Friese-Greene at the Bioscope

Friese-Greene experimental film

May 5th is one hundred years since the death of this British film inventor and pioneer. The Kennington Bioscope is streaming a discussion on his life and work by three researcher/historians; Ian Christie: Peter Domankiewicz: Stephen Herbert; ‘Back in focus: The Centenary of William Friese-Greene’. Wednesday May 5th at 7.30 p.m. [BST] and subsequently on line on You Tube.

Friese-Greene was one of  a number of people in the 1880s experimenting on techniques to produce the illusion of a moving image from projected photographic film. He produced several working cameras between 1888 and 1891 and issued a patent for these. However, like some of the other inventors, he was not successful in projecting these images in a public showing; it was the Lumière Brothers success in this that made their work historic.

Friese-Greene ran a successful photographic portrait studio but his main interests were his experiments and the costs of his work on moving images led to bankruptcy. In the early 1900 he then experimented with early colour film. One of these, Biocolour, was projected successfully but it was eclipsed by other examples; it suffered from heavy flicker and colour fringing. Examples of his early films are available on You Tube, including a refurbished version of ‘The Open Road’, shot by his son Claude using his father’s system.

Friese-Greene‘s last public appearance was attending and speaking at a meeting of members of the British Film industry. Ironically he collapsed at the meeting and died.

He was for a long time a forgotten figure. The film biopic,The Magic Box, produced in 1951 was planned  to accompany the Festival of Britain in that year. The film was produced by Festival Film Productions, partly funded by the National Film Finance Corporation with contributions from all the major British production companies either for free or at cost. The script was by Eric Ambler based on a book by Ray Allister and directed by John Boulting. The film was shot in Technicolor, at that time reserved for prestige production in Britain. The technical side and the casting benefited from the varied contributing companies. There is is excellent colour cinematography by Jack Cardiff, fine production design by John Bryan and excellent costume design by Julia Squire. There are a host of cameos by British stars but there is a lack of dramtic effect. The film was a failure at the box office.

The film’s focus is the travails of his career. The sequences showing his experiments are brief. That depicting colour does not give much sense of the technology but that showing his working camera and projector does give a greater sense of its operation. There are some dates, such as the Industry meeting, but others, like the success with projecting his film,or his work on colour film, is curiously undated.

Brian Coe in The History of Movie Photography, Eastview Editions, 1981 is sceptical of the claims put forward in the film. He questions whether the machine described in Friese-Greene’s patents actually projected at the required frame rate of 16; and he reckons that the inventor only used celluloid after its use in the Edison workshops. Friese-Greene’s Biocolour system has more credence but fell foul of a patent suit by Charles Urban for his Kinemacolor. There is more on the Blog William Friese-Greene & me. Happily it also includes posts on another pioneer in Britain, Louis le Prince. The Bioscope presentation will likely shed more light on Friese-Greene and his contribution to cinema history.

International Satyajit Ray Congress

So today, May 2nd, is the centenary of the birth of Satyajit Ray; one of the giants of World Cinema. Here in Britain we have to wait to celebrate the master in theatrical settings; however, the National Film Archive do have a number of 35mm prints which hopefully we can enjoy soon.

Meanwhile there is an online celebration of his work at the Saudha International Satyajit Ray Congress. Happily it is streaming on You Tube so even if you cannot join in the zoom meeting you can follow it. It promises to be a rewarding affair with contributions from film-makers, critics and fans. It runs from 3 p.m. today Sunday [British Summer Time which is 2 p.m. Greenwich Mean Time] and again from 3 p.m. Monday [2 p.m. GMT].

Remaking The Mosquito Coast

Peter Weir and Harrison Ford on set for The Mosquito Coast (1986)

Last night BBC Radio 4’s Front Row confirmed for me that it is completely in line with the middle class view of the arts in the UK. I have moaned about this several times before but this was an almost perfect example of the programme’s lack of interest in cinema and its preference for literature and ‘quality’ TV.

The first item on the show was a discussion about the new serial on Apple TV+, an adaptation of Paul Theroux’s 1981 novel The Mosquito Coast which happens to star Theroux’s nephew, Justin Theroux. Regular presenter Tom Sutcliffe, who is usually very good, had two guests, Tanya Motie and Kohinoor Sahota, whom he invited to discuss the new serial as an adaptation of the novel. At no point did he mention that the novel had been adapted for a Hollywood feature in 1986. That film was directed by Peter Weir and starred Harrison Ford, Helen Mirren and River Phoenix as the husband, wife and son who attempt to set up a new type of family enterprise in Honduras. The script for the film was written by Paul Schrader. So, the adaptation involved five of the most important figures in 1980s filmmaking. Ford was an A list star, Schrader was an A list writer-director, Peter Weir was perhaps the most reliable director available in Hollywood with a string of top-rated films to his credit, Mirren was a top line British actor and River Phoenix a rising teen star before his tragic early death. But the adaptation was not mentioned by Sutcliffe. One of the guests did mention River Phoenix and later mentioned the film as an adaptation in the 1980s but Sutcliffe ignored the possible link completely (almost as if he had a fixed agenda that precluded discussing the film). I don’t know if you find this odd. I certainly do.

I should say that I haven’t read the novel or seen the 1986 film. I was never attracted to Theroux’s writing but I have been a big fan of Peter Weir and this was one of the few films of his that I didn’t see in the 1980s. He made five major features in Australia and a further eight in Hollywood. I would bet that many more people have seen films directed by Peter Weir than read books by Paul Theroux, but Weir didn’t win literary prizes, he directed intelligent mainstream features, including some literary adaptations (and he received six Oscar nominations). As far as I’m aware, The Mosquito Coast was the least successful of Weir’s Hollywood pictures, despite Schrader’s script and the three talented leads. I would have thought it would be interesting to work out why Weir failed as a line of enquiry about how well, or not, the new serial works. But presumably the Front Row team have forgotten about Peter Weir (who is a few years younger than Paul Theroux). He is, after all, only a director whereas Theroux is a writer.I recognise that the remake is a TV serial and will have different narrative requirements but it will still share with the film the task of finding ways to represent the ideas and the characters in the novel.

I never have great expectations about the coverage of film on Front Row, though I respect Tom Sutcliffe as a general arts commentator. I do recognise that it’s quite difficult to see the 1986 film which is only available to rent on certain streamers at a relatively high price (around £7) but then Apple TV+ is also a niche offering, so why cover the serial at all? As regular readers will know, I don’t watch US TV and don’t have access to US streamers. But I do see a lot of films from around the world. I don’t feel catered for by Radio 4 which seems to dote on American TV and and English language literature, alongside music, dance and art. Fundamental is the bottom line that the BBC approach to cinema as an art form is to accept Hollywood promotions or whatever is the most high profile arthouse offering of the moment but not to treat the medium seriously. The only BBC film critic who might raise the level of debate is Mark Kermode, but he is rarely allowed onto Radio 4. My other thought re The Mosquito Coast is to link it to John Boorman’s The Emerald Forest (1985), another story about an American intrusion into the rain forests of South America, though a different kind of story. Boorman like Weir is one of the best directors to emerge in the 1960s/70s and has rarely received his due from critics. The Emerald Forest also had a mixed reception in the 1980s but as with any Boorman film it was never dull and often surprising in its ways of delivering ideas and a story. Weir and Boorman both deserve reappraisal but our film culture as presented on Radio 4 doesn’t seem to have a place for such discussions. The anti-consumerism of The Mosquito Coast and the ecological discourse of The Emerald Forest have a contemporary resonance that is worth exploring. Perhaps I should try the Radio 3 coverage which I’m told is more intelligent?

Thou Shalt Not Hate (Non odiare, Italy-Poland 2020)

Simone on the water . . .

The winner of two prizes at Venice in 2020, Thou Shalt Not Hate is another film to divide audiences. It won ‘Best Italian Film’ – an outstanding achievement for the début feature film from writer-director Mauro Mancini, working with Davide Lisino. Its star Alessandro Gassmann is very well known so it was less of a surprise that he should win ‘Best Actor’. Still, despite these awards, the relatively  small number of reviews I have found include several that are completely dismissive as well as others praising the film highly. I’m still thinking about the film and several aspects of the narrative still puzzle me.

. . . Simone finds Antonio

The film begins and ends at the same location, a beautiful lake in what I assume is the foothills of the Dolomites in Friuli Venezia Giulia. A small boy is coerced by his father into a cruel act at the beginning of the narrative. At the end a man visits the same spot to reflect on what has happened in the last few weeks. The scenes by the lake are stunning in their visual splendour with the shots of the mountains almost hyper-real. The ‘inciting incident’, which takes place immediately after the prologue, see a middle-aged, but very fit man, kayaking along a river when he hears the sound of an impending crash on the road that runs parallel to the river. He reaches the accident and finding an injured man in the driver’s seat he phones for an ambulance and starts to fashion a tourniquet to prevent further bleeding. But in doing so he notices the injured man’s Nazi tattoos and pulls back. Clearly he feels guilty when the accident victim later dies. But what is odd is that the ‘good samaritan’ had already told the hospital that he is a doctor and has abdicated his responsibility to try to save a dying man. Would he not be questioned about this? There is instead a line of dialogue in which the doctor says he is sorry, but he “couldn’t do it”. It isn’t clear if he says this to the police at the scene or simply to himself.

Marica with her younger brother Paulo

The kayaking doctor is Simone, a surgeon at a local hospital in Trieste. More to the point he is a Jewish surgeon who we learn later has recently lost his father, a concentration camp survivor who was forced to work as a dentist for the Nazis. He begins to investigate the aftermath of what turns out to be a ‘hit and run’ driving accident in which the dead man was Antonio who has left three children, Marica 27, Marcello 17 and Paulo 11. Here again I wasn’t quite sure if Simone engineers the appointment of Marica (Sara Serraiocco) as his cleaner or if what follows is partly a matter of chance. Overall this is a film with relatively little dialogue, employing a strategy of ‘showing’ without explanation. Simone seems to be reasserting his Jewishness, partly because of the accident and partly because he must clear his father’s house and in doing so stir up memories. The two families, his own and Antonio’s are both missing a mother figure. The narrative overall resembles a melodrama with a carefully orchestrated musical score and some rather heavy symbolism alongside the photography. Trieste appears almost deserted in a series of long shots. The pacing is slow and Gassmann as Simone is dour and focused throughout. These latter features almost suggest an anti-melodrama. Perhaps instead this is a ‘moral tale’ about guilt and responsibility?

Marcello

Simone in the empty synagogue

One of the most striking shots in the film is of a large empty synagogue that Simone enters. I did wonder if Simone’s father had been a refugee from Poland after 1945? The film is a co-production with Poland and the theme of immigration would tie in with aspects of Marica’s behaviour. She does not have the Neo-Nazi fervour of her brother Marcello (Luka Zunic) but her negative attitudes to migrants are presented in quite subtle ways. Simone too, at one point gets angry with the migrants on the street who attempt to clean car windscreens of any car that stops at traffic lights.

Overall I thought this was an impressive début feature with strong performances and some interesting images by Polish cinematographer Mike Stern Sterzynski, who like the director seemed to be making his features début. North-Eastern Italy is an interesting region that doesn’t tend to appear that often in the Italian films that make it to the UK and I was engaged with the narrative throughout. The film has just left MUBI and at the moment doesn’t seem to be available on streamers. If it does turn up I think it is worth watching for its exploration of father-son and family relationships, even if it can’t quite work through everything it sets up. The ‘Made in Italy’ season has been interesting to explore on MUBI but the short window of availability is a difficult proposition.

The Ties (Lacci, Italy 2020)

Aldo and Vanda at the opening celebration

The Ties is another of MUBI’s  ‘Made in Italy’ films. I chose this one because it stars Alba Rohrwacher who I have admired in films by her sister Alice and in other films. As the title implies this is a film about a long term relationship. The Italian title actually refers to shoelaces and a scene that presents a metaphor about the relationships between parents and children. The film is an adaptation of a novel by Domenico Starnone, whose first screenplay La scoula (1995), based on two of his novels, was filmed by Daniele Luchetti, the director of Lacci. Starnone is a well-known Neapolitan writer who has been identified as one possible source of the identity of the best-selling but pseudonymous author Elena Ferrante. Starnone is married to translator and journalist Anita Raja and another possibility is that ‘Ferrante’ is actually husband and wife working together.

The family on the way home from the celebration, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The Ferrante question may be one of the reasons why Lacci was chosen to open the 2020 Venice Festival which lost its usual Hollywood headliners as a result of the pandemic. Lacci was immediately seen by English-speaking critics as a response to Noah Baumbach’s Marriage Story (US 2019). This gave an extra frisson to an opening film but I haven’t seen the American film so no comparisons here. In any event, Lacci seems to be rooted in the experiences or observations of Starnone and Raja. The narrative begins in the 1980s and ends some time nearer the present. We first meet Vanda (Alba Rohrwacher) and Aldo (Luigi Lo Cascio) at a celebration with their two small children, Anna and Sandro, in the early 1980s. They all dance joyfully in the opening credit sequence and make their way to their apartment nearby. Aldo seems like a loving father in a bathtime scene and in his storytelling but after the children are asleep he suddenly tells Vanda he has been unfaithful. She doesn’t know what to make of his statement and he doesn’t see very clear about why he made it. Vanda follows him to Rome where he makes regular radio appearances as a reader and later as a literary commentator. On the stairs in the RAI building Vanda meets Lidia (Linda Caridi), a striking younger woman. Nothing is said as the two stare at each other.

One of the more dramatic confrontations between Lidia, Aldo and Vanda, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The irony of the situation is that Aldo, praised for the quality of his speaking voice, fails to communicate as he faces Vanda. She (a teacher, it later transpires, though we never see her in a classroom), rather than articulating her anger, makes increasingly dramatic gestures. I thought at this point I was going to witness a full-bloodied family melodrama but after the early highly-charged scenes the narrative shifts gear. Aldo decides to stay in Rome and concedes full custody of the children to Vanda. Forward a few years and Aldo seems to want to see the children again. At this point, the dance music from the opening re-appears and Luchetti engineers a transition to the near present that threw me until I went back and replayed it – what has streaming done to my viewing? A different pair of actors, Laura Morante and Silvio Orlando, play Vanda and Aldo some thirty years later and they appear to be living together and bickering as they prepare to go on holiday. Now the narrative will start to ‘loop’, much like the shoelaces of the title, returning to the early 1980s and the slightly later period to reveal something about how Aldo and Lidia were as a couple and what happened during his meetings with his children. The final section of the narrative then offers a rather different perspective on the marriage through an extended scene which again comes through the link of the dance music tune from the opening. There is a ‘reveal’ here that made me think about those films where middle-class assumptions about people’s behaviour often lead to unfortunate conclusions.

The older Also and Vanda on holiday, photo: Gianni Fiorito.

The reviews of the film are mixed. Several describe the narrative as dealing in ‘misery’. One references Philip Larkin. On the other hand, several scenes seemed quite ‘real’ to me and represented aspects of long term relationships – relationships we grow into that generate different kinds of love and affection as well as irritability and quite possibly mental cruelty. As a film narrative it certainly made me think. Someone described it as ‘handsome’ and that seems a good call for a presentation in ‘Scope in often warm colours and with rather fetching 1980s outfits. The central quartet of actors are very good. I recognised the other three alongside Alba Rorwacher and later realised that I had seen them in various earlier films. The two children are played by three different sets of actors, all well cast I thought. Having said that, in every case my initial reaction was that the characters at different ages didn’t look like they were the same person. But on reflection the casting does work, I think I was just thrown by the editing – which isn’t a criticism. Luigi Lo Cascio as the younger Aldo was one of the quartet in The Dinner (Italy 2014). I mention that film for two reasons. First, it questions the behaviour of a middle-class family and second it is a successful and award-winning Italian film which I don’t think made it into UK distribution. I fear that the same may be true for Lacci. In The Dinner, Luigi Lo Cascio’s wife is played by Giovanna Mezzogiorno who is cast as the grown-up version of his daughter Anna in Lacci. It must be a different experience watching Lacci in Italy when the actors are so well-known.

I think Lacci is definitely a film to seek out if you can find it (there is just one day left of its brief stint on MUBI in the UK). Cineuropa carries an interview with director Luchetti in which he makes some interesting comments about earlier generations of parents and particularly fathers in Italian society.

St Maud (UK 2019)

Maud and Amanda in the old wood-panelled house

Saint Maud is one of those films that got a brief run in UK cinemas in Autumn 2020 some six months after it was scheduled for release. That might partly explain its critical success but it had already been well received at Toronto in 2019. Given the limelight in this way, the film has been extensively reviewed and discussed. It’s difficult to gauge the audience response since cinema audiences were restricted and it will have been seen mostly on streamers. It was selected as an online film for a Friday night film club meeting on Zoom and I watched it on BFI Player. I mention this because Saint Maud isn’t necessarily a film I would have chosen to watch. I’m not if I enjoyed the screening, but it was certainly gripping and intriguing and I did enjoy reading about its production and discussing it with friends.

Maud has a former life as someone less obviously religious

Saint Maud has been described in several ways. ‘Religious horror’ and ‘psychological thriller’ are two of the most common. A young woman has a nightmarish experience working as a nurse at St Afra’s Hospital. Leaving her job, she is taken on by a nursing agency and after a year is assigned to be the live-in carer of the terminally ill dancer and choreographer, Amanda, who was celebrated for her career and whose house is full of memories of her performances. In one of those cruel twists, Amanda has a form of lymphoma which affects her spine so she can no longer dance. Instead she is drinking and smoking away her last few months in an old house with art deco wallpaper. It soon becomes apparent that Maud is a recent convert to Catholicism who believes that her prayers are answered by the voice of God and His presence. She determines to save Amanda’s soul before the dancer dies. What follows is a narrative with some familiar events and a climactic ending. These are presented with strong creative ideas and real flair. The film is only 84 minutes long and you get plenty of thrills for your money. But the narrative is primarily about Maud so we learn a little more about her. We are given some clues about her past life (as ‘Katie’) and her struggles. Writer-director Rose Glass offers us the possibility that Maud is mentally ill or that she is indeed possessed in some way by the Holy Spirit. Some of us might take these to be the same affliction.

(from left) Morfydd Clark, Rose Glass and Jennifer Ehle

Maud making her way to Amanda’s house along the promenade

Rose Glass was a convent girl and there are a number of references I found I had to look up. My research suggests that St. Afra is the relevant historical figure, not Maud, although I spent time trying to remember the two royal Mauds in medieval England (Maud is an alternative version of Matilda). The film is set in a seaside town that is inevitably described as ‘bleak’, ‘dismal’ and ‘small’ etc. The location is actually Scarborough, though it is not named and the camera carefully picks out the least salubrious parts of town. I think Scarborough would make a good setting for a different type of horror film, something more gothic – Whitby is also just up the coast. Perhaps the gothic house in Saint Maud is paired with the garish amusement arcade close to Maud’s own tiny flat as a way of linking two rather different representations of decay and lost faith?  My gripe is that seaside towns are quite specific locations capable of representing a range of meanings but they seem to be used for only a limited range of possibilities. Today, UK seaside towns are often depicted as decaying, with ‘welfare recipients’ living in what were once holiday lettings. It’s an easy shorthand though it is true that some of the most deprived districts in the UK are found in seaside towns. Although Saint Maud is clearly a narrative about some form of highly personal Christianity, it is also possible to read it as a social commentary about the alienation of many young people, featuring loneliness and self-harm, especially among young women. Maud includes self-harming as part of her devotional practice. I found these scenes among the most horrific in the film.

Maud places nails through the insoles of her shoes . . .

This kind of film depends a lot on the central performances and here Morfydd Clark as Maud and Jennifer Ehle as Amanda are both excellent. Rose Glass is a National Film School graduate here making her feature début after several well-received shorts, including the prize-winning Room 55 (UK 2015). The cinematography by Ben Fordesman has won prizes and the music score by Adam Janota Bzowski has also been praised. I confess I didn’t like the very heavy bass notes in the score. The film has a female creator and there are several other women in the production team. The narrative is very much about Katie/Maud and the women she interacts with. There are three male characters who are there primarily to help to reveal something about Maud. I expect it helps to have had a convent education in order to get the most from the film.

Maud in her tiny flat begins to prepare for her final act.

Much of the discussion around the film is focused on whether this is a religious film, a horror film or a psychological thriller – though of course it could have elements of all three. There are certainly  a small number of fantasy/dream/nightmare scenes. St. Afra was a 4th century penitent and martyr and that description perhaps fits Maud, though she could fit other descriptions too. Rose Glass was heavily featured in Sight and Sound‘s November 2020 ‘Horror’ special issue. Discussing her influences in writing the script she denied ever having thought about The Exorcist or The Omen and instead referenced filmmakers such as Lars von Trier, David Cronenberg and John Waters and writers such as Iain Banks and Fyodor Dostoevsky. Morfydd Clark watched a lot of Bergman films for preparation and I think that must have been Glass’s influence. Clark also refers to both the ‘grossness’ of scenes and the humour. I’m not sure I really got either but I think I know what she means. I’m not attaching a trailer becauseI think the ones I’ve seen all include too many spoilers. I think there is partly a problem with how the film has been promoted, especially in the US by A24 and generally in some of the film posters. These are I think misleading, creating the idea of a certain kind of horror film. It’s interesting that I struggled to find images of the film which showed Maud on the streets of Scarborough and interacting with people other than Amanda. It’s best I think to see the film without too many expectations. If you haven’t yet seen it, do give it a go. You won’t be bored!