Archive for Salt for Svanetia

Salty Language

Posted in FILM, MUSIC, Politics with tags , , , , , , , on April 8, 2015 by dcairns


I got the job of writing about Mikhael Kalatazov’s SALT FOR SVANETIA for the program notes they hand out at the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema — someone else had dropped out so I stepped rapidly into the breach and thrashed out the following blurbage ~

Soviet filmmaker Mikhail Kalatazov’s modus operandi was to show the problems of life, whether it be the chaos of war (The Nail in the Boot, 1931) or the debauchery of capitalism (I Am Cuba, 1964). It’s an approach which, in the era of Stalinism, got him accused of “negativism” and demoted to a desk job for years. His career is full of lengthy gaps, and showcases a slow evolution from the montage style to a long-take approach which saw his camera gliding up and down walls, across rooftops and rooms, and diving into swimming pools in impossibly unbroken, dreamlike voyages. His final film was The Red Tent (1973), a Soviet-Italian co-production with an international star cast led by Sean Connery. Throughout this remarkable career, Kalatazov blended documentary and drama in striking and sometimes questionable ways…

Early documentary was a very different animal from what we see today. Modern factual films are often driven by strong stories and characters, explored through genuine verité footage. In the silent days, the difficulties of gathering real material with cumbersome equipment and slow film stock frequently led filmmakers to stage their action especially for the camera, and what distinguished the films from fiction work was often a rejection of traditional narratives and central characters. The films are more constructed than captured, more sociological than narrative.


This is the case with Kalatazov’s majestic Salt for Svanetia (1930), made when cinema in the west had already converted to sound, but when Russian movies, still silent, had reached an incredible height of sophistication via the exploration of editing spearheaded by Eisenstein and his contemporaries. Kalatazov travelled to an incredibly isolated region of Georgia to film the lives of the peasants, and to make a propagandistic argument in favour of the progress brought by Bolshevism.

The power of this film lies not so much in the points it wants to score off primitive religion, though much of this material is strong, even grisly, but in its stunning visuals, including scenery you can’t quite believe is real. Stone towers jut like splinted digits from fields curving impossibly up into the imprisoning mountains; Kalatazov’s use of gauzy blurring at the frame’s edge makes the countryside seem like a tiny tabletop model, too small to get completely in focus. The contrast between what we know we’re looking at, and what it looks like, makes the mind reel. We can forgive the movie its artifice, since it seems to be bringing us glimpses of a whole other world, as alien as anything in Interstellar.


Smacking into the scenic tableaux are Kalatazov’s pin-sharp close-ups of weathered locals, which create gigantic landscapes out of creased faces, leathery hands, jagged teeth. A scalp with scissored tonsure looks like a hill tiered with paddy fields. In his attempts to present the life of the Svanetians in as brutal a manner as possible, Kalatazov serves up infant death and bizarre superstition. The slaughter of a bull and the running to death of a horse are also included in graphic detail.

As in so much Russian cinema, the shots are one thing (one incredibly thing), but the ideas are fired at us via dynamic inter-cutting. Robert Browning said that poetry results when you put one idea together with another and get, not a third idea, but a star. Kalatazov’s bold conjoining of images varies between the purely, crassly didactic, an ad-man’s version of Soviet communism (but so forceful it impresses even if it sometimes repels), and a more abstract poetry, created via percussive juxtapositions: as a workman swings his pick into the dirt, dynamite blasts the earth apart. Repeat, and repeat, until a relentless vision of an implacable landscape redrawn by technology and labour is vividly projected into the viewer’s mind.


The event came of brilliantly, with a score by Moishe’s Bagel which correctly broke the film up into musical movements, clarifying its structure and building things to a right old climax. Thanks to Ali Strauss for the gig.

The Palm Sunday Intertitle: Clan Gathering

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on March 29, 2015 by dcairns


I already wrote about ANNIE LAURIE here, but that was based on a very fuzzy copy — nothing about the experience could compare to seeing the film on 35mm at the Bo’ness Hippodrome, accompanied by Shona Mooney and her ensemble. The news that HippFest was commissioning scores from respected musicians new to silent film accompaniment had been both exciting and worrisome. I certainly hope Jane Gardner is back next year. But the policy was an undoubted success, due partly to the sheer talent of Moishe’s Bagel (who scored SALT FOR SVANETIA) and Shona Mooney, and partly to the policy of having experienced accompanists mentor the composers. Stephen Horne advised on this one.


The folk song Annie Laurie is one of the most beautiful pieces of music Scottish culture has provided, and Mooney used it eloquently, weaving it in with other themes and building the emotion of this rip-roaring melodrama/historical farrago to a perfect series of crescendos. A particularly striking effect was the use of silence, always timed to heighten key moments: the music drops out, one character looks at another, there’s a moment of understanding, and then the score starts up again. Powerful.


On the big screen, MGM’s lavish production values could be fully appreciated, with a studio Scotland concocted from models, glass paintings, capacious castle interiors and papier-mache boulderscapes in the manner of Welles’ MACBETH. All this expenditure resulted in a loss for the studio and accelerated the end of Lillian Gish’s stardom, but the Hippodrome was packed with enthusiastic movie lovers. Probably half the crowd was Scottish, enjoying the blatant traducement of our history and culture — we were just flattered that a Hollywood studio would think it worth doing. I described the film to curious prospective viewers as “BRAVE without the bears,” but it also has bloody limb-loppings, homoerotica (hulking clansmen recalling Groundskeeper Willie’s frequent shirtless action scenes; girl-on-girl kissing with Gish and her BFF) and David Torrence (brother of the more famous Ernest), an actual, honest-to-God Scotsman ~


An audible gasp from the assembly when the print blossomed into Technicolor at the end.

The Bo’ness Hippodrome knows how to do these things — there’s a sense of occasion, dressing up, informative and funny introductions (Bryony Dixon this time), a short subject with some light-hearted connection to the main film, and a great sense of social gathering, with friends from all over and a community spirit too. It would be great to get some of this going on in our larger film festivals.

I Was Hippodrome’s First Victim

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on February 10, 2015 by dcairns


I got an early heads-up on the programme for this year’s Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film, unspooling in scenic Bo’ness in March (18th-22nd), and it’s exciting stuff. I think the choices have been getting bolder each year as the films play to packed houses. It’s one thing to run Chaplin films with live music, it’s another to add Ozu to the mix. This year we have forgotten movie stars and filmmakers known to silent buffs but unfamiliar to the general public, but the loyal audiences of Bo’ness can be trusted to trust the Fest in turn and show up, knowing it’ll be worthwhile, even as a devoted crowd of silent movie buffs descends on the sleepy town for whing-ding, I believe it’s called.

Very excited about William S. Hart’s HELL’S HINGES, to be accompanied by Neil Brand and the Dodge Brothers. They performed along to BEGGARS OF LIFE last year and it was unbelievably entertaining. There’s still a lot of love for westerns among the older generation in Scotland so I think this chance to discover one of the earliest important cowboy stars will only create an appetite for more. This could be addressed further down the line with Tom Mix, Borzage’s early self-starring oaters, or THE COVERED WAGON and THE IRON HORSE.


The screening of ANNIE LAURIE pleases me greatly because it was something I suggested a couple of years ago — I have no idea if my hint found its way to the right ears, or if it’s just a coincidence. The Scottish connection makes it a natural choice, and Lillian Gish is overdue for an appearance. It’ll be great to finally see a good print, especially with the Technicolor sequence.

Also Scottish-themed, in a way, is Oscar-winner Kevin MacDonald’s documentary CHAPLIN’S GOLIATH, telling the story Eric Campbell (he of the eyebrows), who liked to claim he was from Dunoon (due west of Bo’ness on the opposite coast). Fresh information, as they call it, has since come to light, but I’m glad MacDonald got his Scottish-funded doc made before research cut the legs from under it… It’ll also be great to see the man-mountain E.C. on the big screen, menacing Charlie as usual.

Surprise choices CHILDREN OF NO IMPORTANCE and SALT FOR SVANETIA continue to broaden the fest’s scope in bold new directions. I’m excited about the rarely-seen SYNTHETIC SIN with Colleen Moore, and favourites PICCADILLY, THE NAVIGATOR and the Barrymore DR JEKYLL AND MR HYDE all make appearances with exciting new music.

A shame there’s no Jane Gardner this year, but addicts can check out her trio at The Wash House, Portobello this weekend, with screenings of THE BLACK PIRATE on Friday and SEVEN CHANCES (with ONE WEEK) on Saturday. Yay!