Codirected by filmmakers Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, the 1930 silent masterpiece People on Sunday is a rare fusion of documentary and narrative genres. The film’s forerunners include the cinematic paeans to cities such as Charles Sheeler and Paul Strand’s Manhatta, Walter Ruttman’s Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, and, of course, Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera. All of these films share a trailblazing curiosity for the idiosyncratic potentialities of cinema: the rapidly growing medium was as much a subject of these films as their actual content and imagery. By exploring what only film can do—with its indexical relationship to what it records and its ability to hop around in space and time, fluidly and otherwise, through montage—these films broke new ground in the world of cinema. But what makes People on Sunday stand out is the way in which Siodmak, Ulmer, and scriptwriter Billy Wilder, fuse this experimentation, the rigor of Soviet montage techniques, and grand portraits of sprawling metropolises on the one hand; with a fairly straightforward, joke-studded narrative about twentysomethings in Weimar Berlin who embark on a sunny double date to one of the lakes on the outskirts of the city on the other. This simple yet ingenious combination of the experimental documentary approach and a linear narrative mode sets the film apart from its predecessors. The combination has implications beyond discussions of filmic genre and stylistics, however. By merging these two forms, People on Sunday also bridges the particular story of the young friends with a more universal sensibility, represented by cityscape montages that appear throughout the film, a bridge that bears significance for a city and a country that were trying to find its identity in the wake of one world war as the seeds of another grew almost invisibly. The film spans the divide between the particular and the universal through free-associative montages that act as interludes in the friends’ trip to the lake, carrying the film away from the specificity of the double date and opening it up to the entire city in the throes of figuring out its interbellum identity. Blending together these elements, People on Sunday models a kind of collectivity rooted in wonderment and leisure, rather than one based on a perceived common threat or struggle.
Author: Tyler Patterson
Kathleen Collins (1942–1988)
Thirty years after director Kathleen Collins’ death, her landmark film Losing Ground finally received a wide release. Its belated moment in the spotlight is all the more astonishing as it flourished along the festival circuit. To people who are familiar with the film, it is known as one of the first feature films made by an African American woman, if not the first. It is also one of the first times audiences saw an all-black middle class cast on screen, as Nina points out in an interview. The significance of this achievement is easy to overlook in our age of media overstimulation and saturation but mustn’t be, because to do so would be to forget the enormous service that Kathleen Collins did by breaking ground for women filmmakers and filmmakers of color with Losing Ground.
Based on the novel of the same name by Polish writer Stanislaw Lem, Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1972 science-fiction epic Solaris engages with some of the most elemental aspects of life. With incredible comprehensiveness and clarity, the film addresses issues of faith, love, loss, memory, grief, anguish, and reality itself. Tarkovsky even includes an especially timely meditation on the rather unnerving possibility that science might not be able to deal constructively with the issues to which science has brought us. This paradox is the deep theme of Solaris; a film, its essence, about a man who travels to the farthest reaches of space and encounters himself.
The man in question is Kris Kelvin, played by Lithuanian actor Donatas Banionis, a “space psychologist,” whom Tarkovsky introduces in the opening shots of water weeds beneath the surface of clear undulating water. A leaf glides gently across the surface, setting a tone of softness. Solaris moves in such slow tracking shots throughout its duration. Indeed, it is one of the stylistic cornerstones of Tarkovsky’s filmmaking. The camera gradually moves up to show Kris, whose visage is inexplicably grief-stricken. It then cuts back to the weeds waving in the current, an image to which the film will return in its closing sequence, and finally the film zooms in on the weeds that seem to be moving in slow motion. As the weeds move underwater, they take on the appearance of human arms or fingers, almost longing to express something but hindered by the water. Now in a field of wildflowers with a low fog hanging over it, we see Kris again. While the tenderness of the camerawork emphasizes the beauty of the natural world, the landscape takes on an otherworldliness, as though Kris were on a foreign planet. This tension is driven further by an aura of alienation and detachment that Kris emanates into his surroundings. Banionis’ enigmatically stoic expression transmits loneliness beyond the frame.
Certain films seem to exist outside time. They’re so enchanting that they suspend time’s steady march forward. Even after the ending, they leave the viewer feeling less like they just watched a movie and more like they traveled to another place. They create a world so enduring that it lingers and lives in the viewer long after its life on the screen. This has more to do, perhaps, with the mood–an inexplicable aura–of the film than any narrative elements. If these qualities were used as a sort of litmus test for the longevity of a film, then Badlands, Terrence Malick’s first feature-length film, would succeed wildly.
If the moment I started studying with Peter Hutton had a color, it would be cerulean. I don’t know which other could articulate the curious alloy of surging energy and contagious calm that he brought to his teaching. If I were of a certain persuasion, I would call the ensuing feeling oceanic, and chuckle at the way it loosely evokes imagery from his film At Sea, which blew my mind and those of all of my classmates, but the implicit over-seriousness of describing it as such verges on hero worship, a counterproductive habit that Peter taught me to work beyond. Imperfect as the metaphor is, invoking a color of electrifying clarity will have to do for this belated eulogy for the teacher who helped me move from darkness into light—or, better put, who helped me locate the light in darkness—more so than any other teacher. He did so with humbleness, grace, and simplicity, qualities that I believe any teacher worth their salt ought to strive for. Peter embodied these qualities, and so many more, and I am eternally grateful to have studied with him.
Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 vampire film Only Lovers Left Alive is like a master class in solving quirky filmmaking puzzles. How does a director make a movie in which the characters can survey and comment on the whole of history without having the film succumb to hackneyed tricks like time travel? Jarmusch’s solution: Make the protagonists undead. Make them vampires. But if one of the aims of the film is identification—i.e., the viewer being able to identify with the protagonists and thus take part in their often-plaintive (re)view of history—then how does the director create this effect when his protagonists are the embodiment of horror? By inverting the traditional relationship between the feared vampires and fearful people and having people be zombies to the vampires. These are some of the brilliant moves Jarmusch deploys in his hypnotizing contribution to the filmic version of literature’s sexiest, weirdest, and most blood-thirsty genre.
“If I’m a storyteller, it’s because I listen.” says the writer and artist John Berger in one of the many luminous moments of The Seasons in Quincy: Four Portraits of John Berger, an invaluable document of Berger’s life and work co-directed by Tilda Swinton. Berger, who passed away on the second day of this year at the age of ninety, did so much to both enlarge and give nuance to our understanding of art, culture, and politics that it is nearly impossible to overstate the scope of his influence. That he and Swinton forged a decades-long friendship and gave us this film, thanks to Swinton’s commitment to film projects that transcend and often redefine boundaries, is yet another gift, one which offers critical insights about the peculiar historical moment in which we find ourselves, from their already generous careers.
Widely lauded by critics upon its release, Agnès Varda’s The Gleaners and I is a freewheeling lyrical documentary that celebrates the timeless practice of gleaning and those who engage in it. Nowadays we usually speak about gleaning metaphorically: one gleans meanings or information. But in its original sense, gleaning refers to going into the fields after a harvest to collect the fallen ears of wheat, which is depicted in the famous Jean-François Millet painting. Varda references the painting in the beginning of the film, starting a conversation between the mid-nineteenth century oil painting, with its sympathetic portrayal of the austere peasants in the French countryside, and her similarly sympathetic film from the dawn of the digital age, which also brims with Varda’s signature sense of humor, curiosity, empathy, and openness to the world. The Gleaners and I is a quietly powerful meditation on not only the strength of those who make use of scraps of all kinds but also the very potential of documentary filmmaking to ennoble its subjects while nearly enchanting the viewer through relatively simple yet carefully deployed filmmaking techniques.