Organised by the University of Reading’s Centre for Film Aesthetics and Cultures (CFAC), the ‘World Cinema and the Essay Film’ conference (30 April – 2 May 2015) featured Prof Timothy Corrigan’s (University of Pennsylvania) keynote address on ‘Essayism and Contemporary Film Narrative’, in which he describes how the mode of essayist becomes more and more frequently a disruptive force in narrative films such as Tree of Life (Malick 2011) or The Mill and the Cross (Majewski 2011).
Timothy Corrigan is a Professor of English and Cinema Studies at the University of Pennsylvania. He received a B.A. from the University of Notre Dame, and completed graduate work at the University of Leeds, Emory University, and the University of Paris III. Books include The Films of Werner Herzog: Between Mirage and History (Routledge), A Cinema without Walls: Movies and Culture after Vietnam (Routledge), New German Film: The Displaced Image (Indiana UP), Film and Literature: An Introduction and Reader (Routledge), The Film Experience (Bedford/St. Martin’s), Critical Visions: Readings in Classic and Contemporary Film Theory (Bedford/St. Martin’s, both co-authored with Patricia White), American Cinema of the 2000s (Rutgers UP), and The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker (Oxford UP), winner of the 2012 Katherine Singer Kovács Award for the outstanding book in film and media studies.
Prof Corrigan’s keynote speech abstract ‘Essayism in Contemporary Film Narrative‘
The essay, the essayistic, and essayism represent three related modes that, at their core, test and explore subjectivity as it encounters a public life and subsequently generates and monitors the possibilities of thought and thinking. The first is a semi-generic product, the second an intervention, and the third a kind of knowledge. The relation of each to other practices, such as narrative, is largely a question of ratios: as assimilative, as inflective, or as disruptive. My title obviously draws on the third mode, and aims to describe and argue a way in which the heritage and distinctions of the essay take a different form than those described more essentially by the essay film. Here, essayism becomes more and more frequently a disruptive force and presence within the presiding shape of a film narrative, a disruption that questions, at its heart, the limits and possibilities of film narrative itself. Specifically and too schematically, essayism questions the interiority of film narrative 1) through the disintegration of narrative agency as a singular and coherent figure, 2) through the exploration of the margins of temporality and history (as a realism) in a movement into unsheltered and “improbable” places, and 3) through the questioning of the knowledges that have conventionally sustained narrative. My two examples will be Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life and Lech Majewski’s The Mill and the Cross, both released in 2011, both engaged with and questioning–not coincidently I think–a dominant Judeo-Christian narrative as the foundation of knowledge, and both operating on the edges of conventional narrative form.
Timothy Corrigan University of Pennsylvania
Date: 30 April – 2 May 2015
Venue: Minghella Building, Whiteknights Campus, University of Reading
Conference convenor: Dr Igor Krstic
This summer MUBI UK be hosting a retrospective on one of the all-time favourite auteurs, Master film & video essayist Chris Marker. Each week MUBI will play one of his most iconic works.
One the most influential films in cinema history, Dziga Vertov’s exhilarating ode to Bolshevik Russia returns to cinemas across the UK from 31 July 2015.
‘I am the camera eye, I am the mechanical eye. I am the machine which shows you the world as only I can see it’
– Dziga Vertov
“Man with a Movie Camera” met with bewilderment on its release but is now recognised as one of the most radical films of Soviet cinema, and a major influence on Godard, Marker and others.
It’s a great city-symphony: the ‘Kino-Eye’ turns the camera into the protagonist, providing an impressionistic, lyrical portrait of a day in the life of Moscow’s masses at work and at play. But Vertov also investigates film itself, wittily transforming the world caught by his lens with a dazzling array of experimental camera and editing techniques. The constant invention remains astonishing to this day.
Promotional Material from Cinema Action’s Rocinante – found in the archive.
Last week in the BFI’s Essential Experiments slot, William Fowler presented the work of the filmmaking collective, Cinema Action. Two films were screen from the collective’s vast filmography – Squatters (1970), an attack on the Greater London Council regarding their lack of investment in housing . The film provided important – if controversial – information about the use of bailiffs in illegal eviction. And So That You Can Live (1981) which is widely recognised as one of Cinema Action’s finest works. The film follows the story of inspiring union convenor Shirley and the impact global economic changes have on her and her family’s life in rural South Wales. The landscape of the area, with all its complex history, is cross-cut with images of London, and original music from Robert Wyatt and Scritti Politti further reinforces the deeply searching, reflective tone. It was also broadcast on Channel 4’s opening night in November 1982.
Here is a history of Cinema Action via the BFI’s Screenonline
Cinema Action was among several left-wing film collectives formed in the late sixties. The group started in 1968 by exhibiting in factories a film about the French student riots of that year. These screenings attracted people interested in making film a part of political activism. With a handful of core members – Ann Guedes, Gustav (Schlacke) Lamche and Eduardo Guedes – the group pursued its collective methods of production and exhibition for nearly twenty-five years.
Cinema Action‘s work stands out from its contemporaries’ in its makers’ desire to co-operate closely with their working-class subjects. The early films campaigned in support of various protests close to Cinema Action‘s London base. Not a Penny on the Rent (1969), attacking proposed council rent increases, is an example of the group’s early style.
By the beginning of the seventies, Cinema Action began to receive grants from trades unions and the British Film Institute. This allowed it to produce, in particular, two longer films analysing key political and union actions of the time. People of Ireland! (1971) portrayed the establishment of Free Derry in Northern Ireland as a step towards a workers’ republic. UCS1 (1971) records the work-in at the Upper Clyde Shipyard; it is a unique document, as all other press and television were excluded.
Both these films typify Cinema Action‘s approach of letting those directly involved express themselves without commentary. They were designed to provide an analysis of struggles, which could encourage future action by other unions or political groups.
The establishment of Channel Four provided an important source of funding and a new outlet for Cinema Action. Films such as So That You Can Live (1981) and Rocking the Boat (1983) were consciously made for a wider national audience. In 1986, Cinema Action made its first fiction feature, Rocinante, starring John Hurt.
Marc Karlin joined Cinema Action in 1969. He had just returned to London after being caught up in the events of May ’68 in Paris while filming a US deserter. It was there where Karlin met Chris Marker, who was editing Cine-Tracts (1968) with Jean-Luc Godard at the time. Marker had just formed his film group SLON and had since released Far from Vietnam (1967), a collective cinematic protest with offerings from Jean-Luc Godard, Alain Resnais and Agnes Varda, inspired by the film-making practices of the Soviet film-maker, Alexander Medvedkin. The idea of taking this model of collective filmmaking back to the UK appealed greatly to Karlin, and was shared by many of his contemporaries. He details this enthusiasm in an interview with Sheila Rowbotham from 1998…
…when Marker started SLON, ideas about agitprop films were going around. Cinema Action had already started in England by 1969 when I joined. There was a relationship to the Russians: Vertov, the man with a movie camera, Medvedkin and his Russian agitprop train; the idea of celebrating life and revolution in film, and communicating that. Medvedkin had done that by train. SLON and Cinema Action both did it by car. Getting a projector, putting films in the boot, and off you went and showed films – which is what we did…
…when I joined there was no question of making documentaries for television. We showed our films at left meetings, where we would set up a screen, do leaflets and so on. It is often hilarious. I remember showing a film on housing in a big hall in the Bull Ring area of Birmingham. It started with machine gun noises, and Horace Cutler, the hated Tory head of the Greater London Council, being mowed down. The whole place just stopped and looked, but, of course, as soon as you got talking heads, people arguing or living their ordinary lives, doing their washing or whatever, we lost the audience. I learnt something through seeing that.
Evidently, Karlin was frustrated about the political and aesthetic approach of Cinema Action. In fact, salvaged in the archive is two thirds of a letter written by Karlin to Humphry Trevelyan that goes into some detail over the reasons for why Karlin intended to leave Cinema Action. For now, here is Karlin giving a somewhat exaggerated reason for leaving in the interview with Rowbotham…
…Schlacke (Cinema Action co-founder) had a thing about the materialist dialectic of film. Somehow or other – and I can’t tell you how are why – this meant in every eight frames that you had to have a cut. Schlaker justified this was some theoretical construct, but it made his films totally invisible. After a time I just got fed up. James Scott, Humphry Trevelyan and I started The Berwick Street Film Collective and later went on to join Lusia Films.
The Berwick Street Film Collective’s Nightcleaners (1975)
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
Chris Marker’s If I Had Four Dromedaries (1966).
Composed entirely of still photographs shot by Marker himself over the course of his restless travel through twenty-six countries, If I Had Four Dromedaries stages a probing, at times agitated, search for the meanings of the photographic image, in the form of an extended voice-over conversation and debate between the “amateur photographer” credited with the images and two of his colleagues. Anticipating later writings by Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag (who professed her admiration for the film) If I Had Four Dromedaries reveals Marker’s instinctual understanding of the secret rapport between still and moving image.
Clearly, If I Had Four Dromedaries, was a key influence on Marc Karlin’s Nicaragua Part 1: Voyages.
The first part in Marc Karlin’s extraordinary Nicaraguan series, comprises of stills by the American photographer Susan Meiselas. Between 1978 and 1979, Meiselas captured the two revolutionary insurrections which brought the FSLN to power in Nicaragua, overthrowing the fifty year dictatorship of the Somoza family. The film is in the form of a letter, written by Meiselas to Karlin. Through her own words, the film interrogates the responsibility of the war photographer, the line between observer and participant, and the political significance of the photographic image.
Thanks to ChrisMarker.org
In the Spring of 2013, the Cinémathèque française took possession to its archives 550 large moving boxes containing the archives of Chris Marker, deceased during the summer of the preceding year. Under the conduct of a scientific committee of individuals close to the filmmaker and familiar with his work, the inventory of the estate began rapidly. The total duration of the operation was estimated at around three years. So where are we, two years later?
The 550 boxes that make up the estate are divided as follows:
5 boxes of posters; 6 boxes of LP records and musical documents; 15 boxes of photographs; 55 boxes of objects, miniatures…; 66 boxes of audiovisual material (Beta, master…); 98 boxes of archives (press documentation, files & folders); 112 boxes of VHS and DVD edits and personal recordings; 137 boxes of periodicals and books.
At this point in time, the boxes of photographs have been thoroughly inventoried, although not all photographs have been identified. Similarly, the inventory of ‘apparatuses/apparatii’ [appareils] is complete. The library of Chris Marker, rich with some 137 boxes, has been made the object of a deeper study and is approaching completion. An actively used library, as opposed to a collector’s library, it presents a singularity in so far as each work is stuffed with diverse documents: letters, press clipings, etc. Each volume therefore has been the object of a precise description of the elements that it contains. To get an idea of this library, the inventory would be certainly instructive, but evidently insufficient. A virtual library project is therefore being considered.
The inventory continues currently with the objects, posters, audiovisual materials and paper archives. This work should be completed by Fall 2015. The inventory of hard drives, on which Marker worked during the course of the last 20 years of his life, has also begun. These discs contain several million files. To bring to fruition the description of their contents will be a long-term work [‘de longue haleine’, literally ‘of long breath’]. Similarly, initial work on the state of more than a thousand digital diskettes [floppies/zip/flash drives presumably] has begun with the help of a digital conservation specialist [digital archivist]. A work of securing and restoring, an indispensible prior step to taking an inventory, will be conducted in the coming months.
During the course of the Fall, the VHS, DVD, CD and vinyl LPs will be inventoried, permitting thereby, with the horizon of Summer 2016, to have analyzed the sum total of the boxes of the estate and to have arrived at an initial, global view of its coherence and richness. Work on cataloging can then begin, with the objective remaining to place the estate at the disposition of researchers starting in 2018, while presenting it as well in the form of a grand exhibition at the Cinémathèque française. The scientific committee is already working toward this goal.
In 1967, Chris Marker and Mario Marret filmed BE SEEING YOU (À BIENTÔT J’ESPÈRE), about a strike and factory occupation-the first in France since 1936-by textile workers in the city of Besancon, the goals of which were unusual because the workers refused to disassociate their salary and job security demands from a social and cultural agenda.
Nevertheless when the film was completed, and the filmmakers returned to screen it for the workers in Besancon, many of them were not happy with it. LA CHARNIERE, the audio recording of their intense debate after the screening, is included on this disc as an extra, accompanied by photographs of the film workshops, shot by Ethel Blum.
In response Marker and his colleagues reorganized their efforts, and began training workers to collaboratively make their own films, under the name “The Medvedkin Group”, after Alexander Medvedkin, who invented the cine-train, a mobile production unit that toured the USSR in 1932 filming workers and farmers. CLASS OF STRUGGLE, their first film, picks up a year later and focuses on the organizing efforts of workers at a nearby watch factory, particularly the story of one recently radicalized woman, Suzanne Zedet. She articulates the radical scope of the workers’ demands, which include access to the tools of cultural production.
76 minutes / b&w
Praise for A BIENTOT, J’ESPERE:
“Terrific!” —Professor Ellen Furlough, History Dept., University of Kentucky
“Effectively places us in the middle of the strike and offers intriguing insights into the motives of the workers and organizers…” —New York Magazine
Praise for CLASS OF STRUGGLE:
“One of the finest examples of the politically engaged French documentary cinema of the late Sixties. “—Sam DiIorio, Film Comment
“Fluent, energetic, and wide-ranging!” —Catherine Lupton, Chris Marker: Memories of the Future
“One of the great films of May of 1968.” —Paul Douglas Grant, Directory of World Cinema: France
“[The Medvedkin Group] would go on to make nearly a dozen films, some of them stunningly beautiful, most notably CLASS OF STRUGGLE.” —Min Lee, Film Comment