Wednesday 16 December 2020

Defending Cinephilia 2020 (5) - Co-curator of the Melbourne Cinematheque Adrian Danks reports on his lockdown year


Marlene Dietrich, Dishonored

1.    Dietrich Returns to the Capitol

2020 will be remembered for many things, including as the year many people stopped going to the cinema. In Melbourne, for large parts of the year, you simply had no choice. But in my first entry here I want to remember the first few months before lockdown and, in particular, the stellar opening of the Melbourne Cinémathèque’s second and unexpectedly last season of the year: “Light and Shadow: The Mercurial Stardom of Marlene Dietrich”. This season played to very large audiences in the week’s leading up to the first lockdown in Melbourne, the attendances a barometer of the hunger for film screenings in this city (let’s hope it returns on the other side of the pandemic). Audiences of over 400 watched imported 35mm prints of three films that first screened in Melbourne (and as research has revealed, in Australia) at the same cinema – the Walter Burley and Marion Mahony Griffin-designed Capitol in Swanston Street; decreased in size but refitted by RMIT University – over 80 years ago. This was a wonderful and truly serendipitous occurrence – as the co-curator of the Cinémathèque, I hadn’t realised that the Capitol was the first-release cinema for Paramount, Dietrich’s home studio (though she worked for Universal on 1939’s Destry Rides Again [George Marshall], the vastly enjoyable movie that concluded our final screening) – that underlines the occasional continuity of cinephilia over vast tracts of time. Screening prints of Sternberg’s Dishonored almost 90 years after its first showing on the 27thof May 1931, and Lubitsch’s extraordinary Angel 83 years after its initial release were my absolute highlights of 2020. Those rare screenings – and by then we knew we would need to close down in the coming weeks – now seem almost as far away as those Dietrich premieres of the 1930s.

Boris Karloff, Isle of the Dead

2.    Lockdown Begins: Isle of the Dead vs. The Lighthouse

Despite the thousands of choices I have at my fingertips, I haven’t found lockdown particularly conducive to film viewing. I’ve spend much of the last nine months reading and listening to music. This has been a somewhat surprising development, but it has revealed that my film viewing is closely related to a broader sense of mobility, even if this is merely a matter of just travelling to a local cinema. The last two years have been marked by my trips to Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna as well as other places and are certainly amongst the richest of my film-going life. But this could also be a matter of the choices I’ve made along the way. The start of lockdown was marked by my decision to watch the recent release The Lighthouse (Robert Eggers, 2019) and the Val Lewton-produced Isle of the Dead (Mark Robson, 1945) back-to-back over two nights. Isle of the Deadwhich starts with Boris Karloff’s character vigorously washing his hands (a model of it, really) before warning of an approaching plague (which catches up with him, inevitably, on the Isle of the Dead), is one of the most intriguing and melancholy of the extraordinary run of “horror” films Lewton produced at RKO in the 1940s. It is a strange and poetic film, which features many images of characters in white masks, copious discussions of the encroaching disease, and moments that pinpoint social and physical isolation. Although it was a bit too close to the bone, it certainly had much to recommend it at this moment in time, even a Karloff-calm way of facing approaching calamity. Nevertheless, I’m not so sure how wise it was to follow this up with The Lighthouse, an isolationist nightmare and surreal dream that presents the utter madness of two characters “quarantined” together in the freezing cold “hothouse” atmosphere of the titular lighthouse. For some reason, over the next month or so I placed myself on a strict diet of Jean Grémillon and Joseph Losey movies – gaining a new appreciation for Stanley Baker and Madeleine Renaud, and realising that Losey is also a master of spatial isolation and claustrophobia (I guess I was starting to see it everywhere) – though I never quite got over the clammy, fetid, ghostly calm and nightmarish anxiety of Isle of the Dead and The Lighthouse. Both films are testament to the power of context – of the time and the place in which we experience things – in shaping our response to a particular film. Along with the Dietrich movies above, this was my double bill of 2020.

Amree Hewitt with Tait Brady

Tom O'Regan

Lest We Forget: Amree and Tom

In the general blur of 2020 it is easy to forget that many key figures of world cinema died across the year: Ennio Morricone; Bruce Baillie; Ivan Passer (whose Cutter’s Wayis one of the great post-classical US films); Lucia Bosè; Nelly Kaplan; Honor Blackman and Diana Rigg (always and again joined together by their iconic roles in TV’s The Avengers); Jirí Menzel; the extraordinary Linda Manz (just watch her startling unvarnished performances in Malick’s Days of Heaven[1978] and Kaufman’s The Wanderers[1979]); Max von Sydow; Michel Piccoli (quietly accumulating one of the great filmographies over almost 70 years); Fernando E. Solanas; the last two surviving major stars of classical Hollywood: Olivia de Havilland and Kirk Douglas (just watch them, respectively, in Walsh’s The Strawberry Blonde[1941] and Wilder’s Ace in the Hole[1950], to get a sense of their legacy); and many others. But 2020 also marked the passing of two major figures of Australian screen culture: Tom O’Regan and Amree Hewitt. Both Tom and Amree were models of collegiality and I’ve never heard anyone say a bad word about either of them. Tom, of course, is one of the defining figures of screen studies in Australia, and his outstanding and seminal work on Australian cinema is something that anyone working in the field has to contend with. Amree was one of Australia’s great film curators – her extensive Ida Lupino season at the Melbourne Film Festival in 1996 is one of the defining moments for many local cinephiles. Both are irreplaceable and leave a large hole in the fabric of screen culture in Australia.

Penrod and Sam

Pordenone: “COVID Normal”

As the year went on and I got used to “COVID normal” during Melbourne’s 100-day or so second lockdown, I started to return more productively and extensively to movies and television. Film festivals started to offer more substantial programs online, often at very reasonable prices (not so true of the Melbourne and Sydney International Film Festivals, though). The pick of these was the Pordenone Silent Film Festival. It offered a couple of programs a day for the extremely cheap price of 10 euros for the lot. First up, was a lovely restoration of Penrod and Sam (1923), based on Booth Tarkington’s light-hearted novel. I wouldn’t want to claim it as any kind of masterpiece, but it had a lot of lovely observational detail. It obviously bears some comparison with the Our Gang series (but better), the Australian late silent The Kid Stakes(Tal Ordell, 1927), and Frank Borzage’s far more serious allegory, No Greater Glory(1934). It also has a refreshing range of characters, including three or four substantive and not overly stereotypical African American kids. It’s directed by William Beaudine, who made an extraordinary number of films and TV episodes between 1915 and 1969 and is probably due for a little more attention (though seeing the trees for the wood here would be very challenging). Overall, this was a fantastic and thought-provoking online event – with often stellar restorations – though I think it made me realise that I most like my silent movies leavened with some sound ones. Watching one to two programs each day while working full-time was a bit of challenge – though it did allow me to make it the full festival experience by dozing through a few of the less enticing titles. Aside from the great attraction of seeing Sessue Hayakawa, I found Where Lights are Low (Colin Campbell, 1921) an aptly titled film; the Italian “surrealist” comedy La tempesta in un cranio(Carlo Campogalliani, 1921) tedious; and the last program of Laurel or Hardy movies (note the careful substitution of “or” for “and” there) a clear illustration of who carried the “weight” in that duo (though Laurel’s pretty dire directorial effort, partly rediscovered in the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, made it 2 out 3 for his contributions). The film starring Larry Semon also reminded me of what a charmless comedian he was (I certainly won’t be leading the Semon revival). But aside from this, and the too long but intermittently striking early cinema programs, there was a lot of excellent, often fascinating stuff on offer. My picks aside from Penrod and Samwere Dimitris Gaziadis’Oi apahides ton Athinon(Apaches of Athens, 1930; particularly in its more observational, neorealist moments), Cecil B. De Mille’s A Romance of the Redwoods, and G. W. Pabst’s Abwege(1928) – I’m generally less keen on Brigitte Helm but this had several startling moments including an extraordinary bedroom scene between the husband and wife (isolating spaces, again) as well as characteristically stunning production design. Although I only watched a few of the discussions around the films, they were also expertly done (and you can’t always say that). I hope I can get to the festival one day, but this sure made a worthwhile replacement and suggests some rich possibilities for the future of hybrid events that fuse the local with the global, physical presence with the virtual.

The Beach (top)
I Want to Make a Film About Women

From 1923-2020 – The Year that Was

Any overview would be remiss without a list of terrific and/or intriguing films and TV shows I encountered for the first time in 2020 (some of these, like the Sautet, Savoca and Walsh, had been sitting on my shelves for years). I’ve decided not to comment on films and shows I found particularly lacking, but if I was you I’d go nowhere near Spike Lee’s Da 5 Bloods (2020), Sofia Coppola’s On the Rocks (2020) or Ian Brennan and Ryan Murphy’s Hollywood (2020; not so bad for the few couple of episodes and then…). Here’s the list of my 20 favourites of 2020, making no distinction between whether a film was first made available over the last 12 months or in 1920. For whatever reason, these are the ones that have stayed with me over this challenging time. It’s been that kind of year.

L’année dernier à Dachau (Mark Rappaport, 2020)

Dogfight (Nancy Savoca, 1991)

Small Axe: Lover’s Rock( Steve McQueen, 2020)

The Criminal (Joseph Losey, 1960)

Gueule d’amour (Jean Grémillon, 1937)

Opfergang (Veit Harlan, 1944)

The Plot Against America (Ed Burns and David Simon, 2020)

Country Music (Ken Burns, 2019) – full-length version, not that screened by SBS

To Each His Own (Mitchell Leisen, 1946)

Penrod and Sam (William Beaudine, 1923)

Un couer en hiver (Claude Sautet, 1992)

The Tall Men (Raoul Walsh, 1955)

The Beach (Warwick Thornton, 2020)

Mustang (Deniz Gamze Ergüven, 2015)

Krakatit (Otakar Vávra, 1948)

Il traditore (The Traitor, Marco Bellocchio, 2019)

The Queen’s Gambit (Scott Frank and Allan Scott, 2020)

The Spook Who Sat by the Door (Ivan Dixon, 1973)

I Want to Make a Film About Women(Karen Pearlman, 2019)

Robbery (Peter Yates,1967)

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