Tagged: 35mm

2019 in retrospect

2019 was not that a good a year for new releases and the Sight & Sound ‘top fifty’ left me underwhelmed. However, there were still some fine new releases, of which the following six are my favourites.

Happy as Lazzaro / Lazzaro felice –  Italy | Switzerland | France | Germany 2018.

A very fine drama combining a sort of magical realism in the countryside with neo-realist style in the city

Out of the Blue – Britain, US 2018.

A fine neo-noir with one of the performances of the year from Patricia Clarkson.

Pain and Glory / Dolor y gloria – Spain, France 2019.

Pedro Almodóvar on top form with this exploration of his own career.

Sean the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon – Britain, France, US 2019

One for sheer entertainment value and a title that milked other films without making them clichés.

So Long, My Son / Dijiutianchang – China 2019

One of the pleasures of 2019 have been several films from China and this is an extremely fine drama that covers the recent decades since the return  of capitalism.

Transit – Germany, France 2018

A story that reminded me of other films but gave these tropes a wholly distinctive treatment.

The year was improved by some re-issued and /or restored films.

We had Alfred Hitchcock’s finest Hollywood outing on 35mm, Rear Window, 1954. accompanied by the short but brilliant variation on the plot, Accidence, Canada 2018.

There was the classic British gangster film Performance, 1970; also in 35mm and with an interesting presentation.

And the Leeds International Film Festival, among the few 35mm screenings, offered a very fine print of Beau Travail, France 1999.

Cinemalibero: FESPACO 1969 – 2019

Filmmakers at the tomb of Thomas Sankara

The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou (Festival panafricain du cinéma et de la télévision de Ouagadougou or FESPACO) is a film festival in Burkina Faso, held biennially in Ouagadougou, and dedicated to African and African film-makers. It was founded in 1969 . Then the host state was known as Upper Volta. The state became Burkina Faso under the leadership of Thomas Sankara, a revolutionary anti-colonial figure. In an early speech Sankara drew on the traditions of the US War of Independence, the French Revolution and the Great October Revolution. His socialist style programme was bought to a halt in a military coup in 1987: clearly involving intrigues by foreign states, in an area where French Neo-colonialism is potent. The Festival has continued and remains the most important forum for African Cinema. In the same year an association of African filmmakers was formed, The Pan African Federation of Filmmakers (Fédération Panafricaine des Cinéastes). Several of the film-makers featured this year were important in this development, including Med Hondo and Gaston Kaboré, who later became Secretary-General. And there was Ousmane Sembène who is the best-known of these film-makers and who features have been fairly widely available.

Il Cinema Ritrovato has developed a productive relationship with the World Film Foundation, dedicated to the restoration of important films across world cinema. Their new project aims at restoring fifty African films that are considered important as films, as cultural products and historical artifacts. The programme in Bologna this year presented eleven films, eight in new restorations, as examples from the African Film heritage.

I have already posted on one of the titles: Arabs and Niggers, Your Neighbours (Les Bicots-Negres, vos voisins, 1974). This was one of the films screened in its original 35mm format. And it provided a tribute to the film work of Med Hondo, who died early this year. The film provided a link between the other films shown in a Ritrovato retrospective in 2017.

‘Muna Moto’

Among the titles were a number seen here in the 1980s but not seen since. From 1975 in Cameroon came Muna Moto directed by Jean-Pierre Dikongué-Pipa. This was  a critical study of the dowry system, but which was constrained by the censorship operating at that time. Dikongué-Pipa felt that he was able to present

only one fifth of what he felt in his heart.

In the film a young woman, because she is pregnant, has to marry an older man who already has there wives, all sterile. The drama develops when the young man who fathered the child takes drastic steps.

Problems also attended the restoration as there was mould on some sections of the original negative and Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique had to work in part with a dupe print. The film, in black and white, used indigenous Duala and French with English sub-titles.

‘Baara’

Baara from Mali (1978) was directed Souleymane Cissé. His subsequent feature Yeelen (1987) has become a classic of African films seen in Europe.  Cissé had suffered arrest and jail for his previous film which addressed the question of rape; the charge was for accepting French funding; something the ruling class in this state have done right up until today. Set in Bamako this film is a study of trade unionism in a country struggling to escape Neo-colonialism. There are two key character, of similar ages; one an intellectual the other a manual worker. Both work at a factory where the exploitation leads to confrontation and the need for people to identify their interests, individual and collective.

The various elements operating in the film are unified by the narrative strategy employed – specifically related to the Marxist notion of history as essentially collective.

The film screened from a colour 35mm print and used indigenous Bambara language. This was a version with Italian sub-titles and an English translation.

‘Wend Kuuni’

Wend Kuuni was from Burkina Faso itself and made in 1982 by Gaston Kaboré. A young boy is abandoned in the bush. Found, he adopted into a village family. The simple drama develops as we learn the trauma that made him mute and the further action that leads to a cure.

Kaboré, in 2017, explained that

My preoccupation has been to find a film making form to address my own people enshrined in both cinematic language and the legacy of our own story-telling tradition.

This offers as sense of the form of the ‘griot’, a traditional story-teller whose function can be seen at work in a number of African films. The dialogue was in the local language of Mooré with English subtitles.

This was another restoration by the Cinémathèque Royale de Belgique. The digital version looked really good. We also had an introduction by Nicola Mazzanti from the Cinémathèque which was less happy. His intentions seemed good but the delivery was rather like a harangue on the neglect of African films. Given that the audience were cineastes who had traveled distances for the festival and for this particular screening, then queued up to get a seat, [some had to stand] this seemed to me completely misdirected.

There were two films by the Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty. His two most famous films, Touki Bouki (1973) and Hyènes (1992) were both features. The two titles were intended to be part a trilogy, Histories de petites gens / Tales of ordinary people, but Mambéty died before he could complete the third part.

‘Le Franc’

Le Franc [which refers to a lottery ticket] runs for 45 minutes. The protagonist, Marigo (Dieye ma) is an itinerant musician.

With his easy-going walk and Chaplinesque clothes, Marigo immediately expresses his irreverent nature: . . . (Alessaandre Speciale, quoted in the Festival Catalogue).

Indeed Marigo does share some characteristics with the famous ‘silent’ tramp. And the film  has its  moments of humour. But it also shares Mambety’s taste for sardonic comment, bricolage and a narrative that literally jumps around characters and settings. Marigo shares Chaplin’s famous characters ability to stare down adversity. But such adversities are more dramatic and oppressive in a Neo-colonial setting. This is a landscape in which poverty and decay surround everybody. Yet the characters are vital as is the music which repeatedly disrupts the action.

We had a good transfer to digital with the Wolof dialogue accompanied by English sub-titles. However, the songs were not translated and I am sure they added to the dynamic but bitter story.

‘The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun’

La Petite vendeuse de Soleil (The Little Girl Who Sold the Sun). The ‘sun’ of the title is a daily newspaper which children tout round the streets of [I think] Dakar but it clearly has a double meaning [at least] in the story.. Sili (Lissa Baléra) is a paraplegic. Despite this and her crutches she gamely works round the streets selling what seems to be a popular tabloid. She also gamely ignores the taunts and tricks of the other sellers, all teenage boys. This is a film about facing adversity but with a more upbeat and less sardonic tone than Le Franc.

Mambéty, who died in 1998, was unable to finish the film which was at that point ready for editing. It was completed by colleagues after his death. It is an affecting drama with an emotional punch. It is also more in a linear fashion that Mambety’s other films and there is little sense of the irony that he usually offers. I did wonder if the final film is exactly as he himself would have made it. Like the other title it was in a good quality DCP, running 45 minutes and again in Wolof with English sub-titles.

There were several other features and  material on FESPACO. Notably, nearly all the films came from North and West Africa. The exceptions were the Hondo and a title from Morocco. A number were in French though we also had titles in indigenous languages like that by Cissé and by Mambéty. This is an area once termed ‘Francophone’ because  France was the dominant colonial power. This offers an interesting cultural factor, since narrative films are more common from this area than other parts which were dominated by Britain and the English language. France has continued to exercise a neo-colonial dominance in the region including military adventures. The flip side being the cultural plank and many films had to rely on French technical resources in their production. One of the key aims of FESPACO was to develop the indigenous film industries. This lead to a flowering in the late 1970s and 1980s, witnessed by some of the films at the festival. This fell away in the 1990s but there have been some important cinematic ventures in recent years; [see posts under ‘African Cinema’].

We can look forward to more of the restorations by the World Film Foundation at future festivals.

Film from 1919 at Il Cinema Ritrovato

Neil Brand at the piano in the Modernissimo

Every year this Archive Festival in Bologna has a programme of titles from the parallel year in the 20th century, A Hundred Years Ago: 1919′. The curators of the programme, Mariann Lewinsky and Karl Wratschko, made the point in the Festival Catalogue:

1919 is the first year of the A Hundred Years Ago strand for which a certain canon exists . . . the easiest option seemed not to be the most interesting one, and we decided, as in every year since 2004, to go on a pilgrimage to the archives and view as many films from 1919 as possible . . . We also decided at an  early stage to include as many short films as possible …

They also argued that the focus is on films from Germany and Scandinavia.

This was not planned but simply happened  as a result of the fact that in 1919 the most interesting films were made there.

So we enjoyed some known classics, unknown films and surprises, and a programme of varied short films from small dramas to travelogues and newsreels. One of the attractions of the selection was that the bulk of the screenings were on 35mm. Even so, given the complexity of the overall festival programme, with up to seven screens at any one time, it was not possible to see every single film.

The programme was divided into eight chapters, the first being ‘Old and New’.

Here we saw Carl Théodor Dreyer’s very fine The President (Præsedenten, 1919). Adapted from an Austrian novel the President of the title is a judge. His fallibility repeats the transgression of both his father and grandfather. The print  from the Danish Film Institute was both tinted and toned  and the visual quality was enhanced by a fine accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau. This was a great film to revisit.

‘The President’

Three other titles were by Jakov Protozanov, Mauritz Stiller {Sir Arne’s Treasure / Herr Arnes Pengar} and Augusto Genina. The last was a social comedy, The Mask and the Face / La maschera e il volto, in which a husband’s macho boasts on what he will do if his wife takes a lover come back to haunt him.

Next was ‘Censorship Abolished. German ‘Vice and Enlightenment Films”.

A vice film (in German: Sittenfilm) is a film that, under the mantle  of ‘enlightenment’, deals with taboo subjects mostly from  the field of sexuality. (Karl Wratschko in the Catalogue).

There was a film directed by Richard Oswald on a gay them, Different from the Others (Anders als die andern). The Pimp (Der Mädchenhirt) directed by Karl Grune  with prostitution and venereal decease in the plot. When censorship was re-imposed it disappeared from view. Whilst Misericordia (Tötet nicht mehr!) was a committed film addressing capital punishment directed by Lupu Pick.

‘Indian Cinema’ was a screening of D. G. Phalke’s Kaliya Mardan (The Childhood of Krishna). This is one of the few surviving silent films made in India and the only film by the key pioneer Phalke to survive almost complete.

‘Three actresses from the US with Love’ featured an extract from Creaking Stairs with Mary McLaren who also starred in Lois Weber’s Shoes (1916). A woman director, Ruth Stonehouse’s Rosalind at Redgate. And the French director Albert Capellani working with the star Nazimova at the Metro Picture Corporation. This drama, The Red Lantern,  was set  during the ‘Boxer rebellion in China; with fairly awful stereotypes of Chinese people.

Nazimova

‘Independent Cinema’ offered Back to God’s Country, a Canadian wilderness adventure. Historien om en gut / The Story of a Boy, a Norwegian drama of a boy who runs away. And fragments from La Fête Espagnole / Spanish Fiesta directed by Germaine Dulac. All three showed the way that many independent productions utilized actual locations, offering natural detail often lacking from studio productions.

The sixth chapter was titled ‘Revolution’, Karl Wratschko commented;

1919 was one of the most revolutionary years in the C20th. In this year there was revolutionary activity in many different countries of Europe as well as in Egypt.

From Hungary we had a film by Mihály Kertész [later Michael Curtiz] My Brother is Coming (Jön az öcsém), adapted from a revolutionary poem,

released barely two weeks after the proclamation of the world’s second communist republic . . .

‘My Brother is Coming’

From the opposite standpoint came Die Bolschewistischen … (Germany) which depicted the killing by the Bolsheviks in Ukraine of the opposition in the Civil War. A German newsreel showed the street battles during the Spartacist uprising in Berlin. A  second included the funeral of one of the Spartacist leaders Rosa Luxemburg.

‘Nature, Humour, Science’ provided a sense of a cinema visit in the early C19th.

. . . for nearly two decades, . . . [this] meant not seeing a long story . . . , but some 10 to 15 short films from  a wide range of genres and with maximum diversity in aesthetic impact and emotional register; . . . (Mariann Lewinsky in the Festival Catalogue).

So we had non-fiction, newsreel, adverts and comedy. There was the famous and staged signing of the United Artists incorporation with the stars gathered round Chaplin. From the Soviet Union ‘The Funeral of Vera Kholodnaya, a major star of the Russian silent cinema, including films with Evgeni Bauer. The adverts were animated films from a French pioneer, Robert Lortac. And among the comedies was Seff Kostet 24,50 dollar groteske von seff (Austria). This followed the adventures of a tailor’s dummy and its human look-a-like.

Dummy or human?

The final part of the programme was a serial screened in parts, morning and evenings, at the Modernissimo. This is an underground cinema waiting restoration but extremely atmospheric and [seemingly] the coolest spot in Bologna. I Topi Grigi is an Italian production starring and directed by Emilio Ghione. A major star Ghione played Za la Mort, a master of disguise, who has eight episodes to outwit and bring to justice the ‘Grey Rats’ of the title. As always in serials there were cliff-hanging ends of episodes, a variety of criminal enterprises, a changing cast of villains and victims and a final denouement between hero and arch-villain. Following the whole serial was a commitment but a bonus was that one would hear nearly all of the ensemble of talented musicians who accompany the silent screenings.

Rear Window (US 1954)

‘The Importance of Set Design …….’

One’s favourite film from a major artist such as Alfred Hitchcock tends to fluctuate over time; but for the last few years I have felt that this title is the most enjoyable and the finest of the productions directed by Hitchcock in Hollywood. It is a completely studio film, shot on the Paramount lot, though Hitchcock retained the copyright, so that now the film  is part of the Universal collection.

The protagonist L. B.”Jeff” Jefferies is played by James Stewart, an actor who starred in several Hitchcock films and who, in the 1950s, brought a darker tone to his characterisations. The romantic interest in the film is Lisa Carol Fremont, played by Grace Kelly who seems to have been Hitchcock’s favourite blonde. The triple names of the two characters points to their social differences: “Jeff” is a professional photographer who believes his life should have the least amount of encumbrances and who revels in being politely uncouth whilst Lisa is a socialite and model, seen in a series of extravagant and stylish gowns and costumes.

The film opens with Jeff tied to a wheelchair after suffering a broken leg whilst on a photographic assignment for the magazine for which he works. He spends much of his time surveying the apartments that surround the courtyard in which his own is set: this is in the New York Greenwich Village. Jeff watches the people in the other apartments, even using binoculars and a powerful telephoto lens on his camera. He pays particular attention to the man in the apartment nearly opposite: Lars Thorwald (Raymond Burr). He comes to suspect that a crime has been committed and this investigation drives the plot forward.

The film is adapted from a short story by Cornell Woolrich for ‘Dime Detective’ (1942), a noted contributor to the genre of ‘pulp fiction’. Whilst the title is not a film noir it does contain some of the aspects of that genre. There are the triangular relationships, the seeker hero, the siren call (not a femme fatale) and the world of chaos that envelops the hero. And there is chiaroscuro in certain key scenes.

Hitchcock’s typical direction is well served by a team of talented craft people; a virtue that was enabled by Hitchcock’s preceding success. The setting of the courtyard was produced by set designers Hal Pereira and Joseph MacMillan Johnson. This careful construction is excellent in its dramatic scope and detail. The cinematography of Robert Burks exploits this setting and the interior of Jeff’s apartment with consummate skill; (think of North by Northwest). The colour palette is excellent, shot on Eastmancolor but printed on Technicolor stock in the original release. George Tomasini edits this material with real skill, following the conventional continuity of Hollywood but with excellent use of dramatic cuts and changes; (as later in Psycho). The music, by Franz Waxman, is sparse though the opening sets the tone really well. Most of the film’s soundtrack is sound from within the story world produced by the team of John Cope, sound recordist: Harry Lindgren sound recordist: Howard Beals sound editor and Loren L. Ryder sound recorder mixer. Finally the Hollywood veteran Edith Head designed the costumes.

James Stewart plays Jeff with aplomb, and his 1950s persona makes the obsession with the mystery convincing. Jeff is a voyeur, as are often the protagonist in Hitchcock films. But the voyeurism in Hitchcock films is overlaid with a sardonic humour and a reflexive stand point. Meanwhile Grace Kelly’s Lisa is a self-determining young woman with an assured response that is not true of all the heroines in Hitchcock’s Hollywood output. The other residents, with the exception of Thorwald, are mainly seen as objects of Jeff’s gaze., though circumstances revise his judgements on them. Burr’s Thorwald is an almost sad figure but dangerous. We also have to fine character performances with Thelma Ritter as Jeff’s nurse/Masseur and Jeff Corey as a friend in the NYPD. And there is a Hitchcock dog; less happy than in other films.

The tendency to critical presentation is, in  part, due to the adaptation of the Woolrich story by John Mitchell Hayes. Watch carefully what we learn of Jeff’s observations; what he sees and what he does not see.

Like all outstanding films this has a richly constructed narrative, dramatic but also believable performances, beautifully crafted vision and sound and enough questions to retain interest until the final moments. Here, Hitchcock, with a touch of irony not frequently found in the Hollywood oeuvre, leaves the audience with one last ambiguous shot.

A screening as part of the Leeds Festival of Architecture paid tribute to the importance of design in the film. It was screened from a pretty good 35mm print, the original format, at the Hyde Park Picture House. It was accompanied by a short from the Canadian artist Guy Maddin, Accidence (2018). This is a nine minute film, apparently all in one long take. But it was shot in digital so likely there are some edits. The camera is trained on the frontage of a large block of flats; it opens in a mid-shot and slowly zooms out to a long shot. Then later it zooms slowly in to more or less the original mid-shot. Different actions take place in different apartments and characters move between them. One event, resulting in at least one likely death, seems the main action but I think it would take a second viewing to be sure of all that takes place. The main characters appear to be variations on those found in Hitchcock’s Rear Window, down to the small dog; [who happily survives in this version]. This film is clearly a riff and play on the famous 1954 feature. I think Hitchcock would have enjoyed it; I certainly did.