Sunday, 15 October 2017

Hurray for Bollywood! Shiraz (1928), with Anoushka Shankar, Barbican, London Film Festival Archive Gala

Tonight put the “gee” into Gala: a sumptuous display of silent film, Indian-style, with an extraordinary live score and a packed Barbican: thousands gathered in a silent cathedral paying rapt attention to Anoushka Shankar’s musicality and the birth of Bollywood!

Reviewing this film in the New York Times in October 1928, John MacCormac was onto something: “The Indian market… is well worth studying. Its surface has so far been barely scratched. There are only 300 picture theatres for a teeming population of some 300,000,000… When India's millions really begin to go to picture houses many new film fortunes will be made.”

Take a belated bow John, you got it in one. He described Shiraz as the best film to emerge from the sub-content so far but sadly we don’t have much to compare it with, as the BFI’s Robin Baker pointed out in his introduction, so few Indian silent films survive. This was the second of three enchanting films produced by Himansu Rai and directed by Frank Osten: Light of Asia (1926) was first and  A Throw of Dice (1929) the last. They pointed the way forward by incorporating Indian myth, style and imagination in a medium perfectly suited to the country's flamboyant traditions of story-telling.

More than brotherly love... Enakshi Rama Rau and Himansu Rai
The charismatic and instantly-likeable Rai also acted in all three, here as the titular lead, as does the mesmerising Seeta Devi who gets the chance to play the bad girl and outshines the lead Enakshi Rama Rau with a fiercely-nuanced performance utilising the most expressive eyes in Agra…

Tonight’s LFF Archive Gala saw the premier of a hugely-impressive restoration alongside a new score from sitar-playing royalty Anoushka Shankar who provided compelling and complex input of her own with a tonally-varied music that mixed Eastern and Western style and instrumentation with old and modern flavours.

This may have been Anoushka’s first score but she aced it with composition that responded to the story strands with subtlety, restraint and mind-boggling attention to detail. It must be tempting to overplay your musical ideas and compromise narrative direction especially with an amplified band but Ms Shankar adopted an holistic approach that paid full respect to her silent partner. Osten and Rai couldn’t have wished for a better collaborator.

Seeta Devi plotting...
Anoushka played sitar and around her was a whirl of sound with traditional percussionists Sanju Sahai and Pirashanna Thevarajah on her left along with Ravichandra Kulur on bansuri flute then modern/western tones to her right: Idris Rahman, clarinet, Preetha Narayanan, violin, Danny Keane cello and piano (you had to be there!) and Christopher Kemsley on harmonium, moog and the kitchen sink. The players were as tight as a tabla and bang on with a mix of score, improvisation and the odd found sound… a performance of character that would make for an enthralling concert on its own and, indeed, it did take me a while to merge score and screen but the alchemy required to turn music and movie into magic was achieved and this was one of the best LFF Galas I’ve seen.

The restoration was specially commissioned to mark the UK-India Year of Culture 2017 and the 70th anniversary of independence. It was based on a combination of the BFI’s own camera negative as well as a positive made in the 1940s… Robin Baker talked us through the restoration process and, as with so many of these projects, pointed out that the process – frame-by-frame – took longer than the original production.

The film was worth it and lifted by the music and the occasion, it has a grandeur and style that makes it the strongest of those three collaborations – although I’d like to see Anoushka have a go at A Throw of Dice!

It's tough being the Prince
Shiraz starts off as it means to go on with an impressive massed attack on a royal convoy in which a young princess is one of the few survivors. She is rescued from heat and cobras by a passing potter, Kasim (Profulla Kumar) who brings her up as one of his own and calls her Selima. His son, Shiraz, grows to worship his sister and by the time they are both of age he has a more than brotherly crush on her.

Shiraz (now Himansu Rai) and Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) encounter a group of salve raiders who succeed in kidnapping the young woman and take off with her brother in hopeless pursuit. She is sold into slavery to the Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) who takes a special interest in this new acquisition with a mind of its own.

In an interview about the score, Anoushka Shankar makes an interesting point about the sexual politics of the film which, even though it focuses on absolute male power still has time for the Prince to say: ‘You know I have the power to take what I will?’ and Selima to smile back and ‘But you don’t have the power to take my love’. Love freely given is a higher prize than anything taken by might alone.

While the Prince charms Selima, his nominal intended, Dalia (Seeta Devi) schemes to get rid of the competition by luring Shiraz into committing treason. The poor man has been sticking close to his love over her years of “service” and jumps at the chance to rescue her… Yet, as he is reunited with Selima, the Prince – having been tipped off by devious Dalia – returns and catches them.

Enakshi Rama Rau and Charu Roy
So far, so fairy tale but can Shiraz explain this all away and escape certain death by elephant foot? And what has all of this got to do with the building of the Taj Mahal? The answer is everything… Amidst the brutality of seventeenth century absolutism there is a respect and need for love across all boundaries.

The film, as the building, is a monument to our need to aim higher and, together with this music, in this place and with this crowd, it was an absolute triumph. There are times when you can almost sense an audience “glowing”, with smiling faces all round and after-show chatter conducted in uplifted tones and this was one of those occasions. Bravo BFI, Barbican, Anoushka Shankar, London Film Festival and all those involved!

This is not the end for Shiraz though as the movie, Ms Shankar and the band are touring with dates in Europe, India and Australia. Further details are on the Anoushka Shankar website.

Seeta hopes she'll be a goody in Rai and Osten's next film...

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sex in the city… Little Veronika (Innocence) (1929), John Sweeney, BFI, London Film Festival

The backgrounds in this film are a sight to behold, from the huge valleys of the Tyrol to the pre-war streets of Vienna and you just want to dive into the screen.

Directed by the obscure Robert Land, this is a rare film that deserves to be rediscovered, especially after the 2016 restoration by Filmarchiv Austria from a 35mm nitrate print, has done so much to put back the sense of scale in those epic landscapes. Not for nothing does Nikolaus Wostry, curator of the Austrian Film Archive describe it as Austria’s ‘most beautiful silent film’, and in addition to the wider angles, Land’s direction includes some marvellously “1929” camera-work.

At the start, there’s a breath-taking tracking shot that follows young Veronica as she sprints from her room, down the stairs to take her place at the dining table: it emphasises her youth and lust for life as well as her trajectory in the narrative… she doesn’t always anticipate and – literally – rushes into things. Then there is the new dress she receives from her aunt in the city; it’s a signifier of liberation and a leap into sexual maturity but then Land has lingered long enough on his leading lady for the lingerie to lead us on… Käthe von Nagy (so good in Rotaie (1929)) is at the centre of his direction and our gaze.

Veronika is about to take a trip to Vienna for her confirmation and the film is full of juxtapositions between rural innocence and city connivance that pre-figure the conflict to come. She is going to stay with her aunt who has been surprisingly successful in Vienna building up what looks like a thriving hotel business… only she’s not a hotelier. Rooms and beds are involved but they are not the primary components of the businesses’ transactions.

Aunty Rosi is well played by Maly Delschaft (The Last Laugh (1924) and many more) with regret etched into her face every time she looks at her niece. She and her sex workers are sympathetically painted, not debauched just desperate and not necessarily the victims of their “choices” … The film was based on a book by Felix Salten, who specialised in tales of Vienna’s brothel culture as well as Bambi… yes, Bambi, the deer, friendly with rabbits and squirrels. Salten clearly knew his subject matter as the usual moral judgements do not necessarily fall against the women in the film…

When Veronika arrives, she jumps up and down on Aunt Rosi’s bed like the child she still is – those pigtails also say so much! She prays in bed and Aunty Rosi joins her; praying for her lost innocence perhaps. A telling moment.

Käthe von Nagy
Rosi wants to protect her niece but given her clientele, it’s not long before she is noticed by the kind of men who come to the kind of place Aunty manages. Karl Forest plays an older gentleman who charms Veronika and she falls for him after a night of romance he wants to pay for… she doesn’t understand the nature of the relationship and her future hangs on the balance.

Käthe von Nagy gives a believability to the naïve Veronika and there’s more to the character than meets the eye as I said at the top - she’s eager to embrace life, even if it means making a mistake or two.

It is a very good-looking film and to return to Land’s cinematography; there is a quite lovely sequence near the end when Veronika is making her way through a glade of trees and the Sun is shining off the leaves, creating a dream-like haze reflecting Veronika’s perceptions. Let’s hope there’s more to be found from Robert Land.

John Sweeney accompanied and the sound of music filled those gorgeous valleys as easily as the Viennese dancehalls when I thought I caught a snatch of Blue Skies (written by Irving Berlin in 1926)? John has such range and control and he never overstays a theme, constantly moving the audience along with the picture first and foremost. He laid some thunderous chords as the train took Veronika from Vienna and then held back to let the visuals carry the drama: as with Miles Davis it’s the places Mr Sweeney doesn’t go that are so important and he always allows the story a chance to breathe.

We applaud but really, we should bow!

Sunday, 8 October 2017

That Pordenone Touch… The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg (1927) with Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone Day 8

These people don’t do things by halves, do they? Eight days of almost ceaseless cine-muto reached a crescendo on Saturday evening with Ramón Novarro, Norma Shearer and the Orchestra San Marco, Pordenone, conducted by Mark Fitz-Gerald playing Carl Davis’ score.

The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg is another I’ve saved for the big screen and live accompaniment and Mr Davis’ score is one of his nest for this near-perfect movie from Ernst Lubitsch – romantic, witty and so poignant… Davis works from inside the film outwards and I have a feeling he and Herr Lubitsch would have got on well!

Now then, Mrs Thalberg remains a slightly controversial and divisive figure and there are those who favour Silent Shearer over Talkie Norma but I like them both and here she is simply superb. Ramon is a very pretty boy and he does well, but only Norma moved me close to tears (darn it Pordenone, that’s three times you made me cry!!) with an intelligence pf expression that is rarely equalled.

This is not the gung-ho tennis playing sophisticate of The Divorcee but a woman who finds true love and then, heart-breakingly, has to let it go. Typically, she must decide for her Prince; they will both love again and marry as their station and duty demands but they cannot be happy. All of which reminds me of a conundrum I once had with Princess Anne… but it was all worked out amicably.

Lubitsch too is a man of many phases and it was instructive to compare The Student Prince… with his Pola Carmen from earlier in the week. The latter was energetic and game for a quick laugh but, ten years and a whole continent onwards, his approach is more delicately-defined. This film has plenty of evidence of his famous touch form the over-regimented raising of hats for the prince to the lovely time he chases Norma’s humble hotelier’s daughter, Kathi, along a series of arches; the camera follows them, anticipating their arrival at the next arch until, suddenly, the don’t: the prince has caught his girl and who knows what private passions are being expressed.

The pacing is so well handled – a real musician’s film – and the overall tone is one of good humour even if the end-game involves balancing duty against individual happiness.

Lovely composition. Cheers Getty Images!
The programme notes reveal that The Student Prince… was an attempt to win back the mid-European market by showing a more human side to Germanic characters – a similar problem was faced with Herbert Wilcox’s Dawn (1928) about Edith Cavell. Here Lubitsch is on safer ground but these men have honour as well as humour.

Appropriately enough for a Ramon Navaro film, this film was M-GM’s second most expensive film after Ben-Hur (in which the actor starred). Apparently, Norma fought off competition from May McAvoy, Marceline Day, and Fay Wray for the role but I can’t see any of them playing the role as well. That said… there were moments of tension with her director as he felt he initial performance was too grand: ‘Mein Gott!’ he shouted. ‘I can get a waitress from the commissary who will do better than you.’

That may well be Ernie but she’s got a guy called Mr Thalberg at home and he’s quite important. IN the end, Irving superbly defused the situation with the line: ‘Darling, I’m sure we can all learn a lot from Mr. Lubitsch.’ I’m sure she did.

We also watched:

Karina Bell and Peter Nielsen in Morænen
The Swedish Challenge has been my favourite strand and shown me that there is far more to Scandinavian silent film than Victor and Mauritz… today’s double maintained the quality and in the case of the latter Anders Wilhelm Sandberg’s Morænen (1924), featured some of the best accompaniment of the week from Stephen Horne on piano and various and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry. 

Elizabeth-Jane users her sonic pallet way beyond the confines of traditional playing much as Stephen has pushed the piano; together they sounded like a dozen players and produce music that is delicate and the with all the attack of more avantgarde composition. In the end, the Teatro Verdi wouldn’t let them leave the orchestra pit until they’d take a bow on the main stage: and well deserved too!

The film itself was quite dark with an overbearing father a dying mother and a brain-damaged son. It’s interesting to see how mental disability was treated at the time and – given the huge developments in diagnosis and treatment over the years, very valuable social history.

Everyone seem to care for the boy in questions, even the father for whom he is a daily reminder of his hateful mother (IHAO to be fair… I suspect he was over-compensating for his own failures as 

Teuvo Puro and Jussi Snellman’s Anna-Liisa (1922) was no less challenging and this time involved infanticide a woman unwittingly getting pregnant after an, un-consensual liaison with a local ruffian. She has the child but kills it new born and as she tries to move on and marry the man she does love; this past comes back to haunt her. The answer is to come clean and accept both crime and punishment: another scandi-redemption song and it’s true.

Gabriel Thibaudeau wove some elegant lines throughout his piano improvisations, he seems to have all the time in the world: The Eric “Slowhand” Clapton of accompaniment.

No, please... don't kill Creighton Hale!
After all this Scandinavian seriousness, hearts were sinking at the merest sight of Danish director, Benjamin Christensen in the credits for Seven Footprints to Satan (1929).  But, we needn’t have worried for it was an absolute hoot that prefigures the comedy horror of Cat and the Canary and Universal’s funnier moments. It’s very well done and whilst Creighton Hale rises to the occasion, Thelma Todd just blows him off screen!! Screwball before screwball was invented.

Turns out Christensen was far funnier than we thought… talking of which: don’t miss Haxan, at the Pheonix Cinma on 31st October… Halloween Night, yes, that’s right! Tickets available here!

Rising star Daan van den Hurk was on hand to have fun accompanying this one.

Blanche Sweet
Also funny and disturbing was The Deadlier Sex (1920) and the sight of Boris Karloff in pants that looked liked they had been stolen from a New Romantics party in 1981!? Thank goodness we didn’t see those in colour!

Robert Thornby directs and his two leads sparkle especially Blanche Sweet as the daughter of an industrial magnate aiming to be just as tough when “Wall Street alchemist” Harvey Judson (Huntley Green) tries to bully her Dad’s former business out to the market. Nothing a bit of sedation and kidnapping can’t fix as she has Green transported to the wilds to sink or swim.

Boris is hired to put the frighteners on him but he takes his role a little too seriously. It’s fun and Masterclass graduate, Bryson Kemp, played along with a spirit of adventure!

Georges Méliès: Le Rosier Miraculeux (1904)
Then, just before The Student Prince… we were treated to a recently-discovered Georges Méliès: Le Rosier Miraculeux (1904) or The Wonderful Rose Tree projected in almost immaculate condition on the huge screen. It is truly amazing that his work is still being discovered but it’s thanks to the dedication of the very people who attend, program, perform and otherwise support Pordenone that all is possible.

So keep on being passionate about cinema muto in all its forms. Enjoy it, discuss it, engage and promote it and we will not only have more wonderful weeks like this one but so much more.

Grazie Mille Pordenone!! Vediamo l'anno prossimo per GCM37!

A communication from the Mile-high Blogger Club (no, it’s not what you think…)

Saturday, 7 October 2017

“Patriotism is not enough…” Dawn (1928), Stephen Horne, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto Day 7

This was one of the most moving films we’ve seen this week and all the more so for two ending beings shown, one from the Belgian digital transfer and the other from the BFI’s 35mm copy. There are differences between the two, not just the warmer tones of the film but also in the way that Nurse Cavell meets her end… the inevitability of violent death by gunshot.

Sybil Thorndike is outstanding as Nurse Edith Cavell and that final walk, her eyes wet with mortal fear, are truly heart-wrenching, bringing tears for the second time this week (the other occasion being the children of Vienna maimed by war). Stephen Horne played an absolute blinder with bass drum punching out Cavell’s final few paces in the first version and the piano taking the lead for the second. The accompaniment has to be as precisely judged as the action on screen and both were in step to devastating effect.

The Belgian version is the uncensored cut of what was a highly-controversial film… there was still plenty of sensitivity about this infamous episode and clearly, as the UK version shows, possible offense had to be limited.

This is not easy though especially when you have an actual member of Cavell’s team, Ada Bodart, playing herself… history as film, film actor as her own history.

"Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone."
After Dawn, a section on those Nasty Women was more than welcome and I especially laughed at the last, She's a Prince (1926) a crazy-cross-dressed, paparazzi-dumping, case of mistaken royal identity starring Billy Franey as the sorority “girl” formerly known as Prince and Alyce Ardell as… the “prince” formerly known as Alice.

The Swedish Challenge strand continues to impress and Thora van Deken (1920) featured a powerhouse performance from Pauline Brunius as the title character. She is fighting to protect her daughter’s inheritance by hiding her former husband’s will and Brunius display of determination in the face of her dubious action and motherly love is so… human. She was wrong but we are on her side… Brunius has the kind of face that can hold a movie on its own twisting conflicted emotions across strong features that fail to hide her darting eyes. This is why Swedish cinema was indeed “challenging” – completely naturalistic performance matched with films that deal in moral questions in a realistic and compelling way.

The restored print was more 2020 than 1920 and a delight to behold. It was a kind of Blue but emotions were melting through…

Maud Nelissen accompanied with pensive piano lines which perfectly matched this absorbing play of conscience and forbearance. I’d never heard of actress of film until this week and that, my friends, is what this show they call Le Giornate is all about!

On to the evening and two films from people I know and in films I’ve seen.

The Vampire, Philip Burne-Jones
Rudyard Kipling’s The Vampire was written to accompany the exhibition of a illustration by his cousin Philip Burne-Jones depicting a female vampire; another link between cinema and painting as per Tableaux Vivants. This vampire is a sexual predator draining her partners of their energies, funds and self-respect. The poem begins with the line A fool there was… and warns against the folly of falling for women who “…could never know why and could never understand!” decent family society presumably.

It is not a hugely complex story but it has one massive power point: Theodosia Goodman aka Theda Bara who turns what could have been a run of the deMille Victorian morality tale in to very modern sexual picaresque. Her vamp is working her way through male batteries like there’s no tomorrow and lives only for herself and yet she’s doing it in style! We want to go to Theda’s parties, hang out at the clothes store for the endless fittings her cool, cool, cool clothes demand and tell the straights to just go hang!

Theda is a punk rocker, Theda is a punk rocker, etc...
Theda is punk – Siouxsie, Poly and Pauline Murray would be nothing without her approach to mascara – and has a wit that just blasts everyone else off screen. Yes, there are deeper meanings to the struggle between family and pheromones but we’d all like a friend like Theda… er, wouldn’t we?

This was a much better print than the one used for the old Kino DVD although the source material is sadly not perfect. Still a real thrill to see it projected and to have accompaniment from Philip Carli with the premier of his new score for quintet! The music was as closely fit as one of Theda’s dresses and played off the humour as much as the drama just as Theda and, indeed, you and I… Philip played piano and was joined by David Shemancik, Günter A. Buchwald, Romano Todesco and Cristina Nadal. They are Theda’s band for her next all-nighter!

Last up was another who took sexual liberation a major cinematic step forward with Pola Negri in Mania, her third film of the week and her first film (?). This is not the playful Pola of Carmen but an equally passionate one who follows her heart into all kinds of trouble. A matchgirl spotted as the face of the brand, she falls for the artist’s muso buddy and, two stars of kind of born as Mania uses her “connections” to get her guy a break… Needless to say he doesn’t appreciate it and, as is usual – Theda being the exception… the woman pays.

I’d seen Mania before at its UK premier in 2011 and it is a very impressive restoration with some gorgeous close-ups of our heroine and without her trademark eye makeup… but it’s not the mascara that maketh the woman it’s the personality! Pola is also “punk” as it happens: fresh, to the point and boundless…