Sunday, 29 June 2014

Strike (1925) with Wendy Hiscocks, BFI

“I don’t make films to be watched by an impassive eye, I prefer to hit people hard on the nose…”


Strike (Стачка or Stachka) was Eisenstein's first full-length feature film, his second being The Battleship Potemkin and it is as packed full of ultra-quick cuts and brutal montage as you’d expect but also comedy – who knew the dialectic featured so many laughs? So, anyone who doesn’t think communists have a sense of humour better look away now…

Some modern commentators seem to struggle with the politics but this is history as cinema as cinematic history: a deliberate political statement that says much about the state of Russia when it was made: there’s nothing to agree or disagree with. That is, unless, you’re looking for a fight…

The workers and the managers
Eisenstein wanted to demonstrate the importance of solidarity in the face of capitalist and state oppression and if this language sounds old fangled then imagine you’re living in Tsarist Russia in 1912 when the strike in question took place. At times the American influence is so marked that I kept on thinking how this would all feel if the story was set in the Wild West or mob-dominated Chicago… people need hero-leaders to turn the tables on bullying of all kinds and the moral force remains whatever the injustice confronted.

Of course in the mid-twenties, the Revolution was still being consolidated and part of this process was the establishment of the mythology of the new regime – no different from France and the USA in the early nineteenth century. So, yes, Strike is propaganda: history being written by the victors.

The factory
Leading up to the First World War, there had been a number of large-scale industrial disputes which had been ruthlessly crushed by the old regime: a political system far behind Western Europe in most respects.

In the film there is no trades union and the workers are shown to have almost no rights in the face of a cruel management. Eisenstein’s workers are heroic figures whilst the businessmen, police and agitators are comically ruthless.

Grigori V. Alexandrov
The villainous foreman (Grigori V. Alexandrov) is hyper-actively cruel whilst the pompous, over-fed Director (B.I. Charuev) and his shareholders drink wine and eat caviar as their employees starve.

The spies leap off the page...
The Chief of Security Police (I. Ivanov) pulls together an evil bunch of agents to spy on the workers and disrupt their unity and focus. The Chief looks at a page in his book of spies and the chracters suddenly move into life: a neat device as well as a sophisticated edit.

They are a marvellous collection all gurning away like the animals they are named after; Owl (P.I. Malek), Fox (A.P. Kurbatov), Monkey (A.P. Yanichevski) and Bulldog (Maksim Straukh).

Fox and Monkey
This casting is the result of Eisenstein’s idea of “typage” – the casting of actors by their physical attributes as much as their acting ability per se. He would often spend months looking for the right person or rather the person with the right look. Here it works exceptionally well – were you watching Tod Browning (not that Lon couldn’t have managed them all on his own…)?

The standout “actors” tend to be those playing the leading workers especially Aleksandr Antonov as the organiser of the strike committee, Mikhail Gomorov and Ivan Klyukvin. They’re all tall, strapping and good looking - they would have made excellent cowboys.

Ivan Klyukvin and Aleksandr Antonov
There is already much unrest at the factory as the film begins, with management nervous about agitation: conditions are poor and the workforce is running out of options but they are not yet decided.

The spark for the conflict is the theft of a micrometre from the factory. Yakov, the worker whose tool it was reports the incident to the Foreman who refuses to believe him. Completely innocent but faced with humiliation and the loss of his livelihood, he hangs himself in spite of the desperate efforts of his co-workers to save him. He leaves a note explaining his plight and this leads to the men walking out.

The death of Yakov
The management try to retain control but are thrown into the sludge a suitably slapstick coup de grace for such Keystone Capitalists.

The factory falls silent and the workers decide on a list of demands… an eight hour working day, six for children, a 30% pay rise and a call to be treated fairly… we know it’s too much.
The orders start to pile up and the directors seek help from the Chief of Police who sets his secret agents onto the strikers… they set off to identify the ring leaders and to lay traps.

A day in the country...
The workers are shown in bucolic unity – discussing the way forward in countryside meetings, it’s an idealised vision and one that is rudely interrupted by the arrival of mounted police. Before the panicked proletariat are routed their leader gets them to sit down and the horses back off instinctively.

Subterfuge begins to reap rewards as one of the strike’s leaders (Mikhail Gomorov) is captured, badly beaten and then blackmailed into offering information. The key discussion takes place with the Police Chief as behind them two dwarfs dance on a table covered with champagne and caviar: a deca-dance (sorry).

David Lynch or Sergei Eisenstein?
The strike wears on and the workers begin to suffer depravation as the money runs out: the decision to fight for their rights has cost them dear and there will be worse to come.

The narrative progresses with more Hollywood tonality as the Monkey goes off to recruit the King of Thieves (Boris Yurtsev) to help entrap the strikers. His men sleep in huge barrels and emerge into the daylight in one of the film’s most memorable scenes: clearly their baddies.

The King and the Monkey
The King’s man, led by his Queen (Yudif Glizer) set fire to a shop building and try to get the workers to join them in the loot. The workers are too canny and manage to set off the alarm for the fire brigade to put out the fire but they ignore the flames and are told to turn their hoses on the workers instead.

Spoilers… The subsequent suppression of the workers is relentless and still harrowing: they are battered by the force of the fire hoses and run to ground by mounted police who even invade their tenements.

Their leader is half-drowned before being captured and then the army is sent in to not just finish the job but to eradicate the “problem” once and for all…

The rout of the workers
“Remember Proletarians!” is the film’s final call… although I’m not sure how much room there was for any complacency in the early Stalinist years?

The film tries to entertain as it informs and there were many examples of the brutal oppression it describes in the years leading up to the 1917: the revolution didn’t come from nowhere. In 1924-25 the “dream” of a new world was still very much alive… the incalculable damage of the Stalinist years was yet to fully unfold.

Eisenstein’s film has therefore to be taken at face value: a work of a conviction and of good faith in the Communist project.

The director used performers from the Proletcult Theatre and there’s a raw edge to the acting accentuated by the quick-fire editing. His direction is inventive from first to last including the usual trick shots along with lovely moments such as a workers meeting seen reflected from a puddle. The cinematography from Eduard Tisse also deserves mention.

The film was presented with live accompaniment from Wendy Hiscocks, an experienced silent specialist I’ve not seen before. She wove some lovely lines around the revolutionary themes and clearly enjoyed the communistic carry on too. More evidence if it was ever required of the impact live performance has on our connection to and enjoyment of silent film.

More details of Wendy are available on her website.

Strike is available in DVD from Movie Mail or Bluray from a flying start to one of cinema's most influential directorial careers.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Likeable… The Beloved Rogue (1927)

Conrad Veidt and John Barrymore
John Barrymore’s attempt to out-Fairbanks Douglas has met with mixed reviews over the years, not least from himself (he described himself as a “ham” after the premier) and Orson Welles who liked the film but felt his idol was “not at his best”. But, whilst Barrymore felt he missed the mark by over-playing the extravagantly-colourful lead, Francoise Villon: poet, womaniser and drinker who somehow also embodies the spirit of France… how could anyone fail to?

Based on an actual 15th century poet and patriot The Beloved Rogue includes many florid moments invented (or over-invented) to add zest to this camp fantasy. It’s an all-too-easy target and yet… there’s an extraordinary energy around the crowd scenes in particular and Alan Crosland directs with much style. The superb Conrad Veidt all but steals the show as a greasily-ambiguous Louis XI and Marceline Day uses her clear, open expression to swoon-inducing effect as his beautiful ward Charlotte de Vauxcelles.

Then there is Barrymore doing showing a different side to his style as he throws the kitchen sink at creating a character big enough to fill William Cameron Menzies’ immense sets.

In short, it’s better than I expected: “beloved” maybe not quite but certainly entertaining and very likeable. The film was believed lost until Mary Pickford revealed she had one in her archive: how would we feel about The Beloved Rogue if it were still a lost film? Count your blessings Silent People.

Set after Joan of Arc’s execution in 1431 (she came back strong after that didn’t she?) the film starts in a most un-funny way with the burning of Villon’s father at the stake… He was a patriot and fought in the name of a united France against the English and their Burgundian allies. His wife (Lucy Beaumont) prays that their son will inherit his spirit.

Young Francoise is doted on by his mother and brought up in largely female company. His early tastes are revealed after he is only pacified by drinking a mix of wine and milk… don’t try this at home.

Moving on to the 1860s, Francoise’s roguish tendencies are fully developed as he gleefully steals wine to get drunk with his friends and leads the All Fools Day street celebration as the King of Fools. This section is very well realised by Crosland who generates a visceral charge by moving his camera through the celebrating hordes as snow swirls across the city. Snow in April: Paris in the Snowtime?

Amongst the revellers is Jane Winton as The Abbess, Mack Swain and Slim Summerville as Villion’s buddies Nicholas and Jehan as well as Angelo Rossitto (later to star in Tod Browning’s Freaks) as Beppo the Dwarf.

Jane Winton
As the party gets started Francoise is in pursuit of one of his favourite things as he evades the constabulary, and comes down the rooftops to cheat an inn-keeper of some wine. He heads of linking arms and skipping with Nicholas and Jehan – there’s a lot of skipping. Jigging and general dancing for joy: how else to convey energetic adventurism in scale?

Having being crowned King of Fools, Francoise regales his rapt audience with a poem and them mounts a statue of the King  just as the Duke of Burgundy arrives for an audience with his cousin. Francoise makes merry at Burgundy’s expense, knowing him as a man of ambition who wants the crown for himself.

An audience with the King...
But King Louis, a “slave to the stars” has his judgement clouded by the advice of his astrologer and is loath to confront his rival. He comes out of the palace and has no option to support Burgundy against the crowd and ends up banishing Villon from Paris – “his life”.

Riding with him is his ward Charlotte who is appalled to finally see the reality of the poet she idolises: is the most inspiring wordsmith in France really an uncouth drunken fool? But things are about to get worse as she is promised in marriage to Burgundy’s lieutenant,  Thibault d'Aussigny (Henry Victor)… part of Burgundy’s plot to gain quick access to Paris.

Marceline Day
Meanwhile, Villon sits bored drinking and trying to write poetry from an inn just outside the city walls. He decides to hijack the King’s gifts to Burgundy and climbs the walls to use the King’s catapult to fire the food and drink at the city in order to feed the poor.

He ends up catapulting himself to avoid capture and crash lands, of course, into the rooms of Charlotte de Vauxcelles. Not recognising him without his fool makeup, it takes a while before the young noblewoman learns that he is the Francoise Villon, a man who’s words have touched her like no other.

They are rudely interrupted by Thibault and there follows an altercation involving bears in barrels, recently-deceased poultry and a heavyweight chandelier. Francoise escapes and takes Charlotte with him over the rooftops he knows so well to the safety of his mother’s house. Queue emotional reunion and the sadness of a mother deceived by her own hope: will her son ever amount to the man she wants him to be?

The route forward accelerates as the King finds it expedient to order Francoise death but the poet saves his skin by convincing Louis that their lives and death are inter-dependent: with this swift turn of phrase he guarantees his life as courtier.

Now able to influence events in the way his mother always wished, he is still a commoner which means he can never marry Charlotte, but all are soon overtaken by events as Burgundy kidnaps her and is intent on completing her marriage to his cause.

No spoilers: We both know that’s not the end don’t we dear reader? There’ll be a plan, courage under fire and a victory for true love won’t there? You’ll have to watch the breathless finale to find out. Things pick up a gear as we learn, amongst other things, that John Barrymore looked after himself: quite buff for a 45-year old!

After an attempt watching the monochrome Amazon downloadable copy I ended up ordering the Kino DVD version which is in much better quality and also comes with tints and a fun piano score composed by Alan Webber for the 1971 TV showing introduced by Mr Welles.

Yes, I do work out actually...

Sunday, 22 June 2014

Breathless… Suspense (1913)

This film shows another side of the multi-talented Lois Weber’s film-making being a terse exercise in drama designed to agitate the audience in a rather different way to her more political outings. Directed by Weber and husband Phillips Smalley from her own script, there’s a wealth of invention and incident in its eleven adrenalized minutes.

The film packs a lot of shots and cuts into this time, maybe not quite as many as Griffith (and someone has counted…) but enough to show that he was far from the only gunslinger in town whilst Weber adds and adapts some stunning innovations of her own.

Lois Weber and baby
Lois Weber plays a young mother living in quite isolation on the edge of town. As she tends to her baby her housekeeper decides she’s had enough and sneaks off leaving the house keys under the front door mat. Weber’s camera is angled cleverly here,  showing the maid from an acute overhead angle which creates a sense of distance and vulnerability around the house.

As the housekeeper walks off she is replaced in shot by the figure of a tramp (Sam Kaufman) who, putting one and one together decides to investigate the possibly empty house she has just vacated.

Changing places... the Maid and the Tramp
In one of the film’s signature shots, Weber creates a triptych of triangular shots that show the wife on the phone to her husband (Valentine Paul) at his workplace, whilst the tramp edges nearer to the house in the top left. It’s a clever device and takes telephone split screen device on step further to build up the tension.

Now all alone the wife begins to sense that something is happening and, pausing from putting her baby to bed, looks out of her bedroom window to see the face of the tramp slowly, horribly, lift upwards! A master stroke and then as now the audience quickly computes how things can play out for good or bad.

The view out of the window!
The wife calls the husband in another triple exposure and we see the tramp cut the telephone wires – gosh he’s cunning! But there’s just enough for the husband to work out what’s happening and then rush off to the rescue…

His gallantry takes an unusual course as he steals a car and is then followed by the police who are now trying to catch him. So, double jeopardy and there are three races against time… as the tramp breaks down door after door in pursuit of the girl, the man races to evade the police who follow on in hot pursuit of the car thief.

Cops in the mirror and in pursuit...
It’s all very slickly edited and does indeed hold up well against Griffith’s action shorts from the same period. So few of Weber’s films from this period survive and we may never know if this quality was representative or not save to assume that DW was not alone in driving the medium forward.

Lois also acts of course and turns in a fine performance as the threatened mother – she looks exhausted at the end and who could blame her.

Suspense is available as part of the Flicker Alley Savedfrom the Flames box set which features four discs of early cinema rescued from various remote archives. It is to be hoped that there’s more out there.

Thursday, 19 June 2014

The woman who fell to Earth… Under the Skin (2013) with Mica Levi and Orchestrate, Royal Festival Hall

Scarlett Johansson driving around Glasgow in a white van: that’s a dream story pitch on its own and yet this strange and affecting film took some time to get together.

Under the Skin was accompanied by composer Mica Levi conducting a twenty piece orchestra, Orchestrate, as part of James Lavelle’s Meltdown Festival. The Mo Wax supremo and sometime UNKLE band leader, clearly has an eye for distinctive film scores as this performance and Max Richter’s work for Bashir prove.

Tonight Levi’s unnervingly inventive compositions formed a more holistic backdrop than the Richter works, purely because Under the Skin is almost a silent film: the music has more room and more to say in the context of the narrative undercurrent. Nothing is too explicit and as we gaze at Scarlett Johansson’s impassive face we have to strain to pick up the transitions not just in her character but the story’s meaning. All becomes clearer if not entirely clear and that’s a skilful balancing act for director Jonathan Glazer.

It’s been a long time since Glazer’s debut, Sexy Beast and his follow up, Birth but the wait has been worth it. In the latter film I remember an almost unseemly long close up of Nichol Kidman’s face which allowed her nuanced expression to reveal so much of her character’s situation. Here there are so many close ups of Scarlett you become almost punch-drunk but they’re almost all of the same in-expression. You look for human pattern recognition signals and there are none.

The film opens in space with what sounds like someone grasping for the sounds that make up words. The scene shifts to grimy motorway in Scotland where a motorbike rider carries a female body into a white van. Then we see Johansson’s character remove the clothes and coldly put them on.

Her character, later called Laura, drives the van around Glasgow and for a while it’s not clear what she’s looking for… shot after shot of people crossing roads, walking past George Square, conversing in Sauchiehall Street. But then she starts to stop and ask men for directions.

Some of these conversations were unscripted and with non-acting passer-byes and they are hilarious – broad Glaswegian instructions that are barely understandable to us natives let alone aliens (from the USA and beyond…).

Laura starts to invite men into her cab and we move on, assuming – hoping – that they’ve been dropped off… but it’s not to be. Laura has a run-down “place” on the edge of a quite estate where she takes the young men who, as they follow her in the expectation of physical congress get less than they bargained for…

On the coast, Laura watches a young man surf and, as she chats to him, they see a tragic drama unfold behind them as a man dives into the crashing surf in pursuit of his wife who is trying to save their dog. The young man goes off to save who he can and succeeds in dragging the man back to shore. He lies exhausted whilst the man returns to the water. Laura watches blank-faced then goes over, hits him over the head with a rock and drags him off. Behind her, the drowning couple’s toddler screams showing us all we need to know about her inhuman response.

This being a science fiction story, there has to be some meeting of the minds and picking up a man with facial neurofibromatosis she shows more kindness than to her previous conquests. The end result looks to be the same but; glancing at her own face in the mirror she changes her mind, releases the man and goes on the run…

She abandons her white van and walks off as far as she can, knowing that her colleague on the motorcycle will come after her.  Which he does, having recaptured her prey and then recruited two more riders.

Laura tries to eat but cannot stomach human food, she is alone amongst man and what future could she have even if she evades her own species retribution? Much like Mr Bowie’s character in The Man Who Fell to Earth she is stranded in an alien world trying to assimilate and absorb. At one point she picks an ant off a human torso and gazes at it – it’s almost no different from the humans to her. But, as she makes her way she begins to show us what the humanity we take for granted might be.

She is helped by a kind man who keeps her warm and takes her home. He’s not going to take advantage and, in one of the film’s archly humorous moments, you see her fingers begin to tap along to Deacon Blue’s Real Gone Kid

But with the riders out to retrieve her and more inhuman humans around how will she survive?

Before Mica Levi waved her baton to start her music I had no idea what to expect. The string players began with rapid, course bowing creating a sound like an insect swarm but not one of this earth. Alien lines snaked over the agitated strings against a repeated drum pattern – relentlessly odd, a strange musical adventure that is genuinely one of the best evocations of other-worldly I’ve heard.

A graduate of the Guildhall School of Music, Levi uses electronica alongside traditional orchestrations to create her distinct soundscapes. She’s also DY-d, produced IDM/electronica (whatever you bearded hipsters are calling it now…) and wild indie-pop as part of Micachu & The Shapes. There was a large section of noisy appreciators amongst the mainly young and funky audience many of whom seemed to know each other.

Mention should be made of the stunning cinematography of Daniel Landin: he makes all of Scotland look gorgeous from Glasgow to the highlands – I don’t recall seeing a better looking British film in recent years.

It is also, of course, great to see Scarlett Johansson in this kind of film showing there’s a lot more to her than the ability to squeeze into the Black Widow’s spandex costume. I can’t think of anyone who could have played the role better and her status adds to the effect.

A very interesting film and one to watch on DVD with the lights switched off and no one else at home: we took comfort in the buoyancy of the full house but this is one of those sight and sound combinations that will haunt…

The DVD is available from MovieMail and the soundtrack from eMusic whilst more details of Ms Levi’s musical explorations can be found on the Rough Trade website.