Lumière et compagnie (1995)
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It also appears to be a consensus that the strongest entry is David Lynch's bizarre sci-fi collage, but I'd say closely followed by:
*) Zhang Yimou's nice reversal of the "old-fashioned" setting initially presented... and one of the few pieces with any sense of humor...
*) Helma Sanders' beautiful four-dimensional 'painting with light' which makes a virtue of the film stock's limited range of contrast...
*) Claude Lelouch's vertiginous kiss as camera technology evolves in the background.
I also found some of the simpler ones quite charming, including: *) Jaco van Dormael's portrait of a kiss by a pair of special lovers, *) Peter Greenaway's floating numbers of time *) Wim Wenders' quiet and simple re-visitation of his angels *) Jerry Schatzberg's snapshot of urban scavenging and *) Bigas Luna's portrait of a nude woman nursing in a field.
However, the vast majority of the pieces are dull, redundant (couldn't those guiding the project have communicated with each filmmaker about their intentions to avoid such frequent duplication?), pretentious, and worst of all humorless.
The worst offenders are the most self-conscious pieces-- which coincidentally tend to have the most annoying soundtracks-- including Spike Lee (leading candidate for most self-obsessed father of the year), Liv Ullman (hers is the least inspired of the dozen or so camera-filming-camera pieces), and Kiju Yoshida (who pompously announces he will demonstrate the impossibility of capturing an image on film).
In short, 'Lumiere' is well worth a look, with some brilliant moments, especially for students of film and film history... but keep a grain of salt and your fast-forward button handy.
What must have been an interesting idea doesn't translate to brilliant film making in the finished product. This documentary is for fans of the medium, but will not be of any interest to a casual viewer. Some of the most enjoyable ones are the ones by David Lynch, Helma Sanders, Claude Lelouch, Jaco Van Dormael, and Bigas Luna, just to mention a few. The rest, hold some interest, but don't quite add anything new to the idea behind the project.
On the plus side, you get some interesting films along the way, particularly among the last few, like the one by David Lynch, among others.
I've been especially interested in the early history of motion pictures and have spent much time with the Lumière brothers' films; thus, this project becomes more rewarding for me. I suggest watching this after seeing "The Lumière Brothers' First Films", with narration by Bertrand Taverneir. The medium has advanced severalfold in the 100 years between today and when the Lumière brothers contributed to the invention of cinema. One of the great advances of the Cinématographe was its light weight--providing mobility. First, the Lumière Company exploited this added mobility with the subjects of their films, with the actuality films and by taking their camera across the world. It's appropriate that this project consists of an international array of filmmakers, as the Lumière brothers were responsible for introducing motion pictures and cinema to much of the world via their (or rather their assistants) traveling the world. The next step the Lumière Company took in exploiting this mobility was with camera movement. One of the company's filmmakers, Alexandre Promio, was, apparently, responsible for much of this innovation. These films consisted of panoramas or fixing the camera to a moving object (i.e. a boat). In his Hiroshima short, Hugh Hudson holds the camera--a "shaky cam" effect--ending with overexposing the film by pointing the camera towards the sun, which is more movement than the Lumière brothers had envisioned.
When limited to the technology of the Cinématographe, however, many of the modern filmmakers' films demonstrate little to no advancement in film grammar or insight into the medium. One of them is an updated remake; others are like something the Lumière brothers might have filmed. You can take that as a poor mark upon those modern directors, or as further good marks for the Lumière's, or both. Yet, there are exceptions in this project, such as Hudson's short. Some of the directors do use the benefit of 100 years of hindsight to expand upon those first films. Several of the films are clever in their self-reference and are interesting tributes to the Lumière brothers and film. Gabriel Axel's tracking shot of the arts and Claude Lelouch's rotating kiss with a background progression of a history of camera technology filming it are two of the more outstanding in this way.
Helma Sanders's "Tribute to Louis Cochet" shows the orchestration of lighting of a stage waterfall fountain. It shows both the beauty and limitations of the relic camera--ending with the lights turned towards the camera. Peter Greenaway also plays with the lighting and exposure of the film in one of the few multi-shot films in the series. As he says, film is a great arena for him to play with image and text. The consensus favorite, the short film by David Lynch, is also one of the most original in the program. It also contains multiple shots (and even the continuity transitions are creative, including flames, as though the negative catches fire). Lynch also provided one of the more agreeable interviews, relating that film is "a magical medium that makes you dream". Additionally, I think the final film is appropriately placed. It's by Theo Angelopoulos, who's in Athens and films a scene from Homer's "Odyssey". With a title card, Ulysses ponders: "I am lost! In which foreign country have I landed?" It clarifies and elaborates upon a few of the other short films that had people staring into the camera (which harks back to 100 years ago when people weren't familiar with movie cameras). Ulysses has landed in the foreign land of cinema.
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.