Tagged: 35mm

Roger Corman’s Frankenstein Unbound (USA 1990)

Likely Corman’s final film as director, this is adapted from Brian Aldiss’s novel,

“a meditation on the wilful independence of the Frankenstein myth.”

Shot on the then standard format of 35mm it can be enjoyed [if Bradford’s Media Museum is accessible] this coming Wednesday in the quality auditorium of Pictureville.

The film’s story involves a time-travelling scientist, Dr. Joseph Buchanan (John Hurt) travelling back in time to meet, not just Mary Shelley (Bridget Fonda) and her story-telling circle, but her creation Dr. Victor Frankenstein (Raul Julia) and his own creation the ‘Monster’ (Nick Brimble). The film works weird variations with the historical characters and with the fictional ones. And Corman fans will find references from Corman’s large and long cinematic output. The continuity is variable and at times the plotting requires careful attention. However there are bravura sequences filmed with elan and a sense of fun, including laboratory work, a trial and an execution. There are some fine examples of special effects from the period. And the film finally transports us to an arctic winterland that transforms the final chapter of Shelley’s novel.

The film has it share of violence, with severed limbs, mutilated bodies and much blood. It gained an 18 certificate from the BBFC in 1991. The film is in standard widescreen and DeLuxe colour, running only 85 minutes. The locations were in Italy, standing in for Switzerland, and the production crew involved a number of craftspeople from the Italian industry.

It is a rare pleasure now to see classic films in their original format and happily the Museum are using their best screening venue. The print is from the Museum archive and is apparently in good condition. And John Hurt’s voice is always worth the price of admission. The film also ties in with a new event at the Science & Media Museum;

“Introduced by Pippa Oldfield, Head of Programme at Impressions Gallery, to celebrate the launch of the exhibition ‘In Search Of Frankenstein’.”

Frankenstein is one of my favourite stories, as a novel or in the endless retelling on film. The many variations on the creation of the monster are a continuing pleasure in mise en scène.

Seven Samurai / Shichinin no samurai (Japan 1954)

This is one of the undoubted classics of World Cinema. So it is good news that the Hebden Bridge Picture House is screening the film from a 35mm print and in a 190 minutes version: there are nine versions of different lengths but this is the 1991 almost complete re-issue. This is the sort of film that you can never see too many times; it always stands up to another revisiting. [Saturday November 3rd at 3.15 p.m.]

The story is set in the C16th during the Momoyama Period of Japanese history [‘warring states’]. A band of rōnin (masterless samurai) are recruited to defend a village from marauding bandits. The prime focus of the film are the samurai warriors, each carefully delineated and offering a particular aspect of the code and skills of this warrior class. Just a few of the villagers are delineated in an equal fashion but the contrasts between these two usually very separate classes is presented with great skill and clarity.

“[Its] universal appeal is partly because of the humaneness of the film’s characters. Each of the seven samurai is a distinct individual but never a caricature, about whom we come to care a great deal. It is a period in which the samurai class is declining. The rōnin samurai roam the countryside looking for work, but some have also become bandits. Because working for farmers would be below them, they kick aside the villagers seeking their help. What makes these seven samurai honourable is their continued adherence to the spirit of the samurai’s code of Bushido which allows them to reach past the class consciousness that normally separates knights from peasants.” (Beverley Bare Buehrer, 1990).

The early stages of the film depict the setting and the recruitment of the band and then their preparations for the defence of the village. And then in a long and detailed and dramatic section we watch as the battle ensues. This is one of the great presentations of samurai action but equally it is one of the great representations of armed conflict.

The film contains innumerable famous sequences spread across the narrative. Early on we watch as the samurai leader Kambei (Shimura Takashi) rescues a kidnapped child and then a demonstration of Samurai swordsmanship by Kyūzō (Miyaguchi Seiji). This varied group includes characters who are not traditional samurai; notably Kikuchiyo (Mifune Toshiro ) who later in the film give voice to the conflicting values of peasants and samurai. The final battle, which takes place in torrential rain, is a marvel of design, staging, cinematography and editing. And there is traditional musical accompaniment, not always the case in Japanese films.

The whole film is one of the finest productions directed by the master Kurosawa Akira. This is an outstanding example of his use of landscape within which are to be found fascinating and very human protagonists. The use of the telephoto lens and multi-camera techniques for much of the action gives distinct and very effective visualisation.

Seven Samurai is as famous as a model for Hollywood. The most well-known copy is The Magnificent Seven (1960, itself remade in 2016). Roy has some interesting comments on the Kurosawa film in a post on the 2016 remake. That is not up to the 1960 original: the latter is a good western but no substitute for the original. And, for me, the three hours fly by.

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2018

Piazza Maggiore

The city of Bologna was crowded for the 32nd edition of this archive Festival. The crowds, up to 3,000, swarmed in. So whilst there was a varied and exciting programme one had to exercise judicious judgement in selecting programmes as quite a few screenings were full, really full. As usual there was a mix of digital formats and 35mm. I think there were slightly less ‘reel’ prints than last year. But there were enough to satisfy a film buff starved of the ‘reel thing’ in Britain.

This year saw the partial inauguration of the Cinema Modernissimo, a vintage cinema under process of restoration. Every morning (repeated in the evening) the venue screened episodes from a US serial of the ‘teens, ‘Wolves of Kultur’. Produced by Pathé in fifteen episodes this was a spy drama with cliff-hanger after cliff-hanger:

our heroes, now a couple, are meeting dangers and escaping it, climbing, running, driving, on ships, motorcycles, trams, in woods, caves, lakes, on towers, peaks and rails. (Marianne Lewinsky in the Festival Catalogue).

In fact the episodes were rather reliant on intertitles for progressing the plot but there were some exciting sequences over the week. But it was the venue that was the star. Currently the auditorium is a dark cavern awaiting renovation. But this made it atmospheric. And the accompaniments by different musicians on different days, resonated around the impressive space. However, there is much work to be done and it seems unlikely that the Modernissimo will provide a new venue in 2019.

The star experience for 35mm film fans were the screening in the Piazzetta Pasolini from a 1930s Prevost Carbon-Arc projector. This year we had three, all devoted to the programme ‘Song of Naples, Tribute to Elvira Notari and Vittorio Martinelli’. Elvira Notari was a film director who, with her husband Nicola, produced films throughout the silent era that celebrated and dramatised the city of Naples. Vittorio Martinelli was a scholar and enthusiast for these filmmakers; he passed on ten years ago so it was also an anniversary. The atmosphere for these screenings in the Piazzetta was great. And all the films had musical accompaniments by Neapolitan singers and musicians. Worth a trip to Bologna on its own.

There were innumerable programmes covering early and silent film, classic mainstream cinema, documentary, art cinema and cinemas of liberation. The last included restorations by The Film Foundations World Cinema Project (Waquai Sanaway Al-dhamr, Algeria 1975), and a screening of Fernando Solanas and Octavio Getino’s seminal ‘Third Cinema’ film La Hora de los Hornos Neocolonialismo y violencia (Argentina 1966 – 1968). There was a fine Argentinian film from 1939, Prisoners of the Earth / Prisioneres de la Tierra. Filmed partly in the Amazonian jungle the film dramatised the experience of bonded workers on fruit plantations. The plot was fairly melodramatic but the actual locations gave the film an immediacy whilst the critical treatment of the exploitation and oppression of native workers was powerfully subversive.

The key silent offerings were in ‘A Hundred Years Ago: 1918’ (Cento Anni Fa: 1918), and the majority of these were on 35mm. We had Charlie Chaplin’s Shoulder Arms and The Bond.; an early Germaine Dulac short, Âmes de fous, and a restored film with Italian Diva Pina Menichelli, La Moglie di Claudio (Cláudio’s wife). What I found most interesting were two films that featured the Soviet poet Vladimir Majakovskij. There was short both scripted by and featuring Majakovskij, Shackled by Film (Zakovannaja film’moj, 1918) which played with cinematic techniques and illusion. And there was a three reel feature The Young Lady and the Hooligan (Baryšnja I chuligan, 1918). The young lady of the title (Aleksandra Rebikova) is a newly arrived teacher at a rural school. Majakovskij, who also scripted the film and was also involved in other aspects of the production] plays the hooligan, though this term does not really describe the character. The Italian translation had him as a ‘punk’. He seems unemployed and is an outsider among the locals. He is set upon by some of the pupils and their fathers. The film is fairly melodramatic and our protagonist is smitten with the teacher. But the film is also experimental with a dream sequence and scenes with multi-imagery, showing the influence of Futurism.

We had a programme of later films from the same territory, ‘Second Utopia: 1934 – The Golden Age of Soviet Sound Film’. As in China and Japan the new sound technology arrived in the Soviet Union later than in the Western capitalist countries. It also coincided with the change from a cinema predominately concerned with the political values of revolution and socialist construction to a more conventional approach:

‘Entertainment’ stopped being a curse word, and audiences returned to cinemas.(Festival Catalogue).

This is somewhat of an exaggeration. If you watch the films of Boris Barnet it is clear that audiences of the 1920s were offered both political dramas and documentaries but also dramas that were extremely entertaining titles. The advent of ‘Soviet Socialist realism’ tended to reduce the politics to slogans and offered a more one-dimensional view of Soviet Society. Chapaev / Čapaev was constructed around the heroic protagonist of the title. He is a military commander in the Civil War, when Britain, France, Japan, the USA and allies invaded the young socialist state. Chapaev leads regular and irregular forces against the invading Czechoslovakian Legion, mainly around the Trans-Siberian railway. In leading the battles against the invaders Chapaev has to come to terms with the Political Commissar. This resolves the drama and Chapaev emerges as a heroic figure but with little sense of the contemporary contradictions.

A different approach, less in line with ‘socialist realism’ was The Youth of Maxim (Junost’ Maksima), set in the Tsarist period around 1910 and written and directed by Grigori Kozintsev and Leonid Trauberg. This film retained the vitality and some of the experimentalism of their silent work with FEKS. The sound sequences are fairly stagy but the action sequences of demonstrations, conflict and revolutionary underground work are impressive. There are some fine examples of moving camera, exteriors with a strongly expressionist look and factory settings worthy of a silent film. And whilst Maxim is heroic this is only after a tutelage by an experienced Bolshevik and involvement in class actions.

Hollywood conventions were on show in ‘William Fox Presents: Rediscoveries from the Fox Film Corporation’. There was a screening of 7th Heaven (1927) in the Piazza Maggiore with a full orchestral accompaniment. And among the other titles was delightful comedy, Bachelor’s Affairs (1932) in which Adolphe Menjou as middle-aged playboy Andrew Hoyt discovers the drawbacks of marrying a young, beautiful blonde, Eva Mills (Joan Marsh). The film subverts Menjou’s standard persona whilst providing quick and punchy dialogue.

Alongside this was ‘Immortal Imitations: The Cinema of John M. Stahl’. Stahl started out as an actor then moved to direction in 1914 and continued until 1949. He directed 43 films, many of them are lost. His films are predominately melodramas, often adapted from best-selling novels. The programme in Bologna will be paralleled at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in October when there will be presentation of most of his surviving silent films. Stahl’s best films dramatise romantic relationships, often where a woman is forced into a ‘back street’ in a relationship with a married man. When Tomorrow Comes (1939) is taken from a story by James M. Cain. Irene Dunne plays the waitress Helen Lawrence who has a brief affair with pianist Philip Chagall (Charles Boyer). The principal leads are excellent and the melodramatic plot develops the strong emotions. The intriguing opening presents a waitress strike in New York but this soon fall away as the romance takes over.

A woman kept in the ‘shadows’ in a different sense is the central line in Imitation of Life (1934), adapted from the novel by Fannie Hurst. We have two single mothers with young daughters, Beatrice Pullman (Claudette Colbert) and Delilah Johnson (Louise Beavers). Beatrice is white, educated and self-reliant; Delilah is black and dominated by years of submissiveness. The film not only dramatises the inequities of racist classification and representation but also contains an undeveloped critique of US capitalism. Beatrice acquires wealth and fortune by marketing Delilah’s home-made pancake recipe. Yet even when the pair move to a affluent mansion Delilah remains ‘downstairs’. This contradiction finds potent expression in the situation of Delilah’s daughter Peola (Fredi Washington) who can ‘pass for white’. The film lacks the trenchant criticism in the treatments of this subject by Oscar Micheaux (for the segregated ‘race cinema’); but, I think, is superior to the better known remake of 1959.

‘The Rebirth of Chinese Cinema (1941)’ offered films from the period when, following the end of the Japanese occupation, the Communist Party of China defeated the capitalist Kuomintang and embarked on its own Socialist Road. The nine titles included straightforward entertainment films, films of resistance during the occupation and films made under the new dispensation.

Along the Sugari River / Songhua Jiang Shang (1947) was produced in Manchuria. Officially in a studio under the control of Kuomintang the film drama tends more to the political line and struggle of the CPC. The film opens on a rural family prior to the Japanese invasion. When the Japanese army arrives their treatment of the indigenous people is brutal and racist. Members of the family succumb to the Japanese violence and finally a young couple flee the village on Sugari river and the husband takes work in a Japanese run mine. After a disaster the Japanese offer derisory compensation to victims. A protest is brutally put down with many deaths. The young couple flee again and are rescued by partisans; thus they join the struggle against the occupation. The film used an amount of location work and prior to the occupation sequences have lyrical feel. The maltreatment under the Japanese is well presented and there are some fine tracking sequences. Like the other titles this film had been transferred to DCP. The surviving 35mm prints were rescued by a French University Department, thus they have Chinese dialogue with French sub-titles. Apparently the prints had not been looked after for years so there survival is welcome.

Equally rare we enjoyed a retrospective of some films by Yilmaz Güney, ‘Despair of Hope’. The Catalogue notes opened with a quotation from ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’, by Nikos Kazantzakis:

Hope, lasting too long, had begun to turn into despair.

which suggests a meaning for the title.

Güney was a major star of Turkish cinema in the 1950s and 1960s and went onto become a major film-maker. But his political views, expressed both in writings and in his films led to prosecutions, prison and eventually exile. He both wrote and directed films, and later, when in prison or exile, he supervised his films through collaborators. There were three titles screened plus German documentary. The Legend of the Ugly King / Die Legendae vom Hässlichen König (2017); a title that picked up on Güney’s nickname in as a star noted as a

tough-guy character [who] was often forced to violence because of certain social circumstances . . .

This could be seen in Bride of the Earth / Seyyit Han (1968), a film in black and white widescreen, clearly influenced by the ‘spaghetti westerns’. Güney plays Seyyit, a loner who has been in exile from his village. He returns just as his love Keje (Nabahat Cehre) is being married off to a local landowner. Here we see the power relations in traditional rural society. Seyyit finally has to confront Haydar and his henchman, whilst Keje becomes a victim of the conflict. Just as in a western Seyyit rides away alone a the end. This is a bleak action film, but also one that offers a critique of the traditional power structure in rural Turkey,

The three titles had been transferred to DCPs for the Festival. The quality was reasonable but not great on contrast or definition in long shots. This was presumably partly due to the quality of the surviving 35mm prints.

There was a tribute to the great Italian actor, ‘Marcello Come Here. Mastroianni Rediscovered (1954 – 1974)’. The programme included a fine comedy directed by Alessandro Blasetti, La Fortuna di Essere Donna / Lucky to be a Woman (1955) with Mastroianni as a photo-journalist playing opposite a Sophia Loren as a perspective subject/model. Both actors were delightfully witty.

And there were the programmes one could not fit in like a number of vintage colour prints and an array of documentary films. A festival jury selected the DVD Awards, including Flicker Alley’s The House of Mystery / La maison du mystère (France 1921 – 1923) for ‘The Pater Von Bagh Award’ There was also the announcement that the sadly missed Peter Von Bagh [Festival Director] has been replaced with a ‘gang of four’; Cecilia Cenciarelli, Mariann Lewinsky, Ehsan Khoshbakht and Gian Luca Farinelli. All are experienced in the Festival and wider cinematic culture. It will be interesting to see how they address the increasing popularity of the Festival whilst contemporary cinema is changing so rapidly.

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).

Room for Let (Kashima ari, Japan1959)

This was a title in the Japan Foundation Touring Film Programme screened at the Sheffield Showroom. I think this was the only title screened from 35mm. a good quality black and white print in TohoScope with clear English sub-titles.  The film was directed by Kawashima Yūzō, a director whose work I had not seen before. He was born in 1918 so this is his centenary year.

Alexander Jacoby (A Critical Handbook of Japanese Film Directors, 2008) notes,

Little known outside Japan, the wry, wild work of Kawashima Yūzō is the missing link between the classical Japanese cinema of the fifties ands the modernism of the sixties.

Kwashima started out at Shochiku in the war years. He only achieved a reputation in the 1950s when he moved to Nikkatsu. On a number of his films his assistant and script-writer was Imamura Shōhei. Hi worked in a variety of genres but his most notable films were comedies, a mixture of satire and farce. Room for Let is, apparently, his most characteristic.

The film certainly mixed comedy and farce and (I suspect) a certain amount of satire on 1950s society. The film is set in a multi-room single storey tenement on a hill overlooking the city of Osaka. There are some fine views of the cityscape. The film, to a degree; follows the actions of the various tenants living in the house.

. . . a barbed hilarious portrait of the mostly disreputable characters inhabiting an Osaka boarding house . . . [Programme notes].

This sort of drama, showing the interactions of tenants in a multi-room establishment, is familiar in South Asian cinema, and there are examples in Chinese and Japanese films.

The film does have key protagonists. One is Goro (Sakai Frankie), a jack-of-all-trades around whom the other characters revolve. Opposite him is Yumiko (Awashima Chikage), a potter who rents the vacant room. She is an independent and strong-minded character, as are the majority of female characters in this film.

The ‘room for let’ provides a mechanism for the development in the plots But it is the interactions between the various tenants that provides the comedy. This is often unseemly and the sexual aspect if fairly explicit. The comedy develops slowly. Early on the film has a wry quality, but as the drama develops the tone becomes farcical. There is a splendid sequence as most of the tenants are involved in or observing Goro’s panic-stricken response to a forceful women tenant.

At the same time there are notes of disquiet. A young woman who services some older men in her room suffers the indignity of exposure to her family. Her suicide and the following mourning ritual is sombre.

The cast is excellent, striking just the right note this side of farce for much of the film. Their characters and idiosyncrasies are presented entirely convincingly. The cinematography by Okazaki Kôzô is finely done. He makes great use of the scope frame and there are some fine dollies in the interiors and some fine tracking shots in the exteriors. The music by Manabe  Riichirô for much of the time has a suitably jaunty quality which sets off the often racy visuals.

This is the first Japanese film farce that I have seen and it struck me as surprising but extremely funny. The set pieces are a real pleasure to watch. Unfortunately there were only about a dozen in the audience for this screening. And, as far as I could tell, despite being exactly opposite the University with its Film Studies and Film Production courses, there was a sad absence of academics and students. Equally unfortunate was that the closest this came to West Yorkshire was Sheffield. The Programme Notes list the venues hosting the Touring Programme. This includes towns like Colchester, Kendal and Lewes, all far smaller than Leeds. I read Roy’s comments (in his Glasgow Film Festival overview) about the absence of Asian films  in exhibition. I wonder how we can persuade our local exhibitors to support this excellent provision. I have seen a number of films in recent years in the Touring Programmes and they have all been worth the trip to Sheffield.

Godzilla: King of Monsters / Gojira (Japan 1954)

A film that ‘launched a thousand’ replicas: not quite but there are sixteen plus Japanese remakes or sequels. There are also numerous US versions: the original was re-edited and dubbed for the US market. Among the changes the US version downplayed the dangers of nuclear weapons, a key theme in the plot.

Beverley Bare Buehrer, in a commentary on the film recorded that:

“Toho executive producer, Tanaka Tomoyuki, saw the 1953 American film Beast from 20,000 Fathoms. He liked the film and coupled it with an actual event which happened in March of that year, the exposure to radioactive fallout of Japanese fisherman on the tuna boat, Fukuryu Maru, sailing in an area too close to an H-bomb test America had used near the Marshall Islands.”

Forgiveness is obviously a Japanese characteristic since they have co-operated with the Yanks since then rather than initiating economic boycotts.

The film was an expensive production by Japanese standards of the time. The film’s special effects relied on a skilled specialist Tsuburaya Eiji. I found the design of the production by Chuko Satoshi still convincing last time I saw the print. Tamai Masao’s black and white cinematography is finely done, [academy ratio]. The film’ soundtrack by Shimonaga Hisashi uses special sound effects. And the music by Ifukube Akira is especially effective. Director Honda Inoshiro orchestrates these talents into an excellent 98 minutes of action.

Whilst techniques have moved on and developed in the intervening decades the film stands up really well. The script is by Murata Takeo and Honda Inoshiro and the plot develops at a fairly fast pace and offers character relations as well as a monster and large-scale destruction. It is also the type of film that looks better in a 35mm print. So happily Hebden Bridge Picture House is using this format for a ‘reel film’ screening on Saturday February 3rd. The last time I saw the film the print was in good shape.

Postscript:

We enjoyed a good-looking 35mm print. The visual and aural special effects stood up well as did the monster and its rampages. Some of the plot is conventional but the recurring references to the US nuclear bombing of Japan are powerful. There is a reference to Nagasaki and a number of sequences that recall the horrors of 1945. There is also an interesting debate amongst the scientific characters about what should be done about the monster. Definitely a classic.

Yojimbo (Japan 1961)

This is a classic samurai film and enjoys the talents of two stars: filmmaker Kurosawa Akira and actor Mifune Toshiro. Both bring their special talents to an entertaining and exciting action movie. Like much of their work the film has been remade several times, including as a spaghetti western, A Fistful of Dollars (1964), and as a Hollywood prohibition/action film, Last Man Standing (1996).

The film is set in 1860, just prior to the Meiji period and the rise of modern Japan. Mifune plays a ronin, that is a masterless samurai whose traditional functions have vanished and who takes on whatever work he can find. In this case in a small town he is offered work as a bodyguard (the English sense of the title) by rival merchants. The merchants are the emerging class in this period, but here they rely more on criminality than trade, forerunners of the modern Yakusa.

The main character and the film’s story are strongly sardonic. The opening sequence shows our hero passed by a dog carrying a severed hand. And the violence implied here is a central right through the film.

The cinematographer on the film was Miyagawa Kazuo. He had worked with Kurosawa on the earlier Rashomon (1950) as well as with other major directors like Mizoguchi Kenji and Ozu Yasujirô. As in some of the director’s other films Kurosawa and Miyagawa make great use of the telephoto lens. There is a depth of field in the shots, but a rather flat image as the action is foreshortened. Among the distinctive editing techniques, performed by Kurosawa himself, are frequent wipes, a technique rarely seen in post-war (WWII) cinema. And the music track by Satô Masaru uses distinctive instrumentation including wood blocks.

Kurosawa had set up his own production company. The first film was a variation on Shakespeare’s ‘Hamlet’, The Bad Sleep Well / Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru (1960). Mifune was the lead actor. Yojimbo was the second film from the company . Both film were also scripted by Kurosawa.

The film was popular in Japan and Kurosawa made a sequel titled with the character’s name, Sanjuro (1962). Once again Mifune played the lead. Yojimbo had a relatively large international release and has remained a regular title for revivals over the years. On its initial release in the Britain the BBFC gave it an ‘A’ Certificate.

The film’s format was black and white TohoScope. almost identical to CinemaScope with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1: with Perspecta Stereo sound., Now Hebden Bridge Picture House are screening the film in their ‘reel film’ series on Saturday January 6th. So it can be seen in its original 35mm format: what a treat.

2017 in Review

I did not think that this was a great year for new releases. There were some very fine films, though often one had to seek them out.

I thought that the Palestinian film 3000 Nights / 3000 Layla (2015) was a powerful portrait of the effects of occupation.

Certain Women (2016) was another fine film from Kelly Reichardt with four excellent performances.

I am Not Your Negro (2016) was a very good documentary though I thought it was weakened by not directly addressing James Baldwin’s homosexuality.

After the Storm / Umi yori mo mada fukaku (2015) was another fine family drama from Kore-eda Hirokazu.

Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan patriotic epic, is here in its 70mm/IMAX version: a true cinematic experience.

Sally Potter’s The Party was one of the wittiest films of the year, standing out from some of the more heavy-handed satires.

Happy End was typical of Michael Haneke and of equal quality to his earlier films.

And Mountains May Depart (2015) was a distinctive but finely made Chinese drama.

Praise for Casey Affleck in Manchester by the Sea (2016) and for  Sallie Hawkins in Maudie (2016).

The year was improved by quite few classics re-exhibited and/or in Festival programmes. However, some of these were transferred to digital formats and that is a lottery for viewers. So I seek out those on 35mm prints.

Odd Obsession / Kagi (Japan, 1959] was a discovery, a sardonic family drama from Ichikawa Kon.

Humanity and Paper Balloons / Ninjô kami fûsen, directed by Yamanaka Sadao in 1937, was a film I knew of but only now had the opportunity of seeing: it has one of the great endings in world cinema.

West Indies (1979) is Med Hondo’s exhilarating take on slavery, the African Diaspora and European racism.

And one film that transferred to digital with such care and attention that it retained its cinematic qualities was The Bride of Glomdal / Glomdalsbruden, directed in 1926 by Carl Theodor Dreyer.

I was fortunate to see Sergei Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky / Aleksandr Nevskiy (USSR, 1938) in a nitrate print which gave a luminous edge to the famous ‘battle on the ice’ sequence’.

At the opposite end of the scale there were a number of filmic duds but the title that seemed the most interminable was The Killing of a Sacred Deer, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Interesting directors from national cinemas tend to lose that interest when they move into English-language International co-productions.

The wooden spoon goes to The Lost City of Z (2016). It was a rare 4K DCP distribution but the files that I saw included digital break-up and colour distortion. Friends had the same problem with different exhibitors. But the distributor Studio-Canal, declined an explanation for this.

But equally reprehensible is whoever controls the policy at the BFI of access to archive prints. I saw both Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potemkin (USSR 1925) and The End of St. Petersburg / Konets Sankt-Peterburga (USSR 1927) in 35mm prints with excellent musical accompaniments, but the prints were copies of sound transfers rather than the proper silent prints with the correct frame rate and framing. Lenin’s adage about cinema clearly falls on death ears despite the Centenary of ‘The Great October Revolution’.

‘Waiting to see …’