By Tara Judah
The most beautiful work of art was hiding in a programme designed to elucidate the processes and effects of different technical approaches to colour on film. Among the Oskar Fischinger and Albert Pierru was a little known two-minute gem called Magie Moderne by Segundo de Chomón.
Damaged but presented in the best possible quality in a digital remaster – a work in progress – Magie Moderne (1908) shows a female magician performing with smoke effects and elaborate costumes. The colour work on the costumes and set design is stunning. But in between those brief restored sections of the film are frames of filmic beauty, belonging to another world altogether.
The moving picture is constantly interrupted by cracks in the emulsion that look like a sea urchin invasion. The fragility of the materiality transmogrifies until it reveals the stunning ontology of photochemical film: each crack beginning to take on the properties of a network of veins, made even more poignant as the vertebrae-like sprocket holes ebb and flow across the screen. The degradation of the material reveals the form’s skeleton in electric glory: light pulsing through its veins and illuminating the entire auditorium each time it flickers into being.
Sublime for its accidental articulation of the living nature of film, the digital restoration becomes the programme’s own conversation point.
Followed by Fischinger favourites including toothpaste advertising, The Pink Guards on Parade (1934) and Albert Pierru’s famous Color Woogie (1954), the colour programme was also an exercise in avant-garde at a festival that doesn’t intentionally run any such screenings. The melodic dancing of each worm-like squirt of toothpaste and the crescendo of assembled brushes is every bit as enjoyable for its experimentation as it is for its seamless connections between image and sound.
Another experimental highlight came on the final day with a special screening of recently discovered and digitally restored short films by Jacques Rivette. Collaborating with Jean-Luc Godard, Le Quadrille (1950) was another invigorating highlight of the festival. With more walk-outs than any other session I attended, the forty-minute short film is a character study of five youths sitting in a drawing room; looking, talking, smoking, thinking. The motivations of the characters are never made clear and neither are their interactions but, in these moments, as the camera holds its gaze, searing back across the room, violently interrogating the reverse shot, always capturing others are slightly skewed angles, the tension mounts. The atmosphere was palpable and, I dare say, so unnervingly so that it forced the less emotionally resilient viewers to flee the auditorium.
Belonging to the Nouvelle Vague but more closely linked to the Beat Generation and American Underground cinema than many of the features that would follow, Le Quadrille is like a silent Chappaqua (Conrad Rooks, 1966) with all the attitude of John Cassavetes’s Shadows (1959). A remarkable find and an exercise in perception, persona, disposition and duration, this is a cinematic jewel well worth searching for.