Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Two Jean Vigo shorts

















Two Jean Vigo shorts

According to Dennis Lim in his LA Times essay "The Complete Jean Vigo" coming Aug. 30: A Second Look - Los ..., “Minute for minute, there is almost certainly no more influential figure in all of cinema than Jean Vigo. You could watch all his films in a single sitting in about the time it takes to get through Transformers: Dark of the Moon (2011).” Vigo died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis, leaving behind four films, three shorts and a single feature that comprise slightly less than 3 hours in total, yet he had a major impact on the French New Wave movement that resurrected many of his early experimental and avant-garde techniques, which include naturalistic settings, surrealistic dream images, changes of speed, quick cutting, unusual angles, freeze frames, montages, unusual juxtaposition of images, not to mention a stylistic spontaneity the helped define the cinéma vérité method of the New Wave.  Vigo himself borrowed heavily from the Bolshevik newsreels of Russian documentarian Dziga Vertov (aka David Kaufman), particularly his first documentary film, À PROPOS DE NICE (1930), which is a direct descendant of Vertov’s A MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929), especially considering Vigo’s cinematographer for all his films is Boris Kaufman, Vertov’s younger brother, who went on to work with both Elia Kazan in ON THE WATERFRONT (1954), winning the Academy Award for Best Cinematography, and later Sidney Lumet, including 12 ANGRY MEN (1957).  Vigo’s 1930’s films may have originated the use of the term poetic realism, often used to describe the films of Jacques Demy, but overall he stands quite apart from any cinematic tradition, living and working on the fringes of society, the son of a militant anarchist who died under mysterious conditions, quite possibly strangled by authorities while in prison.  While Vigo’s unique films may seen raw or technically rough, his wealth of captivatingly new and original ideas from shot to shot are simply astonishing, especially his last two films, Zero for Conduct (Zéro de conduite: Jeunes diables... (1933) and L'Atalante (1934), both of which are among cinema’s greatest treasures.  Contemporary French director Léos Carax paid direct homage to Vigo’s L'Atalante in the finale sequence of LES AMANTS DU PONT-NEUF (1991), where the lovers end up on a barge floating down the Seine.  

À Propos de Nice
France  (23 mi)  1930  co-director:  Boris Kaufman     

Vigo’s first film resembles a day-in-the-life travelogue of a popular resort town on the French Riviera, a wordless quasi-documentary about the town where he lived using bold images and Soviet style editing, often to humorous effect by surrealistically juxtaposing various animals for people.  Using a helicopter shot opening, the film impresses with its unusual camera angles, often mocking the grandiosity of architectural marvels by turning the image in mid-shot, becoming a “city symphony” style of film, resembling Walter Ruttman’s BERLIN: SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY (1927) and Vertov’s MAN WITH A MOVIE CAMERA (1929), especially the seemingly spontaneous way the quick cutting, editing style develops a flowing and sensual quality about it, expressed through a rhythmic, almost musical, motif, accompanied by a lone accordion throughout.  Using a free-form approach, humans are initially seen as paper cut-out figurines (including a palm tree) satirically swept off the craps table by the dealer’s hand in an unexpected turn of bad luck.  Initially the seaside town is seen as a playground for the idle rich, where the streets are swept, beachfront café tables are wiped, umbrellas are set up, and the streets are packed with fashionably conscious people who wish to be seen walking the promenade.  It’s a picture of tourists and affluence, told with a sophisticated playfulness, showing a life of leisure, often with unflattering shots of the bourgeoisie in oversized hats or leggy dresses, where Vigo superimposes various changes of attire to one unsuspecting woman sitting in a lounge chair that ends up totally naked in one of the dubious costume changes.  Yachts maneuver in the waves while humans disrobe and cool off in the water’s edge, some seen dozing off in chairs, where as far as the eye can see are palm trees and endless sand lined beaches with upscale hotels gracing the shoreline. 

The film quickly veers into a working class section of town which bears no resemblance to the previous images, Nice’s actual residents with women in back alleys scrubbing clothes in a communal water trough, laundry hanging from the line, cats picking through the street garbage, gambling on the street, open food markets, and men at work, where the pace picks up due to the more frenetic activity.  Vigo then introduces a street carnival with giant, oversized masks seen in a parade marching down the street, adding a touch of the surreal to the banal working existence and the more orderly world of the police in uniform holding back the crowds.  Perhaps most surprising is a shot of frolicking, costumed revelers joyously dancing, as if in an alcoholic reverie, where the director even interjects himself in the revelry, kicking his legs up and dancing a can-can with several of the women.  The director intermixes various faces in close up, be it a proudly haughty elderly woman and a highly decorated military soldier, both representing a more rigid side of the existing status quo, with dizzying shots of the dancers, often changing speeds, bringing a sense of chaos to the established order, again using a mocking tone of the smiling masks, as if laughing at a dying era.  He even shows a funeral in fast speed, an orderly procession compared to the bawdy carnivalesque atmosphere of overly delirious merriment.  Factory smokestacks interrupt the unbridled glee with shots of actual workers, also seen in close range, but this time focusing on people at work, as they are the ones held responsible for building a new and better society.  The film was screened a few times in Paris, viewed with other experimental and avant-garde works of the times.  In one of the screenings, Vigo addressed the audience with his own anarchistic take on the subject, “In this film, by showing certain basic aspects of a city, a way of life is put on trial, the last gasps of a society so lost in its escapism that it sickens you and makes you sympathetic to a revolutionary solution.”

Taris (Taris, roi de l'eau) 
France  (10 mi)  1931

This is a short film commissioned by the giant Parisian film studio Gaumont as part of an omnibus documentary project called “Journal Vivant (Living Newspaper),” supposedly a demonstration on various swimming techniques from an internationally decorated French swimming champion, Jean Taris, who was then the holder of 23 French records.  In the 1932 Olympic games, as the reigning world record holder, he won the Silver medal in the 400 meter freestyle, losing the gold to Buster Crabbe who went on to Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon fame in Hollywood.  Using a newsreel style narrator along with moments in silence, this is a study in human form, where swimming only sets that form into graceful movement, again changing speeds, also using forward and reverse motions, methods he would use later in his feature film.  Shot almost entirely in a swimming pool, the film begins above the water before descending underwater for what are easily the most rapturously beautiful, shots, told in a playful manner, where on occasion Taris is obviously hamming it up for the camera, but the sheer rhapsodic poetry of the underwater shots anticipate what is likely the best known sequence in L'Atalante (1934).  In one miraculous sequence Taris actually walks on water, so Vigo seemed to take more of an experimental interest in the surrealistic wonders of cinema than the sport of swimming itself.  Despite the commercial origins, where Vigo obviously needed the money, the film leaves its mark with its technically ambitious aesthetic charm.

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