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This film is not for the casual movie audience. I am serious – if you cannot honestly say that you saw, say, 100 films over the last year, stay away. If you thought Lars von Trier’s “5 Obstructions” was a self-indulgent drag, turn around. …  If you never had the urge to watch all of Wim Wenders’ oeuvre during one rainy weekend, don’t go there (never mind whether you actually did do this – it’s about your mental disposition, and that needs to be… leaning towards movies. I am sure there is a medical term for that state of mind, but I don’t necessarily mean it in a good way …).

This “film project” is about a movie camera, the one that was used by the Lumiere brothers to create what we call today “the birth of cinema”. Trains approaching train stations, well-clad people hanging out in public places on Sunday afternoons. All very French, obviously, and all very historically important. That’s the Lumiere’s films. The 20-odd modern directors (“auteurs” they would need to be called in this context) chosen to participate in this project were asked to create 52-second pieces with this same old camera, apparently without any limitations other than technical or formal. What’s interesting to see is that – without having counted – a majority seems to be utterly paralyzed by the task and goes the path of least resistance – that is, he (there are no women present behind the camera) makes film the topic of his mini-film. We see a lot of people filming people who are filming people. We see cinemas and film reels. We see Liam Neeson staring curiously into John Boorman’s camera while hanging out in military garment at Neil Jordan’s film set. We see cameras moving in circles around kissing couples and camera operators being attacked by rogue Egyptians disapproving of the very concept of cinema.

Even for somebody very much interested in cinema and film history, this would be a drag, were it not for the frequent look behind the camera (which, in turn, often films scenes taking place behind cameras, are you following). The paralysis about the topic is reflected in the paralysis of the directors asked to explain why they are contributing to this project, and why they make films in the first place. Not a single one has an interesting answer, but some are at least frank about it, stating that this question best deserves a long stretch of silence as response, or that it’s still better than suicide (or starvation? I could not quite interpret the answer of the one French guy). Some other French person starts talking as if he is part of his own French film about French intellectuals sitting around and talking about the philosophy of film. Whatever happens, the segments are short, so even the New French cinema auteur will be fading out in 30 seconds. Oh, and Greenaway takes the opportunity to declare the cinema deceased, as he does whenever asked about it.

Speaking of French guys: it seems the project initiators had some trouble finding non-French directors (or it was cheaper to get those together on one bus), and the US cinema is represented I think exclusively by directors who happen to live in New York (that would be Jerry Schatzberg and Spike Lee, seems Martin Scorsese, the doyen of film history and conservation, was out of office that morning). So you see about a dozen shorts shot in Paris, with the rest covering a bit of Europe (Wim Wenders shines a light on his own past with a scene from “Der Himmel ueber Berlin” – apparently he does agree with the rest of the world that he never quite managed to make an interesting film after that), and some decorative exoticism by some episodes set in Burkina Faso or China. Zhang Yimou probably would say in interviews that he tried to contrast the old and the new China in his segment set on the Great Wall. It is a tad silly, actually. And no journalist will ever ask him that, anyway.

Maybe its significant that Kourastami and Lynch are the two people who come in with a cinematic vision. Kourastami, the not yet self-indulging secret ruler of America’s arthouse cinema,  is maybe the only one with an idea of what to do with this camera, he figures out how you can make beautiful images not despite, but through the equipment’s limitations. David Lynch is… well, very David Lynch and has fun, which we share. Angelopoulos is ambitious and films the Odyssey. Burkina Faso’s contribution shows that these guys have humour and that you would not want to work there.

Is this fun to watch? As a matter of fact, I did enjoy it. I enjoyed some of the short films, I enjoyed some of the directors making fools out of themselves by trying to interpret their cinematic mission, vision and religion. I also enjoyed some of the “making of” footage that is mostly very cleverly edited into the sequence of short films. What I enjoyed most was maybe the sheer fact that this project celebrates the art of film-making, and whoever does that is my friend, even if he only manages a shot of a fast food restaurant next to a church.

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lumiere_and_company/

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