Monday, 25 June 2018

Midsummer night’s dream… Rosita (1923) with Mitteleuropa Orchestra, Piazza Maggiore, il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna

First time in Bologna since I was a boy and a heck of a lot more films to watch. The combination of city and Cinema Ritrovato is disorienting and agitating, but not in a New York way… it’s a pull between cultures, eras and styles of films and one of the most beautiful cities in Italy. No disrespect to Pordenone but have you seen the Piazza Maggiore and a cathedral planned to be so grand they had to tone it down so as not to upset St Peter’s and the Vatican?

Tonight was a dream as the film played out next to that cathedral with the ancient walls of the Piazza adding mystic resonance to the reconstructed score as played by the Mitteleuropa Orchestra, conducted by Gillian Anderson. Rosita is not perfect but, huge but, it was Mary Pickford on the biggest of screens, floating through a film directed by Ernst Lubitsch… we forgive our best friends anything and sometimes we love them more when they don’t quite click.

Erik supervises the bombing of Paris...
To be honest, Eric Satie had already loosened my grip on reality with his mesmeric invention for the score of the freshly minted restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). The film is a dadaist gag-reel and a hoot for schoolkids of all ages. Daniele Furlati played pianoforte to perfection and proved that Eric’s musical spirit connects more deeply than Rene’s images; still never take a camel to a funeral!

Onto Mary then and a budget younger Ernst could only dream of back in Germany. As has been noted this film has an almost identical plot to The Spanish Dancer made at almost the same time in Hollywood with Lubitsch’s perfect partner Pola. Put the two together and you might have a masterpiece, and, having recently watched that film I couldn't help wondering that you can’t go into battle against Negri’s dance armed with only a guitar. Likewise there are elements of this odd tale that work far better under Lubitsch’s direction and there’s no leery King Beery… which may or may not be a good thing.

Mary picks her chords
But in the moment, under the stars, it was time to simply enjoy the Mary we have and she does her best to convince as the street singer from Seville who captures the heart of both the sleazy King (Holbrook Blinn) and the dashing Don Diego (George Walsh). I always enjoy watching the Queen of Hollywood playing her age and here you can almost feel the creative tension between her indomitable fixed jaw and Lubitsch’s vision; there are some superb moments.

Ernst touch is evident in a flowing narrative that cuts out the side-steps and blind alleys of the Dancer’s version and includes some choice cuts like the hungry Rosita’s tango with the royal fruit bowl – walks left to right, camera on the cherries, walks back again, picks one, picks two… a hand-full - and the ragged feet of the children when climbing on board the royal coach to take Rosita to the royal love nest.

The King and Queen have an up and down relationship.
Irene Rich is very good as the King’s long-suffering Queen, and her relationship with her philandering monarch saves the story from being too brutal: it’s not the way to a girl’s heart to shoot her lover and expect her to then allow you a good time - although we could believe that Mr Beery's King may have thought so.

Mary is sprightly, sassy and quite sensational in Spanish costumery as she punches out energetically throughout. Truly she was first amongst equals and she dominates the screen time so much it does leave you wondering how she and the Don became so attached so quickly. But people weren’t paying to see George they wanted Mary and that’s what they got and they took her love at first sight on trust.

Don and Rosita share an intimate meal
The film did well on release, with good reviews and audience and box office that generated profits and yet Pickford was not happy and didn’t even want it preserved… but there was an original nitrate copy in Russia and the restoration is history... it looks glorious!

The music used a cue sheet based on the now lost score from Louise F. Gottschalk, the 45 separate pieces held traces of Verdi, Bizet (natch) and many more, all matched the moods very well - although I’m not sure I’d agree that they were as well fitted as an original score – the music and the sound were none-the-less very powerful: an 80-piece orchestra blasting out Nineteenth Century themes in a Twelth Century square as the Moon and Venus watched down through a cloudless sky... bellissimo!

Can I have some more?
As always with silent film it’s context, venue, audience, accompaniment as well as the source material itself: you don’t need 100% to get a distinction.

I absolutely loved the night and it’s exactly what I wanted when I decided to come to Bologna… 7th Heaven follows in the Piazza on Wednesday… just enough time to come down from Cloud 9.

The crafty Queen uses her mirror to spy her husband's philandering...
Mary and Ernst discuss her character's motiovation, probably...

Saturday, 16 June 2018

Taxi for Mr Curtis… Cab No. 13 (1926) with Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

Lili Damita worked with Michael, married Errol, helped introduce the director and star of the greatest Robin Hood film ever made. But she had real star power – she positively glows, energised like Fairbanks and could probably kick your head without any back-lift having been trained at l’Opera de Paris.  She ended up starring with Cary, Maurice, Laurence, Jimmy and Gary but quit in her early thirties to be a mother.

Not many of her Hollywood films were great, and there was always something missing when she wasn’t able to express her physicality. In this film she dresses like Peter Pan and performs an impressive – heels as high as her head – kicking can-can and these are amongst her best moments. Her first film with Michael Curtis – then Michael Kertész – was Red Heels (aka Das Spielzeug von Paris) and that has a much higher tempo and some extended dance sequences that make more of her vibrancy.

Our Lil
Here again she is also a fashion plate with impressive eye-popping dresses that show off her neatness (male “code” alert) but for much of the film she’s a humble cab-driver’s step-daughter and the action is suitably Pickfordian knockabout.

Ah, but she can’t just be a cab-driver’s daughter, can she? No, as a baby she was abandoned by her dying mother who had run from her rich husband only to die in childbirth in a poor tenement. The landlady hides a note written to her husband in a book and places the baby in a horse-drawn cab – Number 13 - where it’s owner, Jacques Carotin (Paul Biensfeldt) decides to adopt this bundle of possibilities on the grounds that he’d always dreamed of having children.

Unlucky 13 for horse-drawn cabs as motors had taken over by the Twenties and Jacques struggles
Yes, the plot is a bit like that, but enjoyable all the same – there’s more exposition in the French-titles version doing the rounds and some of the English intertitles on the 35mm print we saw are a bit brusque in comparison. That said, the quality is superb - far, far better than these screenshots - and it’s great to see Lili on the big screen and to see more than an nth-copy digital bootleg allows.

They christen the child Lilian (thereby making it so easy to learn Damita’s name in the read-throughs) and naturally she grows up to be a dancing queen, young and sweet only 18 (in this instance). She graduates as the most talented and mischevous dancer at her ballet school and there are some winning scenes as she dances the Charleston Black Bottom for her classmates and teasers her teacher.

Bored in ballet...
She has a flirty relationship with another tenant, a musician who no doubt will be very successful at some stage, called Lucien Rebout (Walter Rilla) and the pass the time playing, singing, dancing… all the free-to-do stuff. He’s a bit of a Stephen Horne, playing violin and sax… what am I saying, he only does two instruments… but, most of all he - natch – plays on Lili’s heart strings and the two make a lovely couple.

Just when things look to have hit a long stretch of speed-restricted narrative carriageway, a coincidence happens… In an antiquarian bookshop run by a con-man (Max Gülstorff) and his master forger François Tapin (Jack Trevor), the latter discovers the letter from Lilian’s father - wealthy "King of the Cafes" Henri Landon (Carl Ebert) - hidden in the book which obviously has a fair re-sale value. As for the letter, it promises much more and, touching his boss for a 20,000 Franc loan he sets off to present himself as a rich playboy in order to woo the inheritor of her rich father’s millions…

Lovely composition as Tapin forges away like some alchemist turning paper and ink into money...
Bold plan I hear you say and so it seems but Tapin exerts a strange charm on lovely Lilian and soon turns her head by showing her the finer things leaving poor Lucien all glum at her dancing school’s passing out ball. This is one of several good-looking sequences, not just the dancing but also the design from Paul Leni – yes, him – which includes a carousel covered in streamers which is mesmerising. Then there is the second-hand bookshop from which the forgers operate, it’s a cavern of ill-gotten mysteries so well-lit and shot by Gustav Ucicky and Eduard von Borsody. Top-notch mis en scene with some state of the montage thrown in for good measure.

Good-looking film and great-looking stars even if perhaps too much time is spent on Lambeth’s own Jack Trevor – who would go on to feature in a number of GW Pabst’s films including two with Brigitte Helm Abwege and The Love of Jeanne Ney. In truth his François Tapin is more likeable rogue than anything else and, well… you’ll have to see the film, suffice to say that it’s also known as The Road to Happiness.

The eyes have it...
Curtis-to-be's direction is inventive and economical and there's one scene - a confrontation - that's decided on the strength of a "look" - the eyes of one character revealeing to the other that the matter is closed, or it will be if there's any further debate... clever stuff: pure cinema!

Herr Horne accompanied with his usual panache and instrumental juggling. Sometimes you think your mind is playing tricks when the accordion strikes as you follow the action down a Parisian street only to find Stephen – who is playing piano with the other hand – also has the other instrument on his lap. He uses the accordion to create sound effects and generate atmosphere and, of course, it is also perfect for the demi-monde of 1910 cafes under the streets of Paris.

Some of that montage business...
As is traditional with the Bioscope there was also an entrée of three short films that matched the mood and subject of the main film.

Tonight, we started with Fashionable Paris (1907) showing a glimpse of life in the trendy Bois du Bologne and then had La Tour (1928) Rene Clair’s angled explorations of the tower commissioned for the fortieth anniversary of its construction. Meg Morley accompanied and showed again her ability to mix in flavours of the period – a drop of Debussy and a soupçon of Satie – with flowing lines of her own. She made for an hypnotic combination with Monsieur Clair.

Lastly, we had a real treat with Adolf Philipp’s The Midnight Girl (1919) which not only featured Meg’s piano but also Michelle Facey’s pitch-perfect vocal debut on the title song at the beginning and end of the film. A woman of many talents – programming, researching and introducing tonight’s line up as well!

Another absolute cracker in Kennington. Merci beaucoup mes amis!!

Now for some more Cab. 13...

Wednesday, 13 June 2018

Soil music… Arcadia (2018), Paul Wright with music from Adrian Utley and Will Gregory

“She was told, the truth is in the soil…”

This is a painstaking work of cinematic horticulture that plants seeds from many dozens of different source films, ploughs it good and deep and then carefully tends the starting mix of rustic wonders that grow forth. It takes uncanny directorial vision to make such a coherent narrative from this many disparate parts – separated in time and style – and Paul Wright is to be congratulated on the alchemy of his editing and his ability to juggle meanings so adeptly.

Underpinning it all is a score that binds and extrapolates; making the most of the source materials and being fully attuned with their director’s vision: a tremendous act of collaboration given the huge compilation with which all began. You could argue that Mr Utley has had practice with musical sampling in Portishead, Gregory too with Goldfrapp, but, as they have already shown with their magnificent score for Dreyer’s Joan of Arc, they understand the subtleties and responsibility of film music.

There’s also an element of taste and whilst I generally agree with their musical direction I was almost leaping out of my seat when Anne Briggs’ voice suddenly cut through as her song, The Time Has Come, was featured. Briggs is a genuine folk legend, she was there with Davey Graham and, especially Bert Jansch at the start of the folk revival in the early sixties and sings with a voice so clear and true it is very much English soul music. She features on two other songs, My Bonny Boy and Lowlands and it’s a thrill to hear her in this context: for me the star!

Uttey and Gregory work their music around her, paying as much respect as to the other primary sources. The fact that Annie follows on from techno artiste du jour Daniel Avery’s Drone Logic, says it all about the complimentary collage created by the two; as with the film, there’s a timelessness in everything and the answer is in our ears and beneath our feet.

Arcadia feels initially like period folk horror, that rich seem of unsettling pastoral tales from The Wicker Man to Children of the Stones that took the ghosts of our rural past and used them to frighten our urbanised present. We’re, literally, rootless and need to find our feet again, standing on the soil. This era holds an enduring fascination for many, not least the likes of the League of Gentlemen and the Ghost Box record label which specialises in a kind of “folk-tronica” – part Blood on Satan’s Claw and part Tomorrow’s World.

In Paul Wright’s narrative – and in the source materials - the suggestion is that we have lost something in the transition sparked by industrialisation “…from a time when we were connected to the land and to each other…” to a world of isolation. This is probably even more the case now than in 1948, 1965 or 1975 and if you don’t believe me, look again at that device you’re reading these words on.

It's not as simple as black and white

It’s a passionate programme of delicious slices of English whimsy but not without a dark side – a child (Jenny Agutter) crying out “mummy, mummy!” in terror,  miners being attacked by policemen, urban isolation and dark deeds abound: there’s something unsettling in the country but its natural balances are undermined by explosive urbanisation…

Starting with the microscopic worlds of Frank Percy Smith we see the almost unseen life beneath, moss and lichen growing, tadpoles gestating… then switch to the macro world of ploughing fields and sowing seeds.

There’s country dancing, May poles and May Queens, Morris dancing and nudists too – all connected to the grass and the mud. And did those feet…? Jerusalem emerges with added themes and Blake’s meaning, yet, curiouser and curiouser, none of the images can be taken at face value any more. This alchemy is signalled by section headings like INTO THE WILD, FOLK, UTOPIA, AMNESIA, THE TURNING and IN A DARK WOOD… as if Syd Barrett has written the mood board.

Fans of Daniel Avery syncopate
BLOOD IN THE SOIL is perhaps the key and the connections are made elegantly again and again shifting the feeling forward by association, image and music. I heard Becky Unthank, a young 'un with some of Briggs’ breathy purity; musical proof of the countryside continuum.

Ultimately Arcadia is a tone poem for us to interpret as we will in spite of the specifics of word, action and song. It’s an intimate multi-media dialogue with some very talented and careful individuals who have produced something far greater than the sum of its parts: Arcadia, the feeling won’t go away and it could be the grounds on which we take our last stand?

Arcadia opens on 21st June at the BFI on Mid-Summer’s day, the Summer Solstice ensuring the right combination of magic and marketing. It is one of the very best compilations I’ve seen from the BFI and if, for example, you enjoyed From the Land to the Sea Beyond with British Sea Power and Public Service Broadcasting’s work then you’ll love this.

Highly recommended and also fascinating for the sheer range of archive material it includes. Many of these are available – free to view – on the BFI’s iPlayer and those that are not are worth paying for like the brilliantly unsettling Herostratus starring Michael Goatherd and from which a snippet of young Shakespearean Helen Mirren is included.

There’s plenty more and I know what I’ll be doing this weekend… BFI Player link here.

To book tickets for Arcadia visit the BFI website which also lists previews on 19th across the country. Don't miss it!!

There will also be a digital release on 20th August as well as a soundtrack album, details on the Common Ground site.