Monday, 28 August 2017

Crack your cheeks! rage! blow! - The Wind (1928), BFI with Stephen Horne

There is so much to savour in the work of Victor Sjöström, Lars Hanson and Lillian Gish... this being my third go with The Wind, new responses occur with each viewing, especially in different contexts here at the BFI with Stephen Horne’s uncanny ear for emotional narrative.

Of the films I’ve seen from Sjöström’s Hollywood period, The Wind is the one that most reflects the landscape cinema of his homeland, allowing him to add the character and context of the environment. In this story, the elements are as much a player as the actors, especially the protean, elemental Lillian Gish… No actor can ever have been so moved by unbending force or swirled as helplessly by the combined brute forces of male desire and dust storm.

This is the film in which Lil really lets her hair down and is one of her most sexually expressive performances: Lige Hightower’s gasp when he sees Letty, hair down, button undone in their bedroom is felt by the audience too. Gish was 35 and even though her character starts out intimidated by her new environment she’s quick to use her allure with well-heeled Wirt Roddy (Montagu Love) when he comes to her rescue on the train. By the same token she’s very dismissive of the attentions of Lige (Lars Hanson) and his comic side-kick Sourdough (William Orlamond) – she knows what’s she’s worth.

Lillian lets her hair down
We never learn much about the reasons for her exile to stay with her step-brother Beverly (Edward Earle) in these unfriendly outlands but the instant dislike of his wife Cora (Dorothy Cumming) may suggest some history? Then again, to Cora, this eastern softie is just another mouth to feed, of little use and there’s a telling scene in which she is busy disembowelling a cow, up to her elbows in blood, whilst Letty stops ironing to play with their children - Cora multi-tasks, towering over Letty with bloodied hands next to the carcass that will feed the family for weeks. Then Bev arrives and Cora puts those hands over his shoulders and gives him a full-blooded kiss only for him to be distracted by his pretty "sister"...

Not a cow.
Cora understandably hopes to marry Letty off as soon as she can and the latter is keen enough on what she assumes to be a rich bachelor but when Wirt reveals that he is married and wants merely wants to “keep” her…  that’s too much.

Letty marries Lige because he’s her only option but she can’t bring herself to consummate their relationship. By this stage Lars Hanson has started shaving and only a mad woman could ignore his scandi charms especially when he pledges not to bother his bride and to save up to send her back. His physical performance is on a par with Gish as he transforms from a clumsy, loutish cowhand to a man of dignity and leadership.

Love quadrangle?
Everyone is changed by the wind. Beverley and Cora have already learned how to survive whilst Wirt tries to rise above it, constantly brushing the sand from his clothes with the knowledge that someone else will do his dirty work. He tells Letty that the wind will have its moment with her and so it does.

Whilst Mordaunt Hall, film critic for The New York Times, may have fussed that the elemental motifs were overplayed but most of us find that Sjostrom’s treatment has stood the test of time. From the opening shots of the wind scudding across the plains as Letty’s train makes its way, to her dust-drenched arrival, white wide-brimmed hat blowing down on her face as Victor’s aero-engines did their worst, the wind is ever present. Letty has headed straight into the heart of the storm and faces the biggest test of her life.

Man with the lamp - Lars Hanson
As she eats with Bev’s family the sand encrusts the food and even as Wirt wins her away from Lige at the town dance a cyclone drives them into the storm shelter as the men shore up doors and walls. Living with Lige the “Norther” approaches, the mightiest wind, and plans are made to protect life and livestock before it is too late. The Norther – a satanic elemental force – is represented by a ghostly white stallion but the horse also has a Lawrencian interpretation…

Wirt is also unstoppable and abandons the men’s emergency cattle drive by faking exhaustion and engineering a recuperative stay alone with Letty: the Norther wind, Wirt and judgement have all arrived at the same time and now Letty must find a way to survive the storm.

Stephen Horne delivered a masterclass in supportive narrative with a sympathetic symphony that incorporated the sinister “breath” of accordion to piano string-thwacking musique concrète for the havoc of the storm. To perform an emotional duet with Lillian Gish you need to match her expressive agility and Stephen has clearly been here before as he mirrored her razor-sharp shifts in tonal response to the repeated interjections of the wind, man and sand. This film drives on ever harder but not in a linear way and Mr Horne kept his ferocity in check until it was time to let the horses loose! They might need to re-tune the BFI’s upright after this Norther

Blisters on her fingers... Gish burned her hand on desert-scorched door handle.
Gish chose this film for her strengths and she also picked Victor Sjöström and Lars Hanson for theirs - she’d been impressed by Lars’ Gosta Berling… now there’s a film we haven’t seen on screen, London!). Hanson matches her stride for stride and follows a similar trajectory from self-indulgence to self-sacrifice whilst finally Victor could explore the great outdoors, filming in style in the 120 degrees of the Mojave Desert: a physical and emotional challenge for cast and crew; they even had to freeze the film to prevent the emulsion melting.

They may have changed the original ending – after which Victor told them they could keep their "Seastrom" and headed back to Sweden – but the result resonates full-force ninety years later.

Saturday, 26 August 2017

Get fresh at the weekend... People on Sunday (1929), with Stephen Horne, BFI

"And then on is back to work... back to the everyday... back to the daily grind... Four... million... wait for... the next Sunday…”

This is one I’ve been saving for the big screen with live accompaniment and it was well worth the wait for a film that pulls you into the centre of city intimacies like few others: people and places you experience more than simply "watch".

There was also the bonus of an expert introduction from Erica Carter of Kings College London and the German Screen Studies Network. Erica placed Menschen am Sonntag in the context of its time as well as the artistic objectives of a production team that went onto have such an impact in Hollywood: directors Robert Siodmak and Edgar G. Ulmer, cinematographers Eugen Schüfftan (Die Nibelungen, Metropolis... Napoleon!!) and Fred Zinnemann, who later gained an Oscar for his work on From Here to Eternity then there was someone called Billie - later Billy - Wilder?

Wolf waits...
The film is haunted not only by our knowledge of exactly why these men ended up in Hollywood but also by its capturing of the casual everyday of a sunny Sunday Berlin just three years before the Nazi Party led its first administration in January 1933. The brutal dash of fascism seems a world away from the carefree style of the film and the citizens it captures whiling away their free time in parks, lakes and looking out on streets that would be utterly transformed within 16 years.

Pulling off those goggles of foresight though, what we see is a stunning film that captures the moments of what we all would recognise as the best of days and which features no actual actors and yet is so well directed and crisply edited you would hardly notice.

Erwin settles in for dinner
The five stars of the film play versions of themselves and that is perhaps why their reactions are so convincingly natural. Whether dictated by budget constraints or by the film-makers’ desire to create a more realistic cinema than the intense, formalised works of UFA, the “actors” all do really well. Thinking of Ken Loach and others’ work with non-professionals, maybe we find it easier to display non-verbal play-acting, the voice and diction often betrays us but we’re so used to controlling our “look”.

The story itself is also far from complicated and merely a device to hang the set-pieces of actuality and these moments reinforce the relationships being acted out.

Wolfgang von Waltershausen and Christl Ehlers
A travelling salesman called Wolfgang (Wolfgang von Waltershausen) meets a pretty film extra called Christl (Christl Ehlers) and the two agree to spend Sunday together. Wolfgang invites his taxi-driver pal, Erwin (Erwin Splettstosser) who lives with his model wife Annie (Annie Schreyer). The couple of movie-obsessed and their walls are plastered with post cards of Greta Garbo and others stars – Harold Lloyd and I think I spotted Rennee Adore? It’s a nice touch – a film without stars who follow the stars the film couldn’t afford.

Annie is too much in need of a lie-in and so Erwin sets off alone only to find that Christl has brought along a blonde pal, Brigitte (Brigitte Borchert) who works as a salesgirl in gramophone shop… Mark my words, one day these things will be incredibly popular with teenagers in 2017.

Brigitte revs things up
The four set off as the streets around them fill with Sunday swirl… and that’s your set up, what follows is the most gentle of days out, featuring sunbathing, swimming, peddle boats and wandering eyes… oh yes and a ripped shirt sleeve.

The camera follows the players wherever they go, out onto the water and in the midst of their interactions. At one point there’s a close-up of Christl as she snoozes on Wolgang’s hand and then it pulls back slightly and moves over his naked chest to view Brigitte all together more intimately cradled in his other arm: it’s a clever moment that illustrates this love triangle in all its febrile complexity; no words just faces and arms. As the four hit the water for the first time the camera is almost in there with them as Christl and Wolfgang race and fail to hit it off and Erwin splashes like a (very) oversized child in the 1929 version of too-small speedos.

Annie watches the stars...
The narrative is so well-observed and engaging not just as we see Wolfgang and Brigitte get closer but simply as we watch four people experiencing their day. That’s ultimately why the film holds such fascination; it’s infused with wellbeing and the youthful experience of endless sunny Sundays. At the end their lives are so full of rich possibility that you’re not sure whether they’ll meet again… after all, the football is on next Sunday.

Stephen Horne accompanied just on piano this time and plunged into some deeply-resonant tones of his own. Given the way the film was conceived and performed it just has to be seen with live improvised playing and Stephen captured the film’s freshness along with the fragile, sometimes only partially-developed emotions of the players. At times like these you wishe that the BFI should allow for an encore… perhaps of the mysterious woodland chase sequence in which Wolfgang follows blonde not brunette and there’s that tell-tale tear of the shirt?

That's The Look...
The film has been restored by the BFI and others to something like 90% of its original length (91.3% to be precise, based on footage!) and is available on crisp Criterion Blu-ray… It's one of the most visually compelling of all silent films and having now finally watched my copy after the screening I might just watch it again!

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Tall tails... The Lost World (1925), Lucky Dog Picturehouse, Wilton’s Music Hall

Dunkirk and superpowered Amazons aside, 2017 has not been a vintage year for blockbusters but in 1925 it was a little different with The Big Parade being a huge $20 million hit followed by the likes of Ben Hur, The Gold Rush and The Phantom of the Opera. Also comfortably in the top ten grossers was The Lost World a science fantasy from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle who swapped Baker Street for brontosaurus in his wildly successful book of the same name

We’re not so different 1925 and 2017, are we? Literary adaptions fuelling Hollywood invention and excess only in this case they knocked the ball right out of the Jurassic Park using techniques rarely seen before and on a scale that was to set the template for the next century of alien worlds from Kong all the way to Skull Island.

Sir Arthur abides... a snip from a contemporary documatary replaces his original intro.
For Harry and Mabel, Frank, Lil, Jenny Wren, William, Jessie and Jim, this would have been their first exposure to prehistoric animation a visual shock on a par with any technological leap seen since although I can’t see our Jessie being that impressed with such frippery.

Directed by Harry O. Hoyt and completely unlike anything he or anyone else had produced before, this was adventure cinema as adventure based on a concept that was far more believable in an age before satellites took some of the fun out of exploration. As recently as twenty years ago an expedition to a huge meteor crater in Africa was touted as possibly revealing a “lost world” of new and previously-extinct species… we live in hope and we want to believe.

But here the brave band of explorers discovers the past alive; mind-blowing wish fulfilment we cinemutophiles can completely relate to. And here in the restored stucco walls of our oldest music hall, we feel the same frisson as, with Emily O’Hara’s intrepid troop of musical adventurers to guide us, we simply connect with a lost world of nitrate wonderment.

The indigenous sounds of the deep Amazonian rain forest.
The Lucky Dog players snuck on stage in character, pith helmets and jodhpurs along with an inflatable tyrannosaurus. Their music is witty and very tightly orchestrated with Emily on guitar, mandolin, cello and musical direction, Christopher Eldred on piano and clarinet, Daniel Tiberius Mays (parents, Star Trek fans?!) on woodwind – a deliciously poignant flute and Nicholas D. Ball on percussion and some very effective dino-sounds!

I loved their playful syncopations and when they were clicked off by Nick’s drums their ensemble playing is a real joy – is dancing allowed mid-film?! They also handled the thematic work well and I was especially entranced by Emily’s Spanish guitar lines and Mr Eldred’s way with the pianoforte: the bedrock of a score which not only included snatches of contemporary songs – the lovely What’ll I do? – but also a few notes from Jurassic Park (or was that just my projection?!).  It’s music that competes sometimes with the narrative but for this film and in this setting, that’s exactly what you need.

Hipsters go mad for silent film!
Wiltons is an interesting silent film gig and it was good to see so many young and unfamiliar faces and an audience who, inspired by the Lucky Dog verve, had a ball with the film: laughter is the gateway response to silents. Not that The Lost World is ever meant to be taken entirely seriously; as with its modern counterparts, there’s a rich mix of humour and action from the relationship between the squabbling professors to the convenient get-out for our main hero at the end: what happened in the jungle doesn’t always need to stay in the jungle!
The Trachodon about to do battle with the Allosaurus!
We shouldn’t underestimate the impact stop motion techniques had on contemporary audiences, just as the CGI from the first Jurassic Park looks slightly awkward compared with Jurassic World over twenty years later, technology moves on and our perceptions follow. The film’s special effects maestro, Willis O’Brien had worked on stop-animation since 1918 and a short test film he made was shown by Conan Doyle a meeting of the Society of American Magicians, which included Harry Houdini in 1922. Doyle refused to discuss the film's origins but the audience and press alike were astonished… the New York Times declaring that if they were fakes they were “masterpieces”.

Sir Arthur is featured on his porch at the start of the film, he looks happy enough and I’m sure a good deal was arranged for the script as developed by Marion Fairfax. The author later declared that it was Lost World’s Professor Challenger who was his favourite character and not the Great Detective.

Wallace Beardy!
You can understand as Challenger is all for pure adventure even if here he’s opposed by the scientific establishment. He’s played by Wallace Beery complete with wildling beard and scatty fringe highlighting wide staring eyes as he’s laughed at by his peers. He’s looking for men to accompany him on an expedition to the Amazon to try and rescue Maple White whose journal suggests that dinosaurs still roam a plateau deep in the jungle. Noted adventurer and game hunter Sir John Roxton (Lewis Stone) offers to join him as does Professor Summerlee (Arthur Hoyt) who wants to prove him a fraud.

A young reporter, Edward Malone (Lloyd Hughes) also offers to join up much to Challenger’s disgust – he hates fake news – but Ed has a girl to impress with daring deeds, Gladys Hungerford (Alma Bennett). But, once then young fellow spies White’s daughter Paula (Bessie Love) we and he aren’t so sure of this prior commitment.

A US map of the Atlantic: Britain known by its proper name of Liverpool...
Cut to animation of ship skipping down a map from London to Brazil and the team are soon looking at a huge plateau with only one way up. They climb a rock tower and walk across a tree trunk to the plateau but their route is soon swiped away by the first of many huge new animals: the dinosaurs are here!

The stop motion is still impressive (thousands of movements over hundreds of painstaking days) and O’Brien worked a split screen with increasing confidence as he showed the “tiny” actors against a backdrop of dense forest and battles between Allosaurus, Brontosaurus, Triceratops and Stegosaurus (the last two my childhood favourite dinos). By the film’s spectacular conclusion, we see a Brontosaurus let lose in 1925 London… eight years later, O’Brien had a giant gorilla doing the same in New York.

Very smart split screens
If the story intensity drops on the plateau it’s because the adventure was all in seeing these great creatures live and move again and we’re all so used to seeing dinosaurs now. But there were moments when music and music hall helped us recapture the magic of discovery once again.

The Lost World was so nearly a lost film and is still being restored with a new 110 minute long Blu-ray due from Flicker Alley on 12th September. The version shown was the 93-minute restoration from 2000 used on the Eureka DVD which has perhaps 90% of the original content according to Doyle and Lost World expert, Roy Pilot’s commentary.

Reaction shots are key to believability.
It’s a classic bit of fun – pure cinematic pleasure! Wilton’s and the Lucky Dogs made sure we all had the best of it!

This was part of a short summer season from Lucky Dog at Wiltons including the magnificent Brit-com Shooting Stars and, footage of Irving and Malory’s fateful climb in The Epic of Everest. For details of upcoming show visit their website or follow them on the old social media.