Monday, 26 September 2016

The Big Countries…The Ghost That Never Returns (1930)/Hell’s Hinges (1916), Barbican with The Dodge Brothers

Long-time no Dodge for me and it was off to the September-sunlit steps of the brutalist Barbican for a double dose of specialist silent skiffling and much more. There’s enduring debate among silent cineastes about “correct” musical accompaniment with some opting for tradition and others favouring experimentation. I can see both sides but the key is always respect for the source material and music that works with and not over the visuals.

The Dodge Brothers provide that perfect blend and somehow the roots music of post-war(s) America played by modern musicians works well not just with Soviet psycho-drama but with one of the great templates of the Western genre. Neil Brand anchors the team as you’d expect but the Brothers Dodge are not only a very tight band they’re clearly in love with the subject matter too.

The party's started in Hell's Hinges: where's John Gilbert?
Dancing’s frowned upon ‘round these parts but it’s hard not to respond to the music in upbeat moments especially when the band starts chugging along in forceful unison as Jose Real travels by train to his day of freedom or when Blaze Tracy decides his town is going straight to Hell.

But the ensemble also plays it slow and atmospheric proving that their unique brand of Americana is remarkably flexible especially with the addition of a Theremin bassist Mark Kermode described as impossible to play and yet which he controlled with a steady hand and perfect pitch.

The Very Big Country, USSR circa 1929...
Mike Hammond leads this emotionally intelligent music, providing big guitar lines that floated carefully across the epic landscapes of both movies. Aly Hirji provided rhythm guitars, Alex Hammond percussion – including washboard! - and Mr Kermode is on bass as well as that socialist synthesiser, designed by a Russian, Léon Theremin, in 1928 to be playable by all.

Apparently it was not unusual for silent films to use local bands for accompaniment and following in that tradition the Dodge’s improvised most of the score working from title cards and not sheet music. A few contemporaneous tunes were included, again as per common practice, but the music of the moment proved the most compelling with Neil Brand’s piano sounding so at home in this context.

Boris Ferdinandov
This was the first time I’d seen The Ghost That Never Returns (Prividenie, kotoroe ne vozvrashchaetsya) and Abram Room’s direction did not disappoint those, like me who are readily impressed by the insanely-cut montage and the rabid experimentalism of Soviet silents.

The film features an impressive set showing prisoners held in cells stacked high in front of an inhumane controller. Ghosts in the machine, these men are doomed to hard labour at an unspecified South American oil field crushed by an industry serving only the greed of their grotesque and unknowable masters.

If a man survives ten years here, he is allowed a single day’s freedom on the condition that he returns… If he tries to run, he will be shot and,so far, no one has ever returned.

Jail from Hell
Jose Real (Boris Ferdinandov) is our hero and a man involved in syndicalist resistance against the grinding industrial-political axis. His day is coming and he receives a message that he is needed. At the same time Jose knows he will not survive his day-off… but he takes the chance all the same.

He catches a train – cue Dodge-overdrive – and eats a hearty lunch with a man on the train. As his wife and family get ready to greet him he sleeps through his stop and has to jump train many miles onward. He is followed by the man he met,who turns out to be the officer detailed to man mark him for the day, a strange chap, skilfully wielding a gun but also fond of wild-flowers… if only he could be liberated by socialism?

Missing his stop and his wife
In truth there are more than a few off-beat moments such as this; mad cowboys who play pool more intent on aggressive posturing than potting (“remind you of anyone?” as our Theresa May might say…). Never let it be said that a sense of humour was missing in these early years of the first Five Year Plan.

Will Jose make it back to see his wife and child? Will he escape his destiny or create a new one? The answer is probably in the strength of collective action; the dialectic moves film-makers in mysterious yet hugely entertaining ways.

Can't find my way home...
Mark Kermode said that an extra reel of the film has now been found in Germany and that this could explain more of the definitive narrative and yet… it’s a mood piece that works well in its abstracted form.

Now we headed back 14 years to California and the magnificent Hell's Hinges (1916). I’ve previously written about this film and it was a joy to see it on screen and with this live accompaniment.

Bob falls for the fallen Dolly
Directed by Charles Swickard along with an uncredited William S. Hart and Clifford Smith there is something proto-soviet about the film’s masses of people (I’m reminded Grigori Kozintsev’s King Lear with its large-scale choreography…masses of humanity trailing behind their leader, waiting for an answer) some of whom were John Gilbert and Jean Hersholt.

The town of Hell’s Hinges is in a state of constant motion as the human collateral surges from good to bad and random acts of brutality. There’s matter of fact-ness about life and death in the town emphasised by these inhuman crowds and it’s no surprise that the chances of Christian ministry surviving long are so slim.

Alfred Hollingsworth takes cover
But these two films are linked by “The Struggle” whether collectivist or Christian and, in both cases there are near impossible odds.

All that I’ve said about Hell’s Hinges still stands with knobs on and William S Hart is a force of hyper-nature: a wild man tamed by the truth-force of Clara Williams’ Faith Henley even as her feckless, faithless brother Robert (Jack Standing) fades away… Bob the Preacher: can he fix it? Can he heck…

Sleazy Silk Miller (Alfred Hollingsworth) sets him up for seduction with Dolly (Louise Glaum) and his resistance lasts about as long as it takes him to stroll form his newly-built chapel to the Saloon…

Blaze and the locals listen to Faith's faith
This ain’t gonna end well… and the resultant conflagration is a tsunami of ultra-violence rained down on this septic patch of ground by a Blaze inflamed by righteous indignation. Another failed western community destroyed in order for the survivors to move on with the (holy) spirit burning that much more brightly.

As with The Ghost… Hell's Hinges ends with The Struggle about to continue.

All the best tunes...
It also left us wanting more… Neil, Mark, Al… how about a Beggars encore next time?!

More details of the band are on their website. They have plans to release The Ghost on DVD and one hopes that their other film scores will also see the digital light of day.

Never The End...

Wednesday, 21 September 2016

Ferocious… Sid (2016), Above the Arts Theatre, London

Photograph courtesy of Roy Tan

"I got a feeling inside of me, It's kind of strange like a stormy sea…”

From the first thump of Rat Scabies’ drums and the fuzz-chunked guitar of Brian James I was always going to like this play. Anyone who kicks off their punk play with The Damned’s New Rose – the first punk single - knows their new wave history.

Reader, I was that 14-year old boy whose musical world was turned on its head when that single was played on a radio awash with metal, prog and pop-pap in 1976. It was the primal scream of a misunderstood movement that most assuredly is not dead. Even though it burned out… it never faded away.

It was a badge of honour at a time when badges and t-shirts meant everything as a means of differentiating yourself from the norm: a pass to untouchable class when you just don’t want to play the game you know you’re going to lose.

So it is with Leon Fleming’s one-man play about a lad whose best mate died on 2nd February 1979.

Dario Coates photograph by Roy Tan
Craig (an amazing Dario Coates who means it man!) lives at home with his mum and in denial as the World and more specifically, his girlfriend, begin to pass him by. He’s in a rage and finds his frequencies perfectly matched by the three chord thrash of classic punk – everyone from the Dead Kennedys and the Slits through to ska but especially the Sex Pistols and their second bassist, Mr Vicious.

Sid it is who truly embodied the spirit of the time especially as, unlike Johnny Rotten, he had wayward intent enough to die decades before the lure of celebrity culture could dilute his brand equity.

Craig wants to feel Sid’s spirit – he wants it to inhabit him, not in a sexual way – he’s quite particular on that point – but in an empowering way.

Sid’s way, involved drugs, probable murder and a life inelegantly wasted: in comparison with him Craig is very much alive and unlike Sid he has avoided the pitfalls of an American girlfriend like Nancy Spungen, the punk Delilah.

Dario Coates, pic from Darren Elson

Craig’s girl is safely Welsh… and yet no less a source of concern as she moves away from Craig’s cosey world to a university beyond her boyfriend’s academic attainment. Craig goes to visit and humiliated by an overdose of posh Dan's and Tom’s throwing around philosopher’s names “like so much confetti”... cuts himself like Sid in an effort to show his worth.

As Craig reaches crisis point we find out what really drives his interest and the mundane reality of his personality crisis. He may be abandoned by those he loves but he’s not without a home and a mother who understands more than he gives her credit…

It’s hard to understate the bravery of Dario Coates’ performance as he stares down the audience – do you feel lucky punk? – and pulls our attention for intimate exchanges covering the diverse territory of his sexual prowess (he doth protest far too much), the crapiness of Britpop (no argument) and Green Day’s slender claims to be punk. Ironically, the Berkley plastic-punksters have a musical playing downstairs at the Arts Theatre…

Craig reminded me of the kid at school who’d champion Northern Soul – you can’t touch me ‘cos I have this pure and different musical taste – even though he’d probably never been to Wigan. But Coates’ creation is all too vulnerable in his projections of rage – you can see it in his eyes. The kid also has timing to die for and in addition to picking his verbal fights wisely he raised more than a few rueful laughs from an audience ranged from his hated ex-hippies (you know who you are) to those, like me, who just missed out through being too young.

Dario Coates, pic from Darren Elson
By the time I was re-christened Dai O’Reah, guitarist in the virtual band, The Runz (I’m sorry but we were so obnoxiously young...) the boat had sailed and the lesser Pistols where pratting around on a Brazilian beach making records with a great train robber. The form degenerated into power pop, Oi and Sham 69 (sorry Jimmy) as well evolving as the new creative highs of new wave. I was there then, in Liverpool's famous Eric's club for Magazine, John Cooper Clarke, The B52s and even Ed Banger and his Nosebleeds!

Scott le Crass directs with crisp assurance and has brought the best out of his spunky young lead. For all shades of punks: weekenders, old and new alike, Sid is recommended viewing to remind us all that we need to find our self-respect from somewhere when left to our own devices in a world that cares more and more for low-content conformity. Look on Sid Vicious as Craig’s guardian angel… what could possibly go wrong?

Things played out to the Pistols’ Pretty Vacant… we weren't, being that little bit more on our mettle than when we sat down but, either way, remember: we don’t care!

Sid runs from September 19th 2016 – October 8th 2016 at the Above the Arts Theatre in London. You can buy tickets here and follow him on Facebook too.

Arthur's Theatre Rating: *****

Hey Ho, Let’s Go!

The Damned - New Rose

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

For pity's sake… The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928), Globe Theatre, Utley and Gregory Ensemble

Cinema under the stars, as a gig, as a “play” watched from the groundling point of view in Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre: you can watch Carl Theodor Dreyer’s masterpiece in silence at home and be affected but here the emotional content was flavoured with new atmosphere. I am drained, strangely enriched and I really hate what the English did to Joan.

A few months back the Globe musicians had played on to silent Shakespeare at the BFI and tonight’s screening on the Globe stage was something of a return match. Purists all round were at risk of being offended: cinema on this stage, amplified music and a film whose director asked to be watched in silence accompanied not just by music grounded in rock and trip hop but by non-specialists.

Utley, Gregory and Hazelwood at the Globe
For me it works sublimely well – I left my socks on the floor of the Globe. This is now the third time I’ve seen the Utley and Gregory Joan, first at the Royal Festival Hall and second at an All Tomorrow’s Parties festival at Alexandra Palace where it happily rubbed shoulders with Portishead (Adrian’s day job), Swans, Nick Cave, Alan Moore and Godspeed You! Black Emperor, the Canadian “post-rock” ensemble whose massed guitar and violin meditations remind me of sections of tonight’s score.

Utley and Gregory deploy a broader sonic template than GYBE with not just those guitars but a brass section, synthesisers and, crucially, the Monteverdi Choir – ably marshalled by Charles Hazelwood, the drinking woman’s Gareth Malone (I should imagine…).  The sound was perfectly balanced and those voices soared up through the Globe’s open-top unerringly following Renée Jeanne Falconetti’s heaven-ward gaze.

Antonin Artaud and Renée Jeanne Falconetti (aka Renée Maria Falconetti)
It’s interesting that Dreyer was invited to make a film by the Société Générale des Films and chose Joan just as Gance had chosen Napoleon just before: nationalism was on the rise in the turbulent inter-war years and yet, whilst both films examine the philosophical construction and definition of France, Dreyer was more interested in the theological issues centred on this most remarkable teenager from Domrémy.

Since I last saw this film I have been to both Rouen where Joan was tried and burned and to Orleans, the scene of her greatest victory and where you can still walk around a house she stayed in… Almost 600 years after her death, Joan exerts a huge pull on the imagination: how could someone from such humble beginnings play such a role in history: how could her words, as reproduced in the film from transcripts of her trial, be so poised?

Acute angles and no make-up to accentuate Joan's fears
Even allowing for inevitable historical and contemporary distortion, the text shows Joan to have incredible native intelligence. The film is based on a true “story” but actually takes great care only focusing on known facts and the words as transcribed. Carl Theodor Dreyer spent long months studying Joan and those transcripts ending up with a deceptively minimalist story that packs one of the mightiest punches in cinematic history.

Rudolph Maté’s camera sweeps around the court room focusing on faces from acute angles showing snatches of emotion from the conflicted priests trying Joan for heresy. Silent film rarely had faces as fascinating as this bunch as Dreyer cast for grotesque reality with no make-up allowed to distract from the unforgiving lens nor the gaze of an audience passing their own judgement on these traitors of France and their own faith.

But the camera always looks straight on at Falconetti who is beyond mesmerising but not our sympathy: you cannot watch a human being undergo such raw emotion without wanting to cry yourself… Here is a young woman in a rapture of innocent belief and, as fellow cinemutophile Amanda R pointed out, this could be a very contemporary story: someone condemned for the inconvenience of their faith.

Joan of Arc was always intended to lose the trial and the English and their Burgundian allies fixed the process to ensure her defeat and yet she still emerges in triumph as a martyr rewarded with death’s release and inspiring her countrymen to continue their fight.

By focusing on the minutiae Dreyer humanises this history in a way that few others ever match: we are inside Joan’s desperation, her tear-filled eyes darting from face to face hoping for something more than a false friend but never losing her trust in divine support.

In the end she does affect those around her, chiefly Jean Massieu, the Dean of Rouen (Antonin Artaud) and maybe even Canon Nicolas Loyseleur (Maurice Schutz) who tries to trick her into believing her royal protector, Charles VII, wants her to accept guilt. Both actors are superb but no one stands against Falconetti’s endless well of open despair and her uncanny ability to express depth of belief in the face of fear and humiliation.

The images and tone are simple and consistently powerful and yet all could be unbalanced by the two dozen musicians on stage. But even the squalling of Portishead-ian guitar cannot overwhelm Dreyer’s passion and Mr Hazelwood kept excellent order throughout.

As the last notes of the choir escaped into the metropolitan sky the audience paused just that little bit too long before enthusiastic applause broke out around the Globe: we were all a little stunned, heads full of images and sounds that will stay with us for days. Hold onto what you believe and please… be kind. Be true.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Love and disorder.... The Mating Call (1928), Bioscope with Costas Fotopoulos

Oh Evelyn, you’re incorrigible, Renée, you’re adorable and Thomas, my Meighan, you’re faultless as well: what a good cast and what an interesting film The Mating Call proves to be. There’s proto-screwball, with Brent providing the template for Lombard and Hepburn to follow, shocking skinny dipping (really) and a KKK-type body known as The Order who dispense local justice for local people with all the due diligence of the Kray Twins.

James Cruze directed and some fella name of Howard Hughes produced a film that was as brave in its subject matter as his previous film with Meighan, The Racket, which dealt with the thorny topic of Al Capone and the Mob who no doubt took as close an interest in their fictional representation as the KKK who then numbered some four million members across American society.

Thomas Meighan - maybe more Mitchum than Wayne on second thoughts...
There are similarities between the two films beyond the criminal clubs with Meighan playing a fine, upstanding Irish American having to contend with smartly-assertive women. Brent’s character is a flirt, a manipulator but true to herself in much the same way as Marie Prevost in The Racket: she knows what she wants and she’s not going to apologise for wanting to get it. Louise Brooks may have famously referred to Brent as like an arctic roll but this is a warm-hearted performance that whilst not a million miles away from Feathers is the polar opposite of the long-suffering big-sis she played in Love ‘em and Leave ‘em – her breakthrough film with Brooksie.

She and Meighan have a great chemistry especially when he’s manhandling her into her car and away from his libido as she tries to wrap herself around him.

Against brassy-Brent we have the Gallic charms of Renée Adorée… or do we? In a shock announcement (to me anyway) Tony Fletcher revealed that not only was she born in Germany her father was a British music hall performer – she played down the German connection to become Renee from Lille. This is a story indeed as even Wiki and IMDB have this wrong and I look forward to Tony screening his documentary on the actress at the Bioscope.

Whatever her origin – British, really? – the woman had skill and here is able to act herself out of the un-promising scenario of being a bride for hire at Ellis Island immigration in a story line so modern it hurts: these people coming over to our country and upsetting the Clan etc. She melts into the frame in contrast to Evelyn’s bolder intrusions (as Brooks said, her opening gambit was often to adopt The Stance and fire forth…) and even with a relatively limited amount of screen time – a lot happens – she wins sympathy and also convinces as a romantic partner for Thomas M who is about as romantically convincing as John Wayne.

Renée not from Lille
The plot? Thomas Meighan plays Leslie Hatton who, whilst serving as an officer in the war, marries his village sweetheart Rose (Evelyn Brent) before returning to the front. After the war he returns eager to commence married life only to find that Rose parents have annulled the marriage on the grounds of their daughter’s youth (eh?) and that she has married businessman and serial philanderer Lon Henderson (Alan Roscoe).

Lon and Rose were made for each other and share the same desire to absolutely be with someone else as often as possible. Rose still carries a candelabra for Mr Hatton whilst Lon’s carrying on with young Jessie (Helen Foster) and moonlighting as a leading light in The Order, dressing up in black hoods (not white: black) in order that The Order may maintain order.

The exterior shots are well made.
All this is too much for Les who decides that the only way to get Rose out of his hair – and everywhere else, you should see the way she applies her perfume… saucy is not the word… is to claim he’s already re-married. He hasn’t but this is where he does a deal with Renée Adorée’s Catherine and her family: room and board in exchange for marriage.

Not a promising start to any relationship but, but… once you’ve seen Catherine cook breakfast, bath a piglet and, astonishingly, swim around with fewer clothes than Hedy Lamarr five years later… you’ll understand why the big lug falls for her.

But… there will be other complications too complicated to mention here: a suicide, some incriminating letters, the Order flogging to the wrong conclusions and much more.

The Order keep order
The film was believed lost for many years and shows the developments in story and performance that would morph into the “pre-code” talkies although here the images carry more weight than dialogue would have allowed…

Kevin Brownlow introduced reading from an essay full of his personal recollections of the film makers – he’s a personal emissary from the era that transfixes us.

Will Rogers and his ropin'
For the opening session Kevin showed us a fun film about lassoing starring Will Rogers in the self-depreciatingly entitled The Ropin’ Fool (1922). The film showed Will’s tricks in real time and then in slow motion and his ability to throw a rope under a horse to lasso its rider has to be seen to be believed. Rogers seems quite the character saying if folk didn’t like the film, he’d grow a beard, pretend to be German and they’d call it “art”.

The things dropped back a few millennia for a double-dose of Ben Hur… and what a difference two decades can make. The original Ben from 1907 was shot from a static camera which failed to capture even the majesty of a few horses against a painted backdrop whereas the 1925 is genuinely epic in a way that still stands against its CGI-drenched remake.

Mass spectacle in 1907...
Kevin showed the whole of the chariot race which still thrills on the big screen with a dust-mote sunshine depth of field as Ramon Navarro and Francis X Bushman are filmed amongst the chaos. It’s the knowledge that they and the actual riders, horse and crew where in a genuinely perilous environment that makes the contest gripping.

But not everything in the huge arena was as it seemed, the upper tiers of the Circus Maximus were formed of small figures hand-operated to create the effect of a living crowd with the camera shooting the models close-up to give the seamless effect seen on screen.

...and in 1925!
Costas Fotopoulos accompanied The Mating Call with classical flourishes and Meg Morley was on hand to musically-enhance the evening’s opening section (Carl Davis too, although not in person).

Another enlightening evening in Kennington – thank you to all at the Bioscope.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

Five reasons to get excited about... Napoléon (1927), BFI preview

Every time Abel Gance's Great Work gets screened it's described as a "once in a lifetime" opportunity - but this year promises not only a restored and revitalized version of that cinematic experience but also Napoleon's first appearance on top-end digital media.

On 6th November cinemutophiles (thank you Pamela H for that!) will gather in the capitol for a screening at the Royal Festival Hall with Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra playing his score: the longest ever recorded and surely one of the most remarkable.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a preview screening at the BFI where Kevin Brownlow introduced a restoration he has been working towards, on and off, almost from the time when he first saw a 9.5mm print whilst still at school in 1954. For Kevin, Carl Davis - who was also present - and generations of film archivists this digital restoration puts Napoleon back where he belongs: in front of an audience.

So, whether you're intending to stream from the BFI Player, watch on your TV/home cinema or in the posh seats rattling your jewelry at the RFH... why should you be counting the days?

Gance joked with Kevin Brownlow that he need the triptych to fit in all the extras
1. You will be engaged!

We're all used to cinema as fireworks or as computer game from exposure to superhero films that aim to assault the senses but Gance was there first. His camera is right in the centre of the action whether on horse-back for exhilarating chases or amidst a snowball fight where you follow the young Napoleon's charge against his cheating opponents. You can almost feel the cold, ice-melting impact of the snow as the focus remains on the young "general" with battle intensifying all around him.

No one did point of view quite like Gance and the frequent us of hand-held shots reinforces the feeling that you are, actually, in the picture.

You won't fool the Children of the Revolution...
2. You will be inspired!

Kevin Browlow talked about the score being almost magical and it's true that there is magnificent alchemy at play between the screen and music that takes a philosophical as well as melodic lead from contemporary composers. Beethoven - who had a personal connection to the future Emperor - Mozart and Haydn are all sampled and the resultant mix is both empathetic and complimentary. This is music that is as questioning of the ancien régime as the protagonists: revolutionary and opinionated, it's there to create a stir.

The speakers in NFT1 were turned up to "eleven" ensuring that this glorious mix pulled you in as surely as the visuals - for such a long film the narrative and emotional energy is maintained with intensity.

Albert Dieudonné
3. It's the perfect post-Brexit film

Gance was mythologizing one of the founders of modern France and also the revolution itself. Napoleon is not so popular a figure in so-called Great Britain but he played his part in establishing a new political legitimacy in France following the removal of the monarchy and the old regime.

Napoleon had a European aim too and it's very interesting to see the respect Gance gives him..."I wished to found a European system, a European Code of Laws, a European judiciary: there would be but one people in Europe..." Oh why is history so inconveniently complicated?

Napoleon reminds us to look at the facts first before we rely on assumptions: Bonaparte was always much taller than the British said he was... More history is required to fully understand this man and his continent.

Edmond Van Daële as Maximilien Robespierre
4. It reminds us of what cinema can achieve

Gance was innovating and the film's rush and tumble feels at least twenty years ahead of its time: pop-art montage, hand-held intrusions, cameramen on horseback in the midst of battles and the biggest bloody screen you've ever seen for the climactic tinted triptych.

Technically ahead of the game the film also features superb performances from dozens of lead actors, all placed perfectly in context by their director.

Kevin Brownlow said that reading negative contemporary reviews he kept on expecting his search to reveal a dip in quality but that never happened and the film just kept on getting better. Today was only the second time I've viewed - half - the film and there were so many things I hadn't seen before: almost three hours on a sunny Sunday morning watching a silent film? It flew by!

In the heart of the pillow fight - the screen split nine times
5. It exists!

The fact that we have so much of what Abel Gance intended is a near miracle and we should never take it for granted.

This film deserves our up-most support for all the years that Kevin Brownlow, David Gill and so many others laboured on it. They have restored one of cinema's truly great films and we should celebrate with a Blu-Ray or two and a live performance as often as possible!

The BFI Blu-ray...looks irresistible doesn't it!
Napoleon is screened at the Royal Festival Hall on 6th November - details and some tickets are available here. Don't miss this it's a once in a lifetime...

The BFI Blu-Ray and DVD are available on 21st November, pre-orders can be made on the BFI Shop.

Sign up for the BFI Player newsletter to find out when the film will be made available although do try and see a screening if you can: it's longer than Batman v Superman and Captain America v Iron Man combined but also ten times as good!