Monday, 18 September 2017

Epic! British Silent Film Festival, Day Three

It started with the 600 and it ended with Civil War; Day Three at the BSFF was not for the faint-hearted.

Kevin Brownlow is on record as saying that the Charge of the Light Brigade in Maurice Elvey’s Balaclava (1928) was the best mass action scene in British silent film and it’s hard to argue after one of the most visceral of sequences involving hundreds of men and horses from a number of battalions recreated the heroic disaster on the fields of Aldershot.

In her, uniquely well-informed introduction, Lucie Dutton explained how the silent version was never released with the film held back for sound overdubs before finally hitting screens in 1930. The silent version we saw is itself a reduction, focusing on the history and largely ignoring the romance between displaced Scottish farm lass Jean McDonald (the lovely Benita Hume) and disgraced Scots Guard John Kennedy (arguably the best looking MacLaglen, Cyril). As it is, the story switches from a brief meeting to Jean riding along with the cavalry to warn as the Russians gather for attack.

Benita and Cyril in a scene missing from the version we saw... but does it exist?
But once the action starts it is spellbinding and very poignant, with Tennyson’s words, Elvey’s meticulous soldiers and John Sweeney inspired accompaniment. As her beloved John heads into the valley of death, Jean sits with a group of peasant women in off-the-shoulder torment as the brigade charges into impossible odds, facing enemy fire on three flanks.

As the few dozen survivors wearily gather on a ridge you can’t avoid the actuality; this is how they died for Queen and Country. Elvey is more concerned with history than anything else in these moments and the Russians are evenly painted as the formidable fighting force they were with the cartoon nastiness coming from Mr Miles Mander as a dastardly British officer. No one could handle a moustache with such attitude.

Not all British films were as balanced and Walter Summers, otherwise forensic, Men Like These (1931) contained some racial stereotyping bewildering to modern viewers. His story of a stricken submarine and trapped sailors aiming for a longshot float to safety using Davis re-breathing kits, portrays the two Asian characters as limp in a crisis as our brave boys overcome their situation using guile and grit. It’s tense and if you’re claustrophobic not a comfy watch.

The next session featured a glorious compilation of films compiled by the BFI to hand-paint a picture of the world in 1913 before we said goodbye to all that. The BFI’s Bryony Dixon explained the popularity of these “interest” films as they not only showed other cultures but also the source of the foodstuffs consumed at home. Tea, Cultivation, Harvest and Processing (1909) does what it says on the tin and there’s a poignancy now in watching the two well-dressed ladies at the end sipping the end product in their comfy parlour: the milk goes in after the tea is poured of course.

There were some stunning hand-coloured images as we saw Delhi, Rangoon, Java, Borneo and, of course, Korea, Land of the Morning Calm (1908). The films were mostly clustered between 1907 and 1911 and these foreign lands seemed intimate and familiar even In the Land of Monkeys and Serpents (1910) aided by Stephen Horne’s accompaniment – a real treat for him to bring out the bells and whistles, a one-man gamelan.

From Sunda Islands snake-wrangling in 1910 to frozen nitrate in 1978 and Bill Morrison’s extraordinary cinematic archaeology. Dawson City: Frozen Time (2016) was the perfect post-prandial immersion with an electro-minimalist, glacial score from Alex Somers most familiar to me as producer of Iceland’s Sigur Rós. It’s a remarkable feat of editing and narrative construction, that uses elements of the 370-odd films recovered from the perma-frost of Dawson to help tell the story of the city as well as the mixed-bag, treasure trove itself. Fascinating stills from Eric Hegg whose 200 glass-plate negatives were only rediscovered in the 1950s, take the story back to the original gold-rush in the area and show the town grown to over 100,000 as men flooded North in search of their fortunes.

It was the most quietly disruptive cinema of the day that was full of multi-layered shocks and connections… When you consider that it was here that the Trump family fortune began with Grandpa Trump’s hotel, you realise that this history is still unfolding: land-grabs, greed and “gold-rush” mentalities are still be found in the land of opportunity.

Our second Bill Morrison epic also drew comparisons with the present day as his The Great Flood (2012) which used found footage to recreate the story of the flooding of the Mississippi Basin on 1927. Morrison takes so much care in assembling his materials some scenes almost convinced you that he’d gone back in time to shoot them. It was a testament to the news reporting of the time that so many aspects of the flood were covered as lives and homes were saved as the levees broke arlight... left right and centre. Memphis Minnie’s famous song battled in my head with John Bonham’s massive drumming on the Led Zeppelin version as the actual score from alt-jazz guitarist Bill Frisell floated intriguingly over the visuals. Not to everyone’s taste, Frisell’s recorded score was performed live with an original screening of the film and worked well for me apart from the last scene of Big Bill Broonzy and other bluesmen in the early 60s… it would have been good to have heard their playing at that point. But overall, another stunning production from Mr Morrison.

Next, a complete change of pace with Different from the Others (1919) and a revelatory examination of Paragraph 175 from the German penal code of 1871. In his learned introduction Matthew Jones Associate Professor in Film Studies at DMU Leicester, presented a timeline showing the progress of this code from the empire through the Weimar years and the calamities post 1933. After the war, censorship was temporarily lifted enabling the film to be made with the support and contribution of Dr Magnus Herschfeld, leader of the German Homosexual Emancipation Movement and head of Institut für Sexualwissenschaft.

Connie mit Dr Magnus Herschfeld
This film was the first to deal explicitly with homosexuality and Conrad Veidt is, of course, brilliant as the closeted violinist, Paul Korner who is only conflicted by society’s double-standards. The film features Herschfeld’s theories of the “third sex” which have obviously been long over-taken scientifically but his call for understanding and unequivocal belief that “love for one’s own sex can be just as pure and noble as that for the opposite sex…” has endured.

Paragraph 175 was finally taken off the statute books in 1994.

Decisions, decisions for Raymond Griffith
As the long day closed, we were up for a laugh and the irrepressible Raymond Griffith delivered in Clarence Badger’s Hands Up (1926) as Neil Brand gleefully played along. Griffith plays Jack, a confederate spy (how very 2017!) who attempts to prevent Montagu Love’s Yankee Captain Edward Logan from delivering the gold the Union needs to win the Civil War. En route he faces capture and execution but also the most difficult of choices as he has to choose between the daughters of mine owner Silas Woodcock (Mack Swain) played by Marian Nixon and Virginia Lee Corbin.

Jack’s never phased certainly not facing a firing squad when he distracts the boys in deeper blue by throwing plates in the air and by, literally, painting himself out of a corner nor even when romancing the girls as their stagecoach is attacked by Indians: as the arrows fly they mistake them for a bee. The ending was a double whammy of historical timing and the most unlikely, jaw-droppingly irreverent, romantic solution. The pace is relentless and the comedy is probably metatextual proving once again that we were just as clever ninety years as we ever are now.

I’d like to say we sprang into the night with the same verve, reconstructing Griffith’s comedy battling across Leicester’s fearsome inner ring road but we were all filmed out and it was only Friday…

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