‘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.)

‘Puttin’ on the Glitz’ at the British Library

I asked my friend, the silent film blogger, editor and noted frock fan Pamela – to accompany me to the event Puttin’ on the Glitz: Fasion & Film in the Jazz Age at the British Library in St Pancras on Friday. I could pretend that this was a research trip, but really it was simply a cheap ticket (£5 for students!) to indulge my two favourite hobbies – watching old films and ogling pretty things.

That said, we (me) here at Kine Artefacts take an all-encompassing approach to moving image history, heritage and preservation. Therefore, we (I) declare that fashion and design – and its relation to the moving images that show it off – is a perfectly cromulent topic for scholarly consideration.

This is the extent of my photography skills after three cocktails.

This is the extent of my photography skills after three cocktails.

Evidently, so too does the British Library. I found out about the event through the Library’s ‘Inspired by…’ blog. Sceptics could see events like these as a cynical way to cash in on the current love of vintage style, but I also think that such events do at least show that there is a breadth in the collections of the British Library, and that its remit covers a lot of material and formats other than published books and the Magna Carta. The event also coincided with the announcement of the new News and Media Room in the St Pancras site (after the closure of the historic Colindale facility), and given that at least one of the talks was based partly on analysis of 1930s film journals and magazines, it was a neat way for the library to demonstrate that it could be of use to film and fashion students looking for newspapers, magazines or journals from the period.

The event cannily presented both historical and critical methodologies for looking at fashion and film, in a way that was informative without being dry. Amber Jane Butchart began with a demonstration of the influence of Hollywood on British fashion through an analysis of reception and marketing materials in magazines and journals. Butchart touched upon the complexity of this relationship, describing how the judicious use of high fashion in Hollywood cinema, and its presentation in supplementary ephemera, worked together to promote that iconic Jazz Age look without diminishing the glamour and extravagance of the clothes on screen.

Butchart looked a sequence from the 1935 film Roberta as a case study. The film culminates in a fashion parade narrated by Fred Astaire, in which starlets such as the very young Lucille Ball model some of RKO designer Barnard Newman’s most ostentatious designs. Butchart then discussed the increasing importance of fashion in films, citing Adrian’s famous Letty Lynton dress, which spawned thousands of replicas for all the ‘little Joan Crawfords’ across the world, as a prime example. The dress is perhaps now better remembered than the film itself, which is mired in legal issues and thus very difficult to get hold of (though it does, thankfully, survive).

joancrawfordlettylynton

The second talk, from Chris Laverty, took a different tack in that it assessed the costume design of a contemporary TV show set in the Jazz Age: Boardwalk Empire. Laverty analysed the costumes of Nucky Thompson (Steve Buscemi), Jimmy Darmody (Michael Pitt) and Chalky White (Michael K Williams) in order, and made use of stills and John Dunn’s original costume designs (complete with fabric swatches!) to demonstrate just how true the costumes are to both the characters and the context of the show.

boardwalkempire

Generally speaking, the gangsters of the period are popularly thought of as wearing shiny, monochrome, pinstriped suits and white carnations, when in reality the heavy woollen fabrics and decorative flourishes where far more varied in colour, texture and fit. Everything from the fabrics, the patterns to the accessories serve to give context to these characters. Laverty likened Darmody’s wardrobe to that of a modern-day gangster, who goes from sportswear to bling depending on status. All the gangsters, though Chalky White in particular, embody the persona of the ‘dandy gangster’, wearing outlandish outfits as a way to establish power and prestige. I’ve never actually watched the show other than the pilot episode (for PhDs are long and time is short), but I know of Michael K Williams from The Wire,  and I would suspect that Williams’ star persona had as much an influence on his costuming in Boardwalk Empire as Joan Crawford had on Adrian’s dress.

The Norfolk jacket, via the FIDM Museum blog.

The Norfolk jacket, via the FIDM Museum blog.

Butchart and Laverty both made impassioned pleas to bring back certain trends from the Jazz Age: flouted, ruched, puffed and generally awesome shoulders; and the Norfolk thick wool sporting jacket (respectively). I discussed these fashions with my own dandy fella, and we agreed that these would both be trends that we would welcome.

The talks were followed by a cocktail party, which was a bit less Jazz Age-specific and catered to a more general vintage-themed crowd. I drank a serviceable French 75 and an almost Mary Pickford cocktail that was tastier due to the omission of grenadine (on the theme of starlet-named cocktails, I prefer the Ginger Rogers). There was a vintage band, vintage hairstyling and hopefully-not-vintage pork pies on offer (?!). The atrium of the British Library, with its white, curved stairways and mezzanines, looked rather like an Art Deco dancehall and decidedly unlike a library.

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.