Category: Film history

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. [NB it seems that there is 50 seconds of a blank screen with no sound before the You Tube broadcast kicks in.]

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.

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?

Piero Vivarelli, Life as a B Movie (Italy 2019)

Italian popular cinema in the 1960s and 1970s is a thing of wonder and I certainly haven’t seen enough of it. MUBI are currently offering a short season of recent Italian films which are mostly not the kind of Italian films that currently achieve international distribution. I’ve moaned on this blog frequently about Italian films I’ve seen in festivals that should be seen in the UK but they never seem to get here. Life as a B Movie is very welcome as an online offering because it tells a story about a singular figure in Italian media and does so with numerous clips from the films which benefited from his involvement.

Vivarelli appearing as the saxophonist in Urlatori alla sbarra (Howlers of the Dock, 1960)

The subject of this documentary biopic is Piero Vivarelli (1927-2010) who was perhaps most importantly a writer but also a music promoter and director of a broad range of ‘B’ pictures. His first interest appears to have been music (pop and jazz) and his obsession appears to have been variations of the ‘youth picture’ or as he was more prone to express it, the battle between the young generation and their parents’ generation. We get to see clips from several pop music influenced youth pix, one of which, Howlers of the Dock (1960) has a squadron of Vespa riding youths well before Quadrophenia. Vivarelli co-wrote with many people and seemed to have a real knack of finding talented people to work with including Lucio Fulci who would later become a well-known genre film director. With Fulci and others Vivarelli wrote the song ’24 Mila Baci’ or ‘24,000 Kisses’ which became a No 1 hit in Italy and Spain. This was a period in which Italian pop music became popular across Europe and was even covered in the UK and the US. I was amazed to realise that ’24 Mila Baci’ features on the soundtrack of Pawel Pawlikowski’s film Ida (Poland 2013), set in 1962. We also see an interview with the Serbian director Emir Kusturica who used a performance of the song in an early film.

Franco Nero as Django

Vivarelli’s own films include an intriguing youth romance set in Berlin at the time of the building of the Berlin Wall in 1962, known as East Zone, West Zone in English and starring Helmut Griem who became an international film star in the 1970s. Perhaps his most prominent role for international audiences was as one (arguably the most significant) of the writers of Django (Italy-Spain 1966) the Western with a host of later ‘sequels’. The documentary includes interviews with Franco Nero, the central character and explores the role of Vivarelli alongside director Sergio Corbuci and co-writer Franco Rossetti, who like Vivarelli came from Siena.

The documentary’s directors offer this statement:

To depict this offbeat, complex, unsung Italian pop culture personality we chose a non-linear narrative style with several intersecting thematic story lines weaved into an only partly chronological tapestry. The key to our narrative is the deep interconnection that we came across between his life and his movies. The title is not a gimmick.

Our intention was to bring to fore the pioneer aspects of the pioneer/provocateur Piero Vivarelli in Italian music and movies, trying to place him not just locally, but within the broader context of the post-war global pop culture explosion. At the same time we tried to provide a sense of a very particular typically Italian post-war vitality that he encapsulates. It’s the particular energy that prompted Tarantino’s passion for the Italian B-movie genre. Last but not least, we tried to recount his extraordinary erotic sensuality, the driving force for everything Piero did.

Fabrizio Laurenti, Niccolò Vivarelli

Niccolò Vivarelli is (according to Cineuropa) Piero Vivarelli’s grandson. This doesn’t mean that the documentary shies away from Vivarelli’s less savoury qualities. He was a determined womaniser and not averse to cheating on wives and lovers with the singers and actresses he met. He was not a good father and he lost a son to drugs, but the many interviewees, including those who might be expected to be hurt, seem prepared to praise him. He was attracted to women of colour and married the Jamaican actor Beryl Cunningham who was a leading player in Il dio serpente (1970). This film was made in Columbia and developed Vivarelli’s interest in erotic movies. It was followed by The Black Decameron (1972), again with Cunningham, but this time made in Senegal. I was amazed to discover that Vivarelli knew Djibril Diop Mambety, who has a role in the film.This seems so unlikely and I can’t find any supporting evidence in, for instance, IMDb but it seems a confident claim. Claims are also made that during the shoot in Senegal, (which had support from President Senghor), Vivarelli was able to meet rebels from Guinea-Bissau, led by Luís Cabral, who were fighting for independence from Portuguese colonialism and we see photographic evidence. Vivarelli does seem to have been an extraordinary man and the documentary’s title seems apt. His life defied any neat description or classification.

Late in his life, Vivarelli (right) with Fidel Castro

Throughout the film the two directors mix and interweave the stories of Vivarelli’s films, his numerous relationships and his political life. As a teenager he had joined a notorious fascist commando troop (a combination of parachutists and navy seals), partly because of his father’s death as an Italian soldier killed by partisans. Soon after the end of the war he switched to join the Italian Communist Party. He seems to have been radical/leftist from then on. His increasing interest in erotic movies meant further films focusing on women of colour with Codice d’amore orientale (1974) an ‘erotic documentary’ filmed in Thailand and involvement as a writer on Joe D’Amato’s Emanuelle in Bangkok (1976) and Emanuelle in America (1977), both with Laura Gemser. Despite the reputations of these films, interviewees assert that Vivarelli was not a colonialist. His final film was La rumbera (Italy 1998) which presented the Cuban revolution via the story of a dancer. The film was made in Cuba and Vivarelli met Castro as seen in the photo above. Im intrigued as to what Fidel is thinking when he looks at Vivarelli.

I’m sure I haven’t done justice to this remarkable film, but it’s on MUBI until April 29 I think. Do check it out if you have a subscription. One last thought. The films Vivarelli and his collaborators made are very difficult to see now, but as one of the interviewees suggests, during the 1960s and 1970s at the height of Italian film production, many of these films sold well in Italy and overseas and they helped pave the way for the more celebrated Italian art films to gain international distribution. Vivarelli was in many ways an innovator. This trailer gives a good sense of the delirium of the documentary.

John Ford’s legacy in the 21st Century

John Ford on location at West Point for ‘The Long Gray Line’ (1955)  produced by Columbia Pictures. ©SPE Archives & Collections

John Ford (1894-1973) was born to parents who arrived in New England in 1872 as migrants from the West of Ireland. ‘Jack’ Feeney was the 10th of 11 children. He moved to Hollywood in 1914 where his older brother Francis was already a successful actor, director and producer. He became first Jack Ford and then John Ford in 1923. He directed his first film in 1917 and his last in 1966. In the intervening years he became the most successful Oscar winner as a director winning 4 times plus two more wins for his wartime documentaries. This is a ‘global film’ blog, so why the interest in Ford? Hollywood is too important to ignore but most of contemporary mainstream Hollywood doesn’t interest me. I am interested in some aspects of American Independent cinema and certainly in African American cinema. I’m also interested in 1940s-1970s Hollywood, especially if it has been influential in global terms.

John Ford made films in Ireland (2), UK (1) the South Pacific (2) Mexico (1) and Kenya (1) as well as numerous territories as required by the US military. He was also one of the most influential filmmakers of the 20th century with ardent admirers such as Kurosawa Akira in Japan, Xie Jin in China, Satyajit Ray in Bengal, Ingmar Bergman in Sweden and many other leading filmmakers worldwide. His impact on global film was considerable.

But I wonder what younger filmmakers and younger audiences make of a director who died over 40 years ago? The Ford film that is arguably the most remembered is The Searchers (1956), a film that was successful at the time with audiences but took much longer to become a critics’ favourite. Younger audiences are most likely to know it because it became an important influence on George Lucas who refers to it in Star Wars (1977) and perhaps also Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) which borrows narrative ideas from it expressed in Paul Schrader’s script. Many younger cinephiles might not have seen The Searchers but they will know the opening and closing shots of the film which have been endlessly re-cycled over the last 40 years. But there is still resistance to The Searchers, exemplified by a recent Guardian piece by a senior film writer who agreed to watch the film having avoided it during his career as a film journalist. In fact, he hadn’t seen any of Ford’s films. Why is that? The answer is that, like several of Ford’s films, this is a Western starring John Wayne. Not only that but Wayne’s character is an embittered racist – or at least that is what is assumed. I’m not criticising anyone who has avoided a Wayne film for that reason – there are several Hollywood stars whose performances I don’t particularly enjoy and therefore whose films I don’t watch (including several of Wayne’s). However, Ford’s relationship with Wayne is complex and The Searchers is, on every level, a remarkable film that does not succumb to straightforward readings.

There are several reasons why John Ford’s films (over 140 of them in all, but a more ‘modest’ 50 or so features since 1929) are still important in 2020:

  • his ideas about African American social history and the Civil War
  • his ideas about Native American history
  • his sense of Irish identity
  • his respect for the US miltary
  • the roles for women in his films
  • his ‘independent’ status throughout the years of the Studio System
  • his status within the industry as a highly-skilled visual technician, editor, director and dialogue writer
  • his position re the concept of ‘film author’

No doubt there are more but that’s quite enough for now. I will attempt over the coming weeks to explore some of those 50 films and their associated discourses. Perhaps Keith will say something about Ford’s silent cinema films about which I have very limited knowledge? At this time of lockdown, it’s worth pointing out that three Ford Westerns are on BBC iPlayer for the next few months. Otherwise it is becoming quite difficult to find the films on DVD/Blu-ray in the UK. Presumably quite a few are available on Amazon Prime and Netflix? Over the years I have worked with several of the films, but few have made it onto the blog from ‘draft’ to ‘published’, mainly because there is so much to say and they never seem to be completed. One you might find interesting is Sergeant Rutledge (US 1960), a landmark film in some ways.

Spark – A Festival of Revolutionary Films

This Autumn is the centenary of the Russian Revolution and two of London’s independent cinemas are hosting a season of films by Eisenstein, Vertov, Pudovkin and Shub – plus Warren Beatty’s Reds (1981) based on the personal account of the events of the Revolution by John Reed. The Phoenix in East Finchley and the Rio in Dalston have screenings on alternate Sundays mostly starting around lunchtime/early afternoon. If you’ve never seen these Soviet classics, here is a great chance to catch up on an extraordinary period of filmmaking. Download further details here: Spark Programme.

Citizen Kane (US 1941)

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspaper

CITIZEN KANE, Orson Welles, 1941, astride stacks of newspapers

This is the film that was voted top in the Sight & Sound ten-yearly critics’ polls from 1962 until 2002. Even when it was toppled by Vertigo (USA 1958) it still secured the second spot. Top or ‘greatest’ films are conjecture rather than indisputable masterworks. But the sheer longevity of Kane speaks to its capacity to be seen and re-seen; for me at least ten cinema screenings. So now, thanks to the Hebden Bridge Picture House, cineastes in West Yorkshire have an opportunity to assess or re-assess the film. And it is screening as it should be experienced, on 35mm.

The film was directed by Orson Welles, his first outing with a feature film. Welles’s career is often seen as a series of failures. If so, what artist would not relish such failure. He also directed The Magnificent Ambersons (USA ), which, despite being cut by the studio, remains a fine and beautifully realised adaptation. Then we have the three great adaptations of William Shakespeare, Macbeth (USA 1948), Othello (USA, Italy, Morocco, France 1951) and Chimes at Midnight (Falstaff, Switzerland, France, Spain 1965). There is one of the finest film noirs Touch of Evil (USA 1957) – with the memorable opening combined track and crane shot that Robert Altman homaged in The Player (USA 1992 ). In between he filmed a memorable adaptation of Franz Kafka’s The Trial (France, West Germany Italy 1962). And then right at the end of Welles’ career the delightful, playful F for Fake (France, Iran, Germany 1975). Then there are his 123 screen appearances, plus many more on television. Some were pastiches, some were very poor films. But the outstanding performances, including Kane, Touch of Evil and that other classic The Third Man (UK 1949), are up there with the other greats.

Welles cinema was full of innovations. If you doubt that, after Kane, watch any Hollywood sound film from 1930 to 1940. This was in part because as a director Welles recruited the best talent he could find and both inspired and challenged them. He was, like many directors, similar to a conductor of an orchestra, providing the overall interpretation and offering the players scope for their individual talents. But it was also because Welles bought imagination to his art work.

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Citizen Kane has an original screenplay, produced by Herman J. Mankiewicz working with Welles. Mankiewicz had started in Hollywood in the 1920s and worked right through the 1930s. He had a background in newspaper work and bought an ability to write fast, witty dialogue and to provide a satirical view of human foibles. Both are apparent in Kane: there are many memorable lines and the rise and partial fall of the protagonist is delivered with great aplomb. Mankiewicz had addiction to alcohol and during the writing phase he was kept in line by Welles’s talented producer John Houseman who also contributed to the script.

The Art Design was supervised by Van Nest Polglase with Perry Ferguson; Set Decoration by Darrell Silvera; Costume Design by  Edward Stevenson, all members of the RKO Art Department. The film involves an incredibly varied range of sets and period costumes. It also involved settings that even by Hollywood standards were large, impressive and [at times] overbearing. The opening sequence as the camera tracks in on Kane’s fabulous Xanadu exemplifies the range of materials and props and the use of special effects. The film was unusual for the period as most of the sets have visible ceilings, an aspect that Hollywood films tended to avoid because of the need for the lighting rigs.

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Welles and Toland on set.

One of the outstanding features of Kane is the cinematography by Gregg Toland. He started on camera work in the 1920s and worked through the 1930 and it was then he developed his skills in ‘deep focus’ techniques where the image has a noticeable depth of field. Kane is full of remarkable depth of field: there are impressive long shots of characters ‘lost’ in the vast grandeur of Xanadu. Toland used the latest film stock and lenses to innovate in filming. The film has impressive camera movements and angles, emphasising the vastness of Kane’s empire. There is also a strong expressionist feel in the use of chiaroscuro, something that is a Welles trade mark. Toland wrote up his work on the film for the ‘American Cinematographer’.

The Special Effects with the cinematography were by Vernon L. Walker, an experienced and skilled professional in the field. Two of the key sound engineers were John Aalberg Sound Supervisor and Harry Essman Special Sound Effects. Welles’ films are notable for their use of sound, a skill he bought with him to Hollywood after his extensive work in radio.  The original Kane enjoyed the high fidelity RCS Sound System.

The editing was by Robert Wise who went on to direct his own films. The film is beautifully put together, often relying on dissolves rather than cuts. But there are fine transitions and rapid montage: notably the sequences depicting the failing marriage of Kane and his first wife Emily Monroe Norton (Ruth Warwick). However, Wise later blotted his copybook when he worked on the studio ‘version’ of Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons (1942).

Integral to the film and the soundtrack is the music of Bernard Hermann. Welles bought Hermann to Hollywood where he enjoyed a long career as one of the greats of Hollywood music. His core for Kane is Wagnerian, especially in the specially composed opera excerpt, ‘Salammbo’.

Welles also bought a number of the players from his Mercury Radio Theater. Joseph Cotten is Kane’s friend Jedediah Leland; Everett Sloane is Kane’s manager Berstein and Agnes Moorehead, in only one short scene, is Kane’s mother Mary. Another key character is Kane’s second wife Susan Alexander player by Dorothy Comingore. There are numerous other supporting players, the cast credits run to over a hundred. William Alland offers an excellent investigate reporter Jerry Thompson and Paul Stewart is memorable as the oily manservant Raymond.

The quality of the film owes much to this supporting cast, including many minor roles only seen and heard in one or two scenes. Equally the production values owe much to the supporting technicians who worked with the director and his team leaders. The film enjoys the high quality of a Hollywood studio production coupled with an adventurous and innovative approach.

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Thompson’s instructions.

There is one other star in the film, a single word ‘Rosebud’. This invention by either Welles or Mankiewicz is a brilliant trope in the film, both binding the narrative together and providing an audience hook for the film’s exploration of Charles Foster Kane. It is also a ‘cheat’: watch the first sequence of the film carefully and then pay attention to the instructions to Thompson by his producer.

Some commentators suggest that ‘Rosebud’ is one factor in the campaign against the film by William Randolph Hearst, the great newspaper proprietor. Certainly, despite disclaimers. Kane’s character and career offer a number of parallels to that of Hearst in real life. Citizen Kane‘s relatively poor box office showing owed much to the campaign against the film in Hearst’s newspapers. And despite several nominations its only Academy Award was for Best Original Screenplay. In a long interview for the ‘BBC Arena’ Welles claimed that on the night of the films’ premiere, at RKO’s Radio City in New York in May 1941, he got into the hotel lift and saw before him W. R. Hearst. Both recognised the other. Welles claims that he offered Hearst a ticket to the film premiere which Hearst declined. Welles then quipped

“Kane would have taken it.”

Follow his example.

Check out the film in detail at the American Film Institute.