Reader review by Morgan Hoyle-Combs.
DIRECTED BY: Piotr Kamler
PLOT: In a lost city, that may only be found in time, monolithic figures try to break free from
their continuous state of immortality by crafting, and destroying, time itself. Two keys to their demise are a curious white sphere and long legged explorer, both of who have no interest in putting an end to the gods of Chronopolis.
WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Piotr Kamler created one of the few silent stop-motion arthouse films synched with an electrical atmospheric soundtrack that has yet to take on a cult audience. Made with a 1920’s 35mm Debrie Parvo camera over a five year period, Kamler didn’t hesitate to tell a story though calm visuals and masterful animation which beckons a new face to the pure, dreamlike wonders that surrealist cinema has to offer.
COMMENTS: Everyone has some type of love for the strange, somewhere. When I was a teen, I recall searching for movies set in a dystopian steampunk world. The name Chronopolis popped up, but with very little info, let alone links. I shoved the title on YouTube, desperate to see fancy steampunk. Chronopolis was not that; in fact, the video was so pixelated I could hardly tell what was happening. I wanted more. After researching, I finally found the whole movie; it forever changed my perspective on viewing cinema and the world through an eye piece.
The fact that this stop motion movie is rarely spoken of and had a very little release adds more to it’s strange nature, almost like it was intended to be forgotten by time. In reality I think Kamler did not do a fantastic job of publicizing his work. A VHS edition was released from a now deceased video library in Boston in the mid 80’s. The movie earned it’s fame, however, through its inclusion on a 2007 DVD collection of Kamler’s shorts, although this version was cut by 20 minutes or so. Kamler originally stated that there were some gratuitous scenes when he initially released it to the public. I watched both, and found the 66 minute version to be a little darker than the one he re-cut. For instance, in the original Bond villain Michael Lonsdale introduces the history of the people and the city of Chronopolis in his eerie French dialect, whereas the recut version plays an echoing synthesizer. Other scenes, including an explorer flying around an obese man who morphs into a slender woman and repetitive shots of the Chronopolis gods near the end are visually absurd at best, but are hastily (and sometimes horribly) cut. The animation, on the other hand, is unfairly overlooked. I couldn’t count how many models/frames of the white sphere Kamler built, because it’s bobbing up and down was so smooth and precise. The show-stopper comes from the beginning where a figure builds an odd alien-looking creature out of two mounds of clay. Just when you think it’s finished, it keeps adding more and more pieces onto itself, all of which disappear and reappear as something else.
Kamler creates a huge collection of many things. Scene transitions represent movement, each frame represents history, and the music signifies the pulse of life. As a whole, the world of Chronopolis resembles an art deco/Egyptian landscape with inhabitants that are crosses between pre-Columbian tribesmen and sport figurines (one wears what looks like a giant basketball goal as a headband, while another has a hockey helmet!) Every one of them carries a blank, lethargic expression on their face; they always sit and move nothing but their head and arms. What are these people thinking? The gentle stop-motion gives us a glimpse into a world where talent has been laid down but has never been expanded. Chronopolis’ inhabitants are intelligent but lost. The city is elegant but unrefined. An open-minded person might call this a subtle, moving dadaist painting, while the latter would call this a confusing piece of claptrap that runs amok from beginning to end. If it’s one thing that everyone can agree on, it’s that yes, it can be very confusing. But why do people avoid that nowadays?
Since Kamler leaves the storyline up for interpretation, the film acts like a long strung out painting or photograph. It’s concentration is in pure imagery and detail. It asks the viewer, “Are you patient enough to see what might happen in the next scene? Are you strong enough to make your own conclusion instead waiting around just for the movie to spoon feed you?” Think that over for a while and you might have yourself an answer. Everyone likes to be entertained, mostly through an comprehensive storyline that shakes them from their seat and pulls their eyes from their skull (and soul). It seems everything else is looked down upon, especially when it comes to outlandish fables and visuals without rational explanations. Maybe the inhabitants of Chronopolis are just the reflection of human beings facing something so boring and dumb they simply have no understanding of how to control it. They lose grasp of greater epiphanies, slap avant-garde in the face and fade back into their mainstream happy spot. To me, that’s a very lethargic attitude. I think it’s also a very narcissistic one. But let’s not go to far. Chronopolis, to be fair, is whatever the viewer wants it to be. Interpretation sometimes comes off as an acquired taste and a pretentious exercise nowadays, but perhaps it’s the next big thing that could save cinema in the future.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY: