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Scott Ventura >> Movie Commentary >> September 2002 >> Lumière & Company

Lumière & Company

Movie Commentary by Scott Ventura


Scott's Rating:
2 / 5
Times Seen:
Viewing Date:
September 2002
IMDB Name:
Lumiere & Company (1995)
Sarah Moon
comedy, documentary, drama, foreign-language
MPAA Rating:


In 1895, the Lumière Brothers built a box with a hand crank on the side. The crank powered a sprocket drive to move film past a lens, and a wheel with a notch cut out to be selective about when light could reach the film. Thus the motion picture was born. There were limitations to their technology, but the results were still quite impressive. Approaching the hundredth anniversary of this groundbreaking feat, the box went on a world tour, being used by forty directors to make thirty-nine short films precisely as the Lumière Brothers did: 52 seconds in a continuous take, no synchronized sound, and only three takes. I suspect this last one was a reflection of budget contraints (the camera uses its own sprocket arrangement, requiring the film to be produced explicitly for this project) or an acknowledgement of the operator's arm getting tired. Lumière & Company is a compilation of those thirty-nine films surrounded by documentary footage of their creation.

Of the thirty-nine short films, there were exactly three that I can say I liked without hesitation. Claude Lelouch does a quick history of film equipment. As a couple kiss in the foreground, a hundred years of camera and lighting technology slide past behind them. I got the joke, liked the music, and appreciated the way they executed it. Alain Corneau filmed a dancer in a billowing dress, and then hand-tinted the frames to give it dazzling bursts of color. Even ignoring every other aspect of the production, this is a visually exciting short that borders on the magical. The last of the readily enjoyed films was by the legendary duo of James Ivory and Ismail Merchant. Their film is simplicity itself: a lateral camera move in Paris. Its then-and-now message, though, is a bit more complicated. I also like the film because Merchant and Ivory cause almost everyone writing about the film to mistakenly count an extra film.

Another eight or nine of the films got a chuckle, but didn't quite win me over. Jerry Schatzberg's humorously demonstrates the "one man's garbage" axiom. Youssef Chahine gets in a dig at censorship that seems especially appropriate since their production is dogged by a man yelling "cinema is sin!". Zhang Yimou takes advantage of the Great Wall of China for his then-and-now joke. Abbas Kiarostami probably doesn't know about the old "this is your brain" anti-drug commercials, but his film evokes them.

Some films definitely required a second watching to get their message, and I'd bet some will resist my understanding no matter how many times I watch it. I'm sure the Wim Wenders clip would be more interesting if I'd seen Wings of Desire. I know the Peter Greenaway and David Lynch shorts, both very much in line with their other efforts, will baffle me forever. I can at least admire their production skills. Lynch manages to cram five sets into his fifty-two seconds, a stunning accomplishment.

The most aggravating thing about this collection is the filler. Director Sarah Moon asks all of the directors three inane questions, the answers to which give little insight. Indeed, the answers are so repetitive that showing different directors say the same thing shows what dull questions they are. It also shows that directors are not brilliant across all media. No matter how good their films, it doesn't make them good on-the- spot philosphers. The making-of footage for each of the shorts is also quite weak. In some cases, Moon has her camera on the director and cinematographer while they're filming, and precedes the film with this. In the case of David Lynch, we just see him yelling "open" and "closed", when it would be much more interesting to see the scenery changes. Admittedly, it would destroy the mood to see the how-to before the short, but they could've put it after. This maddening failure to explain the technique may preserve some of the mystery of filmmaking, but how else will I find out how Yoshida Kiju managed to do a wipe? I can speculate that he used a big mirror, but I'll never really know.

Spell Check Trivia

I was sending someone an email about Lumière, and the email client's spell checker came up with some interesting substitutions. The first four were especially funny in the context of the movie:

DVD Comments

Lumière & Company is a film that cries out for a royal DVD treatment. I would expect the disc to be swimming with background information on the directors. I want to hear the directors describing the film they are making in an interview setting, as many of them don't stand all that well on their own. I yearn for more information about the particular innovations of the Lumière Brothers that enabled the remarkable art form we now take for granted. Show us the inner workings of this all-mechanical contraption. I would be fascinated by the process of making new film stock for a non-standard camera. I'd even like to see the undoubtedly painstaking restoration of the hundred-year-old camera. The DVD offers nothing.

In light of that complete dearth of extra material, I at least hoped for easy access to the individual films. In a sense, this is granted by the menus, which list the 39 films on two screens, alphabetically by director. I noted with some amusement that they occasionally swapped a director's first and last names in the sort. The problem here is remembering which director did which film. Remembering another director whose film was just before or just after is no help, because the menus give no indication of the order of the short films in the movie proper. The disc is not divided into chapter stops, so that the only way to skip a director is to fast forward by hand.

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Copyright 2002 by Scott Ventura. All rights reserved.