Subjective Objectivity

Professor of English and Cinema Studies Timothy Corrigan explores essay film.
August 29, 2012

We go to the movies for a variety of reasons. Summer blockbusters are a great escape, while documentaries can provide unique perspectives into worlds which otherwise we may not explore. But what can films teach us about society? And what are filmmakers doing behind the scenes to not only entertain us but make their own indelible mark on the issues of our day? These are questions Timothy Corrigan, Professor of English and Cinema Studies, has spent his career investigating.

Corrigan explores one of his premiere film interests in the aptly named The Essay Film, which was recently awarded the prestigious Society for Cinema and Media 2012 Kovács Book Award. “The title and subject of the book refer to a tendency in some documentary films to break the traditional objectivity of the genre,” says Corrigan. “Instead, the director views the film as kind of dialogue between them and the event or personal world they’re trying to engage.” Some notable contemporary filmmakers associated with the essay film include Errol Morris, Werner Herzog and Michael Moore. In Morris’ film The Thin Blue Line, the filmmaker reinvestigates a murder case involving the killing of a policeman in Texas. As a result of the film, the grand jury subsequently reopened the case and the accused was vindicated, a perfect example of how the essay film has a stake in altering viewers’ perspective.

“If you go back to the ‘20s and ‘30s, the notion was that documentaries were in some way ethnographic, scientific investigations,” Corrigan says. “The assumption was that compared to Hollywood films, a documentary was an objective representation. That whole position got overturned after World War II, when you had documentary movements like cinema verité which tried to create a more dynamic world.” Grizzly Man, a Werner Herzog film, is another example of an essay film. It focuses on a man obsessed with the notion that he is the messiah of a grizzly bear colony, following him until he is ultimately killed by one of the animals. “What makes the film essayistic is the fact that it’s not merely about ‘The Grizzly Man,’” says Corrigan. “The dominant underlying narrative revolves around Herzog’s own coming to grips with his subject’s demise.” 

The essay film comes with its fair share of controversy, as evidenced by the reaction to many of Michael Moore’s films. Corrigan says a lot of this stems from attempts to brand his films as biased—a dirty word in the documentary genre—when they are never actually attempting to be objective. “This is where I think people get somebody like Michael Moore wrong. They think he’s just an ideologue who’s sort of pounding his fist about right-wing conservatives,” Corrigan says. “But I think there’s something a little more complicated in the way he acts out his role as a buffoon and exaggerates things. And I think he’s really pushing people to say, what do you make of the issues in America today? So I think he’s a little more complicated than most people would say.”

In addition to his work on the essay film, Corrigan also recently edited the anthology American Cinema of the 2000s, part of a series which analyzes the decades in film since 1900. Corrigan was tasked with recruiting 10 film scholars to pen essays that would debate important themes from the decade. One of Penn’s own, Karen Beckman, Elliot and Roslyn Jaffe Professor of History of Art and Cinema Studies, contributed an essay on the ways in which gender in the American family has been reconfigured, citing films that challenge conventional roles, like Brokeback Mountain.

Corrigan, who is currently teaching a course on the essay film, says that in the future he would like to involve students directly in the filmmaking process. “What I’d like to do is a course on this notion of the essayistic in film and literature in conjunction with a real filmmaker,” says Corrigan. “Part of the students’ involvement in the course would be to actually create a film. And that’s where the filmmaker would come in, to say, can we sort of marry this notion of talking about history in theory, but also engaging it in the sort of pragmatics of making film, too?”