Audition (Kdyby ty muziky nebyly/Konkurs, Czechoslovakia 1963)

Vera Kresadlova as one of the young women auditioning

MUBI celebrated the achievements of Milos Forman, who died in April this year, by streaming two of his earliest films. The first, completed in 1963, comprises two short films put together ‘after the event’ since separately they would have less chance of being programmed. Kdyby ty muziky nebyly or If there were no music concerns an annual celebration (that started in 1961) in the town of Kolin honouring the memory of a famous 19th century composer František Kmoch who was born close to the town in Bohemia where he opened a music school. (Forman was himself from Bohemia.) Two local brass bands are scheduled to perform at the ceremony. The bands are mainly made up of older amateur musicians but also include some young men. The film’s main plot device is a motorcycle race that takes place on the local streets at the same time as the concert. One young man in each band daydreams about riding a motor bike and absents himself from the performance in order to watch the race. Both are dismissed by their bands but then sign up for the other band. IMDb categorises this film as a documentary but it isn’t. Although the majority of the band members are non-professionals, there are professionals from what would later be recognised as Forman’s ‘stock company’ in leading roles. Just 33 minutes long, the film was shot on 35mm equipment borrowed from the Barrandov Studio.

Jan Vostrcil as the band conductor in If there were no music

Konkurs (Audition) (47 minutes) was the first of the two films to be completed and was a more ‘personal’ project for Forman which was expanded from an initial idea for a 15 minute film shot on 16mm using Forman’s own camera (operated by the great Miroslav Ondricek). The link with the brass band film is the attempt to prepare musicians but this time it’s a talent show for girl singers (and their accompanists) auditioning at the Semafor Theatre in Prague. Again, as in the first film, the near-documentary coverage of the audition is provided with a fictional second narrative in which two young women are picked out from the group and given their own (separate) back stories. One of these two, Vera Kresadlova (just 18 at the time), later became Forman’s second wife. She’s shown singing successfully in a group with a rock ‘n roll band, but then finds it impossible to perform on her own for the audition. The other young woman lies to her boss at a beauty salon to get time off to sing with her guitar with accompaniment from a young man also on an acoustic guitar.

There are several online sources for detailed reviews/analyses of Auditions. One is by Darragh O’Donoghue on ‘Senses of Cinema’. Another is on Second Run’s site for its DVD release. There is no point in me repeating what is laid out on these sites. Instead I’ll make my own personal response. I like these two short films very much. Watching them makes me very nostalgic for a variety of reasons. I was a young teenager around this time and I recognised all these young people – and the older ones too. Some of the reviews are quite snotty about the music and the question of the ‘generation gap’. It is all very familiar from the UK in the 1960s, especially the pop music. When the Beatles first appeared in the UK at the end of 1962/early in 1963 we had much the same mix of musical styles – rock ‘n roll, the R & B bands, folk music, trad jazz and even the hangover of skiffle. The local bands were a long way from the polished, orchestrated soft pop we saw on TV. I recognised many of the tunes – though the Czech language songs had very different lyrics. Brass bands were a major part of the lives of workers and their families across much of industrial Northern England and the culture clash of the brass band v. TV features in A Kind of Loving (UK 1962). I can see why Forman wants to poke fun at the bandleader in If there were no music played by Jan Vostrcil but I think he still has some feeling for the traditions of the band. The audition montage in Konkurs is repeated in Forman’s first American film, Taking Off (US 1971), a film I really enjoyed on its circuit release in 1971.

It’s good to see films from the Czech New Wave – so influential on later British cinema – and it’s worth remembering the 50th anniversary of the ‘Prague Spring’ that ended with Russian tanks taking control of the city and leading to Forman’s decision to move permanently to America. I haven’t seen all his American films, partly I think because I was slightly disappointed by his embrace of American culture. He tended to see Taking Off as a failure, blaming himself for making a European art film in America. I saw it the other way round with him showing American filmmakers how to make more interesting films. A Blonde in Love (1965) was the other MUBI screening and a review will be posted soon.

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Der traumhafte Weg (The Dreamed Path, Germany 2016)

Theres (Miriam Jakob) and Kenneth (Thorbjörn Björnsson), the young couple in Greece

The Dreamed Path was the fourth feature by Angela Schanelec that I managed to catch in MUBI’s special section on her films before they disappeared. It is her latest release on the festival circuit and in some ways the most austere and ‘formally rigorous’, as one critic has put it, of the films I’ve seen. It’s relatively straightforward to outline the sparse plot details but much more difficult to read the possible meanings. The film opens in Greece with a young couple busking and singing Wimoweh (The Lion Sleeps Tonight) in the summer of 1984 in Greece. Close by young people are celebrating the ‘New Europe’ (even though Greece gained accession to the Economic Community in 1981). The young man receives news of his mother’s severe illness and heads home to the UK. The woman (who is German) doesn’t accompany him. Some thirty years later in Berlin another woman, an actor, is in the process of separating from her husband. They have a young daughter. When filming takes place with the actor in the large square in front of Berlin’s main railway station, we see that the Englishman is present with his dog and is apparently homeless. The German woman he knew years ago in Greece is also in Berlin. That’s more or less the plot minus a couple of dramatic and emotional moments.

The family in Berlin, David (Phil Hayes), Ariane (Maren Eggert) and Ariane’s daughter Fanny (Anaïa Zapp)

‘Formally rigorous’ refers here to Schanelec and her cinematographer Rheinhold Vorschneider’s use of long shots and close-ups. In this film there is the pronounced use of close-ups of feet and other parts of the body which many critics/reviewers recognise as a reference to the later films of Robert Bresson. I haven’t seen enough of Bresson’s work (and certainly not enough recently) to comment on this. What is clear, however, is that Schanelec is, as usual, more interested in exploring how the filmic image in its composition and framing and in the context of editing and the presentation of characters in narrative space evokes responses in audiences rather than how the narrative events themselves are understood in a causal sequence. So, the camera’s focus on the young man’s feet when he makes a phone call home and hears about his mother is a very precise way of attempting to present an emotional moment. This, for me, is in contrast with a relatively long sequence set in an indoor swimming pool. In extreme long shot we can just see a young boy in a wheelchair with his legs strapped but who is stripped and wearing swimming trunks implying he intends to get into the water. As we watch him struggling to free his legs and move the wheelchair to the edge of the pool we hear but don’t immediately see a group of children in the water. Gradually they appear from the bottom of the screen and swim towards the end where the boy is attempting to get into the water. They will reach the end and turn and the boy will slip into the water. The scene ends with a cut to a closer shot of a small group in which one of the girls is checking the boy’s knee which he seems to have grazed in getting into the pool. One reviewer suggests that the girl licks the graze to help it heal but I don’t remember this clearly. Why did this sequence, especially of the image of the group of children swimming so catch my imagination? I don’t know but this ability of Schanelec and Vorschneider (and her two editor collaborators) to construct sequences like this is remarkable and consistent across their films.

Angela Schanelec’s films are coming to London courtesy of the Goethe-Institut later this year, see this MUBI Notebook essay by Patrick Holzapfel (who is curating the London showings). MUBI’s title for its Schanelec ‘Special Discovery’ season was ‘Showing not Telling’ – and so it proved to be. I still haven’t adjusted to MUBI’s ‘watch it before it’s gone’ policy. The Dreamed Path has been received as one of the films of the year on the festival circuit but I found it difficult to watch. I’d like the chance to watch it again without the time pressure. I’ve discovered some of Schanelec’s films are available but expensive on Amazon UK.

The two trailers below, one in German, the other subtitled in English, give an impression of the shooting style (in Academy ratio, 1.37:1) with the ‘feet’ shots in the first trailer:

The Radical Film Network

I have to confess that I have only just informed myself of this network though probably quite a few readers are familiar with it. Formed in 2013 in London it is now fairly widespread across several continents. The objects are to further ‘radical film’ and participants are involved in production, exhibition and associated activities. Radical is defined as

“ . . . first and foremost to a political affiliation to progressive politics and struggles for social justice – from workers’ rights and environmental sustainability to gender, racial and sexual equality.”

A current and welcome project is ‘RFN 68’,

“Taking the radical uprisings and revolutionary fervour of this rare and volatile year as a source of inspiration, the RFN68 festival examines the legacy of the events of 1968 through an international programme of films, workshops, discussion and social events, organised by the Radical Film Network.”

Several events have taken place in Leeds and I attended a screening of In the Intense Now / No Intenso Agora (João Moreira Salles, Brazil, 2017 ) at the Hyde Park Picture House.

This is a documentary about 1968 but offering a distinctive approach. A compilation documentary it uses home movies from Salles’ family and found footage from films of the period, amateur film footage and some material from television, radio and printed sources. Some of the film soundtracks appear in the film but for most of the running time there is a commentative voice of the director. The film is in black and white and colour and in the Academy ratio: it is good to see a film where the makers resists the conventional re-framing of archive footage.

This is a fairly subjective but sympathetic revisiting of Paris in May 1968 and parallel places and events though the parallels are those felt by the director. The film opens with footage from a home movie shot by the director’s mother on a visit to China in 1966 followed by film of events in Prague in 1968 and then some more home movie, this time in a street in Brazil. These signal some of the preoccupations of the film-maker, though they are only clarified as the film progresses. The footage from China was filmed during the Cultural Revolution and features Red Guards who are surprisingly friendly to these bourgeois tourists. The footage from Brazil shows family members but also, as the narrative voice points out, the class situation in which they live.

The first part of the film is mainly devoted to events in Paris in May 1968. The film more or less follows the chronology of events but this is not a history of that month but a series of fragments that give a sense of what happened and offer [as one review suggested] ‘radical romanticism’.

Certain characters occupy the centre. Thus we see and hear General de Gaulle at the New Year of 1967; twice towards the end of May 1968; and finally at the New Year 1968. On television he seems a relic from the past but on radio he is the voice of tradition and moderation. The film thus includes television coverage of the mass demonstration of conservatives that followed the radio broadcast.

There is also ample coverage of Daniel Cohn-Bandit, mainly on film but also on radio. There is a certain identification with Daniel but also a strong note of irony as the film records his rather doubtful con-operation with ‘Paris Match’. And there is much film of the students, the workers and the street clashes that filled the city.

Part 2 includes more material from Paris but also extended coverage of the suppression of ‘The Prague Spring’ by the armies of the Warsaw Pact. Later in the film there is coverage of the funeral of Jan Palach, the student who immolated himself in protest. This leads into a series of films that deal with death and burial. These include a student who died in a protest in Rio de Janeiro in the summer of 1968; a suicide by a student during the protests in Paris; and a policeman killed during a demonstration in Lyon in the same period. In these passages there is none of the earlier irony but a note of quiet mourning. This seems to aim at generating a sense of loss over the upheavals.

The film ends with more footage from the home movie shot in China and then film of Mao Zedung and one of his poems. Finally we see the famous shot by the Lumière Brothers of workers leaving their factory: why I was unsure.

Whilst the ‘romantic’ does describe much of the treatment there is a continuing tone of irony. Thus at one point the commentary notes the provenance of the famous aphorism,

“Sous les pavés, la plage! (“Under the paving stones, the beach.”)”.

Was this a political slogan or an advertiser’s gimmick. At another point the commentary notes the predominance of short hair among the male protesters and compares this with the USA where the hair was longer and the events [according to the commentator] were more radical. It also notes the dominance of men in Paris 68, [not quite accurate if you watch the footage carefully].

The film offers a fascinating revisiting of these radical events. However it is structured round the personal rather than the analytical. In the end the significance of ’68 seems uncertain. I was struck by the inclusion of ‘The Prague Spring’. The other locations were significant for the director. His family came from Brazil, were living in Paris in May 1968 and his mother did visit China in 1966. But Czechoslovakia has no such relationship. I wondered, as Paris and Rio de Janeiro were protests essentially about capitalism that he felt the need to include a protest against ‘socialism’, in which case he misconstrues the significance of events in Prague.

And I would question the comparison between Paris and the USA. Currently ‘PBS America’ are broadcasting the Ken Burns Vietnam programme, in its entirety not cut as was the case with the BBC. What is apparent in the film is that while many voices supported the Liberation struggle in Vietnam the mass of the protest was against the effects of the war within the USA. Paris was more radical. One aspect of this was the influence of the radical politics in China’s Cultural Revolution. We do get footage of Mao and we do see some Maoists at work in Paris but the parallels are not really drawn out in this film.

Even so I was fascinated by the film which is definitely worth seeing. The research and selection of found footage is impressive. The structure of the film brings out interesting aspects and the editing makes both ironic and political comments. Among the footage in this film is some from the work of Chris Marker. His A Grin Without A Cat / Le fond de l’air est rouge (1977) remains the essential viewing on this period. It would be good if we could have an opportunity to revisit this film as well.

The Radical Film Network has a calendar of events for RFN 68 on its webpages. And one can sign up to be kept informed and even participate.

Orly (Germany-France 2010)

Orly is the fourth Angela Schanelec film to be streamed on MUBI. A brief synopsis might suggest it has generic possibilities as a narrative but really it is almost anti-narrative in conventional terms. I wonder if watching Schanelec’s films is like developing addictive behaviour. I find the films frustrating because I’m so used to conventional narratives – but I can’t stop watching them, partly because I’m in awe of the camerawork and the editing and the overall choreography of movement and control of the fictional space.

The genre here ought to be that of the ‘waiting room’ film with several groups of characters, each with different stories and each with different relationships. But, conventionally, these would come together in some way and there would be an underlying theme. Schanelec offers us four pairs of characters and a handful of others who are more peripheral. The pairs don’t interact directly except for a fleeting moment and the film ends with a largely unexpected event which denies us a ‘resolution’ of any of the four central narratives.

There seem to be possible clues to Schanelec’s intentions that are introduced in subtle ways. The opening images of the film include half of a vinyl record sleeve which I took to be a 12″ of Joy Division’s ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart’, which includes the lines:

And resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow
And we’re changing our ways, taking different roads
Love, love will tear us apart again

Each of the characters in the film are experiencing emotions as they wait in the departure hall.

The setting is mainly Orly Airport in Paris in Spring. Why did Schanelec choose Orly rather than Charles De Gaulle, Roissy? Probably because permissions were easier, but Orly does have significance for cinéastes. It was the setting for Chris Marker’s avant-garde science fiction short film La jetée (The Pier, 1962) – a film anyone with a film education is likely to be aware of. One of Schanelec’s couples has a digital camera and the woman looks at a succession of still images taken in Paris earlier that day – La jetée is entirely constructed from still photos.

Sabine (Maren Eggert) briefly makes eye contact with Jirka Zett as the young tourist

The four couples are a mother and teenage son going to the funeral of the ex-husband and father, a pair of German tourists, a couple splitting up (one of whom we see at Orly as she reads the a letter from her husband) and two expats who meet by chance and discover that they are both returning to North America. The peripheral characters include a young woman on an airline counter, a young barman, taxi drivers etc. and a woman with a baby she is trying to comfort. Although there are brief moments of contact with these individuals by some of the couples, the main way in which Schanelec links her characters is through her camera (or rather the camera of her regular cinematographer Rheinold Vorschneider). For example, in one sequence we are offered a long shot across the departure waiting area with many people sat waiting and others moving in the background, but careful use of the field of focus is able to pick out one face in the crowd. This character will be identified later in the film as the man in the fourth couple. I recognised him as Jirka Zett from Schanelec’s earlier Nachmittag (Germany 2007). See also the shot above in which the same character briefly makes eye contact with the woman separating from her husband. I’m still not sure how this camera shot was achieved. At other times I wondered if Schanelec was using radio mikes for her characters. It is clear that in the Orly shots, the fictional characters are simply placed amongst the crowds of ordinary passengers at the airport. Vorschneider shoots from some distance away so that there are figures in the background and moving across the foreground. You can see this in the trailer below when the two expats (Natacha Régnier and Bruno Todeschini) are talking. The only way to capture ‘direct’ sound for dialogue would be to use concealed radio mikes. Does anyone know if Schanelec uses this method? I was first aware of it in Michael Winterbottom’s Wonderland (UK 1999), one of my favourite films for representing a city through a form of realism. Most of the time the soundtrack uses only dialogue plus the direct ambient sound of the airport. It is a shock therefore when after an hour of this we hear a voiceover reading a letter and Cat Power’s performance of the song ‘Remember Me’

In the interview here Angela Schanelec discusses how she works with ‘real’ spaces like the terminal in Orly:

The trailer below is mainly in French, subtitled in German but it is useful in showing the main characters and the ‘real’ space which Schanelec uses in her own distinctive ways:

Jeune femme (France-Belgium 2017)

Paula (Laetitia Dosch) with Muchacha in a cheap hotel room

This is quite a difficult film for an aged male writer. Paula, the protagonist of Jeune femme (also known as Montparnasse Bienvenüe) is not introduced to us with any background. She’s more or less literally thrown at us, headbutting the door of a Paris apartment, whose resident doesn’t want to let her in. Taken to A&E to have her forehead stitched, she angrily dismisses the doctor on duty, steals a coat and discharges herself. Taking a cat, ‘Muchacha’, which we later discover belongs to the owner of the apartment, she begins a tour of Paris looking for a place to kip and a means of earning money. At this point I was seriously worrying whether I could cope with another 90 minutes of this. I was reminded of a British film from last year, Daphne, also about a 30-something woman, but this time in London. After writing about that film, I decided not to post a review since I didn’t really like the film. In the case of Jeune femme, however, I stuck with Paula and eventually began to warm to her character and by the last third I began to really enjoy the film.

Paula with Yuki (Léonie Simaga) who she meets on the Metro

Jeune femme is a first feature for Léonor Serraille who co-wrote the film with Clémence Carré and Bastien Daret, both similarly inexperienced writers for features. Paula is played by Laetitia Dosch who has significantly more experience as a leading actor. I think some of the positives (and perhaps some of the negatives) come from the script and direction. The performance by Dosch is very good but sometimes the plotting becomes quite weak. The basis for the narrative is the idea that Paula, now having broken up with a former partner, is partly looking for the basics – some money, a job, somewhere to live – but also looking to ‘find herself’. The narrative therefore becomes that of the ‘picaresque’ or almost like a road movie set in Paris as she moves from one situation to another. sometimes it feels like a series of sitcom sketches. Eventually we realise that Paula has got to 31 without having gone through many of the experiences of her contemporaries. She’s spent ten years with an older man who was her teacher at first but then used her as his ‘muse’, photographing her and exhibiting his work. This comes home to Paula when she realises that unlike the other young women she meets working at a ‘knicker bar’ in a shopping centre, she has no postgraduate degree to complete and no ambitions for the future.

Ousmane (Souleymane Seye Ndiaye) and Paula (Laetitia Dosch) on a meal break

Female film critics and fans of the film have made connections with the UK TV series Fleabag and the US series Girls as well as films such as the Greta Gerwig starrer Frances Ha. Hannah McGill in Sight and Sound (June 2018) focuses on the central issue when she asks if the emphasis in these types of female narratives on the ‘messiness’ of the central characters’ lives is “feminist or quite the reverse”. Paula is needy but is this to be read as something for others to respond to and to understand as a product of a patriarchal society – or does she instead need a lesson in developing some ‘adult life skills’ and a plan about what to do next? In McGill’s terms, “this is the line along which Jeune femme wobbles in terms of Paula’s neediness”. Part of the problem is that the women Paula meets are either very critical or very forgiving. Only the women workers at the knicker bar talk to her sensibly about practical things. She meets few men and most are abominable. The exception is the security guard at the knicker bar, Ousmane (played by Souleymane Seye Ndiaye – the lead in La pirogue (France-Senegal 2012)). When I reflected on the film it struck me that Paula (and therefore the whole narrative) changes when she meets Ousmane. Ousmane reminded me of similar characters in A Season in France (2017) by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (still sadly unreleased in the UK). I hope that African migrants will eventually be treated as just another character with good or bad points. I don’t want to see them typed as ‘noble’ or ‘savage’. I don’t think that Jeune femme falls into that trap but we need more diversity in casting generally. The cat seems to think Ousmane is OK as well and I was relieved to see it being looked after by him. Paula’s initial treatment of the cat certainly didn’t make me warm to her.

Lila (Lila-Rose Gilberti), Paula’s young charge as a nanny, comes to see Paula as a friend

Ousmane’s humanity seems to infect everyone, but particularly Paula and as the film moves towards its climactic sequence with the ex-boyfriend it does seem like the narrative will have a conventional resolution. But in the end it doesn’t, seeing the now ‘sorted’ Paula ready to face whatever is coming next. The film has plenty of music, mostly by Julie Roué, but the Gil Evans jazz number ‘Las Vegas Tango’ is particularly significant according to writer-director Léonor Serraille. In the Press Notes she offers some interesting background to the production and the decisions she made along the way. She tells us that initially the script was 140 pages and was then cut down to make the 97 minute film (which might explain the gaps in the plotting). She comments on her use of a clip from Sirk’s Imitation of Life (US 1959) – her relationship with her own mother is important as it is in Sirk’s melodrama – and also comments on the various films and actors’ performances which have inspired her. She makes this interesting statement:

Jeune Femme, which is Montparnasse Bienvenüe’s French title, could have been called ‘Young Women‘ as the entire crew is made up of women: cinematographer, sound engineer, editor, sound editor, production designer, music composer, producer . . .

I’m glad that I did eventually get on board with Paula and her struggle. I wouldn’t have wanted to miss it and I hope it is a big success in the UK.

Nachmittag (Afternoon, Germany 2007)

Agnes (Miriam Horwitz) in a long shot showing the lake view from the house

Nachmittag is the third of six films by Angela Schanelec offered on my MUBI stream. I’ve posted on the first, Passing Summer (Germany 2001), but I was only able to watch the first part of the second film,  Marseille (2010), before it disappeared from the stream during one of my busy periods. That’s the problem with MUBI, I fear. Still, perhaps I will be able to find it elsewhere later. Marseille did look a little different with its single central character – a photographer exploring the French city. In Nachmittag, Schanelec returns to a summer in Berlin, though the characters are rather different.

Angela Schanelec as Irene

Angela Schanelec’s strategy seems to be ‘never explain’ – or give any background. MUBI have used the title ‘Show, Don’t Tell’ for the season of her films. I have assumed that the main location is a house by a lake in the Berlin region, possibly Potsdam. In a prologue, Schanelec’s familiar static camera offers us a view from the back of a stage in theatre during a rehearsal. On the stage is a woman who sorts out a prop with a stagehand and then walks towards a dog and pets the animal. We next see her in long shot arriving at the house by the lake where an older and younger man have been having a conversation. Later we will learn that this the woman is Irene, played by Schanelec herself (she began her career as an actor). Gradually we meet five other main characters but we must try to work out who they are and what the relationships are between them. It took me the whole 95 minutes and I still wasn’t certain by the end, but I’m fairly confident that MUBI’s synopsis of the film is inaccurate.

Jirka Zett as Konstantin holding Agnes Schanelec as Mimmi

When I started watching the film I was unaware that its premise is taken from Chekhov’s play The Seagull. Perhaps that’s a good thing. I’m not a theatregoer and I don’t really know Chekhov. My thoughts instead turned to similar films in this setting. I thought of Thomas Arslan’s Vacation (Ferien, Germany 2007), on the reasonable basis that Arslan is another member of the ‘Berlin School’. I was also reminded of The Farewell (Abschied – Brechts letzter Sommer, Germany 2000). The point here is that the situation – a group of people meeting at a ‘summer place’ where their different relationships are explored – is potentially a familiar dramatic and even generic narrative proposition. Yet Angela Schanelec challenges our assumptions about how any drama might develop. She does this in several ways.The use of long shots and of close-ups by DoP Reinhold Vorschneider can sometimes mean that we are not quite sure who we are watching or where we are. But what is even more disruptive is her use of dialogue. We are used to mainstream cinema’s use of dialogue to provide ‘narrative data’ and to move forward the events of the narrative. Schalenec’s dialogue comes as a shock – it is so close to the ‘real’ conversations that we have with people we know (well at least I do!). There are seemingly inconsequential remarks that actually convey emotional relationships such as when Irene tells her son who is ironing shirts to dampen the collar. Often too, dialogue is with a character who is offscreen for long periods – sometimes wth responses coming from offscreen.

Angela Schanelec with Reinhold Vorschneider shooting by the lake

Critics have increasingly praised Schanelec’s aesthetic approach. Mattias Frey in a ‘Senses of Cinema’ festival report suggests that “Nachmittag is a challenging hypnotic that bespeaks further development in Schanelec’s craft”. Ekkehard Knörer in a ‘Sign and Sight’ report offers the most detailed critique. Knörer suggests that the opening shot of the stage introduces the sense of a theatrical space in the house looking out over the lake. He makes the point that the characters are so engrossed in their own concerns that dialogue is rarely about communicating but instead about each character’s ‘struggle with words’. Ironically, two of the characters are writers. If you know the Chekhov play you may wonder just how ‘free’ is this adaptation. The answer is very, but one action in the original play is obliquely presented in the closing moments of Schanelec’s script. I realise that the film is now gone from MUBI and I should have rewatched that ending. I’m certainly intrigued by this filmmaker and I will try to watch more.

Incarnation (Inkarnacija, Serbia 2016)

The square in Belgrade where the young man repeatedly ‘wakes’

Incarnation is the latest DVD release by Matchbox Films. It’s a first time effort by Filip Kovacevic, a 27 year-old maths graduate who also produced and co-wrote this low-budget film. The basic narrative concept he uses is the ‘time loop’, a familiar idea that can be applied to various generic narratives. The few reviews I’ve found of the film refer mainly to American films and to science fiction. That’s not surprising perhaps and many young filmmakers worldwide look to major Hollywood product for inspiration. I haven’t seen many of the American films reviewers reference (such as Looper quoted on the poster below) but Source Code is an interesting comparison, though the vast difference in budget and therefore lack of stars and effects pushes Incarnation in a different direction.

The basic premise is that a young man (played by Stojan Djordjevic) wakes up on a bench situated at a junction of five pedestrianised streets in the centre of what I assume is Belgrade. He doesn’t know who he is and he hasn’t made much progress in working out his situation before four men in black suits and white shirts wearing white face masks corner and shoot him. After a few seconds of blank screen, our hero wakes again on the same bench and the cycle is repeated. It takes a few more loops before our hero begins to make some progress, realising eventually, for instance, that there are five potential escape routes.

The hitmen

The film I was actually reminded of was Tom Tykwer’s Lola rennt (Run Lola, Run, Germany 1999). In that film, the cycle is only repeated three times and the ‘chase’ is about delivering a sum of money in time so Lola can save her fiancé. I was reminded perhaps by the running through the streets of Belgrade (instead of Berlin), but also by the sense that the film was like a videogame (much discussed in 1999) with the central character ‘learning’ each time and improving his/her chances of success. Much depends on the other characters on the street – and whether they are part of the same fictional world as the hero. In Incarnation, our hero does learn something from other characters, though never enough to fully understand what has happened – he’s going to have to work that out himself. The videogame references are strengthened by the clues the protagonist finds (which will perhaps take him to the ‘next level’) and by the pounding score for the chase sequences. I’ve no intention of spoiling the narrative pleasure in the film. All I’ll say is that the cycle is completed many times but that the film is relatively short for a feature. Some reviewers have not been satisfied by the ending but I thought it was quite appropriate.

It’s worth focusing on the film’s strengths. Belgrade looks an interesting city and it’s unusual to see a Serbian film in the UK outside a festival. With little money available, Kovacevic must have spent most of it on hunting for locations and then setting his cinematographer Uros Miltunovic loose to create some exciting chase sequences. There are a few scenes set away from the bench and the streets and these too work well. The choice of outfits for the mysterious hitmen also works very effectively. It’s a relief that though their look has been copied from various sources including the Matrix films, there are no special effects as such (apart from the fake blood for wounds!). The film has minimal dialogue and much of it is actually the young man voicing his own hopes and fears. In the UK trailer below the film appears to have been dubbed (the version I saw was subtitled) but I don’t think that’s much of a drawback in a film mainly focused on action.

You’ve seen it all before, so is it worth another go? I’d say yes, partly to enjoy the thrilling camerawork and also to see Belgrade. Stojan Djordjevic is an ‘everyman’ most audiences will be happy to follow. There is also the question of whether a Serbian take on this kind of familiar narrative offers something new. My thoughts certainly turned to that image of the Balkans as a very beautiful region (especially in the sunshine on the streets in a handsome city) which has experienced such terrible acts of violence as little as twenty years ago. Don’t worry, I haven’t given the ending away, but metaphor never seems far away in these kinds of narratives. Incarnation is certainly worth 80 minutes of your time and, who knows, perhaps an hour or two arguing about what it all means?

The DVD is released on 21st May.

The 4th Nitrate Picture Show

This Festival was held between May 4th and May 6th at the George Eastman Museum in upper New York State. The Eastman Museum is now one of the few places where one can see 35mm film prints on the stock that was once the standard for cinema. The Museum’s Dryden Theatre was crowded for most of the weekend with archivists, critics and fans enjoying the distinctive image that the format offers.

In fact those of us there on the Thursday had a pre-festival treat with a screening of Hamlet (1948) from a Library of Congress print. Lawrence Olivier’s film adaptation of one of Shakespeare’s major masterpieces is a fine piece of work. He and his supporting cast are excellent. The adaptation uses judicious cutting to present an impressive drama. And the art design and cinematography are great to watch, given the technical standards at that time. The sound is equally well done and includes in the opening of the drama Olivier voicing his father’s ghost. The print showed up well on the nitrate stock. The frequent chiaroscuro looked good and the cast and their lighting had that silvery quality found on early stock.

Hamlet (1948)
Directed by Laurence Olivier
Shown: Laurence Olivier (as Hamlet, Prince of Denmark)

The Festival programme was only announced on the Friday morning, a tactic I find rather coy. So we walked into Rochester centre to wander round the excellent second-hand bookshop there. One watches one’s baggage weight on the way out in order to be able to select from an extensive film section together with a wide range of other subjects.

The afternoon included two presentations. And, as is usual, the first set of screenings were short films on nitrate. It commenced with Symphony of a City (Människor I stad, 1947). This film, directed by Arne Sucksdorff, presented a day in Stockholm and the film won the Best Short Subject (One reel) at the 1949 Academy Awards. There was the only silent film at the Festival, Our Navy (1918) for which Phil Carli’s accompaniment added élan. There was an early Cinecolor short, filmed using a sub-tractive two colour process. This presented a Roman Catholic priest, [a Jesuit I think] exploring a glacier in Alaska. Following this was a 1946 Technicolor travelogue,Along the Rainbow Trail, found on the San Juan River. But the pick of the programme was Len Lye’sTrade Tattoo(1937). Only six minutes in length this is fine example of the work of this talented animator. On nitrate stock the film was a dazzling tapestry of colours, which involved hand painting and a certain amount of surrealist imagery.

The Friday early evening screening is traditionally a foreign language print and we were treated to an early Ingmar Bergman film, Sommarlek / Summer Interlude (1951). Much of the film presents a youthful romance in flashback. I think it is the first Bergman film with recognisable authorial narrative and characterisations. The majority of sequences were filmed in an archipelago over water and islands, and the dappled woods, sun-lit rocks and changing water hues were a real pleasure on nitrate.

The late film, starting at 10 p.m. was the 1938 Holiday, directed by George Cukor and starring Cary Grant with Katharine Hepburn. The two leads and supporting cast were good but I was not convinced by the script. The Cary Grant character, supposedly immune from desires for wealth, seems more about facilitating the plotting than presenting a convincing character. The film is handsomely produced and the print was good quality.

Saturday morning saw only one film, The Razor’s Edge (1946). This was adapted , fairly faithfully, from a novel by Somerset Maugham. It starred Tyrone Power as a man searching for meaning in life over decades. The protagonist suited Power’s persona, which whilst often swashbuckling is also frequently divided psychologically. Herbert Marshall was engaging as the writer (Maugham) though his commentary was much reduced from the book. Opposite Tyrone Power were the young Anne Baxter and Gene Tierney. Tierney enjoyed some of the best sequences in the film. This was her fourth appearance in a Nitrate Picture Show programme; who is the unpublicised fan at the Museum? The film was directed by Edmund Golding, an underrated director in Hollywood. He works well with actor and made several titles with Power. And he works well with the cinematography. There are frequent finely executed tracking shots which give the film an continuing flow as years and settings change. There was also good production design and a generally suitable score.

Then lunch. This year the Museum bar was augmented by food trucks in front of the Museum. Fortunately whilst there was quite an amount of rain over the weekend it was not in the meal breaks.

After lunch we enjoyed a print from the Narodni filmy archiv in Prague, Mlhy Na Blatech / Mist of the Moors (1943). This was a rural drama on fairly conventional lines. But there were sequences where the landscape, with trees, hillocks and ponds showed up well on nitrate.

There followed an early Anthony Mann western, Winchester ’73 (1950). This is not Mann’s finest work but James Stewart, displaying the psychotic side of his character that was bought out in Mann’s films, is excellent. There are some fine landscapes and an intense struggle between brothers at the finale on a steep cliff. The print came from the Library of Congress. It looked pretty good but did suffer from some warping which affected the focus.

The day ended with a real treat, a nitrate print of the marvellous Powell and Pressburger film, The Red Shoes (1948), I remember Ken Brownlow in a broadcast comparing silent film to ballet: this sound film is a tour-de-force of movement and colour. Apart from the brilliant ballet shot with great skills by Jack Cardiff, there are the pleasures of the acting/dancing with a terrific performance as a Svengali impresario by Anton Walbrook. The print was quite worn but the Technicolor looked great. In fact the projection relied on two prints, partly from a George Eastman Museum print, and for the final two reels a personal copy belonging to Martin Scorsese. I did think that the final two reels were of slightly better quality.

Sunday morning is usually the slot for a film noir, a genre which, with its chiaroscuro, suits the palette of nitrate. This year we had Cry of the City, a 1948 RKO film directed by Robert Siodmak. The film’s lead was Richard Conte as a gangster hospitalised and trying to avoid a murder rap. His nemesis is played by Victor Mature. Conte is striking whilst Mature is excellent, though he does not quite fit a character from the same Italian neighbourhood. The print was in good condition and was a pleasure to watch.

The afternoon film was a Soviet musical, a rarely seen genre. The director was Eisenstein’s assistant from the silent era Grigoriy Aleksandrov who made several film in this genre. Moscow Laughs (Vesolye Rebyata, 1934) offers a plot which centres on an a musical shepherd who is mistaken for a famous visiting conductor. The film opens in Odessa and there are some well done set-ups and a fine travelling shot on a local beach. There is a splendid sequence where the animals invade a local bourgeois reception creating chaos: the sequence offers almost surreal incidents. Later the ‘conductor’ takes his orchestra to a Moscow theatre. The latter stages are rather hammy and a little clunky. This is not socialist realism: more like a embryo effort for a new genre. The print’s distinction was that the film was restored in 1958 on surviving nitrate stock, making it the most recent film on nitrate seen at the Festival. The restored print apparently followed the original closely but much of the sound track was rerecorded.

This bought us to the ‘Blind Date’ screening. With even more coyness than over the programme the title of this film is only revealed as it runs on-screen. To tantalise the audience a single still is included in the brochure as a clue. I have consistently failed to guess correctly. Apparently at the first Nitrate Picture Show one visitor correctly identified t a footprint in a flower pot – from The Fallen Idol. This year I suggested a mining film.

The clue in the Brochure

There was a ripple of response when the shot/still appeared in an early scene, a hole waiting repair on an upside down curragh used by ‘The Man of Aran, Robert Flaherty’s famous docudrama from 1934. This is a n epic portrait of a small isolated community on the edge of the Atlantic. We saw the central family fighting the rough seas, fishing for giant sharks, and laying out sparse potato patches on the inhospitable terrain. This was a fine demonstration of the virtues of nitrate. The roaring seas, the glistening foam, the sun-lit cliffs and shadowed rocks all looked magnificent. It was a high quality print of a striking film.

The festival brochure includes details of the prints including the shrinkage. It is now reckoned that nitrate prints have a longer shelf life than acetate prints, whilst comparatively digital dies in childhood. But nitrate prints do shrink over time; it is reckoned that once shrinkage reaches 1% projection becomes extremely difficult or impossible. This is one of the difficulties faced by the projection team who also work with Projectors that contain safety features in case of fire. So there was frequent applause for the team during the Festival. We also had digital sub-titles for several films but I thought the Museum has not yet mastered the technology as on several occasions the English titles went out of sync with the foreign dialogue. Not a serious problem.

We had a full and rewarding weekend. Next year’s Picture Show will be on May 3rd to May 5th. This means it will fall on several important birthdays, notably Karl Marx. I suggested that a good title for next year would be Fame is the Spur (1947), a film by the Boulting Brothers which includes a rare feature, a photograph of Marx on the wall of a Manchester bookshop. Or there is May 3rd, the birthday of Mary Astor. It would be great to have a nitrate print of The Maltese Falcon (1941) or even Red Dust (1932).