Bad essays don’t think: reflections on a (still) heretic form of the cinematic city

Haunted urban site: memories of war and destruction are brought slowly into sight. Film still from Taste of Cement. Copyright Ziad Kalthoum.
[Ed. note: this post is part of a Roundtable discussion on “The Essay Film and The City.” For more background on the discussion and to view other posts in the series, see here.]

In his opening remarks to this second round of propositions on the essay film and the city, Igor finishes with the provocative question of whether we can still think of the essay film as ‘heretical’. For Theodor W. Adorno, who defines this term in his seminal essay on the essay as form, the radical potential of the essay consists in its ability to ‘criticize abstract fundamental concepts, aconceptual data, or habituated clichés’.1Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form’ [1958] in Essays on the Essay Film, eds. Nora Alter and Timothy Corrigan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 63. But does this still hold true today, Igor queries, particularly with regards to cine-essayistic accounts of the city in times of accelerated globalization and in light of the paradigmatic shifts that a ‘politics of memory’ have undergone over the last 30 years? I am tempted to cut the dialogue short and just quip with Adorno that ‘bad essays are just as conformist as bad dissertations’ – regardless of whether they were written in 1958 or 2018.2Adorno, 63. This has bearing upon the literary as well as the cinematic essay. Indeed, the excessive use of the term ‘essay’ these days and the grouping together of anything that looks as if it might classify as such, including self-portraits, diaries, art critiques or more academic forms of research in the literary and audio-visual form, has not only further weakened this inherently non-identical form, but also contributed to the mal-appropriation of the term for purposes of prestige and marketability.

Polemics aside, Igor’s question, carried perhaps by an interest in the possibilities essay films on the city may provide for alternative, if not radically new readings of history, memory and trauma, is an important one. But bad essays are not helpful here. They ‘tell stories about people’, as Adorno elaborates, ‘instead of elucidating the matter at hand’.3Adorno, 63. For a still ardent believer (like me) in cine-essayistic heresy as a means of politico-aesthetic intervention this distinction seems crucial. A fine line is drawn here between texts or, by extension, films that tell simply stories and those that aim further at the mobilization of thought through such stories to address a more fundamental question (‘the matter at hand’), one that concerns itself with specific collectives and the problems that are of its time.

As becomes clear from Roberto’s proposition, Jean Rouch and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été (1961) is not a film that explores individual human stories drawn from modern and chaotic Parisian life, but one that invests in this experience and material self-consciously, performatively and in auto-reflexive ways to rupture standardized, potentially stifling perspectives of 1950s and ’60s modernity to the extent that it also destabilizes dogmatic approaches of documentary practice itself, challenging, among others, Western constructions of the ethnographic gaze. In exploring Wim Wender’s Notebook on Cities and Clothes (1989) Thomas (re)discovers the radical potential of the essay film hidden in the unusual analogy that is forged in this film between the city fabric, the textile collection (the fabric of its clothes, but also its industrial infrastructure) of Japanese tailor and designer Yohji Yamamoto and the aesthetic and affective ‘texture’ of Wender’s cinematic essay itself. In both cases the camera eye operates at times like a seismographic instrument that detects and registers the vibrations and movements of the multiple and minute urban phenomena. The city becomes a site of research: a testing ground for the film essayist (or her inscribed subjectivity) to throw up materials into sharp relief while simultaneously grappling with them in ‘the instauration, through a thought in action, of new relations between those materials’.4Raymond Bellour with reference to Jose Moure, ‘The Cinema and the Essay as a Way of Thinking’ [2011], in Essays on the Essay Film, eds. Nora Alter and Timothy Corrigan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 233.

As the essay is by definition a minoritarian ‘genre’, the film essayist, as Laura argues with reference to the essay films by Georges Franju, Christopher Petit and Iain Sinclair, Pietro Marcello and Chantal Akerman, typically positions herself on the margins of the city, directing her gaze from the outside in. My own example, Ziad Kalthoum’s Taste of Cement (2017), complicates this gaze in significant ways but still operates from the periphery, opening up a transnational dialectics of looking in which colonial gaze and marginalized position are played out against each other. Taste of Cement was interesting to me in ways that Laura describes as the mobilization of a diachronic gaze in the essay film, which is not so much spatial as temporal. As her example of Hito Steyerl’s The Empty Centre (1998) illuminates, this gaze engenders a dynamic relation between different historically specific moments in time: the year 1990, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall and, seven years later, a time when globally operating companies like Daimler Benz or Sony Systems Inc. had reclaimed this wild space for commercial and entertainment purposes. Formally achieved through the juxtaposition of image and voice-over as well as ample use of superimposition, the diachronic gaze in Steyerl’s essay film produces a palimpsest-like layering, through which temporal multiplicities can be mobilized and scattered sites, decentralized lives and publics are invoked.

Unraveling complicated political pasts through the gaze. Film still from Taste of Cement. Copyright Ziad Kalthoum.

Analogy, palimpsest and diachronic gaze are formal strategies deployed in the essay film to set up complex composite structures and related modes of thinking that allow multiple moments in the past, present and future to speak to one another, hence producing a chain of signification from which unforeseen alliances, but also new ruptures may emerge. Consider the scenario fabricated in Taste of Cement: although Lebanon has a long tradition of labour migration from Syria, at least since the 1950s and ’60s, the presence of these men on a construction site in Lebanon in the 2010s is politically inflected through their status and experience as war refugees. Their marginalized role is, however, further complicated by their identity as Syrians and thus allegiance with a nation that, until recently, was one of the hegemonic forces present in Lebanon. A process of doubling is set in motion in Taste of Cement, which is ‘not immediately visible but is progressively brought into view’.5Max Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2013), 3. The process of reconstruction in Beirut appears to be haunted by the war and destruction of Syria in the present, but also by precarious political relations between these two nations in the recent past. A dialectics of perception is produced here in the image, which ‘is supposed to be mainly read not seen6Bellour with reference to Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Cinema and the Essay as a Way of Thinking,’ 233. Italics in the original. and grappled with, not just comfortably received.

Notes   [ + ]

1. Theodor W. Adorno, ‘The Essay as Form’ [1958] in Essays on the Essay Film, eds. Nora Alter and Timothy Corrigan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 63.
2, 3. Adorno, 63.
4. Raymond Bellour with reference to Jose Moure, ‘The Cinema and the Essay as a Way of Thinking’ [2011], in Essays on the Essay Film, eds. Nora Alter and Timothy Corrigan (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 233.
5. Max Silverman, Palimpsestic Memory: The Holocaust and Colonialism in French and Francophone Fiction and Film (New York and Oxford: Berghahn, 2013), 3.
6. Bellour with reference to Gilles Deleuze, ‘The Cinema and the Essay as a Way of Thinking,’ 233. Italics in the original.

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