Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Titicut Follies

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Titicut Follies (1967, Dir. Frederick Wiseman) is a buried secret of a film. Once it’s uncovered, brought back to the living world every single time it’s viewed with new eyes, all of its life comes hurtling back through time with all the force of a fucking hurricane.

The film itself, is direct and simple to comprehend. Wiseman with a minimal crew (2-3) and a single camera, followed the goings on of a state penitentiary for the mentally insane for an extended period of time (29 days to be exact). After shooting a considerable amount of film, he extracted key sequences from his celluloid stock and placed them next to each other, fragments connected without regard for conventional notions of narrative, time or chronology beyond his own personal rhythms. And that covers what is in the film.

But of course, if that was all, I wouldn’t be writing this. Because much in the same way describing a film doesn’t really describe what’s in the film, the sights, the sounds, the emotions and thoughts it gives rise to, neither does my distant summation of Titicut Follies explain what awaits anyone who watches it. Because inside Wiseman’s rhythms and fragments, lays the most direct and brutal confrontation regarding the mentally insane I’ve ever seen. Not against them per se, but against the very nature of what it means to be insane and what it means to be someone who deals with them. There is a reason our asylums are places we build like prisons, to lock out and keep out of view and to be removed, isolated from the larger societal world. Because quite simply, we don’t want to see.

The rhythms of Titicut Follies contain in them many different movements and motions, and it’s people who were captured by its lens are ones which perform and unconsciously dance for us. Sometimes well, sometimes badly, sometimes disturbing in their engagement and sometimes mind-numbingly dull. If I’m talking about this film in opaque terms, it’s because the film confronts you with that idea. Wiseman offers no constructions to hang onto, no place to pin your tail on the donkey. The film is bookended and interjected by the performance of a musical put on by the inmates, and beyond that the film is a slate for you to inscribe your meaning on. Wiseman’s editing rhythms push the ideas he wants to communicate, but you may not always get them, you may miss them or they may go over your head. But your experience of the film and what you draw from it, this intense and visceral confrontation of those who hover between sanity and insanity, is still one which simultaneously pulls you in and pushes you away.

I’ve gone over the waterfall on this film. It’s rooted itself so intensely into my mind, through personal reasons and filmic ones that I’m struggling to talk about it in more conventional terms. Partially because it’s construction is so subtle, sound blurring and separating between images to keep you from becoming completely disoriented, or camerawork by John Marshall which simply refuses to turn away, which completely focuses on its subject and never cuts away from the gruesome realities of reality.

It’s a relic of its time, but the fury Titicut Follies still provokes is that deep knowledge around you, that injustices and cruelties are perpetrated and accepted not even necessarily because people are evil, but just because people get used to things, people don’t want to confront difficult subjects, and people are often afraid. It’s a film whose power hasn’t degraded, simply because there’s about as little pretense as you can find in the medium of film, one which is so interested in fantasies. It’s a film which goes beyond that petty issue of “who’s really the mad ones, those inside or those outside?”, and becomes a film which is nearly punishing in its ability to crystallise the horrors of going mad, and the dangers of those who are ideally meant to take care of them. In any system of power, there are chances for its abuse. Very rarely have they been captured so honestly, power’s use and its’ misuse.

This film holds a truth, one which suppressed and held hostage by the United States government, one which they tried their best to bury. But it still lives, and every time it’s seen by another person, it’s a testament to the hope that one day things will get better. And since the release of it, the treatment of the mentally ill has improved and been raised considerably. It’s just important to remember what we could lose if we slipped backwards.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

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Kino-Pravda Docs #6: Titicut Follies

Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

leviathan_teaser

Our eyes see very little and very badly – so people dreamed up the microscope to let them see invisible phenomena; they invented the telescope…now they have perfected the cinecamera to penetrate more deeply into he visible world, to explore and record visual phenomena so that what is happening now, which will have to be taken account of in the future, is not forgotten.

—Provisional Instructions to Kino-Eye Groups, Dziga Vertov, 1926

Working mainly during the 1920s, Vertov promoted the concept of kino-pravda, or film-truth, through his newsreel series. His driving vision was to capture fragments of actuality which, when organized together, showed a deeper truth which could not be seen with the naked eye.

—Wikipedia Entry on ‘Kino Pravda’

In this series, which will run sporadically and when the material presents itself, I will cover documentaries which eschew the traditional forms of documentary style in favour of a more abstract (but not necessarily poetic) presentation of its subject matter, which seems to speak on a greater level than the sum of its parts.

All sorted?


Leviathan is a tough film to watch, both in its subject matter and the way it’s presented. The film is a surreal trip to the ocean onboard a North American fishing trawler, and the sensory recordings of several GoPro’s strapped to the boat, to the chains and winches, to the crew, to the fish. Like a true fly on the wall, the camera gets everywhere, presenting angles that jar and disassociate you from feeling fixed at any point. The cameras simply watch, for indiscriminate amounts of time at various places; one of the crew members falling asleep in the kitchen area watching television, coursing through the sea alongside the ship as fish guts and waste are dumped  just ahead of it, watching hungry seagulls upside down or watching nets be hung out  from the top of the ship. Maybe watching the crew behead fish or watching a bird try desperately to clamber over a wooden board too tall for it.

This is the film you’re going to watch, for its one hour and twenty-eight minute running time. It is not the best film I’ve ever seen, nor is it the worst. I’m sure it will have its fair share of detractors for being an abstract, completely unconventional experimental work that lingers on far too long (even my patience was stretched a little thin by its last scene), and maybe the detractors are right. But that’s not what this series is about. This is about documentaries that promote that ethos that Dziga Vertov was aiming for back in the 20s, of the camera being used as a way to show the deeper truth behind what we regularly saw. And Leviathan (Dir. Lucien Castanig-Taylor and Véréna Paravel, 2012) does that, phenomenally.

In a world where most of the food we eat is seen only on our dinner plates, the brief visions of the food industry we are shown can be quite alarming. I do not just mean the mass industrialised slaughter of animals that makes up the fast food industry, I mean the inherent necessary cruelty that comes with the killing of any animal for food. Especially in the Western world, there is a strong distance between the actual production of food (the raising and slaughtering of animals), the preparation of food (i.e cooking) and the eating of the food. A chicken unfortunately, does not come pre-breaded and pre-deep fried, already separated into drumsticks, breasts and wings.

Leviathan, if anything shows the pure visceral nature of an industrial process of catching and killing fish. In a spirit more akin to body horror than nature documentary, stunning and graphic scenes of the catches of the day being prepared (read: having their heads chopped off and being gutted, or with skate having their wings hacked off with a machete) are shown close up, in detail. The knee-jerk in all of us wants to say that it’s being exploitative, just using the power of the camera to shock us, to show us what’s really going on behind our freshly battered fish and chips. But as the shot lingers, I for one began to see the mechanical efficiency one must develop when working with animals as supply. In the same way a master carpenter knows how to hammer a nail perfectly, these fisherman who work for 20 out of 24 hours a day must be masters at what they do, the fearsome nature of the job leaving little room for ethics or compassion. The sea is not compassionate, and those who take to it must do what it takes.

I am not either implicitly endorsing or condemning what they do, and neither is the film. It’s not interested in the why, merely the here, now and how. As we watch the thick industrial duty chains coming out of the deep, the clank and din of machinery in motion, ugly dissonant noises fighting against the constant thrash of the sea, the whole film ends up functioning as an abstract immersion tank (perhaps this is not a coincidence, the two directors working at Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab) as the camera becomes a proxy for watching this profoundly alien seascape. Watching a scene attached to a crew helmet where nets are violently shaken out, before returning to the scene from the top of the mast of the ship, it evokes the curious ballet-esque nature of the machines, a link perhaps most famously exploited in 2001: A Space Odyssey (Dir. Stanley Kubrick, 1968).

If anything, the best metaphor I can imagine describing the experience is like watching CCTV cameras if the CCTV cameras were tripping out. It’s a testament to countering every notion we have of modern cinema. The shots are blurry, sometimes out of focus, the camera wildly rotating and dipping into the sea, often turning the world not just upside down but around the entire 360 degree axis. The whole world of the ship becomes a globe being viewed from the outside in, filled with extreme close-ups of unknowns to us. Ominous blood-red shapes rise suddenly out of the water, only to register slowly as a net. But the net floods the vision in bold colours and the sea floods the aural senses, so that its presence becomes no less disturbing even though we’ve managed to make out what it is. At other times, the hypnotic clatter of a crew member gathering masses of clams from on deck. Again, the immersion tank, stripped of all pretenses of narrative or overarching intellectual provocations, it becomes a chamber to best convey the raw sensory flood engaged  in this inhuman landscape.

Films are often compared to dreams, and this one is no different. It’s hypnotic elements are just as likely to send you to sleep as they are to induce a strange dissonant zen state in you, so the experience you will find in watching this, I honestly cannot say. But Leviathan is a film which documents without words and language, in more pure cinema, the seafaring life of these fishermen. It also is a sensory experience which, separate from a critical appraisal or damning, is one which stays with you. And finally, it is a film which provokes awe and curiosity and strangeness and repulsion and fear and boredom and more. It expresses elements of the world film can gloss over, and by allowing us to linger in these emotions that stories often do not have time for, it creates a reaction which cut me far deeper than any traditional documentary might have.

It will not be for everyone, but its a work of cinema. Whether it provokes rapture or boredom or anger, it’s a piece of the world that wouldn’t work in any other medium, and that makes it something I appreciate here. Like the best cinema, words don’t do it justice, it needs to be seen to understood. Even the trailer doesn’t do it justice, because the whole film is an experience that requires you to be immersed, just like its camera, in the raging leviathans on the deck and under the sea.

-Alex

If you liked this, follow us on twitter here. For the rest of  the “Kino-Pravda Docs” series, click here.

Kino-Pravda Docs: #4 – Leviathan

Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film

Poster for Dziga Vertov's Man With A Movie Camera (1928)

Man With A Movie Camera (Dir. Dziga Vertov, 1929) is a film. That much I am sure of. Beyond that, its all up in the air. That said, you could easily make a case for it being the greatest music video of all time.

That’s not meant to discredit the film in any way. Vertov’s use of music, rhythm and image in this film is just astounding.  It is rare to encounter a work of such guttural primordial force, combined with visuals which work only on the microscopic and the abstract, no brainwashing or brain-numbing occuring. He presents life, or represents life, or re-presents life, in a beautiful organised chaos. And he creates a vision of themes, machinery which has life and talks and sings, people who exist in a variety of forms, each inhabiting their own unique persona in the collage he’s crafting. The cityscape morphing into itself, or the camera operator being in turn captured by the camera eye. All this and much more, all in synchronisation to the dense conceptual symphony of the cityscape he builds, through music and imagery.An illustrious, multi-layered orchestral piece which is a force in its own right, not merely a backing soundtrack. The combination of the two creates this spectral force of cinema.

There’s a small part of me that wants to bring this film down to Earth, to try and help communicate to you just what is going on in the 6 segments of his self titled “experiment”. Because to those who might not be familiar with the historical context of the early Soviet film pioneers, and then also be familiar with Vertov himself, and his theory which underpins part of the ethos of these essays, that of the Kino-Eye, the idea that the camera  is more “perfect than the human eye for fathoming the chaos of those visual phenomena which evoke spatial dimension”, it can be difficult to even comprehend what’s going on. The filmmaking is just so radical, so deeply idiosyncratic and complex in it’s arrangement, that it becomes a vast gap to bridge just to even get on board with it. His experiment in pure cinema, with no script, no actors, no intertitles to provide context, nothing beyond the image and its manipulation, the music and its manipulation, and the interplay of the two to create a film.

This is cinema which exists on its own, cinema which is so deeply personal that the only comparison I can bring up is the work of M.C Escher, an artist who exists outside of the historical art continuum and the popular art continuum, but who is nonetheless an artist of profound depth who’s influence spread far and wide. This is said to be one of the greatest documentaries ever produced, ranked eighth in all world cinema in Sight and Sound’s 2012 poll, a documentary so far removed from any normal definition of documentary that we might imagine that it becomes either a dreamlike joyride or a crushingly boring betrayal slog.

The technical proficiency on display is blisteringly visionary, considering the level of expertise at the time in 1929 (and the three years before during its making), cinema’s existence only around for the last 30 years. The edits, the superimpositions, the splicing and re-orientation of the film itself, the literal film itself as he splits it, mirrors it, shows it being edited by his then wife. The camera becomes a subject of the film, itself being stared at by the kino-eye, as the filmmaker becomes just as important in the tapestry as the world he’s capturing. For that alone, the work is deserving of your time, time which is so precious these day, only clocking in at 69 minutes and managing to retain such a strong pace that most modern films can often lack. The symphonic ending sequence, it’s blindingly fast cuts and encompassing explosion of sound take cinema into the untranslatable, which can only be seen and heard to be understood. It felt ecstatic, revolutionary.

But it is only a film, and a rather curious one at that. Films can only do so much, and their makers even less. This film was Vertov’s call to arms for a (in his eyes) more visionary, a higher cinema. One concerned with poetic, intellectual, portrayals of life, not buried under fiction and lies and myths, what he termed “the opiate of the masses”. It did not take off, and maybe it is better that it did not take off, certainly easier. Vertov was like many visionaries, simply too radical. So consumed in its metaphysical nature, the work was not received well, certainly not with the sense of adulation and respect it holds today in cinematic history. If film had really become like Vertov’s work, imitators would have inevitably diluted the spirit of the entire project. It’s taken this long to properly appraise the work, imagine how it could have blown up if his ethos had become dominant.

I idolise Vertov, I make no secret of it.Half of this essay must read like a love letter to him as much as this film, but the truth that lies in this film’s kino-eye, is its ability to transcend its time and place to make a piece of art that touches on a level beyond words, language even. It is a work which carries a true incendiary spirit, one which I link in terms of true revolutionary cinema to Easy Rider. It is an extraordinary film in that is not like the Soviet contemporaries, nor the American “Talkies” who he reviled, nor like the films of today, it is out of the ordinary. It is not for everyone. The pioneering spirit is not for everyone. That does not mean that those who do not like it as much as me are wrong, or inferior in any way. Simply that I like to imagine I share a spirit with a man who pursued a cinema of vision, at the expense of support and acclaim which could have been granted to him if he had just fallen in line. It is his refusal to fall in line which makes the work great, but also condemns it.

Enough about Man With A Movie Camera. I have spent so long talking about it in the abstract, because that is what it provokes, abstract thought. It has lost some of its original meanings and intentions I’m sure, the passage of time erodes. But it is a work which shows just liberating cinema can be, freed from its conventions. Simply, it must be seen.

The ‘Kino-Eye’ speaks for itself, and it has so much to say.

-Alex

 

(A grand thank you to the folks at Eureka who have distributed a “Masters of Cinema” Edition of this film, which not only has a gorgeous restoration which I viewed for this, but also contains some of his other works, and an excellent collection of additional material and essays. I have not been endorsed by them in any way, I just strongly recommend picking up the special edition if you can find here , it would have made Vertov very proud.)

-Alex

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Man With A Movie Camera: The Truth In The Film