Origins of the 21st Century: The Impact of Digital Technology on the Construction of the Cinematic Essay.

Title: Origins of the 21st Century: The Impact of Digital Technology on the Construction of the Cinematic Essay.

Presenter: James Slaymaker
Abstract: This paper explores the impact of technology on the practice and theorization of the cinematic essay, with a particular emphasis on the ways in which digital tools have shaped the form in the early 21st century. I first argue that the cinematic essay has been associated with technological evolution throughout its history, and then discuss recent examples of the form which utilize aesthetic strategies, editing techniques, and modes of spectatorial address that are rooted in the capabilities of digital technologies. I conceptualize the cinematic essay as a self-reflexive mode of nonfiction cinema that foregrounds the filmmaking apparatus and the production process. In doing so, the cinematic essay launches an enquiry into the ontological nature of the cinematic image, the tools which construct it, and the wider artistic landscape in which it is embedded. Drawing upon theoretical work on the essay by Theodor Adorno and Max Bense, this paper describes the cinematic essay as an experimental, non-systematic form of filmmaking, which offers a mode of resistance to standardized artistic styles and habituated viewing practices. Framing the cinematic essay as a countercultural, political art illuminates the potential it holds to help us better understand the digital networks of information that it itself is embedded within. Throughout the history of this form, prominent cinematic essayists have embraced new technologies as a means of expanding their practice. To illustrate how digitization has opened up new opportunities for essayistic expression, this paper draws parallels between the current use of digital moviemaking tools and earlier periods in which new technologies were utilized to reconfigure essayistic craft. In so doing, this paper highlights not only the differences but also the similarities between the digital cinematic essay and earlier variations of the form. By employing a theoretical framework based on genealogical investigation and sensitivity to the parallels between digital technologies and the cinematic technologies that preceded them, this paper counters a dominant trend in the study of new media which frames the digital as a revolutionary medium that has bifurcated the history of cinema into two neatly divided halves: the analogue era and the digital, or post-cinematic, era. This paper, therefore, frames the digital as the latest in a series of technological transformations that have reshaped essayistic texts. The cinematic essay has always demonstrated an impulse towards articulating a pronounced authorial voice, establishing an open-ended dialogue between the spectator and the text, and challenging traditional notions of documentary truth; the incorporation of digital technologies into the composition of the cinematic essay has refined and revitalized these aspects of the form. The three filmmakers I take as my primary case studies in this paper were central to the establishment of the cinematic essay as a mature form in the context of postwar art cinema and have since produced a variety of work in film, video and digital: Jean-Luc Godard, Chris Marker, and Harun Farocki.

Bio: James Slaymaker is a PhD Student in Film Studies at the University of Southampton, fully funded by a presidential scholarship. His research topics include the cinematic essay, digital technology and contemporary European cinema. His work has been published in the journals Senses of Cinema, Bright Lights Film Journal, Film International, as well as the essay collection ReFocus: The Films of Paul Schrader (Edinburgh University Press). His first book Time is Luck: The Cinema of Michael Mann is currently in development with Telos Publishing. As a filmmaker, his work has been screened at the London DIY Film Festival, the Concrete Dream Film Festival, the InShort Film Festival and The Straight Jacket Film Festival.