Saturday, 10 June 2023

I saw the light… BFI Film on Film Festival, Part One

I collect vinyl old and new, I have enough CDs to have established a secret breakaway archive in the garage and I stream and download via Bandcamp who give the creators their due. As with film - nitrate and celluloid, "a tough flammable thermoplastic composed essentially of cellulose nitrate and camphor*" available in 70mm, 8mm, 35, 16... - each musical medium has its strengths and weaknesses and each fits in with different moods or situations. The character of your listening experience is based on the qualities of the media as much as the content; clicking on a link and listening on your laptop speakers doesn't compete with the act of selecting carefully preserved vinyl, pulling it out of the cover and placing the needle on the groove. There's more consideration and physical involvement, it's a tactile, emotive connection... or maybe I'm just reconnecting with an old feeling, just ask Albert Camus**.

Sadly we don’t have the same sort of choices with film as we do with music with the majority of cinemas now showing only digital and only one, the BFI, able to screen nitrate. This new festival celebrates celluloid as only the Institute can, unleashing prints new and old from their archive in a vibrant celebration not just of the film but the projectionists, archivists and cineastes who gathered from all points to be in the moment, together in the dark, on the sunniest of days on the Southbank. Just like Bologna, inside and out… all imbued with the warmth of shared appreciation and a collective love of cinema and all of its ways.


Talking of nitrate… In A Fire, I’d save my hard drive and as many first pressings as possible; then maybe I could make a mix-tape for Samantha Morton if Lynne Ramsay and she ever make a follow-up to Morvern Callar. Whilst the BFI had hoped to have their new 35mm print ready we ended up watching one made on release in 2002 and never previously projected. It looked perfect or as nearly perfect as celluloid needs to be, the odd flicker and a slight wobble all counterbalanced by the warmth of the image the vibrancy and depth of colours not approximated but created by light interacting with chemicals during the original shoot and only found in the form we saw after development and washing… a process described in detail in Mark Jenkin’s wondrous new short, commissioned for the festival, A Dog Called Discord, a quite brilliant narrative on the appeal of film and it’s unique qualities in reflecting and preserving light and life.

In their introduction to the film, Morton, director Ramsay and producer Robyn Slovo talked like the closest of friends, still excited by what they achieved. Samantha observed that there are so many monitors now, film makers do not focus on the live environment, directing performance, but instead on how it looks on their digital viewer. Lynne on the other hand was down near her star’s face, unconsciously mouthing her lines as she knew them so well and just letting her run with a character that was all consuming and feeing off their trust and skill.

Samantha Morton

The result, having now seen it all the way through for the first time, is a film that feels as fresh today as anything from 21 years ago has any right to do. Morton’s Morvern exploring the possibilities of life after her boyfriend kills himself and gifts her with a novel and a chance to break free. It’s like one of Paul Auster’s moments of chance, and the film revels in the excitement of risks and new purpose in the face of nothing to lose. Morton is almost matched in fantasticness by Kathleen McDermott as her pal Lanna, not quite the Louise to her Thelma, but someone who is more reckless but still held back by caution.

A half century before, on Thursday’s opening night, we witnessed another force of nature in the form of Joan Crawford’s mighty Mildred Pierce (1945). This is why films were invented, this was the classiest of classic Hollywood and another first-time view for me – I know, I know… you can’t take me anywhere. I’m far more familiar now with Joan’s silent work but she appears to have adapted exceptionally well to the new talking pictures on this evidence.

We watched the BFI’s new 35mm print and it looks gorgeous, full of lightning soul and monochromatic drama with Joan’s huge eyes never glistening more; an albedo so intense there are probably alien scientists studying it 78 light years away. Crawford’s core is so fierce that it could overwhelm her co-stars but she is also controlled and a team player (sorry Bette…) who brings out the best in Zachary Scott as her disreputable second husband Monte Beragon, Jack Carson as her, consistently disappointed, male best friend and young Ann Blyth as her almost irredeemable elder daughter Veda: how could someone like her come from Mildred and her dependable but dull first husband Bert (Bruce Bennett)?


This is one of the film’s great drivers and Veda, like her mother is always true to herself, perhaps taking the honesty of her endeavour for granted; weakness created from graft. The film has great tone to accompany these rich characters and if there’s anyone born that ever delivered a one-liner better than Eve Arden, as Ida, Mildred’s dependable left-hand woman, I’ve yet to see them!

Fernand Gravey and Heather Angel

Just over a decade before the European co-production Early to Bed (1933) was being produced in Germany during the final months of the Weimar Republic and featuring stars from Britain, France and Germany all working the same script in their own languages and on the same sets at UFA and around Berlin and Potsdamer. This film was new to me and described by Festival Director Robin Baker as a likeable oddity which it certainly was, a classic farce that escalated exponentially to the expected conclusion but not without running unexpected disaster mighty close.

Led by the aptly-named Heather Angel as Grete, a manicurist at a local salon and Fernand Gravey as Carl, a waiter with ambition the film features a very pleasing array of supporting actors including Donald Calthrop as an officious tour guide, Athene Seyler as Grete’s boss, Frau Weiser and the irrepressible Sonnie Hale as Helmut, projectionist at the local Kino and sausage-munching advisor to Carl. We also have Lady Tree – aka Lady Beerbohm Tree, wife of Sir Herbert – as Grete and Carl’s landlady, who is prone to wistful recollection of her many Shakespearian roles, the joke being that she was one of the leading actors of her generation with her rooms full o factual pictures from her many stage productions. She’s a joy hamming it up and playing her part in this comedy of errors.

Grete and Carl share a room but not at the same time, she does the night shift leaving at 9AM, just as Carl arrives for the day shift… it’s an odd arrangement but perhaps more common at the time. The tow never overlap but imagine each other as squinting or bow-legged, engaging in tit-for-tat acts of mischief, he scrunching her dresses, she throwing down his hats. By chance Carl sees her in the street and, not knowing who she is, he begins to romance her, especially when he believes that she is the daughter of the rich Herr Kruger (Edmund Gwenn). One thing leads to dozens of others, it’s fast and furious with that supporting cast working to keep everything aloft and in free flow.

There’s a clever device of constantly referencing the films shown in the Kino, featuring the German cast and replete with songs that feed into the main action. Heather may look like an angel but she doesn’t sing like one, but maybe that’s the point.

Miles and Maddie

Eleven years ago, London was bowled over by the BFI’s restoration of The First Born (1928) shown at the Royal Festival Hall in the LFF and with a magnificent yearning score from Stephen Horne and here it was again on a 35mm print the BFI made at the time. Miles Mander’s film is about love and betrayal and Stephen’s themes still capture that spirit in uncanny ways, perfectly describing Madeleine Carroll’s character, also Madeleine, yearning for her dastardly husband Sir Hugo Boycott (Mander), a strange, selfish politician who preaches one thing and does another… it’ll never catch on.

His wife he is willing to cast adrift as she cannot give him the son he so desires until she finds a way… a betrayal with the best of intentions. While Boycott is away Madeleine becomes close to the rather more handsome Lord David Harbrough (John Loder) who not only outranks her husband but is thoroughly decent as well… a girl could be forgiven for choosing an affair but whilst her heart is lost Madeleine stays loyal at whatever cost. It’s an intense, very well-made film, with a superb technical level placing it up with the very best of late-silent British and indeed, European cinema.

The accompaniment included some delightful extemporisation on Gershwin’s The Man I Love, Madeleine’s favourite song, her choice of 78 and her glance at Harbrough revealing all. It says so much of Stephen’s music that it feels all of a piece with his own melodies, one intoxicating line stuck in my head even as I write! There are so many variables with film and silent film especially; venue, audience, accompaniment and… materials. Film in excelsis.

The ultimate example of a film designed to replicate and control its own experience is Morgan Fisher’s Screening Room (1968/1973) a single-shot short that shows the trip up the steps and round to the old entrance of the BFI that ends up in the NFT 2. The film is only allowed to be screened in NFT 2 and this newly created 16mm print not only replicates our similar steps today but ultimately reminds us of the things that have changed and are different even as we connect with these moments of the seemingly everyday journey to the screen…

I shall follow this route as far as possible for the next screenings in this most considered and vital new festival. It’s all going to end with that shark on Sunday but there’s thousands of feet of film to unreel first!


Lynne Ramsay, Samantha Morton and Robyn Slovo still passionate about Morven Callar

*Like Webster's Dictionary, we're Morocco bound...

** "A man's work is nothing but this slow trek to rediscover, through the detours of art, those two or three great and simple images in whose presence his heart first opened."

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