Licence to Play: Mark Cousins and the Personal Essay-Film

In his 1992 essay ‘In Search of the Centaur’, the writer and critic Phillip Lopate described the essay-film as ‘a cinematic genre that barely exists’. He had a point: essay-films were scarce. But Lopate made them seem even rarer than they were by his self-confessed fastidiousness as to what may rightly be called an essay-film, arguing that he finds the term, as others use it, too inclusive. By his own admission, he sets the bar high, and recognises the difficulty of making ‘his idea of’ an essay-film. But what is that?


All are agreed that the essay-film is a variant of documentary. It uses original or existing footage, or both, in combination with a narrative voice that may be spoken or takes the shape of intertitles. Cross-examination of the visual material by the voice and vice-versa is the distinguishing mark of the essay-film. Like the written essay, it pursues a line of argument, a thought or idea; tests it, tries it on for size. The essay-film interests itself in this process; is as much concerned with the manner of finding out as with the thing discovered – if anything is discovered. Where the conventional documentary tilts at detachment or fashions its illusion, the essay-film has no business with impartiality: the spectator is made the film-maker’s familiar, and is given partial responsibility for fleshing out the interface between commentary and image.


Lopate cannot conceive of an essay-film that does not deploy text in some form or other (written or spoken). Others ardently waive the genre’s debt to its literary senior. These latter are adamant that the essay-film has outgrown its writerly heredity, that images may interrogate images as well as any words might. The question with which Lopate closes his seminal essay is predicated on the adverse persuasion that text and picture must play equal part in the essay-film: ‘Will there ever be a way to join word and image together on screen so that they accurately reflect their initial participation in the arrival of a thought, instead of merely seeming mechanically linked, with one predominating over or fetched to illustrate the other?’


Lopate’s essay was by no means the last word on the genre, though his assertion holds: still today, essay-films are few and far between. More than twenty years after his article appeared in The Threepenny Review, critics continue to debate the precise nature of this protean mode of film-making.

MCSunflower (WITFCL)
Mark Cousins, still from What is this Film Called Love? (2012), courtesy the artist

The essay-film has been the focus of much discussion these past six months. March saw the inauguration of the Essay Film Festival organised by London’s Birkbeck University, with screenings at the ICA. The following month, the University of Reading’s Centre for Film Aesthetics and Cultures held a conference on World Cinema and the Essay Film. And it was an essay-film – Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929) – that topped Sight & Sound’s ‘Best Documentaries of All Time’ poll, the results of which were announced in spring.


One possible reason for this convergence of events centred on the essay-film is the rise of its younger cousin, the audiovisual essay. Digestibly short and shareable, the audiovisual or video essay reworks existing footage to convey an observation about film, genre, theme or cinematic device. An emerging mode of film criticism, which is increasingly supplementing the textbook in the teaching of film studies, the A.V. essay is in its ascendency. Free editing software, and YouTube – serving as both repository for moving image material and a means of distribution – make it possible for almost anybody to produce one.


Speaking at the Video Essay Summit hosted by this year’s Independent Film Festival Boston, Chicago-based film critic and video essayist Kevin B. Lee expressed his solicitude about the future of the audiovisual essay. As one of the medium’s most prolific practitioners, Lee keeps a close and proprietary eye on its development. Taking to the rostrum in Boston, he suggested that too many video essays published online were ‘pretty much celebratory and promotional’, contributing incuriously to the welter and abetting the commercialist status quo.


Lee would sooner see a radical variety of video essay, works like his own short film Transformers: The Premake (a desktop documentary) that envisioned a version of the fourth instalment of the franchise, ahead of its release, by knitting together trailer material and fan-footage of the film’s location shoots. This was insurrectionary film-making, fighting talk, examining the exchange between the blockbuster and the consumer. It blasphemed; infringed on the sanctity and the lucrative secrecy of the run-up to a film’s release – a graffito on the legislative gilt-lettering that most of us take for granted: In Box Office We Trust.


If not to parry with the likes of Paramount Pictures, set a tripwire for the powers that be, then ‘to what end’, Lee asks, do we make these films; what distinctive purpose has the video essay?


If Lee sounds a Cassandra, his Boston address alarmist, it’s because he senses a real moment of possibility for the form and wouldn’t see it wasted or inchoate, but rather fulfil its potential to pull threads in the warp-and-weft of the corporate film industry. And if this is the expectation, the po-faced vocation of the video essay, to be ethical and serious, it is intensified for its feature-length equal, the essay-film.

MCMexican kids (WITFCL)
Mark Cousins, still from What is this Film Called Love? (2012), courtesy the artist

Striding out, naked, from under this rumbling thunderhead is film historian, critic and film-maker Mark Cousins, a microclimate unto himself. Cousins became well known to film-lovers on replacing Alex Cox in 1997 as presenter of BBC2’s Moviedrome and as the host of TV series Scene by Scene, before turning documentary-maker in 2008. His profoundly thoughtful fifteen-hour documentary A Story of Film: An Odyssey, which he narrated – a history of cinema from its inception to present day, broadcast in one hour episodes on UK television’s More4 in 2011 – brought Cousins’s critical voice to a wider audience.


Following A Story of Film, Cousins made the first in a sequence of personal essay-films that are ruminative, antic, associative and emotional. What is this Film Called Love? is an ‘Ad-Lib’, according to the film’s subtitle; a filling of the lungs after six years’ methodical labour on A Story of Film. Where this earlier work necessitated the director’s keeping his distance, Cousins finds a room of his own in this perambulatory film that sees him walk the sprawl of Mexico City over three days of borrowed time. Shot on a flip camera and combining footage filmed in-situ with footage drawn from his personal corpus of keepsake recordings, What is this Film… enacts an epistolary, one-sided dialogue with Soviet director and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein.

MCSergei laminate2 (WITFCL)
Mark Cousins, still from What is this Film Called Love? (2012), courtesy the artist

Cousins’s film has no direction save to arrive at an understanding of what Eisenstein meant by ‘ecstasy’ – with Cousins occasionally holding up to the lens a laminated photograph of the Russian director that winks as it catches the light, fills the frame and is animated by Cousins’s footfall, which shakes the handheld camera. The film’s exploring of Eisenstein’s meaning was unplanned; a precept that occurs to Cousins a quarter-way into the film. His vocative, first person narration is the film’s organising presence: talky, frank, self-reflexive. It describes for the absent Eisenstein (‘Sergei’) the sights of this modern Mexico City, much changed since the director of Battleship Potemkin paid a visit; its sex shops, air-conditioning, and the miracle DVD: ‘the size of a blini pancake. … You can carry a film in your pocket now.’ Cousins meets some Mexican children; lets them direct themselves as they wave and call to each other over the camera. Cousins doesn’t speak Spanish, but, at play this way, he’s reminded of his age. He’s reminded of other things besides. Indeed, throughout the film, Cousins consents to being led; lets his mind maunder. True to the contrariety of perception – feinting, flip – and memory’s meddling in the present moment, the image track flocks to places lately travelled, like San Francisco and Morelia.


So what’s the story, Mark? (Are we, too, on first name terms?) As the voiceover owns, ‘it [isn’t] much of a story, to be honest.’ What there is is the genesis of an idea that sticks to Cousins’s trouser-leg like catchweed. The story comes of his working it through, ‘seeing what happens’. This processual principle – Cousins’s exposing the process of observation and decision, of ideas taking root – is what gives the film its essayistic quality.


So when some proponents of the essay-film are at pains to see the genre unified under an obligation to agitate, what place is there for a fly-by film like Cousins’s? A film so contingent, metafictional and intimate as to accommodate talk of his partner, his pleasure-trip to Monument Valley, a favourite song of his mother’s?


Certainly, the permissiveness of Cousins’s film is at a far remove from the work of his contemporaries. There’s a sobriety and civility to the types of essay-film being made by the field’s most esteemed and gifted directors; works that are principled as they are disciplined, and none of them made in haste. Compare the US director Thom Andersen, whose Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) – one of the most fêted essay-films to have been produced within the last fifteen years, and recently re-released – espouses what the film-maker calls a‘militant nostalgia’. Shining the arc lamp on those corners of the city left in the shade by the many mainstream movies that glory in an L.A. setting, he requisitions these offcut spaces, the not-Downtown of Watts, and – with ornery commentary – urges that we ‘Change the past; it needs it.’


Even where they are personal, today’s essay-films feel sealed-in; complete, like the late Peter von Bagh’s exquisite Remembrance: A Small Movie about Oulu in the 1950s (2013). Bagh’s elegy for the Finnish hometown he knew as a boy exhibits extraordinary lightness of touch. But it won’t open up any more than it is already open. It is neat, meet and finished: perfection.


Bagh and Cousins may have in a common a concern for the smallness of their films – both publicising this compunction in their subtitles – but their presentation of personal subject matter is markedly different. Cousins’s film, using original rather than archive footage, is the obverse of Bagh’s Balanchine Remembrance and, for that matter, the revisionist edifice of Andersen’s Los Angeles. What is This Film is unmade, but being unmade, can be shaken out for hidden riches.


If the above examples lack levity, that’s perhaps as it should be. Where does Cousins get off playing games and making films in the spirit of fun? Can the impudent, untidy What is this Film… that cost the director under £10 to make be taken seriously in its time? One has to go back to the work of Chris Marker to find its personal, personable like, but with a gulf of thirty years between What is this Film… and Marker’s yardstick essay-film Sans Soleil (1983), the comparison must be of little consolation to Cousins, who fears for his film’s success even as it unfolds. He’s ‘unsure’, senses the film’s female narrator, whose third-person voice intersperses Cousins’s own; might it be ‘boring’?


Even without the world of film, Cousins’s deeply personal narration and, moreover, his putting himself in the movie is exception to the rule. Not much has changed since the publication of Lopate’s 1992 essay. It holds true today that ‘the hip, “transgressive” thing to do [with the essay-film] is satiric quotation, appropriation, and collage.’ This tendency is surely aggravated in the era of Instagram, which lets a person be myriadly versatile; when selfhood is elastic and oblique. When the smoke-and-mirrors of social media empowers a person in the fashionable aspiration to be complex and evanescent, all things to all people, who dares be unambiguously herself? Who dares be earnest, and ordinary?


And if Cousins does, and is an open book, is it vanity? Marker didn’t think so: ‘Contrary to what people say, using the first person in [documentary] film tends to be a sign of humility. All I have to offer is myself.’ Cousins goes one further, resolving midway through his film before tramping, stripped, into the red terrain of Utah’s Valley of the Gods, ‘I realise that my body’s the best thing I have. It’s the most modern thing and the most fun.’ Mid formlessness, he circles round to form, his form – his ungainly nude, expressive of the nakedness of his film-making. ‘Too much of cinema seems seemly,’ he tells me, during an interview via email, ‘imprisoned by genre or story or commercial imperative. We need more shape-shifting, wildness, situationism, play and abandon. Just like in life.’


At any rate, Cousins put himself to the test when making What is this Film…, much as George Perec refused himself use of the letter ‘e’ when writing his 1969 novel A Void. This ludic sensibility that one might sooner associate with poetry (Gertrude Stein, Frank O’Hara, John Ashbery, Kenneth Koch) and the novel (Sterne, Firbank, Joyce, O’Brien, Calvino, Nabokov, Vonnegut) is not, Cousins assures me, limited to the printed word. Agnes Varda and Vilgot Sjoman made mischief, too, ‘and Orson Welles would have – if he’d made more essay-films.’ Cousins’s conviction seems to be that the essay-film is the mode of film-making most hospitable to fun – and ‘fun is huge,’ he says.


Improvisation is everywhere, in fits and starts, in film. Its semblance is what drew Cousins to include Vincente Minnelli’s Meet Me in St. Louis in his A Story of Children and Film (2013); the freshness of Margaret O’Brien’s performance as she dances the cakewalk with Judy Garland, tapping her cane out of time. ‘Dance films should have more ad-libbing in them,’ muses Cousins, ‘but the great musicals of Hollywood and Bollywood seldom have.’ Nevertheless, he continues, ‘the history of ad-libbing in cinema is a rich one. The line from Lubitsch, through Jean Renoir, Bernardo Bertolucci, Marcel Ophuls and Pirjo Honkasalo runs in opposition to the controlled cinema of Ozu, Max Ophuls and Hitchcock. Most cinema benefits from ad-libs, from leaving a door open. In fact, it needs it. Cinema cannot only be dominant; it needs also to be submissive to the visual world around it.’

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Mark Cousins, still from Life May Be (2014), courtesy the artist

This is the key to Cousins’s film-making practice. There’s a sense in his work that what’s before the lens occasions or urges the captured image. It tenders itself; shoulders the storyboarding burden. Such temptation by the object can only come about if one is receptive to its potential as cinema. It’s almost certainly this sensibility – this watchfulness for what Lopate calls ‘the little, uncommercial miracles in life’ – that gives Cousins’s films their freshness; the sense that they are presently unfolding.


Long takes are a staple of Cousins’s essay-films: he holds the shot that bit longer than other film-makers might. His Life May Be, co-directed with Mania Akbari, begins with a letter to the Iranian director, which he reads over a ten-minute static shot of a valley under fog. Drifting slowly lower, this mist looks as if pulled, teased like a sheet from between thighs, unsheathing a topological ‘L’Origine du monde’. Had Cousins not held the shot, been held by it, he’d have missed this. What is This Film…, similarly, rejoices in the disclosures of ‘non-indifferent nature’ – another of Eisenstein’s theories. In the macro of Mexico City, Cousins eyes the micro. He watches a fly on a footbridge, idling on its feet. Might it be blue, suicidal, loitering so near to the ledge? He films a sunflower doubled over a highway; frames its angel’s dirty face against passing traffic in the background. Its stem (out of shot) has snapped; the bowed head, humiliated, spared impact with the asphalt, but only by an inch. It’s blown in the draught of barreling cars, then – reprieve. Violence, then birdsong and silence – now there’s story! A little thing and a long take go a long way.


‘Talk about a reveal!’ delights his voiceover of the moment when a truck (filmed for its big tyre and, behind it, its smaller doppelganger belonging to another vehicle; think of Kenneth Koch’s One Train May Hide Another) moves off to reveal a rusted campervan. Cousins, it happens, had one similar, and it holds a world of happiness – for him – in its sad, senescent aspect. We may not all have a campervan, but anyone who ever read augury in something ostensibly innocuous will know that thrumming recognition. But for Cousins to attest to this feeling, it has to be experiential, totally personal, totally honest.


But I wax romantic. Let’s face it, Cousins has a hard-on for making films – to purloin a favourite word of O’Hara’s. Like O’Hara – whose poetry makes an appearance in What Is This Film… – he’s prolific, producing films at such a clip it’s as if he trusted that inspiration would always be forthcoming. It’s refreshing, but it’s just the sort of promiscuity Lee would put to rest. Or is it? It seems to me that What is This Film… is a step in the right direction. Does Cousins’s unfastening of the film-making experience not point the way to another, alternative landscape of film production, alien to the studio-system that worships at the altar of the opening weekend? My question is – if it does – can we, too, walk this way and with the offbeat charm and charisma of Cousins’s cakewalk? Is it possible for the layperson, the less experienced film-maker, to pull off a film of this punk character, to go rogue and get away with it?


Cousins looks characteristically optimistic, proposing with the release of his latest trilogy Here Be Dragons (2013), Life May Be (2014) and 6 Desires: D. H. Lawrence and Sardinia (2014), launched at the Edinburgh International Film Festival in June a new movement that he calls New Free Cinema. Still, his back is covered. Cousins had earned his stripes before letting loose with the lo-fi What is This Film…; delivered with the encyclopaedic A Story of Film, an achievement of unparalleled proportions. And why else but to inoculate against charges of self-interest would Cousins make his excuses in What is this Film…? ‘In the past I’ve made serious films,’ he extends, by way of introduction. ‘This wee film’s going to be the opposite of these.’


So can others without alibi follow after? One hopes not to have need of licence to play and be personal. One has to hope that his declaring his pretexts is no more necessary to the essay-film than Virginia Woolf’s excuse of needing to buy a pencil to wander the streets and people-watch in her personal essay ‘Street Haunting’. It remains to be seen whether Cousins’s personal, present tense style of film-making will take. For now – as Mark signs off to Sergei – ‘it’s been fun talking.’



is a film critic. She writes for the British Film Institute’s international magazine Sight & Sound, the BFI online, and bimonthly film journal Little White Lies.



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