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Hyperspace

Posted by keith1942 on 9 December 2013

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.

Hyperspace

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.

Posted in Film exhibition, Film history | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

1,000 posts and counting

Posted by Roy Stafford on 17 September 2013

(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.

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Film audiences, Film culture, Film history, Film industry, Film Reviews | Leave a Comment »

Dial M for Murder in 3D

Posted by keith1942 on 8 August 2013

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.

Posted in Film history, Hollywood, Literary adaptations | Tagged: , , | 2 Comments »

100 Years of Cinema in Keighley

Posted by Roy Stafford on 13 July 2013

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.

Posted in Avant-garde cinema, Early film, Film culture, Film history, Film industry, Silent Era | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Keighley Picture House is 100 today!

Posted by Roy Stafford on 10 May 2013

Keighley Picture House in 2006

Keighley Picture House in 2006 with its birthdate proudly presented to the world

The focus for film scholarship should be global – and local. I’m delighted then to celebrate the 100th birthday of my local cinema. The Picture House in Keighley opened its doors to the public for the first time on Saturday 10th May 1913 and it’s still showing current releases today on its two screens. Unfortunately there were a couple of periods in the 1980s and 1990s when its doors were closed for repairs with the building changing ownership, but it has seen more than 90 years of film projection as well as occasional variety performances and pop concerts.

The Picture House wasn’t the first cinema in Keighley. It wasn’t even the first purpose-built cinema, but it was the first to fully embrace the possibilities of cinemas as distinctive architectural expressions of a new entertainment form and as important social amenities. The period from roughly 1910 to 1914 is recognised as the beginnings of the cinema industry that would come to dominate mass entertainment for the next fifty or sixty years. During this period films developed rapidly in terms of production, distribution and exhibition and it is interesting to place the emergence of the Picture House in this context.

In the 1890s Keighley was a thriving manufacturing town with significant employment in textiles mills and engineering. The population of the town, which is located at the confluence of the Rivers Aire and Worth in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, grew rapidly and reached 43,000 by 1911. It had become a municipal borough in 1882 and it had all the ambitions of a modern urban community. Bradford, some ten miles away, became a city in 1897 and an early centre for entrepreneurship in cinema (See Mellor 1996). Keighley was determined not to be left behind. Films were first shown in Keighley in the autumn of 1896 and filmshows became part of the mix of programmes at the Mechanics Institute – the centre for all kinds of activities in the industrial towns of Northern England and elsewhere in the anglophone world. The first purpose-built cinema in Keighley was the Picture Palace in Russell Street that opened on 27 December 1909. A year later the same entrepreneur, Walter Pallister, opened a second cinema in Cavendish Street, just days after the opening of the Theatre de Luxe in Market Street by John Watson. This latter cinema was financed by the London Animated Film company which had previously shown films at the Mechanics Institute. In March 1911 the Oxford Hall opened on Oakworth Road and in 1912, the Cosy Corner in an alleyway off Low Street. These cinemas were located within a few hundred yards of each other in Keighley’s town centre (with the Oxford Hall slightly further out). They also competed with the town’s Frank Matcham-designed theatre, the Hippodrome – previously the Queen’s Theatre.

With all these local attractions, the new Picture House had to be something special. It was funded by a group of local business people including the Smith family of ‘Dean, Smith and Grace’, one of the town’s major employers. The cinema was built on North Street, one of the two main streets in town. It was conceived as a ‘superior’ amenity with specialist cinema contractors brought in to create an 800 seat cinema with a balcony (a ‘grand circle’) and two cafés, a small one in the foyer which had an Italian mosaic floor and a larger one upstairs with ‘wicker furnishings, potted plants, best cutlery and Foley china’ (Liddle 1996). The cinema had its own four-piece orchestra and a stage for live events. The local newspaper’s coverage of the May 10th opening emphasises the lavish decorative work and the safety features (fire hoses and ‘chemical extinguishers’ – fires were a major problem in early cinemas), the new electric lighting and the electric fans that drew out the smoke from all the pipes and cigarettes smoked by audiences. Local historian Cathy Liddle suggests that Keighley cinema audiences were predominantly working-class until after the First World War but the descriptions of the Picture House appointments suggests an attempt to attract the gentry. The opening programme ran from 2.30 on the Saturday afternoon for  two and a quarter hours and from 6.30 for four hours. Tickets were 3d and 6d in the ‘Body of the Hall’ in armchairs and 9d and 1/- in the Grand Circle.

Liddle goes on to suggest that the Picture House did not take customers away from the existing five cinemas, but that eventually it was forced to lower its prices (which elsewhere were more like 2d, 4d and 6d). After the war Keighley got another new cinema, the Regent Picture Palace built almost opposite the Picture House in 1920. It proved to be very popular and the building survives today as a nightclub. In the 1930s the Picture House also hosted live variety performances by the Arcadian Players from Morecambe – and later in the 1960s, pop music concerts. Keighley’s last new cinema, the Ritz, was built in 1938 for the Union circuit but by the time it opened Union had been bought by the ABC chain. The Ritz was the ‘next step’ up from the Picture House with seating for over 1500 and a ‘mighty organ’. It also had the advantage of being able to take the circuit releases from ABC which by the late 1940s had become part of the duopoly of British cinema production, distribution and exhibition with only the Rank Organisation as its major rival. However, the Ritz was tucked away in a back street round the corner from the Picture House and behind the old Keighley Grammar School. I don’t know how well it did compared to others in the chain, but it was closed as a cinema by 1974, switching to bingo (which still operates today). When I researched Keighley’s cinemas operating in the early 1950s, most of them were still open with only the two earliest, the Russell Street and Theatre de Luxe having closed. The Picture House was eventually sold to the Essoldo chain and then became a Classic briefly before closing first in 1983. By this time the upstairs café had become a second small screen and the Picture House was the only survivor of the original eight cinemas. After some extensive repairs paid for out of public funds it re-opened in 1984 as a workers’ co-operative, only to close again in 1991 when it was proving difficult to get new releases and even the addition of a video rental business wasn’t enough to keep the operation afloat. Bradford Metropolitan Council bought the building and sought to find an exhibitor to take it on after further building repairs. At one point it looked like the building might become parts of an arts complex  linked to the town’s Central Hall, but in 1997 the cinema finally re-opened as part of the Northern Morris chain run by Charles Morris. The 1913 Picture House joined three 1912 cinemas in Skipton (Plaza), Elland (Rex) and Leeds (Cottage Road) plus the Royalty in Bowness (1926) and the Roxy in Ulverston  (1937). Keith reported on the Centenary of the Cottage Road cinema last year and a history of the Rex is available from the cinema.

Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any signs of celebration at the Picture House this week, though the ‘100 Years of Cinema’ banner did figure in the cinema’s advertising for a few weeks. For the record, this week the cinema is showing Iron Man 3  and Star Trek into Darkness with matinees/early evening showings of All Stars and The Croods. Cinema 1 has 300 seats and Cinema 2 has 93 seats. The lack of celebration is perhaps explained by the uncertainty surrounding the cinema’s future. Cineworld have been announced as one of the the tenants of a new development in Keighley with plans for an 8-screen cinema. The site has been cleared and the development is scheduled to be built over the next two years. Charles Morris has reportedly said that he will end his lease with Bradford Council as soon as the Cineworld operation becomes a reality – leaving the council with an empty 1913 building. Let’s hope the building, now the oldest working cinema in Bradford can find a suitable new purpose for many years to come. In the meantime. Happy Birthday!

References/Sources

Mellor, Geoff (1996) Movie Makers and Picture Palaces: A Century of Cinema in Yorkshire 1896-1996, Bradford Libraries

Liddle, Cathy (1996) Picture Palace: Cinema and Community, Silsden, West Yorkshire: Sleepy Heron Publishing

Keighley News Archives

[For various reasons I haven't been able to finish my research on the cinema's opening programme in 1913, but I'll try to add further details later.]

Posted in Film culture, Film history, Film industry | 4 Comments »

Lincoln (US 2012)

Posted by keith1942 on 4 March 2013

Lincoln1

Dreamworks and C20th Fox. Director Steven Spielberg. Screenplay Tony Kushner, based on the book by Doris Kearns Goodwin Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln.

Cinematography: Janusz Kaminski. Editor Michael Kahn. Music John Williams. Sound Design Ben Burtt. Costume design Joanna Johnston.

Academy Award for Best Actor Daniel Day-Lewis. Academy Award Best Production Design Rick Cater and Jim Erickson.

Stephen Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s award winning film is a reconstruction of a key moment in US history and the US Civil War. In another sense it is also a biography of the most famous of US Presidents, using a key moment in his life and career rather than providing an overall picture of the man. The key moment is the point at which the US Congress, sited in Washington and the Unionist North’s territory, finally approved a constitutional amendment that abolished slavery. In a sense this was an act that addressed the unfinished business of the founding fathers when they proclaimed all men equal: except of course the enslaved Afro-Americans or Negroes (the politest term in use in that period).

This is an epic production running for two and half-hours. The cinematography, sound and production design are all of a high standard. The film’s score is impressive if occasionally overly sentimental. Daniel Day-Lewis as the President has already received widespread praise, but the whole cast is excellent. This combination of talent and performance gives the film credibility both as an absorbing story and as a history lesson. The conflicts and machinations that preceded the historic vote in the House of Representatives seems to have been bought to the screen with reasonable accuracy, though there is now a debate about the veracity of the Connecticut vote in the film: an odd lapse in what seems a convincing reconstruction.

The central figure of Lincoln emerges partly in the familiar guise seen in earlier biopics: we several times see and hear his famed ability to produce a story appropriate to every occasion. A skill that often exasperated his colleagues but also frequently effectively disarmed his opponents. Less familiar is his foray into political corruption, using patronage to manipulate the vote where morals and rhetoric have failed.

Critics have already remarked on the absence of Afro-Americans from the central focus. The film opens with a strong and brutal depiction of one of the early hand-to-hand battle involving newly recruited Negro soldiers and Confederates. But after that the plot relies mainly on Elizabeth Keckley (Gloria Reuben), a dressmaker and confidant of Mary Todd Lincoln (Sally Fields), and William Slade (Stephen Henderson) the male manservant in the White House. Absent, except perhaps as part of a group of Black men who attend the day of the actual vote, is the noted abolitionist Frederick Douglass. This could be seen as an accurate reflection of the period: the preoccupation of politicians was the Union, and genuine proponents of equality between black and whites were a small (though vocal) minority. However, this dominant focus on the white, male élites has been apparent in the earlier work of Spielberg. Schindler’s List has as its main characters the Aryan Oscar Schindler and Amon Goeth: Munich (also scripted by Tony Kushner) is pre-occupied with Israelis rather than Palestinians: Amistad, like Lincoln, has as lead characters the white members of the political élite. The exception is The Colour Purple where the focus is clearly on oppressed Afro-American women.

This, of course, is part of a larger representations found across Hollywood production. The 1989 Glory, which has a much greater attention devoted to Negroes fighting for the Union in the Civil war, still relies on the character of the white officer of a Negro regiment for much of its drama. It does offer Frederick Douglass a few lines of dialogue. Spielberg has a strong sense of Hollywood conventions and history. In one of the nicer touches in the film Senator Thaddeus Stevens, a noted abolitionist, takes the House of Representatives amendment home to read to his black housekeeper and partner. This is clearly a rebuttal of the notorious The Birth of a Nation, where Stevens is presented through the character of Senator Stoneman, who is suborned by his black housekeeper and paramour.

This is the point in the film when we hear the actual amendment, read by Stevens to his partner after the historic vote on January 31st 1865.

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime where of the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” (There is a second paragraph concerning implementation).

No mention of black people or of equality for black people. It points up the limitations of the Unionist North, the Amendment and the political establishment of the 1860s. Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York, shows another side of this problematic: the riots in New York against compulsory service in the Civil War armies. My sense of the US myths is that these limitations are not commonly part of the iconic representation of Lincoln. Indeed Spielberg seems to want to rescue Lincoln, assassinated just after the end of the war, from any culpability for the carpet-bagging exploitation of the defeated South and the reneging on promises to Negroes. Frederick Douglass wrote after the end of the Civil War that the Negro was “free from the individual master but a slave of society. He had neither money, property, or friends.  … He was turned loose naked, hungry and destitute to the open sky.” But the film ends with a flashback to Lincoln’s second inaugural address then held in March 1865: later in the year than in contemporary elections. The speech ends with the prayer, “With malice towards none; with charity for all; with firmness in the right, as God gives us to see the right, let us strive to finish the work we are in; to bind up the nation’s wounds … to do all which may achieve a just and lasting peace among ourselves, and with all nations.”

Of course, this end scene plays into the inevitable comparisons when we have the first black President just starting his second term in the White House. Some of Barack Obama’s election speeches clearly played into the Lincoln tradition. In that sense, though this has been a long cherished project of Spielberg’s, the film speaks especially powerfully to contemporary USA. Despite the celebratory tone at the end of this film the project of what the film calls ‘racial equality’ has yet to complete its long, violent and demanding journey: as indeed has the States yet to achieve peace with all nations. This has probably played large in the sensibilities of both the Academy members and audiences. The Guardian newspaper (g2 film & music 22.02.13) handily provided some comparisons between the box office performances of Academy Award front-runners. Lincoln is out in front in the USA ($177 mill) ahead of Django Unchained, Les Misérables, Argo and Life of Pi. But overseas it trails behind all the other five titles ($59 mill to Life of Pi’s $466).  And in the UK it is followed by Argo trailing the other four, (£6.9 mill to Les Misérables £36 mill). The actual Academy Awards were spread across these films (and others) but Lincoln with twelve nominations only gained two Oscars. There seems to be a disjuncture between the Academy and the indigenous audience.

It is a cerebral movie, and outside of the USA the political machinations of the Washington élite in the 1860s may lack excitement and panache. Some of the reviews offered strong put-downs. However, despite its lack of action it is absorbing from beginning to end. And Spielberg and Kushner know how to ring the changes. The historic congressional vote combines the drama in the chamber with some nicely judged scenes around the waiting Union. And the so famous assassination is quite daringly different. Hollywood can still turn out a winner when the subject and the filmmakers are fully in tune.

Posted in Film history, Hollywood, Literary adaptations, Politics on film | Leave a Comment »

The Lyric Cinema

Posted by keith1942 on 12 November 2011

The Lyric, on Tong Road in Leeds, opened as a cinema in the 1922 and operated as film venue until 1988. Following that it was used as a warehouse, and more recently has provided a home for a local church. Then in 2011, the Pavilion, a commissioning organisation for new artwork, became involved in a project with the young artist Lucy Skaer. Her idea was to produce a 35mm film which could be screened on the classic Kalee 20 projector: These were manufactured in Leeds between 1947 and 1953. Fortuitously, despite all the changes, two Kalee projectors were still in situ at the Lyric. Whilst it has not been possible to fully restore the cinema the projectors were restored, a wooden screen erected in the proscenium arch, and the auditorium re-opened (though without fixed seating).

Allan Foster, who now projects for the Hyde Park Picture House and who worked at the Lyrics in its final years as a cinema, carried out the restoration. The venue is rather basic, there is no substantial heating and you fetch and carry your own seat. But the projection is fine and the sound is pretty good as well.

Lucy’s artwork, Film for an abandoned projector, is a series of images meditating on time with shots of the cinema, the projectors and a variety of natural and artificial objects and scenes. There has an overall logic, (which seems to explore time and its effects) and there is a haunting eloquence in the flow of images in both black and white and colour. The film is projected every week on a Thursdays (till December 15th), so one of Lucy’s aims is for it to acquire the wear and tear of film running through projectors. We enjoyed a little extra, a short film from the 1980s with Roger Deakins among the credits.

The night we went along we also enjoyed a tour and explanation from Allan (and his assistant Tony) about the projectors themselves. The event was a particular pleasure, as these projectors still possess the old carbon-arc illumination. Now superseded they provide a high quality and consistent illumination. Among other tasks the projectionist has to keep the carbon rods positioned and replaced as they burn out. This is the sort of technology one usually only sees in a museum, but here they are working and providing classic screening in the now rarely seen 1.37:1 aspect ratio. An experience that I forlornly (but mistakenly) thought I would never see again in an actual cinema.

The forthcoming Pavilion commission is 9 Intervals, a multi-episode digital film work by Aurélien Froment. The film addresses the relationship between design and body, constitution and perception. It takes the seated position of the cinema viewer as its starting point. Parts of the film were shot at the Hyde Park Picture House, another classic working antique, this time dating from 1914.

Details at www.pavilion.org.uk

Posted in Festivals and Conferences, Film history, Film industry | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Posted by Roy Stafford on 9 February 2011

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.

Posted in Book Reviews, Film history, Film theory, Hollywood | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

 
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