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Kino–Eye (Life Off-Hand) / Kino-Glaz (Zhizn Vrasplokh).

Posted by keith1942 on August 28, 2014

The Young Pioneers

The Young Pioneers

Produced for Goskino in 1924, this is a seventy-minute feature. Rather than using ‘found footage’ Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman went out and filmed life – life in the new Socialist State. The film includes disparate episodes that reflect the varied facets of urban and rural life. However, the prime focus is a group of Young Pioneers, ‘Young Leninists, the children of workers’. These were young socialists coming together in a summer camp and committed to the new values for constructing the new society.

“The kinocs Vertov and his cameraman Kaufman have spent two weeks in a randomly chosen Pioneer camp, following the entire active working day of a Young Pioneer with a movie camera. Their eye – a movie camera, which has the wonderful capacity to see, to capture what it sees, and to reproduce it as it saw it – got up at the same time as the people it was observing, rushed off to have a wash, cooked its breakfast, did its morning exercises, went to work, attended other games, and so on. No scriptwriter can invent something greater than what happens in real life …” (From Trud (Labour) 27 September 1924).

The majority of the film follows the activities of the Pioneers. Though not shown in chronological order, wee the construction of the camp, its opening and the daily activities. These include the co-operative activities, barber services for villagers, a visit to a nursery and playing in a nearby lake. Kaufman frequently uses iris shots as he records the activities: and Svilova produces a number of iris wipes in the editing. There are also superimpositions: the most notable when the Pioneers troop off to the lake. There is a nice touch of a waterfall superimposed as the troop cross a weir. At the lake there is a diving sequence, which uses reverse motion several times.

The central sequence is when the Pioneers visit a nearby town and market to publicise the Co-operative. We see them questioning the market traders. Such trading was allowed under the New Economic Policy, but the film clearly privileges co-operation, the new socialist way. The Pioneers also stick up posters and one of these leads a mother to patronise the co-op rather than the traders.

There is also one of the tricks that Vertov and his comrades use frequently – reverse motion ‘putting time in reverse’. Here they retrace the meat in the market back to the abattoir, and before that the pastures for the cows and bull. They then repeat the technique when they reverse the process of baking bread.

Alongside the Pioneers in the film are other aspects of life. These appear rather arbitrary, and the film ‘jumps’ from topic to topic. The film opens with an oddball sequence often fevered by Vertov – ‘The effect of vodka on village women’. Later in the film we watch a Chinese magician entertaining the townsfolk; then an elephant being paraded through the streets. And towards the end of the film there are a series of urban sequences. We see the Pioneers agitating around the evils of alcohol. There is a sequence of the homeless and a little later patients in a ‘Country Home’ for the mentally ill. Briefly we see reports of a ‘murdered citizen’. And the film ends first with a ‘perceptual experiment’ using different angle shots of a busy street. And then there is a short instructive sequence on electricity and the new and important medium of radio.

The film displays many of the stylistic quirks and tropes of Vertov’s work. The article in Trud comments:

It has looked at and captured life, which has not been changed by its presence, has not smoothed down its hair or taken a pose, because it has not noticed it.”

This is possibly the most enduring influence of the work of the Factory of Facts. This is cinéma vérité: and the Trud review suggests that this means ‘cinematic truth’, ‘life as it really is’. However Jean Rouch [a key pioneer in the post-W.W.II cinéma vérité movement] suggests that ‘the truth of cinema’ is the more appropriate description of Vertov’s contribution. Certainly in his later and more developed work – i.e. Man With a Movie Camera – Vertov presents up with the world that includes the camera rather than just the world in front of the camera.

Quotations from the Catalogue of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004.

 

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Factories of Facts

Posted by keith1942 on August 26, 2014

Camera Eye

Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek S Kinnoapparatom, USSR 1929) garnered more votes from both critics and filmmakers that any other documentary in the recent Sight & Sound poll. One film above all others is a tricky question, but few documentary films deserve this as much as the silent Soviet classic. Brian Winston provided a short but excellent commentary on the film in the pages of the S&S September issue. He refers to the dispute between Vertov – Kino-Eye – and Sergei Eisenstein – Kino-Fist. He also mentions Vertov’s criticisms of the New Economic Policy in the young Soviet Union – the introduction of limited market activity after the ravages of the Civil War.

One can also discern in the film criticisms of what is termed ‘The Theory of Productive Forces’: a tendency, found within Bolshevik theory and practice, of reducing productive forces to technology. A different view emphasises the social relations between people as productive forces, and Man With a Movie Camera constantly foregrounds just such social relations. Another important concept in relation to Vertov’s work is the distinction between propaganda and agitation, where the former in particular has a very different sense from various colloquial meanings in bourgeois culture. Lenin address this point in ‘What is to be Done’ (1902). He quotes a famous definition by Plekhanov:

A propagandist presents many ideas to one or a few persons; an agitator presents only one or a few ideas but he presents them to a mass of people. [Lenin comments that] the propagandist … dealing with the transformation of this society into a socialist society, … must present “many ideas”, so many, indeed, that they will be understood as an integral whole only by a (comparatively) few persons. The agitator, however, speaking on the same subject, will take as an illustration a fact that is most glaring and most widely known to his audience … and utilising this fact known to all, will direct his efforts to presenting a single idea to the “masses”,….

Vertov’s films tend to propaganda: they offer many ideas in a complex structure, but there are also agitational elements.

It needs to be born in mind that when we refer to the Factory of Fact we are discussing not just a single auteur [Vertov] but a film collective.  Vertov clearly was the leading comrade but his work relied on the skills and co-operation of comrades. There was Elizaveta Svilova [they were married] who edited the films. There were several cameramen who worked on the films, Mikhail Kaufman, Boris Frantisson, and Ivan Beliakov. Kaufman [Vertov’s brother] is the most important and he filmed most of Vertov’s output up until 1929, when they fell out over Man With a Movie Camera. Besides these comrades there were contributing artistes like Alexandr Rodchenko and supporting critics like Akeksei Gan, a Constructivist and contributor to the journal Lef.

There is a lot more to Vertov and his comrades than the one highly praised film, and the full scope of his contribution is only revealed by viewing his other masterworks. Unfortunately, much of his other cinematic work is little known and little seen. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto offered a rare opportunity to see a substantial retrospective of his films at the 23rd Pordenone Silent Film Festival in 2004. The programme was curated by Yuri Tsivian who stressed the importance of contexualising the famous masterwork in the broader movement known as The Factory of Facts and it approach as ‘kino-eye’.

Kino-Eye is not a cinema film, not a group of film workers, not some current in art (of Left or Right), … There is the kino-eye movement, there are the articles and public speeches of kino-eye, there is the constant scientific and experimental work of kino-eye, but there are no individual films, there are no fulfilled commissions, there is the stubborn capturing and organisation of facts, and random labels on individual exercises.

Vertov to his fellow ‘kinocs’ in January 1926, quoted in the Festival Catalogue.

The Festival programme reflected this viewpoint. There was the most extensive screening of films by Vertov and his comrades ever: and screened chronologically. There was an exhibition of Vertov related materials, including posters [some by the Constructivist Rodchenko], poems and shooting plans. And there was a new publication, Lines of Resistance: Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (Edited by Tsivian with a substantial collection of materials from that decade).

The first programme of films was 15 episodes of Kino-Week (Kino-Nedelia, 1918/19). This was a ‘year-long’ week-by-week record of daily life at the time of the civil war.’ It is worth making the point that the war was fought not just against the White Army [‘loyal to the old Russia of the Tsars’] but against invading armies from the Britain, France, Japan and the USA. Kino-Week ran from May 1918 to June 1991, in total there were 43 issues. Vertov worked on the text of the films and directed some episodes. These issues are not experimental in the manner of later works, but they provide a record of important actions and events in this period. Fort example, the demonstrations when the news of the murder of Rosa Luxembourg and Karl Liebnecht was received.

Programme 2 was a series of short films made between 1918 and 1919. They recount important political events in the period and also show Vertov’s interest and facility in the use of ‘found footage’. The last film, 15 minute in running time, was The Red Star Literary-Instructional Agit-Steamer of the All-Russia Central Executive Committee (Literatunro-Instruktorskii Agitparokhod Vtsik ‘Karasnaia Zvezda, 1919). The agit-trains are a well-known feature of Soviet agitation and propaganda work in this period. The agit-steamers are a less familiar vehicle. At one point Vertov’s camera pans along the converted barge and we see an inscription:

Landowners and bourgeoisie kept the people in darkness – the Soviet power opens a road to knowledge.

This also forms a ‘mission statement’ for the film work that Vertov and his comrades will undertake.

Programme three offered more one and two reel news films. These included two issues of State Kino-Calendar (Goskinokalendar, 1923 and 1924). Kino-Calendar was a periodical newsreel that ran from 1923 to 1925. There were 57 issues in all. Its sub-title was “Daily and Weekly express Newsreel”. The newsreel shows notable event but also cultural events that reflect the developments in the new socialist society. So in these issues we saw acts of socialist solidarity by better resourced enterprises: in this case the new State film body Goskino supporting the ‘fire explosion school’ of the Red Army Academy. And then ‘Red pussy willow’, which was an atheist alternative to the religious celebrations for Palm Sunday [a feast just before the Christian Easter]. Some of the later editions offer examples of Vertov’s experimentation in cinematic form and technique.

We then came to a series of programmes of the most notable achievements of Vertov and his comrades, commencing with Kino-Pravda. This was more than just a newsreel; it was a platform for agitation and comment. Pravda means truth and this was also the title of the Communist party’s principal daily newspaper. Kino-Pravda ran from 1922 to 1925, 23 issues in all and Le Giornate screened all of the surviving editions [issue 12 is lost], though some only survive incomplete. Kino-Pravda 21 (Lenin Kino-Pravda. A Film Poem About Lenin, 1925) was an issue to mark the anniversary of Lenin’s death. It was re-screened at Il Giornate in 2008 alongside Jean Vigo’s A Propos de Nice (1930) with accompaniment by Michael Nyman. The latter film had cinematography by Boris Kaufman, Dizga’s other brother.  Tsivian in the Catalogue notes “That the newsreel Kino-Pravda, like the newspaper Pravda, was less about news and more about statements … Dialectical editing: thesis – antithesis synthesis. Kino-Pravda not only shows – it explains!”  Increasingly as the series develops one sees Vertov and his comrades experimenting with what we would term avant-garde techniques and challenging viewers to grapple with them.

Also in 1924 Vertov, with Kaufman and Svilova produced Kino-Eye [Life Off-Guard], (Kino-Glaz [Zhizn Vrasplokh]) for Goskino. This was a 70 minute feature composed of deliberately filmed footage rather than ‘found’. “The underlying strategy of catching life off-guard was to do as little pre-planing as possible …” (Festival Catalogue). This is a ‘slice of life’ of the new socialist society under construction, with the primary focus on a camp of Young Pioneers committed to the ‘new ways’, including the work of co-operatives.

Vertov and his comrades were based in  Goskino – Sovkino replaced Goskino in 1925 and they became part of the documentary section Kultkino. In the same year the collective received a commission for a promotional film to precede the elections to the Mossovet (Moscow Municipal Soviet). The resulting film, Stride Soviet ( Shagai, Soviet!, 1926), was very different from the expectations of the Moscow Soviet members. The film was to precede the Election of Moscow Municipal Soviet scheduled for 1926. However, detail of the Soviet and it membership is entirely absent from the film. The major sequence, a rally in front of the Mossovet building is presented metaphorically: the building, the loudspeaker and the vehicles but not the actual people of Moscow. Tsivian suggests that this relates to a point in Vertov’s 1922 manifesto:

For his inability to control his movements WE temporarily exclude man as a subject for film. Our oath leads through a poetry of machines, from the bungling citizen to the perfect electric man.

This is typical of a Constructivist position. It seems that the representation was not appreciated by the members of the Soviet.

A Sixth Part of the World (Shestaia Chast Mira, 1926).

Vertov’s idiosyncratic stance on film continued with this commission from ‘Gostorg’, the Central State Trading Organisation. The official rational for the film was the promotion of Soviet production abroad, an aspect of the NEP. Vertov’s film is much more about the Soviet world and its relations. The film uses footage shot by a number of expeditions to different parts of the Union. Various aspects or Soviet labour are presented over and against examples from the world of Capital. Tsivian explains that Vertov aimed to present an image of ‘totalizing labor’. Kino-eye as decoding ‘truth through the means and possibilities of film-eye’. He also notes that

The ambiguity of the relationship of the USSR to the rest of the world lurks within the film’s title: is the USSR but one large if significant and distinctive part of the global economy…?”

In 1925 the 14th Congress of the Communist Party adopted what is known as ‘Socialism in One Country’. The political line was to become a key line of conflict within the USSR and in the wider International Communist Movement. The film ambiguous position on the line was possibly a factor in Vertov’s dismissal from Sovkino early in 1927.

Vertov and his comrades found a new home for several years in the Ukraine. Up until 1930 the Ukraine Socialist Republic enjoyed a fair degree of autonomy. This included VUFKU (The All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate). One of the major studios in Odessa was headed by futurist poet Mykhail Semenko, and there was also a strong Constructivist influence. Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 32 (2013) presented a programme of films from Ukraine in this period: films that offered both distinctive avant-garde form and style but also radical political lines, frequently critical of NEP and the ideas of ‘socialism in one country’. Vertov made two important films here, including his most famous masterwork.

The Eleventh year (Odinnadtsatyi, 1928). VUFKU Kiev – i.e.

All-Ukrainian Photo-Kino Directorate. 10th anniversary of October Revolution.

This film was intended to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the October Revolution, the ‘eleventh’ because it actually came ou in 1928. Using mainly newsreel material Vertov with Kaufman and Svilova produced a portrait of workers, production, peasants, the Red Army and new developments like a Hydro-Electric station that have developed since the revolution. The film relies on complex montage, which is challenging by conventional film standards. The final film was criticised for this and for it use of Constructivist techniques. Vertov responded to critics at the Association of Revolutionary Filmmakers in 1928,

It is natural that more complex montage forces the viewer to experience more tension, and demands greater attention in order to be taken in. (Festival Catalogue).

This challenge for ‘advanced viewers’ was to reach its culmination in his next film.

Camera man

 

Man With a Movie Camera (Chelovek S Kinoapparatom, 1929).

35mm full frame [other prints “have the same defect – they have been printed sound aperture, without adjusting the aspect ratio, which means that a soundtrack-wide area on the left has been lost – and with it, Mikhail Kaufman’s painstakingly achieved frame compositions].

Much in agreement with the Productionist movement in art … [a stress on the process of production rather than an end product], Man With a Movie Camera is a film about film production: it shows a movie being made. But this alone does not make Man With a  Movie Camera unique. What does is that the film which Man with a Movie Camera shows being made is Man With a Movie Camera itself. It is as if Man With a Movie Camera had two, even three, identifies at once: the film that we are watching, the film which we see being made, and the film that we are shown being shown somewhere else. Tsivian in Catalogue.

He goes on to remind the reader that Vertov instructed the orchestra providing the live accompaniment that no music was to be heard during the prologue –

“Only when the conductor on the screen waves his baton and the screen musicians start playing is live music from the real [i.e. present] orchestra to join in.”

The film is a dazzling montage of images, cascading over the screen. All the cinematic techniques of the period are in evidence. Changing camera angles: tracks, pans and tilts: superimposition: slow motion: accelerated motion: and freeze frame. But these techniques and sounds are harnessed to an extremely complex structure and a mosaic of allusions. Tsivian points out how the film is organised around certain themes. These include Organised Life, Labour, Organised Leisure, and the Ideological. Visual parallels criss-cross the film, setting up both comparisons and oppositions. One example, ‘communist shoemakers’ [production for use] versus ‘shoeshine boys of capitalism’ [profiteers].

On one hand the film is about the Soviet City and Soviet life, but it is also about cinema. The opening titles state “An excerpts from the diary of a cameraman.” So we get to see the operation of filming and exhibition processes. When the film rolls we see the various activities of the cameraman who is using a hand-cranked camera common in silent cinema. We see the various techniques he uses and the incredible stunts he needs to perform.   The facts, which occupied the kinoki, included the ‘facts of cinema’. These included what we would now refer to as candid camera, ‘catching life unawares’. But they also included subjects being aware of the camera ‘and getting used to it’. That is, the facts of what happened because the camera was there.

Three Songs of Lenin (Tri Pesni O Lenine, 1935 / 38). Silent version.

The film was completed in 1935 but later was re-edited by order. This included removing ‘enemies of the people’ from the original cut, which no longer survives. The basic structure if the film is three fold: “each based on folklore material that Vertov had collected. Part 1 portrays the Leader through folk songs and tales: part 2 is a requiem mourning Lenin: Part 3 (the optimistic one) asserts Lenin’s immortality through the immortality of his ideas.”  (Notes in Catalogue by Aleksadr Deriabin).

Il Giornate programme also included films by other kinoki and by fellow filmmakers. Two of these are Mikhail Kaufman, one before and one after his split with Vertov.

Moscow (Moskva, 1926.

This is in some respects a ‘sister film’ to Stride Soviet. However Kaufmanns’s representation of Moscow is of a different order to Vertov’s. A critic described it as ‘clear calm analytical – exactly what many thought a good documentary should be.’ Whilst Kaufman presents the city through a form of montage there is none of the

In Spring (Vesnoi, 1929).

Also produced by VUFKU the film presents the struggles of people at this changing point in the season, in town and countryside. “Kaufman makes spring a metaphor for revolution. Portions dealing with this theme, in which religion is seen as a distortion of the symbolism of spring, were generally excised absurd.” (Eric Barnouw quoted in the Catalogue).

In the Shadow of the Machine (Im Schaten der Maschine. 1928). Directed by Albrecht Viktor Blum in Berlin.

This was a German compilation film which used footage from Aleksandr Dovzhenko’s Zvenigora and Vertov’s own Odinnadtsatyi. This led to a dispute about copyright infringements.

Hands – A Study (Hande-Eine Studio Berlin 1928 / 29) Directed by Albrecht Viktor Blum.

This was a short compilation film composed of close-ups of hands, without any intertitles.

Shanghai Document (Shankahaiskii Dokument, 1928). Produced by Sovkino and written and directed by Yakov Bliokh. It was reckoned to be the ‘first significant feature-length documentary which also had a tremendous resonance abroad’. It uses parallel montage to illuminate the differing worlds of the Chinese coolies and the European and Chinese elites in the city. But the filming carried on when Chang Kai-Shek initiated his massacre of the Chinese communists. Retrospective justifications led to some titles being deleted.

The Glass Eye (Stekleanyi Glaz, 1928). Produced by Mezhrabpom-Film in Moscow and written and directed by Lily Brik & Vitally Zhemchuzny. The filmmakers were a part of the circle around the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky. They envisaged their film as a ‘parody of commercially –oriented feature film” in a plot written around a movie star: then the film uses found footage [included sequence by Kaufman] to argue for the documentary approach.

Opium 1929. Produced by Sovkino, directed by Vitaly Zhemchuzhny and written by Osip Brik. This rarely seen film is a ‘found footage’ work and the title refers to the famous dictum: ‘Religion is the opium of the masses.’ It draws parallels between the use of actual opium and religious practices.

To the Happy Haven (K Schastlivoi Gavani, 1930). Produced by Sovkino and directed by  Vladimir Erofeev. This is a  ‘reality-fidelity’ on ‘report on German life’ ‘numbed by the bourgeois paradise and social peace professed by the Social democrats”. The film counterpoints this with underlying tension and oppression. However, the rather satirical approach did not fit the new criteria for politically correct documentaries and it was ‘taken out of distribution after a few showings’.

Happily all the film were screened from 35mm prints. The projection speeds ranged from 18 fps up to 24 fps when we reached Man With a Movie Camera. And the majority featured Russian intertitles with translations provided into English and Italian. With 19 programmes through the week, the entire regular Giornate accompanists got to play a Vertov set. John Sweeney just headed the list in the number of performances, including Man With a Movie Camera: that film was previously screened in 1995 with an accompaniment by the Alloy Orchestra. Whilst Phil Carli accompanied the other famous title Three Songs of Lenin.

And there were four documentaries on the Factory of Facts. Dziga Vertov and His Brothers (Dziga Vertov I Ego Bratia, Russia 2002). Directed by Evgeny Tsymbal, this is a mainly biographical study of three brothers: Boris [also a cameraman] Mikhail and Denis [Dziga] Kaufman.

In the Land of Cinea Veterans: A Film Expedtion Around Dziga Vertov (Im Land der Kinoveteranen: Filmexpedition zu Dziga Vertov). Made for German Televisions in 1996 this film by Thomas Tode and Ale Muñoz is a study of Vertov combined with a ‘kino-eye’ presentation of contemporary Moscow.

Operator Kaufman (Germany 1999) is an ongoing project – we saw one specific version. It is an experimental biopic of the brothers, directed by Rasmus Hamburg, using the techniques favoured by Vertov himself.

All the Vertovs (Vse Vertov, Russia 2003) was directed by Vladimir Nepeny, who scripted Dziga and his Brother. The film again treats the three brothers but offers a rather different viewpoint of the rather different paths followed by the three brothers.

So it was a very full experience of the seminal film movement from the 1920s. Intriguingly the 2004 Giornate also included rather different fare. This was also year 8 of the ongoing Griffith Project. There was/is clearly a real chasm between the work of this Hollywood pioneer and the Soviet pioneers; though of course Soviet Montage learned from the early editing development sin Griffith’s films. Among the films screened by D. W. Griffith this year was The Birth of a Nation (1915): it is difficult to think of two more contradictory masterworks than that film and Man With a Movie Camera. We also had a programme of British films centred on the work of Anthony Asquith. This included his Cottage on Dartmoor (1928). This seemed more appropriate as Asquith, in particular with this feature, is among a number of British mainstream filmmakers who owe a debt to Soviet Montage. But I think that Asquith, more than most British directors of the period [including Alfred Hitchcock] understood what montage in the Soviet sense comprehended.

 

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La Fille de Delft, Belgium 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on August 14, 2014

Kate and Jeff [upper left]

Kate and Jeff [upper left]

This film was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato in the programme of  ‘About 100 years ago 1914’. I first saw it in the Il Cinema Ritrovato 1995 retrospective of its director Alfred Machin. Happily we again had a black and white 35mm print from the Cinémathéque Royale de Belgique [the original release had also included a colour version]. And there was a lyrical accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Note its English-language title is the non-literal A Tragedy in the Clouds [and a spoiler].

The film is set in Holland and makes extensive use of windmills, something of a Machin motif. The first part of the film centres on two childhood sweethearts, Kate and Jeff.  Kate is the daughter of a miller and Jeff is a shepherd boy. The young actors, presumably non-professionals, offer delightful performances with a rather naïve ambience. There is a village fete with a competition for the best-turned out flower cart – all pulled by dogs. Kate wins the prize, a flower in a pot. This is followed a by a celebratory dance: Kate and Jeff are spotted by an impresario who is taken with their performance.

Then the story turns darker. Kate’s father is killed when the mill is struck by lightning. After the funeral and mourning period Kate is recruited by the impresario to the Coliseum Dance School. As she leaves she gives Jeff the potted flower. At the dance school Kate causes, at first scorn, then admiration for her ethnic style of dance.

The film moves on and Kate is now a famous dancer and star. She returns to her hometown to perform. Jeff, now a man, calls at the theatre to see Kate. But she is taken up with her affluent admirers. There is a notable shot as Kate looks down through a window at Jeff outside and below: and then screws up his letter.

Later Kate is taken on a balloon trip by an admirer. Then a storm arrives with thunder and lighting. The balloon is truck by lightning, catches fire and falls to the ground. Kate is blinded in the accident. Deserted by her admirers, she returns to the village and her mother’s house. A title sums up the conclusion: “Love felt by simple people overcomes the hardest trials.”

The later part of the film is more melodramatic than the opening sequences. And the storm sequence uses some fine aerial shots but also relies on matte shots and effects. But over the film has a natural air, something Machin achieves in his fictional features as well as his documentaries.

The recurring motifs and tropes are noticeable. The mill, establishing both a region but also a dramatic situation – aerial machines – and a happy use of animals that develops throughout his career. Eric de Kuyper comments on the film and its motifs:

“But when it comes to windmills, Machin seems to say, things are different. Windmills aren’t like tulips, which spread across the earth in the opening sequences of La fille de Delft, to show audiences that we are in Holland. There are plenty of picturesque windmills in La fille de Delft (see p. 126) but their repeated appearance throughout the film strikes a mocking, jarring note when compared with the windmill that is struck by lightning and which leads to the death of the miller Petrus at the outset of the film. (The shot in which the miller is shown deep in thought in the twilight in front of the mill seems to prefigure the curse on the windmill. This same device of the windmill’s silhouette against a twilight sky is also used in Le moulin maudit. So Machin gives us no pretty sunsets, only twilights!)”.

(Alfred Machin Cinéaste / Film-maker, Cinémathéque Royale de Belgique, 1995). Le moulin maudit is a melodrama from 1909 involving revenge and tragic deaths. It was filmed with stencil colour like Maudite soit la guerre.

 

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Carbon Arc Screenings

Posted by keith1942 on July 24, 2014

 

Carbon arc

One of the treats introduced at Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2013 was a screening in the Piazetta Pier Paolo Pasolini using a 1930s projector with carbon arc illumination. At one time this technology was the basis of nearly all cinema projection. The sparks jump between carbon rods and produce one of the brightest illuminations in cinema. I spoke to one projectionist who had suffered a slight eye flaw from their brightness. The technology required projectionists to check and maintain the gap between rods – and rods burnt ou relatively quickly. But the illumination is not only bright but produces an image that is fairly faithful to the original, including the distinctive colour palette.

The Ritrovato screenings start about 10 p.m. and the audience can enjoy the image, the atmosphere and the balmy evenings of summer. This year’s were packed, with other members standing round in the shadows. The screen is framed between trees and the projector not only illuminates this screening but also sends a small beam vertically up above the projector. There is a moment of anticipation as the projector is ‘fired up’ and then the audience swivels from looking behind to looking in front as the film image is revealed.

On the Wednesday evening we had La Princesse Mandane (1928), part of a retrospective of films directed by Germaine Dulac. The film was commercially funded and adapted from a novel by Pierre Benoit. Dulac, of course, is really thought of as an avant-garde filmmaker and an early example of a director who could be labelled ‘feminist’. I suspect it was the disparity between these two forms that made the film less than effective for me. It is well produced and there are some imaginative scenes, especially in a long dream sequence. However, this dream world runs for over 50 minutes of the films 74 minutes running time. I found it padded out with sequences that neither forwarded the narrative nor developed the characters. The Catalogue comments that “The image of the princess – the mise en scène of her femininity – is the object of a masculine fantasy….”

Which is accurate. But this did not seem to generate much critical interrogation of such a ‘male gaze’. Still this was a wonderful way to watch the film. And there was an excellent accompaniment at the piano by Stephen Horne, who added a few other instruments in his inimitable manner.

The Thursday evening saw us back in the courtyard for Sangue Bleu (1914), part of a programme of films directed by Nino Oxilia. But the focus of the film was the silent star and diva Francesca Bertini. She is certainly one of the three major artists of the Italian diva era. Here she was working for Celio Film, but she went on to produce her own films. As is the case in diva films, the mise en scène privileges the star, but also provides an opulent and dramatic range of settings as she emotes, most frequently in the tragic mode. The Catalogue comments that

“Elena (Bertini) appears / disappears, emerges / vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light…”

The plot, which is fairly conventional has an aristocratic wife and mother dumped by her husband and then misused and abused by a series of male characters. Meanwhile the princess struggles to retain and care for her daughter. This is great, over-the-top melodrama, which works partly because of the presence of Bertini. The accompaniment by Daniele Furiati matched the onscreen drama. And the ambience of the occasion was magical.

 

Posted in French film 1920s, Italian film, Silent technology | Leave a Comment »

Maudite soit la Guerre / [Damn the War!], Belgium 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on July 10, 2014

Maudite soit la guerre still

This was a film programmed in ‘Lay Down Your Arms! Pacifism and War 1914 – 1918’ at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014. A restored version of the same film was shown as part of a retrospective of the director Alfred Machin at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Before then Machin was an almost forgotten film pioneer who worked in the Belgium, Dutch and French film industries. That year we enjoyed some thirty films directed by Machin, from shorts to full-length features. Between 1908 and 1931 Machin directed, and often scripted, a wide variety of films that fell into many different genres and into both fictional features and documentaries. Eric de Kuyper produced a bi-lingual study of Alfred Machin Cinéaste / Film-maker [French and English], that was published by he Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique together with the Cineteca del Commune di Bologna, (1995).

Maudite soit le Guerre is an anti-war melodrama. Whilst the plot does not identify the countries involved the characters’ names, dress and setting suggest Belgium/France versus Germany. Adolph (Baert) comes to train as an aviator and becomes friendly with Sigismond and his family, and romantically involved with his sister Lidia (La Berni). Then war breaks out and the friends find themselves on opposing sides in the conflict. Predictably they arrive at the same spot on a battlefield – an old windmill. Both die, but the film continues to the point where Lidia learns of the death of Adolph. The films end in a fairly downbeat manner.

Mariann Lewinsky, who programmed the 1914 series at the Festival, commented that in Machin’s films windmills often accompany death – as in this film. There was another example in La Fille de Delft (A Tragedy in the Clouds) a film directed by Machin in 1914. We also had an earlier example of the destruction of a windmill, where the mise en scène crossed over strikingly with Maudite …..

When I saw the film in 1995 it was restored to a 35 mm print, including the Pathé stencil colours, and the tinting and toning. It was the lustrous colours in particular that I remembered from then.

Nicola Mazzanti comments in the Festival Catalogue

… the chromatic composition of Maudite soit la guerre is constructed around the leitmotiv of two pastels, understated colours, the pink of the geraniums in the girl’s villa and the variations of brown (from terra die siena to ochre) of the uniforms and the battlefield, with the reds of the explosions providing the counterpoint.

For 2014 more digital work was done to ‘bring back the subtlety of those unbelievable pinks and browns’. Memory is not always reliable, but the DCP projected in the Piazza Maggiore looked rather as I remembered the 35 mm print. Unfortunately it did not run as smoothly as the celluloid. After about 40 minutes, as we started the final camera reel, the DCP ‘stuck’! The audience sat there uncertain. Gabriel Thibaudeau at the piano, who provided a fine accompaniment and who was approaching his climatic flourish, appeared stunned. Alas that was it for the evening. When I inquired later in the week it seemed that the digital box was still ‘stuck’. We may enjoy a repeat screening next year – can we revert to 35mm?

Fortunately I did have a fairly good memory from the 1995 screening. There is a scene where Lidia recognises a medallion given to Adolph. This was followed by a dream sequence, which had the finest use of colours in the whole film. And the ending is in a Convent. The film does develop as powerful anti-war stance, though it fails [as do most anti-war films] to address the actual circumstances of the 1914 conflict: [that is imperialist rivalry not events in Sarajevo].

I suppose the only positive aspect of a digital version is that it will probably circulate more widely. This is definitely a film to see when the opportunity arises. And Machin’s other works are also worth looking out for.

 

Posted in Belgium film, war and anti-war films | Leave a Comment »

An Italian Straw Hat / Un Chapeau de paille d’Italie, Rene Clair 1927

Posted by keith1942 on June 4, 2014

italian

This is one of the classics of French cinema and one of the best films directed by René Clair. It was produced by Alexander Kamenka for Films Albatros at their Montreuil Studio. Films Albatros had started out as a film company of Russian émigrés, including the star actor Ivan Mosjoukine. However most of the émigrés had left Albatros for a new studio at Billancourt. Albatros had been in the forefront of French productions, but now it had to rebuild its success, relying on a series of comedy adaptation. The young René Clair turned in one hit, La Proie du vent (1927) and followed it up with this adaptation and updating of a famous French farce from 1851.

He was supported by an excellent cast and production team. The sets by Lazare Meerson and cinematography by Maurice Desfassiaux and Nicolas Roudakoff are all impressive. Most of the film, including many of the fine exteriors, were shot at the studio.

The film’s continued status is confirmed by it being included in Ian Christie’s The Peak of Silent Cinema (Sight & Sound November 2013):

“Clair’s solution, in agreeing to film Eugene Labiche’s vintage stage play, was to update it to the belle epoque of 1895 and to shoot it with the utmost simplicity, in the style of early film. Labiche’s play was always a satire on petit bourgeois pretension, with the nurseryman as keen that his daughter should marry a ‘gentleman of leisure’ as Ferdinand is to secure his future. Everything that gets in the way of the wedding represents a threat to the social order that is being confirmed; and in this case most of the obstacles are objects, signs of property and status, which constantly threaten to get out of hand.“

All of the director’s silent films were screened at the 2007 Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a programme entitled René Clair: Le silence est d’or. The Festival Catalogue included notes on Clair and the films by Lenny Borger. He pointed out that for many years Clair’s reputation rested on a series of early sound films, including Le Million and A nous la liberté. Clair himself was often dismissive of some of his earliest films. In fact he developed his skills in a series of silent films which stand up very well today. Clair started out as a journalist, and then took up screen acting.  His first directorial outing was Paris Qui Dort (Sleeping Paris, 1924). Filmed in the summer of 1923 this is an early science fiction drama, running just over an hour. A mad scientist’s ray turns Paris into a frozen city of sleep. The only six characters awake embark on a surrealist trip round the city. The film is full and witty an innovative techniques and situations. It presents the delight of a young filmmaker with the magic of the new medium.

Entra'cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entra’cte Marcel Duchamps and Man Ray

Entr’acte (i.e. intermission) is Clair’s famous film experiment from 1924. Clair was working as editor of the cinema section of the arts magazine Le Théâtre-Comoedia Illustré and was involved with avant-garde artists such as the Dadaists. The film was to fill the interlude in a new Ballet, Relâche, by Francis Picabia and Erik Satie. Entr’acte, which runs for just on twenty minutes, is another ensemble of cinematic techniques, much of it down to the cinematographer Jimmy Berliet. The official plot has a group of mourners chasing a runaway hearse.

Le Fantôme du Moulin Rouge (The Phantom of the Moulin Rouge) was released in 1925. It had been made whilst Clair was working on Entr’acte and produced by Films René Fernand. It was a fantasy film mixing comedy and melodrama. It is full of the recognisable techniques and tricks in Clair’s first two films. The plot is quite complicated but ends in another dramatic chase. The standout sequence is set in the Moulin Rouge where the fantasy elements commence. Designer Robert Gys created the setting with great skill in the studio. The Giornate screening used a British print from the National Archive, which, surprisingly, is longer than the surviving French print.

Le Voyage Imaginaire (1925) was commissioned by ballet impresario Rolf de Maré to star his lead performer Jean Borlin. Like its predecessors this is a fantasy film, this time with the hero’s fantasy in a dream form. The sets by Robert Gys were again impressive, but the film did not really work effectively. It flopped and undermined the growing reputation Clair had established with his first three films. It also closed off a film career for Borlin.

Clair was then recruited to work for Films Albatros and his first production for them; La Proie du Vent was both a critical and commercial success. This launched the partnership with producer Alexandre Kamenka and designer Lazare Meerson. The plot follows a fantastic adventure romance set in the sort of Mittel-Europe revisited recently in Grand Budapest Hotel.  The film also starred the British actress Lilian Hall-Davis.

Clair’s follow-up film was Un Chapeau de Paile D’Italie. His last silent feature was Les Deux Timides (1928). This was a comedy by one of the authors of The Italian Straw Hat Eugène Labiche. The C19th play focuses on two shy male protagonists pursuing romantic interests with difficulty. Clair updated the play to the present and added characters and additional scenes.

His last silent was a documentary short, La Tour (1928) of the Eiffel Tower.

1929 onwards saw the arrival of the news sound cinema. Alexandre Kamanka’s Albatros Film was a casualty as the producer re-joined forces with his erstwhile Russian colleagues at the Billancourt Studio. Clair went to work at the Tobis Paris Studios, part of a conglomerate involving the Tobis and the Klangfilm Sound Companies. He retained the services of Art Designer Lazare Meerson and directed some of the outstanding early sound films including A nous la liberté (Freedom for Us, 1931) and Le Million (1931).

Fadinard

Fadinard

An Italian Straw Hat follows the travails of Fadinard (Albert Préjean) on his wedding day. An accident with the Italian straw hat of Anais Beauperthuis (Olga Tschekowa), caught in a compromising position with her lover Lieutenant Tavernier (Vital Geymond), upsets the carefully planned celebratory events. Fadinard, a bourgeois, is joining hands with Hélène, daughter of petit bourgeois Yvonneck. The comedy opens in the Yvonneck home, and in increasingly farcical situations, takes in the streets, Fadinard’s apartment, the Town Hall, and the home of Beauperthuis. Some of the comedy is delicate and recurring, two important props are a pair of gloves and a pair of shoes. Family, guests and others are often subject of misapprehensions and, importantly, not all of these are dispelled by the resolution. The actions involving the Lieutenant become increasingly bizarre and the coup de grace is presented with great flair.

Clair and his production team appear to have caught the milieu of the 1890s with real skill. What adds immeasurably to one’s pleasure is that the film recreates the sense of the cinema of the 1890s as well. Most of the exteriors are actually studio based, but are extremely convincing. The seemingly random passing dogs, ubiquitous in early film, contribute to this sense of authenticity. Once the straw hat has suffered its fate the comedy develops and becomes ever more emphatic.

The film was screened in a fairly good 35mm print recently at the National Media Museum. We enjoyed a fine accompaniment on the piano by Darius Battiwalla. The print, from the British Film Institute archive, was 6,626 feet whilst the original release was 7,320 feet in length. The projection speed for the film’s premiere was recorded, 19 fps. This gives about eleven minutes difference in running times between the two versions. Apparently the UK release in 1930 had about a reel removed. There does not seem to be a record of what was cut, and not all the elisions in the film are clear. There are though two noticeable differences. During the ceremony of the Town Hall Fadinard imagines the Lieutenant wreaking havoc in his apartment. About half of this sequence is missing, the most dramatic part where Clair uses stop-motion effects: also seen in his earlier experimental films. Later when Fadinard visits Monsieur Beauperthuis he recounts the original accident, presented visually as a melodramatic stage version. All of this has been removed. In both cases the UK distributor seems to have removed the most unconventional treatment in the sequences. They presumably thought even then that English audiences like their ‘realism’. Darius also noticed that a couple of title cards were missing in the shorter version. These also relate to the sequences at the apartment of Monsieur Beauperthuis. In this case the distributor appears to have misunderstood the visual signal Clair adds for the audience at this point. In fact one can work out the sense of the sequence from the remaining visual sign. One other brief scene cut is an image of a priest and marital couple as Fadinard explains his situation to the Lieutenant. The oddity here is that there are two such inserts, but only one has been removed.

The continuity of the film remains in the shorter version, as does most of the comedy. Unfortunately the two main sequences that have been cut, Fadinard’s imaginings at the Town Hall and his presentation of Monsieur Beauperthuis, are among the highlights of the film. However An Italian Straw Hat remains one of the finest of the silent era’s comedies. It is certainly equal to the great filmic comedies made in Hollywood in the 1920s. Clair has a great comic touch and his filmic style, together with excellent production support, is always a pleasure. Whilst this film is the peak of his work in the 1920s the other features from that decade are certainly worth seeking out.

Posted in French film 1920s, Silent Comedy | 2 Comments »

From Rover to Uggie: Dogs on Film

Posted by keith1942 on April 19, 2014

Blair as Rover

Blair as Rover

This was an illustrated talk that I presented at the Cinema Museum in London in late 2011. The evening was composed of both silent and sound films. However, the two key canine stars in the title both appeared in ‘silent movies’, though separated by over by over a 100 years. In fact, there were quite a few featured performers from the silent era.
In Rescued by Rover Cecil Hepworth’s dog, Blair played the canine hero. He tracks down a kidnapped child whilst the human members of the family indulge in grief and panic. Thus Rover set the pattern for a whole series of dogs who rescue the human characters from dire emergencies.
Another example was Rin Tin Tin in Lighthouse by the Sea (1924). In this drama Rin Tin Tin and his master, Albert, are set on by bootleggers. Albert is trussed up in the lighthouse. He manages to strike a match on the floor with his boot and Rin Tin Tin lights a rag soaked in kerosene, climbs up the lighthouse stairs and lights the lantern to summon help.
The distraught Pete in Dog Heaven (1927) attempts suicide because his master Joey has transferred his affections from his dog to a young girl. The method, hanging, is macabre but also very funny. A more affectionate owner is to be found in Tol’able David (1921). David and his Border collie play by a lake and in the meadow, whilst David tries to impress his sweetheart. The high point of the sequence is when the dog makes off with David’s trousers, who is then forced to return home wearing a barrel. Spoiler warning, there is a traumatic scene later in the film!
There is even more comedy in a scene from Our Hospitality (1923). Buster Keaton is caught up in a Southern feud. His best hope is to stay in the house of his enemies since the law of hospitality protects him there. He tries hiding his hat so he can remain, but his dog keeps bringing it back. The dog has already trotted behind the train that bought Buster South from New York. Despite this and in an early example of a fairly retrograde Hollywood convention, the dog disappears completely after this sequence.
David Locke, who was also in charge of projection, bought along an early Edison Dog Factory (1904). An ingenious inventor produces a machine which, in a reverse technique, when fed material like sausages churned out dogs at the other end. We had a Bonzo cartoon where this ingenious dog was faced with a problem of accessing food hidden away in the kitchen. And we had a Jerry the Tyke cartoon where his master and animator turned him into a cinema poster. Finally we had a C21st ‘silent’ film, with the now popular star, Uggie.

Uggie + george
All these extracts were made even more enjoyable by a lively piano accompaniment from Lillian Henley. Those who came along appeared to enjoy the show. So we have a sort of sequel, And the Award Goes to …. – Dogs, of course, Thursday April 24th, again at the Cinema Museum.

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Chaplin Centenary

Posted by keith1942 on April 1, 2014

chaplin_easystreet

On February 7th 1914 audiences had their first opportunity to se a new film creation – Charlie Chaplin’s ‘The Tramp’. The film was Kid Auto Races at Venice produced by Mack Sennett at The Keystone Film Company. It was Chaplin’s third film, but the second to be released and the one that introduced probably the most popular character in film history.

The anniversary one hundred years on will see any number of celebrations and revistings. Il Cinema Ritrovato at the Cineteca di Bologna has long had a special focus on Chaplin and this year will see a special conference with screenings at the end of June. That event precedes the annual archive festival in the city. Closer to home [mine anyway] the National Media Museum is featuring Chaplin in its annual International Film Festival [BIFF]. There will be a screening of two of the classic two-reeler and then one of my favourite features, Modern Times (1936).

Just to contexualise these: Chaplin had been raised in poverty and deprivation in London’s East End. He started in the British Music Hall at an early age and by 1908 he joined Fred Karno’s troupe, one of the most popular on the circuits. Another potential star in the troupe at that time was Stan Laurel. Chaplin toured the USA Vaudeville with the Karno troupe in 1911-12 and again in 1913. On the later tour he secured a contract with Keystone, part of the burgeoning industry in Hollywood and famous for their anarchic Keystone Kops. This move is symbolic of a wider transformation, as the years from 1914 [during World War I] saw the centre of world cinema move from Europe to the USA. And Chaplin was to become world cinema’s first superstar in that state’s film capital, Hollywood.

In just on a year Chaplin appeared in 35 Keystone comedies, mostly one or two reel films: a reel was a 1000 feet in length and ran for about fifteen minutes at a running speed of 16 frames per second. His popularity increased from film to film and in 1915 he moved to The Essanay Film Manufacturing Company. He received an increase in salary and greater control over the films.  Up until the middle of 1916 Chaplin made fourteen films for Essanay. His style and screen persona became more established in this period. He shared the acrobatic dexterity and timing of many ex-vaudeville stars who worked in silent comedy. But he also had the distinctive character, immediately recognisable, usually down and out, disreputable but with an irrepressible manner. Chaplin bought a balletic grace to all his actions; he slowed down the comedy and lovingly exploited props and situations.

In May 1916 Chaplin moved again, this time to the Lone Star Mutual. Again he received an increase in salary, increased control over the films, and a specially equipped studio in which to work. The eleven Mutual two-reel comedies are considered some of the finest of Chaplin’s short films. At this stage he also developed a regular supporting troupe of craftsmen and performers. The main cinematographer was Roland Totheroh. And the two key performers were Edna Purviance, who usually offered romantic interest: and Eric Campbell, who was a large and threatening character, providing the main conflict with The Tramp.

BIFF is offering two of the Mutual classics:

Easy Street released January 1917. 23 minutes.

The Tramp is recruited by a Missionary (Edna Purviance) at a local reform centre into the Police Force. So Charlie is charged with cleaning up the title setting, a den of vice, violence and criminality. The main opposition comes from the ‘Scourge of Easy Street’ (Eric Campbell).

The Immigrant released June 1917. 24 minutes.

Charlie is one of the migrants arriving in the USA. Many in the audience would have experienced what the film burlesques. In New York for example the majority of Nickelodeons were in working class and migrant areas. Edna Purviance plays a fellow immigrant, whilst Eric Campbell is a less friendly aspect of their new society.

Both films rely on Tittle Cards [Intertitles] for plot information and dialogue. And as in 1914 the films have a live musical accompaniment, provided by Darius Battiwalla. Darius has established himself as a skilled and popular performer in the series of Silent Films with Live Piano at the Museum.

In 1917 Chaplin moved to First National [later part of Warner Brothers]. As his career had developed he had increasingly taken control of the production of his films. Now they also increased in length. His 1919 feature The Kid is six reels in length. It became one of his most famous and enduring films. It also made a star of the then only five-year old Jackie Coogan.

In 1919 Chaplin, along with Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and D. W. Griffith, set up their own distribution company, United Artists. The four names were the most famous and successful member of the Hollywood Industry. A competitor quipped, “So, the lunatics have taken charge of the asylum.”  In fact their early years saw major successes, including Fairbanks in The Three Musketeers (`1921), Pickford in Sparrows (1926), Griffith directed Broken Blossoms (1919) and Chaplin made The Gold Rush (1925).

Chaplin was a perfectionist and as his career developed and his control of the filming increased, he spent more and more time on achieving the exact effect. The Gold Rush was in production from December 1923 until May 1925. It also cost about $ 1 million but it took $6 million at the Box Office. However, his output of films slowed considerably. Then in 1927 commercial sound film arrived with Warner Bros.’ The Jazz Singer and Al Jolson’s famous line – “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet.” By 1930 most of the US Industry had changed over to a system that offered music, effects and (crucially) synchronised dialogue.

However, Chaplin [like Douglas Fairbanks] felt hat his art depended on the distinctive form of silent film.  In January 1931 he released City Lights, which relied on Title Cards and with the only concession to sound technology being a pre-recorded musical accompaniment.

Modern Times, released in January 1936 continued this trend. The film does have a soundtrack, which includes music, sound effects and the human voice – but little synchronised dialogue. And the film still relies on the Title Cards for much of the pilot and dialogue. In many ways it brings to summation Chaplin’s cinematic virtues: there is the Tramp character, irrepressibly anarchic. There is Chaplin’s sympathy with ordinary workers and the poor, strikingly in the film’s early scenes of mass production. There is Chaplin’s balletic grace in physical action, notably in the roller skating sequence. And there is his sentimental use of melodrama, in the relationship with the Gamine (Paulette Godard).

Chaplin’s later films used synchronised sound. However he fell foul or the FBI and the conservative elements in US society. Following Word War II he moved to Europe and it was only in 1972 that he received an Honorary Academy ward from Hollywood.

Note that the Museum is using digital versions of the Chaplin films. This means the films have been step-printed to bring them up to sound speed. This does produce occasional ‘ghosting’, frames carrying over rather than a clean cut. And I think that the films still run slightly fast in this format. Some of the sequences in The Immigrant are a shade fast, and the incomparable lamppost sequence in Easy Street seems to lack the precise timing it has on 35mm. However, for most of the screenings you forget this as gag follows gag and Chaplin displays his striking physicality.

Chaplin His Life and Work by David Robinson (1998) is the source for his work and career and Wikipedia has a detailed page on him.

 

Posted in Hollywood, Silent Comedy, silent comics | Leave a Comment »

Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last

Posted by keith1942 on January 27, 2014

Poster%20-%20Safety%20Last_01

The feature:

This film contains one of the most famous images in all of Hollywood silent comedy – as The Boy attempts a daredevil climb up the exterior of a twelve-story city Department Store. The stunts and the staging are impressive and justly iconic. However, the whole film features a longer and more complex story with a satisfying resolution for fans. The characters have almost mythic titles, the Boy, the Girl, and the Pal. Characters’ names [those of the actors] do appear in the title cards. Essentially the film divides into three parts.

The film opens in the stereotypical small town of ‘Great Bend’. Here we meet The Boy and his sweetheart. In a classic US formula he leaves to make his fortune in the big city. His early days there involve some comic incidents as Harold tries to make his way whilst at the same time re-assuring his sweetheart in letters home. The gags play with the hustle and bustle of the city (unnamed Los Angeles]. One sequence follows Harold as he rushes to work using first a tram then more unorthodox transport. A recurring situation involves small jewellers where Harold buys a present for his girl. There is a less than sensitive use of stereotypes here with the character of the clearly Jewish shop owner.

In the central section Harold is working in a Department Store. This is a regular setting in 1920s films. Clara Bow’s great hit It! (1927) features her in a similar situation: intriguingly the rather different Soviet classic New Babylon (1929) uses a similar setting to far different purpose. With its kaleidoscope of goods and customers the Department Store seemed to typify the exciting new world of the ‘20s’. There are some familiar generic gags here, including the authoritarian FloorWalker. And then a little later there is the chaos of the sales season. There is also another unfortunate stereotypical joke, this time with an Afro-American janitor. He is reduced to the eyeball-rolling stereotype of the period.  Then Harold’s sweetheart comes to see him at his place of employment. There are some fine comic moments as Harold pretends to a higher status than he actually enjoys in the store.

It is Harold’s need to succeed and to please and impress his sweetheart that leads to the spectacular action of the last third of the film. Here the plot picks up on particular facets of the ‘20s’, ‘the human fly’. Just as the period was one of dizzying construction to ever-greater size and height, so humans with enough bravura made their mark on these new colossi. In fact, The Boy’s Pal is played by an actual ‘human fly’, whose stunts had impressed Lloyd. The film combines the thrills and spills expected in silent comedy with a series of great and developing gags. And through it all Lloyd’s Boy is driven on by his need to succeed. This comedy cleverly embodies a central tenet of the ‘American Dream’. It is likely that the combination of comedy and optimism accounted for it being one of the great comic successes of the 1920s.

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Harold Lloyd

Lloyd was one of the three most successful and popular Hollywood comics of the silent era. “Harold Lloyd’s character, both on and off screen, typified optimism. Very much the embodiment of the concept of succeeding through confidence, hard work and determination. Lloyd was in a sense the most positive screen presence of the major silent comedians.”  (A-Z of Silent Film Comedy, Glenn Mitchell, 1998).  This would also seem to make Harold the most positive representative of the ‘American Dream’ in US silent comedy.

As with so many screen comics he started out in a stock repertory company. His first screen appearance was as an extra in an Edison Company film The Old Monk’s Tale (1913). He then worked first for Max Roach and afterwards Max Sennett. When Max Roach was able to start independent production Lloyd starred in a series of comedies as ‘Lonesome Luke’. Like many other would-be comic stars this was a variation on the character made famous by Charlie Chaplin. Roach produced about 100 short films in this series with great success.

Harold’s first role in the recognisable Lloyd character, with the familiar spectacles and straw boater, was the one-reel Over the Fence (1917). Hal Roach was instrumental in developing this new persona which moved away from the caricature associated with earlier comics and presented a recognisable young and ambitious hero. The new character was full of resourcefulness and determination, and also possessed a streak of ruthlessness. One aspect of Lloyd’s persona is a variation of the traditional character of ‘the trickster’. He is always coming up with unconventional and often illegitimate resolutions to problems. Examples of this recur throughout Safety Last.

One film, Look Out Below (1918) utilised the skyscraper as a setting: something with which Lloyd became famously associated. In another, Picture Show (1919) the stunts led to a hand injury and the loss of both a thumb and forefinger. Impressive and realistic-looking stunts were to be come a staple of the Lloyd’s film successes. As with other silent comics Lloyd was adept at stunt work and many of the spectacular feats in Safety Last involve him. There were, of course, safety precautions, usually just outside the line of the camera shot.

Lloyd was in the forefront of producing comic films of increasing length. Most silent comedies up until the early 1920s were one and two reel films. Projection speeds were gradually increasing in this period: originally a reel ran for fifteen minutes, by the early 1920s this had decreased to 12 minutes of less. In 1921 Harold Lloyd starred in Now Or Never, Among Those Present (1921) and Never Weaken, all three-reel films. This gave a running time approaching 40 minutes. A Sailor-Made Man ran for four reels. Whilst Grandma’’ Boy (1922) was five reels, reaching about an hour in running time. Both Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton were also moving on to feature length comedies, with developed narratives rather than the episodic plots that characterised early silent comedies. All three comics developed narrative construction and characterisation to support the increased viewing lengths.

All this time Lloyd was working for Hal Roach. Safety Last owes a lot to the input of Roach, one of the masters of the gag in silent film. In 1924 Lloyd set up the Harold Lloyd Corporation, though he retained the link with Pathé. His first feature was Girl Shy (1924). Later Lloyd moved to a distribution deal with Paramount, on eof the emerging Hollywood Majors.  All through this period Lloyd enjoyed great popularity and success. His last silent comedy was Speedy (1928) set around an old horse-drawn tram service in New York.

Unlike a number of the silent stars Lloyd did manage the transition to sound comedy. He made five sound features, though with decreasing success and then retired form filmmaking. He received a Special Academy Award in 1952 as a ‘master comedian and good citizen’. In the 1960s compilations of his silent comedies revived his popularity and he received a standing ovation at the 1962 Cannes Film Festival.

The film:

Hal Roach Studios. Distributed by Pathé Exchange, 1923.

Director Fred Newmeyer and Sam Taylor. Story by Hal Roach, San Taylor and Tim Whelan. Cinematography Walter Lundin. Art Director Fred Guiol. Titling H. M. Walker. Black and White, 7 reels.

Cast: Harold Lloyd – The Boy. Mildred Davis – The Girl. Bill Strother – The Pal. Noah Young – The Law. Westcott B. Clarke – The Floorwalker. Mickey Daniels – The Kid. Anna Townsend – The Grandma.

The print:

The recent screening at the National Media Museum used a 35mm copy of the original film. The print has an added soundtrack, which was switched off. A colleague who saw and heard this print thought the music track was not very good. Fortunately the Museum screening enjoyed the services Darius Battiwalla, providing live accompaniment on the piano.

Sound prints run at 24 fps. One of the projection team checked and found that Safety Last was shot at 22 fps, so this was the projection speed used in the screening. It looked just right and the print was in good shape.

 

Posted in Hollywood, Silent Comedy | Leave a Comment »

The Epic of Everest

Posted by keith1942 on January 8, 2014

An iris shot of Everest

An iris shot of Everest

This is a record of the 1924 British Expedition to Mount Everest (Chomolungma in Tibetan). The attempt failed but remained famous because of the death high on the mountain of two English climbers, George Mallory and Andrew Irvine. The film records both the expedition to the mountain and the attempted ascent. The filming was undertaken by Captain J. B. L. Noel, using a specially adapted camera to film in the difficult conditions on the ground and on the mountain itself. Noel was only able to carry the camera up to the lower camps, but he recorded the climbs higher up by using a powerful telephoto lens.

Noel edited the footage and added explanatory title cards to create a documentary record of the expedition. He successfully recorded the journey of the expedition to the mountain and the grandeur of the ice fields at its foot and the steep snow and ice-bound slopes of the ascent. The title cards do more than explain. They provide a sort of commentary on the expedition and on its tragic conclusion. The commentary has a strong tone of orientalism about it. It also presents the expedition as a rather unique venture. Noel had in fact filmed an earlier expedition in 1922. But there is no mention of this in the title cards, suggesting that the expedition is a rather special, new type of venture.

Visually the film is impressive. This is scenery on a grand scale: the great mountain frequently dwarfs the British climbers and their laden Sherpas. The film certainly conjures up both the isolation and the impressive size and bleakness of Everest and the surrounding peaks and glaciers.

The bfi has restored the film and made it available around the UK. However, it seems that they have only distributed it in a digital format, a 2K DCP, running for 87 minutes. This did not seem to me to do due justice to the films visual qualities. Much of the footage has the sharper outlines found in digital formats. In fact the most impressive shots are those that were tinted, blue and orange. The tinting presumably softening the harder edges of the digital image. Moreover, the film has been step-printed to accommodate the projection speed of digital, 24-fps. Noel was using a hand-cranked camera and it appears that the filming rate varied from sequence to sequence. So in this presentation some of the movement is normal, but in other sequences the action is clearly speeded up.

I had in fact seen the film before, at the 1995 Il Cinema Ritrovato. Then we viewed a Nederlands Filmmuseum black and white 35mm print, which [in the record] ran for 110 minutes. This had English intertitles as in the bfi restoration. My memory is that the visual quality of the Nederlands print was fairly good. And I don’t remember there being sequences that appeared speeded-up. I don’t have a record of the projection speed, but given it was a 35mm print it may well have enjoyed varied projection speeds to accommodate the effects of hand cranking. The difference in running times would not be explained solely by differences in projection speeds. I did think that the bfi version felt rather compressed towards the end. There is a bfi WebPages on the restoration, however it does not mention the length or the frame speed. The digital version clearly had some step printing in it, though with the sequences at variable speeds it is difficult to gauge the ratio of extra frames.

It is a shame that the bfi are not offering a 35mm print on this occasion. They will presumably have struck one from the restoration. The modern 35mm projectors with which I am familiar can change projection speeds at the push of a button. Though it would require an experienced and attentive projectionist to perform the operation. It is now possible to transfer early film to digital at the appropriate projection speed. The specifications provided by FIAF for this range from 16 fps to 24 fps. Of course, with this particular film there would still be a problem with the projection speed because I don’t think variation within a feature is possible on digital. If I am wrong, someone please fill me in on this.

As it stands I did not feel this digital version did proper justice to Noel’s cinematographic feats in the most hostile of environs. The digital effect on the image seemed to me quite noticeable at times. And one of the sections which appeared too fast was a rescue incident and this subverted the intended tension of the sequence. The digital version also had a sound accompaniment, partly composed of electronic music and partly of Nepalese ethnic instruments. It did not work for me; the parts that I thought effective were actually traditional piano. The Ritrovato presentation had a small musical ensemble with a score composed by Willem Friede from the Rotterdam Conservatorium: as I remember it worked very well. Can we hope for a 35mm print circulating at some future date? This would also provide space for live accompaniments and musicians able to respond to the quality of the film.

Postscript

 

The Epic of Everest was screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato 2014 in the ‘Recovered and restored’ section. The film was screened in a 35mm print at 20 fps. The Catalogue notes that “The prints were scanned at a resolution of 4K using a wet gate to eliminate scratches and a novel technique was developed to scan selected scenes using individual colour LED’s to compensate for deterioration of the blue toning and the severe mould damage.” There was no mention of variable camera speeds, which certainly seemed the case when I saw the digital version and which affected the step printing for the DCP.

This is another example of the BFI transporting 35mm prints thousand of miles for a Festival, whilst they seem unwilling to transport the film a couple of hundred miles for indigenous audiences. And I am pretty sure that the DCP circulated in the UK was only 2K.

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