Day of the Dead

Film Review by Dean Duncan May 26, 2015

The Eames’ slide show, still-photographic method is really, really great. This assembly of photographic images register in a way that’s sort of similar to the great artistic monuments of late silent cinema. In both cases the stylization is considerable, and even complete. The real world isn’t like this, at all! But how this artfully stylized material takes us back to the real world, and gives us a greater appreciation thereof.

The affect is really quite electrifying. Stylization, or artificiality, takes us completely out of the subject, or at least the subject as we’ve been accustomed to view it. And in doing so, stylization and artificiality help us to really see the subject, in some ways like it was the first time.

It’s important to note that what Charles and Ray are doing here is not really like the defamiliarizing Russian formalists, nor certain Russian/German/French film monuments of the late silent cinema. Day of the Dead, and really all of the Eames’ film output, is absolutely public, educational, accessible. Aesthetical dazzle is present, in ample proportion. But it’s always directed at helping us learn cool things about the Mexican day of the dead. It’s art in the service of information, with the wonderful proviso that information is more memorably imparted if it’s done artfully.

Everything here, the objects themselves and the culture that they add up to, is very carefully and courteously organized. There’s an exemplary narrative structure: intro, preparation, presentation and celebration, revisiting/recapitulation, epilogue. It is courteously clear. I notice and appreciate that the crafting of the objects is photographed and featured, just as much as the objects themselves. Working people! It all adds up to Anthropology, really.

After all of the wonderful still photography, the communal gatherings and celebrations incident to the big Day are filmed, in live action. These film images are just as carefully juxtaposed, paced, and transitioned as the photographs were. (The Eames seem to be aware of, seem to be utilizing Sergei Eisenstein’s methods of montage! They even, somehow, invoke his unfinished Que Viva Mexico! Maybe I’m just imagining things. But these folks are vast!) Cut here, dissolve there. In the middle they pull out the stops and perform one of those special Eames tricks. They cut the humans, the makers and the communicants, out of the frame. For a couple of minutes we see only the objects, which are animated—given life—through composition, camera movement, careful juxtaposition and craftily placed music. In a distinct and yet wonderfully reconcilable way, this too is the dead, come to life!

Aristotle was something of a formalist himself, at least suggesting (Poetics) the benefits of making things strange. More to the point, he thought that art was only justified when we learned from it. Point proven. Amazing!