema as it shifts the response from passive acceptance of a narrative to a more active engagement with its, and their, relationship to the real.
In this way it may ape something of the function Corrigan is describing for viewers that engage with essay or reflexive films that engage ideas of art more directly. One of the key differences then is in the audience and reception rather than the films as those who accept the first sets of films I mentioned have a distinctly different relationship to art from those who appreciate the second group of films, and each form of appreciation acts as sort of a block to the other as the relationships to art are in some ways oppositional. In a way then, they act as mirrors to each other, or as a negative and a positive form of art appreciation where the one is seem as being the “true” and the other the “false” form of art, leading to the antagonism I was speaking of between those perched on either side.
Basically, I’m accepting what I gather from the Corrigan excerpt, but I am positing a reception based understanding of the interaction that leads in a direction that I find of interest as it might provide a different approach to thinking about how art works from differing viewpoints. All of which is a roundabout way of saying that I don’t have much to add to the conversation about Corrigan directly, but I appreciate the discussion so I’m trying to expend on it from another angle.
art is only achieved when it is no longer experienced as art, instead becoming something like an essay as it enacts a sort of mimesis and becomes effectively “real” to those watching it.
As if art is no longer dead, but can be experienced as a living thing.
What meaning you are assigning to ‘mimesis’ Greg?
I mean that the films in essence become the embodiment of the events they portray, they become “real” to the viewers even if they are in fact fictional representations. The story of the film stands in for reality and, in a way, is that reality as the events are more felt by the viewer in this form than in actuality. The replication surpasses the real as it is their path to engagement with it in a sense. It isn’t that there is a mistaking of the events depicted as having occurred in the sense of a delusion or failure to distinguish between screen and life, more that the effect on the viewer of this look at “reality” is the treated as if the representation holds an almost metaphysical link to the events being depicted.
Here’s an example of one attempt at re-thinking video film criticism, just posted to the Project: New Cinephilia site:
Nice little piece, I think that is the sort of experimentation that will really pay dividends as it is explored further. If Reverse SHOT, (sorry about being a dipshit and getting the name wrong last time, I don’t know how the hell I missed that, just inadvertently proving the usefulness of editors and the craftsmanship of professionals I guess.) anyway, as I was saying, if Reverse Shot starts to produce more video criticism of this sort or continue to experiment with the form I will definitely be checking the site more frequently as it hold the potential of you pathways for engagement with movies and the critical form or dialogue. This particular piece was still a little rough, showing the promise of the form without yet completely finding its full use. It is somewhat reminiscent of Los Angeles Plays Itself, obviously enough, but that doesn’t detract from the idea, especially as it might work with the sort of limited focus this piece suggested. With the recent sets of articles comparing two films that aren’t normally associated with each other and this piece, I think Reverse Shot is starting to find fruitful avenues of exploration, even if they haven’t quite managed to really capitalize on those ideas fully yet. The search itself is part of what makes this piece interesting as it is more about the attempt to work with this form and the ideas it can present than it is about the films themselves, at least in the sense of giving the viewer a dramatically different sense of the films discussed. I look forward to seeing more experiments of this sort.