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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 9:04 am 
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Something's been bugging me. I know I have described certain films as "pure cinema" in the past and now I'm questioning myself: what does exactly "pure cinema" signify? I was reading the essays in the booklet that came with The Bicycle Thieves (which is very much on my mind these days) and Bazin's essay insisted that the DeSica film is "pure cinema", that challenged me to examine the meaning of that. If I was to describe The Bicycle Thieves as "pure cinema", I'd say it's because the film becomes our camera, we are the camera experiencing everything on every level going on in every scene, without any need to depend on words/dialogues, in other words, the film would work as effective and absorbing if the dialogues were shut off. But then with that logic, some of Woody Allen's films - with the dialogues being their biggest strength - would not make "pure cinema"?

"Pure cinema" is probably nothing, just pretentious/BS talk?

What do you think?


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 10:32 am 

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In theater we have the term Total Theater, meaning that a play incorporates everything that can be presented live on stage: music, singing, dancing, acting (of course), scenic effects, lighting effects ... Pure Cinema could be a term that means much the same, using every resource available to film ... or it could be used more narrowly to represent only what the camera (with no trickery) can accomplish. Any sound film would thus be out of the running. Needless to say I've seen it used in critical writings to mean both of the above.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 10:39 am 
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Well, it can't be the former in regard to the Bicycle Thief since there are no special effects.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 11:03 am 
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As Hitchcock invoked it, Pure Cinema meant using the camera to tell the story. For example, instead of a character saying "I'm waiting for that telephone call," Pure CInema would cut between the character and the silent phone to express the sentiment


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 11:07 am 
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On a slightly more esoteric level, perhaps, to me it refers to moments, sequences, or (in rare cases, with narrative film at least) whole works in which the film impacts and communicates to us on aesthetic level that goes far beyond conventional explication of events, themes, character relationships, etc. All cinematic elements in play (sound, mise-en-scene, montage) are woven into a whole that conveys something ineffable. It would be impossible to communicate the gist of what the film did in that moment or sequence without actually showing them the film. I don't think a big special effects budget tends to help a filmmaker get any closer to making pure cinema (not that anyone was claiming otherwise).


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 11:23 am 
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I don't if this helps at all, but I always thought that Bresson - thinking of A Man Escaped especially - was pure cinema defined.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 11:29 am 
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I would state Ozu's style as being of pure cinema. I wonder if you are thinking more along documentary lines of direct cinema or cinema verite.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 11:47 am 
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Gregory wrote:
All cinematic elements in play (sound, mise-en-scene, montage) are woven into a whole that conveys something ineffable. It would be impossible to communicate the gist of what the film did in that moment or sequence without actually showing them the film.

I like that definition, and to me it also sounds as if you're describing an Ozu film. And Bresson has also just been mentioned, so let me throw in Dreyer as well and ask whether there is any relation between 'pure cinema' and the 'transcendental style in film', to use Paul Schrader's term.
Upon reading the contributions in this thread so far, I thought about which elements of a film could be regarded as 'not pure'; extra-diegetic music perhaps or voice-over narration? Is such 'impurity' perhaps the reason why many people prefer to watch Dreyer's "Jeanne" without any music?

HarryLong wrote:
In theater we have the term Total Theater, meaning that a play incorporates everything that can be presented live on stage: music, singing, dancing, acting (of course), scenic effects, lighting effects ... Pure Cinema could be a term that means much the same,using every resource available to film ...

I think Michael Powell once referred to his concept of the 'organized' film by using the term 'Total Cinema', and of course the ballet in "The Red Shoes" and the whole of "Hoffmann" is the perfect expression of what you describe. It goes beyond the mere assembly of every available resource, though, but points to an integration of all these resources in such a way that the result is more than the sum of its parts.

HarryLong wrote:
or it could be narrowly to represent only what the camera (with no trickery) can accomplish. Any sound film would thus be out of the running.

Which was exactly why people like Eisenstein or Pudovkin were skeptical about sound at first. But what can the camera actually accomplish without trickery? There necessarily is 'trickery' even in silent films: lighting and especially montage. Such a narrow definition would rule out most films apart from the very early Lumière films and their likes. Even if the camera becomes our 'eye', what we see is always prefabricated by the filmmaker and his or her decisions about assembling the material that was filmed by the camera.

So, I don't know whether the term 'pure cinema' is really helpful; if it's used as a short way of expressing things like in Gregory's definition or analogous to Total Theatre, fine with me. But if there are so many contradictory definitions floating around, it becomes almost meaningless or at least says not much more than that a film pre-dominantly relies on the visuals or might be 'visually impressive'.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 12:51 pm 
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HarryLong wrote:
or it could be used more narrowly to represent only what the camera (with no trickery) can accomplish. Any sound film would thus be out of the running.

I used to have this view but now embrace the opposite. For me, the gabby lunch scene between Grant, Russell, and Bellamy in Hawks' His Girl Friday is the height of pure cinema. Sound is the fulfillment of pure cinema, not its adversary.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 1:04 pm 

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Quote:
But what can the camera actually accomplish without trickery? There necessarily is 'trickery' even in silent films: lighting and especially montage.

Yes, film lies at 24 fps ...
I was thinking of special effects style trickery here: matte shots, CGI, etc.
And yet, these are things which are of film. You can't do a glass shot in theater ... or stop-motion ...

Quote:
Sound is the fulfillment of pure cinema, not its adversary

Much as I love silent film, I tend to agree. Film really is an amalgam of existing arts: photography (and indirectly painting), acting, dance (sometimes), music (either sung or played), design, architecture, sculpture, writing ...


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 2:26 pm 
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I'd like to posit two important distinctions:

"Pure cinema" versus "total cinema". The latter referring to cinema that encompasses all aspects of cinema. I.e., good use of sound, cinematography, mise-en-scene, acting, dialogue, storytelling, editing, etc.

The former is a little less clear, but I'd be inclined to use the term to refer to film that is unadulterated or untainted by an undue pull towards another medium. That said, in order to define "pure cinema" you really have to think about what you consider "cinema" to really be, at its heart. From there you can construct a notion of "pure cinema" that either doesn't deviate from that, or epitomizes it so well that deviations from it don't really matter. But then you have to attach yourself to a particular notion of what cinema really is, and that has changed from era to era and from group to group. The Neorealists had an idea of pure cinema (or something like it), as did the New Wave, and as did the Dogme 95 group. In this sense of "pure" you'd have to be pretty ideological to have a notion of "pure cinema".

"Sound cinema" versus "silent cinema". Neither is an inferior example of the medium, because they are really two distinct media. There are not many sound films that would be good with musical accompaniment rather than their recorded soundtrack, and likewise silent films will never be "total cinema" for any definition of cinema that includes a recorded soundtrack. Adding recorded sound to the medium is no more a fulfillment of the medium than is adding a third dimension—it's simply creating a new medium by adding an aspect to the old one. What's really unfortunate is that due to the expense of making films it was never really financially feasible to explore the full potential of silent cinema—the medium was killed right when it was just getting good.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 3:09 pm 
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I don’t know much of his work, but I remember seeing a few Stan Brakhage films (confession: they were on Youtube), and thinking that they were perhaps the purest examples of cinema I’d ever seen, because they consisted entirely of effects only achievable in this medium. If you took any one frame out of that succession of shapes and colours, it would be unremarkable as a painting or still photograph; only cumulatively, and subliminally, did the images come together to form a work of art.

Cinema remains a very young art form, and I guess ‘avant-garde’ films are so-called because they seem to push the boundaries of the medium, to illustrate what particular qualities define it, so when looking for examples of ‘pure cinema’ that everyone could agree on, such progressive and experimental work might be the most fruitful place to look.

Interesting that one could define an art form either as ‘total’, for its combination of other media, or ‘pure’, for its exclusion of them.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 4:36 pm 
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Michael, I think what Bazin implies by "pure cinema" is specifically tied to his belief in cinema (or, photography in time) as art's ultimate expression of the real. De Sica and the other neo-realists became, for him, practitioners of pure cinema by privileging cinema's ontological essence (the aesthetic representation of reality)...


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 4:44 pm 
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An interesting discussion, but I don't know if we'll actually get to anything more than a subjective understanding of the term 'pure cinema', but the discussion to this point has certainly helped me understand that.

My conception is sort of Gregory's + Jun-Dai's + Sloper's: a work or sequence that uses multiple elements of the medium (but generally not everything available) to create something unique and ineffable that could not exist in any other medium. But the examples are legion (first things that spring to mind are Tarkovsky and Denis and Lye - an interesting Rorschach test of my cinematic subconscious).

Thinking further about it, I'm interested that several films and sequences that spring to mind are very simple, or actually strip out elements of the medium to achieve their 'cinematic' effect:
- Billy Bitzer's one shot turn-of-the-century POV film of the New York subway, an almost abstract lightshow
- Buster thwarting disaster by using one log to get rid of another in his path in The General (are trains intrinsically cinematic?) - it's a very elegant stunt, and the conceptual and visual beauty of the scene is strongly about physical movement and timing, but that beauty could only be conveyed with that framing and captured with this medium
- the blackout scene in A Brighter Summer Day: sometimes just a soundtrack and minimal, abstracted visuals can be the height of cinema
- the eye-flutter in La Jetee - Chris Marker manages to make the most basic element of cinema miraculously expressive all over again.

And then there's Gertrud, which sometimes seems to me like 95% theatre and 5% cinema, but that 5% is so concentrated and powerful (and, yes, 'pure') that it's more expressive than 100% of many lesser films.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 5:16 pm 
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zedz wrote:
And then there's Gertrud, which sometimes seems to me like 95% theatre and 5% cinema, but that 5% is so concentrated and powerful (and, yes, 'pure') that it's more expressive than 100% of many lesser films.

This reminds me of Leslie Halliwell’s review of Wyler’s Detective Story:

‘Clever, fluent transcription of a Broadway play with some of the pretensions of Greek tragedy; it could have been the negation of cinema, but professional handling makes it the essence of it.’

Often the films which strike us as ‘pure cinema’ are the ones which deliberately draw upon, but differentiate themselves from, some other medium, usually the theatre. 12 Angry Men and the central ballet sequence from The Red Shoes also spring to mind.

I think Gertrud is actually rather static even for a play, and if I were watching it at the theatre it would probably be very boring. It seems to have more in common with painting or sculpture, much like the great 'tableau' silent films (such as Leaves from Satan's Book). The images remain static for so long that we come to regard them as if they were paintings, poring over each nuance of lighting and composition. Although there are some wonderfully dynamic moments, like the beginning of the birthday celebrations, the film often resembles a tapestry, a sequence of rich and beautiful, but seemingly static, pictures. But yes, it's the creation of something so cinematic out of something that 'could have been the negation of cinema' which makes the film such a miracle.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 5:21 pm 
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I think we need to distinguish between silent film and sound film, which are two different mediums.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 6:32 pm 
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I'm also not too sure about the terminology.

Would we say that 'pure cinema' encompasses both sequences within more conventional films (the blackout sequence in Brighter Summers Day or the brief movement in La Jetee, Marta's letter reading in Winter Light, etc. Moments that gain their power from the way that they stand out so distinctly from the rest of the work and are the things which in some ways are the 'true' reasons for the existence of the films even beyond their roles in the plot mechanics. To see someone smile, or cry, crumple a letter, or hold a shirt to their chest expressing some universal feeling beyond just the particular narrative being told) and films which as a whole distill a particular element of cinematic experience such as those of Brakhage, Bresson, Pasolini, even Greenaway, focusing on a particular technique, performance, or philosophical approach to a film to the exclusion of everything else and thereby attaining a kind of purity of purpose?

Or are we talking about a piece of work that cannot be represented in any other manner but through the combination of filmed images, a score or soundtrack, editing patterns and performances? That through the combination of all these elements a film captures something 'purely cinematic' which could not be expressed in any other medium - that film as an art form finds its own voice beyond just playing already popular music over a scene for an emotional effect or producing a filmed version of an already classic novel for the new medium? That instead of just adapting or appropriating other arts, there are films whose power is uniquely that of their medium and could not work in any other form?

I also think that along with a distinction between silent and sound cinema there could be added distinctions for black and white and colour films, for Academy and widescreen, for various film stocks, for mono sound onward. Are there films which represent the pinnacle of the technology of that time? That use the 'restrictions' of their technology to achieve something particularly 'pure' within their idiom?


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 6:54 pm 
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Sloper wrote:
Often the films which strike us as ‘pure cinema’ are the ones which deliberately draw upon, but differentiate themselves from, some other medium, usually the theatre. 12 Angry Men and…

I'd be curious to know what about 12 Angry Men you feel differentiates it from the theatre. Personally, having watched this recently, I felt that the film felt very theatrical and play-like, and that as a film it only really added some nice touches in the way of cinematography (long shots becoming closeups, claustrophobia, beautiful contrast) and staging (palpable heat and stress in the form of sweat), but nothing that I would consider really essential to the experience, just wonderful enhancements.

Or perhaps it's just a matter of degree? I guess if pressed, I'd have to say that Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? benefits more from the fact that it's captured the timeless performances than from the exquisite, supportive cinematography (some of the most beautiful I've seen). To me, neither film seems to depend on being a film as much as a play->film adaptation like Prospero's Books.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 7:20 pm 
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You see, I feel that Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf is a film which tries much too hard not to be theatrical – the camerawork, though impressive, is distracting and histrionic (sorry to disagree!) – and the whole thing, by protesting too much, ends up feeling very theatrical indeed. I can never forget that I’m watching a play, anymore than I can in the case of, say, The Odd Couple.

12 Angry Men gets it just right: in the most limited space possible, with very theatrical material, it is filmed in an un-showy but still very cinematic way (the use of close-ups, especially, distinguishes it from a stage-play; it’s not wholly unlike The Passion of Joan of Arc), and it just ‘feels’ like a film. This is very subjective, I know, but I think Lumet has an unforcedly filmic approach to his material, and in a totally natural, organic way produces something cinematic; Nichols (with the aid of Haskell Wexler) seems to want to reproduce a great theatrical event, but also is concerned to avoid a ‘theatrical’ film, so overdoes it. It reminds me of some televised Shakespeare productions (like Trevor Nunn’s Macbeth, or a later one with Antony Sher) which smother the plays in half-arsed, amateurish editing tricks and vomit-inducing camerawork. Obviously, Nichols’ film is much better than those, but the problem is essentially the same.


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PostPosted: Mon Jun 15, 2009 11:52 pm 
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Hmm, I guess that was kind of my point, though. I mean, in 12 Angry Men the camerawork is subtle, and it sort of layers in some meaning into the theater, but it works entirely in subordination to it, trying not to draw attention to itself. If you take out Kaufman's camerawork of 12 Angry Men and you set it all inside a proscenium, you still have 12 Angry Men, and with all the same actors, you wouldn't fundamentally be missing much.

With Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? the camerawork may be more self-conscious and showy, but it also comes closer to creating an experience you can't have in a stage performance. If you took the camerawork out of it and ran it on a stage, even with the same actors, it would be a more dramatically different experience than with 12 Angry Men, for better or worse. Or perhaps you disagree?

That said, while I think Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? comes a little closer, I don't think either of them really escapes their identity as a filmed play any more than Rattle and Hum and Stop Making Sense don't really escape their identities as concert films (even if Rattle and Hum wants to think of itself as a sort of documentary). It would be hard for me to think of either mode of filmmaking as something that could be called pure cinema, although they both are part of the larger picture of what filmmaking can be.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2009 12:11 am 
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Thinking on it, isn't discussing purity in regards to an artform that is indebted to, and borrows so heavily from, others arts and mediums an ineluctable contradiction? Purity as a concept has the connotation of boiling or reducing things to essences, to what is untouched by anything not itself. What about film can be reduced to an immaculate essence? We seem to be skirting this issue with the discussion of theatre films, which are just films that aren't exclusively filmic.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2009 12:21 am 
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Indeed. Perhaps pure cinema is cinema that doesn't try to express any ideas and is only a raw, aesthetic, cinematic experience that goes straight to the heart without making a pit stop at the intellect. There are all sorts of ways we could think about pure cinema.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2009 12:33 am 
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Jun-Dai wrote:
Indeed. Perhaps pure cinema is cinema that doesn't try to express any ideas and is only a raw, aesthetic, cinematic experience that goes straight to the heart without making a pit stop at the intellect. There are all sorts of ways we could think about pure cinema.

Can't tell if this jab is intended to be in good fun or not. And I don't recall saying anything about heart over head in that thread.


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2009 1:52 am 
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Sorry, that wasn't intended as a jab at all. The indeed was misleading. I was merely thinking through one way of boiling down the (a?) cinematic medium to an immaculate essence, and I immediately thought of music (sans lyrics), in which concrete ideas are not easily presented (in part because communicating ideas typically requires language or representation). While I think it would relegate the notion of pure cinema to a marginal niche in the world of filmmaking, it's certainly easy to think of such a film as being a pure expression of the medium rather that using the medium as a vehicle for something else (an idea).

A film like mothlight, for example, expresses very little in the way of ideas. It's existence brings a lot a whole host of ideas, and a few ideas could pop out amidst the mix of foliage and dead moths, but it's pretty close to being pure something. Pure cinema perhaps?


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PostPosted: Tue Jun 16, 2009 2:21 am 
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Jun-Dai wrote:
Sorry, that wasn't intended as a jab at all. The indeed was misleading. I was merely thinking through one way of boiling down the (a?) cinematic medium to an immaculate essence, and I immediately thought of music (sans lyrics), in which concrete ideas are not easily presented (in part because communicating ideas typically requires language or representation). While I think it would relegate the notion of pure cinema to a marginal niche in the world of filmmaking, it's certainly easy to think of such a film as being a pure expression of the medium rather that using the medium as a vehicle for something else (an idea).

A film like mothlight, for example, expresses very little in the way of ideas. It's existence brings a lot a whole host of ideas, and a few ideas could pop out amidst the mix of foliage and dead moths, but it's pretty close to being pure something. Pure cinema perhaps?

Ah, my bad. 'Cause I definitely said stuff slightly to that effect in that religion thread which you didn't seem to buy, so I figured it was a pot-shot. Apparently I'm just paranoid.


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