Mogan Meis’s essay in The Smart Set, Quite Ripples – Capturing the moments indifferent to being captured, plucks a chord for me: a harpsichord –and not clavichord or pianoforte — kind of moment. Meis moved from an idea from Thales to a quote from Hericlatus (‘You can’t step into the same river twice’), followed by Plato’s, ‘ if the nature of things is so unstable as that, you can’t even step in the same river fronting an explanation of a photographer’s art.
A clear litte expansion on the philosophical background from Siva Prasad might help at this point.
The photographer he looks at is Paul Graham: his exhibition, A Shimmering of Possibility, at MoMa, the perfect excuse for Meis to deliver two killer paragraphs:
..human beings have been trying to figure out what makes one thing one thing and another thing another thing. In very general terms, there have always been some people who are more comfortable with Being and some people who are more comfortable with Becoming. The Being people get excited about how identity remains stable, how a chair is always a chair, a table always a table. The Becoming people are fascinated by the gray areas, the things you can’t quite categorize, the fleeting, the indefinite.
Photography, since its invention in the 19th century, has always played the role of a double agent. On one hand, photography fixes time, a notoriously shifty and ever-changing phenomenon. But photography grabs time and sits it down. You could say that photography freezes moments of essence. This pleases the Being people. A photograph has a sliver of forever inside it.
and two killer sentences:
The old saying tells us that a picture is worth a thousand words. Graham, however, thinks you need somewhere between four and nine pictures.
Meis dissects the notions of being and becoming a bit more, but it was something else that occured to me: somehow the great filmmakers are and were quite aware of this ‘between four and nine pictures’.
Recently I saw an interview with Truffaut in which he was talking about 8 frame freezes: the maximum was 12 frames: more obtruded into the movie shots either side: the viewer was aware it was a still. Somehow at the optimal 8 frames, the stillness of a face amongst action is more a psychological stop than a physical one. Is the 8-frame an artifical construct of film with no parallel in real life? Perhaps an equivalent; is the sensation of a person talking to you suddenly having her sound off as one’s concentration goes from the words to the expression, and suddenly back again as some process in the brain decides to switch the sound back on, which hasn’t been off at all (so to speak).
In film we are being shown this 8-frame phenomenon as a stylisation. It has been used time and again by many directors. So why are cinematographers like Truffaut obsessed with it? For me, it runs right back to the simple pleaure of a flick book:; bored in a school classroom on a hot summer afternoon, teacher droning on, we idly draw a matchstick man in the top corner of the text book and make him move: the 8-frame splice is a reverse flicker book. It is a little bit ‘because it was there’, but it has a serious purpose, noneless.
No film-maker gets over the way film works: 24 fps. Even a photographer who has run off a rapid set of shots of a face, now finds it possible, with digital technology, to make the head move up and down with a loop of two photographs. There is something mesmerising about creating movement from stills.
Many filmmakers use a sequence of photographic stills or frames from a movie shot – in lieu of tight montage sequences – because they come to the conclusion that these stills — simply a short set of consecutive frames — played slower than 24 fps by digitally chosing say 1-3 seconds which is the poor man’s; still creating the necessary movement both in cinematographic and perceptio-cognitive (narrative) terms.
In a short documentary I am making, after much playing around with one sequence of someone arriving on a train, decamping, and walking back up the station to where I, the cameraman, am standing, I came to the slow conclusion it was more effective as film not just to show the sequence at normal speed (the edited shot with only a few seconds taken off each end), but also a repetiton of the same shot in single frames at an optimal fps to produce an inexorable slow movement forward, which at the same time was seen as a set of ever changing stills.
Such a design is always self-reflexive: that is so much what the fun of filmmaking is. In some cases, the auteur seems to be almost solely concerned with cinematographic reflexivity. No crime. The medium itself has it built into its DNA. The films such people make are as much about the pressure and satisfaction in the making as any subsequent viewing by a third party. True of all creative art.
In the process of running a sequence of screen grabs, one is consciously aware that this is what it must have been like for the first filmmakers – and their enchantment with the new medium – as they ran their celloid through a projector. The movie made of stills or screen grabs, though often run quite slow, is smoother than the flickering of those films at less than otpimum speed. One is fully aware, as all this happens, that one is watching how movie works, but also fully conscious immediately, or in slow stages, what it can and can’t do.
If I was teaching film (not likely) these are aspects of film-making I would emphasise: practical exercises with HDV cameras, each student would be told to go out and film and bring to class to work on: a few tricks to encourage the enjoyment of the filming such as how to film continuously, panning and zooming at the places where they envisioned cuts for example, to prevent them wasting too much time switching the camera on and off (and missing some of the action in the process) in the attempt to create ready made and editable shots.
Creating movie sequences from stills is quite a laborious process, involving grabbing maybe as many as 50 – 100 digital ‘frames’ for a 20-30 second shot. It is only when the slow motion sequence is played and replayed that it can become apparent how other elements such as music can subtly but radically alter the images.
In this specific case, I found quite quickly – almost by chance – a backing track from music site Jamendo that moved forward at the same speed as the slow movement of the stills. This sequence lasts about 30 seconds, which would be considered incredibly long by some ‘default’ filmmakers. But the slow pace of the figure moving up the station platform, facial expression slowly changing, physical actions – the posture of the body in relation to limbs – is enhanced by the perfect matching of the pace of the film with the music.
From Film Studies For Free:
Observations on film and Film Art: showing what can’t be filmed.
David Borwell, 4 March 2009, on David Borwell’s website on cinema.
Catherine Grant does Truffault in her latest post in Film Studies for Free. This link to Truffault’s essay, A Certain tendency in French cinema [pdf file], comes from there. A footnote in the essay mentions it was first published in Cahiers du Cinema in 1954.
Jean Rouch’s and Edgar Morin’s Chronique d’un été: Paris 1960
When people are being recorded, the reactions that they have are always infinitely more sincere than those they have when not being recorded.
Chronique d’un été (Chronicle of a Summer) is a documentary film made during the summer of 1960 by sociologist Edgar Morin and anthropologist and filmmaker Jean Rouch, with the esthetic collaboration of director cameraman Michel Brault. The film begins with a discussion between Rouch and Morin on whether or not it is possible to act sincerely in front of a camera. A cast of real life individuals are then introduced and are led by the filmmakers to discuss topics on the themes of French society and happiness in the working class. At the end of the movie, the filmmakers show their subjects the compiled footage and have the subjects discuss the level of reality that they thought the movie obtained.
from French Culture:
In the summer of 1960, Edgar Morin, a sociologist, and Jean Rouch conducted an enquiry into the daily lives of young Parisians in an attempt to understand their concept of happiness. This experimental film follows, over a period of a several months, both the investigation itself and the development of its main characters. The initial question “How do you live ? Are you happy ?” very quickly raises others on a number of key issues: politics, hopelessness, boredom, solitude… The interviewees eventually meet as a group at the first showing of the film, to discuss and approve or disapprove of it ; the two co-authors are confronted with the reality of this cruel but exciting experiment in “cinema-vérité”.
When Jean Rouch first saw Michel Brault’s Les Raquetteurs, he was amazed by the French-Canadian cinematographer’s work. A year later, as Rouch worked on Chronique d’un été, the progenitor of cinema-vérité, he became worried about the static and verbose interviews conducted by his co-director, Edgar Morin. Rouch remembered Brault’s finesse at injecting life into shots with his “walking camera” and called him to the rescue.
Brault began shooting Chronique in Paris’s Place de la Concorde, and he immediately impressed observers with his camera techniques. Perhaps for the first time in the history of cinema, a French Canadian actually taught something to his French counterparts and was recognized by the French as a master of his craft. The difference between scenes shot by Brault and those filmed by other contributors is striking. One need only compare the lengthy, stagnant dinner sequence to that of Marceline walking through Les Halles and discussing her deportation under Nazi occupation to appreciate Brault’s distinctive, dynamic approach. The truth of this scene is not to be found in words, but rather in the relationship between Marceline and the space through which she moves.
by Barbara Bruni in senses of cinema
Chronique d’un été – independent filmmaker Jarrod Whaley review in Oak Street Films.
Technique of Film Editing By Karel Reisz, Gavin Millar
page 301-302 We are cut short just as it gets interesting but there is enough to make us think.
 In a number of ways even before the cutting room they had shaped their material.
 The problem of spontaneity and honesty comes to the fore in this film. The film allegedly puts itelf in the hands of its subject totally. Rouch and Morin are, so to speak, at the mercy of their material in a new way. The subject of the film is the actions, reactions and opinions of the people in it, unacted upon, so far as is possible, by the technique of filming it. The role of the editor, it seems is being whittled even finer. But this isn’t so. On the contrary, his position in this situation becomes even more crucial and the moral decisions he has to make even more delicate.
 A vérité director has to be very careful not to misinterpret real people by his organisation of the shooting and editing. It must be admitted that the technical challenges in making vérité comprehensible sometime lead the director/editor into making cuts – even at the shooting stage – which may be good cinema but poor vérité.
Film and Phenomenology by Allan Casebier
Rouch is quoted:
There is a whole series of intermediaries and these are lying intermediaries. We contract time, we extend it, we chose an angle for the shot, we deform the people we’re shooting, we speed things up and follow one movement to the detriment of another movement. So there is whole work of lies. But, for me and Edgar Morin, at the time we made that film this was more real than the truth. That is to say, there are a certain number of things happening, human facts surrounding us….which people would not be able to say any other way….it’s a sort of catalyst which allows us to reveal, with doubts, a fictional part of all of us, but which for me is the most real part of an individual.
Documentary Film Classics By William Rothman
Chapter 4 – Chronicle of a Summer is the sample chapter – pages 69 to 97 – mirabile dictu.
Pages 73-74/ 80-81/87-88/94-95/ are left out, but this is still a good read with these pages on the cutting room floor. If anyone has this book in their collection, grateful for a copy of this chapter. You can’t buy every film book you see, and this particular one would for me mainly be for Chronique d’un ete and Bunuel’s Land Without Bread.
In an interview some years after making Chronicle of a Summer, Rouch reaffirmed his conviction that film has the power “to reveal, with doubts, a fictional part of us, which for me is the most real part of an individual.” The camera is capable of provoking people to reveal aspects of themselves that are fictional, to reveal themselves as the as the creatures of imagination, fantasy, ans myth they are: This is the touchstone of the practice Rouch calls “Cinéma vérité.”
In Rouch’s view, Chronicle is not simply a documentary, because the people in the film are provoked to manifest fictional parts of themselves. And it is not simply a fiction film, because the fictions it reveals are real. Yet a fiction is also a lie.
In his useful monograph Anthropology – Reality – Cinema, Mick Easton argues that Rouch’s aim in filming is not to make people comfortable so they will reveal themselves honestly and directly to and through his camera. “In the disjunction caused bythe very presence of the camera,” Easton observes, “people will act, will lie, be uncomfortable, and it is the manifestation of this side of themselves which is regarded as a more profound revelation than anything a ‘candid camera’ could reveal.”
Cuban Cinema by Michael Chanan
Chapter 9 – The Documentary in the Revolution
p. 184 – 217
Historical overview: free cinema => cinema verita, mentioning Chronique d’un ete p. 190 – 92
Movies and Methods by Bill Nicholas
p. 279 – 285