the essay film

Antonio Lizárraga (Reviews Journal)


Commentary on the various forms of essay-type cinema.

I have been pursuing the idea of ​​an essay-type cinema for a long time, which in the past, using an expression from Eisenstein, I called conceptual cinema and today I tend to call it essay-film. I wrote about this subject for the first time, but still in an incipient way, in the old magazine Cinema Olho, then in the book Eisenstein (Brasiliense, 1983), later, already refining the idea better, in a text on the language of video (1997: 188-200) and finally in a book on the eloquence of images (2001), apart from passing references to the subject here and there .

Interestingly, in recent years there has been a growing interest in thinking about cinema or audiovisual in general through this prism. Jacques Aumont, for example, wrote a remarkable book about this, called à quoi pensent les films (1996), where he defends the idea that cinema is a way of thinking: it tells us about ideas, emotions and affections through a discourse of images and sounds as dense as the discourse of words. Gilles Deleuze, in his posthumous book L' île déserte et other texts (2002), states that some filmmakers, especially Godard, introduced thought into cinema, that is, they made cinema think with the same eloquence with which, in other times, philosophers did using verbal writing.

In English, there are now a good number of anthologies that try to reflect on what sometimes, for lack of a more appropriate term, is still called documentary, but which is now a form of audiovisual thinking. I could cite, for example, Experimental Ethnography, anthology edited by Catherine Russell (1999), and Visualizing Theory, organized by Lucien Taylor (1994), in which the writers, following the idea of ​​a visual anthropology, formulated since 1942 by Margaret Mead (Mead & MacGregor, 1951; Mead & Metraux, 1953), investigate the analytical potential of audiovisual media , that is, the non-linguistic analysis strategies that allow cinema and related media to overcome the literariness and scopophobia of classical anthropology and, by extension, of all academic thought. A Visual Anthropology Review, published in the USA since 1990, is also a manifestation of this new way of practicing anthropology through visual or audiovisual essays.

Let us then examine the test film and begin by explaining the concept. Let's think about the rehearsal first. We call an essay a certain type of scientific or philosophical discourse, usually presented in written form, which carries attributes often considered “literary”, such as the subjectivity of the approach (explicitness of the subject who speaks), the eloquence of the language (concern with the expressiveness of the text) and the freedom of thought (conception of writing as creation, instead of simple communication of ideas). The essay, therefore, differs from the mere scientific report or academic communication, where language is used in its merely instrumental aspect, and also from the treatise, which aims at an integral systematization of a field of knowledge and a certain “axiomatization” of language. .

One of the most eloquent approaches to the essay can be found in a text by Adorno (1984: 5-29), precisely called “The Essay as Form” and compiled in the first volume of his Literature Notes. In this text, Adorno discusses the “exclusion” of the essay in Western thought with Greek-Roman roots. Because he seeks the truth and, as a result, invokes a certain rationalization of Steps, the essay is excluded from the field of literature, where all disbelief is supposed to be suspended. On the other hand, because it insists on exposing the speaking subject, with his intentional gaze and aesthetic formalizations, the essay is also excluded from all those fields of knowledge (philosophy, science) that are supposed to be objective. In other words, the “literary” attribute disqualifies the essay as a source of knowledge, the irruption of subjectivity compromises its objectivity and, consequently, that “rigor” that is supposed to mark every process of knowledge and, on the other hand, the commitment with a search for truth makes the essay also incompatible with what is supposed to be the gratuity of literature or the irrationalism of art. Therefore, being located in a zone of truth and formal autonomy at the same time, the essay has no place within a culture based on the dichotomy of the spheres of knowledge and sensitive experience and which, since Plato, has agreed to separate poetry and philosophy, art and science.

It is therefore not a case of saying, if we want to follow Adorno's reasoning, that the essay is located on the border between literature and science, because, if we think like this, we will still be endorsing the existence of a duality between sensitive and cognitive experiences. The essay is the very negation of this dichotomy, because in it the passions invoke knowledge, the emotions architect the thought and the style refines the concept. “Because the essay is the quintessential form of thought in terms of its indeterminacy, of a process in progress towards an objective that many essayists call truth” (Mattoni, 2001: 11).

All reflection on the essay, however, has always thought of this “form” as essentially “verbal”, that is, based on the handling of written language, even if the relationship between the essay and literature is, as we have seen, problematic. The purpose of this article is to discuss the possibility of non-written essays, essays in the form of audiovisual utterances. Although theoretically it is possible to imagine essays in any type of artistic language (painting, music, dance, for example), since we can always face the artistic experience as a form of knowledge, for convenience we will restrict ourselves here to examining the cinematographic essay only. Since cinema maintains with the literary text certain affinities related to discursiveness and temporal structure, in addition to also having the possibility of including the verbal text in the form of oral locution, the challenge of thinking about an essay in audiovisual form is facilitated, or at least more operative than if we invoked other artistic forms. Therefore, it seems perfectly justifiable to start with the cinema and its congeners an approach to the essay in a non-written form, even more so if we consider that this discussion can later be expanded with the consideration of other artistic forms.

The documentary and the essay

Among cinematographic genres, the documentary could be considered the audiovisual form that comes closest to the essay, but this is a misleading way of looking at things. The term documentary covers a very wide range of works of the most varied kind, of the most varied themes, with styles, formats and gauges of all kinds. But, despite all this variety, the documentary is based on an essential assumption, which is its distinctive mark, its ideology, its axiom: the belief in the power of the camera and film to record some emanation of the real, in the form of traces, marks or any sort of registration of luminous information supposedly taken from reality itself. This belief in an “index” principle that would constitute every image of a photographic nature (including cinematographic and videographic images) is the characteristic feature of the documentary, what distinguishes it from other formats or audiovisual genres, such as fiction narrative or the cartoon.

You can do anything with a documentary – a look at popular demonstrations in Argentina, a report on the daily lives of Palestinians under Israeli fire, a tourist trip to the Alps in winter, a look through the microscope at the way how cells are subdivided inside a living organism – but what brings all these examples together in the documentary category is the almost mystical belief in the power of the technical apparatus (camera, mainly) to capture images or “indexes” of these realities by itself . An animated cartoon could never be a documentary because it doesn't have that trait, although, strictly speaking, there is nothing that prevents an animated cartoon from approaching, even in greater depth, the popular manifestations in Argentina, the day-to-day life of the Palestinians under Israeli fire, a tourist trip to the Alps in winter, or the way cells are subdivided inside a living organism. The difference, with regard to the drawing, is that in the documentary the “real” itself generates (or is supposed to generate) its image and offers it to the camera, thanks mainly to the optical-chemical properties of the technical apparatus and without contamination. of a subjectivity that is also supposedly partial or deforming.

Associated with this belief in the power of technology to hook something that can be called “real” is also implied a strange form of ontology, which presupposes the concrete and material world as already constituted in the form of discourse, a “natural” discourse, that “speaks” by itself and with its own means, to which it is only necessary to pay attention and respect it, but without affecting it or imposing any other discourse on it. All of this belief, deeply rooted among us, comes from the ideological origins of the western mirror image, which emerged in the Renaissance and reached its paroxysm in the ideas of André Bazin, in the 1950s, on the power of the camera to capture emanations of the real (see , for example, Bazin, 1981: 9-17; 63-80). In the case of Bazin, this is even justified, as this author deals with an assumed form of pantheism. Being a Catholic, Bazin supposed that a super-discourse was already present in the world, even before we could say anything about it, since this world is nothing but the speech of a super-enunciator, called God. It is impossible to believe in the existence of a natural discourse in the world, which the filmmaker would only have to capture, without the need for any human effort of intelligence or interpretation, if not through this pantheism naive.

Now this is all blatantly naive and it is surprising that this way of seeing things survives and resists after almost 200 years of photography history, after more than 100 years of cinema history and in the midst of the era of digital manipulation of the images. The documentary filmmaker, in the traditional and purist sense of the term, is a creature who still believes in storks. There has been a lot of talk in documentary circles, luckily less and less among the new generations, that the essence of documentary is not to interpret things, not to intervene in what the camera captures, not to add an explanatory discourse to the images, to let the “ reality” is revealed in the most stripped way possible. Now that is absolutely impossible. If the filmmaker refuses to speak in a film, that is, to intervene, interpret, reconstitute, who will speak in his place is not the “world”, but Arriflex, Sony, Kodak, that is, the technical apparatus. We know very well that the photo-cine-video device is far from innocent. It was built under very specific historical, economic and cultural conditions, for very particular purposes or uses, it is the result of certain worldviews and materializes these views in the way it reconstitutes the visible world. What is captured by the camera is not the world, but a certain construction of the world, precisely the one that the camera and other technological devices are programmed to operate.

The camera requires, for example, that one choose fragments of the visible field (section of space by the camera frame and depth of field, section of time by the duration of the shot) and therefore that one already assigns meanings to certain aspects of the visible and not to others. One must also choose a point of view, which in turn organizes the real under a deliberate perspective. The bibliography pertinent to the subject makes reference to a large number of case studies where the manipulation of time and space clippings and the selection of the viewing angle reconstitute the scene in a radical way, to the point of even completely transfiguring it. Each type of lens, in turn, reconstitutes a visual field in a certain way. One could speak of a productivity of wide-angle vision and another of telephoto vision. The three-dimensional image is flattened into two dimensions through the insertion of the Renaissance perspective code, with all its symbolic and ideological load. The mark of the negative, its graininess, its sensitivity to light, its latitude also influence the final result.

All of this is related only to the image, but there are still the determinations of the acoustic field (voices, noise, music, narration), as well as the effects of image-sound synchronization. Let us remember an instructive sequence of images of the Siberian city of Irkutsk, in the film Siberian letter (1957) by Chris Marker, which is repeated three times in the film, each time with a different soundtrack, in order to completely change the meaning of the images. In addition, there is a whole process of reconstruction of the so-called real world that takes place on the other side, on the side of the object, of what is available depending on the presence of the camera. Whenever someone feels himself being looked at by a lens, his behavior is transfigured and he immediately begins to act. The camera has a transfiguring power in the visible world that is devastating in its consequences. About twenty years ago I published The Specular Illusion (1984), where I spoke of the ways in which reality is converted into discourse by the camera, whether the photographer or filmmaker is aware of it or not. Since then, I have returned insistently to the theme, through numerous studies on the way in which image and sound encode the visible, build a worldview, sometimes even despite the director's will. So how could one naively talk about documentary?

If the documentary has something to say other than the simple celebration of values, ideologies and systems of representation crystallized by history over centuries, this something else it has is precisely what goes beyond its limits as a mere documentary. The documentary begins to gain interest when it proves capable of constructing a wide, dense and complex vision of an object of reflection, when it becomes an essay, a reflection on the world, an experience and a system of thought, thus assuming what everyone audiovisual is in essence: a sensitive discourse about the world. I believe that the best documentaries, those that have some kind of contribution to make to the world's knowledge and experience, are no longer documentaries in the classic sense of the term; they are, in fact, film-essays (or video-essays, or essays in the form of a television or hypermedia program).

The Russian Pioneers

To move forward, we could refer here to an important discussion that took place within Marxist thought, more precisely in Soviet Russia in the 20s, when some filmmakers engaged in the construction of socialism envisioned in silent cinema the possibility of promoting a leap to another discursive modality, founded no longer on the word, but on a syntax of images, on that process of mental associations that receives, in the audiovisual media, the name of montage or editing.

The most eloquent of these filmmakers, Serguei Eisenstein, formulated, at the end of the 20s, his theory of conceptual cinema, whose principles he found in the model of writing in oriental languages. According to the filmmaker, the Chinese built a writing “of images”, using the same process used by all ancient peoples to build their thinking, that is, through the use of metaphors (material images articulated in a way to suggest immaterial relations) and metonymies (transfers of meaning between images). The concept of “pain”, for example, is obtained, in eastern kanji writing, through the assembly (actually, superimposition) of the ideograms of “knife” and “heart”. In other words, for Orientals, the feeling of pain is expressed by the image (pictogram) of a knife piercing the heart. Nothing different, in fact, from the use of expressions such as “ter o corazón dilacerado”, in Portuguese, or “to break the heart”, in English, to express feelings of sadness or suffering.

In fact, Western languages ​​also widely use figures of speech such as metaphor, metonymy and their derivatives. If we suppressed the tropes of these languages, they would be reduced to an elementary babble, devoid of any intelligence or sensibility. Just think of the difference in strength that exists between a direct denotative expression like “it's thundering” and a connotative metaphor like “the sky has a throat clearing” (Guimarães Rosa). Most idioms (such as, in Portuguese, “chover canivete” or “duro pra dog”) are tropes that became generalized and came to constitute the lexicon of a language. Scientific discourse itself, considered accurate and objective, is full of metaphors and metonyms. In anatomy and physiology, for example, the expressions “tissue”, “stellate cell”, “rib cage” and “abdominal basin” are metaphors. Some concepts of astrophysics such as “nebula”, “dwarf star”, “fourth dimension”, “black hole”, “Big Bang”, “thermal death”, “cosmic egg”, “primordial soup” etc. are also metaphors. Mammal, in zoology, is a synecdoche (type of metonymy), in which a single one of the many characteristics of a species (the fact that the animal suckles when small) is taken to designate the species as a whole, that is, the part for the whole. Therefore, even scientific discourse is unthinkable without figures of speech.

Unfortunately, cinema – mainly sound cinema, formed from the 1930s onwards – has done everything to eliminate the expressive eloquence of metaphors and metonyms from its rhetorical resources, mainly due to the dictatorship of realism that was established in it and for which any interference with the “naturalness” of the record is a “literary” deviation. In this regard, André Bazin's efforts to discredit the “metaphorical” cinema of the so-called silent period, especially Russian cinema of the Soviet period, are well known (see, for example, Bazin, 1981: 49-61). It is as if Bazin postulated that in cinema one can never say (or represent in images and sounds) “the sky has a throat clearing”, but only “it is thundering”. Nor can one, in a scientific film, say “primordial soup”, but only “amino acid solution”. Movie bad luck! It just impoverishes you. In any case, today we can assess the damage that prejudices of this type imposed on the development of audiovisual language.

For that is where the turning point of Serguei Eisenstein takes place. The conceptual montage he conceived is a form of audiovisual utterance that, starting from the “primitive” thinking through images, manages to articulate concepts based on the pure poetic game of metaphors and metonyms. In it, two or more images are joined to suggest a new relationship not present in isolated elements. Thus, through processes of association, the abstract and “invisible” concept is arrived at, without losing the sensitive character of its constitutive elements. Inspired by ideograms, Eisenstein believed in the possibility of elaborating, also in cinema, complex ideas through images and sounds only, without necessarily going through narration, and he even carried out some experiments in this regard, in films such as October (October/ 1928) and Staroie and Novoie (The Old and the New/1929). The filmmaker also left a notebook for a (failed) project to take The capital from Karl Marx to cinema (see, on Eisenstein's ideas for Oktiabr, Staroie i Novoie e Das Capital: Machado.

But, if Eisenstein formulated the bases of this cinema, who actually created it in revolutionary Russia was his colleague Dziga Vertov. In the words of Annette Michelson (1984: XXII), Eisenstein was never able to assume his conceptual cinema project to the last consequences, as he was only allowed to make narrative films of a dramatic nature. Vertov, however, never had this type of limitation and, for that reason, was able to assume more radically the proposal of a cinema entirely founded on “intellectual” associations and without the need for the support of a fable. These associations already appear in several moments of the Kino-Glaz: Jizn Vrasplokh (Cine-Olho: Life to Improvisation/ 1924) by Vertov, especially in the magnificent sequence of the woman who goes shopping at the cooperative. In this sequence, Vertov uses the retroactive movement of the camera and inverted montage to change the economic production process (the meat, which was exposed in the market, returns again to the slaughterhouse and then to the body of the slaughtered ox, causing it to “resurrect” ), thus repeating the method of analytical inversion of the real process, used by Karl Marx in The capital (The book begins with an analysis of the commodity and from there returns to the mode of production, as according to Marxist methodology, inversion is a form of unveiling). but it is in Chelovek's Kinoapparatom (The Camera Man/1929) that the process of intellectual associations reaches its highest degree of elaboration, resulting in one of the densest films in all of cinema, which revolves, at the same time, “the cycle of a day of work, the cycle of life and death, reflection on the new society, on the changing situation of women in it, on the survival of bourgeois values ​​and poverty under socialism, and so on” (Burch, 1979: 94).

Chelovek's Kinoapparatom literally means “the man with the cinematographic apparatus”. Aumont (1996: 49) proposes that we think of this film as the place where cinema is founded as theory, based on a statement by Vertov himself (1972: 118): “The film Chelovek's Kinoapparatom it is not only a practical achievement, but also a theoretical manifestation on screen.” Dense, broad, polysemic, Vertov's film subverts both the novelistic view of cinema as fictionalization and the naive view of cinema as a documentary record. Cinema becomes, from it, a new form of “writing”, that is, of interpretation of the world and of wide diffusion of this “reading”, from a technological and rhetorical apparatus reappropriated in a perspective radically different from that which the originated.

Noteworthy is the fact that Vertov never filmed or accompanied the filming. In general, he used archival materials – as in Tri Pesni or Lenin (Three Corners for Lenin/1934) – or guided, by telephone or letter, the work of cameramen distributed in different parts of Russia – as in Chestaia Tchast Mira (The Sixth Part of the World/1926). He was basically an assembly man, a builder of audiovisual syntagms. The material filmed for him was just raw material that was only transformed into cinematographic discourse after a process of visualization, interpretation and editing. Most of Tchelovek s Kinoapparatom images are actually the creation of photographer Mikhail Kaufman. Vertov operated on this film at the levels of conception, scripting and, later, editing. Although he was not directly the editor (the editing was performed by Elizaveta Svilova, who appears in the credits as “assistant editor”), he directed the editing process more or less as the philosopher of the Middle Ages dictated his text to the scribe . In this sense, it can be said that the editing table was for him the modern equivalent of the ancient writing table of the writer or philosopher, where thought was constituted, from the slow elaboration of notes.

The Film Rehearsal

Let's think about the film-essay today. It can be built with any type of source image: images captured by cameras, drawn or generated on a computer, as well as texts obtained from character generators, graphics and also sound materials of all kinds. This is why the essay-film goes far beyond the limits of the documentary. He can even use fictional scenes, taken in the studio with actors, because their truth does not depend on any immaculate “record” of reality, but on a process of conceptual search and inquiry.

It is with Jean-Luc Godard that essay cinema reaches its maximum expression. For this remarkable French-Swiss filmmaker, it matters little whether the image he works with is captured directly from the “natural” visible world or is simulated with artificial actors and sets, whether it was produced by the filmmaker himself or was simply appropriated by him after of having been created in other contexts and for other purposes, whether it is presented just as the camera captured it with its technical resources or was immensely processed after capturing it using electronic resources. The only thing that really matters is what the filmmaker does with these materials, how he builds with them a dense reflection on the world, how he transforms all these raw and inert materials into the experience of life and thought.

How to classify, for example, a founding film like Deux ou Trois Choses que Je Sais d'Elle (Two or Three Things I Know About Her/1967)? It is not fiction, as there is no plot, nor dramatic form, nor characters that support a narrative plot, focusing most of the time on images of the city of Paris, with its buildings under construction, its housing complexes and its inhabitants. depersonalized. Nor is it a documentary about Paris, because there are scenes with actors and memorized texts, there are staging, scenes shot in the studio, and a large number of graphic images ripped from magazines or from consumer product packaging. This is, admittedly, a film-essay, where the theme of reflection is the urban world under the aegis of consumption and capitalism, based on the way in which the city of Paris is arranged and organized.

As Godard (1968: 396) himself said about his film, “if I reflect a little, a work of this genre is almost as if I were trying to write an anthropological essay in the form of a novel and to do so I had no disposition but musical notes”. What is most notable in this film is the way in which Godard passes from the figurative to the abstract, or from the visible to the invisible, working only with the cut operated by the camera frame. In a cafe in Paris, an anonymous citizen puts sugar in his coffee and stirs it with a spoon. Suddenly, a very close shot of the cup appears, the coffee becomes an infinite galaxy, with the bubbles exploding and the black liquid swirling in spirals, as in a painting by Kline or Pollock. Further ahead, a woman, on her bed, smokes a cigarette before going to sleep, but a very close-up completely transfigures the burning cigarette smoke, transforming it into an iridescent mandala.

These “abstract” images (actually concrete, but impossible to be recognized and interpreted as such) serve as the background for Godard's voice of reflection, as he questions himself about what is happening with modern cities and their cloistered creatures. But it is not the voice of a conventional narrator, like the one heard in some traditional documentaries: it is a whispered voice, in a very low tone, as if speaking inwardly, an admirable sound image of the inner language: thought.

Some of the most beautiful examples of intellectual montage can also be found in films such as 2001: the space odyssey (2001: A Space Odyssey/1968), by Stanley Kubrick, and in the short film Powers of Ten (1977), by Charles and Ray Eames. The former is an almost entirely conceptual film from start to finish, but the prime moment is in that extraordinarily precise cut, which leaps from a bone thrown in the air by a prehistoric ape to a sophisticated spaceship of the future, synthesizing (in a way) visibly critical) some tens of millennia of man's technological evolution. This eloquent example shows how an idea is born from the pure materiality of particular raw characters: the interpenetration of two simple representations produces a generalizing image that goes beyond the individual particularities of its constituents (Machado, 1983: 61-64; 1997: 195-196 ). The film by the Eames couple is a masterful synthesis, in just 9 and a half minutes of projection, of all the knowledge accumulated in the field of natural sciences. The incredibly simple idea is to make a zoom out from the image of a vacationer lying on the shore of Lake Michigan to the (known) limits of the universe and then a zoom-in from the same character towards the interior of his body, his cells and molecules, to the nucleus of the atoms that constitute him and the limits of knowledge of the microscopic world.

In Brazil, the adventure of the film-essay has yet to be told. There is a lack of research in this direction, but there is no lack of examples to analyze from this perspective. In my view, the most emblematic case to date is the film by Jean-Claude Bernadet São Paulo: Symphony and Cacophony (1995). Here, just as in Deux ou trois choses que je sais d'elle, the theme is the city (São Paulo, instead of Paris) and the model of urbanism implemented by capitalism, but unlike Godard's film, the city is seen here through the prism of cinema itself. In other words, the theme of Bernadet's film is the way São Paulo cinema interpreted its own city. So, the source of the images of São Paulo are the films that portrayed the city. It is, therefore, a film that fits into the category of montage of archival images, but the spirit of the film is entirely essayistic. It is as if Bernadet (critic, theorist and film historian) decided to write an essay on the way in which the city of São Paulo was interpreted by its filmmakers, but instead of promoting a written essay, he preferred to use the same language as his own language as metalanguage. object: the cinema.

Here, then, is an essay on cinema constructed in the form of a cinema, a truly audiovisual essay, without recourse to any verbal commentary. The film begins: characters are seen thrown into the urban landscape, among buildings and traffic, running or fleeing. Among the figures that run, the cripples begin to be defined in the first place: characters without feet, or supported by crutches. The theme of the feet is expanded: countless shots of hurried feet appear, moving in all directions, determined feet, directed towards a goal, usually at work. Suddenly, the first faces appear, initially almost diluted in the middle of the undifferentiated mass. They are anonymous, unknown faces, almost dissolved in the crowd. São Paulo appears, at first, as a gigantic mass crushed between traffic and buildings. Then, the first different faces begin to stand out: they are the characters, the individualized figures, bearers of a drama: Carlos de Sao Paulo S/A (Luís Sérgio Person, 1965), Martinho de The Room (Rubem Biáfora, 1968), the Luz de The Red Light Bandit (Rogério Sganzerla, 1969), Macabéa de The Hour of the Star (Suzana Amaral, 1985) and so on. A myriad of plots are insinuated without ever being completed: characters climb stairs, knock on doors, meet, pass each other in the streets, insult each other, attack each other, despair. For the cinema, São Paulo is invariably presented as a dark, inhospitable, castrating, destructive city. There is no idyll, there is no beauty, just a heavy gear that crushes everyone with its cold and relentless vocation for capitalist production. Those who don't fit in are thrown out and marginalized, returning, however, in the form of neurotics or bandits.

São Paulo: Symphony and Cacophony it is an eloquent demonstration that it is possible to construct an essay about cinema, using cinema itself as a support and language. In the future, when cameras replace pens, when computers edit film instead of text, this will likely be the way we “write” and shape our thinking.

* Arlindo Machado (1949-2020) was a professor at the Department of Cinema, Radio and Television at USP. Author, among other books, of The Fourth Iconoclasm and Other Heretic Essays (Water mark).


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