Thursday, 25 May 2017

A Tribute to David Shepard …. Regeneration (1915), John Sweeney, Kennington Bioscope

Rockliffe Fellowes' smiles a natural smile in Regeneration
Blessed are the restorers for without them we know not what we would miss… Chief amongst all of these, as that other great preserver Kevin Brownlow readily admits, was David Shepard who, sadly, passed away a few months ago.

Without David Shepard we’d have missed hundreds of films and he even played his part in helping Mr Brownlow restore Napoleon as well as having produced a four and a half hour restoration of Gance’s La Roue. He was, as Kevin said in his introduction, a “buccaneer” and a man of immense generosity as well as determination.

Tonight’s Bioscope was by way of a tribute to Mr Shepard and Kevin Brownlow regaled us with stories of their encounter with Miriam Cooper – who loaned them the only copy of her still-in-progress biography which they dutifully read out onto tape overnight before returning it to her in the morning. So many biographies never made it to print and these two were that anxious not to miss out... Miriam's wonderfully-acidic Dark Lady of the Silents did however make it to press.

David Shepard
On another occasion the boys were less lucky when taking their pick of a pile of unwatched nitrate, Kevin chose the Louise Brooks’ film The City Gone Wild (1927) – directed by James Cruze - which showed signs of decay and so was consigned to a watery grave by an over-zealous archivist… on such fleeting moments does eternity turn.

An excerpt was shown of the gorgeous Maurice Tourneur Lorna Doone; death on the beach as young Lorna is kidnapped by the ruthless Doones, all set in silhouette against the falling night-time sky, dynamic horse chases along impossible cliff paths and the frustrated rage of her would be young saviour who would spend half a lifetime finding his love again.

Shepard’s favourite silent film was Henry King’s T’olerable David and yet he was passionate about so much from the silent era investing a huge amount of time in producing an award-winning documentary on the role of silent film in the Great War. An excerpt from his film The Moving Picture Boys in the Great War (1975) was shown with Pickford, Fairbanks and Chaplin finally being mobilised to encourage American support for the war at a crucial juncture. The film was dedicated to Erich von Stoheim the Austrian who portrayed so many monacled Germans, helping to solidify an image of those who were to become the implacable enemy. Miriam later described Erich as "a foul-mouthed, terrible man", but she didn't always note the best in people...

This was the time when Hollywood grew strongest and cinema in the warzones suffered, the dream machine which benefited also did its best to help.

Our main film was Raoul Walsh’s genuine classic, Regeneration (1915) a film with an authentic feel even from the man his future ex-wife, Miriam Cooper, would say “never bored you with the truth…” Long believed lost, the film was found in a Milwaukee basement and restored by Shepherd to reveal a work Brownlow says is “head and shoulders” above any other crime film of the period. Walsh was to go on to “fulfil his potential” in this genre with talkies such as The Roaring Twenties (1939), but it all began here with an almost forensic realism.

Actual onlookers in Regeneration
Based on Owen Kildare’s autobiographical My Mamie Rose the film used actual locations and indeed actual hoodlums, prostitutes and other non-professionals – at least of an acting kind. This adds a roughness especially when contrasted with the sophistication of dreamy Anna Q. Nilsson, the Marie 'Mamie Rose' Deering who will inspire Owen – Conway not Kildare – to break with his criminal past and look for salvation.

Walsh cast well and whilst we have three Owen’s showing him at different ages, he found a real gem in Rockliffe Fellowes who plays him as an adult. Fellowes has an edgy presence and is one of those actors who looks out of time passing for mid-century method-Brando or even a modern-day stylist: he just is and is so relaxed in front of the camera and in his part that you hardly notice he’s acting.

I’ve previously raved about Regeneration and you can read all about it here if you want the chapter and verse.

A harsh upbringing for Owen
It’s a gem and whilst it clearly shows the influence of his previous employer, DW Griffith, Walsh was on his own journey and the story is there for the watcher to judge for himself; with residual shades of grey in Owen that you maybe wouldn’t find in Griffith?

Even District Attorney Ames (Carl Harbaugh) has an angle and that’s very much Marie but she sees beyond him and Owen’s desperate background to the man and his potential for good. Yes there’s a bit of religion but that was a common benchmark for good in the days before social media and opinion polls.

Rockliffe Fellowes and Anna Q Nilsson
To add to the cinema verite feel, the camera moves impressively in some scenes revealing the full extent of situation economically and reminding the audience of our safe remove… But when his former lieutenant Skinny (William Sheer) knifes a copper, his old world threatens to suck Owenback in and the true test of his faith and Marie’s belief in him comes. It’s not as neat as you might expect.

Tonight Kevin Brownlow shared his 35mm copy – obtained from David Shephard – and so there were no tints as on the 1995 David Shepard restoration most currently available on DVD. This mattered not as the print was very good quality.

“… this girl o’ mine …her soul, the noblest and purest thing I ever knew…”

We also had excellent accompaniment from Mr John Sweeney on piano who matched the film’s dramatic subtlety with his own restrained themes moving in perfect sympathy with the story from start to finish. I am sure David Shepard would have relished both the playing and the projection; one of so many films that will live on as a result of his passion and commitment.

There's an lovely obituary from Pamela Hutchison on the BFI site with a clip of Kevin Brownlow talking about his preservationist pal.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Indian spring… Raja Harishchandra (1913) with Pandit Vishwa Prakash ensemble, BFI

This talk and screening was part of the BFI’s season Music in Indian Cinema: Song and Dance and part of the India on Film strand which is itself part of UK/India 2017 a major cultural collaboration between the two countries.

It featured an introductory talk from South Asian Cinema Foundation director, Lalit Mohan Joshi, who detailed the birth of cinema on the sub-continent with a screening from the Lumière brothers as far back as 1896 which, as with the Velvet Underground in ‘67 or the Sex Pistols in ’76 seems to have inspired all those who saw it to go off and do the same, including pioneers such as Save Dada, Hiralal Sen, JJ Madan and Dadasaheb Phalke.

Phalke didn’t form a band but he did become the godfather of Indian cinema, especially after watching a 1910 film of The Life of Christ which so impressed him he began watching every film in town, convinced that it was possible to make the same kind of film about Rama and Krishna.

Dadasaheb Phalke on location
The photographer and printer packed it all in and – in his early forties – sailed to Britain to purchase equipment and the knowledge to make films beginning with Raja Harishchandra which has just about survived the intervening 104 years. A copy of the film from the Indian film archives was screened, or at least what remains although we do seem to have a beginning and an ending: the story lives on even at half (?) its original length of some 40 minutes.

Based on Hindu mythology, it is your typical King goes hunting, offends holy man then over-compensates before redemption story and is not only instructional in that respect but fun, if a little confusing.

Our king was played by Dattatraya Damodar Dabke, a Marathi stage actor and Taramati, his queen was played by one Anna Salunke, a male actor… the scene in which she and her “handmaidens” frolic in a pool must have doubly confused the audience. The question was one of female modesty as the camera was effectively the public eye and it wasn’t until 1914 that a woman played a woman in one of the director’s films, Kamlabai Gokhale in Mohini Bhasmasur.

The Sage Vishwamitra was played by G.V. Sane who is grumpy good value after his attempt to force the Three Powers to do his bidding is interrupted by the King’s intervention. The King begs his pardon and offers him his kingdom in compensation but that is not enough as the Sage forces him and his family out into the world to pay his dues – the Dakshina. So, the family’s travails begin as their good faith is put to the test…

Phalke directs with the assurance of one who knows what the audience wants and he had clearly been paying attention to western techniques even when producing a story that was to go down exceptionally well at home.

Accompaniment was provided by Pandit Vishwa Prakash on harmonium along with sitarist Surmeet Singh Dhadyalla, the cool Mitel Purohit on tabla (who has performed with a fella named McCartney and many more…) and Avtar Singh Namdhari on the taus, a peacock-shaped string instrument. Prakash sang and was joined by Kusum Pant Joshi and Uttara Sukanya Joshi on vocals.

The composer-singer had previously written a score for Niranjan Pal’s The Light of Asia (1925) for the BFI in 2011 but he said composing for Raja Harishchandra was more difficult because the film was incomplete. His music was no less diligently composed than for the earlier film with many nights spent watching the film and absorbing the narrative and sentiment. The result perfectly underscored the fantasy on screen and, having a seat in the front row, I was able to see the table, sitar and yaus all working together in support of Prakash’ harmonium: a tight but very loose combination that is complex and yet not unwieldy.

I’ve no idea what specific words were sung but the feeling was right, giving expressive voice to characters as the tale progressed.

The early cinema of every country drew on their storytelling traditions and India had a rich cultural heritage of folk theatre for which cinema was absolutely perfect yet, so few Indian silent films survive – only five features? – indicating that perhaps active “telling” overshadowed any western concerns for archiving, but nothing would stop the country becoming a cinematic superpower in time!

The second session featured a Q&A between Lalit Mohan Joshi and Pandit Vishwa Prakash who, accompanied by Mitel Purohit on table, sang his way through his family’s deep connections with Indian talkies. There were tantalising snatches of films such as Mahal (1948) starring the "The Venus of Indian Cinema", Madhubala which just makes you want to see more.

Which is lucky as the India on Film season continues throughout the rest of the year.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Ivor’s engine… The Man Without Desire (1923), Stephen Horne, Abbeydale Picturehouse, Yorkshire Silent Film Festival

Sheffield’s Abbeydale Picturehouse had been operating for three years when a group of bright young things conceived this oddly affecting drama perhaps in one of London’s more cutting edge West End licenced establishments… Absinthe may have been consumed as director Adrian Brunel and his producers, Miles Mander and Ivor Novello conceived a story across the decades of Venetian love gone cold. “My God, a man losing his passion: can you imagine it Manders?!” Ivor might have said… “Oh ya, and boys, let’s film on location – I’ve got a wizard idea to place a camera on a gondola in the Grand Canal…”

Organiser-in-chief, Johnny Best said that having opened the festival with Novello in excelsis with The Lodger, he wanted to programme this earlier film by way of comparison. It’s certainly not as polished as the Hitchcock film but it is always good to see British film from the early twenties: there’s just not enough of it about.

Luckily The Man Without Desire is on the BFI Player BUT without this place – the Abbeydale is pure cinema in its decayed glory, propped up entirely by stubborn passion – and this remarkable accompanist it won’t be the same. Live cinema equals film plus place, music and audience and Sheffield has done silent film proud.

Ivor plays... Steve Howe had one of these (probably more)
Mr Horne brought the bells and whistles if not the kitchen sink and performed the seeming impossible flute, accordion and piano solo-three-piece we’ve come to expect and yet never fail to be impressed by. He also brought some of his finest romantic themes along and lifted what is an occasionally lumpy film to the emotional heights the producers intended.

Ivor’s not the finished Novello but he still makes for a remarkable leading man especially one with a dark secret that’s two hundred years’ old. He’s also aided by the strikingly lovely Nina Vanna as the woman he loves across those centuries: she carries off Regency and Jazz-age equally well and is as eye-catching as her leading man.

The story is an unlikely one but if you take a purely metaphysical view, entirely plausible… (yeah).

Modern men
We begin in 1923 as a strange post-dated solicitor’s letter is opened and read out to a group of specially requested men: they all settle back for a long read…

The document takes us back to Venice just after 1800 and one Count Vittorio Dandolo (Novello) who is persistently serenading a beautiful woman who stands at her window paying power-puff penance for marrying a real count. She is Leonora (Nina Vanna) and her suffering is caused by Count Almoro (Sergio Mari) off galivanting with premier-league courtesan Foscolina (Dorothy Warren).

Finally she allows Vittorio to climb up to her balcony and reveals the reason she cannot smile for him: she has a son and cannot break from her horrible husband. But Vittorio cannot leave it and neither can Almoro who begin to circle around each other.

Nina Vanna and Ivor
Before what will be, will be, Vittorio meets a very unusual and gregarious, scientist named Mawdesley (Christopher Walker) who is experimenting with, Indian mysticism and suspended animation as you do. The two become firm friends well in time for the big blow up…

Stories have been circulating about Count Almoro and he has the writer’s hands broken in punishment… revenge is planned as Almoro’s maid Luigia (Jane Dryden) drops poison into his drink whilst attempting to deliver a love letter from Vittorio to Leonora… The treachery is uncovered and Almoro forces his wife to drink the wine in order to prove her innocence. This she does, as she is, but pays the price just in time to kiss farewell to her lover who then makes short work of the murderous Almoro.

Y'see, it's all quite simple really...
Pursued by the law and in total despair, Vittorio has no way out except, that is, being sent to sleep for two hundred years by Mawdesley to escape, both grief and retribution.

Back in 1923 the solicitors despatch a doctor, Roger (also Christopher Walker) to establish the likelihood of these event and do indeed succeed in waking Vittorio. They leave him to fully “wake up” which even I with no medical training, can see is risky… so it proves as the confused Count makes his way to the Almoro family home unaware of the time of day, let alone the year.

He encounters a woman every bit as lovely as Leonora, her descendent Genevia – also Nina V – and her cousin, every bit as obnoxious as his forebear, Gordi (Sergio too).

Meet the decendants
There are some nice touches as Vittorio discovers this strange new world of telephones and motorised transport and, as he sampled a rolled-up cigarette on a motor boat in the lagoon, Stephen threw in a few bars familiar to those who used to smoke Hamlet cigars, which got one of the biggest laughs of the day.

But the good humour cannot last. Mawdesley warned that there could be a price to pay for this escape to eternity… and well, you’ll just have to see it on the BFIPlayer!

The shock of the new.
It’s an enjoyable film for all its quirks and occasionally over-deliberate pacing. It’s location shoot doesn’t get overplayed but then they probably weren’t there for that long and who needs Venice when you have Ivor and Nina?

The Yorkshire Silent Film Festival continues until the end of May, full details on their site.