Early & Silent Film

Just another WordPress.com weblog

Archive for the ‘Archival issues’ Category

The Nitrate Picture Show 2017

Posted by keith1942 on May 28, 2017

May 5th to 7th 2017 saw the third Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum in New York State. Around 500 enthusiasts from all round the world turned up to see and enjoy early films in their original format. Rarely seen now because of the safety hazards, nitrate has a distinctive palette, a luminosity when light falls on objects, a distinctive contrast with chiaroscuro and a vibrancy in Technicolor. As before we enjoyed ten programmes, nine of them features. The films were introduced, mainly by the archives supplying the prints. And the George Eastman staff and projection team worked tirelessly round the clock so that the Festival ran fairly smoothly. All the films were projected in the Dryden Theatre, spacious, good sightlines, an impressive front curtain and Century projectors with safety fittings in the booth.

As in previous years the titles in the Picture Show were only released on the Friday morning. I am not sympathetic to this approach. Paolo Cherchi Usai, the director, explained that the purpose of the Festival is to watch nitrate film rather than particular titles. However, I have several friends who find this problematic; partly because they may already have seen some films and seen them in nitrate prints. In addition the quality of the prints varies, not surprisingly, since the age of these ranges from 70 years to over a 100. Apart from the wear and tear of exhibition the film suffer shrinkage; and the rate is provided in the Picture Show brochure. Still this year’s programme was worth the trip.

The opening programme on Friday afternoon offered seven short films. The earliest was a silent with piano accompaniment by Philip Carli: sadly the only silent in the programme.

In a Roman Garden    Donald MacDonald, US 1913. Museum of Modern Art, New York    Running time: 12 minutes. “This copy has 38 splices. As customary for films of the early era, each projection print was assembled by splicing together different shots. Shrinkage: 0.95%. Produced by the Powers Motion Picture Company in New York, this costume drama of religious subject is the earliest film shown so far at the Nitrate Picture Show.”

The main character Marcus, was an epicurean. He was taken with a young dancer on whom forced attentions. However, he was soon under her charms and her religion, Christian.

The film made extensive use of a lake as a setting. There was tinting extant on the print, especially blue for evenings. This was not great filmmaking but fascinating. The plot, involving decadent Romans and a Christian maiden, reminded me of the skeleton plot for The Robe.

En Kluven Värld / A Divided World, Arne Sucksdorff, Sweden 1948. Svenska Filminstitutet (Swedish Film Institute), Stockholm. Running time: 9 minutes. “Donated to the Swedish Film Institute in 2003 by a private collector, the print is in wonderful condition, with only nine splices. Shrinkage: 0.75%. Arguably the greatest by the Swedish master of shorts. Arne Sucksdorff, A Divided World is a hauntingly beautiful, poetic depiction of animal hierarchy in a forest somewhere in Sweden on a winter night.”

This was indeed a delight. I have seen Sucksdorff’s films before and he is idiosyncratic. The films at first appear as documentary but often, like this short film, they are akin to fantasy. The film presented a winter nighttimes landscape where animals, including s ferret, a rabbit, a fox and an owl searched the terrain. The depiction reached a rather macabre climax. The black and white moonlit images looked great, but this was studio rather than actual settings. The film also made good use of natural sounds with more dramatic accompanying music.

Together in the Weather George Pal, US 1946. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 7 minutes. “The copy is in overall good condition. Shrinkage: 0.7% One of the most beloved (and edgiest) “Puppetoons” by the famous Academy Award–winning Hungarian-American master of stop-motion puppet animation.”

I am more familiar with George Pal’s science fiction features but in the 1940s he made a series of animated short films under the generic title ‘Puppetoons’. This title involved a romance between two animated weather vanes; as the introduction suggested the story had quite an adult feel for the 1940s. The well presented puppets looked great in Technicolor.

The Kidnapper’s Foil, Melton Barker, US 1930.. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 17 minutes. “The print is generally in good condition, with twelve splices and some perforation and edge damage. Shrinkage: 0.7% A unique treasure of our shorts program, this early example of truly independent, amateur small-town filmmaking is the original that inspired Barker to travel the United States for forty years, remaking the same film with local children.”

Neither film nor print was memorable but it did seem unique: a slice of genuine ‘Americana’.

The other short films were Movies are Adventure, Jack Hively, US 1948, Academy Film Archive. Pá Ski Med Pwer Og Kari, Skiing with Per and Kari, Norway 1948, Nasjonalbiblioteket. Something You Didn’t Eat, James Algar, US 1945, Museum of Modern Art – a war time animation.

The first feature film was on Friday evening.

Bakushū/ / Early Summer, Yasujirō Ozu, Japan 1951. National Film Center, The National Museum of Modern Art, Tokyo. Running time: 124 minutes.

This was a fine example of Ozu’s filmmaking. It was fairly typical of his later films, though not quite as minimalists as some: there were a couple of tracking shots used. There were a lot of familiar faces both in front of and behind the camera. Setsuko Hara played the lead as Noriko Mamiya. Aficionados of Ozu tend to have an almost obsessive delight in this actress. She was excellent but I was also struck by Chikage Awashima playing her close friend and confidant Aya Tamura. Aya was less of a traditionalist and the scenes where they discussed their different situations were a delight.

The Cinematography by Yûharu Atsuta was also a delight. However, the print was slightly warped and the focus, especially when deep staging was in use, was not consistent.

Early Summer (1951)
Directed by Yasujiro Ozu
Shown: Setsuko Hara (as Noriko), Chikage Awashima (as Aya Tamura )

The Bachelor and the Bobby-Soxer, Irvin Reis, US 1947. Academy Film Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 95 minutes. “The print is in very good condition, though it does have significant curl. Shrinkage: 0.6%.”

I had seen this film before. It stars Cary Grant and Myrna Loy: two fine actors who looked out of their comfort zone in this film. A teenage Shirley Temple was not in their class. The print did look good, but I wished that a better film had survived on nitrate.

Anchors Away George Sidney, US 1945. British Film Institute, London Running time: 143 minutes “Generally in good condition, the print has a few visible light to medium scratches (both emulsion and base) and slight nicks at the edges. Heavy edge wave throughout the print; perforations, however, are undamaged. Shrinkage: 0.35–0.55%.”

I was surprised to find the the film runs over two hours, it had never seemed that long. Gene Kelly dances superbly, especially with the ‘little girl dancer’ and played his usual ne.er do well character saved by the ‘good woman’. Sinatra was surprisingly innocent but has a couple of fine numbers. Dean Stockwell was no more objectionable than the average Hollywood ‘cure’ kid. José Iturbi was a better conductor than actor. And Kathryn Grayson had a great voice but it was in a different register from Kelly’s: I wondered wishfully what the film would have been like with Judy Garland. However the ‘Jerry the Mouse’ sequence was superb and technically masterful. Kelly’s films do tend to have sequences with children, presumably to humanise him. The print looked great but the second reel was slightly sploggy. Presumably the M-G-M sent a master across for the British Labs and experts there were divided if this was the print or a projection bulb. The film confirmed how good Technicolor looks on nitrate.

In the afternoon we had two Czech films.

Źhavý Jicen / Hot Throat, Jiří Lehovec, Czechoslovakia 1939. PNárodní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 12 minutes. “The National Film Archive received this nitrate print from the estate of the film’s director in March 2004. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 1.3% An industrial short produced by Pražská železářská společnost (Prague Ironworks Company) in 1939, the film contains footage from the shorts Výroba oceli (Steel Production, 1939)—today presumed lost—and Poklady země (Treasures of the Earth, 1939), both directed by Karel Kohout.”

The introduction explained that the film was made at the time that the Third Reich was dismembering Czechoslovakia. Thus, whilst the film was overtly an industrial documentary, covertly a sub-text obliquely presented a nationalist stance. This appeared to have been achieved mainly through the music. This was extremely martial: if I had not known about its resonances I would have been puzzled as to the significance.

Seréna / The Strike, Karel Steklý, Czechoslovakia 1947. Národní filmový archiv (National Film Archive), Prague. Running time: 77 minutes. “The print is in very good condition. It was deposited with the National Film Archive at some point before 1952, and is probably the print of Siréna that was screened in 1947 at the 8th Venice International Film Festival where the film won the Grand International Award. Shrinkage: 0.8–0.95%”. “a dignified and an even more brilliant counterpart, with its proletarian story about the working-class Hudcový family. It is an intense, extensively detailed, and often riveting picture about the bitter cycle of existence for the poor, a picture of misery and grief, warmed only by the rays of human love and hardened by the hate that compels one to clench their fists and come to blows—perhaps even wrongly.” – Jan Žalman, Kino, May 9, 1947.”

This was a powerful depiction of a C19th strike with on one side the working class mining community and on the other the bourgeois owners and their lackeys among the government and military elites. The brochure drew a comparison with the British The Stars Look Down (1940). I thought this misplaced. The British film is a melodrama which focuses on a working class leader, played by Michael Redgrave. This film was much closer to the slightly earlier German film Die Weber / The Weavers (1927), an adaptation of a play from 1892. Both films dramatically present the exploitation and concurrent oppression of the workers. In both cases a strike leads to confrontation with the authorities, violence and the wreaking of the bourgeois mansion. This version presented the confrontations with dramatic flair and powerful cuts as the conflict developed.

Phantom of the Opera Arthur Lubin, US 1943. Print from David W. Packard. Running time: 92 minutes. “Occasional curling and brittleness throughout the print. Despite the overall stiffness of the base, the copy has an excellent look on the screen, with saturated colors and minimal scratches. Shrinkage: 0.65–0.75%. “Phantom of the Opera” is far more of a musical than a chiller, though  this element is not to be altogether discounted, and holds novelty appeal.”

The film certainly lacked the disturbing and scary features of the earlier version: only the more recent musical (2004) is inferior. The film makes use of a number of operatic [or operetta] sequences, but these were rather flat. Claude Rains in the title role had some promising scenes but was never properly exploited. And the romantic hero and Police Inspector were played more for laughs than frights. It did, though, look great. The Technicolor was vibrant and the contrast, especially in the sequences below the Opera House, was excellent.

In the evening we enjoyed a special treat

Alexsandr Nevskij / Alexander Nevsky, Sergei M. Eisenstein and Dmitriy Vasilev, Soviet Union 1938. Österreichisches Filmmuseum (Austrian Film Museum), Vienna. Running time: 108 minutes “At some point in the 1960s, this became the 324th print to enter the collection of the Austrian Film Museum, likely a donation of the Soviet embassy in Vienna. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.8–1%. “In Nevsky, the white robes of the Teuton Ritter were associated with the themes of cruelty, oppression and death, while the color of black, attached to the Russian warriors, conveyed the positive themes of heroism and patriotism.” (Sergei Eisenstein, ‘The Film Sense’, 1942).”

The Introduction suggested ‘Socialist realism’, for me a complete misnomer. Whilst the film falls into the period when that form was dominant the film is not realist, and whilst there are convertional characters their treatment transforms them. The film is famous for the battle on the ice at the climax, but all the way through the nitrate print added luminosity to the armour and the decoration, and finally the ice bound, lake. Eduard Tisse’s cinematography was, as ever, magnificent. And the film enjoyed a pioneering score by Sergei Prokofiev, though, unfortunately, the aged soundtrack did not do this full justice,

I was pleased to see that the Brochure added a note of approval by Uncle Joe:

“It is necessary to show historical figures correctly and strongly. You directed Alexander Nevskij. It came out very well. The most important thing is to maintain the style of the historical period.” – Joseph Stalin in conversation with Sergei Eisenstein, Moscow, February 1947.”

Before the closed we had another short film. A warning about its content reduced the audience, presumably including vegetarians and vegans and those with sensitive stomachs.

Le Sang des bêtes / Blood of the Beasts, Georges Franju, France 1949. La Cinémathèque française, Paris. Running time: 22 minutes.  “Donated to La Cinémathèque française by André Joseph, editor and first assistant of Georges Franju, cofounder of the Cinémathèque, the print is in great shape, with very few scratches or splices. Shrinkage: 0.6%. A haunting documentary classic that details the daily operations of Paris slaughterhouses.”

One of the outstanding documentaries, though it makes no concessions to ‘good taste’ or audience sensibilities. This shocking approach is part of the film’s project. Not a great print but it looked fine.

Ironically this screening was followed by the reception provided by the Museum for the guests at the Picture Show. There was a plentiful supply of meats on offer including beef, but not [as far as I could tell] horse meat.

Night and the City, Jules Dassin, UK/US 1950. UCLA Film and Television Archive, Los Angeles. Running time: 111 minutes. “This very special pre-release print of the noir classic runs ten minutes longer than the UK cut and a full fifteen minutes longer than the most widely known US cut. The print is in excellent condition. Shrinkage: 0.9–1.15%.”

This is a noir classic and contains some fine location shooting in London by Max Greene. The art direction for the interiors and sets was skilfully done by C. P. Norman. And the editing by Nick de Maggio and Sidney Stone was fluid and keeps the pace of the film tight. Jules Dassin orchestrated this team with fine direction. The same applied to the cast. Richard Widmark gave a standout performance as Harry Fabian, verbose and flashy but vulnerable and ultimately tragic. The supporting cast was a sheer pleasure: Googie Withers (Helen Nosseross) was hard and cynical whilst husband Francis L. Sullivan (Philip Nosseross) was weak under the calculating bonhomie; Herbert Lom as a wrestling impresario Kristo was impressively threatening and Stanislaus Zbyszko   completely convincing as a classic Greek wrestler Gregorius. Smaller parts were equally well played, as, for example by Maureen Delaney  as Anna O’Leary , a sympathetic black-marketer.  Then there was Gene Tierney (Mary Bristol). Someone at George Eastman is obviously a fan; we have had one of her movies in each of the three Picture Shows, previously Laura in 2016 and Leave Her to Heaven in 2015.

The longer print was intriguing though the additional footage was not obvious. My New York friend reckoned that the final wrestling match was shorter in the US version. As far as the UK version goes I thought there were possibly a couple of extra lines of dialogue, otherwise difficult to tell. But it was a sharp print. The chiaroscuro looked great and the London scenes, especially along the river, were worth a trip to see.

 Spellbound, Alfred Hitchcock, UK 1945. Library of Congress, Culpeper, VA. Running time: 111 minutes.”This print was submitted for copyright deposit at the Library of Congress by David O. Selznick. It includes a very special effect at the end of the film—blink and you will miss it! There is very little scratching, and the black-and-white emulsion has retained all of its luster. Shrinkage: 0.5–0.6%.      “This writer has had little traffic with practitioners of psychiatry or with the twilight abstractions of their science, so we are not in a position to say whether Ingrid Bergman, who plays one in her latest film, Spellbound, is typical of such professionals or whether the methods she employs would yield results. But this we can say with due authority: if all psychiatrists are as charming as she—and if their attentions to all their patients are as fruitful as hers are to Gregory Peck, who plays a victim of amnesia in this fine film which came to the Astor yesterday—then psychiatry deserves such popularity as this picture most certainly will enjoy. For Miss Bergman and her brand of treatment, so beautifully demonstrated here, is a guaranteed cure for what ails you, just as much as it is for Mr. Peck.”

Seventy years on these psycho-analysts has little in common with that proposed by Sigmund Freud. But Ingrid Bergman is captivating. Whilst Gregory Peck tends to the wooden, in this case, as an amnesiac, it works well. There is a delightful supporting role with Michael Chekhov as Dr. Alexander Brulov. And the most realistic exit from an elevator you could hope to see.

The standout sequence is that designed for the film by Salvador Dali, though it demonstrates why he was not a fully-paid up Surrealist. The ‘special effect’ at the end was a shot in Technicolor. This nicely rounded off the print. Though its visual qualities did not show off nitrate’s characteristics to full effect. there were some fine close-ups of Ingrid Bergman, but no tear to match the much talk-about drop in Casablanca screened in  2015.

So to the final film and the ‘Blind Date’ of the Festival. This screening is kept secret till the audience see the opening credits of the film. The Brochure contained a single still, a puzzle to ponder over from Friday to Sunday. Our little group narrowed it down to 1940s European; variously German, Italian or French. The shot contains cobbles and a drain, not objects in which we had many cinematic references. We were only warm, the title emerged as Finnish.

Lovoton Veri / Restless Blood , Teuvo Tulio, Finland 1946. KAVI, Kansallinen audiovisuaalinen instituutti. (National Audiovisual institute) Helsinki. Runing time: 91 minutes.            “Opinions on Restless Blood are quite abruptly divided…”

My sense of the audience was that the division in the Dryden Theatre was between people who found it slightly amusing or interesting and a [possibly] larger number who were baffled by why the film was selected. It is basically a melodrama involving family and sexual relationships, with the film dominated by the star Regina Linnanheimo as Sylvi: an impressively over-wrought performance. The script was not well judged and the technical aspects offered low production values and some really skimpy cinematography: some of the close-ups were seriously inadequate.

In his introduction to the film, avoiding any hard information, Paolo Cherchi Usai suggested we were about to see an ‘auteur’ who has been overlooked and forgotten and needed to be re-discovered. This was auteur not in the usual sense of familiar style and themes but ‘auteur’ in the sense of an obsessive focus on certain characters and situations. A friend who has seen some films directed by Tulio in the 1930s thought those were better; this title did not inspire me to find out.

I think this demonstrates the problem with ‘secret’ programmes. The reliance on other’s tastes and criteria. Happily most of the programme justified that, this film was an unfortunate exception.

Alongside the screening there were several illustrated talks.

‘Motion Picture Show on a 1905 Projector’.

This was a 35mm print run through a 1905 Lubin machine from the Archive. The print was hand-cranked and the exhibition was really interesting. It was not, given the guests were filing round to look at the projection closely, a nitrate print. it was an Edison short, The Land Beyond Sunset from 1912. I had seen this film before, at my first ever visit to Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. However, I would have liked to be able to have sat down and watched the whole film: maybe in future such an event could end with a re-screening of the print?

We also had ‘Keepers of the Frame’: Hisashi Okajima from the National Film Center in Japan. He has a long involvement in this key archive. He talked about his experiences and the ravages that have destroyed much of the Japanese film heritage. These included the earthquake in 1923, fire bombing in World War II and then a fire in the archive in 1986.

Alexander Horwath gave ‘The James Card Memorial Lecture’. He is director of the Ősterreichisches Filmmuseum [Austrian Film Museum]. Quoting from Walter Benjamin he talked about film as a ‘heritage’, emphasising the act of projection and viewing as the focal centre. He also offered two short films on nitrate: ‘Death Mills’ produced in 1945 by the victorious allies for screening to German civilians. This was footage, mainly of the death camps, that presented the Holocaust in direct and bleak images. it seemed to contain some of the footage that was also sued in Resnais. masterly Night and Fog (Nuit et brouillard 1956). The second was Rouen, martyre d’une cité (1945). The latter showed the wartime damage to the city. The contrasts between the films was emphatic, though I had reservations about the comments on this contrast. I think there is a discussion to b had about audiences, images and values in these examples.

There was also a documentary on archive work on the Thursday evening: I missed this having an early night. But apparently in the discussion people were using the terms – ‘film’, i.e. nitrate and acetate; and ‘file, i.e. digital. This seems to me a really useful distinction but I doubt the industry could be persuaded to take it on board.

Overall a very worthwhile weekend. Some fine movies, some really fine prints, and an opportunity to see something that is becoming another vanishing species: not because it is ephemeral, having a far longer shelf life than digital, but through lack of attention in the industry. There is debate about the issue of shrinkage. This year’s highest ratio was Night and the City, at 1.5%: this was the outstanding print of the Festival. Shrinkage presumably creates projection difficulties but the prints can still look great. There was a recurring focus problem on one projector, slight but affecting the depth of field.

Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 4th to 6th. This means that once more the opportunity arises of celebrating the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles with a print; I gather the organisers are looking, especially for Orson’s.

Advertisements

Posted in Archival issues, Nitrate film, Technicolor | Tagged: , | Leave a Comment »

Screening formats

Posted by keith1942 on February 13, 2017

Vertov's masterwork with black bars added!

Vertov’s masterwork with black bars added!

 

One of the links on this blog is for Silent Film Calendar. This is a very helpful service that offers a fairly comprehensive list of the screenings of Silent Films up and down Britain. It includes Festivals, Film Clubs/Societies and cinemas. After the title the pages offer information on the format in use, though almost all of these contain the legend ‘format not known’.

Almost without exception when I see an interesting screening coming up I have to contact the venue and try and establish whether they are using 35mm, 16mm, DCP, or some digital video format. The latter is far more common than is healthy for Silent Film programming.

Even prestige Festivals are increasingly using digital formats, though thankfully the Cinema Ritrovato and Le Giornate del Cinema Muto use very little digital video. The Golden Fleece of the Silent Film Festival circuit is now the George Eastman Nitrate weekend where the films are not just all on 35mm but in the actual format in which they were originally shot and exhibited.

In Britain the digital theatrical format is almost always 2K DCPs. 4K DCPs are pretty rare and this seems to be the case even when it is a title that I have seen in 4K at a Festival. It is fairly clear that 2K digital does not offer the resolution of 35mm and 4K would seem not to either when we are referring to good quality 35mm.

video-resolution-chart

Moreover when the specifications for theatrical digital formats was laid down the equivalent projection speeds were set at 24 and 48 fps, forgetting about any provision for the slower speeds of silent films. FIAF has now provided specifications for silent film speeds, 16, 18, 20, 22 and 24 fps. However, it is rare to find screenings in the UK that offer this; the norm appears to be 24fps with the consequent step printing of title to provide a suitable rate and running time.

Technically it seems quit easy to adjust digital projectors to alternative speeds to 24 or 48 fps. However, DCPs come ‘baked in’ [the phrase used] both in terms of projection speeds and aspect ratios.

The latter also means that unless cinemas have screen masking the framing offers  an image in 1.33:1 [or a variation] with black bars either side of the image. The bars on digital projection lack the density of masking, so they are quite noticeable and, in addition, they absorb less light so high key images reflect on them.

Elvey's masterwork in what appears to be TV's 16:9.

Elvey’s masterwork in what appears to be TV’s 16:9.

The situation is far worse when exhibitors use some digital video format. The quality is lower than for DCP plus DVDs and Blu-ray run at 25 or 24 fps. So invariably, [except for a few late silent titles] the  print has been  step-printed for transfer. It also seems that the norm these days is to use computer software and these [or at least some of them] use composite frames at edit points, hence the ‘ghosting’ that is a problem on many of these.

Step-printing varies in its effect on any film. But clearly films with fast editing, such as the Soviet masterworks, are likely to suffer from this. Battleship Potemkin (Bronenosets Patyomkin, USSR 1925) has as few as two or three frames in some shots, and an additional frame for every two existing ones is likely when the films run below  20 fps.

Aspect ratios are also a problem in other ways. A friend went to see the screening of a rare New York Yiddish title which was screened in 16:9! Recently the BFI produced a digital version of Abel Gance’s masterwork Napoleon (France 1927). The most famous sequence in this film is the use of a three-screen triptych for the final sequence as the revolutionary army crosses the alps into Italy. At 35mm screenings with three projectors and screens [or equivalents] this image expands to the colossal and impressive finale. For the digital version the BFI used the following technique:

“The whole film is mastered in a scope DCP wrapper and can be projected in one format, the triptych will work on any scope screen (it won’t work on a flat screen).” (BFI Information).

A friend who attended a screening of this version complained than rather than expanding for an impressive finale, the image shrunk, thus reducing the impact.

I can understand film fans wanting to have copies of favourite films to watch at home: but that is domestic viewing and is in a different category from theatrical presentations, [or at least it should be]. And digital versions obviously allow screenings for groups who may not be able to access the infrequent 35mm presentations and venues that do not possess 35mm projection. But, unfortunately, digital also seems to encourage archive and distributors to use these formats instead of offering the films in their original and proper form. Exhibitors compound the problem by the paucity of information on formats. Few cinemas actually distinguish between film [35mm] and digital versions in their publicity and brochures. Even fewer actually indicate when the screenings rely on digital video: and this dereliction also applies to a number of Film Festivals.

A few years back the BFI produced restorations of the nine silent films directed by Alfred Hitchcock in Britain in the 1920s. I was involved in screenings of these in West Yorkshire. Some of our screenings offered 35mm but on a couple of occasions the BFI replied to a request by sending a DCP. Yet later on I saw the same titles on 35mm at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna. So the BFI could send the prints over a thousand miles to Italy but not north by only 200 miles. More recently The Battle of Coronel and Falkland Islands (Britain 1927) was released round the countries. It seems that the only screenings were from DCPs. Yet there was a 35mm print. In fact the BFI sent the 35mm print [courtesy of a RAF transport plane] all the way down for a screening to the British settler colony on the Malvinas.

We actually have the odd situation now where a screening from a digital video has live musical accompaniment: seemingly the musicians cost more than the expense of renting and transporting a 35mm print. Torkell Sætervadet, in his Introduction to the ‘FIAF Digital Projection Guide’, writes as follows:

“[he argues for] the aim of presenting films exactly the way they were i8ntended to be presented – without any compromises with regard to picture, sound and appearance. Cinémathèques, film archives and film institutes have a particular responsibility to respect the integrity of the work of art that they are exhibiting and the inevitable consequence is that the technical requirements will be pretty rigid.”

I wonder how many people in the British Film Industry have read this fine volume or even have a copy. It would seem that the Cinémathèques Française have: as I was advised that in 2016 they declined to license a title for public screening when the source was digital video. Bravo!

 

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

The Nitrate Picture Show 2016

Posted by keith1942 on May 26, 2016

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The Dryden Theatre, George Eastman House.

The was the second Festival of Nitrate film prints at the George Eastman House in New York State. Friends who went to the first had tantalised me with comments about the quality of the films on the now out-dated film stock. In particular they had referred to Ingrid Bergman’s tear in a scene from Casablanca, USA 1942. Nitrate films have a particular luminosity, especially noticeable when the lighting is accentuated. Nitrate film is rarely seen now as there are all sorts of safety precautions that have to be in place. The material is highly flammable and can even explode.

Seeing nitrate is an uncommon pleasure. In the UK only the National Film Theatre is equipped and licensed to project to nitrate films: and such screenings are increasingly rare. The George Eastman House in Rochester USA is a famed venue. So the three days of screenings in May was like the site of the Holy Grail for film lovers. About 500 people turned up, from all over the USA, Europe, Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe and Latin America.

This would seem to have been a mammoth project. The assembled prints came from archives in many places. And the talented team at the George Eastman had to check, prepare and ensure that the films were ready for screenings. One particular problem is the rate of shrinkage. It seems that if it goes above 1% of the print it difficult or impossible to screen. The projection equipment includes two Century Model C projectors fitted with xenon lamps.

All the films were screened in the Dryden Theatre. This is well appointed, seating about 500. The sightlines all over the auditorium appear good, though the rear seats are some distance from the screen, making it difficult to fully appreciate the fine detail of films.

The programme commenced on Friday evening with Nitrate Shorts.

Object Lesson US 1941, Anthology Film Archive. This was a ten minute black and white ‘surrealist film ‘ with an environmental concern.

Cent Ans de Chemins de Fer Suisses Switzerland 1946, Cinémathèque suisse. The is an animated celebration of Swiss railways in glorious colour.

Jolly Little Elves USA 1934, Museum of Modern Art. Another animation in two-strip Technicolor. The Elves were altruistic and engaging.

Twenty Years of Academy Awards USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. This was a compilation of Award winning film’s extract, variable quality.

The Art Director US 1947, Academy Film Archive. This was an 8 minute Academy film on the title role. There was a variety of film extracts, an interesting selection.

The Golden State USA 1948, Academy Film Archive. A Technicolor paean to California, with the audience invited to join in “California Here I Come”.

Enamorada

Enamorada between María Félix and Pedro Armendáriz .

Then we moved on to the Festival features. I had seen all of these before so I was able to compare the quality of acetate 35mm and nitrate 35mm. The first feature was a Mexican film, Enamorada from 1946, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. The film was directed by Emilio Fernández and filmed by Gabriel Figueroa: the lighting one of the great cinematographers. This was a really good print which showed off to great effect the fine cinematography of Figueroa.

The final film of the evening was Otto Preminger’s Laura 1944, Academy Film Archive. The print screened was the pre-release version but I could not spot the additional footage. The nitrate print did not seem to look very different from the acetate 35mm prints that I have seen before.

Saturday kicked off with the Technicolor musical Annie Get Your Gun, USA 1950, Library of Congress. This was filmed by the veteran Charles Rusher and has really good Technicolor. But I did not think the nitrate print was superior to ordinary 35mm.

The we had the British Brighton Rock , UK 1947, British Film Institute. The film looks really good and makes excellent use of location filming. Harry Waxman’s cinematography is really fine and there are some great sequences in chiaroscuro. The nitrate print showed up these qualities really well and it was a pleasure to watch from start to finish.

Our next feature was Ladri di Biciclette, Italy 1948, George Eastman Museum. It was the US release version, but it did not look that good in a nitrate print. Possibly it was a dupe print, the definition and contrast were both limited.

Opening the evening session we had some more shorts. There was one minute of George Eastman in 1930, not exactly exhilarating. But then we had two animations in Technicolor by Oskar Fischinger., An Optical Poem, USA 1937 and Allegretto, USA 1943: both from the Library of Congress. In colour the animation was beautiful and this was  real treat.

Allegretto

The main evening feature was Powell and Pressburger’s The Tales of Hoffman, UK 1951, Library of Congress. This film was produced in that grey era just as nitrate was giving way to acetate. The print we viewed was mainly nitrate, but part of the penultimate reel and the final reel were on acetate. I did notice some difference but I could not have told you exactly where the changeover  occurred: it looked great on nitrate.

Saturday morning we kicked off with Road House , USA 1948, UCLA  Film and Television Archive. The film has quite an  amount of changes from high key to low key lighting and some location work late in the film. Both looked really fine in nitrate.

The afternoon bought another British classic in Technicolor, Blithe Spirit, UK 1945, Museum of Modern Art [from Martin Scorsese]. The Technicolor image looked really fine on nitrate.

The final film was a ‘surprise’, ‘Blind Date with Nitrate’. It was a silent, Ramona USA 1928. I had seen this film before, at the 2015 Giornate del Cinema Muto, so I could compare the acetate 35mm and nitrate. This screening was definitely an improvement. The interplay of light and shadow, the luminosity of certain shots and features, were all a real pleasure to see. The film had an odd history. it was a European release that ended up in Gosfilmofond archives. We also enjoyed a fine accompaniment by Phil Carli, a regular at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

Dolores del Rio as Ramona

The George Eastman House has already fixed the dates for 2017, May 5th, 6th, and 7th, The Saturday falls on the same date as the birthdays of Max Ophuls and Orson Welles. Maybe we could have a nitrate print of one or both of the films by the great filmmakers. The one disadvantage to the Eastman house approach is that they do not publish a programme of titles prior to the event. Paulo Cherchi Usai justified this in one of his addresses, remarking [among other points] that the Festival was about nitrate not particular films. But people are travelling from distant parts of the USA and farther afield. Moreover, they may well have seen quite a few of the titles previously on nitrate. So I am happy to have one or more surprises but I think they should reconsider their approach to publishing the programme.

A fuller report will appear in due course in Flickers Journal of the Vintage Film Circle.

Posted in Archival issues, British sound films, Festivals, Hollywood, Italian film, Silent Stars | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Dawn, UK 1928

Posted by keith1942 on October 31, 2015

bfi-Dawn

This is an early film about Edith Cavell, a British nurse shot by the Germans during World War I for spying. Her case became a cause celebre at the time and she has remained a fairly iconic figure since. This is the centenary of her death and Park Circus has re-issued a 1939 film, Nurse Edith Cavell. The Hyde Park Picture House has gone one better and recently screened the earlier film in a 35mm print and with a set of interesting introductions. The film previously has only been screened at the Imperial War Museum and the British Silent Film Festival.

The essential record. Cavell was a British Nurse working in Belgium when the war broke out. She became involved in a network helping escaped POW’s make their way home. The network was betrayed and 35 members captured by the Germans. 30 of the members were sentenced to hard labour, five, including Cavell, were sentenced to be executed. Three of these had their sentences commuted to hard labour, but Cavell and a colleague were shot. There were protests both by the Allied enemies and by ‘neutral’ nations, especially by the US Legation in Belgium.

Herbert Wilcox was one of the more successful producers and directors in British film in the 1920s. He specialised in historical dramas, and he also produced and directed the 1939 version, which starred Anna Eagle. There had been some short films about Cavell, in which the Germans were portrayed as brutes and Cavell as an innocent victim. But by the late 1920s the British Government was concerned to maintain good relations as Germany was shepherded back into the ‘democratic fold’. The German Government raised objections when Wilcox’s production got underway. The British Government evaded the issue with reference to the British Board of Film Censors [set up in 1912] as an independent censorship body: somewhat economical with the facts. Wilcox did in fact make changes to the film including the ending, but it does not seem that there is a record of these.

In fact when the film was completed the BBFC refused it a certificate. However, the BBFC’s remit was only partial in this period, as the Local Authorities actually held the legal right of licensing. Wilcox was successful in getting the film licensed by the London County Council and it received a general exhibition. It was also screened in Germany, without much apparent incidents.

The film was shot in black and white and is six reels – running about 85 minutes at 22fps. The original release was 7,300 feet: now it is 6,510 feet which suggests cuts due to wear and tear. The Writing Credits (in alphabetical order) Reginald Berkeley   … (story),  Robert Cullen   … (scenario) , Herbert Wilcox   … (adaptation). Cullen also directed and one of his films is Every Mother’s Son (1926) a wartime drama. It is possible that Wilcox’s adaptation is to do with the changes: what these all were is not clear, though it definitely included the ending. My thoughts on re-watching the film was that some of the title cards were likely the result of this change in approach.

The film opens with a series of title cards. They first laud Cavell’s ‘heroic life and death’. Then they offer a sort of generalised anti-war message, ‘Rulers of Europe, puppets of carnage ..enslaved by war.’

The film then moves into its story, and we see the Belgium Institute where Cavell worked. Inside we are presented with a children’s ward, the use of children is a recurring trope in the film. One boy puts on a Prussian style helmet, ‘I am an Uhlan’ [light cavalry in Poland, Russia, and Prussia]. Another boy puts on a different cap, ‘I am a chasseur’ [French light infantry’. The ‘Uhlan’ chases the ‘Chasseur’ who runs and shelters behind Cavell in her office. Briefly and directly the film sets up the drama’s plot and values.

The war arrives, Europe ‘blazed into flames’. Then we see a man on the run (Jacques – Mickey Brantford ) and Germans searching. His mother, Madame Rappard (Marie Ault) attempts to hide him and when Cavell arrives she arranges to take the man to the Institute. There she burns his uniform: right through the film, with one other exception, escaping soldiers are seen in civilian clothes. Later Cavell and Madame Rappard hide Jacques in a part of the basement and move a large wardrobe to hide the entrance.

So Cavell is drawn into helping escapees: a flashback shows Jacques telling her that there are ‘hundreds like me’. In most cases the men are taken through the streets at dark and secreted on a barge which travels along a canal across the frontier. The group appears to consists of Cavell, Rappard and two other women (Madame Ada Bodart – herself and Madame Pitou – Mary Brough) and a Bodart’s young son Philippe (Gordon Craig): rather different from the actual network. This is a woman’s group. One man, the bargee (Richard Worth) , hesitates to assist the prisoners and is roundly ordered to do so by his wife, Madame Pitou. Later it is a man who betrays the network. The only positive male member is Philippe, a teenage boy and an unnamed man who guides the prisoners from the Institute..

The actions of the group are intercut regularly with the German military. At times this is quite stereotypical: the communication system is a post card mailed at the frontier. After a fruitless search one German soldier willingly agrees to post the card for the Madame Pitou. We also see the German high command, including the Military Governor, General von Zauberzweig (Frank Perfitt) . As they start to realise that there is an escape network investigations and searches are instigated. At one point it appears that escaped prisoners are being found among the allied dead after battles on the front line: clearly having rejoined the allies and their war effort.

The investigating officer is presented as quite intelligent. He remembers a conversation with Cavell which arouses his suspicions. His first search is fruitless, but after the betrayal he returns and discovers the hidden door behind the wardrobe. This is a moment of high drama in the film. Cavell is assisting a wounded and wanted RAF officer: the only other escapee seen in uniform. The search takes place as Cavell and an assistant attempt to smuggle him out of the Institute. This is done successfully: another rather conventional plot device. Meanwhile Cavell is incriminated by a discovered network document.

We then get Cavell’s trial and execution. ‘Trial between women and war machine’. Her women companions are also charged but the trial is predominately about Cavell. We do see the young Philippe who is a compulsory witness and who is committed for perjury. Cavell is found guilty and sentenced to be executed. A title tells us that the others are sentenced to hard labour: so unlike in actuality Cavell is to die alone.

Following the sentence the film includes the efforts of the US Ambassador to stop the execution. There are letters and visits by his aide, but the Commander cites ‘duty’. This section of the plot emphasises the ‘brutality’ of the sentence: the film does not raise the issue of spying by the actual network. It does provide sympathetic Germans who themselves sympathise with Cavell, undermining the German position. So an officer visits the Institute and sees the wounded airman, but ‘clicking’ his heels’ and saluting Cavell he leaves without reporting what he has seen.

Even more notably we see dissent among a member of the firing squad. This is Private Rambler, who demurs when he is selected for the squad. At the actual execution he hesitates when the order to ‘raise arms’ is given and then refuses. The officer commanding berates him. And there is an exchange of glances between Rambler and Cavell. This sequence is clearly cut, likely due to the changes made to placate the Germans. It would seem that there was originally more than one exchange of glances between Cavell and the soldier, and the suggestion of Cavell’s nod that he should ‘do his duty’. Note, ‘a legend long generally accepted’.

The execution took place at the Tire National, on the edge of a field behind the building. We see the preparations including an English Chaplain ministering to Cavell. She is them marched down stairs, through a basement to the yard. There is the business with Private Rambler but we do not see Cavell actually shot. What we do then get is a title showing the words that Cavell spoke to the Chaplin,

“Patriotism is not enough. I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone.”

These are famous and off-quoted words.

The film has a very restrained feel. Partly this is down to the performance of Sybil Thorndike as Cavell: she is magisterial and even her emotional displays are restrained. There is some difference between her and other cast members’ performances: Madam Pitou and Rappard are quite a bit more expressive. This restraint is emphasised by the film’s direction. Wilcox is a fairly static director, his films concentrate on performance and mise en scène. So the film is shot predominately in long and mid-shots. And even when there are close-ups they are not large, but almost themselves mid-shots. There is very little moving camera: though already Graham Cutts, Maurice Elvey and Alfred Hitchcock were using these techniques in their films. All I noted were several pans, especially during the court sequence.

The cinematography by Bernard Knowles is well done and there is some expressive lighting in certain sequences. The art direction is by Clifford Pember and would seem mainly to relate to interiors,. Much of the exteriors were shot in Belgium, frequently using actual locations from the events recorded. Note, the 35m print we watched was a composite, one could discern changes in lighting and definition within sequences. It appears this BFI print combines four reels from its own archive copy and two reels from a copy in New Zealand.

The film had a musical accompaniment by Darius Battiwalla on the piano. Darius gave a short explanation before the screening. His performance was partially prepared, partly improvised. He explained that in the 1920s there was a range of musical accompaniments: some using prepared musical sequences, some composed or arranged. The latter had at one extreme the Wagnerian romantic approach, The sort of music that Korngold bought to Hollywood in the 1930s. Some of it was closer to neo-classical, for example Kurt Weill. Darius’ accompaniment for this film was closer to the latter, re-enforcing the style of the film. Much of it was low-key and often with sparse notation, but he also bought in martial chords at certain points in the film,. I thought it set of the film exceptionally well. though it of course re-enforced the values the film offered.

Darius at the piano.

Darius at the piano.

The pre-screening talks were also informative. Dr Emma Cavell was related to Edith Cavell through an Australian connection. She filled out some of the family history. But her project around Cavell also bought her into contact with the Cavell heritage events. It is worth noting that Cavell was given a state funeral in the UK and there is a statue to her in Trafalgar Square where there is an annual memorial event. She was also added to the Anglican Church listing of ‘saints’.

Professor Fell talked about the history of Cavell and the network in which she was involved. There is evidence that the network not only assisting escaping soldiers but that they also passed on information concerned with the war effort – i.e. spying. She also pointed out that Cavell was not tried alone, nor was she executed alone but along with Philippe Baucq who was a key member of the network.

The disparities between the film and the record made sense when Doctor Claudia Sternberg talked about the representations of Cavell , including on film. Early illustration showed Cavell with long, streaming hair, younger than her actual 49 years and in some suggestions of rape. One newspaper illustration depicted the Germans as pigs or ‘swine’. One film of 1915 was entitled Nurse Martyr. She also talked about the depiction of Cavell as a lone victim in illustrations of the execution and the use of nurse uniforms rather than civilian clothes. She went on to fill in the context of the Wilcox film  and suggested that this was a transitional work, with ‘civilian society’ portrayed as ‘subordinate to the military’.

Dawn poster 01

The talks filled out the film and enabled a fuller appreciation of the representation and its relationship to the historical person and events. My main reservations were two-fold.

The suggestion was that the changes made by the film after the German objections gave the film a more general anti-war tone. I thought there was a discrepancy between the title cards and the visual representation in the film. The opening title cards in particular were quite strident and appeared to put together European powers on both sides of the conflict as war-mongers. However the actual narrative was much closer to conventional war films. Cavell and the network were portrayed sympathetically and shown as non-military. The fact that the key member were women seemed more about this type of discourse than any feminist rendering, though they did come across as strong characters. The Germans were portrayed through the film in conventional militaristic terms, re-enforced by the dissensions by individual Germans and the depiction of the US Legation. I incline to think that one of the ways that German objections were responded to was to change title cards rather than the actual imagery, a not uncommon way of ‘sanitising’ silent film.

Edith Cavell with Don and Jack in 1913, neither feature in the film.

Edith Cavell with Don and Jack in 1913, neither feature in the film.

The key changes to the visual imagery were the execution. Here there are clear cuts, at one point there is a shot of Cavell facing the squad and then a reverse shot, and we discover a field behind her. It is a disruptive moment. Presumably this cut was seen as diminishing the literal visual violence in the film, but all the business with the dissenting soldier remains.

I also had reservations about the idea of a transitional film. I can see that it has some of these aspects in terms of British film. But the anti-war tone had already appeared much earlier in the 1920s. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921) has a powerful anti-war drive and in this film civil society is clearly subordinate to the military. And in British film the jingoistic support of the allied war effort continued, a good example being The W Plan from 1930. Here Brian Aherne plays an British Officer and spy who outwits the stereotypical Germans.

It also need to be pointed out that ‘anti-war’ has a limited connotation in such films as Dawn. As  pointed out by Andrew Britton such films rarely address the actual politics of an actual war. This is centrally true of World War I. This was an imperialist war between European colonial powers and ‘plucky little Belgium’ had one of the worse records for colonial atrocities in the Congo.

But a great opportunity, so felicitations to the Hyde Park Picture House and to the contributors to the event.

There is more material in Rachel Low’s the History of the British Film 1918 – 1929, Allen and Unwin 1971. The Belgium archive also have a print which is being restored.

****************************************************

Now I have seen the Belgium print which was screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto. This version, transferred on to a DCP [running 91 minutes], is incomplete but contains footage not in the British version. To illustrate the important differences the screening also included the final reel of the 35mm print from the BFI National Archive, 1040 feet projected at 20 fps.

The Belgium version fills out the depiction of Private Rammler (Edward Sorley) at the execution. There is not one but two marked exchanges of looks between Rammler and Cavell. We then see him [onscreen] throw down his rifle, at which point the officer commanding the firing squad points his revolver at the soldier. We see Cavell fall to the ground, in faint. The execution is not shown but it is implied that the officer has to administer the coup de grace with his revolver. And it is also implied that Rammler is shot as well. On screen we see the two graves sides by side, ‘Cavell’ and ‘Rammler’.

This latter part is what is missing in the BFI print and the shot of the two graves [side-by-side] appears to have been cropped to only show Cavell’s. The London County Council did request certain cuts before licensing screenings of the film and it may have been felt that the complete execution [as far as it is depicted] was too gruesome. The other difference is that the Belgium print has more final title cards. This deliberately attempt to displace the suggestion of a war crime by the Germans as they state that such actions are not the province of just one country or combatant.

It is worth noting that the version on the DCP looked very much like a dupe and that the BFI 35mm print was definitely superior. Using the complete digital version and only one reel from the 35mm print puzzled me. The comparison and the differences are clear either way round: in fact I had seen the complete British print first. It would have done the film greater justice to see it in the visually superior version. Moreover, the Belgium version is missing several scenes. I was working from memory but I though there were additional sequences on the barge used for escapes; in the trial sequences; and also involving the US Legation.

More light on the British version is shed in a biography of Dame Sybil Thorndike, ‘A Star of Life’ by Jonathan Croall, Haus Books 2008. It seems that Wilcox originally cast a US stage actress, Pauline Frederick.

“Suddenly she was called back to America ‘on urgent private business’. Wilcox soon discovered the truth: the German Embassy had told her that if she played the part no film of hers would ever be shown again in Germany, and pickets would be placed on cinemas showing her films in the States.”

Sybil Thorndike was delighted to play the part. Her admiration for Cavell included copying  annotations in a copy of Thomas á Kempis’s ‘The Imitation of Christ’ belonging to Cavell into her own copy of the same book.

“‘I am tremendously proud at being offered the part’, she announced. ‘Not a woman among us but reveres the memory of Miss Cavell, and I feel that through the medium of the screen it will be possible to convey the great lessons of self-sacrifice and patriotism that she taught.'”

This was Thorndike’s first feature-length film. Her performance was widely praised by critics at the time. However, like the rest of the production, she discovered that the film was very controversial. Croall records some of the machinations at the time. The German Ambassador spoke to the Foreign Secretary Austen Chamberlain who persuaded the British Board of Film Censors to ban the film. Despite the repeated claims that the BBFC was an independents body the government constantly interfered in the censorship of this Board. As it was many local authorities, lie the London County Council, above, passed the film for exhibition.

Thorndike herself spoke out in defence of the film.

“They say the feelings amongst the Germans was very strong against shooting her, but I am trying to show that it is not just one nation that is to blame, but war – …”

This fits with the predominantly ‘anti-war’ feeling of the film: though the characterisations of the Germans and German militarism undercut this. But Thorndike was clear in opposing censorship. She later signed the letter opposing the London County Council’s ban on the new Soviet Films like October.

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

Indian Silent Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on October 21, 2015

BritishEmpire-1

India around 1900

Film on the Indian Sub-continent – Early years 1896 to 1924

Prior to 1947 the British Raj occupied the whole of the Indian sub-continent, including what later became Pakistan and Bangladesh. It was in this context that cinema arrived in India. And the early and developing years of film were carried on under the eyes of the British. That would seem to a be a factor in the scarcity of examples of early film: along with resources and the climate. When I first saw early film from the sub-continent it was at Il Giornate del Cinemas Muto in 1994. And we were able to see the entire early film archive at that festival. Unfortunately most of the films only survived as fragments. However, along with the archive came a group of talented musicians who accompanied the films with traditional music

The central figure in indigenous cinema in this period was Dadasaheb Phalke, who made the first Indian feature films. He also set the trend for mythological films, representing the riches of the indigenous culture. The arrival of sound in the 1930s led to the development of the film musical form, the growth of Film Studios and the central importance of stars to audiences.

Early Days

On July 7 1896, at the Watson Hotel in Bombay, the French cameraman of the Lumière Company, Maurice Sestier, screened the first film show in India. The show was patronised by both the European and Indian elites of the city. Within a week the show moved to the Novelty Theatre, allowing different classes (and even women in a separate section) to view the new wonder. Other showmen followed, and soon the residents of both Calcutta and Madras were able to experience the marvel. The shows used theatres, public halls and even tents set up in playgrounds. And the programmes soon included ‘exotic’ views shot in India.

Harischandra S. Bhatvadekar was the first indigenous Indian to import, in 1898, a camera and to start making films. The films included important political events such as the reception given to a mathemematics scholar, R. P Paranjpye, after he achieved a First at Cambridge University. As is common with early silent film, much of this footage is lost, including what was the first Indian story film, Pundalik, made in 1912. However, at least some of the films of Dhundiraj Govind (Dadasaheb) Phalke do survive. He is India’s equivalent to the great early North American filmmaker D. W. Griffith.

Phalke: the father of Indian Cinema

In 1910 Phalke saw a film of The Life of Christ. He was inspired:

‘While the life of Christ was rolling fast before my eyes I was mentally visualising the Gods, Shri Krishna, Shri Ramchandra, their Gogul and Ayodhya … Could we, the sons of India, ever be able to see Indian images on screen.’ (Quoted by Suresh Chabria, 1994)

Phalke taught himself the skills of filmmaking, and made a trip to England and the studio of the pioneer filmmaker Cecil Hepworth. Phalke then set up the first production company with its own studio, Phalke Films, in Bombay. In 1913 he released Raja Harischandra: the surviving print runs for 23 minutes at 16 fps with titles in Hindi and English. The original at just under 3,000 feet, probably ran for fifty minutes. The film’s tale came from the classic Indian epic, the Mahabharata, and narrated the story of a king whose love of truth is tested by a god. The film was both a commercial and critical success. Indian audiences powerfully identified with images from their own culture. Despite this, Phalke encountered problems, including the prejudice against cinemas as a ‘low form’ of culture and the fact that no ‘respectable’ woman would appear in a film. His early films used men playing female characters. Later filmmakers at first recruited women less susceptible to the taboo, such as Anglo-Indians. Phalke also had to raise his own funds, as established financial institutions would not invest in film.

Phalke followed his first success with Lanka Dahan (1917) the story of the abduction of a wife by a demon king, Shri Krishna Janma (1917) and Kaliya Mardan (1919).   The films centred on the god Krishna, played by Phalke’s daughter, Mandakini, and Phalke used early special effects to create the magic of the god hero. These are three important titles in a series of films, and parts of them have survived and have been restored and housed at the National Film Archive of India.

Kaliya Mardan

Kaliya Mardan

The first production company

Phalke filmed Raja Harischandra in the vicinity of his own house, then moved his enterprise to Nasik, where all the subsequent films were produced. According to film historians Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980), the family lived in a three-story house, on a few acres land. The family included Dadasaheb Phalke and his wife, Kari, their five sons and three daughters and various relatives. All the children appeared in Phalke’s films. Kari Phalke loaded and unloaded the camera, rushed film to the laboratory – a portion of the kitchen area – and supervised all laboratory work.

Several dozen people worked on Raja Harischandra, but during the following years the company grew to about a hundred. They all lived on the Nasik estate. The company became an extension of the joint-family system and the members of this extended family did all essential work. Outsiders were only involved occasional crowd scenes. The Phalke enterprise set a pattern that dominated Indian film production for several decades.

His films were shown in cinemas in the large cities, such as Bombay’s Coronation Cinematograph, when it opened and to the vast peasant population in the countryside. As Barnouw and Krishnaswamy (1980) indicated,

‘In due time Phalke, like other producers of this period, became an exhibitor and travelled far and wide by bullock cart, with projectors, screens and films. The people who came were seldom two-rupee customers. Most paid four annas, two annas, or even one anna, and most of them sat on the ground. The revenue was in coins. The weight of the coins, on the homeward trip, could be enormous.’

In the 1920s other entrepreneurs followed in Phalke’s footsteps. The main centre for these production companies was Bombay/Mumbai, however there were also film studios in Calcutta/Kolkata and Madras/Chennai. An important producer was H J F Madan, who launched a Bioscope show in a tent in 1902. He expanded into theatres and later film production. This company was an early example of vertical integration. When Madan died in 1923 he owned 50 movie theatres, a third of the national total.

There were a series of high value productions mainly down to the efforts of Himansu Rai, who also acted in the films. They were directed by the German filmmaker Franz Osten working with a German cinematographer Emil Schünemann. Rai raised monies both in India, Germany and from the British film industry. The final and most sumptuous of these epics was Prapancha Pash / A Throw of the Dice (1929). The film retells an episode from the Mahabharata about a king who is cheated of his throne and must struggle to win back the kingdom and his love. She is played by Seeta Devi, reckoned to be an Indian film diva. This is credited to British Instructional Films and Pro Patria Films Ltd. The surviving print is 6694 feet in length with English titles; it ran at 21 fps for 85 minutes. The other two films, which also survive, are Prem Sanyas / The Light of Asia (1925) this debut film from the production grouping dramatised a story about the life of the Buddha. Their second film was Shiraz (1928) which told the legend of the building of the Taj Mahal.

Gallant Heart

An example of a genre film is Diler Jigar / Gallant Hearts, produced by the Agarwal Film Company in 1931 in Pune. A slightly shorter version survives, running 8672 feet and with titles in Hindi, Urdu, Gujarati and English: it ran for 117 minutes. It seems that this film was partly inspired by the Hollywood films of Douglas Fairbanks. However, it also fits into a wider cycle of swordplay and stunt films. A tyrant usurps the throne, but the baby prince is saved by a courtier. He re-appears with a love and her brother. Much of the film is shows them outwitting and outfighting the tyrant. What makes the film especially notable is that some of the finest sword play features the heroine  Saranga, as a masked woman avenger,  outdueling the henchmen of the usurper. She was played by a young actress Amboo who played on in the talkie era. Another film from the company survives, Gulaminu Patan / The Fall of Slavery (1931). This is a costume drama lacking the panache of Gallant Hearts. However it does depict the exploitative conditions in rural areas, a theme to which Indian cinema would constantly return.

There were Indian comedies. A three reel film, Jamai Babu survives, from the Hira Film Co (1931). This is an early Bengali film centred on a ‘country bumpkin’ visiting his urban in-laws in the city of Calcutta. It is rough and ready but provides glimpses of Calcutta at that time. It runs for 35 minutes hand has titles in Hindi, Bengali and English.

With the exception of Raja Harischandra and A Throw of the Dice it is really difficult to see these films outside the sub-continent. Though extracts appear in many of the television programmes about Indian cinema.

Light of Asia Indian Silent Cinema 1912 – 1934 edited by Suresh Chabria was published to coincide with the 1994 Giornate del Cinema Muto. It includes a complete filmography for the period. The above post has been developed from a piece in the BFI CD-Rom on Indian Cinema [no longer available]. For sound cinema – for Parallel cinema.

Posted in Archival issues, Early cinemas, Festivals, Indian film | Tagged: | 6 Comments »

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

Posted by keith1942 on August 25, 2015

Vertov32

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)

Vertov27

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.

Vertov29

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).

Vertov28A

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).

Vertov31

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).

Vertov23

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.

Vertov24

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 »

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 »

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 »

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands, UK 1927

Posted by keith1942 on February 14, 2015

7586919-large

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 »

“I’m writing in darkness …”

Posted by keith1942 on January 28, 2015

The technique works in full darkness.

The technique works in full darkness.

These words were read by Juliette Binoche from notes written by Kristin Scott Thomas in the film melodrama The English Patient (1996). The combination of two of my favourite actresses with a well-written and dramatic sequence gave the words great power. But they also had an evocative quality, because with less panache and less drama I too often write in darkness. I was taught these skills so that I could sit in a darkened cinema auditorium, whilst watching a film and take notes.

I do this most frequently at Festivals, especially for screenings of film from the silent era, where the use of title cards lends itself more to note taking. Unfortunately not all the members of such select audiences observe the same sensitivity for their fellow viewers. In recent years, though to a lesser degree, such festivals have suffered from the ravages of mobile phones and tablet users. I find it bizarre that the latter cannot apparently check the time without lighting up their screens. But in addition to those we often also have people in the auditorium using a torch shone on notes or even laptops with the screens brightly lit.

This reliance on unnecessary technology is to be deplored. As a good will gesture to his fellow film scholars Michael Walker [my mentor in these skills] has kindly agreed to provide explanatory notes  for any serious film buff or scholar who wants to also acquire these skills. Please feel free to copy these notes and pass them out to offenders sighted in auditoriums.

Taking notes on films in the dark

  1. Use a Reporter’s Note Book/Shorthand Notebook 8″ long by 5″ wide with a spiral wire at the top holding the pages together. (a) It’s easier for turning pages in the dark and (b) if the notes get into a muddle, the wire can be taken out, pages moved around, then the wire replaced again.
  2. Leave the first page and the last page blank for indexing the contents of the notebook. An index enables you to see at a glance which films are in that book.
  3. Before the film starts, leaf through the notebook to ensure the pages are separated. If they are not, you will make a noise separating them as you turn in the dark and this could distract neighbours.
  4. As you take notes, keep track of where you are on the page with the thumb of the non-writing hand. You do not need to look down. Move the thumb down a certain distance after each line is completed. This may require practice to find the best spacing. But overwriting is the biggest problem, so don’t squeeze the lines together too much (see also 7). The technique does mean you will end up with an inky thumb. This is not a big deal.
  5. The notes are to remind you of the film. Character names and relationships are crucial; plot is usually more important than dialogue.
  6. I find it easier to shift the book sideways to turn pages in the dark.
  7. Afterwards, if you go through the notes whilst the film is still reasonably fresh, you will find that they bring it back to you. Because the notes will be spaced out on the page, there is room to add clarifying details.
  8. Go through the notebook one way, then turn and go through the other. To avoid getting the book the wrong way up, feel whether it is cardboard (you’re writing from the front of the book) or cover paper (you’re writing from the back) at the end.
  9. Accidents such as overwriting on a page can happen. These should be sorted out promptly, by deciphering and transferring one set of notes to a fresh page. A magnifying glass helps in deciphering overwritten words. It is here that the ability to move pages around in the notebook can be invaluable.
  10. Always have a spare pen handy; the ink can run out whilst you’re writing.
  11. With practice, it is possible to tell by feel when a biro dries up: the pen starts to drag on the paper as you write. This is an occasion when you do need to look at the notebook to check, but the light from the screen should be sufficient to see whether or not you’re still writing anything.
  12. It’s up to you whether you have either (a) one index for both sides of the notebook at the front, or (b) one for each direction at the relevant end. Option (b) is easier to index, but it will take longer to check what’s in the notebook.

Michael Walker

10/14

Note, if you find it hard to visualise the techniques there is a brief example, fairly basic, in the UK feature Faces in the Dark (1960), approximately 38 minutes into the film.

faces-in-dark

Posted in Archival issues | Tagged: | 2 Comments »