Category: Film history

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The Majestic interior as a cinema.

The Majestic interior as a cinema.

This was an art installation that I attended with other Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House. The installation was organised and present by the Pavilion, a Leeds-based art project that seeks out new commissions from contemporary artists. One of the skills of the Pavilion is its ability to find unusual locations: in this instance a disused cinema.

The cinema was The Majestic, a city centre disused building in City Square, Leeds. The cinema opened in 1922 and closed for film screenings in 1969. It had further life as first a bingo venue and then a night-club but has been empty for eight years. As part of our visit we had a talk about the cinema by Alan Foster, Chief Projectionist at the Hyde Park Cinema, who is the technical advisor on this project. The Majestic was opened in 1922 but the developers had a rather quaint idea about a film theatre. They did not include a projection box and one of their first problems was to make space for the installation of the projection equipment. The screen was placed against the front of the building, where the main entrance is now to be found. It had an organ at the side and an orchestral pit for musicians. There have been a number of extensive conversions but some remnants of the original remain, including the impressive dome with the surrounding frieze of charioteers relatively intact.

The cinema opened with a screening of D. W. Griffith’s great melodrama, Way Down East (1920). It is nice to think of the Griffith’s favourite star Lilian Gish appearing as an early image on screen with live music accompanying her performance. The Majestic ran as a cinema to the 1950s, though its inadequate interior design did not help its success. Then in 1957 it was converted with the installation of 70mm projection for the large screen Roadshow versions of popular films. South Pacific (1958) was an early popular success. The greatest was the Roadshow version of The Sound of Music (1965) which ran for two and a half years: approximately 1800 performances. The closeness of the audience to the large 48-foot wide screen was an attraction for enthusiasts, some of who travelled across from Manchester and up north from London. However, the falling audience of the 1960s led to an end of this fare. The last film was The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). Alan felt this was a rather inadequate ending. However, the thought of an unkempt Eli Wallach to the sound of an Ennio Morricone score seems a poetic finale. Especially as the film is a sort of epilogue to that central cinematic genre, the western.

Alan then introduced us to the film installation. This is screened in the basement due to technical restrictions. There is an impressive if rather dark curving staircase leading down. The project has a portable 35mm projector with a temporary box and a specially erected screen. The ratio of this resembles some very early film, being about .8 or .9 to 1.

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Hyperspace

The installation is the work of Melvin Moti. An artist based in the Netherlands who has worked previously on film projects. The film, which runs for 24 minutes, is titled The Eightfold Dot. The pavilion notes describe this: “the idea of the fourth dimension pre-occupied writers, artists, theosophists and mathematicians, Mot-‘s 24-minutes silent film is a narrative – about a dot, line, square, cube and hypercube – that moves from the symmetrical atomic structure of crystals to the outer most edges of our universe. From shadows to solids..” In a nice touch the film coincides with the centenary of the invention of X-ray crystallography in a physics laboratory in Leeds.

This is an abstract work with shifting images, from frameworks to diaphanous strictures to solids. It features dissolves and multi-images. It is a fairly subjective work but with intriguing contrasts and a clear development. We saw a new 35m print, which looked good. And it was silent, apart from the distant hum of the projector and the slight scrape of the celluloid on reels.

The Pavilion has been running open afternoons on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 12 noon to 6 p.m. The final opportunities will be over the next fortnight up until December 20th. The cinema building is a really interesting site to visit and the film installation is a fascinating one-reel exploration. Moreover it offers an opportunity of tranquillity and peace as a break in the hassle and crowds of the Xmas shopping period.

1,000 posts and counting

(From http://jigsawabacus.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/mystery-of-abacus/) An abacus is an ancient Chinese form of counting widely used in Asia.

(From http://jigsawabacus.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/mystery-of-abacus/) An abacus is an ancient Chinese form of counting widely used in Asia.

With the flurry of postings last week, The Case for Global Film passed 1,000 individual postings. The 1,000th post was on Vicky Donor. Our stats tell us that we have a regular group of visitors that is steadily growing but that most of you visit us when you are looking for something specific on a film and on average you visit just under 2 separate postings on your visit. Perhaps you aren’t aware of the vast array of material (approaching 1 million words and thousands of images) that we hold?

The best way to get the most out of this blog is to have a quick look at the How to navigate this site page and discover how to search through the material.

We are moving forward onto the next 1,000 now, so watch this space! Suggestions for better ways of organising the material are always welcome.

Dial M for Murder in 3D

Dial-M-For-Murder_14

This was the first of four productions that Alfred Hitchcock made for the Warner Brothers studio. The early fifties were the height of Hollywood attempts, through technological innovation, to roll back the tide of television and the new world of leisure. Most spectacularly, but also the most short-lived, 3D offered a unique cinematic experience. For a time, with a film like Warner’s House of Wax (1953), audiences were seduced. But by the time Dial M for Murder came out in 1954 the craze was in its last days. The unevenness of presentations in the new format, and to a degree the basic cardboard and gel spectacles, soon dented audience interest. Most audiences, certainly in the UK, saw this film in a 2D version. Despite these problems the film was a success, it took at least $6 million on a budget of under $1.5 million.

The 2D version has been the standard release on both 35mm and video for years. In fact Hitchcock and his production team use the traditional techniques to produce a sense of depth in many shots: lighting, colour gradation, size and placement, . . . Like the earlier Rope (1948) the film is adapted from a stage play confined to one interior set (written by Fredrick Knott, first for television then the theatre). The film opens this out a little, with additional scenes, including exteriors. Apart from the 3D version, Hitchcock and his crew, including Robert Burks on cinematography, had to adjust to the new wide screen format – 1.85:1. They also had to manage the new colour film process, Eastmancolor. So there were all sorts of technical challenges involved in the production.

In terms of plot we have Tony Wendice (Ray Milland) married to Margot (Grace Kelly) who is in love with a writer Mark Halliday (Robert Cunnings). Since Margot is the partner with the money Tony sets up a murder scheme involving C A Swann (Anthony Dawson). As invariably happens in the movies, the plot goes awry. Nothing daunted, Tony implicates his wife in the death of Swann. Mark attempts to solve the mystery by using his ill-suited skills as a writer of murder mysteries. But the real solution relies on Inspector Hubbard (John Williams). As usual in Hitchcock films there is a MacGuffin, which is the key, which passes round the characters. But thematically it is about the threatened heroine, a sexual triangle, guilt and innocence, and a touch of voyeurism.

The real star of the film is Ray Milland who projects the husband as cynical but charming. By comparison Robert Cummings is passé: it seems that Grace Kelly shared this view as according to Donald Spoto her affair during the production was with Milland not Cummings. It shows in the finished film: her tender glances are to Tony not Mark. Dawson and Williams are both excellent. And Patrick Allen has a walk-on part with a handbag.

The handbag, and a woman’s workbox, along with the telephone and the key are the props that Hitchcock and Burks highlight through the 3D process. Most 3D films had ‘in your face` sequences, literally. This film eschews these, apart from the credits (personably by the studio), a telephone dial, one shot of the key and in a really dramatic sequence, a pair of scissors. However, right through the film the distinctive sense of depth, which is 3D’s virtue, is used to great effect.

The 3D process was cumbersome, required additional lighting to cope with the two-camera set-up and filters, and was not that good for close-ups. One notices that Hitchcock’s fondness for the large close-up is mostly absent in this film. In exhibition the 3D version is dimmer than the 2D version. And process shots are problematic, especially noticeable in the street scenes which act as transitions. However the digital 3D process is more audience friendly than the 1950s 35mm process. The glasses don’t often fall off and they work even when askew. And generally the 3D effect seems to work across the auditorium. I did see a 35mm 3D version of Dial M for Murder in the 1990s. We were advised to sit at the back of the auditorium to get the 3D effect: it did work, but other people elsewhere in the auditorium were less fortunate.

I tend to agree with Mark Kermode about the process generally. However Dial M for Murder, as you might expect with Hitchcock, utilises the technology to intelligent effect. In the famous interview with Truffaut he is fairly dismissive about the film. But I find it difficult to think of another 3D film where the sense of depth is so impressive.

Moreover the film is full of the touches and motifs that one associate with Hitchcock. So there are crossovers with Blackmail (1929), Rope, Notorious (1946), Strangers on a Train (1951) and, still to come, Vertigo (1958). It possibly affected Hitchcock’s collaborators. The music is by Dmitri Tiomkin, but frequently it sounded as if I was listening to Bernard Herrmann.  It is not the best of Hitchcock’s films: however, it has many of his virtues and is vastly entertaining. One of the remakes, A Perfect Murder (1998, Andrew Davis) demonstrates what is lost when lesser hands are at work.

100 Years of Cinema in Keighley

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

As an addendum to my earlier post about the centenary of Keighley’s Picture House Cinema, the cinema operator Charles Morris decided to hold a centenary celebration (some two months late) on July 10 in conjunction with the town’s Film Club which began  to screen films at other venues earlier this year.

Wednesday’s film programme put together by the Film Club comprised a free afternoon programme, part of which was then repeated in the evening alongside a screening of The Artist (France/US 2011) for which tickets were sold. The afternoon programme was introduced by Charles Morris, fresh from lunch with invited guests. He quickly handed over to the Film Club’s Secretary Bob Thorp who explained that the Film Club would in future be showing films once per month in the cinema. We then watched a short film by one of the film club members on the history of early cinema and also a documentary on the Picture House itself made last year (see it here). The main part of the programme which I want to comment on here was the selection of Maya Deren’s At Land (US 1944) and Episode 1 of the Fantômas serial directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Renée Navarre as Fantômas and which was released in five episodes each of 54 minutes in 1913.

Maya Deren in 'At Land'

Maya Deren in ‘At Land’

At Land was shown first with a musical accompaniment – a piano in front of the small stage, played very well (but the pianist’s name wasn’t given). However, I’m not sure whether Maya Deren ever intended that her silent films should have accompaniment. Some of Deren’s films had music soundtracks created by her collaborators, but not this one to my knowledge. Music does change the experience of watching a silent film. Commercial film screenings of films without soundtracks up to the early 1930s usually had some form of accompaniment but later avant-garde films (often shown in non-theatrical spaces) might be shown silent. Anyone who has watched a film in a cinema without any sound at all knows what a strange experience it is, so perhaps accompaniment here was a wise decision. As an aside, the three major texts on Deren and the 1940s American avant-garde that I consulted all failed to discuss soundtracks (or at least to include a reference in an index).

Maya Deren had arrived in the US from Ukraine as a small child in 1922 and by the mid 1940s she was becoming a leading figure in the ‘New American Cinema’ as the group of avant-garde filmmakers working out of New York became labelled. Her collaborators included the composer John Cage and her husband Alexander Hammid and others who appear in At Land. Hammid co-directed and photographed Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Deren’s first film (but not Hammid’s first). At Land was photographed mainly by Hella Heyman. This creative collaboration is just one of the reasons why Maya Deren has been so celebrated within feminist film studies. She effectively controls her own liberated image on screen – ironically, she photographs so well that her image equals if not surpasses those of the artificial Hollywood goddesses of the period. Her background was in anthropology and poetry. She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was interested in dance cultures which featured directly in her later films and her work generally acquired the tag of ‘trance films’. The films are indeed ‘dreamlike’, not just in the strange juxtaposition of sequences but also in their rhythms which through careful camerawork and editing create almost seamless transitions and a sense of swooning. At Land begins with Deren washed up on a beach, but as she pulls herself up on a tree stump she climbs directly onto a long dining table where she is seemingly oblivious to the diners. Later she enters a building with an array of doors to open. There is clearly a relationship with surrealism, but most critics of avant-garde film see Deren as an original rather than simply a follower of Buñuel and Dali.

Maya Deren’s work is now easily accessible on DVD and much of it is also on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it before, it is well worth seeking out. I always assumed that Kate Bush must have been a fan.

fantomas

The selection of Fantômas was announced as simply an example of a film released in 1913. Bob Thorp said he didn’t yet know whether Fantômas ever played in the Picture House at the time. Nevertheless it was an interesting choice and given its great influence on subsequent filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock it reminded us of some of the thrills and spills that cinemagoers of the next forty or fifty years would have enjoyed. I haven’t seen the serial before but from the little I’ve read the first episode was perhaps not the best to show since it is mostly setting-up the battle between Inspector Juve and the mysterious criminal Fantômas. The vision behind the adaptation of a successful novel is such that at first it is easy to forget that the film is 100 years old. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that most scenes are still conventional tableaux with a more or less static camera. The main movement comes in the sequence detailing  a remarkable prison escape. At the end of the episode is a piece of Méliès camera trickery, matching some of the promotional footage for the series which emphasises Fantômas as a master of disguise, constantly changing his appearance – and demonstrating what we would now term ‘morphing’ on screen.

The Film Club programme was enjoyable and it showed imagination and enthusiasm from what is essentially a volunteer group. There were a few problems in the projection of the films but the projectionist assured us afterwards that these had been sorted in time for the evening screening. The next step is to attract audiences to the monthly screenings being organised by the Film Club in this grand old venue and we wish them well.