Spring 2014: Orientations in Film Theory: The Essay Film

Friday, February 28, 2014 - 2:00pm
Friday, March 14, 2014 - 2:00pm
Friday, April 18, 2014 - 2:00pm
Hornbake Nonprint Media Services Library Room H

1 credit
Instructors: Eric Zakim and Luka Arsenjuk
2:00-4:00 p.m. 2/14; 2/28; 3/14; 4/4; 4/18

From a situation of relative neglect, the essay film has in recent years been resurrected as one of the most theoretically interesting cinematic genres. Timothy Corrigan, in his study The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker, claims: “Essay films are arguably the most innovative and popular forms of filmmaking since the 1990s.” Distinct from narrative and documentary filmmaking, and somehow tied to the histories of modern literature and philosophy, the essay film seems to hold a promise for a radically new cinematic treatment of the questions of subjectivity, its thought and relationship to the world. The film essay’s looseness, fragmentary nature, and the uncreative affirmation of play have been seen by many as offering a whole set of alternative aesthetic operations, through which the exhausted capacities of cinema might (once more) be reinvigorated.

Yet with the growing significance of the essay film there also emerges the difficult question of its specificity and definition. As we explore the essay film and its consequences for the theory of cinema, we will take as our guide the principle of heterogeneity, according to which the object of study is best grasped not as a stable and unified entity, but rather as something essentially interstitial, to be caught briefly in the passages between different domains. In the case of the essay film, these interstices or passages might emerge between distinct genres of filmmaking, between cinema and other arts (literature, but also painting, music,…), between several rhetorical modes of address, between different media, and so on.

The growing significance of the essay film might have, in fact, brought to the surface the inherently unstable nature of cinema as an art, a dimension that certainly existed since cinema’s beginning, but has perhaps until recently remained hidden or at least more successfully disguised. In the sense that it presents cinema as a radically heterogeneous object, the rise of the film essay can perhaps be compared to the emergence of other interstitial artistic forms, such as the art installation, whose increasing presence signal a significant and not yet fully theorized shift in our understanding of art and artistic work today. The essay film can thus also be read as a symptom, from the point of which a more general diagnosis of the historical shifts in our culture can be attempted.


Note: In light of UMD's closure for weather on February 14, a meeting for March 14th has been added

February 14 February 28th, 2014: Essay as Form (Philosophy, Literature, Cinema)

February 28 March 14th, 2014: Film Essay and the Ends of Cinema (Analysis, History)

April 4, 2014: Meeting in conjunction with Film Studies Essay Film Symposium

April 18, 2014: Film Essay and Contemporary Culture