Tuesday, 25 June 2013

Frames per second

Between 1930 and 1960 the average length of a shot  in a Hollywood movie ranged between 7 and 10 seconds, but by the early 2000s this had fallen to between 3 and 6 seconds. So films today are generally faster, and predictably shallower. Too many films, regardless of their subject, seem to adopt a Tom & Jerry approach to editing  - a jittery, hyperkinetic cartoonish style that leaves me exhausted and fidgety after ten minutes. It's as if a theme-park white-knuckle roller-coaster aesthetic has overtaken popular cinema, leaving little room (at least in the mainstream) for the slow, the contemplative, the reflective, the human.

My interest in films began in the late 1970s, in the days when cinephiles earnestly debated the relative merits of a pantheon of distinguished auteurs - Vigo, Ophuls, Hitchcock, Welles, Renoir, Ford, Murnau, Godard, Ozu, Kurosawa, Tarkovsky, Eisenstein, Dziga Vertov, Bresson, Rohmer and the rest.  Mavericks like myself advanced the cause of Michael Powell. Firebrands backed Sam Fuller. We took ourselves very seriously indeed because film still mattered politically and philosophically and intellectually. The discourse surrounding film studies was variously informed by Marxist, Maoist, Lacanian, Derridian and Barthesian theory - intense, fluent and pretentious. We had a whale of a time. In the days before video and laser disc and DVD and home cinema we watched films alone together in the dark, sometimes taking notes. But my memory of those films is detailed - because the directors and their editors paced their exposition so that the viewer could follow and understand. Character, motivation, plot - they withstood close scrutiny. The mise-en-scène was distinctive without overwhemling the audience with special effects and post-production razzle-dazzle. There was depth. All this largely disappeared when the studio system was dismantled. I simplify.

Among my very favourite film makers are Danièle Huillet and Jean-Marie Straub. I'd be very surprised and pleased if you've even so much as heard of them - they're virtually unknown in Britain although highly regarded by a tiny handful of critics. Their wonderful, unforgettable Klassenverhältnisse (1984), based on Kafka's unfinished novel Amerika, can be found, amazingly, cut up into 12 episodes on YouTube and I can't recommend it too highly. (Google Huillet Straub + Class Relations, take the phone off the hook and away you go).

I note glumly that only 160 other people in the entire world have viewed the first extract online, and half that number watched the second, fewer still the rest, and perhaps npbody apart from myself has stuck with it to the (spellbinding, heart-rending) end, so it's fair to say it enjoys cult status and is not for everybody. If you don't know Huillet and Straub's work this is a good place to start. I love it and so, I'm sure, will you.

It's very slow, and although set in America it was, apart from two key establishing shots, filmed entirely in Europe, on 35mm Kodak black and white stock, with mostly non-professional actors and using only local sound to create a dreamlike documentary atmosphere. It certainly does justice to Kafka and is a profoundly unsettling work of art. This is a film David Lynch would admire and envy and is likely to appeal those of you who like the spare, the spartan, the repetitive and the farcical. It really is a Major Motion Picture Event. 

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