Friday, September 25, 2009

They Call Them Moving Pictures

"We were all delighted, we all realized we were leaving confusion and nonsense behind and performing our one noble function of the time, move." - Jack Kerouac, On the Road

There's a scene in Murnau's silent classic Sunrise, that I love. I first saw it on the big screen, with a live musical score by the great 3epkano, during the Arts Festival a couple of years ago. I'd been out quite late the night before, just dragged myself shakily to this lunchtime performance, so was feeling a tad fragile, which may or may not have had a baring on my response.
It was the trolley scene that got me. Suddenly the film was doing something unexpected. The camera was still but the sense of movement was exhilerating. We were inside the trolley car with the husband and wife as it travelled from the country, the forest and lake, to the big city. (It's here one min into this clip).

Even if you've never seen the film before you know something is very wrong with this couple. She can't look at him. He can't speak to her. It's a hugely tranformational moment in their lives. Everything hangs in the balance. Everything she's known has just vanished before her eyes. How has it come to this? In the darkness of the trolley car, all the implications of what has just happened linger as it travels through the forest, by the lake and finally into the city.
It's a beautiful few minutes. The wife's bowed head, almost like she's dreaming everything behind her, the tram banking round corners, the sudden appearance of the man on the bike, the glimpses of buildings and signs, and then the thrilling almost out of control horse-drawn carriage suddenly pitching into view.
It's a film within a film moment, the movie-house darkness of the trolley acting as a conduit for these dream-images of movement (there's certainly something dream-like about the way the scenes seem perfectly natural and yet the speed of the journey from country to city doesn't seem right at all).

And it made me realise how much the medium exists to do this, move through actual space. Think of those bravura long shots at the beginning of Touch of Evil or Goodfellas. Why do we love these scenes so much? It's the sense of sustained difficulty, sure, but it's also the sense of sustained movement through streets and corridors, around obstacles and crowds, that fascinates us.
Think of Kubrick's steadicam prowling the Overlook Hotel in The Shining, or better yet think of this scene from the documentary Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba).

It's an amazing scene, the camera becoming the soul of the dead man rising above the procession (that's how I see it anyway) but beyond that it's amazing simply as a how-did-they-do-that piece of movement, coming close to a definition of what cinema is in essense, the awe of captured movement, taking us straight back to the shock of the Lumiere brothers' brief film of an arriving train exploding nineteenth century notions of time and space.
In this digital age, this CGI age, we're in danger of forgetting this simple lesson, that we respond instinctively, in a purely human way, to seeing space and movement through the kino-eye. As the quote above suggests, it allows us to leave confusion and nonsense behind, watching a film perform its one noble function, to move.

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