Olympia (1938, Leni Riefenstahl)

In March this year Kathryn Bigelow became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Direction for The Hurt Locker. Bigelow’s was in no way the first female-directed film worthy of such laurels. Chantal Akerman, Maya Deren, Claire Denis (who will be presenting the Un certain regard award at Cannes next week), Lina Wertmüller, Agnès Varda, Věra Chytilová, Sofia Coppola, Jane Campion… the great pantheon of female direction ensures a presence in all styles and movements, from the experimental to the mainstream. There is one woman, however, who possessed such mastery of the camera that comparisons could only be made with the greatest. She was “an artist of unparalleled gifts… one of the great formalists of the cinema on a par with Eisenstein or Welles.” Her name was Leni Riefenstahl.

Olympia, a two-part documentary of the 1936 Berlin Olympics, seals Riefenstahl’s legacy as an innovator and aesthete as opposed to a mere propagandist. Where in Triumph of the Will her camera elevates Adolf Hitler to that of a deity, in Olympia such religious focus is placed upon the physiques of the athletes and the values of competition, regardless of their politics. In a memorable long shot of the flags high atop the Olympic Stadium, the swastika of Nazi Germany is quickly panned over as Riefenstahl’s gaze lingers on the five rings of the Olympic flag. The included shots of Hitler are not to glorify him but simply to document his role in the Games, surely a reasonable expectation of any documentary-maker. It is notable that in English language versions of the film, edited by Riefenstahl herself, the word Nazism does not even appear, such was her determination to present a non-political film.

And so despite the names attached to the project, Olympia is not propaganda: it is a sports documentary, the first of its kind. Many of the techniques used today to record sporting events were developed by Riefenstahl. When you see a tracking shot with a camera placed on rails to follow the action in the 100m sprint, think of Riefenstahl’s footage of Jesse Owens. When you see an athlete looming large over the screen before they run or jump or throw, think of the pits that Riefenstahl dug for her cameras. When you see artistic slow-motion replays of bodies in motion, smash-cuts, focuses on the crowd: Riefenstahl.

As innovative as she was as a cinematographer, she also had an eye for the beauty of the human form. Here, the importance of Riefenstahl specifically as a female director comes into view. Laura Mulvey would later argue that the ‘male gaze’ is dominant, that an audience is always watching a film through the eyes of the heterosexual male.  Riefenstahl’s documentary on a fundamentally masculine subject, that of sporting competition, is presented in a very artistic and arguably feminine way. The prologue sees footage of the original site of the Games in Olympia as athletes compete in the nude (Riefenstahl herself makes a brief appearance as a nude dancer). The almost forensic examination by the camera of the technically-perfect lines of movement as a man prepares to throw a discus are repeated throughout the film. The importance of the beauty of human form begins to take precedence as the film progresses, to the point where the results of the events become irrelevant. We see javelin throwers running up but never releasing, we see the twists and tumbles of the divers but never the splash in the water.

This experimental approach to recording sporting events still influences programme directors today. Any montage will see slowed-down replays of bodies in motion with the consequences of those movements often unseen. Think of this the next time you see a replay of the home run swing of any major league slugger.  You’ll see the rippling muscles, the precision of the elbows, the bat coming through the strike zone at the perfect angle to make contact. We don’t need to see where the ball lands to know that it was long gone.

And that, more than the camera angles, more than the montages, more than the triumphant soundtracks and the sense of trepidation before an event, is Riefenstahl’s true legacy: a greater understanding of the beauty and importance of human movements.

Chess Fever (1925, Vsevolod Pudovkin)

Yesterday in Sofia, Viswanathan Anand and Veselin Topalov competed in game 12 of the 2010 World Chess Championship. Anand’s rock-solid defence of his black pieces compelled Topalov to make some ill-fated aggressive moves in an attempt to force a win and avoid the blitz tiebreaks. Ultimately Topalov blundered and resigned, and Anand retained his status as the best player in the game today with a 6.5-5.5 victory. I watched this game unfold in a chat room with hundreds of others, and amongst their banter and their arguments over the best lines of attack, the one overriding sensation present was that of obsession.

This leads me neatly into the subject of today’s review, Chess Fever, an early two-reel short by a giant of silent Soviet cinema, Vsevolod Pudovkin, a student of montage theory under Lev Kuleshov and one of its ablest proponents. The many hours spent cutting and re-editing D.W. Griffth’s Intolerance gave Pudovkin an acute awareness of the importance of the art of editing footage into new and otherwise unrealisable sequences. “The foundation of film is editing”, he once wrote, and his academic works of the 1920s are still studied by many film students across the globe.

In Chess Fever, Vladimir Fogel’s character (credited simply as ‘The Hero’) becomes obsessed with the game of chess during the 1925 Moscow international tournament, to the detriment of his relationship with Anna Zemtsova’s character (‘The Heroine’). The Hero’s attempts to leave his house to get to his wedding ceremony are constantly thwarted by a distracting chessboard (and a surreal throng of small kittens), and his apology on bended-knee goes awry when his fiancée realises he is playing chess on his checked handkerchief. Small visual gags such as a wedding cake topped with chess pieces serve as a reminder of how she is unable to escape the game.

Footage from the tournament shows grandmasters Ernst Grunfeld, Frank Marshall, and F.D. Yates, amongst others, in action, their gritted faces of concentration often cutting between moments of adversity for The Hero. The true star turn for the film, though, the one who received top-billing, was then-World Champion José Raúl Capablanca, a force so dominant that there is a Wikipedia article dedicated to a list of the few people who beat him at the game. Capablanca’s brief appearance, bringing understanding to the Heroine and establishing a clever reuniting, showed a man at ease on the screen, his cheeky smile suggesting that the rumours of his lifestyle as a ladies man were far from inaccurate.

The comedy within the film is very much of the early American school typified by Harold Lloyd, with Fogel playing a well-meaning but bumbling protagonist. There are many slapstick physical gags, such as that which sees The Hero thrown from a moving car into a bank of snow; clever pieces of slapstick, including an amusing sequence where passers-by constantly steal his newspaper as he attempts to read reports of the games; and dry witty intertitles (‘Never forget, my dear, that the greatest threat to a marriage is chess’). Some have stated that Chess Fever‘s popularity comes from its rarity as a Soviet comedy, as against the often grim propaganda pieces of Eisenstein et al, but I genuinely believe that, although dated, it is a heartwarming short to be compared with the best of Lloyd.

The theme of obsession would speak loudly to the people in yesterday’s chat room, but Pudovkin’s final message, that of the joys and happiness that can be found in sharing an obsession with another person, is not just limited to the chess world. Share the interests that you love with the people that you love, and a good life can be found.

That said, I’ll never quite understand why there are so many 1. h4 openings in the film.

F For Fake (1974, Orson Welles)

Where better to start a journey in criticism than a work with such a clear view on the medium? “The best of critical opinion”, says Oja Kodar in a cinematic denouement to Orson Welles’ final film project, “is a pile of horse manure.” That Welles himself enjoyed a critical reception like no other, both in his lifetime and after his untimely demise in 1985 — Jean-Luc Godard, creator of the auteur theory in his time at Cahiers du cinéma, once said of Welles that “Everyone will always owe him everything.” — does not colour his view on the opinions of experts, a common theme throughout this experimental film essay.

At first glance a documentary on notorious art forger Elmyr de Fory, F For Fake merges into an examination of the nature of truth through narratives discussing Howard Hughes, his hoax-biographer Irving, Welles’ partner Kodar, and Welles himself. We learn that Elmyr, a struggling artist, turned to forgery after his own paintings failed to sell. So talented was he as a forger than it is suspected that no major art collection is without at least one of his paintings. But are they ‘his paintings’, and at what point does the replication become the lie? The battle and the narrow distinguishing lines between truth and falsehood is the key conflict throughout the film.

Scorn is frequently placed upon the field of ‘expert opinion’, especially those that are considered the ultimate arbiters of what is truth. The art assessors that repeatedly valued Elmyr’s forgeries placed a value of truth upon them. That such power in the art world can be placed on the opinions of such judges gives the film pause for thought on the importance of art: the works themselves, or the creators. (The question of ‘What is art?’ is so central to the film that verses from Kipling’s poem ‘The Conundrum of the Workshops’ are spliced between the narratives.) Welles recounts an anecdote involving Picasso identifying a painting that a friend had witnessed him paint as a forgery. ‘I can fake a Picasso as well as any thief’, he replied.

At this point, the audience is taken to Chartres, a Gothic-style cathedral in France and in a verse celebrating the beauty generated by the unknown artisans, Welles narrates:

“Ours, the scientists keep telling us, is a universe which is disposable. You know it might be just this one anonymous glory of all things, this rich stone forest, this epic chant, this gaiety, this grand choiring shout of affirmation, which we choose when all our cities are dust; to stand intact, to mark where we have been, to testify to what we had it in us to accomplish. Our works in stone, in paint, in print are spared, some of them for a few decades, or a millennium or two, but everything must fall in war or wear away into the ultimate and universal ash: the triumphs and the frauds, the treasures and the fakes. A fact of life … we’re going to die. “Be of good heart,” cry the dead artists out of the living past. Our songs will all be silenced – but what of it? Go on singing. Maybe a man’s name doesn’t matter all that much.”

It is worth returning to Godard for a further quotation: “Film is truth 24 times a second, and every cut is a lie.” If Citizen Kane influenced generations of film-makers with its non-linear and multiple narrative threads, then F For Fake must be seen as equal in terms of its influence on the quick-cut techniques of modern editing. I recall the dizzying opening to Quantum of Solace, the latest film in the Bond franchise, where Bond is driving a sports car in the Tuscan hills around Siena. The relentless camerawork, with no shot allowed to last longer than a millisecond, detracted massively from any tension the director wished to establish as disorientation runs contrary to suspense.

In Welles’ film, however, disorientation is the goal. The editing is key to achieving this goal, and its importance is underlined by the repeated shots of Welles narrating from inside an editing room. At no point can the audience ever be truly comfortable in what we are being told, our perceptions of truth constantly challenged by what we are told, by what we can see, and by what is being omitted. Are we being lied to? Are we being told a lie about a lie? Are we being told that we are being lied to, but are in fact hearing an unblemished truth? Seven minutes into the film Welles tells us that for the next hour, everything we will be told will be the truth. Exactly one hour later, he starts telling Kodar’s entirely-fictionalised account of her father’s career in the art world. But did that truthful hour live up to its billing? As ever, Welles proves a master of deception. No statement in this film can ever be taken at face-value.

F For Fake asks us to consider whether the intrinsic value of art is its uniqueness, whether we value its creators more than we value the images, the words, the notes. So here is one final point to consider: if I told you that this review had shamelessly stolen ideas from many uncredited sources, would that affect its perceived value? Or does it matter less who says something, and more what is being said? It is something for us all to think about when we place insight or genius upon individuals rather than their work.

That said, Orson Welles was clearly a genius.

Introduction

“I don’t know much, but I know what I like.”

It seems apt to begin this blog with a clichéd phrase given that I expect the forthcoming posts to be filled with them. It is true, sadly, that I have neither the decades of cinematic experience or the benefits of a formal education in film with which to inform my opinions, but I certainly have opinions and will be using this blog as a platform to expound them in grandiloquent fashion.

The intention is to update on a semi-regular basis with a selection of interesting films worthy of further attention, in the style of Roger Ebert’s Great Movies section of his blog. I feel that laziness will prevent my updates from being quite as consistent as Roger’s, and a lack of talent will prevent them from being quite as informative.

And on that positive note, I hope you enjoy this site!