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The Louis Le Prince Leeds trail

Posted by keith1942 on July 20, 2015

Le Prince Map

In late 1888 Louis Le Prince shot moving pictures in Leeds on a camera of his own design and construction. These are the earliest recorded films, as opposed to multiple photographs. And they precede the achievements of other cinematic pioneers like Thomas Edison and the Lumière brothers. Now a documentary film has been released that traces the career of Le Prince and his film actitivies in C19th Yorkshire, The First Film. To celebrate this milestone we are publishing an informal trail of the historic spots in Leeds that are associated with Le Prince and his pioneer achievements.

The starting point is in Leeds City Centre, from where all the spots indicated can be accessed by the local bus services: note the relevant bus stops are spread out around the Headrow, Vicar Lane, Boar Lane and the Bus Station. But you can also walk between a number of the sites in the Centre..

 

Lds Centre Map

The trail can be followed in varied ways, depending on your interests and mode of transport. We are suggesting that you start with the Leeds Industrial Museum at Armley Mills in Canal Street. It can be accessed by Service number 5 from F7.

[If you follow an alternative route then there is a page on le Prince on Wikipedia you can consult first].

 

Armley Mills Ent.

The Museum has a display on le Prince; copies of one of the cameras that he designed and video copies of the short surviving films from 1888. It is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.

Returning to the City Centre by no. 5 to T1; we suggest that you continue with the site of Le Prince’s Workshop in Woodhouse Lane, [then at number 160]. Here Le Prince built his several cameras and [it appears] also a projector or ‘deliverer’. Service number 1 from Z1 stops opposite the University Broadcasting Place and alongside it the old BBC Building. The plaque is sited on the city-side end of that new University building. This plaque replaced an older brass plaque which now hangs in the foyer of the new BBC building on Quarry Bank [passed later].

Univ. build and plaque

You can enter the open space in the front of the building and read the plaque …

Workshop plaque

To to continue you need to walk to the nearby pedestrian traffic lights, turn right and catch any bus to the city centre, alighting at J6.  From N2 Service numbers 2, 3 and 3A all run from the City Centre through Chapeltown. Alight by the Library complex and Sholebroke Avenue is a few yards further on. there are no signs on is Prince in the Avenue but at number 16, halfway down the street, Le Prince bought the land and may have had the house built?.

No 16

He also resided for a time father up Chapeltown Road at Brandon Villas. That building has been knocked down but you can see the site, now Housing a Sikh Temple.

Return to the bus stop but now only service 2 is relevant. It passes the Sikh Temple site in a couple of hundred yards and proceeds to the Oakwood Clock.

Oakwood clock

The Clock, a local landmark, has recently been restored and there is now a display panel in front of the clock showing local sites of interest. This includes Oakwood Grange where Le Prince shot two strips of film in the garden. The display has a map which shows how to reach the location, about ten minutes on foot.

 Oakwood display

The Grange building no longer survives but the garden is sill there. It can be viewed from the street end, but the Occupants of the new building [a Training Centre] seem happy when asked to let people view the actual garden. The two short sequences on film of Le Prince’s family and in-laws in the garden still survive.

 

Roundhay garden

Return to Oakwood Clock and there are several buses to the city centre and to Leeds Bridge: it is easiest to walk from K4 [alongside the Market] to the Bridge and back again.

Leeds bridge side

A Blue Plaque records the building from which le Prince shot his film of Leeds Bridge. In 1988, at the Leeds International Film Festival, the event was celebrated with a re-enactment.

Plaque on bridge

From T12 you can return to the New Market Street, V2 and walk down to the Bus Station. The BBC Building is on Quarry Bank right opposite the Bus Station. The original brass plaque that marked Le Prince’s Workshop hangs in the foyer of the building.

At the Bus station [beyond the Market] you can catch the X6 to Bradford Interchange, this takes just over half-an-hour but it is worth it to visit the National Media Museum. If you leave by the main entrance/exit of the Interchange there are local signs including for the National Media Museum, abut 7 to 8 minutes walk.

national-media-museum

The Museum, open daily from 1000 to 1800,  has a number of media and film exhibitions. The Louis Le Prince single-lens camera is on Floor 3, alongside the Animation displays: along with examples of other pioneer cinematic technology. In addition the Museum’s Insight Collection has a large range of early cinematic material. There are conducted tours of the collection Tuesdays and Thursdays, but you can also arrange visits in the third week of every month. And there are a number of illustrated pages on Louis Le Prince on the Museum Website.

The Museum also has two cinemas and an Imax screen programed by the Picture House circuit, with afternoon and evening screenings. So it is worth checking the programme of screenings. Before or after a film, you can return to Leeds on the X6 from the Interchange: the service only operates until about 6 p.m., but there is the alternative but slower service 72 throughout the evening.

Back in Leeds, after all the exertions, you may wish for refreshments. We have not been able to identify a hostelry patronized by Le Prince himself, but there are several Public Houses which were plying their trade in his time. There is the Victoria Hotel in Great George Street, opened in 1865. Then you can indulge your cinematic pleasures by visiting the Hyde Park Picture House. Service 56 runs from J1 and passes the cinema.

hydepark

The Picture house is currently celebrating its Centenary, November 2nd 1914. The auditorium is still very much as it was when the cinema opened. So this is one of the most delighful venues for watching films across the UK. And the Picture House still has 35mm projection [as well as digital], and 35mm prints are a regular feature of the programme. There are also occasional screenings of silents with live musical acompaniment. A splendid way to end such a tour.

There is  a published book on Le Prince and his career – The Missing Reel by Christopher Rawlence, 1989 [copy in Leeds Central Library Local History section].

Thanks to Lyall for the photographs and to Erik for his advice.

 

 

 

Posted in Early cinemas, Silent technology, UK pioneers | 1 Comment »

Destiny / Der müde tod, Germany 1921.

Posted by keith1942 on June 15, 2015

Destiny duo

I saw this film some years ago at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield. On that occasion we had a 35mm print with added sound: at that point the only print available in the UK. It seems that this version is about 150 metres shorter than the original, And I did think that some shots, especially some overlapping dissolves, ran past a little too fast. However, the image quality was pretty good and the film had English title cards.

Filmed in 1921, this is an early example from the partnership of Lang and Thea von Harbou. Critical judgements on the works have often been distorted  by the knowledge that Lang left  Germany when the Nazis gained power but that von Harbou stayed and joined the party. This retrospective view overlooks that real skill with which von Harbou constructed her screenplays and the shared interests in expressionism, German gothic and a strong touch of German nationalism.

Destiny is certainly a fine example of von Harbou’s writing skills and of Lang’s skills in mise en scène, camera and editing. This is film is a beautiful exercise in chiaroscuro, with many a striking tableaux and the editing offers deft parallels and oppositions . The thematic aspects are familiar in Lang’s other works and bound together by suggestive motifs.

The basic plot finds a grim-looking figure (Bernhard Goetzke)  arriving in a small town and purchasing a plot of land alongside a cemetery. Among the deaths that follow is the fiancé of a young woman (Lil Dagover). Desperate in her love she attempts to win a reprieve from mortality. She becomes involved in three stories, each featuring an attempt to ward of death. Moreover in each she and the grim stranger appear in the guise of other characters They are set successively in a Sultan’s place, The Story of First Light; medieval Venice, The Story of the Second Light; and a rather imaginative palace of a Chinese Emperor, The Story of the Third Light. A final episode features fire, death and rescue, bringing the narrative to its end.

Lang uses chiaroscuro and the style already familiar in expressionist films. The gothic aspect of these is strongly emphasised. The film offers recurring symbols including both a clock and three candles burning down to their stumps.

Destiny trio

At one level the film offers the pleasures of the gothic, and an exploration between life and death. At another level the film struggles with the conflict between mortality and immortality, light and shadow, and authority and submission. The emphasis on time is a familiar one in Lang’s work as is the overarching hand of fate. Both get a very full exploration in this film.

I revisited my notes of  viewing this film in the company of a chapter on the film from Tom Gunning’s excellent The Films of Fritz Lang (bfi, 2000). This is a long, complex but extremely stimulating analysis. He writes at length on time, the machine and fate in this and other Lang films. He also brings out other aspects.

The sub-title for the chapter is Dearth and the Maiden, which would make an extremely good alternative title for the film. The women characters in Lang’s Weimar films are very interesting. Despite some critics preference for his Hollywood product, I do not think that the latter have the same intriguing treatment of women. Even M, where we encounter a male serial killer, offers both impressive and moving female characters.

The young woman in Destiny impresses one by the power of her love, her single-mindedness, her commitment and, most of all, her strength of character in the struggle with death. This receives emphasis from the weakness, indolence and apathy of most of the other characters in the film, including the men. A recurring response during the dramatic sequences of the film to a request for help / sacrifice is:

not a day, not an hour, not a breath.

Indeed, this young woman is the only character in the film to offer these.

Tom Gunning also made a number of comments about technique in the film. One that especially interested me was concerning ‘the look at the camera’. In my early studies in film this was usually identified as a sort of distancing device and one that mainstream films [as in Hollywood] avoided because it seemed to breach the invisible wall. I have always had a problem with this stance. it treats a particular shot in a uniform way: an expression of the idea that film  is a language. I am not convinced of this, or even that it is a set of languages as occurs across differing cultures. For a start we learn cinematic conventions in a vastly different way than language. And shots [like many techniques in film] have both denotative and connotative meanings, but frequently it is the connotative meaning that trumps the denotative. Film in the colloquial sense is not about communication but drama and values.

I usually sense whether a look to camera can be described as ‘diegetic’ on ‘non-diegetic’ but I would find it difficult to identify exactly the aspects that help me read in this way. Gunning argues that those in Destiny remain diegetic.

You will get the sense that Gunning’s chapter is an extremely detailed analysis and produces a reading of the film far more complex that just that of an entertaining gothic fantasy. In fact this could be applied to much of Lang’s output, both with von Harbou and later in Hollywood. His films work at the entertainment level but rarely stop there. And in my experience it is the more complex films that are also the more entertaining. This explains in one way why Lang occupies a place in the pantheon of filmmakers. His films offer pleasure but also lend themselves to analysis and discussion. Destiny is a good example of this.

 

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Taki No Shiraito / Taki the Water Magician also White Threads of the Waterfall, Japan 1933.

Posted by keith1942 on May 20, 2015

the-water-magician

I was fortunate to see a 35mm print of this film at the 2001 Giornate del Cinema Muto, courtesy of the Japan National Film Center. The film was screened in a programme Light from the East: Japanese Silent Cinema, 1896 – 1935: as with China silent films in Japan were produced until well into the 1930s. This is one of only two silent films directed by Mizoguchi Kenji to survive from the silent era. This despite his film career beginning a decade earlier in 1923. The print we saw ran for 101 minutes and included English sub-titles.

Mizoguchi is generally reckoned one of the great directors of Japanese Cinema: depending on your taste and criteria he can outrank Naruse and Ozu. He is a definite stylist, and his films are noted for the often delicate mise en scène and, increasingly in his career, notable sequence shots. A recurring theme in his films is the oppression of women: he shares with both Naruse and Ozu a penchant for strong female characters. However, he is closer to melodrama than either Naruse or Mizoguchi. In his greatest films there is a welling up of emotion at crucial points in the narrative.

The Catalogue explained the type of melodrama in this film:

The Shimpa melodrama, comparable to the European diva film of the 1910s, with stories revolving around a female protagonist (played by an oyama, a mole female impersonator), was one of the first film genres to take shape in Japan. The enormously successful Shimpa productions of Nikkatsu (founded in 1912) constituted the first generation of Japanese feature films. This genre languished, old-fashioned and forgotten, throughout the 1920s, until Kenji Mizoguchi took it up again in the early 1930s, with a series of great melodramas with major actresses such as Isuzu Yamada and Takako Irie. Takako Irie was not only the star but also the producer of three Mizoguchi films [including this one].

In Taki the Water Magician the diva parallels only work up to a point. The central protagonist, Taki, is a strong woman but she is also characterised by a strong devotion and spirit of self-sacrifice for her student lover. In the film Taki is a music-hall artist, a milieu that [like Taxi Dancing] often shaded over into prostitution. Over the course of the film Taki, at expense to her own interests, finances the studies of her lover. In a turnaround, common in melodrama, she become involved in criminality and then a court case where her now qualified lover is the prosecutor.

Audie Bock comments on Mizoguchi’s female characters:

“Mizoguchi’s ideal women is one who can love. This love consists, however, of a selfless devotion to a man in the traditional Japanese sense.”

One plot line in several Mizoguchi’s films is the sister who sacrifices herself for her brother: and he actually had an older sister Suzu, who supported him early in his career. Certainly this characterisation applies to a strong degree to Taki.

The film is also beautifully produced and directed. And viewers enjoy recurring settings and staging.

 

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J’accuse (Per la patria), France 1919

Posted by keith1942 on May 9, 2015

jaccuse

This is a classic of the French silent cinema and also an early and famous example of an ‘anti-war’ film. The film was released in 1919, whilst the ravages and tragedies of the war were still fresh in the minds of the audiences. In France the war had actually taken place on French territory and there were not only the huge losses of men in military action but violence experienced by civilian population.

The film was directed and partly scripted by Abel Gance for the Pathé Company: he is the French filmmaker who is most famous for his epic Napoléon, a film restored with loving care by Kevin Brownlow. A new version of J’accuse was restored by the Nederlands Filmmuseum and Lobster Films. Lobster films are one of the most skilled companies involved in researching, restoring and presenting early film. One of their earlier projects was the restoration in 2011 of a long-lost colour version of the Méliès masterpiece Le voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon, 1902).

Gance and his team started on the film in the latter stages of the World War I. Large-scale scenes of the war used French soldiers on leave from the front: some of them were to return and die in the bloody battles at Verdun. Another view of this is the recently re-released Paths of Glory (USA, 1957) by Stanley Kubrick: one of the many films influenced by the earlier masterwork. Strictly speaking both films are anti-military rather than anti-war: World War I was a text-book example of a military leadership lagging well behind technology and strategy.

The central plot of the film is familiar melodrama: romance and rivalry in love, but descending into chaos, loss and death. Opening in a French village we watch the experiences of different characters who suffer both at the front line but also from the depredations behind the lines. As might be expected at this period the representation of the Germans is fairly one-dimensional. But the French characters offer a variety of responses to the conflict. The film ends with a still powerful set of images that dramatise the devastation that resulted from the conflict.

Especially notable is the cinematography by L. H. Burel. There is striking use of low-key lighting. The film was a pioneer in the use of superimposition and it has some remarkable [for the period] tracking shots. The film uses close-ups for dramatic effect. One sequence uses a series of shots of hands as the men of the village prepare to leave for the war. Moreover, Gance and the editor Marguerite Beaugé produced striking uses of montage in the climactic battle scene.

The film was originally released in four parts over four weeks. As with many early films it suffered cuts and depredations. Gance actually produced a sound version in the 1930s. Now the epic drama can be seen in one sitting, though over three hours in length. It remains one of the great achievements of French cinema. It was also the first in a series of silent epics that dramatised what has become known as the First World War, [not strictly accurate].

The version screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto (200(0 was on 35mm and had tinting and toning. It was projected at 16 fps and ran for 192 minutes. Stephen Horne on the piano provided a suitably epic accompaniment. The same version was also screened at the last Leeds International Film Festival. On this occasion the screening used a DCP. I only managed to catch the final third of the film. The transfer was good but the film ran about 20 minutes shorter. I suspect the problem was that the DCP was run at 24 fps: I certainly noted some sequences were running too fast. Unfortunately the UK is lagging behind in developments: the FIAF specifications for frame rates below 24 have been around for a couple of years but so far are little used here. There was a very good accompaniment to the film on the Town Hall organ, played by Simon Lindley.

 

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Asta Nielsen

Posted by keith1942 on March 31, 2015

Asta

Nielsen was a successful and popular actress in European cinema from 1910 to the mid-1920s. She was also possibly the first cinematic diva. Her career was launched with great panache in Denmark in 1910. She later moved to Germany, where Danish cinema was already popular. Though she is remembered mainly as a combination of femme fatale and tragic heroine she appeared in a wide range of genres, including comedies. Her films have appeared at both Le Giornate del Cinema Muto and Il Cinema Ritrovato. However it was the latter festival that provided an overview of her career in a retrospective in 2007, with a particular focus on the teens.

The programme was curated by two German scholars, Heide Schlüpmann and Karola Gramann. As well as programming a wide range of films bought together from a number of archives they provided the notes for the Catalogue and some very interesting introductions to the films.  One point that they emphasised was the task of trying to achieve some sense of Nielsen’s persona and impact back in the teens and 1920s.

For example, we scarcely have any sense anymore of the drama of passion, the pathos of the sexual, the significance of the gender conflict. Yet these were very much part of everyday life around 1900 – something to which not only Sigmund Freud, but also the sexual reform movement and the woman’s movement, testify

Ritrovato Catalogue, 2007.

Nielsen could certainly generate both passion and pathos. But whilst in a number of films she portrayed the victim of male exploitation she was also frequently a strong and forceful female character. And this aspect of her persona was apparent both in dramas and in comedies.

Nielsen was already an established stage actress when she was recruited into the Danish cinema in 1910. Whilst she was discovered by August Blom most of her films were directed by Urban Gad, whom she married. They were both recruited to Germany in 1911 and most of her film career was spent in that Industry. She was already a popular star before World War I and she continued a successful film career after the war.

The 'gaucho'dance in Abyss

The ‘gaucho’dance in Abyss

Her earliest film screened at Il Cinema Ritrovato was Afgrunden (The Abyss, 1910): the film ran for 44 minutes at 18 fps and the Danish intertitles had an English translation. In the film she plays Magda who starts a romance with Knud (Robert Dinesen) after a chance meeting on a tram. Knud is a conventional professional; his mores illustrated by his father being a minister. But Magda is taken by Rudolph, a performer in a travelling circus. Thus she is caught between the domesticated male and the lover figure, a staple of film melodrama. What made the film stand out was the vitality and forcefulness of Magda’s character. There is an erotic sequence where Magda vamps Rudolph on stage: and later she wields a knife when she is caught between the competing desire of Knud and Rudolph. The Catalogue included a contemporary review, which gives some sense of the impact of this new film actress.

All these may have contributed to the sensational success of the film drama The Abyss, which is currently showing to full houses twice every evening at the Palasttheater in Dusseldorf…. [re the gaucho dance in the film] Asta Nielsen, in the role of Magda, dances out her ill-fated and ruinous passion for the artist Rudolph.

“Die Kinematograph”, Düsseldorf, December 1910.

As was conventional in this period the film was presented mainly in long shot with just a few mid-shots. Even so Nielsen generated obvious emotion in her stance and movements: posture and gesture was as important as facial expression.

Francesco Bertini, an Italian Diva who followed on Nielsen in 1914, recalled being shown The Abyss in preparation for one of her early dramas and even then, four years later, it was still regarded as shocking.

An example of her later work was found Mod Lyset (Towards the Light, Denmark 1918) written and directed by Holger-Madsen, [screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in 1999). It ran for 68 minutes at 16 fps and had Danish intertitles with a translation into English. It was a single Danish production for Nielsen in this period.

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

The reformed Countess in Towards the Light

The film had a far more complex style than Afgrunden. There were innumerable close-ups of the characters intercut to the mid-shots and long shots. For a number of shots an iris effect was used. The film also used chiaroscuro, and there was an impressive night-time sequence with a boat crossing and then a fire. The film also used a mirror as a plot device: a trope that appeared in Afgrunden and was common in this period.

The basic story was depicted at the start in a series of dissolving shots of the main character Countess Ysabel (Nielsen). Unlike many of her earlier melodramas, rather than a ‘fall from grace’ this film depicted a character’s ascent from ‘frivolity’ to religious and social commitment.

The film also had a complex plot with a number of intersecting strands. There was Sandro (Anton de Verbier), ‘the ruler of her [Ysabel] heart: who was not all he seems. There was professor with a nephew Felix (Harry Komdrup); the latter was smitten with Ysabel. And there were a separate set of characters around Elias (Alf Blütocher), a preacher involved in community work, including an island settlement for the homeless. These different characters were carefully integrated in the story to provide the motivation for the final and deliberately uplifting resolution. Nielsen was, as ever, excellent and charismatic; but the part did not offer the panache one felt with her less reputable characterisations.

In 1920 she starred as the protagonist in film a version of Hamlet based on a stage version by Erwin Gepard. The Catalogue quoted Lotte Eisner who opined:

The soulful eyes, the slim figure, the strange, cultivated pallor make Asta Nielsen the perfect Shakespearean Danish prince – exactly as we ant to see the prince.

In 1923 she starred in a film version of Erdgeist (Earth Spirit) from the play by Franz Wedekind: more famously filmed in 1929 by G. W Pabst. The director Leopold Jessner gave the film a rather expressionist look. But the character of Lulu, igniting uncontrollable desires in men, suited Nielsen perfectly.

Then in 1925 she was a leading player in a film by G. W. Pabst, Die Freudlose Gasse (The Joyless Street). Here, in a different role, she played a victim of the harsh economic conditions of the time and of an exploitative member of the petit bourgeoisie. The film is relentlessly grim, but beautifully filmed and edited: moreover for the price of one ticket you can see Nielsen, Great Garbo and Marlene Dietrich all in the same film.

Nielsen did essay some films in the early sound period but her great roles were from the teens through to the mid-1920s. She was in many ways the defining actress for the European diva of the silent era. She could play both victim and femme fatale but also handle the lighter touch of comedy. The films of the teens have a different focus and different style from the 1920s. But Nielsen was able to work effectively in both areas.

As the experience of Bertini demonstrates, she was an important influence across European cinema. And without a voice she communicated with her body, her gestures and her face.  The Catalogue notes:

Asta Neilsen discerned the potential of a style of acting that was not just unfettered by words but uninhibited in every respect. She took leave of the rigid linguistic forms by means of gestures and facial expressions, behaviour patterns which she clearly displayed. (Heide Schlüpman, Karola Gramann).

Note May 9th sees a screening of the Asta Nielsen Hamlet at the University of York Campus.

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Drifters, UK 1929

Posted by keith1942 on March 18, 2015

drifters_1

John Grierson directed this film in the silent mode. It is a seminal film in terms of the British documentary movement of the 1930s. The film was strongly influenced by the new Soviet film montage movement, especially the work of Sergei Eisenstein. In fact Drifters was screened at the London Film Society in 1929 along with Battleship Potemkin. It is recorded that the film society audience preferred Drifters to Eisenstein’s Potemkin. This was presumably because, whilst Drifters is a finely made film, it is also more conventional than Potemkin: for example the montage has less discontinuities and much of the film is close to the form that became the dominant mode of British documentary in the 1930s. That aspect shows the other important influence, the work of Robert Flaherty, especially Nanook of the North (1922). The narrative of the earlier film, and the emphasis on the struggle against ‘nature’ or the ‘elements’, is replicated in Grierson’s approach, as it is in much of British documentary film work. This approach appears again in Flaherty’s later Man of Aran (1934).

The film runs for just on 50 minutes. Grierson was responsible for the scripting, direction and editing and some of the filming, whilst Basil Emmott undertook most of the cinematography. The film was shot on location in a northern fishing village and at sea onboard a herring fishing boat. In addition there are a number of insert shots, many taken at a Marine Biological Research Station. The film was made under the auspices of the Empire Marketing Board, the first in a number of state institutions that funded the documentary movement. Apparently the then Financial Secretary to the Treasury was an expert on the herring industry: an example of the shrewd approach that Grierson bought to his documentary work. The Production Company for the film was New Era Productions Ltd, a commercial company. They provided technical assistance, studio facilities and distribution. It would seem that studio work was mainly based here as also post-production.

Much of the film constructs a recognisable narrative with the fishing village, the voyage, the catches, the return to harbour and the final auction on the dockside. The sequences of fast cutting or montage are placed within this at strategic points. The use of such ‘montage’ distances the film from the sort of realist feel that is usually associated with the British documentary movement. Whilst sequences in the film present and explain the techniques of the fishermen, in other sequences there is a strong, poetic feel. Both approaches can be seen in other work from the movement: Harry Watt’s films probably represent the realist approach, whilst Cavalcanti’s films tend more to the poetic. Humphrey Jennings combines both in a seamless flow, which is his particular talent.

P261-31

I have seen the film on 35mm but now the BFI has re-released the film in a digital format. Filmed in 1929 the film was silent, so the usual practice is to provide some live accompaniment. It was screened at the Bradford Film Summit in the Cinemobile, a travelling cinema from Eire. This impressive vehicle unfolds to present a 100-seat auditorium, with a proper screen and sound provision. The format, likely Blu-Ray, had the flat digital patina and rather lacked definition. Moreover, whilst the film did not seem noticeably speeded-up it certainly seemed to move fast and was shorter in terms of running times. This screening had an accompaniment by Jason Singh: a sound and ‘boxbeat’ artist. i.e. the sounds/music are entirely produced by the human voice. In this case Jason Singh had a pre-recorded track with layers of his vocal sounds and he then accompanied this with live responses. This was an impressive show: one would not have known that much of the sound was the human voice without being told. The accompaniment worked well for much of the film, but at times it rather over-powered the image. For some sequences the sound was too loud, though this may have been exacerbated by the limited size of the auditorium. However, for much of the film we also had the pre-recorded track, which was essentially rhythmic. I felt that the rhythm did not always match the changes in tempo in the film, especially when we moved from location sequences to the insert shots, a number of which tend to the non-realist.

After the screening there was Q&A with the performer. He explained the techniques he used, including in producing the pre-recorded track. This was interesting.  He remarked that the live element is affected by the factors in a particular screening and that ‘no two shows are the same’. He also stressed how he wanted to avoid literal sound accompaniments, for example bells. And he commented that he aimed to make ‘an emotional connection to the visuals’. I think this is only a partially successful approach to take. It is true that much of the film lends itself to this approach, for example the storm sequence. However, the use of montage also brings intellectual aspects to the film, and I think these needs a less emotional and more cerebral approach. Even so this was a worthwhile experience and Grierson’s film stands up to any number of showings.

Then with good fortune the film was screened again: at the Hyde Park Picture House and in 35mm. This was part of a programme ‘From Drifters to Night Mail: the British Documentary Movement’ introduced by Andy Murray. The other two films screened were Housing Problems (1936) and Night Mail (1936), both sound films. Andy filled in some useful background on the films before they were screened and he talked about Grierson’s role in the movement, quoting his line

“I look on cinema as a pulpit and use it as a propagandist”.

Andy was also right to stress the elitist elements in this viewpoint: however, Drifters offers this in a low key, though it is clearly ‘propaganda’.

In 35mm the visual qualities of Drifters were much more apparent. The superimpositions and dissolves in particular looked very good. And the tinting for the night scenes showed up well. The title cards also showed up well. They use stills from the film, with low definition, as a backing for the words. I think some titles have been replaced, as not all the cards used this superimposition.

The screening was accompanied with the soundtrack from the bfi Blu-Ray. This was also by Jason Singh, and he is right, each performance does seem different. The volume level in the larger auditorium of the Picture House was better. As with the earlier screenings at times the accompaniment is very effective, but I still found it repetitious and there is a certain aural monotony by the end of the film.

I was able to speak to Andy after the screening. He pointed out that the sequences below deck were ‘filmed ashore’. He was not certain where, but the New Era Studio would seem likely. The title cards will presumably have been added then as well.

I also spoke to the projectionist. He ran the film at 20 fps, which gave us 48 minutes running time. He pointed out that curiously the Blu-Ray only runs for 40 minutes, seemingly the film was transferred at 24 fps. He had to loop part of the accompaniment back to match the film’s running time.

I checked some old catalogues and found only references to silent prints. One bfi listing did offer both silent and sound speeds, but the print was given as silent. On this occasion the catalogue suggested 18 fps as the silent rate – I am sure that would be too slow.

The moral of this story is hang-on till another enlightened exhibitor gets hold of the 35mm silent print. It will be worth a wait. Not only is this a seminal movie for British cinema and the wider field of documentary: it is a finely made and fascinating study.

 

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Silent Film Festival in Scotland

Posted by keith1942 on March 5, 2015

main5_before

It is good to see that this Festival, now in its fifth year, is still running. Its main venue, The Hippodrome, celebrated a centenary in 2012: one of the oldest film venues still in use. Over the five days there are a variety of early films being screened, a number of them offering rare opportunities to see early classics.

Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2015

Wednesday 18th March until Sunday 22nd March

It seems that most of the films will be screened from digital formats, but I am advised by the organisers that these will be projected at the correct frame rates. It is good to see this facility developed by FIAF actually appearing in the UK. . Moreover there is also live music for the screenings. And there are two events screening from 35mm prints:

Event:

During WW1 the British government made over 1,000 films to record fighting, train troops and for propaganda. After 1918 the authorities had the foresight to deposit these films at the Imperial War Museum (IWM), leaving us with a remarkably powerful record of the life of the nation during one of the most traumatic and influential periods in modern history. This programme of highlights from the IWM’s collection, specially curated for HippFest by Senior Curator Dr Toby Haggith, presents rarely screened clips ranging from recruitment and the role of women to coverage of campaign fighting including the Air War and the Western Front, as well as moving scenes of post-War memorials.

1h 45m incl. Q&A

With: Dr Toby Haggith

Performing live: Mike Nolan

Event:

We close the Festival in fine style with the world premiere of a newly commissioned score by award-winning Scottish fiddle player Shona Mooney (2006 BBC Radio Scotland Young Traditional Musician of the Year) for this stirring epic starring Lillian Gish as the plucky Annie Laurie for whom forbidden romance fuels the flames of hatred between the warring Macdonald and Campbell clans. Critics of the day praised the film’s “substantial” plot, “colourful action, settings and costumes” and the “rugged scenes suggesting all the bluntness of Scotch character” and audiences today will no doubt be equally charmed by the timeless performance of one of silent cinema’s most enduring icons. ‘Annie Laurie’ and Shona Mooney’s new score will be performed at The Barbican Centre, London in spring 2015. Come dressed with a dash of tartan to finish the Festival in style!

 

Performing Live: Shona Mooney, Alasdair Paul, Amy Thatcher

Dir. John S. Robertson | US | 1927 | 1h 53m + SSA short

M-G-M, story and scenario Josephine Lovett, nine reels.

With: Lillian Gish, Norman Kerry, Creighton Hale, Joseph Striker

 

 

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Love is All, UK 2014

Posted by keith1942 on February 27, 2015

Love-is-all-poster

This is essentially a compilation film that

‘aims to be a brief affirmation that love and courtship … more complex and inclusive than … [discourses] might have led us to believe’. (S&S)

I went to see it last week and I have to confess that I gave up 20 minutes into the film. The last time I did something similar was two years ago when a 1920s Swedish drama was projected in the [seriously] incorrect aspect ratio. One problem was the music that accompanied the film by Richard Hawley; though some of the extracts retained their own soundtracks. He is, apparently, a popular contemporary singer. I found the music inappropriate and also too loud. A friend who likes Hawley’s music conceded he found it inappropriate for some of the film. Then there were the clips and their arrangement, including in some instances cropping some sound film to 1.33:1. The clips date from over a century of British film and include features, documentaries, amateur film and home movies. I did start to discern themes in the selection but the arrangement of clips was odd, to say the least. What finished me was a series of clips from Hindle Wakes (1927) which seemed to aim at re-producing the plot of the film, but without all the nuances that make it so interesting.

I had noticed in the opening credits that the film was from the BBC Storyville stable so I reckoned I would be able to check it out on television later: with the sound turned down. In fact, I was able to do this the following Sunday via BBC4. Viewing the film, whilst I did find that it had merits, I still found the music obtrusive and frequently inappropriate. And the treatment of the film material often seemed ill-judged.

Much of the ‘found footage’ was from amateur/and home movie films. There were also documentaries, including some that seemed likely to be from television. This was in both black and white and colour, though some of the latter material seemed to have been colourised. The oddity of all this was the aspect ratios. The film title was in 1.85:1 and some of the footage was in its original widescreen ratio of 1.85:1 or 2.35:1 [approximately]. But the rest was in something like 1.33:1. Sight & Sound gives the ratio as 1.34.5:1; another of those ‘new ‘ratios. It seems that that the images were cropped to a ratio half-way between 1.33:1 (silent|) and 1.37:1 (sound). It also looked as if some of the silent material was masked at the side to fit this ratio.

The soundtrack was similarly problematic. Most of the film was accompanied by Richard Hawley’s music, which I disliked. It was at times repetitive and obtrusive. Four or five films actually had their own soundtrack playing, but at times this was mixed with musical accompaniment. For me the worse example was Karel Reitz’s fine Momma Don’t Allow (1955), where the musical accompaniment seemed anachronistic.  Stephen Frears My Beautiful Laundrette (1985) had a mixture of original dialogue and musical accompaniment. I do think that there is rarely a good case for replacing a film’s sound track with musical accompaniment.

But the most problematic was the attempt to present feature films with a series of clips that created a mini-narrative. This seemed to happen to some of the documentaries, but the films that I recognised were Fox Farm (1922), Hindle Wakes (1927), Piccadilly (1929) from the silent era and Brick Lane (2007) from more recent times. The 1975 ‘black consciousness film Pressure along with My Beautiful Laundrette did not seem to be examples of these ‘mini-narratives’, though both films had several extracts featured which suggested partial plots. Since I know all these films fairly well I was concerned about how this briefly constructed plot line was a long way removed from the experience of the original film.

The film has several themes which emerged rather haphazardly: women’s equality, gay and lesbian relationships, cross-ethnic relationships, and alternative courtships and marriage: hence the films noted above. The best sequences for me were where the illustrations of the themes, as opposed to attempts at narrative and often through discontinuous editing, were presented. In particular I thought the final sequence of the film worked well, as a monologue from the heroine of Brick Lane plays over a series of contrasting extracts. It has to be noted thought that the film does not really present the ‘100 years’ of the title.

The final problem was the end credits of the film. There was a note of the contributions of the BFI and the Yorkshire and North East Film Archives. But the only material which received  specific mention were We of the West Riding (1946), My Beautiful Laundrette, Brick Lane, a short film from the National Film School and two sets of actual wedding material. The other titles mentioned above, plus two versions of The Kiss in the Tunnel, 1898 and 1899), all went unattributed. The excerpts were titled but that is not quite the same thing. So whatever its merits I do feel that this film should not be seen as an exemplar for further work with archive material.

 

 

 

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Sangue Bleu (Literally Blue Blood) / The Princess of Monte Cabello, Italy 1914.

Posted by keith1942 on February 17, 2015

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

Elena, Jacques and empty crib

This film was screened at the 2014 Il Cinema Ritrovato as part of a carbon arc projection in the cortile of the Cineteca. This was a splendid event and the light and shadow of the courtyard was reflected at times in the light and shadow of the film.

The three reel feature was produced by Celio films and featured their star Francesca Bertini. This was the penultimate film in a run of 25 that she made at the studio. Bertini, along with her rival Lyda Borelli [‘a [polite rivalry’] was the leading diva in Italian cinema.

The diva character ranged from a sort of femme fatale to the fallen and exploited woman. In this film Bertini is closest to the latter: a countess and mother who loses her secure social position, has to perform in the lowly and exploitative music hall and is used as a device for money by a wastrel and gambler. Unlike some of the other melodramas in this genre, the Countess is spared a final, tragic fate. The film, as is so often the case in this genre, is set in the worlds of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie. It is also set in France rather than Italy: possibly for reasons of possible moral censorship – the film features a divorce and a tango, the latter at this time was seen as an immoral and suggestive dance.

At the start of the film the Countess Elena [given as a Princess in the Italian] is married with a young daughter, Lianne. The count’s ‘friendship; with another aristocratic woman arouses the jealousy of Elena. This leads to a legal separation with Elena awarded custody of her child. However, whilst innocent [not always the case in such films] Elena is accused on impropriety and loses the custody of her daughter. She now has to rely on the actor Jacques Wilson, who sees her not only as amour but also a source of income. It is in the third reel of the film that Elena is reduced to theatrical performances and the climatic sequence is set in a theatre.

The film was directed by Nino Oxilia, who previously worked as a scriptwriter for Celio. The staging and mise en scène is notable. As with Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses long tableaux-like takes with deep focus. Whilst many of the scenes rely on the setting shown in a depth of field there is less deep staging than in the Borelli film. Sangue Bleu also makes use of more crowded scenes, as in the grand party at the villa of Count Cabello; and later in the impressive street scenes in Monte Carlo. The central focus is less on the main female protagonist, so that Bertini has fewer sequences where she dominates the frame than is the case with Borelli. There is a difference in their performance style as well. Bertini fills out her emotional scenes with gesture and movement, whereas Borelli is often in stasis or with little movement.

Like Ma L’amor mio non muore the film uses the grandiose sets of the bourgeois world. And it shares with that film a dramatic climax in a Theatre. Earlier we had seen an amateur charity performance with Elena in a variation on Madame Butterfly [the opera was still in the early days of it popularity]. The Theatre sequence also plays with the contrast between backstage and the auditorium: with a very similar shot to that in the Borelli film which reveals the expectant audience as the curtains are pulled open.

However Sangue Blue has distinctive use of light and shadow. There is one notable sequence where the Countess, already suffering from the travails in her marriage, walks along a twilight-lit great hall:

Elena appears/disappears, emerges/vanishes, struts like a sleepwalker to a close-up, held together by a mere alternation of shadow and light (from the side windows). (Michael Canosa in Il Ritrovato Catalogue).

The cinematography was by Giorgino Ricci, clearly a skilled craftsman in the use of camera and lighting.

Bertini was another theatrical actress who moved into film. She became a star first with Film d’Arte Italiana, then at the major studio of Cines. She moved to Celio in 1912. This was the period when the Italian Industry was building sumptuous purpose built cinemas and attracting more upmarket and affluent audiences. The films, like the diva cycle, reflected this with their common setting in affluent worlds and a style that was parallel to that of the bourgeois theatre and opera.

The director Nino Oxilia had also started out in theatre. He worked first as a scriptwriter than as a director. His films were noted for their sumptuous settings and the use of chiaroscuro. His career was cut short when died whilst serving in the Italian army on the Austrian front.

As well as offering an alternative to Borelli’s diva in Ma L’amor mio non muore Bertini’s feature was also influenced by the Danish film Afgrunden (1910) directed by Urban Gad. Bertini recalled that during the production of Sangue Blue.

They had me watch The Abyss with Asta Nielsen. The film shocked me. (Michele Canosa quoting from Bertini su Bertini, 2003).

Afgrunden was the most notable of the early films starring Asta Nielsen. She soon moved to the German film industry where she became a major European star. She was probably the first major diva persona in European film.

The print screened in Bologna was from the EYE Filmmuseum in the Netherlands. Restored to its full glory, the print enjoyed the original tinting used in 1914, and there was a fine musical accompaniment by Daniele Furlati. The Cineteca Bologna, together with Eye, has now produced a DVD version of this film.

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The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, UK 1927

Posted by keith1942 on February 14, 2015

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These days the BFI journal Sight & Sound has a regular column on The World of Silent Cinema – ‘Primal Screen’. The new issue (March 2015) has a report by Bryony Dixon on a screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands organised by ‘The Falkland Island 1914 Centenary Committee’. The title of the latter illuminates the values of the article, which describes this as ‘a glorious odd opportunity of a lifetime’. The BFI staff member and film were flown down to the Malvinas in a RAF airbus. Obviously another British propaganda exercise [in the bourgeois sense].

As far as I know this is the only silent film that features the islands. However, Bryony Dixon goes on to note sound films that also feature the area. She seems to have only seen two British films. Certainly there is no mention of a film like Resurrected: a far more critical treatment than the two that she lists. Like wise there is no mention of Argentinean films that treat the conflict: for example, Verónico Cruz (1987) and Illuminados por el fuego. That is as one-sided as British war films from earlier conflicts, including World War I. So, re the Malvinas, colonialism is alive and kicking in this so-called ‘post-colonial’ world.

Bryony Dixon ends the article by listing some of the other recent BFI restorations that have been screened in far away places. Some of these, I know for a fact, used 35mm prints transported from the UK. Presumably this applies to the screening of The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, which would explain why a RAF airbus was needed. However, whilst the BFI is happy to transport these valued prints over thousands of miles they are not as forthcoming nearer home. I know of cases where an exhibitor has specifically requested a 35mm print for a screening and they have been fobbed off with a DCP. The political reaction probably matters more, but having to suffer inferior copies is equally galling.

 

Posted in Archival issues, Britain in the 1920s, war and anti-war films | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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