Thursday, 31 January 2019

Blood and water... Mother (1926) with Lillian Henley, Kennington Bioscope

“Mother is a moving picture in every sense, here is a film that stands up as well as when it was made in 1926…” Kevin Brownlow

Lillian Henley hadn’t even seen this film and yet she was on a roll of revolutionary rhythms and, sat towards the Bioscope piano’s deeper notes, created a patient mix of Russo-romantic dynamics that fitted the narrative like Comrade Trotsky’s best winter coat. I had seen Mother before but this once again showed how the connection between accompanist and film can make for such a varied experience.  Lillian’s experience as an actress sometimes gives her a different take on accompaniment and here she was almost taking a cinematic stroll hand-in-hand with Vsevolod Pudovkin’s tale…. We are so blessed with such a diverse range of styles and whilst I’d really enjoyed Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne accompanying at the Barbican this was a different and none-the-less expressive performance.

Mother was introduced by Kevin Brownlow who having brought his own 16mm copy of the film, explained how the director, in his opinion and that of many others, stood alongside Eisenstein and Alexander Dovzhenko as the leading lights of Soviet cinema.

Pudovkin dropped his university science studies after he saw Intolerance and resolved to make films. He used actors in a Stanislavski style and not just non-actors cast for type as with Eisenstein and the star here is the theatrically-trained Vera Baranovskaya, one of Stanislovski’s favourite actors, and it’s easy to see why with a performance of controlled depth and intensity,

Vera Baranovskaya
Pudovkin acknowledged Griffith as his master and yet his work bears similarities to Abel Gance, whose La Roue he was very influenced by. He talked of producing “a plastic synthesis through editing…” and, for example, instead of showed a prisoner’s joy at release he focused on the nervous play of his hands and the corners of his smile cut with a flowing stream and a child’s joy… “photographing thought” in a very Gance-an way. Brownlow praised his lightness of touch in the film and use of landscape and nature all of which make for “an exhilarating experience” in his view. Tonight’s audience wasn’t going to disagree.

Mother was banned in Russia, even though set in 1906 it was perhaps too anti-authoritarian… and could only be seen in private showings. Overseas, the strike certainly made it a no-no for many westerners. It was banned in the UK because it showed strikers where to hide weapons… under the floor-boards lads! They’ll never spot it there!! Nice to know we haven’t changed.

Pudovkin later made Chess Fever and Storm Over Asia which he regretted as it showed the English, who he liked, in a bad light. Ah well, at least we had friends once…

Aleksandr Chistyakov
But this film is all the more powerful for being focused on a single family and, especially, the relationship between a mother Pelageya Vlasova (Baranovskaya) and her son, Pavel Vlasov played by Nikolai Batalov one of the most frequently seen actors in soviet film. Based on the 1906 novel The Mother by Maxim Gorky and bears similarities to the Bloody Sunday attrocities in which the imperial guard were ordered to open fire on a demonstration in St Petersberg in January 1905. That event led to long-term consequences yet this film is not a simplistic take on revolutionary innocence versus black-hearted oppression but a tragic story of a nation undermined by a careless, fatal, malaise.

Pelageya is married to an abusive alcoholic husband Vlasov (Aleksandr Chistyakov), a man who would steal even the family iron if it would get him another vodka. He lashes out at his wife and slaps down their son, Pavel as he comes to her aid.

He is a sad sack of a man who has been defeated by life and in the local tavern he’s an easy mark for a group of men looking for a patsy to help them break an impending strike. The problem is that Pavel is one of the groups organising the action. He meets a girl, Anna (Anna Zemtsova) who hands him a package, he goes home and hides it disturbing his sleeping mother just enough for her to see what he is doing.

Nikolai Batalov 
Come the day of the strike, Pavel and his group are ambushed at the gates of the factory and badly beaten. Pavel and a pal are chased into the tavern, yet whilst Pabvel makes good his escape his mate is grabbed by the inn-keeper. In the melee his gun is fired and Vlasov is shot dead.

Our sympathy shifts as the insurgent's mother becomes a widow, staring in vacant horror as her husband is carried lifeless into their rooms. Before long she has discovered what Pavel was hiding, a collection of firearms, and honest citizen that she is, believes the policeman when he promises that if her son only tells the truth he will be free. But, the family are now involved in the legal machinery of the Tsarist state and all other considerations are discarded as punishment becomes more important than the crime…

 “Righteousness, justice, mercy… “, the tribunal sits lazily on the question of Pavel’s life, more concerned with fine horses than the three words they are supposedly guided by. There will be precious little of any today and Pavel is sentenced to hard labour. Incredulous, his mother begs forgiveness – she had no idea that her faith in authority would be so misguided. But she is not alone and soon there is a plan to free Pavel and other prisoners…

The day of the strike
Now the film shifts tone and pace as the director drives on towards the family’s ultimate betrayal by their country in an ending possibly inspired by a smuggled copy of East is East. The use of montage is mesmeric, with repeated shots of partly melted ice on the river being juxtaposed with the movement of people towards the prison and then in aid of the rescue: it’s a relentless flow in both cases and very powerful.

Pudovkiz is so good on the details as well as the scale. As Vlasov’s body lies in death, he focuses on mother, then a dripping tap, then her dead husband, the floorboards, her son and back again: the monotony of grief and despair all contributing the a shattering narrative that Lillian understood so well.

On tonight’s undercard we had Will Rogers in a 1924 short for Hal Roach called Don’t Park There in which our modest hero struggles to find a parking space, yes, even in 1924. Some things never change including John Sweeney’s excellence on accompaniment.

Good to get my Bioscope 2019 underway and the coffee and sausage rolls were also good too!

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