Lumière and Company
1995
To honor the 100th anniversary of motion pictures, 40 international directors create their own mini-movies in this French documentary. The weapon of choice for each is a replica of the camera used by the pioneer Lumiere brothers in 1895. Each short is a single take running just under a minute (the limit of one roll of film at the time). Spike Lee, Zhang Yimou, David Lynch and Wim Wenders are among those taking part in this unique experiment.

Scott Hardie: “It was ok.”

If the experiment is not a total success, at least we admire its ambition. On the centennial of the film camera's invention, forty famous directors used it to create new films. They had to work under the same conditions as its inventors: One continuous shot of 52 seconds, a maximum of three takes, no synchronous sound, and no artificial lighting. Most of the directors used their film to honor cinema as a concept, and the documentary about the project eggs them on by asking them "Why do you film?" and "Is cinema mortal?" (Too many directors don't have answers to those questions and only shrug, which makes you wonder if the pretentious answers given by the artistes are only made up.) Some of these metacinematic shorts wound up being interesting, such as Claude Lelouch's demonstration that film technology changes but subject matter doesn't, or Kiju Yoshida's jab at the aforementioned artistes by showing the limitations of what nonfiction film is capable of recording. Theo Angelopoulos's striking segment shows Ulysses waking up in a strange land and making his most bizarre encounter (us), while Merchant/Ivory show us a McDonald's attracting customers on what would otherwise be a European street unchanged since the 19th century. David Lynch's segment is the most ambitious, celebrating Hollywood's power to create fully-realized fiction (his is the only segment to deal with Hollywood at all), while Yimou Zhang playfully contrasts royal Chinese tradition with silly Americana, with help from Kurt Cobain.

Other films sadly come across as a waste of time. Too many of them show us people staring at the camera for an extended period, or doing nothing of consequence like waving at a train or nursing a baby. Others get metacinematic by showing a camera filming us, which would be more interesting if nearly a fourth of the directors on the project hadn't thought of the exact same thing. The worst projects are the ones that reveal no planning, as the directors simply filmed the first thing that came to mind, though Spike Lee does get a laugh out of what must have amounted to two minutes of brainstorming. For some the 52 seconds are not enough, but for a disappointingly high number of the director, 52 seconds wind up being too many, as they don't approach the project with sufficient interest to film something worthwhile. Could you believe that segments drag on, finished at the 30-second or 40-second mark, because the rules of the challenge demand a 52-second take? People staring motionlessly at the camera is no more interesting the eighth time than the first.

There's interesting material here if you're willing to sit patiently through the boring stuff to get to it. What should have been an illumination of the progress of cinema instead becomes an illumination of how some directors are too lazy or busy to devote themselves to a one-day project, but are all too happy to act like important cineastes when interviewed. Though most of the directors on the list are predominantly European and have no name recognition for American viewers, look up each one's filmography and you'll see that almost all have created films that we recognize (at least that was the case for me). In the end, the results of this experiment were not nearly as interesting as they should have been, but it produced enough worthwhile material to get you thinking all the same.

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