Archive for Il Cinema Ritrovato

The Sunday Intertitle: That Man

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on July 17, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-07-17-11h03m02s828

And on top of her work, Marie suffers the attentions of that man who inspires terror in her.

Thinking of a friend caught in an abusive relationship. I say “caught” — of course, the door is wide open, but she doesn’t see it.

Images from COEUR FIDELE, shown in Bologna as part of their Marie Epstein season — the multi-talented Marie co-wrote and co-stars in COEUR FIDELE for her brother Jean, which I wrote about at length here. But there’s more to be said about the Bologna experience.

The film was projected in the Piazzetta Pier Paolo Pasolini, on a carbon arc projector, making for an authentic silent movie screening experience. The thrills of this are manifold — you get the excitement of watching poisonous fumes billowing from the projector, all lit up like the steam from a locomotive in some version of ANNA KARENINA, only more toxic (so the screening must be outdoors — they just didn’t bother about things like poison gas in the old days). And the light from the carbon arc has a different quality — more silvery? And the DARK has a different quality too — more velvety.

Seeing Jean Epstein’s film projected enhances its striking modernity too — not just the Lynchian montages, all double exposure phantasie — but the big closeups. With a pristine print from the Cinematheque Francaise, every dancing grain feels uniquely PRESENT, and every pore on an actor’s face appears in relief. In a sense, it feels like the film was shot yesterday. In a sense it feels LIVE.

vlcsnap-2016-07-17-11h02m40s022

vlcsnap-2016-07-17-11h03m33s126

It’s necessary to book seats in the Piazzetta, but you can gather on the outskirts without tickets. We had booked for STELLA DALLAS earlier in the festival and at the last minute collapsed from exhaustion and didn’t make it. At the last minute we decided to attend COEUR FIDELE, and THEN we collapsed from exhaustion. We started out sitting on the ground at the outskirts of the seated area. Then we would up LYING on the ground. Fiona propped her head up with her little silver rucksack. At some point, lulled by Epstein’s luminous imagery and Gabriel Thibaudeau’s piano accompaniment, she fell asleep. Nevertheless, she described the occasion as one of the greatest cinematic experiences of her life. Maybe after a week of sitting in sweltering cinemas, the sheer relief of watching in a completely relaxed position, with the occasional soothing breeze, accounted for some of her ecstasy. But let’s give the Epsteins and M. Thibaudeau some credit too.

The show began with the original Lumiere shorts programme, screened by yet another vintage projector, an actual Victorian one — a British R.W. Paul job, rather than an original Lumiere, but close enough. Curator Mariann Lewinsky held a microphone to the device to amplify its whirr, so that the piano could accompany THAT. The image flickered, as it would have for those restaurant patrons 121 years ago. Thibaudeau is really great — when the Lumiere baby is deciding whether or not to accept a spoonful of baby food, the suspense he created was quite something, and not something I had ever felt about that film before.

 

The Sunday Intertitle: A Well-Earned Break

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-07-10-11h41m55s006

Several weeks since the last Sunday intertitle, a small tragedy I know, since a Sunday without intertitles is like a Sunday without sunshine. Ironic, too, since we’ve been in Bologna, bombarded with both intertitles and sunshine.

The first film we saw with intertitles over there, strictly speaking, was Karpo Godina’s THE BROWNED BRAINS OF PUPILIA FERKEVERK, about which I hope to say more later. That same evening saw us foregathered in the Piazza Maggiore in the gloaming, unable to find a seat since THOUSANDS of extra viewer had assembled ahead of us to se MODERN TIMES with the Chaplin score reconstructed and conducted by Timothy Brock.

tempi_moderni_piazza_maggiore_01

This was something I was a little wary about, since I’m always banging on about how CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES are NOT silent films — Chaplin is continually using sound in all manner of innovative ways to create new kinds of movie gags. But Brock did a very sensitive job ~

The balance between the film’s sound effects track and the live music was extremely well-judged, the only sequence losing out being the indigestion noises in prison, which are realistically quiet on the original soundtrack (quite brilliantly convincing, in fact) but inaudible soft in the Piazza, especially with all those yearning masses in attendance. It took me some time to get used to the fact that the score sounded so different — I can accept on faith that it’s based on rigorous study of the original and completely true to what Brock was able to hear and notate, but everything about it sounds different. I guess that’s the point: we’re told that the original is poorly recorded and this is clearly a different experience played live, immensely richer and fuller. The thing is, I actually don’t need anything better than Chaplin’s original 1936 recording, which has the single benefit of authenticity over the many benefits of Brock’s reconstruction.

But once I’d gotten over the difference, and set to one side purist objections, I could enjoy the magnificent sounds Brock and his orchestra were making. There’s just one point where his musical approach was deliberately unfaithful to the original, and forced me to have another think.

Just before Chaplin sing’s his famous nonsense song, the original movie features some singing waiters, the act he has to follow. They sing some kind of southern thing, with a lyric about how “You can hear those darkies singing.” Brock tastefully mutes those chumps and just plays the melody live. I don’t know what else he could have done, since playing the music from the film would have violated the clear division set up between the duties of the film soundtrack (dialogue and effects) and the orchestra (music). Hiring some singing waiters doesn’t seem like an option. And the lyric is distractingly offensive to modern ears, and was uncharacteristically insensitive of Chaplin even then.

(Chaplin always avoided making fun of racial stereotypes, saying black people “have suffered too much ever to be amusing to me.” When Charlie accidentally sits on a black lady in the back of a black maria in this film, Chaplin is doing her the courtesy of treating her exactly as all other innocent bystanders are treated in his work, unless they’re the subject of sentiment.)

In a way, muting the waiters enhances the film. Walter Kerr, in his majestic The Silent Clowns, complains that some of Chaplin’s combinations of sound and silent conventions are disruptive or inconsistent. As I recall he objects in particular to the big boss man giving Charlie a two-way TV barracking in the best 1984 tradition ~

vlcsnap-2016-07-10-11h59m02s699

Chaplin is moving at silent movie speed, the Big Boss is talking. How is this even possible? Rather than being irked by the discordance, I’m impressed by the technique. Rather than using a matte, Chaplin uses a rear-projection screen so the whole interchange can be filmed “live” (though Big Brother is in fact pre-recorded). The dialogue has been looped, very skillfully, so everything can move at around 18fps. And note how convincingly the Boss’s eyes follow Charlie around the room…

vlcsnap-2016-07-10-11h59m26s070

My interpretation of Chaplin’s “rule” for dialogue in MODERN TIMES is that the machines speak while the humans are silent and must depend on intertitles. There’s no other real reason why the inventor hawking the automatic feeding device (cinema’s most disturbing contraption prior to the Ludovico Technique in CLOCKWORK ORANGE — both devices are presented with the cliché “Actions speak louder than -“) should use a phonograph recording to deliver his sales pitch. Then there’s the boss, who only speaks via the medium of closed-circuit TV (he’s PART of the factory) and there’s a radio broadcast about prison releases and an ad for indigestion relief.

vlcsnap-2016-07-10-12h17m41s211

vlcsnap-2016-07-10-12h17m31s047

The singing waiters break this rule, though they’re largely heard offscreen. Charlie breaks the rule too, but it’s better for him to do it suddenly and violently, prefigured by the shock of his switch to 24fps movement and the sound his shoes make as the scuff on the dance floor. He’s also doing something else here he doesn’t attempt elsewhere — when Chaplin sings, the camera becomes the night club audience and he performs right at us. Charlie, in his early movies, enjoyed a direct rapport with the movie audience. It’s fortuitously showcased right at the start in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE where he won’t get out the way of a newsreel camera — he emerges from the crowd to hog the lens and the limelight and communicate with us visually. Throughout his early work he enjoys this ability to shoot us a sly look. I’m not quite sure when he phased this out, but in something like the dance with the bread rolls in THE GOLD RUSH he deploys a deliberate device, moving in close so that the camera takes the group POV of the showgirls watching him perform, so that he can again sort-of acknowledge the camera, though he does it with an assumed shyness, never quite meeting our eyes.

vlcsnap-2016-07-10-12h33m54s708

What does Chaplin’s singing mean? In the story, it’s his latest attempt to join society and earn a living, and it’s the one that comes closest to being a roaring success. Bypassing language but accepting sound, Charlie/Chaplin nearly becomes a star of the talking age. But it’s not to be — fleeing the restaurant, Charlie and the gamin (Paulette Goddard) revert to intertitles, and a song plays without the later, famous words. Invitation declined. Charlie walks off into the sunrise, not alone for once, and the camera, and Chaplin, stay behind, watching him go.

vlcsnap-2016-07-10-12h28m29s546

 

In Every City There Is One Man

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 9, 2016 by dcairns

vlcsnap-2016-07-08-12h09m23s655

One of the standouts at Bologna was Dave Kehr’s series of films produced by Carl Laemmle Jnr., lesser-known movies excluding the James Whale horror masterpieces. Pal Fejos’ LONESOME was likewise left out in favour of the slightly more obscure, flawed BROADWAY and also the bizarre, grotesque and highly entertaining KING OF JAZZ, which Fejos worked on in some unspecified capacity (perhaps explaining why both those films feature outsize figures Godzilla-cavorting down miniature New York streets). Dave mentioned, though, that LONESOME is the real masterpiece, and I remembered that I own Criterion’s Blu-ray and hadn’t watched it.

BROADWAY is a tricky early talkie, given the stilted nature of much of the dialogue delivery (“new-minted clichés” as Mark Fuller put it). It’s a backstage musical gangster story, in which the musical numbers, staged on a cavernous sound stage, were shoehorned in at Fejos’ behest. Spectacular in themselves, thanks to the towering sets and the elaborate crane shots, they slow the narrative down even further than the flaccid speech. Any movie where Evelyn Brent gives the best performance is arguably in trouble. But Fiona was very taken with the slow-talking detective, Thomas E. Jackson, who actually drawls like he’s parodying an early talkie. It’s disconcerting to find Jackson actually had a long career, and was seen in other film. Hell, it’s disconcerting to find he wasn’t a hallucination.

The movie is a combination of pleasures and irritants, and in the irritant camp fall the two lead performances. Both characters are written as dopes — Merna Kennedy redeemed herself elsewhere in the fest with a spirited turn in LAUGHTER IN HELL (“He’s ma maan!”)– Glenn Tryon redeems himself in LONESOME. In BROADWAY he’s so whiny, insecure, yet at the same time obnoxiously egotistical, like a tap-dancing George Costanza, it actually takes a while to get used to how effective he is in LONESOME.

vlcsnap-2016-07-08-12h09m29s652

One of the delights of Bologna was seeing actors in contrasting roles — Pat O’Brien yaps a very precise Lee Tracy impersonation in THE FRONT PAGE, yet walks through LAUGHTER IN HELL like a man in a dream (he can maintain audience sympathy after committing a double murder because his somnambular perf makes clear that he isn’t responsible — for anything), and see above for Merna Kennedy’s development. Barbara Kent isn’t so versatile, playing ingenues in both LONESOME and FLESH AND THE DEVIL. She’s cuter in modern dress, though, and can hold more interest when not competing with a young, newly-styled Garbo.

LONESOME experiments with model shots, location filming, camera movement, sound, dialogue and colour — there’s stencil painting and some kind of dye process which tints the highlights one hue and the shadows another. Fejos is running amuck, and the slender story is the perfect vehicle for such stylistic exuberance. Think THE LAST LAUGH: small-scale stories can sometimes support colossal artistic ebullience.

vlcsnap-2016-07-08-12h09m36s670

LONESOME is a magnificent one-off — I wish the part-soundie era had lasted another five years. When the two leads abruptly start speaking to each other in live sound on the beach at Coney Island, the jarring transition from one medium to another is beautiful. You can’t get that in a perfect film, only in a makeshift masterpiece like this one, a superproduction assembled on shifting sands. When the film reaches its tearful conclusion, sudden nitrate decomposition afflicts the footage, with PERFECT artistic timing — it drives home the fragility of what we’ve been watching.

vlcsnap-2016-07-08-12h10m28s833