Tagged: Leeds International Film Festival

35mm films at the Leeds International Film Festival

ThroughAGlassDarkly1web

Through a Glass Darkly

I counted eleven films screening in their original format of 35mm at this year’s Festival. Despite the claims of commercial managers film originated on celluloid tend to look better in that format. It actually requires around 6K digital to match the quality of good 35m prints. And the characteristics of digital are somewhat different from celluloid. Nick Wrigley sets out one key factor in an article in Sight & Sound (December 2012), ‘Crimes against the grain’. Celluloid is composed of silver halide grains, whilst the Digital formats are composed of pixels. Their response to light differs. Modern DCP’s are treated to reproduce the look of grain, but frequently the ‘look’ still differs. One noticeable aspect can be the diminution of definition in long shots. Of course, quality requires good prints and good projection. This has usually been the case with Festival screenings up to now.

One of the retrospective programmes in the Festival is devoted to the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman. All of the four films and one of the two documentaries are to be presented on 35m. The other documentary, Trespassing Bergman (2013), was probably produced on digital.

My cinematic youth was filled with the films of Bergman, and other European filmmakers like Federico Fellini, Jean-Luc Godard, and Andrzej Wajda. They remain powerfully present in my memory, but they have also rewarded revisiting in recent years.

Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom I en spegel, 1961) is the earliest film on show. It is part of a cycle of films described by one critic as ‘chamber works’. It is, for me, one of the two or three finest films directed by Bergman. The film is set on a remote island and involves a small family group. It is an intense drama but with moment of lighter lyricism. Persona (1966) focuses tightly on a convalescing actress and her nurse. It includes some of the most avant-garde techniques found in Bergman’s output and ends with an ambiguous but enthralling set of lap dissolves. The Shame (Skammen, 1968) has a familiar intense relationship at its centre but also broadens out into a study of the effects of violence and war. The Passion of Anna (En Passion, 1969) is the only one of these features in colour. In this film a series of close relationships develop, as a series of violent acts are perpetrated on helpless animals.

Bergman is generally considered an auteur, but like most really talented directors he relies on a carefully selected group of collaborators. All of these films were photographed by Sven Nykvist, one of the outstanding cinematographers in world cinema. All of the films are edited by Ulla Ryghe and three of them have Production Design by P. A. Lindgren, and the last two films have Sound by Lennart Engholm. More familiar are the Bergman ‘stock company’ of actors, some of the finest in world cinema in this period. Max Von Sydow and Liv Ullman turn up three times in these films. And we will also be able to see Bibi Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand twice: with appearances by Harriet Anderson and Erland Josephson.

The other regular in Bergman’s films is the Island of Fårö. You will see it as the regular location in these films and it is also where Bergman made his home. Fårö Dokument was made for Swedish Television in 1969. This is both a portrait of the island and of the inhabitants, at a time when contemporary changes were impacting on the island communities.

Welcome Mr. Marshall

Welcome Mr. Marshall

A rather different tone from the intensity of Bergman will be found in several Spanish films directed by Luis García Berlanga.  Welcome Mr Marshall (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall, 1952) is a black and white satire from the years of the Franco Dictatorship. Because of the extreme censorship the film had to tread carefully, but it offers a sardonic look at the operation of Spanish government and bureaucrats. The Mr Marshal in question is the USA Aid programme for war-recovering Europe. This was one of the most successful Spanish films of the 1950s.

That Happy Couple (Esa pareja feliz, 1953) was jointly directed by Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem, both subjects of retrospectives at the Festival. This is a black and white comedy set round winning a sweepstake – a regular plot device in genre films of the period. It is found in Italian films of the 1950s and Berlanga’s films in particular show the influence of the Neo-realist movement in that country.

Plácido (1961) is a black and white black comedy. The film satirises the gulf between rich and poor and is set on the eve of the Christmas celebrations. The Executioner (El Verdugo, 1963) is another black and white satire. The film suffered cuts by the Francoist censors but still manages to generate ‘gallows’ humour when an undertaker’s assistant marries an executioner’s daughter.

The Day of the Beast (1995) is a much more recent black comedy directed by Alex de la Iglesia and made in colour. Also set in the Christmas celebrations this uses the idea of the Anti-Christ to generate ‘politically incorrect’ comedy. Inglesia also enjoys a retrospective at the Festival.

The Trouble with Money (Komedia om Geld, 1936) is a rare film from the early European period in the career of Max Ophuls. It was produced in black and white for the Cinetone Company in Amsterdam. Ophuls is regarded as a great stylist, especially in his use of editing and the moving camera. But there are also recurring themes in his films: as in La Ronde (1950) there is a narrative figure for this story of the travails of a poor bank clerk. And like the later Madame De… (1953) relationships are intertwined with commodities, in this case an amount of missing money.

Given the sometime unreliability of UK distributors it will be wise to check in advance if the 35mm print in question has arrived. And there may be more treats of this format at the Festival. The Hyde Park Picture House is screening Comfort and Joy (1984) as part of its Open Day. The film is not listed as a 35mm print in the Brochure but when it was the Xmas screening at the Hyde Park we saw a fairly good 35mm print.

 

28th Leeds International Film Festival

Celebrating 100 years during the Festival

Celebrating 100 years during the Festival

This year’s event runs from November 5th until the 20th. There is a set of WebPages (www.leedsfilm.com) and a printed brochure. I prefer the latter as it is easier to scan the programme for films that fit one’s interests. Note this year’s brochure has introductory briefs for the different sections of the Festival and then an A – Z listing of the films. I found the old format with the films divided into sections easier to browse. For the first time the Brochure also indicates films screening on 35mm – i.e. ‘reel’ film. I counted eleven of these. However, the Brochure does not distinguish between the various digital formats – DCP, Blu-Ray, DVD etc. There is usually a Catalogue available at the start of the Festival that provides this information. This year there are fourteen venues, though the core of the Festival will be the Hyde Park Picture House, Leeds Town Hall, Vue Cinema in the Light and the Everyman. Its Centenary Year, the widest range of formats and the beautiful ambience of the Hyde Park should make this the star attraction.

The Hyde Park’s Centenary falls on November 7th. Its Open House will see films screening all day and an evening event that includes films produced in 1914, [though the BFI has only made these available on digital]. These screenings are part of a larger festival innovation – Free Screenings. There is a special page on the Film Website – Eventbrite – where reservations can be made.

The Festival programme is organised more or less in the established manner. So there is a range of new and contemporary films from round the world. The Festival opens with an adaptation of Vera Britain’s ‘Testament of Youth’, one of a number of films referencing World War I. Previews also include the Cannes Award Winner Winter Sleep. A friend in Italy, where the film was released last week, tells me that it is very long but very fine. There are also prize-wining films from the Venice, Karlovy and Annecy Animation Festivals. Plus popular style films from Iceland, India and Mexico (among others).

The Leeds Festival has a tradition of quality retrospectives. This year we have a series of films by or about the Swedish master, Ingmar Bergman. The programme includes two of his finest – Persona (1966) and Through a Glass Darkly (Sâsom I en spegel, 1961). Two lesser-known bur very able Spanish directors are featured – Luis García Berlanga and Juan Antonio Bardem. Both worked during the Franco dictatorship, when censorship was extreme. Films like Welcome Mr Marshall (Bienvenido, Mr Marshall, Berlanga 1952) and Death of a Cyclist (Muerte de un Ciclista, Bardem 1955) offer intriguing possible subtexts. They are joined by Alex De La Iglesia, whose output is as little known in the UK. And there are two films by Soviet director Konstantin Lopushansky: that he worked as an assistant to Tarkovsky will give you some sense of his approach.

Unsurprisingly there is a section on War and Cinema. The key films in this programme are J’accuse (1918) directed by Abel Gance and La Grande Illusion (1937) directed by Jean Renoir. They are outstanding examples of the best in French cinema, though unfortunately the Gance seems likely to be on digital video. There is also a video installation with a range of film material from World War I at the Royal Armouries Museum – a welcome combination of a major event and a major exhibition centre.

Masters of Film Comedy offers sight of films from Buster Keaton, Stanley Kubrick and Jacques Tati. More intriguing is Hollywood Greats: European Origins, with directors like Fritz Lang, and Billy Wilder represented by the films they made before they quit Europe for Hollywood. And there is the Hollywood bred Josef Von Sternberg working in Europe – with his muse Marlene Dietrich.

There are the regular Underground Voices, Music on Film and Cinema Versa providing opportunities to see films that experiment in subject mater and form. There is a substantial number of titles from Fantasy Cinema and an Anime Day, Day of the Dead and Night of the Dead, always popular. And there is a selection of recent short films from around the World. Finally there are three films that dramatise The American Nightmare – possibly even more relevant given very recent events.

It looks like being a full, varied and exciting sixteen days. As usual the major problem will be the choices that have to be made. A number of the films get two screenings, so check the brochure carefully. One gripe though – the Brochure offers ‘four acclaimed British regional comedy dramas, one from each of the UK home nations’: there are only three ‘home nations’, and these only narrowly missed being reduced to two. Eire, including the six counties in the north, is a separate country if not yet a united state.

The Human Condition / Ningen no jôken, (Japan 1959 – 1961).

Kaji with Michiko

Kaji with Michiko

This was the centrepiece of the retrospective of Kobayashi Masaki at the Leeds International Film Festival. This is a trilogy of films running for nine and half-hours in total. The films follow the physical and emotional journey of Kaji (Nakadai Tatsuya) through the Japanese occupation of Manchuria during World War II. The films offer the most potent expression of Kobayashi’s loss of faith in devotion to the traditional codes of honour and obedience. The Festival Catalogue quotes Philip Kemp’s question: “The dilemma of the principled dissident – how can someone who rejects the basic tenets of an unjust society remain within it and avoid being tainted and even ultimately corrupted by it?” A dilemma expressed in a line of dialogue by Kaji in the film, “It’s not my fault that I’m Japanese … yet it’s my worse crime that I am!” [English subtitle].

Like all of Kobayashi’s films from 1959 onwards the drama is presented with carefully designed mise en scène and with excellent widescreen compositions. The black and white Shochiku Grandscope cinematography is by Miyajima Yoshio and this is one of the finest aspects of the films. All three features were screened in good quality 35mm prints.

HUMAN CONDITION

Ningen no jôken: (Daichibu: Jun’ai hen; Daishibu: Gekido hen) – The Human Condition: Part 1; No Greater Love, 1959, 208 minutes.

The film opens in 1943 in Manchuria where Kaji works for the South Manchuria Steel Company. The firm depends on Chinese and Manchurian labour. As a junior manger Kaji produces a report arguing that more humane treatment of the indigenous labour would actually increase production. Kaji is sent to the Loh Hu Liong mine to test out his theories. Though he receives support from a colleague he faces opposition from the military government (Kempeitai), the mine executives, the mine pit bosses and the Manchurian contractors who skim money off the workers. The focus of these problems are 600 Chinese prisoners who are forced to labour in the mine

The Chinese labourers are supplied with the services of local prostitutes and some individual relationships develop. One of these in particular comes back to haunt Kaji at the close of the film. There are also attempts at escape by some of the more active prisoners. This leads to a public execution with a military firing squad. Forced to go along with this Kaji is caught between his humanitarian concern for the labourers and his duties to the code. This is also the occasions when a mass protest by the Chinese labourers confronts the army personnel.

The film opens with a night-time shot. It is snowing and centre screen is a large tunnel through which a military patrol can be seen. Two people emerge from the darkness, Kaji and Michiko (Awashima Chikage). This is a stunning shot with which to open the film. But it also sets up the thematic concerns. The falling snow and darkness sum up Kaji’s predicament, caught in no-man lands but not out of range of the army, enforcer of the code. The massive blocks suggest the weight of entrenched values that weigh down on him. Both Kaji and Michiko are living in communal hostels. Michiko wants them to marry and set up their own home: Kaji prevaricates, troubled by what would be both a gamble and be frowned on by his peers. This indecision sets the tone for the whole series of films as Kaji tries but never fully succeed in resolving his contradictory position.

The film’s story and characters are presented all the way through with fine imagery. The exteriors benefit from the widescreen compositions. But the interiors are also powerfully composed. The architecture of rooms and of the prison camp reinforced the feeling of entrapment. Right at the end of the film as Kaji returns to be greeted by Michiko the setting, among hillocks of black soil excavated from the mine, comments on their situation: and this is reinforced by the figure of one of the prostitutes on the skyline.

However, the powerful drama is undermined at times by excessive melodrama and this is accentuated by the music. Some of this is excellent, adding a sense of oppression. But at other times the use of melodramatic themes and martial airs seems to distract from the drama. Audie Bock in Japanese Film Directors (1978) comments: “The story is an excruciating one, sentimentalised in moments by the participation of Kobayashi’s long-time allies, scriptwriter-director Zenso Matsuyama and composer Chuji Kinoshita.”  But he also notes how Kaji is ‘played to perfection’ by Nakadai Tatsuya. The film won the San Giorgio Prize at the Venice Film Festival

HUMAN CONDITION

Nineteen no jôken (Daisanbu: Becky hen: Daishibu Sen’un hen / The Human Condition Part 2: Road to Eternity, 1959, 181 minutes.

Having lost his deferred status Kaji is called up for military service. The army life is just as brutal for ordinary recruits as was the labour camp at the mine. Kaji is relatively proficient at military duties, which offer some some protection. A fellow recruit Obara (Tanaka Kunie) is seen as weak and inadequate and become the butt of bullying. As with the mine labourers Kaji tries to protect him but fails. His closest friend is Shinjo (Sata Kei) who has communist leanings: both men are antagonistic to the authoritarian regime. The war is now running against Japan and Soviet forces are pressing into Manchuria. The Japanese soldiers unsuccessfully attempt to hold their advance. Once again Kaji becomes complicit in criminal violence. By the late stages of the war he is reduced to a desperate desire to survive and make it home to Michiko.

The film once more uses fine widescreen compositions, especially in the exteriors. Composition is also important in the interiors, and the barracks become a setting of shadow and containment. At one point Michiko is able to visit Kaji and the meeting in a small store hut also displays the oppressive setting. It is worth noting that Michiko appears to be the stereotypical submissive Japanese wife. Certainly she does not display the forthright resistance found in the heroines in the films of Naruse Mikio. But she is a strong character, indicated by the relationship in Part I and here also in the way that she supports Kaji.

Road to Eternity seems a more cohesive film that No Greater Love. In part this is due to the film’s focus on the military and Kaji’s experience in one unit, and over a more concentrated period. But like Part I this is a bleak story and the overall tone is pessimistic. Visually it is as impressive as the first film, though like that there are occasional discordant notes of melodrama and military music at odds with the critical tone.

HUMAN CONDITION

Ningen no jôken: Kanketsu hen (Daigobu: Shi no dassatsu; Dairokubu: Aarano no hôkô The Human Condition Part 3: A Soldier’s Prayer, 1961, 190 minutes.

This was where the problems of a Festival surface and I missed the concluding film of the trilogy. My friend Stephen did see it and thought it was the most impressive of the three films and described some really fine widescreen compositions, including Kaji travelling through the Manchurian woodlands. The film shows the last stages of the war and eventually Kaji is imprisoned in a Soviet POW camp. He escapes and continues his desperate attempt to return home to Michiko.

The whole trilogy is an extremely impressive work of art. And even in the post-war Japanese cinema it stands out for the uncompromising critique of traditional codes. Kobayashi had some early connections with the Japanese New Film Wave of the 1960s, and whilst the story and style are more traditional than avant-garde, it achieves something of the same rupture with the conventional culture. Stephen thought the film was typical of the post-war humanism in Japanese films: something earnestly worked at during the US occupation after the Japanese surrender. The film certainly shares some of the values found in, for example, Kurosawa’s post-war films. However, Kobayashi’s trilogy has a central pessimism that is some way removed from other humanist films. This particular sense is something that sets him apart from other Japanese filmmaker of the period.

What also makes his best films, like The Human Condition, memorable is the command of composition. His films are nearly all in the scope format, a number of them with black and white cinematography. One is constantly taken with the beauty of the images on screen but also with the way that the composition draws out the tragic situation of many of his protagonists. The Leeds Film Festival is to be commended for screening the whole epic work in 35mm, thanks in part to the support of the Japan Film Centre. And also a word of praise for the Hyde Park Cinema staff who projected the films. A real treat – and equal to the fine Tanaka Kinuyo retrospective of 2012.

Samurai Rebellion / Jôi-uchi Hairyô tsuma shimatsu ( Japan 1967).

Isaburo and Tatewaki

Isaburo and Tatewaki

This samurai film was produced at Toho Studio but also co-produced by the Mifune Production, the company of its star Mifune Toshirô, This effected the film’s story and Rebellion lacked the balance of Kobayashi’s other films. The Leeds International Film Festival Catalogue describes the film as ‘another masterpiece’ and ‘his last major film’ which I thinks underestimates his later work. The film was a popular success in Japan, partly I suspect because of its star Mifune and of the samurai set pieces in the latter part of the film. However, Kobayashi still imbues the film with his critiques of authority, the official code of honour and the Japanese concern with face. There are also signs of the influence of the samurai films by Kurosawa Akira, which is possibly partly explained by the presence of Mifune. But here again the heroic stance typical of Kurosawa is undercut to a degree by Kobayashi and his scriptwriters Hashimoto Shinobu and Takiguchi Yasuhiko. Donald Ritchie, the veteran critic of Japanese cinema, is quoted in the Catalogue: “When Samurai Rebellion first opened, nearly forty years ago, I wrote in my Japan Times review: “It is the feudal concept that is at fault, and not the men who seemingly control it but are actually controlled by it … Such human qualities as love, dignity, self-realisation are – as a mater of course – crushed beneath the weight of this terrifying, if man-made, machine.”

The film opens with a test of a new samurai sword by Sasahara Isaburo (Mifune) and Asano Tatewaki (Nakadai Tatsuya). These are the two most skilled of the samurai in the household of Lord Matsudaira Masakata. You can guess that they will figure in the beautifully choreographed and generic finale. But for most of the film the plot follows Isaburo. At the Lord’s behest Isaburo’s son Sasahara Yogoro (Katô Gô) marries one of the Lord’s concubines, Ichi (Tsukasa Yôko). Their marriage produces a child, which gratifies Isaburo. However, the interests of the clan household intervene in family life once more. And Isaburo comes into conflict both with his lord and with the samurai code.

The first half of the film is concerned with the developing contradictions and the machinations in the feudal lord’s household. The latter part of the film is much more generic and leads up to a classic samurai confrontation. This later part is less typical of Kobayashi’s work and seems much closer to a typical Mifune samurai portrait. I felt that this unbalanced the film and also produces some lacunae in the story. After the marriage of his son Isaburo renounces his status as head of the family household. And when the tensions with the lord first arise he defers to his son over the matter. However, as we reach the climatic confrontation Mifune takes over the head role and the central focus in the plot. Even so, the film’s ending has the quiet defeatism that typifies Kobayashi’s work.

As always the film is beautifully constructed and composed. There are a number of impressive widescreen landscapes, especially towards the film’s end. However, the interiors, like the earlier Hara-kiri, are also carefully composed and suggest volumes about the characters through positioning and settings. The cinematography is by Yamada Kazuo in black and white Tohoscope, which looked great in a new 35mm print