A couple weeks ago I invoked the concept of “pure cinema” in a blog post I wrote about Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. As defined by Alfred Hitchcock, pure cinema refers to a director’s ability to communicate meaning through the orchestration of all aspects of filmmaking, not just storytelling or dialogue. I thought of this concept again last week when I watched Flamenco, Flamenco, a 2010 performance documentary that opens at the Gene Siskel Film Center this Friday for a weeklong run. The film consists exclusively of dances and musical performances—there are no interviews or prefatory sequences, and even the Spanish-language songs are presented without subtitles. Yet director Carlos Saura and cinematographer Vittorio Storaro (who shot Apocalypse Now, Warren Beatty’s Reds, and many films for Bernardo Bertolucci) tell us plenty about flamenco culture through their use of lighting, framing, color, and camera movement. I may be lukewarm about the movie as a whole (my enjoyment of flamenco music starts to flag after a half hour, making a 96-minute movie something of a slog), though I admired Saura in his quest for pure cinema.
Does it make any difference that I haven’t seen any other movies by this noted Spanish director? Readers generally expect film critics (and not without cause) to provide sufficient background information on the films and filmmakers they discuss—to deliver an informed opinion rather than a purely subjective one. I wonder, though, if this attitude doesn’t prevent critics (and, by extension, audiences) from exploring areas of cinema outside their comfort zones. If a critic can’t provide an informed opinion then why should he or she provide one at all, especially when the Internet allows readers to find information on practically any movie? For one reason, there’s a difference between information and criticism: even if a critic isn’t in a position to have the last word on a film, he or she can still add to the conversation by commenting on aspects of the filmmaking he or she feels qualified to address. For another reason, when critics challenge themselves to engage with unfamiliar subjects they can have the positive effect of encouraging their readers to do the same. This is why I periodically write on the cinemas of India, South America, and central Asia—not because I’m especially qualified to do this, but to remind people (not least myself) of the incredible diversity of film art.
Implicit in the concept of pure cinema is the belief that film art can succeed entirely on its own terms, no background information required. On the basis of Flamenco, Flamenco, I’d guess that Saura agrees with this idea. Not only does he refrain from contextualizing the performances we see in the film (apart from captions identifying the performers and song titles), but he encourages us to approach them on an abstract level. Consider the film’s meticulous lighting setups, which use artificial means to re-create the look of dawn, dusk, and moonlight. Saura considers flamenco culture at all times of day, and in so doing renders it literally “timeless.” And by refusing to subtitle the song lyrics, Saura demands that viewers intuit their content through the performers’ expressive body language. These aspects of Flamenco, Flamenco point to another belief inherent in “pure cinema”—that filmmakers can achieve immortal insights through the fleeting instants they record.