“Traits de lumière”


Still from 'Études sur Paris'

A Cinematographer’s Guide to Paris

All too often in a location documentary, the intent of its creator to characterize the place, to draw its boundaries to form a definition, has the adverse effect of forestalling the image. If one proceeds on the assumption that a place is solely constituted by the sensory, then perhaps it would not be impossible for one to recapture its essence, its effect, entirely from a visual record.  In three early odes to the ‘City of Light,’ it is indeed light itself, from the brittle pre-dawn glow that bathes the docks to twilit chiaroscuro on stone-cobbled passages, that is the main player, even as themes, notions, idyll, weigh on its sensitive observational power. Each successive film gets less theme-oriented, less constricted by presumption, moving more toward the ingrained ability of pictures to become the place, varied, cultivated, sad, and awash with invisible driving energies.

Nothing but Time

France / 1926 / Silent

Directed by Alberto Cavalcanti

With Blanche Bernis, Nina Chouvalowa, Phillipe Heriat

Alberto Cavalcanti begins Rien Que Les Heures (‘Nothing but Time’) with the statement that, “all cities would look the same were it not for the monuments that distinguish them.” The film then goes on to insist that it is not about high society, as a fashionable gaggle of ladies transforms to so much shredded and discarded photographic confetti. The camera’s vantage point remains remarkably turned-down for much of the film, lingering on feet, cars’ wheels cutting through rain puddles, the fetid gutters.

Still from 'Rien Que Les Heures'

Rien Que Les Heures (1926)

But in professing to focus on the marginal, it is indirectly alluding to the grandiose, because in it, workers remain workers, each a collection of functional movements or the stereotyped elements of the downtrodden. A shopkeeper arranges mannequins in his storefront who wear clothes someday to be worn by the society women. A motorcar with chauffeur transformers into a pauper’s horse cart. Slums, replete with women washing and a jovial violinist, are nothing but painful brackets on the cityscape. They can function as little besides eyesores, the outward advertisement of social malaise. Though an early force and influence in the European documentary movement, Cavalcanti resided in a world dependent on fiction; he states here that the city cannot be described based on a single moment, but on a succession of them – in other words, the strength of his predilection for storytelling and montage. To him, there literally is ‘nothing but time’ – the one, true thing – and it shapes everything else, becoming concrete on its own.

From images of the last revelers to the first workers emerging, rats blinking blearily in the morning light and tramps asleep on the sidewalk, Cavalcanti is, inescapably, a flâneur of society and history, his analysis all the more exacting for its lack of discernible momentum. Being a recent émigré from Brazil, he seems permanently in search of what makes the city unique, to resist the monuments pointed to at the start of the film. He is interested in characterizing the place definitively as this or that (as a warren of petty criminals, as full of recreation potential, as a city defined by labor) depending on the spot and time of day. Images of wealth, of plenty, are alternated with engorged rubbish barrels – surplus aged slightly past usability. Being largely pantomimed, and with ephemerality the driving philosophy, no shape lingers, nothing takes shape. And this is the film’s most honest component. The only person oblivious to the passage of time is an old, derelict woman wandering the back alleys of the city.

Although thematic, rather than visual, in its exploration of Paris, the film is nonetheless bristling with sensual delights and complexity. Framed as the recollections of a girl’s tormented dreaming, the film insists on having an element of the hyperreal. Spectatorship is its primary way of showing life; nothing happens, in truth, it is only observed. It cannot help but revel in comparative abstractions – the fixed position of the camera on a wildly blurring merry-go-round and bulbous stacks of flowers and root vegetables center compositions while people buzz around them, time-lapsed, like bees or hummingbirds. Faces are fragmented into peering eyes, exclamatory lips.

Still from 'Rien Que Les Heures'

Rien Que Les Heures (1926)

The film insists on a certain verticality through connecting the poor to the wealthy, but only shows that they occupy the same spaces. Court cards turn tarot (a “game of chance” being life), then become real misfortune. Things become social-realist, then fade wearily into romance. Compelled to act as lookout while her boyfriend kills and robs a pedestrian (the woman who was dealt the death card), a girl feels trapped herself, a victim of another kind. Looking down into a wealthy diner’s steak, we see an image of the bull from which it came being restrained, dispatched and divided.

If the film’s preoccupation with time were not enough in evidence from its title and the recurring use of the clock face (spinning it backwards and forwards, cross-dissolving its rotund shape with the streets radiating from the Arc de Triomphe or the spread banana peel appearance of Europe on a globe) the intertitles send home the overall impression of a diurnal experience, of a typical day in the life of the city. But, Cavalcanti concedes in the end that, “we cannot grasp space [the emptiness that constitutes distance] and time.” This rather modest view of the potential of film does not grant us, even with the powers of recording and freezing motion, to hold onto any moment or know its isolated truths.

Études sur Paris

France / 1928 / Silent

Directed by André Sauvage

André Sauvage created Études sur Paris as a poignant, exuberant promenade through the city, rich with beauty both contrived and spontaneous. On one of the many boats traveling through a system of underground canals, we see hot beams of sunlight come down through to the water, connecting this underworld corridor with the luminous world above. The river’s serpentine path describes a certain consistency that imbues the film, if not exactly with cardinal direction, with what could perhaps be called molecular coherence.

True to his name – ‘savage’ – the director comes on like a sort of fauve of sunlight and nitrate. Indeed, his career itself presents an intriguing, fallen arch: not long after making this film he was hired by the Citroën car company to accompany and document an overland trip from Beirut to Peiping (now Beijing) that was being undertaken using their vehicles. Following the completion of The Yellow Cruise (released in 1933, and which Herman G. Weinberg evidently saw and wrote about) the experiences he had dealing with the company so soured him to film and business that he quit altogether, and spent the last forty years of his life a farmer in Bordeaux.

An unschooled painting of Emil Jannings on the facade of a cinema house. Rotating, armless mannequin busts with damnedest-gay, highly detailed expressions on their faces. A fox pelt splayed across a lady’s back as though it had been preserved in the act of taking a bullet for her. The back view of a toy-train conductor, both ends of his prodigious whiskers visible from behind his head. A fat dog lighting out to take a reckless leap into the river. A visual rhyme between two shots that together may not last more than thirty-six frames (and that may have gone unnoticed by the director): the page of an open book on an outdoor table that has ‘Bacchus’ as the chapter heading, and next, passing under a bridge we see, looking out through the stone surface, the mirthful face of a bearded man, surrounded by a halo of grapes. Ultimately it is not these images themselves that resonate affectingly, but the duration, tempo, and transformative montage with which they are deployed and fall into place. And everything seems to have a place, as the camera bounds from one image to the next.

Sauvage particularly focuses on processes, such as the raising of locks in a canal and the passage of barges, that lend the gradual bloom of evolution to otherwise still periods of waiting and repose. He is constantly netting the sublime moments here and there, as they waft on the wind (the day fairly hums with them), needing only to be isolated, as though anyone armed with a recording device, who is sufficiently attuned, could capture them. These moments are the sole property of the place, itself a notion thought and unthought in an instant by so many, perceived blithely, lovingly, only to fade into the delirious mass of motion washing over concrete stasis. The film seems an attempt to paraphrase the radiance of that one, possibly imagined instant, and does so as an expression of what the city is, and how it behaves, in manifold ways at once; in the span of a stopped clock’s breathless falter, Paris is a byzantine mosaic and then bric-a-brac against a soft, grimy sky; it is the gentle springiness of a shabby lawn between one’s fingers, and a careening, tickertape plunge through and throughout the whorl of history.

Still from 'Études sur Paris'

Études sur Paris (1928)

The film has much in common with other ‘city symphonies’ of the time but is almost entirely free from intensity – there is never a sense of urgency or stress, no hot blustering of progress and anticipation. A locomotive puffs through midday haze, and a tram coasts by, high above it all. Gliding, serenely or gaily, is the dominant condition. All is motion, Sauvage persistently announces. But even within a stately time-lapse, or when traffic gets speeded to a whispy, alluvial blur, there is an ever-present intent blanketing it, a sobriety to how the people circulate. Once or twice he runs things in reverse, or backwinds to overlay ghostly people on a street scene. But he seems to be doing this more to express an impression of that scene rather than raise a gasp or gufaw. He even turns momentarily into a fictive alley of staged moments (a young couple perpetually separated by the river, only to unite finally, further downstream) but so discreetly included are these flashes of narrative that they trickle into and mingle with the fluidity of the images of daily life.

The outpourings are seemingly everywhere – ones that Parisians could be forgiven for taking for granted – the sculptural hemorrhages of  wildly, improbably draped figures, both Raphaelite and deco-Greco in character. Sprinkled about the city are their many stone catafalques. Others adorn walls, cling precariously to bridge arches, gaze with a god’s-eye-view down on teeming plazas. Sauvage brings us to the monumental, such as maypoling pillars and skyward arcades; nyad statues lithe and airy and motionless; the insistent mythologizing that paddles in the wake of the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Great War. The frame of a palace is erected by men in faded suspenders.

But the architecture behaves as just that, a (mostly ornate) periphery that guides motion, the senses, crowds. It is a geometrical counterpoint to the nebulous and scattered flux of the streets. We get a breathtaking traversal of Notre Dame, from its mandala windows to the dismayed gargoyles gazing down onto the street, behind which are the human visitors to the rooftop doing the same. This cathedral is not one that blasts spindly spires into the heavens, but rather, ends in truncated, almost apologetic nubs on either side – its brawny modesty could even call to mind the squarish, mud mosque of Djenné in Mali. Grandiose splendor is not what Sauvage is after, but the intangible and unidentifiable pleasures potential in all these sights. He has a superb sense of what not to codify – the Eiffel tower puts in an appearance, but it is bobbing up and down, filmed from a small boat on the water; a Statue of Liberty replica passes through in silhouette; the Arc stands uneasily at the edge of a frame. At this point even the act of felling of a tree seems somehow architectural.

Two-thirds through and Sauvage abandons the Seine, and its drifting linearity, for amphitheatre spaces (swarming figures floating from up high to the dark surface of a stepwell public swimming pool; dust-smeared children squinting at us among toppled concrete walls that resemble a Duchampian Stonehenge) and smokestacks pouring beyond an unwholesome-looking heath, as he moves outward, approaching the suburbs. He only returns to the river later, as aquatic fragments rather than the guiding principle it had been. In this portion he retains the pace but subtracts the effervescence. A man repairs his bicycle in the shadow of a half-demolished building. It’s all the more contemplative and haphazard in lacking the automaticity, the intoxicating convergence of technology and human vitality that typify the city centers.

Les halles centrales

France / 1927 / Silent

Directed by Boris Kaufman

Still from 'Les Halles Centrales'

Les Halles Centrales (1927)

Whereas Sauvage directs time like a graceful traffic policeman, allowing it to coalesce from divergent points into a harmonious and organic stream, Boris Kaufman, with Les Halles Centrales, which he filmed in Paris at the age of twenty-one, establishes himself as a personifier of shadows and a poet of electric light. One of the Dziga Vertov brothers, he would go on to become a favorite cinematographer of Vigo and Kazan. This film exhibits more of a native’s eye for intimate detail (as in Études… or Ruttmann’s Berlin: Symphony of a Metropolis [1927]) than the visitor’s unhasped wonderment (as in Nothing But Time or in Cavalcanti’s later works done in Britain for John Grierson). Much of the film takes place at night, as we see the journey of commodities as they are loaded into rail cars on their way to the ancient marketplace of the title, Zola’s “belly of Paris”.

At first the darkness, which takes up the better part of many of the compositions, seems an unlikely setting for the documentary. But that is precisely what Kaufman is going after – a forgotten world, a hidden world that an be touched simply by walking out and joining its nocturnal clamor. From this secret Paris he harvests his images, done with minimal light, the worn faces of workers full of character and reflecting the moon. More a Caravaggio than a Goya, he allows the darkness to sculpt the figures and their surroundings, working from emptiness, rather than to bathe a laboriously-mapped composition in black. Sauvage renders the city a model hewn of glass and steam, while Kaufman’s Paris is all opaque blots, thick and uncertain.

Here is a comparable sense of animated activity to what Sauvage shows in glowing streets and parks in sunlight, but here things are rhythmically solemn, figures emerging from shadow to perform work. And this is work that is integral to the life of the city, as we see in connecting shots that lead to the next phase of the journey. Once the produce has been seen off, daylight begins to break through, and the market swells.

One is reminded of the infinite, swarming, and almost mystical Boulevard du Temple in Children of Heaven (1946), a scene and a phenomenon that lends itself equally to fantasy and documentary. Like the Seine in Sauvage’s film, this place is a path of convergence for countless people, from many walks of life, a point where laborers come into contact with the bourgeoisie and the servants of the wealthy, while tramps and their hopeful pet kittens are drawn by the abundance of refuse. Piles of turnips and pumpkins fill frames with their rounded, compact density. Kaufman shares Jacob Riis’ knack for startling a moment in mid-happening, but at the same time works in a planned and resolute composure that abjures home-movie unsteadiness. After goods have been displayed, examined, re-examined, and sold, the crowds depart. An immense amount of vegetable matter remains, swept into towering piles and then loaded onto trucks. Workers use thin poles to scrape out the leftover grime from out of the embedded trolly tracks.

More than a slice of life, the film shows interrelated parts connecting in the middle, like the slivers of a cut melon falling in radial display. It follows labor, of various kinds, through various aspects of a single process, a routine that is wide and self-sustaining. Kaufman’s presentation is wonderfully matter-of-fact and, seeking to explore rather than glorify the mundane, he prefigures later actuality films such as On the Bowery (1957) which don’t ring nearly as true in terms of form, essence, and atmosphere. Kaufman’s pictures have an unfaded power because he was a consummate visual researcher, with an eye not only for eliciting an incredible vitality from everyday scenes, and fully ascribing it to them alone. Thus the scenes are convincingly true to themselves, the director’s magic being an unobtrusive one. Études sur Paris, with its heightened felicitousness, suggests that these images can only be palpable when surface-skimmed, immured in their peculiar moment on the silken and silvery pane of the celluloid. And then Kaufman’s film politely negates this notion altogether.


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