Wednesday, March 9, 2011
Watching Les Raquetteurs, a 1958 National Film Board short from Michel Brault and Gilles Groulx, I thought of a child at a wedding. The child is caught up in this social ritual he can only partly understand, and most of what he grasps are fragmentary images and sensations. He hears the music, sees the crowd, but what really stands out are pieces of the whole: a kid playing by himself on the stairs outside the hall, a couple sitting alone at a table talking. The child doesn’t realize that the couple at the table is venting frustration at the bride for snubbing a mutual friend. He doesn’t know that the kid on the stairs is hiding from his obnoxiously drunk parents, who are laughing too loud and slobbering all over each other. These glosses of meaning can come much later, when the scene is reconstituted in memory. But in the moment, it’s just an experience.
Les Raquetteurs, documenting a snowshoeing festival in Sherbrooke, Quebec, captures some of that childlike wonder and confusion. At times, I felt like a baffled kid standing next to my mother. Mom, why are the snowshoers running on a track instead of snow? (Answer: because it’s funnier that way, dumbass.) The film is a concentrated pill of the festival’s pleasures, ranging from the opening parade to the races, with a rowdy evening dance closing out the festivities. It’s a goofy little event—seriously, the racetracks are so well trod the racers could just as easily be running on dirt—but Groulx and Brault film everything with a delighted fascination. The film stands as an early exemplar of direct cinema.
A brief explanation: direct cinema is an approach to documentary filmmaking that has roots in Quebec, and Les Raquetteurs lies right at the origins of the movement. The goal is to give viewers a taste of an unmediated experience. Direct cinema typically forgoes voiceovers and other explanatory devices that can pull the viewer out of the film (there are no labels here telling us who these people are, for instance). There is just the subject, with as little interference as possible. Compare that to a more conventional documentary, which uses talking heads and a narrator to help capture reality. That word says it all—“capture.” You could say confining a subject is one route to understanding it; you could also ask how well a warden can ever know his prisoners. Direct cinema simply aims for a freer relationship with reality, that’s all.
Of course, that doesn’t mean the film is necessarily more real—whatever that is—than other documentaries. Brault and Groulx are certainly not above a little bit of manipulation, if it suits their purposes. There’s a hilarious offhand moment when a train interrupts the town parade, leaving one half of a befuddled marching band stuck behind a string of rail cars. An unplanned moment, sure, but what of that perfectly framed shot of the railway crossing lights flashing? Orson Welles supposedly once said that a director presides over accidents. I don’t suppose that means reading the train schedule each morning and then setting up your camera at the railway crossing.
Perhaps Brault and Groulx cheat a little—so what? Who wants to get into phenomenological haggling over what is and is not a valid experience of reality? At its best, the film is a joyous rush of images, made all the more vivid for their lack of context: the banjo player caught in mouth-agape ecstasy mid-song, the awkward staged kiss between the queen of the festival and the man who presents her crown, the dancing harmonica player who flails with pure abandon. I’m particularly fond of the man who trips and loses a race, angrily throwing down his toque and then picking it up in almost the same gesture, as if instantly embarrassed by his outburst. A couple of staged shots do nothing to detract from this sense of spontaneity. The film is nearly 15 minutes worth of unguarded moments.
At the party that closes the film, we see several different couples whispering into each other’s ears. Of course, we never hear what is said, and that’s part of what makes the images stick in the mind. Much like that child at the wedding, these experiences are more vivid precisely because we don’t know everything. Understanding is itself a filter between yourself and experience. Sometimes documentaries try to show us reality by holding it down and prying out it secrets. But in the best examples of direct cinema, the surest way to reveal the world is to preserve something of its mystery.