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40 international directors were asked to make a short film using the original Cinematographe invented by the Lumière Brothers, working under conditions similar to those of 1895. There were three rules: (1) The film could be no longer than 52 seconds, (2) no synchronized sound was permitted, and (3) no more than three takes. The results run the gamut from Zhang Yimou's convention-thwarting joke to David Lynch's bizarre miniature epic. Written by
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Interesting idea, though certainly not the life-changing experience it could have been
The idea of 41 of the world's leading film-makers attempting to create a short film lasting no longer than 52 seconds and using the original Lumiere Brothers' hand-cranked cameras to celebrate cinema's centenary is a mouth-watering prospect. So why didn't the finished film overwhelm us with this potentially staggering ode to cinema? Well, perhaps because the majority of the directors asked to take part in the project are hardly indicative of the very best of contemporary world cinema. Of course, this is an entirely subjective criticism on my part - I mean, who has the authority to say that one filmmaker is greater than another? Certainly not me - but for the purposes of personal critique I can say quite comfortably that many of the filmmakers included here are lesser talents, comfortable making decent enough films with the occasional greater work thrown in, but certainly not representative of the magnitude and imagination that contemporary world cinema has to offer.
The films collected here are symptomatic of this lack of quality, featuring obvious odes to the Lumiere's with a combination of visual homage and sketches devoid of imagination, or abstract pieces that seem like unfinished ideas. The most obvious of these is Lasse Hellstrom's film depicting a woman waiting for a train and Patrice Leconte's project, which is essentially a shot-for-shot recreation of The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat (1896). Some directors attempt symbolism; Greenaway for example, who I admire, turns in a tedious film more befitting of the man who gave us 8 and a ½ Women (1999) as opposed to the ornate majesty of The Draughtsman's Contract (1982) or The Pillow Book (1996), whilst Bigas Luna gives us breast feeding and frontal nudity in an empty field. Arthur Penn's symbolic piece - seemingly juxtaposing the birth of cinema with the notions of child birth - is not too bad and has an interesting use of shot-structure and composition, although even here, it must be said that Penn isn't a filmmaker that I would normally consider worthy of such an endeavour, despite the greatness of films like Bonnie & Clyde (1968) and Night Moves (1975).
Other director's squander their chance with worthy experiments that don't pay off. Theo Angelopoulos for examples gives us Greek myth that doesn't really work on such a limited canvas; John Boorman turns his camera on the filming of Neil Jordan's historical biographical film Michael Collins (1997) but lacks the intellect and the depth to actually say anything of interest; whilst Spike Lee attempts to capture the first words of his daughter on film (which is certainly a noble cause, but one that doesn't necessarily lend itself to captivating cinema), etc, etc. Other interesting projects include Hugh Hudson's attempt to document the Hiroshima incident, Claude Miller's delightfully Chaplinesque sketch, Francis Girod's imaginative metaphor, the entertaining and wonderfully composed sketch of Jacques Rivette, and the films by Claude Lelouch and Nadine Trintignant (although they do nothing radical with the format, they are at least beautiful to look at).
It is interesting that many of the director's remain true to form, with their work, for better or worse, managing to tie in with the themes and ideas present in their feature-length work; with Spike Lee placing the emphasis on family; Jerry Schatzberg documenting real life, lower-class struggles; Luna and his adolescent obsessions with sex and women; Costa-Gavras and Michael Haneke offering up clinical, political polemic; Greenaway indulging in essay; and then David Lynch going wild with B-movie homage, shock and imagination. Without question, Lynch's segment is the best of the bunch; the only film that has seemingly had more than a day's worth of planning go into it, with costumes, movable sets, lighting and special effects presenting a mini-surrealist parable about police investigations, the atomic age and extraterrestrials in a single moving dolly shot lasting 52 seconds in total. It's a stunning work; one that reinforces his current-standing as the greatest living American filmmaker and one that captures the pure creative spirit and sense of free-form expression that cinema is supposed to be about.
The other filmmakers on board could learn a lot from this, and probably should have lowered their heads in shame when faced with Lynch's wild imagination and boundless passion for pure, cinematic expression. Many of the other segments are forgettable, even those from talented filmmakers like Zhang Yimou and Wim Wenders, not to mention many of the other filmmakers mentioned above. Some of the director's included here were new to me, and judging from the interviews and the standard of their work as it is presented, it would seem that they're probably not worthy of any further investigation (but I suppose only time will tell). Overall, it's not a bad film; the talking heads offer some interesting insights, the cause is worthy enough and the films, for better or worse, reveal something rather interesting about the people who made them.
However, when watching the film, it struck me that many of the greatest filmmakers currently at work (or at least, circa 1995) are curiously absent from the proceedings. Given that this is supposed to be a celebration of film at its very best, it seems strange that highly acclaimed, original and award winning filmmakers - like, for example, Woody Allen, Martin Scorsese, Ingmar Bergman, Lars von Trier, Mike Leigh, Jean Luc Godard, Werner Herzog, Shinya Tsukamoto, Shohei Imamura, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, Terry Gilliam, Aki Kaurismäki, etc, etc - weren't given the opportunity to create their own short film is truly criminal (or perhaps they were but didn't want to). Either way, it's a great shame, and results in a film that is only of passing interest as opposed to be a completely enveloping, life-changing experience.
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