Monday, 15 August 2016

1929: Man with a Movie Camera


Dziga Vertov's documentary of a day in the life of a city (a composite of Moscow, Kiev, Kharkov and Odessa) regularly ranks highly in lists of the greatest-ever films and top in lists of greatest-ever documentaries. It's been on my must-watch list for years; I even owned a DVD of it for years but never opened it up till I got an HD TV. I found that it upscaled really badly, so decided to wait for the Blu-ray - or rather, the second Blu-ray, since the first to appear was the version with Michael Nyman's music. Though highly regarded by some, I found this hard on the ear when I dipped into it on YouTube.
Eureka Video finally brought out their version earlier this year with a score by the Alloy Orchestra, and I'm glad I waited for it. With the exception of a few odd choices of sound effect (modern sirens over shots of speeding ambulances, a string orchestra over a shot of a pianist) it's terrific - a dynamic composition that matches the pace and energy of the images.
The film itself is a snapshot of one day of Soviet city life, from the silent streets at dawn, the citizens waking and going to work, working, then playing, exercising, drinking, relaxing - and finally going to the cinema to see this same film, because it's also a record of its own creation. Via a second camera, we see the cameraman himself putting himself in front of, under, and on top of trams, trains, bridges, furnaces, and factories. He's made to look very daring. Shots freeze in mid-action and are revealed to be clips of the film in the hands of the editor, who trims and splices and thereby allows the film to continue until finally it reaches the projectionist, which is where we came in.
Vertov uses every film-making and editing technique at his disposal to great effect - time-lapse, film speeded up and slowed down, multiple exposure, split-screen; shows (nearly) every aspect of life  - birth, death, marriage, divorce, work, play - and does it as such a breakneck pace that by the end of the film I felt like I had to pause to get my breath back.
The film's explicit aim is to create a language of cinema - an art form that owes nothing to theatre, poetry or literature. It succeeds wholeheartedly. It doesn't invent all the techniques it demonstrates but it works as a pretty thorough compendium of all that had been created up to that time and integrates them successfully into a single film. It's poignant that 1929 is the last great year of the art of the silent film, so - along with a few other candidates - this film could be regarded not just as its masterpiece but as its climax.    

So many choices from this year that I would like to have added here but these posts are getting so far apart I need to move on, so I've settled for the following:      

WELCOME DANGER: Harold Lloyd's first sound film was originally shot as a silent, and it shows. Production was switched to sound before the film was released and the result is a clumsy, overlong affair that alternates between tiresome sound scenes and laborious dubbed ones that could have been effective had they remained silent and been edited a lot more tightly. The film is nearly two hours long and feels like it. Its only saving grace is that Harold's character, as usual the poor schmuck who manages to make good at the end despite being dismissed as an incompetent nonentity by those around him, has a couple of truly dramatic scenes in which he has to put up a desperate fight to save himself and the situation. But it's a gruelling watch to get to them.

UNDERGROUND: Anthony Asquith's first film with full director billing is a story of four young working people in London - particularly interesting if you've been a young working person in London because the experience doesn't seem to have changed all that much - crowded tube trains, shabby bedsits and precarious jobs.

PICCADILLY: A. E. Dupont's drama of showbusiness rivalries is worth a watch for the same reason - though the nightclub setting is a bit more upmarket, and leads me to wonder whether there is still such a genteel evening-dress establishment quietly lurking somewhere in Mayfair, and if so whether its patrons are relics of a bygone age or just postmodern aficianodos. Also notable for the presence of Anna May Wong, freshly arrived from Hollywood, as a kitchenmaid turned exotic dancer, and Charles Laughton as a disgruntled diner - surely the prototype for Mr Creosote in Monty Python's Meaning of Life.

ATLANTIC: A.E Dupont also directed this first screen dramatisation of the Titanic disaster (in all but name, for legal reasons) - somewhat less successfully. Although the action sequences of the panic on deck and the rush for the lifeboats are well staged,  the dramatic scenes are risible. The leaden pace seems to be an attempt at generating tension, but the melodramatic style might charitably be interpreted as a late example of the Victorian style of theatrical acting. This clip from a 1980s Clive James programme gives a fairly accurate sample. The ship's orchestra famously and heroically played on deck till the last minute - "Nearer My God To Thee", according to witnesses - but the sound editors seem to have had some mischievous fun here by having them play jaunty numbers like "Oh Dear, What Can the Matter Be" and " A Life on the Ocean Wave".

A COTTAGE ON DARTMOOR: Asquith squeezes in one more before the dawn of sound with this tense thriller - probably his silent masterpiece, with its painterly composition of shots, dramatic lighting and virtuoso editing. The story plays with our loyalties, as the main character, Joe, a socially awkward barber, loses the object of his affections to a customer, but then becomes a more sinister presence as he threatens the life of his rival. When he escapes from prison with murderous intent we're kept guessing about whether he will earn our sympathy again.
The sequence in the cinema adds a wry commentary on the shift from silent to sound as the protagonists to to see a talkie. The audience is enraptured as they watch a comedy on screen (unseen by us but we're shown a programme that tells us it was Harold Lloyd) but become awkward and uncomfortable as the talkie comes on, and they have to remind themselves not to laugh or talk too much, or clap at the good bits. (Interestingly, even today I've noticed that the atmosphere at a silent comedy tends to be far more relaxed and joyful than at any sound film - complete with spontaneous applause.)          

FRAU IM MOND (THE WOMAN IN THE MOON): Fritz Lang's last silent film doesn't have the operatic grandeur of "Metropolis" or the menacing villainy of "Dr Mabuse the Gambler" but it does succeed in being the first carefully-researched 'hard' science fiction epic, telling of the first successful manned mission to the Moon. The first half is more spy thriller, and mainly serves the purpose of putting an antagonist on the rocket for dramatic purposes (one with Hitler's haircut and dress sense, interestingly). Once we get to the space part though it's all uncannily accurate - Apollo could almost have been a straight remake.  From the concept of a staged rocket to a diagram showing the flight path and the respective gravity fields of the Earth and Moon, it's hard to believe it was all worked out 40 years before the real thing. Only the presence of air on the Moon dates it.

BIG BUSINESS: Unlike the other great silent comics - Keaton, Lloyd and Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy were just getting into their stride in 1929, with their best days still ahead of them in the sound era.
this is possibly the best of their silent shorts as they ill-advisedly try to sell Christmas trees door-to-door in sunny California. After picking a fight with reluctant customer James Finlayson they end up wrecking his house while he destroys their car. For years afterwards Producer Hal Roach told the story that the film crew went round to the wrong house and trashed some innocent couple's home while they were out. Whether that's true, who knows, but it doesn't hurt the film's entertainment value.

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