An essay I wrote on Sidney Peterson's The Lead Shoes.
Peterson is one of my very favorite filmmakers and his films are the best examples of surrealism that I know of in any art form. He truly is one of the sublime underappreciated artists of the 20th century. What I like most about his films is that they don't work when the viewer expects any preconceived notions of art fulfilled. They work in their own way, with their own seemless rhythm, and their off-balancing approach to the universe. No other filmmaker can even touch the areas of conciousness that Peterson explores with complete mastery. What he says about his own films is true for all great art: "These images are meant to play not on our rational senses, but on the infinite universe of ambiguity within us."
This was for the midterm for the experimental film class taught by Chuck Kleinhans. Please keep in mind that this is an essay written just a few minutes after seeing the film and during a midterm with a limited time.
Like many other experimental film directors Sidney Peterson is interested in reevaluating our perception of the world. In our daily lives, we think of the world around us with a definite space and a definite flow of time. The Lead Shoes prove that it is not so hard to throw us off-balance both in space and in time.
The most important trick Peterson uses to fool our eyes is the distorted lens through which we see almost everything in the film. This device, used also in The Cage, distorts both the three-dimensionality of the space and the light balance. We are unable to experience the depth of field, as everything is flattened, especially on the sides. Neither can we trust the light to situate the characters and ourselves as it does not get reflected in a way we would expect. Moreover, the lights reflected for different objects get mixed and sometimes the light flashes unexpectedly from a dark object.
Any shot in the film would reflect the characteristics I described above but in some of them, Peterson emphasizes the effect. In one shot, the frame is divided to two by a vertical object. On the left we see the woman running towards us. On the right, we can see the stairways and all the things between it and a city. If Peterson shot it with “normal” lens we would experience “the time” she spends to run and the depth of the field until the city. However, we can see no difference between the right or the left. We “know” that the city is far but our eyes and what they perceive makes everything confusing.
The distorted lens also changes the way we perceive time. When there is no depth of field, no straight trustworthy lines, how are we to know how fast things happen? The obvious changes in the recording speed makes it even more complicated for us. We cannot say whether there is any scene shot in “real time” in the film. As in the scene I described in the last paragraph, the shots of the girl who is playing on the street gives us no clue how fast the girl is approaching us. Her fast moving legs prove that it is shown faster but visually she doesn’t move at all in the depth of field. A special case of change in the recording speed is the shots moving backwards in time. In one of them, the main character wears her shoes in reversed time but she walks straight to the door. Obviously, the way we experience the shot is against all the basic scientific principles we know.
The soundtrack is composed of people singing playing jazz songs or simply talking. What they say or do has nothing to do with what happens in the film. However, they have a very important function in the film in that they push our disorientation even further. In most films, music is very well synchronized with the movements in the film so that our illusion of moving time is enhanced. However, Peterson uses it for the exact opposite purpose. Although the soundtrack is actually continuously flowing, the changes in its tempo and rhythm give us no help in experiencing time like we do usually. A perfect example is a shot that recurs many times in the film. The camera follows the walking shoes of a person. The music is totally asynchronous to it (it usually is faster).
In the Lead Shoes, we can neither thrust in our eyes nor our ears to help us understand how time flows or how space is. Therefore, Peterson forces us to take both space and time as relative experiences. The consistent disorientation in the film and our consistent inability to perceive them in absolute terms become the main subject of the film. Peterson makes us aware that space and time are more complicated than we think they are and they should be experienced in a more open-minded way.
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