Thursday, 19 January 2012

The Edge Of Cinema: Experimental Cinema Log #1 - From the Pole to the Equator

[This is the beginning of an ongoing regular (weekly?) series, focusing on the rich wonders to be found in the world of experimental cinema. There's just so much fantastic stuff out there, and I'd like to track a journey of an appreciation and understanding of these gems-on-the-periphery. At times, it may just be a brief ramble, but I endeavour to commit the best kind of care and attention to these films as I can. Well, that's the plan, at the very least. As an avid fan of found footage filmmaking, I thought starting with Gianikian and Ricci-Lucchi's classic would be a grand way to launch the rocket. Here we go...]
From the Pole to the Equator (Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi; Italy; 1987)
[101 mins]

Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci-Lucchi's From the Pole to the Equator is an incredible example of filmmaking as visual archaeology. The film is solely composed of footage either shot or collected by Luca Comerio, a pioneering yet unheralded documentary filmmaker who filmed in a number of locations around the world from 1898 until the 1920's. Gianikian and Ricci-Lucchi bought his archive in 1985 and began to examine, re-photograph and restructure his body of work. Comerio himself made a film in 1929 called From the Pole to the Equator, a 57-minute film in 4 parts. Gianikian and Ricci-Lucchi's 98-minute long work can be seen as a remix, utilising footage from two parts of Comerio's documentary, plus out-takes from Comerio's own footage and the footage he collected from others.

The film feels like an ancient visual travelogue. Throughout the course of the film we travel from the Alps, to the South Pole, to the frontier between the Russian and Persian empires, then to Africa, India, back to Africa, and finally to various war-front locations during the first World War. The disparity of the locations almost makes it feel like a wordless precursor to Marker's essay travelogue Sans Soleil.

Each section of the travelogue is approximately ten minutes, and the entire film is set in slow motion, thus giving a sedate, glacial tone to the film. The film starts with what appears to be an iris shot of train-tracks, taken from the front of the train. The iris grows in size, as the train approaches the opening of a tunnel, and we erupt into the alpine landscape and into the film itself. This opening moment is a multilayered signifier of birth –the birth of cinema is inter-related with the development of the train, both seen as new modes of visual experience, and we have the very birth of this film itself. This contrasts greatly with moments of death viewed later in the film (the slaughter of a polar bear, men gunned down in painfully mesmerising slowed motion), and this series of scraps and fragments is imbued with a near-palpable aura of mortality.

This use of the slow motion locomotion of a train is crucial in highlighting a difference between From the Pole to the Equator and previous films that recycled early cinema. The train has been the focus of early cinema manipulations by Ernie Gehr (Eureka) and Al Razutis (Lumiere's Train (Arriving at the Station)), but whereas these films focus on the structural manipulation of film and history via the train as an iconographic exemplar of the birth of cinema, the train in Gianikian and Ricci-Lucchi’s film is a ghost train which transports the viewer into an archive of further images excavated from depths of cinema history. The films of Gehr and Razutis promote clinical, objective spectatorship, at a distant from the images, whereas Gianikian and Ricci-Lucchi’s film provides a sense of being transported and actively participating in the journey.

The film is mostly tinted, with each section coloured to suit its theme or mood - the blue tints used in the second section at the South Pole contrast with the more 'alpine' tints of red-brown and green in the first section. The South Pole section introduces the predominant tone throughout the film, one of conquest and colonialist domination, with images of hunters capturing and killing polar bears. The shooting and death of a polar bear is both horrific and yet eerily engaging, its death throes almost balletic, as it twirls, falls, stands and walks, and then falls again. This twin sensation of horror and engagement matches the filmmaker’s approach to Comerio's work. Repulsed by the footage of imperialist domination via hunting and shooting, both here in the South Pole and also in many later scenes in Africa, they sought to subvert this imperialist eye whilst also maintaining respect for Comerio as a fellow filmmaker capable of exquisite cinematography. Through slowing the images made (or collected) by Comerio, the filmmakers achieved this balance of respect for the image and critique of its colonialist tendencies, as the slower speed undermines the original detached and dominant point of view of the camera and forces the viewer to truly examine, analyse, and weigh the image as it steadily unveils itself. The slowed speed also gives the film a graceful and elegiac quality, as images are moved closer to stasis and thus closer to death, highlighting the perishable nature of the cinematic medium and the position of early nitrate film as a perilous cultural artefact.

 You can view this film here.

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