The Personal Camera: Subjective Cinema and the Essay Film - Laura Rascaroli
The Personal Camera is an engaging, sometimes illuminating and well-grounded look at basically what people have for years now been calling the essay film. “The object of study of this book is sited at the intersection of documentary, art film and avant-garde practices, and is best defined as subjective, first-person, essayistic cinema.” Yet sometimes while reading the book one wishes for a bit more personality from Rascaroli herself. Though she quotes Montaigne and others on the idea of what the literary essay should be, such a style rarely manifests itself in her own writing. While she quotes Montaigne saying that he pretended “to discover things, but [his purpose was really] to lay open my self”, and György Lukács’s observation that “the essayist must become conscious of his own self, must find himself and build something of himself,” Rascaroli’s own approach is much more the dutiful professor who has read all the relevant literature on the subject she looks at; with the subject as topic much more present than the subject as consciousness: Rascaroli is never the central subject herself, working out what she thinks and feels about subjective documentary filmmaking. Occasionally, though, there are moments of ire and personality, when she attacks some cliches of post-colonial discourse whilst defending Pasolini’s ethnographic films. “The reason why analyses of this type are ultimately unsatisfactory is that, while pointing out lists of cultural stereotypes and racist tropes, they say more about current cultural perspectives than about the director’s…”
Maybe if there had been more flashes of passion there may also have been more radical and personal readings. Rascaroli is a good observer, and sees what needs to be seen in the films she tackles: including Godard’s Notre Musique, Chris Marker’s Level Five, Sokurov’s Spiritual Voices, two films by Harun Farocki, various works by Pasolini, and a short, self portrait film by Antonioni. This is an impressive list of encounters with high intensity subjective aesthetics, but again a problem seems to lie in not quite heeding some of the claims made for the essay. When she quotes Theodor Adorno saying in the essay “thought does not advance in a single direction, rather the aspects of the argument interweave as in a carpet”, we might wish for some interweaving here as well, for a sense that Marker, Godard, Pasolini and others are in dialogue with each other across the book.
In The Personal Camera, though, the book’s purpose is to work very much within the discipline of documentary studies. “Most of the existing scholarly contributions acknowledge that the definition of the essay film is challenging, and suggest that it is a hybrid form”, Rascaroli says, clearly placing herself within the world of academic debate. In relation to the essay film she says, “there exists some scholarly contributions that have attempted to define the field. I will review below, in chronolological order of publication, four such contributions which, although brief, are particularly relevant and coherent.” Here we may be reminded a little of the scene in The Royal Tenenbaums where a journalist has a two-part question for the genius kids, and the nature of the question seems so tired that humour resides in Wes Anderson’s cut before somebody even attempts to answer it, before even the journalist has fully asked it.
There is in The Personal Camera, a double negation of the very genre the book is working on. It pertinently goes through all the literature, and then lays out the argument in a very dutiful fashion as Rascaroli differentiates between the various ways in which personal documentary can function. There are some useful distinctions here, as she differentiates essay films by Marker and Godard, from the personal films which are more like diaries or notebooks, films like Sokurov’s and Pasolini’s non-fiction films. But overall the respect for the scholarly contributions of the past, and the manner in which the book is laid out, means it is almost entirely lacking in the very impertinence that seems vital to the essay film, the degree to which the filmmaker takes personal, gloriously subjective responsibility for what they do, no matter how brazen. For example when Marker made A Letter from Siberia in 1957, no less a critic than Noel Burch, later well-known for his key book Theory of Film Practice, which Rascaroli references, claimed that Marker paid scant attention to his subject, and the visual elements of filming in Sibera, and was apparently more interested in the voiceover. “Written by the director himself, it rambled on from the first frame to the past piling up mots d’auteur, astuces, alembourts, and every kind of word-lay the French language allows.” The end result is for various reasons, Burch insists, “distastefully inappropriate.”
The Personal Camera is nothing if not tastefully appropriate, and lacks the carpet-like weave of the best essay film: hence the double negation. But for all its erudition and careful nods to the literature in the field, some of the arguments are also quite unconvincing. Now this wouldn’t be such problem if the arguments weren’t trying to be so solid. There is a lovely comment quoted by that great diarist Andre Gide, where in his Journals he mentions the writer Saint Beuve saying the “Latins in the language did not dislike a certain vagueness, a certain lack of determination of the meaning, a touch of obscurity.” Yet when Rascaroli makes a case for Godard’s Notre Musique as an essay film, rather than a fictional work, she insists that “a further constitutive feature of the essay film is that it must introduce and muse about a philosophical problem or set of problems and, once again, it is easy to see how Notre Musique fulfils this requirement.” She believes it does so “not only through narrative material and the characters’ philosophising, but also linguistically, by means of montage.” Yet at the end of the argument one may still feel that Notre Musique is a fiction film: that though Godard’s films have always been suis generis, some are more obviously fictional than others: but that it is the play between the fictional and the factual that interests Godard. He opens up the image to create constant epistemological confusion: is Godard playing ‘himself’ or a character; when someone interviews the great Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish, here, are the words strictly Darwish’s, or is Godard-Darwish? They may be Darwish’s words, but they are spoken within a fictional context. The questions are asked by a character, played by Franco-Israeli actress Sarah Adler, and thus are in the tradition of A bout de souffle, Vivre sa vie and La chinoise, where a screen character asks questions to an actual person. In each instance the character asks questions not only to interview the person, but as though looking for answers for their own existential ends. This isn’t to say that Notre Musique can’t be seen as a documentary, more that for certain viewers it’s not the most fruitful way into the film: that looking at its lineage in relation to other Godard fictions proves more useful. If Rascaroli offered her claims more tentatively, or paradoxically, more provocatively, we would be responding to the partial natre of the claim. Rascaroli’s insistent need, though, to read it as an essay film over a fictional work doesn’t help explain the film’s perplexities, and we’re left instead deciding whether it fits into the box that the writer ascribes to it. When Saint Beuve adds,” take it as you will…understand it in this sense, or in this other sense which is close to it”, here that isn’t possible: a whole section of the book rests on Notre Musique being read as an essay film.
It is sometimes unfair to attack a book for its problems when praising books much less ambitious, but this is partly the fault of a book that promises so much before delivering not so much little, as a lot in the wrong direction: as if a book with such a great premise, and one where much thought and effort has been put into it, still takes too often the path of least resistance. One offers here of course a very subjective judgement, and objectively Rascaroli has written a fine account. But if one comes away from it none the wiser at certain key moments, not feeling that a lot of problems have been worked through, that too many questions have been left begging yet with the impression that much has been answered, it perhaps lies in the book working eruditely rather than affectively. Indeed, not unlike many a conventional documentary that the films in The Personal Camera set out to counter.