Saturday, 16 June 2018

Taxi for Mr Curtis… Cab No. 13 (1926) with Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

Lili Damita worked with Michael, married Errol, helped introduce the director and star of the greatest Robin Hood film ever made. But she had real star power – she positively glows, energised like Fairbanks and could probably kick your head without any back-lift having been trained at l’Opera de Paris.  She ended up starring with Cary, Maurice, Laurence, Jimmy and Gary but quit in her early thirties to be a mother.

Not many of her Hollywood films were great, and there was always something missing when she wasn’t able to express her physicality. In this film she dresses like Peter Pan and performs an impressive – heels as high as her head – kicking can-can and these are amongst her best moments. Her first film with Michael Curtis – then Michael Kertész – was Red Heels (aka Das Spielzeug von Paris) and that has a much higher tempo and some extended dance sequences that make more of her vibrancy.

Our Lil
Here again she is also a fashion plate with impressive eye-popping dresses that show off her neatness (male “code” alert) but for much of the film she’s a humble cab-driver’s step-daughter and the action is suitably Pickfordian knockabout.

Ah, but she can’t just be a cab-driver’s daughter, can she? No, as a baby she was abandoned by her dying mother who had run from her rich husband only to die in childbirth in a poor tenement. The landlady hides a note written to her husband in a book and places the baby in a horse-drawn cab – Number 13 - where it’s owner, Jacques Carotin (Paul Biensfeldt) decides to adopt this bundle of possibilities on the grounds that he’d always dreamed of having children.

Unlucky 13 for horse-drawn cabs as motors had taken over by the Twenties and Jacques struggles
Yes, the plot is a bit like that, but enjoyable all the same – there’s more exposition in the French-titles version doing the rounds and some of the English intertitles on the 35mm print we saw are a bit brusque in comparison. That said, the quality is superb - far, far better than these screenshots - and it’s great to see Lili on the big screen and to see more than an nth-copy digital bootleg allows.

They christen the child Lilian (thereby making it so easy to learn Damita’s name in the read-throughs) and naturally she grows up to be a dancing queen, young and sweet only 18 (in this instance). She graduates as the most talented and mischevous dancer at her ballet school and there are some winning scenes as she dances the Charleston Black Bottom for her classmates and teasers her teacher.

Bored in ballet...
She has a flirty relationship with another tenant, a musician who no doubt will be very successful at some stage, called Lucien Rebout (Walter Rilla) and the pass the time playing, singing, dancing… all the free-to-do stuff. He’s a bit of a Stephen Horne, playing violin and sax… what am I saying, he only does two instruments… but, most of all he - natch – plays on Lili’s heart strings and the two make a lovely couple.

Just when things look to have hit a long stretch of speed-restricted narrative carriageway, a coincidence happens… In an antiquarian bookshop run by a con-man (Max Gülstorff) and his master forger François Tapin (Jack Trevor), the latter discovers the letter from Lilian’s father - wealthy "King of the Cafes" Henri Landon (Carl Ebert) - hidden in the book which obviously has a fair re-sale value. As for the letter, it promises much more and, touching his boss for a 20,000 Franc loan he sets off to present himself as a rich playboy in order to woo the inheritor of her rich father’s millions…

Lovely composition as Tapin forges away like some alchemist turning paper and ink into money...
Bold plan I hear you say and so it seems but Tapin exerts a strange charm on lovely Lilian and soon turns her head by showing her the finer things leaving poor Lucien all glum at her dancing school’s passing out ball. This is one of several good-looking sequences, not just the dancing but also the design from Paul Leni – yes, him – which includes a carousel covered in streamers which is mesmerising. Then there is the second-hand bookshop from which the forgers operate, it’s a cavern of ill-gotten mysteries so well-lit and shot by Gustav Ucicky and Eduard von Borsody. Top-notch mis en scene with some state of the montage thrown in for good measure.

Good-looking film and great-looking stars even if perhaps too much time is spent on Lambeth’s own Jack Trevor – who would go on to feature in a number of GW Pabst’s films including two with Brigitte Helm Abwege and The Love of Jeanne Ney. In truth his François Tapin is more likeable rogue than anything else and, well… you’ll have to see the film, suffice to say that it’s also known as The Road to Happiness.

The eyes have it...
Curtis-to-be's direction is inventive and economical and there's one scene - a confrontation - that's decided on the strength of a "look" - the eyes of one character revealeing to the other that the matter is closed, or it will be if there's any further debate... clever stuff: pure cinema!

Herr Horne accompanied with his usual panache and instrumental juggling. Sometimes you think your mind is playing tricks when the accordion strikes as you follow the action down a Parisian street only to find Stephen – who is playing piano with the other hand – also has the other instrument on his lap. He uses the accordion to create sound effects and generate atmosphere and, of course, it is also perfect for the demi-monde of 1910 cafes under the streets of Paris.

Some of that montage business...
As is traditional with the Bioscope there was also an entrée of three short films that matched the mood and subject of the main film.

Tonight, we started with Fashionable Paris (1907) showing a glimpse of life in the trendy Bois du Bologne and then had La Tour (1928) Rene Clair’s angled explorations of the tower commissioned for the fortieth anniversary of its construction. Meg Morley accompanied and showed again her ability to mix in flavours of the period – a drop of Debussy and a soupçon of Satie – with flowing lines of her own. She made for an hypnotic combination with Monsieur Clair.

Lastly, we had a real treat with Adolf Philipp’s The Midnight Girl (1919) which not only featured Meg’s piano but also Michelle Facey’s pitch-perfect vocal debut on the title song at the beginning and end of the film. A woman of many talents – programming, researching and introducing tonight’s line up as well!

Another absolute cracker in Kennington. Merci beaucoup mes amis!!

Now for some more Cab. 13...

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Soil music… Arcadia (2018), Paul Wright with music from Adrian Utley and Will Gregory

“She was told, the truth is in the soil…”

This is a painstaking work of cinematic horticulture that plants seeds from many dozens of different source films, ploughs it good and deep and then carefully tends the starting mix of rustic wonders that grow forth. It takes uncanny directorial vision to make such a coherent narrative from this many disparate parts – separated in time and style – and Paul Wright is to be congratulated on the alchemy of his editing and his ability to juggle meanings so adeptly.

Underpinning it all is a score that binds and extrapolates; making the most of the source materials and being fully attuned with their director’s vision: a tremendous act of collaboration given the huge compilation with which all began. You could argue that Mr Utley has had practice with musical sampling in Portishead, Gregory too with Goldfrapp, but, as they have already shown with their magnificent score for Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, they understand the subtleties and responsibility of film music.

There’s also an element of taste and whilst I generally agree with their musical direction I was almost leaping out of my seat when Anne Briggs’ voice suddenly cut through as her song, The Time Has Come, was featured. Briggs is a genuine folk legend, she was there with Davey Graham and, especially Bert Jansch at the start of the folk revival in the early sixties and sings with a voice so clear and true it is very much English soul music. She features on two other songs, My Bonny Boy and Lowlands and it’s a thrill to hear her in this context: for me the star!

Uttey and Gregory work their music around her, paying as much respect as to the other primary sources. The fact that Annie follows on from techno artiste du jour Daniel Avery’s Drone Logic, says it all about the complimentary collage created by the two; as with the film, there’s a timelessness in everything and the answer is in our ears and beneath our feet.

Arcadia feels initially like period folk horror, that rich seem of unsettling pastoral tales from The Wicker Man to Children of the Stones that took the ghosts of our rural past and used them to frighten our urbanised present. We’re, literally, rootless and need to find our feet again, standing on the soil. This era holds an enduring fascination for many, not least the likes of the League of Gentlemen and the Ghost Box record label which specialises in a kind of “folk-tronica” – part Blood on Satan’s Claw and part Tomorrow’s World.

In Paul Wright’s narrative – and in the source materials - the suggestion is that we have lost something in the transition sparked by industrialisation “…from a time when we were connected to the land and to each other…” to a world of isolation. This is probably even more the case now than in 1948, 1965 or 1975 and if you don’t believe me, look again at that device you’re reading these words on.

It's not as simple as black and white

It’s a passionate programme of delicious slices of English whimsy but not without a dark side – a child (Jenny Agutter) crying out “mummy, mummy!” in terror,  miners being attacked by policemen, urban isolation and dark deeds abound: there’s something unsettling in the country but its natural balances are undermined by explosive urbanisation…

Starting with the microscopic worlds of Frank Percy Smith we see the almost unseen life beneath, moss and lichen growing, tadpoles gestating… then switch to the macro world of ploughing fields and sowing seeds.

There’s country dancing, May poles and May Queens, Morris dancing and nudists too – all connected to the grass and the mud. And did those feet…? Jerusalem emerges with added themes and Blake’s meaning, yet, curiouser and curiouser, none of the images can be taken at face value any more. This alchemy is signalled by section headings like INTO THE WILD, FOLK, UTOPIA, AMNESIA, THE TURNING and IN A DARK WOOD… as if Syd Barrett has written the mood board.

Fans of Daniel Avery syncopate
BLOOD IN THE SOIL is perhaps the key and the connections are made elegantly again and again shifting the feeling forward by association, image and music. I heard Becky Unthank, a young 'un with some of Briggs’ breathy purity; musical proof of the countryside continuum.

Ultimately Arcadia is a tone poem for us to interpret as we will in spite of the specifics of word, action and song. It’s an intimate multi-media dialogue with some very talented and careful individuals who have produced something far greater than the sum of its parts: Arcadia, the feeling won’t go away and it could be the grounds on which we take our last stand?

Arcadia opens on 21st June at the BFI on Mid-Summer’s day, the Summer Solstice ensuring the right combination of magic and marketing. It is one of the very best compilations I’ve seen from the BFI and if, for example, you enjoyed From the Land to the Sea Beyond with British Sea Power and Public Service Broadcasting’s work then you’ll love this.

Highly recommended and also fascinating for the sheer range of archive material it includes. Many of these are available – free to view – on the BFI’s iPlayer and those that are not are worth paying for like the brilliantly unsettling Herostratus starring Michael Goatherd and from which a snippet of young Shakespearean Helen Mirren is included.

There’s plenty more and I know what I’ll be doing this weekend… BFI Player link here.

To book tickets for Arcadia visit the BFI website which also lists previews on 19th across the country. Don't miss it!!

There will also be a digital release on 20th August as well as a soundtrack album, details on the Common Ground site.

Tuesday, 5 June 2018

A million miles, for one of your smiles… The Ancient Law (1923), with Meg Morley, Phoenix Cinema, London

This was the UK premier of a new restoration from the Deutsche Kinematek and, possibly, for the film itself: a real coup for the Phoenix and ace programmer Miranda Gower-Qian. Finding a German film sympathetic to the Jewish community in 1923 is not too surprising perhaps – the community was arguably more integrated than in other parts of Europe - but there had long been undercurrents of anti-Semitism even before the Great War and its aftermath. The Weimar arts community was liberal and forward thinking and hadn’t yet been shut down by the dangerous populism filtering through a society deeply in debt and poltically-fragmented.

Directed by EA Dupont – later to direct Variety, then Piccadilly and Moulin Rouge after his escape to Britain – Das alte Gesetz is a highly accomplished film that deals with the push and pull between those who want to integrate and those who want to stay separate.  Assimilation can split families but so can self-exclusion, it is still an every day tragedy and one that gives this pitch-perfect story significant power still. There’s additional resonance from the fact that so many of the cast and crew were Jewish… actors enjoying the freedom to ply their trade denied their more orthodox forebears with far worse to come.

Avrom Morewski and Robert Garrison
This restoration was completed from several non-German copies (as with Pandora’s Box and many others… the original negatives have long since been purged) and first presented at this year’s Berlin Film Festival and today the Phoenix was presenting the premier hours before it was unveiled at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival.

Set in 1860’s Vienna and – apparently the basis for The Jazz Singer – the story focuses on tensions between orthodox society and the ambitions of a Rabbi’s son to become an actor. Rabbi Mayer is superbly played by Avrom Morewski and his son Baruch by Ernst Deutsch - such a feature of later talkies.

Ernst Deutsch 
The family lives in the Ghetto and are happy to stay amongst their own people as they follow a life of religious and traditional diligence. Baruch seems happy to be a part of things but during the festivities of Purim where the young dress up to act the part of religious figures, Baruch can’t resist and plays one of the leading roles much against tradition and to his father’s displeasure.

Baruch wants to be an actor, he wants to leave the Ghetto and is inspired by Ruben Pick (the excellent Robert Garrison) who travels afar and amongst wider Gentile society. Ruben sees the wanderlust and ambition in Baruch as a good thing whereas Rabbi Mayer believes the only way is to stay. There’s a great shot of Pick leaving the Ghetto, a low-angle showing him walking off down a path stretching to the far distance, he walks for some time and then a gust of wind suddenly floats a cloud of dust across the path behind him: the cinematography from Theodor Sparkuhl is crisp and inventive - this is a very good-looking film and the restoration is quite lovely.

Margarete Schlegel - told you...
Baruch is in love with a local girl, Esther (the striking Margarete Schlegel) and promises to return for her once he has made his name and fortune: it will break his mother (Grete Berger), he is determined to leave even after his father locks him in the house. He finds a way and his father’s desperate cries reflect the film’s subtlety – unlike The Jazz Singer perhaps, we have sympathy for all the characters, throughout. Plus, there’s no minstrelling… this film is just more authentic and nuanced. 

Baruch has no money and finds work mucking out the horses and writing programme notes for a travelling band of performers with whom he eventually gets a chance to act. His Shakespeare is not to everyone’s taste – far from it – but it attracts the attention of the Arch Duchess Erzherzogin Elisabeth Theresia (the always watchable, Henny Porten) who takes a shine to more than just his acting talents… She engineers him his big break at the Royal Theatre managed by the fearsome Heinrich Laube (Hermann Valentin) upon whose memoires the story is originally based.

Henny Porten and Ernst Deutsch

Proper cultured, urban types really love his work and Baruch is soon playing Hamlet and Don Giovani and it’s during a performance of the latter that Ruben persuades the Rabbi to come and see his son. It’s overwhelming… and the impact so great that the old man enters a decline his broken heart unable to resolve his love with acceptance.

Can there be a meeting between minds old and young, before it’s too late, and will the struggle even end there?

Phoenix-debutante Meg Morley played up a storm on keyboards, presenting flowing accompaniment of impressive warmth and narrative flexibility. This was the first time I’d heard Meg play electronic keyboards and the added bass allowed a jazzier feel more akin to her day job, with music that – for me - channelled Keith Jarrett, Jacques Loussier-baroque and a flavour of Klezmer. Very assured and full of likeable content, her improvisations flew by just like this absorbing and gently stunning film.

The Ancient Law is just being released on Blu-Ray DVD by FlickerAlley and is already on my birthday list.

Monday, 4 June 2018

Once more out of the box… Pandora’s Box (1929), new nation-wide cinema release

Even if you’ve seen it countless times, you just have the cheapie DVD or are new to silent film and want to start with something really special – now’s the time to see Pandora’s Box on the big screen.

This is a stunning digital presentation of the Hugh Hefner-sponsored restoration that combined three-different duplicate copies to present something close to a definitive version of a much -censored film. Louise Brooks and GW Pabst’s masterwork should not be taken for granted and is simply one of the most vibrant of the silent era and beyond.

Every time I watch Pandora I see something new and whether it’s the accompaniment, the audience, the observations of Brooks’ commentators, I understand more about what the story is saying: what was meant and what just happens naturally, Brooksily…

“When I acted, I hadn’t the slightest idea what I was doing. I was simply playing myself, which is the hardest thing in the world to do – if you know that it’s hard. I didn’t, so it seemed easy.” 

Undoubtedly Pabst captures the 22-year old’s unique qualities and brings out an honesty as well as a beauty all too real. Whatever motivation he gave, Pabst also edits so well, creating that high-impact opening sequence when Lulu flows powerfully across the screen with avian grace and that shadow-less smile - the very embodiment of Frank Wedekind’s Earth Spirit. She is an experience beyond words and simply has to be seen to be believed.

This new digital version features an orchestral score by the late German composer Peer Raben who scored for Rainer Werner Fassbinder numerous times. I’ve only ever seen the film with live accompaniment, but this score brings its own flavour to the film with symphonic subtleties that take practiced care not to compete with the narrative. It’s a mammoth task to score 139 minutes of film and Raben does a complex job very well capturing the mysterious spirit of a film that is always more than the sum of its parts and, with some lush, regretful lines, still leaving the space for the drama to breathe.

Which is the way to go… you can’t put Brooksie in a corner and everything about this film is about the projection of her meaning. On every level.

Pandora’s Box is showing at BFI Southbank, Filmhouse Edinburgh, QFT Belfast and selected cinemas UK-wide through June and into the summer.

It’s a great chance for those outside the usual silent film hotspots to watch cinematic herstory and an alternative to this overblown summer of superheroes and sci-fi: if anyone can take down Thanos, Darth Maul and all those CGI supervillains it’s Lulu! Louise Brooks was a special effect all of her own…

There are also three screenings with live accompaniment at the BFI:  Monday 4 June 18:00 NFT1 (by Cyrus Gabrysch), Friday 8 June 17:50 NFT2 (Costas Fotopoulos) and Thursday 14 June 17:50 NFT1 (Stephen Horne)

Please don’t miss this rare opportunity to see one of the great silent films on national release.