Thursday, 19 October 2017

Passion play… Underworld (1927) with Meg Morley, Kennington Bioscope

After the festivals… another mini-masterpiece of programming at the Cinema Museum and a reminder of the power and the passion that fuels our interest in silent cinema made all the more poignant by the current threat to this unique venue. The owners of the property in which the Museum is located are putting it up for sale to property developers and threatening its future but the resistance is being mobilised and details are below…

Underworld is one of the great films with three searing performances from Evelyn Brent, George Bancroft and Clive Brook – a testament to their skills as well as the ability of their rookie director to overcome his nerves and deliver. Feathers, Bull and Rolls Royce are the beating heart of this story and whilst it is nominally a gangster movie it is really all about love, loyalty and compassion.

What does Bancroft’s Bull sense in Brook’s Wendel, a drunken bum of a fallen lawyer, that makes him trust his promise to be the “Rolls Royce” of silence… Why does he stick his neck out to protect Rolls Royce from "Buck" Mulligan’s bullying? He senses integrity and a steadfast character despite all Rolls’ faults, he may waver – everyone does – but there’s redemption in faith.

No, here's looking at you George!
Feathers also puts loyalty to Bull above love, she’s drawn to Rolls Royce, especially once he’s re-acquainted himself with the routines of personal hygiene… and the two wage a struggle with themselves. Bull too is tested by hate and the red heat of jealousy but once he understands it’s a lesson worth his life…

Von Sternberg stated later that the film was “an experiment in photographic violence and montage…” and was matter of fact about its crowd-pleasing elements. Kevin Brownlow in his introduction, shared his experience of meeting the former Joey Sternberg (the “von” was adopted from von Stroheim, a director who influenced Josef in terms of his on-set authority) and telling him how much he liked the scene with Bull feeding a cat milk as the cops gather outside; that’s the worst moment in the film replied the director. We disagree.

Rolls Royce spots Feathers for the first time...
Writer Ben Hecht, a street-wise journalist, was also dismissive of von Sternberg’s end product until he won an academy award for his script… The film was a smash hit and helped kick off the gangster film craze of the era with the director’s vision and those three leads creating an alchemy that was far from accidental.

Von Sternberg cuts to the chase and seems little bothered in conventional pacing. The film begins in the middle of a robbery as Bull Weed runs from a bank only to find Wensel identifying him and blocking his path… within minutes the two men are established in relation to each other. Feather’s first appearance is a tour de force of Peeping Tom visuals as Evelyn Brent stands atop the stairs of the Dreamland bar, casually adjusting her stockings and with those feathers wrapped around her, magnifying and obscuring her allure: she’s soft but hard and impossible to ignore. A single feather falls, and Rolls Royce watches it drift to the ground… one of the great entrances and as portends go, a real doozy.

Evelyn is a prototypical Marlene, lit with great care throughout and with dozens of killer close ups of eagle eyes and that distinctive profile. Brent became typecast as a gangster but there was so much going on behind those eyes… a few years younger and she could have been a real force in the thirties… but so it goes.

Also pinning down a future on the dark side is the magnificent George who is outrageously hearty throughout - a lion heart who rules his patch through force of will, guts and being quickest on the draw. He’s ferocious and smart too, smart enough to know what an asset Rolls Royce can be, no wonder he calls him the Professor. And the Professor is probably the most like us and indeed Josef, someone to contextualise the villains and a fellow traveller in this onscreen trip to the underworld.

Meg Morley played along with some crashing noir-ish minor chords and jazz-tinged lines that were so Chicago 1927… her playing got right to the heart of the film and was as bold as Bancroft and as deceptively fearsome as Feathers.

There was also very impressive undercard tonight with three powerful shorts…

Segundo's Spectre in 1907...
James Finlayson featured as an easily-distracted husband in Chasing the Chaser (1925) directed by a Mister Stanley Laurel. James’ character just can’t keep himself from chasing women and his long-suffering wife sets a honey-trap using a cross-dressing detective – now there’s an idea for a TV 'tec series… John Sweeney was on hand to add subtle flavours to Finlayson’s flirting.

Segundo de Chomón’s spellbinding The Red Spectre (1907) is a stencil-coloured mini-masterpiece showing the battle between the red devil of the title and a female foe… needless to say he loses. It features some startling trick shots and close-ups. Lillian Henley cast some music spells of her own with her accompaniment.

Elmer Booth in 1912
The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912) featured the magnetic Cagney-esque presence of Elmer Booth and that famous close-up as he creeps up on his rivals… A Griffith innovation according to some but clearly not so a Segundo’s Spectre had just demonstrated. Still, all the same, the guy has some class and you wonder at what he could have done had his life not been cut short by an auto accident in 1915. John Sweeney guided us through the streets of downtown New York as the gangs hunt each other in a tense finale… If Underworld kick-started the gangster vogue this is one of the earliest examples of what was to come and it even featured real gangsters...

These nights at the Kennington Bioscope are a privilege and the Cinema Museum is such a warm venue; we’re surrounded by friends and the physical evidence of social history… there can be nowhere else like this place. The Chaplin family lived here when it was a workhouse, it helped keep our greatest silent comedian alive to become the man he was and now it helps sustain his memory and that of so many others.

The Cinema Museum

If the best modern Britain can offer is to sell it on and close it down to earn a few thousand for the failing government and rather more for the developers who are blighting London with soulless modernity then the gangster mentality will have won after all.

But we’re not going to go down easily and there’s plenty of love, loyalty and passion left for the museum.

You can sign a petition here to keep the Cinema Museum alive and there is a public meeting on Monday 30th October at the museum to discuss the ways forward.

A night in the museum
I can also recommend Lynn Kear’s book on Feathers: Evelyn Brent: The Life and Films ofHollywood’s Lady Crook which celebrates its subject’s career and the moxie which led her to make such a success of being the bad girl!

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Hurray for Bollywood! Shiraz (1928), with Anoushka Shankar, Barbican, London Film Festival Archive Gala

Tonight put the “gee” into Gala: a sumptuous display of silent film, Indian-style, with an extraordinary live score and a packed Barbican: thousands gathered in a silent cathedral paying rapt attention to Anoushka Shankar’s musicality and the birth of Bollywood!

Reviewing this film in the New York Times in October 1928, John MacCormac was onto something: “The Indian market… is well worth studying. Its surface has so far been barely scratched. There are only 300 picture theatres for a teeming population of some 300,000,000… When India's millions really begin to go to picture houses many new film fortunes will be made.”

Take a belated bow John, you got it in one. He described Shiraz as the best film to emerge from the sub-content so far but sadly we don’t have much to compare it with, as the BFI’s Robin Baker pointed out in his introduction, so few Indian silent films survive. This was the second of three enchanting films produced by Himansu Rai and directed by Frank Osten: Light of Asia (1926) was first and  A Throw of Dice (1929) the last. They pointed the way forward by incorporating Indian myth, style and imagination in a medium perfectly suited to the country's flamboyant traditions of story-telling.

More than brotherly love... Enakshi Rama Rau and Himansu Rai
The charismatic and instantly-likeable Rai also acted in all three, here as the titular lead, as does the mesmerising Seeta Devi who gets the chance to play the bad girl and outshines the lead Enakshi Rama Rau with a fiercely-nuanced performance utilising the most expressive eyes in Agra…

Tonight’s LFF Archive Gala saw the premier of a hugely-impressive restoration alongside a new score from sitar-playing royalty Anoushka Shankar who provided compelling and complex input of her own with a tonally-varied music that mixed Eastern and Western style and instrumentation with old and modern flavours.

This may have been Anoushka’s first score but she aced it with composition that responded to the story strands with subtlety, restraint and mind-boggling attention to detail. It must be tempting to overplay your musical ideas and compromise narrative direction especially with an amplified band but Ms Shankar adopted an holistic approach that paid full respect to her silent partner. Osten and Rai couldn’t have wished for a better collaborator.

Seeta Devi plotting...
Anoushka played sitar and around her was a whirl of sound with traditional percussionists Sanju Sahai and Pirashanna Thevarajah on her left along with Ravichandra Kulur on bansuri flute then modern/western tones to her right: Idris Rahman, clarinet, Preetha Narayanan, violin, Danny Keane cello and piano (you had to be there!) and Christopher Kemsley on harmonium, moog and the kitchen sink. The players were as tight as a tabla and bang on with a mix of score, improvisation and the odd found sound… a performance of character that would make for an enthralling concert on its own and, indeed, it did take me a while to merge score and screen but the alchemy required to turn music and movie into magic was achieved and this was one of the best LFF Galas I’ve seen.

The restoration was specially commissioned to mark the UK-India Year of Culture 2017 and the 70th anniversary of independence. It was based on a combination of the BFI’s own camera negative as well as a positive made in the 1940s… Robin Baker talked us through the restoration process and, as with so many of these projects, pointed out that the process – frame-by-frame – took longer than the original production.

The film was worth it and lifted by the music and the occasion, it has a grandeur and style that makes it the strongest of those three collaborations – although I’d like to see Anoushka have a go at A Throw of Dice!

It's tough being the Prince
Shiraz starts off as it means to go on with an impressive massed attack on a royal convoy in which a young princess is one of the few survivors. She is rescued from heat and cobras by a passing potter, Kasim (Profulla Kumar) who brings her up as one of his own and calls her Selima. His son, Shiraz, grows to worship his sister and by the time they are both of age he has a more than brotherly crush on her.

Shiraz (now Himansu Rai) and Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) encounter a group of salve raiders who succeed in kidnapping the young woman and take off with her brother in hopeless pursuit. She is sold into slavery to the Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) who takes a special interest in this new acquisition with a mind of its own.

In an interview about the score, Anoushka Shankar makes an interesting point about the sexual politics of the film which, even though it focuses on absolute male power still has time for the Prince to say: ‘You know I have the power to take what I will?’ and Selima to smile back and ‘But you don’t have the power to take my love’. Love freely given is a higher prize than anything taken by might alone.

While the Prince charms Selima, his nominal intended, Dalia (Seeta Devi) schemes to get rid of the competition by luring Shiraz into committing treason. The poor man has been sticking close to his love over her years of “service” and jumps at the chance to rescue her… Yet, as he is reunited with Selima, the Prince – having been tipped off by devious Dalia – returns and catches them.

Enakshi Rama Rau and Charu Roy
So far, so fairy tale but can Shiraz explain this all away and escape certain death by elephant foot? And what has all of this got to do with the building of the Taj Mahal? The answer is everything… Amidst the brutality of seventeenth century absolutism there is a respect and need for love across all boundaries.

The film, as the building, is a monument to our need to aim higher and, together with this music, in this place and with this crowd, it was an absolute triumph. There are times when you can almost sense an audience “glowing”, with smiling faces all round and after-show chatter conducted in uplifted tones and this was one of those occasions. Bravo BFI, Barbican, Anoushka Shankar, London Film Festival and all those involved!

This is not the end for Shiraz though as the movie, Ms Shankar and the band are touring with dates in Europe, India and Australia. Further details are on the Anoushka Shankar website.

Seeta hopes she'll be a goody in Rai and Osten's next film...

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Sex in the city… Little Veronika (Innocence) (1929), John Sweeney, BFI, London Film Festival

The backgrounds in this film are a sight to behold, from the huge valleys of the Tyrol to the pre-war streets of Vienna and you just want to dive into the screen.

Directed by the obscure Robert Land, this is a rare film that deserves to be rediscovered, especially after the 2016 restoration by Filmarchiv Austria from a 35mm nitrate print, has done so much to put back the sense of scale in those epic landscapes. Not for nothing does Nikolaus Wostry, curator of the Austrian Film Archive describe it as Austria’s ‘most beautiful silent film’, and in addition to the wider angles, Land’s direction includes some marvellously “1929” camera-work.

At the start, there’s a breath-taking tracking shot that follows young Veronica as she sprints from her room, down the stairs to take her place at the dining table: it emphasises her youth and lust for life as well as her trajectory in the narrative… she doesn’t always anticipate and – literally – rushes into things. Then there is the new dress she receives from her aunt in the city; it’s a signifier of liberation and a leap into sexual maturity but then Land has lingered long enough on his leading lady for the lingerie to lead us on… Käthe von Nagy (so good in Rotaie (1929)) is at the centre of his direction and our gaze.

Veronika is about to take a trip to Vienna for her confirmation and the film is full of juxtapositions between rural innocence and city connivance that pre-figure the conflict to come. She is going to stay with her aunt who has been surprisingly successful in Vienna building up what looks like a thriving hotel business… only she’s not a hotelier. Rooms and beds are involved but they are not the primary components of the businesses’ transactions.

Aunty Rosi is well played by Maly Delschaft (The Last Laugh (1924) and many more) with regret etched into her face every time she looks at her niece. She and her sex workers are sympathetically painted, not debauched just desperate and not necessarily the victims of their “choices” … The film was based on a book by Felix Salten, who specialised in tales of Vienna’s brothel culture as well as Bambi… yes, Bambi, the deer, friendly with rabbits and squirrels. Salten clearly knew his subject matter as the usual moral judgements do not necessarily fall against the women in the film…

When Veronika arrives, she jumps up and down on Aunt Rosi’s bed like the child she still is – those pigtails also say so much! She prays in bed and Aunty Rosi joins her; praying for her lost innocence perhaps. A telling moment.

Käthe von Nagy
Rosi wants to protect her niece but given her clientele, it’s not long before she is noticed by the kind of men who come to the kind of place Aunty manages. Karl Forest plays an older gentleman who charms Veronika and she falls for him after a night of romance he wants to pay for… she doesn’t understand the nature of the relationship and her future hangs on the balance.

Käthe von Nagy gives a believability to the naïve Veronika and there’s more to the character than meets the eye as I said at the top - she’s eager to embrace life, even if it means making a mistake or two.

It is a very good-looking film and to return to Land’s cinematography; there is a quite lovely sequence near the end when Veronika is making her way through a glade of trees and the Sun is shining off the leaves, creating a dream-like haze reflecting Veronika’s perceptions. Let’s hope there’s more to be found from Robert Land.

John Sweeney accompanied and the sound of music filled those gorgeous valleys as easily as the Viennese dancehalls when I thought I caught a snatch of Blue Skies (written by Irving Berlin in 1926)? John has such range and control and he never overstays a theme, constantly moving the audience along with the picture first and foremost. He laid some thunderous chords as the train took Veronika from Vienna and then held back to let the visuals carry the drama: as with Miles Davis it’s the places Mr Sweeney doesn’t go that are so important and he always allows the story a chance to breathe.

We applaud but really, we should bow!