Moscow Clad in Snow (1909)

*. The documentaries of yesteryear (or in this case “actuality films,” if you insist on the difference), are like a form of fantasy, a magic mirror in this case revealing a time of horse-drawn carriages and sleds, not to mention giant bells and cannon that seem left over from a race of giants. We can recognize the people we see, but it’s a way we’ll never be again.
*. In fact, I find documentaries even more fantastic than the escapists fare of the era, like A Trip to the Moon or The Great Train Robbery. A Trip to the Moon is all effects, and effects are always with us. But real streets without cars!
*. I can’t help thinking that if Moscow got any more snow then those streets would be impassable, even with sleds. Then again, a Moscow not clad in snow would be a hellishly muddy mess. Imagine that street in the spring!
*. What makes me find all of this so beautiful? Is it just because it’s a vanished world? I know I feel the same way looking at the streets of 1950s San Francisco in Vertigo, but that’s only natural. I think everyone responds that way to Vertigo (or San Francisco). But these early documentaries almost always have the same effect. And I don’t think I’m romanticizing the past. Snow clad Moscow isn’t some ideal or exotic place. But as I get older, and science fiction gets more and more dystopic, “the past” starts to look like Eden, civilization’s paradise lost.
*. The camera work is very simple, really just a series of pans, but given the limitations of a stationary camera the shots are well chosen. I especially like that opening pan, with the birds sailing about in the middle distance. There’s a tremendous sense of space.
*. It’s very much a city movie, about people going places: walking, riding, sledding, or on skis. Everyone seems so busy.
*. Some of the people seem to know what’s going on, but we also see people looking at the camera with innocence; that is, not seeing themselves as subjects being filmed, not performing, but just wondering what’s the game. That’s another Edenic attribute of the past, a time before the narcissism of the subject, when we all started looking at ourselves.

 

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