Arts One avec La Shivz

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A Not-So-Silent Review of the Silent Movies

So, I’m a nice person, right? I see Berlin: Symphony of A Great City begin with a speeding train. Okay, seems interesting; multiple angles emphasizing movement, good composition, pleasing transitions (unlike *ahem* the phony iris shots in Dr. Caligari *ahem*). I’m thinking this is probably the train the protagonist is on, they’re setting the scene, alright. Then, five minutes of the same train still pacing the tracks and I feel it might be a bit much, but I’m a patient person, right? So I continue watching – now, at least the train’s stopped but that relief is only short-lived because I’m being assaulted with still images like close-ups of random building and aerial view of the skyline fading in and out of each other. This is a complete change of rhythm from the exciting race of the train with fast-paced changes of moving shots. Still, I wait, I watch; eventually, my patience wears and I skip ahead for some dialogue, some story, some human figure. I find humans, alright – just insignificant people on the street going about their day. Why do I need to see this? I go out every day to see this; I feel no urgent want to sit down for an hour and watch people’s daily routines. After racking my mind and coming up empty, I obviously go to the movie’s Wikipedia page just to realize that the lack of narrative is the point of the movie – and what a pleasant surprise that was; I assure you I jumped up in joy.

While, thanks to Jason’s lecture later that Monday, I could understand the relevance and importance of this film – an objective view of all life in a city, equalizing the classes, races and gender as they are represented through an unbiased eye, especially in a medium which at that time was not available to the general public – I get it, I do, I just don’t get why there’s a demand for this film in our market today. This movie is outdated and unless I was a historian with an interest in 1920’s Berlin I don’t see why anyone would willingly give up an hour of their lives to stare at a screen and watch this. Perhaps, I’d be more inclined to be kind towards it if it were advertised as a visual documentary. However, if I’m being completely honest, and I might as well be if I’ve come so far, I’d define it as a glorified YouTube video with a coincidentally great videographer who chose to document his trip to Berlin, but even that would likely have the voice over of a narrative. Yes, I’m a bit stuck on the narrative or lack thereof but even so this movie paled in comparison to Man with a Movie Camera (MMC) which was much better and let me tell you why.

When a movie lacks narrative, it must immediately excel in technique to make up for it. MMC does this beautifully – such as in the camera-play in the typewrite scene that goes from portraying the onset of Industrial Era through mechanical movements, to a blurring shots of confusing circles, to a hypnotic spiral and the artful back-and-forth transition of the woman blinking and the blinks shuttering. MMC also removes the veil between artist and viewer by showing us the camera man taking the shots followed by the shot itself. It fives viewers an awareness of the lens that only artists typically experience. Rather than focusing on stories of the people filmed, wondering, for example, “Why are those people riding a cart?”, the audience thinks, “How is the camera-man capturing a moving cart and still keeping up with it?”. Answer: the camera-man is shakily holding on to another cart riding side by side to the characters being portrayed. Needless to say, MMC was a pleasant surprise of the unfacetious kind.

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