Friday 30 June 2017

A Bologna Diary (7) - Tamizo Ishida uncovered FALLEN BLOSSOMS & OLD SWEET SONG

Bologna has been trawling through the Japanese cinema archives for six years now. Curators Alex Jacoby and Johan Nordstrom started with early sound and have progressed and diverged for each of the half dozen iterations. This year the selection consists of films from the late thirties and early forties, the Japanese pre-war years, jidai-geki  movies, dubbed The Japanese Period Film in the Valley of Darkness. Jacoby and Nordstrom call this moment a ‘refuge for liberal film-makers seeking to comment critically on the troubles of the time.’ I suppose the comparison might be with the small but always interesting range of Hollywood productions in the 30s and early 40s which attempted to warn the world of the incipient menace of Nazism.

The films themselves have been presented in largely mediocre copies from the Japan National Film Centre and the Kawakita Memorial Institute. No restoration work has been done on them and they were frequently dark and not a little blurry. Still, still….. The selection opened up much that was previously little or even unknown. Two films captured the attention because yet again they were directed by a little known film-maker, Tamizo Ishida. I was reminded that a couple of years ago I saw work by Sotoji Kimura that had a similar revelatory sense.

Fallen Blossoms (Ishida, 1938) sets up a remarkable perspective. The events are viewed entirely through the eyes of the occupants of a geisha house. No males appear though an occasional voice is heard in the background. It has been discussed by Noel Burch in his book To the Distant Observer but that hasn’t assisted its circulation outside Japan. Alex and Johan’s notes call it his only famous film.

Which made the additional revelation of Old Sweet Song (Ishida, 1939) even more startling. I don’t have the wherewithal at the moment to put much down but Andrew Pike has already posted about it on Facebook and I’m going to pillage his note and leave it that. Andrew writes: This afternoon in Bologna I watched what may well be the film of the Festival for me thus far: MUKASHI NO UTA (Old Sweet Song) from Japan, 1939. It was a revelation in which small gestures, tentative half-smiles and held gazes expressed the incredibly moving thawing of a mother-daughter relationship. Of course the film was about much more, and I really need more viewings to begin to understand all of the complexity, but what did register with me did not rely on language. But how can I see it again??? This film and HANA CHIRINU (Fallen Blossoms) from 1938, which was shown a couple of days ago, make me intensely curious about this director, Ishida Tamizo. Does anyone know of literature about him in English?

But just to add to that endorsement here’s Michael Campi’s quick note on the matter: Ishida is indeed the discovery of this yesr's Bologna event. Like Andrew, I long to see these films again and, dare I say, in brighter prints.

Sydney Film Festival (34) - The SQUARE ( Ruben Östlund, Sweden, 2017). Reviewed by Max Berghouse

The Square (2017), Sweden. Ruben Östlund (Director and Scriptwriter). English and Swedish language. Plattform Produktion,ARTE France Cinéma (Production Companies). Claes Bang ("Christian"), Elisabeth Moss ("Anne"), Dominic West ("Julian") and Terry Notary ("Oleg").

The Square (Ruben Östlund)
There are numbers of layers of meaning in this extremely clever and highly sophisticated film, generally described as a satirical comedy (although I think that expression should be addressed). A very quick shorthand test for me is whether or not I found the running time too long, struggling in the dark to see what time it might be before I could escape. This is a long film at 142 minutes, but it fully engrossed me and I was of the view that it was much shorter.

The initial and satirical part of the film concerns a museum curator, Christian, admitting without the slightest pressure in an interview that the important thing for a museum curator was to get money, as public museums were in competition with extremely wealthy individuals whose daily purchasing capacity was about equivalent to a year for the museum. Art is a business and in a subsequent address to his staff and some guests for an imminent new display of an enigmatic female artist, never seen in the film The Square, he rattles on about the merit of the art in increasingly illogical and superficial form, as if this is a real criticism and understanding of art, whereas one suspects that Christian has no knowledge whatsoever. The same may be said of his audience who lap up all the doggerel, but really want to go to the food tables!

The Square, the piece of art, is a rectangular shallow excavation in the brickwork of the exterior walkway/driveway of the museum itself and it is within this space that equality and harmony, to others especially, is to be supreme and for this feeling of equality to motivate viewers beyond the square and into their own everyday lives. That's not what happens to Christian. Whatever obligations he may have as a consequence of the art installation, do not pass into his everyday life of dispute and rancour. The trigger (which matches an event which happened in the life of the director himself), is the loss of his wallet and phone by theft from some very adept street entertainers/pickpockets. I think, although it's not absolutely clear, that his rage and determination to recover his effects stem from an assault on his sense of superiority. Anyway, the adventures or misadventures are quite amusing.

The plot darkens when the PR company for the exhibit, in fact latches onto exactly what the exhibit is and produces an appropriate campaign which so upsets the museum's board that Christian "has to take the fall" and resign. Despite all the trappings of upper-middle-class life: an electric car, the most modern of units and a fancy, non-clinging, non-live in mistress (Elisabeth Moss as Anne in a very well judged performance which I think may have been ad-libbed), at the end of the film he seems quite alone and unhinged.

There is one scene of quite chilling intensity. The American actor Terry Notary whose nightclub (?) act involves him in playing an ape (and his physiognomy is quite apelike – I mean that in terms of the muscular development of his body and his props), alternately and cumulatively amuses and terrifies the museum's patrons at a black tie dinner. This was so convincingly handled that I was never quite sure that the audience really knew what was going on. Viewers of course can't be sure but it seemed to me that the actors within the film had no idea either, basically whether to "laugh or cry". When a number of the dinner suited and generally older men attack this character Oleg, it seemed to me that at the very least they felt genuinely insulted and threatened. The attack really seems genuine. It is a scene very much of the same power as the incredibly striking avalanche scene in the director's previous film Force Majeure (Sweden, 2014).

Now all the above relates to comedy of one sort or another. I would like to introduce a further cultural reference in relation to the film. For the ancient Greeks, comedy was not necessarily concerned with laughter. Nor was tragedy necessarily concerned with sadness. The essence of tragedy was the working through (in a play, the ancient equivalent of a film) of some character' s "fault" that is some defect in his character which INEVITABLY brings about his downfall. Very frequently the plot can be summarised as the hero/protagonist being warned by something like the Delphic Oracle "never to go to X" and "never to do why". The protagonist spends the play doing what he thinks he has been instructed to do and it is revealed at the climax that his every action has moved him closer to X and the fulfilment of Y. This is exactly what happens to Christian. His defective character is a severe want of both internal and external capacity for analysis. He is fundamentally superficial and makes the mistake of thinking the new installation/exhibition is merely "business as usual", oblivious to the moral and consequential responses to his decisions.

That's not to say he doesn't receive enormous encouragement. All around him, artists and curators are mouthing the artistic equivalent of psychobabble. But ultimately Christian has to carry the can for his own actions. Amongst the most compelling of this artistic nonsense is a short scene with Julian played by Dominic West. I don't think a single sentence he uttered made the slightest sense at all.

This is an highly accomplished, first-rate auteur film. It certainly deserved so it seems its Cannes win (Palme d’Or) although a number of critics have commented that the films in this year's festival were relatively average. Whether it's a masterpiece as commented on by some, I am not sure. I think only time will tell. But it is a superbly crafted, intelligent and highly professional production. One last comment: Claes Bang speaks two languages very proficiently, his own and English (even if it is in a somewhat provincial accent). He moves from one to the other with effortless ease and I don't think the performance suffers from being in one language or another. Quite the reverse. I wish I could do the same.

Thursday 29 June 2017

A Bologna Diary (6) - David Hare on ALL THAT HEAVEN ALLOWS and Douglas Sirk

From Bologna today. The deer at the window in the final shot of All That Heaven Allows  (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1955) is always the last straw that breaks the floodgates for me and sees the tears roll. Today's viewing, including tears, was of a first run 35mm IB Tech print, the third and last of three Sirk/Hunter melodramas and still my personal favorite Sirk. The three were supplied by the Academy Archives and a couple of lighter reels notwithstanding, the autumn and summer glow, the fleshtones and Sirk's outrageously expressionist use of color filters and mirrored surfaces (down to a piano music stand) sang in this print with commanding beauty. 
The color is both so saturated yet refined you can visibly detect the differences in shades of makeup and depth of lippy in every two shot with Aggy Morehead and Wyman. I had never noticed before in literally dozens of viewings the stunning red one piece dress Aggie wears for her last scene with Wyman in a kind of final mirror salute to Jane's famous red dress from the first Country Club sequence.
A quick note on aspect ratios. ATHA was screened in approximately 1.75:1. Magnificent Obsession was screened in 1.37:1 and Written on the Wind yesterday was screened also in something like 1.75:1.

A Bologna Diary (5) - David Hare reports on Bernard Eisenschitz's strand of Jean Vigo films

Jean Vigo
I wonder if Vigo himself might be laughing from the Pantheon today at the sublime opportunity I had to watch Eisenschitz' completely breathtaking new 4k restoration of Zero de Conduite on the very morning the Oz papers announced the imminent police pinch of His Eminence George ("the Cockroach") Pell for kiddy fiddling? Even if Jean is not technically with us he got me smiling from the first minute and it hasn't left my face yet. 
This resto has a couple of previously unseen shots including a silhouette of the Principal sticking a hypodermic into his bum, and what seems like a previously unseen and staggering dialogue between the queer kid and his schoolmate lover talking in bed about the coming revolt. Zero may not quite have the totally full bodied feature length formal power of LAtalante which is in itself one of the titans of pantheon cinema, but it, like the wonderful short Natation de Jean Taris also restored and screening with Zero this morning crowned such a perfect day as today.

Vale Robert Herbert - Film programmer and presenter at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

Robert Herbert the film programmer at the Art Gallery of New South Wales has died and it's with some sense of shock for the cinephile community.

For as long as I’ve been in Sydney Robert was the face and the engine of the AGNSW screening program and for that program to be done Robert was required to be all things. The Gallery theatre has not moved into the 21st century and its film program was entirely reliant on 16mm and 35mm film. Robert’s sources at the various cultural institutions (the NFSA, the cultural departments of the major European governments chief among many) supplied him with film for an extensive near weekly program.

The Gallery’s policies regarding film presentation are absurdly limited, concentrating almost entirely on films connected to current exhibitions. There are exceptions such as the retrospectives presented by the Sydney Film Festival, but over the years Robert worked within a system that required more than a bit of adroitness to get some variety and the odd killer connection. As far as I know, Robert booked the films, assembled the programs and then projected them. Projections were preceded by the most ferocious demands on the audience, starting with a no admissions after the start of the film and then subjecting the crowd to some serious admonitions as to how to behave during the show. I clapped the series of slides at every screening I attended though there always remained some buffoon or other who thought their phone calls or text messages were more important than everyone else’s enjoyment.

The AGNSW remains the only venue, limited as its selections were, where something resembling Cinematheque activity occurs in Sydney. It can only be hoped that Robert Herbert has left a legacy of quality presentation, interesting programming and rigourous screening conditions that will be continued in the future.

I’m sure there will be a risk that events might conspire for the AGNSW to give up even this ghost but one hopes that the hundreds who came to his programs each week, enticed by selection and good program notes, will ensure that the activity continues.

Robert Herbert however will be missed.