Saturday, 12 January 2019

Show people… The Lady Without Camelias (1953), BFI Antonioni season

It’s hard to watch Michelangelo Antonioni’s fifties films without looking for clues based on familiarity with his iconic sixties’ quintet. Sure enough, there are plenty of long takes, designed in part to prevent studio cuts, and a focus on identity as post-war humanity struggles to assert itself among clinical modernity.

The opening sees a young woman walking hesitatingly towards a cinema down a darkened Roman street in order to see the reaction to her first film, a former shop girl she has been talent spotted and placed in a crowd-pleasing film for which she will be the main attraction.

The story is a lot more narratively specific and conventional than his later work but still devastates at the end with Lucia Bosé’s character, Clara Manni, caught in the trap of being defined only by her looks and limited expectations both as an actress and a woman. It’s a thought-provoking and painful with the film a carefully-structured space in which our expectations meet in discomforting collision – an end result that makes for a highly watchable experience in an age when these issues are still to the fore.

Clara edges towards the cinema to see her success...
At one point Clara’s husband, Gianni Franchi (Andrea Checchi), decides she should stop making popular entertainment and star in his film about Joan of Arc… she hasn’t the skill and one audience member decries, “…how could she, after Falconetti and Bergman…?” – good to see the reference to one of the great silent performances of the former in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan... But Clara’s Joan is hollow without the guile or skill to resonate beyond situation and she’s trapped between being an unwilling wife to a controlling husband and the freedom she deserves.

Their house is a cage, a claustrophobic matrix of undulating angles that frame Clara’s conversations with Gianni as much as it defines his rigid view of their marriage and his wife. He set his sights on the young actress shortly after she shot to fame and his single-minded pursuit ends with him ambushing Clara with a proposal in front of her parents.

Not for the last time a man and a woman fail to connect for Antonioni
But it’s hard to know where the hollow objectification of Clara ends and her own vacuity begins which is exactly on point for Michelangelo in his pomp. This doesn’t make Clara an unlikable character just one who is part of the director’s design as much as her home and nor does it indicate any lack of sympathy on his part; after all, no one has really encouraged her to think deeply about anything. Even that sounds harsh but it’s not meant to be and she’s not alone in a film in which everyone is concerned with the surface. That ending does indicate Clara’s awakening and in that there’s hope.

Clara’s lack of camelias is a period reference to Alexandre Dumas’ much-filmed novel The Lady of the Camellias in which a beautiful courtesan has an affair with a penniless writer who is persuaded to leave her in order to marry a more suitable woman. The camelias originally referred to flowers worn to indicate the lady’s availability to lovers (broadly speaking….) and so a lack of them presumably means that Clara’s signalling is obscured and she certainly lacks the clear signalling she needs to define herself. But Antonioni always leaves work for his audience to do and makes sure there is an engaging amount of evidence on screen.

Clara imprissoned by Gianni's desire and ambition
Lucia Bosé is excellent and had already proved herself to the director in his first feature, Story of a Love Affair and here the story mirrors her own rise from bakery to film stardom. She has the looks but also the acting style required to give us exactly what her director expects – restrained naturalism that merely presents more clues in the bigger picture encompassing mise en scène, camerawork and architecture. With Antonioni the sum is always greater than the parts, literally, which might give some grounds for those who might see it as lacking in passion but you can't have everything. 

There is so much to see and the search for meaning is usually worth it. As Gianni pulls her from the film she is making on the grounds of its sexual content, their friend, the director Ercole (Gino Cervi), sweeps into their labyrinthine and pretentious house to confront her recalcitrant husband, almost hidden within, secure of his position and prize. As the director leaves in frustration Clara is framed by the diagonal lines of the glass and steel stairs.

Joan lacks passion, Clara walks away from the truth...
After their Joan film fails at Venice, Clara’s actions are the reverse of the opening sequence as she runs away from the cinema in despair as the jeers and laughter follow her. She is “rescued” by a diplomat, Bernardo Rusconi (Ivan Desny), and he sweet talks her on a trip from the Lido to the main city. At first resistant Clara accepts his offer of escape and leaves Gianni only to find he’s  only really interested in one thing and it’s not commitment. There’s another fantastic single take in the apartment when he rings just as Gianni and Ercole walk off behind her, by the time they have rounded the balcony and descended the stairs, she’s slumped in her chair, for all the world suspended in mid-air, paralysed by conflicted opportunity.

Clara seeks advice from the veteran actor on her first film, Lodi (Alain Cuny), who speaks the most honestly of any of the men when she asks should she try to become a proper actress and study. It’s the only route forwards in a world were patronage and box office drive friendship… and one where whatever doors are opened by a pretty face slam shut soon after entry.

The film was screened as part of the BFI’s Antonioni season which includes all the director’s major works as well as his debut – full details on the institute’s website. I’ve just watched La Notte on the big screen for the first time and it was so full of the promises made in this earlier film – Marcello Mastroianni writer in crisis is every bit the nephew of the misunderstanding Gianni and Jeanne Moreau’s thoughts fill the screen always within Antonioni’s surprising angles and all-consuming architecture.

Geoff Andrew who programmed the Antonioni season and who presented an overview of his work in a fascinating talk this week, admires the director’s work for its formal innovation and intellectual engagement even if he does not have for him the emotional resonance of Bergman, for whom Andrew programmed last year’s season. Of this film he observed that whilst it was a deft and gently satirical portrait of the Italian film industry the story contains what would become common themes with men who are often arrogant and feckless and women who are understandably bored and frustrated by the lack of sincere connection. 

There’s a lot more of this to come so please check out the BFI website and watch these films in their proper context.

Drama in the spaces between the characters
Clara is left floating between possibilities

Thursday, 27 December 2018

And I ride and I ride... The Passenger (1975), BFI re-release in cinemas from 4th January

"Can I ask you a question, only one, always the same; what are you running away from?"

Michelangelo Antonioni is coming to London in January and February with the BFI screening many of his films including his magnificent run in the sixties: L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse, Red Desert and Blow Up. I’m also looking forward to seeing 1970’s Zabriskie Point on the big screen – Pink Floyd and explosions are the perfect mix - even though many commentators have seen that as the beginning of his lower quality output. I’d disagree about that film, which is flawed yet still powerful as I would about the director’s next feature in 1975.

The Passenger is a film about identity, coincidence and, possibly, fate. The lead character is a passenger in someone else's life, as he has been with those he has interviewed in his career as a journalist. He's on the run from his own life but is that because he knows his end is both inevitable and imminent?

Meeting at Casa Milà
Beautifully photographed by Luciano Tovi, The Passenger begins in Algiers and takes in London, Munich, Barcelona and southern Spain on its relentless journey. It packs in a huge amount of locations and some amazing buildings including Gaudi's brilliant Casa Milà and, needless to say, it looks absolutely fabulous on screen – so much more splendid than on home media.

Jack Nichoson is David Locke, a documentary film maker, who takes advantage of the death of a man staying in the same hotel. For reasons we spend the rest of the film trying to fathom, Locke assumes the man's identity and passes off his death as his own. The man, Robertson, turns out to be a gunrunner, supplying arms to one of the factions in the Chad civil war. He leaves behind a diary of meetings that Locke then proceeds to try and fulfil, perhaps driven by some sympakthy with their cause.

He is also spurred on by the investigations of former colleague Knight (Ian Hendry) and his estranged wife, a coolly-detached Jenny Runacre (another 70's icon). Along the way Locke meets an un-named architectural student, played by the magnetic Maria Schneider, simply excellent here as an almost non-actorly actor, natural, very responsive and enigmatic - a perfect match for Jack.

Nicholson gives a performance of intelligence and world-weary complexity. He compliments Antonioni's style perfectly with dryly humorous inventions highlighting the necessary intensity of this conflicted character. Antonioni was impressed with Easy Rider and the related American "new wave" and it's easy to see why he wanted one of the leaders of that generation in this film, a continuation of his counter-cultural examinations in Zabriskie Point.

There is one horrific sequence where Antonioni appears to use film of an actual execution. Watching the film I once again hoped that it wasn't real, but, if it was, you have to question the validity of this injection of actuality even at this distance. The writer, Mark Peploe, has said he found this sequence upsetting although he recognised the need to reflect reality. Whatever the moral and artistic merits, the film is based on these realities and the Chad conflict in question ran for some 40 years.

All at sea
Locke and the girl keep meeting appointments but the insurgents do not make them. By now the police are on their trail and there's a growing sense of impending doom.

The film ends with one of the most stunning single takes I've ever seen. In one amazing shot, lasting over seven minutes, the camera takes a slow and steady journey from Locke's hotel room out towards the chaos in the street and back to the same room as the characters catch up with each other and the story ends. It took a week to film and is a technical tour de force. A supernaturally quiet and understated ending that highlights the loneliness of death... the casual, matter-of-factness of the inevitable end.

It's a film you have to study carefully as Antonioni takes us through at his own pace, we have to experience his story at the rate he dictates. He needs our patience.

When The Girl asks what he is running from, sat in the back of Locke's car as they drive south through the country roads, he replies, "turn your back to the front seat...". She swivels around, throws out her arms, flings her head back and beams as the open road recedes behind them. It's a great moment and says so much about the film and the lives we all live. Maria is completely in the now, eyes bright and just taking in the full glory of the moment as they pass through a beautiful avenue of sunlit trees... then her face changes slightly as she understands beyond the initial thrill of illusory freedom.

The Passenger screens from 4th January at the BFI and across the UK - details are on the BFI site.
It's definitely one to see on the big screen!

So let's take a ride and see what's mine...

Wednesday, 19 December 2018

That was the year that was… 2018's most silent nights

Once again the early 1900’s absolutely wiped the floor with the early 21st Century which is turning out less of a Fox than a Dog. Reality in the UK took something of a beating in 2018 but at least I had Berlin, Bologna and Pordenone with this being the year when I took to flying after a break of more than a decade to seek out more silent experiences in Europe. So, apologies if my list is more jet-set than train-set but most of these films will make it to the UK (provided we can sort out the customs arrangements…).

This blog was once described as picaresque and whilst I’ve learned so much from my “travel” I continue to find new surprises from the first 35 years of cinema and to build on impressions already made. I’ve only been a watcher of “live” silent film since April 2011 when Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers played rip-roaring accompaniment for Brooksie in Beggars of Life, and it remains a joy to watch the archives emptied of their secrets and to see films projected and played for that have been hidden for decades.

And so, in no particular order and with apologies for all those I’ve missed off, here’s a snapshot of my favourite moments this year.

1. Sunrise (1927), Elizabeth Jane Baldry, Early Music Centre, York

I’ve waited years to see Sunrise with live accompaniment and Jonathan Best’s fantastic Yorkshire Silent Film Festival provided the perfect opportunity as I nipped over to York after a wonderful day at Sheffield’s Abbeydale Picture House. The Early Music Centre is a converted church and provided great atmosphere as well as acoustics for Ms Baldy’s gorgeous accompaniment. Murnau’s classic is the great fairy tale of the silent era and this was a special combination of sight and sound

2. Nelson (1918), Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne, Cinema No. 6, Portsmouth

Talking of the importance of place… South West Silents had the quite brilliant idea of screening Maurice Elvey’s ground-breaking biopic of Horatio Nelson in Portsmouth and all within a cannonball shot of HMS Victory herself.

Elvey filmed on Victory and this remains the only time this happened as Dr Lucie Dutton explained in her erudite introduction – a celebration of this remarkable British film and its director.  Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne illustrated the narrative with all due diligence and the old port resonated with joy on our greatest admiral’s birthday: perfect timing all round.

3. 7th Heaven (1927), with Timothy Brock, Teatro Comunale di Bologna Orchestra, Teatro Comunale di Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival 2018

My first trip to Bologna and a feast of film and culture in one of Italy’s finest cities. We saw the restored Rosita with a full orchestra under the stars in the Piazza Maggiore but, after rain stopped play, 7th Heaven was screened at the Opera House instead and were left as high as Janet Gaynor and Charles Farrell by the combination of screen, eighteenth century architecture and Timothy Brock’s sumptuous score. Wow.

4. The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show, John Sweeney and his Biograph Band, London Film Festival 2018

No other event carried more shock of the old than this year’s LFF gala in which dozens of late Victorian films – many from ultra-high grade 60-70mm negatives – were screened on the BFI’s IMAX. There was no peripheral escape from these huge memorials to our great grandparents’ age and John Sweeney’s perfectly judged score brought out the full flavour as the appropriately costumed Bryony Dixon talked us through this stunning archive.

5.  The Golden Butterfly (1926), Cyrus Gabrysch Kennington Bioscope

The Bioscope programmers leave no stone unturned in their efforts to brings us not only the rare and obscure but also the wonderful and the two Michael Curtiz (nee Manó Kertész Kaminer) films featuring the dazzling Lili Damita were amongst the highlights. This one was my favourite and I loved the combination of high-energy Lil with Cyrus Gabrysch’s quicksilver accompaniment.

6.  Christian Wahnschaffe (1919-21), with Stephen Horne, Berlinale 68

My first trip to Berlin and a chunk of the Festival’s Weimar Retrospective of which this sprawling two-parter starring the außergewöhnlich Conrad Veidt was the highlight. The second film is the best and Stephen Horne whipped up mighty storm for the intense conclusion. Herr Veidt’s fashion sense was also extraordinary; monocles, leather vest and jodhpurs are on my Christmas list.

7. Exit Smiling (1926), Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope 2nd Silent Laughter Weekend

Thoroughly modern Beatrice Lillie gives one of the most delicious silent performances in this, her only silent film and, on this evidence alone was quite possibly “the funniest woman in the World”. Sadly, she had better things to do with her time than make too many movies but what remains dazzles especially this one when accompanied with jazz-age cool by mighty Meg Morley.

8. Arcadia (2018), Paul Wright with music from Adrian Utley and Will Gregory

Not strictly a silent film this dazzling deep-dive into the BFI archives threw up a compelling narrative about the relationship between of our connection to the land and collective purpose. It was one of the most though provoking films of the year with an excellent score from Utley and Gregory who also featured three songs from the almost mystically-talented Anne Briggs: our identity is not defined by where we are but by how we are. More natural is what we need now not the enclosure of mind, body and soul…

9. The Dumb Girl of Portici (1916), with John Sweeney, Cambridge Film Festival

Lois Weber is Director of the Year starring in Kino Lorber’s massive six-disc compilation: Pioneers – Women Film Makers (box-set must-have of the year!) and with her reputation now elevated back to where it belongs. This film was her first blockbuster and featured legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova in the title role… the film is slightly uneven and Anna’s acting isn’t near the quality of her dancing but, I loved it all especially with maestro Sweeney’s accompaniment. He’s also on the Milestone DVD too with an orchestral score: essential!

10. Captain Salvation (1927) with Philip Carli, Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

This year’s festival got off to a flier with this powerful tale of redemption and human love on the ocean waves. Philip Carli conducted the Orchestra San Marco playing his own score and they whipped up a storm as did Lars Hanson as the preacher with doubt and the underrated Pauline Starke as the fallen woman who refuses to fall any further. I’d watched the DVD before but nothing prepares you for the combination of light and life when the music is played live.


Woman of the Year: Jenny Hasselqvist

This may surprise a lot of people… oh, alright, maybe not. Jenny’s appearance in the restoration of her first film, Mauritz Stiller’s Balettprimadonnan (1916) was properly emotional, especially when she performs on stage at Stockholm’s Royal Opera House. She was Sweden’s leading prima ballerina over the period; a miracle of connected physical and emotional expression. John Sweeney was on hand to accompany the dance.

Man of the Year: Lars Hanson

Also in the above film, Lars, Lars, Lars… was probably my most watched silent star of the year and he never disappoints; handsome and able to fight, lose and regain faith, love, drink, climb and even sail. He’s always grounded and, like so many Swedes, effortlessly convincing.

Jenny, Jenny, Jenny and Lars, Lars, Lars...
Venue of the Year: Cinema Museum

Has to be. The Cinema Museum lives on thanks to unstinting support and the Kennington Bioscope is one of its shining lights. Here’s hoping I’m saying the same thing next December as the fight to save the Museum is not quite over.

Thank you to everyone who programmed, projected, promoted and performed – see you all again in 2019!

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Brutish and short… Open All Night (1924), BFI with Meg Morley

“I hate him, he lets me do whatever I want! Why does marriage spoil men? It makes them just husbands… “

Viola Dana is another hugely successful silent film star who is not as widely recalled as her contemporary fame might have suggested. As with Mabel Normand, Norma Talmadge and even Lois Webber, she’s fallen from a collective memory dominated by those with longer – post-talkie – careers, better preserved archives and the twists of fashion. As with Pickford and Swanson, Dana was a post-Victorian waif – undernourished and frail in parts such as Children of Eve - and just about five feet in heels. But, as with Mary and Gloria she was also a very fine actress and highly adept at comedy.

In Open All Night she’s part of a splendid cast including two of the great gentlemen of sophisticated silent screwball, Raymond Griffith and Adolphe Menjou and the excellent Jetta Goudal who pretty much steals the show as Lea the aggressive lover of cycling champ Petit Mathieu (Maurice 'Lefty' Flynn). It’s an amusing rather than hilarious film, well made but with a conflicted message about love and physicality that won’t play well with most modern audiences and must have met with disapproval from some at the time: I can’t imagine my Nan putting up with any of this nonsense from any man she decided was worthy of her time… although this is a little balance at the end: big tough guys also need tough women.

“A woman may be fascinated by a brute but she can’t respect him…”

Adolphe Menjou
Set in Paris, the story is essentially about two couples at a cross-roads and we start with Mr and Mrs Duverne played by Menjou and Dana, in their splendid apartment on the Ile du France… He’s watching the couple across the way with his binoculars and she’s reading a romantic novel in an extensive scene in her bath tub. Edmund sees the attractive woman across the way being pushed around and shakes his head as he decides no man could keep a woman’s love if he treated her violently.

Meanwhile Therese, reading a book that equates rough-handling with ecstasy… goads her husband to smash the door down and force her to come out with him. Their friend Isabelle Fevre (Gale Henry) arrives with her latest escort, and American called Igor (Griffith) who is drunk and incapable… Griffith is intermittingly amusing in the film but is under-used.

Isabelle decides that her friend needs taking out of herself and that some sauce must be found for the gander with which to prick the conscience of the over-gallant goose… The conclusion of a marathon cycle race in the velodrome will provide the opportunity.

Viola Dana
At the race, local favourite Petit Mathieu is ahead of a world-class field including a continent (Africa), a country (United States) and a city (New York) … he’s a rangy fellow covered in grease who seems to tower over the rest. Director Paul Bern (yes, Jean Harlow’s tragic Paul…) films the velodrome well with Bert Glennon’s cameras at a low angle, tracking ahead or alongside the racers and generally putting the viewer in amongst it.

In the stands is his girl Lea who snarls her support and gives the films best performance with a swagger that subverts sexual/gender stereotypes mores than anything in the narrative. Hers is no cheap-shot like the reference to the sexuality of the Gendarme swooning over Igor’s signed photo, but a genuinely strong women who knows what she wants – and that is more attention from her man Mathieu.

Lea goes to the Café des Boulevards to drown her sorrows and there’s quite the scene as she downs glass after glass of Pernod or possibly Absinth while repulsing numerous polishes-but-dull men in evening suits. Edmund is impressed – he’d obviously prefer a tipsy lass with attitude to a demanding wife. The two get on and end up at the Velodrome.

“So, you want this pin-point of a woman, do you?!”

Adolphe Menjou and Jetta Goudal
By this time Therese has taken her own interest in the hunky cyclist – far taller, muscular and greasier than her husband and is applying more oils and leg massage between stages of the race. She’s not entirely sure that size matters until, inevitably, their other halves discover them… and, as Griffith valiantly attempts to squeeze out some slapstick laughs by drunkenly dancing with the arcing bikes on the track, the marriage square must resolve itself to a circle…

This was enjoyable if not hilarious as the reviews of the time seemed to suggest with  Film Daily saying: “The story is slight… Whilst the excellent characterisations and the skilful direction is important, it is a question whether or not the picture fans care sufficiently about this.”

Meg Morley’s accompaniment was a jazzed as you’d expect and she enlivened the narrative throughout with period-appropriate flourishes and the light-touch assurance you’d expect from a Kennington Bioscope alumnus!

All in all, a precious flicker for the so many now-familiar faces who starred in it.

Raymond Griffith
After the film, Viola decided to marry her cyclist “Lefty” – who was a former football player – at least up until 1929 after which she made the switch to golf with Jimmy Thomson with whom she was married to for 15 years.

Dana was not one of those who continued into sound but she was a star for twenty years and more. In January 1922, Screenland Magazine reported that she and Bebe Daniels were more popular in Japan than Mary Pickford and Mary Miles Minter. Now we have more of her films being rediscovered by modern audiences such as this one - us and it - and there’s also a new DVD for The Cossack Whip (1916) from a Kickstarter project initiated by Edward Lorusso.

Let's have more Viola (and Jetta too).

Viola Dana in The Cossack Whip (1916)