Sunday, 28 April 2019

Sound clouded… White Paradise (1924), with Tomáš Vtípil, Barbican Centre

My mother was a music lover and she recently saw a splendid performance of Mahler’s 5th Symphony at the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic which we discussed at length. The composer was controversial in his time for his practice of mixing musical styles, often running them against each other as in the First Symphony, when a childhood memory had him counterpoint a funeral march with a marching band. It was this careful conflict of sound which made him revolutionary and, due to his diligence and control, he made it work.

Who knows, in years to come I might come to regret objecting to being pulled in two directions by this light romantic drama and Tomáš Vtípil’s mix of glitchy-electronica which might more typically be found late night in Café Oto or the Village Underground rather than Barbican Cinema 1? But right now I really doubt it...

Jon Snow returns to the north... or, Karel Lamač 
This was the UK premier for the Czech Film Archive’s splendid restoration of Karel Lamač’s film which was featured the so-called Der starke Vierer (The Strong Four) a creative team made up of himself as director, script writer and lead actor, cameraman Otto Heller, actress Anny Ondra and screenwriter Václav Wasserman. They succeeded in making a visually satisfying film which balances drama with scenic splendour: top-notch visuals with nuanced performances that wouldn’t have been out of place in Hollywood or UFA.

Anny plays Nina Mirel, an orphan forced to work like Cinders by a cruel innkeeper, Jakub Rezek (Vladimír Majer), she does her best in the manner of a Marion Davies/Mary Pickford and has her dreams of escape to good fortune. She builds a crystal castle out of beer mugs in tribute to a life unlikely but her palace comes crashing down and Rezek chases her out in a rage until she slips unnoticed into a cellar.

Anna Sophie Ondráková or Anny Ondra to most of us
Meanwhile, escaped convict, Ivan Holar (Lamač), is on his way to deliver a life-extending medicine to his poorly mother… he is spotted by two policemen and only just manages to evade their guns by, surprise, slipping down into the same subterranean refuge as Nina. There’s an instant spark – there always is… and Ivan entrusts Nina to deliver the crucial concoction to his poorly mother (Saša Dobrovolná).

There’s a neat touch when the police shoot and smash the bottle of medicine but all is not lost as the cold has frozen it. More danger is on its way though as the police mistake Nina for Ivan – she’s wearing his coat – but she manages to reach the humble Holar household just in time. Ivan follows on and the couple enjoy brief respite as mother is restored, happy in her ignorance of her son’s crime even after the police arrive. Ivan is re-arrested but the kind-hearted cops make sure his mother doesn’t know.

The director squeezes in a profile shot...
Meanwhile Nina meets an itinerant puppeteer called Tatík Tomáš (Josef Rovenský), who rescues her only to return her to the inn of un-happiness where all kinds of pennies drop in relation to the true ownership and the wrongs of revolting Rezek…

Lamač handles this complex plot with a lightness of touch and he was to go on to direct over 100 films across Europe and in the UK where he shot newsreels with the RAF during the Second World War. White Paradise is an entertaining adventure and Anny Ondra is as eye-catching as always with her director fully aware of the need to squeeze in as many close-ups as possible against the snowy backdrops.

As the film was playing there was much action left of screen as Tomáš Vtípil worked a mix of electronica, effects, piano, recorder and violin. The music was largely improvised – he was commissioned for the film’s restoration premier and tries to make each performance different. For me, and for several others, the score was just too disruptive in parts and overbearing in others.  Regardless of the instrumentation, the musical ideas need to support the narrative and if they do work against the action on screen, they need Mahler-esque control not to derail the audience’s emotional sympathies. As the film glided effortlessly towards its satisfying denouement, the music lumbered, beeped and throbbed us miles away from snowy mountains and deep into Hoxton subterranean. I think there was plenty of musicality in the multi-layered mix but it needed to be simpler and more subservient to the partnership on screen.

It was all too loud and I did observe one woman stuffing tissues into her ears; then again, I’m married to her and that’s not too unusual.

It’s a fantastic film and definitely one to catch if you like top-notch European silent cinema but there needs to be more of a balance between sound and vision: Tomáš Vtípil’s music is without doubt skilled and interesting but this was a combination that didn’t show it in the best light.

Sunday, 7 April 2019

Murder on the dancefloor... Palais de Danse (1928) with Costas Fotopoulos, BFI

“We are a nation that suffers from… mock modesty and it applies to British film… there is no reason why our films should not rank higher… Are we downhearted, emphatically no!”

Speaking thus in 1929, Maurice Elvey bemoaned the attitude of the British to our own cinema and, commenting as above, issued a rallying cry for the creative arts to stand up and be counted. Dr Lucie Dutton in her excellent introduction addressed this ongoing narrative of “mock modesty” and offered this film as yet another example of domestic cinema’s quality. Elvey himself wouldn’t have ranked Palais de Danse on a level with say his own Hindle Wakes (1927) but it’s clear to see that the former is not only highly competent but stylistically adventurous and entertainment.

Lucie quoted the above from a 1929 radio interview and an earlier interview in which Elvey also talked about wanting to make stories that touched on the common experience of the audience: “depicting human emotions in a reasonable way… (and) just the sort of happenings that must have happened to themselves.” This film, as with Hindle, helps explain why audiences at Granada cinemas voted him the most popular director in 1927.

One of my favourite sequences in Hindle Wakes is that showing the dancing in the Blackpool Tower Ballroom and here Elvey filmed 1500 extras in the Tottenham Palais (built in 1910 and only demolished as recently as 2003), Percy Strong’s camera following the mass as the circle the dancefloor marshalled impeccably by the director (was anyone better with crowds than Maurice?) and his assistant, one David Lean.  It’s hypnotic and poignant, these were are grand-parents’ moves, it was how they met and how they courted.

Mabel Poulton promotes the Danse
The film is packed full of cross-fades, dolly shots, montage, and Germanic camera mobility and it draws you into the Palais and moves the narrative onwards so effectively. At one point, Lady King (Hilda Moore), enjoying a rendezvous with “Count Alban” (aka No. 1 played by the marvellously menacing John Longden, who also co-wrote the story), are followed as they stand up from their table in Eugene’s Club and move over the room to open a door revealing a roulette table. There are also plenty of “Elvey Touches” such as when the legs and feet are shown of the professional dancers/escorts as they march out from their changing rooms to face another day of being bought and danced with… or when our modern Cinderella (Mabel Poulton) is first caught up in the show, nervously reacting to the extreme close-ups of “Prince Charming”, Tony King (Robin Irvine) as he attends to her in a tableaux vivant at the start of the film.

In the same way that, say Julian Barnes or Ian McEwan are easier reads than other middlebrow heavyweights who use too much technique (yes Martin and, especially you Will…), Elvey focuses on the story and only uses that which advances the process. I’d say he is under-rated from what I’ve seen and there are a growing number who would agree with Dr Dutton in recognising his importance in the development of British cinema from the 1910s onwards.

Mabel Poulton is an actress new to me but she’s excellent in the film as the daughter of a disabled war-veteran road worker who is plucked from her father’s side opposite 415–419 High Road Tottenham, to fill the glass shoes of a missing Cinders in the aforementioned tableaux. She catches the eye of the Hall’s owner and auditions for the leading professional dancer, Number One (Longden) who is extremely impressed after a false start in which she dances ballet.

She is allocated the number 16 and is soon foxtrotting her feet off on the daily drag round the dancefloor. The other dancers are well observed especially Number 2, played by a perpetual motion gum-chewing Chili Bouchier, as the world-weary girl with the curls who comes out with such lines as “c’mon you flat-footed son of a saxophone!” – I think we’ve found the English Marie Prevost!

It’s a culture shock for our innocent Cinders and there’s another great sequence in which she backs away, mesmerised and horrified at the mass of human interaction, shadows falling in constant motion one her face and the walls. She retreats staring at the action and finally sneaks out of the door, pausing only for one last look.

Her Prince Charming returns and gradually No 16 falls in love with Tony King but it’s not a relationship approved of by his mother nor his father, Sir William King (Jerrold Robertshaw) a judge “of few words but long sentences”. Tony pleads with her ladyship – “this is 1928, times have changed…” but not by that much and the class divide stands firm even as Lady King finds out who her Count really is.

As Number 1 starts blackmailing his Lady, Cinders overhears and tries to help… things are about to get a lot more complicated; there’ll be more dancing and a heck of a fight before the day is done in a thrilling, if completely predictable, ending.

The curved entrance to the Palais de Dance on Tottenham HIgh Road
Costas Fotopoulos accompanied with sure-footed flourishes that captured the mood and the period; rhapsodic elements mixed with jazz-age poignance. Just what the film asked for.

Palais de Danse could easily have been a Hollywood or French comedy-drama and proves Mr Elvey’s point precisely by its quality – it’s not his best work but it is very good all the same!

For more on British Silent Film, I can recommend theBritish Silent Film Symposium which takes place at Kings College London on 11thand 12th April – it’s a fascinating line up of research and films and plays a major role in the ongoing rehabilitation of British silent film.

Are we downhearted? Emphatically no!

Chili Bouchier, the English Marie Prevost?

Monday, 1 April 2019

Here's Stanley! A Clockwork Orange (1971), BFI UK-wide re-release from 5th April

It’s hard to believe that this film is almost fifty year’s old, it’s such uncomfortable viewing with a very modern nihilism and, being made in Britain’s pre-EU “golden age”, it does a good job of presenting the type of moral vacuum that drives us now to be “free”. Do as thy wilt shall be the whole of the law and one man’s freedom is another’s licence: a free trade in human compassion that sees the weakest abused. We are now in the time of going backwards and the warnings of the film stand out starker than ever they did.

As Kubrick said of his film it is not only social (and moral) satire but a “running lecture on free-will” for if society’s cure for anti-social behaviour and criminality is brutal brainwashing and chemically-fired aversion therapy then how far have we lost the will to reason? And is this brutal “project of fear” just an admission of failure in the matter of producing a society capable of reasoning and reaching moral judgements?

So, the BFI’s decision to re-release this once-forbidden film (apart from the censors, Kubrick stopped it being screened until his death, so exhausted was he by the reactionary and, largely unthinking reaction to his work…) couldn’t be better timed. From Friday 5th April it will be playing at 200 cinemas across this septic isle and God help us…

A Clockwork Orange is as comic and brutal as its concrete backdrops but amidst the theatre of the absurd book-ending the imprisonment and “rehabilitation” of Alex, it poses the questions that hit hardest. Burgess ’62, Kubrick ’71… Trump, Brexit… we are all Alex now.

Malcolm McDowell gives one of his most complex and disturbing performances as Alex DeLarge, the boy from Burscough, adopting a strange generic northern accent which makes his love of violence and Ludwig van Beethoven somehow all the more shocking. He leads a gang of “droogs” – Pete (Michael Tarn), Georgie (James Marcus) and Dim (a young and perfectly-cast Warren Clarke). The language is Nadsat, a slang invented by Burgess involving of Slavic (especially Russian), English, and Cockney rhyming slang.

He lives at home with his folks but in the first blistering and unsettling sequence we see what they get up to on a typical night out… Back as my boyhood turned to early youth there was always a specific culture of violence in British society: bovver boys, skins, lads wandering round in light blue “parallels” and feather cuts… a glam-rocker link between well-dressed mods and later footie casuals who favoured designer labels as part of their aggressive signalling. These were all gangs you’d cross the road for and at the very least avert your gaze.

Malcolm McDowell, my Dad knew his dad...
Alex’s gang evening starts off with a vicious attack on a tramp – kicks for kicks and mindless too. Next up they interrupt another gang raping a young woman (Shirley Jaffe) in an abandoned theatre/cinema – a degenerate “show” – and attack the other gang not to rescue the girl but just because they can. Celebrating victory in a comically back-projected, Wacky Races car drive they end up at the home of a writer Mr. Frank Alexander (Patrick Magee) and his wife Mary (Adrienne Corri).

They con their way in and soon reveal their attitude to women and the “in and out” by brutally raping Mary whilst kicking Frank around on the floor. Alex belts out “Singing in the Rain” as if to illustrate the fact that this gruesome act means absolutely nothing to him…

The film’s influence on pop culture is clear throughout: the boys drink in the Korova Milk Bar (later the name of the Bunnymen’s record label) and drink Moloko cocktails (later the name of a post-acidhouse dance-pop band) and Alex goes record shopping with a band called Heaven 17 at number 3 in the charts. The record shop was the Chelsea Drugstore and it has a copy of the 2001 soundtrack prominently displayed… naturally. Alex meets a couple of young women Sonietta (Gillian Hills a proper French pop star as well as having featured in Antonioni’s Blow Up and being the teenage riot herself in Beat Girl) and her pal (Barbara Scott) and the three enjoy a famously hi-speed threesome back in Alex’s bedroom: a reference to Hills, Hemmingway and Birkin in Blow Up?

Gillian Hills spots Heaven 17 high in the charts!
In spite of their successful freewheeling horror show there are divisions in the gang and Alex’s leadership of Dim and Pete is growing weaker. The two challenge him and Alex humiliates them but the resentment only grows… After a disastrous raid on another wealthy household in which Alex accidentally kills a woman referred to only as Catlady (Miriam Karlin - a powerhouse cameo mixing yoga and physical violence) with a large porcelain phallus… the boys beat him up and leave him to be arrested.

Society takes its revenge and Alex is imprisoned and after a few years inside cultivating religion and the favour of the prison chaplain, he jumps at the chance to undertake a new treatment which aims to “cure” criminals so they can safely be returned to society without the ongoing costs of imprisonment… But it’s not a let off and the process involves aversion therapy of the most unrelentingly brutal kind as – eyelids forced open – Alex is forced to watch hour after hour of horrific images until, literally, violence, sex and evil make him sick.

Will his liberty be worth the loss of his emotional freedom?
In truth there’s too much narrative detail to accurately summarise the film; you could spend paragraphs on Alex’s trip to the record shop and subsequent high-speed threesome. But this film remains controversial because of its high level of content some of it I find hard to accept more particularly the violence towards women all of whom are attractive and displayed nude’… I think Kubrick goes too far, you don’t have to be so graphic.

At the time Kubrick was blamed for so-called copycat violence and ended up pulling the film after he and his family were threatened with an attack on their home aimed at replicating the film’s domestic invasion, assault and rape. It was too much and the film wasn’t screened again in the UK until after the director’s passing in 1999.

Every boy needs a hobby and a pet they can relate to...
A Clockwork Orange is unpleasant but essential watching for anyone serious about film and its socio-political context; almost half a century on it’s still in your face, challenging the watcher to examine their own reactions and to stay watchful. That is hard core and nothing has even come close in popular culture until the dawn of the social media troll… Threats were more serious in the seventies perhaps or maybe we’re just more used to the de-civilising impact of technology.

The Moog music score of Walter, later Wendy, Carlos remains unsettling too:  a “tomorrow’s world” of sound that now signals a parallel universe of the musical future.

The film opens on 5th April at the BFI and there’s a full listing of where to see it across the UK on the BFI website: it’s unmissable but it comes with consequences. Malcolm McDowell will also be present for a post-screening Q&A and in conversation on 5th.

The film also heralds a Kubrick season and I'm especially looking forward to the hopefully more genteel Barry Lyndon! Full details on the BFI site here.