Benshi in my Ear
The sensation of having an Italian lady piped into my ear while I watch a film was entirely unknown to me a week ago. Now it’s second nature. I’m slightly discomfited when she’s NOT there. I would welcome her ministrations even when watching a film in English (OKLAHOMA! on the big screen — digitally restored — the only
50 30 fps DCP in the world? – yum! But surely an Italianate female voice repeating the lyrics after Duncan Gordon McRae would enhance it).
We nearly had a simultaneous audio translation in Cannes once, but arrived at the gala moments too late, had to wait for the cast and crew to pose for snaps on the steps, then got let in after the movie had started. A tinny voice could dimly be heard from the arm of my chair, but I had no technical means to connect the arm of my chair to my head. So THE IDIOTS was experienced untranslated, and seemed quite enjoyable. It wasn’t until I saw it with subtitles that I realised I hated it.
My first visit from the ear-fairy was with THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE (aka LES MYSTERES DE NEW YORK, an even better title). They ran two episodes that had been preserved in Belgium, with French and Dutch intertitles. I came to imagine Pearl White, the star, as a hesitant Italian, and enjoyed the improvisatory nature of her performance. Directed George Seitz and Louis Gasnier (see elsewhere on Shadowplay) for Pathe a hundred years ago, this follow-up to THE PERILS OF PAULINE was great entertainment. The whole serial survives, but in hideous dupes from 28mm, so this was a unique event — even Kevin Brownlow had never seen it look like this. (A bit chipped off as it passed through the projector, and for a full minute stayed stuck to the image, a fragment of celluloid, sprocket-holes and all, pasted over the action. Never seen that before.) Yes, I introduced myself to Kevin Brownlow, who pronounced NATAN “terrific.” My chest swelled as if an alien was trying to get out.
“You are responsible for my becoming a filmmaker.”
“You must be broke.”
“Join the club!”
The screening was also significant for me because THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE is one of the few films left illustrated in Denis Gifford’s A Pictorial History of Horror Movies. Regular readers will be aware of my quest to see every film depicted in that tome, a quest entitled See Reptilicus and Die. I saw REPTILICUS, I didn’t die, and now I only have a few left.
Mr. Brownlow pointed out that a very young Creighton Hale appears in THE E OF E. I told him that Professor Joseph Slade, one of the antagonists in our film NATAN, wrote me that he believes, not only that Bernard Natan had sex with a duck onscreen, but, along with Kenneth Anger, that Creighton Hale had sex with a goat in a twenties porno, a rumour systematically discredited here.
KB: “You know someone asked Kenneth Anger how he did his research, and he replied, ‘Mental telepathy, mainly.'”
Denis Gifford’s book reproduces an image of a Jekyll-Hyde transformation. The episodes we saw included The Vampire, in which masked, hunchbacked villain The Clutching Hand attempts to drain Elaine of blood to transfuse into one of his accomplices. Though Elaine spent most of her time unconscious and getting rescued, she did start that episode by plugging said accomplice three times as he appeared at her bedroom window (the program notes observed that many of the serial’s dramatic situations implied some thinly-veiled sexual threat, and that the films were particularly successful with female audiences — back when thiny v’d sexual t. was just about the only kind of acceptable sex). The other episode had Elaine revived from a death-like trance (accompanist Stephen Horne switched to accordion to suggest lung-wheeze). All these jumbled horror elements (see poster above) suggest the serial was the Penny Dreadful of its day — but of course John Logan’s series and Seitz/Gasnier’s serial both take nineteenth-century sensational literature as their starting point.