Collecting Images

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A double feature on the opening weekend of the Detroit Film Theatre’s Winter 2013 season helped me better understand and appreciate how images are combined to create film and film-like experiences.

That education came courtesy of two immensely creative minds. On the afternoon of Saturday, January 12, 2013, the DFT 101 series started the new year with the 1924 silent film Strike by Russian director Sergei Eisenstein. In the evening, I discovered the amazing world of the subject of the 2012 documentary Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters.

Both the film director Eisenstein and the photographer Crewdson combined images to create larger effects. Eisenstein used quick edits and personal closeups to show a scene from different angles. Crewdson created heavily detailed photographs out of multiple shots of the same scene.

Both movies showed examples of a description of Eisenstein in the book A History of the Cinema from Its Origins to 1970 (1976) by Eric Rhode: “He had come to the conclusion that montage should be a collision of images, so strongly contrasted that when they were joined together they would create a dynamic interaction greater than the sum of the individual parts.”

Or, as Frank Sinatra sang in How Little We Know: “That sudden explosion when two tingles intermingle.”

The Bigger Picture

Although both artists were masters of intimate touches, they also communicated through medium and long shots that showed individuals as part of a larger, sometimes impersonal, landscape of desire and frustration and all of the other emotions of the human condition.

While watching both movies, some questions ran through my mind that were my own creative yearning to see beyond what was happening on the screen.

Strike was a sympathetic portrayal of some manufacturing workers during the Tsarist era that had ended just a few years earlier. As the title describes, they went on strike for better working conditions. For modern audiences, its message probably resonated a lot with people who feel that wealthy individuals have an unfair advantage in society.

But what message was intended for Russian audiences of 1924? I kept reminding myself that Strike portrayed a Russian economic system that no longer existed. The government sponsors of the film weren’t trying to change anything—they wanted to build support for the current economic system by showing the previous system in the worst possible light.

But that current system eventually led to millions of deaths under Stalin, the Cold War, and the Berlin Wall. When that system collapsed in many countries in the late 1980s and early 1990s, many celebrated. In late February, the DFT will screen the 2012 German film Barbara, about a woman plotting her escape from East Germany during the Cold War.

Strike helped connect visitors to other recent DFT movies. It was part of the next phase of Russian film following the Tsarist era that was shown in a series of movies last fall at the DFT (Ancient Images). And Eisenstein’s next film was the famous Battleship Potemkin, an earlier offering in the DFT 101 series (Two Rides on the Potemkin).

Photographic Vision

The documentary about Gregory Crewdson gave a very close view of his working process. Patient and perfectionist would be one way to describe it. He kept making small adjustments in photographs in which the people, the main setting, and scattered details of the environment played equal roles.

I kept wondering, what keeps people working for someone who has such a private, possessive, controlling attitude about the job at hand? How long could the set designers, the camera operator, the lighting crew, and others subordinate their own egos and ambitions to one person’s uniquely personal view?

I guess the answer comes in the different ways they appreciate the vision of the artist, and how he gives them the opportunity to work at their craft and specialties without the burden of authority. Many of Eisenstein’s co-workers might have felt that same way with the many different camera setups that his montage style demanded.

I also kept wondering about the nonparticipants affected by Crewdson’s camera setups, which often involved shutting down public areas. The director of the documentary, Ben Shapiro, might have wondered the same thing.

A photography shoot on a snowy street provoked a small confrontation between one of Crewdson’s co-workers and a shopkeeper trying to keep his front walk clean and safe. Apparently, the swept sidewalk messed up the image in Crewdson’s mind. I could find no fault with the shopkeeper’s point of view and I wondered how Crewdson defined the limits of his rights as an artist.

DFT Renovation

This opening weekend was especially enjoyable because the DFT was fully functional after many months of renovation.

Once again, patrons could use restrooms without having to cross to another part of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The beautiful back steps facing John R were no longer blocked by construction equipment. And the Crystal Gallery Café, which has become an essential part of my DFT experience, once again gave me a sophisticated feeling of elation as I gazed at its elegant windows and high arched ceiling as I enjoyed a snack.

The café also helped me more fully appreciate the Crewdson documentary. Many of Crewdson’s photographs were slightly surreal still lifes of people in ordinary situations. The documentary conditioned my view of things so effectively that when I left the balcony after the movie ended, the people in the cafe waiting for the next movie seemed to have that Crewdson glow.

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Copyright © 2013 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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