This is an odd post and I’m not entirely sure I can pull it off. The film above is called Montparnasse. It was made in 1929 by Eugene Deslaw. I watched the film and want to write about it cold, without looking up Mr. Deslaw on Google. I’ll check up on him after I’ve posted this and see if I’m even in the ballpark.
Watch the film all the way through. If you think it’s just a collection of boring tourist shots in Paris with nothing happening, then stop reading and leave now because this post is for the four out of one hundred who catch the drift of the camera work. Deslaw was shooting in the Paris of Pablo Picasso and Matisse. He appears to have had a close connection to art and the cafe life of the city. His film is full of odd angles and closeups. He runs up onto a balcony in order to shoot straight down at some tabletops. He catches a woman applying makeup at about the 13-minute mark and makes a shot that is worth paying for. He films traffic and buildings, windows, curbs, chairs, newspapers, smokers, drinkers, snake-handlers, paintings, and water. He’s fascinated by his city and by his camera. He’s making art. He set out one morning with his camera and went around making art. Everyone was happy to be alive there in Paris in 1929 and he was playing his part in it. Films made at that time tend to have this cheerful experimental quality. Deslaw is nearly drawing with his camera. It’s an immediate act of finding visual meaning. He was walking and was struck by something and filmed it in an excited state. He was consciously being an artist.
The film he made is beautiful. It’s very hard to make a film with its kind of beauty today. Think about it a little. What would you do? Go to a Best Buy and look around for a brand new digital camera. You know, one of those shiny silver things with the HD viewfinder and all the buttons. One of those? Then what? You’d march out into the neighborhood with this gleaming tourist gizmo and look like a ninny bending over to film trash as it floated down into a storm drain? You’d walk up to a guy behind a news stand and ask to film him? Really?
Yes. That’s what you’d do. You’d get a little camera and do just that. And here’s your assignment: you must do this with the total conviction that you are about to make the greatest film ever made about your subject matter. Set out for a particular street corner and make a magnificent short film or a long one about that corner and everything on it. Spend an entire day doing only that. Skip lunch. Just stay there and make your film without ever entertaining even the slightest doubt that you are working on something of incredible importance and value. It’s going to be very hard to do. Some people will walk by and giggle. Some will become belligerent and tell you to stop. Film those people. Run away if they chase you. Then come back and continue your work. Remember that you are an artist on a mission to make something and absolutely nothing will stop you. Then come back home and figure out how to edit it and then put it online. Tell me about it even and I’ll watch it.
In 1929 it would have been recognized by the maker of this film that a camera is a camera and it will make your film if you want it to. Ever wonder why you don’t ever see Steven Spielberg out and about with his little camera making a movie for himself? It’s strange isn’t it? Could you imagine Pablo Picasso or David Hockney never carrying a sketchbook to make some quick pictures while having coffee or dinner? I couldn’t imagine such a thing? So when was the last time you ever heard of a Spielberg or Scorsese out with a camera making little films for their web site?
You could almost think of all the decades of massive budget film production and the studio structures built to support the film industry and film schools as an organized effort to confuse the issue and make people forget what a film actually is. We think of screenwriters and producers and agents and superstars and all the talk shows. But it’s very hard for the artist to walk out with the camera and go make a film the way a painter would work alone on a canvas. The Montparnasse film should help to illuminate the proper use of the camera for anyone who’s interested.