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Watch (Almost) Every Film From Kevin Lee’s Provocative Video Essay

Essay Films and Their Discontents

Prolific video essayist Kevin Lee has a new one up at the British Film Institute’s website, and this one’s a bit of a pot-stirrer. (The video’s not embeddable, so click here.) In “The essay film — some thoughts of discontent,” Lee questions the definition of the essay film itself, both as it was was original conceived — free-flowing, meditative, inward-looking — and as it’s currently applied, to supercuts and other less analytic forms.

The video essay itself is worth watching several times, and it’s paired with a text essay where Lee questions whether the essay film, whatever that might mean, has lived up to its potential, or whether it’s just one more flood of images in a world already bursting with them.

In this way, the essay film might realize a greater purpose than existing as a trendy label, or as cinema’s submission to high-toned and half-defined literary concepts. Instead, the essay film may serve as a springboard to launch into a vital investigation of knowledge, art and culture in the 21st century, including the question of what role cinema itself might play in this critical project: articulating discontent with its own place in the world.

“The essayistic,” Lee quotes a member of the collective Otolith Group, “is dissatisfaction. It’s discontent.” There are several points in Lee’s essay — inspired, in part, by his recent trip to the Flaherty Seminar — at which I balk, but I prefer to let them sink in for a bit, and reapply them to the many classics of the form Lee quotes from. To make that easier, Criticwire has gathered links to every one of the film’s Lee cites in his credits, most of which are available in full online. Watch and enjoy.

A Valpariso (Joris Ivens, 1962)



A propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1930)


L’Amour Existe (Maurice Pialat, 1960)

A Diary for Timothy (Humphrey Jennings, 1945)


Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore (Mark Leckey, 1999)


F for Fake (Orson Welles, 1973)

Film not available online, but Welles’ 10-minute trailer, a masterpiece in its own right, is here:

Handsworth Songs (Black Audio Film Collective, 1987)

The House Is Black (Forough Farrokhzad, 1973)

LBJ (Santiago Alvarez, 1968)


Letter to Jane (Groupe Dziga Vertov aka Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin, 1972)

Los Angeles Plays Itself (Thom Anderson, 2003)

Madrid (Patricio Guzman, 2002) — trailer


O saisons, o chateaux (Agnes Varda, 1968) — not available

Otolith I (Otolith Group, 2003)

10-minute excerpt here:

Rock My Religion (Dan Graham, 1984)


Sans Soleil (Chris Marker, 1983) — excerpt

79 Springtimes (Santiago Alvarez, 1969)

Slow Action (Ben Rivers, 2010) — excerpt

Toute la memoire du monde (Alain Resnais, 1956)


Train of Shadows (Jose Luis Guerin, 1997)


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