Sunday 8 July 2018

Blogogna… The Eight Days of Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2018

No amount of pre-planning can prepare you for your first experience of Il Cinema Ritrovato – there’s simply too much film, culture and place to process. But the ever-present nagging doubt that there is something you’re missing just has to be cast aside… So, turning my mind off, relaxing and floating downstream… here’s a non-exhaustive list of my highlights excluding Rosita and 7th Heaven about which I’ve already burbled.

1.    Partying like it’s 1898…

This was my favourite strand of shorts because historians love nothing more than Steam Punk Cinema: Victorians revealing the verve and imagination you always knew they had in abundance. The Age of Engineering and the start of very modern enlightenment.

I started with some silent animation from the BFI archives, or was it animation? There was some devilment with scissors which mixed live action with stop motion to great effect and then a doll rises up to follow its owner as she goes on a date with a young man: think Toy Story mixed with Chucky… a film that re-ignited my childhood dreams of animated plastic…

Playing along was Stephen Horne who added vocalise to his array of instrumentation, a moment as shocking as it was entirely fitting as with all his accompaniment.

There were genuinely stunning 35mm reductions of 68mm originals which showed the World of our grandparent’s almost as clear as yesterday. I’m reminded of sci-fi novelist, Bob Shaw’s idea of slow glass through which light moves so slowly that you can look on events as the happened years later… mind-boggling but the light of events reacting with nitrates in 1898 is revived again through 2018 projection.

Definitely one of the shocks from this period was the five minutes long Opération chirurgicale du Docteur Doyen: Hystérectomie abdominale, ablation de la tumeur (1898) which showed the good doctor hacking his way inside a living patient – heavily sedated – for what seemed much longer. Not to forget it was intended as an instructional scientific film but…

120 years on the pigeons grand children still get fed in Piazza San Marco

2.       Underground cinema: Wolves of Kultur (1918)

All 15 episodes of this propagandist serial were screened through the festival in the Cinema Modernissimo which, originating in the 1900s, is an impressively atmospheric subterranean hall very much under re-construction. In the rip-roaring opener as all-action Alice Grayson (Leah Baird) tries to avenge her Uncle’s murder by the evil quisling duo of Henry Hartman (Austin Webb) and Mario Zaremba (Edmund D'Alby) and recover the plans for a wireless controlled torpedo.

The pace is relentless as are the stream of characters… as a mysterious detective, Roger Barclay (Sheldon Lewis) follows events and a young engineer, Bob Moore (Charles Hutchison) becomes involved after Zaremba tries to marry his sister Helen (Betty Howe) … Oh, and Karl Dane’s in it as a henchman called Carter!

Directed and written by Joseph A. Golden, it’s fun comic-strip nonsense which plays like a more paranoid Les Vampires… I saw about half the episodes including the finale and it was fun!

Accompaniment was from many hands and the one I seemed to find the most was Daniele Furlati who had a lilting main theme that took full advantage of the magical acoustics.

Leah Baird. A real trooper.
3.       Les Deus Timides (1928), with Gabriel Thibaudea

I’ve managed to miss this 2016 restoration several times and it was the perfect start to day two with sprightly, controlled direction from Rene Clair and a performance from handsome Pierre Bascheff that walked that delicate tightrope between Frank Spencer and Harold Lloyd.

It’s “French whimsy” mon amis and the pure, delightful distillation that makes you laugh out loud and forgive the inevitable minor frustrations of two, too-timid souls in service to a plot reliant on the inability to perform even the simplest acts of self-interest.

It’s such a “neat” film with Clair’s direction, editing and camerawork so precise throughout. There are so many cute inventions and I especially loved his use of split screen especially as Batcheff’s character launches into an imaginary fight with his bête noire, the bully Garadoux who, frustrated just the same, fights back screen right. At one point the camera dips, allowing room for both men to raise their arms at the same time: funny in a cinematic way. There’s also their climactic court case in which Clair uses hilarious stills showing the two exaggerated sides of their arguments in a who started it and who finished it war of weasel words. It’s packed with visual punchlines that offer a spectacular parallel narrative to the interpersonal action.

Pierre Batcheff is Fremissin a timid lawyer who sends his own client bad-beardy Garadoux (Jim Gérald) down for three months’ chokey after he’s found guilty of marital assault. Two years later and both men are out in the country and pursuing the same woman, Cecile Thibaudier (Véra Flory).  Cecile wants the one who can ask – Fremissin is too afraid of failure - whilst the other drives her wild by bullying her father (Maurice de Féraudy) who is clearly just a dad who can’t say no.

Garadoux spots his old nemesis trying to make a move on his gal – and potentially his loot – and tries to frighten him off using his pipe as a gun and covering his face with a hanky… Fremissin doesn’t take much scaring but slowly he edges forward. But will the tortoise beat the heavyweight hare as the latter moves in with family and lawyer to try and force the wedding contract…

Gabriel Thibaudeau accompanied with fleet fingered assurance; he’d danced this one before I think.

A split screen interacting with audience sensibilities...

4.       Women… under pressure and disguised as seals
Woman Under Oath (1919) with Donal Sosin

There was a substantial strand of John M. Stahl flickers with this one silent film and lots more to come at Pordenone. This film managed to be both insulting and inspiring… raising important questions about whether women could “handle” the pressure of being on a jury – locked in late at night with all those manly-men… It’s a well-made vehicle for stage star Florence Reed whose character Grace Norton is becomes New York’s first woman juror.

Of course, it couldn’t just be about her actually doing the job of a juror could it; she had to be something far more significant. Though stylish, the twist does tend to undermine the whole point of the story, at least in my opinion.

Eleven angry men and one level-headed woman... almost.
Woman (1918) with Mie Yanashita

“Woman…” as John and Yoko sang dangerously in 1972, “… is the n*gg*r of the World” and if you thought Woman Under Oath was tricksie from a feminist point of view then Maurice Tourneur threw us a few curved balls… tongue in cheek, peut etre, but still… how we’ve changed eh?

A middle-class, middle-aged couple row about something, she storms out and her shakes his complacent male head as if to say, bless her emotional little heart. He starts reading a history book and it tells the tales of women through history… and their faults: Eve’s obsession with that bloomin’ apple (who needs knowledge, right?), Emperor Claudius’ betrayal by his exceptionally unfaithful Messilna (played by dancer Flore Revalles, who is very good) and then the bizarre story of the seal-turned-women who deserts her children and husband Cyrene the fisherman in order to swim once more as a seal. I genuinely had no idea that woman were originally seals: why didn’t any of you mention this?!

Then there’s a girl in the Civil Way who, hiding a Yankee soldier from a Confederate troupe, loosens her resolve when their Captain offers her his watch… she gives the soldier away and he’s executed in front of her.
But wait!
The gentleman turns from the book and thinks his great thought: women aren’t all bad, now they have purpose because of the War and stuff! She who rocks the cradle, probably doesn’t get enough sleep (or credit) and… cue montage of helpful nurses, munitions workers in skirts and women who, now, distractions set aside, could probably be in a film without having a major character flaw.

I really doubt that my Grandad – union member and supporter of suffrage after a First World War in which he saw too much masculine unfairness – would have liked this film. He would have thought it daft and wrong. My Nan would have lamped the projectionist. Still, nice framing and cinematography Maurice.

Oi, Eve, leave that apple alone!
5.Naples au Basier de Feu (1925) with Guido Sodo and Francoise Laurent

Projected under the stars at the Piazzetta Pasolini using what the locals term lanterna a carbone this was arguably the best film in the Naples strand even though it was directed by a Russian and featured French actors.
The otherworldly Gina Manes plays a local beauty Costanzella who escapes the clutches of her violent lover to move in with the unlikely pairing of Pinatucchio a beggar/holy man (Gaston Modot) and a violinist/street singer, Antonio Arcella, played by proto Delon Georges Charlia – last seen being very jealous of Louise Brooks in Prix de Beauté).

Antonio is a hustler on his uppers – he’s had to sell his violin – and is looking to fall in love with someone beautiful and rich. He targets Silvia (Lilian Constantini) a rich socialite, who travels with her aunt, and she gives him money in exchange for charm and melodies. But love takes a turn as he gradually falls for Costanzella, despite promising Pinatucchio that he wouldn’t as the old fellow is besotted himself. It’s a terrific performance from Modot and the bizarre love quadrilateral is resolved in unpredictable ways…

Guido Sodo accompanied on mandolin, mandoloncello and vocal with François Laurent on chitarra helping to create a perfect moonlight movie night. Al fresco may have been on drums…

Naples au Basier de Feu (1925)

6.       Vendemiaire (1918) with Stephen Horne and Frank Bochius (Parts 1&2)

This was a four-part serial (well three plus prologue) from the master of the multi-part adventure, Louis Feuillade and showed a more technically-accomplished and down-to-earth, director three years on from Les Vampires. There were some lush landscapes of the canals and countryside near Lyon and a feature feel to the lengthy episodes as a plot unfolded about two escaped German POWs infiltrating a group of farm workers in the Great War.

René Cresté plays Pierre Bertin a soldier on leave to recover from his mental and physical wounds and he meets a family heading away from the front line to seek work and to find out what happened to their siblings. They all end up working on a vineyard in Lunel (Feullade’s home town) run by Capitaine de Castelviel (Feuillade regular Édouard Mathé) and where the two Germans also infiltrate.

Wilfred (Louis Leubas) and Fritz (Manuel Caméré) cause much disruption as they try to further the fading German cause and frame a gypsy, Sarah (Mary Harald) as they rob the Captain… there are more characters than in the director’s more adventure-based serials and, as the propaganda it undoubtedly was, Vendemiaire stirs your heart as you hope for the best for these refugees.

Stephen Horne and Frank Bochius were on fine form and worked so well together here as elsewhere with an instinctive understanding of their musical combination as well as the momentum of the movie.

Driven away by the war

7.       Vintage colour: Cabaret (1972) and Leave Her to Heaven (1945)

It’s not all about silent film of course and there were so many fascinating and ultra-rare opportunities to see rare celluloid that, all geeking aside, offers a significantly different experience of film watching. The early 60’s copy from the original nitrate of John M. Stahl’s colourful noir was a blaze of greens and turquoise and Gene Tierney was even more striking than usual as the woman who, putting it mildly, loves Cornel Wilde just a little too much.

Cabaret was the real hum-dinger though with a print that was so warm and slightly worn that I half expected some ads for Kiora and a local carpet shop. I’d never seen the film all the way through – although I’d seen Alan Cummings and Jane Horrocks at their famous run at the Donmar Warehouse. Those two simply were the MC and Sally Bowles for me but now I can truly appreciate how good Liza Minelli and Joel Grey were on screen.

Silent film style and references abound and then there's Bob Fosse's extraordinary choreography; still jaw droppingly angular and expressive.

Joel and Liza-with-a-Z...

8.       Lights of Old Broadway (1925) with Neil Brand

We’d been missing some solid, silent Hollywood and Marion Davies delivered in style with this entertaining romp. It was based around the shift from gas to electric lighting in New York and featured sequences in colour using tinting, Technicolor, and the Handschiegl colour process.

Marion is one of twins separated at birth as their mother dies on an Atlantic crossing: one Marion, Anne, grows up with the wealthy de Rhonde family whilst the other, Fely, with the riotous O’Tandy clan who squat on the edges of town, never paying rent and looking to fight, or rather “foight” their way out of trouble. There’s a lot of Oirish intertitles if yer get moi drift… but then it’s well known that *all* the people of Ireland love 1. Not paying their dues, 2. Drinking 3. Larking and 4. Foiting

Of course, Fely meets the de Ronde’s son Dirk (Conrad Nagel) and they fall in love but the two fathers like none of it and only a fist fight will bring them together – the Dads – so that peace can reign and Dirk’s daring fortune in electrical illumination can establish a new dynasty.

All good fun and Marion is wonderful as usual.   Sometimes that’s what we want and Neil O’Brand played along with a twinkle in his eye, he knows when entertainment is due!

Technicolor fragment of the nitrate print of Lights... by Barbara Flueckiger.

Epilogue... Lyda, Pina and Francesca

I was not going to Italy to miss out on diva films so there’s more to be said later about I tre grandi as well as the remarkable smiles of Leda Gys, the amazing hair of Rosè Angione and the films of Elvira Notari.

There were some films I'd already seen and liked including Parts One and Two of Christian Wahnschaffe with Stephen Horne, which I saw in Berlin and the mighty Shiraz which was the LFF Restoration Gala last year, and screened here with a recording of Anouska Shankar's amazing score.

Then, there was so much that I missed... It’s always best to leave wanting more… and the pile will probably grow even more next year. Lost in film, as surely as Sister Sledge were lost in music.

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