Sunday, 27 September 2015

Brooksie bows out… American Venus, No 6 - Fred's Place Theatre, London

It’s better to burn out than fade away as old Neil Young observed from the safety of his thirties… yet how would you feel if you’d done both? Sixty years after her silent flame flickered so brightly did Louise Brooks spend her days in doubt and remorse?

As with politicians, actors’ careers often end in failure – a life measured by success, commercial and critical popularity, appreciation of your talent and your looks (although I think we’ve all got to contend with that…). Few had the visceral, visual impact of Louise Brooks nor the unique combination of intellect and beauty than enabled her to transcended the self-made mess of her Hollywood years to become an icon; her posters and postcards the gateway experience to a face that still compels attention and repeated viewing.

Any excuse...
Leslie Mildiner’s new play American Venus takes the title of one of Brooks’ (mostly) lost films to tell the tale of her life as she lives out her final days in the bedroom of her Rochester apartment.

Mildiner bravely takes on the task of recreating one of the most complex personalities in film and succeeds in presenting a version of Brooksie that rings true not just from a fans’ point of view but on a human level.This is in large part down to a titanic performance of wit and integrity from Susan Penhaligon who's Louise fights against the dying of the light in her own way: denying her usefulness and importance, putting down her carers and long-suffering friends as she is slowly weakened by a combination of emphysema and a heart condition.

Angharad George-Carey and Susan Penhaligon
Penhaligon’s delivery is pitch perfect and out of every excruciating coughing fit she flies with stinging one-liners striking out at herself and those around her.

She has dreams of her past and relives the brief affair her younger self, played by the sparkling Angharad George-Carey with elfin energy, had with Charlie Chaplin in 1925 New York. Brooks was 18 at the time and a dancer in the Follies just about to embark on a movie contract with Warner Brothers. There’s no evidence that she thought Chaplin was “The One” but in the play their relationship is used to show the intensity of Louise’s character – her near limitless possibilities the near-equal of Chaplin’s own…

Angharad George-Carey poses as young Louise in Fred's space
Tim Walton (who I’d last seen in the excellent City of Angels at the Donmar) plays Chaplin as a charismatic, muscular intellectual who is fascinated by the young woman’s refusal to submit to his will. Chaplin has just become a father again but Louise is unimpressed, she is a self-sufficient unit who will make her own mistakes with no room for phony sentimentality.

Mildiner appears to suggest that a combination of harsh parenting and her sexual abuse aged nine, may have made Brooks the unyielding truth-sayer and performer she was – who knows? She certainly seemed capable of inspiring loyalty and was supported by financial contributions by an ex-lover for the last few decades of her life.

Mary Keegan
Here she is cared for by Phylis (Mary Keegan who is also superb) who is stronger than anyone suspects, ignoring Louise’s art of misdirection and trying to do the best for her. One hopes that Brooksie did indeed have such a steadfast supporter.

Louise rides Phylis hard but this seems to be part delusion and part thank you… Phylis’ husband Frank (Brian Deacon) is not as strong as the women and whilst he makes himself busy Louise always has something more for him to do.

Susan Penhaligon and Nicholas Waring in rehearsal
Louis has a friend Stan (Nicholas Waring) who collects her library books and brightens her day with his tales of romantic failure. He leads with his heart, something Brooksie would never do, and as a consequence is constantly disappointed by the men in his life. His latest lover is clearly only after his money and a green card… he leaves him in the end for a woman. Poor Stan, if only he had a tenth of Louise’s spirit.

Another visitor is the librarian Tara (Sophia Swannell) who arrives initially to complain about Louise’s annotating the books she borrows with corrections and other “helpful” observations (including one concerning Tyrone Power that I probably shouldn’t repeat in writing). She stands her ground and is accepted.

Sophia Swannell and Brian Deacon
Louise is invited to be guest of honour at a retrospective screening of six films at Eastman House and has to be cajoled into going by Stan, she weeps at the sight of herself in Pandora’s Box… like being “present at her own autopsy…”

Directed by Sarah Berger who makes splendid use of the limited space of Fred’s Place this was close-contact theatre with every emphysematic fit making the audience squirm. I have no idea how the performers can stay so focused mere feet away from their audience but if you want to see how actors really work this is the place to be.

Angharad George-Carey and Tim Walton rehearse napping
Louise’s passing was felt most pertinently by Phylis – I won’t give away exactly how – but her message of obstinacy in the face of incapacity is a call to all to be true to themselves and to treat the twin imposters of fame and failure just the same.

Don’t waste it… and I’m pretty sure, Brooks, for all her trials, never really did. There are no doubts from Louise who’s only regret was growing old and hating it: if all you wanted to do was dance why love life when you can’t do what you love anymore?

American Venus is part of the Ever Hopefull Repertory Season of plays which completes at Fred's Place today… it deserves a wider audience and hopefully will get another airing. There's a short video about the season here.

6 Frederick's Place, just round the corner from Bank station
Keep an eye out for further events at No. 6, Fred’s Place and from the So and So Arts Club. It's the most intimate of venues in a side-street Georgian townhouse where Disreali worked in the 1820's and we almost felt like intruders as west end tales were passed around the room... a real treat!

Friday, 25 September 2015

The bringer of peace… A Trip to Mars (1918)

“We will never more kill living creatures and we will never more use weapons!”

When did alien worlds start being more of a threat than a promise? It says much about the times that this film’s Martians are an evolved civilization who want to help bring peace on Earth… so think again Gustav Holst.

Released in early 1918, Himmelskibet (literally Heaven-Ship but more often referred to as A Trip to Mars) was a plea for patience (and it is quite slow-paced) and pacifism at a time when the ending of the Great War was still some way off with both sides still in with a chance of victory (with or without the USA) and therefore still murderously competitive.

It is the most deliberate of allegories with this much being obvious from the names of the main characters; Professor Planetaros (Nicolai Neiiendam), the astronomer who believes and his counterpart Professor Dubius (Frederik Jacobsen) who not only does not have faith he actively tries to destroy it in others.

Planetaros believes that there is life on Mars and enlists the help of his son, ocean adventurer Avanti (Gunnar Tolnæs) and his friend Dr. Krafft (Alf Blutecher) who is also in love with Avanti’s sister Corona (Zanny Petersen, who’s eyes are so electric blue they translate in monochrome as sheer white).

Alf Blutecher, Zanny Petersen and Gunnar Tolnæs
The Planetaros begin the construction of their great ship and name it Excelsior in tribute to the lofty heights of their dream. Naturally, Professor Dubious makes many attempts to undermine their project and – bizarrely – to lampoon it arriving just before take-off to ask them to deliver a letter for him…

They gather together an international team including an American lug called David Dane (Svend Kornbeck) who has a weakness for liquor (what were they trying to infer?!)… there may be trouble ahead.

Planetaros and Dubious
Avanti and Krafft take off with their crew in the 1918 version of the space shuttle, a propeller-driven bi-plane that presumably has a rocket as well. The effects are well done and all the more so given that there had been few feature-length films about space craft – although there were seemingly plenty of interplanetary shorts between this and Georges Méliès and there's an excellent summary on the  Silents, Please! blog: To the stars and beyond: movies dream of outer space, 1898-1910.

Taking what they knew the director Holger-Madsen and screenwriter, Sophus Michaelis, were breaking some new ground…certainly in trying to create a serious science film with a message.

Nothing dates in culture more than the view of the future and whilst there’s a period charm in the mix of old-new and old what the film achieves in conveying the wonder of connection with an alien culture undures: that aspect of science fantasy does not change and still drives the genre onwards.

State of the art...
The space ship may make Flash Gordon’s look like the Millennium Falcon and there really is no science at all in the fiction but the film really impresses with the gathering of Martians once the Earth men arrive… the hills lined with white clothed figures and topped off by well-designed temple (God is Love and is on Mars as in Heaven…).
Life on Mars
The Martian Leader (Philip Bech) and his balletic daughter Marya (Lilly Jacobson) move in a state of grace and are able to communicate to the astronauts through use of the perfect language – an interplanetary Esperanto that can be understood by all; pure meaning.

Don't worry, Nils will be alright
They offer the Earthers food, which is naturally vegetarian and when they reciprocate by shooting down a bird to show them the pleasures of fried poultry, the Martians are shocked. One thing leads to another and a young Martian (a very young Nils Asther) is almost killed as the men are briefly imprisoned.

The leader’s daughter takes up their cause and soon is making sweet music with Avanti… after wearing the Cloak of Mercy which allows them to judge themselves as innocent even though they did fire the first shots on Mars for millennia and threw a grenade at the advancing Martian crowd.

Marya wearing the garb of mercy...
Martian techniques enable them to look beyond the fear and ignorance behind the men’s actions and even the drunken David Dane, who tried to start a mutiny en route, begins to see the light.

Again the film scores with the wonder stuff, as Martian techniques relying on self-revelation and inner truth reveal that Avanti has fallen in love with the merciful Marya. There’s a beautifully lit Dance of Chastity which pretty much does the job for Avanti – these Martians can move.

The Dance of Chastity
Meanwhile back on Earth there is no sign of the adventurers and both Planetaros and Corona are beginning to fear for the worse. As Dubious revels in the hope of mission failure he drives Planetaros further into depression and physical decline. But Corona stands firm and defends her father … the women are starting to turn things around.

But still… the Professor is very ill and it is a long way back from the Red Planet…

“On Mars, everything is pure and innocent but on Earth…”
A Trip to Mars is a vision of a peaceful, pastoral future that is more about religious faith and eternal truths than technology. To this extent it has a far more developed “business case” than most modern science fiction with its obsession with delivering the technology without focus on the human process gains behind it.

The acting is less Asta Nielsen and more Astral Traveller with large sweeps of intrepid arms, vexed hands held to brows and bitter fists punched in professorial futility at the heavens.

It is very earnest but then that was important at a time when the truly incredible was very much earthbound in the everyday muddy hell of Western Europe.

“Do not fear death, it is just the beginning of a superior life!”
I watched the 2006 Danish Film Institute restoration which features a sparkling new piano score from Ronen Thalmay. It’s available direct or from Edition Filmmuseum and comes with The End of the World (1916) which doesn’t sound anywhere near as optimistic.

“Go and rest under the tree of longing. If your longing for me fills your dreams, I shall be yours!”

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Bitter sweet… Wild Oranges (1924)

What was King Vidor's agenda? Raymond Durgnat and Scott Simmon make much of the director’s Christian Science background in their book King Vidor, American; his work the result of a constant struggle between the films he wanted to make and the need to produce popular product.

Wild Oranges (1924), like The Sky Pilot (1922) may well be one of those films were he smuggled in more meaning than was apparent to his paymasters at Goldwyn Pictures – something which pointed the way to more philosophical fare such as The Big Parade and, especially, The Crowd.

Frank Mayo
It tells of one man’s reaction to chance and the decisions he wrestles with in the seductive heat of South Georgia, the old South, shrouded in cloying strands of over-growth, animalistic passion and primal fears.

The music of chance...
The story begins with what now might be described as a Paul Auster moment: a scrap of newspaper is blowing innocuously across a dirt road, what’s that got to do with the price of oranges the audience asks until the horses pulling a passing trap are distracted and bolt pulling their passengers along a break-neck speed… and so it proves as the vehicle spins round a corner sending its passenger to her death on the ground.

Her husband rushes top his wife’s aid but it’s too late: she is gone… just like that leaving a hole in her husband’s heart he never expects to fill again.

Two men and a boat
Three years pass and the man, John Woolfolk (Frank Mayo) has been sailing the World with only his right hand man Paul Halvard (Ford Sterling) for company. He never feels compelled to set down roots and travels on in the hope of never meeting Love again.

On to a Georgian shoreline well off the beaten track and with a tricky approach over fast moving shallow waters: the perfect place to get lost and the perfect place to run aground…

So far so sad but what awaits is something else… An old man (Nigel De Brulier), looks on in rising panic, a victim of congenital anxiety but still shell-shocked by the civil war fought two generations before.

The locals spy the unwanted visitors
A disheveled giant of  a man, Iscah Nicholas (Charles A. Post) also regards the boat in the harbour with fear – his mind even more clouded than the old man’s and with a darker secret that gives him more rational basis for concern.

From the boat, John spies a woman swimming and it turns out not to be Delores del Rio taking an early dip but Virginia Valli… John looks on through binoculars and no doubt reminds himself of his vow to keep on moving.

Vidor was an advocate of the filming of wild swimming
But the boat needs water and John ventures to land where he is captivated by the scent of oleanders and orange blossoms. He walks through the fruit trees encroaching all-round the once grand old house and stops to try some of the fruit… “Wild oranges – at first surprisingly bitter, but after a moment pungent and zestful with a never-to-be-forgotten flavour.”

He meets Millie (Virginia Valli) – the old man of the house’s granddaughter – who whilst she has inherited his timidity still has a clear and open mind: she can grow beyond the confines of the twisted plantation perhaps.

She and John talk and she reveals that she’s never left their land even though she’s read of the wider world… there’s a spark between the two and one that unsettles both John and the watching Iscah.

The next morning Iscah plays a mean game with Millie carrying her to the swamp where he perches her on a tree stump surrounded by alligators: he won’t release her until she agrees to a kiss. His only hold on her is through fear and the physical dominance he exerts.

Insert snappy caption here
But there are challenges to come as after chasing Paul away from collecting water with a knife, John returns to lay down the law: “don’t get me started… “ repeats Iscah to which John invites him to “start anytime he likes…” Iscah is finally meeting his match and he doesn’t know what to do.

Meanwhile Millie is lured by the promise of John’s boat and rows out for a trip which both thrills and then unnerves her… something had tied her to this land and she won’t easily be cut free.

Free all at sea
Things get darker on their return as her fears over Iscah are realised when he rushes at John with his knife… Millie throws her hands up expecting the worst only for John to easily disarm the younger, bigger but untrained man: he kicks his bottom (as I believe the American parlance has it?) as he throws the knife in the water.

But things are coming to a head and it’s not just Iscah who is losing his; John is getting too close to Millie and needs to make his escape. He cannot be unfaithful to the memory of his wife and he fears for the unlimited pain that the commitment of love can bring…

He points the yacht out to sea and looks to be on his way but as he steers in the dark he has visions of Millie; their potential happiness calling him back…

Meanwhile life is getting a whole lot more uncomfortable for Millie as Iscah proposes in his terrifying way and she only narrowly escapes his assault by blockading herself in her room… All is set for a mighty conflagration and, without giving anything away, Vidor sets up one of the most exhausting and convincing fights to the death you’ll see in silent film… it’s desperate stuff as every man, woman and dog are taken to the limits.

"Don't get me started..." "You can start anytime..."
Wild Oranges is in many ways a simple film but it benefits from this focus: five actors, a dog and two crocodiles… the confines of the boat, the decaying house and the physical constraints of the over-bearing local air, suffused with a musky fragrance that must affect the senses every bit as much as the heat.

John W. Boyle’s cinematography helps to capture this feel whilst Vidor and his editors keep the action at Southern Gothic pace – I was reminded of Mary Pickford’s superb Sparrows from 1926 which is a better film but who knows, Miss P may have seen this one?

I watched the Warner Archives DVD which comes with a splendid new score from Vivek Maddala which moves well with the storyline without overwhelming it as orchestral updates can sometimes do. Maddala’s pacing is bang on and really does catch the southern climes, the eerie warmth of the breeze and the fragrance of those bitter-sweet wild oranges.

The disc is available direct from the WB Shop or from Amazon.  

Thursday, 17 September 2015

A message from… Michel Strogoff (1926) with John Sweeney, British Silent Film Festival

The closing film on Day Two of the British Silent Film Festival and some of us were starting to flag and – in my case – were staring down the barrel of a lat-night return South down the M1… but, cometh the hour, cometh the film with its extraordinary star and cometh too the unfailing hands of Iron John Sweeney.

Michel Strogoff is one of the most famous products of the Russian ex-patriot community in French cinema and it is surprisingly hard to find making tonight’s screening a must-see or rather a Moz-see.

The Tartars
It is a film of scale and splendour which is lifted above the norm by extended sequences in Pathecolor – stencilled highlights over the dancers’ dresses in the ballroom sequence in the Tsar’s palace and then another truly stunning sequence as the Tartar forces mass at camp for the brutal entertainment of Allah’s judgement… it’s as if you are there; you can almost smell the burning flesh…

Director Viktor Tourjansky filmed across Europe from the palaces of France, the snows of Norway and down to Latvia where 6000 extras helped create the battles scenes and the Tartar camp. He took full advantage of the budgetary freedom allowed by the new affiliation  of Cine-France-Film with the German-led West production company.  The result was one of the few films of the period that really could truly match Hollywood scale.

Another was being filmed at the same time in the Billancourt studios and once Tourjansky had completed his effort he helped with Gance’s filming of Napoleon’s Toulon battle.

Their massed cavalry charge their horses across battle fields blurred by the speed of advance as quick cuts are made to pick up the human aspects of the slaughter; as with Napoleon this is not a film you can take likely, it’s at you from start to finish propelled by the unique intensity of its lead.

Ivan Mosjoukine
Jules Verne’s original story sounds true to his form: a time-limited chase featuring one man’s attempt to deliver a message from his Tsar to Irkutsk a city cut off by the Tartar advance. The telegraphs have all been cut and Michel must travel incognito using trains and boats across the plains making friends and beating enemies along the way. The story turns on an unlikely (but just possible) physiological event but the Russian’s present this moment as high drama and the improbable becomes powerfully cinematic.

Surrounded by the Tartars
 The story had an unique appeal for many of the crew who had seen their mother country overrun by a group with an incomprehensible agenda – to them at least. The fact that the Tartars had not enjoyed any kind of substantial military success against the Tsars for centuries is almost beside the point… the story needed an internal threat to show the benevolence of the Tsarist regime; a culture of honour and natural comradeship founded on respect for the Nation and its God-given monarch (I don’t recall Alexander II being especially benevolent…).

Acho Chakatouny
But let’s not let politics get in the way of a rollicking adventure especially one so rich in characters: the traitor Ivan Ogareff (Acho Chakatouny) is given to villainous excess it’s true but is also a very human hate-figure - Chakatouny plays his hero as a man wronged by his state who has the abilities but not the loyalty of a hero.

Nathalie Kovanko
 Love-interest Nadia Fedor (Nathalie Kovanko) is no mere adornment and it is only through her help that Michel has any chance of prevailing; she’s smart, quick to action and as determined as the men. Strogoff’s mother Maria (of course…) is similarly empowered and Jeanne Brindeau plays her with nobility and intelligence: what a pairing she and her son make – unyielding and bound by a love as strong as national pride.

Jeanne Brindeau
Marie-Louise Vois is also super as Zaugara the Tartar Mata Hari and Ogareff’s left-hand woman she can dance, dance and be a villain too… Other amusing stereotypes are available in the form of Daily Telegraph writer Harry Blount (Henri Debain) – a whiskery notepad scribbler for the status quo (they haven’t changed much have they?) and his French counterpart Alcide Jolivet (Gabriel de Gravone).

Vladimir Gajdarov makes Tzar Alexandre is far more likeable than I expected him to be whilst Boris de Fast Tartar leader Féofar-Khan is a superb creation of make-up encrusted malevolence: his evil runs so deep he seems almost serene and yet it's only ever a micro-second from boiling to the surface as he selects random vengeance from God.

Boris de Fast
Micolas Kougoucheff also features as General Kissoff who I just had to mention... no sign of Generals Sodoff or Clearoff though.

But, it’s all about Ivan who portrays a model of disciplined heroism with a twinkle in his eye that not only speaks of his wit but also his weakness. His Strogoff is not someone who can go about his triumphs in a way that makes them seem inevitable he gets stuck in even when he seems to be losing and, indeed, to have lost. What’s more, his victories are not achieved without the help of others…

 He fights off dozens of attackers on a ferry only to be struck down into the water where he makes it to shore and is saved by the kindness of an old man. In his delirium he sees himself in neo-classical torment – barely clothed and assailed by all kinds of monsters only to be saved by the two women in his life. Later he’ll look just like St Sebastian in seeming defeat to the Tartans…

Strogoff is knocked down more times than Rocky by Apollo Creed yet still gets up for one final fight with his nemesis Ogareff which is so much more than a standard silent scrap, the two push each other all over the screen and you’re not sure who the winner is until the very last as one after the other staggers out seemingly in victory…

Sightless in the snow
If we felt slightly exhausted watching all of this, spare a though for tonight’s pianist. Mr Sweeney set about his work with Mousjoukine-levels of energy and invention. His playing was impressively full-blooded and certainly contained doses of Russian that I wasn’t quite able to identify. This melodic engagement with the film must be very hard to maintain and yet he was still as fresh after the three hours: that my friends is the business of show and, indeed, entertainment! Salute Comrade Sweeney!

For such a major work – flawed but sprawlingly-brilliant – it is surprising that this reconstruction (from 2007?) is not available on DVD along with the Albatross output from many of the contributors. All we have is a VHS transfer that collectors swap amongst themselves, passed from hand-to-hand in the darker corners of bars from Omsk to Ormskirk and Irkutsk to Ipswich…

Come on, The Man, there’s money to be made in these digital disc sales!?

Sound and vision
 I drove back down the darkened motorway coffee and calories at the ready but uplifted by the show – I’d left the party halfway through but happy with all I’d seen – yes, even you, Three Live Ghosts with your soviet ret-con nonsense. Next year all four days!