Thursday, 28 April 2011

Joan of Arc (1928) Adrian Utley, Will Gregory live at Southbank Centre

This was the first time I'd seen Carl Dreyer's "Joan of Arc" and taking in both the film and the new score from Utley, Gregory, choir and orchestra was a challenge.

But I'd gladly sit down and watch the whole thing over again.

The film is one of the most striking ever made (silent or otherwise) and is essentially a montage of close ups with great skill required from the actors to pitch emotion at the right level. No one is more in control of their expression than Renée Maria Falconetti who gives a performance of searing simplicity and spiritual power.

The fact that the film is based on the court transcripts of the 1431 trail makes Falconetti's performance all the more moving; this was a real person of, literally, amazing intellect and personality. Any recreation of such a figure could so easily go wrong but this film has a surity of step and firmness of vision that it works on every level; docu-drama, christian epic, proto-feminist - whatever you're looking for, it's here.

Carl Theodor Dreyer directed other great films, most notably "Vampyr" made a few year's later, but Joan feels more modern and more connected than this later work. Maybe it was the score but, more probably, it's Falconetti and the film's cohesive visual boldness. It is truly stunning.

As for the music...well I like Goldfrapp and, especially Portishead, but this was a little different. "Like Godspeed merged with the choir from Doctor Who..." said my mate Dave and he was right. Adrian Utley led an array of guitars, Will Gregory sat at the keyboards next to a harpist and flanked by a powerful choir and brass section, all conducted by Charles Hazlewood.

The score was perfectly judged and as Gregory says, had to complement the emotion on screen by being occassionally lighter in tone but always subordinate to the drama. It worked very well and, as with Godspeed you Black Emperor (... if you've never heard of these Canadian wonders then look here!) the collection of guitarists provoked an unsettling energy that was multiplied by the power of the choir.

It would have worked very well as a concert perfomance but as a score it provided a unique and very involving combination, almost overwhelming at times but, as with the film, perfectly judged, knowing when to knock you gently or otherwise.

I'd highly recommend this performance when they play it again (this is now confirmed as the Brighton Festival on 29th May, details here) and would willingly buy you the DVD release which it is to be hoped is soon forthcoming!

There's an interesting documentary on the writing of the score on YouTube.

And, there's a Criterion Collection DVD set their work too!

Friday, 15 April 2011

Portishead + Goldfrapp + Carl Dreyer?! Joan of Arc (1928)

Adrian Utley and Will Gregory are accompanying the Carl Theodor Dreyer classic "Joan of Arc" as part of this year's Ether Festival in London's Southbank Centre. The performance is on Thursday 28th April and there are still some tickets left.

Portishead + Goldfrapp + Carl Dreyer? That sounds pretty unbeatable to me.

Link here.

The event throws up its fair share of modernistic sounds and IDM. I saw The Field, Walls and Burger/Voigt earlier this month and Andrea Parker supporting the *brilliant* Broadcast last time around (so very sad the news of Trish Keenan).

This is should be an very interesting contrast to the Dodge/Beggars performance last weekend.

Monday, 11 April 2011

"Beggars of Life" + Dodge Brothers deliver at BFI Silent Film Festival

Great film...great gig!

The Dodge Brothers accompanied "Beggars of Life" wowed a packed audience at the British Film
Institute last night.

Clearly a labour of love for the boys, their enthusiastic and skilled playing embellished and
enhanced the 1928 "Wild Bill" Wellman classic. The Brothers Mark Kermode (bass & harmonica), Ali Hirji (guitar & mandolin), Al Hammond (drums & washboard) and Michael Hammond (vocals, guitar & banjo) were joined by silent film pianist Neil Brand and fiddle player to add extra flourish.

Opening with the original theme tune sung by Mike Hammond, the band interweaved a mix of original tunes with contemporary Americana. The band's tagline is "Trains & death a speciality" and one could think of no better film for them!

Apparently, the wreck from the climactic train crash still lies where it fell over 80 years' ago and this connection between the present and the past was maintained throughout an exhilarating set.

The film is fast-paced and the music underpinned this to thrilling effect moving it very much into the now and grabbing our attention. This felt like a real adventure and even knowing the film, made it feel new, placed in a fresh, visceral context.

Apart from this being the cleanest print I've ever seen of the film and it being the first time I'd viewed it in a cinema, the accompaniment kicked things to another level of focus, scale and engagement.

The opening scenes with the intercutting between Louise Brooks and Richard Arlen, the flashback to her abuse...their relationship growing as they tread towards an unknown escape route...their, chaste, night spent in the hay... All seemed fresh and made you all the more certain, once again, that you were watching one of the greatest actresses of any age.

Mike Dodge reminded us that "Wild Lou" Brooks had also performed her own stunts and my wife gasped and threw her hands to her face after one particularly painful Brooks' bounce from a speeding train! She was in the moment.

The change of pace when the couple meet the hoboes was all the more noticeable and the casting of an interesting collection of faces all the more apparent. Good expression all round.

Wallace Beery's masterful turn as Oklahoma Red threatens to steal the show. He is another magnetic presence whose character has the kind of moral ambiguity modern audiences might assume was
only recently invented.

I won't spoil the resolution but the suspense is maintained and there are indeed, as Mordant Hall observed at the time "some good scenes of trains..." They're very good and shot by a brave crew.

In the end there was cheering and a standing ovation. We could honestly have watched and listened to it all over again!

Thanks Dodge Brothers and thanks Wellman, Arlen, Brooks and Beery.

I hope that this particular train keeps a rollin' and somebody has the good sense to release this unique collaboration on DVD!

Either that or just keep playing it live and I'll be there!

Dodge Brother's official site here.

Excellent interview with the boys at the Louise Brooks Society site.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

Asta be the best actress... Afgrunden (1910)

Asta Nielsen was the amongst the first "theatricals" with the skill to moderate their expression for the confines of the new cinematic medium.

She was also one of the first truly international film stars and, as such, was voted the best female actress in a poll of Russian film fans in 1915. She later went on to play Hamlet in the 1920 film directed by Svend Gade and Heinz Schall and to feature in Pabst's 1925 classic "Die freudlose Gasse" ("The Joyless Street") in which she was cast way "over-age" but still managed to more than match the luminescent Garbo.

"Afgrunden", released in 1910 when she was in her late 20's, shows more clearly why european audiences loved her. Directed by future husand, Urban Gad, it tells the story of Magda, who is torn between her solid and reliable fiance and an exciting and distinctly un-reliable Cowboy from a travelling circus.

Passions run high and Magda just can't prevent her self from being stuck in the gap between her love for the two men. Things culminate in the infamous and saucy Gaga-esque dance performed by Magda in leather skirt, with her cowboy restrained by lassoo. It's eye-popping stuff for the period and gives a clear view of a world not unlike our own...

Another standout scene is at the films' start when Magda travels by tram and meets her fiance for the first time. Asta's realism and the clever camerawork show us another piercing glimpse of the world as it was and still is.

Afgrunden is viewable on youtube but there's also a DVD box set including three other films from this period from the Danish Film Institute which is recommended.

L'Inferno (1911) ...heavenly film (one hell of a soundtrack...)

"Is it just me or does this music sound completely wrong..." was the instinctive reaction of my co-reviewer (Beth 13 and endlessly patient) when watching the Tangerine Dream soundtracked version of "L'Inferno". Well, mostly, the answer to that would be yes but... stick on "Zeit" (or turn down the volume) and enjoy the imagination and astonishing creativity of Giuseppe de Liguoro's ground-breaking film.

Made over a period of three years and first screened in March 1911 this was the first Italian feature length film, clocking in at 68 minutes. Some who know say that it's the best film version of Dante's Inferno, which says something after over 100 years.

All I can say is that, as an entertainment, it still works exceptionally well and is full of visual invention and wonderfully controlled storytelling. There are dozens of set piece scenes all based on the different levels of hell with still surprising camera trickery showing all manner of tortures for the fallen.

A century old or not it's simply amazing.

Tangs die-hards can go to hell here but others may want to try this new path!

More detail on the film at Ab Initio's excellent site.

Sunday, 3 April 2011

Cabiria (1914) ...the motion picture moves...

"Cabiria" is the first true cinematic epic and as such features a cast of many hundreds, huge purpose built stages and a fair few elephants.

Set in Carthage during the Second Punic Wars, it focuses the action on the titular Cabiria, her separation and ultimate reunion with the Roman people after their victory.

Directed in visionary style by Giovanni Pastrone it marks the first major use of camera mobility and is perhaps the definitive answer to the question: what happened between Méliès and Griffith? The latter was no doubt heavily influenced by Pastrone and surpassed him dramatically and technically by out "cabiria-ing" his most ambitious shots in "Intolerance" a couple of years later.

"Cabiria" is a classic in its own right and is expertly structured. There are, sadly, no close ups but that would (maybe) undermine the sheer epic nature of the story and its telling. It would be great to see the acting of the monumentally expressive Italia Almirante Manzini and Bartolomeo Pagano though!

Criterion are working on a deluxe re-issue (presumably based on the 2006 reconstruction?) but until then there's an excellent Kino DVD that does the film justice. The print is remarkably clean for a film mostly made in 1913.

Wow Wow Bow!

"Mantrap" is a 1926 movie directed by the famous Victor Fleming ("Wizard of Oz"..."Gone With the Wind"...) and featuring a blinding performance from Clara Bow. It's not a great film but it is a very entertaining one. Percy Marmont is the jaded lawyer Ralph Prescott who heads to the hills to fish and clear his mind only to find confusion in the form of Clara's Alverna - a city girl who has rashly married the solid, sincere but very square, Joe Easter (Ernest Torrence).

Both men struggle to find an arrangement with the flighty, flirty Alverna and it's unclear until the very end which way she'll turn and where she's best placed: the city or the country.

It's one of the films that best explains the massive appeal of Clara Bow and whilst everyone seems a little miss-cast around her and Alverna's own motivations are a little hard to credit, she makes the absolute most of things and pulls you along throughout with energy and true wit.

You can trap it here (along with "Our Dancing Mothers").