Tuesday 28 February 2017

Festival News - The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival, Falkirk, Scotland

From the land of my ancestors and forefathers an email arrives  unannounced from an unknown to me (I think) sender giving notice of the sort of event that local initiative and enthusiasm can generate.  So, I just pass it on in case you are somewhere near Falkirk (?) over the designated weekend.

I am pleased to be able to send you a link to the programme for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival 2017 which launched earlier this month. 

Click on this link for details.

After the success of our commission for STELLA DALLAS, I’d particularly like to draw your attention to the screenings of three of the films in our 2017 line-up for which we have commissioned new scores:

Lorenza Mazzetti
TOGETHER (1956) Italian director Lorenza Mazzetti’s ‘free cinema movement’ film, (produced with money from the British Film Institute Experimental Film Fund) and starring the Scottish Italian artist Eduardo Paolozzi, with a two-piece jazz saxophone and percussion (specially crafted Calabrian goat-bells!).  As you are probably aware Lorenza is the subject of a new documentary which premiered at Venice last year ‘Because I am a Genius’ and she is alive and well and living in Rome.  Paolozzi is the subject of a major new retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery, London this spring and his major mosaic work at Tottenham Court Road tube station is being restored.

Po Zakonu
BY THE LAW (PO ZAKONU) (1926) restored by the Munich Filmmuseum and presented with a new solo guitar score by Scottish post-rock musician (winner of Scottish Album of the Year Award 2013).

THE GRUB STAKE (1923) a beautiful 35mm print from the BFI Archive – A feature written, co-directed, produced and starring the pioneering Canadian film director Nell Shipman with a new four piece score for piano, double bass, accordion and percussion.

Retrieving the unfashionable - Barrie Pattison ponders the career of William Wyler

William Wyler
I thought I was done with William Wyler when he died. Unlike my French contemporaries I’d been bowled over by his best work - running up multiple viewings of Dead End (1937) particularly, Jezebel (1938) and The Big Country (1958) and I admired his steady run of  prestige entertainments, These Three (1936) , The Letter (1940), The Little Foxes (1941), The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), The Heiress (1949), Roman Holiday (1953), Detective Story (1951), The Desperate Hours (1955), Friendly Persuasion (1956) or even Ben Hur (1959) which seemed to have drained his creative reserves. I can even forgive him for the Merle Oberon Wuthering Heights (1939).  I’d jammed in the intriguing Counsellor at Law (1933) which had put him on the map, and a couple of his two reel silents.

Once I’d even managed to hit the great man with an audience question.

However YouTube has opened up a whole category -  films my heroes did before anyone took notes. To Sam Wood, Frank Borzage and Lewis Milestone we can now add Big Willy Wyler.

Wyler’s first work in sound with its two reel talkie finale, 1929’s The Love Trap, is mainly a museum piece. It offers a lively performance by Laura La Plante (a prized cigarette card that one) as a chorus cutie hired to be a party girl and rescued from her eviction by Neil Hamilton who is both rich and a rom-com hero. Things don’t run smoothly when his uncle, judge Norman Trevor (the Major in the Colman, 1926, Beau Geste) remembers Laura from the party. The sound material is stiff but the piece is still passable entertainment.

A restoration also made 1929’s The Shakedown surface, an agreeable programmer with James Murray from Vidor’s 1928 The Crowd involved in a scam where he pretends to be going into the ring to punch out the heavy who has besmirched a lady’s honour, while getting his cut from the audience take. Things get stickier with Murray mentoring the orphan kid and sparking diner lady Barbara Kent. Wyler (who appears holding up the numbered boxing round placards) comes out of it well enough with nicely chosen angles. The timber-building and oil fields atmosphere gives it some appeal. The track for that one is lost

By the time we get to 1931’s A House Divided we can see Wyler trying to pull away from the pack.

The opening goes for scenics and atmosphere with the boat landing a black coffin (why?) through the heavy surf and widower Walter Huston taking the load that young pall bearer son Kent Douglass can’t handle. On the way back Huston says “In here” and gets the kid drinking (“all of it”) in Gibson Gowland’s saloon where the father provokes a comic fight

A House Divided is a rip off of Sidney Howard’s play "They Knew What They Wanted" (1924), filmed a year before by Victor Seastrom no less as A Lady to Love.

When the over-worked housekeeper quits, Walter has Kent write the matrimonial newspaper a sensitive letter to which we never get to hear. Instead of the sturdy woman in the advt., unjustly forgotten young Helen Chandler shows up. “Ada’s already married.” Helen’s home was “Six children, all of us girls and no use in the wheat fields.” Walter doesn’t think she’ll be up to salting the fish and helping with the nets.

Douglass Montgomery (billed as Kent Douglass), Helen Chandler
A House Divided
It is at this point that things take off, with Chandler, in possibly her best role, impeccably doing the vulnerable but strong character that anchors the film.

Walter has second thoughts, seeing Helen as a source of a less wimpy son, and calls in Preacher Charles Middleton to conduct the ceremony asking where’s the ring they don’t have, with the neighbours gathering at bonfires, Huston staving the rum barrel and singing “Whiskey for My Johnny” as they let off rockets which the camera follows into the sky.

Helen realises the mistake she’s made. “Please let me go Mr. Law.” Douglas intervenes and in the fight Walter falls down the stairs - good scene. Dr. Lloyd Ingraham advises “You may never be the same as you was.” Now crippled and leaving the fishing (we never actually see any fish) to Douglass, Walter goes ballistic when he finds the young people together. “I can’t fight you paw - like you are!” Helen runs off to the boat and is carried towards the rocks with Huston roped into the row boat with Douglass heading out to the rescue -  marred by bath tub effects shots.

This one isn’t equal to its ambitions but it’s full of attention getting ideas and comes with three set pieces - brawl, wedding and storm of which the nuptials are the pick.  That wooden dock looks like the one the Universal serials kept on using and prefigures the fifties version the studio built for Bend of the River. Eugene O’Neill actor Huston is in his element doing his rugged patriarch act which we’ll see even in his last film, Anthony Mann’s splendid The Furies.

To be continued.

Editor’s note: This is the first of two pieces by Barrie on the early career of William Wyler. The second part will be posted shortly.

Monday 27 February 2017

Noel Bjorndahl's Personal History of Film (8) - Revisiting Howard Hawks' RIO BRAVO

When I first saw this film at a Coolangatta cinema on Queensland’s Gold Coast in 1959, I was barely 15. As a youthful but seasoned aficionado of the western, I found it held my interest but considered it overlong and talky by the standards of John Wayne’s usual material. I certainly responded to Wayne’s casual drawl and battered hat and even more so to the sight of Dean Martin in western garb. What’s more Martin was in the centre of most of the action. I had virtually grown up on a steady diet of Martin and Lewis and the transformation came as quite a shock.

By the time Rio Bravo was doing the rounds again a decade later, I was in my phase of exploring art-house films and running the University of Queensland Film Group which I co-founded jointly with my new found friend and soul mate Roger McNiven. Roger and I were busily “educating” each other exploring all kinds of film. I introduced Roger to John Ford and he re-introduced me to Howard Hawks. I first thought he was insane when he described Rio Bravo as a western masterpiece worthy of taking its place among the greatest films ever made. It took only one screening of it, in the shed at Roger’s rented house at Kangaroo Point in Brisbane, to convince me that Roger was correct in his assessment: it became one of the major revelations of my young adult life and central to my re-assessment and understanding of mainstream Hollywood cinema.

I was still young enough and ignorant enough to be genuinely surprised that the kind of behavioural nuance and subtlety displayed in Rio Bravo was exceptional in Hollywood genre films. Surely this was exclusively the province of the arthouse circuit with its currently fashionable directors like Bergman, Truffaut, Renoir, Antonioni and other foreigners of their persuasion (or, occasionally of Ford, Welles or Hitchcock who had sometimes, and in the case of Hitchcock, almost always, set up and made films on their own terms). I began reading avidly the auteurist analyses of Cahiers Du Cinema, Robin Wood and the mob from Movie magazine instead of Sight and Sound and the local dailies.

French Poster
For a while I thought that Rio Bravo was one of the great Westerns and certainly the greatest Hawks film. I was previously only familiar with Hawks comedies like Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday which I thought among the funniest movies I had ever seen. I had distant memories of Red River (1948) and hadn’t yet familiarized myself with Only Angels Have Wings(1939)I Was a Male War Bride (1949) or The Big Sleep (1946). I was also still relatively unacquainted in depth with the corpus of works by Anthony Mann, Budd Boetticher, or Andre De Toth, let alone Nicholas Ray, Sam Fuller or Gerd Oswald.

From the present perspective, I still think Rio Bravo is a great film, one of the greatest in the Hawks canon, and certainly a quirky, individual high point of the sub-genre of town westerns. Made as a calculated response to High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1952) and "5.10 To Yuma" (1957) as Hawks disdainfully called the Delmer Daves film, Rio Bravo turns the situation of the Zinnemann film on its head. John Wayne as Sheriff John T Chance (T for trouble in Angie Dickinson’s words) becomes Hawks’ antidote to Gary Cooper’s Marshal Will Kane in High Noon : although both men are under severe threat against overwhelming odds from determined foes, Cooper’s response is to seek help from any source who is willing to offer it and finds none - a situation described as unbelievable and un-American by High Noon’s severest critics. Wayne on the other hand rejects all offers of aid from “well-meaning amateurs” and decides to “tough out” a siege in his own jail by a family of powerful men (led by TV’s John Russell) who are trying to bust their relative Claude Akins, a murderer, out of jail. 
Brennan, Wayne, Martin

Wayne’s only supporters are his deputies: an “old cripple” (Walter Brennan, Stumpy, in his most substantial role for Hawks) and a drunk (Dino - in an astonishing performance that virtually re-directed his career). In the course of the film’s lengthy narrative they are joined intermittently by gambler and shady lady Angie Dickinson; a young kid (Ricky Nelson) hell-bent on revenging Wayne’s loyal friend, trail boss Ward Bond who is ambushed and murdered when he loudly offers Wayne help; and an excitable Mexican saloon-owner (Pedro Gonzales-Gonzales) dominated by his fiery wife (Estelita Rodriguez).

Rio Bravo is talky and leisurely (like most of Hawks’ later films) but the dialogue is chock full of Hawks’ reflections on professionalism and group dynamics. Indeed the film’s very leisureliness allows Hawks to develop his preoccupations in unusual behavioural depth. This unfolding is served by a cast which responds magnificently to the considerable demands Hawks places on them. Among the film’s many delights are a brilliant and moving experience of moral regeneration: after a particularly nasty bout of the DTs which almost has him deserting his post and scurrying back to his accustomed haunts as Borachon (town drunk), Dean Martin pours his whiskey back into the bottle (“Didn’t spill a drop”). It’s a scene that long lingers; with just a few minutes of screen time, Hawks creates something more emotionally harrowing than The Lost Weekend (Billy Wilder, 1945) in its entirety.

Hawks evolved himself into an effortlessly professional director of mainstream genre films and eventually the most laid back artist in Hollywood screen history. Rio Bravo appears to ramble along switching from frivolity to deadly seriousness while hardly seeming to change gears. It is deceptive in its density, including in its stride a quasi-Shakesperian musical interlude involving all the leading male characters; and a climactic gun battle involving dynamite, exploding buildings and extended horseplay between the film’s hero and a petulant old man that veers dangerously close to slapstick but still doesn’t depart from the expected western codes and conventions.

Most of Rio Bravo is shot indoors in confined chamber style but the behavioural detail and interaction among the characters is so strong this never for one moment becomes claustrophobic. All the players are seen to their best advantage, the screen time allowing them great scope to shape extraordinarily rounded presences, not least of all Wayne, more human and less mythic than in his work for John Ford. He is at his most endearing when he runs down the street like a herd of stampeding elephants; or when he is completely flummoxed and at the mercy of gorgeous Angie Dickinson.  Her “Feathers”, incidentally with its echoes of Evelyn Brent in Sternberg’s great Underworld (1929) - is one of the film’s many delights: her legs, to Wayne’s embarrassment, are splendidly on show frequently throughout the film.

Sunday 26 February 2017

The Current Cinema - Peter Hourigan delves into three iterations of SILENCE by Endo, Shinoda and Scorsese

SILENCE Times Three

Endo Shusaku, author of Silence
I’m probably guilty of overdosing on Silence in the last few weeks – the novel by Shusaku Endo (1966), Scorsese’s new film, and then a revisit to the 1971 Japanese film version, directed by Masahiro Shinoda from a script he co-wrote with the novel’s author.

Everyone by now is probably aware that Silence is a story of the repression of Christianity in Japan in the early seventeenth century, and a priest who is made to apostatise. Exposing myself to the three tellings, it seems that the story is rather like a Rorschach test – each version very revealing about the teller. And the endings are the most revealing of all.

Endo wrote from a very unusual perspective – a practising Japanese Catholic . He’d studied in post-war France and was influenced by such introspective Catholic works as Diary of a Country Priest by Georges Bernanos.  The structure Endo used for Silence is interesting. An objective prologue gives us the historical background.

Then the next near-third is made up of letters from Father Sebastian Rodrigues, for as long as he was in a position to write reports for his superiors in Macao. This section ends with his capture by the soldiers of Inoue. This strategy allows us to be party to the private thoughts, doubts, optimism, faith, fervour of Rodrigues.

The next, largest section is a third person account, from an omnipotent narrator.  But the point of view remains with Rodrigues. This probably does not give such an intense insight into his mind and thoughts, but keeps us focused on his faith and conviction. After the moment when Rodrigues does apostatise and steps on the fumie, there is a very short chapter on the immediate consequences of this action – his virtual house-arrest, expulsion from the mission and the priesthood, and his rationalisation of his fall, including shifting much responsibility on Ferreira, the priest he’d come to Japan to find.

The first half of the final chapter again uses a “primary document” , extracts from the diary of a clerk at a Dutch trading firm in Nagasaki which matter-of-factly lets us know of Rodrigues’ duties now to help root out emblems of Christianity (and Catholicism).  Then our third person narrator returns to tell us that Rodrigues has been given a new name by the Japanese authorities and also the wife and family of the former bearer of that name. Somewhat, a ‘happy ever after.”

And a final appendix, extracts from the diary of an Officer at the Christian Residence informs us objectively, dispassionately of the death of Okada San’emon (Rodrigues), the dispersal of his personal items and that he was cremated and buried.  No emotion here at all.
How do the films end?   After the moment of apostasy in Shinoda’s version, a short scene shows us Rodrigues being used to identify whether an object is Christian. He is then returned to his cell, where a woman is waiting.  He falls on her as she lies on her back for him. Freeze frames of his almost brutal kisses are intercut with a cut to Kichijiro (more of his later) mournfully sweeping leaves in the courtyard.courtyard.

So, the implication would seem to be that inside Rodrigues was a repressed sexual man, and the religion had impeded him from his true desires. There is admiration for the strength he’s shown in his convictions, but it’s probably been harmful – to him and to the people he has tried to sway to his way of life and belief.

Scorsese follows the novel to the end, but expands the use of Rodrigues to effectively ferret out covert Christian emblems and objects, and then we have his death and burial. And Scorsese concludes his film with a shot of a small Crucifix clasped in Rodrigues’ hand as he is lowered in his coffin.  Here the Rorschach test reveals a strongly Christian/Catholic mind, that can’t accept that such a strong faith could ever die. Given that probably only his Japanese wife could have placed it there, perhaps he had continued to preach and convert? At least, to her?

Martin Scorsese
This seems to betray the thrust of the story, an exploration of the full journey of a man’s faith. Although it does illustrate Scorsese’s comments, “Silence is the story of a man who learns – so painfully – that God’s love is more mysterious than he knows, that He leaves much more to the ways of men than we realize, and that He is always present...even in his silence.” ((Introduction to novel, 2016)

If you are a person of faith, then, perhaps Scorsese’s film can work as an illustration of a person of faith.  If you’re not, you do have the powerful ‘scope visuals, and a particularly effective (and appropriate) sound design.  But all the way through you’re thinking how easy it should be for a rational person to simply step on the fumie  (perhaps with your fingers crossed) and move on.  By contrast, Robert Bresson’s film of Diary of a Country Priest(1951) really does allow you to feel the faith of the Priest of Ambricourt, steady in the face of his tribulations. Perhaps to the point of self-destruction, but you do ‘feel’ why he can continue in this way.

To me (my Rorschach blot reading) one of the most interesting characters is Kichijiro. He first helps the two priests to land in Japan. But we learn he has already apostatised once.  He still hangs around small, secret Japanese Christian communities, he helps the priests, and he betrays them.

But even after his ‘kiss of Judas’ which delivers Rodrigues into the hands of Inoue and his eventual apostatising, Kichijiro still hangs around. He knows he’s a coward, but it’s clear he also cannot escape his Christianity. If he’s threatened with some violence he wilts.  He’ll deny his Christ. And then come back into the company of other underground Christians, where he is back in danger. His mental torment, his sense of hypocrisy but of self-preservation is indicative of a character I’d have loved to have had more of.

Shinoda Masahiro

His representation is strongest in Shinoda’s film – and perhaps of the three tellers, Shinoda is the one who most understood him.  His presence in the final sequence of shots is telling.  While Rodrigues is violently enjoying the pleasures of a woman for the first time, it is a desolate, despairing, agonising, solitary Kichijiro outside sweeping the leaves.  He betrayed the padre, but he can’t get away from him.

And with that, I think I’ve probably had enough Silence for a while.

Editor's Note: Shinoda's Silence has been released on DVD in Britain on the Masters of Cinema label. Details can be found if you click here.