Saturday, 29 November 2014

Empty spaces, abundant silence… L'Eclisse (1962)

Silence is so much a feature of Michelangelo Antonioni’s films, it’s not just the subtitles as inter-titles that means that I view them almost as cinema muto. They are amongst the most carefully composed works in European cinema and the images always have as much meaning as the dialogue and greater resonance.

Remove all sound from this film and it would still have a lot to say and it would still reward repeated viewing with new thoughts and response. L'Eclisse also offers treacherous waters for interpretation and may trap your humble commentator in pseuds’ corner… but why not.

L'Eclisse (The Eclipse) is regarded as the last part of a trilogy preceded by L'Avventura (1960) and La Notte (1961) - all essays on modernism, architecture, politics and communication: the spaces between people with the greatest gulf being between men and women. All three also feature Monica Vitti, an actress with supernatural expression who is capable of delivering the most impenetrable depths of nuanced uncertainty.

Alain and Monica
But you don’t have to watch these films stroking your bearded chin as you focus through chic horned-rim glasses, dressed in pressed white lined shirts and the finest Armani – although it does help. They operate as puzzles for all ages and were so ground-breaking that we now cannot help but view them through the prism of their influence. Ingmar Bergman may have had his reservations but other directors from Goddard to Scorsese have lauded Antonioni as perhaps the father of modern European cinema: the man who, as he claimed, took the bicycles out of neo-realism and mixed the sensibilities of documentary film-making with innovative narrative styles focused on the cultural tipping point of the early sixties when concrete and deadly technology had turned post war Europe into a society whose progression was built on philosophical quicksand: instinct left behind by innovation.

Monica Vitti and Francisco Rabal
L'Eclisse is divided into distinct segments beginning and ending with a break up as Monica Vitti’s central character, Vittoria, must continue her search for a valid relationship with modern men given inexplicable focus by a culture in flux.

The opening section sees Vittoria breaking up with her long-term partner Riccardo (Spanish actor Francisco Rabal) after an agonised all-night attempt to talk it over… The characters are shown at exhausted angles as they move awkwardly around the room, like caged animals tortured by incomprehension at their own captivity. Riccardo’s apartment is packed full of modern art, books and aesthetic artifice – is there a genuine connection with his possessions?

Vittoria looks through a frame and pulls out a trinket the viewer may have seen as part of a picture: but it’s not real just an illusion. The house is on a new estate on the edge of Rome – all manicured lawns and quiet, ordered streets – the future of bourgeois living yet overlooked by a menacing water tower that has the slightest echoes of the mushroom clouds so threatening the World order at the time: the age of accumulated anxiety.

Vittoria escapes the attentions of her new ex and goes to find her mother in Rome’s stock exchange - the Bourse. Milan was and is the main exchange in Italy but the Roman version was favoured by smaller investors. Antonioni shot over the weekend with a good many stockbrokers guesting as extras for authenticity… their work all sweaty, panicked shouting for an edge in an exchange where values may shift at the slightest rumour, miss-calculation or pronouncement from a trusted source.

Lilla Brignone and Monica Vitti
Vittoria’s mother (Lilla Brignone) is a well-off widow addicted to the thrill of playing the stocks and is far too excited about her latest gains to listen to her daughter’s story. She uses an energetic young broker Piero (Alain Delon) to place her “bets” and he doesn’t seem to let her or any of his customers down so totally focused is he on winning in this frenetic, animalistic environment built, as it so happens, on the site of a pagan Roman temple with ancient columns still visible in this monument to modern greed.

Monica Vitti,  Mirella Ricciardi and Rosanna Rory
Vittoria returns home and is greeted by her friend Anita (Rosanna Rory) the wife of a pilot who is away collecting a new plane. They drink and then join their new neighbour, Marta (Mirella Ricciardi) recently returned from living in Kenya. This section has perhaps the most specific meaning of any in the film as the colonial life is examined and Vittoria ends up in black face dressed and dancing as an African maid: uncomfortable viewing to modern eyes but pointedly so given Marta’s reference to Africans as “monkeys”... something Vittoria gently takes her to task on.

Childlike responses to night-time strangeness
Their party is disturbed after Marta’s dog escapes and they race out into the darkness to find it along with several others running free. Vittoria finds the poodle but then is distracted by the sounds of the wind blowing through the ropes of flag poles – like a child she retains a fascination with the unexpected: an almost musical noise gently pushing through the night stillness.

Vittoria flies with Anita and her husband over to Verona for another interlude. As she wanders the airfield taking in the unfamiliarity she passes two African men sitting outside a café: nothing happens in the film by accident.

The trading floor
The scene shifts abruptly back to Rome as the stock market takes centre stage and we learn more of Piero. There’s a black day on the markets across Italy and Vittoria’s mother is not alone in losing millions of Lira. Piero is at the centre of things trying to limit the damage and secure his company’s clients for the recovery. There are dark mutterings about the market being rigged, political influencers and insider trading… this is Peiro’s world and Antonioni doesn’t like it.

Millions of Lira lost, the man takes a tranquilizer and draws flowers...
Fascinated by one man’s reaction to his huge losses, Vittoria is drawn into events and from there to Piero. They begin a relationship but it’s a faltering one: they cannot seem to match their pace… He takes Vittoria to his family home and she’s almost shocked by the display of art on show: either it’s too much conspicuous consumption or she cannot reconcile this cultural background with Piero’s fiscal amorality.

Piero is lightning quick at calculating opportunities on the markets but he can’t “play” Vittoria and can't absorb her fluctuations in the way he can company data. For her part, Vittoria doesn’t understand his fascination with making money… she’s more interested in working out the world around her and – at the very least – finding something different, something real.

They agree to meet once more but the film ends with multiple images of their regular meeting place; the finer details, the water butt – now burst open and flooding the pavement – the building works, passers-by, the city making its way oblivious to the significance of the empty space on the corner of the street and of the unbridgeable gaps in human understanding: the spaces between us all.

The cinematography of regular Antonioni collaborator Gianni Di Venanzo, is superb and allied to the director’s choice of locations presents an other-worldly view of a progressive Italy that still looks modern half a century later. These new suburban vistas are almost empty and with nary a car in sight whilst near silence provides an almost ever present soundtrack to Vittoria’s un-spoken reconnaissance as she slowly walks the streets.

Vitti’s self-control is supreme and she manages to convey so much with expressive economy – her face a picture of studied neutrality and her eyes giving away only the possibilities of her thoughts. By contrast Delon’s Pieor is impulsive and cock-sure: the unreality of monetary gain being its own reward: an end unto itself and the irrational refuge of many a modern careerist.

I watched the Criterion edition which comes complete with a booklet of essays, expert commentary from Richard Pena and a second disc of additional features including the documentary Michelangelo Antonioni: the Eye that Changed Cinema and a short Italian feature on the film: Elements of Landscape.

It’s available direct from Criterion on DVD or Blu-ray or from Amazon.

Who is the nurse and where is she going?
I’m not sure if L’Ecclise ranks higher than L’Avventura or La Notte but perhaps I need to watch it as much as I have those two films... your response evolves with each viewing. This is not just the director’s knack for avoiding too much narrative certainty but also the immense detail in his work and its enduring integrity.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

What’s so funny? The Man Who Laughs (1928)

 An American film about seventeenth century England, based on a French novel, starring one extraordinary German and directed by another, The Man Who Laughs is a truly international picture. Made at the peak of silent film technique it features a rudimentary soundtrack – in Movietone – and represents a Hollywood high-point of expressionist unease from Paul Leni, the man who directed Waxworks and The Cat and the Canary.

The boy is abandoned
It says much for contemporary sensibilities that audiences were attracted to the dark disturb of this tale. Conrad Veidt plays Gwynplaine a man scarred for life from childhood by a group of travellers led by Dr. Hardquanonne (George Siegmann) who specialised in cosmetic disfigurement in order to create oddities suitable for circus performers. In this case, and following on neatly from Nell Gwyn and Charles II, the latter’s brother and successor James II (Samuel de Grasse ) has ordered the mutilation as revenge on the boy’s father who has displeased him. The father, Lord Clancharlie, is mercilessly squished in the Iron Lady and the boy’s face will forever be locked in an horrific grin… laughing at his father’s betrayal.

Conrad Veidt as Lord Clancharlie
Honestly, it’s five minutes in and you’re wondering whether to bail out whilst the going’s so bad… but the film’s style and substance begins to work its uncanny rhythm and hope emerges as the boy, cast adrift even from his tormentors, rescues a blind baby from the bitter cold and finds sanctuary with an itinerant circus performer called Ursus (Cesare Gravina) who lives in a caravan with his pet wolf Homo (Zimbo the Dog!). Now that’s a modern family!

Cesare Gravina
The years pass and naturally Gwynplaine’s clown-face has made him the most popular clown in town – people just can’t help but laugh when they see his hysterical smile but, in spite of the gadgetry and painful false teeth he wore, Veidt’s eyes give so much more away: pain but also something more, his love for blonde, beautiful and blind Dea (Mary Philbin) who loves him back. But she has never seen his disfigurement nor felt his smile… Gwynplaine cannot believe that she would still love him if she knew what he actually looked like.

Conrad Veidt and Mary Philbin
Oh but there’s more… Gwynplaine’s father’s land and property was handed over to the family who betrayed him in the belief that he would never be seen again - he has an inheritance and a peerage he knows nothing about.  The beneficiary is one Duchess Josiana (Olga Baklanova – so good in von Sternberg’s Docks of New York and on fire in this film) who leads a life of carefree debauchery and expressive bathing as a servant’s key-hole view of her bathroom reveals…

Olga Baklanova
The troop travel to entertain the court of Queen Anne (Josephine Crowell) who has succeeded twisted James II and rules with firm Stuart authority aided by the Machiavellian Lord Dirry-Moir (Stuart Holmes).  As their weird play proceeds the crowd breaks into hysterics and yet Duchess Josiana cannot decide whether to laugh or lust… there’s something more deeply intriguing about Gwynplaine’s unrelenting grin.

She orders the clown to be brought to her chambers sending him a note from the woman who did not laugh – an inversion of the film’s title: is she to be his nemesis? For his part Gwynplaine reasons that if the Duchess can fancy him in spite of his disfigurement then Dea may also… so he travels with hope in his heart.

Brandon Hurst
Meanwhile… the Queen’s aid, Barkilphedro (Brandon Hurst), has found out that Gwynplaine is the rightful owner of the Duchess’ land: for her to retain her title and property she will need to marry him. The Queen orders his capture and immediate ennoblement.

Back in the Duchess’ boudoir, her advances have more than convinced Gwynplaine that he has appeal but his experiment over he rushes back to find Dea leaving  his noble partner confused and rather let down: not the behaviour of a gentleman…

Back in Ursus’ caravan Gwynplaine lets Dea feel the contours of his face for the first time and, in spite of her instinctive recoil on feeling the strange outlines she smiles already knowing all she need to love this man. And this would have been a happy ending were it not for the convolutions of Victor Hugo’s original plot and the relentless machinations of the Stuart state.

A guard arrives to escort Gwynplaine to the Queen’s castle… Usrus fears for the worse and the Queen’s men leave him with as clear an impression of the wrong idea as they can. The next day he and Dea are told that there man is dead and that they must leave England for good.

At the same time, Gwynplaine is dressed in ermine and fur and paraded into the House of Lords… where he will be ordered to marry the Duchess by Queen Anne herself.

No spoilers…
All looks bad for the course of true love - can Gwynplaine escape from his new found wealth and position, refuse his Queen’s instruction and go in search of Dea? Knowing Victor Hugo you’d have to say not but this is Hollywood and the unexpected is always possible if not probable.

The Man Who Laughs was completed in 1927 and waited almost a full year for the addition of its rudimentary soundtrack which, to modern ears, adds little to the suspenseful story-telling of Leni and his crew but that's business.

Mary Philbin and Conrad Veidt
Mary Philbin doesn’t always get the recognition she deserves for her supporting roles to men with unusual faces, she’s as good here as I’ve seen her and has a real rapport with the remarkable Conrad Veidt. Veidt himself was an amazing physical actor who conveys so much subtle thought process even with his face half covered in that perma-grin.

The support is also excellent especially from the incredibly expressive Cesare Gravina, Brandon Hurst who oozes comic malevolence and Olga Baklanova who's very naughty throughout - were you watching William Hays?!

Olga "burns through the screen" as one reviewer exclaimed at the time...
Leni directs with gothic style and economy even confronted with the challenge of transposing Hugo’s long-form exposition into a digestible 100 minutes. He is very ably supported by head cinematographer Gilbert Warrenton and Laughs is a very good-looking film given the grim strangeness of the Veidt grin.

I watched the Kino DVD which comes complete with the soundtrack – music from William Axt , Sam Perry and Ernö Rapée along with the odd synchronised found sound and baying crowd noise… it’ll never catch on! It's available direct as part of their American Silent Horror collection and you can still find copies on Amazon.

Monday, 17 November 2014

Into the light... Sons of Ingmar (1919), Cambridge Arts Picturehouse with John Sweeney

This was a rare experience and in her excellent introduction, Trish Sheil, Film Education Officer for the Cambridge Film Consortium, explained why.  Victor Sjöström’s Sons of Ingmar exists only on 35mm film – it is not digitised – and the Swedish Film Archive only allows prints to be shown via double reel projection which the Picturehouse is now rare in providing. Our live projectionist also had to multi-task by manually inserting English subtitles, sometimes shadowing the screen to facilitate legibility – something like patting your head whilst rubbing your tummy at the same time.

The film only gets screened once in a silvery-blue moon and as Trish said makes for interesting comparison with Mr Griffith and other the leading lights of Hollywood with its moral complexity, naturalistic acting and novelesque narrative. The film pulls you along at its own pace, only exposing the depth of its characters sparingly and if you’re not wiping a tear from the corner of your eye by the end you’re probably not human.

Victor Sjöström
Set almost entirely against the Swedish countryside there is breath-taking cinematography from Julius Jaenzon which seems to push against the limits of the settings. At times he is shooting almost against the sun or at least with the light pouring diagonally onto the performers allowing for some extremes of light and shade that go against the contemporary rule book yet add to the engagement – you’re gripped by the unconscious response as the actors and the elements merge almost into one.

This risk-taking is most in evidence in the sequence outside the prison – so highly praised by Ingmar Bergman in Gosta Werner’s Sjöström documentary* - when the bleached white stone and sunshine confounds the eye as the players try hard to gauge each other’s feelings, blinking in the bright light searching for a reaction that confirms genuine love or pity.
Searching through sunshine
Sons of Ingmar
was the first of a series of films based on Selma Lagerlöf’s novel Jerusalem – Sjöström planned to make five but only completed this one and the follow up Karin Daughter of Ingmar , with Maurice Stiller directing a third. Nobel Prize winner Lagerlöf was a major figure and this adaptation was by over half the population of Sweden within weeks of release.

Her novel was an immense multi-generational parable involving an attempt to found a new Jerusalem – the dream of a “return” that haunts the subjects of a society in flux. Sjöström’s opening section reflects this as Lill Ingmar Ingmarsson (Sjöström) tills his field, mulling over a difficult decision and daydreaming about discussing it with his deceased father (Tore Svennberg).

He imagines a huge stepladder leading up to the clouds and slowly climbs his way high above the fields, the countryside and all of Sweden. He is greeted by a bearded St Peter who directs him to his father’s homestead – surrounded by lush fields and heavenly host of heifers…  He finds his father holding court in a large room full of dozens of generations of Ingmars: the heritage he must live up to.

If all this sounds fantastical then you have to bear in mind the Swedish sense of humour…  Sjöström’s Ingmar is a bit slow with a lower lip almost perpetually pursed as he over-thinks almost everything but, bear with him; he has some tough times to live through.
The old sons of Ingmar
His father leads him to an ante room where young Ingmar begins to unwind his tale of woe…

Shortly after his father’s death Ingmar had decided to take a wife and had proposed his intention to the parents of local lass Brita (Harriet Bosse) – father (Hjalmar Peters) and mother (Svea Peters). They accept on their daughter’s behalf but she, still sweet on an old boyfriend, is not impressed at all… especially as, their banns published, it is decided that she should go to the Ingmarson farm to help out while the wedding waits.

Brita struggles on the farm, distancing herself from Ingmar and his aloof Mother (Hildur Carlberg) who can hardly move for knitting and is a slave to the routines of hard work. Only the alert middle-aged maid Karin (well-played by Jenny Tschernichin-Larsson) seems to notice her pain…

Jenny Tschernichin-Larsson and Harriet Bosse
Things get much worse as Brita gets pregnant as Ingmar obviously couldn’t wait for wedlock… she nurtures a hatred for the family around her and vows to make Ingmar suffer the only way she can. One day Brita disappears and after a night of frantic searching, she is found with her stillborn baby…

Brita is tried for murder and the whole village turns up to pass judgement of their own…  she can sink no lower and yet Ingmar speaks out on her behalf, accepting his part in the breakdown of their love and pleading for leniency: if she would only change her mind about him, he would marry her.

Brita’s eyes spark open with hope and yet, when her mother asks him if he meant it he says only that he was trying to get her a lesser sentence… “she has killed all love in him”. Never-the-less, Brita heads off to jail with hope in her heart whilst Ingmar returns to his farm weighed down by remorse and tainted love…

Three years on, as he asks his dead father, should he take Brita back or let her go to start again in America, all shame left behind. It’s a tough call and as the old man goes off to consult the massed ranks of the male line, Ingmar comes to his earthbound senses and makes his decision or does he?

Harriet Bosse
No spoilers…

By this stage of the film you are convinced of the resolution but Sjöström doesn’t allow such certainty to linger long and it’s anyone’s guess as miss-communication worthy of Antonioni ensures the audience is left willing the characters on against seemingly insurmountable odds of church, community and family.

This is surely amongst the most genuinely compelling dramas of the period with superb, restraint and power from Sjöström as well as from Harriet Bosse who’s character does a hateful thing but must still somehow gain our sympathy – you wouldn’t get that kind of role in a DW photo-play.

John Sweeney provided expert accompaniment helping to create a live event that will live long in the memory and that’s exactly where it will remain unless this opportunity ever comes our way again or that dream box-set of Sjöström rarities ever gets released. As it was, Sons of Ingmar was a transient experience just as it was always intended to be… a bit like life I suppose.

*The documentary is an extra on the Kino DVD release of The Outlaw and His Wife and shows the only digitised sections of the film from which I’ve captured the above images.

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Social disease… Child of the Big City (1914)

It’s Russia in 1914 and you know what’s coming you just don’t know when… then, as the two main characters enjoy a drink in a busy night club it happens:  there’s movement behind a curtain at the far wall revealing a stage, a dancer emerges and as your eyes get drawn to her undulating arms, the camera literally follows your gaze, moving past the couple – who reveal their diverging emotions at the same time – and heading towards the dance.

It’s an expert dolly shot perfected by Yevgeni Bauer and used to give his films an extra depth few contemporaries in World Cinema could rival. He created beautiful sets and moved his actors around them with the same expert precision as his cameras to weave richly-morbid morality tales that may or may not have reflected the turmoil enveloping his country: you know his characters will face life-changing moments and that a happy ending is far from assured.

The camera shows their distance...
But, whatever the trajectory, Bauer will tell his story in a style that avoids the melodramatic through restrained direction and a focus on subtle signifiers rather than grand gestures… well, to a large extent and even when he does use the broader strokes he does so in a way that might confound expectation…

In Child of the Big City we are led immediately in the wrong direction as the story begins showing a poor child Manetschka (Nina Kosljaninowa) watching her mother die of consumption. Six years later and Manetschka has grown up into a striking young woman called Mary (Elena Smirnova) who works as a seamstress while daydreaming of the rich life beyond her… There’s a lovely close up as Mary sits at the window; the outside world going about its business happily without her.

Arseniy Bibikov and Michael Salarow
Meanwhile we meet a young man called Viktor (Michael Salarow) who is looking for a woman with more depth than his well-schooled social circle – here’s a man of integrity in spite of the crude urgings of his extrovert pal Kramskoi (Arseniy Bibikov). He sits disconsolate in his drawing room half-heartedly reviewing snaps of young socialites. Needless to say, this is a Yevgeni Bauer drawing room with many objects positioned to not only illustrate the depths of Viktor’s intellect but also to create superior depth of field as the actors move diagonally through the frame… you’re drawn in (to the drawing room…).

Window shopping
After work Mary tortures herself by window shopping in the more expensive parts of town: we hope she gets what she wants. She encounters Kramskoi outside a jeweller's shop whilst Viktor looks on… and accepts his forward invitation to dine with them at.

Mary steps open-eyed into their bourgeois world only to be repeatedly mauled by Kramskoi she runs to Viktor for protection and succumbs readily to his more whole-hearted embrace. So far, so good… surely Mary has found her fortune in the arms of this serious young man?

But then we see them at the night club and as the camera moves through the scene we can see their relationships fault line all too clearly: Mary smiles to herself as she downs her champagne as Viktor looks on with concern... distanced. Then an overhead shot reveals the bawdy scene in full and Mary accepts an overly-familiar greeting from another man in a top hat.

Viktor is soon driven to financial ruin by Mary’s insatiable requirements for possessions and parties. He sits in his study contemplating the very worst course of action… by the time he gets to Mary’s rooms he finds her in the arms of a servant (Leonid Jost): her passion has run wild. Viktor shoots his pistol in impotent rage and collapses in front of them…

Now, Viktor dreams of winning Mary back from the sparse darkness of his tiny new lodgings whilst Mary carries on living the high life supported by an ever-increasing circle of well-heeled admirers. He pleads for a last chance – one last meeting – will Mary stop to think or has her careless accumulation of wealth and experience inured her to the concerns of common humanity?

Viktor finds Mary in a compromising embrace...
Child of the Big City offers little comfort to those who expect natural justice from their films and as the title makes clear, sees society as the issue and not the individuals. Mary is just as much the victim of consumerist culture as Viktor is of his naive search for pure love: perhaps the need to possess endangers us all?

Elena Smirnova makes for a delightfully flighty Mary, winning our sympathy then throwing it back in our face whilst Michael Salarow’s Viktor begins his fateful tailspin luxuriating in self-indulgent introspection.

There’s a nice cameo from Lidiya Tridenskaya as Mary’s cheeky maid servant whilst Emma Bauer provides the decadent dance in the nightclub.

Viktor's desperate letter is read...
I watched the Milestone Early Russian Cinema Volume 7 DVD which features the BFI restoration from the early 1990s which comes complete with splendid accompaniment from a young Neil Brand: he’ll go far! It’s available direct from Milestone along with the other volumes of their comprehensive overview of Russian cinema.