The life of a great city (Paris) from dawn until dusk, including the beautiful and the ragged, the rich and the poor, with little or no comment (intertitles) from the director, Cavalcanti (whose first film this was).
A city: we know it's Paris by its monuments, but it could be anywhere; the lives of the poor are the same. We see a streetwalker, a woman who sells newspapers, a sailor, a landlady, an old woman, a shop keeper, and another man. The camera shows us derelicts and the unemployed. As the clock moves, people arrive for work, shops and restaurants open, butchers carry animal carcasses. After work, it's time for pleasure and relaxation, but after midnight, danger waits. So does possibility. Written by
The Life of a City and The Drama of the Fleeting Hours
In 1920's Avantgardists and other filmmakers developed a certain genre of documentary, which today is known as city symphony. During the time European cities started to grow and the populations of them reached millions, this offered a challenge for cinema to which only documentary was capable to answer. City symphonies were documentaries that tried to capture the life of a city and create something beautiful out of it; stories about people who live around others without knowing each other. The most famous city symphonies that have survived the test of times are: Dziga Vertov's The Man with a Movie Camera (1929) which is also an important film for the Soviet Montage Cinema, Walter Ruttmann's Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (1927) and Jean Vigo's À propos de Nice (1930). Rien que les heures stands out as an original film as Ruttmann, for instance, was interested in people as masses, Cavalcanti was interested in people as individuals.
City symphony is often considered as a thing for the 20's and sometimes it's actually quite hard to draw the line between the films that are city symphonies and those that aren't. In city symphonies there was usually not much of explanation, the amount of inter texts was marginal and there usually was no commentary track at all. But a later city symphony The Seine meets Paris (1957) by Joris Ivens has a poetic commentary track by the poet Jacques Prevert. To my mind the propaganda classic Listen to Britain (1942) by Humphrey Jennings is quite controversial: usually it isn't considered as a city symphony but it quite well describes the life of London during the war and it has no commentary track nor intermediate texts.
Alberto Cavalcanti's Rien que les heures or Nothing but the Hours was the first city symphony to be made, which soon became a trend. Trust me, it was made in 1926 even that IMDb suggests that it was made in 1930. John Grierson commented the film quite aptly: "Paris is dominated by strong contrasts: ugliness and beauty, richness and poverty, hope and fears. For the first time there was a reason to use the word 'symphony' instead of a 'story'." The director himself said that his film was the first film which had a sociological perspective: all the other documentaries till that day had only filmed sun sets and no one had showed what happened around us. There is something true in Cavalcanti's statement but I wouldn't say that it was the first sociological film or a film which realized to show the life around us. For instance Robert Flaherty had already made a few very good documentaries of which Nanook of the North (1922) is probably the most well known and often considered as the very first documentary (the first film of which the term was used. Of course the first films by the Lumiere brothers were "documentaries" too.)
The film is a story of Paris with its alleys, people, adventures, monuments and gutters. It's also an important film about time and the course of it and, as the title suggests, the main subject of the film is time itself: "We can define the state of film and stop the time." (Cavalcanti) It's also a film about the life of a great city - Paris. In the beginning of the film it is mentioned that many artists have tried to describe cities in their own ways but only a series of quick images that follow each other - montage, can truly build a picture of a city. As Cavalcanti starts painting this picture, the film turns out to be a satirical city symphony filled with unforgettable images: a doll in the gutter and rats eating leftovers, a dead cat lying in the street with a homeless man, the montage of trash and food in which the theme of beauty and ugliness culminates, a man playing a string-less violin, a man cleaning a rag and another man cleaning a dog in the water at the beach.
In addition to these humorist images there's one quite radical scene: a man eating a steak and suddenly the plate turns into a stage of murder when we are shown images of a slaughterhouse on the plate. Cavalcanti brilliantly edits the shots of the slaughterhouse with the expressions of the man. The construction of state in Nothing but the Hours is excellent. The way how Cavalcanti builds our image of Paris is lovely and sometimes ugly.
Rien que les heures is the most 'Avantgarde' and experimental film of all the films by Cavalcanti. It's also one of the films that have stood the test of times pretty well - many of the films of the time have been forgotten. Reasons for this are probably the humorous and the modesty of the film: it doesn't try to be the greatest Avantgarde film of the decade. Nothing but the Hours is a documentary about the life of a city and the drama of the fleeting hours, which we cannot stop. It studies on the state of film, the course of time and, also man. Cavalcanti was very interested in studying people and here city equals people. Alongside with Dimitri Kirsanoff's Menilmontant (1926) Nothing but the Hours stands out as one of the most experimental, and finest, films of the French Avantgarde.
"Only monuments separate cities from each other. Sadness and joy are the same everywhere."
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