Essaying the portrait: encountering the other in the essay portrait film

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Mulvey, James
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University College Cork
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The essay film has come to prominence since the turn of the century. Through the process of argumentation, it has allowed filmmakers to tackle a broad range of subjects, spanning a spectrum which shifts from the abstract to the concrete on a myriad of topics including objects, places, political events, theories, and the self. The essay’s shapeshifting practice, which can take the form of a travelogue, diary, notebook, self-portrait, or confessional, can be methodologically expressed diversely through dialecticism, dialogism, lyricism, or even as a poetics. Central to the essay film is the subject, who exploits the function of disjunction weighing the disparate elements, such as audio, visual, text, still image, sound, found footage, archive, and filmed footage to offer a personal viewpoint. This thesis builds on an already strong body of scholarship which notes that the essay film is a thinking mode of cinema, where the “I” of the text draws upon the disjunctive elements of the practice to enunciate a personal perspective. Given the solidity of the personal, a question emerges: what happens when this voice is interrupted by a second, also comprised of disjunctive audio-visual and archival materials? The essay portrait is an underdeveloped category of the essay film and, therefore, unique to this thesis is a shift from the singularity of the personal to the encounter with an other to investigate the shared experience of worlds. The assembled subjectivity introduces an element of jeopardy whereby the fragmented persona of the filmmaker encounters the disunity of another. The encounter is a disjunctive practice which introduces chance as a disruptive potentiality. It is through the between, out of the fissures and into the encounter that the spectator engages with a hybridic persona. This thesis proposes that the relation between the filmmaker as enunciator and the subject of the film unleashes the violent disruptive force of chance which is unavailable in existing readymade structures such as the biopic. This will open a debate on the fragmented breakup of the filmmaker, illustrated through a lack of control over the subject and, therefore, an inability to frame the subject in a particular way, implicating the viewer as an active participant in the process of essaying. To do this, the thesis will focus on essayistic portrait films from Europe and beyond, made from 2010 to present and will lean on pertinent examples from the history of the essay film and the biopic. This project defines the essay portrait film by adopting an essayistic style and a film-philosophical methodology, weighing through the encounter, while simultaneously delineating the form from other modes of portrait practice. To explore shared experiences of duration through the moving image as a portrait, it is imperative to begin with the work of Henri Bergson as a means for encountering the conditions for experience in the essayistic portrait film. This will be assembled, firstly, through the introduction of time, secondly, by releasing the image from its teleological stillness through the violent disruption of movement, and, finally, by means of endurance, in which the image incorporates the impact of change. To further interrogate these mediated conditions for experience, the writing of Walter Benjamin will be employed as an enquiry into the reshaping and construction of space. This will allow for a further exploration, where the past rushes into the present, thus fragmenting the structure of time to redeploy meaning-making. Expanding on the theme of time, this thesis will show how it is ensconced in objects and how it can be released through encounters with subjectivity. Jean-Luc Nancy’s “being-with” will be deployed to open a space for a fragmented self, providing the grounds for what Zsusa Baross terms “an encounter”, bringing the other into disjunction with the self, to create an essayistic portrait film. To broaden this discussion on the encounter, the work of Gilles Deleuze will be used to underline the significance of the encounter in the production of thought. Building on this, the concept of interpellation will be introduced to invite the spectator to partake in the weighing of fragmented subjectivities. Overall, this thesis shows that the essayistic portrait film does not present a fully formed person, static, complete, teleologically bound and linked to the completeness of history, but rather is a mode that draws on disjunction and fragmentation to articulate the complexity of a subject. In doing so, a violence emerges in the creation of thought through the essaying of a person.
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Essay film , Portrait , Film-philosophy , Encounter , Essay portrait
Mulvey, J. 2024. Essaying the portrait: encountering the other in the essay portrait film. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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