Netflix and Amazon don’t interest me as subscription services – except that not being a subscriber means that it isn’t possible for me to fully understand what they mean for other cinephiles because I don’t know the full extent of what they show. I have used both iTunes and Curzon World to watch films, paying a fee each time, but MUBI represents something different. After 30 days of free viewing with a promotional voucher I’m now a subscriber at £1 per month for three months. They are certainly prepared to give me a long taster before charging me the standard £7.99 a month. At this point I do feel I’ve got a reasonable idea of how the service works and whether I would recommend it.
The MUBI model is to offer a new film (i.e. added to the current slate) each day. Once added that film is then available for the next 30 days. These titles are free to watch and re-watch over the 30 days for all subscribers. In addition, MUBI offers a rental section which is much more select than the big providers – just 128 films are currently available. These titles are available for rent for as little as £2.49 with a handful of current films costing £4.49. The rental period is standard – once you’ve paid you have 30 days to organise a viewing which must be completed in 48 hours once you start viewing. What kinds of films are on offer as rentals and as selected ‘film of the day’? On the whole these are definitely cinephile offerings. Many are ‘festival films’ – films which you are unlikely to find easily on a cinema release or even on DVD or Blu-ray in the UK. MUBI operates in several territories and has deals which enable it to put films in front of UK subscribers that could not otherwise be seen. I’ve already blogged on films by Thomas Arslan and Angela Schanelec that certainly fall into that category. All of the titles are ‘curated’ in some way, selected in accordance with various criteria according to auteur status, avant-garde, documentary etc. There are American independents and Hollywood auteurs such as the melodramas of Douglas Sirk at Universal or Jacques Tourneur’s Technicolor Western Canyon Passage. There are films from Europe, Latin America and Asia with a couple from Africa, but nothing so far that I’ve noticed from India. There is a small selection of films that MUBI has distributed itself – to cinemas and online. What else does MUBI offer? Curation means that you can dig quite deep into MUBI’s archives to find pieces written for its ‘Notebook’ on a wide range of films and topics. These pieces by writers, some of whom are familiar to me, are of varying lengths and complexity/access. MUBI’s sense of community is also fostered by its Twitter feed (and subscribers receive email alerts). One feature that is both useful and annoying is the provision of pages on lots of films that have been available in the past, may be available on other MUBI sites in different territories – and may return to the UK site. To give an example, there are eight films for rental from Walerian Borowczyk, but all 40 of his films have a page on the MUBI site. On these pages are cast lists and user reviews as well as links to appropriate Notebook articles.
I’ve actually been registered with MUBI since 2010 (it was previously known as The Auteurs), but have not subscribed up until now. I always understood that the idea behind MUBI was to generate a ‘conversation’ about films that was properly global, something this blog is obviously going to support. For a long time though I thought that I could be satisfied by the films on offer in my local cinemas. Alas I’m increasingly beginning to despair at what’s on offer and to worry that as I become more decrepit I won’t want to travel so far to watch films in cinemas. I haven’t actually reached that point yet, but it is comforting to know that there is a service out there. In the last thirty days I have watched around eight films on MUBI and dipped into a few more without as yet finishing them. The service is clearly worth £7.99 per month. My home broadband signal (very fast by UK standards produces a very efficient streaming service and I’ve no complaints about the quality of the image. I want to watch around a third of the films on offer, perhaps another third I’ve already seen and the rest don’t interest me that much, though I’m game to try some of them. The problem remains that watching on my TV doesn’t equate to seeing the films in the cinema – but the possibility of re-watching them is very appealing. Overall, I’d say that it is a worthwhile service that I look forward to exploring further.
MUBI was founded in 2007 by Turkish engineer and entrepreneur Efe Çakarel. It has had partnerships with several film-related organisations over the last eight years and is now available in several parts of the world via Mac and PCs, iOS and Samsung Smart TVs. In 2015 it was reported to have a global subscriber base of over 7 million.
Keith has already posted his review of the films of 2017. I agree with many of his picks, but disagree on a couple and want to list a few different titles.
It was a strange year for me in the sense that I was overseas for nearly a month in February/March and most of what was on offer were ‘awards movies’. I also missed the Glasgow Film Festival which in the last few years has provided me with access to ‘festival films’ I might have missed. On the other hand it has been a good year for festivals at HOME in Manchester. Somehow, I still managed to watch over 100 films in the cinema and many more on DVD/download. Here are my highlights:
Most overrated films of the year
La La Land and Dunkirk (2017)
These were two of the most lauded and most discussed films of the year. Neither of them are ‘bad’ films and both have many good points to recommend them. Yet, overall, they didn’t move me or suggest that they deserved prizes. I saw La La Land in Canada with a large and appreciative audience a few weeks after it opened and all I can think is that they might never have seen or might have forgotten what a classic MGM musical might be like. As for Dunkirk, I might have felt differently if I hadn’t first seen the 1958 version of the story and explored documentary material. I suspect that the spectacular nature of the film, especially on IMAX/70mm screens was far more important for some audiences than the meanings the film generated.
Mainstream films of the year
It is significant that the four mainstream films I’ve chosen include three African-American films and three films with women as the central characters – the two key issues in 2017’s film releases.
Two outstanding films about North American life
These two, very different, films were both directed by women. Both explore women’s lives in specific regions of respectively, Maritime Canada and America’s Mid-West. Neither found a large audience but I suspect that those who did see them enjoyed them very much.
European film of the year
Frantz (France-Germany 2016)
I thought this was an astonishing film. There were plenty of other European films I enjoyed but also several I was unable to find in cinemas or that haven’t yet been released in the UK.
British films of the year
Lady Macbeth seems to have divided audiences, including my colleagues. I don’t understand why. Alongside the magnificent God’s Own Country it has figured prominently in both British and European awards competitions. These two début films give me hope for British cinema.
Asian releases of the year
It is getting harder to see important films coming out of South and East Asia at the cinema and I’ve chosen two films here from the handful of titles I was able to see. There was also another Koreeda film this year, After the Storm (Japan 2016) which was up to the same high standard this master has established. I also enjoyed many of the films in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood‘ programme.
Archive films of the year
Cloud-Capped Star (India, Bengal 1960)
Overall, I would have to concede that this year I have been more interested in the archive programming provided via HOME’s ‘States of Danger and Deceit‘ and also the archive elements of other HOME seasons and festivals. I wish there were more current films that matched the artistry and intensity of these archive gems.
Festival film of the year
The Rider (US 2017)
I hope this gets a UK release soon. It matches Maudie and Certain Women in its vibrant presentation of the local in North America.
Your Name (Japan 2016)
The success of this film (and The Red Turtle) gives me some hope that anime will finally get established in the UK. I just hope we can still get to see the Japanese versions in cinemas.
The films I missed that I wish I had seen
The Levelling (UK 2017), I Am Not Your Negro (US 2016)
I’ll try to find these two on DVD at some point in 2018.
December has been terrible in UK cinemas with nothing but family films and mainstream blockbusters on offer and now we await the usual flood of American ‘awards films’. We’ll be struggling to find the foreign language releases and then looking forward to festivals such as Glasgow in February.
I did not think that this was a great year for new releases. There were some very fine films, though often one had to seek them out.
I thought that the Palestinian film 3000 Nights / 3000 Layla (2015) was a powerful portrait of the effects of occupation.
Certain Women (2016) was another fine film from Kelly Reichardt with four excellent performances.
I am Not Your Negro (2016) was a very good documentary though I thought it was weakened by not directly addressing James Baldwin’s homosexuality.
After the Storm / Umi yori mo mada fukaku (2015) was another fine family drama from Kore-eda Hirokazu.
Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan patriotic epic, is here in its 70mm/IMAX version: a true cinematic experience.
Sally Potter’s The Party was one of the wittiest films of the year, standing out from some of the more heavy-handed satires.
Happy End was typical of Michael Haneke and of equal quality to his earlier films.
And Mountains May Depart (2015) was a distinctive but finely made Chinese drama.
Praise for Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and for Sallie Hawkins in Maudie (2016).
The year was improved by quite few classics re-exhibited and/or in Festival programmes. However, some of these were transferred to digital formats and that is a lottery for viewers. So I seek out those on 35mm prints.
Odd Obsession / Kagi (Japan, 1959] was a discovery, a sardonic family drama from Ichikawa Kon.
Humanity and Paper Balloons / Ninjô kami fûsen, directed by Yamanaka Sadao in 1937, was a film I knew of but only now had the opportunity of seeing: it has one of the great endings in world cinema.
West Indies (1979) is Med Hondo’s exhilarating take on slavery, the African Diaspora and European racism.
And one film that transferred to digital with such care and attention that it retained its cinematic qualities was The Bride of Glomdal / Glomdalsbruden, directed in 1926 by Carl Theodor Dreyer.
I was fortunate to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky / Aleksandr Nevskiy (USSR, 1938) in a nitrate print which gave a luminous edge to the famous ‘battle on the ice’ sequence’.
At the opposite end of the scale there were a number of filmic duds but the title that seemed the most interminable was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Interesting directors from national cinemas tend to lose that interest when they move into English-language International co-productions.
The wooden spoon goes to The Lost City of Z (2016). It was a rare 4K DCP distribution but the files that I saw included digital break-up and colour distortion. Friends had the same problem with different exhibitors. But the distributor Studio-Canal, declined an explanation for this.
But equally reprehensible is whoever controls the policy at the BFI of access to archive prints. I saw both Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (USSR 1925) and The End of St. Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (USSR 1927) in 35mm prints with excellent musical accompaniments, but the prints were copies of sound transfers rather than the proper silent prints with the correct frame rate and framing. Lenin’s adage about cinema clearly falls on death ears despite the Centenary of ‘The Great October Revolution’.
This year’s festival opens in the Victoria auditorium of the Town Hall with The Square, a European co-production which offers a satire on the contemporary art world. It is in English, Danish and Swedish and in standard widescreen and colour. It was filmed in a digital format and is presented in D-cinema. The title won the prestigious Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.
It launches both the Festival and the ‘Official Selection’ programme. This offers 37 contemporary titles from around the world. They include comedy – Battle of the Sexes (UK/US) dramatising a famous gender battle on the professional tennis court; sexual exploration with Call me by Your Name (Italy plus) directed by Luca Guadagnino and like his earlier I am Love , beautifully filmed rather than dramatic; a British rural drama set in Yorkshire, Dark River from director Clio Barnard; Sean Baker’s follow-up to the scintillating Tangerine, The Florida Project; this time filmed on 35mm rather than an iPhone. Bulgaria’s submission to the Academy Awards, Glory, a drama that symbolizes society through the search for a lost watch; a new film from Michael Haneke, Happy End, examines the aftermath of an industrial accident, ‘happiness;’ is unlikely; Sami Blood is a Swedish ‘coming of age’ drama and a title nominated for the European Lux Prize. All the films are from the ‘transatlantic’ territories, so no Asian or African films.
Most titles get several screenings and quite a few at different venues. However, a number are only programmed in at The Everyman, more a video parlour than a cinema. And several are only programmed in at The Vue in The Light. This multiplex has an unnecessarily high level of illumination in the auditorium during features: maybe the Festival can get them to ‘turn the lights down’: [congratulations, they have].
‘Retrospectives’ includes eight screenings sourced from 35mm prints, [barring accidents]. I make this one more than in 2016, progress. All the films will be projected at the Hyde Park Picture House as the only other venue in Leeds with a 35mm projector, The Cottage Road Cinema, is not participating in the Festival: shame. In another example of progress all the titles are listed in the printed ‘Free Guide’ and are noted on the Festival Webpages.
There is a ‘breakfast’ screening of Amélie (France 2001).
The Deputy / El diputado is a Spanish thriller from 1978, filmed in colour and standard widescreen. The plot involves a left-wing politician, the police and security services, black mail and even treason. The treatment makes all of this both complex and fascinating, widening the story with sexual orientation.
The Lives of Others / Das Leben der Anderen (Germany, 2006) was a popular success on its initial release. It studies the situation of an artist under the Stasi in the German Democratic Republic in the 1980s. What makes the story dramatic is a borrowing from Victor Hugo’s great novel ‘Les Misérables’.
Orphée (France 1950) is a film version of the famous myth by poet and artist Jean Cocteau. The film has a dreamlike quality and is full of actions and settings beloved of the Surrealists. The black and white cinematography really does deserve to be seen on film.
The Party and the Guests / O slavnosti a hostech (A Report on the Party and the Guests, Czechoslovakia, 1966) was part of the 1960s ‘new wave’ and was banned for many years. The film only appeared in Britain in 2008. Shot in academy and black and white, the film is an absurdist drama, at times reminiscent of Samuel Beckett.
Seven Days in January / 7 días de enero (Spain, 1979) is a thriller based on actual events. After the welcome death of General Franco and Spain’s transition to a more democratic society elements from the fascist past attempted to undermine the process.
Taste of Cherry / Ta’m e guilass (Iran, 1997) is one of the fine films from this country’s art/independent sector. The director Abbas Kiarostami is noted for his minimalist approach. Here, in another Iranian film set mainly in an automobile, we spend a few hours with a man debating a fundamental question.
Volver (Spain, 2006) is another excellent drama from Pedro Almodóvar. This is a film centred on women and the fine cast, as a collective, were awarded the Best Actress Award at the Cannes Film Festivals. This is mainly a dramatic comedy but with many of the issues that always fill Almodovar’s films and titillate audiences.
Surprisingly several other films in the retrospective section are on digital even though I am pretty sure that 35mm prints exist. These include Satyajit Ray’s memorable Aparajito (India, 1956) and the Italian political thriller Investigation of a Citizen Above Suspicion / Indagine su un cittadino al di sopra di ogni sospetto (1970).
‘Cinema Versa’ includes the recent Palestinian documentary Gaza Surf Club (produced by German filmmakers in 2016). The film also launches this year’s Leeds Palestinian Film Festival, which runs from the end of LIFF until early December.
‘Fanomenon’ includes the traditional Manga and ‘Day/Night of the Dead’ screenings. And there are the various ‘short films’ competition that cover a wider range of titles than ever.
The most serious lacunae in the programme is the complete absence of Soviet titles. The Centenary of the Great October Revolution [in the new style calendar] falls within the Festival. If this is not recognised as the most significant event of the 20th century then surely the cinema it inspired, Soviet Montage, should be recognised as seminal. It was the most challenging but also the most influential film movement in 20th century World Cinema. We will have to wait for December and a trek to Hebden Bridge for such a film.
This film is one of those rare beasts, a title distributed in Britain on a 4K DCP. The film is distributed by STX International. It was produced by The Imaginarium Studios with support both from BBC Films and the British Film Institute. Imaginarium is run by Jonathan Cavendish, the son of the real-life character who is the protagonist in this film. It was shot digitally (Codex), in colour and (oddly I thought) in Ultra-Panavision which gives an aspect ratio of 2.76:1, (remember The Hateful Eight, 2015).
In the 1950s Robin Cavendish (Andrew Garfield) was struck down with polio. In that period the illness meant hospitalisation, reliance on a ventilator and a short life-span. Robin, clearly a strong-minded character, with his equally strong-minded wife Diana (Claire Foy), contested the prescribed treatment and set about giving the invalid something approaching a normal, as opposed to institutionalised, life. Successful, he became an advocate and pioneer for improved treatment of polio victims. He and his wife were assisted by a bevy of friends including amateur inventor Teddy Hall, (Hugh Bonneville). There was also an infant son, Jonathan (Dallon Brewer, Deacon Brewer, Jack Madigan, Frank Madigan, Harry Marcus, Dean-Charles Chapman at different ages) conceived before the onset of the illness. And, inevitably, there is a terrier, Bengy (Pixie), who gets an important scene.
The film appears to treat the main aspects of the story fairly accurately. However, there also appear to be quite a few lacunae. We do not in the film learn anything about the company set up with Government assistant to manufacture the invention, Littlemore Scientific Engineering. In fact, the whole economic aspect is scantily presented. Early in the film Diana is almost penniless, relying on unpaid support from her own childhood nanny. Then she spends £7,000 in cash on a small mansion with substantial grounds. Later Robin remarks that his shares have been profitable: all rather mysterious. I suspected that Cavendish had an army career prior to his civilian life but this is omitted as is his atheism. I am uncertain about the accuracy of all of the dates.
The film is well produced and the visual and aural qualities are excellent. The cast are uniformly good and Andrew Garfield gives an impressive performance as the immobilised patient whilst Claire Foy is excellent as the devoted wife. The Ultra-Panavision does seem odd because most of the film is small-scale with some occasional vistas of Kenya and Spain (both filmed in South Africa and the latter obviously so.).
The treatment is mainly upbeat. I felt the film presented this story almost in the mode of a romcom: and Hugh Bonneville in particular adds to this. There are a couple of slightly shocking moments: the BBFC decided 12A with
“infrequent bloody images”.
This is so typical, in fact there are two. More shocking is a visit to a German institution in the 1980s where the polio-stricken patients appear in a setting redolent of Britannia Hospital (1982). I was slightly uneasy at this almost stereotypical depiction of a German institution: I wondered how accurate it was. I also found the sequences referring to Kenya problematic, there were couple of brief references to the Mau-Mau independence struggle, something British cinema has never properly addressed.
The film runs just under two hours and whilst I found it always interesting I also found the rather one-dimensional treatment wearing towards the end. I saw the film at Picturehouse in Bradford’s Pictureville auditorium with 4K projection. So I got the full benefit of the 4K quality, though because of the 2.76:1 ratio we had black/gray bars above and below the frame. If you go to see it check and try and see it in 4K: several multiplexes now have 4K projectors but do not necessarily use 4K DCPs.
This film in HOME’s ‘Not Just Bollywood’ season is an award-winning documentary from Shirley Abraham and Amit Madheshiya who together seem to have been involved in most aspects of the film’s production. Amit Madheshiya is a photographer based in Mumbai who had already received prizes for his work photographing travelling cinemas before he and Shirley Abraham worked on a film documentary. Both filmmakers received an M.A. from the Mass Communication Research Centre at New Delhi’s Jamia Millia Islamia University in 2006 and then worked on globally-funded arts projects. This film also received support from the Sundance Film Festival.
Although largely ignored in conventional film studies, travelling cinemas and similar activities have attracted the attention of ethnographers because of the curious mix of arts, religion and rural culture that surrounds the subject. It isn’t difficult to see how the film came to be listed for so many prizes and indeed to win several. The material is very engaging and the documentary style is handled authoritatively but lightly – a great achievement for first time filmmakers who have referred to taking advice from books and Sundance tutors at an Edit Lab. I would term the style ‘Direct Cinema’, going back to the classic 1960s work of Robert Drew, Richard Leacock and others. This is often confused with ciné vérité and there is a useful distinction between the two on the IDEAS ∣ FILM website. Direct Cinema implies that nothing gets in between the event and the camera eye, so no appearances or commentaries by the filmmakers or ‘the voice of God’.
The film’s narrative is carried by three ‘characters’. Mohammed and Bapu are both travelling cinema exhibitors and the third character is Prakash who has spent many years in his workshop maintaining and re-building cinema projectors. These kinds of travelling cinemas have been operating for seventy years or so in parts of eastern Maharashtra, 100 kilometres or more inland from Mumbai. It is a seasonal business and the exhibitors use a lorry (truck) to transport projection equipment in parts that is then re-assembled on site and films are projected from the bed of the truck onto a canvas screen erected in a large circus-style tent. Or at least, that’s how Mohammed manages it. Bapu’s truck is so vintage that the engine no longer operates and the truck is towed into place by a tractor. The two operators each have a different approach. Bapu attracts kids and lets them in free as the audience of the future – the children are allowed to use a microphone like a fairground barker to attract the main audience in the villages presumably close to his base. Mohammed has a larger crew and his is a more commercial operation which tries to show as many screenings as possible before moving on to the next fair.
Fairs/festivals are common across India in cities and in rural areas. The specific fairs in this region where Mohammed operates may in the past have had a primary religious purpose, but some now seem to be as much about entertainment. As a venue for cinema exhibition they form part of the huge diversity of Indian film culture from modern multiplexes in the metros to traditional single screen cinemas in smaller centres and to ‘B’ and ‘C’ circuit cinemas as well as video screenings and mobile cinemas, outdoor screenings etc. The films are equally varied with some relatively recent mainstream films, some more ancient and in one tent what appears to be soft porn.
Part of the real pleasure of the film is in following the process of putting on a screening and seeing how the exhibitors cope with all the usual problems of exhibition – keeping the audience on side when the reels of film arrive late, keeping ancient projectors working and making sure the projectionists treat the equipment with care. The inclusion of Prakash is a good choice as his enthusiasm and his skill in dealing with projectors shines through as he demonstrates his own, hand-built projector with all kinds of refinements for perfect running. Sadly, it will probably never be used because this documentary has been made during the period when even travelling cinemas have been forced to abandon 35mm film projection and move towards digital. India has a thriving ‘E’ cinema culture which runs in parallel with Hollywood’s ‘D’ cinema system. That means cheaper projectors and laptops rather than the DCP projection. Even so, the cost of new equipment is a shock for Mohammed and the familiar problems about licence keys and software upgrades still need to be solved – and that’s not easy without local broadband connections. All this sounds like it might be the end for Prakash – a sprightly man in his 70s, immaculately turned out in his workshop. But fear not, he’s got his future sussed and his family won’t go hungry.
The Cinema Travellers is a joy to watch and deserves the interest and praise it is attracting. We do get to learn a lot about the ‘business’, but I would have liked more. I’m assuming that many of the cinema crews and audience members are speaking Marathi but I’m not sure whether the films shown are Hindi or Marathi (I’m assuming a mix?). I think for audiences outside India it is difficult to grasp how cinema distribution and exhibition works for the people in the film. Many reviews refer to ‘remote communities’. I’m not sure that these villages are ‘remote’ – they are just far away enough from a town to make going to a ‘standing’ cinema impractical. We hear how people are now watching films on their phones and we see families watching TV. Is it the social aspect, the getting away from family that makes this type of exhibition still viable, albeit on a much smaller scale than in the past? My feeling is that this documentary (as distinct from the larger project for the co-directors) aims for the universal story of the small operator struggling to keep a business going than it does for ‘documenting’ an industry practice. Which is fine if it is done with the skill and artistic flair presented here.
Here is a Cannes Report that introduces the filmmakers and a glimpse of the film:
. . . and here are the filmmakers in Heidelberg reflecting on their long-term project investigating the cultural activity of travelling cinemas:
“This year, from 7-10 September, Heritage Open Days is back to shine a light on England’s fascinating historic places. This annual festival celebrates our diverse history, architecture and culture, offering you the chance to see hidden places and try out new experiences all for free.”
On Sunday, September 10th, film fans had a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage event. Between 1000 and 1500 they could enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There was screening a looped visual presentation of memorabilia associated with the cinema. And in the foyer a copy of the cinema Log Books donated by the family of one of the original founders of the cinema in 1916. This was the 1919 log book and included among the titles were films starring Geraldine Farrar. She was a star singer with the Metropolitan Opera in New York and launched into films in Cecil B. De Mille’s famous version of Carmen (1915). By 1919 she usually worked with the director Reg Barker in productions with the Goldwyn Company.
There were also conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors. The Cinemeccanica Victoria 8 projectors came from the Lounge Cinema [sadly converted into bars and fast food outlets], fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours are a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927): just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.
Appropriately there followed screening of 35mm films. These were all the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. This was package prepared by the British Film Institute from the National Film Archive and titled ‘Their Finest Hour’. Jennings films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s and combine vision and sound in a distinctive manner. They display often unexpected juxtapositions, a sign of Jennings’ admiration for the Surrealist Movement.
The programme opened with a documentary influenced by his work with the Mass Observation Movement and then offered three of his wartime films, the period when he achieved the peak of his poetic representations
First was Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) which visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. The film mirrors the anthropological concerns of Mass Observation. This is very much an observational mode. Jennings and his team of the cameraman Henry Fowle and sound recordist Vorke Scarlett worked for the GPO Film Unit under producer Alberto Cavalcanti. The film was commissioned for the British Pavilion at the New York World Fair. In a sense propaganda for the ‘US cousins’, a stance that was part of Jennings war work as well.
This is what is has been termed an ‘associational documentary’. It lacks the explicit social commentary of the Griersonian films, relying more on the connections between people, objects and settings. The theme in the words of Laurie Lee offers
“as things are, Spare Time is a time when we have a chance to do what we like, a chance to be most ourselves”
So there is an sub-text about labour and working people. This is reinforced in the visual style of the film where actual labour tends to appear in static shots whilst camera movements are more likely for people’s leisure activities.
There are three sections. In Sheffield we meet the steel industry and then the pastimes organised round the three-shift system. We see and hear a local brass band, visit a pub, see the walking of whippets and the release of pigeons, a cycling party and a crowded and popular football match.
Then to Manchester and Bolton where the cotton industry is based with weekend leisure. The most famous sequence of a Kazoo band was most likely shot in Rotherham and before the production included Jennings. Then we visit the Belle Vue Zoo, see children in the street and a ballroom where the dance floor soon fills with the couples circling to a band.
Finally we visit Pontypridd and the coal collieries. A hooter accompanies the pithead and then the evening fun at a fair. The sequence is mainly in low key lighting. An amateur choir assembles and starts to sing Handel’s ‘Largo’. The music follows as the camera shows us streets and shoppers, then a youth club match and, as the evening passes, the start of mealtime.
The various musical troupes overlap the visual source to provide the accompanying track, punctuated by industrial noise. The film opens and closes with recorded music and the words of Laurie Lee. He also introduces each section The inconspicuous camera records the events, at one point observing as the pianist with the choir slips out of her coat whilst commencing the accompaniment. We see a family preparing to dine on a magnificent meat pie. There are several relaxed scenes in public houses. The Welsh section includes a notable tracking shop down a street. otherwise the camera relies mainly on long shots and ‘plain American’, with straight cuts and just the occasional dissolve. The film was edited by Jennings, there is no other person credited. And the cuts between sequences weaves a tapestry whilst the commentary sets up the separates sections and the finale.
Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.
The film was produced by the Crown Film Unit under the auspices of the Ministry of Information. This is a ‘compilation’ documentary. The film intercuts short scenes of town and rural life – Westminster Abbey, evacuated children in the countryside – with scenes of military action, fighter pilots on an aerodrome, destroyers at sea.
The film appears to be completely based on ‘found footage’. it was constructed by Jennings with Stewart McAllister as editor. McAllister is a key member of the production team in the war-time films and brings a precision to the cutting of and between images,. He also brings a complex treatment to the tapestry of sound that accompanies the images. The war time films directed by Jennings use noise and music as well as words and this melange is increasingly complex. The soundtrack includes music by Beethoven and Handel, but the important part is the prose and poetry read by Olivier.
The C16th Britannia accompanies a map from that period. Then we hear selections from John Milton, Williams Blake, Robert Browning and Rudyard Kipling: a rather unusual combination. The film moves on to Winston Churchill’s famous address to the House of Commons ‘We shall fight on the beaches’, [also featured in the recent ‘Dunkirk’]. And finally we hear words from Abraham Lincoln’s Address following the Battle of Gettysburg. The last opines widely held beliefs in ‘western democracies’. But the word accompany tanks passing the statue of Lincoln in Parliament Square: a clear pitch to the allies across the Atlantic.
The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the Czech villagers of Lidice [a mining community] in 1942. This was notorious event carried out as retribution for the assassination of the Reich Protector Reinhard Heydrich. Jennings and his team relocate the events to a Welsh mining village (Cwmgiedd) with the local inhabitants playing the population under Nazi occupation and becoming the victims of their terrorism .
The suggestion for the film was made by exiled Czech officials to the Ministry of Information. This was a Crown Film Unit production. Jennings is credited with both script and direction. And his colleagues on the film are the familiar and experienced team, with Stewart McAllister as editor, H. E. Fowle as cameraman. Ken Cameron is the sound recordist.
The film opens with an aural and visual introduction to the world of a mining village in a Welsh valley. This is typical of Jennings work and it weaves sounds and images to produce an effective portrait of the mining community. The film uses both English and Welsh, without any subtitles for the latter language: in fact, the words are not necessary. This, as in other wartime films, uses ‘actual sound’ as well as ‘found sound’; an important aspect of the films. Then the German occupation arrives. As the narrative develops their repressive tactics increase. With the news of the assassination we reach the stage of reprisals. This involves the deportation of women and children and the murder of all the adult males. We do not see the actual execution but hear the gunfire as the men defiantly sing ‘Land of our Fathers’.
The entire cast are non-professional and the film is a fine example of how effectively Jennings and his team work with ordinary people. The sense of place is reinforced by the coupling of images of people with images of settings and objects which combine to effect a sense of a recognisable place and community. The accompanying sounds – industrial, domestic, rural – add to the effectiveness of this.
And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British cinema. Jennings and his colleagues weave a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.
The production team is the now familiar one – McAllister, Fowle, Cameron – with an editor at the Crown Film Unit, John Krish, assisting. Once more we have the inter-weaving of actual and found footage with actual and found sound, including recorded music. And once more Jennings and his team display their unrivalled ability to capture ordinary people carrying out ordinary actions: though in extraordinary times.
The film opens with a pitch to the North American audience by Leonard Brockington. But then we move into the film proper, relying completely on the sounds and images of Britain and its people.
It is evening and we are presented with the British countryside. Then a Spitfire flies low over the scene. The film progresses through the night and on to the evening of the following day. In the course of the film we see countryside people, town and city people, factory workers, troops and the military. And we see these people both at work and at play. Among the famous settings are a grand ballroom packed with dancers; a wartime factory and the lunchtime canteen concert; in parallel the National Gallery in London and a concert of classical music. This provides a seamless tapestry of British wartime life. The film glosses over differences of class, gender and place. The one anachronism, as the film ends we hear ‘Land of Hope and Glory’ on the sound track: a false note which I suspect was dictated by producers rather than the actual filmmakers.
All these films are in black and white. They famously made Jennings an undoubted ‘auteur’ for British film . But the subtle developments apparent in the war-time films point to the importance of the contributions by Fowle, McAllister and Cameron. Jennings would seem to bring an overall form and the recurring themes.He has been criticised as ‘patronising’. But I think it is more that he remains an outsider but one with real empathy for the subjects of the films. What is apparent is that the films offer an ‘imagined community’, smoothing out troubling wrinkles and contradictions such as class. The war time films in particular embrace the notion of ‘A People’s War’; a concept that is closer to notions of propaganda than actuality. But the films do generate a sense of authenticity that was powerful at the time and which remain abiding images of Britain’s past.
Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening this M-G-M film in 35mm on Saturday August 5th. This is a delightful musical comedy starring Julie Andrews as Victoria (the key club performer in the film), James Garner as King Marchand (a Chicago Club Owner visiting Paris) and Robert Preston as Toddy, (a Paris night club performer). What makes the film especially effective is the way that it plays with cross-dressing, a classic source of comedy on film.
The film was scripted and directed by Blake Edwards with music by Henry Mancini. The production is presented with excellent style and captures a certain image of Parisian night life. The cast, both leading players and supporting actors, are excellent and convincing in the role-playing within role play. The musical numbers are performances in Parisian night clubs including the raunchy Chez Lui.
In fact the film is adapted from a successful 1933 German musical comedy, Viktor und Viktoria, produced by UFA. It was written and directed by Reinhold Schünzel, who later left for Hollywood. Another to-be émigré in a supporting role is Anton Walbrook. This original version is
a musical comedy greatly influenced by the American model, with its choreographed sequences and parades, clusters of pretty girls that open up like bunches of flowers, . . . (Il Cinema Ritrovato Catalogue 2004).
But it also retains some of the ironic treatment of gender representations that was rife in the earlier Weimar cinema, though more discreetly. The 1982 American version has little of the 1930s musical treatment, its offerings more like that of then contemporary musicals such as Cabaret (1972).
There was a English-language remake in 1935, long before this form became a staple of Hollywood output. The film was directed by Victor Saville for Michael Balcon and starred Jessie Matthews. Set in the British Music Hall the film is less risqué than either the German original or the later Hollywood adaptation. It was screened earlier in the year at the National Media Museum, but from video. A shame as the BFI do have a 35mm print. The publicity was also feint, hence I missed it. There was an interesting accompanying exhibition using photographs from the Daily Herald archive, but that was also little publicised.
Hopefully people will pick up on the screening of this latest version and turn up for what will be a very entertaining two hours plus. (134 minutes in colour and ‘Scope ratio).