Famously Sergei Eisenstein worked on an unfinished film in Mexico in 1931 and early 1932. The visit to this country came at the end of a tour that took in Europe and the USA, including Hollywood. Europe was productive, Eisenstein was involved in making a short avant-garde film at a conference of progressive filmmakers. Hollywood was [predictably] unproductive though Eisenstein did work on some unfinished screenplays. In Mexico he found an empathetic environment and, for a time, was supported by the US socialist Upton Sinclair in producing a film. The film was to be ¡Que viva México!, which remains one of those lost but tantalising projects in film history.
Now Peter Greenaway has written and directed a film about Eisenstein’s sojourn in Mexico. It is typical Greenaway fare, with his usual stylistic flair but also his idiosyncratic treatment of a subject. I saw Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015) at the Leeds International Film Festival. This screening was the low point of the Festival if not the entire year.
The characterisation of Eisenstein offered in the film clearly possesses some of his known traits, in particular his sexual orientation. There is an incredibly long sex scene. But there is little attention to his intellectual and artistic prowess. And whilst there are number of sequences where we see Eisenstein, with his colleagues Eduard Tissé and Grigori Alexandrov, filming, Greenaway’s treatment shows little real interest in this lost but much discussed film.
In addition Greenaway includes sequences from the seminal films that Eisenstein had already made in the Soviet Union. However, these appear to be from not great quality video and [even worse] they have been reframed in to the 2.39:1 anamorphic frame. There are other recent perpetrators of this practice, but few of them have actually inflicted the very wide letterbox on archive footage.
Greenaway does show more interest in the erotic drawings that Eisenstein produced during his stay. A whole truckload of these were confiscated by the US customs on his return journey. Some of them could be seen in the recent exhibition in London, Unexpected Eisenstein.
Greenaway’s film is now receiving a limited general release. It is recommended only for masochists and anti-Bolshevik types. What would have been more illuminating would be the event held in April at the Regent Cinema Eisenstein in Mexico. This event, jointly organised by A Nos Amours and Kino Klassica, included screenings of several films developed from the some 200,000 plus footage shot by Eisenstein and his colleagues. There was Marie Seton’s Time in the Sun (1939), Alexandrov’s ¡Que viva México! (1979), and a film I have yet to see. Mexican Fantasy (1998). There were also talks and discussions during the event.
My fantasy wish is that the Metropolitans get the Greenaway film and that we deprived northerners get the three-film event.
This was quite a good year for new releases. The best, for me, were as follows: in the order that I saw them:
Selma USA 2014.
A model of what a biopic should be and combining intelligence with mainstream production values.
Mummy Canada 2014
The film’s intensity was increased by the use of an unusual aspect ratio.
Phoenix, Germany 2014
A great combination of noir and Kurt Weill.
Bande de Filles (Girlhood) France 2014
A pleasure to watch, but serious with it.
A Pigeon sat on a Branch and Reflected on Life (En duva satt på en gren och funderade på tillvaron) Sweden, Norway 2014.
The film manages to be both droll and surreal at the same time.
Timbuktu Mauritania 2014
The first intelligent film about jihadists and the best football sequence in years.
45 Years UK 2015
Slow, elegant and very complex: the acting performances of the year.
Taxi (Taxi Teheran) Iran 2015
Subversion was rarely so witty or so much fun.
The Assassin (Nie yin Niang) China, Taiwan, Hong Kong 2015
Slow and with a tricky plot, but visually and aurally stunning.
Carol USA 2015
What other praise than this is as good as the Patricia Highsmith original novel.
Song of the Sea Eire 2014
Beautiful traditional animation: lovely dog.
White God (Fehér isten) Hungary 2014.
The largest and the most impressively led pack of dogs seen in ages.
National Gallery, France, USA, UK 2014
Frederick Wiseman’s typical and completely absorbing portrait of a British artistic institution.
Letter to the Editor of Amateur Photography, UK 2013
The pleasure of watching radical documentary form: unfortunately it has had only a limited screenings.
Best wedding on film:
Wild Tales (Relatos salvaje) Argentina 2014
The best portmanteau film of the year and my most hilarious moments in cinema.
Most impressive silent film, by a narrow margin:
Les Misérables France 1928
This screened at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in a fine restoration, which ran for six hours: about the time you needed to read part one of the book.
Best film accompaniment:
This was the Benshi, Ichiro Kataoka, who accompanied Chuji Tabinikki / A Diary of Chuji’s Travels (Japan, 1928) along with the Otawasa Ensemble. This was another fine restoration also screened at Il Giornate del Cinema Muto.
Best early sound film:
Tell England UK 1931 screened at the British Silent Film Festival and demonstrated that how well some filmmaker used the new technology.
The film most worth waiting for:
The Promised Land (Ziemia obiecana) Poland 1975.
Director Andrzej Wajda’s epic of C19th capitalism in Łódź. And the series of Polish classics, partly organised by Martin Scorsese, was excellent.
The worst films that I sat through this year – a tie between,
Eisenstein in Guanajuato, Netherlands, Mexico, Belgium, Finland, France 2015
Steve Jobs USA 2015.
Both films had proficient technical aspects but both were idiosyncratic biopics, which showed little interest in the situation of the subject.
This was a programme of the winners in Short Film City at the 29th Leeds International Film Festival screened at the Hyde Park Picture House. This was a good opportunity to see the films selected as the ‘best’ all at one shot. One of thing I noticed about the programme overall was the amount of explicit sex and violence. There was more than I remember from earlier festivals and more than I saw among the short films I did catch during the actual festival. So I had a look at the four Juries. The four trios consisted of five filmmakers, two film programmers, three artists working with film and two members working in Higher Education. Their short biographies did not shed any light on the issue. Perhaps there was a higher level of such content this year.
The programme ran for 85 minutes. The various films and formats were projected from a DCP.
Louis le Prince International Short Film Competition 2015
Winner: Drama (Guan Tian, USA)
This is an eleven-minute film, and whilst made in the USA has Chinese dialogue. The protagonists, a boy and girl, watch the outside world from inside a car. “An intimate look at human voyeurism’. This was a film I really liked. I thought the plotting was imaginative and the technical aspects were extremely well done. It was very funny as well.
World Animation Award 2015
Winner: Manoman (Simon Cartwright, UK)
Another eleven-minute film using puppets. The premise is the protagonist Glen creates his own ‘homunculus’, [a representation of a small human being]. This attempt at sublimation opens ‘uninhibited impulses [that] lead to disastrous consequences in this night-long insane rampage . . .’ The film aimed to be disturbing and succeeded, though I was not convinced that there was an articulated comment. The catalogue also includes a comment, [presumably by the filmmaker], ‘A film about limits, with no limits!’
British Short Film Competition 2015
Winner: Rate Me (Fyzal Boulifa, UK)
This film ran 17 minutes. Its main protagonist was a teen escort Cocoa. But we do not really see much of her directly. The extremely smart premise of the film is to learn about her through reviews posted on an online forum. This was effective and witty, but I thought that there was not enough import for the whole length of the film. The postings do reveal as much about the authors as the object, but there were limited variation. I suspect if you follow such online forums the film is more effective.
Yorkshire Short Film Competition
Winner: Cargo (Oli Carr, UK)
We had a slight hiccup with this film; the sound did not work at first. I thought this was going to be a really strange type of story. Then we stopped and re-started, with sound and dialogue. Two Syrian refuges hide out in a truck crossing from Europe to the UK. This takes 15 minutes and the opening is deliberately slow and then the tension mounts. I thought the plotting was well thought out, since the story is one that repeats many times a day. And the resolution left space for the audience to consider the implications.
Leeds International Screendance Competition 2015
Winner: Choreography for the Scanner (Mariam Eqbal, USA)
This film used animation for nine minutes. Apparently the technique involved a flatbed scanner: this might be a first. It relies on repeating and multiplying sets of images. Variations were introduced by compressing and elongating the imagery. I did find that the repetition ran out of interest before the end.
Leeds International Music Video Competition 2015
Winner: Lightning Bolt – The Metal East (Lale Westvind, USA)
I cannot really write much about this film. It had the loudest sound track I have heard in ages, surpassing that of Mad Max: Fury Road. I took shelter in the foyer for the approximately four minutes of running time.
Leeds Short Film Audience Award 2015
Winner: The Reinvention of Normal (Liam Saint-Pierre, UK)
This eight minute film follows “an artist / inventor / designer. on his quest for new ideas.” The creations in the film were oddball. There was a slight feeling that this was meant to offer a sense of the surreal. What is did offer was the eccentric. But I felt that needed a more personal voice to sustain interest.
Audience favourite across all short films.
Madam Black (UK New Zealand 2015)
This was almost a family friendly film. A photographer accidentally runs over the pet of a little girl. In order to avoid the painful truth he constructs an alternative world for the child. So we follow Madame Black on her travels and the postcards that she sends back. The film also managed to tie in a slight romance. A pleasure to watch.
I am afraid I missed the last two entries in the programme,
Dark Owl International Fantasy Short Film Competition
Winner: A Boy’s Life (Howard McCain, USA)
Winner: Milk! (Ben Malleby, UK)
The picture shows the cover of the Festival Catalogue with a still from North (Nord, Norway 2009). This was a droll and rather oddball comedy with deadpan humour. It was part of the Arctic Encounters programme. This year’s Festival had fifteen days of film screenings and events. I found this a strong and varied programme. There was a wide range of films, most were interesting, many were of high quality and there were only a few turkeys. Of course, I only saw a limited part of the Festival, but Roy has also posted on films here, and I spoke to friends, volunteers and audience members. Generally people were very positive. They also gave me quite a lot of recommendations, some of which I saw, some of which I hope to catch on release.
There are not any figures for attendances available yet. But overall they appear to compare well with previous years. As usual there were films that were packed out; hence I missed some. And there were also screening where there was a small coterie of film lovers. The Festival asks audiences to mark [actually tear a sheet] films on a score of 1 to 5. They are then tabulated with some sort of allowance for audience size etc. So below are those that won plaudits: the Festival Webpage is still up and titles can be checked there.
Audience award and winner :
New Narrative Feature
Liza, the Fox-Fairy
In The Crosswind
Embrace of the Serpent
New Documentary Feature
The Wanted 18
4. Do You Own the Dancefloor?
Black Roses: The Killing of Sophie Lancaster
Leeds on Film
The Thing (+ John Carpenter Interview)
The Iron Giant
Sugar Cane Alley
For me the outstanding film was Pyaasa (Guru Dutt’s Hindi classic from 1957). And, but for a clash, I would have re-seen Letter Never Sent (Neatpravinnaoe pisma), a dense expressionist Soviet film directed by Mikhail Kalatazov in 1960.
Clumsy Little Acts of Tenderness
Life with Herman H Rott
My favourite short film was the Polish film Gigant. This year though I did not see a complete programme of short films so I can only note the awards that went to a really extensive selection of films.
I do also have my own categories.
The Silent film that I most enjoyed was Would You Believe it!, a British film from 1929 directed and starring Walter Forde, a popular comic of the period. It has a great staircase sequence and enjoyed an excellent piano accompaniment.
And the Canine film of the Festival was By Dogsledge Across Alaska. This was a Danish film (Med Hundeslaede gennem Alaska 1926) filmed by Leo Hansen. Unfortunately we only had a digital copy but there was live musical accompaniment. But the stars were the huskies who battled the arctic terrain and endured the foibles of their human masters with real patience.
And the most banal film was Eisenstein in Guanjuato (2015) scripted and directed by Peter Greenaway. Greenaway is an acquired taste, I have enjoyed some of his films. This must be his worse. The central performance is over the top, the film extracts are reframed to the wrong ratio, there is a pot pouri of techniques and little sense of the film Eisenstein worked on, Que Viva Mexico!
The Festival has a range of venues, sixteen in all. These range from actual cinemas to local Arts Venues, local Educational Institutions and a Unitarian Chapel, [which was surprisingly ornate and warm). The pride of place remains for me the Hyde Park Picture House with both digital and 35mm. The Cottage Road also has these facilities but only hosted a couple of films. The Victoria at the Town Hall has a large and impressive screen, but the dialogue is partly muffled in the hall: fine for music and effects. My biggest bugbear remains the Everyman, actually a video lounge. Unfortunately several film were programmed only in that venue: so I have to hope I will catch them elsewhere.
Now we have eleven months before the next Festival: though there are occasional screenings during the year in the Town Hall. There is a faint hope that we might again see a Festival at Bradford’s National Media Museum. Or even that the long awaited visit by the British Silent Film Festival to the North will happen.