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The Lonely Genre of the Essay Film: SANS SOLEIL and TRIBULATION 99
Now that we're a bit of the ways into the second century of the moving image, it's interesting to see what is taken for granted as standard and alternative uses of the medium. Everyone "knows," for instance, that a movie is a narrative film that runs between, say, 75 minutes and 3½ hours, by and large, with most falling squarely into the 90 to 120 minute camp. Films of non-standard lengths, be they 55 minutes or 7 hours, are homeless and rarely seen because of the difficulties of distribution. Documentaries are shunted into their own little corner, rarely to break free from the most specialized of cinemas. Films without standard narratives? Inevitably lumped together under some misnomer like "experimental" (as if Kenneth Anger and Stan Brakhage are somehow more interchangable than any two narrative filmmakers). And I don't mean to imply that this is just a "Joe Six-Pack" bias, as the phrase goes; a look at our recent top 20 movies of all time poll shows an incredible bias towards the standard-length fiction film in surveying all of cinematic history.
Whether this is historical inevitability or a random result, it's interesting to look at the types of films that exist at the margin films that take a different approach entirely. One genre with few practitioners is the essay film. Essentially (in my view), the essay film uses audio and video content to create a flow of ideas not intrinsic to the constituent parts. This differentiates the essay film from, say, the diary film or the reportage-based documentary. The former is self-revelation and the latter is documentation of fact (often with a healthy dose of opinion, of course). The essay film is neither it could be about anything, really, and told from any perspective. But it's not a standard narrative and therein lies its obscurity.
One of the most famous film essayists a man often credited with inventing the form, in fact is Chris Marker, member of the French New Wave and most famous for his short film LA JETEE, which was translated from its initial intriguing form (still images turned into a fictional narrative) to a standard narrative film, Terry Gilliam's 12 MONKEYS. But LA JETEE only scratches the surface of Marker's interests: IMDB credits him with 39 films, only a few of which are even remotely available in America.
The most widely available of these is SANS SOLEIL, a film that really defies synopsis in the way any good written essay does. The audio component of the film is largely female narration, with the woman reading letters from an unnamed male author (and, occasionally, sharing reminisces about what he had said). Meanwhile, the visual component consists of footage from all over the world Africa, Japan, Iceland, San Francisco, usually underlining or more deeply defining the narration. The letters drift from idea to idea, sometimes rapidly, forcing the film to jump in the blink of an eye across continents and cultures, striving to find commonalities, examine differences, understand incongruities, and absorb absurdities. The topics addressed include spirituality, politics, technology, death, and more.
All of which is a bit to absorb. SANS SOLEIL seems almost uniquely unsuited to standard theatrical viewing like letters, it seems that it would benefit most from being able to cycle back, review, re-read, skip ahead, and so on. Sometimes, the narrated observations are fast and furiously dense with ideas, almost too much to absorb at one time. At other times, they come slowly, giving us space to meditate. Still, though, the form of the essay film seems by far the best vehicle possible for putting forth these observations; embedded as dialogue in a narrative fiction film, they would just be painful to listen to, digressions beside the point of the narrative. Here, the digressions are the point.
One interesting question that SANS SOLEIL raises is the distinction between truth and fiction. Throughout the film, we don't know if these are letters that Marker actually wrote, letters that somebody else wrote, or a fictitious construct that Marker has created to put forth his ideas. At the end of the movie, we learn that these are letters written by Sandor Krasna. But wait the back of the video box says the film was written by Chris Marker. (And indeed it is Krasna is a fiction.) So what is truth and what is fiction? And in an essay film which is ultimately about ideas does it matter?
In contrast to SANS SOLEIL's blurry line between truth and fiction, Craig Baldwin's TRIBULATION 99 is well aware of the line between truth and fiction, but strides over it with impunity and reckless absurdity. Similarly to SANS SOLEIL, TRIBULATION 99 takes footage (in this case, entirely found footage) and provides an audio track to connect it together in unexpected ways. However, where SANS SOLEIL is a lofty meditation of ideas, TRIBULATION 99 uses its form to provide a no-holds-barred conspiracy theory extraordinaire.
Similarly, whereas SANS SOLEIL's tone is erudite and somewhat detached, TRIBULATION 99's is recklessly manic and direct. Baldwin uses his footage to link together an audio tale that plays connect the dots with conspiracy fodder, both standard (the Kennedy assassination, Fidel Castro, the United Fruit Company) and completely absurd (the Wolfman, aliens who've invaded South America). The result is something almost wholly unique, virtually overwhelming, and incredibly hilarious. And, like SANS SOLEIL, it's the sort of deep essay that bears reviewing, moving backwards and forwards through it to connect the dots.
These two films may seem to have little to do with each other, despite being lumped into the same category of essay film. But, in a way, that's my point. If these films ultimately have less in common with each other than, say, STARSHIP TROOPERS and CRIES AND WHISPERS have in common with each other and I would argue that, at a deep level, that is in fact the case what that really means is the essay film is still, in the second century of film, a largely wide-open field, left mostly ignored and unexplored while most filmmakers have traversed, retraversed, and trampled the field of narrative filmmaking. It remains to be seen if the future leads us farther away from essay films, or towards more of them. Frankly, apart from Agnes Varda's THE GLEANERS AND I, I'm not aware of many others. (Anyone who has additional suggestions, feel free to e-mail me; maybe I'll do a followup column if I find more to watch.)
SANS SOLEIL is one of the few Chris Marker films that's readily available; New Yorker Films has a VHS version out with an English soundtrack, which I watched and which you can buy at Amazon if you're so inclined. It's kind of grainy, but it's hard to say how it compares to the source without having seen the original. I highly doubt a DVD is on the horizon, given New Yorker's incredibly slow movement on its back catalog. TRIBULATION 99 was originally released by Film Threat, and I found it a couple years ago in a truly disturbing corner of my favorite video store. Those with weak stomachs should relax, though it's not graphically gory or disturbing, although it will mess with your worldview for a while. (By contrast, the high-brow SANS SOLEIL pictures the graphic shooting death of a giraffe. That was a tough watch.) I imagine, these days, that TRIBULATION 99's hard to find for rental almost anywhere. It's available on VHS via mail-order from Craig Baldwin at his site along with two QuickTime clips from the film, or from avant distributors Peripheral Produce. I really need to pick up my own copy.
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