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Reviewed by:
  • The Essay Film: Dialogue/Politics/Utopia ed. by Elizabeth A. Papazian and Caroline Eades, and: Essays on the Essay Film ed. by Nora Alter and Timothy Corrigan, and: The Essay Film after Fact and Fiction by Nora Alter
  • Larson Powell
The Essay Film: Dialogue/Politics/Utopia. Edited by Elizabeth A. Papazian and Caroline Eades. London: Wallflower, 2016. Pp. 315. Paper $25.00. ISBN 978-0231176958.
Essays on the Essay Film. Edited by Nora Alter and Timothy Corrigan. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. Pp. 372. Paper $35.00. ISBN 978-0231172677.
The Essay Film after Fact and Fiction. By Nora Alter. New York: Columbia University Press, 2018. Pp. 394. Paper $30.00. ISBN 978-0231178204.

In the most systematic presentation of genre formation until now, Rick Altman analyzed the rise of genres through a kind of feedback loop between producers, critics, and audiences: "Genres begin as reading positions established by studio personnel acting as critics, and expressed through film-making conceived of as an act of applied criticism" (Film/Genre, 1999; 44). For this move to be confirmed, however, "broad industry acceptance" is required (46). Genres can also be reevaluated and redefined by academic critics and not only journalists, as with the "woman's film" or melodrama, brought back into currency and reinterpreted by feminist scholars in the 1970s during second wave feminism. Altman also offers a paradigmatic sketch of how genre definitions work, namely through a process of identifying corresponding films, compiling a canon of those films, and analyzing the genre's characteristics. Such a process often involves reassigning a new place for films previously assigned to other genres, or redrawing prior generic boundaries (e.g., between science fiction and horror, or action and adventure). Even art film, once seen as the opposite of genre cinema, has been treated as a genre. Since film scholars first turned toward questions of genre in the later 1960s, a considerable body of work on the topic has been produced, along with continued work on literary genres.

The essay film as a distinct genre has only emerged as a scholarly topic in the last decade or so, put forth by Laura Rascaroli (The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film, 2009), Tim Corrigan (The Essay Film: From Montaigne, After Marker, 2011), and David Montero (Thinking Images: The Essay Film as a Dialogic Form in European Cinema, 2012). The appearance of three publications on the subject in little over a year—two edited volumes, Papazian's and Eades's The Essay Film and Alter's and Corrigan's Essays on the Essay Film, and Alter's monograph The Essay Film after Fact and Fiction—suggests that its time may have come. Despite their overlap in topic, the three volumes are all distinct in their organization: The Essay Film is made up of new work, whereas Essays on the Essay Film begins with a compilation of foundational texts on the subject, ranging from Lukács, Musil, Bense, and Adorno to Bazin; another section reprints work by more recent scholars, and the final part is composed of work by filmmakers themselves. Finally, Nora Alter's [End Page 667] The Essay Film after Fact and Fiction offers a complete history of the genre from its origins to the present. All volumes utilize to one degree or another the generifying strategies listed by Altman, yet reference to genre theory is surprisingly infrequent. Raymond Bellour mentions the genre theories of Genette and Schaefer in his contribution to Essays on the Essay Film (235–236), and Alter herself briefly cites Alastair Fowler's theory of literary genres (17), but nowhere in any of these books is there any sustained engagement with genre theory—something one might reasonably have expected, given how rich the discussion of genre formation has been in film studies. Instead, many of the authors seem to presume the existence of the essay film genre, and assume the reader does, too.

However, this assumption is not at all self-evident. One cannot define the essay film in most of Altman's terms, whether semantic or syntactic: "common topics, shared plots, key scenes, character types, familiar objects, or recognizable shots and sounds" or "plot structure, character...


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