Art, documentary and the essay film

RP 192 () / Article, Philosophy of the Essay Film

Film as document

The moment when Siegfried Kracauer knew that he wanted to write of film as what he terms the ‘Discover of the Marvels of Everyday Life’ is relayed in his introduction to the Theory of Film from 1960. [1] Kracauer recalls watching a film long ago that shows a banal scene, an ordinary city street. A puddle in the foreground reflects the houses that cannot be seen and some of the sky. A breeze crosses the site. The puddle’s water trembles. ‘The trembling upper world in the dirty puddle – this image has never left me’, writes Kracauer. In this trembling, which is the moment of nature’s uninvited intervention, its inscription as movement on film, everything, from nature to culture, ‘takes on life’, he notes. What is important about film is its presentation of this given life indiscriminately. The puddle, this unworthy spillage, is redeemed in the low art of cinema. Both cinema and puddle are elevated from the ground. The upper world is brought down to earth as image. Fixed for ever – or for as long as the film strip exists – is a wobble of movement, which comes to stand in for what is life, because it is life captured, being nature’s vitality. It is a life that is possessed by the wind and articulated constantly, but usually expunged from what is to be seen when film is watched. It is a fact, a chip of the world as it is, and it is caught on film or amidst film and the staged world.

Walter Benjamin, in a piece titled ‘Paris, the City in the Mirror’, written for the German edition of Vogue, on 30 January 1929, makes a similar point in relation to photography. [2] In discussing Mario von Bucovich’s volume of Paris photographs from 1928, with its images from Bucovich and Germaine Krull, he posits photography as a mirror of the city. The collection by Bucovich and Krull, he notes, closes with an image of the Seine. It is a close-up of the surface of the water, agitated, dark and light with a hint of cloud broken on its ripples. It seems to him that this reflecting surface is a reflection of photography itself, which is as rightfully there, in the city of looks and looking, as the River Seine, which shatters all images, like a committed montagist, and testifies to the evanescence of all things. Nature, the river, the wind, the clouds passing by all intervene in film, all leave a documentary trace that is seen and not seen at once. Fragments of the world are caught in the grains of the photographic papers. Recorded are both those things that are meant to be seen and those that simply are.

Benjamin’s analysis of Soviet cinema, in critical response to Oskar A.H. Schmitz, twists a sense of enlivened nature, which happily makes itself available for filmic recording, into a more directly politicized physis of the collective labouring body. For him, in his experience of Soviet cinema, there is the entry into film of something not previously bidden into culture and not previously captured in it – the worker, or rather the proletarian, who is part of a collective – set in equivalence to the material nature that marks itself on film, outside of the filmic scenario. An image in Benjamin’s retort to Schmitz makes this graphic.

What began with the bombardment of Odessa in Potemkin continues in the more recent film Mother with the pogrom against factory workers, in which the suffering of the urban masses is engraved in the asphalt of the street like ticker tape. [3]

It is not the wind blowing a puddle, or the reflection of a cloud in the river, caught and remediated on film. It is the labouring body exposed in the stark streets. The film strip absorbs the strip of the road. A place of collective suffering, the street where battles occur, just as the daily grind of life occurs, is given room on the screen. The modern shiny surface of the asphalt road, described elsewhere by Benjamin as a momentous …