and so anyway it turns out that the best thing about The Killing of a Sacred Deer (2017), Yorgos Lanthimos’s tepidly comic but ultimately toothless mash-up of Ballard, Kubrick and Lynch, is not the relentlessly crawling pace that actually gives you time to watch not paint dry but Colin Farrell’s beard grow (and turn increasingly grey), nor is it Alicia Silverstone’s wise decision to quit the movie after a single scene because it required her to suck Colin Farrell’s fingers, nor is it the fact that I have finally managed to stay awake all the way through a film by Yorgos “no idea how to wrap up this story” Lanthimos, though this time ironically it could well have been the praying for sleep to come that kept me from napping, nor is it the fact that no deer, sacred or otherwise, were killed during the making of this film, no, the best thing about The Killing of a Sacred Deer is the immensely tall cameraman employed to do the long tracking-in and tracking-out shots, whose head you constantly fear is going to come a cropper on light fittings and door ways, thus adding a much-needed sense of danger and suspense as this never-seen lanky technician is the nearest thing to a character you could give a flying fuck about…
[Something written pseudonymously about John Hurt for a 50th anniversary feature on Doctor Who. I have no idea by who.]
He is the one who comes between. The one we did not know was there. The one who does not count (or, at least, was not counted). Even his costume, part-McGann/part-Eccleston and bridging between them both, is interstitial, not really his own. He is the not-Doctor who says ‘no more’. As Matt Smith’s Doctor explains: ‘I said he was me, I never said he was the Doctor. … The name I chose is the Doctor. The name you choose, … it’s like a promise you make. He’s the one who broke the promise’ – and what he did to end the Time War, destroying Gallifrey and billions of Time Lords, he did ‘not [do] in the name of the Doctor’.
It now seems inevitable that sooner or later John Hurt would play the Doctor, and that when he did it would be this particular Doctor – the War Doctor – or someone like him. The one who can bear it no longer. The one who must face a Kobayashi Maru moment that is no mere test or simulation, and which cannot, Kirk-like, be glibly cheated. It is not just that Hurt, the oldest actor to play the role, has been around even longer than the series, and thus can bring a sense of perspective to the more infantile, gurning, gesticulatory, timey-wimey shenanigans of the relaunched series, to its peacock displays of masculinity, its violence and all the snogging. Although, edging his sorrow with an impish despair at the younger men playing his older self, he does.
Nor is just that Hurt’s sf credentials are impeccable, although they are. In Contact (Zemeckis US 1997), he portrays the billionaire funding the first contact mission as an Arthur C. Clarke lookalike, and more recently he raised Hellboy (Ron Perlman) from a pup for Guillermo del Toro. Haggard and squalid in Michael Radford’s Nineteen Eighty-four (UK 1984), his is the definitive screen Winston Smith; but one can easily imagine him taking a role in Equals, the Kristen Stewart-starring ‘epic love story’ adaptation of Orwell’s novel with which we are currently threatened, just so he can suffer again and suffer some more. It would not be the first time Hurt returned for a further dose of agony and anguish, reprising tragedy as farce. After all, his is the chest from which the alien chestburster first burst, and then again in Spaceballs (Brooks US 1987).
And it this capacity for suffering, and for provoking our sympathy, that is the key to Hurt’s persona and to his casting as the Doctor, and as this particular Doctor; that, and his aura of jaded sexual dissidence – he is, do not forget, Caligula in I, Claudius (UK 1976) – that often also leads to suffering.
He is Max, the heroin addict stuck in a Turkish hellhole prison in Midnight Express (Parker UK/US 1978) but in Love and Death on Long Island (Kwietniowski UK/Canada 1997), he is Giles De’Ath – a reclusive, modernity-hating author who stumbles into a cinema hoping for an E.M. Forster adaptation and instead gets Hotpants College II and is smitten with its star, Ronnie Bostock (Jason Priestley). He is John Merrick in The Elephant Man (Lynch US 1980), disfigured, despised and turned into a sideshow freak. Yet he is also The Countess in Even Cowgirls Get the Blues (Van Sant US 1993), sagely noting, ‘All of us are freaks in one way or another. Try being born a male Russian Countess into a white, middle class, Baptist family in Mississippi, and you’ll see what I mean’. In 10 Rillington Place (Fleischer UK 1971), he is the ill-educated Timothy Evans, framed and executed for murders committed by serial killer John Christie (Richard Attenborough). In Scandal (Caton-Jones UK 1989), he is Stephen Ward, the procurer at the heart of the Profumo affair, who is abandoned by his Establishment friends, scapegoated and driven to suicide (or possibly murdered by MI5). But he is also the fabulous flaming Quentin Crisp in The Naked Civil Servant (UK 1975), produced by Doctor Who’s very own Verity Lambert, and in An Englishman in New York (UK 2009). He is the fearfully haunted Parkin in Whistle and I’ll Come to You (UK 2010) and the ailing vampire Christopher Marlowe in Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch UK/Germany/France/Cyprus/US 2013), but he is also the world-weary assassin in The Hit (Frears UK 1984) and, in a neat reversal, Britain’s fascist dictator, the Big Brother to Evey’s (Natalie Portman) Winston Smith, in V for Vendetta (McTeigue US/UK/Germany 2005).
And in Frankenstein Unbound (Corman US 1990), he is Dr Joe Buchanan, the inventor of an ultimate weapon that tears holes in time and space. It casts him back to the very birth of sf, to the Villa Diodati in 1817, but in an alternative history in which Mary Shelley is writing up a factual account, not a novel, of the Frankenstein affair. And then he travels forward into a future in which his superweapon has destroyed humankind.
He has done all this before. No wonder the War Doctor’s weary mantra is ‘no more, no more’. You can hear his exhaustion ground deep in that gravelly voice.
‘I’ve been fighting this war for a long time, I’ve lost the right to be the Doctor’, he tells the sentient ultimate weapon as he prepares to use it, knowing that his punishment will be to survive genociding his own people. But Hurt has suffered – has hurt – for so long, who else had the right to be the War Doctor?
 Although, being a Steven Moffat episode, actually it can. The scenario can be gamed, and what was written in stone can be rewritten, while handy amnesia also leaves continuity pretty much intact.
 Already a stage actor, his first television appearance was in an episode of Probation Officer (UK 1959–62) broadcast two years before ‘An Unearthly Child’.
 Sadly, he is also Kerwin, the gay cop teamed with Ryan O’Neal in the alleged comedy Partners (Burrows US 1982).
Do not be fooled if your local arthouse tries to advertise it like this: ‘Featuring some of the most mesmerising underwater cinematography this side of Jacques Cousteau and containing undertones of the weird horror fiction of HP Lovecraft…’
They have to do it that way round cos they’re an arthouse cinema, and they figure their main audience is going to be the people who want to see Cousteau-like cinematography. And it is indeed mesmerising, rendering the world beneath the waves beautiful and alien all at once.
But the film is really for those who like their fiction weird. And who want to know where babies come from.
An oddly piscine-looking woman raises a ten-year-old boy, Nicolas, in a white-walled coastal village full of oddly piscine-looking women, each of whom is raising a ten-year-old boy. The landscape is vaguely volcanic, the beach and streets covered in cinders. They live on a diet of khaki mush filled with worms, and every day, Nicolas must take four drops of medicine that looks suspiciously like cephalopod ink. He claims to have seen a dead boy on the sea floor with a red starfish on his belly. His mother dives to retrieve the starfish, thus ‘proving’ there was no dead boy.
The camera is generally static. No one says very much.
But Nicolas senses something is not right. Where do the women go by lantern-light once their boys are asleep? What is going on at the medical facility along the cliffs? Why do all the boys eventually go there? What happens to them?
It is difficult to write more without giving too much away. Plus, the film tends to live and resonate in its obscurities, its half-glimpses and elliptical cutaways, its silences and incompletions, so writing much more would also pin down meanings in a way which counter the film’s affect. Suffice to say, there is not just Lovecraft here, but also a Lynchian suspension of meaning, the surgical/gynaecological horror of Cronenberg, a hint of del Toro’s El espinazo del diablo but without the boys adventure literalness of his ghost story, and of The Wicker Man‘s odd local customs, and even of Brian Yuzna’s Society but without the comical excesses. (There is nothing comical about this film.) Hadzihalilovic has also mentioned in interview the influence of Theodore Sturgeon’s The Dreaming Jewels.
For a while near the end you start to think it does not know how to end, but then its final shot reframes all that has gone before as a document of the Anthropocene.
It is probably the creepiest, weirdest-on-first-viewing film I have seen since Tsukamoto Shinya’s A Snake of June, and easily the best thing I have seen in a cinema this year.
Ultimately, the opening text tells us, the war became unnecessary. Perhaps it was a mutation, or perhaps bone-deep ideology just changed. But people gave up on survival, on perpetuating the species. (The cost, after all, had proven terrible.) The remnant population
slowly started to decrease, wane and languish like the dying flame of a candle that barely resists extinguishing itself. … The elderly passed on and the young became elderly. The news of the sporadic birth of a child, probably conceived out of neglect, was received with condescending smiles the same as in those who mock ignorant people who with pride show off their out of style garments.
Crumbs begins with a series of gently floating shots, starting with a broad view of the peculiar mineral structures in volcanic landscape of Dallol, before moving in to detail their folded textures and colours. Water washes over the surface, as in something by Tarkovsky; the shots commute each other, as in something by Kubrick. A desert wind blows, accompanied by Atomizador’s throbbing alien score. There are mountains in the distance. A lone figure in a light shirt and darker trousers, with a satchel slung over his shoulder, makes his way through this alien yet terrestrial landscape. He is dwarfish, hunchbacked, deformed in some way. We will learn he is called Candy (Daniel Tardesse).
Among the rusting vehicle carcasses and other long-abandoned matériel are the remnants of a pipeline. In the ruins of the salt-block buildings he finds an artificial Christmas tree, its spindly green plastic branches still furled close to its metal trunk. In the distance he spots a figure (Quino Piñero). A man in a military uniform: a medal on his chest, a swastika on his armband, and a rat mask covering his head, grey ears visible above the gas mask covering his face. Candy flees. Distortion fills the soundtrack. Above the salt flats across which Candy runs floats a spaceship, an immense citadel hovering in these post-apocalyptic Ethiopian skies.
The tree is a gift for his lover, a young black woman called Sayat or Birdy (Selam Tesfayie) who makes sculptures from salvaged metal. In the derelict bowling alley in which they live – surrounded by fetishes hanging from trees like those in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (Hooper 1974) – the ball return mechanism has started to activate itself. Sayat suggests that there must be a magnetic field being directed at it, as if someone, maybe the spaceship, which has been ‘rusting in the sky since the beginning of the big war’, is trying to send them a message. When Candy investigates the mechanism – like Henry (Jack Nance) in Eraserhead (Lynch 1977) looking behind the radiator – he finds something unexpected down inside it: a voice, that will later be revealed as that of a skinny black Santa (Tsegaye Abegaz) who might be very small or just a long way away.
Candy undertakes a quest to find out what is going on – a quest that will take him through the stunning green highlands around the Wenchi crater-lake, to a witch who won’t let him pay for her insights with the pristine copy of Michael Jackson’s Dangerous LP which is supposed to finance his wedding, and then on through an abandoned rail depot to the old city, and through it to a derelict lakeside zoo and a violent encounter with Santa Claus…
I have no idea whether there is a specific folktale lurking in the back of all this, an Ethiopian legend akin to the Malian epic of the crippled warrior-king Sundjata, and accounts of Llansó’s improvisational style of direction – responding to what he finds on location – suggest that while there might be some such narrative armature the final film is unlikely to map onto it with any kind of precision.
It is a film full of allusions: Candy is challenged by a masked warrior on horseback who gallops up like something out of Zardoz (Boorman 1974) or The Planet of the Apes (Schaffner 1968); a bowling ball rolls mysteriously across the floor, like something from The Shining (Kubrick 1980); a rail line subsiding on a narrow stretch of land built across the middle of a lake recalls China Miéville’s Railsea (2012). There are also bits that reminded me of Space is the Place (Coney 1974) and Save the Green Planet! (Joon-Hwan Jang 2003).
There is the detritus of a lost world, given fresh meaning: a plastic figurine of TMNT Donatello, a Max Steel ‘Force Sword’ still attached to its colourful cardboard backing, a Michael Jackson album, a figure of a child asleep on a mattress, all of which are seen within the story world; and then once more, floating in Earth orbit as gracefully as a Kubrick weapons platform or space shuttle, while the voice of the shopkeeper (Mengistu Bermanu) describes them in relation to their production in the pre-apocalypse and their use by the legendary Molegon warriors – an amulet, an instiller of courage before battles, a reminder of the adored Andromeda baby and of its twin who lived in the pyramid of Cheops. There is an altar to Michael Jordan. Sayat, perhaps awaking from a dream, intones a fervent prayer to a string of deities: ‘Einstein IV, San Pablo Picasso, Stephen Hawking III, Justin Bieber VI, Paul McCartney XI, Carrefour!’ (Though the film is as dark as the storm raging outside, and it is possible she is chanting this litany as she masturbates.) There are also a lot of plastic dinosaurs, and a plastic lion. There are children’s superhero costumes. There is a cinema that has screened Süpermen Dönüyor, Kunt Tulgar’s 1979 Turkish Superman knock-off, every day for forty years, including the day on which we get a glimpse inside.
Candy’s quest brings him to a landscape littered with abandoned trains, rusting wheel-less cadavers, somehow both modern and prehistoric – like the rotting symbols of earlier waves of (failed) colonial expansion Conrad describes in Heart of Darkness (1899). Among them he finds a man who used to work for the railway (Girma Gebrehiwot), but the man does not speak. When Candy starts claiming that he is from another world – rocky, frozen, windswept – the man does not hear him; the discordant soundtrack – part Sun Ra, appropriately enough, part Texas Chain Saw Massacre – drowns his voice (a little like the bar scene in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (Lynch 1992)).
Candy moves on, past corroding watertowers that resemble abandoned Martian war machines. All he wants is to be able to return to his home planet, taking Sayat – and the child he intuits she is carrying – with him.
Some reviews of Crumbs suggest that its elliptical narrative, its congeries and clusters of salvage and allusion, defy meaning. That this rather gentle, beautiful, endearing film is somehow impenetrable. Such reviews are simply and straightforwardly wrong. Crumbs – probably the best sf film to come out of Africa so far, and by a wide margin the best sf film of 2015 – is as easy to follow as the autobahn down which we are pellmelling to the end of the world.
We are living in the capitalocene moment, the gutted shell that is the present of the future Llansó depicts. The toys and costumes and other absurd relics, some in their original packaging, represent what Evan Calder Williams calls salvagepunk’s returning-repressed ‘idiosyncrasy of outmoded things’.
If I have one anxiety about this film it is that the unfamiliar landscapes it shows us are so beautiful they seem desirable. In this, it speaks to something dark in us. The thanatopic social sadism, recently anatomised by Miéville, the ‘thuggish idiot’s prometheanism’ that proclaims climate change is good for business; that longs with ‘spiteful glee’ for the further ruination of developing countries and the additional edge it will give to first-world corporations. That yearning to wipe the slate clean. To purge the Earth of the human stain.
[Many thanks to Miguel Llansó, Ewa Bojanowska and New Europe Film Sales for giving me access to a copy of the film; and to China for flexing his celebrity to make it happen.]
Miéville, China. ‘On Social Sadism’, Salvage # 2: Awaiting the Furies. 17-49.
Williams, Evan Calder. Combined and Uneven Apocalypse: Luciferian Marxism. Ropley: Zero Books, 2010.
 A ghost town in northern Ethiopia, build for potash mining in the early twentieth century. Photos here – also google ‘Dallol’ for images of the astonishing landscape. And while you’re at it, take a look at ‘Wenchi crater-lake’.
There are three main parts to this week’s class: viewing and discussing Chelovek s kino-apparatom/Man with a Movie Camera (Vertov 1929); reading and discussing Tom Gunning’s ‘Cinema of Attraction[s]: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant-Garde’; and essay preparation for next week’s deadline.
In my experience, first year students often struggle with Man with a Movie Camera – very few ever seem to grasp it, let alone like it; and then by the time they are third years, and more used to engaging with a wide variety of films, a number of those who were initially quite negative about it come to appreciate it, even like it. So I did a bit more than I usually would to frame the film – especially as the day before on Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption, they had gone from looking at versions of Sherlock Holmes and James Bond to reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s Jealousy and watching Last Year at Marienbad (Resnais 1961).
Drawing on some work on film forms from an earlier week on colleague’s Film Style and Meaning module, I framed Man with a Movie Camera as both
- a documentary, but one that does not use language tell you what its subject matter is or guide you through it
- an experimental film that requires you to think about the connections between images (one of my favourite gags in the movie depends entirely upon our learned assumptions about narrative and continuity editing: from the right of the screen a football is lobbed into the air; cut to a shot of a man throwing a javelin from the left of the screen – will he puncture the ball in mid-flight?’; cut to a shot of a goalkeeper on the right of the screen – will the javelin impale him?)
- a self-reflexive film about producing and exhibiting film – all about seeing and being seen, projecting images, filmmaking as an industrial craft among other industrial crafts, film as an industrial product, film as a leisure activity, film as a constructor and conveyor of illusion
and in relation to
- city symphony films, such as Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931) – one of the students later noted formal similarities to films such as Baraka (Fricke 1992)
- film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953) – the latter of which they saw a few weeks ago on Film Style and Meaning
We also had some questions to think about while watching the film:
- How are shots connected to each other? For what reasons does one follow another?
- Are there graphic and/or textural matches/contrasts between successive shots?
- Are there traces of narrative?
- What thematic connections are elaborated across the film?
- Think about binary oppositions: male/female, public/private, work/leisure, humans/machines, cameraman/people, capturing the city/intervening in the city
I had to stay for the start of the screening to check something in the first few minutes of the film – and ended up watching the whole thing again for the second time in less than 48 hours. I love this movie more every time I see it.
The lecture began with some more framing of the film (next year, I need to try to get the lecture scheduled before the film, if possible).
Viva Paci describes the emergence of cinema as ‘part of the euphoria of modernity’. Like ‘other fetish phenomena typical of modernity, such as billboards, posters, expositions and store shelves’, cinema is ‘merchandise that makes itself visible, turning its presence into spectacle’ (126).Last week we saw, in Modern Times, the centrality of the department store to modern urban experience, and Man with a Movie Camera directly addresses some of these other phenomena. For example, in the early sequence of a sleeping woman slowly waking, there are cut-aways to a detail from a poster, which later is revealed as the poster for a film called The Awakening (of a woman).
I outlined some of the ways in which many early actualité films shared the same drive as expositions and world’s fairs to expose mass audiences to new technologies and views/simulations of distant and exotic lands (and as this week is also thinking a little bit more about urban alienation and disorientation, it is not insignificant that the first known US serial killer, HH Holmes, stalked in and around the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair).
Paci also relates cinema to
exoticism (as found in the era’s expositions and in the Paris arcades celebrated by Baudelaire and Benjamin), train journeys (and the new visions of the landscape in movement and the proliferation of perspectives they offered), advances in the faculty of sight (from the air, for example, or with microscopes) and the improvements to fantastic images [that] had already fed the collective imaginative identity extended [and] new aesthetic habits. (125)
Annoyingly, I could not find my copy of The World of Tomorrow (Bird and Johnson 1984) to show off some 1939 New York World’s Fair footage, so instead we focused on the connections to trains and new technologies of vision. An 1861 quote form Benjamin Gastineau best captures train travel as proleptic of watching a programme of short films such as the Lumière brothers first charged an audience to see at Le Salon Indien du Grand Café on 28 December 1895:
Devouring distance at the rate of fifteen leagues an hour, the steam engine, that powerful stage manager, throws the switches, changes the décor, and shifts the point of view every moment; in quick succession it presents the astonished traveller with happy scenes, sad scenes, burlesque interludes, brilliant fireworks, all visions that disappear as soon as they are seen. (Schivelbusch 63)
We spoke about Hale’s Tours (launched, of course, at an exposition – the 1904 St Louis Exhibition) and train films and, of course, Edison’s Railroad Smashup (1904), for which the film company bought two decommissioned trains and crashed them into each other. If we had way more time, I would also have shown the remarkable train crashes from Orlacs hände (Wiene 1924) and Spione (Lang 1928), the sequence shot from the front of the train in Bulldog Jack (Forde 1935) and the opening of La bête humaine (Renoir 1938) to show how this fascination continued on into narrative cinema, and is in some ways the visual precursor of the jump to lightspeed/hyperspace, etc.
For new technologies of vision, we recalled some work from Film Style and Meaning on Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies and Étienne-Jules Marey’s chronophotography – examples of pre-cinema which also lead to Frederick Taylor’s ‘scientific management’ of the workplace, suggested in both Modern Times and Man with a Movie Camera – and the similarities that can be found in such contemporaneous art as Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, no.2 (1912). And, of course, we watched Cheese Mites (Duncan 1903) and Percy Smith’s The Birth of a Flower (1910) and his juggling fly films to see how microscopes and time-lapse photography could show human eyes things our eyes could otherwise not see. We looked at some views of Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris qui dort (Clair 1925) – aerial views of a kind previously only accessible to people in aircraft and construction workers – and also at Onésime horloger (Durand 1908), in which the protagonist, frustrated that he cannot get his inheritance until he is older, speeds up the Paris city clock: a series of gags are played out, made funny by the accelerated pace of the action; and undercranked footage played back at regular speed sees pedestrians dash through the city, even more harried than usual by the regulation of life by clocks (which, of course, connects back to railroads, factories and other disciplinary institutions). .
We then turned to Soviet montage, and again I was able to connect back to some work on editing and montage from Film Style and Meaning. I began by introducing the key figures and their most important films:
- Sergei Eisenstein – Strike (1925), Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1927), The General Line (1929), Alexander Nevsky (1939), Ivan the Terrible, parts 1 and 2 (1944, 1945)
- Lev Kuleshov – The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr West in the Land of the Bolsheviks (1924)
- Vsevolod Pudovkin – Mother (1926), The End of St Petersburg (1927), Storm over Asia (1928)
- Esfir Shub – The Fall of the Romanov Dynasty (1927), creator of the compilation film – who also fleetingly appears in Man with a Movie Camera
- Dziga Vertov – Kino-Pravda (1925-28), A Sixth of the World (1926), Man with a Movie Camera (1929), Three Songs of Lenin (1934), Lullaby (1937)
- Yelizaveta Svilova, who plays the editor in Man with a Movie Camera as well as editing it and others of her husband’s films before becoming a director herself in the 1940s (her brother-in-law, Mikhail Kaufman. also shot several of his brother’s films, including Man with a Movie Camera, in which he also plays the cameraman)
A quick description of the Kuleshov effect gave me the excuse I’ve been looking for to show off the actorly range of lardy racist Steven Seagal, before reminding students of Eisenstein’s theoretical discussion of montage and the analysis they had done of the clash of images in the sequence from Strike in which the assault on the workers is intercut with the slaughter of the bull in the abattoir. Plus, some lions.
We then finally discussed Man with a Movie Camera in some detail, picking out moments such as:
- the intercutting of the woman rubbing her eyes, the shutters of her window-blinds opening and closing, the camera shutter – associative editing, detecting similarities and differences between phenomena, sketching out relations between organic and mechanical actions
- the superimposition of the eye on the camera lens – a kind of cyborg melding of mechanical means and human consciousness, emphasising differences in kinds of vision
- the splitscreens in which the cameraman towers over the city – part of the depiction of the cameraman as an heroic figure that runs throughout the film, and of the celebration of the camera’s ability to see anywhere, but also with a hint of surveillance (there is one shot in the film in which the camera is positioned high above the street and seems to move autonomously, like a CCTV camera)
- the stop-motion animation of the camera, giving it life – animating it, as the camera/projector does with each still image it captures/projects
- the shots which show something hurtling towards or passing over the camera, and the following shots which reveal how it is done
- Svilova editing the film, and the later placement of the frames in the film, animated and given a context
- industrial footage, especially of rotating devices and interlocking gears that recall the mechanism of the camera/projector – and nice to see a sewing machine included, since the camera/projector borrowed from sewing machine technology the intermittence device that allows individual frames to be held momentarily in place to capture/project each individual image
- the skill of manual labour, such as the woman making cigarette packages, but also how machine-like it is in its endless speed, precision and repetition
- the obsession with trains and trams, constantly on the verge of catastrophic collision
- the shop-window mannequins that wake up and come to life along with the humans, awoken by the presence of the sun (or the camera)
- the world being captured unawares vs. people’s reactions when they know they are being filmed – and that film is present in the world not just as labour and recorder but also as projection, cinema, leisure activity
- the use of freezeframes and slow motion, recalling the material basis of film (the photogram), the role of editing, and those early motion studies of Muybridge and Marey
The final section of class was about Tom Gunning’s discussion of the cinema of attractions. Early film history used to be told in terms of a tension or conflict between two approaches to cinema that ultimately and somehow inevitably resulted in the dominance of narrative cinema. These tensions were rooted in a distinction between:
Auguste and Louis Lumière’s ‘realist’ actualité films (i.e., views of the real world or actuality footage), that mostly eschewed anything but the most minimal of narrative form; see Baby’s Breakfast (1895) or Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1895) or the non-Lumière Black Diamond Express and Electrocuting an Elephant (1903)
Georges Méliès fantastical féerie films (i.e., ‘trick films’ organised around special effects) that, because of the nature of many of his gags and routines, contain some more obvious narrative structuration; see The India Rubber Head (1901) or A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Tom Gunning and others have, over the last thirty years, argued against this view, finding that despite superficial differences both approaches to filmmaking shared something profoundly fundamental in common: a basic exhibitionist impulse to present an audience with ‘a series of views’ that are ‘fascinating because of their illusory power’. Reality/fantasy, actuality/staged, non-narrative/narrative are pretty much red herrings in the first decade of cinema.
We then spend some time working on this long passage to get a better sense of what Gunning means by cinema of attractions:
To summarize, the cinema of attractions directly solicits spectator attention, inciting visual curiosity, and supplying pleasure through an exciting spectacle – a unique event, whether fictional or documentary, that is of interest in itself. The attraction to be displayed may also be of a cinematic nature, such as the early close-ups just described, or trick films in which a cinematic manipulation (slow motion, reverse motion, substitution, multiple exposure) provides the film’s novelty. Fictional situations tend to be restricted to gags, vaudeville numbers or recreations of shocking or curious incidents (executions, current events). It is the direct address of the audience, in which an attraction is offered to the spectator by a cinema showman, that defines this approach to filmmaking. Theatrical display dominates over narrative absorption, emphasizing the direct stimulation of shock or surprise at the expense of unfolding a story or creating a diegetic universe. The cinema of attractions expends little energy creating characters with psychological motivations or individual personality. Making use of both fictional and non-fictional attractions, its energy moves outward towards an acknowledged spectator rather than inward towards the character-based situations essential to classical narrative. … An attraction aggressively subjected the spectator to ‘sensual or psychological impact’. … a montage of such attractions, creat[es] a relation to the spectator entirely different from his absorption in ‘illusory depictions’.
And then it was time to discuss the essay due next week.
Incidentally, 20% of the class really enjoyed Man with a Movie Camera, 20% liked specific parts of it, and 60% declined to comment
Recommended critical reading
Berman, Berman. All That Is Solid Melts into Air: The Experience of Modernity. London: Penguin, 1998.
–. On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square. London: Verso, 2009
Feldman, Seth. “‘Peace Between Man and Machine”: Dziga Vertov’s The Man with the Movie Camera.” Documenting the Documentary: Close Readings of Documentary Film and Video. Ed. Barry Keith Grant and Jeanette Sloniowski. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1998. 40–54.
Gunning, Tom. “An Aesthetic of Astonishment: Early Film and the (In)credulous Spectator.” Film Theory and Criticism. 7th ed. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009. 736–750.
Keiller, Patrick. “Urban Space and Early Film.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 29–39.
Paci, Viva. “The Attraction of the Intelligent Eye: Obsessions with the Vision Machine in Early Film Theories.”, The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Ed. Wanda Strauven. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006. 121–137.
Roberts, Graham. The Man with the Movie Camera. London: IB Tauris, 2000.
Strathausen, Carsten. “Uncanny Spaces: The City in Ruttmann and Vertov.” Screening the City. Ed. Mark Shiel and Tony Fitzmaurice. London: Verso, 2003. 15–40.
Strauven, Wanda. ed. The Cinema of Attractions Reloaded. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2006.
Webber, Andrew. “Symphony of a City: Motion Pictures and Still Lives in Weimar Berlin.” Cities in Transition: The Moving Image and the Modern Metropolis. Ed. Andrew Webber and Emma Wilson. London: Wallflower, 2008. 56–71.
Cities are often depicted as so alienating and disorienting that their denizens are driven to madness of various sorts, as in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Double (1926), Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square: A Tale of Darkest Earl’s Court (1941), Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho (1991) and Erik Larson’s non-fiction The Devil in the White City (2003).
Cities can also offer possibilities for freedom, as in Muriel Sparks’s The Girls of Slender Means (1963) and Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt (1952), and for metamorphosis, as in chapters 6–7 of Stella Gibbons’s Cold Comfort Farm (1932) and chapter 11 of Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger (1942), in which trips to London transform rural girls into a glamorous ladies.
Other city ‘symphony’ films include Manhatta (Sheeler and Strand 1921), Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Ruttman 1927), Moscow (Kaufman 1927), A Bronx Morning (Leyda 1931) and City of Contrasts (Browning 1931). Some film poems, such as The Bridge (Ivens 1928), La Tour (Clair 1928), Every Day (Richter 1929), Rain (Ivens 1929) and Daybreak Express (Pennebaker 1953), are clearly related, as are such contemporary films as London Orbital (Petit and Sinclair 2002), Finisterre (Evans and Kelly 2003) and What Have You Done Today Mervyn Day? (Evans 2005).
People on Sunday (Siodmak and Ulmer 1930) combines a city symphony with a narrative about a group of young people played by non-professional actors.
Films of urban transformation include Theodora Goes Wild (Boleslawski 1936), Vertigo (Hitchcock 1958), The Apartment (Wilder 1960) and Better than Chocolate (Wheeler 1999).
Films of urban derangement include The Testament of Dr Mabuse (Lang 1933), Repulsion (Polanksi 1965), Taxi Driver (Scorsese 1976) and American Psycho (Harron 2000).
Urban transformation and derangement come together in disturbing ways in Videodrome (Cronenberg 1983), Tetsuo: The Iron Man (Tsukamoto 1989), Tokyo Fist (Tsukamoto 1995), Mulholland Drive (Lynch 2001) and A Snake of June (Tsukamoto 2002).
2015 marks the 120th anniversary of sf cinema. This is the sixth part of a year-by-year list of films I’d recommend (not always for the same reasons).
The Rocky Horror Picture Show (Jim Sharman)
Shivers (David Cronenberg)
Le couple témoin/The Model Couple (William Klein)
Eraserhead (David Lynch)
Izbavitelji/The Rat Saviour (Krsto Papic)
The Last Wave (Peter Weir)
Star Wars (George Lucas)
Coma (Michael Crichton)
Dawn of the Dead (George Romero)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Philip Kaufmann)
It Lives Again (Larry Cohen)
Jubilee (Derek Jarman)
The Long Weekend (Colin Eggleston)
Piranha (Joe Dante)
Test Pilota Pirx/Pilot Prix’s Inquest (Marek Piestrak)
Alien (Ridley Scott)
The Brood (David Cronenberg)
‘Hukkunud Alpinisti’ hotel/Dead Mountaineer’s Hotel (Grigori Kromanov)
Mad Max (George Miller)
Sengoku Jietai/G.I. Samurai (Kôsei Saitô)
Stalker (Andrei Tarkovsky)
Alligator (Lewis Teague)
Escape from New York (John Carpenter)
Gosti iz Galaksije/Visitors from the Galaxy (Dušan Vukotić)
Mad Max 2 (George Miller)
Born in Flames (Lizzie Borden)
Videodrome (David Cronenberg)
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the Eighth Dimension (W.D. Richter)
The Brother from Another Planet (John Sayles)
Dune (David Lynch)
Forbrydelsens Element/Element of Crime (Lars von Trier)
Repo Man (Alex Cox)
The Terminator (James Cameron)
Threads (Mick Jackson)
Hard to Be a God takes the bare armature of Boris and Arkady Strugatsky’s 1964 novel of the same name – human observers embedded among the population of an alien world, which resembles the terrestrial middle ages and in which the first traces of a Renaissance are being brutally expunged – and does something remarkable with it.
At times it reminded me of Andrei Rublev, of Aguirre, Wrath of God, of Seven Samurai, of Come and See, of The Seventh Seal or The Virgin Spring, of Tetsuo, of Erasherhead, of Jodorowsky, of A Field in England, of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. And yet it is not remotely like them, or like anything else.
As early as the 1960s, Aleksei German was the Strugatskys’ director of choice, and it only took him half a century to make the film. His earliest attempt was halted when Soviet forces invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968, since a film about a fledgling Renaissance being crushed by an invading totalitarian power was deemed untimely. (German was also briefly involved in Peter Fleischmann’s disastrous 1989 adaptation.) In 2000, he finally began what would become a six-year-long shoot (partly in the Czech Republic), but he died in 2013, leaving his filmmaker son, Aleksei German, Jr., to finalise the edit and the soundtrack.
The Strugatskys’ often comic tale poses a series of ethical questions around the (im)possibility of humanitarian intervention akin to those with which Star Trek’s prime directive narratives feebly wrestle. Are there circumstances in which violence can be used to cut short the violence of others? Is it more cruel passively to observe than it is to step in with an overwhelming force that will turn a society on its head? What is the ethical cost to the observer/intervener? The Strugatsky’s novel can also be understood as an expression of anxiety about the re-emergence of Stalinism as the Khruschev-era Thaw drew to a close.
German transforms this material into something marvellously different.
A black-and-white world of rain and mud and shit and piss and snot and blood. Of raw sewage and rotting carcasses. Of grotesquery and deformity. Of violence and death. Of the idiocy, as Marx might say, of feudal life.
The frame is frequently crowded. Depth of field is constantly destabilised. Fog and smoke and pouring rain obscure the distinction between earth and sky, clouding out the horizon and disrupting perspective. Objects repeatedly cross the frame inches from the camera, blocking our view of what we might otherwise assume to be the subjects of the film. Characters repeatedly look straight at the camera, not to break the fourth wall but as if it is not there. Or as if the camera cannot be permitted to be in the world without being part of the world; and in this the camera is like the terrestrial observers. They are not permitted to stay, like a Federation away team, separate from the world they visit. They are immersed in it. Mired. And so are we.
It is like reading Rabelais, or reading Bakhtin’s reading of him; and in its relentlessness, Hard to Be a God is really funny.
The few Anglophone reviews of the film I’ve seen complain about the absence of a clear plot. But narrative obliquity is the point. Life doesn’t have a plot or narrative arcs. We are just in the middle of all this stuff going on all the time. And it is comical and absurd and messy and always in our faces.
If I’d been watching it alone, I’d have turned off the not-that-helpful subtitles.
Hard to be a God is obsessed with the odours of the world it can only disclose indirectly, and with the textures of the world. It continually uses the limitations of the medium – the gulf between the tactile and the visual – to undercut the fiction of the neutral, uninvolved observer. Despite the often troubling content of the image, the pristine cinematography is often too beautiful to bear. Don Remata’s spotless white clothes and handkerchieves function in a similar manner – in their absurdity, they are reminders of the full and unavoidable intersubjectivity of being in the world.
Hard to Be a God might not be your cup of tea. That is your loss.