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.
This series of events organised by the Pavilion visual arts project based in Leeds was screening at the Hyde Park Picture House and a small venue in the Grand Theatre complex in New Briggate. At the invitation of the Pavilion Herb Shellenberger [from Philadelphia but now resident in London] curated an ambitious programme of films by artists; some film-makers but some artists first. Will Rose introducing the opening event admitted that the programme was larger than originally envisaged. There were seven separate screenings with 33 separate films ranging in length from 4 minutes to well over an hour. In his introduction Herb explained that artists based in Yorkshire were contributing but that their art works would be placed ‘in dialogue with work from international artists.
The opening event on a Friday evening saw the Picture House screening two 35mm prints: ‘Bliss it was in that [even] to be alive’. And better still the main feature was one of the outstanding masterworks from the French film-maker, photographer, writer, traveler and eccentric, Chris Marker. Marker died in 2012 after a life full of quirky artistic work. He was a collaborator with Alain Resnais and a friend and colleague of the recently deceased Agnes Varda. These two shared a love of cats. All three were part of the ‘left bank group’ ; a key but overlooked movement within the nouvelle vague. Their films were more experimental, more political and more distinctive than the famous ‘new wave’ films. Marker himself is known for works described as ‘essay films’ and this title is a good example of that approach. Not exactly documentary but addressing the actual world Wikipedia defines [informal] written essays as characterised by:
“the personal element (self-revelation, individual tastes and experiences, confidential manner), humour, graceful style, rambling structure, unconventionality or novelty of theme,”
Much of this will be found in the Marker film. As well as his personal involvement in so much of the production of the film Marker also appears in slightly fictionalised versions of himself.
The film’s written component is a series of letters read [in parts] with comments by an unidentified female character. The letters are from a cameraman visiting a variety of places: Japan, Guinea-Bissau, Cape Verde, Iceland, Paris, and San Francisco. The last includes locations used in Alfred Hitchcock’s highly regarded Vertigo (1958), a film that has pre-occupied Marker for years. He remarks that he has seen the film nineteen times; I am not sure if I have ever seen a film that many times, but it could be Battleship Potemkin / Bronenosets Potyomkin (1925 USSR). I actually did the same homage to the Vertigo with a French guide and Marker fan.
The largest part of Sans Soleil are the sequences from Japan and from Guinea-Bissau / Cape Verde; societies that Marker suggests are
“two extreme poles of survival.”
This is illustrated in the film. Marker also notes the political context with archive footage of the African Liberation struggle and one charismatic leader, Amilcar Cabral.
The original French version of Sans Soleil opens with the following quotation by Jean Racine
“L’éloignement des pays répare en quelque sorte la trop grande proximité des temps.”
(The distance between the countries compensates somewhat for the excessive closeness of the time).
Marker shot the film on a 16mm camera in colour and standard European widescreen. There is found footage and stills/freeze frame in colour and black and white academy. And some of the film is synthesised by a colleague. He recorded the soundtrack in asynchronous manner, thus the sound does not always match the imagery. So this is ‘montage’ in the full sense of the word. The screening presented the original French language version in a 35mm print in good condition.
Sans Soleil was preceded by a short five minute film, also on 35mm. This was Black by Anouk De Clercq (Belgium, 2015). This was the only print of this art work which by now was showing signs of wear and tear. The sub-titles noted this suggesting the film picked up on a point early in the Marker film where the film-maker addresses the use of black leader. I did wonder if either film-maker had the Soviet artist Kazemir Valedich in mind.
The second screening I attended was titled ‘The Gentle Touch’ and presented five titles featuring:
“Stone, flesh, blood or electric circuit, feet on the ground versus data in the cloud. From automaton to avatar, artists reflect on the tension between our own individual, physical bodies and the animated, virtual body.” (Curator’s Notes)
Three of the regional film-makers attended and spoke about their work after the screening.
The first title was The Love of Statues (2019) by Peter Samson, based in Doncaster. This was a combination of film, found footage and archive stills. Shot partly in Paris at the museum of the Salpetriere Asylum containing a bevy of C19th objects. It was shot in black and white and partly in widescreen and partly in academy ratio. Peter explained that he had worked on the material several time over the years and this was the most recent version. He had to edit together materials in different ratios. The theme at the asylum was hypnosis and hysteria but the visual theme of this title was bodies in relation to both statues and automaton. It had an eerie feeling and much of the film was in chiaroscuro.
Self-digitalisation (2015) by James Thompson ran for nine minutes in colour and widescreen. This was in a single long shot of a picture gallery at Hospitalfield House where Thomson was on an artist residency. The film aimed to ‘re-interpret’ the room and objects as a young man took a series of digital self-portraits, ‘selfies’. These were done at speed in an arch manner. If we were meant to look at the art through these it failed for me; and as a satirical take on the ‘selfie’ it needed more angles or positions.
Dog’s Dialogue / Colloque de chiens (France 1977) was a 22 minute ‘photo-roman’ by Raúl Ruiz, screened from a colour 35mm print. The English sub-titles were projected digitally. A ‘photo-roman’ uses a series of still shots to offer some sort of narrative. This one was unconventional as it included moving images, both of the titular dogs and, later, of a location. The various dogs, mainly tied up and barking, were some sort of metaphor. The humans in the story proper went through a cycle of events that
“consists of news items collected in magazines. A melodramatic pseudo-detective thread woven round imagery from women’s magazines.” (Institut Français).
In what seemed to be a homage to the photo-roman’s founder, Chris Marker, at one point a ‘still image’ turned into a brief moment of movement.
This film was typical of Ruiz’s work in France, where he was an exile after the coup in his native Chile. His work was literary, ironic, sardonic and experimental. It was also, as with this title, always engaging.
Another film on 35mm with digital subtitles was Au Père Lachaise (France 1986) a thirteen minute title by Jean-Daniel & Pierre-Marie Goulet. This is a Municipal cemetery in Paris, apparently the most visited in the world It is the earlier example of as ‘garden cemetery’. Many famous people lie there, notably Oscar Wilde. And the Institut Français offered a quotation from another famous inmate, Honoré de Balzac.
“It’s all of Paris but seen through the looking glass, a microscopic Paris reduced to the dimensions of shadows, larvae, death, a human race that has nothing more than vanity’”
The vanity is obvious in some of the monumental graves, similar to those found in London’s Highgate cemetery. However, the film was more interested in the space, arrangement and foliage; something that disappointed at least one viewer.
The film used a series of tracking shots, interspersed with long shots to close-ups; reminiscent of the style of Alain Resnais. To its credit the film did end with an note about 147 people associated with the cemetery; the heroes and heroine so f the Paris Commune, executed nearby and commentated by a simple plaque.
The Turning of the Helmet (2018) by Rhian Cooke, an artist currently involved in the Yorkshire Sculpture International. The film ran 3 minutes in colour and 16:9, [television funding]. The opening of the film used animation techniques playing with ceramics and textiles to offer a sense of the helmet. The later stage expanded into actual cinematography to present a pill box which was an inspiration for work with a helmet. This was well done but [for me as is often the way with very personal experimental film] I did not really engage with the thematics.
I had a similar problem with Soft Body Goal (Finland, 2010) a four minute title by Jaako Pallsasvuo. This combined digital animation and dubbed sound with a bevy of bodies;
“Body without bone. Sloppy and improper. Body seepage. Naked sewer rats. Hairless aristocratic cats. Slime …. the body of the future ….”
However, the techniques used were impressive.
We almost did not see the final title, Ice Cream. This was a 1970 16mm film copied onto a digital format; I suspect there were compatibility problems because we had three false starts. However, the film repaid the wait. The director, Antoni Padrós, was an underground Catalan film-maker. Born during the Spanish Civil War most of his career was spent under the Francoist dictatorship. His film work was subversive, iconic and iconoclastic. This title featured two young people, explicit sex and the titular ice cream. It clearly subverted and made fun of the repressive values and censorship of the times. One could almost imagine a Franco stooge banning ice creams for a period.
I felt that the older European titles had political as well as aesthetic stances. Whereas the more recent British titles were far more personal and did not have overt political themes: They were also apparently more preoccupied with aesthetics. The former are closer to the key film of the programme, Sans Soleil, which combined politics and aesthetic in a complexly cinematic manner.
A third programme was ‘Sail the Summer Winds’. I was unclear regarding the overall programme title: sea-scapes seen a common feature.
The opening film was A Mysterious Devotion (1973), written and directed by Alf Bowers & Andy Birtles. They were fellow students at what was then Sheffield Polytechnic. This institution funded the filming. The completion and editing was done by Bowers whilst a student at the new National Film School.
Herb Shellenberger in his written introduction commented;
“Alf Bowers A Mysterious Devotion evidences several decades of wildly creative and experimental film-making in Yorkshire. The ambitious 16mm cinemascope film [in black and white] is an oblique narrative following several members of a family as they experience and process a traumatic death. There is no dialogue but the camera stalks its actors around the house and at the seaside, at times claustrophobically close and others in wide shots at the sea.”
Alf Bowers and answered questions after the screening. He noted that the film was based on ideas that were in
“the heads of the protagonists … things that could have happened.”
He suggested the only event that was certainly actual was the death of the father at the opening of the film. And the plotting followed the proposal by Jean-Luc Godard,
“A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.”
The film was shot in a house in Sheffield and at Flamborough Head. The anamorphic lens used was a projection model, which made the camerawork extremely difficult, The film used filters for one shot and high speed cinematography for two sequence. The film stock used was Kodak Plus-X, [also used on Schindler’s List ( 1993). This produced a high-contrast image. However, whilst there is a 16mm print available the film was screened from a digital copy. There was apparently a technical reason for this. However, the digital copy did not really do justice to the high-contrast imagery: most of the film was reasonable but there were two sequences, including the end credits, where the images was not distinct enough. This was the first screening of the film for about 20 years so it is a shame we did not see a pristine version . It remains a powerful and impressive short film, running 47 minutes.
The Eraser / Keshigomu (Japan, 1977) by Shūji Terayama. This was a 20 minute film on 16mm in colour and academy. The setting is a seashore and we see several characters posing here and in an interior. But the image is overlaid by video filter patterns. And a hand appears frequently using the technique to erase part of the image. As Herb Shellenberger commented,
“a unique conceptual work that is difficult to define.”
Alaska (Germany 1969) by film-maker Dore O who co-founded the Hamburger Filmmacher Cooperative. In black and white and colour the film shared a technique with The Eraser: in this example polka dots cover and obscure a range of subjects, animals, people, settings. The film also has a distinctive sound track using musical instruments, machine noise and recorded sound. Herb Shellenberger’s comment is similar though:
“a film that resists all interpretations.”
All three films demonstrated film-makers working with unconventional and experimental techniques.
I was able to catch three of the seven programmes so my sense of the overall was limited. However, this was an impressive collection of artistic films, many of them rare, especially in theatrical presentations. It is good that The Pavilion and the Hyde Park Picture House were prepared to be so adventurous. The largest audience was for Sans Soleil, the best known work in the weekend. Other audiences were smaller but we are dealing with avant-garde work. It is nice to know that an audience exists for this less commercial but influential area of cinema.
This was a programme of short films at the Hyde Park Picture House with the support of the Cervantes Institute. The programme was organised by ‘cinemaattic’ and screened in a number of major cities. An annual event, the ‘Kimuak’ [Basque word for ‘sprout’] encourages film-makers to work in the shorter length format. We enjoyed seven films in a variety of forms and subjects from 2018. I have seen a few feature length Basque films in the past but this was an unusual and welcome opportunity.
Above 592 Meters (592 Met’roz Goiti, director Maddi Barber). In colour and 1.85:1, with English sub-titles.
This is a documentary about the construction of a dam in the Pyrenees which flooded seven villages. The title is the level of the water in the dam. The film opens with footage of the landscape and wildlife around the completed dam. Then the film explores the impact of the construction on one family that was displaced. There is some fine cinematography included a night-time electric storm. And the family are articulate with a photograph record of the displacement. I think the screening ratio was different from the original footage as there seems to be some cropping in the frame.
Mother (Ama, director Josu Martinez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
This is a short drama set during World War I. A wife and mother waits for a letter from her husband fighting on the Western front. When the letter comes she has to ask a neighbour to read this for her. Finely done with the cinematography and design creating the sad world of the past.
Still Fireflies (Ancora Lucciole, director Maria Elorza.) In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
The film opens with a reference to 1972 and Pier Paulo Pasolini lamenting the disappearance of fireflies. Then the title combines a voice-over addressing the possible extinction of fireflies whilst a child plays with an example in a jar. The ‘fireflies’ in the film are digitally produced and are vibrant against the varied settings, ranging from light to darkest shadows.
The Great Expedition (Espedizio Handia, director Iban del Campo). In colour and black and white and academy ratio.
This title combines images in a tapestry that contrasts heavenly images with more mundane human characters.
Kafenio Kastello (directed by Miguel Ángel Jiménez) In colour and 2.35:1 with English subtitles.
The title is set in Athens and the background is one of the frequent demonstrations against ‘austerity’ with street conflicts between protesters and police. However the characters in focus are a small group in an urban quarter concerned with more mundane problems of their relationships. The characters and plot are treated in a somewhat surreal manner with references to (amongst others) Tarkovsky and his Andrei Rublev (1966).
Do Not wake Me Up (No me Despertéis, director Sara Fantova), In colour and 2.35:1 with English sub-titles.
Set in the Basque city of Bilbao in 2009 the story follows a school student caught between nationalist activism in her school and her father’s role in the regional Government. The title catches the teenage milieu and the emotional contradictions experienced by this young woman.
Waiting (Zain, director Pello Gutiérrez). In colour and 1.85:1 with English subtitles.
This is a rather surreal presentation that reminded me most of the style and tone of the Swedish filmmaker Roy Andersson. This title has the deadpan humour and ironic style found in his films. A singer with a deadpan delivery is seen first with a musical group and then a solo musician. Meanwhile the audience watching gradually grows smaller. An enjoyable tone portrait.
An entertaining and fascinating two hours with an introduction from people and filmmakers involved in the programme.
The Hyde Park Picture House, supported by the University of Leeds and the Austrian Film Academy, hosted a selection of titles from the event (Österreichische Kurzfilmschau 2019). This was the third annual visit. The films are all nominees for the event’s film award. The programme screened in Leeds included:
Ars Moriendi Oder die Kunst des Lebens (The Art of Living, Kristina Schranz, Austria / Germany 2018). Running 29 minutes, in colour and 2.35:1 with English subtitles.
Rosemarie Achenbach is 93 years old. Time and again, she has found the strength to liberate herself: During World War II, she was trapped under rubble following an aerial bombardment, but survived. As a pastor’s wife, she was trapped by the expectations of patriarchal post-war society. After her husband’s death, she took her life into her own two hands. She completed her degree in philosophy and today she is writing her doctorate. She is writing about death, because “I am old enough for it”. This is both the portrait of a woman and the portrait of a century now past. Kristina Schranz’s title is well done. The subject, Rosemarie, was an impressive character. She celebrated her 93rd birthday in the course of the film with her children and grandchild. The cutting between home [personal] and the university [institution] worked well. And the framing of characters and scenes was finely done.
When Time Moves Faster (Austria/CA/GR 2016 7 minutes.
Amongst other things, the director’s, Anna Vasof, working method was influenced by pre-cinematic devices stemming from her fascination with the movement of photographic images. These only appear animated given our persistence of vision. Vasof cites the Zoetrope as an example of this phenomenon, a device that filled people of all ages with wonder at fairs of old. This work demonstrates Anna Vasof’s unbelievable pleasure in experimentation and simultaneously shares her delight in demonstrating the illusion enabled solely through the medium of cinema.
Excuse Me, I am looking for the table-tennis and my friend Entschildigung (Ich suche den Tishtennisraum und meine freundid, Austria/Germany … 2018). Running 23 minutes, in colour and 1.85:1 with English sub-titles
A film Bernhard Wenger about a couple on a wellness trip, where one partner disappears and the other isn’t sure whether he’s looking for her or himself. Within the bizarre world of the Alpine wellness resort, Aron begins a new chapter in his life. This had a rather dry humour and recurring tropes. I did think the ending could have been stronger.
Kids n Cats – Frizzle Frizz (Austria 2017). Running time 4 minutes, in colour and academy ratio.
The world of vain and self-absorbed characters gets flooded by gigantic insect legs. The director Patryk Senwicki offered a combination of stop motion and live action techniques filled with surrealist imagery and objects and accompanied by a song from a ménage à trois.
Der Sieg der Barmherzigkeit (Austria 2017), Running time 24 minutes, in colour, academy ratio and with English sub-titles.
Musicologist Mr. Szabo has dedicated himself to collecting archival material from the history of Austrian pop music. Due to an unfortunate coincidence, an original stage costume of a Viennese beat band from the 60s ended up in a charity clothing collection. To retrieve the rare piece, Szabo doesn’t shy away from a veritable break-in. His young, aspiring colleague Mr. Fitzthum helps him – not entirely voluntarily. Unlike Szabo he has a lot to lose: his job, his career and above all, his freedom.
Albert Meisl’s bizarre is tale full of dry humour. Szabo is a full blown eccentric. Fitzthum is a naïve victim of Szabo’s obsession. They are caught in a series of whimsical situations.
A good and varied selection of films. Previous years had more avant-garde examples but this year’s all fell into a recognisable genre.
Even if you never met Peter, if you are a film fan living in or near Leeds, then you owe him a heartfelt thank you. Peter was one of the trio of filmgoers who, in the early 1980s, founded The Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House.
“I have been involved with the cinema for many years, as I have been going there since 1975 and along with Xavier and Bob I am a founder member of the Friends . . .”
Xavier Chevillard was for many years the treasurer for the Friends. Bob Geoghegan was a member of the Friends’ Committee for years.
It was the friends who were instrumental in saving the cinema when the owners, the Robbins, decided to close. They campaigned successfully for the Leeds Council to rescue this local landmark and cultural venue and it subsequently became part of the Grand Theatre Trust.
It was the Friends, as part of the activities to support the Picture House, who persuaded Leeds Leisure Services, Yorkshire Arts and Yorkshire Television to support a Film Festival in Leeds, The first festival was organised by Bob Geoghegan together with a BBC colleague Janice Cambell. The Festival has continued and has become Leeds International Film Festival, held in November each year, and a notable event in the British Film calendar.
For many years Peter was secretary of the Friends; then in 2008 he took over as Chairperson, a post he retained until he died. He chaired all the meeting, including the Annual General Meeting held at the Picture House, in his own imitable style. From small beginnings the Friends developed alongside the cinema. When the Friends was formally constituted in 1986 it had about a 100 members. Now the membership runs at over 500. The Friends have also become a registered charity in order to improve their ability to support and fund-raise for the Picture House.
Over the years the Friends have supported and helped the Picture House develops its facilities and its programme. In the early 1980s they assisted when the current stage was added to the proscenium. In recent times they have provided funds to add to the digital technology used in projection. And the Friends also provided the pump-priming funding for the project, now funded by the Heritage Lottery Funds, to redevelop the Picture House. This will lead to a second screen in the old basement; proper facilities for the audiences: and (after years of such suggestions) the addition of a cafe/bar alongside the front of the Picture House.
The Friends’ membership have been active in other ways. For years they published a regular newsletter, ‘Hyde & Seek’. And they also commissioned and published a history of the Picture House; if you are interested there are, I believe, a few remaining copies. There have (intermittently) been social events, discussions on cinema and films, and extra screenings at the Picture House. An early event in the 1980s was a screening of D. W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918 and starring both Dorothy and Lillian Gish) with a musical accompaniment as part of a World War I commemoration. Another memorable event was Derek Malcom from The Guardian interviewing Peter Ustinov. And, of course, there was also a ‘Laurel and Hardy evening’. For a period there was a monthly film club with fine examples of popular, art and independent cinemas. Included in the programme was the ever-popular The Apartment (1960), a film that has returned several times to the Picture House. There was also the classic British noir Brighton Rock (1948). Among the foreign language titles was the final film in Satyajit Ray’s great trilogy The World of Apu / Apu Sansar (1959). Now there are regular Friends screening; in June (to accompany the AGM), on Yorkshire Day on August 1st, and in the Christmas season. And they have a set of webpages for information, reports and film reviews.
Peter was an ardent cineaste; his favourite genres being horror, fantasy and super-heroes. He was a regular attendee at the now-defunct Horror/Fantasy weekends at Bradford’s Media Museum. He was also a fan of traditional cinemas. He had in earlier days been a viewer at the Lyric and Lounge Cinemas, both now gone. In recent years he patronised the Cottage Road Cinema, The Hebden Bridge Picture House and the Rex, Elland (near Halifax). As well as offering the charms and pleasures of traditional auditoriums all these cinemas still have and still use 35mm projection .
Peter will not be here to enjoy the facilities of the new developments of the Picture House, likely to be ready by the start of 2021. It is though, in a way, appropriate in that the as-it-is-now Picture House and Peter will pass on close to each other. The Friends intend to mark Peter’s contribution to the ‘new’ Picture House with a sponsored seat in the auditorium, in the place where Peter himself had a favourite spot. Before that the screening following this year’s AGM will feature a title from his favourite genre, ‘Let the Right One In’, (the original Swedish version not the unnecessary Hollywood remake). Gone but not forgotten.
Peter was cremated at Cottingley Hall Crematorium on Thursday April 18th and following this members of the Friends attended a celebration of his life at Christ Church in Armley, Leeds. The ashes will be scattered in the ‘Garden of Remembrance’ at the Crematorium.
This title runs for 230 minutes, a challenging length that we know some punters find too long. So it was reassuring when fifty people turned up at the Hyde Park Picture House last Sunday for what appears to be the only local screening. Several people had to take pit stops during the film but [I think] only two members of the audience gave up before the end.
To start with the title; several characters tell the story of an elephant in Manzhouli, (a northern city right near the border with Mongolia and Russia) which just sits and ignores the onlookers, even when they attempt to feed it, prod it or similar. As the narrative proceeds various characters plan to visit Manzhouli to see this elephant. And the elephant does close the story, though in an unexpected manner.
The actual action takes place in a Chinese city which does not seem to be identified. It could be Shenyang, but that seems a little too far from Manzhouli, being near to the border with North Korea, The main action runs for less than a day, from about 6 a.m. to late in the day. A journey of indeterminate length ends the film. Where ever this is a bleak, exploitative and oppressive environment. There is not one really happy character in the film. All seem weighed down with the bleakness of the environment and their lives. The film opens in high-rise flats where the power is not on in all flats, where toilets leak and the grim concrete stairways lead out to an area of rubbish and decay. There are several strands in this story but what mainly drives the development of the plot is the injury and death of a school student and the ramifications that follow this.
If the characters seem desolate they also seem alienated in the full sense of the word. For much of the film the main characters are more introspective than social. When they do carry out actions involving other people it seems misdirected, illegal or just likely to go wrong. The characters are mainly working class though some fall on the boundary between working class and petit bourgeois. And some are genuine lumpen-proletarians. The writing of the characters and the performances are very good. They appear complex and their actions are sometimes surprising.
The film’s style mirrors the bleakness of the environment. The interiors are drab and low-key. And exteriors are fairly low-key as well; I do not remember any sunshine. The cinematography by Chao Fan was shot (I assume)with a Steadicam. There are full sequences that are presented in a single take. The narrative is elliptical. The editing by Bo Hu, the director, frequently cuts to leave a point unfinished. There are regular cuts between protagonists ins different settings, both partly commentating on the characters but also developing a certain mystery for the viewer in the unfolding of the plot. This is reinforced through the camerawork. Frequently the camera angle deliberately avoids showing an action or character. At one point, when a dog is mauled, this may be reticence but at other times it is clearly designed to make the viewer wait for information.
Bo Hu scripted, directed and edited the film so all of this treatment of narrative is his intent. In addition whilst the film appears to have a linear presentation the time frame seems ambiguous. There are the parallel cuts but others that seem to cross to different times. At one point a character’s mobile phone shows 1100; if that is the time the plot so far seems almost in real time. But the film does not run twelve or more hours. And at least one sequence in a café seems like a flashback as it is preceded by two other character observing the café, and possibly the two characters within.
This is unconventional but workable treatment. But on occasions the ambiguity seems excessive. And there are a couple of sequences late in the film that seem unnecessarily prolonged. Part of a similar strategy? I did think a scriptwriting partner could have made the plot development sharper, But that would have only shortened the film by minutes. It does seem to me that the form and subject of the film do justify the running time of over three hours. And the way that we follow the characters was sufficient reason to forgo an intermission, a point some of us noticed.
The elephant of the title seems clearly intended as symbolic as well as actual. One review sees the elephant as representing an indifference to the world, a world the film presents as cruel and painful. I did wonder whether it had a particular significance in terms of Chinese culture, but no review I found commented on this. It might be meant as a reference to the famous parable of the ‘blind men and the elephant’. There is a Buddhist version of this moral tale. Its relevance to the story here is that not one of the characters appear to understand the nature and causes of their plight. [I was reminded of this parable by a character in Koreeda Hirokazu’s The Third Murder / Sandome no satsujin. 2017). The director, Bo Hu, was a fan of Béla Tarr. Another review described them both as practitioners of ‘miserabilist’ cinema. Not really accurate. But Tarr’s Werckmeister Harmonies / Werckmeister harmóniák (2000) features a whale that seems to represent the alienation of the village setting; perhaps an influence.
This will be the only directorial credit for Bo Hu as he committed suicide after the film was finished but before its release. Suicide suggests that the despairing alienation felt in the film was a personal expression. How far this has effected the film we have is unclear. It has been reported that the producers tried to shorten the finished film by well over an hour. Fortunately it remains in what appears to be a mostly complete form.
The film was shot on 4K Redcode RAW and Dolby Digital 5.1. The version exhibiting here in Britain does not wholly reflect that. Partly this may be that it is distributed on a 2K DCP, in standard widescreen and colour with English subtitles. Some of the sound seems uneven and some of the interiors lack the contrast you would expect from 4K or from 35mm film. It remains a fascinating and powerful drama. It certainly reflects on the exploitation now experienced in China where capitalism has been restored. Compare the alienated characters with those in one of the dramas from the dawn of the Socialist Revolution in 1949 – Crows and Sparrows / Wuya yu maque, (both films are in Mandarin). The latter film has a real sense of community and people struggling together. Still, An Elephant Sitting Still is a worthwhile film to see and repays the time spent sitting in an auditorium.