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[The] Man With a Movie Camera/Chelovek S Kinoapparatom, USSR 1919.

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2015

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This Soviet classic has been re-released by the BFI on a DCP: sadly there is not a 35mm print available. However, it is a good transfer and the source is high quality: also as the recommended frame rate is 24 fps there is not a problem with step-printing or running too fast. The actual print used is from the Nederlands Filmmuseum. This was screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto in 2004. It is the most complete print known of the film. The original release was 1839 metres, this version is 1785 metres. It includes the chapter divisions which the author Dziga Vertov and his colleagues used in the film. The digital version now on release is a restoration by the Eye Institute and Lobster Films. Both are in the forefront of archival work on early cinema. Moreover the restoration has taken the opportunity to re-instate at least some of the missing footage. Included is the following:

“the one that shows, point blank, the moment a baby is being delivered , the most direct manifestation of Vertov’s direct cinema, which may be the reason that it has been censored from the Dutch print.” (Yuri Tsivian in the 2004 Giornate Catalogue).

Tsivian also explain the ‘provenance’ of the print. An opening title provides this information on the DCP. Dziga Vertov visited Western Europe early in the 1930s. He bought with him a print of the film from the Soviet Union and this was the print retained in the Nederlands. Apart from the importance of providing an almost complete version of the film this also provides a parallel with another important Soviet filmmaker. The most complete surviving print of Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Potemkin, 1925) is the version that Sergei Eisenstein and his colleagues bought with them to London and which was screened at the London Film Society with Edmund Meisel leading the musical accompaniment composed for the release in Germany.

Vertov and Eisenstein had rather different approaches to film and both were inclined to express their approaches with decided emphasis. In fact there were frequent and sometimes volatile disputes among the Soviet artists in this period: not surprisingly as they grappled with the form and style appropriate to the new society and new culture. Yuri Tsivian discusses the feud in the seminal study, Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties (2004, Le Giornate del Cinema Muto). He suggests that there may have been a personal dimension to the arguments. That may be, but it would seem that in fact these two leading filmmakers had as much in common as they did in difference. I was struck revisiting Man with a Movie Camera by shots, especially in industrial settings, that reminded me of the films of Eisenstein, especially Strike (Stachka, 1924). Moreover, their use of montage has more in common than, say, that of Eisenstein and Pudovkin. Both Vertov and Eisenstein were concerned to record reality, but also to address the social relations involved in that reality. Their major difference was that Eisenstein tended towards dramatisation: Vertov emphasised that of the record. Eisenstein’s reflexive techniques aimed to position the audience in relation to the film: Vertov’s use of reflexivity aimed to draw the audience into the tapestry of the film itself. It struck me that just as among cinematic pioneers the Lumières are seen as proponent of actuality and Méliès of fiction, so in political cinema these two great artists can be seen as parallel proponents of two approaches, to a degree complementary.

A main title credits Dziga Vertov as “Author and Supervisor”, not as frequently printed in reviews and commentaries, ‘director’. He was the lead comrade in a movement of ‘kinocs’:

” We call ourselves kinoks as opposed to “cinematographers,” a herd of junkmen doing rather well pedalling their rags.” [Annette Michelson adds a footnote}, (“Cinema-eye men”). A neologism coined by Vertov, involving a play on the words kino (“cinema” or “film”) and oko, the latter an obsolescent and poetic word meaning “eye”.” (Kino-Eye, 1984)

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A trio of kinocs were key to the filmography attributed to Vertov in the 1920s, though other comrades also contributed: the collective were also known by the title Factory of Facts. Aside from Vertov there was the cameraman Mikhail Kaufman and the editor Elizaveta Svilova: both of the latter are key to the final film. We not only see Kaufman repeatedly within the frame, but his positioning and framing with the camera contribute greatly to the visual impact. And Svilova, also seen several times in the film, produced [under Vertov’s supervision] the dazzling sequences of shots that compose the film.

Man with a Movie Camera is composed of seven reels and the Nederlands print retains the numbered divisions between parts. There is the Introduction and then the following six sections. The film opens with the Credits, importantly this stresses that this is a film

‘WITHOUT THE HELP OF INTERTITLES’

and a film

‘WITHOUT THE HELP OF A SCRIPT’.

The collective’s earlier films had made extensive use of title cards. One of the radical aspects in Kino Pravda was the use of title cards, often carefully designed by fellow constructivists. In fact, as one critic, Khrisanf Khersonsky, pointed out:

“A film without intertitles, says Vertov. But this is not true [either]. There are various kinds of intertitles, and what, if not intertitles, are the shots of, for example,: a sign on a church saying ‘Workers’ Club’, an urn with the words ‘Citizen, keep things Tidy’, edited into a sequence of a girl washing, shop[ signs and so on.” [The majority of these are translated in the DCP by English subtitles]. (Lines of Resistance).

But the status in the film of a title card and of words within a frame is different. This distinction re-enforces the emphasis on the recording of reality, and avoiding the didactic commentative card. Something similar applies to the claim regarding the absence of a script. Vertov and his colleagues were criticised for not producing scripts before a production. The State financing body Goskino [which fired these filmmakers] relied on this to allocate resources. In fact, Vertov did produce ‘analyses’ beforehand: though much less detailed than a printed script. Indeed it is apparent that there is an overall structure to the film and that the relationship of parts to other parts and to the whole is very carefully worked out and calculated.

The film introduces itself in an extremely reflexive manner. We enter a film theatre, the projectionist prepares the print, the audience enters and the musicians appear. Now the film ‘proper’ begins, on the screen within a screen. This is kino-eye:

“When The Man with a Movie Camera was made, we looked upon the project in this way: … we raise different kinds of fruit, different kinds of film; why don’t we make a film on film-language, the first film without words, which does not require translation into another language …” (Kino-Eye, 1984).

We now enter the world of the cameraman, Mikhail Kaufman, but it is both the world of the cinematic collective and the larger world, the Soviet Union and its attempts to build a new society. In fact, there would have been several cameramen involved in the filming, since we frequently see the cinematographer himself in the frame. It is also a camera of record, sometimes apparent to the subjects, sometimes apparently not.

“To be able not to act [the requirement for documentary] – one will have to wait a long time until the subject is educated in such a way that he won’t pay any attention to the fact that he is being filmed. …

Following that line of thought I constructed a sort of tent, something like a telephone booth, for Man with a Movie Camera. There has to be an observation point somewhere. So I made myself up as a telephone repairman. There weren’t any special lenses, so I went out and bought a regular camera and removed the deep-focus lens. Standing of to the aside I could still get things very close up …” (Interview in Imaginary Reality, 1984).

At other times the cinematographer is emphatically in the frame. Lying by rail tracks to film an oncoming train: climbing up a tall tower to film from its top: standing in tram tracks in order to catch the approaching or retreating vehicles.

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The first of six sections introduces us to the city and its people. This is the start of the day, we see silent buildings and empty streets. Gradually people rise and commence the day.

The second section shows us the city in full swing. People are active, machines move: the trams, a frequent sight, move round the city. And the urban crowds commence their activities.

The third section shows us Svilova at work, editing the film. Then we see various cultural actions: weddings, divorces, birth, death and funeral’s We also see the treatment of the victim of an accident and a fire brigade racing through the streets.

The fourth section shows labour processes in full swing. There is a contrast between cosmetic activity for women and women involved in manual labour. We see both business activity, such as a telephone switchboard, and the heavy manual labour underground in a mine.

With the fifth section formal productive labour comes to a halt. The section’s focus is on cultural and leisure activities. These include entertainments, sport and beach activities.

The final sixth section brings an overt political focus to the film. There are shots of both Lenin and Marx: and shots of the Soviet Workers’ Clubs: we see a woman shooting. Another image references the rise of the fascist threat. The key image is a collapsing Bolshoi Theatre, using superimpositions. Tsivian comments on this:

“Along with some other innocuous objects and artefacts from the Imperial era, soon after 1917 the Bolshoi was caught in a process which I venture to call “revolutionary symbolization”. In some cases – like ours – this symbolization could take the form of symbolic destruction …” (Lines of Resistance).

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This final section also included references to radio, another technological and cultural form that was extremely important in the Socialist State. For the Kinocs radio was an important component for their new language: the next film produced by Vertov was Enthusiasm (Symphony of the Don Basin / Entuziazm, 1931), which used sound alongside the visual components in an extremely adventurous manner. Vertov, in an article on the film, commented,

“[My article] … speaks of Radio-eye as the destruction of the distance between people, as the capacity of workers of the entire world not only to see but simultaneously to hear one another.” [in Lines of Resistance].

But the most important component in this final section is the return to the audience we encountered in the Introduction. An increasing tempo alternates shots of the cameraman, shots by the cameraman and shots of the audience watching in the theatre. So that the film resolves itself finally with a reflexive manner which aims to involve audiences in the tapestry of the film.

The music track on the DCP is provided by The Alloy Orchestra. They provided the accompaniment at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto, though on this occasion the print screened was from the George Eastman House. The Alloy Orchestra went back to the musical notations that Dziga Vertov provided for the original screenings. These were translated for the occasion by Yuri Tsivian:

“Vertov’s handwritten notes outlining a “music scenario for The Man With a Movie Camera – five pages of guidelines mapping out what kind of music Vertov wanted to go with what sequence. These written notes were intended to help three composers employed by the Music Council of Sovkino for the cue sheets they were supposed to write for an orchestra assigned to play for the film during the opening night on April 9, 1929;

[there is Verov’s] permanent tendency to start a sequence with conventional music steadily growing into the pandemonium of noises, his desire to “freeze” music, reverse it or make it sound “slow-motion” in the same manner as films shot do …” (Griffithiana 54 , October 1995).

This is the performance that The Alloy recreate for the DCP. However, whilst I remember the use of noises, both productive and human, in the 1995 performance I think they have taken advantage of digital technology to add to these.

One of the strongest impressions from the film is the almost frenetic pace of the editing. Shot constantly follows shot. Some of these offer some sense of continuity, many suggest counterpoint and discontinuity. The influence of Kuleshov’s ideas on montage appear: as the film constructs a series of images that are actually separated by time and space: the weddings utilise film shot both in Odessa and Moscow.

The framing of Kaufman’s camera work is impressive. The film uses a range of camera shots and of editing techniques as varied as any in this period of cinema. Annette Michelson describes the film thus:

“This film, made in the transitional period immediately preceding the introduction of sound and excluding titles, joins the human life cycle with the cycles of work and leisure of a city from dawn to dusk within the spectrum of industrial production. That production includes filmmaking (itself presented as a range of productive labour processes), mining, steel production, communications, postal service, construction, hydro-electric power installation and the textile industry in a seamless organic continuum, whose integrity is continually asserted by the strategies of visual analogy and rhyme, rhythmic patterning, parallel editing, superimposition, accelerated and decelerated motion, camera movement – in short, the use of every optical device and filming strategy then available to film technology. …. ‘the activities of labour, of coming and going, of eating, drinking and clothing oneself,’ of play, are seen as depending upon the material production of ‘life itself’. (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Whilst the film’s editing is distinctive even in Soviet cinema, there are parallels to other film works. I have mentioned the parallels with the editing of Lev Kuleshov and in industrial shots with Eisenstein’s films. In part four we see shots of a spinning machine which parallels Eisenstein’s shots of a cream separator in The General Line / Old and New (Generalnaya Linya / Staroye i Novoye, 1929). The frequent tram shots at one point reminded me of Boris Barnet’s fine The House on Trubnaya Square (Dom na Trubnoi, 1928).

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The film, as was often the case with the films from the collective, provoked furious discussion. Vertov records screenings followed by discussions in the Ukraine. Tsivian in his volume provides the record of such a discussion as well as the varied responses to the film in print.

“[The Society of friends of Soviet Cinema] The discussion became extraordinarily sharp only around the middle of the evening. It was the film’s ideological aim that suffered the greatest bombardment.

“The authentic life of the country is not shown in the film,” said the Editor of the magazine Ekran. “This comes about because the predominant role in the film is played exclusively by the form, good stunts, excellent montage, and … nothing else.”

Comrade Berezovsky’s words were disputed by Comrade Gan, The film poses problems of the way of thinking man in society far more seriously than it is posed in all our feature films, with their deliberately emphatic interpretation of the world.” (Lines of Resistance).

Vertov’s films, like some of the other avant-garde art of the period, was found really challenging: now, when so many filmmakers, have followed his example, the work can be more accessible. However, the debate also reflected the contradictions of opposing political lines in Soviet art, a debate that reflected the more fundamental struggle between political lines in the party and leadership. Sadly, the radical elements lost out and were increasingly suppressed in the following decade. So that Vertov, though he made at least two more fine films, was not able to produce anything equally radical in the following years. It is worth noting that this was the final collaboration between Vertov and Mikhail Kaufman: the latter was less impressed with the overall structure and complexity of the final film,. He went on to direct documentary films himself.

If the form and style of the film is more appreciated in the contemporary world of cinema there is frequently a less intelligible response to the political and ideological line of the film. In 2013, under the title Ukraine: The Great Experiment, Il Giornate del Cinema Muto offered a programme of other radical films produced in the Ukrainian Soviet Republic in the late 1920s. The Catalogue entry by Ivan Kzolenko made a reference to the work of the Kinocs in the Ukraine, commenting

“But not by chance was the totally apolitical Man with a Movie Camera different from Vertov’s other agit-films.”

I find this comment difficult to equate with the film that I have seen a number of times. As Tsivian argues in Lines of Resistance the film is the accumulation of a decade of experimentation by the Kinocs group. And it is an intensely political work, the treatment of the Bolshoi Theatre above is a single example. Tsivian also provides a longer discussion of how the film exemplifies the analysis of Karl Marx. One example is a series of shots of coal mines and aerial conductors:

“Vertov tried to connect inside the viewers’ mind, the production of coal – the economic cause – with the economic effect: the production of electricity”.

Tsivian also offers parallel examples from earlier films. He continues,

“What all three exemplify is that, early one, the ambition of Vertov’s cinema becomes not to show, but to think – that is, to disclose invisible connections between things.” (Both in Lines of Resistance).

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So Man with a Movie Camera is not merely [as Comrade Berezovsky comments] an exhilarating bag of tricks and technical devices. As Comrade Gan argued it offers an ‘interpretation’ of the world. And the world in question is the world of Socialist Construction, still a relevant concept in 1929. The structure of the film offers the processes of labour and of the labourers. Included in this is the labour process of film itself. Annette Michelson points out how,

“Vertov seems to take or reinvent The German Ideology [which he would not have read] as his text, for he situated the production of film in direct and telling juxtaposition to that other particular sector, the textile industry, which has for Marx and Engels a status that is paradigmatic within the history of material production” (Introduction in Kino-Eye).

Man with a Movie Camera is a film about social relations, and that includes the underlying social relations that are not apparent to the superficial surface viewpoint [i.e. ideological]. Hence the film continuously cuts between the variety of social relations, productive, cultural and personal, in modern society. And in the final section the audience, that is the ‘workers and peasants’ of the Soviet Union, are integrated into that tapestry of relations. So the film is propaganda in the socialist sense, advanced ideas for advanced workers.

In pointing to this it must be noted that there is an unexplored space in the film: agriculture and the peasantry. This part of the socialist state had been explored in some of the earlier films of the Kinocs. But the focus in this film is entirely urban. Given that the 1929 is a key year in the introduction of collectivisation: Eisenstein’s compelling The General Line / Old and New treats the issue: this is an analysis that needed treatment, either in the film or separately.

The film does fall into the category of City Symphonies: and one comparison frequently drawn is with Ruttman’n’s Berlin: Symphony of a City(Berlin: Die Sinfonie einer Gross-stadt, 1927). However, these two films offer vastly different treatments and approaches, partly explained by Berlin being a centre of Capitalist relations whilst the Soviet cities were parts of an ongoing Socialist project. One key difference is the treatment of people. My memories of Berlin are of a series of abstract buildings and spaces: last time I viewed it I was surprised to see that there are quite a number of urban citizens in the film. Man with a Movie Camera is centrally about the people who inhabit these cities and their relations to each other and to the buildings and machinery that surround them.

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The 2013 Giornate Catalogue makes one valid point:

“The fact that the film was made in Odessa and partly in Kyiv and Kharkiv is often mistakenly disregarded by researchers.”

In fact some publicity for the re-release [not the BFI’s] mistakenly referred to ‘filmed in Moscow’. Vertov and his fellow Kinocs had already filmed The Eleventh Year (Udynadsiatyi, 1928) for the All-Ukrainian Photo-Cinema Directorate. The films funded by Goskino in Moscow had increasingly been subjected to criticism, both for the working practices and the films’ treatments. As the 2013 programme demonstrated there was a radical space for film in the Ukraine at the end of the 1920s. So much of Kaufman’s work was filmed in the Ukrainian cities. However, following the continuing practice of using ‘found footage’ there is also Moscow footage, presumably from earlier films or film out-takes.

These circumstances remind us that the film was one of the great expressions of Socialist art in the 1920s: but a Socialist Art that was under attack from what is best described as reformist cultural values. Vertov was well aware that his film did not exactly fit the developing cinematic values in the Soviet Union.

“The film Man with a Movie Camera is an experimental film, and as such may not immediately be understood and may be destroyed in the days immediately following the completion of the auhtorial montage.” (Lines of Resistance).

As an experimental film it has exerted an immense influence, including on filmmakers who did not necessarily share the Kinocs’ socialist values. But those values are equally central to the quality of the film. Vertov writes, detailing material from the film, of this ‘visual symphony’,

All this … – all are victories, great and small, in the struggle of the new with the old, the struggle of revolution with counterrevolution, the struggle of the cooperative against the private entrepreneur, of the club against the beer hall, of the athletes against debauchery, dispensary against decease. All this is a position won in the struggle for the Land of the Soviets, the struggle against a lack of faith in socialist construction.

The camera is present at the great battle between two worlds:… (Kino-Eye).

Imagining Reality The Faber Book of Documentary, Edited by Kevin MacDonald and Mark Cousins, Faber and Faber, 1984

Kino-Eye The Writings of Dziga Vertov, Edited by Annette Michelson and Translated by Kevin O’Brien, Pluto Press 1984.

Lines of Resistance Dziga Vertov and the Twenties, Edited by Yuri Tsivian, Le Giornate Dell Cinema Muto, 2004.

Griffithiana was a Journal published jointly by a Cineteca del Friuli and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Stills courtesy of Il Giornate del Cinema Muto 2004.

Posted in Archival issues, Documentary, Soviet Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

By the Law / Po zakonu / Dura Lex, USSR 1926

Posted by keith1942 on August 11, 2015

The prospectors

The prospectors

One critic described this film, from the Kuleshov Collective, as a ‘constructivist western’. It was adapted from a short story by Jack London by Viktor Shklovsky and Lev Kuleshov; the latter also directed the film. The plot of the film adheres fairly closely to London’s story, though there are three significant changes. The film follows from the admiration of many Soviet artists for the work of Jack London and also from a strong interest in US culture, including Hollywood film genres. These were seen as possessing a real dynamism and an embrace of many aspects of modernism.

The setting is the Yukon during the late C19th gold rush. There are only five characters, though the film adds a dog. Four men and a woman, all prospecting for gold. The original story also features Indians/Native Americans, though their role is subordinate. The film jettisons them completely. There was an opening shot of the execution of an Indian, which was left out. This is a desolate landscape for much of the time – from summer, through winter, to spring – frozen hard. The only additions to the harsh terrain are a cabin and the mine workings. For the film the exteriors were actually shot not far from Moscow.

It is very interesting to remember how the outdoor shooting in By the Law took place. We had to be in time to catch the ice flows thawing in the spring. We had a house built on the shore of the snowy river bank, and this house had to be flooded with water when the ice came into contact with it. …

First, it was necessary to work on the ice all the time. The actors’ hands and feet were scratched and bleeding. (Kuleshov).

In fact this was a low budget film, the only reason it was made. There was the small cast and few settings. Even then the production worked sparsely. The screenplay was written almost in one night.

The first major change in the film is the composition of the prospecting group. In the story we have four men, all of whom have contributed equally to the working capital. The leader is Hans Nelson, and the woman is his wife Edith, who for servicing the domestic needs of the group enjoys an equal partnership. In the film we have the Nelsons (Hans – Sergej Komarov, Edith – Aleksandra Khokhlova), the shareholders Dutchy (Fred Forell) and Harky (Porfiri Podobed); the fifth member Michael (Pyotr Galadzhev) is the group servant; Edith here works with the men on the mine. Michael will receive wages rather than a share of the finds. In the story these come from a steady flow of small amounts of gold, which amount in value to $18,000. In the film there is a sudden find of gold – by Michael! – whose value is not tabulated.

In the story violence erupts unexpectedly; this is the case in the film but it is also obvious that the inequalities between the partners and their servant are the motivation. Michael shoots Duchy and Harky. Following this he is bound by Hans and Edith. Whilst Hans wishes to carry out summary justice, Edith persuades him that they should follow ‘the law’. We observed the trio as Michael is imprisoned and watched over through the winter and then, with spring, how Edith and Hans proceed to trial, verdict and justice.

Much of the plot shows us the harshness of the artic winter. Hans’s struggles to dig graves for the two corpses in the frozen ground. He and Edith struggle to drag the bodies to the graves and inter them as a winter storm increases in violence. Then, later, as winter recedes, the land is flooded and Hans and Edith, with Michael, struggle against the waters that surround and flood the cabin.

In the story the omniscient narrator explains the character of the three main protagonists. In the film, much of this is conveyed in the mise en scène. Thus Edith is frequently seen with a small prayer book; seen in the first shot of her. She insists on reading some burial prayers over the graves as the storm howls around her and Hans. She constantly uses or refers to the same book in the cabin.

In the case of Michael we first see him with his dog and a wooden flute. We learn something from a flashback. He hails from Ireland and we see him in an earlier time with his aged mother, promising to return with money to support her. London explains this to the readers in his narrative voice.

The film uses very sharp and sometimes elliptical editing and favours angular shots. However, the chronology is straightforward and linear with the flashback fairly clearly signalled. In common with the 1920s Soviet cinema there is s strong tendency for the use of symbolism. Apart from her prayer book Edith also puts up a picture of Queen Victoria, who represents both Britain and British Law. In a title card, which may be ironic, Michael is informed that as he is Irish he is subject to British Law!

Much of the drama of the film is communicated by the acting. Michael early on, as he performs his menial tasks, suggests the class envy that motivates him. Hans also suggest an instinctive urge to violence and retribution. The standout character is Edith. Khokhlova is a very distinctive actress and this is one of her most powerful performances. The drama around the question of ‘the law’ derives much of it potency from her characterisation.

By the law dog

Then there is the dog. Unfortunately here the Soviet film mirrors that of Hollywood. The dog appears in the early scenes setting up the drama. However after the murders he more or less disappears from the plot. Then suddenly he re-appears for a scene in the sodden cabin. This is a festive dinner as spring arrives, also added for the film and reminiscent of a scene in Dostoevsky. The dog is seen licking Michael’s hand: adding to the change of mood as the imprisoned trio relax to celebrate the festivities. This is the point that we see the flashback. Then the dog disappears once more for good.

Kuleshov was the pioneer in Soviet montage and he had his own particular take on this. Rather than the discontinuities found in the films of Eisenstein, Kuleshov, with his cinematographer Konstantin Kuznecov, tends to rapid and short takes. However, like Eisenstein objects and parts of characters appear in close-up working as signifiers. Continuity flows from the plot and the title cards. Cuts between shots rarely provide a sense of the space between. The cutting is often abrupt and effectively some of the cuts work as jump cuts. Space in his films tends to collapse so that it is the changes in shot sequence that provides meaning rather than the suggested sense of the setting or landscape. Lighting is extremely important in his work. One technique he favours:

…the most advantageous lighting for the cinema is backlighting, so-called contre-jour. This light provides the opportunity to see, precisely and clearly, the silhouette of the object, provides an effect of stereoscopy and depth.

The approach is most dramatic in the climatic execution scene. The sequence has an abstracted and symbolic feel, as the characters and setting are seen more in outline: contrasting powerfully with the more realistic shots earlier in the film. The setting is dominated by a solitary tree, a tree that first appeared in the second shot of the film.

The execution.

The execution.

Kuleshov also has a distinctive approach to acting. This is most notably with his star Khoklova. This approach in some ways parallels the work of the German expressionists, in that acting seems to be an extension of the settings and objects in the film. However, Kuleshov makes very different use of light and camera. Soviet theatre had developed a dynamic approach to performance. Kuleshov develops this to create movement that is economical but authentic for the character. He describes Khokhlova in an earlier training in ‘educational etudes’ – rehearsal playlets that included the proposed montage of a finished film version.

A doctor receives a female patient. The doctor’s wife (Khokhlova) is extremely jealous. She confronts the doctor in a hysterical fit, and this fit goes on for about 150 meters, worked out in the most complex, semi-acrobatic series of movements.

This highly developed and precisely worked out acting style recurs in the most dramatic sequences inside the cabin. It reaches a crescendo in the execution scene where Khokhlova’s almost mechanical movements and stances parallel the stark outline of the set, dominated by the ‘hanging tree’.

The film follows this climax with another change to the London story. This is one that sets up both an ambiguity and a psychological frame for the characters’ actions and motivations. And it also brings back the economic to the fore of the story.

The film was popular in the USSR and well received critically abroad. Some critics in the Soviet Union thought that the film needed a stronger political slant. In fact, Kuleshov and his colleagues had sharpened the class angles of the original story: a recurring problem in London’s writings. Generally regarded as the best of Kuleshov’s surviving features, the film is powerful and involving. And it is another fine example of 1920s Soviet cinema.

Quotations from Kuleshov on Film Writings of Lev Kuleshov, translated and edited by Ronald Levaco, University of California Press, 1974.

The film was screened from 35mm prints at the 2005 and 2008 Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Posted in Literary adaptation, Soviet Film | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

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 5, 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.

 

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

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

 

 

Posted in Festivals, Hollywood, Uncategorized, war and anti-war films | Leave a Comment »

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.

 

 

 

Posted in Archival compilations, Archival issues | Leave a Comment »

 
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