The Thrill of It All
Man with a Movie Camera has recently been re-released in cinemas. It’s a silent Russian film from 1929 directed by Dziga Vertov. In the opening sequences Vertov proclaims that he is seeking ‘a separation from the language of theatre and literature.’ He wants to create a new grammar particular to film.
Man with a Movie Camera bypasses conventional narrative structures and characterisation. Instead it sets out to document the life of a Soviet city over the course of a day. We see work and play, marriage and divorce, birth and death. We explore the mechanics of urban and industrial life: trams, trains, cars, bikes and buses; steelworks, mines, factories and offices. Vertov is fascinated by the interaction of man and machine and he delights in visual parallels. He cuts between people and pistons; between keyboards, cogs and spools; and ultimately between the human eye and the camera shutter.
Above all Vertov thrills at the possibilities of film. There are close ups and long shots, freeze-frames and split-screens; sequences are speeded up and slowed down. The movie celebrates the art of film making: we see the cameraman at work, film being edited, the film being watched at the cinema. In one memorable sequence the camera itself comes to life through stop frame animation.
Man with a Movie Camera is an exercise in passion. It conveys the pure joy of the pioneer.
I’m inclined to ask, what has happened to our belief in the possibilities of film? Where is the enthusiasm for film’s power: to surprise us, move us and make us think?
In the modern age are we too inclined to shrug at the constraints of time, cost and Clients? Because ‘it’s never as good as the first time’?
Should not new channels and new tasks present fresh opportunities to re-write the rules, to re-define the grammar?
The writer Will Self has described ours as a ‘jaded culture’. Our comfort, knowingness and cynicism deny us the ability to enthuse, the compulsion to revolt.
Sometimes it seems that the thrill is gone. Surely we should bring it back.
The Chaka Khan Conundrum
‘I’m every woman; it’s all in me.
I can read your thoughts right now,
Every one from A to Z.’
Chaka Khan/ ’I’m Every Woman’
I always loved Chaka: her strong, confident voice, her high kicking boots and big, bold hair. I love the sunny euphoria of ‘Do You Love What You Feel?’ I love the adrenaline rush when the synth coda of ‘Ain’t Nobody’ kicks in. I love the fact she was in a band called Rufus, but determined to stand aloof of its absurd name: it was ‘Rufus and Chaka Khan’. In the Pembroke bar we would mimic the scratch in the opening sequence of ‘I Feel for You’; in time, in unison, as one.
But I always wondered, what on earth was Chaka on about when she claimed to be ‘every woman’? How could this be possible? How could it all be in her?
It was only many years later, when I was established in my advertising career, that I understood that Chaka was, in fact, making a compelling point about consumer segmentation.
I dislike consumer segmentation. I never found it useful or helpful at work. Despite being a man from Essex, I was not entirely comfortable being classified as Essex Man. Despite occasionally visiting John Lewis, I wouldn’t say I’m part of ‘the John Lewis Community’. I dislike Mondeo Man, Worcester Woman, Letdown Lady, Pebbledash People. (I kid you not.) I dislike the spurious science and characterful classifications. I dislike the rigidity and ring binders. I even dislike the amusing alliteration…
I think that when Chaka sang that she was ‘every woman’, she was simply pointing out that she could choose to be all forms of womanhood if she wanted to. She was not one singular identity. She couldn’t be boxed off or boxed in.
And isn’t that true of us all? Is not each and every one of us a mess of conflicting drives, moods and identities? Isn’t that what makes us interesting; what makes us human?
Maybe you can segment a mood or a moment, an action or an attitude. But you can’t segment people.
When the Sum of the Parts is Greater than the Whole
At the National Gallery in London you can see the only surviving work by the Florentine painter Pesellino. The Trinity Altarpiece features God the Father supporting the crucified Christ. They are flanked by Saints Mamas and James on one side and Saints Zeno and Jerome on the other.
I went to a talk recently given by the outgoing Director of The National Gallery, Sir Nicholas Penny. He explained the altarpiece’s provenance. It was painted between 1455 and 1460 and hung in the church of the Confraternity of Priests in Pistoia. Around 1783 the Confraternity was suppressed and the altarpiece was sawn into five pieces: the central piece of God and Christ went to one private collector; the pairs of saints joined others; and the angels from the top corners went their own way too. Over subsequent years the pieces journeyed separately around various European galleries and collections. And they were only reunited at The National Gallery in 1929.
The dismembering of art seems barbaric to us now. But to previous generations it was entirely practical to isolate an element of a painting that one found particularly attractive; to trim an artwork to fit a wall. And dealers found that dismemberment could be financially rewarding.
I confess I have occasionally thought a painting could be dramatically improved by the removal of an inferior character or segment. And one of my favourite paintings, The Magdalen Reading by Rogier van der Weyden, is, in fact, just a fragment of a larger altarpiece.
When we consider brands and organisations, we often assume that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts; that there are synergies and efficiencies between elements.
But this is not always the case. I’m sure that Alphabet is only the most recent in a long line of businesses seeking to calibrate the commercial pros and cons of closeness and distance.
Sometimes sub brands stand on each other’s toes; sometimes the propinquity of one brand to another within a holding company can reflect badly on both.
Sometimes the sum of the parts is greater than the whole.