Introduction: Essay Films and the City

Patrick Keiller's 'London' (1994)
[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.]

Let me start with an image to introduce the topic of this Mediapolis roundtable on the essay film and the city. It is a static shot from Patrick Keiller’s London (1994). In it we see a London street and the sign of the ‘Montaigne School of English’, while the (slightly unreliable, but extremely eloquent and often ironic) off-screen narrator tells us about Robinson, the invented protagonist of Keiller’s quintessential essay film about London, at that time, at least in the eyes of Keiller and his alter ego Robinson, a city in decay. Robinson, supposedly an ‘autodidact’ and part time Fine Arts lecturer at the (equally made up) ‘University of Barking’, is, according to the narrator, a London citizen who can barely survive in a city that is increasingly unaffordable to intellectuals at the margins of academic life. He likes to stroll through the city and to read Montaigne. ‘It is good to be born in depraved times. For by comparison to others, you are considered virtuous for a cheap price’, the narrator quotes from Montaigne’s essays. Keiller’s narrator draws here an analogy between Robinson and the inventor of the essay, Michel de Montaigne, the reclusive philosopher who wrote his essays in a tower and who was similarly marginal to his intellectual contemporaries. To Robinson as well as Montaigne, who are both autodidacts and outsiders to their communities or cities – that is, war-torn 16th century Bordeaux and neoliberal London in the 1990s – the (urban) world seems in crisis, morally deprived at least, but also intellectually and culturally in decline.

Even though Montaigne lived in the countryside for most of his life and his writings rarely touch on the issue of city life, the marginal perspective of the (critical) gaze in times of a perceived crisis seems to me one of the most distinct features that distinguishes many ‘city essay films’. A similarly marginal (as well as exiled) philosopher of his time, Walter Benjamin (who, just like Robinson and Montaigne, never made it as a bona fide academic), is still perhaps the most central source to consult in this matter. Benjamin, the foremost philosopher of the city, so to speak, wrote essayistic pieces on 19th century Paris (The Arcades Project) and his native Berlin (One-Way Street), but also on Marseille, Napoli, Capri, Ibiza, Moscow and Riga. He emphasized – via Baudelaire – the figure of the flâneur as quintessential. Flânerie, the act of strolling without clear designations through the city, observing its shapes and phenomena and simultaneously reflecting on it, philosophically, critically, poetically, is necessarily a fragmented and heterogeneous experience – akin to reading an essay by Benjamin. But wandering the city aimlessly is also an act of idleness and therefore an act of resisting the utilitarian rationalization of modern life. Modern, constantly shape-shifting cities like 19th century Paris or London in the 1990s, with their huge construction sites, mix of old and new architecture, constant influx of (rural or global) migrants, seductive consumer temples and busy traffic, destroy, in a way, modernity’s dream of having a fixed viewpoint to contemplate on, oversee or objectively categorize what one sees or senses. To Benjamin, the wandering gaze as well as the open form of the essay are therefore truly suitable ways of looking at and capturing the manifold sensations, problems and contradictions of modern urban life.

When it comes to the various historical cross-connections between the city and the essay film (as a form, as Adorno might have put it, or, more profoundly perhaps, as a distinct Weltanschauung), one perhaps needs to start with Dziga Vertov, Walter Ruttmann and the numerous 1920s city symphonies, depending on how one defines an ‘essay film’. If we define the essay film beyond montage, as a fragmented and subjective form as well as a mode of (semi-)philosophical reflection that often contains a more or less subtle critique (in this case, for instance, of urban architecture, urban renewal policies or urban social life), some 1960s and 1970s city essay films like Jean-Luc Godard’s 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her (1967), Jonas Mekas’s Lost, Lost, Lost (1974) or Chantal Akerman’s News From Home (1976) seem more significant. Essay filmmakers like Patrick Keiller or Thom Andersen (Los Angeles Plays Itself, 2003) seem to draw from this tradition. However, Peter von Bagh’s Helsinki Forever (2008), for instance, evokes the montage cinema of the Soviets, and Esfir Shub’s archival compilation strategies in particular, rather than Ackerman’s and Mekas’s flâneurial gaze or Godard’s philosophical renderings. Bagh’s film is made up of material from various eras and sources, both fiction and non-fiction, depicting the capital of Finland as a mythical place full of stories and haunted by ghosts from the past. Guy Maddins’s angry, poetic and almost nightmarish vision of his native city in My Winnipeg (2008), on the other hand, draws from surrealism and David Lynch as much as it does from classical essay films like 2 or 3 Things I Know About Her. And Thomas Elsaesser’s most recent Sonneninsel (2017) elegantly weaves autobiographical family stories and home video footage with a critique of neoliberal Frankfurt’s destruction of historical sites and buildings.

As these examples suggest, the outsider’s perspective from the margins (of academia, urban life or mainstream culture) is central to the essay film. This critical and wandering gaze, as well as the historically evolved heterogeneity of the form are, in my opinion, some of the most important issues when it comes to discussing essay films in relation to cities. However, I am very curious to find out how the contributors perceive this link, historically or via case studies, or in any other way.

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