Archive for The Red Heroine

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.

The Sunday Intertitle: Who’s Storing the Mind?

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 24, 2019 by dcairns

On the ruins, The Future was being built.

To Bo’ness Hippodrome, and enough intertitles to last a month of Sundays!

By the time I rocked up in that sleepy townlet, I’d already missed a lot of high-quality stuff, including Lois Weber’s THE BLOT and Harold Lloyd’s THE FRESHMAN, and lunch at the beloved Ivy, but my first film on Saturday was a beaut — Julien Duvivier’s updated Zola adaptation AU BONHEUR DES DAMES (later done by The Beeb as The Paradise, relocated from Paris to the more glamorous locale of Durham).

Pamela Hutchinson of Silent London remarked, “If you wanted to show someone what silent cinema could be like, you could just show them that, because it’s got everything!” A late silent — 1930 — maybe France’s last? (Bernard Natan produced the first French talkie the same year) — you can see the studio it was shot in being demolished in the film — it heaps up radical techniques around you, from German expressionistic angles to Russian montage to French impressionist delirium — slow motion, split screen, multiple exposures… plus powerful use of more traditional bits of film language like close-ups:

Dita Parlo (a name surely made for the talkies) is our guileless ingenue, and Nadia Sibirskaïa (MENILMONTANT) provides haunting support, with the Galleries Lafayette in a major starring role also. The film contrasts the plight of the small shop with the booming, all-consuming department store — nominally, we’re meant to sympathise with the small business, but the film values photogenics, and can’t help being seduced by the glamour of large-scale retail.

The ending is a bit of a problem — though sort of faithful to the novel’s outcome, it plays like “How many of our themes can we betray in four minutes?” One can’t imagine it ever having felt satisfying to anyone, even the makers — did Duvivier have more than the usual amount of trouble with endings? (See also LA BELLE EQUIPE… but my beloved LA FIN DU JOUR is perfection.)

Particularly fine accompaniment by Stephen Horne & Frank Bockius, on a day that also included John Sweeney & Bockius scoring Chinese martial arts romp THE RED HEROINE, Sweeney again on Dreyer’s THE PARSON’S WIDOW (magnificent, more on that later) and Günter Buchwald & Bockius adding creepshow atmospherics to THE CAT AND THE CANARY, to which I provided sleeve notes.

HippFest has been going since last Saturday but this was my first day, and a damned good one. Back today (Sunday) with Fiona for Laurel & Hardy, MOULIN ROUGE, Lawrence Napper lecturing on working women in silent film, and the grand gala finale of HINDLE WAKES.