Dir.: Axel Donielson, Maximilien von Aertryck; Documentary Sweden/Denmark 2023, 88 min.
‘An image tells a thousand words’
A potted history of the camera – from the early nineteenth century to the present day – provides compulsive viewing in this new documentary from Axel Donielson and Maximilien von Aertryck.
Apparently King Edward VII, when watching his own coronation re-staged by film pioneer Georges Melies in a Paris studio, exclaimed “What a fantastic machine” in his wonderment of a gadget which would transform public and private life forever.
The first time feature directors have plundered the archives and uncovered a wealth of material from the clips and sources – as a bonus, they are also preparing a book version which will serve as a companion piece to the documentary – promising additional, previously unseen material into the bargain.
The opening shows people in a shopping centre looking in astonishment at the ‘Camera Obscura’ images, forgetting they have far more sophisticated equipment in their own pockets. The stream of images, from Muybridge to Logan Paul; Melies sensational early shorts to “Breaking Bad” Fantastic Machine is a film about film and our obsession with recording what we see. It also tells the story of how technology changed the planet.
Back in the day, Melies’ footage of trains shocked audiences so much they fled the cinema in horror. There are oddities on show too, and breathtaking examples throughout that beggar belief: A very cheerful Leni Riefenstahl, looking back with nostalgia at a flatbed editing machine, ignores her past and her work and pretends there is no representation in any of her films.
Fantastic Machine shows us the first intercontinental broadcast and the response it got from an audience in Wisconsin. There are examples of how photography eventually came alive with the moving image, and the first examples of the ‘peep show’ that would lead, in time, to ‘blue movies’. Yes, now that’s all on the internet for free.
The advent of TV was a major step forward, and with it the commercials that now seem to rule the world. But early TV was also a means of gaining insight and education in the “Open University” at least for the middle-classes, who were upwardly mobile during the 1960s. TV Commercials or ‘adverts’ soon found their way from the big box in the living room to the mobiles in our pockets, leading us persuasively by the nose to the goods we think we need with algorithms to find a target audience.
You Tube has now created a new audience, and a set of new age entrepreneurs: The phenomenon has spawned a legion of teen millionaires all under the age of eighteen. On a darker note, we have to thank the cameramen who risk their lives in war zones, and those who took images of liberated concentration camp victims, “so that nobody can say that it did not happen”. The directors strike a note of caution when it comes to fake news, urging us to think before we act. Seeing is not always believing, and can be deceptive.
Fantastic Machine is certainly worth a second viewing. Apart from being a treasure trove of information, it never takes itself too seriously with a welcome dash of humour, and a non-judgemental approach at all times. AS
SCREENING AT CPH:DOX 2023