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.
Freedom and possibility … a still from Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) from 2011
by Sukhdev Sandhu. The Guardian, Saturday 3 August 2013
For years the essay film has been a neglected form, but now its unorthodox approach to constructing reality is winning over a younger, tech-savvy crowd.
For a brief, almost unreal couple of hours last July, in amid the kittens and One Direction-mania trending on Twitter, there appeared a very surprising name – that of semi-reclusive French film-maker Chris Marker, whose innovative short feature La Jetée (1962) was remade in 1995 as Twelve Monkeys by Terry Gilliam. A few months earlier, art journal e-flux staged The Desperate Edge of Now, a retrospective of Adam Curtis‘s TV films, to large audiences on New York’s Lower East Side. The previous summer, Handsworth Songs (1986), an experimental feature by the Black Audio Film Collective Salman Rushdie had once attacked as obscurantist and politically irrelevant, attracted a huge crowd at Tate Modern when it was screened shortly after the London riots.
Marker, Curtis, Black Audio: all have made significant contributions to the development of an increasingly powerful and popular kind of moving-image production: the essay film. Currently being celebrated in a BFI Southbank season entitled The Art of the Essay Film – curated by Kieron Corless of Sight and Sound magazine – it’s an elusive form with an equally elusive and speculative history. Early examples proposed by scholars include DW Griffith’s A Corner in Wheat (1909), Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Jean Vigo‘s A Propos de Nice(1930), but some of its animating principles were identified in a key text, “The Film Essay” (1940) by the German artist Hans Richter, which called for documentaries “to find a representation for intellectual content” rather than merely “beautiful vistas”.
Essay films, unlike conventional documentaries, are only partly defined by their subject matter. They tend not to follow linear structures, far less to buttonhole viewers in the style of a PowerPoint presentation or a bullet-pointed memo; rather, in the spirit of Montaigne or even Hazlitt, they are often digressive, associative, self-reflexive. Just as the word essay has its etymological roots in the French “essai” – to try – essay film-makers commonly foreground the process of thought and the labour of constructing a narrative rather than aiming for seamless artefacts that conceal the conceptual questions that went into their making. Incompletion, loose ends, directorial inadequacy: these are acknowledged rather than brushed over.
Aldous Huxley once claimed an essay was “a literary device for saying almost everything about almost anything”. Essay films exploit this freedom and possibility, exulting in the opportunity to avoid the hermetic specialisation that characterises much academic scholarship, and to draw on ethnography, autobiography, philosophy and art history. A case in point is Otolith I (2003) by the Turner prize-nominated Otolith Group, whose co-founder Kodwo Eshun will deliver a keynote speech at BFI Southbank: it uses the mass demonstrations against the second Iraq conflict in London as an occasion to think about political collectivity, and deploys an elusive, eerily compelling compound of science fiction, travelogue, epistolary writing and leftist history to do so.
This roaming or tentacular approach to structure can be seen as a kind of territorial raid. Or perhaps essay film-makers are aesthetic refugees fleeing the austerities and repressions of dominant forms of cinema. It’s certainly striking how many essay films grapple with landscape and cartography: Patrick Keiller‘s London (1994) uses a fixed camera, a droll fictional narrator named Robinson and near-forensic socio-economic analysis to explore the “problem” of England’s capital; Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) is an extraordinary montage film by Thom Andersen in which, sampling almost exclusively (unlicensed) clips from 20th-century cinema and with drily damning commentary, he critiques representations of his home city.
Essay films sometimes exhibit a quality of vagrancy and drift, as if they are not wholly sure of what they want to say or of the language they need to say it, which may stem from their desire to let subject matter determine – or strongly influence – filmic form. Here, as in the frequent willingness to blur the distinction between documentation and fabulation, the essay film has much in common with “creative non-fiction”. The literary equivalents of Hartmut Bitomsky, director of a mysterious investigation of dust, and Patricio Guzmán whose Nostalgia for the Light (2010) draws on astronomy to chart the poisonous legacies of Pinochet‘s coup d’etat in Chile, are writers such as Sven Lindqvist, Eduardo Galeano and Geoff Dyer. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that one of the most celebrated modern creative non-fiction authors was the subject of an equally ruminative, resonant essay film – Grant Gee’s Patience (After Sebald) (2011).
Essay film-makers – among them the Dziga Vertov Group (whose members included Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin) or the brilliant Santiago Álvarez – are often motivated by political concerns, but their work is never couched in the language of social realism or the journalistic dispatch. It is never purely utilitarian and is more likely to offer invitations to thought than clarion calls for action: Godard and Gorin’s Letter to Jane (1972) decodes at length a single still photograph of Jane Fonda on a trip to Vietnam; Black Audio Film Collective’sHandsworth Songs proposes that behind the blaring headlines of riot footage in the British media there lie the “ghosts of other stories”; Harun Farocki‘s Images of the World and Inscription of War (1988) explores the interplay of technology, war and surveillance. Essay films can be playful, but even when they are serious – as these three are – their approaches, at once rigorous and open-ended, are thrilling rather than pedagogic.
Just as literary critics used to lament that critical theory was taken more seriously in France than in the UK, the renown of essayists such as Marker, Godard and Agnès Varda (whose The Gleaners and I, a witty and moving meditation on personal, technological and socio-political obsolescence is a masterpiece) has served to obscure the range and history of British contributions to the genre: the sonically exploratory, surrealism-tinged likes of Basil Wright’s Song of Ceylon (1934) and Humphrey Jennings’s Listen to Britain (1942); Mike Dibb and John Berger’s Ways of Seeing (1972), which bears the imprint of Bertolt Brecht and Walter Benjamin; BS Johnson’s self-deconstructing Fat Man on a Beach (1973); Derek Jarman‘s exquisitely crepuscular Blue (1992), in which the director talks about and through his fading eyesight; and Marc Karlin’s resonant disquisition about cultural amnesia in For Memory (1986).
Some of these films started life on television, but these days it is the gallery sector that is more likely to commission or screen essay films, which are attracting ever more sizable audiences, especially younger people who have been weaned on cheap editing software, platforms such as Tumblr and the archival riches at YouTube and UbuWeb. Visually literate and semiotically savvy, they have tools – conceptual as well as technological – not only to critique and curate (moving) images, but to capture and assemble them. Having grown up in the era of LiveJournal and Facebook, they are also used to experimenting with personal identity in public; RSS feeds and news filters have brought them to a point where the essay film’s fascination with investigating social mediation and the construction of reality is second nature. It could well be that the essay film – for so long a bastard form, an unclassifiable and barely studied hybrid, opaque even to cinephiles – is ready to come into its own.
Just before Marc Karlin’s death, film-maker Isaac Julien remarked, ‘The reason why his (Karlin’s) work is still screened, is because he is seen as like the Chris Marker or Jean Luc Godard of the British independent scene. He was more or less the only person representing that sort of voice, that sort of perspective’.
Indeed Marker’s reflection on images, the media and their relationship with memory and with human subjectivity are themes shared by Karlin. And in terms of form, both film-makers are key to deploy alternating commentaries on history and society, with private musings and recollections. It is a voice that constantly shifts in linguistic registers, adopting poetic and prosaic tones in order to shake an amnesia strikened history.
Marc called Marker ‘The Monk’, on account of his reclusive nature and mythical standing with his contemporaries. Up until his death last month, Marker rarely granted interviews, opting to leave calling cards such as pictures of cats or owls. It is clear that Marker was a key influence on Marc, but what has been forgotten is Marc Karlin and Chris Marker were actually long-standing-collaborators. He met Marker during May ’68 while Marker was working on Cine-Tracts (1968) with Jean-Luc Godard. 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.
Born in 1900, Medvedkin was little known outside of his homeland unlike his contemporaries, Sergei Eisentstein and Dziga Vertov. Marker was drawn to Medvedkin after viewing his film Happiness (1934) in 1961, a satirical fantasy that promoted the benefits of collectivisation. The American writer Jay Leyda, who wrote Kino: A History Of The Russian And Soviet Film, introduced Marker to Medvedkin at the Leizig Film Festival in November 1967. This meeting resulted in Marker’s next film, Le Train en marche (1971) an attempt to explain the myth of Medvedkin’s kino-poezd/cine train, the impact it had on cinema and the practices it could inspire in democratic film-making.
Medvedkin saw his kino-poezd (294 days on the rails, 24,565m of film projected, 1000km covered) as a means of revolutionising the consciousness of the Soviet Union’s rural dwellers. Marker hoped his recent unearthing would incite similar political film-making. In London, Karlin and other kindred spirits joined Cinema Action.” There was a relationship to the Russians. Vertoz, the man and the movie camera, Medvedkin, and his agitprop Russian train; the idea of celebrating life and revolution on 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 we did”.
Marc recalls being asked to shoot the English version of Marker’s The Train Rolls On in the mid-1970s. “If Chris asked you to do something you did it: There was no question”. Marker instructed Marc to film at Peugeot car factory, where Marker wanted to make a film on car workers. He couldn’t go in person as he was known to the officials as an agitator. Working under the pretense he was making a film for the Common Market, Peugeot responsed by putting Marc and his crew in a luxury hotel in Paris.
Choosing not to approach filming the monotonous labour of the workers in a Godardian way, Marc found inspiration in how the workers for a few seconds would cease work,
“all they did was boom, boom, boom. Then I noticed that the workers on the assembly line would come up like fish for air. They would not touch, and they would open their mouths. The Peugeot people were so canny, because they would put together a Moroccan, Portuguese, French and an Italian, so no one could actually speak to each other because on one knew each other’s lanuguage. That was why an excessive amount of touching was going on. I said to the cameraman, ‘Look, that’s how we film. We don’t film the work, because we can show that in twenty or thirty seconds. But we can film these people gasping for air. Or touching, whatever’. That is what we filmed. And then the audience had to imagine. What does it take for somebody to come up for air like that? Or touch? Those are the questions; when you talk about images of labour, how do you film labour?”
In the mid 1970s, Marker contacted left-wing filmmakers and groups to send him their offcuts. As Marker was ‘le maitre’, Marc agreed. Here Marc describes Marker’s studio upon a visit, “Chris had a garage, a huge studio with drainpipes all across it. It was vast, and he put these little rolls of films all along the drainpipes, and then divided it onto countries, so you had Columbia, Peru, Cuba, Africa and so on. I entered this garage to find all these films from all these countries: the whole world was there. Right at the end there was Chris Marker on a platform with his editing table, and he looked like God. You had to walk past these films to reach him and sit down”.
The film became Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977). It focused on the doomed optimism of left-wing activism from the second half of the 20th century. The ‘red in the air’ implying the socialist project only existed in the air, communicated only by a dream language. Again, Marc did the English version, A Grin without a Cat (1988) for Channel 4. Running shorter than Marker’s film and adding a new voice cast including Jim Broadbent and Cyril Cusack.
A Grin Without A Cat Channel 4 Contract. © The Marc Karlin Archive
Around this time, Marc, in need of political inspiration, wanted to make a film about Chris Marker that would use Marker’s images, entitled, I Am Writing To You From A Distant Country… In keeping with Marker’s style, it begins with a letter followed by a montage of stills and sequences from Letters From Siberia (1957), Le joli mai (1963), La jetée (1962) and Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) . From the treatment, we see the intention – to locate a time-travelling Marker. Marc asks, who is this letter writer and traveller? How do we recognise him?.. What does he declare at customs? There are no photographs of him, no evidence other than his letters. He is a Martian, an astronaut, an 18th century time-traveller, a descendant of Vikings, a Marxist, a subversive, an old man of letters… There are traces but no apparition, we have the grin but no cat. But we know where he lives: in a house in Neuilly, painted outside with owls whose eyes glint in the dark…
Here is a rather faded, time travelling letter from Marc to the Monk, informing him of the project. It comes at a time where Marc is creatively and politically jaded – in ‘Thatcher’s trough’.
Letter to Chris Marker. © The Marc Karlin Archive
The film never materialised, undoubtedly sucked into a black hole. Undettered, Marc ploughed into his next project, Between Times (1993). Possessing dialectic discsussive voice-overs, Between Times is a clear nod to Marker. The film’s main focus is on the Thurcroft miners failed attempt to buy their colliery from British Coal and the search for fresh alternatives after the devisive general election defeat for the left in 1992. This new perspective draws optimism from the educational ethos at Northern College, a residential college dedicated to the education and training of men and women who are without formal qualifications. The film observes a key moment in the shifting attitudes and aspirations among the working class in Britain at the time and recalls a May ’68 slogan,
le pain pour tous mais aussi / bread for all but
The slogan is actually taken from a strike in March 1967 at the Rhodiaceta textile factory in Bresancon, France. The workers were not merely demanding higher wages but challenging the core oppression within capitalist society; wages yes, but what about education and cultural life? Chris Marker entered the strike on March 8 1967, resulting in the documentary À bientôt, j’espère (1967) (see below, sorry no Eng Subs) filmed by Marker between March 1967 and January 1968 with the Communist filmmaker Mario Marret and the SLON team.
As Trevor Stark points out in his excellent essay, “Cinema in the Hands of the people”; Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant film, the film À bientôt, j’espère emphasises the liberating experience of laying claim to sectors of life inaccessible to the worker: to creativity, to culture, to communication. Forty-two minutes into the documentary we see Pol Cébé, a factory worker from the working class district of Palente-les-Orchamps who had established a cultural programme for the local community and had regenerated the factory’s library with classic Marxist and Communist texts, in close-up state,
For us culture is a struggle, a claim. Just as with the right to have bread and lodgings, we claim the right to culture – it’s the same fight for culture as for union or in the political field.
À bientôt, j’espère is left purposley open-ended with little resolution, marked tellingly by Pol Cébé reciting the documentary’s title À bientôt, j’espère – ‘Hope To See You Soon’. The strike at Rhodiaceta achieved nothing but the broadening of class concsiousness that consequently lit the test paper for the events in Paris the following May. These concerns are resuscitated in Between Times. The miners are halted in their plan to buy their colliery and are pointed to the development of technology for optimism. Sadly, Marc Karlin observes the irony that before, a dream language could still be spoken, now the dreams are possible we no longer know how to speak it. Like À bientôt, j’espère, Between Times ends without a dialectical antithesis, leaving all but tension.
So he decided to keep his voices, make them argue, merge, split again. Be on high and on the ground. Anything to keep that sleepy logic at bay. But then there were those who were doing this all along…
These words are spoken over a slow tracking shot of a wildlife garden revealing in the foreground, a golden egg – Marker’s owl.
Looking at Class. Film, Television and the Working Class in Britain, S, Rowbotham & H, Beynon, (Rivers Oram Press:2001)
The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film, L, Rascaroli, (Columbia University Press:2009)
Chris Marker: Memories of the Future, C, Lupton, (Reaktion Books:2004)
Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film, J, Leyda (Princeton University Press:1983)
“Cinema in the Hands of the people”; Chris Marker, the Medvedkin Group, and the Potential of Militant film, T, Stark, (mitpressjournals:2012)