Looking into the Deep

Tags: Oberhausen Film Festival

Reviews / 09.08.2010

Paris inondé (Paris Flooded), 1910, 6 min, black-and-white 35mm film. France, Production Gaumont

In La Grève des nourrices (The Nurses' Strike), a film made in 1907 and distributed by Pathé, the wet nurses of a provincial French town go on strike. They leave their charges in the street - ruffled and dimpled toddlers who, naturellement, respond by forming their own syndicate - and, having abdicated their primary responsibility, are chased by the town's policemen. Arrested, they break out of the police station. The toddlers picket and look for milk. The nurses, who appear at this point in the film to be men dressed in drag, fight with the police in the street. Ultimately, sense prevails, like good will descending from the sky: the nurses pick up the children and head back to work; the end.

The short film has much in it that is typical of films of that period: physical comedy, opera buffo chase scenes, the reversal of social and gender roles, a tension between presentation and narration, and, in terms of technique, static cameras and mid-to-large plan shots. The interest it evokes now comes both from the comic nature of the premise, and from the magic of watching such a caper preserved on celluloid - that is to say, the magic of cinema, which is a wonderment perhaps not so different from that experienced by the film's original audience. And the interest now is also anthropological - so this is what they were like back then!

This year's Oberhausen Film Festival - whose curated programme has often focused on artist's film and moving image practice - showed a roster of pre-World War I European films, taken from the years 1898-1918 and concentrating on films made between 1905 and 1910.1 Titled 'From the Deep', the programme included chase films, short narratives, magic or trick films, actualités and the films called scènes de l'industrie, which show how various objects are produced: steel beams, wigs, roasted coffee beans. The silent films of the 1900s, as the programme's curators Mariann Lewinsky and Eric de Kuyper note in their catalogue essay, were made before cinema became standardised into a format with a codified grammar, shot lengths, narrative and star and studio systems. 'This is not naïve cinema,' they write, 'but cinema that is fresh and curious, inebriated' with its own possibilities.2

'Inebriated' is indeed the right word, with its suggestions of chance, the unexpected and a premium placed on enjoyment. The films, many of which are preservations from different European institutes, were shown in order to map the variety of film types of that period, and so were shown with little curatorial argument and a relative lack of contextualisation - factors which contributed to a certain sameness after a few screenings. The films would have originally been screened in presentations of around twelve films, and the meaning of each would derive from its place in the larger programme. Here, the screenings' thematic groupings ('Mysteries of the Meta', 'Colour and Black and White') positioned the films somewhere between specimen and entertainment, and after a while each supposed singularity appeared again, and particularities coalesced into patterns only a specialist could love. What a variety of themes, though, and what lucky specialists: dismemberment (accomplished via trick photography), colonialism, coal-mining, men in drag, women in trousers, locomotives, 'exotic' nationalities (Indonesian, Moroccan, Indian), marriage. Their programme presented a period where there was a sense of playfulness with form and filmic apparatus; when the films were used as platforms to show themes - leisure, work - rather than narrative; and when there was a greater inclination towards documentary and reportage. This lineage of actualité to documentary is arguably the strongest between early and contemporary filmmaking - a towline of indexical threading from that age to ours.

It is hard not to consider the programme in terms of lineage, or to think of earlier generations as being 'younger', and in the context of pre-World War 1 film both seem tempting. This is cinema in its 'infancy', as the sound bites have it, or 'primitive cinema', which has been a highly contested term in film scholarship. One of the most interesting elements of this programme was its evident grappling with how to present these films: to at once recoup them as bona fide objects of both study and entertainment - placing them within a film-historical lineage - and to position them as exceptional, palpably different from the films that followed World War I. Rejecting the term 'primitive cinema', the curators chose the spatial metaphor of these films being from 'another continent', thus emphasising the discontinuities - over the continuities - between what was on show in these films and what we are accustomed to today. These assertions of difference, moreover, reinforced the idea that the world these films showed - that of the Hapsburgs, for example, whose coronations are chronicled in these films (many of which were found in unmarked storage in caches such as the Nederlands Filmmuseum), or of big-hatted women and horses and carriages - is so far away as to be non-contingent with our reality. If cinema is part of the birth of modernity, it also shows the end of the way of doing things that modernity upended.

And it's true that there are a number of basic differences between the pre-War period and ours that might struggle to be remembered (like the difference between a wet nurse and a nanny), and which only appear when looking directly at the period itself - rather than looking back at earlier eras as times in negative, times just lacking what we have now. The pre-War era was not just pre-email and telephone, but had its own communication network, enjoyed, like the nanny distinction above, by the few, and that we are now 'post'. Jeremy Harding, reviewing Jeffrey Jackson's Paris Under Water, a recent book about the flooding of Paris in January 1910, writes of the pneumatic system that fuelled communications in the capital: 'Parisians were fond of compressed-air technology. It was how the postal service delivered mail from one office to another in small brass shuttles propelled along a network of tubes. It was also used to keep the clocks ticking on the streets of the city and, by subscription, in private apartments. When the [compressed air] plant went underwater during the night, pneumatic time stopped dead.'3 This historic event was gloriously captured in the film Paris inondé (Paris Flooded, 1910, produced by Gaumont), screened at Oberhausen, which shows the torrential rushing water of the Seine (it became a prime tourist attraction for the people of Paris, with men and women jostling to see it), the planks the city laid down to help citizens navigate the flooded streets, and the calm and quiet that transformed the city as much as the water did. The event was covered as a mortal catastrophe by the media of the time, but this period film makes the same point as Paris Under Water, and probably more succinctly: lives were disrupted but life went on. Time did not stop, just the way some people measured it. 'From the Deep', on the other hand, claims World War I as a similar irruption - an event that precipitated social, economic and aesthetic shifts so enormous as to make it no surprise that the film audiences of the 1920s no longer thrilled to the films of ten years before. This, the curators argue, accounts for their general obscurity, confined to the provinces of the 'primitive', since.

So while insisting on this undeniable specialness of these films, the curators also made a bid for their contemporary relevance. Miriam Hansen, in her essay about the class make-up of early cinema's audience, notes how the 'relative imperfections of "primitive" cinema - tableau style that may require a lecturer, disregard for continuity in editing - suggest that the experience in front of the screen was at least as significant as the actions depicted on screen'.4 Hansen's remark has clear resonance in the avant-garde's later incorporation of performative elements, in Expanded Cinema and elsewhere, and the situation of these short films within the Oberhausen festival was explicitly to place them within an avant-garde and artistic context. The presentation of these European films also fleshed out a history that has largely been written out of the North American tradition, offering a fantastic opportunity to see two histories meshing where there had been one alone. 'From the Deep' perhaps sought to resolve this problem of seeking in early celluloid both prescience and distance; the past, as the title rather literally suggests, is unfathomable, and allows for these contradictions to subsist.

  1. The festival also included Ian White's programme of talks and performances, 'There Is No Self', which drew more from a contemporary moving image context.

  2. Eric de Kuyper and Mariann Lewinsky, 'From the Deep', 56th Oberhausen Film Festival (exh. cat.), Oberhausen: Internationale Kurzfilmtage Oberhausen, 2010, p.85.

  3. Jeremy Harding, 'Pavements Like Jelly', The London Review of Books, 28 January 2010, p.7. Harding reviews Jeffrey H. Jackson's Paris Under Water: How the City of Light Survived the Great Flood of 1910 (Palgrave, 2010) and the exhibition 'Paris Inondé 1910' at the Galerie des Bibliothèques in Paris earlier this year. In The Way by Swann's (1922) Proust also talks about the pneumatic system, in the context of his infatuation with the young Gilberte: 'on the address on this pneumatique - which, only yesterday, was nothing, was merely a petit bleu which I had written, and which, now that a telegraph boy had delivered it to Gilberte's concierge and a servant had carried it to her room, had become this priceless thing, one of the petit bleus she had received that day'. Marcel Proust, The Way by Swann's (trans. Lydia Davis), London: Penguin Books, 2003, p.406. Proust was the absent subject of one of the programmes, 'Marcel at the Motion Pictures', arranged around the question that though Proust never mentions cinema, what cinema might have he liked? De Kuyper, the curator who introduced this programme, explained that once you have spent enough time with Proust, this kind of thinking makes total sense.

  4. Miriam Hansen, 'Early Cinema: Whose Public Sphere?', in Thomas Elsaesser (ed.), Early Cinema: Space, Frame, Narrative, London: BFI Publishing, 1990, p.233.