Saturday 22 December 2018

Defending Cinephilia (8) - Adrian Danks finds much pleasure in getting out and about

Unlike last year, I did get out a lot more but not so often to new movies. 2018 was marked by my first visit to Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna, the first edition of Cinema Reborn in Sydney, and what proved to be a fairly bumper year for the Melbourne Cinematheque (which I co-curate with my comrades Michael Koller, Eloise Ross, Cerise Howard and Michelle Carey). 2018 also marked Michelle’s final year as the Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Film Festival, leaving behind an extraordinary legacy that will be impossible to match. 

'closest to his best', Phantom Thread, (Paul Thomas Anderson)
It was also defined by a number of very good films – though certainly not their best by any means – by an array of the greatest directors currently working: Nuri Bilge Ceylan, Lucrecia Martel, Lee Chang-Dong, Jean-Luc Godard and Paul Thomas Anderson (though he was certainly the closest to his best here). My 2018 was also marked by finally subscribing to Netflix, a service that delivered three of the richest and most enjoyable – if in some cases a little overrated – films of the year: Cuarón’s Roma, the Coens’ The Ballad of Buster Scruggs and Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind. It was remarkable to finally see a version of Welles’ film, but I must admit to being a little bit disappointed that the most startling and innovative parts of the film – the “art movie” being made by Jack Hannaford – is somewhat tossed away as a self-conscious, film-within-a-film joke (the kind of movie Welles wouldn’t make, though he sort of just did). A fair bit of the rest is either fascinating or fairly tedious. Like Adrian Martin, I certainly prefer Welles’ other essayistic explorations of the time – such as F for Fake(1973) and Filming “Othello” (1978) – but am very glad to have another Welles film to delve back into.

Another highlight of the year was the Edith Head show – The Costume Designer: Edith Head and Hollywood – at the Bendigo Art Gallery. This provided a very substantial survey of Head’s costumes and a clear illustration of why her work has stood the test of time – with the exception of lavish costumes for films such as The Greatest Show on Earth (Cecil B. DeMille, 1952) that were well outside her comfort zone, Head’s costumes are notable for their wearability, even ordinariness. This was a terrifically mounted show that gave you a real sense of both her actual achievement and the transformative qualities of the cinema itself (at some level what you see are just clothes and not what you experience on the screen). It was an exhibition that wasn’t frightened to suggest that conclusion and was all the more valuable for it.

Sergei Eisenstein
I also travelled to Italy for two stellar events: the Eisenstein for the 21st Century symposium convened by Julia Vassilieva in Prato, which revealed many fascinating insights into Eisenstein’s life and work including the extraordinary archives held in Moscow; and Il Cinema Ritrovato. There is so much that could be said about the latter, but I’ll restrict myself to a few highlights: the John M. Stahl retrospective, the Piazza Maggiore screening of Emilio Fernández’s Enamorada (1946) with Scorsese in attendance, the opera house presentation of Borzage’s 7th Heaven (1927) and the truly astounding restoration of Ulmer’s Detour (1945).
Publicity shot, Detour (Edgar G Ulmer)
After so many years of watching this in poor quality, severely damaged and dupey prints, the clarity of the painstaking restoration almost felt wrong (but isn’t), denying the legend of the film’s precarious C-grade reputation and the director’s poverty row credentials. Don’t get me wrong, the film still betrays its short production schedule, minimal sets and depopulated frame, but it is now possible to better assess the true visual and aural qualities of Ulmer’s achievement.

This brings me to my two absolute highlights or (re)discoveries of the year, both involving, as with Ulmer, Jewish directors born in Germany or Austria who were exiled in Hollywood and elsewhere in Europe for large parts of their careers. My favourite event of the year was the fledgling Cinema Reborn festival in Sydney in early May helmed by the estimable Geoff Gardner. This was a highly collegial, warm and intimate celebration of film history and the art of restoration that found a canny sweet spot between Australian cinema, important international revivals and some true curios. May it keep running for many years.
Edwige Feuillere, Sans Lendemain (Max Ophuls)
There were many highlights including Chadi Abdel Salam’s two films – a synecdoche for the event itself, as Phillip Adams sagely suggested in his terrific introduction – but it was truly wonderful to finally see Max Ophuls’ Sans lendemain (1939) – as the opening night film – in a luminous looking digital “print”. This is really the lynchpin between Ophuls’ work in Europe in the 1930s and the magnificent run of films that define his reputation and mark the end of his career, and, I think, one of his true masterpieces. 

Emil Jannings, Variety, (E A Dupont)
As is also true of the much more familiar Madame de…, the first film I saw at Il Cinema Ritrovato in the extraordinary surrounds of the Piazza Maggiore. The other great rediscovery were two films by E. A. Dupont, both wonderfully detailed and extraordinarily staged sagas of “theatrical” life, and both in beautiful restorations. Variety (1925) screened at the Melbourne Cinematheque and managed to survive one of the worst contemporary scores I’ve ever heard, by British “cabaret” band The Tiger Lillies (avoid that soundtrack option at all costs).
Das Alte Gesetz  (E A Dupont)
The other was a less well-known work, 
Das Alte Gesetz (This Ancient Law, 1923), which screened at the Jewish International Film Festival in Melbourne. It’s a film that has often been compared to The Jazz Singer (Alan Crosland, 1927) but is in fact a much greater cinematic achievement providing a fascinating, fine-grained portrait of Jewish and theatrical life in mid-19th-century Europe. Although his career lost its way – absolutely – in the early 1930s, he is certainly a “subject for further research”.

A final note. The screening of several Chris Marker films at Il Cinema Ritrovato, including another terrific restoration of La Jetée(1962), reminded me of the tragic death of my close friend, one-time cinephile and creator of the Chris Marker Database, Adrian Miles. I raise my glass to him and 2018, a wake lit by fireworks.
Adrian Miles

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