Category: Avant-garde cinema

BIFF 2014 #22: Thriller (UK 1979)

Colette Laffont as Mimi in THRILLER

Colette Laffont as Mimi in THRILLER

Portrait Without BleedSally Potter’s seminal medium-length film Thriller played as the centrepiece of a programme of ‘Sally Potter Shorts’ in the director retrospective at BIFF honouring her BIFF Fellowship. It brought back for me an entire period of British independent filmmaking. No wonder its reputation has lasted and grown – here we get commentaries on class, gender and race, film theory and the status of classical works of high culture.

Potter ‘deconstructs’ Puccini’s La Bohème as a feminist murder mystery. She explores the construction of the two female characters in the opera, Mimi the poor seamstress and Musetta the  café dancer. Potter turns Mimi into the investigator of her own murder and in the process offers us an analysis of how the honest woman must die and the bad girl survive. She adds another layer by casting a black woman to play Mimi. The investigation involves a replaying of key scenes from the opera on an expressionist set complete with mirror and window. The film was shot on 16mm b&w stock and this helps the expressionist noir effect. There are several scenes comprising a succession of still images and the live action is accompanied by extracts from Bernard Herrmann’s Psycho score alongside music from Potter’s frequent collaborator Lindsay Cooper. The overall effect is to open up an analysis of film conventions for the thriller genre as well as the melodrama.

The film was screened non-theatrically at festivals and conferences/workshops during the early 1980s and for many years remained a film more likely to be read about in academic papers than actually seen. It’s now available on YouTube and the hope is that a whole new generation of filmmakers (including feminist filmmakers) will take it as an inspiration. Well done to BIFF for providing further stimulus.

Riddles of the Sphinx (UK, 1977)

Mundane and important

Mundane and important


Whilst studying Film/Literature, at Warwick University in the early 1980s, we had an opportunity to see, in 16mm, Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen’s Riddles of the Sphinx and I vividly remember one shot from the film and that I liked it. Now the BFI have re-released the film, along with Penthesilea: Queen of the Amazons made by the wife-husband pair three years earlier, in a dual format edition. So here’s a great opportunity to revisit the fertile time of the ’70s when Marxist politics were to fore. Not that Marx has been shown to be wrong, or irrelevant, of course just that he has seemed to have gone out of ‘fashion’ in academia (I observe that as an outsider so may be wrong). I notice that economics students in Manchester are campaigning to get Marx back on their curriculum; it’s remarkable that he’s not especially in the light of the free-market driven financial collapse.

I got Riddles on rental but, as I liked the film again and the package was so generous, including a booklet, that I’ve bought the er ‘limited edition’ (I believe that refers to the Blu-ray disc). What’s particularly interesting is how the film now as much an historical document showing, as it does, slices (or rather ’round bits’) of life from the ’70s. The ’round bits’ refers to the bulk of the film that has six (I think) scenes where a rostrum camera pans slowly as the action happens in front of it. What’s seen appears to be controlled as much by the technology as the directors; the framing isn’t aesthetically pleasing and so draws attention to the material nature of what we’re seeing. As does a sequence where we see the very grainy footage of an old film of Egyptian monuments (the only passage of the film that tested by patience). The film’s not just ‘historical’ in what it shows but also in how it shows it utilising modernist techniques to ‘estrange’ the spectator.

The narrative follows the life of a mother, whose husband (probably not ‘just’ a partner in the ’70s) has left her with their young daughter. Each ‘slice’ focuses on a different event such as starting work, socialising in the work canteen and shopping. The latter slice, in an early version of the late capitalist hell, shopping malls, is particularly interesting to look at. These are mundane events, the antithesis of Hollywood, but integral to our lives and, particularly, the lives of women.

Mulvey and Wollen are better known as film theorists than film-makers and theirs was a fascinating project to turn theory, particularly the ‘male gaze’ and ‘counter cinema’ respectively, into film. The ’70s were a fertile time for such experimentation and it was good to see the BFI, which funded this film, recently backing the intellectually adventurous Stuart Hall Project. With feminism making a long-needed comeback, Hollywood giving up on thought-provoking cinema, the time is right for new ways of creating meaning in film.

The shot I remembered over 30-years later, by the way, was when the stately pan suddenly began moving on top of a vehicle.

100 Years of Cinema in Keighley

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

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

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

Maya Deren in 'At Land'

Maya Deren in ‘At Land’

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

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

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


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.

The Invisible Cinema

The New York Invisible Cinema

The New York Invisible Cinema

This was an event organised by the Leeds based art project The Pavilion. The full title [taken from Sidney Peterson’s The Dark of the Screen, Anthology Film Archives, 1980] was ‘A movie house is an enlarged camera Obscura for the sale of popcorn, a Darkroom for star-gazing right side up’. Overall we are talking about that section of the film world often described as Underground Cinema. One unconventional project was Peter Kulbeka’s imaginative if somewhat unusual Invisible Cinema. This was a project originally set up in New York in as part of the Anthology Film Archives. And there is now a descendant based at the Austrian Film Museum. The event included films, illustrated talks and a ‘happening’.

Bear with me as I described the evening more or less chronologically to try and give a sense of the experience. It was introduced by Will Rose. He set the scene and also drew attention to the venue, The Hyde Park Picture House. Opened in 1914 as a purpose-built cinema the venue has screened films for fortunate Leeds patrons for nearly a hundred years. For most of that time it has screened 35mm prints and it still retains two 35mm projectors: though a Digital Projector has now been added. Over the years the cinema has changed a little; it now has gas lighting, a refreshment kiosk and a new screen. It remains not only one of the oldest cinemas in the UK but one with really distinctive characteristics. Will Rose also set the scene for the evenings fare, rather different from the regular programme.

The first screening was one of the 9 Intervals films directed by Aurélien Froment in 2011. This was a commission by The Pavilion for nine short films to be screened between adverts, trailers and the main feature. We watched Interval 2, which was actually filmed in the Hyde Park. It included the illuminated clock, nowadays dimmed along with the lights as the features commence.

The main speaker was Friedrich Mascher. He is the architect for Invisible Cinema 3 at the Austrian Film Museum. Kulbeka’s original idea was for a ’machine for viewing’. The auditorium included “hooded seats, complete darkness, single-source sound equipment and strict decorum ensured that the viewer would ‘not have any sense of the presence of walls or the size of the auditorium. He should have only the white screen, isolated in darkness, as his guide to the scale and distance. Kulbeka’s Invisible Cinema attempted to purge anything that exceeded the image -.” (Expanded Cinema, 2011). It provided a rather extreme emphasis on the individual viewer. Friedrich Mascher embarked dryly that it was not a success.

He provided a brief illustrated historical over view on the development of auditoriums. The examples ran from the open-air Greek amphitheatre of ancient times, to the open-air Roman amphitheatres, which, though, introduced a proscenium behind the staging area. He showed us the London Globe Theatre, where Shakespeare’s plays were seen in a ‘forum round a yard’. The most interesting example was the Teatro Olympico in Venetia, where the proscenium had five entrances / exits for players. This fitted into a set of conventions shared by performers and audience. There was Vienna’s Josephadt Theatre, an example of a classic auditorium. And moving on to cinema, he showed us Graumans’ Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, an exotic movie palace of the 1920s.

He then introduced the Invisible Cinema 3 at the Austrian Film Museum. Modern health and safety regulations mean that it is not quite as bleak as the New York example. The only additional illumination is at the rear of the auditorium. Seat numbers are under the seat and so disappear when a viewer sits down. And there are no separation blocks. It seemed quite an attractive venue for films. Kulbeka’s vision was that the ‘‘eye and ear were directly connected to the filmmaker’, or to be exact his/her film.

An example of the sort of film Kulbeka envisaged for this cinema was his own Arnulf Rainer (1960, on 16mm} The title is a dedication to a painter. Rainer’s work was mainly painting in colour over photographs. A technique that aimed at ‘painting over a painting over a painting ….’

Kulbeka’s 6-minute film exhibited this approach as it played with four basic elements – light, dark, sounds and silence. It was screened twice, and the second time Friedrich Mascher requested the audience [most of whom were in the ground auditorium] to view it from the balcony. Intriguingly there is a slight trapezium effect in the ground auditorium due to the steep drop between the projection box and the screen.

We then watched Interval 8 [from 9 Intervals] which deals performance spaces and their organisation. It took on an added resonance after the earlier illustrations and screenings. The evening closed with a ‘situationist’ type event. Following a set of printed instructions the projectionist and the house staff operated the projector and its varied functions, the curtains and drapes, the auditorium doors and finally the fire exits. Friedrich Mascher then asked us to leave the auditorium ‘in memory of Ernst Schmidt’ whose creation we had just witnessed. In the course of this event one was awfully aware of those aspects of the cinema that normally only exist on the periphery.

It seems that Kulbeka was less concerned with avant-garde cinema per se than returning to a ‘normal cinema’ without the excrudences that have been added to performances. He was not in favour of the type of multi-media approach found among some of the Anthology film practitioners. One can see where Sydney Peterson’s chapter title fits into this scheme of things. The venue, the Hyde Park, provided an intriguing opposition to this minimalism. The cinema is positively baroque in comparison to either of the Invisible Cinemas.

It was a fascinating evening. My main complaint was that the limited time meant that there was little opportunity for discussion. Kulbeka seems to have been focussed on the screening of films. In cinema this means an audience who can interact with each other as well as with the images and sounds, and indeed the venue: but it is not clear how much attention Kulbeka paid to this aspect. A like-minded 1920s critic opined that in front of the screen “Our problems evaporate, our neighbours disappear.” (Expanded Cinema, 2011)The cinématographe Lumière was mentioned in the introdcution but I felt that Edison’s kinetoscope, with its individual veiwer, was closer to Kulbeka’s aim.  What struck me was that the contemporary media world follows some facets of Kulbeka’s approach with individual viewers watching films on pods, mobile phones and computers. I am not sure though whether all of them are linked into the films without distraction. This is also where I am not really a disciple of Kulbeka. Great features and great documentaries are enriched by the vibrations that cross and circulate round audiences. I am sure that George Bailey’s plea to Clarence in It’s a Wonderful Life has a greater catharsis when one feels the whole audience willing him home. And the pathos that Eisenstein creates during The Odessa Steps depends equally on this communal feeling. This week I watched Ken Loach’s The Spirit of ’45 and the anger that he intends is swelled by a sympathetic audience.

Finally, I would also like to have learned more about the Teatro Olympico, which also sounds fascinating. The good news is that Aurélien Froment’s new film is currently under production in that very location. So I should soon be wiser.

Expanded Cinema Art Performance Film edited by Al. Rees, Duncan White, Stephen Ball and David Curtis, Tate Publishing, 2011. Articles on the Anthology Film Archives including Peter Kulbeka and a range of avant-garde film practices.