Around China with a Movie Camera (2015)


 

Last year, I appreciated the Old Rep as a venue for live performance with Faust (1926), presented with an immersive live score, animating the carnival and capturing the elemental forces of nature. This year is no short of live performances, adding an added dimension to film that demands physical presence, bringing new life to almost century old material. Ruth Chan’s score, complete with orchestra, combines Chinese and western influences to reflect the BFI’s compilation of an archive of decades of home movies, newsreels and ethnographic film, often filmed from western perspectives.

Around China with a Movie Camera seems at home with the city symphonies of the late 1920s. The film is not as interested in the progression of time as in the progression of space, moving between Beijing and Shanghai, using cities themselves as a point of departure to examine shared culture and location. Man with a Movie Camera (1929) experimented radically with editing, technique and form, placing the everyday life of the streets upon the screen without relying on traditional narrative, compressing Odessa, Moscow, Khariv and Kiev into one shared location. Where Around China with a Movie Camera lacks is its limitations: as a compilation, it has no authorial voice. It feels like a series of short sketches, comprised of extracts; the BFI’s website even offers a wider archive. Other recent BFI projects like The Stuart Hall Project (2013) feel similarly limited by form: manipulating an existing archive without offering coherent structure or anything much new to existing material.

But preserving early film carries importance, adding visual record to the stillness of photographs and the prose of monographs. Film deteriorates, left in archives or badly stored, unwatched or forgotten. As a physical medium, film is limited by the amount of stock available. The camera excludes: positioning and light affects how the image itself is perceived. We follow missionaries, tourists and honeymooners, capturing ethnographic images of a culture they do not live within, with their own decisions on what is valuable to shoot, rarely following a Chinese perspective. Early films like The Epic of Everest (1924) provide a valuable record of not only Mallory’s expedition to the Antarctic but Tibetan rituals, faces long since forgotten: but the camera conceals an imperial gaze.

Preserving an archive is ultimately a question about ourselves: how will we as people be remembered? Beyond the scarcity of physical records, modern technology allows for a seemingly infinite archive, amassed of photographs, videos, messages and emails that seem to exist for an eternity, impossible to organise in any reasonable way: but the instability remains. Files deteriorate; websites rebrand; the cloud is a fallacy, concealing the physicality of server farms. Around China with a Movie Camera is limited by time: the earliest film contained within the archive is thought to predate 1900. But dating relies upon conjecture and other available records. Were photography to emerge as a medium before the 1840s, and film before the 1880s, what other images could have been captured? What other images have been lost to eternity, or degraded beyond recognition? Inks, oils and pencils provide another insight into the past, but stylises the artistic image.

Film becomes filtered through the presence of time: we witness the days before the Shanghai massacre, but its relevance becomes heightened through the massacre its subjects and cameraman never knew of at the time. Subjects stare at the camera, in awe at an invention never before witnessed. Everyday life and farming techniques become captured upon film: irrelevant at the time, yet afforded new meaning in the century that has passed since. Its subjects, without knowledge of their lives or personalities, become blank slates, anonymous bodies to project upon who they might have been, containing entire lifetimes within seconds of film.

Around China with a Movie Camera captures some truly beautiful visions: tinted images and stencils light up the screen, attempts at colour that never feel realistic yet a truly wonderful spectacle. Although Around China with a Movie Camera never achieves aesthetic transcendence, its value as a document of the past cannot be underestimated.

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