Archive for Fen Dou

Custom Made

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on October 6, 2020 by dcairns

GUO FENG or GUOFENG or NATIONAL CUSTOMS (1934) is one of the tiny number of silent films still extant. The rarity of these films, and the resulting work they have to do in representing a whole culture’s cinema output, makes them a little tricky to assess. It’s right that festivals like Pordenone and the Hippodrome are showcasing these movies as they become available, and it’s understandable that their programme notes accentuate the positive — they want people to see them, after all, and people SHOULD see them.

This is still the one to watch.

All the Chinese silents I’ve seen — four of them, by my count, which is more than most of us, I reckon — are heavily flawed by unsubtle propaganda content. Even THE GODDESS, which is rated a masterpiece by many, has a fair bit of crude, disfiguring material which goes beyond the didactic into the finger-wagging. THE RED HEROINE is the film least guilty of this, but THE RED HEROINE is a largely ludicrous movie, though of definite interest. All the Chinese silents I’ve seen are made watchable by their visual invention.

GUOFENG, as Pordenone has decided to call it, consists of about 75% civics lesson/propaganda — a prolonged attack on western-style modernisation, women wearing makeup, men wearing ill-fitting suits — to 25% story. The film-making is extremely deft, but at the service of fairly dumb and rigid content.

The acting is of interest, because it avoids anything resembling the erroneous standard idea of silent movie performance, but falls into another trap: it’s extremely reminiscent of modern soap opera acting. The gestures and expressions used to telegraph “concern,” “anger” or “distress” are sort of subtle, in that they’re not HUGE, but they’re all from stock. Each character has only one characteristic, and none of them really develop. so the combination of one-dimensional figures repeating tired gestures in a simplistic storyline which makes the same point over and over is not exactly rich.

There are lots of snazzy transitions and smart storytelling devices. Still, I don’t think it’s quite right of festival director Jay Weissberg to praise the “fluidity” of the camerawork. What most people will notice is the clunkiness of all the movements. The filmmakers obviously didn’t have the benefit of a smooth dolly and a geared head for the camera. But they tried anyway — the praiseworthy quality here is not fluidity but ambition and creativity. The camera is a busy and active part of the narrative, indeed it’s by far the more appealing character.

I could be wrong about all of this — perhaps I’m applying the wrong standards to the films, acting like some fellow who has only seen, say, modern American cinema, and is suddenly confronted with RASHOMON or METROPOLIS and can’t cope with the differences of performance and technique. But I don’t THINK so. With so few Chinese silents in existence, it would be really staggering if what was left was all masterpieces. If you reduced Hollywood’s silent era down to a few titles, choosing at random, you’d be unlikely to end up with SEVENTH HEAVEN or SUNRISE on your list of survivors. So it’s impressive that China can give us FEN DOU, which displays the clear influence of Borzage’s stairwell shots in 7TH H.

There are so few Chinese films left, we can’t generalize and say propagandistic elements dominated the industry — maybe it’s these elements of social content that helped determine which films survived, or which are being made available? All we can say is that by our own standards of sophisticated storytelling, it’s arguable that the films we’ve seen so far tend to be lumbered with crude patriotic messages.

I’m not running a film festival so I can say what I like: GUOFENG is a terrible film. But fascinating, and worthy of study.

When Saturday Comes

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 22, 2018 by dcairns

On Saturday we’ll be in Bo’ness at the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. Time and budgetary constraints mean I’m not seeing any of the shows before then, since I’d have to travel through by train and then bus and that can get expensive in addition to the (reasonably-priced) cost of the films themselves. But to compensate for that, on Saturday we aim to see EVERYTHING.

10.30 a.m. SAVING SISTER SUSIE with Dorothy Devore, and THE KID REPORTER with Baby Peggy. Neil Brand at the piano.

Lunch.

13.30 FEN DOU (STRIVING). This one’s a gamble because I haven’t been blown away by the little Chinese silent cinema I’ve seen (not even the acclaimed THE GODDESS), but when else will I get a chance to see it? Plus the music, by Stephen Horne & Frank Bockus, is sure to be excellent. The movie itself could be a masterpiece, and is almost certain to be better than hanging around on a cold Saturday in Bo’ness until —

16.30 DER SCHATZ (THE CASTLE). Music by Alois Kott. Pabst’s first feature and one of his most expressionistic films. Should be awesome on the Hippodrome’s big screen.

18.30 Dinner at the Bo’ness Railway Station (home of vintage steam trains that appear in nearly every British period movie) and a screening of THE GREAT K&A TRAIN ROBBERY with Tom Mix on the station platform.

20.00 Double-bill of THE PENALTY with Lon Chaney and Benjamin Christensen’s SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (pictured) with Thelma Todd, for which I’ve written the programme notes. Graeme Stephen & Pete Harvey will be accompanying the former, with Jane Gardner & Roddy Long (THE NORTHLEACH HORROR) scoring the latter.

And then, hopefully, we get a lift home, or at least as far as the Linlithgow train station…