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What Is Cinema?
What is Cinema attempts to capture and explore the meaning and allure of cinema as a whole within a paltry 78-minute running time. Given the limitations at hand, it's no surprise that Chuck Workman's film comes off as rushed, unfocused and unsatisfactory.
However, given that the documentary (Or, as the Blu-Ray blurb more accurately describes it, visual essay) spends a considerable amount of time and energy on experimental film while questioning whether or not narrative really is that important to creating cinema as a pure art form, it's highly possible that Workman attempted to create a similar experimental feel for his essay.
The doc jumps from one subject to another without much of a thread to seamlessly connect them together. From the value of experimental filmmaking to cinema history, we jump to whether or not documentaries can truly be objective. From there, we suddenly find ourselves in an argument about style, only to jump to a discussion about the freedom independent film gives to various filmmakers.
The section about independent cinema is suddenly punctuated with an extended interview with Mike Leigh long enough to trick the audience into thinking we were meant to watch a Mike Leigh career retrospective and not an all-encompassing visual essay about cinema itself. I guess whether or not it's about cinema history, the artistic credibility of cinema or whatever specific point about cinema as a whole is up to the viewer.
The doc mostly consists of footage from some of the greatest works in film history, with a dash of experimental cinema peppered in. Aside from his impressive documentary work, Workman is also known as the go-to guy for those montages you skip through on your DVR during the Academy Awards ceremonies.
Therefore, it's no wonder that he decided to populate his visual essay with shots from as many of his favorite films as possible. His trademark quick cutting between similar shots from different films, some of them decades apart, is very much present here as even the first couple of minutes of What is Cinema includes footage from at least thirty classics.
These montages from other films are intercut with interviews given by various directors, some of them legendary, some of them fairly unknown, as they philosophize about the meaning and appeal of their chosen art form. Sometimes their quotes appear superimposed over images of their own films, sometimes they're shown via vintage interviews, and rarely do we get brand new interviews recorded specifically for Workman's essay.
It's nearly impossible to condense the meaning of cinema into only 78 minutes. Mark Cousins recently tried to describe cinema with a more chronological and traditional approach via his documentary series The Story of Film. Even with a whopping 915-minute runtime, he left behind many, many important aspects of film history and cinema as a whole. Chuck Workman must have known that anything close Cousins' approach certainly wouldn't have worked in such a short runtime, so it looks like he decided to bring a more experimental approach.
More than half of What is Cinema consists of footage from hundreds of other films. It's understandable that Workman probably had to work with whatever source material he could get, considering the sheer volume he had to work with. Unfortunately, this doesn't mask the fact that a lot of the footage appears to be taken from standard definition video sources that suffer from pretty much every video noise you can think of.
At least half of the interviews with directors come from scratchy vintage footage, which leaves us with very little HD material actually shot for the film itself. The digital photography of the HD footage looks clear, bright, and devoid of any noise. All in all, the 1080p transfer wouldn't inspire anyone to specifically seek What is Cinema out on Blu-Ray.
Two tracks are offered, DTS-HD 5.1 and lossy Dolby Digital 5.1. This is very curious. First of all, the film barely shows any surround presence and sticks mostly to the center channel, since a big chunk of it consists of interviews with directors. Secondly, why was the lossy track even offered as an option? What is Cinema presents a mix that's serviceable for a documentary of this sort, but not much more should be expected.
10 Experimental Films: Clocking in at almost two hours, shouldn't this have been the main feature? There are a lot of gems here for hardcore fans of experimental cinema. This feature presents ten famous experimental films ranging from the 1920s to present time. Some of the shorts were even featured in What is Cinema. The older films are very scratchy, since they're probably transferred from public domain sources, but as we get closer to present time, the video quality vastly improves.
We also get a Trailer for What is Cinema.
If you're a beginner film buff who wants to get deeper into film history and philosophical discussions on cinema, What is Cinema will more than likely leave you confused and unsatisfied. Fans of experimental cinema and an overtly intellectualized approach to film history might get a kick out of it. Otherwise, it's not essential viewing.
Oktay Ege Kozak is a film critic and screenwriter based in Portland, Oregon. He also writes for The Playlist, The Oregon Herald, and Beyazperde.com