Taris – Poetic Documentary

Quick Thoughts: Taris (1931)

A poetic depiction of a world champion swimmer.

Taris is a short documentary about the French swimming champion, multiple medal winner and world record holder, Jean Taris, in which he teaches a lesson in swimming. It is through this film and some mesmerising imagery capturing Taris under water that Jean Vigo furthers his approach to poetic realism and documentary. He also sustains some amount of commentary on French society with a little montage depicting an overweight person in a pool, floundering, throwing his body around, and a swimming instructor ‘teaching’ people how to swim out of the water. In fact, it’s very easy to consider Taris as a film through which Vigo maybe tried to inspire or inform through an influential, high-standing figure.

However, what certainly overshadows the subtext of this narrative is its aesthetic beauty. With brilliant close-ups and cinematography that captures the textures and atmosphere of both a swimming pool and a body of water, Vigo finds mesmerising beauty in the seemingly simple act of swimming. Moreover, the slow and reverse motion that demonstrate the intricate forms and processes of Taris’ movement are entirely astounding.

What Taris then serves to be is an excellent film through which to understand the idea of a poetic documentary as well as its purposes. Whilst an average expository documentary that simply informs (which Taris is to a certain extent) only means to educate in a direct and calculated manner, poetic forms of documentary are intended to be much more ambiguous and intellectually/emotionally engaging. The end goal of poetic documentaries is then exposition through spectacle that actually reinforces the message of a narrative – a great example of this in Taris being the final image that implies that swimming pervades Taris’ whole life.

This brings us back to the idea that Vigo aimed to inspire French people through a depiction of a successful and dedicated figure in a field that is easily considered a recreational pass time; he didn’t simply mean to tell his audience to swim and find greater meaning and purpose in the leisurely activity, but entice them into a realm of thought whereby they choose to engage the act of swimming and consider it in a more complex and even profound way.

All in all, Taris is an enthralling film as well as a commentary on film form and film content that marks a significant aspect of Jean Vigo’s style and approach to cinema.

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À Propos De Nice – Radicals & Scathing Montage

Thoughts On: À Propos De Nice (Concerning Nice, 1930)

Today, we’ll be opening a short series on the films of Jean Vigo. Through this we’ll be looking at the filmmaker’s whole body of work – À Propos De Nice, Taris, Zéro De Conduite and L’Atalante – starting with his first film and ending with his last. In such, we will be exploring Vigo’s films as well as taking a peep into aspects of his life.

A satirical city symphony ‘Concerning Nice’.

Jean Vigo, born in Paris and into poverty during 1905, was the son of a Spanish activist. This man was Eugène Bonaventure Jean-Baptiste Vigo, who renamed himself, Miguel Almereyda. A militant journalist, activist, anarchist and later socialist, Almereyda founded and wrote within his own newspapers. A character maybe best defined by his chosen name, “Almereyda” is an anagram for “y’a la merde”, which means, “there’s shit”.

Through one of his newspapers, Le Bonnet Rouge (The Red Bonnet), Almereyda was critical of WWI and of extreme right-wingers. Despite the political activism and bias within the paper, Le Bonnet Rouge was granted governmental subsidies because it denounced violent protest against the war and (presumably) allowed for certain governmental figures to politic and manage relationships between the then left and right. However, what Almereyda did with this money granted by the government is questionable as he probably used it to fund both his paper and personal life, allowing him to live lavishly.

The controversy surrounding Almereyda reached greater heights when his paper published work of Lenin’s that involved him discussing his goals with Russia. This was not well received; Almereyda was deemed to be colluding with a man who was seen to be an agent of France’s enemy at the time, the Germans, and so he lost his governmental funding. Things worsened for Almereyda, however, when his company was found with a 100,000 franc check for a German bank account in 1917. This acted as a confirmation that he was colluding with the enemy and so he was sent to prison for treason, where, after being transferred out of Paris, he was soon found dead. Whilst it is said that he hung himself with boot laces, autopsies revealed that Almereyda was almost certainly murdered.

It is by this time that Jean Vigo would only have been around 12-years-old. He and his mother, whilst they had often been on the run with Almereyda, had to go into hiding. Vigo was then sent to boarding school under a fake name: Jean Sales. But, by 1922, he had moved back to Paris with his mother where he attended university – now under his real name again. A few years later, Vigo had met his wife and shortly worked in the Franco Film Studio as a camera assistant. Briefly after this period, Vigo had acquired a second-hand camera and befriended the Russian cinematographer, Boris Kaufman, as well as his brother, Mikhail. Boris Kaufman, in later years, worked on films such as On The Water Front and 12 Angry Men, and was also the brother of David Abelevich Kaufman, also known as Denis Kaufman, but also, Dziga Vertov.

With Vertov of course being one of the most significant filmmakers of all time thanks to his Soviet Montage film theory and the masterpiece that is Man With A Movie Camera, Vigo demonstrates ties with Russian culture through his collaboration with Boris Kaufman. This then cites the impression that his father, Almereyda, had on him. Not only was Vigo considered a Marxist, but he too was a social radical of sorts and would soon become a controversial figure in France through his films.

However, without straying ahead, with Vigo’s collaboration with Kaufman and with his second-hand camera under-arm, he worked on a script for a short film alongside Boris and the pairs’ wives. This script came to be À Propos De Nice. To sum this film up, it is probably best to turn to Vigo himself:

In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial… the film develops into a generalised view of the vulgar pleasures that come under the sign of the grotesque, of the flesh, and of death. These pleasures are the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution. 

What is clear is that À Propos De Nice was intended to be a harsh criticism of France, one that called for a revolution to correct the vulgarity that Vigo meant to capture through a montage which contrasted the lifestyles of the rich and the poor that reside within Nice.

Very clearly inspired by the work of Dziga Vertov and other Soviet Montage directors such as Eisenstein, À Propos De Nice is a social city symphony that utilises juxtaposition and abstract camera movement in collaboration with elements of documentary. In such, this narrative compares the luxuries and games that the higher class engage with the work and simple games of the poor, all before thrusting us into a carnival that’s juxtaposed with religious statues. Some of the most striking shots in this narrative would then be the following:

One of the most iconic shots would of course be the first of the naked women. This sits within a sequence that is focused on rich people eating outside and engaging in various activities on the beach. Here, Vigo’s camera is often focused on the materials of these people whilst also sexualising them with a focus on legs – all of which ends on the image of the naked woman that follows a dissolve that sees her change dress many times over.

This sequences then seemingly means to strip down the rich to their most basic and true facade; that being one that is focused on material objects that attract attention to their bodies – often in a sexual manner. This short piece of montage dehumanises the rich to a certain degree (see how Vigo cuts the woman’s face in half with his frame) and is a pretty vulgar means of criticism, one that Vigo probably saw as reflective of the lifestyle of the upper classes.

We see further examples of this unforgiving criticism when Vigo uses the footage of the crocodiles in juxtaposition with a sequence that depicts the rich enjoying a day at the beach and sunbathing…

This piece of montage is repeated in other elements of the film – just like the strip sequence is. Later, we see a woman compared to an emu or ostrich and a man getting his shoe, then bare foot, shined. All of this is in contrast to imagery of the working class, leaving these moments poignant pieces of commentary on social inequality.

The mentioned focus on sexualisation transfers over the carnival sequence that is best captured by the ‘performance’ given by these dancers. This of course extends Vigo’s exploration of escapism in a setting that may have acted as a meeting ground for the rich and poor. In such, he uses this carnival to further depict vulgarity and absurdity through scathing (and somewhat unethical) cinematic language.

One of the most controversial pieces of juxtaposition certainly involves this statue, which, shot with a similar framing to the nude woman, is compared to the carnival sequence and the depicted dancers as the camera moves towards a puddle in its lap.

The use of this dirty water connotes obvious crass and rather gross associations. And with this image as one of the lasting ones, the overall message of À Propos De Nice calls for a complete reversal of lifestyles imbued with a material focus that distracts and promotes (in a particular sense) death. Death as a theme referenced by Vigo implies that the vulgarity captured by this montage refuses to acknowledge the lives of the impoverished, but also of people’s own selves. In such, the core concept of escapism that lies at the heart of this narrative is one with ties to, what Vigo saw to be, a lack of realist existential thought in French society; a consideration of ones own life and purpose. This seems to be why sexuality and flesh are the focus of this film: the idea of propagating oneself and contributing to the continuation of humanity as depicted are manipulated by society into a mere spectacle and distraction. Revolution is then called for not just by Vigo, but by nature, which erodes away at the world surrounding the self-indulgent who blind themselves to death’s knocking.

Whilst there is a debate to be had about the ethics of this film as a documentary, it is undeniable that the design of this montage is incredibly articulate in its condemnation of a society. Remembering that Vigo himself came from poverty and a tumultuous childhood elevates this first film of his as a striking incite into his character, one that is already combining his own experiences and philosophies with an expressive cinematic sensibility focused on realism and radical film forms.

The next film we will be looking at in this series will be Tarus. So, to end this post, what are your thoughts on this film and the subjects we delved into?

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The Good Omen – A Longing Journey

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The Good Omen – A Longing Journey

Quick Thoughts: The Good Omen (2009)

Made by Mohammed BuAli, this is the Bahraini film of the series.

Beyond the well-constructed and atmospheric opening, this is a pretty bad film, technically flawed in every way with poor acting. It follows an elderly Bahraini man who has lost his wife, yet still waits for her to come back to him so he may raise an “Al-Nashel Dress”, a Good Omen, to signal her return. With attempts towards poeticism, The Good Omen explores themes of longing, concluding this cliched tragic romance in a classical fashion, demonstrating that a long wait can often be a journey towards existential fulfilment. In such, The Good Omen asserts that Mohammad, our main character, was never really longing for his lost wife to return, rather, that he was preparing himself for death by holding fast to the belief that he will meet her as the life leaves his body.

Despite this being a somewhat unoriginal subtextual narrative, the work put towards cinematically conveying this idea is very evident and quite commendable. However, the detail that furthers this, adding a unique complexity to this narrative, concerns references to the bridge linking Bahrain to Muhrraq Island.

A small landmass in the Persian Gulf, Bahrain Island is apart of an archipelago, an island group – one of these smaller islands being Muhrraq. Named after the former capital of Bahrain, a city with a long history spanning at least 5,000 years, Muhrraq seems to be used, by The Good Omen, as a metaphor for an extrapolated heart. The juxtaposition of these locations with this narrative of bittersweet and loyal love then seems to imply a cultural commentary of sorts; one that maybe contrasts cultural shifts and changes over time.

However, I’ll leave this asking what you think – and it’d be great to hear from someone who knows more about Bahrain than me. So, have you seen this short film? What are your thoughts?

 

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T2 Trainspotting – Choose…

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T2 Trainspotting – Choose…

Quick Thoughts: T2 Trainspotting (2017)

Two decades after Mark Renton betrays his friends and flies abroad, he returns home to not-so-open arms.

Just like you, just like everyone, I love the original Trainspotting. I was apprehensive about going to see this one, but finally got around to it. Long story short, I’m happy I saw it and maybe will see again sometime.

The biggest problem with Trainspotting, to me, was certainly Boyle’s direction. His use of the camera was intermittently excellent, with crisp and articulate cinematic language. But, for a lot of the film, especially in the first half, the constant attempt towards style is pretty agitating as there is no real sense that this style naturally comes from this story, nor Boyle; it only seems vapid and over-constructed. Moreover, the play with angles and camera movement is over-zealous and often unmotivated, reducing many sequences to a high-budget music video (and the sound track is pretty bad – in fact almost all elements of attached to music are sub-par). The same tone can be shifted over to an analysis of the aesthetic design (lighting, colour pallet). This is a somewhat ugly movie that dexterously captures the flat, textureless and plain tone of so-so digital cinematography very well, sometimes leaving T2 with a near TV-look – one that is not supported by the incorporation of varying media (phones and TV).

With that said, the story takes some time to settle, but is highly immersive – especially when the camera stops drawing attention to the artifice of the narrative. There are a few plot holes and weak plot beats when the action amps up, but these are often overshadowed by the character-centric adventure that we are taken on, one that is far more muted than the original, but certainly riveting. What’s more, the characters are all written and performed perfectly – and this is, by far, the strongest element of this narrative, moreover, justification enough for this sequel.

Capping all of this off is a pretty compelling extension of the original’s narrative message; that being an advocation of a form of acceptance in face of life’s absurd calamities – in T2’s case – mundanities too. Whilst the use of flashbacks to the original, however creative, sometimes make this a little cheesy, this idea resounds through T2 strongly.

All in all, I wasn’t expecting this to be better than, or even as good as, the original – and it isn’t – but that’s ok. I love the fact that many of these characters were reprised and that I got to dive into this world once again.

P.S. The puke in a bag joke had me laughing like an idiot, but, the “choose” rant was, unfortunately, underwhelming.

 

 

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Every Year In Film #10 – Hyde Park Corner

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Every Year In Film #10 – Hyde Park Corner

Thoughts On: Hyde Park Corner (1889)

A lost film depicting the bustling corner street near Hyde Park in 1889.

William Friese-Greene, much like Louis Le Prince, is a by-and-large forgotten filmmaker from the days of pre-Edison and pre-Lumières. His story is an unfortunate one filled with a stark lack of success.

Born William Greene in 1855, he modified his name to Friese-Greene when he married in 1974. Starting as an apprentice photographer as a young man, Greene would go on to found studios in Bath, Bristol, London and Brighton. It’s in his Bath studio that he met John Arthur Roebuck Rudge, inventor of the Biophantic Lantern. Similar to the magic lantern, this device could project imagery on slides, but could do so in rapid succession, utilising 7 frames to conjure the illusion of moving pictures.

Greene would go on to work with Rudge on this device so that it could project photographic glass plates – they called this new device a Biophantoscope. However, what had held motion pictures back all through the mid 1800s was the impracticality of metal and glass-plate photography. Muybridge, among others in the late 1800s, found success with circular glass plates and chronophotography (movement caught through several individual pictures, often taken from multiple cameras), but it was apparent that this technology barely surpassed the movement seen in earlirer devices such as the phenakistoscope due to gif-like short photographic cycles and a reliance on some form of animation. If ‘cinema’ was to evolve from this point, it would need a new photographic material.

Initially, ‘film’ was paper based with photographic chemicals layered on top of it – however, this was often discarded in favour of glass plates in the mid 1800s and so remained widely unpopular. Nonetheless, paper-based stock was the type of film that Le Prince would use to capture his shorts, and Greene would initially use this as well. However, in 1888, he began to experiment with celluloid.

Celluloid had been around since the 1850s and had a wide variety of applications. The more popular the material became, the more advertisers would try to market it, and many suggested that it could be used as an alternative to glass film plates. This idea never caught traction until 1888 when John Carbutt released ‘flexible film’. Note, this film was not very flexible and so couldn’t be stored in roll holders. This left a gap in the market that was soon filled by Eastman’s Kodak company. However, infamously, Eastman’s product was not the first of its kind. Before Carbutt and before Eastman (in 1887) a relatively anonymous Clergyman, Hannibal Goodwin, invented and patented a form of flexible film that was superior to Carbutt’s. Due to a patent dispute, Goodwin engaged in a court case with Kodak that lasts almost two decades. However it wasn’t until almost 15 years after his death that this case was won by Ansco, a film company that acquired his patents.

With that being a side-note, in this period Greene is also experimenting with celluloid. In 1889, Greene had invented and patented a chronophotographic camera. This could take 10 photographs a second with celluloid film, making him one of the first known moving picture filmmakers to use this technology. The film he shot with this camera and film is our subject today: Hyde Park Corner.

This, unfortunately, is a lost film. The only incite we could gain as to what this film may have looked like would be through a film made in 1896, preserved by British Pathé, that also depicts Hyde Park Corner…

Shot at only 10 fps (frames per second), Greene’s short wouldn’t have functioned very well. As you may remember from earlier Every Year In Film posts, it’s only at over 16 fps that the brain begins to perceive flickering imagery as a single fluid moving frame. And it’s this technological downfall that reportedly lead to the underwhelming reception of this film when screened in 1890.

Greene’s Hyde Park Corner scene then marks the first of a number of failures. From here, he’d go onto work on stereoscopic cameras. These devices would take two exposures on separate strips of celluloid film through two lenses. This would produce an image like this…

… that would be designed so that one eye would be focused on each picture. The purpose of this stereoscopic process would be to create the illusion of three-dimensional depth. A modern example of this would be the film Capitalism: Slavery by Ken Jacobs that uses such a process and an antique stereoscopic image to produce an experimental short. Click on the image to follow a link to see this short…

It was experimenting with technology like this, technology that was too complex to garner any commercial success, that Greene eventually went bankrupt in 1901. It’s at this point that he sold the patents for his chronophotographic camera – which quickly went to waste a few years later when the patent was never renewed.

From this point, Greene tried to develop the use of colour technology, pioneering Biocolour – a process that used filters to capture the true colours of an image. However, more failure looms. This technology was rather unrefined and would flicker noticeably. This is an example of what this process would look like:

What’s more, as was very common in the early era of cinema, lawsuits ensued over patents. George Albert Smith was also a pioneer of colour technology in film and in 1906 invented Kinemacolor – a subject we may go into greater depth on at a later date. Smith and Greene went back and fourth in court cases that were reversed and revisited time and time again, eventually ending with Greene actually winning – though, not to much effect.

Whilst Greene’s son, Claude, would go on to develop this technology in the 20s, William died in 1921 whilst attending a film industry meeting in London. What remains of William Friese-Greene’s legacy has been captured by British films and television series like the romantic and inaccurate 1951 film, The Magic Box. Ultimately, Greene is a figure that attempted to do a lot for early cinema, but never managed to handle his (poorly constructed) outputs in a way that could remain significant in the soon-to-be hyper-competitive field of early cinema.

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