Saturday, 18 January 2020

Alien nation… Fellini Satyricon (1969), BFI Fellini Centenary

There is nothing as blatantly false as unconvincing statements made by men and nothing as blatantly unconvincing as their fake seriousness… Gaius Petronius, The Satyricon

Having started with La Dolce Vita (1960), dipped back to near the beginning with I Vitelloni (1953), I am left dazed and confused by the director’s outrageous acceleration in style and content with 1969’s Satyricon. I’d come to NFT1 straight from watching Be Natural the new documentary on early film pioneer Alice Guy and to find myself confronted with this eroticised Roman storytelling was more than a little culture jolt. Frederico and Alice would, I’m almost sure, have got on famously… maybe, if they’d just stuck to the films.

Fellini’s film is extravagant and frankly, very frank: nothing can prepare you for it on the big screen. There are clearly elements that influenced Passolini, Ken Russell and Derek Jarman as well as dozens of other less reputable film makers. Yet, as with Passolini and his Trilogy of Life, Fellini was trying to get inside the historical mindset, here that of the Roman scribe Petronius, who wrote this story in the first century AD when he was very much in favour with well-known fiddler Emperor Nero.

The Satyricon depicts the exploits of the narrator, Encolpius (Martin Potter), and his lover Giton (Max Born), a handsome sixteen-year-old boy who is the envy of Encolpius’ fellow courtesans especially Ascyltus (Hiram Keller), once his lover now his friend and rival. As the title suggests the “novel” is a satire and one that would go down well with the court of Nero and, Fellini correctly assumed, the debauched audiences of the late sixties. The characters on which the episodes are based would not have been known to contemporary viewers but their behaviours would; the hypocrites, the puffed up egos and the carelessness of the powerful are all timeless as is the blood and guts of the design – the mess-on-scene if you will (ha!).

It's a visual feast but one which quickly over-faces the watcher; you’re overloaded by a screenful of gruesome details from over-made-up actors to strangely-painted masks – there’s a bloated actor dressed as a pig who eulogises about his newly acquired boy-toy, Giton, breaking wind and blowing his pig-tail into the air. It’s not that easy to watch amongst the greasepaint, the sweat and the disorienting shade and tone but all these things are there for a purpose; presenting an exaggerated, heightened reality that spins with uncomfortable velocity. Fellini seems to be following the original document closely even the parts that are missing provide him with the opportunity to add to destabilise the viewing experience as we go from a battle to a maze to face a minotaur. The film even ends on an unfinished sentence even as the manuscript does.

Fellini described the film as science fiction and in a 1969 interview, said "I am examining ancient Rome as if this were a documentary about the customs and habits of the Martians." And, if you’re in the right frame of mind it is enjoyable. Roger Ebert said it was a masterpiece saying that “…films that dare everything cannot please everybody” and he would know havening co-written Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – which, incidentally, would make a great double bill with this film. I would agree with Ebert’s assertion that this is a very controlled piece of work from the director for, whilst it looks uncomfortable, everything is done with measured deliberation, all designed to alienate and shift our state.

Martin Potter debates ownership with Fanfulla as Vernacchio and Max Born
This Rome is a culture cut off from sincerity and even Encolpius’ passion for Giton may just be a response to other’s attempts to posses him. Everyone is an enemy and alliances pass quickly when they outlive their usefulness with hands chopped off for laughs and men thrown into furnaces when they have stopped being entertaining. There’s a coup and we find a well-off couple seeing their family off to safety as they take their own lives knowing that they’ll not fit with the new regime; the man is meant to be Gaius Petronius.

There are nine major episodes in the film and they are only linked by the presence of the three main protagonists as they stumble from the debauched banquets and brothels of Rome to being kidnapped by pirates – the leader of which wants to marry Encolpius (of course) – to encounters with an hermaphrodite on the road, who dies after they kidnap him/her for a ransom… death is very much what you make it. There’s a Minotaur and a duel with a gladiator, who spares Encolpius’ life after his “eloquent” pleas – just another random episode. Encolpius is rewarded with humiliation after he fails to perform in public with the sensuous Ariadne. There follows a journey to see a witch in order to regain his mojo…

Life, it seems, is what happens when you’re busy making other plans and there’s little our hero can do to direct his own fate in the face of the cruel and unusual rulers of this world. Is this what the smartly dressed hip set of La Dolce Vita are really like underneath, is this all there is when you strip away the manners and the inhibitions of accepted society?

As is usual, there’s a superb score from Nino Rota – with the help of others – which incorporates electronica and heightens the strange feelings of the film. Given the way the director and musician worked – Rota didn’t always watch the film and Fellini would sometime cut to the music - it would have been an interesting brief!

It works… but in truth I’m not sure after one viewing why. I can say for certain that Fellini was clearly developing his style and it’s hard to see the three films mentioned at the top as obviously directed by the same man in the way that Berman or Antonioni films over the same period might appear. Eclectic and difficult to fathom. Don’t ask me, I’m as clueless as Encolpius.

Wednesday, 15 January 2020

Talk on the wild side… Cosh Boy (1953), BFI Flipside hits 40, BFI screening and discussion

Cosh Boy is the 40th release in the BFI’s Flipside series that has specialised in unearthing the best and the quirkiest films from often ignored corners of the British Film industry. I have nearly a complete collection because I’m weird that way but mostly because these are amongst the most un-self-conscious prime sources of post-war films, from the post-apocalyptic satire of Richard Lester’s The Bed-Sitting Room, sneaky peaks at the sleazy side with Primitive London to neo classics like Beat Girl which make up in locations what they lack in storylines.

Flipside provides the BFI’s very own indie label and it has far more freedom to release gems simply because they’re under the radar and with little digital presence. As the BFI’s Jo Botting said in the post screening discussion, the series gives a chance to provide context for these films through related short films and booklet essays. It provides nothing less than an alternative canon of domestic films that are often significant for beyond their technical merits.

The Battersea Boys
Cosh Boy may seem like a routine post war morality tale but there’s a dark side from the introduction onwards when editorial title cards express concern over the growth of youth violence and the lack of strong parenting. It reminds me of the start of Public Enemy; a film that both glorified and condemned the American Gangster. Post-war, with so many men missing, there would have been many families with sons and mothers such as those at the centre of the story.

Pretty boy James Kenney plays Roy Walsh who is all sweetness with his trusting mother, Elsie (Betty Ann Davies) a war widow who has perhaps been “too soft” on her only son. Hard to believe that Roy’s right hand man, Alfie Collins (Ian Whittaker who is interviewed in the extras!) has got away with anything through with the brilliantly brusque Hermione Baddeley as his Mum. But Roy’s the dominant personality who just happens to be a physical coward who needs Alfie to do the coshing for him before splitting their ill-gotten gains 50:50; ten bob for Alfie and 15 for him…

James Kenney
The lads get caught after one two many muggings and get put on probation with the proviso that they behave themselves and attend the local youth club. Roy plans to use it as an alibi for their continued petty crime and brings in some more gang members including an incredibly youthful Johnny Briggs as Skinny Johnson, still two decades away from Coronation Street. Briggs, like some of the other lads was born in Battersea and it’s good to see them prowling around still recognisable streets and stations. What they’d make of the new power station complex you can only guess, but Battersea has always been one of the best locations in London.

All goes to Roy’s plan until he meets Alfie’s implausibly attractive sister Rene (Joan Collins) and ends up getting her pregnant. Roy’s not being tied down by any skirt (to use his vernacular) and Rene tries to end it all in the Thames. As the pressure on him increases, Roy grasps for ever grander plans as he decides he must strike it big and move on… but can he escape the dual forces of the long arm of the law and  the firm hand of his mother’s new husband. It is very 1952 but it can only ever be so; one of the most pointless criticisms of any work of art is that it has dated: everything dates because we’re not all engaged in “timeless” activities… Cosh Boy is revealing about the time it was made and the places and the social mores of the post-war Britain; a country increasingly like our own.

Young Joan
Whilst Flipside has renewed attention to feature films such as Don Levy’s startling Herostratus – what a febrile presence Michael Gothard was -  Peter Walker’s Man of Violence (aka Moon) which turns the genre film on its head with a fine performance from Luan Peters – much under-rated and now much missed - as well as the quite brilliant Deep End from Jerzy Skolimowskiit; it has always featured a generous amount of those contextualising extras including fascinating short films that otherwise would never see the light of day.

Tonight, we saw David Bailey’s GG Passion (1966) starring Caroline Munro and Chrissie Shrimpton as two of a series of groupies for the titular popstar (Eric Swayne) who may or may not have outlived his usefulness to The Man.You can find it as one of the extras on Stranger in the House (1967) (Flipside 037) reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

Also screened was Lindsay C Vickers The Lake (1978) in which a young couple and their dog, may, or – again – may not, have been menaced by supernatural powers; it's atmospheric and disturbing especially for dog lovers. Finally we saw Al Beresford’s Dreamhouse (1983) which has a similar scenario only set in a couple’s new house: the wife is haunted by strange sounds and images, a boy riding slilently around on a chopper bike, a man running with a bloodied kitchen knife through their hall and a young man being killed in their hall. Like the best of horror, it strikes straight to our deepest insecurities in the place where we should feel safest. It's a waking nightmare but what does it all mean for the couple? The answer almost jolted me from my seat in true vintage horror style.

After this there was a discussion between some of the BFI’s prime movers for Flipside including Sam Dunn formerly Head of BFI Video Publishing (now at Indicator), Jane Giles, formerly Head of Content, who, incidentally, has written the definitive book on the Scala Cinema, Jo Botting, Curator of the National Archive and Douglas Weir Technical Manager for DVD & Bluray. Flipsiders-in-chief, William Fowler and Vic Pratt who co-authored, The Bodies Beneath – the flipside of British film and television, led the discussion and there was an overwhelming sense of pride that they’d been able to resurrect and connect so much unseen and overlooked material. Vic and William started screening some of these films in 2006 onwards and this morphed into the home media releases starting with the Bed Sitting Room and culminating in Cosh Boy – which they urge you to buy, as do I!

Eric Swayne and friends
Doug Weir, who’s worked on every Flipside release, described how some of the source material is often degraded and you get a sense of the fragility of film and how even relatively recent films may perish. I’m used to only a small portion of silent film surviving but the problem hasn’t stopped. Nighbirds (1977) was an example of an almost unknown film that had sections missing from the 35mm print and they’d cut their only print to make the trailer. They’ve had to use VHS in some cases to plug the gaps but sometimes they find films that have never been watched and so are nearly pristine.

Sam Dunn said they wanted to focus on British film and finding ways to get more and more archive films out – shorts and documentaries. There were no hard and fast rules except for re-platforming the over-looked. Jane Giles said they wanted to expand the audience for these films and to extrapolate the value of these films’ meaning – just because these are not Odd Man Out or Powell and Pressburger, doesn’t mean that there was no good in the productions. This led to challenges in rights research as well as frequent arguments about what films to choose next, treading the fine balance between interest and marketability.

Spike looks down on the BFI Flipside team
José Ramón Larraz’s Symptoms (1974) was once on the BFI’s Top Ten Most Wanted lost films and an appeal led to a broken 35mm negative being found in Belgium and the team were able to recover. The team had differences over favourites and different ideas of what should be done next; they’re still looking for The Appointment (1981) so check your sheds and lofts… which is exactly where GG Passion was found. For the rights, Jane had to liaise with Roman Polanski’s collaborator Gene Gutowski, who had produced it whilst the crew from Repulsion also worked on the film. More of those Flipside connections.

Cosh Boy is on sale on 20th January and is great fun with superb extras – you can order it from the BFI Shop online alongwith others in this most laudable of series.

Note also that The Party's Over (1963) is unlikely to be re-issued due to rights complexities so, order it now if you haven't already got a copy!

Ian Whittaker and Hermoine Baddeley

Monday, 13 January 2020

Wasted youth… I Vitelloni (1953), BFI Fellini Centenary

Seven years before La Dolce Vita, another of Federico Fellini’s characters formed an innocent relationship with a youth that may or may not signify the possibility of escape from a dead-end existence. In his third film he drew upon his upbringing in seaside Rimini to paint a slightly autobiographical picture of five close friends who’s get up and go has got up and gone or, if you will, si alzò e se ne andò! I Vitelloni are not exactly bored teenagers, they’re well into their twenties and are either not working or still living under the assumption that life is about to start. It takes that friendship with a young lad working early shifts at the railway station to help one re-connect to his own youthful ambition.

As the train pulls the escaper away, the camera cuts to the bedrooms of his four friends as the lie asleep in each case pulling away as his momentum carries him clear of the ties that bind. It’s a neat moment and another one of Fellini’s great endings to accompany his great beginnings… although this is certainly one of his films that maintains narrative energy and interest throughout with rich characters and compelling episodes in which revelations are made and fortunes pivot.

Franco Fabrizi, Franco Interlenghi, Leopoldo Trieste, Riccardo Fellini and Alberto Sordi
The subtitles translated I Vitelloni as The Bullocks and it could also be The Idle People, not so much the victims of post-war economic malaise as sheer boredom – anathema to Fellini who escaped the “Italian Blackpool” for Rome in the thirties in order to study law. The gang are stuck mostly living with parents and living the lives they have since they were 15. Fausto (Franco Fabrizi) is their leader, handsome, stylish and totally faithless, chasing girls with no self-control until the inevitable happens and someone gets pregnant.

That someone is Sandra (Leonora Ruffo) who in addition to having just won the local beauty contest, is the sister of Fausto’s best pal Moraldo (Franco Interlenghi) who is as considerate as Fausto is wild; the kind of guy the idiot needs and probably one of the few who would put up with prolonged exposure. Moraldo was described by the director as being closest to his own character although there is also a voice-over to provide additional context.

Fausto considering his options.
The others in the group are Alberto (Alberto Sordi) who has a fine singing voice, outgoing and not afraid to drag up for carnival. He lives with his mother and sister Olga (Claude Farell) who, unlike him, has a steady job and is also in a long-term relationship with a married man. As with later films, the women seem far more grown up than the men who struggle with even the basics of self-awareness and communication. Unlike her brother Olga is desperate knowing that her prospects are bleak and that she may have to seize the only chance she may have to get out.

Then we have Leopoldo (Leopoldo Trieste) a would be playwright who is awaiting his lucky break as he works away in his auntie’s house occasionally distracted by his pretty neighbour Gisella (Vira Silenti). He’s the most intellectual but not the smartest – as so often happens – and the butt of the group’s jokes. His big chance comes when an old theatre star comes to town Sergio Natali (Achille Majeroni) who leads the youngster on by allowing him to read him his play as they wine and dine. But Natali is far more interested in Leo than his words and as he tries to take their relationship in a different direction in the dockland shadows, the writer finally makes his escape.

Just watch the film Fausto...
The final member is the group is Riccardo (Fellini’s brother Riccardo) who is the least well realised character – a good guy who greases the social wheels of the group but who doesn’t have much of a dramatic arc. For that we need to go back to Fausto and the Rubini family…

Fausto’s father (Jean Brochard) who still doesn’t spare the rod for his man-child, makes sure that he marries Sandra and the couple seem happy enough. Sandra’s father (Enrico Viarisio) gets Fausto a job at his friend’s shop selling religious paraphernalia to nuns – hardly his dream but then he doesn’t appear to have one, except the life of a womaniser. He goes to the cinema with Sandra only to leave in order to pursue another woman (Arlette Sauvage) even as his wife is engrossed in the film and the whole experience with her husband. Fausto can’t commit even to the fantasy as the woman is just too distracting; he plays footsie, lights her cigarette and, after his inconclusive pursuit, returns to find Sandra outside, the film over.

Fausto flirts with the boss’s wife and ultimately loses his job as a result, falling foul of a more solid marriage. He enlists Moraldo’s help to steal an angel from the shop in revenge and tries to sell the statue to a nun and then a monk. Both have enough angels already and whilst Fausto sees only the monetary value of the piece, the “simple-minded peasant” (Silvio Bagolini) who pushes the angel on a barrow, is in awe.

The carnival scene is the film’s centrepiece and all the characters collide in one gloriously choreographed sequence. The camera moves through the mass as they dance, the tickertape falls and the music is incessant. After the ball the hangovers kick in and reality bites in the harshest of ways… Some will grow and others will fall back in the fantasy of routine.  

I Vitelloni is a fun film with a serious heart which I guess is Frederico all over. Nino Rota’s music is here too as it would be for decades; he weaves some gorgeous themes and as with 8 1/2, La Dolce Vita and the rest, holds the emotional lines together through the episodes. Not surprisingly the director called him the "most precious collaborator" he ever had and the two work so well with Fellini often cutting to Rota’s music, as the composer didn’t always see the visuals. That’s a fascinating level of trust.

Thursday, 9 January 2020

Be wonderful… Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018), BFI preview with Pamela B Green and Cosima Littlewood

"What kept me going was Alice herself, but also the people surrounding the film…because they wanted Alice’s story told.” Pamela B Green

Watching this documentary it’s difficult not to get more than a little angry on behalf of Alice Guy-Blaché, a woman robbed for so long of recognition as the probable creator of narrative film-making let alone her position as the first woman film-maker in 1896. Various modern directors are asked about her, and almost all including Patty Jenkins, Julie Delphy, Ava DuVernay and even Geena Davis, had either not heard of her or been aware of what she achieved.

Understandably Pamela B Green has been a woman on a mission for the decade it has taken to bring this documentary to fruition and by helping to right an historical wrong dating back to the birth of film, the real triumph may well be as one audience member suggested, that her family now know that Alice is getting the credit she deserves.

Alice Guy-Blaché made something like 1000 films including 150 with synchronised sound during the first three decades of film. Of these over 150 have now been recovered and are starting to take their place in screenings and on digital releases such as the box sets from Kino-Lorber, BFI and Lobster Films. AG-B along with the great Lois Webber and others are being returned to rightful prominence and on merit, with their films the equal of anyone from this period.

Probably Alice Guy...
Along the way Green enlisted the help of some very heavy friends, notably Jodie Foster who narrated, co-produced and even gave us a recorded message before screening. Then there’s executive producers including a fella called Robert Redford and the late publisher Hugh Hefner who was one of the biggest investors. It’s also worth noting that the film was based on Alison McMahan’s ground-breaking book, Alice Guy-Blaché, Lost Visionary of the Cinema (2002) and the author was another collaborator on the film. British silent film historians, Kevin Brownlow and Anthony Slide, also pop up as "Friends of Alice"; she's not an unkown quantity for those in the know but clearly there is work to be done on her place in film studies.

As with the development of early films, collaboration has been key – “it takes a village” as Green says - but, unlike the films of Alice Guy, credit was due but withheld and even today Gaumont will not be releasing the home video version of this film. You want the truth, perhaps they can’t handle the truth which is rather shameful and beyond petty. But, as Green as said in the Q&A, history is usually defined by the dominant voices and perhaps Alice didn’t rate herself ahead of others such as Louis Feuillard or Georges Méliès

Chance also plays as part with founder Léon Gaumont passing away in 1946, before the second edition of the company’s history that would have included more credit for his former secretary.
Alice Guy famously started out as Léon Gaumont’s secretary and he gave her the chance to create films with a story narrative as well as hand-tinted colour and synchronised sound. These innovations were extraordinary at the time and the only extraordinary thing about a woman directing them is the simple fact that she was not given the credit more widely then or for the majority of her life.

She was probably the only woman directing films for the first decade of cinema and was certainly recognised as a talented, bankable film maker in France and then later in the USA where she not only established her own studio, Solax, but also built her studio in Fort Lee, New Jersey. She married British cameraman Herbert Blaché in 1907 and they had two children including daughter Simone – born 1908 - who is featured in filmed interviews. Alice returned to France in 1922 and divorced Herbert Blaché severing her ties with the film industry for good too.

The film follows her progress which becomes that of Simone as she accompanies her around the world, Simone was married to a diplomat, and eventually attempts to find her films and re-establish her place.

The film then becomes a fascinating procedural investigation, as not only films but footage of interviews is found and a clearer picture is formed. This may not be the first Guy-Blaché documentary, as Jay Weissberg observed in his Variety review, but it is certainly the first to build on those earlier efforts and to reach a wider audience. It has also been a living exercise in recovery – both of reputation and, not unconnectedly, materials; the films found during the period of the research are now being digitised and shown more widely. That in itself is the main thing that will continue to uplift the reputation of this key figure.

After the Q&A we were treated to a screening of Matrimony's Speed Limit (1913) a charming short from Solax about a young man who just has to get married at short notice in order to gain his fortune, It’s as funny as any Sennett film form the period and much more of a laugh than one of DW Griffith’s. For further proof, c.f. The Consequences of Feminism (1906) which even impressed Sergei Eisenstein.

Martin Scorsese describes Alice as an extraordinary and sensitive filmmaker and as more of her films are found and shown, lets hope for a fuller appreciation of her skill and not just the uniqueness of her contribution.

Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché (2018) is on release from 18th January – full details will be on the BFI site as well as the film's own. Not to be missed even if, as Pamela said in the Q&A, they’re standing on the shoulders of the many researchers who went before.

It’s a very well-made film which catches the excitement of the filmmakers’ journey and does surprise and entertain even for those familiar with the subject. Let’s hope there’s more to be found,

Here’s to Alice Guy and her family!

Monday, 30 December 2019

Enjoy yourself, it's later than you think… The Canterbury Tales (1972), BFI Trilogy of Life Box Set

This year I visited Canterbury for the first time, a pilgrimage as much for Powell and Pressburger as the Cathedral or Chaucer but it’s impossible, as The Archers suggested, to separate the latter two elements of this historic city. Pier Paolo Pasolini was drawn to Geoffrey Chaucer’s most English of tales as part of his exploration of early literature, having just filmed The Decameron (1971) based on the tales of 14th-century Italian author Giovanni Boccaccio. The director was fascinated by the relationship of the medieval mindset to contemporary society and duly completed his “trilogy of life” with The Thousand and One Nights (1974). All three are now presented in crisp restoration on this BFI three-disc Blu-ray set together with all the trimmings you’d expect and they still startle.

Watching The Canterbury Tales you see an alarmingly frank approach to sexuality and human nature that Pasolini wanted to unsettle his complacently civilized audience; we may dress well, drive expensive cars and live longer but we don’t live that differently. These tales of bawdy romance, cuckolded husbands, murderers and thieves still represent humanity in the raw, creatures of desire and cunning.

Them and us
The director appears as Chaucer in the film, writing down his tales in response to the events around him which are “told only for the pleasure of telling them”; his own phrase and not Chaucer’s. He presents the tales for his audience to interpret and to make their own judgements which will inevitably ensnare the unwary.

First up is The Merchant's Tale in which an elderly merchant Sir January (Hugh Griffith looking like the most febrile of old farts) marries a beautiful young woman called May (Josephine Chaplin, daughter of Charlie and sister of Geraldine). The old fella goes blind and May eventually arranges a tryst with a man of her age… the gods intervene and Pluto (Giuseppe Arrigio) restores his sight, Prosperine (Elisabetta Genovese) gives May the voice with which to talk her self out of the compromising situation his newly opened eyes reveal.

Josephine Chaplin and Hugh Griffith
And the moral of this story is? Good on May for her quick thinking and for grabbing what happiness the need to marry money has robbed her? The Tales may have the look and feel of censor-free 70s sex-comedies but there’s a robust honesty drawing our sympathy.

So too with The Bishop’s Tale in which a man (Franco Citti) is rewarded for spying on homosexual acts. The richer of the two men caught in flagrante delicto buys his way out but the poorer – who was with a very young Phil Davies – has not the money. He is burned at a public execution where the peeping Tom sells refreshments as the public awaits the entertainment… This is very much from the heart for Pasolini and the man later reveals himself as the Devil, highly mobile if not omnipotent as Peter Cook said.

There’s a full-blooded humour to the tales, even in their darkest moments, and so, in addition to an actual Chaplin, we even get a Chaplin-esque Perkin (Ninetto Davoli, who featured so much in Pasolini’s life and films) in The Cook’s Tale; a cheeky clown who just about gets away with everything but for whom the stocks await. He’ll even take the rotting food with a smile, knowing he’ll live again to gamble, cheat and otherwise cock a snook…

Tom Baker gets ready for his Bath
There’s also a ton of British talent in this film and if you really don’t want to see the mighty Tom Baker playing the Wife of Bath’s fifth husband then I can only pity you. There’s also Jenny Runacre, one of the most distinctive screen presences in British cinema, as Alison the wife of John the Carpenter played by Michael Balfour who has one of the most rustic and “lived-in” faces of all time; Pasolini cast for character as well as looks and the film is rich in details of both.

Robin Asquith interviewed here about his experience with Pasolini on The Canterbury Tales (1972) is an amusing raconteur and not quite what you’d expect; he’s from Southport and attended Merchant Taylors in Crosby before Bristol University. So, what we get is a kind of Confessions of a Chaucerian Scholar as well as an actor known for his parts as well as his, erm, parts.

The ageless Mr Asquith
He may seem atypical casting for the esteemed Italian but, Robin knew his stuff both as an actor and film maker and he was already versed in Italian cinema having worked with Franco Zeffirelli and been an admirer of Theorem and other Pasolini films. At his casting interview for Canterbury Tales, Pier Paolo said that he looked like a man who used his penis a lot whereupon Robin dropped his trousers to show his manhood and ask if he still thought so? From that point the two became friends and the result included a strong performance from Asquith as Rufus in The Pardoner's Tale which featured a surprise shower for some of the unexpectant extras below.

Rufus is one of many casualties in a film that shows how fleeting life is and how we should take what comfort we can from its living. The closing sequence shows a Hell that would almost make Derek Jarman blush as the hypocrites and the pompous get their just deserts. The camera cuts to Pasolini/Chaucer smiling as he contemplates his closing arguments.

The box set is now available from the BFI’s shop – on and off-line – and is essential viewing for all followers of the director’s and, indeed, Robin Asquith’s work!

Saturday, 28 December 2019

Modern times… La Dolce Vita (1960), Fellini Centenary Season at the BFI

Some films you just have to see screened in cinema and Fellini’s epic is a key text, a fulcrum of the artform released sixty years ago at pretty much the mid-point in cinema history. Stylistically, La Dolce Vita has more in common with say Bait or The Irishman than Georges Méliès A Trip to the Moon or Alice Guy Blaché’s early films, which says as much about the influence of the Italian’s film as the maturation of cinematic language and technology. It is a massive film, three hours long with dozens of characters all revolving around Marcello Mastroianni’s central character over seven main sections.

Original producer Dino de Laurentis had apparently wanted Paul Newman for the role of gossip journalist Marcello Rubini but Fellini wanted the subtler presence of Marcello Mastroianni rather than the Hollywood star who in this film featuring actual characters, would have been the subject of press attention rather. Mastroianni perfected the role of sold out-burned out writer for Michelangelo Antonioni too in La Notte, but it started here; his character only able to communicate with women through sex or, as he falls, physical intimidation. He still manages to attract our sympathy (mostly!) and, dear reader, I feel more than a little sell-out Rubini myself from time to time…

Last year we were treated to an Antonioni season at the BFI and this year we have Fellini – two giants of post-realism with distinct voices. Fellini differs from Antonioni in his sense of fun and outrageous ambition; Michelangelo would never start his film off with a statue of Christ being flown through Roman skies or finish it off with the dead-eyed stare of a massive weird fish all via a shedload of casual transvestism, prostitution and the earthy subjects that came to dominate later Fellini films. We can see all this for ourselves as the BFI, in addition to re-releasing this new 4k restoration, marks Fellini’s 100th birthday in 2020 with restorations of 8 12, Juliet of the Spirits, I Vetelloni and The Nights of Cabiria as well as screening of his other key works.

La Dolce Vita is one of his most defining statements and is so opulent and inventive that it flies by even on four hours sleep after a full day’s work… that’s quite something given the episodic narrative but you hang on for the truth about Marcello and the main strands of a quietly devastating story. Fellini confounds your expectations at pretty much every level not least with his unheroic main character who sleeps with everyone but his girlfriend and at one point berates her violently as they argue in his Triumph sports car.

Maddalena and Marcello emerge into the light 
The film features uncredited contributions from Pier Paolo Pasolini and, having just watched Canterbury Tales on the new BFI box set of his life trilogy, you can see something of his influence especially in the second main section as Sylvia, a famous Swedish-American actress played, of course by the iconic Anita Ekberg, leads the dance in the Baths of Caracalla. There a mix of rich characters in the line which also brings to mind the knight and his soldiers dancing on the fateful shoreline in Bergman’s Seventh Seal. Enjoy yourself, it’s later than you think, but this night in Cabiria ends only in damp disappointment for Marcello as he tries to catch Sylvia in her Trevi Fountain dance only to be absentmindedly dismissed. He also gets a thump from Sylvia’s alcoholic fiancé, Robert played by Lex Barker, a former Tarzan, a fact that is even referenced in the script.

Marcello is a confused individual, but he’s also remarkably pragmatic, he thinks nothing of calling occassional girlfriend, Maddalena (Anouk Aimée), to see if he can use her apartment for a liaison with Sylvia; using her just as they’d used the prostitute in the first segment; casually paying her to use her bed for their tryst. The morning after they drive off in her expensive car, their “landlady” delighted with her tip and the already run-down modern apartment buildings put into sharp relief by their “escape” after slumming it.

The man with a moving camera; Paparrazzo (Walter Santesso)
The film’s depiction of the media circus surrounding glamour is eternally resonant. Dozens of photographers like Paparazzo (Walter Santesso) swarm around the famous attempting to capture a moment or two of their time, whilst Marcello and other journalists live off this world whilst also wanting to be a part of it. Marcello is conflicted and faithless, torn between the needs of his lover Emma (Yvonne Furneaux) who tries to take her own life after his night with Maddalena, and the need for a connection with a star like Sylvia or even a deeper love with Maddalena. For the first he gets a smack in the stomach from the former Tarzan and for the latter he’s left humiliated – taking to her sat alone in a whispering gallery whilst she leads him on from another room as her new lover silently embraces her.

Marcello and co race off to bear journalistic witness to two children who claim to have seen the virgin Mary. It’s a chaotic scene as the rain ours down and the crowd, a mix of the curious and those hoping to be cured, follows the children as they try to summon the apparition; turns out she’s no less substantial than Sylvia at least in terms of meaning.

Promised you a miracle
Marcello also has the hope of writing more seriously – he has a novel on the go - and looks up to his old friend, the intellectual Steiner (Alain Cuny) who has seemingly both material and cerebral grace, the family ideal achieved along with career success on his own terms. Sadly, Steiner has thought himself into a hollow existence and all is not as it seems at his elegantly intellectual party.

Marcello takes himself away to the beach for some peace and quiet with his typewriter. He encounters a young girl, Paola (Valeria Ciangottini) who seems to represent the ideal of innocence and the (illusory) potential of unformed youth. He calls her an angel and then asks if she has a boyfriend… typical Marcello. This being Fellini she turns on pop music on the jukebox, Marcello’s thoughts grounded to Earth.

Marcello’s father (Annibale Ninchi) comes to visit and we quickly see that his son is a chip off the old block who just wants to party, dance with young women and generally join in. But father cannot keep up with the pace anymore and is taken ill late into the night, returning home with an indication of the finite nature of Marcello’s lifestyle.

Nico arrives.
Then we have an injection of the 21-year old Christa Päffgen aka Nico – future singer with the Velvets and beyond but then known mostly as an actress. She adds energy to a sequence that ends up with an all-nighter at an aristocratic party, wearing a knight’s helmet as the revellers dance till dawn, get drunk and look for the dead. As they wander bedraggled in the early morning, they encounter some locals off to church; there’s faith and there’s hope.

Then the film turns on one truly tragic event and we will see which way Marcello will take himself. Paola returns at the end for a wordless conversation with Marcello, highlighting what Robert Richardson calls the film’s "an aesthetic of disparity”, the difference “…between what life has been or could be, and what it actually is". The film is over and Marcello may well be but Paola’s smile is sweet as she looks on with knowing, almost parental, exasperation.

La Dolce Vita is sprawlingly intense and I took far more from it on the big screen. I’m going to see it again and would urge you to not miss this rerelease or, indeed, any of Fellini’s extraordinary cinematic statements over the next few months.

Full details are on the BFI site. What a way to start the new Twenties!

Monday, 23 December 2019

2019 vision… illuminating a year in the dark.

Who knows where the time goes eh? The centenary of 1919 passed by with brutal speed leaving me reeling in its wake trying to grab hold of something solid to make sense of it all. This was the year of going with the flow; a mad dash from Italy to Korea to Leicester and back to Italy via a Weimar Germany that increasingly felt uncomfortably familiar.

There’s no respite, strong rumours suggest that the Twenties are about to be re-booted and we can only hope that means a return of style and ambition across every walk of life. So, in no particular order, and with sincerest thanks to everyone who programmed, introduced, projected and played along with the 120+ silent films I saw in cinema… here we go: fourteen favourites but it could have been forty.

Steve McQueen and Faye Dunaway...
1.       The Lodger (1927), Neil Brand score, Ben Palmer conducting Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone

My third year at Le Giornate and to get through eight days of cultural and social excess – those Aperols won’t Spritz themselves - and still find myself watching this film with such alert glee, says so much about Hitchcock’s visuals and Neil Brand’s score. In my first year I’d nodded off for Lubitsch’s Student Prince of Old Heidelberg (sorry Ernst) but watching this most re-watchable of silent films with Neil’s score sinking in even more, I felt fully connected in this cinematic home from home.

There is just so much to process in Pordenone with up to 14 hours of film a day. It was a good year for William S Hart – with a retrospective showing how his bad-to-good man, with the love of a good woman, themes evolved – Estonian silents and a delightful Marion Davis film, Beverly of Graustark (1926), which proved a cross-dressing delight! Read all about it in my daily posts here.

You know who it is.
2.       Brooksie on the big screen: It's the Old Army Game (1926), with European Silent Screen Virtuosi, Bristol Old Vic, Slapstick Festival also Diary of a Lost Girl (1929), BFI

There aren’t that many Louise Brooks’ films but I want to see them all on the big screen and this year I added two more and was not disappointed. Louise is fresh as a daisy alongside an occasionally tiresome WC Fields in Army Game, her gleeful reactions just beautiful to watch especially in a room full of people experiencing the same thing. Diary is at another level as a film and I’ve waited years to see it on screen eschewing my multiples DVDs and Blu-rays… with a smashing intro from Pabstspert Pamela Hutchison unseen Louise filled the screen almost as powerfully as for Pandora.

At the Crossroads
3.       Crossroads of Youth (1934), with Lee Jinwook and Cho Hee Bong, BFI Early Korean Cinema

2019 was the centenary of Korean Cinema with a season featuring what remains of the very earliest films made under Japanese occupation as well as an excellent 14th edition of the Korean Film Festival later in the year.

Crossroads is the only silent survivor of this turbulent period and had been painstakingly reconstructed to establish narrative and visual sense. This was a silent film screening unlike any other I’ve ever witnessed, in addition to a Korean Byeonsa – a more active version of a Japanese Benshi – performed with gleeful energy by Cho Hee Bong, we had two actors, Hwang Minsu and Park Hee-von who sang parts echoing the central love story with West-end panache. Accompaniment was provided by composer Lee Jinwook on keyboards, Shin Jia on accordion, Oh Seung Hee on double-bass and Sim Jeongeun on violin an ear-popping combination of styles that seamlessly supported the narrative on and off screen.

The Miller and the Sweep (1897)
4.       Screening the Victorians, with Bryony Dixon and Stephen Horne, BFI

This was another marvellous trip through the oldest BFI archives accompanied by curator Bryony Dixon and Stephen Horne and it featured some of the most impressive footage from the Victorian cinema era, 1896 to 1901. We’d seen glimpses of Queen Victoria before but this screening of Queen Victoria’s Last Visit to Ireland (1900) from a print held by MOMA, was the clearest glimpse yet of the Empress as she greeted Dublin crowds smiling and wearing sunglasses – yes, smiling!

5.       Happy Birthday, Mr Paul!, with Ian Christie and John Sweeney, BFI

It was a good year all round for Victorian film with Ian Christie giving two thoroughly entertaining show and tells at the BFI and the Bioscope on RW Paul, the father of British cinema.

During his ten years of peak activity, Paul undoubtedly advance the art of cinema as both a technical innovator and an artistic one: bringing both together in forms of new expression. The World’s first two-scene film was (probably) Paul’s Come Along, Do (1898) which has now had a fragment of its long-lost second scene - inside the art gallery - restored from one of his illustrated catalogues, another innovation in marketing terms – take that Mr Edison or more specifically, William Dickson who did the work the Big E was happy to patent!

It was good to fill out the backstory of this key figure and Christie’s book, Robert Paul and the Origins of British Cinema (Chicago University Press) will be on many a list this Christmas.

Valeska Gert in Joyless mood.
6.       The Joyless Street (1925) with John Sweeney, BFI Weimar Season

The BFI spoiled us with some excellent strands this year, I loved the Antonioni season and of course we have the ongoing musicals season which covers a huge amount of ground from the Hollywood greats to fantastic British and French films: First a Girl and Les Umbrellas de Cherbourg being two standouts. For me though the Weimar Cinema season curated by Margaret Deriaz was not only the best of the year but also for many years, from a silent perspective at least.

Between 1919 and 1933, Germany produced over 3,500 films, second only to Hollywood in scale and productivity and it was a delight to see some of the cream of what remains: from the madness of Opium (1919) to the hard-hitting politics of Kuhle Wampe (1932) and Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness (1931) via so many “key texts” such as Der Golem (1920), Dr Mabuse (1922) and The Student of Prague (1926).

It's impossible to pick a favourite so I will opt for Pabst’s Joyless Street illuminated by Queen Asta Neilsen and Princess Greta Garbo along with King John Sweeney’s unstinting improvisation and utterly controlled musical narrative.

Another joyless street
7.       Sylvester (1923), Frank Bockius and Stephen Horne, Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna

It was hot, hot, hot in Bologna with the usual bewildering range of choices and memorable outdoor screenings in the Piazza Maggiore of my favourite Keaton with a restored The Cameraman (1928) followed by Charlie’s turn with The Circus (1927), a film I’d not seen and yet which was one of the funniest I’ve seen all year.

There was no escaping Germany though and Frank Bockius and Stephen Horne’s accompaniment for Lupe Pick’s grim Sylvester (1923) under the stars with the Piazzetta Pasolini’s carbon-arc projector revealed an horrific family struggle taking place in the backroom of a bar on a street filled with New Year’s revelry. The two accompanists took turns in carrying the line and it was fascinating to hear a percussion-led musical narrative.

Our Betty Balfour
8.       Love, Life and Laughter (1923), with Meg Morley, London Film Festival Archive Gala

Unseen since 1923, recovered by a cinema owner in Holland and restored by a multi-national team, this was one of those screenings when you walk out onto the Southbank with a spring in your step, cracking a wonky smile with a shard of bliss warming your core courtesy of Britain’s Queen of Happiness and Australia’s Princess of the Pianoforte. Music and movie combining in a genuinely soulful way to utterly change my mood on a rotten Brexit Thursday… forget all that, let’s have a laugh; let’s live a little… is precisely what Betty Balfour urged.

Ita means it.
9.       Tonka of the Gallows (1930), with Stephen Horne, Phoenix Cinema

This film was one of the hits of this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival and understandably drew a substantial audience of the capital’s silent cineastes to the Finchley Phoenix. We’d come to see the serene Slovenian Ita Rina who’s delicate beauty underpinned her quite staggering performance in this film. Add in Stephen Horne’s alchemical accompaniment (he also played for it in San Francisco) and we were lost in that mystical meld of sound, vision and venue which leaves you at the mercy of your own emotional response.

10.       The Cat and the Canary (1927), with Jeff Rapsis, Kennington Bioscope

One of so many excellent screenings from the National Treasure that is the Cinema Museum. Here we were treated to a watch of Kevin Brownlow’s own 35mm – I know! - one that resulted from his own restoration for Photoplay. We also got an introduction full of the insider jokes and insights from the man who – nearly – met them all, capturing silent stars on tape from the fifties to the eighties and preserving the oral history of the birth of film.

Guest pianist Jeff Rapsis had flown over from Boston in the morning and was full of praise for the Bioscope – and it’s (thankfully) ongoing contribution to keeping alive the art of improvised accompaniment for which a live audience is just essential. “I have no sheet music, I have nothing prepared I just go with the film and the audience…” and, in front of our very eyes, he performed the magic.

Lady Eleanor
11.       Souls for Sale (1923) with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope Silent Weekender

I have a well-publicized soft spot for Eleanor Boardman and also love films about films of which Souls is one of the very first. The glimpses behind the scenes are precious, with Erich von Stroheim seen directing Greed, giving Jean Hersholt instructions, and Charlie Chaplin playing along by over-actively directing Mem/Eleanor in a “scene” from Woman of Paris. Elsewhere you can glimpse Hobart Bosworth, Barbara Bedford, Chester Conklin, Raymond Griffith, June Mathis, Marshall Neilan, Claire Windsor & many more! William Haines is also in there, his first credited appearance, as Pinky the assistant director to Richard Dix’s square-jawed Frank Claymore.

Kevin Brownlow introduced on his birthday and explained that the film was partly a PR exercise to show that after numerous scandals, Hollywood wasn’t a bad place, full of upstanding professionals. Meg Morley accompanied in fine style matching the epic with the intimate with trace elements of Liszt amongst the jazzed assurance!

Asta catches a tram and a man.
12.   Claire (1924)/ Afgrunden (1910) with John Sweeney and Colin Sell, Kennington Bioscope

Two films that showed how women’s stories were front and centre of the new medium in Weimar Germany and Denmark. Claire is convoluted fun and John Sweeney enlightened the narrative with romantic flourishes and dramatic interventions that ensured we were firmly focused on the extraordinary expressiveness of Lya de Puti. Michell Facey introduced and told of the Hungarian actress’ success in Germany – including Variety and her off-screen/in-trailer relationship with Emil Jannings – before she tried her (bad) luck in Hollywood…

No misgivings about the quality and significance of the first of the films, Afgrunden (1910) staring the uncannily naturalistic Asta Nielsen who is undeniably one of the inventors of screen acting and her ability to express cinematically – nuanced and naturalistic – is something to behold. As Angela Dalle Vacche has said, seemed to anticipate the close-up's subliminal impact.

The alternate title for this film is The Woman Always Pays and even as early as 1910, Asta was questioning why this should be with a character who is dependent on male patronage and who cannot be free of the “male passions” that plague Lya too. Colin Sell accompanied with remarkably steady hands despite the mounting on-screen excitement of Asta’s raunchy dance round a ranch hand in the most figure-hugging dress in the World.

Ghost of a chance
13.   The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge (Le fantôme du Moulin Rouge) (1925) with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne, British Silent Film Festival

This was the UK premier of Lobster films restoration of René Clair’s first feature and, as with his earlier short film, Paris qui dort, it is a science fantasy film in which the human drama is magnified rather than obscured as is so often the case. The dynamic duo of Baldry and Horne provided yet another sublime combination taking it in turns to wring unexpected sounds and sumptuous lines as we floated through this strange adventure.

"Life's a walking shadow, nah-nah-na-nah-nah!"
14.   He Who Gets Slapped (1924), with Taz Modi and Fraser Bowles, Barbican

To see this film projected from a 35mm print is a special treat and all praise to the Barbican team for sourcing this copy from a private collection in France. He Who Gets Slapped has not been digitally restored, which is a crime given its qualities, and probably has not been screened like this for many a year in the UK.

Not all sonic experiments from the Barbican work but I enjoyed the mesmeric and wistful score from Taz Modi who plays a kind of hybrid-jazz, accompanied by expressive cello from Fraser Bowles. Taz’s piano figures weaved patterns over the narrative rather than matching specific events; a tonal rather than a harmonised duet and which, in the context of such a powerfully visual and humane film, worked very well. More please Barbican!

So, just to be clear:
1.       The Christmas we get we deserve.
2.       I (therefore do not) wish it could be Christmas every day.
3.       All I want for Christmas is a screening of Gosta Berling...

See you in The New Twenties!