Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Royal Festival Hall - Faust (1926)

The latest stage in my Murnau education took place at London’s Royal Festival Hall where I watched his 1926 classic, Faust, accompanied by a splendid new score composed by Aphrodite Raickopoulou . This was superbly performed by the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Benjamin Wallfisch and ably supported with some jaw-dropping piano improvisations from Gabriela Montero.

It was an evening that lifted the spirits and sent the audience away on a high…we didn’t trash the seats but we smiled our way home into the night, chattering and tweeting our satisfaction. Just what is it about silent films and live performance?

Having watched a good few silent films with live music this was my first full-blown orchestra and in the voluminous setting of the South Bank’s biggest venue, the big band worked exceptionally well. The audience was, how shall I put this, my friends … rather more… sartorially focused than your usual silent gig; more of a concert crowd perhaps?

But, even though the wife and I felt slightly under-dressed, it was a warm, friendly and highly-appreciative gathering.

The screening was introduced by Hugh Grant, a surprising choice perhaps (and one that helped lure my Catherine out on a Monday night) but one quickly explained by the fact that he’s a mate of Aphrodite’s as well as a fan of her music. He gave a typically bumbling yet humorous introduction, revealing a few fun wiki-facts on Murnau, Jannings’ unfortunate later choices of Nazi propaganda work and embarrassing the allegedly “flakey Julia on the cor anglais….”

There was also a round of applause, which I think I started, when Mr Grant made a reference to the “faustian pact” of Prime Minister David Cameron with former News of the World Editor Andy Coulson…

Apparently delighted that Aphrodite had at last been able to put out this music having “gone on about it for years”, he was gracious enough to reveal his own admiration after repeat viewings of the film.

I hadn’t seen the film before and, having viewed an excellent production of Marlowe’s play at The Globe Theatre last year, it was interesting to compare Murnau’s 1926 version of the legend. Mr Grant’s wiki-research had revealed that the story was based on a medieval alchemist who had tried to find a cure for the plague only to be accused of selling his soul…

Gösta Ekman played this Faust and gives an impressive performance as the man who surrenders all to ambition even if his road to Hell is initially paved with the good intention of curing the plague.

At the start, Faust is an old man but he reverts to his pretty youth for much of the film – an androgynous figure who’s layers of make-up reflect his misguided attempt to conceal his real self. It’s hard to feel sympathy for what looks like a refuge from Bolan or Bowie’s glam backing band but we do…there but for the grace of God…

Emil Jannings, who I last saw as the doorman in The Last Laugh – puffed out with pride one minute, literally diminished by failure the next - gives another extraordinary turn as Mephisto.

What a range he had, physically imposing and powerful yet capable of these quicksilver changes in stature and poise…all matched by his hugely expressive face: an operatic performance in all but name, complete with knowing laughs and grand gestures.

Mephisto sets the story in motion by betting the guardian angel that he can lure Faust’s soul away from God.

This he does with much alacrity sending a pestilence to Faust’s town and forcing the old man to risk his soul for a day’s “trial” of demonic power. He hopes to use this for good but he cannot cure those protected by crosses and his rejected by the god-fearing villagers.

Mephisto turns this to his advantage by offering Faust his youth and the old man buys it, setting off on a series of selfish adventures with his cunning “servant”.

But then Faust is thrown off course as he comes across the beauteous Gretchen and falls for the most innocent soul in the village.

Camilla Horn got the part of Gretchen that had been intended for Lillian Gish, the latter couldn’t make it and so Horn undertook not only her first film but also first full acting role (although her legs had been in a previous Murnau film, according to Hugh…).

She acts very well, in spite of what looks like a longer version of the hairpiece worn by Janet Gaynor in Murnau’s masterpiece Sunrise. It matters not, she’s great “very beautiful with a natural open smile” said Catherine and is particularly moving during the later scenes as Mephisto’s plan to ruin it all begins to come to fruition.

She makes the horror and the tragedy believable and her acting is a naturalistic counter weight to the pantomime villainy of Jannings and the foolishness of Faust. She’s the hero and not him.

The outline of the Faust story is familiar to most and quite clearly it isn’t going to end that well but Murnau moves the narrative in characteristically forceful manner towards the tragic denouement.

Yet, this is not quite the Faust that I saw in The Globe and there is a twist in the tale.

As you’d expect Faust is beautifully photographed by Murnau’s cinematographer Carl Hoffman, a major figure in expressionist cinema who also worked on Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. The set design from Robert Herlth and Walter Rohrig, is also amazing, another Murnau film shot entirely in studio?

The music was simply superb - very moving - and the Philharmonia Orchestra filled the huge space of the hall to the brim. This was maybe even louder than the Utley/Gregory Joan of Arc I saw last year and really suited what is an operatic and mightily expressive story.

It was another powerful example of the importance of music to silent film and the ways in which it can revitalise the creative existence of the latter bringing out new flavours, emphasising existing impressions and helping to re-connect audiences with the creative spirit of the film makers.

Music and Murnau worked in perfect tandem and to loud, sustained acclaim.

The Kino and Masters of Cinema Faust are available from Amazons all over, but I think I’ll wait until a version is available featuring this soundtrack. There's a sample here on YouTube.

Don't miss it if you get the chance to experience it live, clear and loud!

Sunday, 19 February 2012

Louise Brooks & Evelyn Brent - Love ’em and Leave ‘em (1926)

This is a fun film directed by Frank Tuttle primarily as a vehicle for Evelyn Brent but also providing one of the then teenage Louise Brooks’ biggest roles up to that point.

First time I watched this, a few years back, I only had eyes for Brooksie but second time around, whilst she still steals the show, I paid more attention to the nominal star and indeed there is much to comment on Ms Brent’s performance.

Evelyn plays Mame Walsh a shop worker who shares a one-room apartment with her younger and wilder sister, Janie, played by Brooks. Their mother died when they were young and Mame promised to always look after her sister. Her determination to fulfil this promise is needless to say stretched to the limit…

The film gives a fascinating glimpse into the lives of everyday twenty-somethings in the, erm, 20’s. The house they share is peopled by a variety of characters who race each day to get the hot water in their shared bathroom. There’s Mame’s dopey boyfriend Bill Billingsley (Lawrence Gray) who can barely get himself to work without her prodding. He’s a bit of a sap and doesn’t value Mame as much as he should – he doesn’t see how much she supports him and he’s not alone.

Then there’s the weasely Lem Woodruff (Osgood Perkins) a man who "spent six months curing halitosis only to find he was unpopular anyway." He’s not to be trusted but, for some reason Janie lets him place bets for her at the bookies.

The girls work at Ginsburgs department store and the film shifts to a great set of interior shots showing the shop fully populated with customers. There are humorous vignettes amidst the crushed commerce, a man left with his measuring hat on as a distracted Bill attempts to serve him and the floor manager’s concentrated appreciation of the turn of Janie’s heel as she stands on a step ladder.

By chance Bill is given the opportunity to become a window dresser after Mame turns his joke of directing a fan at the window dummies into a feature of the display. Passers by crowd around the window to watch the display and the store manager, believing this to be all Bill’s idea, gives him the chance to do more.

Mame is there again to provide the real inspiration to enliven Bill’s next idea as she lets a kitten run free amidst the dummies. All of this goes unnoticed by the manager and unrecognised by blurry Bill who takes whatever happens to him in his directionless stride.

Throughout the movie Mame is there to make up for the failings of others and to right wrongs. This makes her a bit of a saint but a knowing one: we never lose sympathy for her.

She goes on holiday after Bill has proposed and by the time she has decided to accept, he has fallen for the allure of Janie. Mame returns to a surprise party only to get more of a surprise than she bargained for as her fiancé and sister return to the apartment canoodling – some great reaction shots from Brent here.

But things get even worse. Credibility is stretched as Janie who having been appointed – for "good behavior" – as the shop’s ball committee treasurer, has gambled away the funds for the ball. Lem has cheated her out of her winnings and she is left to let the blame fall on Mame.

Mame is given an ultimatum of returning the money before 11 or the police will be called. She lets Janie go to the ball – “I won't enjoy a single minute of the dance, worrying about you” - and sets off to settle the score with Lem the Louse.

The story splits in two as Janie proceeds to forget her worries and blow us all away with an all too brief demonstration of Brooks’ dancing. Mame gets dolled up and pally with Lem, getting away with his wallet only for him to catch her as she phones Bill for help.

Their fight doesn’t quite proceed as you’d expect and Mame shows herself to be a strong character in every sense. At last Bill begins to realise her worth and his own responsibilities. As for Janie, she’s working her way up the corporate ladder faster than her dancing feet can carry her.

Evelyn Brent has the majority of the film and on reflection deserves better notices than she gets on some forums. She’s got a good range and whilst she can’t compete with a 19-year old phenomenon she does act convincingly and with subtlety.

Brooks is raw and ablaze with energy. She makes the most of a fairly narrow role and is absolutely believable as the irresponsible, self-serving teen who gets everyone into trouble. Her intelligence and sense of humour rescues the role and adds some extra velocity to the storyline.

As ever it’s difficult to view this in any other way but through the prism of her subsequent legend but she’s good and the bob is cut so short and so sharp!

Osgood Perkins is also good as the slimeball Lem, you wonder what he was like in real life, probably a wonderful and caring chap.

Love ‘em and Leave ‘em is currently available from the likes of Classic Video Streams and Grapevine Video DVD which use decent prints including the tinting as shown above. You can also watch it on YouTube but in poor quality.

One day it’ll be properly restored and remastered along with Louise’s other extant pre-European films…one day. In the meantime, love it and don’t leave it!

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

Childhood's end? La Vallée - Obscured by Clouds (1972)

Amidst our on-going fascination with the 1960’s remains the fact that, in many key cultural respects, the “period” never stopped and is with us now.

The 60’s was the first time when the chance to “do as thou wilt” was available to a relatively mass market and this cultural Pandora’s Box has never been closed, just monetised. The freedoms and social mobility of the time are still present but are commoditised, stripped of their pioneering spirit and political context in an age when self expression is taken as a right.

This much is clear when watching La Vallée (Obscured by Clouds), a seemingly quintessential “hippie” movie made by Barbet Schroeder in 1972, sometime after the scene had soured in the US and UK – the French were always less transiently trendy… Yet all is not as it appears.

The film is about a group of young “drop-out” travellers who have come to find a lost valley in New Guinea, funded by the inheritance of their leader, Gaetan (Jean-Pierre Kalfon). This part of the island is unexplored and literally obscured by permanent cloud cover.

The group is well meaning and at pains to make this journey a voyage of spiritual discovery as much as an eco-vacational novelty. The other man in the group, Oliver (Michael Gothard) is more wary and, as things unfold, we see his worldliness and disappointment rise to the fore. They are accompanied by two women and a child…a mini commune sharing each other and “free love”.

Into this group comes a French diplomat’s wife, Viviane (Bulle Ogier), who is on vacation and looking to pick up cultural trinkets for re-sale back home. She meets Oliver in a trader’s shop and becomes fascinated with a rare feather he has.

Her quest for such exotica leads her to join the group as they head onto their destination. Never intending to go the whole way, Viviane is sucked into the group mentality initially through greed, hallucinatory sex and her own curiosity.

The party meets with one of the local tribes in a sequence that feels more than half-documentary. This section with the Mapuga tribe is fascinating, with the tribe preparing themselves and some of the actors for a feast. Amazing costumes, elaborate, richly-coloured face painting and singing accompanies this. They kill pigs in ritual, inhumane ways and the considerable gap in cultural outlook is revealed – I couldn’t watch the slaughter.

Viviane and Gaetan embrace this but Oliver has seen nothing but his own fall from grace reflected back: “Once you have tasted Adam’s apple there is no way back….you cannot recover the lost innocence…” Michael Gothard is a supremely unsettled presence as per usual, he manages to convey a deep insecurity whilst at the same time being confident and facing up to things. Brave I suppose.

His Oliver cannot make the final step of the spiritual journey but continues with the group even though, as he says to Gaetan, “…we're not going to get out of this”. Does this mean physically or figuratively?

The group press on, with Viviane and Gaetan convinced that they are ready to find themselves in the lost valley…

Compared with Gothard, Bulle Ogier is a closed book. She is less expressive and carries a lot of emotion within her acting and slides from self-centred to wide-eyed acceptance over the course of the film. I’m not sure how judgemental Schroeder was being but she carries blame for abandoning herself to being the tourist. Does she ever really open up?

I should also mention the soundtrack… having previously worked with them on More back in 1969, Schroeder chose Pink Floyd to accompany his film. Aside from the opening theme and the closing moments their music is heard only in snatches, mostly on the travellers’ cassette player.
Schroeder felt the travellers where the kind of people who listened to Le Pink Floyd. Never-the-less, the group were always outside the hippy mainstream and, as some of the lyrics and song titles suggest, were cynical enough not to believe in the nirvana of primitivism. Which is just what the director was looking for.

I had their soundtrack LP as a teen and it always stood out as one of their more immediate works having been knocked off very quickly during their mammoth “Dark Side…” sessions and, benefiting from this. They were still functioning as a collaborative band at this stage and there are some decent tunes on show, not least the main theme which showcases Rick Wright’s brand new synth to splendid effect.

This is not a great film but it is a very interesting one. It’d be lazy to say “of its time” (it always is) especially in an age when the young have broadened their range of travelling in “gap” years and when there are “tour companies” offering the more adventurous “first contact” holidays in which to meet the few isolated tribes that remain in New Guinea, South America and elsewhere. (If you don’t believe me, check out this frankly shocking BBC documentary on YouTube.)

Our need to explore remains and the moral justification for doing so remain conflicted, just like the characters in the film. Schroeder knew enough to be cynical even if his choice of location was driven by the same adventurous spirit as his characters.

In an interview given at the time, he talked about the impact of western civilisation on these people who would have no real time to adjust and whose cultures would dilute and dissipate following contact.

If you look at Papua New Guinea on Google Earth there are still plenty of valleys obscured by clouds and maybe that’s the way they should stay.

The BFI have done this film proud and released it on dual format with an extensive booklet on the film actors and the music. It’s available from their shop and all of the usual places.

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Revolving doors... The Last Laugh (1924)

I’ve had this one for some time now but I’ve never felt compelled to watch it suspecting that it was perhaps too sentimental and possibly too “worthy”. Maybe it was the kind of film maudlin youth might find attractive because of the casual miseries inflicted on the main character and maybe a narrow band storyline about the (middle) age of irrelevance and the death of pride was too close to the bone for a man of a certain age on a Sunday afternoon.

It’s also one of those works that’s so raved about that it's hard to respond objectively and simply take at face value... as with many albums by van Morrison or Dylan (take your pick).

But, what can I say? I was wrong. Turns out that The Last Laugh is as good as “they” say and I’m a fool for letting its good reputation put me off (where’s my copy of Blonde on Blonde got to?).

I shouldn’t be surprised that the director of Nosferatu and Sunrise can produce such a compelling and visually-inventive story. FW Murnau exerts a fascinating amount of visual control over this film. It looks like almost all of the film was made in studio with massive sets replicating the hotel where the chief protagonist works, the run-down tenements of his home and the streets in between.

The tenement scenes reminded me of Rear Window as Murnau (and his expert cinematographer, Karl Freund) zoom around from balcony to window ledge, choreographing the focus on different character’s reactions. It’s technically brilliant and quite unlike anything else I’ve seen. Murnau’s camera lurks in the shadows then suddenly zooms towards or past its targets, as quick as imagination and giving the action a curious dreamlike quality.

But then the main character is living in constant unreality. He works as a doorman in a swish uptown hotel – The Atlantic – were he helps the prestigious guests to enter into its opulence. The hotel is its own fantasy in which appearance is all and status is vital: it has to be a place worthy of the patronage of the guests and this sense of splendour rubs off on those who work there.

To be a visual representation of the hotel “brand” is an honour and source of pride for those fortunate to work front of house. The older and less attractive are kept behind the scenes, cleaning and otherwise maintaining the “front”.

Our doorman is however on the cusp with his age starting to tell and his strength on the wane. The calculating manager spots this and relegates him to a below stairs role in the washroom. He is devastated and begins to shrink in front of our eyes, an amazingly impressive, protean display of physical acting from Emil Jannings.

Unable to face the humiliation of this demotion, the doorman steals his uniform and puts it on when he returns to his tenement for his niece’s wedding party (Maly Delschaft on glowing form). He carries off the deception for the night and a drunken good time is had by all. He has the most vivid inebriated dream in which his strength and position are more than restored with some superb imagery from Murnau.

The next day it’s back to his new reality and his humbling is compounded by the careless humiliation of the guests and, when he is discovered, from his neighbours and even his own family. He creeps home a mere shadow – you can imagine how Murnau depicts this – only to be laughed at and scorned. How can people be this cruel? But we are and the schadenfreude is open and relentless.

The doorman returns his coat to the hotel and is discovered by a friendly nightwatchman who is perhaps the first person in the film to show him any real kindness. We watch appalled and have been waiting for such a moment. But, has it come too late?

As the nightwatchman helps him to his chair in the washroom his torch illuminates a broken heart and a man at the end of his tether.

Murnau can’t have pulled us all along for this to end in loneliness and death can he? You will have to watch this film to find out what the English title actually means; is this the last laugh or does the man have the last laugh?

This film is on a par with the other Murnau’s I’ve watched and is superbly directed – so cohesively shadowed and with that sublime camera movement to surprise and highlight the emotion.

Jannings gives one of the best performances I’ve seen. So obviously a powerful actor in terms of range and stature, he is able to expand and reduce his size in proportion to the character’s fortunes. He his supported by a superbly expressive moustache and expert make up. The film, with so many close ups and, famously no dialogue intertitles, relies massively on his abilities.

A wonderful film and deservedly ranked as one of the classics of the 20’s, The Last Laugh is a testament to the unchanging truths of capitalism, mortality and, in the end, love. I think I’ve only really scratched the surface in one viewing and look forward to watching it again… what wouldn’t we give for a Murnau commentary!

It's available from Amazon at laughably low prices and all good retailers.