Monday, 29 September 2014

Fascinating rhythm… Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927), Barbican with Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne

On seeing this film, Dziga Vertov was distraught: he’d just been trumped by the Germans and it was a further two years before he was able to release his own “city symphony” Man with a Movie Camera (actually a tale of three cities… Moscow, Kiev and Odessa).

Berlin was being shown as part of the Barbican’s City Visions season of films exploring metropolises which includes modern films as well as the above silent symphonies and others covering Sao Paolo and Paris. For anyone attracted to early-morning urban roaming through hung-over streets and who loves watching the rhythms of the expanding city day, they are essential viewing.

Early morning street scenes
It might seem odd that “city symphonies” were a sub-genre of “silent” film and yet whilst they obviously featured rhythmic cutting, machine movement and the foot-falling beats of pounded pavements, they always came with musical accompaniment. In Berlin’s case the original score was composed by Edmund Meisel who worked very closely with the film’s director to ensure sympathy of pace and tone producing an insistent, dynamic score that rises and falls with the pace of the film.

But these most rhythmic of visuals are a gift for live musicians and tonight though we were treated to swinging syncopation from Stephen Horne on piano, accordion and flute along with Martin Pine on drums and vibraphone. They looked like they had a ball matching their complex improvisation and I can’t recall so much audience foot-tapping in the Barbican cinema: the joint was positively jumping.

Film historian, Ian Christie, introduced and pointed out that most silent film would have been accompanied by piano and drums but Messrs Horne and Pyne played like a band, skilfully switching instruments throughout and matching the narrative flow with suitable energy and pace from loco-motion to cabaret culture. This was “lean-forward” silent media with an urban-edge that peeled away the years: for 65 minutes we were all Berliners (at least the 1927 variety...).

Christie explained the unusual genesis of the film with a collaboration of between Carl Mayer, writer of Caligari and regular Murnau collaborator , (Sunrise: a Song of Two Humans was released in New York on 23rd September, the same day Berlin's symphony premiered in Germany) and cameraman Karl Freund amongst who’s many achievements was the invention of the three camera set up for the I Love Lucy Show!

Freund was equally inventive on this film, setting up hidden cameras in order to record people going about their daily lives unnoticed - something almost unknown at the time. They wanted to create a true story of Berlin as naturally and unconsciously as possible, a few dramatic interludes aside. Mayer and Freund's efforts would generate a huge amount of film and they chose avant-garde director Walter Ruttmann to make sense of it all and to create the tightly-focused finished product.

Ruttmann’s skill bought order whilst retaining the anarchic feel of a society operating at full capacity, careering forwards, all caution aside. But Berlin is not just about the hardware... A man helps a woman into a taxi and the next image shows a hotel sign, two men fight and yet are held back by the crowd and the arrival of a policeman, a woman looks down in terror as she jumps from a bridge into the river Spree and a crowd gathers trying to get the best view... Berlin’s story is made up of the sum total of its human components….

This society is also, clearly, not equal… There are clever juxtapositions of images throughout: workers trudge to work, cattle head towards the slaughterhouse and soldiers march in line, a woman begs for food inter-cut with a shot of a jewelers then a well heeled shoe stubs out a cigarette on the floor and a tramp picks it up… Weimar Germany was economically broken and, as Christie pointed out, even UFA was propped up with American money by this stage.

Early start
The film is split into five segments dealing with distinct sections of a single day, all of which took over a year to film… bit of a challenge to tell the tale but here’s a taster.

The opening shifts from shots of tranquil waters to abstract animations which prefigure the on-coming disorder. A train rushes through the dawn countryside and we see lines, tracks and snatches of the suburbs as it heads into Berlin. Its arrival is followed by stunning overhead shots of a tranquil metropolis at five AM... the time of the day when you can admire the architecture and the atmosphere on their own: how will people fill the space?

Doors begin to open and a steam engine leaves its shed, men begin the walk to work gradually being joined by others as two becomes three and more arrive. Commuters gather in increasing numbers on foot, in carriages and on trams: do they have full conception of the part they play in the overall process of the city?

Machines start turning and the rhythms pick up. We see a factory making light bulbs – automation and no people – the concerns of the day: crunched by the wheels of industry.

Shops pull up their blinds, old men pull out market stalls and children gather for school: it is eight o’clock. Throughout it all the city is in constant motion every action punctuated by the mechanics of locomotion. Technology is everywhere - typewriters and turbines, electronic relays, telephonics…

A woman and man talk on the street as the camera shows two animated showroom dummies of each sex: just going through the motions? The two men argue but its just one chaotic action amongst many. A lone old woman climbs the steps of a church oblivious to the street clatter, as worn down as the fallen horse shown seconds later. A man agitates in the street, a bride goes to her wedding, a hearse travels slowly against the flow of traffic as people push on past each other always in a rush. A policeman directs traffic… figures of authority maintain the semblance of order.

Conflict and courtship
Twelve o’clock and lunchtime, fine dining is juxtaposed with animals eating at Berlin Zoo – restaurants with street eating. Children play on graffiti covered streets. A street vendor sells newspapers and words leap out from the pages… Geld, Geld, GELD! Then the woman jumps… the crowds gawp but no one seems to help: this city is de-humanised and not everyone can keep up with the pace.

End of the line?
Five PM and workers' playtime – the city enjoys sports from soccer to tennis and swimming. Catwalk models advertise clothes whilst café bars begin to open and the evening dances begin.

Eight PM and its show-time, crowds pour into cinemas and we see the feet of Charlie Chaplin at the bottom of a movie screen – the most famous feet in the World... Dancers get made up and ready for the show and the theatres are full of the thuds of dancing feet… Naughty, bawdy, gaudy, sporty Friedrichstrasse…

And, as the band plays on, we see Berliners enjoying their night’s freedom in bars, clubs and cafes: whatever their day has been everything is alright now. Fireworks explode and it’s time for home or for some and for other a cheap hotel. It's been a hard day's night and no mistake...

Part of the interest in watching old films is always in seeing the background streets and getting a taste of the times. Berlin does not disappoint in this respect and succeeds in creating a story for its city as we’ll as a symphony but, you can’t help wondering what happened to these ordinary people and their everyday streets over the course of the next 18 years…

No safety net...
The performance of Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne showed once again the key role music plays in silent film screenings. Watching the Edition Filmmuseum DVD with Meisel’s original score there’s an altogether more muscular, dramatically-detached feel but it doesn’t connect you in the same way as watching two musicians take on Ruttman’s rhythms for the whole distance, without a safety net and with just their wits and instruments to help them.

Next week's city break see us travelling to Brazil in 1929 via the Barbican with Sao Paulo, A Metropolitan Symphony and live piano accompaniment from Clélia Iruzun.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Buonasera culture club… Six Italian Films 1906-2013, IIC, London


And so to London’s Belgrave Square for a most unusual cinematic experience... We gathered at the Italian Institute of Culture for a – free – evening of early Italian short films, one contemporary silent and modern composition played live, oh and there was a glass of wine in the first floor reception hall afterwards… euro-embassy cool and films from the cradle of Italian cinema - the city of Turin.

The IIC’s mission is to spread Italian culture and language in England and Wales (sorry Scotland) and this evening was a charming example of that ongoing work, all introduced in Italian before and expectant audience of ex-pats, cineastes and the odd free-loader…

The event was compared by film-maker Matteo Bernardini with music composed and played by Roberto and Mauro Agagliate

Buonasera Signorina Bonelli (1906)

It was traditional for picture house screenings to begin with a short welcoming sketch, this one featured Lydia De Robertis writing Good Evening on a chalk board.

All the nice girls love a fool...
Troppo Bello! (1909)

This bizarre outing for Foolshead (aka Cretinetti played by André Deed) features the titular twit in the unlikely guise of a bambino magnet. Invited to the wedding of a friend’s daughter he is so irresistible in his finery that every woman instantly falls for him from grans, to mums and even the bride. Proceedings develop into a Benny Hill-like chase in which the hunted is eventually torn – literally – limb from limb by the pursuing female hoards… Then, head, hands, arms and body re-unite in stop motion surprise.

Apart from a few exceptions most of the “women” are men in drag: maybe they were short of feminine extras that day?

Poster Pierrot
La Maschera Pietosa (1914) (A Carnival Tragedy)

The longest film of the night and a rather poignant tale of two Pierrots, a life and a marriage in peril…

Marcel (Alfredo Bertone) is an artist who is neglecting his wife Julia (Anna Lazzarini) in favour of their younger neighbour Lucy (Erna Hornak) who lives with her elderly mother (Annetta Ripamonti).

The carnival is coming to Turin and Marcel asks Lucy to accompany him which she does dressed as a Pierrot. There are superb scenes of the carnival, a tradition which has sadly stopped according to Matteo Bernardini, which led you to reflect on the magnificent job of restoration and preservation the Museo Nazionale del Cinema has performed on all these artefacts: film history showing actual history…

Alfredo Bertone and Erna Hornak
Julia is distraught and all the more so when she sees the couple sneak out again for more fun. There’s a particularly effective shot of Marcel and Lucy high on a merry-go-round, the thronging masses of old Turin far below reminding you of how advanced pre-War Italian and Turinese cinema was.
But tragedy is about to strike as Julia hears Lucy’s mother fall ill. Realising that she is near death she dresses herself as a Pierrot so that she can be Lucy tending to her mother’s final moments – she need not die alone.

Alfredo Bertone, Anna Lazzarini and Erna Hornak
Lucy and Marcel return to find Julia at the bedside saying prayers having lit candles in tribute to the dead. In the midst of this selfless act Lucy returns Marcel to his wife and the couple leave in unity as the young woman cries for her loss…

It’s a restrained melodrama and the emotional kick was highlighted by an inventive mix of found sounds and varied modern and period composition from the Brothers Agagliate on keyboards and accordion… the latter such an under-rated instrument to modern ears.
Marcel Fabre aka Marcel Perez
Robinet Innamorato di una Chanteuse (1911) (Tweedledum in love with a singer)

Tweedledum (Robintet aka Marcel Fabre) was another recurring comedy persona short on smarts but big on determination. Here he becomes besotted with a stage singer (Gigetta Morano, whose career ran to the sixties) and sets about trying to deliver a bunch of flowers to the object of his desire. He gets mugged for his finery but carries on dressed in robbers clothes until he finally tracks down his love only to be rebuffed as she calls the cops… the course of true love never ran smooth.

Giorgia Goldini and former figure skater, Benjamin Delmas
The Music Lovers (2013)

This is a new film directed by Matteo Bernardini with music by Roberto and Mauro Agagliate all played by the mighty 1911 Lokomotif Orchestra who play a major part in the development of the narrative.

Two lovers, Giorgia Goldini and Benjamin Delmas, are enjoying a silent moment as a sympathetic pianist plays along, notes silently unravelling above their heads as he gifts her a handful of croon-worthy crochets… But then other music begins to interrupt the flow and the remainder of the action sees the couple endure aural assault by miss-styled music. But it’s not a comment on the inappropriateness of some contemporary silent accompaniments, more a metaphor for man’s inability to appreciate a multicultural society.

It works very well and I like the idea of the actors being aware of the music, a kind of silent film “pun”.

Buonasera, Fiori (1909)

As events began, so they finished this time with popular actress Mary Cleo Tarlarini watching stop-motion flowers say good evening and then forming themselves into the Moon. It’s the end of a night of Italian cinema and, that free glass of wine is waiting upstairs…

The evening followed a similar path to recent anthology screenings of British and American films and it’s good to see Italy, and Turin, given the chance to show the – continuing - excellence of their artistic output.

39 Belgrave Square... an intimate venue
Now… how do you watch more of this on DVD? There’s precious little about these films on the Anglo-interweb although there’s a good quality copy of Troppo Bello! on Vimeo along with other treasures from the Museo Nazionale.

Details of upcoming events at the Italian Institute of Culture are available on their website. I can recommend them for Italian hospitality and conviviality: grazie mille!

Saturday, 20 September 2014

Colleen wants more… Orchids and Ermine (1927)

This is Colleen Moore in her pomp: one of the leading lights of Twenties cinema in a vehicle designed to allow her to show off her ability to create comedy out of gentle, natural drama. She behaves just like so many of the working audience, wants what they want but draws the line at breaking the rules of decency as much as she draws the line at exaggerated expression or slapstick: if Colleen sees someone knocked down she tries to help them up and she doesn’t fall down in the process.

Colleen takes a call
Her face is as animated as any actress from the period but from what I’ve seen she underplays magnificently, pulling you in with her gradual, guarded, smile and self-effacing charm and I’m not just talking from a male viewpoint.

It is frustrating to find so few of Colleen Moore’s films commercially available, let alone in good quality. Just about the only “proper” release is in The Bunker (1917) which is part of Kino's Reel Baseball collection with the rest of her most popular films largely the output of cheap DVDs recycling nth generation copies of 16mm transfers...

Why be Good? Because she was and deserves a whole lot better… but I am sure that’s coming with the revival of interest spurred by the rediscovery of that film and I’m looking forward to its screening at this year’s London Film Festival.

I enjoyed Orchids and Ermine so much I watched it twice, in spite of the fact that the Grapevine DVD is so low in resolution it looked like it was transferred through a layer of tracing paper.

5th Avenue and life in the bus lane...
There’s New York street shots in the rain, a man jumping from one double-decker bus across to another and a cracking supporting cast. But most of all there’s the girl with the bob working carefully at her crafted, controlled expression.

Her character sees a woman wearing her dream combination of ermine and orchids and picks up her cat to pretend she’s wrapped in the former as she holds a car-crushed flower against this live wrap… it’s winsome as anything and the act of a delicate soul who’s moral core will prevent her sacrificing dignity for desire.

Colleen charms Jack Mulhall
She works on a subtle level accumulating winning points through her performance rather than stunning the viewer with style or alpha femininity… she’s a slow burner but, by the time you’ve seen her miming her love into calling her from one of their hotel’s phone booths, you really want to make the call yourself!

Directed by Alfred Santell and produced by husband John McCormick, Orchids and Ermine sees Moore’s character, Pink Watson chasing her dream of marrying into money only to find that love, of course, comes first…

Animation courtesy of whataboutbobbed - the place for all things bobbed!
Rather than get stuck in her job at a cement factory (sorry…) she quits and heads off to New York to apply for a job as a telephonist in the De Luxe Hotel on Fifth Avenue: “where dead mink go after they die…” She gets the job against more glamorous opposition and is instructed to keep on wearing plain clothes…

Fellow worked, Ermintrude De Vere (Gwen Lee) offers to introduce her to her millionaire boyfriend Mr. Vandergriff (Brooks Benedict) who turns out to be Chauffeur Jenkins… Ermintrude makes a new friend whilst Pink decides she’d rather head home: “why is it when their wives get to forty they want to swap them for two twenties?” The title cards are full of great observations and pre-talkie wit.

Ermintrude,Pink and "Mr. Vandergriff"
The newspaper announces the impending visit of multi-millionaire Richard Tabor (an excellent show from Jack Mulhall) and the ladies in waiting ready themselves to impress. Tabor, bored of the old routine, persuades his valet Hank (Sam Hardy) to swap role in order to give him some peace and quiet.

Hank is duly swept off his feet by eager Ermintrude but an altogether more genuine connection is made between Richard and the pretty phone operator. He gets Ermintrude to send Pink flowers but after she reveals his “true” identity, Pink worries about his getting into trouble and asks for them to be taken back.

Can you spot the real Richard?
Richard may be a wealthy man but he’s not too worldly and asks Hank for advice in order to impress Pink digging himself into a deeper hole. Even a six-year old Mickey Rooney has more confidence with the lady… a scene-stealing interlude from the recently-deceased maestro.

Richard tries to apologize to Pink and ends up following her into the rain-sodden streets of New York – a fascinating glimpse of the period – eventually having to leap across from one bus to another in order to get her attention. He gets knocked down by a low bridge and milks the ensuing attention for all its worth.

Meanwhile his fake self is succumbing to Ermintrude’s hard-sell and exchanging vows in a registry office: things are about to get a lot more complicated…

Hunter and prey...
No spoilers: Orchids and Ermine speeds towards its dénouement with sure-footed charm – is getting the man more important than getting the money and will the real Richard Tabor finally step forward?

Colleen Moore’s sparkle exudes even through the grainy print and I hope someday I’ll be able to see her performance with greater clarity; it’s a slight story but she performs it with such skill.

Pink's retail reverie is about to be rudely interrupted ...
The other leads provide fine support, especially Jack Mulhall as the millionaire discovering a wealth of new emotions. He kept reminding me of Harold Lloyd, although I doubt he did the bus stunt as Harold would have!

I watched the Grapevine DVD which is now out of print: good luck in finding a copy. To whom-ever owns the rights… we want a box set of restored Colleen Moore films and we want it now!

Meanwhile I can recommend Colleen Moore: A Biography of the Silent Film Star by Jeff Codori - a labour of love based on years of work on his Colleen Moore Project website: essential reading if you're part of the Colleen revival!

Saturday, 13 September 2014

William S. Hart burning down the house - Hell's Hinges (1916)

"No actor before the screen has been able to give as sincere and true a touch to the Westerner as Hart. He rides in a manner indigenous to the soil, he shoots with the real knack and he acts with that sense of artistry that hides the acting."    New York Press (1916)

I’m not sure what experience the Post’s correspondent had in order to form this opinion but from my long years of Saturday TV westerns, Hart does appear more authentic than I might have expected: the ten gallon hat for a start along with leather wrist bands (very sensible with all that lassoing) and gaudy shirts... they had to be real.

William S. Hart
Hart was indeed a dedicated student of the era and was a personal friend of Wyatt Earp (only 17 years older…) who owned Billy the Kid’s genuine six-shooters. Born in the civil war years, Hart was already 51 when he made this film and a veteran actor with a serious classical stage background having played on Broadway as well as Shaftsbury Avenue. This skill is much in evidence throughout this film and his instinct that screen acting required toned down expression although I’m sure the mighty landscapes and frenetic action took the edge of any over emoting.

He was already in that late mid-period stage that John Wayne struggled with: still a believable man of action but perhaps less so a romantic lead. Which might explain his almost chaste fascination with Clara Williams’ character Faith. He looks like a man who has seen trouble and travelled long and hard to find some more – Blaze Tracy isn’t the name of a man who has been taking life easy after all.

Hart is the core of this dynamic film which has something of the vengeful force reproduced by Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter but so many westerns to come would have been influenced by Hell’s Hinges. This is the West wild in tooth and claw, in which the moral compass has not just been lost but crushed by a stampede of settlers. Some folk want order and religion whilst others just want the good times force and will power can bring. It’s a primal western and westerns are just about as primal a genre as cinema has… hold on to your hats and leave your guns at the door.

Charles Swickard directs with real pace and the film has a raw intensity clearly influenced by Griffith’s narrative invention but also with a stylized focus of its own. Blaze is a wild creature who won’t be entirely civilised by the coming of Christianity although he’s big on an eye for an eye. To paraphrase Alan Moore: westerns are revenge fantasies for the impotent – might with right on its side.

Jack Standing and Clara Williams
All begins way out east where young Reverend Robert Henley (Jack Standing) holds forth in front of his congregation in chapel. But not all of his audience is held rapt, his sister Faith (Clara Williams) looks worried as she sees his performance exceed his belief: he relishes the acting and not the actions. His superiors look to find him a placement somewhere less… demanding, and come up with a small town out West: surely they must be so sorely in need of the Good Word that Robert will finally find his feet in less urbane sophisticated climes…

Faith – who hasn’t lost hers - insists on accompanying him to help him settle in… they travel hopefully across magnificent valleys and then arrive amidst a dusty gun battle: the clue’s in the name, they’ve come to Hell’s Hinges.

Silk and Blaze in happier times...
The two dominant figures in town are slick, Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) a professional gambler and runner of the local saloon and all that goes with it. Against him is alpha cow-hand, Blaze Tracy (Hart) – a force of nature not naturally favouring neither good nor bad: just survival of the fastest.

Neither men want to see the town get organised by organised religion and both fully expect the new arrivals to fall flat on their faces. Silk aims to speed this up by arranging for a party to crash the first sermon at the town’s makeshift church. Reverend Henley collapses under the pressure but his sister’s made of sterner stuff and starts singing… the sound is enough to sooth the savage breasts of drunken townsfolk and to stop Blaze in his tracks.

Faith sings and the townsfolk listen
Thus the immovable object makes the force stop and think… there is hope in this town. But, even as the townsfolk start building a new church, Silk is playing the Reverend… he tells him that the dancers in his saloon would appreciate a sermon and, like a fool he goes off to try: well, why not, as the showgirl said to the reverend…

He catches the eye of one Dolly (Louise Glaum: the woman who put the amps in vamps even before Theda arrived!) who Silk has lined up to lead him down the – darkened – garden path.  Dolly and Robert have such a good time that he drunkenly sleeps through Sunday morning… there’s no one to christen the new church.

Louise Glaum turns on the charm
Things head downhill… all the way to Hell in a hand-cart to be exact.

Mild spoilers:  There is now open war between the Gamblers and the God-fearers and Blaze must decide on the role he must play. The film builds to a spectacular physical crescendo as tragedy leads to vengeance and a balancing of the burning books as Blaze sets his destiny…

In Hell
There are moments when Hell’s Hinges feels almost modern: it's so stripped down in its attempt at authenticity. The Western template was being set but this is also a representation of how things actually were just a few decades before - this was living memory and Hart’s meticulous research influenced the film’s direction as well as his performance.

There’s great support from Alfred Hollingsworth as the unlikeable rogue and Louise Glaum as the tart without much of a heart. She's the antithesis of Clara Williams’ Faith who manages to bring subtlety to what could so easily have been one-note purity. But it’s Hart that draws the eye throughout, a man of gentle strength who looks to find redemption. He knows a good thing when he finally sees it…

There are also blink-and-you’ll-miss-them cameos from Jean Hersholt as a rowdy townsman and John Gilbert as a rowdy cowboy – not too sure how you’d spot the difference.

Hell’s Hinges is available in a really good quality print as part of the Nation Film Preservation Council's, Treasures Volume 1 collection. That essential set is currently out of print but there are copies available from Amazon: better hurry though as it’s getting pricey, but you’ve probably already got it, right?