Sunday, 18 June 2017

"The powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment..." Minute Bodies (2016) on BFI Blu-ray/DVD

Everything is so familiar and yet so wonderfully strange in the films of F. Percy Smith and the score from Stuart A. Staples’ Tindersticks is perfectly in tune. This is mindful movie making and leads the viewer into a relaxed contemplative state as you watch flowers grow, newts metamorphose and a drone fly juggles a cork.

Seeing life so strangely, we inevitably try to reconcile these unrecognisable patterns and to draw parallels to the safer, known macro-universe. As the very RP voiceover says during the description the fungal Plants of the Underworld (1930) one of the extras, Nature is the most “grotesque artist in the World.” Magnified 20,000 times the growth of the fungal cells is alien and unsettling… still entrancing and fascinating all the same.

Between 1909 and 1943 Percy Smith made a sequence of extraordinary documentaries after the former clerk for the British Board of Education had impressed producer Charles Urban with a close-up of a bluebottle's tongue. From The Acrobatic Fly (1910), The Birth of a Flower (1910), The Strength and Agility of Insects (1911) to Life Cycle of the Newt (1942) and, my favourite, Life Cycle of the Pin Mould (1943) Smith kept his subjects closer than any film-maker in history.

There are eight shorts from Smith on the set which compliment those already released by the BFI on the Secrets of Nature DVD. Minute Bodies itself is what the BFI term an “interpretive edit” of original footage compiled by Staples himself. The result is spellbinding and succeeds emphatically in pulling you into Smith’s world of impassioned patience.

It’s an “analogue” experience and the music is suitably “organic” featuring the largely non-digital sonic pallet of a band rooted in earthy deliberation: there’s no rush to make musical points with the ‘sticks!

A mighty ant!
Stuart A. Staples has previously said that having originally been fascinated by Smith’s images he came to want to tell the story of their creator through this strange and powerful micro-cinema. So, odd as it may seem, Minute Bodies turns out to be a musical biography of the man from North London who photographed moss growing in his spare time. A man who, in the interests of scientific discovery, wasn’t afraid of working with small insects, pin mould and animation.

Watching unknown cellular organisms scuttling across the screen, strange moulds advancing to attack each other and animalistic plants writhing their way sun-ward you get a feel for the character of the person taking such obsessive care over the production of these images. As hobbies go… micro-cinematography is all-consuming but, what joy in these ever-present but unexpected glimpses of the life underneath us. It’s unsettling and the score works that feeling – this is a brutal little world.

But Smith’s work is not without a very English sense of humour and there’s a lovely syncopated section showing micro-organisms at play… or it feels that way!

The project took three years of stop-motion musical production between Staples and co-producer David Reeve before the full Tindersticks were convened to record the music. Staples’ music takes care and works sympathetically with his subject to create that new narrative. The music is restrained as you’d expect from such experienced soundtrack performers who deftly combine elements of post rock, electronica and the emphatically-acoustic.

It is only at the end when we see Smith, his profile close-up to a rat and then full-on with four of the rodents climbing around his neck. One nips his throat, he smiles and calmly pulls it back: in his element with his beloved nature; respecting his subject matter.

Smith said that he aimed to provide "the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment" and Mr Staples and the Tindersticks do the same. They pull together to entrance you in this world we take for granted as we power our way through the day-to-day… Stop, listen and learn.

Minute Bodies is available NOW from the BFI on Blu-ray and DVD – you can order it direct from here along with Secrets of Nature.

The soundtrack album is also out and is available from the Tindersticks' website along with a trailer to tempt you all!

Percy works the camera

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Marlene on the wall... The Kennington Bioscope 3rd Silent Film Weekend, Day Two

Programme 1: Norma Talmadge Starter

The Safety Curtain (1918) with Meg Morley

Back early for Day Two because, amazingly, I’ve never seen a Norma Talmadge film screened, even though, I’ve seen many of her films and always thought she deserves more recognition from modern audiences.

I’ve watched a dodgy DVD of The Safety Curtain but it was a completely different experience on screen and with expert accompaniment from Meg Morley. Talmadge was a phenomenon for almost twenty years and yet she is less well regarded now than some of her peers; historically and just in terms of pure technique and star power she is worthy or more.

Norma Talmadge
It was good to see her performance in such detail and yes, whilst there was a good deal of hands over face and agonised moments, she is still emotionally convincing even with this fairly prosaic script. It’s about the mistakes of youth and the compromises you make to drag yourself forwards: you can’t pull down the safety curtain on your past as Norma’s character, music hall performer Puck tries to do.

Programme 2: W. W. Jacobs Story Teller

The Skipper’s Wooing (1922) with John Sweeney

It’s always a treat to discover another British silent film especially one featuring the peerless Moore Marriott.

The BFI’s Bryony Dixon introduced and detailed the career of author WW Jacobs, who was hugely popular in the late Victorian period and beyond. He specialised in well-written tales of the mildly expected with Punch once describing this story as being about “men who go down to sea in ships of moderate tonnage…

Source material
It’s about the search for a Captain Gething (Charles Levey) who after a night on the town, decks one of his men sending him over the edge into a dry dock. Thinking he’s killed the men he goes on the run leaving his wife and daughter mourning his mysterious loss especially after his workmate has survived by landing on tarpaulin.

Over the ensuing years the replacement skipper, Captain Wilson (Gordon Hopkirk) spends many months working up the courage to woo Gething’s daughter, Annie (Cynthia Murtagh), but, hilariously, can’t work up the courage… so painful it’s like watching me at 17… He has competition from a flash Harry salesman called Jim (JT MacMillan).

It’s an actual hoot, full of English whimsy and all manner of complications with an originally dialogue-heavy novel well translated by Lydia Hayward.

Mr Sweeney played along elbows at the ready for the inevitable deviations of tone and temper you’d expect from The English.

Programme 3:  Socialist Cinema

The Four Musicians of Bremen (1922) was an early Walt Disney full of painful misfortune for the animals forming the eponymous band: it’s hard to get a gig in Bremen and it’s really hard to catch fish without them fighting back. Proto-Itchy and Scratchy. Really!

That Sharp Note (1916) was a spy spoof produced by the Flying A Studios – aka the American Film Manufacturing Company – and squeezed a lot of daft into its twenty minutes.

By way of immense contrast, The Shadow of a Mine (Ums Tagliche Brot) (1929) was a docu-drama showing working class life in the Waldenburgh coal district of Silesia. It featured no professional actors and was released in the UK by the London Workers Film Society. A glimpse of the life driving so much agitation in the early twentieth century at a time when the outcomes of global socialism were far from clear.

Mabel and Creighton
Programme 4: Women Playing Comedy

David Wyatt introduced a trio of female comics who we’d like to see more of.

Hypnotizing the Hypnotist (1911) with Costas Foutopoulis
Florence Turner flips her elegant features from transfixed to tortured in what remains of this two reeler. I’d seen her pull faces before but here she proves that beauty needn’t get in the way of a giggle as her husband gets revenge on the hypnotist who has her under his thrall.

Should Men Walk Home? (1927) with Costas Foutopoulis
Mabel Normand was a huge star and one of the earliest women directors, creating a cinematic comedy template years ahead of our Charlie. She was not in the best of health when she made this, her final film but she’s still recognisably the star of Mickey and all those Sennett classics. It’s odd to see her in late twenties fashions but she carries it off alongside Creighton Hale who is as funny as I’ve ever seen him. The pair play a couple of crooks in search of a necklace at a society party and in addition to being pursued by Eugene Pallette they also have a robust encounter with a Mr Oliver Hardy.

Satan Junior (1919) with John Sweeney
Viola Dana is another whom modern audiences underestimate and, having previously only seen her in drama, it was good to have see her in such a fierce comedy. She’s a 4 feet 11 inch powerhouse who refuses to be told what to do and pursues the man she wants – I think? – no matter what he tries to do to stop her, even offering up his younger brother. It’s a mad premise, but I love the anarchy and Viola’s comic chops that helped make her one of the biggest stars of the silent era.

Programme 5: Before the Blue Angel

The Woman One Longs For (Die Frau, Nach Der Man Sich Schnt) (1929) with Meg Morley

A fourth leading lady on the trot and we got swept away by Marlene Dietrich…
Silent film number 16?
Even in her later years Dietrich was still trying to control her own myth and we heard as much in a documentary made in the 80s by Maximilian Schnell in which, even when confronted with the evidence, she denied making any silent films, deriding her own performances and the worth of the films. She told Josef von Sternberg she made three but then he discovered it was nine and the actuality was 17 as revealed in Michelle Facey’s fascinating introduction.

Michelle also had a quote from Marlene’s daughter in which she recalled watching The Jazz Singer and her mother bemoaning the ending of “acting with the eyes” in favour of so much chatter…

Those eyes are used to startling effect in The Woman One Longs For, transfixing Uno Henning’s character, Henry, as he prepares to board the train for his honeymoon: it’s love at first sight and he forgets all about the woman he has just married, Angela (Edith Edwards) out of affection and with the future of his family firm possibly in mind. He can’t get this blonde out of his mind and catches her eye once again on the train when she – Stascha - tells him to help her escape from her partner, Dr Karoff (Fritz Kortner, on duty with deranged menace).

Uno Henning and Marlene Dietrich
He leaves the train to follow the odd couple, after she tells Kortner he’s her cousin. Never mind broken-hearted Angela, he’s got compulsive obsessive Dietrich and he can’t help himself as he begins to get caught in the web of dark deceit that binds this strange couple…

It’s a proto-noire and Meg Morley accompanied with some massive minor chords with a compelling, well-judged music that created the most engaging screening of the day. Despite what it’s star later thought, we’d like to see more of the silent Marlene and her eyes, acting…

Programme 6 Lon Chaney    

The Unholy Three (1925)

It was time to head home and I therefore missed what was another highlight of the weekend featuring another master of expression: Lon Chaney could act with his entire face plastered in make-up. One for another day.

Another very full two days of top quality programming and music from the Bioscope and a huge thankyou to all of those who played, talked, served and otherwise welcomed us into this warmest of film clubs!

Here’s to 2018 and, before that the Second Silent Laughter Saturday on 11th November!

Monday, 12 June 2017

48 Hour Party People... The Kennington Bioscope 3rd Silent Film Weekend, Day One

Take one cinema museum, add five accompanists, ten films and a museum full of silent film enthusiasts, gently simmer on one of the hottest weekends of the year and keep hydrated with fine coffee until brought to the boil by Catherine Hessling dancing the Charleston, Bebe Daniels attacking a houseful of rum runners and Fritz Rasp trying to get away with murder! And that was just the first day of the annual Kennington Bioscope weekend.

Programme 1: Comedy Starter

Are Parents People? (1925) with Cyrus Gabrysch

Kevin Brownlow – a man without whom this weekend and our silent film viewing in general, would simply not be the same – got things underway with the bombshell (to me at least…) that Adolphe Menjou was actually half Irish and could speak Gaelic and the more I looked at Adolphe the more I could “hear” that brogue… Co-star Florence Vidor later told Kevin that Menjou fell apart with success, unable to cope with too much good fortune he fell to self-medicating with a bottle. But all we can judge is what we see of his excellence in front of camera.

Kevin explained the influence of Chaplin’s Woman of Paris on director Malcolm St. Clair’s style with the latter eschewing flamboyant camerawork in favour of a focus on character development. A supposedly simpler approach but the narrative was still driven by silky editing and some touches that might even be described as Lubitsch-esque; a pair of impatient feet here, a door opened just for slamming and the flicking of peanut shells off an armchair in tribute to a habit of Mabel Normands…

This was an original print from the Kodascope Library and looked as fresh as the proverbial. It was my first exposure to the sparkling brilliance of Betty Bronson who’s quicksilver emoting persuaded JM Barrie to select her to play Peter Pan. Here she’s Lita, a teenager torn between two parents, Menjou and the elegant Florence Vidor, who are so in love they hate each other.

Unable to see beyond their mutual inflexibility they divorce leaving their daughter in a boarding school trying to figure out a way to reunite them. She hatches a plot involving a movie star – an hilarious turn from George Beranger – expulsion and handsome Doctor Dacer (Lawrence Gray).

It’s a hoot and Betty shines bright but not without skilful support from Adolfe and Florence.

Cyrus Gabrysch accompanied and delicately added extra punch to this charmer.

Merian C Cooper (left) and Ernest B Schoedsack (right)

Programme 2: Before King Kong

Grass (1925) with Lillian Henley

And so to the remarkable human being called Merian C Cooper: fearless film-maker, bomber pilot and explorer who was embodied as Robert Armstrong’s ruthless go-getting Carl Denham in the director’s King Kong (1933). Kevin Brownlow showed an excerpt from a documentary which revealed Cooper’s uncompromising and courageous approach to life – his bomber was once shot down and he was injured in the neck yet still, with his burnt hands useless, he managed to land his plane, steering with his elbows and knees. After the war he fought with the anti-revolutionary forces against the Bolsheviks where his life was saved by those scarred hands – they wouldn’t kill him because they thought he was a peasant – and also by an Amercian reporter, Marguerite Harrison.

Harrison was part of the package when seeking funding with cameraman Ernest B Schoedsack for an exhibition to film the “forgotten” Bakhtiari Tribe in southern Persia in what is now Iran. The tribe lived a precarious existence and had to move with the seasons in order to keep livestock fed.

Just one more mountain to go...
To call Grass a truly remarkable film is to damn it with faint praise, with Cooper capturing the movement of 50,000 people and half a million animals crossing the fearsome Karun River in what he described as “the greatest piece of continuous action I have ever seen”. They used the inflated skin of goats to create rafts on which goats, children and women floated across rapid waters and drove their animals to swim over, herding them on theses leaky blow-up goatskins as the relentless rivers forced against them.

And then… they had to climb the whole lot over a 12,000 foot mountain…

Programme 3: The First French New Wave

Erik and Francis jump for the camera
John Davies talked us through the post-war revival of the French film industry after impact of the Great War with the influx of creative talent from the arts and the avant garde.

Charleston (1927) with Daan van den Hurk

Jean Renoir was a potter and the son of Auguste who famously married one of his father’s models, Catherine Hessling. He tried to turn Catherine into an actress but, charming though she was, she was limited. What she could do though was dance and in this mad mash-up of science fiction and jazz-age syncopation she slashes the rug to pieces with non-stop Charleston as she teaches the dance to an explorer from civilized Africa (American dancer Johnny Huggins who can also move!) who lands in primitive Europe in a floating sphere in "post-war" 2028.

The way things are going this looks like a pretty accurate representation of the near future; it is going to happen!

Catherine Hessling greets Johnny Hudgins
Entr’Acte (1924) with Daan van den Hurk

The next two films I’ve already covered elsewhere but needless to say it’s always a pure joy to see Erik Satie jumping up and down in slow motion as he and Francis Picabia fire cannon over Paris. Guest accompanist Daan van den Hurk played Satie’s original score and it was a beautiful thing for I do heart Satie.

Smiling Madame Beudet (La Souriante Madame Beudet) (1922) with John Sweeney

If you’re losing an argument with your wife it’s never a good idea to pretend to put a gun to your head. Germaine Dulac’s film makes this point as subtely as it can aided by the director’s cutting edge technique and Germaine Dermoz’ poignant expressiveness in the face of her idiot spouse played by Alexandre Arquillière. I hope her character took up tennis in the end…

Alexandre Arquillière... funny man
Programme 4: Bebe Daniels

Spring Fever (1919)

No chance of the sublime Bebe Daniel’s ending up with a wrong ‘un and to prove it here she was finding love with Harold Lloyd in one of a number of shorts the two made together (and yes, they also dated).  It’s a high-energy romp from start to finish with Lloyd’s inventiveness matched by Daniel’s ability to hold the funniest of straightfaces.

Feel My Pulse (1926) with Daan van den Hurk

Daniels was half-Spanish and half-Scottish which accounts for the looks and, indeed, the look: a kind of “ya wanna say that again pal?” So it’s amusing to see her as pampered rich kid Barbara Manning who’s been kept in anti-septic cotton wool for the first 21 years of her life according to the terms of her inheritance. She’s frightened of everything and especially the thought of anything surprising happening and what it might do to her heart.

Luckily she’s inherited a sanitarium and heads off to find peace and calm only to find it’s been taken over by rum-runners led by no-good weasel William Powell and his right hand man, played by Richard Arlen, who may not be all he seems. Taking everything a face value Babs wanders through almost the whole con but you just know that at some point the Latin lassie is going to find her feet and kick back!

A fun film... it’s hard not to be bowled over by Bebe and Bill!

Programme 5: Lost and Found

Sands of Destiny (Sables) (1927) with Lillian Henley

Nadia Sibirskaia so much older in Menilmontant
I like the films of Dimitri Kirsanoff a lot but this one wasn’t quite as dreamily enchanting as Menilmontant or Brumes D’Automne. Even allowing for his dressing Nadia Sibirskaia up as a mixture of Mary Pickford and Mary Quant the film made a lot of a small plot. I couldn’t quite believe Nadia as a child – she was 25 at the time – who sets out to find her opera-singer father, Edmond Van Daele (Robespierre out Napoleon) who has inexplicably left Gina Manes (Joséphine de Beauharnai out of Napoleon) for the admittedly interesting Collette Darfeuil.

Her dad is on a singing engagement in the middle of the Tunisian desert and yet that doesn’t stop her setting off with her servant, dog and pet goat. There’s adventure, danger and wildlife theft and a remarkable co-incidence featuring Rimsky-Korsakov…

Lilliam Henley accompanied with some dreamy desert songs and brought out the best of Kirsanoff’s eye for shifting sandy sentiments.

Programme 6:

A Centenary Tribute to Philippe de Lacy by David Robinson

In which David took us through the short but stellar career of this child actor or rather actor who just happened to be a child and capable of matching Garbo emotion for emotion in Love, a section of which was screened leaving few unmoved.

The Loves of Jeanne Ney (Die Liebe Der Jeanne Ney) (1927) with Costas Fotopoulos

GW Pabst’s controversial film was the meatiest offering of the day and I enjoyed seeing a 35mm print on screen with Costas Foutopoulos’ muscular accompaniment: of all the films I’d already seen this was the one that had the most added value as a live experience.

Pabst puts so much detail in his film and brings out the best in such fine performers as Fritz Rasp (oh, how I hate him: such a great baddy!), Brigitte Helm (so method in playing blind she almost was blind, nearly being knocked down by a car as Pabst later related), the ethereal Edith Jehanne and Uno Henning, another fascinating “interior” actor.

Uno Henning
The author of the book launched a campaign against Pabst’s film but he did everything he could to carry through the original focus on Russian politics into the film under pressure from UFA’s new owners for more “commercial” fare… It remains a powerful, emotional work that has you on the edge of your seat and has the kind of quick-wrap ending you’d expect of later Hitchcock.

A thrilling end to a full day of silent cinema. Half-time.

Edith Jehanne and Uno Henning