State of Cinema 2018
We are gathered here tonight in a movie theatre. Our faces are focused on a large white screen on which, shortly, one of the most beautiful films ever made will illuminate: Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau’s Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927). Not far from here, there is a bookshop with an intriguing name: Tropismes. A tropism is a movement that is usually observed in plants and caused by an environmental stimulus – sunlight, for example. In plants, a tropism mostly occurs in the form of a turning movement during growth; thereby directing the plant either towards the stimulus or away from it. Maybe we could consider every (important) cinema experience as a moment of growth, caused by an external stimulus (flickering light) and causing an internal movement in every spectator. Invisible growth.
As long as films – old and new, ultrashort or endless, African, American, European, or Asian – are able to make something grow somewhere inside of our invisible selves, in places unknown to ourselves, then cinema is doing fine. I consider that ‘something’ as a sort of organ that no microscope or scanner has been able to expose. A sort of blind and invisible mole feeding on (light) sensitivity.
And with this increased sensitivity, our thinking is reinforced in turn. The cinema’s darkness as an immeasurable greenhouse. When leaving this ‘tropic’ cinema experience – outside in the real world – there is an undeniable awareness, impossible to specify: something has turned, twisted; something has shifted.
One often speaks of the ‘magic’ of cinema. A magic that’s capable of creating a world of illusions, ‘as if it is real’, as if we are really experiencing it. But I wonder if the biggest magic (in the sense of something we can't explain) is not rather found in the fact that something as elusive as flickering light is able to bring about so much. Cinema carries the Greek word κινεμα, movement, within itself. Does this refer to the physical movement of the images or, rather, to the tropism that simultaneously occurs inside of the spectator?
Sabzian has invited me to write a text on the ‘state of cinema’. But what is that, the ‘state of cinema’?
It certainly is a dark area, in which we are together but still alone. Not a single film (big or small) has been made for the ‘general public’, because the general public does not exist. As Man Ray put it at the entrance of one of his exhibitions: “This exhibition is not addressed to the great public nor even to the few, the small number generous enough to accept the ideas of one individual. This exhibition is presented from one person to only one other person, to you who are here.”
In film, this relationship between the artwork and the spectator might even be more intimate than in other art forms. The cinema’s darkness, necessary in the first place in order to create the film, to light it up, at the same time ensures that the faces of the people around you go out, become invisible.
To become invisible in order to see better.
In order to be “moved unmovingly”, as Dirk Lauwaert described this kind of seeing-inside-your-head in his book ‘Dromen van een expeditie’ [‘Dreams of an Expedition’], of which Sabzian has published some fragments.
Apart from the dark embraced by cinema, I cannot imagine what the concept of a ‘state of cinema’ could be. Rather than one status, I see multiple. Not one state, but states: some medium-sized and, around and between them, countless smaller intermediate forms, which look more like fleeting child republics, with porous borders, borders that prefer to keep on shifting.
Tonight, I direct my gaze towards one of the most vulnerable forms of cinema, which are often more individual forms of cinema, that also like to occur outside of the classical movie theatres: in museums, bookshops, on the internet, in the street. Person-to-person cinema.
Not so long ago, filmmakers and artists dreamt of a new kind of cinema, one that we could carry around in our pockets, not only when it came to the size (and price) of the camera but also to the ‘viewing dimensions’ of the films themselves. They dreamt of a pocket cinema, un cinéma de poche. Films that wouldn’t need any big machinery or budgets, nor intermediate settlements, grant applications or movie theatres.
This hasn’t been a dream anymore for quite a while now; this kind of cinema is within reach. We film with tiny GoPro cameras that we attach to anything we want. Dziga Vertov would have loved it. In a few minutes, we will watch a movie on a big screen, while, at the same time, as good as everyone in this theatre has a mini camera in his or her pocket.
This dreamt cinema might be the kind of cinema that is often made by visual artists and that I would like to describe as crumb cinema. Think, for example, of the short videos by Francis Alÿs, such as Zapatos Magnéticos (1994), in which Alÿs wears magnetic shoes. While walking through the streets of an unnamed South American city, various pieces of metal stick to his shoes. You notice his shoes slowly getting heavier, as if he is carrying with him the debris that has been left behind (the rusted history of the city). Or the small film Samples II, which Francis Alÿs made in 2004: again, we see him walking in a city, London this time. He is holding a stick and rattles it along the cast-iron fences in front of the houses. Every type of fence has its own rhythm, its own timbre, thereby creating an improvised composition. In these films, Georges Méliès’ and Segundo de Chomón’s magician’s imagination is never far away.
I could also include Marcel Broodthaers’ short films in my invented state of crumb films. Take La pluie (Projet pour un texte) (1969), for example, in which a writer (Broodthaers himself) sits at a table in heavy (clearly artificial) rain. The writer dips his pen in the ink and starts writing; but even before the words are written, they are washed away by the raindrops. If something is the state of cinema, it has to be the transience itself of everything that lives. The state that pulverizes and disappears while you watch.
Maybe I can describe this type of small films as follows: short, spontaneous and/or magical undertakings; mostly executed in an urban environment, with no need for a screenplay or a big film crew; films without any linear development, without dialogues; and – last but not least – also without a clear or strong punchline. At the same time, these films are anything but random. Rather, they teach me how to look again. You could say that they teach us to look through Broodthaers’ raindrops. They are films in which or through which the mysterious relationship between magic and documentary is explored. They are small vaccinations, “injections of the possible into the real,” as Jean Rouch so powerfully put it.
During the shoot of the film Sunrise, Munrau had little weights put in the shoes of the male protagonist to make his shoes heavier (which reminds us of Francis Alÿs’ magnetic shoes). It is an invisible detail that’s not meant for the spectator, at least not directly. The frequently mentioned ‘magic’ of cinema is often the sum of concrete and banal interventions with no point as such at all. No matter how narrative cinema can be, it is often details and gestures like that (by slowing down or twisting the walk of an actor a tiny bit) that give the film its rhythm and make sure that ‘something shifts’ inside of the spectator: independently of or, rather, next to the film’s larger narrative.
The digital miniature cinema we carry around daily – and everywhere we go – is operated by our thumb. The contemporary thumb slides and pushes on screens as never before. Some years ago, I read in an interview with a child psychologist (if I remember her profession correctly) in a newspaper that children only develop the muscle in their thumb when playing video games. Nonetheless, there have been films that were set in motion by the thumb much earlier, in cinema’s prehistory: paper flip books, so beautifully called Daumenkino in German. Pages that flash by like jumping grains. Cinema the way popcorn pops. Not made to be preserved for a long time. Quickly crumpled and damaged. Passed from hand to hand. It’s not by chance that they’re often set in motion by children, again and again. Children, those other crumbs that, while playing, live on the fringes of society (have you noticed how children and young people pass their phones – the exact size of a flip book – to each other on the playground?).
I know we all think that we are all (but alone) gazing at smaller and slightly larger screens too often, fearing that our necks will slowly grow ‘downwards’ like faded sunflowers. We feel like we are drowning in the images and advertising images that surround us everywhere, and we wonder why the hell we would make more of such images. But maybe there’s something precious in the reactivation of our thumbs – in order to develop our thumb muscles, but especially to challenge the mysterious cooperation between the hand, the eye and the brain.
Maybe flip books (paper and digital ones) are the crumbs by means of which we (all Hop-o’-My-Thumbs) – in our current abundance of images – will be able to find our way back?
I will now jump to the city in which this movie theatre is located, to the city where we are now: Brussels. And more specifically, to one of the city’s most photographed and filmed locations: the old Brussels Beurs/Bourse [Stock Exchange] on Boulevard Anspach. This stately building was practically born together with cinema. While for decades money was exchanged and made on the inside, the last 130 years countless crumb films played out on the outside of the building. I look at the facade of the Beurs/Bourse building, with its famous stairs and columns, like a projection screen on which – in broad daylight – fragments of world history will light up, flare up, like flashes of light of an alternative history.
Initially, I set out to make a flip book for this occasion, as tangible as paper or stone. A thumb cinema that plays out on the stairs of the Beurs/Bourse. It’s not the building itself that matters here, as it only serves as a motionless backdrop, but it’s the floating, agile space right above these stairs, where the wide world manifests itself and is pressed together in short-lived actions.
Make yourself invisible for a second and let the following imaginary flip book jump through your fingers. The small book has 88 pages, just as many pictures as I collected at the city archives and especially on the internet. The Brussels Beurs/Bourse building always occupies centre stage, photographed frontally from Boulevard Anspach, with the stairs and the columns clearly in the frame.
On the first page, we see a black-and-white photograph of the festive inauguration of the building in 1873, when it was decorated with flowers.
On the next page, we see a hand-coloured postcard photograph with a horse-drawn tram in the foreground and the hustle and bustle of men wearing top hats on the stairs.
On page 10, we see a socialist parade from 1910 with one of the banners reading “Travailleur, notre lutte est la vôtre” [“Worker, our struggle is your struggle”]. This is the oldest image I could find of a demonstration on the building’s stairs. That is exactly what the outside of the Beurs/Bourse building has gradually become famous for: as a place of resistance, of dissent.
On page 18, men in Nazi uniforms performing the Hitler salute on the stairs. A picture from the occupation period.
On page 23, an image from 1950, a banner of several metres long with the words “Wij eisen meer officiële scholen!” [“We demand more official schools!”], a demonstration in the context of the Second School War.
The columns and the stairs of the Beurs/Bourse, with a big lion on either side, remain immobile all these years, while the people and the flags on those stairs change places and colours at the speed of light.
On page 46, a large group of Congolese people holding up caricatures of president Kabila.
On page 50, a picnicking crowd on the stairs of the Beurs/Bourse, calling for a car-free city.
On page 58, Turkish flags and a crossed-out Erdoğan portrait.
On page 61, Chechen flags and the demand to stop torturing homosexuals.
On page 80, grieving people in the dark, countless flowers and candles, right after the bombings at the Brussels metro and airport in March 2016.
On page 87, a group of demonstrators from Brussels demonstrating against the new purpose of the Beurs/Bourse building, against the Beer Temple.
On page 88 ...
When you play these photographs, one after the other, for a couple of seconds you are all alone, face to face with history, a strange mixture of world history and the city’s history in the palm of your hand. It makes history portable and reminds us that we are the ones who have control over history. Of course, the danger of trivialization is constantly lurking, as we know these paper flip books primarily as toys, light entertainment, or way of advertising. Still, from the very beginning, they were also used to bring serious news issues to life, often in the form of more or less disguised propaganda. In 1917, the Americans used a drawn flip book to promote the Liberty Bond. In a book from 1925, we see how Pope Pius XI salutes the crowd in honour of the Holy Anna. In the 1930s, the book Der Führer spricht! [The Führer speaks!], in which Hitler is seen giving a speech, circulated without us hearing him. And yet, we do hear him.
How special and inconceivable is it, really, that we are able to evoke a whole world, image and sound, by means of a mere 50 pieces of paper, lighter than a pack of rolling papers. The ticking or rustling of the flip book pages passes into Hitler’s voice without noticing, into the crowd cheering him on. Suddenly, swastika flags pop into our heads. A whole film inside our head; a whole world comes to life. Ever so suddenly. Behind this world, behind this time, behind this book. Today, about eighty years later, the book is not a means of propaganda anymore. It has become a keyhole, a seashell that you hold against your ear. Behind it, the rustling of time.
In a certain way, flip books reveal time, as if they crumble time itself. With every book, you can endlessly take apart time itself and put it back together. It is an archaeological act, you touch the layers of time with your fingers. It is a film inside out, really, the way the Centre Pompidou is a building inside out. It’s as if you can only listen to the radio if you take it apart. No other art I know ‘works’ that way.
“The study of history aims above all to make us aware of possibilities we don’t normally consider. Historians study the past not in order to repeat it, but in order to be liberated from it. [...] Studying history will not tell us what to choose, but at least it gives us more options.” – Yuval Noah Harari1
Can a flip book – it is a question, or maybe rather even a thought experiment – also be a portable form of commemoration and remembrance? More importantly, can it, as Yuval Noah Harari writes, provide us with ideas on what could be other possibilities?
Will the stairs of the Beurs/Bourse building stay a free, vibrating space, once it has been turned into a beer temple? Will demonstrations still be tolerated? Or will they – as uttered in online opinions on the new purpose of the building – only take place on social media, in the form of digital protest? Will we soon only protest by swiping with our thumb?
There is another crumb image of the Beurs/Bourse building that has accompanied me for years, ever since I first visited the mysterious underground museum right next to it. This museum is also an archaeological site, where you can walk through older time layers of Brussels. Every first Wednesday of every month, you can take a free guided tour. On one of the walls, there is a small black-and-white photograph: large white pieces of debris lie next to the Beurs/Bourse building during its construction. If you look closely, you’ll see a wooden ladder between two of the building’s columns.
Contrary to the most famous columns at the front of the building, which are completely round, there are long, vertical grooves in the columns on the side of the building. You would think these deep grooves were made beforehand in a workshop, piece by piece and then stacked into a column. However, when you look at the photograph up close, you’ll notice the grooves aren’t there yet.
It is remarkable how certain old photographs can live inside your head as a kind of mini film. Every time I pass the Beurs/Bourse building, that small film comes to life, like a GIF animation. I see a man, a silhouette, climb up on the narrow ladder. I picture him carving grooves into the columns.
Behind every stone in the city, there is a similar fragile moving image, a somewhat wooden little film of a little man or woman chopping, laying bricks or carving. Stones oozing little films just like that – in the middle of the day.
This reminds me of a beautiful quote from the travel notes by the Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński:
“A lapidary is a place (a public garden in a city, courtyard of a castle, patio in a museum) where found stones, pieces of statues, fragments of buildings are put together, some part of a torso or an arm over here, a chunk of cornice or column over there, in short: things that are part of a whole that doesn’t exist (not anymore, not yet, has never existed), things that can’t be used anymore. Maybe they remain as evidence of the past, as traces of attempts, as a sign? But maybe everything in our world – so very expanded, gigantic and at the same time chaotic and difficult to contain, to organize – will in the end develop into one big collage, a loose collection of fragments, into – exactly – a lapidary.”2
The state of cinema: at best a chance to make the invisible (all that lives in and behind the stones of the city) visible, just for a while – for the duration of the film. But, and that is the wondrous and the powerful and the political side of cinema, once it has been made visible, it can never remain unseen.
A last crumb
The film you will now watch – on a big screen, what a delight! – is called Sunrise. I don’t want to say anything about it in advance.
But I do want to share a story about a sunrise (you can once again turn it into an imaginary flip book). It recently came to my attention, during sound recordings for one of my films, in a home for the elderly in Leuven. I was there to talk with the residents about the patterns on their childhood carpets and curtains. In one of the rooms, an old man was lying in bed. He couldn’t sit up straight. And when I presented him my question, he first became agitated. “There was no money for carpets or curtains in our home, gal.” And he added: “There was no room for beauty. Only for love.”
He stayed evasive and kept becoming agitated by my questions. When I got up to leave, he suddenly said he did remember one pattern.
There were ten children in the household. There was a big round kitchen table, no tablecloth. Every child received a fork and some pieces of bread. The pot holding soup or porridge was put in the middle of the table and the children sopped the pieces of bread in the pot with their forks, one by one.
When they were done eating, the mother took away the pot from the table. At that moment every night, the same pattern appeared on the table: from the centre of the table, a trace of spilled soup ran towards each child. Ten rays. A sunrise.
- 1Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus. A Brief History of Tomorrow (London: Harvill Secker, 2015), 68-69.
- 2Ryszard Kapuściński, Lapidarium. Observaties van een wereldreiziger 1980-2000 [Lapidary. Observations of a Globe-Trotter 1980-2000] (Amsterdam: De Arbeiderspers, 2003). [translation Sis Matthé]
In 2018 Sabzian created a new yearly tradition: Sabzian invites a guest to write a State of Cinema and to choose a film that connects to it. This way, once a year, the art of film is held against the light: a speech that challenges cinema, calls it to account, points the way or refuses to define it, puts it to the test and on the line, summons or embraces it, praises or curses it. A plea, a declaration, a manifest, a programme, a testimony, a letter, an apologia or maybe even an indictment. In any case, a call to think about what cinema means, could mean or should mean today.
For the first edition on 17 February 2018, Sabzian was honoured to welcome filmmaker Sarah Vanagt. She chose Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927) by F.W. Murnau. Musician Seppe Gebruers accompanied the film on harmonium.