Scalarama and the Dearth of Repertory Cinema

So I blinked and missed most of September. The acceleration of time alarms me (because I have a PhD to finish), but it also saddens me because I miss so many wonderful things happening on my doorstep. Things like the Scalarama month of cult cinema screenings.

See! I even had the full newsprint programme!

See! I even had the full newsprint programme!

Scalarama is a UK-wide event, though it has a few hubs in the usual places: London, Bristol, Manchester and – well, what d’ya know? – Nottingham! In collaboration with Cinema Diabolique, a community cinema collective who specialise in cult, Scalarama has had no fewer than 35 events in Notts. Some of Scalarama’s ‘core programme’ has been screened in the Broadway Cinema, but most events have been in the small community cinema space Screen 22.

(There are some events left thus coming weekend, click here for a pdf of the complete nationwide programme.)

Now, truth be told, Cinema Diabolique’s preference for ‘cinema’s varied and fascinating wasteland’ of B-movies and the like isn’t really my bag. I enjoy that kind of thing when I see it, but only see it from time to time and that suits me just fine. Equally, I am ambivalent about the current trend for ‘immersive’ cinema events such as the kind that Scalarama and others promote – for me, the film is always The Thing, but I must admit I do enjoy theatrics and gimmicks (and I have managed my fair share of film events), so I will happily singalong and sniff-along as suits the screening. Moreover, I am very supportive of the efforts of indie community cinema groups keeping the spirit of repertory cinema alive.

thevisitor

It is increasingly rare to find a cinema in the UK with a truly repertory programme, like that of the old Scala in Kings Cross that inspired Scalarama (the venue survives but the cinema does not). In fact, the programming of cinema nowadays, including art house and independent cinemas, is usually done by one a handful of centralised companies operating under contract. The Broadway is one of the few art house cinemas left with its own team of in-house programmers. The realities of cinema economics also means that even if a cinema is fully in charge of its own programme, it can’t afford too many repertory screenings. One-off or limited screenings of older or more obscure films usually entail more expenditure (screening rights, overheads) and less revenue (ticket sales, merchandise). So now the job of publicly screening films curated from the wealth of cinema history has been left to the devotees and cinephiles who run community screenings. These groups are assisted by organisations like Cinema For All, but really they need audiences to thrive.

Therefore, I apologise for not taking advantage of the Scalarama/Cinema Diabolique month of film screenings in Nottingham. As recompense, I have now booked two tickets to see The Visitor tomorrow. I’m told that I am in for a treat.

‘Mare Nostrum’ at the Cinema Museum, 3 September 2014

Last week, I dug out all of £3 to see some rediscovered and restored silent cinema. I had been to several screenings at the Cinema Museum before – the museum is a perennial source of filmic delights – but this was my first time at a Kennington Bioscope event. The auditorium was impressively full and not just the usual retired crowd that populate these screenings – I spied entire families, film historians and archivists, and more than one fellow PhD student. The audience for silent film screenings (and film projection in general) is ageing, but I am optimistic that there will always be enough new viewers to sustain it as a niche interest at least.

marenostrum

The evening was led by Kevin Brownlow, who introduced Rex Ingram’s lesser seen feature Mare Nostrum (1926), screened in beautiful 35mm, wholly restored after it was rediscovered in 1990s save for one elusive sequence which is still missing. The film was based on the novel of the same name by Vicente Blasco Ibáñez, and stars Antonio Moreno as Ulysses Ferragut, a Spanish sailor who is drawn into the war and away from his family by a seductive Austrian spy, Freya Talberg (Alice Terry). Apparently the missing scene depicts the lovers in a aquarium, watching some sort of symbolic fight between two octopuses. As Brownlow pointed out, the missing sequence sounds not unlike the similarly symbolic scene in Orson Welles’s The Lady from Shanghai (as an aside: the gorgeous restoration of The Lady… is on general release now, go go go!). I will admit that any time the drama lulled I wondered where the ‘octopus love scene’ would have been. Because, I mean, octopus love scene.

Image via powell-pressburger.org

Image via powell-pressburger.org

For what it’s worth, I was not entirely sold on the plot. Moreno’s hero is so weak willed and Terry’s femme fatale so duplicitous that I could not bring myself to care about the fate of their love (maybe the octopuses would have changed my mind). This is a shame, because the setup of the drama is immediately enthralling… Ulysses’s father tells him the tale of Amphitrite, the Greek goddess who takes care of fallen sailors. When the fully grown Ulysses meets Freya, who looks the spit of a painting he has of the goddess, he is drawn back to the seafaring world that he promised his wife he had left behind.

The Mediterranean is the other character in the film, and is altogether more captivating than either of the two protagonists. The film is a mix of lavish outdoor shots of Barcelona, Pompeii and Naples, and closeted studio sets representing the vessels at sea. Add beautiful tinting and some trick shots and you have a film that is as visually beguiling as any of the period. Ingram produced a staggering amount of footage on the shoot, and it is worth seeking the film out just to see the extravagance and majesty; the chase in the streets of Marseilles is worth the price of entry alone. Ingram is considered to be an early auteur – as a contemporary of Erich von Stroheim and an inspiration to Michael Powell (who worked as a grip on Mare Nostrum), he was certainly forceful and influential.

civilization

Brownlow chose two shorts to accompany the main feature: a 16mm copy of American pacificist propaganda film Civilisation (Thomas Ince, 1916) and an unrestored extract from Behind the Door (also Thomas Ince, produced in 1919 but not released until 1925) screened from a DVD. When Civilisation was released to in Britain it was renamed Civilisation: What Every Briton is Fighting For, because pacifism was not exactly a selling point in countries fighting in WWI. The film was another Alice Terry vehicle, from before her marriage to Ingram, and boasts some really lovely tints (I particularly liked the pale pistachio colour, I might paint my bathroom something similar) and one of the first instances of illustrated intertitles. The extract of Behind the Door was in far worse knick, though even the standard definition DVD bore the promise of fantastic action sequences, and I was glad to hear that the whole film has now been found.

Archive Montage in ‘From Scotland with Love’, 28 September 2014

Last week, we went to see From Scotland with Love, followed by a Q&A with director Virginia Heath and musician King Creosote (i.e. Kenny Anderson) at the Broadway in Nottingham.

fromscotlandwithlove

The film was commissioned by Creative Scotland and the BBC as part of the celebrations surrounding the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, and was also televised in June. Apart from the live Q&A (which always adds value to a repertory screening), we had several reasons for making time to see it:

  • I love archive film, he loves music; our interests happen to intersect at archival montages set to fey indie folk soundtracks. To be honest, we had intended to see Stuart Murdoch’s Belle & Sebastian inspired musical, but it’s not on in Nottingham.
  • I grew up in Edinburgh. I don’t claim to be Scottish (we moved to London when I was ten), but given the looming independence vote I approached this film with an appropriate mix of curiosity and nostalgia.
  • Well, my PhD touches on issues to do with moving image representations of regions…

The film is one of a swathe of publicly funded archive montage films that have been released in recent years, celebrating regional and/or national cultures in tandem with major cultural celebrations. Terence Davies’s Of Time and the City, released in 2008 to coincide with Liverpool’s tenure as European Capital of Culture, is one of the more prominent examples, though Heath cited Penny Woolcock’s From the Sea to the Land Beyond as an inspiration. Woolcock also collaborated with an indie music outfit – British Sea Power – when making her ode to the British coast, and the soundtracks lend both it and From Scotland with Love a meditative, melodic quality as well as coherency across the diverse range of images.

Heath used footage from amateur, commercial, public information and even fiction films – from archives and private collections – to create her documentary. She admitted that her preference was for film of all types and gauges, eschewing video and digital video formats. Restricting herself to film allowed Heath to focus on images primarily from the early and mid twentieth century, covering the march of modernity, the growth of consumer culture and tourism, industry, manufacturing and trade unionism, education and entertainment. Unlike Terence Davies, Heath’s curatorial hand is subtle, spotlighting the footage and King Creosote’s soundtrack rather than her own directorial authorship. Heath herself grew up in the Scottish diaspora in New Zealand, so maybe that is why her film has the aura of respect, delicacy and deference of a loving outsider. Or maybe I’m simply projecting my own outside, not-really-Scottish-at-all-anymore experience.

I find that with all of these archival montages, there is a tension between the specificity of life in a certain place and time and the universality of those experiences. Nearly all of these films cover similar material: the ‘old days’ of industry and local pastimes contrasted with the expansion of consumer goods and holidays. The more time I spend in regional archives, the more I come to realise that every seaside town had beauty contests in the Summer – even in the chilly towns of Scotland. I don’t deny the power of memory or the resonance of those images for the people from those places; as a person who lived a decade in Scotland’s capital, I can attest that London was an alien planet when I first arrived, so I think there is definitely something about a person’s immediate locality that shapes them and their perspective. However, everyone is shaped in a similar way – the scenery is different but the experience is the same. Like all pieces of Scottish patriotism (not least the Commonwealth Games themselves), From Scotland with Love has been received as inherently propagandist – a boon for the Yes campaign – but I’m not so sure; I think the film portrays a shared past that is not necessarily unique to the nation it emerged from.

Which brings me to the second tension that I find in these montage films – that between retrospection and introspection. The audience of From Scotland with Love are not all Scottish, and those who are certainly did not live through all the events that have been filmed for posterity. But From Scotland with Love does not comment on or explain these images of the past for the benefit of the uninitiated – they have been quite radically de-contextualised, muted, re-edited, served up with a fresh soundtrack that is – for all its folk inspirations and references – brand new. It is its own thing for the audience to experience and identify with anew. I sometimes wish that cultural institutions were brave enough to exhibit their archives on big screens to international audiences exactly as they are, rather than forever repackaging pretty fragments. The film looks back on the past but invites the audience to look forward.

In pointing out those tensions, however, I do not intend to criticise the finished feature, which is mesmerising and moving. The moments of Scottish specificity that punctuate the film are particularly arresting: the Irn Bru glowing in the saturated hues of reversal film, the children singing ‘Bluebells, Cockleshells’, the newly poignant images from the Glasgow School of Art. Even though none of the footage comes from the 1990s Scotland that I lived in, I could still identify with that place and see what has changed and what has stayed the same.

(The soundtrack is marvellous, by the way.)

Plays for Yesterday: Miss Julie (1965) and Let’s Murder Vivaldi (1968)

As part of the Spaces of Television project, earlier this week the BFI screened two 1960s BBC television plays, both directed by Alan Bridges: a 1965 production of Miss Julie, produced for BBC 2’s Theatre 625 series, and Let’s Murder Vivaldi, a 1968 play written by David Mercer and created for The Wednesday Play.

The screening was introduced by Professor Stephen Lacey, who reminded the audience that Bridges, a Palme-d’Or winning director who enjoyed a long and successful career deserving of more attention than he typically receives, had sadly passed away late last year. Just as Bridges has been overlooked by the British film and TV cannon, so too have television plays fallen out of favour, so it felt appropriate to honour Bridges by looking at some of his early directorial work for the BBC that is not often seen these days.

missjulie

I’d never seen Miss Julie before, on stage or otherwise, and seeing it for the first time as a television production, it is difficult to imagine Strindberg had not prophetically intended it for television in the first place. The single-act play lends itself very well to the constraints of the 70 minute, black-and-white, 4:3, taped-as-live, multi-cam studio set up: it requires a cast of three, all the dialogue occurs in the same room, and the props (such as the Count’s boots and the bird) provide clear semiotic punctuation to the drama that can be communicated easily through television. While there were filmed inserts depicting the party (a fab montage which adds dynamism and flair), for the most part Miss Julie (Gunnel Lindbloom) and Jean (Ian Hendry) spit their loaded, caustic words at each other from across the oak table in the parlour. It is not entirely successful, however, despite the serendipitous structure of the source material. Perhaps the translation had something to do with it, but Hendry and Lindbloom seemed to be acting in separate interpretations of the play, which is unfortunate given that the drama hinges on their charisma.

letsmurdervivaldi

While Miss Julie lacked some crucial chemistry between the key performers, Let’s Murder Vivaldi is full of compelling performances that heighten each other and the play as a whole. David Mercer cannily structured the plot as a sequence of arch, coded confrontations between two couples: the young and violently wilful lovers, Julie (Glenda Jackson) and Ben (David Sumner), and an older, bitterer married pair, Gerald (Denholm Elliott) and Monica (Gwen Watford). After establishing that both of these couples are on the brink of splitting up, the play switches to a hotel suite where Julie and Gerald meet for a dirty weekend – and in this scene, right in the middle of the play, Mercer brilliantly and audaciously allows nothing to happen. The tryst between the married man and his fierce young subordinate is a red herring: the real drama happens after their unsuccessful date when they return to their respective partners. The screening notes included George Melly’s review from the time, which neatly expresses Mercer’s bleak morality that was apparently a recurring feature of his work:

It is David Mercer’s strength as a writer that, while obsessed with a handful of demons […] he has the gift of inventing fables in which these obsessions appear perfectly at home

– George Melly, The Observer, 14 April 1968

Despite a well-structured premise and snappy dialogue delivered with aplomb, there are still moments of staginess that jarred for me – particularly the shocking, shark-jumping denouement of Gerald’s story, which I won’t spoil here because I think you can watch it yourself in the Mediatheque or via the BFI screenonline. That said, the pair of plays were certainly complimentary in both theme and style, and they were great choices for the BFI’s Dramatic Spaces: The Imaginative World of the Television Studio strand, which carries on into next week with some thrilling Play for Todays. I highly recommend any and all of the screenings.

This season revisits that exciting 20 year period by showcasing a selection of productions – some unseen for nearly 50 years – that highlight the breadth of vision in the use of studio space and the creation of a new form unique to TV drama. […] This season demonstrates how the television studio was a site of intense dramatic performance, expressive mise-en-scène and extraordinary imagined worlds.

bfi.org.uk

Thanks to my mum for joining me at the screening (the tragedy of being a youngish researcher of old film and telly is that I’m often stuck for willing companions for my screening trips). Mum was still a child when these plays were first screened, but she remembered enough to tell me that Theatre 625 was named after the new 625-line format that BBC 2 was enabled for (I’d not put two and two together, though it seems obvious to me now).  She also gamely allowed me to condescendingly explain the as-live process of television production to her (‘and that’s why 60s telly has some fluffed lines, ma!’). In return, she bought me dinner and offered a few biographical details about the production staff including Cedric Messina and Kenith Trodd, so a successful, informative evening was had by all.

You can read more reviews of this screening here and here, as well as organiser Leah Panos’s illuminating write-up at the Space of Television blog.

Side by Side by Side

For every second of film there are 24 days and 24 nights.

– Peter Kubelka

It was on a whim a few weeks ago, while I was in London eking out a draft of the next thesis chapter, that I decided to escape to the BFI Southbank to catch Peter Kubelka‘s latest work Monument Film. It was sheer serendipitous luck that my trip coincided with the screening: originally scheduled as part of the London Film Festival, the introduction from BFI curator Mark Webber hinted at some unfortunate technical hiccup that caused the screening to be rescheduled (I can only hope that no film, projectors or projectionists were harmed).

Whatever the circumstances were, the implied failure of the previous attempt added a frisson of danger to this daring screening. It is, arguably, not a new work but a new configuration of old works to make a statement that is at once stark and reflective. Two projectors are mounted within the auditorium. First one projector plays Kubelka’s 1960 work Arnulf Rainer: a seemingly arbitrary mix of blank frames and black leader (not entirely certain of the tech specs, but the upshot is a mixture of blazing white light and darkness) and with alternating periods of white noise and silence (though the projector is a constant soundtrack). Hot on its heels, the second projector plays Kubelka’s 2011 work Antiphon: an exact inversion of Arnulf Rainer, where light plays in place of black, and noise occurs where there was silence.

Monument Film, picture via Viennale

Monument Film, picture via Viennale

After this, the show takes a break to allow the projectionists to rewind and mount the films once more. Throughout the intermission, Kubelka ruminates on the essential ingredients of cinema: light, sound, and the movement of the frame. His philosophy is grounded in the technical specifications of the medium, and he emphasises that the image does not move, but rather the projection moves it. Using a menagerie of props, Kubelka demonstrates the essence of movement, and relates the cinema’s manipulation of basic elements to the experimentations of an infant experiencing the world for the first time.

In the second act, the films are screened again, but at the same time; the projectors and speakers are moved so that the films play side by side. Another rewind break with more of Kubelka’s engaging commentary comes before the films are played one last time – projected on top of each other, simultaneously. As one film is an exact inversion of the other, the films should come together to envelop the audience in continuous white light and sound. Naturally, the weave of the projectors and the imperfectness of human synchronisation means that a perfect sync is impossible. Instead, the audience is shown something sensual, visceral and complex – an evocation of the inimitable texture of film as a medium.

Of course, there is a moral to the piece: another timely addition to the backlash against the demise of film. Peter Kubelka does not talk of the textural or elemental qualities of film’s digital successor, because that is not his medium, but in a time of seemingly endless perfectionism and complexity in filmmaking, Kubelka provided a space in which to reflect on the essential nature of film.

When the projectors parted to play simultaneously, Kubelka announced in a flourish of showmanship that the films would now play ‘side by siiiiiide’. Side by Side is also the name of the recent documentary by Keanu Reeves, though this time the phrase is used to mean the era of cinema we now live in: film and digital, coexisting in the production and distribution of cinema. In truth, though the interviewees discuss the demise of film (and every possible opinion is accounted for), Reeve’s film is a history of the rise of digital rather than the demise of film. Reeves himself conducts all the interviews (or so it seems) and remains resolutely objective, which is surprising given that he has his own views on the matter. His diplomacy and friendliness pays off in spades, as he elicits candid responses from some of Hollywood’s most famous polemicists (Scorsese, Lucas, Nolan, Boyle, Cameron and Fincher among many, many others).

sidebyside

My knowledge of digital filming technologies is hazy at best, and I am glad Reeves took it upon himself to become a historian documenting the period of digital expansion and change. There are a few handy infographics detailing the basics of digital sensors and the like, and a truncated chronology of CGI and digital intermediaries, but the film is really a comprehensive collection of recollections and opinions, regurgitated in chronological order with the history of digital filmmaking. Naturally, the debate surrounding digital media is every bit as important and necessary as the history of the medium. I was saddened that Nolan came across as a stick in the mud, whereas digital evangelists like FIncher, Cameron and most prominently George Lucas were more measured than I was expecting. However, the voice of Martin Scorsese transcends all the petty dogmas with his adoration of cinema in all its myriad forms. God love ya, Marty.

Absolutely the most enjoyable element of this film is the anecdotes of directors and cinematographers who grappled with the introduction of digital cameras; David Fincher’s disdain for the Panavision Genesis is deliciously bitchy.

The only way you can make sure that a film or anything on the moving image is going to be around sixty or seventy years from now, interestingly enough, ironically enough, is celluloid.

– Martin Scorsese, Side by Side

I’m glad that Reeves found the time to discuss film’s most important and yet most misunderstood role in the modern cinematic age: it remains the only filmic medium capable of preserving moving images longterm. Sometimes I feel as though we in the archiving community overstate the dangers of the digital dark age, but when a figure such as George Lucas suggests that the question of digital preservation will just resolve itself, it becomes clear that the basic tenets of film archiving bear repeating. While I’m an unashamed analogue activist, I understand that cinematic greatness can be achieved using any medium. Yet the fact remains that if you hand a person a hard drive, DCP or iPhone five years after the fact, it is impossible to know for sure that playback can be achieved. Give a person a piece of film and a light source they can see the pictures, side by side: 24 days and night in every second.

What 1950s Critics Made of 3-D

Instead of offering a new review of the Dryden Theater’s fab 1950s 3-D season, I thought it would be illuminating to have a look at what the critics at the time made of stereoscopic films. A couple of days ago I spent an hour with the back catalogues of The New York Times and Variety film reviews, and made good us of them!

All the feature films shown as part of the season were new prints made from genuine fifties polarised prints. Just to clarify on point of confusion: many folks think that ‘old-fashioned’ 3-D films were shot and screened in the red-green anaglyph format, but in actual fact they were projected using polarised light and with the audience wearing clear glasses. This means that 1950s 3-D was much closer to the modern RealD experience than the red-green trick comics that were popular in the mid-20th century. The confusion also stems from the 1970s theatrical re-issues of 1950s 3-D films, which were converted to the cheaper and more accessible red-green anaglyph format. I have seen a 1970s red-green print of Creature from the Black Lagoon and I can tell you that the original polarised technology was far better in terms of image colour, clarity and depth. For more myth-busting please refer to the 3-D Film Archive.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-GvdldBnzjg

Man in the Dark (Lew Landers, 1953)

Variety acknowledged that Man in the Dark was somewhat of a rush-job by Columbia, eager to enter the 3-D market:

Preoccupation with spotlighting what 3-D can do detracts some from the picture’s entertainment value. Story, scripting and performances all are mediocre, which puts the whole load on the attraction of the stereoscopic effects. Considering the novelty of the thing, that’s probably enough.

Variety, Apr 1953

Bosley Crowther of The New York TImes  was in typically grumpy form, and was even more scathing of Man in the Dark:

A few tricks with optical illusions, such as having a pistol seeming to poke from the screen or a particularly repulsive-looking spider seeming to swing right out into the audiences eyes, are the meagre excitements provided in Coumbia’s first stereoscopic film – a conspicuously low-grade melodrama, called “Man in the Dark,” now at the Globe. Otherwise this obvious little item, which must be seen through polaroid glasses to be seen for any effect whatsoever, is a thoroughly unspectacular affair.

The New York Times, 9 Apr 1953

Comments: The film itself was pants, but it was really cool to see that deep-focus, noir B&W cinematography in polaroid 3-D.

Robot Monster (Phil Tucker, 1953)

Would you believe that The New York TImes didn’t even post a review of Robot Monster?! The Variety review, however, is remarkably kind and muted considering the silliness of this future cult classic:

The Tru-Stereo Process (3-D) utilised here is easy on the eyes, coming across clearly at all times. […] Phil Tucker’s direction (he also draws producer credit) is off, but stacking  above-par are the special effects of Jack Rabin and David Commons, Jack Greenhaigh’s camera work, and the musical backing provided by Elmer Bernstein. [Yeah, that’s right – Elmer Bernstain! -ed.]

Variety, 11 Jun 1953

Comments: I can die happy because I have now seen the exploits of Ro-Man and his bubble machine. The print we saw was made from a really degraded screening print, so much so that leader had to be inserted intermittently in the left eye’s copy in order to keep the two polarised sides in sync – causing the 3-D to cut out on occasion!

Dial M for Murder (Alfred Hitchcock, 1954)

Variety was in two minds about the stereoscopic cinematography in Hitchcock’s only 3-D outing:

The tints are good, adding to production values, but the depth treatment is a distraction that contributes little to the meller [meller? -ed.] mood. It can be shown in regular widescreen 2-D, perhaps the more acceptable projection method for the majority of its playdate prospects.

– Variety, 27 Apr 1954

By his own admission, Bosley Crowther did not experience the 3-D, as the screening he attended was offered ‘in “standard”‘. I wonder if his favourable review would have been changed by the presence of the perceived newfangled gimmick…

This is a technical triumph that Mr Hitchcock has achieved – the tensing of interest and excitement with just a handful of people in the room. […] Excellent colour and colour combinations add to the flow and variety of the drama’s mood.

The New York Times, 29 May 1954

Comments: Hitch steered clear of any overtly 3-D gimmicky trick shots, and I would not blame anyone if they did not know that this film was originally shot and released in three dimensions. I thought this restraint was the key to its success. So much of 3-D filmmaking is about spectacle, but here the effect is quite the opposite, as it enhanced the feeling of intimacy and claustrophobia that permeates the film.

Inferno (Ray Ward Baker, 1953)

Variety gave faint praise to Inferno:

Three-D and Technicolor are used effectively to make this suspense melodrama a fairly entertaining entry with okay prospects in its playdates. Film, announced as 20th-Fox’s first and only 3-D presentation, has the familiar names of Robert Ryan, Rhonda Fleming and William Lundigan to swing top-of-the-bill bookings generally.

Variety, 18 Jul 1953

H.H.T. of the New York Times (I was lazy, didn’t look up the full name) was kinder with the praise:

For this Twentieth Century-Fox melodrama featuring […] a craggy desert wasteland, succeeds in carrying a little a long way. Although laboriously explicit at times and conversationally hoarding the firework until the finale, adult and restrained treatment turns a simple, grim story idea with conviction, irony and chilling crescendo.

The New York Times, 12 Aug 1953

Comments: This film has been essentially forgotten, as 3-D films are tricky and expensive to preserve or restore. I think this is a shame, as it was a simple yet utterly engrossing survival thriller, and Rhonda Fleming wears an amazing gold swimsuit!

So there you go! I wonder how these comments stack up against modern reviews of Avatar and co…

Widescreen Weekend 2012: Sunday

Right now I’m busy settling into my summer home in Rochester, NY, and beginning an internship at the Image Permanence Institute. To keep the blog ticking over, I’ve queued up the reports from last month’s Widescreen Weekend. Enjoy!

Sunday’s retrospectaculars:

Cinerama! Cinerama!

Apparently this Cinerama-o-rama is a regular feature of the festival. Basically, festival patrons bring along anything related to widescreen cinema and the projectionists will screen it. Highlights included an introduction to the new 4K digital projector (I’m not particularly knowledgeable or skilled in digital projection but WHOAH  that was impressive) and pink 1960s footage of the Monaco Grand Prix; I couldn’t make out much of the latter, as it was in French, but Toshiro Mifune was definitely in attendance! There was also archive film of an original Cinerama pop-up cinema, setting up shop across France in the 1950s. Lastly, a look at the only commercial ever shot in Cinerama, the Renault Dauphin ad of 1960  – sublime!

Then there was the camera call for all festival attendees on the stage. Here we are:

Lecture: From Biograph to Fox Grandeur – Early Experiments in Large Format Presentations

This was the fourth time I’d seen Kevin Brownlow speak. First, I saw him and Paolo Cherchi-Usai in dialogue for the International Institute for Conservation, then he came to our classroom with a bag full of silent film goodies, then I saw him as part of the Pordenone Film Festival’s Collegium, talking about Napoleon. I was a little worried that I’d heard the lecture before, but I handn’t. Napoleon‘s triptych was talked of during the lecture, but moreover Brownlow confirmed something I’d always suspected: that widescreen technology is as old as cinema itself, it just took a while to find formats that were financially viable. However, evidence suggests that the 360 degree panorama film at the Paris Exposition of 1900 did NOT actually happen – boo.

Around the World in Eighty Days (Michael Anderson, USA, 1955)

In amongst all the beautiful preservations, restorations and remastered screenings in abundance at this year’s Widescreen Weekend, I was beginning to think I’d never see a properly pink print. Luckily, here was David Niven in a fetching shade of magenta to set things right.

You’ve probably seen bits of Around the World in Eighty Days; I certainly remember seeing it on bank holidays on our teeny tiny Academy-ratio’d terrestrial television. However, I bet you’ve not seen it in full, in its proper Todd-AO 2.20:1 aspect ratio. Yeah, it was pinker than a Barbie dream house and the sound crackled like fireworks near the intermission, but it still beats home exhibition.

After Around the World in 80 Days my festival buddy and I went to Nando’s and then went on our mundane, dreary way home. There was more of the festival left, including 2003 documentary Cinerama Adventure, new release Samasara and a Michael Douglas double-bill, but I had neglected the ol’ PhD for too long.

Bradford, I hardly knew ye. Until next year.

 

Widescreen Weekend 2012: Saturday

Right now I’m busy settling into my summer home in Rochester, NY, and beginning an internship at the Image Permanence Institute. To keep the blog ticking over, I’ve queued up the reports from last month’s Widescreen Weekend. Enjoy!

What’s in the bag, Widescreen Weekend?

As a festival delegate, I am a sucker for freebies. In my limited experience, the Widescreen Weekend loot was relatively generous considering that the weekend is just one part of a larger event. However, it must be said that some of the stuff was a little bit odd…!

1. Bag and XL t-shirt, leftover from the 2011 Bradford Animation Film Festival.

2. Black Sheep cap and bottle opener, acquired at the opening night drinks reception.

3. Issues of Cinema Technology and CInema Retro magazines.

4. Tickets for all screenings and events.

5. Pen, pad and, er, mouse pad from Dataset.

6. What looks to be a knock-off DVD of Hidden Hawaii, an IMAX film! (My friend got an even weirder pirated copy of Gillian Armstrong’s 1994 adaptation of Little Women!)

7. Spare toothbrush and AA batteries.

8. Pretty promotional postcards for the upcoming Flicker Alley DVD releases of This is Cinerama and Windjammer.

9. Brochure for the entire Bradford International Film Festival (time and budget constraints probably preclude a Widescreen Weekend only pamphlet, though this would have been handier).

10. Lanyard and delegate pass to add to my collection.

So, once I had confused my festival buddy by getting up early to photograph my belongings, we went to Gregg’s to stock up on supplies (recommended: timings are too tight to get lunch and dinner most days) before setting off for another day’s retrospectacles.

Cinerama Update by Randy Gitsch and Dave Strohmaier

Dry title for what was anything but a dry talk. Being somewhat of a widescreen newbie, I was unaware that essentially the widescreen movement is being kept alive by a small but dedicated circle of technological enthusiasts, archivists and, well, rich benefactors. Randy Gitsch and Dave Strohmaier are at the forefront of Cinerama research and development. They don’t just find and restore Cinerama titles and technologies, they’re in the business of producing brand new Cinerama on a proper Cinerama camera. Among general updates on their restoration work, the fellas showed us some pretty stunning rushes of Los Angeles, on brand new colour stock but shot with a 1950s tri-mounted camera.

Lecture: Cinerama in the South Seas

I love it when archivists nerd out with their collections. I get the impression that historian David Coles has been waiting a long time to show us absolutely everything to do with the people who produced and starred in Cinerama – South Seas Adventure in advance of the screen, sourced from various documents. The crowning glory was the attendance of Ramine, the Hawaiian beauty whose grass-skirt-wearing visage was heavily used to promote the film on its original release.

South Seas Adventure (Carl Dudley, Richard Goldstone, Francis D. Lyon, Walter Thompson, Basil Wrangell, USA, 1958)

Unlike This is Cinerama (original three-strip print) or Cinerama’s Russian Adventure (70mm remastered print), Cinerama – South Seas Adventure was presented digitally, smileboxed to fit the curvy screen with 5.1 digital stereo sound. While the remastering was super-impressive, the screening itself was lacking a certain wobbly authenticity.

The content was the usual Cinerama mix of fluffy scripted nonsense (in this case, a couple who find love on holiday to Hawaii) and stonking travelogue plane footage. The second half was the best bit, featuring the School of the Air and the flying doctors in the Australian outback.

Ryan’s Daughter (David Lean, 1970)

This is NOT Cinerama! Rather, this was a stunningly preserved 70mm print of David Lean’s underestimated classic. I’d never seen a 70mm print before*, and had never seen Ryan’s Daughter either, having always believed it to be the weakest of Lean’s epic period in the late 1960s. Happily, I was so wrong. Sheldon Hall mentioned in his introduction that it’s a fascinating companion piece to Brief Encounter (my favourite film evah) and I’m inclined to agree. Formally, it couldn’t be more different, but it deals with the same themes but inverts and distorts the results. Monochrome middle England becomes sepia-hued widescreen coastal Ireland. Selfless stoicism becomes urgent and impetuous adultery. War shifts from being unspoken of to being the pivotal action. It even has Trevor Howard, though he’s no longer the youthful romantic, but the voice of morality. It’s long, yet endlessly involving.

* I’ve seen brief clips of 70mm projected in the cinema and I’ve seen it in the archiving classroom. I’ve also technically seen The Red Shoes projected from a 7omm print, but that was a modern print of a digital restoration of a 35mm film. This was my first ‘proper’ 70mm print screening of a ‘proper’ Super Panavision widescreen film, and it was so clear I swear I could see Sarah Miles’ pores. Photochemicals being what they are (i.e. irreversible), this print (sourced from Sweden) even included original Swedish subtitles!

The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (Henry Levin, USA, 1961)

I have a gripe with the Widescreen Weekend. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is out-and-out family fayre, yet here it was screened late in the evening which meant there was a distinct lack of kids. I bet kids would love to see a Cinerama print on the massive curve. The film itself was recognised as flawed on its original release, and flawed it sadly is, but the peppy, colourful dance numbers and the presence of the Puppetoons make it entertaining nonetheless. Kudos to the Widescreen Weekend for getting it sent over all the way from Australia, and well done to John H Mitchell, the notable Cinerama-loving wonder who constructed his owned curved screen in his back garden and who restored and printed new magnetic sound from the hopelessly vinegary original.

Widescreen Weekend 2012: Friday

Right now I’m busy settling into my summer home in Rochester, NY, and beginning an internship at the Image Permanence Institute. To keep the blog ticking over, I’ve queued up the reports from last month’s Widescreen Weekend. Enjoy!

First thing to understand about the Widescreen Weekend is that it’s almost entirely comprised of 195s, 1960s and 1970s roadshow release films. Roadshow style distribution meant that audiences, particularly in the US, would travel great distances to see ‘the’ film of the moment. But, how were the studios going to make their blockbusters sufficiently enticing, especially during the growth of television? Why, by making films BIG, by making them LOUD, and by making them LONG! Three and a half hours was pretty standard for an epic, a musical or a melodrama at that time, so you got your money’s worth. So, if it looks like I didn’t see a lot at the Widescreen Weekend, you have to remember that I spent upwards of nine hours a day watching films.

Anyways, Friday’s spectacles:

Cinerama’s Russian Adventure (USSR, 1966)

Unfortunately, there is no review of the first half of Cinerama’s Russian Adventure, one of the travelogues produced to showcase Cinerama (ggrrr, trains). However, I can tell you that what came after the intermission was a mixture of weird and wacky shtuff like footage of bears nicking candy-coloured beehives, interspersed with thrilling footage of loggers rafting down a great river, all brought together by the soothing-yet-incongruous presence of Bing Crosby as narrator.

Technically, Cinerama’s Russian Adventure is not truly a Cinerama motion picture. It was, in fact, shot using an almost identical process called Kinopanorama, developed in the USSR, also using three cameras. Moreover, the edition seen in Bradford was a carefully remastered edition printed onto 70mm stock. Thus, while it was projected onto the curved screen, only one projector was involved. Therefore, it was not my first foray into ‘true’ Cinerama.

The Windjammer Voyage: A Cinemirace Adventure (David Strohmaier et al, USA/Australia/Norway, 2011)

Alack, still grumpy from having spent upwards of five hours on a train (which got stuck 20 minutes north of King’s Cross), I went for lunch and skipped this presentation about the Cinemiracle extravaganza Windjammer (Louis de Rochemont, 1958). Cinemiracle was another not-quite-Cinerama format.

However, if you do want to know more about this curiosity, it is being released on dual-edition DVD’n’Bluray combo by Flicker Alley, including tons of extras provided by Dave Strohmaier, Randy Gitsch and other Cine-Kino-Pano-Miracle-Rama fanatics. It’s even ‘smileboxed’, so the picture will mimic the curvy screen!

This is Cinerama (Fred Waller et al, USA, 1952)

OK, this was definitely Cinerama proper! Three-strip archive projection, seven-track stereo sound, the whole shebang and it was ah-mazing!

Firstly, the film itself is pretty darn thrilling in that retro-spectacle way; a whistlestop tour through the cities of the world (Venice is even better in Widescreen), fab fifties holiday resorts, America from the air and a bone-rattlling rollercoaster the likes of which they don’t make any more.

Moreover, though, the experience of watching a three-strip projection is fascinating. The panels could fall out of sync momentarily, or one panel might have a light-flare flash across it. Of course, archival prints are all liable to deterioration and/or colour fading, so when you’re dealing with three prints all deteriorating at different rates, it results in some pretty wild colour-combos flashing before your eyes. It all makes for an exciting – and at times nervewracking! – experience.

Loren Janes Lecture: How The Stunts Were Done!

Loren Janes is a retired stuntman with a very impressive resume. Esther Williams diving from up high? Loren Janes. MacGyver fighting off crooks at high speed? Loren Janes. Think of any action film from the latter half of the 20th century, chances are Janes was involved. Dude was Steve McQueen’s longstanding stunt double – including Bullitt!

The impossibly prolific octogenarian superhuman was in Bradford filling us in on all the stunts from How the West Was Won. Just so you know, that ain’t Debbie Reynolds swinging up onto that wild horse…

How the West Was Won (John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, USA, 1961)

More archival three-strip for the opening night finale. How the West Was Won – in original Cinerama – is a film all film buffs should see. Not just for the stunts and the spectacle, but the soundtrack. I’d gotten all psyched up by the widescreen excitement that I sorta forgot about the stereo sound, but when you hear that theme surrounding your eardrums it’s quite something.

Speaking of the dangers of archival Cinerama, the central panel of How the West Was Won actually did break during the screening. While the projectionists did some pretty snappy splicing, the audience were treated to an emergency breakdown reel, produced for such occasions by the makers of This is Cinerama. Such unique extras just wouldn’t happen in a digital screening!

Film, with a capital F

Film (Tacita Dean, 2011)

Turbine Hall, Tate Modern

I decided not to read any reviews or reports from Tacita Dean’s installation prior to visiting it. Anyone who has read her defence of 16mm film, written for The Guardian in the wake of Soho Film Lab’s wrapping up of 16mm printing, will be unsurprised to find that Film is somewhat of a call-to-arms to stem the eradication of celluloid as an artists’ medium (hence my interest in it).* As such, it is hard to approach this political work in the same way one approaches other modern art installations. Film is not the first work to carry with it a manifesto of sorts, but more than ever this piece encompasses the adage ‘the medium is the message.’

Be warned: this is a spoilerama.

Film was shot on 35mm portrait anamorphic film. I have never come across this format before, though as far as I can make out it uses a normal anamorphic lens (the sort that squishes widescreen into academy-ratio film frames) but with the lens orientated vertically. The perforations have been printed onto the screening print, like a physical ‘film within a film’, which marks the point that my brain implodes. I’m wondering how the sprockets made it onto the screening print, because surely they should be stretched in projection along with the picture…?

Dean’s assertion that all the myriad tricks and effects occurred in camera or in the studio, save for some grading and tinting, is an interesting one. It is tempting to sit in the Turbine Hall all day, figuring out how each composition was achieved. It was only when I watched it through the second time that I really took in the subject matter itself.

Film reflects its surroundings in the Tate – the film’s grain aptly echoing the textures of brick and concrete. The effect is punctured by flights of fantasy: the sharp and rapidly changing colour panels, the surreal bouncing balls, occasional cuts to images of nature… The screen’s placement in the darkened Turbine Hall resembles a window into a marvellous multi-coloured alternate world.

Film is often characterised as ghostly and fragile. In Film, it is the art gallery that is plunged into monochrome darkness, and the audience can never enter the picture that is so bold and beautiful. Like with Miroslaw Barka’s How it is, the audience have to move around gingerly so as to not disrupt others’ experience of the artwork. However, I would advise against being too precious; the Tate is not a cinema, and it is worthwhile wondering right up to the screen and behind, to see the perspective change and the lit-up faces of the viewers. The light also highlights Doris Salcedo’s crack, tattooed permanently on the floor. Again like Barka’s work, the audience are a crucial part of the experience; Film is mute but never silent, as there is a constant hum of whispers, shuffles and whirrs from the projector.

The message that photochemical film is a medium distinct from digital, with its own inimitable quality, is important. It bears repeating: digital video is not a bad thing, but film is different. It’s a good idea to invest in the book that accompanies Film. That’s where the film strip pictured above came from, and the book includes essays from a variety of film-philes. Keep it in mind the next time you see film exhibited.

A few months ago, I went to see an exhibition of work from the recently discovered photographer Vivian Maier. Alongside the photochemical still prints was a DVD screening of a low-resolution digital transfer from an 8mm amateur film shot by Maier in the 1970s. There I was, in an art gallery, essentially watching a Youtube clip playing on a widescreen television. No gallery would dare display 72dpi images printed on a home laser printer. The same respect should be afforded to moving images.

*Kine Artefacts is not usually concerned with modern moving images, but I make an exception for a work about celluloid. Also, I’ve been told in the past that the term ‘celluloid’ actually refers to a certain brand of film, like ‘sellotape’ or ‘blu-tac’. For the record, I use it because it is useful for distinguishing film-the-medium from film-the-moving-image.