Wednesday, 27 July 2016

I spy Asta… S1 (1913)

“The happiness of the country, It is the happiness of all.”

Thanks to those wondrous folks at the European Film Gateway, we are able to view one of The Asta Nielsen Series of films made in Germany by Asta and her director husband Urban Gad; this one from the third annual series, one of seven made in 1913/14 and released just after Die Suffragette (1913).

“The famous Danish actress… enjoys unchallenged popularity. Her acting, the vivid expression of her gestures, have earned her the honorary title of a ‘Duse* of cinematic art’…” raved Union-Theater-Zeitung about this “fully acclimated Berliner” in 1912. It’s easy to see why she was a sensation in the World’s third largest cinema market.

Asta Nielsen
The story is slight and lacking in dramatic pace but Asta’s acting overcomes it all in a series of virtual tableaux in which she shows her mastery of delicate, natural expression. Asta goofs around with her girlfriends, cigarette in mouth as she messes up daddy’s secret papers, exchanges secret glances with her beau and messes around on the beach just like you or I. There had probably never been a beach frolic quite like it up to this point – Asta’s dressed in practical light clothing anyway and rolls her bloomers up to allow most of her legs to paddle – we never saw that much of Lilian’s limbs of Pickford’s pins.

Out on a limb
In every scene Asta’s thinking and moving as if the entire exercise was just to enable her expression.  This film has just about the least happening of any film I’ve seen her in from 1910-1913 but she fills the gaps in dramatic tension with emotional improvisations.

Asta Nielsen is an extraordinary figure and in more ways than one… and no, there’s not a hint of Sid James in that observation. Asta confounded even future director Carl Theodore Dreyer with her willowy frame and slight physique, writing under the pseudonym Tommen in a 1913 review he decried her “…terribly unfortunate features. She is lanky … flat-chested and with no calves to speak of. But what does Asta Nielsen-Gad do? She is determined… to reveal her scrawniness.”  Young Carl’s protests to one side, Asta’s form found considerable favour in Denmark and beyond: something new.

The new look
Asta was the precursor of slimmer, smarter, leading ladies who would not only act well but lead their audience towards a future less-constrained by smothering fashion and manners. What we see in 1913 is a flaming youth and an “it” girl far from lost even after the box is flung open.

As Karl Bleibtreu, amongst the first film reviewers in the German speaking countries noted: “In every moment The Nielsen is the life, the nature, in every of her aspects she is real truth.” He thought she was better than Elenora Duse too… and he didn’t think her “scrawny” at least, I shouldn’t expect so.

At the airfield
Asta plays Gertrud von Hessendorf, daughter of General Hessendorf (Siegwart Gruder) who is charged with procuring new aircraft for the military. The two travel to Copenhagen to take a test flight in a giant airship – thrillingly, Asta is in the air for a few seconds although she is soon climbing out of the ship…

Military invention is at a delicate point and following a major crash, the country is badly in the need of the confidence boost that a new, indefatigable airship could bring: cue the S1 a ship so advanced enemies will quake and, of course, do anything they can to stop it.

This is where the handsome Graf Baldini (Charly Berger) comes in – a man who has already left his mark on the General’s daughter; he is also a spy for a foreign power charged with stealing the designs for the revolutionary new plane.

With Baldini
Instead of furtive looks and skulking shadows, Gad, focuses on the relationship between the two which gives his real-life wife ample opportunity to pull the viewer into what will become her conflicted world. She enjoys the frisson of her illicit relationship sneaking small affections during public functions and, most emphatically, enjoying the most liberated of seaside runs as she and the Count break free from a society picnic and just let rip splashing in the shallows and leaving the watcher in no doubt that their affection is real and very true.

But this cannot last and Gertrude’s loyalties will be tested to the limits once her love’s true nature is revealed: we she be loyal to father and state or will love guide her heart in frightening, new directions?

For the greater good?
The camerawork from Herr Karl Freund and Emil Schünemann is superb even whilst Gad’s direction is a little on the static side: he prefers to let his actors do the talking and there’s a lot of 1913-style pantomime within the static frame.

But Asta is never static and is in the constant flow of showing us who her character is and what she wants.

The film can be viewed on the European Gateway if you follow this link – there’s no sound but if you watch carefully you can hear the chamber players at the elegant parties, the dramatic tension of the aerial scenes and the sweep and descend as Gertrude’s heart almost splits in two…

Quotes lifted from the fascinating deep dive into Asta's break-out years that is Importing Asta Nielsen, KINtop 2 (KINtop Studies in Early Cinema). Available still from Amazon.

Men making plans
Gertrude, fag in mouth, and the girls
Freedom of movement
Partie de campagne
Der Asta

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Once more… Around China with a Movie Camera (2015) with Ruth Chan Ensemble live at the BFI

A quick return to China with an opportunity to hear Ruth Chan’s score live and to see how everything works: matching tones to instruments and players to parts.

No matter how big your home cinema, you can’t really beat seeing this film projected onto a cinema screen to better feel the press outside the Forbidden City, see the full sweep of the Great Wall or marvel at the ambition and grandeur of Shanghai’s Bund. You see a lot more of the Cormorant fishing too: pity the poor terrapin that gets plucked out first.

Presented in association with the Chinese Visual Festival and as part of the BFI’s ongoing sonic cinema strand, Around China was introduced by Edward Anderson who had co-edited the film with Douglas Weir. The project had enabled the BFI to digitise over 100 non-fiction films made in pre-communist China: 20 hours of film covering 50 years and thousands of miles.

 Hangzhou’s Gong Chen Bridge (1925)
The result is a compilation of mostly alien views from British, French and other colonial nationalities: not so much a historically-balanced view of the times but a Euro-centric take on China’s most note-worthy points. So it is that we get nothing on the Sino-Japanese War, the Long March or the Boxer Rebellion but plenty on day-to-day life, religious buildings and the comfortable reminders that “It looks just like home (because we made it so…)”. In spite of this Colonists’ Gaze, the film continually impresses that China cannot be framed by the generic formalities of economic and political empire: it is just too vibrant and simply too big.

Tonight it was also the music’s turn to assume greater prominence as the live performance moved it literally to the forefront … well, being precise, to the left and right in NFT 3’s constrained space. Seeing a score played is always fascinating as you not only understand more technically but also connect more with the players on an instinctive emotional level: they don’t just express through instruments.

Beijing (1910
Ruth Chan played keyboards including pre-recorded drum and bass along with found sounds and other electronica. Wang Xiao played the two-stringed erhu – a kind of violin which shares that instrument’s plaintive capabilities: wonderfully expressive. Then Dennis lee played xiao and dizi – vertical and horizontal Chinese flutes that added a traditional, everyday flavour and some lovely clear lines.

Mengmeng Wu played on guzheng, a type of zither that sent shivers down the spine and conveyed so much of the sound of place whilst Maurizio Pala’s accordion added some western flavours – a combination that reflected the cultural mix on screen. Ms Chan says in her notes to the DVD that she wanted her music to help make the images more relevant to modern audience and therefore opted for “a marriage of Chinese classical and Western contemporary music”.

A balanced view at Qianmen Gate, Beijing (1939
She likened the composition to having to prepare 30 songs so even though the end result is crammed into just over an hour we got our money’s worth of musical invention. But she also more than achieved one of her key aims of humanising this old film and helping us reconnect with, in many cases, a world we never knew existed… the past is a familiar place in any language.

The oldest film, known as Chinese Men from 1900 – or thereabouts – was found amongst the rediscovered Mitchell and Kenyon films in a Blackburn basement in 1995. It’s the only one off those films to have been shot on a Lumiere camera but not by M & K possibly the Conservative MP, Ernest FG Hatch. But, summing up all that had gone before, it’s truth is hidden in the watching: a shadowy world of the long disappeared.

Smokers in Yunnan province (1902)
The DVD is now available from the BFI Shop and is excellent value. Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream with or without the chemical aid of the Miao opium smokers, and let Ruth Chan’s music immerse you in a very modern reconnection.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Around China with a Movie Camera: a Journey from Beijing to Shanghai (1900-1948) on DVD

Silent travels broaden the mind: glimpses of lives and lifestyles long vanished mingle with lost streets and houses as rivers flow through alien landscapes with impossible, colossal, buildings, a mass of ships and strange boats forming temporary land mass on teeming water… The lost art of cormorant fishing…

Around China with a Movie Camera is a lovingly-edited compilation of newsreel, documentaries and home movies mostly from the silent era. It takes the form of a journey from Beijing to Shanghai via the Great Wall, the Grand Canal and the Yangtze River. It is a magical double-whammy combining history in film and film as history.

Beijing in 1910
We begin in Beijing in 1910 with a single, tinted roll of film from the end of the Qing dynasty shot by an unknown British cameraman touring China on behalf of producer Charles Urban. The faces and the streets…

Then home movie footage of a bustling market in the Dongsi district of east Beijing from 1925, the walls of the Forbidden City shot by Reginald Stanley Clay in 1933 and the Qianmen gate in Liulichang district from Sidney Howard Hansford in 1939 - the British are present along most of the journey. Back to 1933 for a home movie from Mrs SK Eng, showing Beihai Park and the Temple of Heaven - part of the only known film shot by a Chinese-British family at this time.

The Temple of Heaven in 1933
The footage may quote from many diverse sources but there’s a geographical and textual coherence aided by a smartly-eclectic score from Ruth Chan who uses a mix of traditional and contemporary, Eastern and Western tones and musicians. In her essay on the music Ms Chan reveals that the project gave her a chance to reconnect with her cultural backstory and the score is intimate and sympathetic, sparked by an emotional re-connection with a world her family left behind a generation ago.

We see and hear the grandeur and romance of The Great Wall as shown by precious footage from a honeymooning couple in 1928… It is a dirty great wall and the sight of the Brits looking out on this uncanny structure resonates – this culture is so ancient and its mark is visible even from the great heights of the British Empire.

Hard to overlook
Back to 1910 and a Pathe newsreel showing the camels at work around the Great Wall and local workers enjoying lunch al fresco: street food is a feature throughout and this film really should be accompanied by vouchers for Gerrard Street.

Now onto the Grand Canal in 1908 and a 1000-year-old waterway that stretches the 1775 kilometres between Beijing and Hangzhou – more astounding engineering from a time - the oldest sections are Fifth Century - when Britons still lived in wattle and daub.

Birds on a boat
Suzhou in 1920 is where the lost art of cormorant fishing is revealed… This is exactly as you’d imagine, birds tied to a boat, all trained to release their catch rather than swallow it – aided by well-aimed prods from fishermen’s sticks. It doesn’t look very efficient even though the turtles and fish keep on coming. But when did the birds get to eat?

At the end of the Grand Canal Hangzhou’s Gong Chen Bridge is revealed in glorious Pathecolor – a system that mechanically stencilled dyes onto film to create the effect of true colour.  This section is just lovely but I am a sucker for stencil!

Gong Chen Bridge
We go with the flow to the Yangtze River filmed in 1930 by John Cuthbert Wigham whilst on a Quaker mission and then to Chongqing at the confluence of the Yangtze and Jialing rivers filmed by British Screen Tatler, a cine-magazine for the open-minded colonialist of 1928.

To the remote Yunnan province for a glimpse of the lives of the Miao people in a film made for the Methodist Missionary Society in 1948 and then back to 1902 to see Miao training as soldiers, smoking opium – love the wonky music Ms Chan! - and performing an opera all filmed by French consul Auguste Francois. The Miao are now one of 55 offically recognised minorities in China a bewildering range of culture and tradition.

Guangzhou in 1920
Back to city life, with footage of Guangzhou which has a huge riverfront not unlike the Bund in Shanghai… a woman works on the boats her baby strapped to her back: no maternity rights in 1920.

Hong Kong is shown in a 1927 propaganda film from British Instructional Films, A Gate of China – it looks so different from the other cities and the presence of a church confirms the western dominance even as the cultural mix is revealed by street theatre and a dragon boat race in Aberdeen Harbour.

There are more colonial flavours in Shanghai, even in 1933 a colossus… and back in 1900 on the cosmopolitan Nanjing Road within the International Settlement where there are European women on bikes, German soldiers and the famous Sikh police. On to 1927 and footage showing the Shanghai Defence Force arriving in the days before the massacre of 12th April… newsreel from the 7th April shows mounting panic in the days before Chiang Kai-shek declared martial law…

Germans soldiers and Sikh police share the Nanjing Road in 1902
By 1929 in newsreel from Topical Budget Shanghai sees the Great World Amusement Park – “Shanghai’s Coney Island” and probably Blackpool as well.

1936 films from Lady Dorothea Hosie of the Shanghai-Life… then 1937’s The Face of Shanghai shows the famous buildings of the Bund and a trip to the races… it could almost be Newmarket or Ascot.

A day at the races
The film concludes with what might well be the oldest surviving film to be shot in China which has remained unseen for over 115 years… a candid window on a world I’d scarcely knew existed but then, for me,  this whole picture is a magical mystery tour.

The digital media is available on Monday 18th July from the BFI Shop – it’s another immersive compilation of early cinematic wonders that leaves you wanting to watch more of the source materials.

The BFI are screening the picture with live accompaniment on Thursday 21st July – tickets available on the BFI site. A splendid time is guaranteed for all!

There is more about Ruth Chan's music on her website

Saturday, 9 July 2016

All the world’s a screen… Play On! Shakespeare in Silent Film on DVD/Blu-ray

“We’re not creating Elizabethan music, we’re not creating early twentieth century music… we’re doing something for us to enjoy these incredible films right now…“ Stephen Warbeck, composer

When I wrote about the debut of the Play On! Back in April, the focus was very much on the exhilarating live performance from the Globe Theatre musicians as much as the subject matter. The films whisked by and just as you were spotting the plays you’d move onto the next one: impressions of Shakespeare all featuring the buzz of silent invention as the medium of cinema was rapid-prototyped over its first three decades.

Now the BFI have released the piece on home cinema – DVD and Blu-ray – there’s more time to study the source material and, in addition to discrete titles identifying each clip, there’s a handsome booklet that lists each film used and their players: it is fascinating stuff and so very compelling for silent buffs like me who just have to know, you know.

Pina Fabbri and V Cocchi in The Winters Tale (1913)
In an introduction to the film from the BFI’s Bryony Dixon and Professor Judith Buchanan explain the origins of Shakespeare in silence and its rapid development as film-makers began to present the stories in ways only cinema could allow: special effects, lavish costumers and stencil colouring, grand sets, casts of thousands and locations including Venice for The Merchant.

From early films, limited to less than a few minutes and which showed just key moments from the plays, productions became more ambitious as the 1900s moved on and by the post-war era we have Asta Nielsen’s gender-bent Hamlet which not only attempts the entire narrative it also adds a twist or two.

Performance style developed also and from those first precious glimpses of Beerbohm-Tree's performing King John in Victorian theatrical style, through screen-skilled pantomime of the 1900s to a fascinating Shylock from Matheson Lang in 1916 to the naturalism of Nielsen (who, in fairness, played a huge part in these developments from 1910’s Afgrunden onwards) and the screen acting intensity of Emil Jannings whose Othello leers out of the screen with the force of his anger and betrayal.

Herr Jannings
Play On’s five acts are based on these developing trends and whilst they make a more cohesive statement in the context of the disc’s extras, they are also an opportunity for some wonderful music and it is the music which makes everything gel – no mean feat considering the changes in visual tempo across the twenty films.

In another visual extra, the Globe musicians are seen recording the works in the candle-lit Sam Wannamaker Theatre – the Globe’s covered playhouse – and it would have been interesting to see them play the whole pieces in that context. This band of multi-instrumentalists – and they are a band – run the gamut from pastoral to industrial with one section seeing them hitting metal with hammers as Mark Anthony appeals to the populace after Caesar’s assassination: Einstürzende Neubauten meets Warwickshire poetry in Rome.

Julius Caesar (1908)
This was a challenge in variable tonality but one the composers and musicians were more than prepared for.  As Bill Barclay, the Globe’s director of music says the score reflects “…the unique theatre music know-how that the Globe engenders in all its live energy and variety.” His composers, Jules Maxwell, Olly Fox, Alex Baranowski, Sophie Cotton and Stephen Warbeck all came experienced in the art of emotional engagement “in-the moment” as audiences normally hear the music only once – much like their silent counterparts – but also with an intuitive approach to telling richly-detailed stories with “sound and surprise”.

Sarah Homer and Jon Banks
All of which depends on the abilities of this very talented band of players to express and there’s so much experience in the dextrous hands of the band: Jon Banks plays accordion, santouri, harp and tuba, Sarah Homer plays flutes, piccolos, recorders, clarinet and bass clarinet, Harry Napier on cello, tenor horn and dilruba and Dario-Rossetti-Bonell on guitar, mandolin and oud. Stephen Bentley-Klein combines violin, trumpet and flugelhorn whilst Rob Millett plays vibraphone, percussion and cimbalom.

All are very adapt in the art of hammers on steel as even Sarah demonstrates in the aforementioned section: for a flautist she strike very hard! But they’re all jacks and masters of these instruments – a team: a band!

The band play on in  the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse
I watched the DVD twice – once just to enjoy the sights and sounds and again to dig deeper into the source material. Sandwiched between a Prologue and an Epilogue are five acts…

Act I Artifice – deals with the camera-trickery that allowed a clear demarcation between the cinema and the stage. Here we see Puck (Gladys Hulette) take off and fly around the Globe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909) that looks joyful and intriguing – the full 12 minutes is included in the extras. Characters appear and disappear and poor Bottom (William V Ranous) gains the head of an ass in the blink of an eye.

Prospero releases the fairy sprite Ariel from a tree in a 1908 Tempest whilst in Julius Caesar, Calpurnia has disturbing dreams about the Ides of March. You get two ghosts for Hamlet’s father from 1908 and 1913 before Richard of York dreams his own demise in a 1911 UK version.

Gladys Hulette about to take off in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1909)
Act II Spectacle – there’s only so much room on a stage and on film the canvas quickly widened to include real locations and casts of thousands. A shadowed figure carries a scythe across a field filmed from a low camera-angle in a 1913 Italian version of A Winter’s Tale which was 43 minutes long. Another Italian production was Il Merchante di Venezia (1910) filmed not only in Venice but in sumptuous stencilled colour.

Il Merchante di Venezia (1910)
We’re back in Venice for a UK take in 1916 which features what looks like a superb portrayal of Shylock by Matheson Lang. But even earlier films had grandiose ideas with the 1908 Tempest having a brilliant sequence with actors on stage in the foreground with the shot of ship floating on an actual sea in the background.

But the films were getting bigger and more ambitious culminating in some huge set pieces: Caesar’s triumphant march through Rome, Cleopatra’s royal barge arriving centre-stage to carry her off in glory and a cast of thousands in the weary spread post-battle as the old king is carried wounded down a hill in Asta’s Hamlet (1920).

Set, sea and ship in The Tempest (1908)
Act II Dramatis Personae – focuses on the major players in the canon and no matter when the films were made, we recognise so many old faces.

Other rarer plays get “quoted” including Cardinal Wolsey (1912) – admittedly of disputed authorship – which sees a naughty Henry (Tefft Johnson) eyeing up the latest arrival at his court as she gets dressed in her boudoir – it’s Clara Kimball Young as Anne Boleyn: an early foretaste of Syd and Babs! There’s more star-spotting with a young Francesca Bertini playing a colourised Cordelia in Re Lear (1910) another included in full in the extras.

Tefft Johnson eyes up Clara Kimball Young in Cardinal Wolsey (1912)
Sometimes the clips are unfamiliar or fragmentary but the music holds firm and brings a cohesion and consistency of emotional engagement in spite of the sweep of centuries, style and content.

Act IV Performance – this section focuses on the actors and the development from stage to screen performance.

We start with those precious seconds of Herbert Beerbohn Tree as the dying King John – this is essentially a promo film for his 1899 tour of the play and features co-star Dora Senior as Prince Henry (hope she didn’t get typecast).

Johnston Forbes-Robertson in Hamlet (1913)
The expressions move on and as close ups develop we begin to see a more naturalistic tone as demonstrated by a trio of Hamlets. The 1908 Amleto version is crude in comparison with Johnston Forbes-Robertson’s reprisal of his signature role in 1913 – he was an impressive 60 years old at the time but still spritely.

But none are more sophisticated than Der Asta and her scene welcoming the hot new student, Horatio, is a hoot as she eyes the young man up and down with barely-contained glee. Emile Jannings comes close though in Othello (1922) – larger than life he’s a dangerous weapon whose main danger is when he’s miss-directed.

Matheson Lang's Shylock broods in The Merchant of Venice (1916)
Act V Famous Scenes – all ends on a high with a run through of some of the greatest hits; as crowd-pleasing now as they ever were.

Othello blows out his candles and nurses his raging grief as Richards murders those boys one more time. The Macbeths absorb the enormity of their murderous passions and Brutus proves to Julius that he didn’t always have his best interests at heart… Lose ends are tied up at pace in a celebration of Shakespeare’s undying ability to resolve a plot.

Florence Turner left and right as Viola/Cesario in Twelfth Night (1910)
But it’s not quite over as we’re shown glimpses of “Shakespeare’s Land” – Stratford-on-Avon in eternal calm in films from 1910 through to 1940 a reminder of the connection we still feel through place to the writer of these works whether it’s in his school, his house, The Swan or The Globe.

In addition to those already mentioned the extras include the remastered seven films of Silent Shakespeare – along with King Lear (1909), The Winter’s Tale (1913) and Living Paintings – John Gielgud’s screen debut from 1924.

The DVD and Blu-Ray are released on 18th July and are available from the BFI Shop – you can pre-order here or Amazon.

As commemorations of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s leaving us goes, this one is appropriately memorable – it only makes you want to see more… so, play on!