Friday 15 December 2017

Defending Cinephilia (5) - Cinephile and program consultant Michael Campi reviews 2017

It has been another year of exploring the cinema both in Australia and overseas encouraged that in so many ways the delights of our cherished medium are being celebrated in familiar and less expected places.

Exhibitions and Events
The first of this year's memorable examples of cinephilia was a simple almost door to door tram ride from home to the Australian Centre for the Moving Image in Melbourne. One thinks of some very special events hosted by ACMI over its first decade, from a comprehensive William Kentridge investigation to the Correspondences between Abbas Kiarostami and Victor Erice.

BOMBAY TALKIES was one of ACMI's most significant exhibitions occurring during the first half of 2017, presented in one of their more intimate spaces.  Peter Dietze, a business man in Melbourne, was a young adult before discovering he was the grandson of Himansu Rai, co-founder of Bombay Talkies studio, a major force in Indian film making from the early 1930s to the mid 1950s. BOMBAY TALKIES, the exhibition, was a carefully researched and meticulously arranged tribute to the pioneering Indian film studio. Himansu Rai lived in England and Germany through the 1920s and met actress and dancer Mary Hainlin during this period. Their daughter came to Australia in 1952. On discovering the family history, Peter Dietze retrieved an astonishing archive of family and cinema history in India, UK, Germany and New York. The collection includes scripts, photographs, correspondence and business letters from the period during which Himansu Rai and his second wife, actress Devika Rani, were involved in film production.

The exhibition displayed seventy items from the Dietze Family Trust achive of over three thousand artefacts augmented by some reproductions and related moving images.  During the 1920s, Himansu Rai and his colleague Niranjan Pal were involved in several epic Indian silent films. The Light of Asia (1925), a life of the Buddha, Shiraz (1928), a romantic piece of Taj Mahal history and A Throw of the Dice (1929) adapted from the Mahabharata. It was on the last film that Himansu Rai met his second wife Devika Rani in Germany.  German director Franz Osten is credited as co-director with Himansu Rai on the first of these silent films and sole director of the subsequent two which starred Himansu Rai who went on to produce several more Bombay Talkies till his early death in 1940. Devika Rani was the star of these 1930s films with Franz Osten directing most of them in between films he made in Germany.

The ACMI exhibition was arranged carefully in illuminated showcases with more photographic material and film clips displayed on the walls.  One hopes that a permanent home can be found for this material and that even more of the treasures can be annotated and revealed to us in the future.  It's a regret that no exhibition catalogue was prepared. Many of the retrieved items contain much detailed information that could be more appreciated in a more leisurely domestic or library setting.  At the moment, the essentials of the exhibition are still on ACMI's website.

A more extended cinephilia a few hours later on that February day just a five-minute walk across the Yarra River.  Garin Nugroho's Satan Jawa is a remarkable new black and white work, a modern "silent movie" with a soundtrack provided by live musicians.  At the Melbourne Concert Hall, members of the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra and musicians from Indonesia  performed a score by the award-winning Australian Iain Grandage (who also  conducted) and Indonesian composer Rahayu Supanggah. Nugroho's inspirations were Murnau's Nosferatu and myths from Java. I believe this was only the second performance of the work in this premiere format.  Since then it's been featured in London, Singapore and Amsterdam.

Nugroho is one of Indonesia's most distinguished filmmakers combining a fascination with aesthetics while social and political interests are important to him as well. By celebrating the style of German Expressionist silent film together with Javanese cultural history, Satan Jawa is certainly a prime example of cinephilia.  One hopes it will be available in a form for us to cherish again and again in the future.

During 2017 many significant and exploratory film-related books and online articles have appeared. The following five printed publications are some that seemed most significant to me especially as their concerns were definitely inspired by specific cinephilia more than cultural theory etc.

Disclaimer: several of the authors are long-term friends.

I repeat Adrian Martin's admiration for The Elusive Auteur, Barrett Hodsdon's long-awaited, expansive and exhaustive study of film authorship. Having known the author for decades and being present at discussions during the development of the book, I am deeply impressed by his commitment to his subject and to sharing his thorough research, critical analyses and evaluated conclusions. The recent book launch in itself was a celebration of some of the elements to which the book refers.

Reinventing Hollywood is the most recent printed publication by David Bordwell. When so much has been studied about the history of more than a century of cinema, it leaves one breathless that Professor Bordwell's limitless quest for new enquiry has unearthed so much stylistically about some known and very many quite unfamiliar films of the late 1930s to early 1950s.

When the studio system was in full bloom and financially secure, there was a creative environment for pushing boundaries, trying experiments, outdoing peers while producing everyday releases. An inspiring read and one wonders how so many cultural references can be researched, assessed and organised for this volume (and many more) while simultaneously the writer contributes such significant weekly blog articles, keeps up with contemporary world cinema, attends film events and seminars sharing his findings so frequently.

Historical Dictionary of South American Cinema by Peter Rist was published a couple of years ago but didn't come my way till recently. The author, a professor of film studies at Concordia University in Montreal, has a wide range of enquiry in his cinematic interests. His Ph.D. examined style in early John Ford films, he lectures on national cinemas and film aesthetics, is fascinated by the magic of moving camera imagery, has written on experimental film, installations and landscape painting in East Asia while watching on average a film a day at regular cinemas, festivals and online.

His massive book on South American Cinema is a rare contribution in English to this enormously rich continental cinema over many countries and back to the silent film era.  The nearly seven hundred pages include commentary on individual national cinemas, the creative talents working within them and significant writing on the unique films emerging from this continent. Privately, Peter has been enormously inspiring to me at our meetings in Hong Kong, Vancouver, Bologna, Pordenone and Montreal. When I've asked for pointers at retrospective film events celebrating South American cinema, he has selflessly shared his intricate knowledge of these cinemas. Then his cinephilia can bounce in the next breath to the magic of John Alton's images, the profundity of the career of Abbas Kiarostami, a fascination with old and new cinema in China or an irrepressible enthusiasm for early Shochiku directors like Ozu Yasujiro or Shimizu Hiroshi (or this year's discovery of Nomura Hotei's The Island Girl during Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in the very welcoming Pordenone). There's something special to find a magical film from 1933 but the cinephilia in us creates an immediate hunger to see the other nine films that director completed in the same year!

Australian Film Festivals is Kirsten Stevens' notable and thoroughly researched work on the film festival movement in Australia, particularly in Melbourne and Sydney, from its roots nearly seven decades ago through so many changes city by city. She has truly immersed her enquiries into the enthusiasms that kept festivals afloat during periods of great economic uncertainty until the very major cultural events they have become today.  As someone who has attended every Melbourne Film Festival (or now MIFF) since 1964, I was interviewed by the writer during her research period.  The author's depth of knowledge and understanding of so much information was amazing. After talking for a short time, it was apparent that she had not only an expansive working knowledge of the festival history but also that she was already developing a firm framework to develop in her thesis.   I simply hoped that my anecdotal evidence would be useful somewhere along the way and provide a footnote or two that were not remembered elsewhere.  The final result is a definitive investigation of how these festival events, inspired by cinephilia, have extended and broadened our culture so much over six or seven decades.

Repertory Movie Theatres of New York City by Ben Davis is certainly a celebration of the cinephilia from the 1960 to 1994 period, particularly a nostalgic trip for those having lived in or visited New York but also providing a wistful moment or two for others of us who experienced this repertory theatre movement from afar. Maybe it was the listings in Village Voice, perhaps the occasional movie sequence with the protagonists waiting in line outside the Bleeker St. Cinema or the Thalia, or it could be the mentions of these treasured screening venues as cultural placements in other kinds of writing. Reading the book provides hours of enjoyment and information about the programming inspirations, the economic realities and individual obsessions of those people at work behind the scenes.

Cinemas of Paris, edited by Jean-Michel Frodon and Dina Iordanova appeared in 2016 and looks at many aspects of cinema attendances in Paris, maybe the cinephilia city of the world.  The editors and commissioned writers examine the major exhibitors, public film institutions and publications. Finally there are many chapters on specific cinemas, famous for specifically curated programming. More than nostalgia for those who have spent time in the great film city, this involving and essential work has been created by the combined talents of many perceptive writers such as the editors themselves along with Daniel Fairfax, Frances Guerin, Yoana Pavlova, Sue Harris and so many more. Moreover, there are interpolated comments by a crossroads of international practitioners including Amos Gitai, Jia Zhangke, Naomi Kawase, Abbas Kiarostami, Ken Loach, Gus Van Sant, Apitchatpong Weerasethakul.

Film soundtrack recordings: nostalgic or cinephilic recall.
Even from the days of 78pm recordings, movies have had extended lives through commercial (and sometimes unofficial) releases of complete or edited soundtracks, full orchestral scores, sometimes dialogue included, now and then a hit song permanently associated with a film's release or sheet music for domestic performance of the compositions. These date back to the silent film era: Diane, from Borzage's Seventh Heaven, Marian heard in Murnau's now lost 4 Devils or Ramona from the film of the same name. Sheet music and records were used as commercial reminders of favourite films. The short playing time per side of 78s meant few longer orchestral pieces, composed for films, were issued. Walton's score for Olivier's Henry V or maybe Rozsa's The Thief of Bagdad with narration were exceptions. From the 1950s, the LP era changed the situation with more comprehensive film soundtracks being part of regular music store inventories.

In more recent times, specialist companies are doing for film soundtracks what Criterion achieves with their significant DVD and Blu-ray releases. A visit to Tokyo isn't complete without a trip to Shibuya, not only for its famous crossing where locals and visitors sit for regulated times in the window of a famous coffee-house brand looking at the thousands of pedestrians but also for me it's more essential to walk the extra couple of blocks to Tower Records and its nine floors of audio and video discs, food, books and live music events. In the CD soundtrack section during my Tokyo FILMeX visit in November, there were so many items, familiar and much less so, clamouring for attention. One label in particular, Soundtrack Factory, has over the years been providing reissues of film scores not usually in circulation. It has provided several important discs in the last year or so, prepared with dedication and affection for films made half a century ago. 

The releases include substantial illustrated booklets explaining the history of the films, the scores and their significance. The cinephile in me couldn't resist buying the following titles and listening to them at home, it's a pleasure to find that they sound impressively terrific.

The Rio Bravo soundtrack comes as a double CD set which expands upon a previously issued release of Dimitri Tiomkin's music from Hawks' great western. Disc one, running just under an hour, follows the regular music cues one would expect from an original film soundtrack assemblage. The second disc, at nearly seventy minutes, includes expanded variations of tist audio edition in the manner that specialist DVD companies might release if they concentrated on soundtracks alone. 

On the Waterfront provides Leonard Bernstein's complete original score for Elia Kazan's 1954 film plus Bernstein's orchestral suite based on this material and recorded with the New York Philharmonic in 1960.  The score is a fascinating link between Bernstein's other Big Apple tales, On the Town and West Side Story.  There is much of the excitement and longing of the last work in On the Waterfront.

A Bout de Souffle provides ten tracks of Martial Solal's complete music score for Godard's film plus eighteen bonuses in the form of music written by Solal for other directors including Welles' The Trial and Melville's Deux Hommes dans Manhattan while, back to Godard, the final item is a fragment of Michel Legrand's music for Godard's Vivre sa Vie.

There have probably been earlier discs of music for Jacques Tati's first three features. I remember when Mon Oncle was first released in Australia I waited for a year for a Collins St., Melbourne record store to import an EP providing a few tracks of the music. Soundtrack Factory has happily put together a memorable collection of music from those first Tati films. Again there are bonus tracks reminding us of the sounds of Tati's short films and other films of the period. For each of the three features there are also theme songs, perhaps created for publicity purposes as I don't remember them in the films themselves, especially Koh Hideo's vocals for Mon Oncle.

FULLER AT FOX is another double CD issue but this time from the Fox studios. Alfred Newman's majestic score for Hell and High Water plus Pickup on South Street and House of Bamboo scored by Leigh Harline. More bonus tracks are included.

Film Programming beyond the normal limits of imagination.
The Film Society of the Lincoln Center programmers Dennis Lim and Thomas Beard have outdone their usual imaginative studies of so many aspects of film history with the season The Non-Actor, a Historical Survey which spans over forty films made from 1928 to 2013. Alongside more familiar items such as Bresson's Au Hasard Balthazar, Satyajit Ray's Pather Panchali , Abbas Kiarostami's Close-up, Pedro Costa's Colossal Youth, Rossellini's Germany Year Zero, Pialat's Naked Childhood and Eisenstein's October, there are many real rarities or films rarely seen today like Hani Susumu's Bad Boys, Spencer Williams'  The Blood of Jesus, Floyd Mutrux's Dusty and Sweets McGee, Valeska Grisebach's Longing, Lisandro Alonso's Los Muertos, Liu Jiayin's Oxhide, Margaret Cram's Three Movie Queens trilogy. The series also provides a rare chance to see Edward Yang's very great A Brighter Summer Day restored and on the big screen.

In the middle of writing this comes news that the next series will be over fifty superb titles under the banner Emotion Pictures: International Melodramas. 

More locally the Melbourne International Film Festival, amongst its many recent retrospectives, curated a very significant sidebar in 2017. Pioneering Women in Australian Cinema was an excellent selection of ten Australian films directed by women between 1982 and 1996. Co-curated by the festival's artistic director Michelle Carey and Alexandra Heller-Nicholas, the season included two restorations from the National Film and Sound Archive and six features on 35mm. As Ms Heller-Nicholas is quoted, "This is a history people really want to learn and know about, and there is a desperation, I think, to look beyond Australian film history's dominant white straight-male narrative." The restorations were Ann Turner's Celia and Gillian Armstrong's Starstruck

The season also presented Armstrong's later High Tide, Tracey Moffatt's BeDevil, Laurie McInnes' Broken Highway, Mary Callaghan's Tender Hooks, Ana Kokkinos' Only the Brave, Susan Lambert's On Guard, Nadia Tass' The Big Steal while the most recent inclusion was Clara Law's 1996 rarely shown Floating Life, the concerns of which are still so contemporary that new arrivals from Asia apparently told the director how relevant the film is to their experience twenty years later.Finally my cinephile year has been enriched as always by the weekly screenings of the Melbourne Cinematheque presented at ACMI. Sometimes practitioners in more faraway places find it hard to believe this vital organisation relies on the dedication and inspiration of volunteers working in so many other walks of life. A quintessential evening this year provided Lubitsch's The Marriage Circle and Chaplin's A Woman of Paris, both shown in nice 35mm prints with a later night coda of Lubitsch's earlier German delight The Oyster Princess.

Looking to 2018, the first edition of Cinema Reborn, drawing on the programming experiences of the Bologna Cinema Ritrovato events, seems certain to be a paradise long weekend for cinephiles in Sydney and further afield.  
Ernst Lubitsch

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