Friday 30 December 2016

Defending Cinephilia (12) - Tina Kaufman shows what an indefatigable spirit can track down.

While I firmly agree with recent comments about how poorly served Sydney is, cinema-wise, and I'm jealous of other cities' curated programs, and even more I find myself green with envy reading of the many cinephilia defenders who are travelling the world in their various quests, I know I have to make do with what's available here.  I have managed to find a selection of films, both old and new, to (almost) satisfy my viewing habits over the last year.  And my viewing habits still mean going to the cinema, despite the difficulty of getting there - I keep thinking, as I'm dealing with Sydney's increasingly messed up transport system, trudging along badly paved footpaths, or climbing those bloody stairs in so many cinemas, about staying home and watching, on my nice, new and sizeable smart TV, some of the DVDs from my packed shelves, or the hours and hours of stuff recorded on my two hard drives.  And that's before I even think about streaming services!  But no, off to the cinema I go. 

Hong Sang-soo (younger days)
In a year dominated by mainstream (and not so mainstream) releases, the Sydney Film Festival, and Palace's seemingly never ending stream of "national film festivals" (of which more later), there have been some genuine surprises, some interesting new venues, and some reliable oldies.   In August, for example, I discovered that the Museum of Contemporary Art was having free curated screenings on Saturday afternoons, with four films that month, curated by MUBI's Daniel Kasman, by one of my favourite filmmakers, Korean director Hong Sang-soo.  I'd seen two (one, Right Now Wrong Then, only a week or so before at the Korean Film Festival) but I was very happy to see (again) The Day He Arrives, and for the first time A Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, and Nobody's Daughter, Haewon.  An absolute treat, especially for being so unexpected.  

Apichatpong Weerasthekul
The next month promised the four new Portuguese films curated by Adrian Martin (that he's written about here, and the first to screen was Others Will Love the Things I Loved, Manuel Mozos' loving cinematic essay and tribute to the late João Bénard da Costa, who was apparently a cinephile extraordinaire and one of the most important figures in the history of the Portuguese Cinematheque; I thought it was wonderful, even though (embarrassingly) I knew nothing about either the subject or the filmmaker.  I also saw A Woman's Revenge, and from the next month's selection of four films by Apitchatpong Weerasthekul, curated by MIFF's Michelle Carey, I managed to see Blissfully Yours and Tropical Malady (both of which I'd seen before, but they were even better on a second or even third viewing). But the MCA did make things difficult - screenings were sometimes changed from the Saturday to the Sunday, or to the next week, sometimes cancelled altogether or perhaps played later (without telling you when).  Then a couple of months went by with no screenings, and I'd almost given up on them, but suddenly discovered three films programmed for December, of which I only managed to see Rohmer's The Romance of Astra and Celadon. This however, was the last of such screenings; while the MCA will apparently be using the screening space for video and electronic artworks, James Vaughan, who's been organising these little seasons with very little support from the MCA, is hunting for an alternate venue for next year.  Here's hoping he can succeed.

Then there is the Golden Age Cinema, Sydney's newest venue, a tiny cinema tucked away under Paramount House in Surry Hills.  (It used to be Paramount's screening room, back in the day!)  The Golden Age has an interesting program, a mix of new and old films (plus some live events), and they often pick up films that have only had a short run in other cinemas, or films that haven't managed to get released elsewhere in Sydney.  I'd go much more often if it weren't so difficult to get there and get home from there. But I did get to see A Cemetery of Splendour there (it was only on twice and I wish I'd gone back for the second screening).  And for Chinese New Year they screened two films by Li Luo, which I was encouraged to attend by Michael Campi and found totally engrossing and strange.  And then there was City of Gold, a gentle doco about food, eating, and the importance of writing about it - three things I love!

While I didn't get to one of Sydney's oldest and nicest cinemas, the Hayden Orpheum at Cremorne, as often as I used to, I was enticed over the bridge to its David Stratton-curated Great Britain retrospective, where I saw Blithe Spirit for the first time and A Matter of Life and Death for the umpteenth, and then for the Hitchcock retrospective where I saw the Hitchcock/Truffaut doco, Kent Jones' intelligent and insightful tribute to a book and two filmmakers, as well as Foreign Correspondent (which I realised I'd never seen) and Notorious (which I've seen umpteen times and will see umpteen more times, if I can). And it was at Cremorne that I had another viewing of my friend Margot Nash's lovely film, The Silences - even more involving the second time.  And on the very same day I saw the lovely Japanese film, An. What a treat.

At the Domain Theatre at the Art Gallery of NSW, Robert Herbert keeps on curating interesting programs around each current exhibition at the gallery, and screens the films on beautiful 35mm or occasionally 16mm. My highlights - All the Mornings in the World, Grand Illusion, The Blue Angel, Bullets Over Broadway, The Shop Around the Corner, Offside, Who's That Knocking at my Door?, and the unexpectedly gorgeous Tarzan and His Mate.  (The AGNSW recently received a irate letter from someone complaining about not being let in to a session that he arrived nearly an hour late to; he described the audience as "elderly and poverty-stricken".  Well they (we) may be - but they are also appreciative of both the program and of the protocol.) 

Our Little Sister, (Kore-eda Hirokazu, Japan, 2015)

While the Sydney Film Festival is still the high point of the year, with its packed program (my favourites, Goldstone, Aquarius, Certain Women, Letters from War, Fukushima Mon Amour, Fire At Sea, Chevalier, Hot Type, No Home Movie, and a pair of terrific Australian docs, Baxter and Me and Night Parrot Stories), there are other smaller festivals throughout the year worth cherry-picking. At the Young At Heart FF I saw Kore-eda's sublime Our Little Sister for the second time, at the Mardi Gras FF the fascinating doco Feelings are Facts - the life of Yvonne Rainer, and at the Sydney Underground FF the doco on Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny (and I could kick myself for not seeing the doc on Brian de Palma.) At the Korean Film Fest I saw Right Now Wrong Then (for the first time), Two Rooms Two Nights, and Assassination (for the second time; I'd seen it at Event last year).  And then there's the Silent Film Festival, whose title's a bit of a misnomer; it doesn't only screen silent films, and programs almost the whole year round at several different venues, some outside the city, and purists would complain that they don't show anything on film, only digital. But where else could I have seen the Japanese silents, Story of Floating Weeds and Dragnet Girl (Ozu), Japanese Girls by the Harbour (Shimizu), and Street Without End (Naruse)? I also saw Epic of Everest (1924), a program of Buster Keaton short films and the sublime The General (again, but who's counting?), Blackmail, and a program of suffragette short films from 1899 to 1917.  And The Kid Stakes - again, but I love this film.
Philippe Garrel
Then there's Palace, and their seemingly never-ending festivals filled mostly with films I couldn't be dragged to, but with thorough research you can find some worth seeing. From the huge French and Italian programs I only saw a few films, and the best for me were Arnaud Desplechin's wistfully romantic My Golden Days, Philippe Garrel's spare and wryly funny In the Shadow of Women, and the funny and touching Italian road movie, Like Crazy.  Truman was the only film I saw in the Spanish FF, and I really loved it - it got a release later and I kept telling people to see it - don't know if they did. My friend Janet Merewether's sweet doco/travelogue, Reindeer in My Sami Heart, turned up in the Scandinavian FF, and Fatih Akin's Goodbye Berlin (or Tschick) was my only pick from the German Fest. I saw more in the British FF;Terence Davies' lovely film about Emily Dickinson, A Quiet Passion, Their Finest, a fascinating look at filmmaking in the early days of WW2, Versus, a documentary on the "life nod films of Ken Loach", The Limehouse Golem, a Victorian melodrama with the wonderful Bill Nighy, and Burn Burn Burn, a terrific road trip with a difference.,

This year Palace expanded their repertoire, adding a Hot Docs festival, at which I saw the underwhelming Legacy of Frida Kahlo, Stig Bjorkman's lovely doc Ingrid Bergman In Her Own Words (not only words but lots of her own home movies - apparently she always had a camera with her); and the big surprise, the nutty but terrific Chuck Norris Vs Communism.  They also added Essential Independents - American Cinema Now, at which I saw In Transit, Albert Maysles' last film, and the restored version of Kelly Reichardt's lovely first film, River of Grass(poster below).  But both these festivals were squeezed into the busy May/June period, just before SFF, both had substantial ptograms, and I doubt that either attracted the sorts of audience numbers that Palace expects. I wonder if they'll be repeated.      

In this the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death, I had a bit of a binge.  Through the Theatre on Screen program I saw Kenneth Branagh's A Winter's Tale, with Judi Dench, the Globe Theatre production of Richard II, the Royal Shakespeare Company's Hamlet, and a wonderful Richard III with Ralph Fiennes, as well as Henry IV and Cymbeline.  I also saw Olivier's Henry V (the only Shakespeare of his I like), and Chimes At Midnight (for the umpteenth time, but it's still one of my favourite versions of Shakespeare on film), and then, to cap it off, the Russian Film Festival screened the restored version of Kozintsev's King Lear, which I've been waiting for years to see - and it was worth the wait.

Event and to a lesser extent Hoyts are screening Asian cinema (Hong Kong, Chinese and Korean films) on a reasonably regular basis, and highlights for me were Phantom Detective, Detective Chinatown, New York New York, Cold War 2, Tunnel, Mr Six, Johnnie To's Three, Swordmaster, and the sexy, surprising and absolutely exquisite The Handmaiden. I missed a couple of films I wanted to see when they disappeared after only one week - very annoying!

And let me put in a word for New Zealand filmmaking.  Like practically everyone I know, I really like Hunt for the Wilderpeople, and also the very engaging documentary, Poi-E, the story of our Song.  And then there was Tickled, which screened at SFF but I missed it there; luckily I caught up with it at its very short run at the Dendy Newtown, Since then I've been trying to get people to see it (it still pops up every now and then at the Golden Age); it's a terrific, if rather eccentric NZ doco about a truly bizarre subject - and really worth seeing.

I'm on the board of the Antenna Documentary Film Festival, which is now in its sixth year, and slowly growing in program size and audience numbers.  Highlights for me this year included the tribute to Chantal Akerman (the doc about her, I Don't Belong Anywhere, plus two of her short films, One Day Pina Asked . . . and La Bas), The Seasons in Quincy, Tilda Swinton's lovely tribute to her friend John Berger, Kritin Johnson's terrific Cameraperson, the fascinating Fear Itself, and the stunning Chinese documentary, Behemoth.

And a quick mention of Ira Sachs' gentle and moving Little Men, Susan Sarandon in The Meddler, which I really liked, and the wonderful new Japanese anime, Your Name.

Editor’s Note: Age shall not weary them! Tina Kaufman has been involved in the Sydney cinephile community for many decades. She is a Life Member of the Sydney Film Festival and has been involved in many of the efforts to establish a Sydney Cinematheque. She was, for its duration of publication, editor of the great newspaper Film News, the entire contents of which have now been digitised and made available online via the National Library's Trove facility click here 

On DVD - Summer viewing - Restored Italian classics from 1970 - IL CONFORMISTA, UOMINI CONTRO

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolucci, Italy, 1970)
Back in 2011, when in Rome, I bought a copy of the then newly-released Raro Video edition of the restored version of The Conformist. Since then the film has also been widely released on Blu-ray. The copy went on to the shelf and has just, finally, come out. My viewings of the film over the last four plus decades started with its Australian premiere at the Sydney Film Festival and have included further viewings of the copy shown at the SFF during its later commercial release and then on several occasions on  SBS and on earlier DVD editions.

Nothing I've seen in the past is remotely as good as the restoration seen on the Raro Video edition. The work was  supervised by cinematographer Vittorio Storaro. The restoration work was carried out by Cineteca di Bologna (Italy). For the first time, the grainy look, particularly in dark interiors like the opening hotel room scene, the frolics on the train to Paris and Professor Quaglio's Parisian apartment, has been eliminated. The images are sharp. The skin tones of the actors are particularly clear and there is no bias to what in previous copies looked like over-use of orange filters most notably at the guingette scene in Paris. In all it is another film that stands as a tribute to the deft arts practised by the team at the Cineteca di Bologna's L'imagine Ritrovato. The Blu-ray is still available on Amazon. 

Trintignant improvises, The Conformist
The great addition to be found on the disc is a fifty seven minute essay by Adriano Apra which covers a lot of territory. Most notably, after about seven minutes background on Bertolucci's career up until The Conformist, the essay incorporates segments from a long interview with Bertolucci, probably about half an hour all up, in which he takes us through the entire production process from the moment of discovering the Moravia novel, the serendipitous offer from Paramount to make a movie, any movie, his decision to write the script without a collaborator, the assembly of the production team, the casting, the editing, the on-set improvisation especially by Jean-Louis Trintignant, and, crucially the creation of the meaning of it all.  Bertolucci is an especially articulate explainer of his work - cinephiliac references to earlier eras of film-making flow out, he quotes Roland Barthes and draws on his experience of psychoanalysis. His explanation of the ending of the film is as lucid as any critical appreciation I've read. If I had to say, I would say it is the best interview with a director about his film that I have ever seen. The fact that he was doing it forty years after making the movie fills you with a certain awe.

Dominique Sanda, Stefania Sandrelli, Guinguette scene, The Conformist
(Bertolucci at first approached Brigitte Bardot to play the
part of the Professor's wife)
Apra's essay doesn't confine itself to getting Bertolucci down pat. He breaks away on several occasions to provide us with several pieces of critical, and by way of critical, mathematical analysis, pie charts, flow charts and more. Like Dr Bordwell he measures the number and length of shots, comparing this element with Bertolucci's other films and relating it to the pacing of this movie. He also has a chart with columns setting out the intricate construction of the narrative, the cutting to flashback, of the elements where past and present are linked. Brilliant stuff. This essay is subtitled into English and was produced for the release of the restoration in 2011. 

So I waited five years....

UOMINI CONTRO (MANY WARS AGO) (Francesco Rosi, Italy, 1970)
in the same year as The Conformist, Franceso Rosi embarked upon a most ambitious venture. He claims to have put a million lire of his own money into the production and to have lost it all. The film was Uomini Contro/Many Wars Ago, an adaptation of a war time diary by Emilio Lussu titled, in English at least, "A Year on the Plateau". It records a WW1 story of a winter spent in battle in the mountains between Italy and Austria and the attempts by a rag tag and demoralised Italian force to take an Austrian stronghold, previously held by Italian forces. Needless to say the Italian side on which the film focuses is riddled with pomposity, stupidity and arrogance on the part of the top officers and fear, loathing, rebellion, refusal to fight and outright cowardice on the part of the troops forced to spend a brutal winter in trenches in between utterly futile attempts to attack the stronghold. These attacks slowly devolve down to sporadic efforts to send out troops armed with wirecutters with a view to them cutting through barbed wire to ready a path for attack. No one comes back alive. When faced with a loss of enthusiasm the officers take to employing the policy of 'decimation' - randomly nominating one in every ten men to be executed. The floggings will continue until morale improves. It's a film in the great tradition of All Quiet on the Western Front, Paths of Glory, Gallipoli and King and Country  to name just a few of the many movies devoted to similar WW1 themes. However, its impressionistic rendition of the battle scenes and the perpetually grim narrative make it even harder to stomach than the others mentioned.

Rosi was very keen to make it. He wanted something substantial, with gravitas and heavy meaning after doing the handsome big budget Sophia Loren/Omar Sharif starring fairy tale More Than a Miracle. He cobbled together deals all over the place including his own investment and filmed it all in Yugoslavia using the Yuglosav army as a cheap source of extras for the crowd and battle scenes. The film used a Yugoslav company as co-producer. The film flopped and as is the way with outcasts in the cinema, the original negative was lost. 

The disc published by Minerva in Italy has extensive supporting material all translated into English. Not all of this is presented in exemplary fashion despite significant effort. The quite lengthy dual language booklet doesn't have page numbers or a publication date, nor does the DVD cover. Details, details. The copy presented on the disc is exceptional given the circumstances and it recaptures the exquisite nature of Pasqualino De Santis's photography which, according to the interview with Rosi offered as an extra employed a lot of natural light effects particularly in the night battle scenes. 

Rosi's rendition of the battle scenes is impressionistic though as per usual the mise-en-sene doesn't spare you that gut wrenching feeling you get when scenes involve sending young men over the top to their inevitable death. 

There is no date for the recording of the interview with Rosi (Details!, Details!) but he looks old so you have to assume it took place somewhere round the time that the restoration was done and the DVD published. Rosi is credited for his 'collaboration' on the digital restoration. The booklet has a short note by Curator of the Italian National Film Archive Sergio Toffetti which is worth repeating: The copy...was reprinted at Cinecitta laboratories from a reversal belonging to the Archive. As the original negative has been lost, a duplicate negative was made according to an obsolete technical process which allows the original negative to be printed directly onto reversal film. The resulting film - the reversal - has a reasonably high level of definition, although some fluctuations of colour and dominant doubles tend to alter the original chromatics. The original tone and density of the colour may eventually be recovered using digital modern techniques."

Rosi himself is as impassioned about his subject as when he made the film in a mid-career gamble that cost him money and opportunity. He explains his interest as something that might be seen as a universal message and it has to be said if you want a picture of how grim fighting wars can be for poor farmers who joined or were shanghaied into the ludicrous events of WW1 and never got to go home then this it. 

A couple of years later Rosi had recovered from the commercial debacle and started a streak of successful productions - The Mattei Affair (1972), Lucky Luciano (1973), Illustrious Corpses (1975), Christ Stopped at Eboli (1979), Three Brothers (1981), and Carmen (1984). They represent a rarely repeated run that kept his name at the forefront of both quality European film-making and a continuation of Italy's primary realist tradition of film-making for a decade or more.