Monday, July 6, 2009

Avant-garde: Footnote to Fact (1933, Lewis Jacobs)

Footnote to Fact (1933)
USA, 8 min
Directed by: Lewis Jacobs
Footnote to Fact (1933) was originally intended by director Lewis Jacobs to be the first film in a four-part documentation of the Great Depression, collectively titled "As I Walk." The remaining three installments were never completed, and this film was thought lost until the 1990s, when the original negative was rediscovered by the Anthology Film Archives. As an avant-garde blending of documentary and fiction, the film works. It is similar in style to the many "city symphonies" that were popular in the 1920s, utilising the Soviet montage editing of Dziga Vertov and Hans Richter. In contrast, however, Jacobs centres the film's emotional base around a single character, an old woman sitting alone in her apartment, rocking back and forth. The film uses the woman's rocking motion as a kind of visual motif, juxtaposing it with similar movements in the hustle-and-bustle of the city: a shopper loads fruit into a paper bag, a shoe-polisher goes about his trade, hanging clothing sways back and forth in the breeze.

The film's opening half illustrates the life and vitality of the city, which is contrasted with the lethargy of the rocking woman. Later, Jacobs slows down his editing pace slightly, photographs sparser crowds of people, and portrays the otherwise unseen effects of the Depression: an antique shop goes out of business; homeless men lay asleep on doorsteps, ignored by passers-by. Powerfully, and perhaps a little harshly, Jacobs compares these sleeping men to slaughtered swine carcasses. Footnote to Fact is a good effort at montage, but the old woman in the rocking chair really got on my nerves. For one, she was clearly a young woman dressed up to look old, and her ridiculous appearance – dreary eyes, mouth gaping wide – broke the film's spell every time she appeared on screen. Of course, Jacobs eventually offers us a reason (and a perfectly good one) for why this should be so, but by then the damage was already done. This film can be found in the "Unseen Cinema" box-set, under the volume entitled "Picturing a Metropolis."

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