Archive for Wooden Crosses

I haven’t seen anything.

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , on January 13, 2016 by dcairns


What do you expect? I’ve been filming all week. But now we’ve wrapped and I plan to catch up with THE REVENANT and HATEFUL EIGHT and some nicer older movies.

Above is a frosty image from Lev Kuleshov’s 1926 icecapade PO ZAKONU, because it reminds me of the hardships we faced out on a freezing hill.

Meanwhile, Sight & Sound have published their lists of best DVDs of the year —

Regular Shadowplayer Anne Billson and Trevor Johnstone both list DRAGON INN, to which I contributed a video essay.

Philip Concannon and Sam Wigley go for A NEW LEAF, which has another vid essay by me.

Sam Dunn and Neil Sinyard include SECONDS, which has a text piece I wrote.

David Thompson cites DIARY OF A LOST GIRL — another video essay, written by me and narrated by Fiona.

Michael Brooke and Philip Kemp each include WOODEN CROSSES, again from Masters of Cinema, produced by Bernard Natan.

Most exciting of all, Pamela Hutchinson of The Guardian and Silent London lists NATAN itself, the documentary I made with Paul Duane and which is available from

It’s official — I have been working too hard.



4th of July

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2014 by dcairns

On the 4th of July I was in Bologna — this is what I saw.

For once I managed to struggle out of bed early enough to see the 9 am show, something I always INTENDED to do, and which I convinced myself I was achieving more often than not. It’s only looking back from this angle that I realise what a fantastic slugabed I really was. But on this occasion it meant I got in to see the gloriously restored FANTOMAS CONTRE FANTOMAS, featuring my fave of all the master-crim’s disguises —


Wonderful. It makes you realise that, for all their national pride and aloofness, the French not-so-secretly still regard American is the mainspring of all modernity and the source of all coolness. The doubly-casual Tom Bob easily trumps our intrepid plodder Juve of the Sûreté, just by virtue of that insouciant prefix Americain. Juve is honest, fearless and dogged, but he is inescapably, gallic and therefor mundane. A fantastic inversion of the way we look towards France as a source of glamour and genius.

Neil Brand, who provided the piano accompaniment, confessed afterwards that he had initially regarded FANTOMAS and its serial kin as “meaningless running about,” which is indeed the trap a lot of serials fall into. Surrealism, elegance, and a blatant admiration for his evil characters helps Fieulliade escape this.


I should have crossed to the next auditorium and seen the ten-minute fragment of Sternberg’s THE CASE OF LENA SMITH but I think I craved sunshine and coffee and conversation, so my next show was at 11.30, a discussion of Pathe’s restoration of WOODEN CROSSES, which I felt duty-bound to attend since I’d collaborated on a film about the movie’s producer, after all. It was interesting stuff, including as it did the revelation that the new version Pathe are releasing is mostly derived from a whole other negative, shot by a camera standing next to the one that filmed the previous release. It’s the same action and mostly the same takes, but technically speaking it’s a different film… Fans of the previous release need not worry, though, it carries the same authority and charge, as I confirmed later the same day.

After lunch, I enjoyed an episode of Riccardo Fellini’s STORIE SULLA SABBIA, already covered here. The real hot ticket was WHY BE GOOD?, a newly-restored Vitaphone soundie which I’m fairly sure I’ll get a chance to see again when Warners release it on DVD, but it would certainly have been fun to experience it on the big screen with such an audience as Bologna gathers…

Staying in my seat, I was blown away by WOODEN CROSSES all over again, which packs a severe wallop. The final barrages, and the protracted bleeding away of life at the end, left the audience drained, which is the only explanation I can think of for the fact that rather than staggering outside to inhale the evening air, I stayed where I was and saw MARRIAGE: ITALIAN STYLE, which was the perfect tonic. No falling asleep possible in this one (shouty Italians; genius choreography of actors and camera). Having revelled in De Sica’s acting the day before, I was favourably inclined to see more of his directing. That title had always put me off seeing the film before, which is silly — it’s perfect, and rather ironic. Maybe it’s the various movies that riffed on it that cheapened it. After all, GHOSTS, ITALIAN STYLE is a stupid name for a film.

Marriage Italian Style

You’ll laugh, you’ll cry, you’ll wonder at the opening out of the source play with extensive flashbacks, and you’ll marvel at how Marcello Mastroianni manages to make a character who does such loathsome things seem somehow attractive enough to spend time with and laugh at and even feel sorry for. Loren, of course, is magnificent, even in a series of sometimes unfortunate wigs. De Sica’s daughter introduced the movie, and she has her father’s smile.

“Marcello Mastroianni was a very handsome man, but he liked very much the vodka and the grappa, so that some mornings he would come in with his face looking like an unmade bed. My father’s main direction to him on such days was, ‘Marcello, tomorrow, try to be younger.'”

I think I must have had a really good dinner after than, because I don’t seem to have seen anything else that day. It would have been hard to top De Sica at the height of his international entertainer period anyhow. I do wince a little at what I missed, but realistically I wouldn’t have made it through CABIRIA, in the opera house with live score, which didn’t finish until nearly midnight. That was one of the extra shows you have to pay for outwith the price of a pass, but get this, it was five euros. Proving my contention that Bologna offers the best value film festival on the planet.

Paper Edit

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , on November 6, 2012 by dcairns

My first day in the edit was a day of hanging around. Hanging around waiting for a courier to deliver rushes from Ohio (our shoot covers two continents!) — he came, decided he couldn’t get in, didn’t try the buzzer, and left again. Hanging around as our ace editor assembles our paper edit, which he doesn’t need me for. Hanging around as he digitizes various Pathe-Natan films I’ve brought with me from Edinburgh. So far that’s been my only concrete contribution, although at least I performed my courier duties better than the professional.

The paper edit is a document created from transcripts of our various interviews. We chopped them up and assembled them into a rather long-winded and repetitious narrative — the next stage is to assemble the actual video into a matching order, before beginning to prune it down. And also adding a ton of footage that’s NOT interviews — scenes of Paris, clips from movies, newsreels and other archive material, and shots of pertinent objects in our interviewee’s homes. And also some special footage I don’t want to say too much about yet.

Listening to Mark Cousins lecture on his excellent new feature WHAT IS THIS FILM CALLED LOVE? I got a great tip. Index cards. Tomorrow I will buy myself a stack. I was always slightly dubious of the index card approach, but that was before I became a documentarist. The argument against file cards is that if you can remove a scene from your narrative and replace it five scenes later, then you might as well remove it altogether. But this project seems different, partly because it’s a true story, and a story which advances on several fronts at once, as well as jumping back and forth between the subject’s life in the early twentieth century, and his reputation in the early twenty-first. Mark says that when he had his scenes written on cards he could INSTANTLY tell what belonged where. I long for that sensation.

Optimistically, I also feel that when I can hold the film as a stack of cards, I will have a better mental grasp of it as well. Currently, it exists on various hard drives, as a series of ones and zeroes, and you can only experience a frame of it at a time. When I have my stack of cards I will be able to weigh the film in my hands. I don’t know what good that will do me, but I’m expecting some kind of perceptible benefit.

Meanwhile, my co-director Paul is in London where he’s nominated for a Grierson Award for best newcomer with his feature BARBARIC GENIUS. He’s in good company — Julian Schwanitz, a student from Edinburgh College of Art, where I teach, is up for best student film with his short KIRKCALDY MAN. Wish them both luck!

Today’s Pathe-Natan film recommendation: LES CROIX DE BOIS (WOODEN CROSSES). Available on the Eclipse set of Raymond Bernard movies, it’s maybe the darkest and strongest of all the early talkie WWI movies. All the major members of the cast and crew (including Natan) were veterans, and the film achieves both a palpable sense of authenticity (complete with de-lousing and lost limbs) and an epic scope, while ambling along in a disarmingly free-form manner. The lack of an obvious theatrical structure just makes the movie feel even more lifelike.

Screenings were arranged up and down the country for veterans. One was so distressed that he killed himself. Not an effect any of the movie-makers intended, but a terrible testimony to the impact of their work. I only recommend the film to you on the assumption that Shadowplayers are pretty resilient people.

Eclipse Series 4: Raymond Bernard (Wooden Crosses / Les Miserables) (The Criterion Collection)