Picture as Picture: "City Scherzos" Program Notes

David Phelps

Above: Michael Snow’s Walking Woman (one of a series, 1960s)

On Sunday, I’ll be programming and, maybe, leading some sort of discussion in Brooklyn at UnionDocs about Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures (1926), Joris Ivens’ Philips Radio (1931), and Michael Snow’s One second in Montreal (1969). I’m happy that I more or less managed to oppose my jobs as programmer and critic. As programmer, I put together three films from the Museum of Modern Art 16mm archive that I wanted to see and ostensibly have very little to do with each other, historically or generically: my programmer’s note on city symphonies defines exactly the sort of architectonic, gridded film these ambient, haiku-like movies are not. As critic, I’m stuck with three films whose only connections can be in the viewer’s eye, as Snow’s So Is This tells its audience, where they come in to give the thing some meaning. I like this sort of series: instead of a thesis, there can only be questions, so each movie becomes a way to contextualize, decontextualize, and interrogate the others. I’ve collected a montage of criticism about the movies below, and tried to allow them some self-interrogation too.

These pieces are meant as a framework for discussion, and just how much the films do or don’t have in common should start to focus even in the first quote (by Bela Balazs) alone. But as abstractions of abstractions they’re also occasionally contradictory, mostly questioning pieces on their own, and for anyone who can’t make the series, I hope they give some flavor of the appeal to watch these films together or apart. The Revue du Cinéma review of Philips Radio is an original translation of a contemporary response: its implicit argument for understanding against information, knowledge, and constructivism—that the viewer has to be alienated, abstracted from the mechanical process and inhabited spaces to see how manufactured is reality and how real is the manufacture—is one potential response to Tom Gunning’s posit, confronted in all these movies, that Philips Radio “opens up the dangerous gulf beneath the promise of the cinema, the power of cinematic illusion which rides within the search for visual knowledge.” “The frame by frame truth and the running together illusion,” Michael Snow says at the bottom here, but even One Second in Montreal questions both those terms. Like in Snow’s photo of the walking woman, a cardboard silhouette in a real city flattened into a photo’s grid, one comes with the other.

Other questions to wait to Sunday.

Above: Michael Snow photos and still from Rien que les heures

"The main problem with narrative in film is that when you become emotionally involved, it becomes difficult to see the picture as picture." — Michael Snow, Interview with Scott MacDonald, 1990

“In Cavalcanti’s Rien que les heures, what do street scenes in Montmartre have to do with the legatos and staccatos of the cutting process? The answer is that these features are simply a medium for the rhythm; they are no longer filmed objects, but carriers of light and shadow, form and movement. The visual music of the montage is played out here in a sphere of its own that runs parallel to the conceptual nature of the content.

And yet that music is not quite unconnected, nor is it entirely haphazard. Except in the case of the absolute film, the two spheres are ‘composed’ contrapuntally: pure rhythm versus pure objectivity. They appear to derive a profound but irrational meaning from one another—like melody and libretto. And it is through the unconscious that link between the two is made.

Even in scenes full of dramatic movement, the movement inside the images and the movement of the images themselves as they alternate in the montage may well, intentionally, have different rhythms whose ‘only’ relationship is contrapuntal. A landscape in which nothing moves may well move in the wild rhythm of the alternating shots. Here the rhythm of the montage is not an expression of the film’s object but the lyrical expression of the mood of the spectator, or of the director’s temperament…

Every motion has its own real duration and can represent only this. A motionless object, in contrast, has no extension in time and can therefore express time of any duration. Because we see no movement that might allow us to gauge the passing of time, we have no yardstick by which to judge. The absence of duration, indeed, can suggest an eternity.” — Bela Balazs, “Montage,” from Early Film Theory

… “Film rhythm is a notion that is hard to define, harder than exact objects, like a lightbulb, although that also has its difficulties. Rhythm in films is determined by the logical train of thoughts that precedes the design, the sequence of notions and emotions, the closeness of the whole.

…I believe that, in this period of development of the film, it is better not to tie the film-maker beforehand to false, anti-filmic regulations, but to give him working field, where he can find the better, more tied filmic rhythm by his filmic talent.

And this field is unfortunately called documentary film. The documentary film has to be regarded as a category of films that is closer to cinema newsreels, reports, and cultural films than to acted films. Not a series of ideas from the outside, but the objects themselves indicate their sequence in place and time. The filmic form originates in the relation of the recorded images to each other - only those images that are true and direct are eligible to be called documents. In the documentary film, the film-maker is forced to be honest and open towards his objects. Only then he will find the right cinematographic design. And with this power, the documentary film should show the acted film of the future new ways - and so real film drama will be discovered.” — Joris Ivens, “The Artistic Power of the Documentary Film,” 1932

“Consider, for example, One Second in Montreal, a work which [Snow] has described as an attempt to construct a purely temporal structure. It is one of the less frequently screened and appreciated works and one of the finest and most arresting. It offers a filmic projection of a serially composed succession of still photographs of squares and parks in Montreal (possible sites for a monument), seen “under snow”—the sort of small, assertive pun in which this artist delights. The images succeed one another in series of expanding and contracting length. The main compositional parameter is that of duration and the work offers, consequently, with unadorned intensity, the tension inhering between still photograph and filmic image. Or rather, it forces the question: why present still photographs in filmed succession rather than through slide projection? Reply: the temporality which circulates through the optical flicker of projected film joins to the rhythm of images in static succession the pulse of an ostinato. This is, then—not unexpectedly—the most musical of a musician’s visual constructions. And if one reflects upon the nature and condition of the continuity-in-stasis given each still image projected at twenty-four frames per second, one sees, as well, that they compose, in a sense that is both strictly and paradoxically Framptonian, that cinematic entity, a “movie.”” — Annette Michelson, “About Snow,” October, Vol. 8, Spring, 1979

“[Rien que les heures] is an offering of pity for ‘all things worn out and old’. These elderly, dirty men, thieves, harlots, tramps are dwarfed by the narrow streets in which they are seen living from one dawn to another, but their surroundings have no more dignity than themselves, and conquer by size alone. In Berlin human beings were puppets, but in their place machinery was given swiftness and beauty, even exultation. There is no swiftness in Mr. Cavalcanti’s film. The pictures drop one by one with a slow and sometimes impressive finality. An almost exaggerated use is made of still life, where the only movement that distinguishes the film from a magic lantern slide is, perhaps, the slow steam rising from a bowl of broth.” — Graham Greene, The Times, 1929

Above: publicity stills for two early Cavalcantis (not Rien que les heures), including Little Red Riding Hood (1930, with Jean Renoir as the wolf)

“Cavalcanti’s first film on his own was “Rien que Les Heures,” an audacious blend of Marxist politics and Futurist formalism, a 46-minute “day in the life” of Paris that is said to have influenced Dziga Vertov’s “Man With a Movie Camera” and easily stands comparison to it. If anything, Cavalcanti seems more compassionate than Vertov, weaving three sketches of violently oppressed women — a prostitute, a newspaper vendor and a little old lady looking for a quiet, inconspicuous place to die — into his global vision of the city as a thrumming machine.” — Dave Kehr, New York Times, “Advance Troops of Cinema, Marching Through Time,” 2009

“Once upon a time most of us were interested in photographing gadgets and when we photographed the movements of people, they looked like gadgets too. You can see it in many passages in my Industrial Symphony. Now I try to reveal the human being’s relation to the objects around him—and to each other.” — Joris Ivens, “Handling the Non-Actor,” 1940

“In One Second in Montreal, ten stray photographs, culled from the library, all of them little drab parks connected to public buildings, are turned into a movie that has a special serenity and is pungent with a feeling of city, snow, unexcitement, the mediocrity of public buildings and parks (no fresh air). Despite the dirgelike sonority, I question the length of time that Snow holds on each park to create a majestically slotted ribbon composition.” — Manny Farber, “Michael Snow,” 1969

Above: still from Philips Radio; Michael Snow, “Sink”

“The very nature of factory space with its constantly moving conveyor belts, assembly lines and delivery systems, fixes the human gesture into a mechanical schema. Moments of old fashioned craft, such as the glass blowing (so much a part of the Dutch handicraft culture celebrated in the painting of the 17th century), here seem imprisoned - in competition with machines. Ivens has indicated he intended the film as a critique of the Philips plant, but as Hans Shoot has indicated to me, this did not reflect statements he made during production. Leftist critics such as Leon Moussinac did read the film as a critique of the de-humanization of the worker under capitalism. However, viewing the film, one senses an intense ambivalence. On the one hand, Ivens’ camera does portray a dehumanizing system which contrasts completely with the physically bonding labor shown in Zuiderzee. Projected back to back, these two films seem to reveal - as no other art form could - the degradation of work in the twentieth century. However, Industrial Symphony also seems to participate in this technology, to celebrate it, to be attuned to it, to glide with the machines, to pulse with their rhythm, especially in relation to the music on the soundtrack.

…The very ambiguity of this film (and the circumstances of its production, undertaken while Ivens was preparing to leave for the USSR to make films of the Five Year Plan, partly to raise funds, partly to mollify his father whose photographic company was producing the film) opens up the dangerous gulf beneath the promise of the cinema, the power of cinematic illusion which rides within the search for visual knowledge. Ivens produced a film which could satisfy a corporate sponsor or seem to leftist viewers to attack labor conditions. A film whose formal beauty, produced by a filmmaker becoming suspicious of such formalism, must cloak a degree of mauvais foi.” — Tom Gunning, “Joris Ivens; Filmmaker of the Twentieth Century, of the Netherlands and the World”

"Rien que les heures is a peculiar hybrid of a film, combining the fictional and the factual in several fascinating ways. As early as 1922, Cavalcanti was engaged in an attempt to integrate what he simplified into the two poles of French film theory—Delluc's interest in the real (with its "pragmatic" or denotative value) and L'Herbier's interest in the ideal (with its "lyrical" or connotative value). Curiously, in his own filmmaking, he chose to emphasize the realistic, the documentary, as if in reaction against his previous work with L'Herbier on what were primarily fantasy films. Above all, Rien que les heures has become known as one of the  first films to document systematically the daily life of a modern city.

...The discourse of Rien que les heures situates itself consciously in the context of representational images already present in French society. Later, appropriately, when various cinema posters are reproduced, they are all of adventure films and serials. The film's strategy will be to allow other images to emerge that have been masked or repressed by those already dominant. Instead of going directly to the representation of actual life, however, the discourse offers an interlude of various paintings of Paris streets (e.g., Chagall, Delaunay). At first, we might take these as models of representation, but they are followed by a shot of some two dozen eyes in rows of little oval irises (opening and closing like a bed of tiny clams) and then an intertitle, "... only a succession of images can reconstitute life for us." Although painting reproduces spaces and things, only the cinema reproduces movement and the illusion of life. An old and dubious argument, at best; but there is more. This discourse is not content merely to give image and movement to the oppressed... Consistently does the film oscillate between the real and the surreal, between the simple representation of a wretched milieu and the production of a reality constituted of multiple maskings and juxtapositions.

...Rien que les heures may seem to end with a rather lame epilogue. A couple of intertitles produce a conventional conclusion: "We can fix a point in space, stop a moment in time..." / "... but space and time both elude our grasp." The discourse of images, however, presents a rough challenge to an audience's perception and understanding. Clichés abound--a simple globe of the world (singling out Paris and Peking), an aerial shot of the Arc de Trimphe, several snapshots of pagodas, a French mother and child before a white curtain, a man chasing a woman before an abstract Cubist screen. Why should we accept these images per se any more than those at the film's beginning? For a film that has examined, whimsically as well as coldly, both a wide range of images and the image-making process, such an epilogue would be patently silly as a transparent succession of images. It is not, I would argue. As the final shots divide and fragment (through multiple exposure, mattes, and camera movement), the work of deconstruction that the film has engaged in is shifted onto the audience. How will we now perceive the representational images of our culture all around us?" — Richard Abel, French Cinema, the First Wave, 1915-1929

Above: Michael Snow, “Authorization” (1969)

…It’s a similar impression, of a force that’s subterranean and suppressed, of social work, of a crushing mechanism, of a vital economic power, that’s given in his new film on the Philips Factories.

Joris Ivens doesn’t undertake to show us technically the production of a lamp, of a radio, of a loudspeaker. That wouldn’t interest us, we wouldn’t understand anything if he tried to explain it to us. Anyway, he doesn’t try. If, actually, he has us attend the production and its most interesting details, he doesn’t explain a thing. We make the rounds. Throughout. We follow the glass batter, we go to the glass-blowing. The elevator. Lab. Inspection. Packaging. But nobody explains anything to us, wears us with technical words, tells us why the worker does this or that. And, for his part, the worker becomes a being of a superior spirit, enveloped in a fog of specialization of which we haven’t the slightest understanding, a symbol striking to us who never learned to do a thing with our hands.

There are some people who, sometimes, visit factories. A famous car manufacturer organizes guided visits in his factory. The guide talks, talks. The honorable visitors leave without having seen too much, but they’ve been given names to feed on, like geographers at the grand salons. They’ve split, divided their whole attention, intelligence, good will into details, have been forced to understand everything and not to notice what they haven’t understood. They’ve seen 45 bolts bolted separately, but they’ve lost all sight of the why of the thing. Skewed toward—stuff—they haven’t understood the true nature of the factory, haven’t grasped the general impression, the power both material and symbolic.

Joris Ivens’ film is a factory, a world of work. We leave dizzy from the work. And we understand plenty of other things than the manufacture that escaped us. We understand just what is this horrible work in chains, and the exhausted efforts of glass blowers, efforts that no machine has been able to replace yet, we understand the specialization (in an already specialized industry), and the automatic work that will make a worker perform the same gesture for the rest of his life (already happy enough is he to find work!) and, finally, the great power of all these men and all these women who leave together when the whistle blows, who will return again tomorrow, and after tomorrow, and forever. So that you can have lamps and radios from Philips… — Jean-Paul Dreyfus, La Revue du Cinéma, N. 28, Nov. 1931 (my translation)

“Odd attempts to figure Snow’s logic in selecting which pictures would be held longest, which the briefest, and thus one is made to analyze and concentrate on the images far more attentively than one normally would. It becomes clear that Snow has forced an extremely intense subject-object relationship, not simply by the fact that he has held certain pictures longer than others, but because these durations are structured mathematically, are given a pattern and logic which seems purposive, that is, it seems to move teleologically toward some ‘meaning.’ Thus One Second in Montreal becomes a sculpture which exists in time without motion. It is typical of Snow’s genius, a gift best described by John Cage when he said: “Where beauty ends is where the artist begins.”” — Gene Youngblood, artscanada, February, 1970

Above: Michael Snow, “Snowstorm, February 8, 1967,” with insert

“As in Andy Warhol’s films, the prolonged, non-moving image deflects attention to the material processes of recording and projection, to the flow of the celluloid strip through the projector and, hence, to cinema’s temporality. The awareness of the flow of time it thus encourages, along with its allusions to events other than those represented, make us anticipate events that might succeed those depicted. Accordingly, the form of the film derives from features that temporal events share with narrative events (in fact, it derives from the profound insight that all temporal experience is narrative in character).” — R. Bruce Elder, Image and Identity, 1989, on One Second in Montreal

“Coordinations and combinations of luminous rays taken from epoch x to another epoch x yield the avant-guerre film. Now Cavalcanti has come along to demonstrate that when such rays are taken to epoch x + 10years, we get the avant-garde film, the purest expression of the present age.” — Luis Buñuel, “A Night at the Studio des Ursulines”

“In One Second in Montreal I wanted to concentrate again, and I was interested to see what it would be like to live through a film that, as purely as possible, had to do with duration. I didn’t want what I put on the screen to be too interesting, which is a funny situation. I wanted each image to be different—otherwise there would be no measurement. But they couldn’t be too different because I didn’t want to have any peaks or checkerboarding of interest: I wanted the viewer to be aware of the time passing, of how long the shot was there. I finally decided on these bad offset-printing images I’d gotten years earlier for a competition to put sculpture in parks in Montreal. I’d put them away because I liked them, though I didn’t know what I liked about them.” — Michael Snow, Interview with Scott MacDonald, 1990

“Certain landscape paintings have achieved a unity of method and subject. Cézanne for instance produced an, to say the least, incredibly balanced relationship between what he did and what he (apparently) saw… In seeing One Second in Montreal you have to be able to live with what is happening for a certain length of time in order to begin to understand it, to start to speculate with it. It is literally made with lengths of time.” — Michael Snow, artscanada, 1971, on La Région Centrale

Above: Michael Snow, “Flight Stop” (sculpture); still from One Second in Montreal

“I’m interested in doing something that can’t be explained. Oh there are so many things to it. The frame by frame truth and the running together illusion. It’s fast stills. Ultimately those events on the screen which really move me seem to be mysterious alterations of mind and time sense.” — Michael Snow, letter to Jonas Mekas and P. Adams Sitney, Film Culture, 1968

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