Matrix of Meaning

Browsing through the BFI website I came across this article on the art of the essay film. Opening with a discussion about Sans Soleil (Marker, 1983), it caught my eye (of course). Journalist Andrew Tracy asks whether something that uses narration so heavily can be counted as ‘pure cinema’? Or can only works that communicate their messages through visuals and sound alone achieve this distinction?

Portrait of Chris Marker and Guillaume-en-Egypte.

Tracy moves on to investigate and dissect the nebulous genre of the essay film, revisiting André Bazin’s review of Letter from Siberia (Marker, 1957)

Bazin […] placed Marker at right angles to cinema proper, describing the film’s “primary material” as intelligence – specifically a “verbal intelligence” – rather than image. He dubbed Marker’s method a “horizontal” montage, “as opposed to traditional montage that plays with the sense of duration through the relationship of shot to shot” (Tracy, 2013)

Here, claimed Bazin, “a given image doesn’t refer to the one that preceded it or the one that will follow, but rather it refers laterally, in some way, to what is said.” (Tracy, 2013)

These concepts of ‘horizontal montage’ and lateral connections are ideas which I’ve always found immensely satisfying in film, because they leave room for personal investigation and interpretation.

Tracy goes on to discuss the modernist sensibility that appears in essay film, the desire to show an object or situation from all possible angles at the same time, “in the words of Gorin, “the meandering of an intelligence that tries to multiply the entries and the exits into the material it has elected (or by which it has been elected)” (Tracy, 2013).

And yet, as with the other modernist works of art, this attempt to show to a viewer every facet simultaneously only results in the artist and viewer being confronted with a realization of that which cannot be represented, that which cannot be known, “the recognition that even the keenest insight pales in the face of an ultimate unknowability” (Tracy, 2013).

This idea that trying to understand and accurately represent something in its entirety only highlights that which we can never know is yet another link back to the importance of personal interpretation; the whole ‘truth’ can never be completely conveyed, any piece of art is always subject to its context and the context of the viewer.

The artistic desire to investigate and represent a subject from all possible angles also links to the search for order in the chaos, a search that drives the human tendency to pattern recognition. When writing about the Soviet montagists, Tracy suggests that “they powerfully expressed the dialectic between control and chaos that would come to be not only one of the chief motors of the essay film but the crux of modernity itself” (Tracy, 2013). And he goes on to write that Soviet Montage “sought to crystallise abstract concepts in the direct and purposeful juxtaposition of forceful, hard-edged images – the general made powerfully, viscerally immediate in the particular” (Tracy, 2013). And that “against the seamless, immersive illusionism of commercial cinema, montage was a key for decrypting those social forces, both overt and hidden, that govern human society” (Tracy, 2013).

The abstract is made tangible through the use of material examples (even if they relate only laterally to the abstract that is being explored) and film becomes a tool through which we can interrogate social behaviour.


Tracy, A. (2013) The essay film, Sight and Sound, pp. 44-52.

Marker, C. (1957) Letter from Siberia, Argos Films

Marker, C. (1983) Sans Soleil, Argos Films


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