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  • The Limits of Vococentrism:Chris Marker, Hans Richter and the Essay Film
  • David Oscar Harvey (bio)

The legacies of Left Bank Cinema and the essay film have become mutually intertwined. The former is a small but influential filmmaking movement in postwar France, primarily thought to consist of three friends, artists and filmmakers: Chris Marker, Alain Resnais and Agnès Varda, though Georges Franju is sometimes included in the coterie.1 The group has significant overlap with the French New Wave in that both share the same historical moment and geographic space, as well as a common interest in exploring personal expression within cinematic signifying practices, and advancing the aesthetic possibilities of the film form. Ginette Vincendeau states that films directed by members of the French New Wave "lacked an interest in political or social issues, concentrating on personal angst among the (male) Parisian middle class (although another less media-prominent band of filmmakers known as the 'Left Bank' group...showed greater political awareness)" (110). Moreover, the New Wave filmmakers made almost exclusively fiction films, while the Left Bank group was also interested in documentary. The politically engaged, aesthetically bold documentary voiced with strong personal expression is how the essay film has come to be theorized.2 Hence, many studies of the form consider the Left Bank group as most fully inaugurating the presently recognized dimensions of the essay film form.3

Alexandre Astruc's 1948 manifesto, "The Birth of a New Avant-Garde: La Caméra-Stylo," is frequently invoked as an influential article thought to anticipate and/or incite both Left Bank Cinema and the essay film.4 Indeed, Resnais referred to his first film, Ouvert pour cause d'inventaire (1946), now lost, as "the sort of thing [that was] later called 'caméra-stylo'" (cited in Joram ten Brink, 236). With his notion of the camera as pen, Astruc expressed his desire for a cinematic mode of signifying thought and personal expression. Engagements with the essay film have utilized the caméra-stylo as metaphor for a film form that articulates intelligence and an individual point of view, typically accomplished through voice-over. Timothy Corrigan argues that many engagements with the essay film [End Page 6] foreground the role of subjective voice and perspective: "An expressive subjectivity, commonly seen in the voice or actual presence of the filmmaker or surrogate, has become one of the most recognizable signs of the essay film" (The Essay Film, 30). This point is useful when accounting for varied formal strategies in documentary films, since it allows us to rethink the documentary form as limited to "objective" and more conventionally journalistic points of view.

Following, Michel Chion, I propose that essay films be thought of as vococentric (5-6). Vococentrism is Chion's term for the cinematic sound track's prioritization of the human voice over sound effects and music. Hence, essay films, as presently elaborated and theorized, are vococentric. Furthermore, they are so in emphatic or special manners. First, they are vococentric is the sense intended by Chion: that is, their soundtracks are dominated and arranged around the human voice. Second, the very rhetoric of film, its framework, is constructed by the logic and nature of the voiceover. The same can be said for expository, classical "voice-of-God" documentaries. Yet, essayistic voice-overs disavow the epistemological mastery put forward by classical documentaries, originating with the work of social reformer and filmmaker John Grierson.5 Propagating a practice of "objective" documentaries that endeavor to avoid offense while soliciting a wide audience, the Griersonian model minimized the presence of subjectivity, and with it, the traces of authorial presence. On the contrary, the essay articulates a perspective largely determined by the nature, orientation and temperament of a particular subject position.6 Put differently, essay film voice-overs do not proffer what Jacques Derrida has termed auto-affection, or the illusory idea that the human voice confers self-transparency of expression, presence and a bedrock against the supplementarity and immateriality of signification (Of Grammatology, 165).

Nevertheless, I mean to assert that the vococentric essay film is not what Astruc had in mind when imagining his caméra-stylo. Speaking of his own 1955 film Les...


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