Category: Directors

Otto e mezzo (, Italy / France 1963)

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This classic film is going round on a reasonably good DCP. However, the opportunities are limited. Picturehouse at the National Media Museum and the Hyde Park Picture House both restricted their programme to one screening. This is becoming something of the norm for art and foreign language films, as it is also for classics and silent films. The last group, of course, often involve live music which explains that. But I do find single showings problematic. Presumably, like myself on occasions, there are a group of prospective viewers who cannot make that particular time or day. I can understand the policy to a degree. Both Picturehouse and the Hyde Park, (who book through Picturehouse], have a particular ‘discover’ or ‘wonder’ on Tuesdays. And they have regular Sunday slots for ‘Vintage’ films. I heard an interview on Radio 4 with the manager of the ‘Little Bit Ritzy, (a Picturehouse venue), who explained that they tried to make each film an event: modern marketing. This appears to work. At the Hyde Park recently an Italian documentary drew 120 people on a Tuesday evening.

However, this tactic also undermines word-of-mouth for individual films: important in the art and foreign language areas. And in the case of Tuesdays, one is often faced with a horrible choice, at least here in Leeds and Bradford. I went along to the Hyde Park for . There were about 90 in the audience. However I know that several friends missed this screening. And I was not able to make the screening at the National Media Museum.

Otto e mezzo is not just a film praised by critics and audiences. It is one of the seminal films in World Cinema. The publicity for the film has frequently pointed to it being among the Top Ten films chosen in the 2012 Critics Poll. More significantly, it was chosen fourth in the parallel Poll by Film Directors. The latter speaks volumes. Federico’ Fellini’s masterpiece defies simple description, as do other great movies. Stephen L. Hanson in The International Dictionary of Film writes:

. . . this study of a filmmaker’s creative and personal crises is now recognised as  masterpiece, and one of the very small number of cinematic efforts to utter a clear statement on the intricate nature of artistic inspiration

I suspect many film fans would want to see the film more than once. I certainly wished to see the film both at the National Media Museum and the Hyde Park. At least I saw the trailer four times, and that is great fun. So my felicitations to the Hebden Bridge Picture House who are showing the film twice: on the evening of Sunday June 21st and then on the evening of Tuesday June 23rd. Of course, this cinema is not accessible for all – too far for me I am afraid. However, if you can – go – and take friends. After the screening of the film at the Hyde Park there were people discussing it in the auditorium, in the foyer, and outside the cinema. That is the sign of a great movie.

NB The Showroom in Sheffield is unfortunately following the single screening practice for this film.

Films by Allan Sekula, Noël Burch & Peter Hutton.

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This was a Pavilion event presented at the Hyde Park Picture House. Pavilion events are always interesting and offer disitntive areas of contemporary and recent cinema and culture. This was the case on this occasion with a feature length documentary and two experimental films addressing

The poetic potential of river and sea…

The documentary by Peter Sekula was The Forgotten Space (2010). This was lengthy and complex film and I feel the need to give it lengthy consideration: so these are brief introductory comments to which I will probably return. We had introductions from Will Rose and Gill Parks. Sekula worked at the University of California and was interested in both photography and film. He was described as a critical realist, a term which sets him off from those who saw photography as a ‘high art’ exercise. His collaborator Noël Burch is better known for his critical writings on film, but he has also been involved in other films, usually with an eye to avant garde techniques.

The film

‘approaches the sea as a crucial site within capitalism’s global supply chain.

And the central motif is the container ship. We see numerous examples of this technology at seas and at various sites of arrival/departure in North America, Europe and South East Asia. There is a major port facility alongside Los Angeles: Antwerp is a major port for the European Community. And Hong Kong, both under British colonialism and now as part of modern China, is another key site.

The film looks at the development of the technology and it impact on the global organisation of capitalist production and distribution. It pays equal attention to impact on the working classes and the value of their labour power. And there is attention to the impact on communities both immediately affected by this technology and the wider cultural impacts. We hear interviews with representatives of the industries, of the workers, of the communities which home them, and analysts who study the industries.

The film develops an accumulating understanding of the immediate and more distant effects. The plotting constantly returns to this central technology, but this intercuts with particular examples: including the displacements of people in Europe, in California and across the Asian mainland and archipelagos.

In line with Sekula’s stance on ‘style’ for much of the time the images and sounds present their subjects and objects without drawing attention to themselves. But at key moments rather more unconventional techniques draw attention to the texture of the film and to the contradictions therein. Thus at one point studying effects around Antwerp the commentary offers the ‘discussions’ surrounding the displacement of a town and community, whilst an edit brings visual attention to police in riot gear. At another point as the camera pans across a landscape to the sounds of Beethoven’s Pastoral Symphony, both sound and image are disrupted by a passing of a speeding train. At various points there are also shots in slow motion, speeded up shots, jump cuts and overlapping sound. All these techniques reminded me of some used in earlier films involving Noël Birch. And at another point shots of a line of trains are reminiscent of the films of James Benning: but whilst a boy’s voice counts the trains a series of wipes bring an effective disruption.

At other points there are some visually impressive camera shots: one a series of images taken across modern Hong Kong, using the reflections of doors and windows. The other, close to the end, offers a series of vistas around a ‘golden’ Guggenheim Museum erected in Bilbao.

Whist the films uses a range of locations and [presumably] filming it also uses extracts from recognisable features. Two of these, Michael Powell’s Red Ensign and Robert Aldrich Kiss Me deadly are cropped to fit the 1.85:1 frame. However, a separate extract from Joseph von Sternberg’s The Docks of New York is in the correct 1.33:1. This is odd and rather unsatisfactory.

As you might guess from some of the terms above, the film is informed by the seminal analysis of capitalism by Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, though neither gets an actual reference. There are however a number of phrases which are immediately familiar: the container

‘contains the seeds of its own destruction.’

This is very effective but the analysis does not use the full range of Marxist concepts. Two important points are not presented: the actual nature of the value of labour power and the declining rate of profits. Of course, the analysis of Marx and Engels is long and complex. Even so, both of these points are essential to an understanding of the recent global crisis, which the film does reference.

The programme then screened two films by Peter Hutton, a cinematic artist working in North America. These are some way from the form of Sekula’s film. Shot and presented on 16 mm the films offer a series of shots and sequences of the Hudson River in New York State. These fit into a recognisable pattern of aesthetically orientated and independent filmmaking. At various points there are parallels with the work of Stan Brakhage and James Benning. However, Hutton has his own preferred tropes and thematic interests. The shots are discrete and at some points similar to the tropes of film roman. At times the shots are ethereal and beautiful but one also senses a social comment beyond the objects in some of the placements and sequencing.

Study of a River (1997) is in black and white and runs for 16 minutes. Time and Tide (2000) is in both black and white and colour, and runs for 35 minutes. The latter film has a series of shots through the portholes of a barge. These are especially evocative. Recurring shots of a particular scape or building, like a power station, suggest further reflection.

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Time and Tide also uses film shot by the veteran pioneer cinematographer Billy Bitzer in 1903. I had, happily, seen this footage before at Il Cinema Ritrovato. Bitzer famously was cinematographer for D. W. Griffith, both on the early one and two-reelers at Biograph and the later feature films. I was intrigued when a shot followed of ice flows in the Hudson River: was this a subtle reference to Way Down East (1920)?

The whole programme provided both a challenging and thought provoking essay and a more aesthetic, almost dreamy film reverie. However, Hutton is not merely the aesthete criticised by Sekula. All three films provided both stimulation and cinematic pleasures.

 

The Tales of Hoffman (UK 1951)

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The new DCP of the digital restoration of The Tales of Hoffman was the final matinee screening at Cornerhouse in Manchester before the move to HOME. The post-screening discussion was led by Andrew Moor of Manchester Metropolitan University. Andrew wrote a piece on the film for Criterion’s website and also co-edited a book on Powell and Pressburger’s films with Ian Christie. The discussion was dominated by the audience members who were primarily music/ballet/opera fans. Since I know little about any of these art forms I found this illuminating but slightly frustrating and here I want to focus on the film as an Archers production from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger.

The Tales of Hoffman is interesting for several reasons. It represents in some ways the fruition of Michael Powell’s long-held desire to make the ultimate ‘composed film’ – to marry music, dance, theatre and film as a single coherent work. But to do this Powell had to work quickly and cheaply at Shepperton in order to comply with the Archers’ contract with Alexander Korda’s London Films. The film was really Powell and Pressburger’s last attempt to deal with Korda and after this production they bought themselves out of the contract and took three years off – a long ‘rest’ for such an active partnership.

Powell commissioned a new English libretto for the opera. Emeric Pressburger had less to do on the script this time – although unlike Powell he had actually ‘experienced’ the opera, playing “second fiddle in the orchestra in a production in Prague”. Powell’s plan was to record an opera performance conducted by Thomas Beecham (the originator of the project) and then to ‘compose’ the film on a silent stage with actors miming to the playback. He thus created one of the earliest forms of ‘music video’. This approach also helped him to use ‘real’ ballet dancers, ‘real’ singers and ‘real’ actors. Only two of the cast, the Americans Robert Rounseville and Ann Ayars, were both singers and actors in the narrative.

The Tales of Hoffman was the only opera written by Jacques Offenbach (who mainly produced operettas) and he died a few months before the completed work was first performed in 1881. The story is based on three tales written by the German Romantic writer E. T. A. Hoffman between 1814 and 1818. The opera uses a fictionalised version of Hoffman himself as the hero of each story with the framing device of the ‘telling’ of the tales in a tavern. For the film the Archers added a ballet sequence at the beginning and the end, placing the tavern sequence as a potential meeting place for Hoffman and the ballerina. There are many descriptions and analyses of the opera and the BFI website features an extensive look at the restoration with images from the film and other materials (which they don’t want to offer for download – the images on this blog were obtained from other sources).

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of 'Olympia' with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Leonid Massine

Moira Shearer as the doll in the tale of ‘Olympia’ with (from left) Frederick Ashton, Robert Helpmann and Léonide Massine (© StudioCanal)

The great coup for the production was to persuade Moira Shearer to dance in two sequences. Made into a star by The Red Shoes, Shearer was sought by many film producers but refused them all, only agreeing to work with Powell. Alongside her the Archers were able to cast many leading figures from the ballet world. Just as important for the production was the creative team of Hein Heckroth and Arthur Lawson in production design and art direction, Reginald Mills as editor and Chris Challis as DoP with Freddie Francis as operator.

I think this screening completed my ‘set’ of Powell and Pressburger films. Although I can’t really appreciate the music or the dances, I can admire the cinematic ‘composition’ that the Archers created and especially the genius of the set design, performances and camerawork/editing. In a sense the film takes us back to Powell’s early experience with Rex Ingrams in Nice in the 1920s and to Pressburger’s early career in Germany. What is most fascinating for me is to see all the links to the Archers’ early Technicolor successes. The final tale is set on a Greek island and the designs reminded me to some extent of The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (the Western Front battlefield) the prologue also reminds us of the meeting of British and German officers in the bar café at the early part of Blimp. Elsewhere we had overhead shots and a staircase reminiscent of A Matter of Life and Death and the whole film referred constantly to techniques developed for Black Narcissus and The Red Shoes. The casting too includes many of the ballet stars from The Red Shoes (Shearer, Tcherina, Helpmann and Massine) plus the third of Powell’s great loves of the period, Pamela Browne as Niklaus, Hoffman’s companion (a male part usually played by a woman in the opera).

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

The ballet star Ludmilla Tcherina plays Giulietta, the courtesan in the second story set in Venice

Perhaps the most important outcome of watching The Tales of Hoffman for me was that it sent me back to reading the second part of Michael Powell’s long autobiography Million Dollar Movie. I first read it on publication in 1992 and I had forgotten many of the stories. He gives rare insights into the production process and the battles with Korda. All lovers of P&P’s work must have mixed feelings about The Tales of Hoffman. In one sense it represents the peak of their achievements in ‘composed’ films. Powell himself rates it as a ‘bulls-eye’ for The Archers in their four Korda productions of 1949-50. I think I prefer A Small Back Room (1949). Hoffman does not have the same glorious melodrama feel of The Red Shoes and it did seem to me that the camera felt slightly more constrained in its movements during the ballet scenes. Sadly the last three Archers films though all interesting and entertaining did not raise the spirits in quite the same way as their 1940s’ films. Nevertheless it would be interesting to see digital restorations of Oh Rosalinda! (1955 in ‘Scope), The Battle of the River Plate (1956) and Ill Met By Moonlight (1957) – the last two both in VistaVision.

Here’s the trailer for the Hoffman restoration. Even if you don’t know opera or ballet, it’s a real treat for the eyes:

Sixteen (UK 2013)

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This film was screened at the Hyde Park Picture House and followed by a Q&A with the writer and director, Rob Brown. Unfortunately there was a relatively small audience for what was [I believe] a rare screening. We started a little late as there were problems getting the HD version to screen correctly. My friend Cheryl asked wishfully if the team had not ‘bought their cans with then’. (i.e. 35mm) The film runs for eighty minutes and is in colour and the New Academy ratio.

The events in the film run over a period of three days. The central character is Jumah (Roger Jean Nsengiyumva). Just coming up to his sixteenth birthday, Jumah lives with his adoptive mother Laura (Rachel Stirling) in West London on a housing estate. He goes to a local comprehensive school and has a girlfriend there, Chloe (Rosie Day). What marks out Jumah is that he comes from the Congo, and his earlier years have left him marked physically and psychologically by the ravages of the continuing neo-colonial wars there. He has a problem with what is nowadays called ‘anger management’. Other important characters are his friend Alex (Deon Williams) and a school colleague Josh (Fady Elsayed) who is involved with a local drug dealer, Liam (Sam Spruel).

It is the violence associated with this criminality that creates the problems of the story. The film works well: it looks good, and the cast offer a convincing portrayal of the milieu and the characters. The audience was overwhelmingly positive when we came to talk about the film. A number were affected by the film’s sense of realism: i.e. by presenting recognisable characters and situations whilst managing to create a dramatic story. Wendy Cook from the Hyde Park introduced Rob Brown and asked him to talk about the making of the film. Impressively the overall budget was only sixty thousand pounds, though the film looks far more expensive. It also had a long gestation period, though the actual shoot took only 18 days. The length of the process can be seen in the production date being in 2013, when it featured at the London Film Festival.

It is Rob’s first feature though he has already directed six short films, some of which have featured in the Leeds International Film Festival. Rob talked about how he developed his idea into the film. He said he starts with a character and then he adds the issues and events that occur in the film’s plot. One item that fed into his imaginings was a photograph from Rwanda (alongside and involved in the conflicts in the Congo). He also said that he deliberately made aspects of the film sketchy, for example, the characters are not provided with clear ‘back stories’. He wanted audiences to respond and interpret the characters and events as the story developed. For the same reason he avoided flashbacks. Members of the audience ask questions and commented on this. There was praise for the way the film develops the central character and the conflicts that he faces. One issue that came up was the ending, which is relatively positive. Rob referred to an earlier independent UK film with a black protagonists, Bullet Boy, which has a very downbeat ending. He said he wanted to offer something that was more refreshing. One of my reservations about the film was the ending. Not the decisions and actions of the characters but the way it was plotted. I found this far more conventional than most of the film. Rob remarked that one of the films that impressed him was Boyhood (2014), and I had a similar feeling regarding the ending of that film, which in other ways was extremely impressive. I felt the scripting for Sixteen was very strong on character and developments – the penultimate sequence is very effective. I was not so happy with the dialogue, which I found somewhat conventional: some scenes lacked conviction. In his comments Rob stressed that even working with another writer he wanted to make the work ‘mine’. This is the emphasis on a personal vision so fondly held in auteur commentaries. I tend to think that many fine films work well with an interaction of visions; certainly like many other recent films I thought the writing could be developed. One intriguing aspect of the main character is his interest in hairdressing, clearly unconventional for a boy. I failed to ask Rob about this. But it occurred to me later that this is a motif that develops interesting aspects on the characters in the film. One scene that particularly struck me was set at evening as Jumah cuts Chloe’s hair. The film also had two stylistic tropes which I felt were unhelpful. One was the frequent use of hand-held camera. This is rapidly becoming de rigueur for ‘realists’ films, but I was not convinced that it served a function here. The other trope was more intrusive, the use of noticeable music/sound accompaniment at particular moments of intensity. I felt this distracted from the generally naturalistic feel of the film. Though a friend said she did not particularly notice this. Even with those reservations this is a strong and effective drama. It is one that addresses serious issues and offers these through really interesting characters. I am not sure how easy it will be to catch the film at a cinema. Rob and his team are ‘self-distributing’ the film. Jake Hume, Nic Jeune – producers.  Music by John Bowen. Cinematography by Justin Brown: Arri Ariflex. Film Editing by Barry Moen. Production Design by Jonathan Brann. BBFC Certificate 15.

See – http://www.seizefilms.co.uk/