How does one define an essay film? Well, let’s start with how we define an “essay” in its literary sense. The first essays to bear the name were written by Marker’s countryman Michel de Montaigne and published in 1580. The French essai means “attempt,” and Montaigne describes his sui generis pieces exploring his free-ranging thoughts on various subjects as his “attempts” to explicate those subjects; so, attempts, essais. When the English writer and scientist Francis Bacon set about a similar enterprise, he borrowed Montaigne’s term and describes his pieces as “essays,” and that’s how the term entered the English language.
The defining characteristic of Montaigne’s essays is their frequent tendency to digress and their intense subjectivity. He may call a piece “Of Cannibals” or “Of Friendship” or “Of Some Lines of Virgil,” but he’ll feel free to follow his line of thought wherever it may take him. Furthermore, he makes no pretense to objectivity in these essays. This is just what he thinks, and perhaps his most famous line is “'Que sçay-je?” (“What do I know?”) And, as it pertains to his tendency to digress, it should be pointed out that this line comes from his longest essay, “An Apology for Raymond Sebond,” only a small portion of which has much of anything to do with the titular Raymond Sebond.
I wouldn’t say that the borders between the essay film and the documentary are hermetically sealed and never the twain shall meet. There has certainly been cross-pollination between the two. In reading some of the obituaries for Marker, I saw someone describe Michael Moore as an essay filmmaker and I thought, “Well, I guess…” Moore certainly has the subjectivity thing down.
And conversely, Marker made some essay films that really look like documentaries; the three-hour epic A Grin Without a Cat is most definitely “about” something, namely the rise and fall of militant leftist groups in the sixties and seventies. So why do I think it’s an essay film? Well, there’s that subjectivity again, and there’s the digressiveness. Eric Henderson of Slant, in his review of this film, calls attention to Marker’s wonderful digression on the subject of Fidel Castro’s microphones. Apparently Castro, when giving his lengthy, extemporaneous speeches, was in the habit of from time to time adjusting the various microphones that were arrayed before him. It was something like an unconscious tic, and he could always be seen fiddling with them. Well, Marker shows us footage of Castro giving a speech in the Soviet Union, and, horror of horrors, his microphones are fixed in place. They won’t yield to the compulsive ministrations of his hands, and you can see him, desperately trying to make the damn things move, while his speech falls apart and he starts spouting really simplistic slogans in an effort to get easy applause (“Viva the Soviet Union!” is a characteristic example). So there’s an example of something that I wouldn’t expect to find in a documentary about leftist militants or Fidel Castro or the like. But in an essay film, it’s presence seems perfectly appropriate.
Perhaps my reluctance to grant Michael Moore the title of “essay filmmaker” is an aesthetic hang-up. Marker’s films, at their best, are profoundly beautiful. I highly doubt that anyone has ever walked away from a Michael Moore movie and thought, “Wow, that was profoundly beautiful.” I don’t think Moore gets aesthetics and I doubt he’s that concerned with the matter anyway. Also, if Moore shares with Marker an attachment to subjectivity, he does not share Marker’s sense of restraint. At no point in a Chris Marker film to you get the impression that Marker is shouting, “Hey! Look! Look at me! Look at this thing I’m doing!” whereas that’s basically half of any Moore movie. In fact, Marker tends to try to make himself unobtrusive.
The narrative voice-overs in his films are quite pointedly not done by him; in fact, they tend to be female; at least, I know that was the case in Sans Soleil and I think it was the case with A Grin Without a Cat. I don’t recall the sex of the narrator of 1992’s The Last Bolshevik, which may very well be the only other “feature-length” Marker film I’ve seen. A remarkable number of his films aren’t available in the United States. His death is lamentable, but hopefully it will spark greater interest in his work and prompt the release of more Marker on DVD. For instance, the British writer Clive James has described Marker’s 1957* film Letter from Siberia as his greatest film; Letter from Siberia is not—nor, as far as I can tell, has it ever been—available on Region 1 DVD. Criterion Collection, get on this shit; do a Chris Marker Eclipse Collection the next time you’re tempted to release The Films of Norman Mailer, which I have not seen but for which I don’t have high hopes.
Marker doesn’t have that many successors in the school of essay filmmaking, but the followers he does have are quite reputable. Among the occasional makers of essay films—few people seem to devote themselves to it almost exclusively, as Marker did—we find masters like Agnes Varda, Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Gorin, Straub-Huillet, (note the heavy French presence), Orson Welles, and Wim Wenders, whose 1985 Tokyo-Ga features a brief cameo appearance from Marker himself (as well as Werner Herzog, whom I left off my list; are Herzog’s non-fiction films documentaries or essay films? Some combination thereof? I do not have an answer for you at present).
Marker has left us, but his films will certainly endure, and hopefully we here in the United States will have the chance to see more of them soon.
*This post originally incorrectly stated that Letter from Siberia was released in 1961. Not the kind of mistake that would have been made had I actually had the opportunity to the see the film in question.