Well here’s something I didn’t know before – the world’s second-longest film is a silent film. Indeed, until it was beaten by the compellingly-titled Modern Times Forever (Stora Enso Building, Helsinki) only this year, which weighs in at a daunting 240 hours, Cinématon by the French experimental filmmaker Gérard Courant was the longest film in the world, at 156 hours, or six days twelve hours.
Courant has been making the film for thirty-three years. He started making it in 1978 and is still being added to, so he could yet catch up once more with his rival. It’s not a narrative film, indeed it’s not really a single film but rather a series of unedited silent portraits (cinématons) of people, each of which is three minutes and 25 seconds long, shot on Super 8 film. To date there are 2,350 of them. Courant says he only intended to shoot 100 but the idea was so popular that he just kept on going.
The subjects range from the famous to the unknown. Included among the former are Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Fuller, Maurice Pialat, Wim Wnders, Sandrine Bonnaire, Terry Gilliam, Joseph Losey and Roberto Benigni. A number are available to view on Courant’s website, while others (appaently with the filmmaker’s blessing), appear on YouTube. They are silent films, and Courant has said he prefers silent movies “because of their power to convey strong emotions and connect with the audiences”. Whether you connect in an emotionally strong way with the film of Godard below, for example, may be open to question. It is typical of the series, where the subject, shown in close-up, simply sits before the camera. Many subject look self-conscious, uncertain of what to do, of how to fill the time.
Jean-Luc Godard, Cinématon #106, filmed 22 February 1981
The ‘film’ has been screened in its entirety on a number of occasions, each time getting longer of course, most recently at the Microscope Gallery, New York in 2010, and sequences are currently being featured at the Gulf Film Festival.
French critic Jacques Kermabon wrote this about the series in 1983:
Le Cinématon renoue avec la vocation originelle du cinématographe, émerveillé par la reproduction du mouvement et la possibilité de conserver la trace d’une existence. L’émotion naît de découvrir au cinéma la palpitation d’un corps: respiration, clignements d’yeux, hochements de tête. Tout est enregistré sans possibilité de reprise : les gestes manqués, les maladresses, les hésitations … Tout un corpus gestuel, honni du cinéma traditionnel, est ainsi exhibé, rendant caduque la notion de réalisme dans le cinéma de fiction. La pellicule a impressionné le souvenir de 3 minutes 20 d’existence. Elle restitue dans sa pesanteur, le temps qui est passé un jour. « La mort au travail », disait Cocteau du cinéma.
The original vocation of cinema? Well there is something of the Lumières about the exercise – single shot films, each of identical length, arranged in series, records of seeming plain reality that become anything but because the camera was there. And yet it is the negation of cinema, because fundamentally cinema takes you somewhere (a characteristic of every Lumière film) while Cinématon takes you nowhere. Whether you spent three minutes 25 seconds watching it or six-and-a-half days would probably make no difference. But cinema overall would be the poorer without such grandes folie.
There is to be a retrospective of Courant’s work at La Cinémathèque de Bourgogne in October or November of this year, and the Cinémathèque’s website is currently screening one cinématon per week.