Friday, October 07, 2016

City Symphonies II Prog. 3: Experiences in the Modern City: Abstraction, Speed, and Periphery

Bezúčelná procházka [Aimless Walk] (CS 1930), D: Alexander Hackenschmied, photo: Národní filmový archiv, Praha. Please do click to enlarge the images.

Sinfonie delle città II Prog. 3: L’esperienza della città moderna: astrazione, velocità, periferia
City Symphonies II Prog. 3: Experiences in the Modern City: Abstraction, Speed, and Periphery

    Curated by Eva Hielscher.
    Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: Altre sinfonie della città.
    Teatro Verdi, Pordenone, e-subtitles in English and Italian by Sub-Ti, grand piano: Mauro Colombis, contrabbasso: Romano Todesco, 7 Oct 2016.

Bezúčelná procházka [Aimless Walk] (CS 1930), D: Alexander Hackenschmied, photo: Národní filmový archiv, Praha.

BEZÚČELNÁ PROCHÁZKA [Passeggiata senza meta / Aimless Walk] (CS 1930). D+P: Alexander Hackenschmied. C: Bedřich Votýpka (man with hat). 35 mm, 219 m, 7'40" (24 fps); no titles. Source: Národni filmový archiv, Praha.

Eva Hielscher: "In 1930, Czech avant-garde photographer and critic Alexander Hackenschmied, who later, after his emigration to the U.S., would change his name to Hammid, borrowed a Kinamo camera and made a truly independent film. Aimless Walk can be considered a city symphony about Prague with a centrifugal effect. Whereas other films, such as Walther Ruttmann’s Berlin, start with the arrival in the city by train, boat, or other modern means of transportation, Hackenschmied’s film takes us in the opposite direction, showing a tram ride that starts in the city center and leads us to the periphery and outskirts of Prague, to the half-industrial, half-rural landscape of Libeň, with its factory chimneys, fallow fields, trees, and reflecting water surfaces. In fact, the film’s working title was Na okraji (On the Outskirts). Stylistically, the tram ride recalls the train sequence of Ruttmann’s Berlin, as Hackenschmied combines shots of, on, and from the tram in a rapid and rhythmic montage, displaying and merging multiple perspectives into a kaleidoscopic whole which stands for the experience of new and fast ways of travelling in the modern city. This experience becomes personal and personified, since, unusually for city symphony films, this one has a protagonist – a man with a hat, played by Hackenschmied’s friend, non-professional actor Bedřich Votýpka, who takes the tram, goes for a walk on the Libeň peninsula along the shores of the Vltava river, sits smoking in the grass, and finally returns to the city."

"Even better: one half of him returns to the city center of Prague, while his doppelgänger stays on the outskirts. He is an urban wanderer, though not quite a flâneur, as he does not observe and dive into the crowds in the city, but goes for a walk to explore the city’s semi-industrial suburbs."

"The film premiered in a programme Hackenschmied himself organized in the Kotva cinema in Prague between November 1930 and February 1931, which focused on international avant-garde films. This included other city symphonies and urban-related films, such as Jean Vigo’s À propos de Nice, Alber to Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures, Henri Chomette’s Cinq minutes de cinéma pur, and Mikhail Kaufman’s Vesnoi (Springtime). Aimless Walk was Hackenschmied’s first film, followed in 1932 by another city symphony, Na Pražském hradě (Prague Castle). Later he made documentary and advertising films, and shot experimental films, such as Meshes of the Afternoon (1943), made with his then-wife Maya Deren."

"I would like to acknowledge Natascha Drubek, for her wonderful article and research on Aimless Walk in the journal Bohemia 52 (2012).
" – Eva Hielscher

AA: The city symphony concept reversed and mutated into a Doppelgänger story. The movement is from urban velocity to the peace of the outskirts. "The man of the crowd" becomes a solitary wanderer. Expressive imagery, striking montages. There were shades of jazz in the musical interpretation of Mauro Colombis and Romano Todesco. Visual quality of the print: good.

Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse

JEUX DES REFLETS ET DE LA VITESSE (FR 1925). D, PC: Henri Chomette. DCP (from 16 mm), 8' (transferred at 18 fps); no titles. Source: Light Cone, Paris.

Eva Hielscher: "In the 1920s, the young filmmakers of the French avant-garde experimented with abstraction, as they also became interested in documentary material, urban imagery, and the city. Henri Chomette’s Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse is a city symphony variation from the period before Ruttmann’s Berlin gave the phenomenon its name. Similarly to his Cinq minutes de cinéma pur (1926), the short starts out as a purely abstract film with kaleidoscopic shots, optically distorted forms, spinning objects, and the play of forms, movement, light, and shadow. In fact, it also ends in an abstract manner. By this, Chomette, who was René Clair’s brother, frames and sets the tone for his exploration of and visual play with the urban structures and cityscape of Paris in the main portion of the film."

"Indeed, in his cinéma pur, Chomette treats the urban material of the French capital according to the rules of the abstract film as well. The viewer becomes immersed in a fast, rollercoaster-like métro ride through tunnels and across viaducts, constantly alternating bet ween darkness and light, abstraction and the concrete and material, between electric lights dancing on the walls in the dark tunnels and architectural structures, telephone poles, and trees along the rails in daylight. The trip continues by boat on the river, unfolding and opening up to city symphony views of Paris and the Seine, including famous sights such as Notre-Dame as well as industrial landmarks and factory chimneys. Chomette makes extensive use of experimental techniques such as acceleration and multiple exposures. Finally, métro trains, the Seine, and the Eiffel Tower begin to rotate, recalling the dizzying effect of a fast merry-go-round ride and exemplifying the experience of the overwhelming multiplicity of sensations in the modern city. This reference to the urban experience merges with Chomette’s abstract approach. Reality becomes absorbed in the play of light and movement, forms and speed, as he sets and locates his abstract study in the urban environment of Paris.
" – Eva Hielscher

AA: This films starts as an abstract study in reflections and velocity. This is kinetic art. Then we get into moving vehicles, speeding through the city at night. The image is accelerated, rails appear in superimpositions, there are Olympic angles. An interesting musical interpretation by the duo Colombis & Todesco. Visual quality: bad, from very duped sources.

Les Nuits électriques

LES NUITS ÉLECTRIQUES (FR 1929). D+P: Eugène Deslaw. 35 mm, 265 m, 13' (24 fps); no titles (opening credits: RUS). Source: Les Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.

Eva Hielscher: "Eugène Deslaw’s Les Nuits électriques is an abstract film that shares some features with the city symphony concept. In this instance, the filmmaker evokes the nocturnal city via its streetlights, electric signs, and illuminated façades. Whereas films such as Ruttmann’s Berlin, Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures, or Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera take the city at night as only one element among many of urban life, Les Nuits électriques focuses exclusively on this aspect of urban modernity. The Ukrainian-born Deslaw [Yevhen Slavchenko], who moved to France in 1922, combines images of Paris and Berlin, and composes a little symphony of city lights and illuminated signs at night – creating a “light dream” of evenings in big cities, with mysterious movements, invisible forces, machines, and various visual effects. By the sharp contrast of dark , often completely black surroundings and moving lights, the filmic image often takes on an almost completely flat surface; the city becomes an abstract background for the filmmaker’s play with light, geometric forms, lines, dots, and movement."

"But Les Nuits électriques is also a film about the literary, textual city – the signs and characters, words and slogans visible in the city at night. It is also a film about cinema itself, the light in the dark that creates a visual impression – indeed, we see the signs of an Ufa cinema in passing. Even further, it is a work about the manipulating forces and potentialities of cinema. The façade of a building appears illuminated with lines of lights, which transform the house into a negative of itself, a sort of skeleton or X-ray version. In fact, Deslaw also intercuts negative shots of telephone poles and a factory chimney with the nocturnal images, transforming with cinematic and photochemical means actual daytime images into night as well. In the end, the dance of lights and filmic fireworks converts into an actual filmed firework, which is itself manipulated and reinforced by experimental film techniques."

"Georges Sadoul called Les Nuits électriques, together with Deslaw’s Montparnasse (1930), Parisian reportage. After Les Nuits électriques, in 1929 Deslaw made his famous La Marche des machines, which also displays some parallels with the city symphony approach.
" – Eva Hielscher

AA: Like Henri Chomette's Jeux des reflets et de la vitesse which we just saw this is an abstract film with openings towards the city symphony concept. The cities displayed are Berlin and Paris. At the Berlin cinema Der Gentleman von Paris is playing: today we have seen works by Reinhardt and Stiller, both were early inspirers of the 1920s trend of sophisticated comedy to which Harry d'Abbadie d'Arrast's films belongs. Out of the night lights abstract visions emerge. Out of the fairground attractions, optic and kinetic phenomena. There is a sense of wonder in the multiple superimpositions. Impressive like La Marche des machines. Visual quality: from worn sources.

La Zone. Au pays des chiffonniers

LA ZONE. AU PAYS DES CHIFFONNIERS (FR 1928). D: Georges Lacombe. Cin: Georges Périnal. PC: Films Charles Dullin. Dist: Productions R. J. de Venloo. 35 mm, 818 m, 30' (24 fps); titles: FRA. Source: Les Archives françaises du film du CNC, Bois d’Arcy.

Eva Hielscher: "In 1928, Georges Lacombe, René Clair’s former assistant, made a film about the outskirts of Paris and its inhabitants. More precisely, he portrays the daily life of ragpickers living on the periphery of Paris. Lacombe follows the dawn-to-dusk structure that became so typical for city symphonies. Early in the morning at 5 a.m. the ragpickers leave their homes with carts to collect anything useful and reusable thrown away in the city center and more wealthy districts of Paris in order to resell it. Back in the “Zone”, their work continues as they sort the collected goods according to their further ways of reuse and recycling: paper is stamped and bundled, scrap iron is pressed and sent to the factory for further metal processing, and recovered items are sold at the flea market at Porte de Clignancourt. The film also includes the typical city-symphony lunch break. After dinner at 7 p.m., the day in the Zone has already ended, so that the ragpickers can resume their daily activities at the break of dawn the next morning."

"Lacombe’s debut work as a director focuses on the poor and miserable living conditions in the Zone, where we see children play in the dirt and dance to music a man makes with half-filled water glasses. A number of personages or types are highlighted, such as this musician, a photographer, a gypsy, and the aged La Goulue, long ago the high-kicking can-can dancing star of the Moulin Rouge. La Zone is a socio-critical avant-garde documentary about the Parisian periphery, the shadowy existence of ragpickers, and suburban poverty. It displays the downside of modern urban life. However, it can also be read as a document dealing with the modern problem of garbage in the great cities and the progressive and environmentally friendly idea of waste separation and recycling. In the Zone, though, this developed purely out of the inhabitants’ necessity for survival."

"Film historian and documentary filmmaker Lewis Jacobs recognized in Lacombe’s film the influence of Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler’s 1921 city symphony Manhatta, which made a great impression on European and French avant-garde documentary filmmakers of the 1920s.
" – Eva Hielscher

AA: This year I finally saw Agnès Varda's masterpiece Les Glaneurs et la glaneuse. It is a unique work, but it also partly belongs to a tradition in which Georges Lacombe's La Zone is an earlier masterful achievement. The connection becomes evident in the title "au pays des chiffonniers" – "in the land of the ragmen". To me, this work is the most profoundly moving among all of Pordenone's city symphony screenings this year. I had seen La Zone once before, in the unforgettable Cent années Lumière touring show of the best French documentaries of all time courtesy of the Institut français in the 1990s. Now La Zone felt even stronger. This is also a film from the outskirts. Like in Varda's film we follow the process of salvaging in different ways. A shock encounter is with the old and marginalized La Goulue, "the Queen of Montmartre", a founder of the can-can, famous from Toulouse-Lautrec posters, now penniless in the slum. We visit an immense flea market. There are also images of young love and nature montages. The visual quality is not hot, and the contrast is high at times.

Prater. Shot on 9.5 mm

PRATER (AT 1929). D+P: Friedrich Kuplent. PC: Frikup Film. 35 mm (blow-up from 9.5 mm), 245 m, 14' (16 fps), col. (tinted); titles: GER. Source: Österreichisches Filmmuseum, Wien.
    Preserved and restored in 2014 by the Österreichisches Filmmuseum, in cooperation with the Klub der Kinoamateure Österreichs.

Eva Hielscher: "Friedrich Kuplent’s experimental short Prater can be considered a pioneering work of Austrian avant-garde film and a domestic city symphony. It was made within the context of the Klub der Kinoamateure Österreichs (the Austrian Film Amateurs Club), of which Kuplent, an employee at the Vienna gasworks, was a co-founder. His film portrays Vienna via a day at the city’s famous Prater fairground. An intertitle describes it as a film from the margins of everyday life. Indeed, as part of city life and the modern urban experience, amusement parks were a typical motif in city symphonies in the inter-war period. Kuplent, however, takes this motif and places it at the very heart of his film."

"This ambitious short begins with street impressions of Vienna, before focusing on the Prater as a distinct quarter of the Austrian capital, and a city within the city. Images of visitors are intercut with showmen and -women, amusement park attractions and architecture. Multiple exposures, unusual camera perspectives, abstract shots, and rapid editing imitate rides on rollercoasters, log flumes, and swing carousels. Kuplent deploys filmic tricks and experimental film techniques, including movement, speed, and kaleidoscopic views, to give us an impression of the fairground’s experiences and multitude of simultaneous thrills and stimuli, translating them into the language of cinema. In this regard, the film also includes a visual exploration of the Wiener Riesenrad, the Vienna Ferris wheel, which Kuplent depicts as a fragmentation of steel parts, not unlike the method Joris Ivens used a year before in De Brug (The Bridge). Finally, Kuplent also hints at social contrasts, before a thunderstorm brings an end to the Prater’s hustle and bustle. To a certain degree, the film’s climax shares some aesthetics with the final sequence of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera.
" – Eva Hielscher

AA: "Ein Film vom Rande des Alltags" – "a film from the margin of the everyday". Prater belongs, with Bezúčelná procházka and La Zone, to the periphery films in tonight's city symphony programme. Also here urban views grow into abstract visions. Here the emphasis is on a sense of play. There are jokey intertitles and spoof advertisements. The do-it-yourself aspect of the amateur film is proudly emphasized. The movement is from the concrete to the abstract. Mechanic toys and games are explored. The subjectivity of the handheld camera gives freedom. It is not all fun and games. There are beggars at the gates of the paradise. It ends with clouds, escalating rain, and feet that run. The visual quality: preserved from 9,5 mm amateur film footage.

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