Monday, October 06, 2008
Directed by Bert Haanstra
Academy Award: Best Documentary, Short Subject (1960)
Silver Bear - Special Jury Prize for Short Documentary - 1958 Berlin International Film Festival
Quick: what are your top-5 short films centered around the craft of glass making? If you're at a loss for words, let me offer one: Bert Haanstra's Glas. Recipient of the 1960 Academy Award for best short subject documentary, this Dutch production, on cursory description, seems to be a simple short displaying the talents of Holland’s finest glassmakers. This would seem to be what the Dutch glass industry had in mind when they commissioned documentarian Haanstra to produce a brief educational piece on glass production. But Glas actually makes clear the separation between mass production and skilled craftsmanship, through a brilliantly simple juxtaposition of visuals and sound. An aesthetic difference is presented between the two methods of creation, and the film jars even the most sedated viewer with its subversion of a traditional documentary style.
With the sounds of a warm, laid-back jazz combo accompanying their work, its tough not to become immediately enamored with the artisans and their craft. These practitioners of the old technique of glass blowing are human and have personality, whether it’s a pipe hanging out of the mouth as they work or the wedding ring visible in close-ups of delicate handwork. This isn’t just a wage— it’s a work of art, whether it be a dinner glass, vase, or bong. Yes, Haanstra’s only showing their jobs, but the way that he portrays their occupation makes it seem like it’s a day at the pool for the men involved, akin to the Rat Pack onstage at the Sands.
Then it all turns to glass-stained shit as the machines rise (re: Terminator 3.) Bottles shooting around, disorienting Stockhausen-esque bleeps/blorps, and a robotic voice repeating an indistinguishable mantra softly in the background: these elements create a sense of horror and irregularity. But besides the aural touches and chopped tempo, it’s still just footage of machinery performing their “normal” function, yet the sublimity of Haanstra’s technique gets across the cold asperity of modern mass production. Men no longer are behind each piece of craftsmanship, only kept around to make sure that the machines work properly. Because of this critical depiction of machine, the Dutch glass industry were shocked at the finished product and wouldn’t pay Haanstra, until he won the Academy Award and brought recognition to his homeland.
There’s a moment that feels too calculated to be real, where at the height of the machines constructing bottle after bottle, it makes a mistake and leads to bottles falling off the conveyor belt and smashing on the cement floor. One of the human workers notices, and runs over to fix it. The image, in only a moment’s time, presents the main theme of the piece more convincingly than anything else I can think of. This feels like direct cinema, where the filmmaker has combined a documentary camera with a constructed scene of destruction, and for some reason, I can’t shake off this miniscule moment, which I suppose speaks the delicate beauty of the film.
I’m left with the lingering question of how a somewhat abstract documentary like this endeared itself to the conventional-minded Academy and won. Although it’s pretty clear to that there’s a message at the center of the film, this is also a work of quiet subtlety for the most part, without a trace of dialogue. Haanstra has crafted a small slice of cinema verite, something that I’m not sure was accepted by the Academy voters before this. If this truly is a forebear to the Academy’s recognition of other works of cinema verite like Faces and Woodstock, then I’d place Haanstra right next to Marco Van Basten and Goldmember in the pantheon of great Dutchmen.