Making More Films about Films: The Essay Video

Jane Sillars

On Thursday 20th February, as part of the Innovative Learning Week programme, Film Studies explored new ways of thinking about film and communicating about and through the moving image.

The essay film, as chair David Sorfa outlined, has a long lineage.  Championed by film-makers such as Orson Welles, Lindsay f for fake posterAnderson and Chris Marker, it offers a means of examining and testing ideas and flights of thinking through the juxtaposition of image and sound.  In the field of exhibition, London’s BFI Southbank last year hosted a major season on the film essay, debated within the pages of Sight and Sound.

Within film studies, academics and students are increasingly drawn to experimenting with audio-visual presentations as a way of conducting film analysis and critique.  Enabled by digital technology, the video essay can construct either an alternative or a complementary voice to the written essay: one which offers possibilities and challenges within a higher education context. Indeed here at the University of Edinburgh a Principal’s Teaching Award supported Martine Beugnet, Susan Kemp and Jane Sillars in earlier explorations of using editing software to enable students to produce critical and creative responses to film.

story of filmThe centrepiece of the morning was film maker Mark Cousins’ passionate exposition of how he came to fall in love with the essay film.  Mark has worked for many years as a film maker, as a film critic and as a writer about film. In 2011 he completed his mammoth and magisterial The Story of Film: an Odyssey.  This series of fifteen hour-long films is nothing less than a global history of cinema from its inception, authored through Cousins’ informed and distinctive perspective.  Exhausted from the scale and complexity of these labours and related negotiations, Mark told the audience how his subsequent project What is this film called love? (2012), was made over three days in Mexico for a budget of under £10.  It involving the film maker, a small cheap camera and script which fitted into a tin box.  This film, a kind of conversation between Cousins, Soviet film maker Sergei Eisenstein and Virginia Woolf, has been followed by a series of works which have seen Cousins really testing the possibilities of the film essay as a means of thinking about cinema through the moving image itself.  An extract he screened from his The Story of Children and Film demonstrated how a small-scale and local domestic scene (Mark’s niece and nephew playing in his Newington front room) can open up into an examination of the ways cinema across the globe has gazed at children and what it has found in that contemplation. a-story-of-children-and-film-poster1

As ever with Mark, it was clear that the only thing more powerful than his passion for film is his deep knowledge of the field.  His films and his talk provided a properly inspiring sense of both the possibilities and the pleasures of knowledge, of exploration and of experimentation. Mark’s later reading of his manifesto however, reproduced in full here suggested the capacity of the film essay to be a more radical form than can always be incorporated in more traditional models of research.

Pasquale Iannone
, a film academic erstwhile of our airts and currently teaching with Edinburgh’s Office of Lifelong Learning, talks to many audiences beyond the university – through his broadcasting and film talks at FilmHouse and Glasgow Film Theatre.  Here he described his own more recent turn to the video essay as a new way of considering films and their relations to one another.  Pasquale screened a short piece editing together extracts from three films by Carol Reed, Jan Nemec and Jerzy Skolimowski called Hunted.  Spanning decades, nations and styles the work uses cross-cutting and manipulation of sound to highlight consonances between the works.

The session closed with a student production – Kerry Davidson’s response to Hollywood comedy In and Out, describing her return to a teenage favourite film from a more problematized and politicised critical point of view.  Another very different interpretation of the video essay form, Kerry’s piece (engagingly fronted by herself in a very assured performance – a presenting career awaits …) offered very suggestive ways of using video as an alternative form of seminar presentation.

Over the morning, discussion from the floor was engaged and wide-ranging – moving from Heidegger to Doctor Who, as well as the knottier fields of film copyright and quality assurance.  Ably chairing, David Sorfa introduced some thought-provoking alternative examples of the form, ranging from the more formal illustrated lecture-type essay of Matt Zoller Seitz on Wes Anderson here to the more playful visual manipulations of Catherine Grant, founder of the fantastic site Film Studies for Free, here riffing on whether Shirley Temple was a cyborg.

This tension between what we might see as didactic and poetic functions of film essays – especially within the university – were the source of valuable discussion.  It’s clear this is a tension which will continue to generate creative responses.


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