Tag Archives: Silent Cinema

Dizzy Heights with Mountainous Films

Sometimes you get that odd confluence when a string of films of the same ilk all pop up at once. Well two and a half anyways, with one modern film, one silent, and a string of documentaries on the BBC iPlayer to follow. The release of the British Film Institute’s beautifully restored version of the silent Epic of Everest is a visually stunning and particularly rare treat on broadcast and catch-up TV, and the accompaniment of the archive-rich documentary Battle for the Himalayas is a hugely welcome double bill that feels all too rare these days. That all this should be followed by a documentary about a have-a-go vertiginous sheep-herder at the Cube in Bristol this week is perhaps half-ways tenous, but with Audrey of the Alps it feels like the altitude of my recent watchlist has gone up a few thousand feet in a very short space of time.

The Epic of Everest

The mountaineering genre holds an odd place in film history, from early expedition documentaries such as Epic of Everest, to the politically charged Bergfilms that fired German pre-war audiences, and the more immediate and almost resurrective stories of Touching the Void and Alive, the core drama is of the human spirit overcoming the odds be that for personal triumph or national glory. The recent news coverage of the duo that managed the first free climb of the notorious Dawn Wall of El Capitan in California shows there’s a still a wider interest in stories of conquest where we can find them, and the tension of potential/inevitable tragedy is the fuel of jeopardy that feeds a good story.

Setting up camp on El Capitan

While the assurance of a dramatic mountain backdrop practically guarantees something visually arresting on screen, the insistance by Netflix that nigh-on every mountaineering/skiing film in their collections features ‘stunning cinematography’ makes you wonder if the cameramen even have to bother beyond pointing the camera in the right direction. Which further begs the question why so many independently produced skiing and snowboarding films are so utterly dull? Beautiful vistas and the threat of serious injury or death, and still they can’t visually muster anything more complex than tricks and pratfalls to whatever shade of punk suits. An odd exception is Swedish director Ruben Östlund who cut his teeth making daft skiing films on the Val D’Isere, eventually got to film school, made some critically lauded observation dramas, before in time getting around to setting his latest award winning feature on, where else, but the Val D’Isere. There’s more to be said for Force Majeure when it hopefully gets to British cinemas later this spring, but the film balances the destructive force of mountains with the seismic fissures in a shattered family dynamic. It may be a mountain film, but not as we know it.

Anyways, for the soul with time to kill and a hankering for good screen histories on mountaineering the iPlayer is the place to go at the moment, with the aforementioned Timeshift documentary Battle for the Himalayas being of note, as well as a repeat of Eiger: The Wall of Death. Both are rich in archive footage and to-the-point talking head interviews, and both document periods when mountaineering achievements were a running story of national interest.

Audrey of the Alps at The Cube

As for the story of Audrey of the Alps, well I don’t know much beyond the blurb about it being a doc following a twenty-something trying to find themselves in the Alps. With a load of sheep. Beyond it’s pitch as a possible lost episode of the TV series Girls, the prospect of fine wines and even finer fromages from The Bristol Cheesemonger is the sort of thing which quite easily swings me towards at least giving the film a go. Get yourself to the Cube in central-ish Bristol for 8pm on Tuesday the 3rd if you too are easily tempted by wine, cheese, and a peculiar new documentary.

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In the Beginning There Were Documentaries

A Man with a Movie CameraWith certain fanfare and a headline interview on Radio 4’s Today programme, Sight & Sound today announced the results of their poll for the greatest documentary ever made. And as lists go it quickly set the wires of social media humming with outrage and consternation, as Dviga Vertov’s masterful Man with a Movie Camera was noted as comfortably taking the top spot. Should we even call it a documentary, is it just an art film, and what are documentaries even good for. So the debate ever was, it made for good reading for those with a real passion for the genre, if genre should even be considered the right word.

And so the occasion was taken by at least one commentator to take a pop at the eight ‘unimaginative’ souls who had picked out the Lumière’s first publicly screened film, the presumptively titled Workers Leaving the Lumière Factory. Much merriment was had at such a boring choice, and well, it sure as shit isn’t as exciting as that other classic of the Train Pulling Into the Station. As someone who so gladly proselytises for the occasionally put upon subject of Early Cinema, of course my heart sank.

Almost any Lumière film taken out of context is probably going to appear a bit dumb, and I’d certainly not question anyone who found them tedious, because I’ve slept through more than a few early films. And that considering most are under five minutes long. And sure, anyone idly picking the film for the sake of posterity should certainly be singled out as being unimaginative, but I doubt that’s the case. There’s far more to it than that.

On the walls of Chauvet CaveThe crude analogy that comes readily to mind, would be showing someone the 32000 year old paintings in the Chauvet Cave, so wonderfully captured in 3D documentary form by Werner Herzog in Cave of Forgotten Dreams, and to have them turn and say “well they’re a bit shit, aren’t they?” Now you can’t argue that they’re masterpieces by the standards of modern or contemporary art, but then that is to quite colossally miss the forest for the trees. The analogy touches on the whole world of misguided discourse which would frame Early Cinema in terms of being ‘primitive’ and ‘unevolved’, where old cinema is ultimately a stepping stone before cinema could realise it’s all-singing, all-dancing, widescreen Technicolor 3D razzmatazz true self, which it was always MEANT to be. Which is so historically chauvinistic I struggle to know where to even begin.

But what is there to say for the Factory Gate? Context is of course king, and what excites me about considering such an unsupposing title as documentary is that it captures the first moment anyone thought to film life just as it was. No staging, no performance as with Edison’s Kinetoscope films, just working life as it was in that moment in time. That we should imbue film with such meaning and significance is completely ridiculous, and Louis Lumière sensed no occasion in capturing movement on a technical novelty he saw absolutely no future for. Yet in the beginning there was documentary, and still the form became secondary from the off all the same.

Discussing the matter with Pam Hutchinson of the brilliant blog Silent London, she conceded that the film is just a tech demo, but that “it takes imagination to see that it’s more than [that]. But once you see that… boom.” Which is as fine a case as could be made for appreciating Early Cinema, but it’s not easy to convince the sceptics.

Those looking for a supporting arguement in this debate would do well to take the uninitiated to see A Night at the Cinema in 1914, a special programme of Early Cinema programmed by the BFI and currently doing a tour round the UK. Picked out by the archivist Bryony Dixon, and with a score from the brilliant accompanist Stephen Horne, early reviews of the programme are positive, and it’s far better a defence of Early Cinema than I could ever state.

Complete dates for the nationwide tour of A Night at the CInema in 1914 can be found on the BFI’s website.

[My thoughts on what constitutes an unimaginative choice for greatest documentary ever made, and what films I’d put on my own list might however have to wait for another day!]

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A Bridal Procession in Hardanger: Some Screening Notes

Included below are the screening notes I drew up for the benefit of the wonderful Bristol Silents, for a club screening of theirs earlier this year. Introducing the film I also went into a bit more detail about the Hardanger fiddle, which is interwoven into both the film and Norwegian folk culture more generally, and in my humble opinion is quite a spectacular instrument to hear. I love it. If you want a sample then check out a 15 minute BBC radio documentary in the Musical Migrants series on it. Or just go crazy on Youtube, as there’s plenty to be found!

A true classic of Norwegian cinema, Rasmus Breistein’s Bridal Procession in Hardanger (1926) is not only a high point of the nation’s body of silent film, but also stands as a vital piece in their visual and cultural history. Stunningly shot on location on the fjords of western Norway, the film recreates a rural idyll of 19th century Scandinavian life to tell a compelling melodrama of young love, marriage, class division, and the lure of emigration to brighter lands of new promise.

In many ways the film stands as the culmination of Norway’s artistic movement of National Romanticism, which sought to encapsulate a true reflection of the nation’s emergent identity. The original Bridal Procession in Hardanger is in fact a landscape painting by Adolph Tidemand and Hans Gude, dating from 1848. A sharp and vivid panorama of a traditional bridal party crossing the Hardangerfjord, the oil painting is now widely regarded as one of Norwegian art history’s most important pictures. At the time of its creation Norway remained sub-ceded by its union to Sweden, and the art establishment in the country sought to galvanise what it meant to be Norwegian in all areas of culture. This perspective combined an over-arching reverence for Norwegian nature with a nostalgia for the country’s traditional dress, music and craft; qualities we can all see brought together in the original Bridal Procession of 1848.

The novella Marit Skjølte was also born out of this movement of romantic nationalism, and it stands as inspiration for the film we are to see tonight. Written by the priest Kristofer Janson in 1868, the story took inspiration from the painting of Bridal Procession, while also building on contemporary tensions around the draw to emigrate, which was pulling on many Norwegians at the time. The tale of a young generation tempted to leave poverty and social division for the opportunities of the New World is one that has been told many times, yet in Janson’s telling the issue is brought in sharp contrast against the art movement which sought to celebrate Norway culture. How could the case for Norway’s independent future be made if its young wanted nothing more than to escape on the first boat they could take to America?

In the drawing together of this novella, the visual look of Norway’s national romanticism, and the celebrated craft of its rediscovered folk-culture and music, we now find the film Bridal Procession in Hardanger. While Norway had found true independence from Sweden in 1905, the question of national identity still remained important, and a new generation of artists sought to re-engage with it. Tired with the continued success foreign filmmakers found in adapting Norwegian literature for the silver screen, established stage actor, and accomplished fiddle-player, Rasmus Breistein brought together Norway’s theatrical talent to stake their own claim in cinema. Up until this point filmmakers had failed to find much traction for a professional and independent film production in the still young nation, yet Breistein broke through with Fante-Anne (aka Gypsy Anna) in 1920. An adaptation of a rural melodrama, the film won high praise from the Norwegian press, with one critic heralding it as proof of film’s new status as an art-form in its own right.

Bridal Procession is Breistein’s fourth film, and by some reckoning his most accomplished. Having already found an audience for rural dramas, Breistein took to making Bridal Procession with a new found dedication to showing a very personal Norway, set as it is in region where he was born. Breistein saw the film as the perfect medium to portray his own Western Norwegian perspective on rural life, and the film is almost documentary in its observation of the Hardanger people and their customs. While the film stars a young Aase Bye, the rising diva of Norwegian stage and screen, the vista of the Hardangerfjord is practically a star in its own right, and Breistein readily acknowledged the towering beauty of “those wonderful Norwegian landscapes which nowadays people from all parts of the world flock here to see.”

The film was a tremendous hit on its premiere on Boxing Day 1926, and the success continued as the film went on a year-long tour of Norway. Breistein himself was also canny to the film’s international value, and since crowds of tourists now flocked to the fjords, why not take the fjords to the world? Much like the emigrants of the film, Breistein went to America despite not knowing a word of English, and the Bridal Procession and Fante-Anne went on a 200 show tour of the United States, where every screening was introduced with a lecture on Norway, and every performance accompanied by Breistein himself on traditional Hardanger fiddle. The tour was a hit, and while box-office takings were set aside for Breistein’s next production, the director also spent time in Hollywood studying new techniques and approaches to filmmaking. In this sense Breistein stands out from many other European filmmakers of the time: he went to Hollywood, not to join the dream factories of California, but rather to source the skills and the funds to start new film productions back in Norway. His career continued with uneven success into the early sound period, but through a series of popular and critically lauded documentaries in the forties and fifties, Breistein established him as one of the most important filmmakers of Norwegian cinema.

Finally a note on the version and the music which accompanies it: with only six copies printed on the film’s first release, the popularity of Bridal Procession saw the original copies worn ragged. The Norwegian Film Institute discovered an unedited copy of the film, lacking intertitles, in their collections in 1997. A copy of the intertitles were then traced to the Swedish Film Censors, and a reconstructed version was put together for the Pordenone silent film festival in 1999. This is the version we are seeing tonight, and it is accompanied by a superb orchestral soundtrack scored by Haldor Krogh, and performed by the Bergen Philharmonic Orchestra under the direction of Ole Kristian Ruud. Of particular note in this score are the segments which feature the beautiful Hardanger fiddle, a six-stringed violin-type instrument indigenous to the region. Easy to spot being played at various points in the story, the lilting and haunting tones of the fiddle rise out of the soundtrack and bring the film to life in a stirring and unique way.

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Finding Four Lions in Sheffield

Discussing Sheffield as an overtly ‘cinematic’ city could easily be mocked as daft, but this town really does feel like it’s brought to you in VistaVision. Close to the total population of Sheffield lives on a hill of some kind, and almost everyone can look out of their window, if not down their street, and see at least part of the city unfolding before them. Having the urban heart on your doorstep and the countryside beyond the end of your garden was a quality Victorian art critic John Ruskin rated in Sheffield, and while the post-war period poured a lot of concrete into the city, you’re still never too far from at least a small patch of green.

A still from the early silent film Daring Daylight Burglary, shot in Western Sheffield.Despite this the city hasn’t been overly exploited on film, with only a few notable exceptions. A new British comedy, Four Lions is the latest to make the most of the city, and the politically charged satire has its own twist of being set in the shadow of both Western consumerism and two fallen towers. That those two towers happen to be the Tinsley towers is an irony perhaps not lost on the local audience, but more on that in due course.

The place of the city in film starts with its own filmmakers, The Sheffield Photo Company, who got in early on the action with their rather brilliant Daring Daylight Burglary of 1903. Shot in Banner Cross, and up/down/round/about the Whiteley Woods area, one view of smoggy Sheffield down Carter Knowle Road is an eerie backdrop to the lingering death of a policeman. Early silent films aren’t all just knock-about slapstick, straight actuality, or trick films, and regional filmmakers knew both the impact and the draw of shooting in recognisable locations.

A repeated panorama of smoggy Sheffield is atA still from the historic propaganda film on urban reform in industrial Britain. the heart of the propaganda film New Towns for Old from 1942, which  can be found on the rather brilliant Yorkshire Film Archive Online.  Scripted by Dylan Thomas, Sheffield assumes the role of the fictional Northern city ‘Smokedale’ in a bold treatise on the importance of separating housing from industry, and envisioning a city in the sky, away from the ‘muck and the grime’. The jewel in this massive restructuring would of course be the much feted Park Hill flats, and the allusion towards it in New Towns for Old is proof if any where needed of the optimism of the Sheffield Corporation going into the project.

The fate of the Park Hill estate is as tortured and convoluted as could possibly be conceived, and has busy bodies bickering on all sides of the divide. It has yet to feature prominently in any films to my knowledge, but is none the less regularly exploited by TV and documentary teams looking for a handy visual shorthand for anything broadly Grim, Northern, Deprived, or all of the above. The BBC documentary English Heritage – Romancing the Stone did a fine job charting the highs and lows facing the current redevelopment, and the absurd ins and outs of the politics of the funding surrounding the project. The team behind the documentary also had a whale of a time shooting the estate from every conceivable angle, often catching it in rather a stunning light. A case for the site’s listing if you ask me, but lord knows the jury’s still out on that one.

A trope which films of the city consistently return to is using an allotment or suburban park as a setting, always unfolding to the backdrop of either the distant city, if not the cities rural fringes. Post-apocalyptic classic Threads had more than a few scenes set in allotments, where anxieties about the escalating diplomatic tensions were punctuated by the roar of passing Harrier jets. Half of The Full Monty seems to be Robert Carlyle sitting on a park bench looking out over the city, brooding with son/colleague/self over the particularly vexing question of whether to strip or not to strip. Last year even served up an admirable short film called Boy, by local lad Joe Morris, where a tortured soul brushes with the mere notion paedophilia after a chance meeting in a Sheffield allotment.

The new comedy Four Lions continues with this same trope, with the tale of four would-be jihadists bumbling together a plot to bring justice to the Western world. The apartment headquarters for this tiny insurgent cell is set in a very real terrace flat in the Sheffield suburb Tinsley, a stones throw from the hulking Meadowhall shopping centre, a fine symbol for excessive Western consumerism were ever one needed. Again the warren of allotments, and the meeting of urban and rural found there acts as a strange, almost liminal space where the group’s inept technician Fessal can field-test the explosives he’s distilled. The key scene for these tests are shot on the fields not far from Bole Hill in Crookes, and these views out into what becomes the Peak District are the very same that Ruskin epitomised in his reflections on living in Sheffield.

There are no major plot spoilers in saying that the film is partly set in London as well, but the irony for the Sheffield audience is spotting that nigh all the filming was still done in Sheffield. The empty side streets of The Moor stand in for London’s back streets, and one particularly heated confrontation takes place in Kebabish on the Wicker in central Sheffield.

Being a massive geek, and proud to live in Sheffield, I’ve cooked up a Google map to illustrate all the locations I could spot. BE WARNED, there are SOME SPOILERS. Just glancing at it won’t give up the game, but there are some plot details written into the pinpoints. Unspoilt viewers who wish to remain so are advised NOT TO CLICK ON THE PINS.

To conclude, one final irony: When John Harris dragged a camera crew to Sheffield to film the blinkered and condescending documentary Time Shift: The North-South Divide for BBC4, the team needed shots to illustrate just how dilapidated Sheffield was relative to the bounteous South. Poor John couldn’t be bothered to actually explore Sheffield, so he took a cameraman and went for a  drive in his Mini Cooper. A glimpse of Park Hill ticked the usual box, and the one way system seemed to get him back to the Wicker. Flickering, shuttered shops blaze by, John squeezes in a snide remark about the Malcolm X Islamic bookshop on Spital Hill, and then rolls back down to the Wicker. A very short tour of course, but John still manages to chime in with the remark that this is all ‘very Sheffield now’. So Sheffield that it’s the first place filmmakers turn to when they want to film Sheffield to stand in for London.

Thanks for the insight Mr Harris.

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The Long Road to Rumba

I love films, I love reading about films and I love hearing what people think about films. Far too much of my idle time is spent keeping up to date on what the so called legitimate opinion-makers have to say about a film. Trawling through the newspapers in a café considerate enough to oblige me with a few, is just about my favourite way of spending a Friday morning. ‘What’s misery-guts Bradshaw got to say about this week’s blockbuster?’ ‘How many borrowed French terms can Sandhu squeeze into his review of this latest Apatow comedy?’ ‘How many sentences will it be before Philip French actually mentions the film he’s reviewing?’
Half the joy is in knowing the quirks of the pay-rolled reviewers, almost anticipating how they’ll handle some tent-pole genre film which is inevitably going to rile them. Might they be won over? Might they harbour some unexpected respect for the feature? Some of the blandest opinion pieces invariably come from anonymous film reviews, where the publications’ ‘line’ comes before the individual’s opinion. After all, how can you trust an opinion which is on some level decided by committee?
Reviews are obviously a product of the huge clunky PR machine, and a consequence of this is the sometimes headachingly London-centric nature of the criticism. I’m sure it’s wonderful that the National Film Theatre in London has put on Hitchcock’s Notorious, and I’m sure if we’re lucky us hicks in the provinces might get a peek at it 3-4 months down the line as the one copy of it goes on tour. But do we really need all the critics to come chiming in that it’s a five star film? A re-issue of Great Expectations doesn’t need the critics to come out and tell us that it’s ‘A Literary Classic: 5 out of 5’ so why so with film?
Maybe picking up on Notorious is a petty example, and god bless the BFI and the NFT and everything they do. But the gap between criticism and distribution came crashing and screaming to the fore last week with the wide reaching coverage of Rumba. A ‘deadpan, vivid-coloured French comedy’ with ‘the spirit of Tati’ about a couple discovering life after a car crash. So the critics tell me.
The Guardian liked it, 500 words, 4 stars. The Telegraph didn’t, 50 words, 1 star. Time Out weighed in, as did the Observer, The Scotsman, Total Film, Empire, The Shitty Free London Paper, as well as Filmstar and Little White Lies. Even a mention on Radio 4’s The Film Programme. A resounding success in terms of blanket coverage, as this rather small film got picked up by such a swathe of non-tabloid press.
So what was its’ nationwide box office takings for the opening weekend?
£1158
Maybe you shouldn’t expect more from a film only shown on three screens, but man alive, a pinch over a grand? At a conservative estimate, taking ticket prices at between £6-£9, somewhere between 150 and 200 people saw this film. I know critics don’t pay for tickets, and won’t have contributed to the box office, but by those calculations about 1% of the total audience for this film was the press.
You might mistake this for a dip-into-the-cinema-before-an-almost-direct-to-video release, much as happened with the inwardly looking ass-kicking antics of JCVD earlier this year. A week in the art houses of London, and then nationwide on DVD. C’est la vie, as our man Jean Claude might say, nothing wrong with getting some press coverage of an action film otherwise easily overlooked. At least we still have the DVD.
Not so with Rumba. A week at the ICA seems to be it for this intriguing if irritatingly elusive feature. No word of a nationwide tour, no word of a DVD release. I could import it without subtitles from France, and maybe I’d manage to grasp this (by all accounts) slapstick heavy comedy. But €23+ is a lot of money for a film I can only partially understand. The internet gophers tell me that this film can be found on the usual channels of peg-legged contraband, and that some wonderful person has even gone to the trouble of making their own English subtitles for it.
Tragically that seems to be my only avenue for seeing this film, and I’m not overjoyed at the thought of undercutting a movie whose UK box office I could knock up 1% by going to see it in a cinema with a friend. For the time being I’ll pass on it, fingers crossed it might break out nationwide. Or at least near-me-wide. I’m glad the critics (by and large) enjoyed the film, and thanks for letting us know, but it begs the blunt if honest question: Why Bother?

Rumba film leftRumba film rightI love films, I love reading about films and I love hearing what people think about films. Far too much of my idle time is spent keeping up to date on what the so called legitimate opinion-makers have to say about a film. Trawling through the newspapers in a café  is just about my favourite way of spending a Friday morning. ‘What’s misery-guts Bradshaw got to say about this week’s blockbuster?’ ‘How many French terms can Sandhu squeeze into his take of the latest Apatow comedy?’ ‘How many sentences before Philip French actually mentions the film he’s reviewing?’

Half the joy is in knowing the quirks of the pay-rolled reviewers, almost anticipating how they’ll handle some tent-pole genre film which is inevitably going to rile them. Might they be won over? Might they harbour some unexpected respect for the feature? Some of the blandest opinion pieces invariably come from anonymous film reviews, where the publications’ ‘line’ comes before the individual’s opinion. After all, how can you trust an opinion which is on some level decided by committee?

rumba02Reviews are obviously a product of the huge clunky PR machine, and a consequence of this is the sometimes headachingly London-centric nature of the criticism. I’m sure it’s wonderful that the National Film Theatre in London has put on Hitchcock’s Notorious, and I’m sure if we’re lucky us hicks in the provinces might get a peek at it 3-4 months down the line as the one copy of it goes on tour. But do we really need all the critics to come chiming in that it’s a five star film? A re-issue of Great Expectations doesn’t need the critics to come out and tell us that it’s ‘A Literary Classic: 5 out of 5’ so why so with film?

Maybe picking up on Notorious is a petty example, and god bless the BFI and the NFT and everything they do. But the gap between criticism and distribution came crashing and screaming to the fore last week with the wide reaching coverage of Rumba. A ‘deadpan, vivid-coloured French comedy’ with ‘the spirit of Tati’ about a couple discovering life after a car crash. So the critics tell me.

The Guardian liked it, 500 words, 4 stars. The Telegraph didn’t, 50 words, 1 star. Time Out weighed in, as did the Observer, The Times, The Scotsman, Total Film,  as well as Filmstar and Little White Lies. Even a mention on Radio 4’s The Film Programme. A resounding success in terms of blanket coverage, as this rather small film got picked up by the bulk of British non-tabloid press.

So what was its’ nationwide box office takings for the opening weekend?

£1158

Maybe you shouldn’t expect more from a film only shown on three screens, but man alive, a pinch over a grand? At a conservative estimate, taking ticket prices at between £6-£9, somewhere between 150 and 200 people saw this film. I know critics don’t pay for tickets and won’t have contributed to the box office, but by those calculations about 1% of the total audience for this film was the press.

Rumba01You might mistake this for a dip-into-the-cinema-before-an-almost-direct-to-video release, much as happened with the inwardly looking ass-kicking antics of JCVD earlier this year. A week in the art houses of London, and then nationwide on DVD. C’est la vie, as our man Jean Claude might say, nothing wrong with getting some press coverage of an action film otherwise easily overlooked. At least we still have the DVD.

Not so with Rumba. A week at the ICA seems to be it for this intriguing if irritatingly elusive feature. No word of a nationwide tour, no word of a DVD release. I could import it without subtitles from France, and maybe I’d manage to grasp this (by all accounts) slapstick heavy comedy. But €23+ is a lot of money for a film I can only partially understand. The internet gophers tell me that this film can be found on the usual channels of peg-legged contraband, and that some wonderful person has even gone to the trouble of making their own English subtitles for it.

Tragically that seems to be my only avenue for seeing this film, and I’m not overjoyed at the thought of undercutting a movie whose UK box office I could knock up 1% by going to see it in a cinema with a friend. For the time being I’ll pass on it, fingers crossed it might break out nationwide. Or at least near-me-wide. I’m glad the critics (by and large) enjoyed the film, and thanks for letting us know, but it begs the blunt if honest question: Why Bother?

Rumba04

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Kill Switch and Hollywood Editing

his girl friday requiem for a dream kill switch montageYou could argue endlessly about the most overlooked job in the film industry, but I’d make a strong case for that of the editor. Many would say that their role falls into the realm of striving for seamlessness; unnoticed if done well. But that’s doing these crafty cutters a great disservice, as continuity and the impact of the edit can be tremendously powerful devices. As proof were needed of the fact, seeing my friends stumble out of the living room absolutely shell-shocked after seeing Requiem for a Dream was a timely reminder of the combined power of music + cutting to wholly traumatise the hapless moviegoer.

In my own misadventures I remember getting into an argument with one of my tutors about a scene in His Girl Friday, and the power of straightforward continuity. The scene in question comes seven minutes into the clip below.

It’s a blink and you’ll miss it cut, but just as Cary Grant picks up and then drops Rosalind’s be-ringed hand, the next shot shows him holding the hand again. I spent a good five minutes arguing that it must be a mistake in the edit, but it turns out it was the classic ‘Cary Grant Double Take’ which pops up in countless other films. I’ve only spotted it in North by Northwest, but still, lesson learnt:

– Hollywood Does Not Make Mistakes. Everything is Deliberate –


kill switch windowSo taking this lesson and applying it to later work in the oeuvre of Steven Seagal, the repercussions become quite serious. It’s all fine and well having a chuckle at things stumbling along, but there comes a point when the mistakes are writ so large that they just can’t be mistakes. Unfortunately we cannot discount the whole of Kill Switch as a grand mistake, for in its opening scene there comes a challenge to conventions of Hollywood continuity, a challenge so bold that it posits a complete tabula rasa of editing as we know it. Not quite a jump back to year zero, but rather a jump to the year 1903.

With moving pictures barely a few years old, the visual grammar of continuity we understand today had only just been embarked upon. Narratives were mostly limited to single scenes, much like the theatre, with action entering from the sides. Other early films kept to the school of what Tom Gunning has defined as the Cinema of Attractions* borrowing heavily from the worlds of the fairground and the vaudeville theatre, with one-act spectacles of wonder or contortion. Moving pictures were a spectacle in and of themselves, and the first film subject tended to be equally spectacular.

The change towards film with a more straightforward narrative came in the first decade of the century, and plenty has been said critically on that matter. The path to Hollywood continuity as we know it today was long, but even at this earliest stage can be noted some attempts to create a different visual discourse, less conventionally linear and with greater focus on repetition. A prime surviving example of this is to be found in the Edison company’s Life of an American Fireman. Stories of fire, imperilled women/children and daring rescue were all the rage in the early 1900s, and Life of plays straight to this early genre.

While the film itself might not strangle the attention of the average modern viewer, it is important to note the peculiar repetition of action. The sequence inside the burning house is played out in full before the action cuts to outdoors, and the viewer is then treated to seeing the complete action from a wholly separate perspective. The multiplicity of angles is primary above the linearity of continuity, and while jarring to the modern eye, this approach made a lot of sense to early audiences still open to the as yet undefined grammar of film. To borrow a term from Charles Musser** there is a ‘malleablility of temporality’ wholly lacking in most modern cinema. It flies in the face of anyone who might see these films and consider them primitive or simple.

Full respect then to the director Jeff King and his editor Jamie Alain with their work on Steven Seagal’s Kill Switch, a film which in one scene pays both homage to Life of an American Fireman while simultaneously challenging all modern understandings of continuity in Hollywood cinema.

another kill switch windowIn the sequence of one man getting kicked out of a window there are seventeen separate cuts, seven different perspectives and a complete recasting of temporality. It would take a matter of seconds for a body to hit the ground after being thrown out of a third storey building, yet in this sequence the action takes close to half a minute, stretching the horror of falling into an absurd, almost hovering sensation of crushing inevitability. The guilt of Seagal’s corrupt character is given no space to hide in the brevity of his decisions, his actions, its consequences are played out again and again, challenging the viewers ingrained positive disposition towards Seagal as an actor and transmutable character. The jarring punctuation of the scene with the clichéd one-liners typical of the action genre establishes an unease which fails to let up at any point in the film.

There is something bizarrely uncompromising about this film, and its debt to early cinema is astonishing. Almost more astonishing is role Seagal himself played in the writing, producing and selling of the film, and there’s more to come on that.

* For more by Tom Gunning on the Cinema of Attractions, check out Early Cinema: Space Frame Narrative (edited by Thomas Elsaesser)

** Musser has written extensively on this film plus Edison’s early film history in History of the American Cinema to 1907: The Emergence of Cinema. His extensive history of early Edison director/cameraman Edwin S. Porter can be found online in Before the Nickelodeon.

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The 12th British Silent Film Festival

british silent montageThrough the course of my daytime adventures/studies I have the tremendous fortune of attending a number of conferences, and more importantly festivals dedicated to the dead art of silent cinema. It baffles many people how anyone could ever be so obsessive with something so ‘primitive’ and ‘arcane’ something so abstract to what we know and love, what with the All-Singing All-Dancing Technicolour Widescreen Real-D Surround Sound Cinema of today.

Many would be quick to rebuff any such harsh judgements, but of course I see where the layman might be coming from. Grubby unclear films, with little people running around at supernatural speeds to the merry plink and plonk of the honky-tonk piano can easily seem pretty Neanderthal.

Needless to say this is a pretty cruel vision of silents, coloured by decades of worn prints being show at 50% the speed they should be running at, with picked-out-of-a-basket soundtracks slapped on to fill the silence. Silent film festivals are about reversing that, reviving living soundtracks with both improvised and especially scored music, showcasing some of the finest film restorations from across the world. Films that demonstrate the birth of a medium at one end, and the perfection of it at the other.

It baffles me that anyone who claims to love film could possibly keep themselves away!

Last weekend saw the annual British Silent Film Festival set up shop in the imposing Barbican centre in central London, and for 3 (and a half) days the organisers did an excellent job of putting on some amazing talks and performances around some know, and some lesser know films from the silent era. The topic of ‘Sound’ was the focus of the festival, looking both at the early experiments with sounded motion pictures, as well as looking at the issues faced by modern musicians tasked with accompanying these films. The latter in particular proves a fascinating meeting point for film historians and improvisational musicians.

stephen horne and the ancreA presentation by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum and the musician Stephen Horne looked at the arguments for and against the use of cue sheets provided with the First World War propaganda film Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. Is it right to impose a modern score which might colour a film as elegiac? A soundtrack to the living dead marching off to what we widely regard today as a futile battle? The film was shot with optimism that the war could now be won, and that the tank in particular was the one device which could potentially break The Hun. Cue sheets from the time can be equally problematic, with no connection to the action on screen, and sometimes with unwittingly dangerous associations to the modern ear. One reel of The Ancre cited Entrance of the Gladiators as the appropriate backing music, yet little did music arrangers in 1917 appreciate quite the clownishly insensitive connotations this would have in the latter part of the century.

Click here to listen to the less than dignified Entrance of the Gladiators

Other musical treats in the festival included a morning of bizarre early sound experiments showcased by film historian Tony Fletcher (Teddy Brown and his Xylophone being my particular favourite),  a screening of Britain’s first complete sound feature Under the Greenwood Tree (a curious if occasionally quite stilted take on Hardy’s classic), an orchestrally accompanied screening of Griffith’s classic damsels-on-ice-floes-thriller Way Down East (complete with crash-bang-wallop radio style sound effects), as well as a one off performance of the silent western White Oak accompanied by Five Live’s own Mark Kermode, The Dodge Brothers and Neil Brand!

silent kermode and the dodge brothersIf the quiff and the double bass wasn’t a big enough indicator: That’s him to the far left. He’s even been so generous as to slam modern bombastic cinema (a la Michael Bay) for having forgotten the ‘melody of melodrama’ so apparrent in silents. To hear his reflections on Moderns vs Silents, as well as the White Oak performance click HERE.

Kermode’s promised more shows in the future, and I can’t wait. Not so much to hear some more bass-slappin’, string-pickin’ Americana to my silents but also to help drag in some more Kermode fan-boys and girls into the slightly hidden world of silents. I had the opportunity to tempt two of my ‘normal’ film friends to two of the evenings performances and they absolutely loved it. The varied tempo, the melodrama and the occassionally baffling plot lines can be hard work at first, but once you settle into it you really do get a brilliantly unique, fascinating, and often gripping film experience.

silent shooting starsThe Barbican play regular host silent screenings throughout the year, and a number are regularly doing the rounds on art house cinema circuits around the country. If you hear of one coming to town with a budding musician or two in tow then really do go out of your way to check it out.

It may well be a notch or two outside most peoples comfort zone, but how can you continue to live oblivious of an era where square-jawed male heroes could regularly cry with relief for romantic and narrative resolution, and where dogs were regularly used as the ultimate Deus ex Machina? If that isn’t amazing, then I don’t know what is.

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