“What Is Cinema?,” the title of Chuck Workman’s new documentary, is one of those questions that are so simple they’re unanswerable. It’s like “what is life?” that way, only more so.
If the question has to be asked, Workman is the man to do it. His seven-minute montage of half-second movie clips, “Precious Images,” won the 1986 Academy Award for live action short. You can watch it on YouTube. Prepare to be dazzled — transported, too.
“What Is Cinema?” is like “Precious images” in offering a cornucopia of film clips, though these are of somewhat longer duration. Workman has interspersed them with numerous talking heads trying to answer that question posed by the title. Most of the answer attempters are film directors.
The living ones include the independent film pioneer Jonas Mekas, David Lynch (whom we get to watch watching “Vertigo,” no less), Michael Moore, Costa-Gavras, Abbas Kiarostami, and the video artist Bill Viola. There’s even a glimpse of Sundance — groan — courtesy of James Franco and Michael Winterbottom at press conferences. Among those seen in archival interviews are Alfred Hitchcock, Robert Altman, Sidney Lumet (talking about Akira Kurosawa’s work rather than his own), Robert Bresson, and John Ford.
Actually, not all answers address the title question. Mike Leigh and Kelly Reichardt are fine and distinctive filmmakers. But their films aren’t so fine and distinctive as to merit the screen time devoted to them talking about how they go about making those films. Although Lynch, say, may speak in halting generalities that verge on banality, at least they’re not narrow, self-serving generalities that verge on banality. And the analogy Lynch draws between artistic imagination and fishing is kind of enchanting.
Nobody does movie montage as well — meaning, as magically — as Workman. Sometimes he groups them by genre (melodrama, experimental film, documentary, feminist film), sometimes by filmmaker. More often, they seem to follow filmic free association. “Seem” because Workman has some nicely sly juxtapositions. A film professor (with an awful voice) reads the critic André Bazin’s famous observation that photographic images “embalm time.” Cut to the hunting scene from “Rules of the Game,” then cut to “The Birds.” Taxidermy is a form of embalming, no?
In an ideal world, the interviews — or at least the contemporary ones — could be skipped. Is there such a thing as talking head Tivo? The clips, in all their transfixing variousness, are the true answer — or, rather, answers — to the question posed by the title.
During the documentary’s weeklong run, the Brattle will pair “What Is Cinema?” with a feature presentation of a film excerpted in it. Those films are “Mulholland Drive,” “Vertigo,” “Meek’s Cutoff,” “Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles,” “Pickpocket,” and “Rashomon.” The Kurosawa is a perfect choice. That’s what “What Is Cinema?” is, a “Rashomon” view if ever there was one.