This week, for a change, I’m doing a special director focus on Mikio Naruse, who in light of contemporaries like Ozu and later filmmakers such as Mizoguchi and Kurosawa, is perhaps an underappreciated Japanese cinematic master. A couple of weeks ago I rounded up a number of his 1930s sound films, and I’ve previously mentioned his biopic Tochuken Kumoemon (1936), but I realised I still had enough reviews of his great 1950s works, not to mention his earliest silent cinema, to merit an entire week dedicated to him. These silent works are collected on a boxset from the Criterion sub-label Eclipse, dedicated to lesser-known films presented in bare bones DVD editions, albeit with good transfers and liner notes. [NB Outside of the context of this director-focused week, I intend to do future posts about other Eclipse boxsets, though watching them all can sometimes take a bit of time.]
One of the categories on the BFI Player is dedicated to films appearing in the Sight & Sound poll of critics, and includes several classics, not least the one I’m covering today. Although it’s a grand spectacle, especially with an orchestra backing it up, it probably wouldn’t make my greatest ever list, I’m afraid, but it’s worth watching. Alternatively there are plenty of other films, many of which I’ve reviewed for my Criterion Sundays, like L’avventura, The Passion of Joan of Arc, Faces, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, et al.
This is maximalist filmmaking. It has an impressionistic feel at times with its lap dissolves and rapid cutting, emphasising mood over clarity (I’ll never quite be sure what tactics were being deployed in the snowball fight scene), but it never shows a great deal of subtlety in its symbolism — the eagle, the waves crashing, the frenzy of the crowd, the guillotine. It’s also never anything less than triumphantly behind its eponymous hero, played as a lank-haired wunderkind by an actor named ‘God’s Gift’ in French (Albert Dieudonné). It has a long third act of romantic entanglements (including an entirely extraneous one with a minor character’s daughter) that drags a bit and yet when the film finishes it feels almost curtailed too early. It reaches — constantly, grandly, excessively — and I can’t really fault it for that, but whether that makes it great art I’m not so sure about. It’s still quite the experience, especially with a full orchestra and the triptych projection at the end.
Director/Writer Abel Gance; Cinematographer Jules Kruger; Starring Albert Dieudonné, Gina Manès, Antonin Artaud, Edmond Van Daële; Length c330 minutes.
Seen at Royal Festival Hall, London, Monday 7 November 2016 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, December 1997).
As my Soviet and former-Soviet republics themed week goes on, I find myself returning to the season of 1934 films which screened at the 2018 Il Cinema Ritrovato archive film festival. It presented so many delightful and obscure gems from that country, and this particular one was from Georgia.
A late silent film from a Georgian director which should probably have more love than it currently does, as it is certainly strikingly photographed and expressively acted. Sadly the director died before it was even released, so perhaps if he’d had a chance to make more films, things might have been different. The film itself concerns a young man called Varden (Giorgi Gabelashvili) who is looking to be matched with a woman. One candidate is less than attractive but comes with a dowry of shiny material things, presented without words in a striking montage. However, marriage with her is not in his future, and he falls into horse thieving (for reasons that elude me due to the very warm weather and my very large lunch meaning I dozed off for a little while); he falls for another woman whose dowry is, rather, the land and its bounty as provided by collective farming, and this perhaps is where the Soviet mission comes in somewhat. It can sometimes be difficult to tell apart its young men with their moustaches and traditional clothing, so I didn’t always follow the story, but it’s made with skill and deserves a wider audience.
Director/Writer Siko Palavandishvili სიკო ფალავანდიშვილი; Cinematographer Vladimir Poznan; Starring Giorgi Gabelashvili, Aleksandra Toidze; Length 92 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Saturday 30 June 2018.
I’m still on holiday this week, but Friday in the UK sees the release of one of my favourite films of last year, the Georgian dance-based drama And Then We Danced, which I exhort everyone to go see. Therefore this week, I’m doing a week devoted to the Soviet Union and its former republics, starting with the silent era.
Of all the films I saw at the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival in 2018, I had perhaps the fewest expectations about this one, and it ended up being thoroughly delightful. It’s a very late silent film made in the USSR about a wayward father (Pyotr Kirillov) who shirks responsibility for raising his son — in a particularly excellent scene, he avers strongly that he’ll leave if his partner (Yevgeniya Pyryalova) goes through with having a baby, grabbing an empty suitcase for show and leaving loudly (“I WILL LEAVE”, “I AM LEAVING!”, “I have left…”) while she looks on impassively and with very little interest in him sticking around. And that’s reasonable, for he is no good, and ends up in a bachelor apartment with a bunch of architects designing the glorious Soviet communal future. Moving forward in time, when (for reasons too silly to elaborate) his baby is separated from its mother and brought to the bachelor pad, they all take turns raising it while searching for its mother. It has a snappy sense of style, some beautiful photography, and a lithe central performance in the character of Andrey (Apsolon), who is first seen along the wharves of Leningrad, like a young Gene Kelly about to launch into a tap routine (though sadly there’s no dancing). It largely maintains its comic pace, and even if one hopes perhaps for an ending wherein the woman raises her kid with the four bachelors (minus the deadbeat dad), at the very least it has a happy outcome.
Director Eduard Ioganson Эдуард Иогансон; Writers Boris Chirskov Борис Чирсков, Ioganson, Rafail Muzykant Рафаил Музыкант; Cinematographer Georgi Filatov Георгий Филатов; Starring Pyotr Kirillov Пётр Кириллов, Yevgeniya Pyryalova Евгения Пырялова, Andrei Apsolon Андрей Апсолон; Length 68 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Scorsese), Bologna, Friday 29 June 2018.
Closer to the template for a war film, but with a woman as the protagonist (dressed up as man to fight in the trenches), and in dire need of proper restoration, is this late-silent film by Henry King, which screened as part of a retrospective on the director at last year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival.
For a film that’s been utterly mangled by history — a strange hybrid of sound and silent filmmaking that was more or less lost upon its 1929 release, re-edited to half its length in 1939, and re-released with a sententious prologue that suggests it’s telling the TRUTH about war without bias, but in fact seems more keen to say “please America don’t join the current conflict” — this is a fascinating document. It doesn’t work very well at all dramatically: after an initial parade and soldiers shipping out, there’s a cut direct to a shot of a cemetery and thence an extended period of time with the soldiers in the trenches. Dramatic irony is deployed as one woman sings a song (aided by a ukulele for a bit) about a happy land while soldiers fall down dead around her (the happy land being Heaven, of course), and then the film only really gets going in the last third, as one woman disguises herself as a man to see the front, where she gets tediously mocked by the guys who’ve figured out her game, but eventually proves herself somewhat. There’s a terrifying sequence of tanks rumbling through flames, but this is a film crying out for proper restoration.
Director Henry King; Writers Rupert Hughes, Fred de Gresac, Howard Estabrook and John Monk Saunders; Cinematographers John P. Fulton and Tony Gaudio; Starring Eleanor Boardman, John Holland; Length 50 minutes (as it currently exists, but originally 87 minutes).
Seen at Cinema Jolly, Bologna, Tuesday 25 June 2019.
It is difficult to watch this epic-length life of the Christ without thinking of Hail, Caesar! and its satirical take on the po-faced earnestness of filmmakers trying to render the Biblical story visual. DeMille’s production hasn’t got an ounce of jocularity or self-awareness to it, and to a certain extent that’s just as well, because it’s difficult to approach some of this material without being utterly committed to the solemnity of it all. It feels less like a portrait of Judaea 20 centuries ago as it does a pageant of big iconic scenes, and DeMille spares no effort to have doves fluttering around the important symbols, or have Jesus holding a lamb. Indeed, the campness is high as Jesus is backlit with lights every time he appears, looking like every (Western) portrait of him, all glistening beard and beatific expression (except, briefly, when Simon Peter has renounced him three times and Jesus looks on smugly). There’s some interesting use of very early colour in the opening and during the Resurrection sequences, though the black-and-white is more persuasive and has a real beauty to it at times. There is undoubtedly some great religious art which has been made, even about Jesus, over the years, but this one feels like it’s more for the existing fans, rendering iconic all the famous scenes, without really finding the drama (as say in another Criterion release, The Last Temptation of Christ) or a persuasive sense of how the lived experience might have been back then (as in Life of Brian). Sosin’s score has a grandeur and, for better or worse, largely matches the film’s own storytelling, at times lapsing into a slight kitschiness.
- There are two discs, and the second has a shortened 112-minute release from 1928, with two separate scores. I haven’t watched that yet, but will update this page when I have.
- On the first disc, the extras are a few production photos, some from the film’s premiere at Grauman’s Chinese Theater (it was the film chosen as the opening premiere at this new cinema), as well as extensive documentation of the original illustrated programme booklet (both photos and extensive text of the contents), and some telegrams from DeMille to his cast.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Cecil B. DeMille; Writer Jeanie Macpherson; Cinematographers J. Peverell Marley and F.J. Westerberg; Starring H.B. Warner, Ernest Torrence, Jacqueline Logan, Joseph Schildkraut; Length 155 minutes.
Seen at home (DVD), London, Sunday 20 October 2019.
In February 2019, the BFI Southbank programmed a season of early Korean cinema in partnership with the Korean Cultural Centre, and in the introductions at the opening night screening of Crossroads of Youth, we learned that while the first Korean film was made in 1919, the earliest surviving film (and the only surviving silent film) was this one, from 1934. Being a silent film, and one made with the intention of being accompanied by an on-stage narrator (a practice shared with Japanese cinema, perhaps unsurprising given that the territory was under Japanese occupation at the time), this was more than any ordinary screening. Indeed, for this special occasion we got not just a narrator, but a quartet of musicians and even a couple of singers coming in for periodic numbers, which meant this was a complete performance, not just a film.
For all its historical interest, it must be said that the filmmaking itself is a little patchy, which isn’t helped that the first reel has been too badly damaged to salvage, but it’s a testament to the fact that old films can still be unearthed in peoples’ attics, and the fact it survives at all is wonderful. However, given the expectation of the narrator’s accompaniment, not much is explained in the film itself (there is very little text, and no intertitles). Therefore, seeing it with the narrator acting out the parts, filling in plot details, keeping us alert to who’s who (and making occasional joky asides and metatextual references about some of the onscreen action) helped immensely in enjoying this film.
With our narrator sitting at a desk by the side of the screen, it is very much clearer what’s going on in the melodramatic narrative — a young man spurned in love (Lee Wan-yong) sets out to the city, where he succumbs to drinking, while his enamorata is cruelly used by rich men, who then set their sights on his sister (who is herself in town to find her brother). That said, there’s also a hint that this narrative itself undergoes little changes over the course of time depending on the inspiration of its interpreter. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially when he’s gently mocking the filmmaker for going out of focus or for the patchy acting of a bit player, and it makes the film just a part of a stage show that greatly impressed me. Without that accompaniment, I can’t imagine I’d be quite as generous.
Director/Writer Ahn Jong-hwa 안종화; Cinematographer Lee Myeong-u 이명우; Starring Lee Wan-yong 이원용, Shin Il-seon 신일선; Length 73 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT3), London, Thursday 7 February 2019.
This 90-minute feature may have been cut down from a much longer original, but even what survives has had to be painstakingly put together by a team of restorers from various Cinemathèques, resulting in what was presented at Il Cinema Ritrovato as a work-in-progress. Truthfully I found the historical drama aspects difficult to follow, and there’s a lot that writer/director/star Musidora attempts to fit into this story of a political conflict over bringing Don Carlos (Charles VII) to the Spanish throne in the 1870s. However, Musidora clearly had a love affair with Spain (just as the camera has with her), as she returned to that setting for other films she made in the 20s. Here, she plays a supporter of Don Carlos called Allegria, and for much of the first half of the film is dressed resplendently in a military uniform, cutting quite the gloriously dashing figure. There’s a second section where she’s a poor peasant woman trying to free a colleague from captivity, which comes on rather suddenly, and wasn’t quite as compelling, but Musidora remains a charismatic screen presence.
Directors Musidora and Jacques Lasseyne; Writer Musidora (based on the novel by Pierre Benoît); Cinematographers Frank Daniau-Johnston and Léonce Crouan; Starring Musidora, Stephen Weber; Length 90 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Lumière (Sala Mastroianni), Bologna, Wednesday 26 June 2019.
Bringing together two films by Ozu, his first made towards the tail-end of the silent era of cinema in Japan, and the later one a remake in colour towards the end of his career, this allows for a compare-and-contrast approach between the two, and for me Ozu has grown significantly as a filmmaker, such that the latter is the greater work. Ozu didn’t make many colour films (it took him long enough to get into sound films, after all), but the remake is lovely in many respects. The framing, the pacing and the use of colour is all expertly done. While it’s a drama about an elderly travelling player returning to the small town where he fathered a child — a son who only knows him as ‘Uncle’ — it’s also filled with moments of comedy, for the father (here played by Ganjiro Nakamura) is a rather bad actor and there’s plenty of fun at the expense of his hamminess. The drama with his son didn’t always connect with me on this viewing, but there’s a lot of pathos to the way his life has unfolded — even if he rather too often takes it out on the women around him. The earlier film (from 1934) follows the same melodramatic plot (with Takeshi Sakamoto as the father), but it never succumbs to anything mawkish or sentimental. Ozu expresses it all so clearly that I imagine I’d pick up on a lot more were I to watch it again (which, given for technical reasons I had to watch it all completely silent, I feel I should probably do).
浮草物語 Ukikusa Monogatari (A Story of Floating Weeds, 1934)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Tadao Ikeda 池田忠雄 and Ozu; Cinematographer Hideo Shigehara 茂原英朗; Starring Takeshi Sakamoto 坂本武, Choko Iida 飯田蝶子, Rieko Yagumo 八雲理恵子; Length 86 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 30 September 2018.
浮草 Ukigusa (Floating Weeds, 1959)
Director Yasujiro Ozu 小津安二郎; Writers Kogo Noda 野田高梧 and Ozu; Cinematographer Kazuo Miyagawa 宮川一夫; Starring Ganjiro Nakamura 中村鴈治郎, Machiko Kyo 京マチ子, Haruko Sugimura 杉村春子; Length 119 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 7 October 2018 (and originally on laserdisc at the university library, Wellington, October 1997).
As a key text in the development of the horror film (not to mention the pseudo-documentary), I found this all a bit underwhelming really, even once you get past the early PowerPoint presentation section about the history of witchcraft. There’s some gorgeous stuff in it, and a sequence with a penitent elderly lady was clearly cribbed by Dreyer for his The Passion of Joan of Arc. But as a film it’s text-heavy and didactic while also never really getting particularly insightful about the underlying context for all of it (the patriarchal structures oppressing women in the mediæval era). Still, the director does have a coda linking these mediæval methods of control to his own times (“in 1921!” an aside says, as if the modern world could never countenance such superstition), and he essays a pretty camp tongue-flicking Satan.
Criterion Extras: Aside from the original version and its commentary, there’s a shorter 1968 re-edit narrated by William S. Burroughs with a jazz score. In another short piece, the director Benjamin Christensen introduces his film for a 1941 re-release, addressed to camera in a stentorian manner while wearing a white lab coat, in passing explaining the magic of silent over sound cinema. There are a few outtakes from the filming, more notes towards the finished project rather than actual scenes that have been excised. Finally, there’s a gallery of images from the film as well as the sources for Christensen’s own slideshow.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Benjamin Christensen; Cinematographer Johan Ankerstjerne; Starring Benjamin Christensen; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Wednesday 2 November 2016 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, February 1998).