Monday, 30 April 2012

Dodge Brothers + Louise Brooks, Barbican, London … Beggars of Life (1928)

Mark Kermode, double bass and harmonica Dodge Brother, told us that every time they play along to Beggars of Life is different. They have cue sheets with the film’s intertitles but use no sheet music and improvise based on the rhythm of the film and the mood of the scenes.

The title song is sung with the opening titles and then Hark Those Bells accompanies the appearance of Oklahoma Red (Wallace Beery) as he staggers onto screen singing and carrying a casket of hootch for his fellow hoboes.

I’d seen the Dodge Brothers, superbly augmented by Neil Brand on piano, accompany Beggars of Life at the BFI last year (review here) but, as with the music, the experience was something else this time.

The first time I watched this film was on ropey DVD and, through the under-exposed image I only had my eyes on Louise Brooks. By the time of the BFI viewing I still couldn’t keep my eyes off and viewed things largely through her time on screen.

This time though, I paid more attention to the film’s technique and the other performers. This was undoubtedly prompted by the music which has grown closer to the film and consequently highlights certain aspects more emphatically.

In the case of Edgar Washington Blue the band deliberately counter-point his appearances with more serious accompaniment than would have been originally used. Mike Hammond, guitar and voice Dodge Brother, explained that minstrel songs would have been used to emphasise the comedic aspect of this performer. Such stereotyping devalues the actor and his excellent performance but this was just a few years after white actors were still being used in black make-up. Edgar Washington Blue was a decent actor full stop but he was amongst the first black men to make a success in American film.

There’s also no mistaking the film’s intended star and that is Wallace Beery. He gives an energetic and robust performance as the anti-hero. He’s rough and always ready and whilst we don’t particularly like him for much of the story, there’s something playfully honest about him. He’s secure in his own dominance and is merely responding to a harsh, meaningless world in the only way he can.

But the two youngsters teach him a lesson he never expected and he risks all to help them in the end. Maybe this is a tale of lost potential. Red and the rest of the hoboes have mostly run out of options and are where they are because they either don’t fit or got unlucky.

Jim Tully’s original book was an autobiographical account of his own experience of vagrant culture. An orphan and a former hobo he was attempting the same kind of revelatory journalism as George Orwell (in Wigan and in Paris) albeit without the Eton education. He wanted to explain these outcasts to mainstream society.

Louise Brooks’ character, Nancy, hasn’t had much luck. “Rescued” from the orphanage by an abusive farmer, she can take no more and shoots him before he can punish her further. She is found by a young wanderer, Jim (Richard Arlen) who reluctantly agrees to help her escape.

Gradually they become close as Wellman shows them, literally, walking increasingly in step, running in tandem alongside speeding trains and sleeping in a make-shift bed Jim hollows out of a haystack. Wellman’s direction is superb here as he films his young actors running their own stunts and uses the pastoral setting to show their growing closeness and vulnerability as they almost get skewered by the farmer.

When the two enter the sub-culture of the hoboes there are lots of authentic touches. Graffitti on the trucks – with some in-jokes “Hi Louie” and a drawing of some character called "Bill" – and also the hoboes own code to help their fellow travellers find the safest routes.

The hoboes have their own rules and structure and respect is given to the strongest man. Red attempts to enforce his “right” to take advantage of the girl he is protecting but she is too smart and forces him into a fight with Snake.

After Snake removes his false teeth, the two men pummel away like school boys in what looks like a painfully improvised scrap. The rest of the gang joins in and there is mayhem until word comes that the train is being searched by the police.

The gang escape and hide out in an abandoned shack. Red tries to split the lovers apart for their own safety but is dumbfounded when he sees their true feelings… “I heard about it but I never seen it before”.

He sends them off in a car he has stolen along with some female clothing – a double-bluff for the authorities chasing a girl dressed as a boy – and then sets his plan in place to put them in the clear…

Mike Hammond described Beggars as his favourite film and you can understand why. There is a good deal of depth in this story and it certainly repays repeat viewing when its technique and social conscience becomes clearer.

It’s also a different experience when you watch a film in different company. Our two friends were not too familiar with silent film but came away uplifted by the enthusiasm of the band and the quality of the film. It was a collective endorsement of the new and the old.

Whilst the acting skill of Beery is a key component in the film’s authenticity so too (obviously) is the presence of Louise Brooks who looks and acts out of time as always. This film is precious as it’s one of the few American features that allow her to play a dramatically challenging role. She was just 21 when she made it and seemingly set for stardom.

She bravely followed Wild Bill Welham’s instructions to run her own stunts as far as possible and you wonder why, within a couple of years, she’d turned her back on a role in the same director's Public Enemy (Jean Harlow took it and it made her). But it wasn’t to be, she’d done her bit and left a handful of great performances to show us what was possible.

The band were filmed during the performance and it is to be hoped that this will form the basis of a future DVD release (there are semi-official rumours…). I hope so. You can watch Beggars of Life at the Internet Archive but it deserves a restoration and it deserves this great music to be played alongside it.

There's more information of the Dodge Brothers on their website - they accompany other silents White Oak and The Ghost Who Never Returns. Neil Brand truly "...the Doyen of silent film accompanists..." also has a site here.

Saturday, 28 April 2012

Artful… Cœur Fidèle (1923)

It’s 1923 and already the arthouse demarcation lines appear to have been drawn firmly across the Atlantic and as far East as the English Channel. I’m not sure just what is it about national culture that allowed such marked differences in style to be embedded so early on, but the evidence might seem to support the idea of more experimental and, artful for its own sake, movie making in Europe than the United States.

The innovations of de Mille and Griffith seem more “sensible” than the emotive experiments of Abel Gance or the extravagance of Robert Wiene. They developed techniques because it would improve the storytelling whereas the Europeans maybe did so merely because it offered new possibilities that might offer deeper insight.

Gross generalisation of course but… Cœur Fidèle (Faithful Heart), directed by Jean Epstein in 1923, certainly tells its story in a different way from most contemporary Hollywood fare. There is extensive use of close up, photo montage, superimpositions and unusual angles to get across the characters’ emotional states. The viewer passes through the physical storyline straightforwardly enough but Epstein seems to be mirroring the efforts of his countryman Gance, in attempting to convey the inner stories as well.

The film starts with detailed close ups of tables been cleaned and drinks being served, mundane reality. The woman holding the bottle is Marie (Gina Manès), a “foundling” brought up cruelly by her adoptive parents. They run a dockside bar in seedy Marseilles and make her work every hour.

We see misery driven deep in her eyes and reflected by the dreary workings of the dockside, the relentless greyness and eternal lapping of the polluted waves against the quayside.

Manès has electric, piercing eyes and the camera lingers on them and her face in a series of unrelenting close-ups. We’re dragged in there right with her.

A local thug Petit Paul (Edmond van Daële), has taken to Marie and, whilst he has no respect for her happiness he seems intent on possessing her.

We see her literally pull away from the window as he approaches. She loathes him but her parents are as frightened by Paul as the rest of the dock workers and won’t stand in his way.

But Marie is sustained by her secret love for Jean (Léon Mathot), a decent dockworker. He waits for her by the dockside, face deep in thought and when the two meet there is a rapture of superimposed images of their faces against the sea.

Epstein shows us the backs of their heads as is if to underline their intimacy and to pull us in. Next he overlays an image of the water over their faces but never follows through to the full fade… he’s grasping for something indistinct and I can only kill it by trying to describe have to watch.

Jean attempts to extract Marie from her situation but is faced down by Paul and a gang of his friends. Marie is “given” to Paul and Jean sets off in pursuit.

Marie and Paul go to a funfair where again there are lots of intriguing shots no more so that when the camera follows them on a merry-go-round. Marie’s despair is counter-pointed by the delight all around. In this place of joy she is so unhappy.

Jean finally finds them and in the ensuing confrontation with Paul, a policeman is killed and Jean takes the rap. He is sentenced to a year in prison.

Once Jean is released, he goes in search of Marie and finds her living with Petit Paul, a disabled woman (a superb performance from Marie Epstein – the director’s sister) and a young baby.

No one is happy and Paul, having got rid of his rival and stolen his prize, has been rewarded with a life of drunken wastefulness. He brutalises the women and cares nothing for his child choosing to feed his habit rather than fund his son’s medicines.

Jean begins to meet with Marie but the local gossips start to talk and Paul eventually learns that they have been chalking heart-shaped messages as signals to meet each other throughout the docks. Graffitti is a constant theme throughout the film from the words and symbols on the walls of the tenements to those in the docks and, crucially, the words "For Ever" on the bar wall.

Paul returns to confront the lovers but is valiantly pursued by L’Invalide, even as her crutch is broken in two and he pushes her down.

Spoilers ahead: Reaching the flat, Jean grapples with Paul and his gun falls to the floor… in the confusion, the gun is picked up by the girl and she shoots her tormentor dead. She has saved all of their lives.

An epilogue completes the story showing the girl minding the baby as Jean and Marie travel round the merry-go-round. They only look on the verge of happiness as if their trials have left them traumatised. But the message is one of hope and finally we see them smiling and still in love: “Love can forget everything”.

Cœur Fidèle is a simple enough story, but its impact is largely down to the way it is told. The numerous camera tricks can be a little jarring but they play poetic tribute to the love on show.

The lead actors are also terrific with Edmond van Daële wearing his nihilism on his sleeve whilst Léon Mathot is steadfast with a sad determination throughout. Gina Manès is the standout with her amazing eyes and a face that reveals so much whilst changing very little. She is the most naturalistic of the three: the woman almost in neutral as the battle rages.

Ultimately the experimentation serves to produce a memorable story that does indeed have more impact than more conventional cinematography may have delivered. So many factors are always at play but here they are under control and purposeful.

Cœur Fidèle is available from Masters of Cinema and is very reasonably priced from Amazon or the BFI Film Store.

“L'amour permet de tout oublier.”

Monday, 23 April 2012

Looking for someone... L’Avventura (1960)

This blog can be a bit wayward sometimes I’ll admit, but if there’s one thing that links most of the posts it is that the films in question are “contemplative”. It’s not just “silent” movies that make you slow down, focus and have to “read” them…the same is true for world cinema (for subtitles equal intertitles…) and for cinema which relies as much as if not more on the sight rather than the sounds.

This is certainly the case in the films of Michelangelo Antonioni. The dialogue doesn’t always reflect the action and you have to interpret the significance of the scenes from how the characters look and also how they are positioned in relation to the scenery.

There are many great examples of this is L’Avventura the director’s meditation on identity and our ability to truly know ourselves. In the opening sequence Anna has a conversation with her father against a backdrop of old and new architecture in Rome: he is firmly aligned with the old and she, like the new buildings, is incomplete and still to be realised.

Later, the architect, Sandro and Claudia hold conversations that are completely at odds with their actions as they search for their friend: they’re not talking about Anna nor are they talking about themselves. Is this the difference between their ability to express their needs and their honesty or the difference between consciously planned action and instinctive behaviour?

With Antonioni nothing is ever definitive and that’s what makes his films fascinating and re-watchable experiences.

The film begins with Anna (Lea Massari) a diffident young woman in an unsatisfying relationship with an architect, Sandro (Gabriele Ferzetti) who is even less directed. The two meet in his apartment and he seems only able to communicate through sex or is it another means of him avoiding real communication.

The two set off on a cruise with their upper class acquaintances to the Aeolian Islands with Anna’s friend Claudia (Monica Vitti) in tow. The characters are as barren as the volcanic islands their ship passes by; bored, directionless…hating each other. Trapped.

Anna, at least, has reached the point of wanting to pull away from Sandro. She cannot sense any feeling from him and fakes a makes a fuss over a pretend shark sighting perhaps out of spite but also to be alone with her friend Maria – the one person she is sure of. There follows a strange sequence in which Anna reveals the truth to Claudia and gives her a shirt...the two stand with ttheir backs to camera....almost as if they're inter-changeable.

Soon after Anna and Sandro have a row and, when we least expect it…she is no longer there. After less than half an hour what we thought of as the main character leaves the film, never to return… and we don’t know what happens. Does she escape by boat, throw herself onto the rocks… it almost doesn’t matter (although I suspect the former). You can understand why some audiences found this difficult to deal with then and it would certainly challenge a modern audience.

But, maybe Anna has resolved her story, by leaving her unhappy relationship, and in doing so, has left space for the others to sort out their own direction. From this point Claudia comes to the fore and begins to replace Anna in Sandro's mind...

A search begins of the barren island and increasingly the group are distracted, Sandro especially by the presence of Claudia…but the latter is not ready to give up on her friend. Anna’s father joins them taking comfort in her having a copy of the Bible with her (as well as a copy of F Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender Is the Night ).The police arrive and most of the guests depart leaving Anna’s real friend to continue the search.

We cut to the mainland and the police interviewing some suspicious fishermen, the first of many red herrings and distractions. Sandro encounters an all-male crowd who are in a frenzy trying to catch a glimpse of “model”/celebrity Gloria Perkins (Dorothy de Poliolo)… he follows the crowd and unthinking male impulse.

Then he bribes a journalist to release a story about a possible sighting in an attempt to lure Claudia to where he is.

Claudia is by this stage, staying with the rest of their party in the Villa of a Princess they know. She witnesses the childish flirtations of one of the group with the Young Prince: these people are all lost and maybe even more so than Anna.

Claudia resolves to leave them to it and to follow Sandro’s hyped lead. She’s also becoming drawn to him: seeing the potential he has, she later says, “to create great beauty”. The film has by now become Claudia’s journey and she is the only character who appears capable of change.

Claudia and Sandro interview a pharmacist and his wife who seem to know little…another red herring and another dysfunction relationship.

They visit a deserted village (a cassa del mezzogiorno) designed and built during Il Duce’s time: stark fascist lines and empty of sentiment as well as people. They find nothing there yet Antonioni cuts from their car on the silent church piazza to the couple embracing and a sequence of outstanding shots showing their love-making (in the broader and not “technical”, sense). A train passes by not as an obvious metaphor but a signal that they are being rushed along by fate…

Claudia waits for Sandro in Noto and is quickly surrounded by leering men, not unlike Gloria Perkins, their behaviour not that far away from Sandro’s own. Then the two find a more spiritual union atop the bell tower of Noto's catherdral. Even there Sandro is shown against a background of architectural complexity.

Sandro goes for a walk to study the architecture and deliberately spills ink over a young man’s architectural drawing… he is a void and a disappointment to himself. He used to annoy me but now I can only feel pity for his lost promise and his inability to accept, recognise and evolve.

Claudia is digging for a deeper connection to Sandro and he can only respond in superficial ways. Finally he is revealed as a lost cause after he is distracted by Gloria Perkins at a hotel party. He tries to hide like a child from Claudia and is distraught. Claudia finds strength in this moment of crisis and, dry-eyed, extends her hand more in maternal pity than romantic consolation.

Antonioni felt that women were more emotionally honest than men and therefore better protagonists to explain a story through. Not all of the women are brave in this film but all seem to know the truth of their situations with the men all too willing to take refuge in sexual feelings and other distractions (architecture, business, socialising and so on.) Not for nothing has this director been referred to as a “woman’s director”.

Anna and Claudia both take progressive action and it is highly likely that the latter will follow the former in leaving the man who cannot commit.

These themes are underpinned by some stunning cinematography as Antonioni uses the landscapes as an extension of his actors. Half a century on, it can be difficult to establish which of his rule-breaking motifs are the most impressive but his control of the “sight” is near absolute and still impressive to the modern viewer.

We don’t always see characters as we expect to, they have their backs to us, their faces cannot be taken in completely in close-up and they often relate in jarring ways with the environment.

He also gets great performances from his cast with his main actresses (his lover at the time) Monica Vitti, being especially skilful. Her theatrical training comes to the fore as she responds in a controlled way and draws the viewer into to her inner thoughts.

A lot of the film passes in silence and L’Avventura is not that far off from being a silent film.

There’s certainly very little musical soundtrack although there are some haunting pieces contributed by Giovanni Fusco. As with the dialogue, Antonioni expects the viewer to work out his film from the all the elements and he doesn’t seem to want to gift the viewer too many obvious clues either in musical or verbal form.

L’Avventura is one of the key films of its age and indeed in all of cinema. I watched it for the umpteenth time on the excellent Criterion double DVD set which features an great commentary from Gene Youngblood as well as a French feature on the director and a reading on the director from Jack Nicholson (star of maybe the last great Antonioni film, The Passenger).

Saturday, 21 April 2012

Crawford, Chaney and the Circus… The Unknown (1927)

There’s only so much acting a guy can get through wearing the kind of make up Lon Chaney did in Phantom, Hunchback and many of his other roles. But, cast forward a couple of years on from these to Tod Browning’s The Unknown and you get a chance to appreciate his ability even more. Although he’s not exactly without dramatic make up…he is more restrained.

This is not a particularly pleasant film…but it's a memorable one; anyone who has seen Freaks or Browning’s other works, knows that he specialised in the unsettling and the grotesque. A former circus artiste himself, Browning knew the dark side of the business and the attraction it held for the outcast and outlandish. He also knew the transgressive fascination this all held for many in straight society

I don’t think that this style of story is necessarily fixed in its period. The Unknown is unsettling not just because of the setting but because of the intensity of Chaney’s character, his lack of morality and his willingness to do anything, to himself and others, in order to get what he wants.

Chaney manages to convey all of this with skill, he’s scaringly true. He is maybe even more frightening than he is in the Phantom as his motivations are easier to read and believe: there is no mask to hide the real horror of the man without care. And you really – really - wouldn’t want him throwing knives at you with his feet, let alone on a moving podium…

Chaney plays Alonzo the Armless, a circus performer who is extraordinary skilled at using the only limbs he apparently has left: his legs and feet.

He loves Nanon Zanzi (a young Joan Crawford, eyes glaring all the brighter behind her heavily-applied Spanish tan) and she is part of his act, stripping down to a skimpy costume as he throws those knives at her and shoots the straps of her dress off.

Nanon loves Malabar the Mighty (Norman Kerry playing the hero again), the circus strong man. Yet Malabar longs to caress Nanon but she has developed an aversion to men’s’ touch. Flimsy plot device or proto-feminist artifice? It’s certainly unusual.

Alonzo being armless, Nanon feels less threatened and gives her affection knowing that there’ll be none of the advances that unsettle her so. Alonzo uses this to try force her and the muscle man apart and it seems to be working.

Then, out of the blue, we discover that Alonzo is far from harmless. He is a fully armed escaped killer whose malformed thumbs have meant that he hides his hands in order to avoid detection by the police.

Uncovered by the circus owner, Nanon’s father Antonioni, he kills him and Nanon witnesses the murder seeing Alonzo’s double-thumbed hands strangling the life from him all too late. But no one can accuse a man with no arms and Alonzo escapes, moving away with Nanon and Malabar.

As the two prepare a new act, Alonzo becomes determined to have Nanon. The only way he can see to truly win her heart is to lose his arms for real. He makes off to a doctor who owes him a favour and makes the sacrifice…

He returns to his “friends” but is devastated to learn that Nanon has overcome her fears and now accepts the warm embrace of Malabar. Driven almost mad that all has been for nothing, Alonzo sobers up to scheme a way of exacting revenge… Malabar has a new stage show in which his strength allows him to prevent two horses running away.

Will Alonzo sabotage the show and rip his rival apart or will Nanon save her lover and finally see Alonzo for what he’s worth.

Browning’s direction is pacey and he creates a superbly strange atmosphere and gives Chaney plenty of close ups to show the audience at least what a malicious presence he is.

Crawford later said that she learned a lot about cinema performance form watching Chaney and it is true that he was a mesmerizing presence who is not only physically committed – we see how painfully his arms are bound underneath a corset – but also a brave in his expression.

His bitter laughter at finding Nanon and Malabar in happy embrace is disturbingly well done…along with the lovers we wait and we wait for him to stop but he doesn’t and they begin to sense what we already know.

Kerry is steadfast, a good leading man as he was in the Phantom, but not in the same class as the other leads. Crawford is energetic and full of the quick-fire emotion you’d expect. Still learning, she none-the-less provides an even counter-balance to Chaney’s barely-diluted malevolence.

Coming in at just over 50 minutes, The Unknown is undiluted and unsettling. It still stands out for its odd storyline but especially the playing from a star being born and one in full bloom. Chaney was a genuine silent master whose one true face was actually his most frightening when he wanted it to be.

It's available as part of the TCM Chaney box set on Amazon.