Monday, June 29, 2009

Two fascinating documentaries. . .

I blogged a few days ago about the DVD release of Alain Resnais's film Last Night in Marienbad. So I went out to buy my copy this weekend and was thrilled to discover that the extras include two of Resnais's short documentaries - one of which - Toute la mémoire du monde, a 20 minute look at France's Bibliothèque Nationale - I've been wanting to see ever since reading film critic David Thomson's description in his New Biographical Dictionary of Film. He calls the documentary one of Resnais's most compelling films and writes that the director, "grasped the surrealist futility of archives and made the library a Borges-like image of our obsession with memory."
This gorgeously shot black and white documentary takes you into the subterranean depths of the library, where (at least in 1956) there were sixty miles of shelves, and up to the beautiful vaulted ceilings of the reading rooms. It follows a book from its arrival in the post, to its (pre-computer) cataloguing and its assigned place on the shelves. What really makes this documentary quite beautiful (and oh, so French) is the accompanying voice-over narration. Here's what happens when a library patron requests a book (the camera follows the entire process):

And now the book marches on toward an imaginary boundary, more significant in its life than passing through the looking glass. It is no longer the same book. Before, it was part of a universal abstract, indifferent memory where all books were equal and together basked in attention as tenderly distant as that shown by God to men. Here it's been picked out, preferred over others. Here it's indispensible to its reader, torn from its galaxy to feed these paper-crunching pseudo-insects, irreparably different from true insects in that each is bound in its own distinct concern. . . Here we glimpse a future in which all mysteries are solved. . . when this and other universes offer up their keys to us. And this will come about simply because these readers, each working on his slice of universal memory, will have laid the fragments of a single secret end to end, perhaps a secret bearing the beautiful name of "happiness".

Can't get that on a Kindle now, can you?
The second documentary on the DVD is Le chant du styrène - a quirky and colourful look at the industrial origins of a red plastic bowl. Like the first one, the voice-over text (here narrated by French author and OULIPO member, Raymond Queneau), makes this journey seem epic. If you liked the documentary Manufactured Landscapes, you'd enjoy this as well.
Alain de Botton's latest book, The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work also delves into this subject as he takes a philosophical, aesthetic and frequently amusing look at factories and offices. As de Botton explains, he is attempting, "a hymn to the intelligence, peculiarity, beauty and horror of the modern workplace and, not least, its extraordinary claim to be able to provide us, alongside love, with the principal source of life's meaning." It will make you think twice about industrial sites, shipyards and the origins of objects we take for granted. It is also a beautifully designed book with black and white photographs scattered throughout, including a photo essay tracing the origins of tuna steaks. I found the chapter on biscuits also fascinating - who knew that "biscuits are nowadays a branch of psychology, not cooking"?
(and no, de Botton isn't French - he's Swiss-born and lives in England. But he's written a book about Proust and I have no doubt he's fluent. He's probably also spent a lot of time at the Bibliothèque nationale).

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