Saturday, 30 November 2013

Lumière and Company #1


Film by Film [Hypothesis]


Lumière and Company is a 1995 omnibus film devised by Philippe Poulet and assembled by the director Sarah Moon.  It features contributions from forty different international filmmakers, including Zhang Yimou, David Lynch, Abbas Kiarostami, Peter Greenaway and Jacques Rivette (to name a few).  The intention of the film was to celebrate the first hundred years of cinema by having each director shoot a short film (one lasting no more than 52 seconds in duration) using the actual cameras and equipment employed by the brothers Auguste and Louis Lumière; the early film pioneers, who - in collaboration - defined the spectacle of the modern cinema, and as such, created the invisible thread of influence that now blind the serialized psychodramas of Louis Feuillade to the modern blockbusters of Steven Spielberg, and beyond.

In this occasional series, I'll be sharing my notes on each of the individual short films (some great, some not so great) in a vaguely alphabetised manner, and hopefully working my way through the entire project, a few films at a time.


Lumière and Company [Gabriel Axel, 1995]:

In a single fluid tracking shot, the lineage of creative expression is revealed.  At first we see a man in contemporary attire creating a small clay sculpture of a Shakespearian icon.  Next, we see an actor dressed as Hamlet, posing for the sculptor, but at the same time becoming a figurative representation of the great idol of contemporary theatre and the art of performance itself.  Next, two musicians - a cellist and violinist - provide an onscreen link to the music that accompanies the scene.  Next, a painter, posed by his easel, creates a picture that we never see.  Next, a pair of dancers, their movements as elegant and graceful as the tracking shot that records their display.  Finally, the filmmaker, turning the hand-crank on his camera as he records a scene of two men about to face one another in combat (the romantic fatalism of pistols at dawn).  The two men that preside over the duel look suspiciously like Auguste and Louis Lumière, the motion-picture pioneers to whom this series of films is dedicated.

Axel's short seems to communicate the notion that film is the ultimate art - the natural conclusion of all great cultural endeavour - because it is, in essence, a continuation of all the arts; an evolution.  Cinema is dance, performance, literature, painting, music, sculpture, photography and theatre, transformed into spectacle; a collaboration.  To cite the eternal Sam Fuller: [the cinema is] "love, hate, action, violence, death... in one word: emotion"; just like Axel's short film.


Lumière and Company [Vicente Aranda, 1995]:

I don't know the background of Aranda's film.  On the surface, it seems fairly similar to the later segment directed by John Boorman, but on the whole, is less impressive in its contrast between the archaic form of the brothers' cinematograph and the perspective of a modern-day setting.  Like the Boorman film, Aranda's segment takes place on a movie set; the Lumière camera, like the eye of God, watching over the development of its own heritage.  Unlike the Boorman film, I have no idea what movie is being made, and therefore it's possible that the significance of the setting was lost.  I can only assume it was shot during the production of Aranda's next feature, Libertarias (1996), which IMDb informs me takes place during the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War.  Again, as with Boorman's work, we have the spirit of revolution; an uprising.  Aranda is showing us this image of some past insurrection, re-staged as a counterpoint to the revolution of the cinema, one-hundred years before.  The political and the cinematic - or the art in general - forever entwined.


Lumière and Company [Merzak Allouache, 1995]:

In a wide-shot, two characters - a man and woman in period dress - walk briskly towards the camera.  The woman is carrying a suitcase.  The man - dapper in a flat cap - twirls his cigarette in an outlandish fashion.  The first thing noticeable is the incongruous use of sound; footsteps crunching beneath the gravel path; the wind rustling through the leaves; the whir of the camera as it records the scene.  The couple pass by; footsteps continuing unseen into the middle distance as impressions on the soundtrack.  Suddenly the woman reappears, her head dipping into the frame, attention diverted by the sight of the watchful apparatus.  She peers into the lens, childlike and captivated by this new device and its endless possibilities.  A moment later, the man reappears.  Regarding the woman's fascination with this strange and inexplicable new object, he forcibly pushes her out of the frame, positioning himself as the main subject of interest.  Mystery and wonder replaced by vanity, as vice.

Allouache's film is one of many in this compendium that has the actors break the fourth wall; acknowledging the presence of the camera and turning the audience (the "gaze" of viewer) into the subject-matter.  One could argue that the film, on a deeper level, also exists as a figurative commentary on the marginalisation of women in film or the subjugation of women in popular culture.  The camera that so fascinates this woman on a clearly emotional level is soon taken away from her - censored, made forbidden - reclaimed by the man as a means of documenting his own narcissism; the male "self-image" that still dominates to this day.