Remembering the Present

21 mins read

Not a wandering troupe of sensations nor a system constituted by ephemeral judgments … the visible is a landscape, a topography yet to be explored, uncultivated being still, wild being still.
—Alphonso Lingis

The documentary is a sort of magnifying glass to allow us to examine in detail what might otherwise go unnoticed.
—Wolf Koenig

In the last couple of decades, cinema has become distinctly ironic, distancing people from their natural environments and from history itself. But in the wake of films as far-ranging as Scream; O Brother, Where Art Thou; and Juno — seemingly disparate but all ironic in sensibility — independent film and docs are beginning to reflect the experience of wanting and needing to see with sincerity again. Films like Werner Herzog’s heartbreaking character study Grizzly Man and the entire fiction-infused documentary oeuvre of China’s Jia Zhangke show us a cinema that is at turns intimate, revelatory, observational and fundamentally humanist. There seems to be an almost urgent need to use cinema as a means of genuine communication through, as John Grierson phrased it, “the creative treatment of actuality.” What better time, then, to contextualize this momentum by looking at the seminal observational films that aimed to enter the world and, in the name of posterity and making connections, capture its citizens in everyday contexts?

An air of timeliness underscores any discussion of the 1958-60 Candid Eye cinema direct films made by the National Film Board’s Unit B. These 14 half-hour 16mm short films, which aired on CBC, made history by envisioning a novel way of presenting reality onscreen and are widely considered the precursors of the still-thriving cinema verité style. They represent the globally admired NFB unit system—a collaborative approach to filmmaking in teams—at its technical and aesthetic peak. And, perhaps most potently, many of these films, sadly unheralded, are eminently striking and vibrant today.

The key filmmakers of the Tom Daly-helmed Unit B, including Wolf Koenig, Roman Kroitor, Terence Macartney-Filgate, Michel Brault, Marcel Carrière and Stanley Jackson, were the young renegades of their time. Macartney-Filgate was called to work on the seminal US direct cinema film, Primary (1960) and Brault went to France to help shoot Chronique d’un ete (1961), considered the first cinema vérité film. Kroitor pioneered the famed IMAX inaugurated at Montreal’s Expo ’67; work on this technology effectively tapped the resources of the Unit B team, which shifted focus just as, after completing such Candid Eye films as the relatively well-known The Days Before Christmas and The Back-breaking Leaf, its creative experimentation was at its apex: the 1962 multi-award winning film Lonely Boy, the most famous direct cinema film to come out of Canada, was heralded internationally as a masterpiece.

“The idea behind Candid Eye was simple,” says Wolf Koenig, a key Unit B collaborator. “Show our world and the lives lived by ordinary people, but without influencing or manipulating them. Observe but do not disturb. Preferably, remain invisible. All with the purpose of showing us all who we are. Pretty high minded, if not a little naive, eh?”

Naïvete perhaps goes hand in hand with this bold venture into medium-changing techniques and practices. But the way of seeing it—without judgment, inspired by a world going through massive flux and transition—is arguably more relevant to our own sociopolitical and cultural landscape than any other artistic practice since that time. Many of the Candid Eye films deal with the observation and description of post-industrialization fallout, from the end of the steam engine train (End of the Line) and the proliferation of cars (The Cars of Your Life), to the need for exercise in the modern world where work no longer involves manual labour (I was a Ninety-Pound Weakling) and the modernization of farming technology (Country Threshing).

In the postwar period, technology and technique were being used to give full expression to what was becoming, at the inception of the high modern period, a collective guiding idea concerned with the struggle to retain a grasp on history while facing the dramatic rupture marking its demise. The Candid Eye films, by ending the Griersonian era of didactic and propagandistic NFB documentaries, were entering the fray by widening the vista for “merely” seeing and making an art out of observation. These young Canadian filmmakers were aware of and influenced by Applied Modernism: a self-aware cultural learning that encompassed the street photography of Henri Cartier-Bresson and the gritty, socially conscious and realism-driven films of the British Free Cinema.

Art seems to me to be a matter of ‘listening’ and then allowing one’s acquired skills to be guided by what one ‘hears’. So, perhaps one has to learn to ‘listen’ as much as ‘doing’. We don’t listen much in this culture. We make noise.
—Wolf Koenig

Interviewing the famously modest Koenig—an integral, vital personality in the NFB’s documentary and animation units over decades—it soon emerges that he is an amused and amusing cogitator and introspective Renaissance man. It’s a side of him no doubt nurtured by Tom Daly when he asked Koenig and his colleagues to read Plato’s Dialogues and other philosophical classics at the NFB offices in the early 1950s.

When speaking about the construction of the Candid Eye films, always a collaborative process for him, he remembers: “The rushes were a bit like a jigsaw puzzle, but a puzzle with a lot of fake pieces in it. The trick is to find the right bits and build the picture—and that takes a lot of time and trial and error.”

Among his many accomplishments at the NFB was Koenig’s groundbreaking work doing camera on Norman McLaren’s Oscar-winning Neighbours (1952), which used the pixilation technique, normally reserved for animation, on live actors. “Cameras fascinated me—especially movie cameras,” he says. “So, at first, it was a fascination with the machine. Only after some time did I begin to understand that the image was the important thing, not the device that recorded it.” Koenig very clearly stands in a long line of artistic masters—including Delacroix, Da Vinci, and Edison—for whom expression and technology are fundamentally inseparable.

Because ours has been a moving-image culture at least since the widespread consumption of television, it requires a great deal of historical imagination to put ourselves back into the collective mindset of an era not yet overcome by visuality, when the world was smaller and experience more tactile. The Candid Eye films, for their part, espouse a distinct worldview that depend on a very basic approach of entering the world with what Turner called an ‘innocent eye’ to chronicle its visions and sounds; all they needed was the technology. Contrary to the myth that Unit B had access to the Nagra system for synchronized sound—the third and arguably last great revolution in cinema after the invention of the motion picture camera and the advent of sound in 1927—they had to work with older cameras, clunky sound recorders and tripods, and great finesse in the editing suites, to achieve this effect.

The Candid Eye films met with critical success when they first aired on CBC. The Montreal Star’s Pat Pearce wrote in 1958 of “sympathetic efforts of the Film Board to make its cameras as un-obstructive as possible … ‘Candid Eye’ should be generally a good date with your TV set.” Russell Spurr of the London Free Press wrote on Oct 14, 1960, that Asia was virtually gobbling up NFB films at a rate of approximately 125 productions annually, with distributors in Thailand, Burma and Pakistan exponentially increasing the number of NFB films bought over the previous few years. Lonely Boy, about Ottawa-born singer Paul Anka, won numerous awards and became the first documentary to capture the musical superstar phenomenon. Countering the press in subsequent decades, cinema scholars focused on Candid Eye as “distinctly Canadian” for their ironic detachment, passivity, lack of centre or nexus of action, for their innocuous, noncommittal approach to their objects of observation.

But these films, fledgling in execution as they sometimes were, represent a profound and distinctive way of seeing. They don’t lack structure, or a viewpoint or a vision. The Candid Eye docs exhibit a profound fullness, a notion that sometimes we need to halt in the face of a world that no longer makes sense so that we can start over again. These films involve a meticulous, structured stripping away of the trappings of tradition, of aesthetic adornment and the conceit of didacticism to get at a semblance of truth in capturing moments of discovery.

“I’ve come to the conclusion in my dotage that structure is what all the arts are really about,” says Koenig. “They show us by inference something that we otherwise can’t see. This something is invisible to us, like a fir tree in the dark. But come Christmas time, people hang lights all over the boughs. At first one only sees the lights, but if you step back a bit and squint, you see the shape of the tree—even though the tree itself is still invisible. The lights define it, so we’re able to see it by inference. In this laboured analogy, the lights represent the ‘arts’ and the tree the structure. And the structure is what permeates the universe from the sub-atomic particle to the whole cosmos—in effect, we are all little lights hung on the invisible tree. And the arts are about the only way we have of talking about this thing: ‘Structure’ or ‘Truth’.”

Ah Seattle, sad faces of the human bars, and you don’t realize you’re upside-down—Your sad heads, people, hang down in the unlimited void, you go skippering around the surface of streets and even in rooms, upside-down, your furniture is upside-down and held by gravity, the only thing that prevents it from all flying off is the laws of the mind of the universe…
—Jack Kerouac, Desolation Angels, 1965

Film theorist Siegfried Kracauer taught us that one of the most staggering achievements of cinema is that it allows us to peer at the visible world, revealing things about it but also about us, and about the profound mysteries the oblique world of surfaces imply. The Candid Eye films and the writing of the Beats, strange bedfellows indeed, are both fascinated with the world anthropologically and keenly interested in the redemptive power of observation. Both have been criticized as formal or artistic dead ends because, like the abstract expressionist paintings or Warhol’s soup cans, they don’t “lead anywhere” or point to obvious next steps in their respective artistic practices.

Rather than construing these works as dead ends, however, I would like to reconfigure them as “limit cases,” exemplifications of transition-in-practice. It is noteworthy that the two philosophical approaches coming to the fore during this period—phenomenology and existentialism—reflect modernist sensibilities. Phenomenology advocated pure, embodied experience and description/observation over explanation, and existentialism responded to the abyss of no meaning by privileging creative living (choice) and saluting the notions of intensity and multiplicity of images (making cinema a naturally modern art form).

Outside of that single fatality of death, everything, joy or happiness, is liberty. A world remains of which man is the sole master. What bound him was the illusion of another world. The outcome of his thought, ceasing to be renunciatory, flowers in images … the terrestrial face, gesture, and drama…
—Albert Camus, The Myth of Sisyphus, 1942/1955

Like Kerouac’s focus on the human face of Seattle’s lost souls, and Camus’ necessary reduction of meaning to the proliferation of observable instances of humanity, the Candid Eye films are primarily humanist, employing close-ups of the human face that observe everything from Paul Anka’s vacillating reactions to fame and Glenn Gould’s pained passion for his music (Glenn Gould: On the Record), to the desperately hopeful look of a man seeking help at the Salvation Army (Blood and Fire) and the curious visages of little children learning English as a second language in their new home of Montreal (A Foreign Language).

Quantity (images) might not supplant quality (meaning) or even prove a worthy foil to it, but it does suggest a focus on what remains when one surrenders to the ever-disappearing present moment. The multitude of faces scattered across the Candid Eye films betray a humanist mode—coming out of the dual modern notions of individualism and alienation—that relies on observation. Similarly, the great Beats Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg relied on observation in their impassioned, descriptive elocutions about the outside world and inner universes. The Candid Eye trope of employing rapid successions of close-ups of faces suggests that there can be a directness of experience in the recording of that which is most potent and evocative—the empathy-driven human encounter.

Now I’m back in that goddam movie of the world and now what do I do with it?
—Kerouac, Desolation Angels

Kerouac came down from isolation on a mountaintop into the streets of Seattle and had no idea what to do with the visions of sadness all around him. Wolf Koenig describes Unit B’s filmmaking practice as a desire to move away from overly packaged viewpoints about the world and into a state of pure seeing. Last year, a film tiptoed into the festival circuit that not only speaks to this historical, modernist situation but brings it forcefully into today’s context; Je veux voir, or I Want to See, co-directed by Joana Hadjithomas and Khalil Joreige, starring Catherine Deneuve, who goes to Lebanon for the first time on a voyage of semi-fictional discovery.

“I want to see,” says Catherine Deneuve to her hosts in Beirut when she arrives to shoot a film and observe the devastation wrought by war. But as she encounters the bomb-barraged streets and the ruins that stand in for urban infrastructure, it becomes clear that no words can effectively form a bridge between who she is and what she sees. This is an obvious truism—and the foundation of the modern condition—endemic to all situations of personal and intercultural communication. This is the potency of the film, that Catherine Deneuve’s transcendent, perfectly empty face is a presence and an absence at the same time. As a presence, she reaches the audience as an actress in Lebanon, a country with which she has nothing in common and no familiarity. As an absence, she reaches out to all of us as a reminder of where we are not and will never again be, perhaps because it’s too late (in political or psychological terms) and perhaps because the desire to see authentically is all we have left.

Yet, her first words of the film resonate. I want to see. Somehow, this desire, while obtuse and misdirected, is more profound than any intellectual relationship she could otherwise have about the world she finds herself in: it implies the opposite of irony. What exactly does she want to see? What can the observational camera see?

The irresolution embedded in the flux that surrounds us, which similarly enveloped the Candid Eye filmmakers exactly 50 years ago, will either limit the observer to observation, or perhaps free her into willful, creative acts. The episteme opened up by the pure observation found in the Candid Eye films reminds us that films designed to depict, reflect and inspire wonder are not philosophical and aesthetic roads to nowhere, but formalized expressions of being in the world (“Creating something out of thin air,” as Koenig put it). And it is only from an authentic present captured in any age that the possibility for future visions can emerge.

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