At the start of the millennium the term essay film was rarely encountered; today, its use is ubiquitous. Critics, artists, festivals and art galleries adopt it to label an ever-expanding range of films and installations, raising issues of use and categorization, as well as some doubts about its continued effectiveness in describing work which, ever since T. W. Adorno, is thought of as irreducibly experimental and impervious to the market. Recently, a new label has started to gain currency: the poetic or lyrical essay. These terms have circulated in the reviews of a diverse range of titles – from Jean-Luc Godard’s Film Socialisme (2010) to Mark Cousins’s I Am Belfast (2015), from Patricio Guzmán’s The Pearl Button (2015) to Trinh T. Minh-ha’s Forgetting Vietnam (2016), from Alexandr Sokurov’s Francofonia (2015) to Laurie Anderson’s Heart of a Dog (2015). Although a poetic vein is clearly distinguishable in the history of the essay film (as the examples of Marguerite Duras, Forough Farrokhzad, and Pier Paolo Pasolini all show), the lyrical essay is still substantially undertheorized. This might be explained by the conviction that distinctive features of the lyric, such as affect and sublimity, are at odds with the essay’s logocentric rationalism and its sceptical attitude. I propose, by way of contrast, to look at lyricism not as separate from, or subordinated to, logical thinking, but rather as part of it. Drawing on a number of recent case studies, I will show how essayistic cinema can mobilize the lyrical not as a stylistic cypher, or with an aestheticizing/consoling function, but rather to produce thought-images and meanings associated with affect. I will also aim to show how the lyrical can introduce a diversification of subjectivity, allowing essayists to challenge their own authority to speak, while lending a voice to subjects who are silenced by history.
Laura Rascaroli is Professor of Film and Screen Media at University College Cork, Ireland. Her research interests span art film, film theory, space and geopolitics, nonfiction, the essay film, and first-person cinema. She is the author and editor of several volumes, including The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film (2009), Crossing New Europe: Postmodern Travel and the European Road Movie (2006), co-written with Ewa Mazierska, and Antonioni: Centenary Essays (2011), co-edited with John David Rhodes. Her work has been translated into several languages. Her most recent book, How the Essay Film Thinks, was published by Oxford University Press in 2017. She is general editor of Alphaville: Journal of Film and Screen Media.