What kind of films would Stanley Kubrick have made if modern CGI was at his disposal? What would Tarkovsky have done during the early 2010s 3D craze? Would Charlie Chaplin feel at home with a streaming release model? These sorts of questions, imagining what our dearly departed favorite filmmakers would do if transposed to the modern era (and if they would even make waves today), are the kinds of things I’ve often seen debated and wondered about myself, but they can never really be resolved beyond conjecture. The other type of cinematic time travel however, that is to say going to the past, can be observed in 1995’s Lumière and Company.
The film, a collaboration between 40 of the most prominent directors of world cinema working at the time, sets out to discover what each would’ve done working under the constraints of the Lumière brothers 100 years prior when they created the first films. Each director used an original Lumiere camera and homemade film stock to shoot a film that had to be under 52 seconds in length, use only natural light, use no synchronized sound, and require less than three takes. What followed was an array of films as diverse as its creators despite all sharing the exact same constraints, with no regard given to the differentials in budget and technology that so commonly show themselves in contemporary films, and through this collection of films, an exploration of the purpose and ability of cinema emerges.
Though films today are occasionally made with a flair for the past (whether in black and white, on film as opposed to digital, or even silent), the decisions behind these tend to amount to something like the cinematic equivalent of a renaissance fair- an opportunity for the filmmakers to feel like they’re escaping to the past with little attention paid to the actual authenticity of their methods. After all, they usually care solely for how such techniques enhance the style of the work. In Lumière and Company, it is the reverse. Only using the old methods (though modern props and dress do exist and remind us the films are only facsimile), the filmmakers find their style in their most distilled forms. For some, that means attempting to overcome the restraints of the equipment, with out of sync sound being played to compliment the film or even through adding color, painstakingly recreated by hand painting each individual frame as would have been done in the earliest days of film. Others seem content to work with what they have and make their imprint capturing their recreations of life, trusting the images themselves, no matter how crude, to convey their artistic sensibilities.
To most watching, David Lynch’s film seems to stand out most, bringing a bit of weirdness and science fiction to the movie, while the humorous reveal at the end of Zhang Yimou’s bit and the political subtext of Wim Wenders’s part similarly feel very true to the directors’ sensibilities. Others turned the camera more inward, with Spike Lee filming his daughter trying to say “dada” and Michael Haneke simply filming the news as it aired in front of him. Perhaps the most intriguing bit was Claude Lelouch, a director who seems to have always worked best in these sorts of compilation films, tracking the development of cinema in less than a minute from the eyes of its original inventors. Though the films were all made with the same constraints and the same camera, no two look alike- a result of both differing speeds of cranking the camera that literally changes the frame rate every single time and the rudimentary visual styles they created. More importantly, however, no two contain the same answer as to why films are made. Is the art of cinema meant to preserve a moment in time forever, allow people to live on long past their deaths? Some seem to have taken that route. Is it pure entertainment? Should its primary goal be political action? Does it matter if the film is relevant a few years in the future? Is it all just an exercise in futility, screaming into the void and hoping someone hears? The directors themselves, all asked these questions after making their films, seem to have reached no consensus. Many had no answer at all. Whatever the truth may be, each and every film in Lumière and Company reminds us that each and every film we’ve ever seen is indebted to a train pulling into a station and the efforts of two brothers to immortalize it. Nothing is ever as insignificant as it may seem.