Moffem 2012.       

First Person Cinema
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As the audience filed into the cinema on a beautiful sunny day in Kotor, question marks hung over them, like those above comic-strip characters. They seemed to ask, "What is this film called What Is This Film Called Love?" I had rushed from a delicious and leisurely al fresco lunch at a restaurant beside the fjord in order to introduce Mark Cousins' film. Because the director couldn't come – he was busy introducing his 15-hour The Story of Film: An Odysseyin Amsterdam at the same time - I felt it incumbent on me, as a friend, to be his surrogate at MOFFEM.

In order to prepare myself, I emailed him to ask if there was anything he wanted me to say about the film. This was his reply: 'It's maybe worth emphasising that the film was in no way planned. It was entirely ad-libbed or improvised, like jazz. It's all about me because I was available and cheap.'

How was I to describe the film? Cousins, with a tiny £100 flip camera, filmed himself alone over three days in Mexico City, his only companion being a blown-up picture of Sergei Eisenstein, whom he talks to while walking around the city in search of the meaning of what the innovative Russian director called ecstasy. The walkie-talkie narrative is often punctuated by some stream-of-consciousness and dream sequences, ending with two startling transmutations. A clip used from one of his home movies is of Cousins walking completely nude in Monument Valley, Utah. In a way, the stripping down to his essentials is a symbolic act – revealing that he has nothing to hide and nothing to be embarrassed about. Cousins eventually manages to understand and replicate some of Eisenstein's definition of ecstasy as 'the leap outside oneself - a fusion of place, Eros, and the infinite.'


Cousins' film is among various types of first-person cinema. I discount the number of movies which use p.o.v. techniques as a narrative device such as Dark Passage and Lady in the Lake, '40s films noirs, and more recently The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Much auteurist cinema can be seen as first-person cinema, particularly the films of Federico Fellini and Ingmar Bergman, both of whom fully absorbed the autobiographical into the fictional.

The essay film is not a self-portrait but an expression of a personal view of the subject. Chris Marker (see my obituary elsewhere in this edition) took an ironic distance from his subjects, as did Jean-Luc Godard, whose later films such as Notre Musique and Film Socialism, could be called essay films. For Georg Lukacs, the literary essay expresses 'a yearning for conceptuality and intellectuality as well as a resolution to the ultimate questions of life. Whereas poetry is sunlight refracted in a prism, the essay is ultra violet light.'

First-person cinema is seen in the mushrooming of video diaries due to moderately priced cameras. However, most of them are ego-trips or only of interest to the filmmaker, but there are exceptions such as the cinema diaries kept by Jonas Mekas over 50 years of his life. In contrast, Cinema Verité, in its different forms, Kino Pravda or Direct Cinema, is, by definition, objective, and not about the filmmaker.

Difficult to categorize, which is often a sign of originality, What Is This Film Called Love? could be called a subjective documentary, an essay film, a visual poem or a video diary. Whatever one labels it, it is an excellent example of first-person filmmaking.

Ronald Bergan

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