The images that flicker at roughly twenty-four frames per second, over the big silver screen towering above audiences in theaters across the world, tell stories all on their own. Either in running sequence or within a single cell, these are paintings constructed by crews of individuals, working together at the service of spectacular story and (hopefully) emotion. Take for example F.W. Murnau’s silent classic The Last Laugh. Prior to its (spoiler alert) famous pain relief of a finale, the film had been building to a depressing conclusion for its lead hotel concierge/greeter character. Once a jolly old man full of pride, he receives a demotion to restroom attendant. Shame and shunning are all that’s left for him, as he slumps in his work chair, defeated, with the camera iris closing in on him. The shot isn’t just over, but so is his life.
There’s a texture to a great film like The Last Laugh, where the cinematography is as important a component to the story as the script and performances. More affecting than 3D, a feeling pops out at you. A coarseness, in this case, rolls over the hairs on your arms. Something tangible is happening.
Screening as part of Shotgun Cinema’s Full Aperture series in New Orleans comes Love Canal, a short movie from filmmaker Elsa Bres and the Deltaworkers creative project. With French voice-over narration and English subtitles, Love Canal is a story tangibly told to both eyes and ears, impressing itself into ones mind most impressively.
Almost by default of being made by a French filmmaker, I can imagine Love Canal being treated as if pretentious or full of itself. Whether that be the case or not I leave to the crowd of moviegoers attending to determine, but I can safely say that, in the end, such loftiness and high-mindedness in a movie or a director isn’t necessarily a “bad” thing. And, with Elsa Bres and her story of young explorers searching and scouring for unique debris throughout an abandoned land development, it’s most certainly a “good” thing.
On the audible front, the film speaks of something different than what is shown. Almost difficult to decipher, the never seen but always heard narrator describes the construction and destruction of a city and its society over the course of what may be many decades, eventually becoming chemically influenced ruins that vagabonds discover with excitement and sadness. On the visual front, we see the calm stillness of dirt hills and valleys, of caves and rock quarries, occupied by young men and women, bartering with each other precious metals, instruments, and specks of color on stones. For its under twenty-minute screentime, Love Canal might play coy on the face of it all, being mysterious and vague here and there, but ultimately is expressing a tale of texture that reaches different senses.
There are many shots and frames that match alike, offering similar looks while saying different things. These things spoken without words are, more or less, about the fragility of civilization, the inevitable change and evolution of being, the indifference to human struggle or fascination by the Earth, and the feeling that you can only get from dirty hands set upon campfires. In one shot, we see a light turn from yellow to burning orange, becoming a fire in the left corners of the screen. Soon, it illuminates a cave with a man warming himself. Then, a woman walks up to the warmth, coming in from the darkness behind. Exceptionally crafted, that was.
Elsa Bres, with Love Canal, is able to convey much from just an image of a rock. The contours, the clarity, the character inhabited by what is essentially a motionless object. Motionless for long periods of time, until someone or something moves it. We are the catalyst of change here, for better and worse, in life and in cinema (which can and do go hand in hand).
Experimental? Maybe. A return to the beginning? Feels like it. Elsa Bres accomplishes with Love Canal what filmmakers of old and of today dream of – texture. Brush strokes may be replaced by pixels smeared over a well-lit wall, but the painting is still important to film. Tell stories whenever, wherever, and most often. Movement is an illusion of sped up cells in sequence. Pause the action, and what do you see? What is it telling you?
RATING: 5 / 5
Love Canal screens as part of Shotgun Cinema’s Full Aperture series on May 1st, 2019. Click here for details.
Bill Arceneaux has been an independent writer and film critic in the New Orleans area since 2011, working with outlets like Film Threat, DIG Baton Rouge, Crosstown Conversations, and Occupy. He is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association and is Rotten Tomatoes approved.