Saturday, 28 September 2013

Poetry in motion… Menilmontant (1924) & Brumes d'automne (1929)

Nadia Sibirskaïa
 An IRA bomb scare once got me trapped in the BFI’s old library in Charing Cross Road long enough to read a whole book on the surrealists and cinema. There seemed to be a lot of debate about who was a part of the movement and who was just faking it… which I suppose is forever the problem when you divorce art from “reality”: authenticity becomes more and more subjective.

Regarded as a classic of experimental cinema Menilmontant is a visceral mix of extreme violence, sex and sorrow that retains its power. Yet director Dimitri Kirsanoff didn’t consider himself as part of the French “impressionist” cinema in particular or the avant-garde movement in general – maybe you’re all the more so if you don’t claim to be?

Yet, whatever his credentials in Le Deux Maggots or Café Fleur, Kirsanoff made a highly original and enduringly effective film using techniques of the movement and his own invention – along with those of his partner and collaborator, the ethereal Nadia Sibirskaïa.

The two worked up the narrative based around the streets, the characters’ point of viuew and, in particular, Sibirskaïa’s extraordinary face and her equally stunning ability to convey deep emotional states through nuanced facial expression.

Unlike some experimental cinema, there is a clear narrative and one that is largely held together by Sibirskaïa’s intense expressiveness. There were contemporary comparisons with Lillian Gish and you can see why, especially during a scene where her starving character is offered bread by an old man: she crumbles the gift into her mouth whilst shaking with tears... another small step forward in staying alive.

Walkways and doorways
When her character contemplates throwing herself and newborn child into the Seine, there’s a blankness on her face and the viewer searchers for the slightest indication of her choice. The camera shifts from the water to her face and shows her feet slowly walking down the steps, she halts and starts back up.

Kirsanoff seemed to have a fascination with feet and the ground on which they walk, showing all of his protagonists’ shoes at one point or another. Ménilmontant is a neighbourhood of Paris, in a run-down part of the 20th arrondissement and these lives are very much defined by their location.

Childhood's end
After the film’s horrific beginning – a couple murdered by an axe-wielding maniac – we see their two young girls’ childish country games come to an abrupt end. The older is played by Yolande Beaulieu and the younger by Sibirskaïa.

After the funeral the two girls walk away from their innocence towards the city along a dusty road, bordered by poplar trees. They find themselves making a living by making bouquets and sharing a room in Ménilmontant.
Guy Belmont and Nadia Sibirskaïa
Their balance is disturbed by a young man (Guy Belmont) who catches the eye of the younger sister whilst her sibling looks on in concern and jealousy. In the way of such things the young man succeeds in getting what he wants in spite of the girl’s misgivings.

We see her sister’s fevered imaginings as she waits for her to return anxiously glancing at the clock as its mechanism is revealed. The film turns on this point and the imagery and cross-cutting go into over-drive.

Kirsanoff’s technique is very effective enabling the viewer to work out story progression and character emotion quickly and with the minimum of exposition and this seems to have been more his motivation than the deliberate production of an avant-garde work. This is more poetry than play.

The girl cannot return to her sister and we see her waiting anxiously in an alley where she has apparently marked the wall. This doesn’t seem to be the morning after anymore and it becomes clear that she’s waiting for her sister who in turn is waiting for her man… at a wall with an arrow-pierced heart scrawled on it: a place to meet lovers or clients?

The girl recoils in shock – she has nowhere left to turn.

The kindness of strangers
Another shift sees the camera focus on a Maternity Hospital sign… Kirsanoff cuts to the chase again and we understand completely what has happened over the previous nine months…Wandering the streets with her baby she makes the aforementioned visit to the Seine and descends into a misery reflected by distorted point of view shots and the muddy roads she must now trudge.

Finally, crouched in an alley with her baby, she reconnects with her sister who has suffered her own fall, into prostitution. Was she led there by the boy? He is seen with another woman who appears to share this profession and, as the sisters are re-united in hope, he falls into a violent confrontation and meets his end in grissly confusion.

So, as John Peel used to say: “make what you will of that…” In some ways it seems pointless to overlay definitive narrative meaning on a film like Menilmontant and indeed, when you can, the story is a fairly straightforward one… as ever, it’s all about the telling. In this case the economy and dexterity used by Kirsanoff is exceptional. He uses montage worthy of Eisentstein for the bookending violence and more delicate symbolism for the emotional heart of the film and engages the watcher throughout.

But, for all of his technique, Menilmontant wouldn’t work quite so well without the ability of Nadia Sibirskaïa: her close ups paint a thousand words (or just under in this case).

The Kino DVD features an excellent new score from Paul Mercer which is both haunting and jarring, sympathetically twisting along with the film...

Brumes d'automne
Kirsanoff made a number of other films with Sibirskaïa  of which Brumes d'automne (1929) seems to be the best known. This is a self-proclaimed cinematic poem and uses much of the same approach as the earlier film with the addition of a contemporary score from Paul Devred.

Much shorter at only 12 minutes to the above film’s 37, Brumes d'automne is a reflection on the moments of lost love. Sibirskaïa’s character is again the focus as she is shown burning love letters and working her way through the grief of separation.

The Autumn is shown as a reflection of her mood and, she is as grounded in the mood and meaning of place as well as time.

Kirsanoff shows fallen leaves in muddy pools, leafless trees and misty ponds with eroding husks of boats and follows the girl as she leaves her house for a stroll. She emerges like a wraith from the woods, delicate white city-shoes falling on Autumn mulch as she heads to the lake.

Seeing clearly?
There are lengthy close-ups of Sibirskaïa’s face as her character tries to make sense of it all: is she contemplating suicide, will she take him back or is she reaching the point of acceptance? The landscape morphs into distortion: are we seeing the world through her tears or is her inner focus strengthening as she resolves her course of action?

Your guess is as good as mine, but this is a lovely film aided by some magical composition from Devred, who’s insistent score is even more evocative given the tonal challenges of 85 years in the can.

Out of the woods?
Both films are available on the Kino DVD, Avant Garde - Experimental Cinema of the 1920s & 1930s which is available direct or from Amazons. It’s worth it for these two gems alone.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

Kept a rollin’… The Iron Horse (1924)

When I studied history, we used to experiment with counterfactual analysis and one of the key questions was what would American economic development have been like without the railroads? You might just as well ask what American film would be like without John Ford…

From a modern standpoint The Iron Horse looks like the proto-typical “John Ford film” – a big-scale western – yet by the time he came to make it he had made over fifty films of varying types and, after his last silent western two years later, he didn’t make another until a thing called Stagecoach in 1939.

Reputations can be a put off and few loom as large as Mr Ford whose personal courage gets rather conflated with his work as a film director. Association with a specific genre can also be a disincentive especially Westerns which, even by this stage had become something of a cliché: the narrative, literally, running on rails... Yet, what can you make of John Ford as a film-maker and, stripping all preconceptions away, did he make enduring entertainment? Does The Iron Horse still stand on its own four metallic feet?

There’s also that hard man rep… I like the story of Ford’s publicly bawling out an aged film-maker fallen on hard times whilst secretly arranging for his secretary to help pay his wife’s medical bills and set them both up with a pension for life: he had a soft heart which he seemingly hid under the gruff exterior. Does this show in his films? There are certainly clues in The Iron Horse which is fuelled by dreams, romance and comedy as much as violence and duplicity.

But isn’t John Ford also the ultimate Republican and aren’t there political difficulties on a par with Birth of a Nation – in which Ford had briefly appeared as a Klan member? Interestingly, Ford’s baddy is actually a white man who incites the Cheyenne whilst the Pawnee are working with the white men. There are many films which came after this one which dealt a less even hand to the Native Americans although I’m not saying it's twenty first century politically correct…

Chief John Big Tree is un-credited as the Cheyenne Chief but Ford paints his tribe as heroic in their own way… mislead by white greed. As the above still shows, there was respect and he avoids Griffiths’ simplistic view and need to demonise.

That’s not to say that The Iron Horse isn't entirely objective... there’s some sugar in there as, not for the first time or the last, Hollywood improves History…

At the start we see a man called Brandon (James Gordon) who has a dream to build a railroad across the USA, his friend Thomas Marsh (Will Walling) is not convinced and thinks it’s all moonshine. Brandon’s son Davy and Marsh’s daughter Miriam play games based on surveying - the acorn has not fallen far from the tree.

Brandon and his son set off as Miriam cries and their other friend, Abraham Lincoln (Charles Edward Bull) tells Marsh that one day men like him will be building Brandon’s dream.

Brandon meets his fate
Just after they find a route through the mountains – one that will be 200 miles shorter than the Indian trail, Brandon is ambushed and killed by a group of Cheyenne. Before he dies he recognises their ring-leader as white… he is killed for his silence as young Davy looks on in helpless horror.

Cut forward many years and Abraham has become president – just like we all knew he would… In spite of the Civil War raging, he approves the construction of a single railway and, as predicted, Marsh is one of the men working to make this happen as the Union Pacific Railway Company builds westward and the Central Pacific heads east…

The film attempts to be as historically accurate as entertainment permits, showing the temporary cities that grew up around this vast project in California and Nevada. We see buffalo and bison being herded by one William Cody (Buffalo Bill…as played by George Waggner) as well as Wild Bill Hickcok who brought cattle across huge distances to feed the workers.

The workforces were pushed to the limit and, in one of many lighter touches, we see a grown up Miriam (Madge Bellamy) rousing the tired and disaffected to one last push on behalf of her father. One of the supervisors, Corporal Casey (J. Farrell MacDonald), looks on aghast “but ye have to swear at them!”… apparently not if you’re pretty.

Madge Bellamy
Casy and his two mates Sgt. Slattery (Francis Powers) and Pvt. Schultz (Jim Welch) provide comic relief with serious on the side. It serves its purpose in this relatively long film.

One of the money men involved in the project is Deroux - named Bauman in the "International" version of the film – played by Fred Kohler, who seems to have plenty to hide.

Fred Kohler
A rider comes bolting out of the dust followed by dozens of Indians, he heads towards a locomotive carrying Marsh’s team and somehow managers to scramble on board. It turns out to be Davy, who’s grown up (as strapping George O'Brien) and fighting for his father’s dream. He and Miriam have instant sparks a-flying but for some reason she’s engaged to Peter Jesson (Cyril Chadwick)…

Jesson is easily swayed by Ruby...
Deroux has a stake in the railway going the long way round the mountains and recruits local good-time girl/sex worker Ruby (Gladys Hulette) to persuade him that there’s no such thing as the rumoured short-cut. Jesson puts up very little resistance and is soon committed to the bad guys.

Deroux makes sure Jesson accompanies Davy in search of the ravine his father had showed him and, as the young man climbs down to investigate, he cuts the safety rope with an axe leaving him to fall to his doom…or so it appears.

Davy takes a fall
There’s a wonderful brawl once Davy returns to denounce Jesson and Ford handles the build up well… you could cut the tension in the saloon with a Bowie Knife. Miriam makes Davy promise to make peace with her fiancé but Jesson’s a fool to himself and goads Davy into delivering the beating he undoubtedly deserves. But in wining Davy also loses as Miriam feels betrayed by his brutish course of action.

All the same, the route follows Davy’s path-finding and Deroux encourages his indian comrades to step up their disruptive attacks, leading up to the conflagration that marks the film’s real climax. The Cheyenne swirl around the train as the workers mount a desperate defence as even the women join in.

As Pawnee troops ride like the wind to attempt a rescue, Davy discovers who Deroux really is and the two fight it out in the most manly fashion, their clothes simply falling of them as they wrestle to the death…

Needless to say, this is not the film’s actual climax as the coda dutifully shows the completion of both sets of tracks culminating in a re-enactment of the driving of the golden spike at Promontory Summit on May 10, 1869. Replicas of the two locos involved, the Union Pacific No. 119 and Jupiter are used, even though they are claimed to be the originals (which were scrapped in 1910).

A country united by rail… will Miriam and Davy follow suit?

As history lesson, The Iron Horse is still pretty useful, in spite of the odd liberty. It was interesting to see the movable communities that sprang up and down in order to support the great project and the logistics of maintaining the labourer’s food supply had also never been connected with the “Buffalo” in Bill in my mind at least.

The filming of the scenery is, of course exceptional and really brings home the extent of this engineering achievement. Ford uses his thousands of extras well, be they cattle, men or horses and this is all the more remarkable for his working from the barest of scripts. Some sections could do with a trim – as the New York Times noted in 1924… yet Ford mixes his various strands well and you do care about Davy and Miriam.

Straping George O'Brien
Fred Kohler is suitably malevolent as the irredeemably nasty Deroux whilst George O'Brien gives a muscular performance as Davy even if he lacks the depth of his character in Sunrise (interestingly Ford was a huge admirer of Murnau… must watch for that in his later work).

Madge Bellamy is pretty good as the slightly prissy Miriam but Gladys Hulette gives a more convincing turn as Ruby the tart with a heart: a smaller role that perhaps shows the lack of character depth elsewhere.

I watched the Masters of Cinema DVD which is available from Moviemail at a very reasonable price. It features both the 133 minute UK and the longer US versions and a suitably stirring score from Christopher Caliendo.

Ford's little fib... replicas were used

Wednesday, 18 September 2013

Wild at heart… The Outlaw and His Wife (1918)

Sometimes you might find yourself feeling comfortably detached when watching silent film only to be jolted back to your senses by on-screen events that still ring fiercely true. Mostly it is the exceptional skill of the actors but here, Victor Sjöström’s acting combine with his uncompromising physical bravery, his screenplay and direction to bring moments of genuine shock.

Sjöström used the coastline to stunning effect in Terje Vigan, but here he moves inland and upwards. Brilliantly photographed by Julius Jaenzon, The Outlaw and His Wife allowed Sjöström to play out his story against the rugged north Swedish countryside with his characters existing on the land and being shaped by it.

Victor Sjöström
Outlaws live in the mountains, the wild and untameable together in fragile compromise whilst flat, regulated society rules on the plains. Sjöström’s Eyvind is at his happiest clinging gloriously onto a high ridge with his wife and child or plunging into crystal pools to catch the biggest fish.

Jóhann Sigurjónsson’s 1911 play was set in Iceland but the War having rendered it impossible to use the original location, Sjöström used the barren edges of Lapland as a stand-in: Åre and Abisko in northern Sweden. Sjöström had previously directed the play in which has also played Eyvind and knew the role inside out as well as the way he was going to truly externalise it…

Eyvind arrives in a small town encountering a wool poacher Arnes (John Ekman) just about getting away with his haul hidden under lichen (makes great soup apparently: how sparse was their existence). He gives the fellow a fright but tells him that he has nothing to fear from him.

Arnes directs him to the farm of a well-off widow called Halla (Edith Erastoff) who would be able to offer him work. Calling himself Kari he soon begins to make his mark, his strength and intelligence marking him out as a superior worker.

He also begins to catch the eye of Halla, in spite of younger, prettier competitors for his affection, he tells one that it would take a much bigger farm than Halla’s to make him interested in her: character was more important than looks.

In the mean exchange economy of the time, a widow like Halla, approaching her middle years, had to form relationships like commercial alliances. The local Bailiff, Björn Bergstéinsson (Nils Ahrén) offers her a partnership; he is 47, at a loose end…and assumes she will readily align herself with his wealth and position. But Halla is still living in hope or at least has enough pride to want to stand alone when the only options are men like the Bailiff.

The Bailiff learns the secret as Arnes looks on
She begins to openly favour Eyvind and the Bailiff’s bitterness grows. In church, one of his cronies recognises Eyvind as an outlaw from the South and the Bailiff wastes no time in confronting Halla with the news.

Rather than fall at his mercy though, Halla goes straight to Eyvind and tells him of the challenge and that the Bailiff will wrestle him if he is not believed. Put on the spot Bergstéinsson tries to wriggle out of the challenge but has no option but to face the man he is accusing.

Eyvind wins and the Bailiff is sent with his tail between his legs, swearing vengeance.

Halla learns the truth from her lover as he confesses that poverty had driven him to steal a sheep to feed his starving family as his calls for help were ignored by his wealthy neighbour. He is discovered and sent to prison but escapes off into the mountains.

This reflects something of the social conscience of Sjöström’s earlier films and it’s interesting that he doesn’t shy away from Eyvind’s criminality: society has left him with no choice and, rather than be alarmed, this only increases Halla’s love and respect. She offers to run away with him to the hills and to leave her farm behind… as well as the prospect of having to marry the Bailiff… Halla’s Choice…

But in the wilderness lies happiness as the couple are shown five years’ later living in natural harmony with a bonny young daughter to share in their hard-living idyll.

Jaenzon’s camerawork is superb here, highlighting the actors against the raw beauty of the landscape, atop vertiginous cliff faces or staring out across glaciated valleys: life in all its harsh simplicity away from the mean constraints of a society that placed the value of livestock higher than its citizens.

Arnes wants to help with the washing...
One day they are joined by Arnes who has had to retreat from the Law himself. He is welcomed by the couple but becomes infatuated with Halla. Eyvind slips as they climb a cliff face and his friend considers killing him in order to gain his wife but relents, pulling him to safety.

Sjöström was a committed physical performer having climbed rigging in Terje Vigan and rowed in the rough sea. Here he dives into icy pools and clings onto the mountainside… it is really him dangling from the cliff as Arnes dithers. He had a safety cable attached but the rigging almost failed as he clambered to the top.

Valiant Victor...
Arnes has to leave after confessing his feelings to Halla but just as he is one his way, the Bailiff’s men catch up with them. In the desperate struggle that follows, Halla flings her daughter over the cliff, preferring to take her life rather than let her be captured. It’s a horrible moment that reflects how much these lives were lived on the edge: if Halla wasn’t going to be able to protect her child it was kinder in her mind to kill her.

Happiness is transitory and families live happily only as long as they are able: once happiness is removed life is not always possible and it is better to take charge of the process.

Halla and Eyvind escape again to the higher mountains, haunted by their loss but with their devotion intact right to the very last…

It’s not a straightforward slice of happiness but it is a testament to the strength of love: what else is there for people whose slightest misdeed can affect their entire life?

Halla and Eyvind almost at breaking point
Victor Sjöström proves once again that he was one of the strongest actors of the period and well beyond. There are some fascinating comments from Ingmar Bergman in the documentary accompanying the film as he reveals how totally his friend and mentor was able to switch into character, even when denied his evening gin and tonic by the tardiness of upstart directors!

Edith Erastoff
Edith Erastoff is a very skilled actress and her scenes, especially at the close are especially compelling: intelligent and subtle. Almost certainly there was more than just acting in evidence as she became pregnant during the filming and went on to become Sjöström’s third wife in 1922. This film is perhaps as much about their relationship as that of their characters: “their only law was their love”.

The Outlaw and His Wife is available on a Kino DVD, the print is decent but could certainly be improved on and I eagerly await a UK screening of the SFI’s fuller-lengthed restoration as recently screened in San Francisco and Italy.

For the original performance a full orchestra performed accompanying music based on themes from Sibelius, here Torbjorn Iwan Lundquist provides a stirring score borrowing the same spirit of epic Scandinavian mountain music.

Also included is Gösta Werner’s 1981 documentary on the director which features lengthy excerpts from his career as actor and director including those insights from Ingmar and a tantalising excerpt from Vem dömer, Sjöström’s lavish period epic about love and religious devotion

Now when are they going to release that one!?