A Night at the Cinema in 1914

The first film star

The first film star (not)

The British film institute’s compilation of the sort of films audiences would see in 1914 is of historical interest; by which I mean I struggled to stay awake in some parts but felt it was worthwhile seeing. The highlight was Daisy Doodad’s Dial featuring the first film star, Florence Lawrence (above). (Thanks to darklifeofahippieandaflapper for pointing out this is Florence Turner – who also directed – not Lawrence).

Film producers at this time were not in the habit of promoting their actors as stars in the 1900s, arguably in order to keep the cost of the actors down, and also because of some actors’ reluctance to be associated with ‘disreputable cinema’. Audiences, however, had other ideas and fans wanted to know more about favourite actors. Producer Carl Leammle exploited this when planted the story that the Biograph Girl (as the fans knew Florence Lawrence), who he had poached from Biograph, had died in an accident. A week later he placed an advertisement in the St Louis Post-Dispatch suggesting that enemies of his production company had misled the people of St. Louis. ‘Coincidentally’ Lawrence appeared, the following month, in St. Louis to promote her film (sorry, to prove she was still alive). Such mendacious showmanship struck the template for much of the promotion of stars that followed.

The above is a still from the film, not a publicity photograph, as the ‘Dial’ of the title refers to ‘face’ and the narrative concerns a gurning contest. Lawrence’s Daisy Doodad comes across as a feisty woman and she does the comedy well.

The compilation concludes with another star, Chaplin’s early short A Film Johnnie and concerns the tramp, whose familiar persona is not quite fully formed at this point, confusing reality with the film world to predictably quite funny results.

Other shorts include The Rollicking Rajah an early ‘talkie’, or ‘singie’; the original was accompanied by a phonograph recording, now lost but recreated for this release. Fred Evans, apparently Britain’s most popular comedian of the time, is featured in the (on one level) dreadful Lieutenant Pimple and the Stolen Submarine. As accompanying intertitle suggests, Evans made a virtue of low budget productions and it is interesting to see the almost ‘home made’ ethos of film-making in the early years. The higher production values of Hollywood soon blasted home grown fare off the screen and we’ve ‘suffered’ under Hollywood’s hegemony ever since.

An episode of The Perils of Pauline was slightly disappointing because I was expecting Pearl White (Pauline) to be more of a dynamic hero; though she does shimmy down a rope from a balloon that is at a good height. You can’t judge a series on one film, of course, but she required men to rescue her; another template for today.

A number of non fiction shorts were also included, such as German Occupation of Historic Louvain and Dogs for the Antarctic which does what it says on the title and seems to be an early example of product placement for Spratts’ dog cakes.

Innocent Sorcerers (Niewinni czarodzieje, Poland, 1960)

The death of cynicism

The death of cynicism

Andrzej Wajda is one of my favourite directors and thanks to Second Run Innocent Sorcerers is available in a typically (from them) great print. Wadja had completed his great ‘war trilogy’ with Ashes and Diamonds two years earlier and, at first, you wonder why he bothered with such relatively ‘slight’ material of two rather ‘cool’ youngsters finding love. Wadja’s four films were typical of the Polish School as they had been about Poland in World War II. Of course the direction in Immaculate Sorcerors is immaculate and there’s some great location shooting in Warsaw but, like my previous post, Heartbeats, I wondered whether I was too old to be interested in young love. I was wrong.

The central section of the film takes place in Bazyli’s bedsit and consists of a long flirty, conversation between the protagonists. As part of their ‘cool’ playfulness they make up names for themselves; she says she’s Pelagia. The scene is strikingly similar to one in Godard’s seminal Breathless (France) of the same year but without the jump cuts and is far more engaging. Innocent Sorcerer, though, is modernist in a number of low-key ways: the opening credits run over a poster for the film; a song associated with the film is heard on the radio; the film’s composer, the great Krzysztof Komeda, plays himself as a member of Bazyli’s jazz group. Roman Polanski, incidentally, plays the band’s bassist; there’s a lot of talent in this film.

Bazyli (Tadeusz Lomnicki) is a doctor and jazz drummer who enjoys toying with women’s affections until he crashes into Krystyna Stypulkowska’s Pelagia; it was Stypulkowska’s first role and she only appeared in two other films. The brilliance of the film is that the development in their relationship is evident not by what they say to each other but through their behaviour and non verbal communication; and of course the actors’ performance.

Wadja, at the ‘old’ age of 33, was afraid he might be out of touch with young people and the 23 year old Jerzy Skolimowski, who has a small role as a boxer, was hired for rewrites. It’s a fascinating glimpse of Warsaw at the time, we see fashionable young people spending their time in jazz clubs; much like they were in the west then. The political situation is barely mentioned; the protagonists, at one point, joke about themselves as ‘model workers’. The Daily Telegraph‘s critic suggested:

‘Bazyli and Pelagia move with languid ease and listen to American jazz throughout Innocent Sorcerers, but, when push comes to shove, they’re not as free as they think they are. Pinned down by Poland’s bloody past and hemmed in by oppressive Soviet rule, both erect a stylised cool to cover for the emotional sterility that lies beneath.’

However, I wonder to what extent this is an example of western critics’ penchant for reading ‘Iron Curtain’ films, that they admire, as criticising the Soviet domination of the Eastern bloc. As Michał Oleszczyk notes ‘Pelagia says mid-way through the film: “Our generation has no illusions.”‘ I doubt the concerns of Polish youth in the early ’60s were much different from those of youngsters in western Europe: earning enough money to have a good time and sex. Come to think of it, it’s the same now. As to the rather awkward title, a Polish friend suggests a better translation would be Innocent Charmers; that certainly summarises the characters better.

Wadja’s still making films and it’s extremely irritating that most of his oeuvre is not available in the UK.

Heartbeats (Canada, 2010)

Full of themselves

Full of themselves

25 year old Quebecois, Xavier Dolan (above right), is obviously a talent as he’s already directed five features; imdb also has five producer and editor credits as well as four for costume design and six writing! If Heartbeats is full of rather self-absorbed young people then that’s because that’s what the film’s about. I’m probably too old to appreciate such a subject and I am i sure wasn’t like that when I was a twenty something (I’m lying). Stand outs, include the costumes (something I don’t usually appreciate) and Monica Chokri’s Marie, she is superb at the small changes of facial expression that indicate dissatisfaction.

Despite Dolan’s talent his direction annoyed me. Faux reality TV hand held re-framings, including push zooms, irritate rather than suggest realism. The film also includes young people, who are not characters in the film, talking heads speaking about relationships similar to the Big Brother post-eviction interviews. Again it may be a generational thing, but I don’t think Reality TV, as an aesthetic, has much to offer film.

I do fear for the youngsters of Montreal as most of them seem to smoke like chimneys.

Eroica (Poland, 1958)

An accidental hero

An accidental hero

Eroica is an example of the Polish School, films made in the 1950s concerning World War II. It’s in two parts, originally meant to be three but the director, Andrzej Munk, was dissatisfied with the final section, and tells two stories of heroism. ‘Eroica’ is Italian for ‘heroic’ and, in the context of the film, refers to Beethoven’s third symphony; a brief extract from which is heard at the start of the film. I don’t think the musical reference is particularly important, but the film is clearly about heroism.

The first section is a funny tale of a chancer, Gorkiewicz, who we see at the start fleeing from being conscripted into the Polish Resistance; an entirely unheroic action. He blags his way back to Warsaw only to find his wife apparently ‘shacked up’ with a Hungarian officer. Gorkiewicz takes this philosophically and becomes embroiled in helping the Resistance anyway. The humour rises from Gorkiewicz’s behaviour as he finds himself in a number of precarious situations. At one point, whilst he’s boozing sitting on a river bank, a German tank fires a volley, making him jump, before moving on its way. The laughter of the German soldiers can be heard; the film humanises the conflict with humour.

Behind you!

Behind you!

The second part is sombre and is set in a POW camp. It portrays the relationships of men who’ve been incarcerated for the whole of the war and how they pin their faith on the one of their number who managed to escape.

The third part may have balanced the narrative of the film more; just two, basically unconnected, tales are little more than two short films, one after the other. The second film only tangentially deals with heroism. However, it is still an essential to see film if only because of the humour of the first part and some brilliant mise en scene: devastated settings form the backdrop to a number of the scenes. Munk’s career was curtailed by an early death, which was a loss to Polish, and World, cinema.

Lilting (UK, 2014)

Trying to connect

Trying to connect

Hong Khaou’s (he wrote and directed) debut film, from the admirable low-budget Microwave scheme, is a touching story of grief and cultural difference. We are introduced to Junn (Cheng Pei Pei, who played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), an elderly Chinese woman, although she’s lived in England for many years she doesn’t speak English, who’s been put in a ‘home’ by her son because he wants to live with his male partner. The son knows his mother would disapprove if he ‘came out’; presumably, though it’s not stated, this is as much cultural homophobia as generational.

The limited number of locations, due no doubt to budget restrictions, works for a ‘chamber piece’ though the script would have benefitted from a fleshing out Vann’s role. Played by newcomer Naomi Christie, Vann translates for Junn in her conversations with Richard, her son’s lover, and her would-be lover, the cleverly cast Peter Bowles (still the rake in his late 70s). The triumph of the film, however, is Ben Wishaw as Richard. He is an intensely physical actor, though the movements are minimal they are very expressive. It was a coup for the producers to get such a high-profile artist for a low-profile film and it’s worth seeing if only for his brilliance.

Kings of the Road (Im Lauf der Zeit, West Germany, 1976)

Would be superman

Would be superman

Rüdiger Vogler, who also featured in Alice in the Cities, plays an itinerant repairman, Bruno Winter, who journeys through Germany fixing film projectors. He meets up with Robert Landler (Hanns Zischler), who crashes his iconic German Volkswagen into the Elbe (the border between East and West Germany). Landler’s upset due to his wife leaving him and Winter clearly struggles to communicate with others. The overall feel of the film is one of ‘alienation’ however this is seen as natural condition of the time. Director Wim Wenders, with his location shooting, 11 weeks on the road mostly along the East-West border, offers a lament for the small town cinemas that are being forced to close or were reduced to screening ‘sex films’ . The overall tone, however, is often light as the friendship between the two men develops.

The film is a long (nearly three hours) investigation of issues of German identity, men’s relationship with women and the decline of cinemas. The love-hate relationship that Wenders obviously had with American culture is summarised by Winter’s comment that, ‘America has colonised our unconscious.’

Incidentally, the film also includes a peculiar scene were we witness Winter excreting.


Man With A Movie Camera (Chelovek s kinoapparatom, Soviet Union, 1929

A film about a making a film about a city

A film about making a film about a city

Sight & Sound‘s current issue suggests that Man with a Movie Camera is the best documentary ever made; this follows on from the film’s appearance in the top ten 2012 poll, in the same magazine, of the best films ever made. As long as we don’t treat such lists too seriously (it’s absurd to think one is better than all others unless you’re talking about Everton), such canons can be useful in highlighting films that might be neglected. I’m not sure Man with a Movie Camera is neglected but it is a great film.

It is a witty example of the ‘City’ film, such as Berlin: Symphony of a Great City (Berlin, die Symphonie der Großstadt, 1927), as it documents a ‘day in the life’ of an anonymous city; actually an amalgam on Moscow, Kiev and Odessa. It starts with the city waking up, cutting between an anonymous woman rising and the start of the ‘rush hour’. It continues with work, focusing on factory and mining as well as the onrushing traffic. Toward the end we see people in their leisure time. The film’s bookended by an audience in a cinema watching Man with a Movie Camera.

It is this self-reflexivity that situates the film in the avant garde of the time. For much of the film we see Mikhail Kaufmann (Vertov’s brother) shooting the movie. A number of avant garde techniques, such as split screen and superimposition, are employed.

Clearly the ‘man with the movie camera’ is a bit of a ‘lad’ as early in the film the camera lingers on a woman’s legs. A cut to the camera lens, with an eye superimposed upon it (literally the ‘Kino-Eye’) is winking. The woman, once she realises she’s being ogled, gets up and walks off. He also likes his beer.

Drinking while you work

Drinking while you work

The wit suffuses the film that is also characterised by an astonishingly fast average shot length (ASL):

In 1929, the year it was released, films had an average shot length (ASL) of 11.2 seconds. “Man With a Movie Camera” had an ASL of 2.3 seconds.        (http://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/great-movie-man-with-a-movie-camera-1929)

At one point a registry office for marriage and divorces is intercut with a woman giving birth and funerals. The frenzy of the editing suggests that life can be encapsulated in these four events; Vertov’s wife, Yelizaveta Svilova edited the film.

There’s more to the film that technical wizardry, Vertov was making a political statement:

it is a critique of Lenin’s temporising with the middle class with his New Economic Policy… Vertov shows us beggars and porters and bourgeoisie parading themselves in horse-drawn carriage… The Bolshoi Theatre, for Vertov an unacceptable relic of the old regime, is made optically to collapse on itself. (Winston, Sight & Sound, September 2014: 39a)

Dziga Vertov, by the way, means ‘spinning top’.

Father (Apa, Hungary, 1966)

The making of the man

The making of the man

Szabo Istvan’s second feature takes Billy Liar‘s (UK, 1963) premise and makes it philosophical rather than funny. Takó is growing up in post-War Budapest and trying to come to terms with his dead father; the same situation as Szabo found himself. However, the director insists that the film is not autobiographical because, he states, 60% of the children in his class had lost their fathers; it is, he says, ‘the autobiography of a generation’ (quoted in Hungarian Cinema: from coffee house to multiplex by John Cunningham). Takó’s, like Billy’s, fantasies are made flesh by being dramatised in the film but, unlike Billy, the father is the hero of the scenarios rather than himself.

The film starts with stunning archive footage from the war, including a devastated bridge and a man sawing off a dead horse’s leg, before segueing to his father’s funeral. Takó’s remark that he was impressed by how many people came to the funeral immediately marks him as an unreliable narrator as there are few there.

So Takó imagines his father in a variety of heroic roles that makes him a national hero. However, we learn right at the start, he only has three very brief memories of his dad who was an ordinary man; like Szabo’s father, a doctor. Although the fantasies, unlike in Billy Liar, do outstay their welcome the narrative conceit is quite brilliant, as coming to terms with the loss of fathers stands in for recreating a past after the devastation of war. The trauma of war has to be healed but Takó comes to realise, as a young adult, that he needs to deal with reality rather than fantasy. In a marvellous sequence, Takó interviews people who knew his father and most don’t have anything more to say than he was ‘nice’; a bland but positive epitaph.

Women aren’t completely marginalised in this entirely ‘vital’ Oedipal activity, Takó’s friend Anya is a Jew who would rather forget the past, her parents were victims of Auschwitz, in order to forge her identity as a Hungarian Jew. The print, of the Second Run DVD, is immaculate and shows Szabo’s imaginative direction, characterised by the use of telephoto lens, to best advantage.

Breathless (Ddongpari, South Korea, 2008)

How to like the despicable

How to like the despicable

Whilst most of the Korean films I watch are beautifully framed, Jang Ik-joon’s debut features the long-lens, hand held close up that gives an edgy, uncomfortable look to proceedings. It’s entirely appropriate as the film’s protagonist is Sang-Hoon (played by Jang who also wrote the script), an unhinged debt collector who is as likely to beat up his associates as their victims. He meets school girl Yeon-Hue (Kim Kot-bi) when he spits on her… you get the picture.

However, the more we learn about Sang-Hoon’s upbringing the more we understand his behaviour. It would be stretching a point that the film gets us to actually like the thug, but we do come to understand why he is the way he is. Yeon-Hue, too, is a product of a dysfunctional family though she responds with feistiness rather than violence. Presumably that’s to do with gender, how females and males are socially constructed; South Korea is portrayed as an extremely patriarchal society.

Jang has yet to direct another film but has acted in many others; I’m looking forward to seeing more of his work.

The Headless Woman (La mujer sin cabeza, Argentina-France-Italy-Spain, 2008)

What I can't see can't hurt me

What I can’t see can’t hurt me

Written and directed by Lucrecia Martel this admirable film strikes me as Expressionist without the Expressionism. Verónica (Maria Onetto) is driving home from a ‘ladies who lunch’ gathering when she, momentarily distracted by her phone, hits something and bangs her head. From that moment we enter he literally ‘stunned’ world where people talk to her and often don’t receive a response; this doesn’t seem to bother them as if they never really listened to her anyway. The framing is slightly off-kilter, not enough to be expressionist; the composition sometimes appeared badly framed. I wondered if this was the transmission (via Amazon’s (boo!) Prime) was to blame but Peter Bradshaw confirms it is the case – he loved the film.

I won’t spoil but do look out for the handprints on the car window when Verónica stops the car having hit something; there also appears what looks to be a reflection of a boy.

Martel is clearly criticising the bourgeoisie who seem to be surrounded by dark-haired (indigenous?) people who try and anticipate their every need. Of course, they don’t really have any ‘needs’ as they live in a world divorced from most of the problems of ‘everyday life’; though Verónica does have an ailing aunt who’s grip on reality is less than secure, like the protagonist’s.

It’s not an easy watch as Martel doesn’t make the narrative clear. This is partly misdirection, for dramatic purposes, but also to reflect the traumatised state of Verónica’s mind. It’s a brave filmmaker who seeks to disassociate the film from its audience and in that Martel succeeds admirably. It’s a film that haunts after the viewing as the film’s purpose becomes apparent.