Sunday, 29 July 2018

Divas in Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival 2018

When in Rome… this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival included a fair dollop of domestic product with so many films from the early silent period and, of course, including the greats of the “diva period”. There are no doubt intricate socio-cultural reasons behind the predominance of such strong female leads at this time – not forgetting strong men like Mascist or the heroes and villains of classical Rome – but the fact is that no other country seemed to have celebrated women in quite the same way.  The influence of turn-of-the-century “black romanticism”  on Italian arts mixed with more contemporary concerns of a changing society led to women holding an almost unique position within film narratives,

As Angela Dalle Vacche, has said*: "Although widely used in contemporary English, the word diva in 1915 Italy meant something different from what it means today (and elsewhere) …the female stars of that period were characterized by a suffering and maternal aura (mater dolorosa) which the American femme fatales never adopted. Furthermore, in early Italian cinema a diva-film meant a melodrama with Orientalist décor dealing with women’s issues such as aging, abandonment, divorce, adultery, pregnancy, employment and so forth.” 

In other words, as Angela also says: “the diva is not a vamp”.

Pina Menichelli 
La moglie di Claudio (1918) with Antonio Coppola, 35mm

In the first film featuring Le Grandi Tre Dive, Pina Menichelli set the opera-without-sound mode to stun with maximum radiance as she threw her head back, smiled her malevolent smile and laid waste to half a dozen male hearts and minds. Actually, make that, *absolutely* stunning... Pina may be an acquired taste, but do you think she gives a damn what you care? She is superbly twisted in this film which features foreign agents trying to get hold of top secret inventions – a similar plot to the Ritrovato’s Wolves of Kutur serial (Great War pre-occupations).

Pina’s character, Cesarina, is married to inventor Claudio Ruper (Vittorio Rossi Pianelli) who has a super new gun but an unfortunate cash-flow issue… the baddies are intent on stealing his designs and selling them to overseas powers which is strictly against his dream of peace through enabling one-nation benevolence…

Cesarina and "him indoors"...
None of this bothers his wife who is busy seducing his adopted son Antonino (Alberto Nepoti) and Ruper’s ace engineer Moncabré (Gabriel Moreau). Unknown to Cesarina, he has been sent to seduce her (Ha! Good luck for trying pal!) but, of course fails, and she gets the emotional drop on him and, his mind turned to mush, he gifts her the money he was supposed to use to bribe her for the plans…

He gets despatched and the baddies get badder while Cesarina becomes more and more outrageous… it can only end one way… or can it; the final third twists and turns allowing Pina ample chances to display charm and disdain; in some ways she’s the perfect diva and then you think of Bertorelli and Bertini; all three so potent and so different. Here Giovanni Pastrone directs with powerful economy; he knew his lead so well.

Antonio Coppola accompanied with some playfull jazz-inflected dramatics; it must be a joy to accompany Menichelli, that throw of the head always the cue for dramatic disdain as she stares out to admire the quivering men in her way…

Francesca Bertini and Gustavo Serena in L'Avarizia

(1918) with Daniele Furlati, 35mm

It was Bertini time and the Diva you’d least like to face in a fist-fight, did not disappoint.

Francesca was magnificent in her rage in a film that dealt with the poisonous effects of greed with all the narrative subtlety of Sham 69 (look ‘em up kids!). Watching diva film, listening to classic Italian progressive rock music (don’t @ me) and just being in Bologna you have to leave your critical ego at the door… if you want to. This is expressive film that is driven by powerful, genuine emotion more than subtle plotting. It works on your emotions as much as Sennett works on your sense of humour; you don’t laugh with Bertini you share her angst, passion and fury… it’s an exegesis experience and you’re cleansed by the shared recognition of tragedy and – if you’re both lucky – redemption.

This film was one of a series dealing with the seven deadly sins and, as you’d expect, hit the nail right on the head, repeatedly. Bertini plays, Maria a woman kept in near poverty by her avaricious Aunt who lives in her sick-bed and takes every penny she can earn and hoards it while her niece struggles to look after them both.

Maria has a lover, Luigi (frequent collaborator Gustavo Serena), who is similarly held back by his father (Franco Gennaro), a scribe and draughtsman, who hides his small fortune in the secret panels of his desk and plans for his son to marry someone with better prospects. The youngsters have each other and the sunshine and need for little but are dragged down by the bitter appetites all around them.

Ron’s friend is a wastrel who does nothing but spend his inheritance and hang out with fine young things in expensive restaurants… they laugh at Luigi, “the pleb” who cannot connect with these pointless butterflies. Meanwhile Maria is pursued by a fraudulent count, who possibly in a hang-over from a previous film on lust, wants the one he can’t have and will stop at nothing to persuade Aunty to exchange her girl for cash.

The plotters intertwine as Maria – who can’t read or write as Aunty wouldn’t pay for schooling – inadvertently gives the game away by asking Luigi’s father to write down a love letter to her son. Once he realises who her love is he turns the communication into an anonymous accusation that Viv is betraying him with the Count who is going to fund the opening of her dress salon. The lover’s split in a physically-impressive scene with the actors almost intertwined in an agony of miss-conception… and this is just the start. Ron goes off to Sicily to recover – much snickering from the Italians in the audience – whilst Aunty dies in shock after seeing what misery she has heaped in her girl…

Fortunes rise and fall as Maria does indeed open her salon with her inheritance but it’s not enough and she has to contract with the Count for extra capital. The salon is a smash and we get to see Bertini the clothes horse as she models a series of exquisite gowns… Mean Luigi makes his way in the south and is soon ordering people around in impressive trousers…

Sadness is a warm gun...
But the Count wants payment in kind and he picks on the wrong woman to force his affections… he attacks in the night but reckons without the full force of Maria’s will. This section allows Bertini to power through her paces like a feral cat at bay with huge tresses of obsidian curls flying as she destroys the predator. There’s a price to pay and, as is always the way, there’s simply no guarantee of a happy ending.

The film was directed by Gustavo Serena and produced by Francesca Bertini herself, off all the divas she had most control over what she did. We also saw the closing, most dramatic clip from Tosca in which the actress goes through the agonies of the double-crossing of her lover… Bertini’s range is spectacular but she reins herself in, never wanting to lose the grounding reality.

Lyda Borelli
Carnevalesca (1918), Antonio Coppola, 35mm

Lastly but not least, Lyda Borelli, arguably the most sophisticated of the three grand divas, more graceful and choreographed than her sisters but no less powerful… a stronger theatrical foundation meaning that she is more mannered than Borelli and less wild than Menichelli.

The Leggenda di Santa Barbara (1918) was screened, a short in which the eponymous Babs (Borelli) has to fend off the murderous Vandals who killed her father with a box of explosives. Borelli saves her sisters by unleashing the explosive at just the right time… allegorically and figuratively… Barbara's father is killed during a raid of the Vandals. When Barbara and the other women are threatened, she throws a box with explosives to the attackers, which causes their death.

Carnevalesca (1918) is based around a series of carnivals that illustrate the life of royal cousins in the castle of Malaysia, from innocence at the White Carnival to blossoming love as Luciano falls for his cousin Lyda at the Blue Carnival. But there are other claimants for the throne and cousin Carlo (Livio Pavanelli) makes his move through intrigue and implication, aiming to kill two birds with one selfish stone…

This last, crucial, section: The Black Carnival, was screened again and it is worth repeated viewing as Carlo’s tangled webs of deceit leads Lyda’s character to stab her lover in the mistaken belief that he killed her father. Borelli appears to flex her entire being when she emotes, arching her dancer’s back and drawing her face into a mask of fright and fury… She’s exhaustingly-engaging and optimises the tragedy with forensic, almost paintfully detailed, expression.

It's like free-running – performance parkour – as Borelli, her character fired by a mix of fury and self-loathing, tears across the screen in search of the double justice required to put things right. It’s nip and tuck for subtlety between her and Bertini but boy are they magnificent. I could watch this over and over, as she tests her lover over diner, literally lifting the table lamp to better see his face for signs of treachery, moving agonisingly to the conclusion that he’s guilty and she must be the one to deliver justice.

Once the deeds are done, she tries to hide from her shame, never stopping as she walks off, heart destroyed and chased by guilt into the forest.

Again the accompaniment from Antonio Coppola was subtle and dynamic, exactly what these performances demand.

The Cineteca Bolognia have released Diva! a 4 DVD box set timed with the Festival and it duly arrived at the end of the week and made its way – after payment – into my bag: it contains a lavish booklet and four films , two each from Bertini and Borelli and the only shame is that only one is new to digital media and that Menichelli is not included.

Strong female leads continued even after the age of the diva had nominally passed and we saw two performers from the twenties who continued the tradition if not the style.

Rosè Angione and her hapless lover, played by Alberto Danza
The films of Elvira Notari were covered by the festival including this curio, E Piccerella (1922) starring Rosè Angione as Margaretella, a Neapolitan woman of fierce hair and huge desire, for freedom and expression. As with Pina’s character above, Margaretella wants for nothing save the exhaustion of her lovers as they foolishly attempt to provide satisfaction at the expense of their sanity and lives. But Angione seems more purely cruel than Menichelli, perhaps more vamp than Diva. Great hair though and a hard-working performer!

Leda Gys
Leda Gys wasn’t strictly speaking a diva but she had a smile to launch a fleet and as local girl Pupatella, she is cast in an American film about Naples in Vedi Napoli e poi muori (1924). It’s a celebration of the city and the actress which features a huge closing sequence showing the actress ub the joyous Feast of Piedigrotta. Accompanist Antonio Coppola was almost to the limits of crescendo at the climax of one of the feel-good hits of the festival!

*In her essay “Lyda Borelli’s Satanic Rhapsody: The Cinema and the Occult"

Sunday, 22 July 2018

Still could… It Happened Here (1964) on BFI Blu-ray and DVD

“If we can get them all together working to one end, we’ll soon get the country back on its feet again… “

When I was five, in addition to remembering watching England win the World Cup, I was also convinced that The War was still going on, probably in North Africa. This was the result of misunderstanding the nature of programmes such as All Our Yesterdays, but even in 1966 the Second World War hadn’t really stopped…

Ten years before this an 18-year old schoolboy named Kevin Brownlow conceived of a counter-factual feature film that would examine the premise of the War not only lost but victory achieved on these shores. Joined by 16-year old Andrew Mollo the two would spend eight years in bringing their story to the screen and the story of how they did so is an epic in itself. Underfunded, the project ran on the pure energy of their enthusiasm and produced a film that was controversial then and remains so now simply through the act of allowing some actual fascists the chance to voice their views.

The film featured a host of amateurs and in Brownlow and Mollo’s driven pursuit of authenticity they filmed a group of British Blackshirts discussing their ideology with other members of the cast. They decided to let them speak for themselves and didn’t have an opposing voice on the grounds that the ideas were so patently ridiculous they fell immediately under the weight of their own delusions; the directors also didn’t want to dignify fascist fantasy with a counter argument for the unarguable. As it is, the raised eyebrows from the others says everything about their opinions on Jews, euthanasia and the Bolshevik threat to Aryan purity…

Stylish promotional cards from the original run
This sequence was edited out of the general release on the request of big money distributors United Artists despite objections from film makers and critics alike, but you can’t just bury fascism you need to know what it is and why it works… Thankfully this superb BFI restoration includes the section, taken from Kevin’s own 16mm dupe negative and a 35mm positive.

It Happened Here is a remarkable film in so many ways and like all good cinema it reflects the time it was made as much as the time is was representing as the contemporary reaction shows. Now, as the far right surges forward against a background of Western economic and democratic decline, is the perfect time to view it again. Brownlow and Mollo wanted to explain the nature of fascism and to dig beyond the narrative of consensual opinion that had reduced it to a two-dimensional metaphor for ultimate defeat; there was no guarantee of victory in 1940 nor, increasingly in 2018.

The story is set in 1945 and in a world in which Germany proceeded with Operation Sealion and invaded Britain, defeating all military and civilian resistance. By 1944, with America now involved in the war, the remnants of the Allied forces re-arm the British resistance and puts the security of the occupied country once more under threat.

Pauline Murray in her IA uniform
There are opening sequences featuring some excellent cutting from editor Brownlow which shows his appreciation for Eisenstein and Gance as he sets up the sense of violent defeat amongst the British. The main character is an Irish nurse Pauline – played by Pauline Murray a gifted amateur Brownlow had seen in another low-budget film – who is perfectly suited as our window into this confused world of fear and subservience.

There are some highly impressive shots of German troops hitting the tourist high-spots of London and marching through familiar spaces. Some of the film was shot in 16mm by Brownlow and the difference in grain with the 35mm adds to the feel of documentary: these are the films the Man in the High Castle would prefer we saw… There’s also an authentic look to the uniforms, locations and equipment thanks to Mollo’s sourcing actual war surplus kit and the presence of un-renovated areas in a London still scared by bombing.

Pauline’s husband was killed by the Nazis, but she wants to avoid the war and just carry on with life. It’s a compromise all the civilians must face, and the disturbing facts is that as with France and indeed the Channel Islands, most people prefer compliance to revolt: what happens here is the same as in Germany, we fall into line… The only way she can be a nurse is to join the Immediate Action Organisation which delivers health care with an iron fist all in the name of order and discipline.

This drives a wedge between her and her still free-thinking old friends… she has to decide which side she’s really on and take a stance.

"Hurrah for the Blackshirts..."
It’s a tremendous package from the BFI including a 36-page booklet with essays from Dr Josephine Botting, historian EWW Foster and Mr Brownlow himself. There’s also a newly-recorded hour-long interview with Kevin Brownlow with Vic Pratt, an interview with production assistant Johanna Roeber together with behind the scenes footage from 1956-1966. The “newsreel” featured in the film is also featured – terrifying enough on its own.

As one of the characters in the film observes: The appalling thing about fascism is that you’ve got to use fascist methods to get rid of it… we’ve all got a bit of it inside of us…and it doesn’t take much to bring it out. Think of that the next time the Daily Mail or Telegraph headline on “traitors” or the politicians talk about the Will of the People in absolute terms.

It Happened Here is a vital film and tribute to the cinematic ability and drive of the most remarkable film historians this country has produced, and it is an essential purchase – a good way to celebrate the man’s 80th Birthday. He has the enthusiasm of a man a quarter of that age – clearly doing what you love keeps you young!

It Happened Here is released in Blu-ray and DVD dual format on 23rd July and can be purchasedfrom the BFI Shop. The film is also being screened on 23rd July at the BFI with a Q&A with Kevin Brownlow and Andrew Mollo. Details on the BFI website.

Saturday, 21 July 2018

A simple soul… Kipps (1921) with Neil Brand, Kennington Bioscope

"…the ruling power of this land, Stupidity… a monster, a lumpish monster, like some great clumsy griffin thing…  like some fat, proud flunkey, like pride, like indolence, like all that is darkening and heavy and obstructive in life…" HG Wells, Kipps (1905)

There is more joy in Heaven (the one that looks like The Cotswolds) over the screening of a decent British silent film than over any number of talkies… It’s probably in the Bible; check out the gospel according to the Saints Pearl and Dean.

It's useful, of course, to have the wonderful source material of an HG Wells' novel and the acting of George K Arthur, who simply “was Kipps” according to the author. Wells was less favourable over the actor’s subsequent film, The Wheels of Chance but, personally, I think that film has almost as much charm as this.

It also helps greatly to have an accompanist like Neil Brand who really understands the period, the source material and the very British story being told. In his introduction he said he hadn’t played with the film for twenty-odd years, but it didn’t show as he patiently built up a thoroughly Edwardian sentiment with flashes of more modern – classic – scoring. All this whilst resisting the temptation to reference a note or two from Half a Sixpence which was based on this story.

George K Arthur headed off to Hollywood not to long after this and I’d last seen him in Lights of Old New York with Marion Davies and Mr Brand again on piano. He has charm and a natural reticence which makes him perfect for romantic comedy but he’s a canny actor with more to his game than he’s often credited. One of his most unusual castings was in Von Sternberg’s The Salvation Hunters in which his vulnerability plays off against the dockside thuggery and, indeed, Paulette Goddard’s own toughness.

"Kipps is Kipps"
Here he is in his element as the man to whom Life just keeps on happening…  The full title of Wells’ book is Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul and George is the perfect straight man for the jokes perpetuated by the ruling powers of the land. He is Arthur Kipps (don’t delude yourselves that I’m not looking for a way to fit Arthur Sixpence into all this…) an easy-going orphan who lives with his stern and often disapproving uncle, Old Kipps (John Marlborough East) and his wife (Annie Esmond).

He grows up with his best friend Sid, the neighbour’s son and there are lovely scenes of imaginary pirate fights on what looks like the wreck of a Great War battle ship. Arthur takes a shine to Sid’s sister, Ann Pornick (Edna Flugrath) but takes a long time to express his intentions. When he does he finds he is loved back and they split a sixpence in half to remind them of their incompleteness when apart.

Now, having finally got started, Arthur is exiled to an apprenticeship at the Folkestone Drapery Bazaar, run by Mr. Shelford (Arthur Helmore). Wells’ class concerns are still very much in evidence and Kipps’ dialect comes out in the title cards as easily as his discomfort in “polite society”. People like him have little control over their lives and must follow their duty, and, in his case, this means separation from the other half of his sixpence.

Edna Flugrath in 1919
Gradually he forgets Ann and starts to woo his arts teacher – self-improvement was all the rage - Helen Walshingham (Christine Rayner). He also makes a new pal, aspiring playwright and actor, Harry Chitterlow (Teddy Arundell) and whilst their initial meeting ends up with his losing his job after they get drunk, Harry spots an advert in a paper that means Kipps is due a life-changing inheritance.

Newly enriched with his long-lost grandfather’s posthumous generosity, Kipps now has to adjust to his new social status and also to look after his fortune… Will money guarantee his happiness and acceptance, and, as Ann re-appears as a humble housekeeper can true love overcome the phoney concerns of social status?

Director Harold M. Shaw makes light of the story’s literate origins and constructs a deft, enjoyable narrative that allows his actors to shine. Kipps is very enjoyable, professionally-made cinema that even manages to smuggle in some of Wells’ social concerns. You wouldn’t get so much of that in Hollywood... or would you?

The Sun winks
The first half of tonight’s programme featured the Georges Méliès’ masterwork, Voyage à travers l'impossible (1904) which takes the template of 1902’s Le Voyage dans la Lune and swings off even further into the solar system.

Méliès plays an engineer called Mabouloff who has devised an expedition to take his fellow explorers across the Alps, up into space and back down again using steam, airships, rail, automobiles and submarines… it’s madcap and inventive and feels slightly more structured and technically advanced than Moon even as one thing keeps on leading to another. There are fades from one scene to the next and the shot of the Sun's face is what you might a close-up!

Fernande Albany - who would have been 15 - plays the inventor's cheeky servant and one of the few woman among the travellers. She stands out from the grey, bearded boffins adding kinetic interest to the chaotic tableaux throughout. She went on to enjoy a long career in France and it’s good to put a name to one of the faces.

The plans are unveiled - Fernande Albany on the right in light blue?
The version screened was in magnificent colour – originally hand-tinted – and this worked especially well when the travellers hit the stars and get eaten by the Sun. Luckily the rules of physics were suspended for the adventure and they managed to drop back to earth in a submarine, past several disinterested perch or sticklebacks stuck in front of the camera.

It was an absolute joy and John Sweeney played along with his old friend with adventure and much gusto of his own: it’s not just the musical narrative but the ability to create just the right period tone that is so extraordinary about Messrs Brand and Sweeney; the Bioscope piano must look forward to their accompaniment.

Crossfading from one scene to the next...
As if that wasn’t enough we saw an episode of the British Sexton Blake serial The Mystery of the Silent Death (1928) starring Langhorne Burton as Blake and Mickey Brantford as his assistant Tinker. There was some excellent detecting, thrills with spills – possibly down to this being two reels cut down to one. Ultimately the message was, gentlemen clearly in a “funk” almost certainly have something to hide.

We also had the World’s most popular cartoon cat (until Walt ripped him off) in Felix Strikes it Rich (1925) and an adventurous western from the Nestor Film Company, The Awakening of Apeta (?) which was a turbulent tale of mixed-race love and loyalty; in America as in Wells’ Britain, social mores held people down so miserably; you can only hope we can cling onto the changes brought by the ensuing century.

Tonight, we were, once again, spoilt rotten by the Bioscope: enjoy your summer break and see you all again for a lot more in September.