Sunday, 20 September 2020

The Griffith Cut… The Mother and the Law (1919), more Miriam Cooper


“I bit my lip and drew blood. The camera stayed on my face and you can see the blood run down my chin, I didn’t even feel the pain so intent was I on what I was doing…”*


As unreliable and opinionated a witness as she was in her biography, Miriam Cooper truly was the Dark Lady of the Silents and the scene she is referring to was one I almost dismissed as too over the top. Miriam plays The Friendless One, is a woman wronged spying on her gangster lover as he tries to force Mae Murray’s innocent into sex; it’s horrible on both those levels and Miriam is carrying a gun that she is terrified of using and yet so compelled with anger she really wants to.


By coincidence she is in the same position as Vincent Cassel in La Haine (currently on re-release !) who really wants to kill a fascist skinhead and yet struggles to hold himself back from the fateful moment. As Cassel goes through all manner of moral torments his face is contorted in much the same way as Cooper’s as she bites her lip and the blood flows. Is she trying to shock herself away from this course of action or is her hate so intense she no longer cares who she hurts, even herself? Either way, you can sense Griffith’s prompting as Cooper reacted with Gish-like method and Billy Bitzer’s camera kept on rolling… just as it did for her co-star Mae Marsh.


Marsh said in 1917, “I have seen Intolerance twenty times, I suppose, and it never occurs to me that ‘The Girl’ in the modern epic is myself. It is all Mr. Griffith…In his pictures everything - scenery and players- is just so many instruments in his orchestra.” Stuck as he was between radically different moral and political views, Griffith felt that 'motion pictures must be true to life saying that "the truer they are the greater they are.'" His view of “truth” was, of course, as subjective as yours and mine but we can all agree on a bloodied lip.

Robert Harron and Mae Marsh

The Mother and the Law has one of the most complex gestations in silent film having originally been filmed just after Birth of a Nation as a small budget drama concerning a couple down and out in the big city. Before BoaN was even released though, Griffith was plotting his next move and the result would be the epic Intolerance of which the film would form just one of the four strands. Intolerance unachieved at the box office and in 1919 the director re-cut this film along with the Babylonian sequence with the effervescent Constance Talmadge.


Both are on the Masters of Cinema Intolerance Blu-ray and Mother is especially worth viewing as a separate film as Griffith included more footage and rounded out parts of his story and some of the characters, not least Cooper’s Friendless One (honestly DW, why not just call her Francine or something?).


Arthur Lennig, has written about the film in Film History , 2005, Vol. 17, No. 4, Unfashionable, Overlooked or Under Estimated (2005, Indiana University Press)* and establishes that: “Once Griffith decided to make Intolerance, The Mother and the Law would be changed from a simple story into an audacious indictment of how large social, economic, and moral pressures affect the lives of the principal characters.”

Miss Jenkins at a society ball, realising people have too much fun...

Griffith’s target for intolerance seems an odd one for modern viewers in that he decided that some charitable organisations, “up-lifters”, were in it for their own glory. In the film their commitment to the expense of too much charity leads to lay-offs, as the factory owner needs to pay for his barren sister’s indulgences. This triggers a violent strike and the main characters’ fall into poverty and further intolerance, yet it does seem more than a little convoluted: which industrialist is seriously going to cut salaries in order to fund his sibling’s pet charity? This, of course, did not go unnoticed at the time and in the 1919 cut, the director is at pains to explain that he doesn’t mean all charities only those run by bored, sexually frustrated women and not the Salvation Army, the church and the majority of "charitable" charities. DW was however inspired by contemporary government reports and, according to Lenning, “…had in mind John D. Rockefeller, who by this time was managing much of his father's fortune… a pious and sheltered young man opposed to whatever he considered licentious, including drinking and dancing…”


For Griffith, mankind’s moral weakness could only be changed by appealing to people’s good conscience and not by legislation and force. It is an argument for the ages from the country that was to prohibit the sale of alcohol in 1920 and which, even today, is reluctant to force its citizens to wear face masks or not own automatic rifles.


These “intolerables” who don’t tolerate poverty and unchristian behaviour from the undeserving poor are not DGW’s only target in the film and, as Lennig argues, he was concerned with the inequalities created by “indifferent capitalism”, criminality and the death penalty. So, to give him his due, The Mother and the Law is if nothing else a damning inditement of the latter. Lenning quotes assistant cameraman Karl Brown on the impact a visit to San Quentin – “an actual prison inhabited by living dead men” – had on his director who then made sure that the film’s execution sequence was as accurate as possible. The three men standing ready with razors ready to cut the ribbons that drop the panel between the doomed man’s feet is particularly unsettling; as with a firing squad, they would never know which cut was the quickest.


Griffith's meticulous gallows

Griffith is also critical of “indifferent capitalism” and not just in its preference to indulge “self-proclaimed do-gooders” rather than pay a living wage. Uncaring industrial cost-cutting leads all three of our main characters to the slums and criminality and whilst DW would have recoiled at socialist solutions he was strangely on the same page with regards to the plight of Marx’s “industrial reserve army”, the under-employed.


“Bitter mistakes” unbalance society with Cooper’s Friendless One and “her first love”, The Boy (Robert Harron, who doesn’t get enough press!) and The Dear One (Mae Marsh) all displaced from Jenkins Mill and semi-rural idyll, and forced to fend for themselves in the city where they “flounder helplessly in the nets of fate”.


Miriam’s good looks get her the attention of a Musketeer of the Slums (Walter Long who played a black-faced villain in BoaN) and work as a hostess in his bar. It is unclear if she becomes a prostitute but she becomes the Musketeer’s girl – possibly wife – tough choices with no one else to turn to.

Robert Harron, Walter Long and Miriam Cooper

Bobby Harron gets work as a small-time crook whilst Mae ekes out a living with her father in the slums. Marsh’s character is the most nuanced, the moral heart of the film who retains the child-like innocence her director was so fond of. She and Harron start a relationship but she refuses his advances, believing in spit of everything around her, in Christian values. The Boy marries her and they form a new family when their child is born and he informs the Musketeer that he no longer wants to work in the business of crime.


But it is not so easy to disentangle himself from the underground and he’s set up for a crime he didn’t commit and ends up doing time. Meanwhile the “do-gooders” end up taking their baby away from The Dear One, refusing to believe that the wife of a criminal is capable of bringing up a child. Then the Musketeer notices The Dear One and the scene is set for the breakneck injustices of the final half and hour when murder, circumstantial evidence and conscience all come into play.


Lenning has The Mother and the Law as the last time Griffith would examine the world around him in a naturalistic manner and with a critical, crusading spirit. It’s a film that, in a simpler way than Intolerance, gives some balance to our view of his problematic views on race and social order, both of which were challenged at the time and which we must continue to contextualise.

Griffith/Bitzer deliberately allow this close up of Mae Marsh to drift out of focus: she's lost...

Harron, Marsh and Cooper are all good and the latter gives probably her most distinguished performance. Miriam is strikingly modern, dark eyes so worldly and fierce whereas Marsh is Victorian, child-like and under-nourished, running through the Griffith range with almost equal skill to Lillian and Mary. But Cooper is an outlier of a more sophisticated age even if she lacked the other’s raw skill. Harron is also a fine player and inhabits this sunken world with naturalistic ease, he too carrying the shallow frame of a poorer age.


Walter Long also shows what a fine performer he was without BoaN’s “make up”, he kept on reminding me of the original Musketeer, Snapper Kelly from Griffith’s Pig Alley (1912), Elmer Booth who died in a car crash in 1915. Harron, who also died a tragic death in 1920, was in that film too, which was co-written by Anita Loos who also worked on The Mother and the Law… Griffith at his best with a largely settled team?


Harron behind bars...

The Masters of Cinema Blu-ray is available at a ridiculously reasonable price from Amazon. You probably already have it but you may not have watched The Mother and the Law… in which case please give it a go for DW’s sake and for Miriam Cooper’s lip!

*Miriam Cooper, The Dark Lady of the Silents

**Arthur Lennig, The Mother and the Law Author(s): Source: Film History, 2005, Vol. 17, No. 4, Unfashionable, Overlooked or Under Estimated (2005), Indiana University Press


 Bonus screen shots!

Uplifters and indifferent capitalists...

Strike breaking that wouldn't be out of place in a Soviet film...

Miss Marsh emotes

Thoroughly modern Miriam

The Docks of New York

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Hate our way… La Haine (1995), BFI re-release, in cinemas now.

“How you fall doesn't matter. It's how you land!”


There’s a tendency to doubt any human experience beyond our own with denial a most compelling response to grief, day after day it’s not just Laurence Fox who thinks all lives are equally threatened or equally free but it’s simply not true either empirically or emotionally.


I remember the riots that formed the basis of Mathieu Kassovitz’s story and watching this visceral film a quarter of a century later is a sobering experience as the Western World undergoes another alarming rise in civil disobedience in response to police brutality. These things are never simple as indeed Kassovitz makes totally clear, but it is the sheer mind-numbing predictability of events repeating themselves that hits you the hardest.


As one of the main characters says, "la haine attire la haine!", “hate breeds hate!” and yet we carry on, societies in free fall, telling ourselves that, from moment to moment, “... so far so good... so far so good…” yet the hard impact is ever approaching.


Kassovitz was inspired by the death of Malik Oussekine, a student who died after being badly beaten by the riot police after a mass demonstration in 1986 as well as that of a young Zairian, Makome M’Bowole, who was killed when a gun went off at point blank range while in police custody and handcuffed to a radiator in 1993. Both are referred to in the opening montage, now just two victims in the endless human chain of fear and disregard; you don’t have to have a bleeding heart to despair at the sheer inefficiency of hate, there is simply no utility.

Hubert Koundé, Saïd Taghmaoui and Vincent Cassel

Kassovitz is described by Jodie Foster in her interview on the Criterion Edition as a man from the streets who was also very well educated and in his search for authenticity he filmed in the Parisian “projects” of Chanteloup-les-Vignes where the actors and production team, moved for the filming three months prior to the start of the shoot.


The three leads are featured in virtually every scene and all leave their mark, Hubert Koundé as Hubert has not only uncanny grace and power but also, as Foster says, a childlike quality that gives his character a vulnerability despite of his intelligence and apparent purpose. Hubert runs a small gym and boxes, peddling dope to cover his costs – something so commonplace many of us will have seen it at school (most Tory MPs aside).


Saïd Taghmaoui’s Saïd appears to be the youngest and is the joker in the pack, of North African descent and therefore a more significant part of French imperialistic history than the others. He’s easy going, less aggressive and the most neurotypical.


Hubert Koundé

Vincent Cassel is, of course extraordinary, as the hyper Vinz – of Jewish heritage - attention deficit, ultra-energised and with testosterone levels cancelling out reason. He mimics Robert de Niro’s Travis Bickel in the bathroom, “…you looking at me?! Tu me regardes?!” fierce but still boyish. He wants to kill a cop if their friend dies in police custody but we’re not sure even he’s sure he’ll do it even though the momentum of the film is such the sense of strictly limited mortality is ever present.


The film begins with footage of actual riots before revealing that the lads’ friend, Abdel Ichacha, has been hospitalized after taking part. The locals attack the police station in retaliation and this leads to a riot during which a police officer loses his revolver… Vinz, finding the weapon, finally has some power in a life curtailed by economic and social circumstance, but how will he use it.


The story follows the three for the day after the riot as their normal monotony is broken by thoughts of revenge and the constant presence of a police force intent on not losing control of the situation. There are community liaison officers amongst the police but more forceful elements are now at play and some of the policing is shockingly aggressive; one painful scene has two Parisian policemen humiliate and torture two of the boys as another watches in disgust.

Saïd Taghmaoui

This is one of those moments when I doubted the narrative – I am a policeman’s son after all – but then I read about the death of Makome M’Bowole… La Haine forces these issues and the responsible thing is to educate yourself and not ignore patterns of brutality or even dismiss them as the problem of certain countries. In my father’s time parts of Liverpool were so rough that the bobbies patrolled in groups of three, they weren’t armed with anything other than truncheons and, by and large, they came from the same working-class culture as those they policed. Now, societies are far more diverse and structurally broken… France, Britain and the US are all, to varying degrees, in decline economically, politically and morally.


Pierre Aïm’s cinematography pulls the viewer into this grim world, with exceptional mobility, extended takes and the choice of black and white stripping away the artifice of cinema and pushing you face to face with the main characters as they travel from the projects into Paris for the first time, in search of money and chance. There are superb cameos on their journey, with François Levantal as Astérix, a coke fiend who supposedly owes Saïd money and who plays Russian roulette with Vinz’s gun – this is real madness boys, only he’s palmed the bullets… Then there’s the drunk (Vincent Lindon) who offers to drive the car they steal when they realise that none of them can drive and the old man who emerges from the toilet they’re in to casually relate how his friend died of exposure after failing to re-board the train taking them to the gulag; life can be lost in such mundane ways.


Marooned in Paris after midnight, the boys encounter a group of skinheads and only Vinz’s gun saves them from a beating, they capture one of the skins (Mathieu Kassovitz) and Hubert tries to goad Vinz into showing that he can kill someone he hates. It feels like a pivotal moment but then the three have still to return to the projects…

La Haine still punches above its weight and is recommended for old Harrovians and state school oiks alike. It has its message but it is also great cinema and needs to be seen on the big screen.


It’s now on general release and at the re-opened BFI over the rest of September, details on the BFI website here.




Sunday, 6 September 2020

The 3D comic… After the Fox (1966), BFI Blu-ray coming soon!

“Because I’m a small crook I have to go to prison, it’s only the big crooks that stay free…”


There is an enduring fascination with the notion of Peter Sellers being an empty vessel who was only inhabited by the roles he played and the suspicion that this even extended to his private life. No doubt he was highly adept at mimicry and took this to the screen with such convincing “method” that you could barely see the “real me” at all. As Vic Pratt says in his excellent video essay accompanying this new release, this was a myth Sellers was happy to promote, telling The Daily Mail in 1960 that “I haven't a personality. I sometimes wonder whether I really exist at all.”


In After the Fox, Sellers plays, Aldo Vanucci, aka The Fox, an Italian criminal who is a master of disguise OR… is he Peter Sellers, playing Peter Sellers as an Italian master of disguise? It’s hard to tell but there’s a likability and knowing good humour about each sub-role, from Aldo playing a priest angry at his sister’s becoming an actor, or as the doctor who, get this, impersonates himself to escape prison (maybe). Pride of place has to go to Aldo’s impersonation of Federico Fabrizi, a film director using the pretence of making a film to smuggle stolen gold into Italy.


There’s so many layers in Neil Simon’s onion of a plot and so many knowing pot shots at Italian cinema from the deliberate “FF” to lines like “What’s neorealism?”, “No money…” which is pretty funny when you consider this film’s director, Vittorio De Sica famously directed Bicycle Thieves. Michel Antonioni is also high up on the list of targets with this FF making a film up on the spot and deciding that his two leads sitting and doing nothing would make a statement on our inability to communicate in modern society… “Lights, camera and no action!” indeed.

Victor Mature and Britt Ekland make a statement 

There’s also a scene when Victor Mature’s fading Hollywood leading man, Tony Powell, arrives to a mob reception in Rome, which reminiscent of Antonioni’s movie star in L’Avventura and probably makes the same point: the public aren’t interested in the who just the what. Mature came out of retirement to make his first film in four years and he’s excellent value for money; perhaps he fancied a laugh and an all-expenses trip to Europe, but his screen presence and willingness to send himself up is in full-blooded contrast to Sellers’ artifice. Same ends, different means.


Of course, Sellers is also playing Sellers as the brother of his sister who is his wife… with Britt Ekland staring in her first film as Gina Vanucci  who becomes Gina Romantica when The Fox decides on his plan to film his crime and hide his crime as a film. Aldo is getting tired of the criminal life and wants to look after his mother and sister, “I want to steal enough to go straight!”, another zinger from Simon that still holds true to this day.


The gold was stolen in Egypt by master criminal Okra (Akim Tamiroff) who uses his sister (Maria Grazia Buccella) to strip down to a bikini in order to distract the armoured car drivers, who veer off straight into the back of lorry. My daughter rolled her eyes but Okra’s sister is further reduced by merely being his spokeswoman and she mouths his words in the restaurant in which Aldo is briefed.


Years before Sara Cooper, Maria Grazia Buccella was an evil man's mouthpiece

She later says to Aldo that Okra “…doesn’t allow me to talk to anyone, I haven’t used a telephone in six years…” which is more of a punchline than a proto-feminist comment. Never-the-less, she has beautiful eyes and plays her part in adding emotional depth as well as humour especially in a world in which, as Aldo says only the big crooks, like her brother and no doubt many film producers, stay free. Simon’s script is most certainly not without intent.

Aldo and his gang of three stooges, Polio (Paolo Stoppa), Siepi (Tino Buazzelli) and Carlo (Mac Ronay) steal filming equipment from Vittorio De Sica (as himself) and he then transforms into Federico Fabrizi in order to persuade Tony Powell to accept the leading “role”, in spite of the objections of his agent Harry Granoff (the ever excellent Martin Balsam) who was looking for an actual script and contract.


Crew and cast, now completed by the newly christened Miss Romantica, head off to the seaside village of Sevalio, actually  Sant' Angelo on Ischia in the Bay of Naples, for the film’s impressive set pieces as hundreds of villagers act as extras in action Fabrizi makes up on the hoof. Here there is little sign of any of the reported tensions between Sellers and De Sica, as the latter marshals his extras well to energise the dénouement.


De Sica makes like DeMille

The film had a mixed reception on release and Simon for one was critical of how his script turned out but it is well made and still very funny, good performances all round and impressive comedy chops from Ekland as well as Mature. But it’s Sellers’ film and for a man who wasn’t really there, he always manages to convince us enough to care and to believe in Aldo’s misguided by sincere code of honour.


The film is bookended by a groovy Bacharach and David theme song which, melodically powerful as it is, also as Vic Pratt says, sums up the unsettling aspects of Sellers’ persona, The Hollies in close harmony asking Sellers in character “who is me”, to which he answers, I am a thief, I am the Fox… and so much more, obscurely.


Pratt quotes The Daily Herald review of The Battle of the Sexes (also on BFI Blu-ray!) describing Sellers as “… the first 3D comic, his rivals are all cardboard cut-outs, if you round the back of them, you’d find nothing.”  In this film we can Sellers disappear into character just as he would do all the way through to Chance the Gardner; as the most soulful of mimics, he could walk on water.

In addition to Vic’s essay, Peter Sellers: Master of Disguise  (2020, 14 mins), there’s also a nifty interview with Britt Ekland, After the Fox: A Socially Distanced Interview (2020, 15 mins) which contains much good-humoured insight and positivity as she looks forward to returning to the London stage.


There’s an East German newsreel, DDR Magazin Nummer 11 (1962, 12 mins) with director Vittorio De Sica paying a visit to Berlin and The Man With the Velvet Voice: Maurice Denham (1961 + 1975, 72 mins) featuring the mellow tones Mr Denham in two rarities from the BFI National Archive: the CFF classic The Last Rhino and BTF film Go As You Please… in Britain


And there is a lovely Victorian silent snippet, Robbery (1897, 1 min), possibly the earliest heist comedy? And, you better order your copy quick as, for the Illustrated booklet with new writing by Vic Pratt, Dr. Deborah Allison and Howard Hughes, notes on the extras and full credits, is only available with the first pressing.


After the Fox is released on 21st September and you can pre-order now on the BFI website; you will not regret it!


Saturday, 22 August 2020

The 37th Parallel… In Search of the Castaways (1914), KBTV, with John Sweeney and Colin Sell

Another fascinating presentation from the tireless Kennington Bioscope team and special guests. Again, we saw two films from the EYE Filmmuseum’s Jean Desmet Collection which according to MC Michelle Facey, has some 900 items which should see us through to sometime mid-century if the lockdown continues…

The main feature, In Search of the Castaways (1914), also known as Les enfants du Capitaine Grant, was an adaptation of Volume 6 of 54 of Jules Verne's "Extraordinary Voyages", first printed in 1867 between From the Earth to the Moon and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. Michelle’s introduction was provided by Bioscope regular and Jules Verne scholar Alex Kirstukas who has a fascinating history with the French author and in particular his reputation in English-speaking countries where he has been poorly served by translators. As with Swedish author, Selma Lagerlöf, who’s poetic realism was stifled by the over-literal interpretation of her US translator, Verne’s vision was compromised by stilted contemporary English interpretations.

Alex majored in this subject at St. Olaf College, Minnesota, producing a paper on Verne’s use of intertextuality in The Children of Captain Grant which was presented to the North American Jules Verne Society in 2014. His aim was: to show how “… misunderstood Verne’s novels are in the English-speaking world, and what the authentic Verne can tell us about combining creativity and rationality in our lives and work…” , he wanted to show the “.. real, authentic Verne…”.

The Duncan - Victorian technology at its most thrilling!

Every cinematic adaptation is a visual and textural translation and the wonder is how much of the real Verne is in this film. His book was some 900 pages long and dedicated, as with his other works of this time, to showcasing the World – above and below - to eager readers in the age of European empires. In a film, there is only so much you can carry across in just over an hour, but directors Victorin-Hippolyte Jasset, Henry Roussel and Joseph Faivre do their best with the assistance of Michel Verne, son of Jules.


Part One: Concerning the finding and deciphering of an almost illegible document.

The story begins at sea, on Lord Glenarvon’s yacht, The Duncan, upon which he has been enjoying a cruise with his wife, Lady Helena (Josette Andriot, one of the few cast members identifiable). Their sailors recover a large fish within which is a bottle and, of course, a message. The letter in the bottle is partially destroyed but they do see enough to know that it came from a Captain Grant who, along with two of his crew, have survived the sinking of their ship, Britannia, only to have been taken captive by natives in Patagonia.

Sadly Josette Andriot - in the dress - is the only cast member I can identify

Glenarvon tries to find out more by placing an ad in the paper and discovers Captain Grant’s two children, Mary and Young Robert, who persuade him to help rescue their father, wherever he may be on the 37th Parallel… the Longitude sadly being illegible on the letter!

Quite by chance they enlist the help of “learned geographer and ever absent-minded professor…” Jacques Paganel who, having bought a ticket from the White Star company from Liverpool to Bombay – and possibly had a few too many in the White Star Pub in Matthew Street (I know I have) – mistakenly boards the Duncan. He is soon onboard in more ways than one and offering his eccentric genius in the search for Grant.

Forty Two days later, they have clearly rounded the notoriously dangerous Cape Horn and found themselves in Concepcion, Chile. Oddly the British Consul has no record of a missing ship and so Paganel decides that they should traverse the whole of the 37th Parallel in South America and be picked up by the Duncan on the other side in the hope of bumping into Grant.

This was a big budget effort but the Great War put an end to such ambition

There’s some excellent location shooting here, the film was mostly shot in Normandy but they must have used the Alps to stand in for the Andes as they’re clearly at altitude and the cast are indeed struggling on ice ridges and glaciers. It’s not quite a Berg Film but extra points for the altitude!

An earthquake leads to them falling down hill whilst a huge eagle carries off young Robert only to be shot down by a friendly local tribesman, Thalcave, Chief of the Patagonians who helps get them across the Pampas. They encounter wild bulls, floods and lightning before finally reaching the coast and the comfort of the Duncan. But daft of Professor Paganel – who must be a Mad Professor – realises that they should be looking in Australia!

PART TWO: Australia bound… and the Irish get a bad name.

It is now that we meet the oddly-named Ben Joyce who, stereotypically, is a dodgy Irish man with a secret identity as a goodly mill owner but who is really a crook called Ayrton who was thrown off Grant’s Britannia for mutiny and who now even has a secret base set impressively against a backdrop of waterfalls.

Honestly, no relation, although there's a few of my forefathers in Australia for obvious reasons...

Joyce/Ayrton offers to help find Grant who he says is being held by natives… but what he really wants is to take control of the Duncan and turn it into a pirate ship. From now on Ayrton causes a lot of the mischief but Grant’s son Robert proves intrepid and not only spots that Joyce is a wrong ‘un, he also races a train on horseback to save Lord Glenarvon from certain death.

The group eventually get captured by a tribe of Maoris; some 200 extras who had to be painted green to look the right shade of grey. It’s breakneck stuff and the group finally escapes over the shore to be rescued by the Duncan. But, where is Grant? There is only one place left to check on the 37th Parallel and that’s New Zealand… 

There IS a lot of action crammed into just over an hour and yet it was mostly understandable and was, above all, enjoyable. This was in no small part due to John Sweeney, who played up a storm and, as Michelle suggested, obviously relished the chance to return to a facsimile of New Zealand! Mr Sweeney is an adventure specialist and can cope with the breadth of Verne’s story, the sudden twists and turns and the need to underpin a wayward narrative with moral force and characterful flourishes. English translators may have struggled with Verne’s prose but Mr Sweeney is a fellow traveller in wonder and unquenchable inquisition!  

Contemporary reviews damned with faint praise, Variety saying that whilst the film was action-packed and visually exciting, "...there were some scenes that could not be readily understood..." whilst film historian Brian Taves, says that the film has more of the feel of a pageant of illustrations than a thorough film adaptation. I’m not so sure though as with the aid of John Sweeney’s music and excellent translation work from the Bioscope’s Tod Higginson, who added additional “conjectural” intertitles to explain the fuller narrative context, and helped us to enjoy a more rounded story. Which brings us back to the Alex Kirstukas’ call for intertextuality and a more informed translation of Verne’s work. With John interpreting the moods and Tod explaining the action, the film made more sense than probably at any point since it was first shown in this country.

Can you ride tandem? Apparently not...

Can’t go without mentioning the hilarious short film shown first, Une Partie de Tandem (1913) or as Todd translated, The Wife and I Go Cycling. This involved a succession of wild downhill rides and crashes across Paris, from restaurants to road works, and even the Eiffel Tower. Great stunt work and lively accompaniment from Colin Sell.


So, a massive tip of my pith helmet to the whole team. The Bioscope may seem to specialise in screening silent films but what they really do is to interpret them and to bring their meaning back to life as much as their images. So, another five-star effort; enjoyable and thought provoking!

Every silent film discovery leads you onwards to another and to a wider search for context and meaning. I look forward to reading Jules Verne as he intended to be read!


Wednesday, 19 August 2020

Free festival… Storm Over Asia (1928), Silent Film Days Bonn, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne

Valéry Inkijinoff

With the exception of Bristol’s Slapstick Festival, so glorious and so long ago, this year is likely to be festival-free for me thanks to our global pandemic and quarantine strictures. The 36th Silent Film Days in Bonn is one of the first to run in Europe and the organisers having decided to stream some of the films along with the live accompaniment mean that for a few days, those of us who couldn’t make it, can experience something of the immediacy and ambience of the festival.


So it was that I huddled my laptop, in Berlinale t-shirt with Pordenone mug topped up, to watch this crystal clear restoration of Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia (1928) and listen to the visceral interplay between accompanists Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne on headphones… and it was almost like being there; the most exciting stream I’ve watched in lockdown.


This is the first time I’ve seen this third part of Pudovkin’s so-called revolutionary trilogy – after Mother (1925) and The End of St. Petersburg (1927) – and it has the same paced intensity as those films but, moved to the steppes of Mongolia, is a simpler and lighter film that ultimately carries as much emotional force. It’s an almost symphonic film with the restored version including even more shots of the sunning countryside which punctuates the human interactions and the remarkable story arc of Bair, the Mongol (Valéry Inkijinoff). It’s easy to imagine sense being lost in these endless deserts and Blair’s journey is bewildering, comic and ultimately ferocious.


These 143 minutes of shifting moods and fortunes could ask for no finer accompaniment than that provided by Baldry and Horne. Stephen and Elizabeth-Jane first collaborated on a score for Stella Dallas which was as the former says on an interview on the Festival site, not “through composed” but a mixture of composition and improvisation. Since that first collaboration they have mostly worked with “a plan” which allows them both space to improvise and to join together on some pre-medicated sections whilst they know each other so well they also play on spec, and sometimes sight unseen. The beauty of their method is that most of us can’t spot the join and I’d be hard-pressed to guess how much of what they played for Storm was composed beforehand.


Pudovkin’s film is full of shocks and sudden turns as well as lengthy sections of pastoral outlooks and monastic calm and between piano, flute, accordion, harp, bells and wooden percussion, the two musicians had everything covered in a seamless flow of invention, uncanny interplay and some delicious melodies. Their choice of notes followed the lines of narrative but also the most pleasing of musical decisions, themes that chimed exactly with the watcher’s emotional response as well as the characters. They make it sound so easy but even as a man sitting on the end of the row in a virtual seat, I felt the live audience’s reaction to the mix of sound and sight.

Valéry Inkijinoff with silver fox fur

The film was shot in the Buriat-Mongolian republic, in and around the capital, today called Ulan-Ude, in south-central Siberia, just north of Mongolia. The restoration shows how fine the cinematography of Anatoly Golovnia is and there look to be far more location shots than in the older copy I was watching at the same time for the English translation – two laptops, one notepad, and a pint of something brown.


The story begins in these wastelands as a dying man (star Inkijinoff ‘s actual father) sends his son off to market in order to bring back food. He gives his son, Bair (Valéry Inkijinoff) a silver fox pelt which will buy them security and food, but a visiting priest wants to take the fur as the family’s contribution to the upkeep of the temple. Bair and the priest tussle and as the former prevails, the priest’s amulet falls to the ground and, as he leaves, Bair’s mother picks it up, later to gift it to her son.

Inkijinoff gives an extraordinarily powerful performance and was a graduate of Vsevolod Meyerhold’s “biomechanical” theatre – as was Sergei Eisenstein – which aimed to allow a greater range of emotional expression than the naturalistic approach of the time. According to Professor John Mackay of Yale University, Pudovkin asked Inkizhinov to produce “a deliberately narrowed range of movement to indicate emotion, and explosions of accumulated energy in sudden fury…” and edited the film around his actor’s remarkably controlled physical expression. Such control and release is, of course, a rhythmic gift to the accompanists and the interplay between actor and editor, piano and harp was more exhilarating than any Sunday afternoon solo silent film stream had any right to be!

Viktor Tsoppi is the face of imperialist exploitation

Bair heads off across the steppes to market where we find lots of fascinating faces – the film is full of them, all used by Pudovkin in the manner of Eisenstein to create a physiological discourse on their own. Among this local colour the western features of unscrupulous fur-trader, Henry Hughes (Viktor Tsoppi) stands out like a bad pelt. He tries to under pay for Bair’s silver fox fur leading to a riot. The troops are called in and Bair ends up in the mountains where he gets caught up helping a group of partisans in fighting the British!?!


It’s interesting now to consider Great Britain’s place in the World in 1928, a time when, incredibly as it might seem, we were even more unpopular than we are now… The British were never a colonial power in Mongolia although at the time the film is set, 1920, we were certainly supporting the White Russians in the civil war against the new Bolshevik regime. It seems that the British, being the imperial power, bar none, were the perfect casting for the film’s bad guys; unlike his previous two films, Storm was not based on domestic events and was more of a revolutionary fable; none the less powerful as propaganda and, in some ways, more enduringly affecting… I was certainly ready to run out and take on the powers that be in Hertfordshire by the end.


Fantasy it may be, but Storm is meticulous in the details it presents of Mongolian life and none more so than in capturing the Buddhist ritual Feast of Tzai near the residence of the lama. There’s a lovely sequence when preparations for the feast are juxtaposed against the preparations of the British Commandant (I. Dedintsev) and his wife (L. Belinskaya) as their extensive collection of toiletries and state paraphernalia contrast with the holy symbolism of the ritual dress and circumstance. There is a distinctly un-revolutionary preference for the traditional rituals but they represent the independent culture of the un-conquered souls of the native population.


The Feast of Tzai

Away from the temple, the business of imperial rule must continue as British soldiers attempt to take two hundred cattle from the locals by force only to be met with resistance from the partisans and Bair. In the skirmish Bair is captured and sentenced to execution by a decent-looking soldier who reluctantly marches him off to a lonely ridge to do the deed. Bair has no idea of what his fate is to be but as he slumps off to his doom the British notice his amulet and open it to find an ancient script confirming that he – or rather the priest – is the descendent of Genghis Khan.


This makes Bair ideal for a puppet leader and the Brits scramble to counterman their orders only to find that he has been shot, twice, and fallen over a deep sand bank. He is carried back and there are bloody scenes of surgery as he’s brought back to life almost like a Golem and finally stuffed into evening clothes and given respectability and new rank. It is here that Inkijinoff’s physicality is at its most powerful; he doesn’t smile or react, he just is… an unyielding, taught body, refusing to connect or even drink, eyeing up the goldfish captured for display just as surely he has been.


Now, just when you’ve almost forgotten, that silver fox fur returns to the story as a gift from Henry Hughes for the Commandant’s daughter (Anel Sudakevich) and it proves to be the catalyst for Bair’s re-awakening. Events begin to speed up towards a breath-taking finale that literally sees the Mongol whip up a storm that blows away not just the British but all possessions and the shackles of empire. Stephen and Elizabeth-Jane joined in the revolutions, bringing the noise in a perfectly paced crescendos of chaotic chords and tumultuous tones; you have to wonder how long piano and harp would take to re-tune but it was worth it!


So, a taste of the unique atmosphere of the Bonn Silent Film Festival and a combination I look forward to being replicated in the UK whenever possible.


The film is no longer streaming on the Bonn site but there’s an interview with Stephen and Elizabeth-Jane. There’s also a link to donate to the Festival as this helps provide the support to keep it going in these impossible times. You must keep believing though, what would Bair do? 

Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Stephen Horne