In the huge steel factories in Terni (Umbria, Italy), two friends (Mario and Pietro) fight for the love of the same girl (Gina). Pietro dies because of a work accident at the factory. The ... See full summary »
Against a dark background, several bright, curved or rounded shapes pulse towards the center of the screen, one at a time. They are followed by many other shapes, some irregular, some ... See full summary »
There is no fathoming our modern world for me outside the invention of the camera, this newfound ability to take up the world in terms of timeflow and shuffle it in reflection. It is the world standing on the precipice of modernity that silent cinema uncovers after all, looking a little damp and sunless from the centuries, but also a little startled and excited as it prepares to make the leap and finds all around it wondrous tools for that leap, automobiles, trains and cinemas.
It would have been a simple impulse for pioneer filmmakers in the early days, simple but no less exciting for that. All these things were waiting to be documented as if for a first time. It was so in that Leeds film about traffic some thirty years before and so it is here. Ships, streets, structures, activities from the bustle of the modern city to native dances, the film is a travelogue that celebrates the swirl of being able to now have views of all these things in the same space. Among them now are sounds; the film is offered as the first German sound film. They were making so called 'city symphonies' at around this time; the filmmaker behind this being responsible for one of the very best I know. We might as well call this a world symphony.
I wouldn't really urge you to go out of your way to watch this, other than perhaps as a cachet of images from the time when our gaze was beginning to go global. More interesting for me is to note that the impulse behind this type of film hasn't gone away. But it has undergone a shift. This mode continues in films like Koyannisqatsi, only the modern world is presented there in the cautionary light of having strayed too far and is contrasted with the sanctity of the natural order. The modern lunge is here celebrated with wide-eyed eagerness. It makes some sense why. People could not yet see the destructive effects on the environment and society. Still the eye is as rather dull as it would later be in Koyannisqatsi. Contrasts between old and new, far and close.
Because after all the camera is a marker of modernity in another sense as well. It's not simply that far and close could be shuffled now, past and present, it's that the whole unraveling of appearances - all this motion in every direction of perception - reveals a narrative eye with the ability to leap and surge itself, an eye that gives rise to world.
This is what more erudite filmmakers of the time, in Paris and Moscow, were busy exploring, the mechanisms that control that surge of the eye. It would be more interesting to pick up that thread if you haven't already. The vital distinction is between the camera as device that records and as soul that surges through to animate. Such efforts were running parallel to a good deal of modern thinking about how the world is put together; I'd like to imagine, somewhat wistfully, that an alert mind of the time would have been as stimulated by news from Solvay as by the dreamlike uncertainty of a film like Menilmontant.
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