Thursday, 27 September 2018

Are we being served? Au Bonheur des Dames (1930), Stephen Horne, Kennington Bioscope

Every so often you just get blown away and tonight, even after so much recent film, Julien Duvivier’s final silent film coupled with Stephen Horne’s multi-tasked and richly varied accompaniment, duly removed our socks and deposited them somewhere near the Oval.

Au Bonheur des Dames looks and feels like total silent film incorporating so many techniques of mature silent film – German camera mobility, Russian montage, Hollywood crowds and French tracking shots - all making the most of an excellent cast. The film was selected as one of Kevin Brownlow’s Top Ten in his recent audience at the Cinema Museum and here it was for us to see just why, even Kevin – especially Kevin – was impressed.

Émile Zola’s novel was published in 1883 and here it is updated to the 1920s and based at the Galleries Lafayette which was being expanded at the time before the global crash put paid to the grand designs (the façade of the Samaritaine is also used). The building is still there today, and still spectacular, a cathedral of commerce designed to offer a larger-than-life retailing experience for the aspirational elite.

A matt-painted outer shell adding to the impact plus Samaritaine which is still down the road.
Zola was naturally concerned with this growth in big business and the impact it would have on traditional family retailers and all of this was well before Walmart and Tesco… I’ve not read the book, so I can only comment on the film’s sentiments: this is done in the name of progress and unexpectedly progress is seen to win out. Then again perhaps no one expected Madame Raquin to be slowly poisoned or the lead character of L'Assommoir to waste away under the stairs… Zola wasn’t called a “realist” for nothing and a happy ending is often deceptive (as here, but hush my mouth!).

Dita Parlo (later to feature in Jean Vigo’s L’Atalante and Jean Renoir’s Le Grande Illusion) plays Denise an orphan who heads to Paris to stay with her Uncle Baudu (Armand Bour, who hangs heavy with the sense of his chracter's defeat) only to find him on his uppers as his tailoring concern is overshadowed, lierally and figuratively by the massive store, Au Bonheur des Dames (The Ladies’ Paradise) over the road.

Talk of the town
Denise arrival is full of the director’s technique as she is shown pushing through milling crowds with advertising for the store literally everywhere and getting more and more prominent, even to the point of a row of people in sandwich boards spelling out the name of this “Temple of Temptation”. You can’t avoid the oncoming story and rapid cutting and montage are used to propel Denise towards her narrative destination.

He cousin Genevieve is played by the spellbinding Nadia Sibirskaya who look slight and wan next to the hale and hearty Parlo, electric blue eyes already indicating a sadness, specifically in her partner Colomban (Fabien Haziza) – is this a world where only the strongest will survive?

Armand Bour wearing a face he keeps in a jar by the door
Denise decides that if you can’t beat them you might as well work for them and starts life amongst the mannequins who are often mistreated by Chief of Staff Sébastien Jouve (Fernand Mailly) as well as alpha female Clara (Ginette Maddie) who only has to wink at Jouve to make him do her bidding.

Clara engineers a fight that almost see Denise out on her ear, but she’s caught the eye of the store owner Octave Mouret (Pierre de Guingand) – a character with form in previous episodes of Zola’s Rougon-Macquart series and here a kind of softer-hearted womanising, capitalist.

Dita Parlo and Andrée Brabant
Mouret’s lady friend Ms. Desforges is played by the stunning Germaine Rouer who I first saw in La Terre as a peasant heroine. Here she’s rather different as an aggressive defender of her hard-won position with Mouret but she can’t stop him falling for the new girl and it’s genuine too… Denise is no easy conquest.

But, as the romance develops matters get worse for Uncle Baudu as Mouret, refinanced by Baron Hardup sorry Baron Hartmann (Adolphe Candé) makes his move to expend the shop over and through the little shop across the way: he’s goaded into more competitive action by his backers and the board.

Dita Parlo and Pierre de Guingand
Naturally this drives a wedge between Mouret and Denise whilst matters turn tragic as Colomban leaves Genevieve for flighty Mary sending her into a steep decline; Sibirskaya sometimes looks so faint she might fade away.

“The future is being built on ruins…”

This is a world in which social justice is not guaranteed and the film takes a slightly ambivalent if not fully-blown ironic, view of progress. It should be required viewing for Western governments.

Throwing himself into this maelstrom of commerce and cruelty was Stephen Horne armed only with a piano, an accordion, a flute and sundry other devices out of which he crafted a stunningly cohesive improvisation that had the audience clapping their hands raw at the end. The Bioscope audience is as coolly appreciative as Ronnie Scott’s for jazz or The Globe’s for Shakespeare… it’s only silent film but we like it. A lot.

Ginette Maddie
Nadia Sibirskaya betrayed by the attractions over the road...
Germaine Rouer and untrustworthy husband played by Pierre de Guingand

On tonight’s undercard were some fascinating shorts all graced by Lillian Henley’s crafted accompaniment.

There was a trailer for Saving Brinton (2017) which is screening on 25th October at the Cinema Museum and looks unmissable in the manner of Dawson City albeit with a more conventional narrative. This was followed by the last reel of a film missed off from the Bioscope’s Train Day, called Juggernaut (1915) and directed by Ralph Ince. It depicts the build up to a rail crash and they only went and made one! It’s a spectacular which apparently cost $25,000 and comes complete with a desperate struggle to rescue survivors.

Then we had a Bobby Bumps episode, Fresh Fish (1922) which combined cartoon animation with superbly timed live action including “punk scenery” and an evil cat (is there any other kind?).

Au Bonheur des Dames was restored by Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films and released on ARTE DVD in 2008, it's now hard-to-find and could do with a Blu-ray.

Saturday, 22 September 2018

We have an anchor… Arcadia (2018) out now on BFI DVD

"It’s a country which for centuries has enjoyed a special fame, there’s nowhere else like it on Earth…"

A few seem to have confused this film with a conservative view of old England but the more I view Arcadia the more it’s clearly a call to ground ourselves: the answer being “in the soil” and not the rituals and hierarchies that have developed around ownership and those who work on the land.

Paul Wright’s Arcadia is interpretable as a political film and definitely a post-Brexit one, but it’s deeper than even that as it references people being disconnected from the land by aggressive owners for whom sentimental connections are to profit and not place.

But Arcadia is subtler than propaganda and allows the viewer to make their own mind up – would you rather be dancing on the rocks by yourself or in the city amongst the crush; would you rather be dancing in a crowd or charged by police on a march? The film is full of stark juxtapositions but always with the reservation that “olden times” were often ‘orrific times, there’s always a chilling moment to pop the rose-coloured bubble.

Arcadia is not a gentle compilation of nice old images but there’s undoubtedly hope amongst the oft-quoted folk-horror. How can there not be with the uncanny power of Anne Brigg’s glorious vocals demonstrating the purity of honest human expression and a score from Will Gregory and Adrian Utley that is so well referenced tonally. I love the sequence where three young tykes roll down a slope on their favourite trespass spot and suddenly we have a glam rock beat - it’s 1972-cheeky!

“Does your mum know you play down here?”

“She will do wi’you lot showin’ this on telly!”

Gregory (from Goldfrapp) and Utley (Portishead) have experience of lengthy composition from their magnificent work on Carl Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) and with a song-track from Wright to guide them, set about interpreting his film with a mix of modern and traditional instrumentation along with found sounds and music. As I’ve said before, Anne Briggs’ songs are the soul of the score and Uttley was able to contact her through contemporary Norma Waterson (wife of Martin Carthy and Eliza Carthy’s mum!) in her rural Scottish retreat, she hasn’t performed since the early 70s but gave her permission for three songs to be used.

Apart from sending a chill down my spine every time I hear her sing, Briggs gives Arcadia a deep connection all of her own – few have channelled folk spirit like she has. But the composers wanted to respond to what Utley calls a “sensory journey” with a variety of styles and genres and so, whilst we also have Becky Unthank’s modern folk purity there’s also Daniel Avery’s stunning Drone Logic – techno/IDM or whatever you kids call this stuff nowadays – accompanying raves of all ages.

The dance is a key part of Arcadia and whether it’s acid house, punk, Morris or psychedelia we all love to move, hitting down on the ground in eternal rhythms, a little faster here and there but essentially the same animal celebration. Sometimes we dance for the May Queen, or we fling burning barrels at the Beltane fire festival, we dance in protest but mostly we dance to connect.

Wright says he always tries to use images from “all angles and even from different states…” he didn’t want to show just filmed theatre. His source material was a mix of documentary and drama with films like Herostratus (1967), Winstanley (1975) and Anchoress (1993) mixed in carefully so as not to drag the narrative off course. Literally thousands of films were considered and around 100 made the film with Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) and A Day in The Hayfields (1904) being amongst the earliest. Hippies old and younger are featured from Pioneers of Nudism (1938) to Tribe of the Sun (1972) and there are dark tones indeed from An Untitled Film (1967) and The Watchers (1969).

Whilst Arcadia is, as the BFI’s Archive Projects Co-ordinator, Simon McCallum says, “…one of the most ambitious and painstaking exercises in archival repurposing to date…” it also makes you want to seek out more of these source films.

I’ve already ordered the BFI DVD of Chris Newby’s The Anchoress (1993) which is used to bookend Arcadia – it’s a tale of religious ecstasy in 14th century Surrey and stars Natalie Morse, Toyah Willcox, Pete Postlethwaite and Christopher Eccleston buy it!

Natalie Morse in The Anchoress
In short, Arcadia is *exactly* the kind of thing you’d hope the BFI would do: a film that highlights the wealth of content in its archive and which makes something bold, beautiful and new. It’s challenging and sometimes disturbing but if we’re not disturbed we’re sometimes only sleeping.

Arcadia is available now on BFI DVD and comes complete with a handsome illustrated booklet featuring writing by Simon McCallum, Stanley Donwood and Adrian Utley, director Paul Wright interviewed by Adam Scovell, and film credits – fascinating for those trying to play spot-the-clip although it doesn’t list them all.

There are some fascinating extras too including the trailer, a post-screening Q&A at BFI Southbank with Paul Wright, Adrian Utley and Will Gregory, some great silent shorts including ''Oppin' Makes You Earty!' (1925) about hop-picking in Kent and coverage of Shetland's Up Helly Aa in Old Norse Vikings Festival (1927).

Also featured is Once We Were Four... (1942) a potential Watership-downer for young rabbits plus Peter and Ruby (1973) traditional Dartmoor farmers facing up to modern life: what happened after them?

“She realised that answer lay within her all along… everything is connected… the past is gone, the future’s unwritten…”

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Meet the ancestors... Book now for the BFI London Film Festival.

Booking is now open for the 2018 London Film Festival and it's a special year for silent film.

The Archive Gala will be a spectacular glimpse of our Great-Grandparents' lives in the IMAX screening of The Great Victorian Picture Show, a compilation of films from 1897 to 1901 all taken from 68mm film (four times the size of ordinary 35mm) which has captured so much detail from the samples I have seen.

We're promised "...gorgeous panoramic vistas to dizzying 'phantom rides', from music hall turns to the pomp of royal pageantry, from the bustle of the Victorian street to genuine dispatches from the Boer War" drawn from over 700 newly-digitised films that will be launched online to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria's birth next year.

Meet the ancestors
For those who don't know, the BFI IMAX is the largest cinema screen in Britain, measuring 26m by 20m with a total screen size of 520m²... you will never be this close to stepping into your forefathers' shoes and watch out for those trams, they come at you pretty fast!

BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon has programmed the screening and will be act as our guide on the night through this extreme close-up on history. I am also very excited to hear the score from the Kennington Bioscope's own John Sweeney and his Biograph Band.

Be there on 20th and be Victorian! Mine's a flat cap and a pint of Mild please!

Fragment of An Empire (1929)
Another film I'm particularly looking forward to for musical as well as cinematic reasons is Fridrikh Ermler's Fragment of An Empire (1929) which will feature accompaniment from multi-instrumentalist Stephen Horne along with Frank Bockius for whom the term percussionist seems so inadequate. The film concerns a soldier returning to Russia after losing his memory for ten years... the country he finds is vastly different than the one he remembered or anticipated.

This film has been described as the most important film in Soviet cinema and you can understand how its critique of the post-revolutionary world might justify that. We'll find out on Friday 19th.

Lovely couple, aren't they?
Two films I have seen I can heartily recommend: the stunning new restoration of Frank Borzage's 7th Heaven (1927) which I saw in July at Il Cinema Ritrovato Festival in Bologna. It's a beautiful film with two stunning leads in Charles Farrell and Janet Gaynor - one of the greatest love stories in silent film (yes, I do have a poster of Janet on my wall...). It's a film in love with the idea of love, its power and endurance in spite of everything. You will be moved!

Marion Davies and Conrad Nagel don't quite hit the same heights but Lights of Old Broadway (1925) is a cracking film based around the shift from gas to electric lighting in New York. Marion plays twins separated at birth - one growing up posh and the other Irish (or Oirish given the tone of the intertitles!). There's plenty of action and it also features gorgeous sequences in colour using tinting, Technicolor, and the Handschiegl colour process.

Lights of Old Broadway (1925) Technicolor fragment from Library of Congress Photograph of the nitrate print by Barbara Flueckiger
One of the most important films of the entire festival is Be Natural: the Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché, not only the first woman director but one of the major figures in all early film.

Alice Guy-Blaché is missing from most film histories and, in her first film, Pamela B Green aims to correct this injustice by highlighting her importance as a cinematic pioneer. Guy-Blaché directed her first film in 1896 and she became head of production Gaumont studios in Paris, before opening her own studio and moving to the US. Guy-Blaché was astonishingly prolific working as a director, producer or writer on more than 1000 films - she helped develop the technique at the birth of cinema and her influence is still being felt. Jodie Foster narrates as if this wasn't already unmissable.

Alice Guy-Blaché directs Bessie Love and a horse

There's plenty more to be found in the Treasures strand including my Dad's favourite acting genius, Charles Laughton in The Private Life of Henry VIII (1933) and a fascinating French film about the early years of cinema, Silence is Golden (1943) starring Maurice Chevalier and directed by René Clair.

Elsa Lanchester - wife no. 4 and Charles Laughton - Henry no. 8
The most controversial classic film will no doubt be Peter Jackson's colourised compilation of Great War footage, They Shall Not Grow Old, which is also showing in 3D. The purists may baulk at the treatment of the source material but this sounds like an interesting way of bringing a new audience to the period both historically as well as cinematographically.

As an act of rememberance it's undeniably powerful and I always get lost in the faces of the men, fighting for an unknown future. Silent film is about reconnection and the London Film Festival is bringing us all a little closer this year.

They Shall Not Grow Old

The BFI London Film Festival takes place from 10-21 October 2018 and you can order your tickets NOW from the BFI website. 

Monday, 10 September 2018

Lulu and Lili, Clara and Curt… Kennington Bioscope Silent Weekender 2018, Day Two

Let’s start at the end with a hi-energy workout from luminous Lili Damita abetted by livewire Curt Bois. Curt is not the leading man in The Golden Butterfly (1926) but he is the one who really clicks with the leading lady both as a dancer – if that is indeed him lifting Lil high and perfectly straight into the air – but especially as characters; eye-rolls and flicks of the hands, the little messages sent by friends amidst the power play around them: these two truly belong in a nightclub, they’re performers and not actors, speaking to us in cabaret-code across the years of dull rom-coms and worthy romantic winners.

Given a choice between marrying uptight restaurateur Andy (Nils Asther) or overly-casual inherited-millionaire Aberdeen (Jack Trevor) I’d pick Bois’ steadfast André Dubois for Lili every time, even if as a best male friend over romance.

Jack Trevor, Lili Damita and Curt Bois
This is the third film Damita made with Michael Curtiz – her lover for a while but never her husband as Curtiz expert Adam Feinstein said in his erudite and informative introduction: there is no evidence the future Mrs Errol Flynn married the future Mr Curtiz when he was simply Manó Kaminer.

The two shared an undoubted creative bond too and this film, along with Red Heels and Cab No. 13 are spectaculars that highlight not just Lili’s extraordinary talent and beauty but also the glamorous world from which she came. The sets are stunning and her dresses jaw-dropping – this is GIF-gold once these films get released in the kind of quality seen in tonight’s 35mm BFI print.

Lili Damita
Based on PG Wodehouse’s short story, The Making of Mac’s, it tells the story of a besotted couple, Andy an undergraduate at Cambridge and Lilian (Lil) who works at his father’s restaurant a rather staid if high-quality eatery. The film was partly filmed in Cambridge and the Cam, railway station and colleges are, of course, largely unchanged.  Sadly, his father dies, and he must quit the dreaming spires for the hard work of running Mac Farland’s restaurant a rather staid but high-quality institution.

Andy finds out that Lilian has been sharpening her dancing skills and, what’s more, attracting the attention of Aberdeen who decides he can turn her into a star after seeing her dance with Bois’ dance-master André Dubois. As her star rises she and Andy separate and she loses herself in the thrill of it all, but she hasn’t forgotten Andy even though he’s desperately trying to forget her.

Personally, I think he’s stubborn and pretty stupid but none of this spoils the Damita-dazzle and this is possibly the best of the trilogy although I’d love to see Red Heels on the big screen with Cyrus Gabrysch’s spirited accompaniment.

Swinging Curt Bois
Before this, ace-programmer Michelle Facey talked us through the career of Curt Bois with clips from Wings of Desire, Casablanca (another Curtiz of course) and a screening of Patent Glue a short comedy he made in 1909: his career was even longer than Lillian Gish’s – officially the longest in cinema history. A high-impact character actor who never starred but always added flavour as in the above film where he’s the only one really on Lili Damita’s wavelength.

That was the finale, but we have five other sessions on Day Two, as, according to the Bioscope’s master projectionist Dave Locke, more film was projected than ever before including 10 features and many, many shorts.

Lois Wilson, cowed as Lulu
Miss Lulu Bett (1921), with Meg Morley

This immediately jumped to the top of the weekend’s charts with a superb performance from Lois Wilson in the lead and smooth direction from everyone’s third-favourite de Mille… William ranking behind his brother Cecil and then his daughter Agnes according to Amran Vance’s introduction.

In its own quite way it’s as powerful as anything we saw with a story featuring Wilson as the titular Lulu, the family drudge, run down by the domineering master of the house, her sister’s husband Dwight (Theodore Roberts) who brooks no challenges from his wife or his two young daughters.

Everyone has written Lulu off – destined for spinsterhood and chained to the household chores. Lois Wilson is a revelation; emoting in an understated way and carrying a lot of subtle meaning. She becomes accidentally married to her tormentor’s brother Ninian (Clarence Burton) – Dwight, somehow not surprisingly, is both a liar and a Justice of the Peace… and, whilst Ninian is sincere it turns out that he’s already married, and life threatens to get a whole lot worse.

Yet Lulu discovers new depths: “The only thing I’ve got left is my pride and you’ve got to let me keep that…” and she works upwards from there. As the poet said, you’ve got to hope for the best and that’s the best you can hope for and Lulu Betts does not disappoint.

Also flourishing was Meg Morley on piano accompanying with deft flourishes of jazz-age melancholy.

The Silent Enemy (1930) with Lillian Henley

A change of pace now with one of the best-looking films of the weekend, directed by H.P. Carver and set in the Canadian Northwest, where the Chippewa tribe struggles to find food before the onset of winter in the time before the coming of the white man.  The enemy in question is hunger and there’s a documentary feel as the tribe and their animals go in search of caribou to secure their future. The cinematography of Marcel Le Picard is breath-taking.

The cast was largely native American including Chief Yellow Robe (Chetoga, tribe leader), Chief Akawanush and Molly Spotted Elk (Molly Dellis) The rather strapping Chief Buffalo Child Long Lance (Baluk, mighty hunter) was actually Sylvester Clark Long an African American but it matters not especially if you can carry off a loin cloth like he can! He’s a fascinating character in his own right as are the others: given cinema’s history of black-face/fake-race this film deserves credit for authenticity.

The writer Robert E Sherwood summed things up better than I can: “High on the list of the cinema’s nobler achievements are the names of Nanook, Grass, Stark Love and Chang. Now there is another picture to be added to the distinguished list – The Silent Enemy. It is beautiful, it is superbly acted, and in many of its scenes tremendously exciting. It is a permanent, eloquent record of a race that is vanishing from the earth. Don’t fail to see it.”

Dancing Mothers (1926), with Cyrus Gabrysch

There is no hierarchy of “It” you either have it or you don’t but there’s something about Clara Bow that fills the heart with superior levels of joy; it’s partly human pattern recognition as you react to an unconscious display of emotion but it’s also a recognition of one of the best actors in cinema. I don’t mean technically but I do mean naturally, and Clara Bow can radiate in my general direction every day.

She doesn’t steal this picture from Alice Joyce, who is superb technically and emotionally, but you find it hard to ignore Clara whenever she’s on screen. In the end, though, the narrative forces Alice centre stage and in an unexpected way…

It’s an interesting film not just for its emerging star and Alice Joyce shows what a fine dramatist she was: a very professional job all round, high-quality generational comedy that asks, once again, if parents are really people.

The Emporia Gazette described Clara Bow as “a real little modern." Which I think is undeniable.

Bobbie Rudd with Johnny Butt - his "adopted" dad and Tom Coventry. Harry Green on the right.
Messing about on the river: films from the banks of the Thames with Lillian Henley and Meg Morley

Bryony Dixon, curator of silent film at the BFI introduced a series of shorts and a feature all based on Old Father Thames.

Lieutenant Lilly and the Splodge of Opium (UK 1913) was off its head years before Fairbanks’ Coke Ennyday whilst Broken in the Wars (UK 1918) was more serious being about a charity scheme to help veterans start their own business. It featured Henry Edwards and Chrissie White who was in most things at the time.

Trips and Tribunals (UK 1918) starred Lupino Lane and was a whole mess of tribulations. Up the River with Molly (UK 1921) sounded like a throw-back to Sparrows (Mary Pickford’s character Molly escaping up the river…) but it was far gentler following a man and his dog (yay!) on a trip up the Thames. The Haunted Hotel (UK 1918) is part of a series of Kinekature Komedies using a special lens to create distortion: gimme another splodge of opium maan!

The finale was Sam’s Boy (UK 1922) with Lillian Henley on excellent, sparkling form. Directed by Manning Haynes and starring the legendary Johnny Butt – and a host of increasingly familiar faces on location around the Thames Estuary and along the Kent coast and there were docks and old pubs too… I was transported by an admitedly daft tale about a boy named Billy who adopts the ship's captain (Butt) as his father.

Again, this section was presented with support from the AHRC project ‘British Silent Cinema and the Transition to Sound’ and of the British Silent Film Festival.

Turksib (1929) Costas Fotopoulos

Now for a real change of pace and Viktor Alexandrovitsh Turin extraordinarily rhythmic “propagandist” documentary about the building of the Turkestan–Siberia Railway. The editing and cutting are mesmerising, and Turin manages to create such momentum by selecting images of things happened or about to happen: it’s rapid-fire and grabs the viewer from the first few cuts before leaving you exhausted and rather pleased that they completed the 1445 miles construction “on time.”

This was also due to a positively Stakhanovite contribution from Costas who, even though he hadn’t seen the film before, piled in cluster after cluster of artful arpeggios and fluid, fast playing never once running out of crescendos!

And then onto our grand finale with Lili and Curt.

A superb weekend and, knowing how hard the organisers, helpers, Cinema Museum staff and all the contributors work I don’t take anything for granted. As Neil Brand said during his introduction on Saturday this is a fantastic event and we are so lucky to be able to celebrate silent film in this way.

It is the Silver Age of Silent Film and it continues in just two days with Au Bonheur des Dames (1930): details on the website!