“Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film” (2015)

BFI London Film Festival This compilation of early cinema short films was presented at the London Film Festival. It was given an introduction by one of the programmers.


What with the recent release of Suffragette, it being the opening gala for the London Film Festival, there’s been a recent resurgence of interest in the so-called “suffragettes”, a media term of derision originally, referring to the militant wing of women agitating for universal voter suffrage. Hence there’s this compilation film of early archival short films from 1899-1917 touching on their cause, which has had a short release at cinemas aside from its Festival screenings. The newsreel footage is relatively slender, but we get key events like the trampling of Emily Wilding Davison at the 1913 Derby (such a brief snippet within the coverage of the race overall that you need only blink to miss it). Padding out the running time are some comedy short films, including two featuring the ‘Tilly girls’, two young Edwardian women with little regard for the stuffy conventions of their era, not to mention a silly film in which a husband fantasises about violent retributions on his nagging suffragist wife. In any case, my friend Pam has written much more volubly and eloquently on its contents for The Guardian so you’d be better off just reading her piece. As for me, I found it largely likeable, if sometimes (necessarily) challenging in its period attitudes. The clips are well contextualised by modern intertitles, and there’s an excellent new piano score by Lillian Henley.

CREDITS
Length 75 minutes.
Seen at Rich Mix, London, Sunday 18 October 2015.

She’s Funny That Way (2014)

At a certain level this film by ageing auteurist Peter Bogdanovich seems achingly archaic, a collection of neurotic New York archetypes owing more to a careful study of Woody Allen films (or indeed those of its producers, Noah Baumbach and Wes Anderson) than anything resembling what one might recognise as real life or believable behaviour. Its heroine, Izzy (Imogen Poots, an English actor going for a broad working-class Brooklyn accent, the success of which will probably depend on who’s listening), isn’t much more rounded a one-dimensional muse/prostitute character than Mira Sorvino played in Mighty Aphrodite (1995), and the pecuniary salvation offered by theatre director Arnold (Owen Wilson) is an almost offensively crass rehash of (the hardly any less crass) Richard Gere in Pretty Woman (1990). But that would be to miss the film’s point, as set up by its silent film-like title card invoking the ‘print the legend’ refrain of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), just one of many classical Hollywood films Bogdanovich tips his hat towards, i.e. that these are characters who exist solely in a self-referential world of films. That’s not to say it’s a consistent delight, as it still requires the viewer to sit through these hoary clichés (women as wives/mothers/whores, men as desperate cheating cads, a hundred scenarios you’ve seen a hundred times before), however knowingly they’re deployed. And yet there’s a simple pleasure to a lot of it, especially the screwball scenes of characters all converging on the same place in various configurations. There are also some fine performances in roles large and small, as it seems Bogdanovich has quite an address book to call upon — Joanna Lumley gets a credit at the end for a scene that only plays while her name is on screen, while other name actors appear only fleetingly. For me (being hardly a fan of her filmic work), the biggest surprise is probably Jennifer Aniston as a straight-talking psychiatrist (another character only ever found in the movies), who delivers some of the film’s biggest laughs through her energetic mugging. It may not amount to much more than a slight pleasure to anyone watching it, but that doesn’t feel like a failure.

She's Funny That Way film posterCREDITS
Director Peter Bogdanovich; Writers Bogdanovich and Louise Stratten; Cinematographer Yaron Orbach; Starring Imogen Poots, Owen Wilson, Kathryn Hahn, Jennifer Aniston, Rhys Ifans, Will Forte; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Olympic Studios, London, Tuesday 14 July 2015.

Second Hand Husband (2015)

As my knowledge of popular Indian cinema is still in its infancy, my understanding from commentary I found on the internet is that this film is a Bollywood (i.e. Hindi language) debut from Punjabi director Smeep Kang, but otherwise bears the stylistic imprint of films from that part of the world (the north-west of the country and Pakistan). It stars Punjabi singer Gippy Grewal as dashing divorcee Rajbir looking to remarry the sensible lawyer Gurpreet, though the actor playing her (Tina Ahuja) almost fades into the background, since most of the comedic to-do is given over to Rajbir’s philandering boss Ajit (Dharmendra, a stalwart of both Hindi and Punjabi cinema) and his ex-wife Neha (Geeta Basra), a colourful figure who is set on Rajbir’s alimony payments. There’s little point in me trying to recount the plot, which involves all kinds of slapstick endeavours by Rajbir to set up Neha with a new husband (not to mention playing match-maker and breaker with Ajit, Ajit’s wife, the local police sergeant, and others). Even the film seems to whizz through the various possible pairings with undue haste and little attention to believability, stopping entirely at one point, as is customary, to fit in what amounts to a music video. It’s probably a stretch to have set up the almost 80-year-old Dharmendra as a charming lothario, much though he’s looking good for his age, and too many of the slapstick setpieces are a stretch even for a script this slapdash. Added to this the comedy musical cues start to get wearing over the length of the film. That said, it coasts through on the photogenic charm of its leads, making it difficult to take against it too strongly.

Second Hand Husband film poster CREDITS
Director Smeep Kang ਸਮੀਪ ਕੰਗ; Writers Kang, Shreya Srivastava ਸ਼ਰੇਆ ਸ੍ਰੀਵਾਸਤਵ and Vaibhav Suman ਵੈਭਵ ਸੁਮਨ; Cinematographer Manoj Shaw [aka Manoj Gupta मनोज गुप्ता]; Starring Gippy Grewal ਗਿੱਪੀ ਗਰੇਵਾਲ, Geeta Basra ਗੀਤਾ ਬਸਰਾ, Dharmendra धर्मेन्द्र; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Ilford, London, Thursday 16 July 2015.

Accidental Love (2015)

Originally entitled Nailed and directed by David O. Russell, this troubled production began in 2008 and is only now getting a release, with Russell’s name removed from his directing and writing credits (in favour of “Stephen Greene”). If it remains remembered in future at all, it will almost certainly be for this story than anything actually in the film, though despite a healthy portfolio of negative critical reviews, it’s not actually all that awful. It’s disjointed certainly, with an uneven tone (slapstick is difficult to get right), and some of its jokes don’t land very well at all — there’s a scene of Gyllenhaal’s Congressman character Howard cringing through his fingers which could easily have been me at points. And yet Jessica Biel’s naive small-town girl Alice has a winning charm not unlike that of television’s Kimmy Schmidt. Alice gets a nail accidentally shot into her head but is uninsured and so needs a change in the law to allow her to have it removed, thus avoiding long-term damage. As a political satire, made at a time before President Obama brought in healthcare coverage, it does pretty well, giving a sense of the absurdity of the system, something you’d imagine the film’s writer might have experienced a little of as Al Gore’s daughter. It’s Catherine Keener’s conniving senior politician who is the film’s bad guy, though James Marsden’s schmuck-like local police officer Scott — engaged to Alice before taking it back, and overly fond of putting percentage chances on everything — comes close. I can’t in all honesty recommend Accidental Love wholeheartedly, but it certainly doesn’t deserve the beating it’s received from some quarters.

Accidental Love film poster CREDITS
Director David O. Russell [as “Stephen Greene”]; Writers Russell [as “Stephen Greene”], Kristin Gore, Matthew Silverstein and Dave Jeser (based on the novel Sammy’s Hill by Gore); Cinematographer Max Malkin; Starring Jessica Biel, Jake Gyllenhaal, Catherine Keener, James Marsden, Tracy Morgan; Length 100 minutes.
Seen at Showcase Cinemas Newham, London, Sunday 28 June 2015.

Crainquebille (1922)

The Cinema Museum logo As part of the regular monthly ‘Kennington Bioscope’ night, this feature was presented along with a number of short films, with an intermission between them. Piano accompaniment was provided by organisers Lillian Henley and Cyrus Gabrysch for the shorts, and by renowned silent film accompanist and concert pianist Costas Fotopoulos for the feature.


Crainquebille (1922) [France]

The more silent films one watches, the more one realises there’s a huge range of expression beyond the kind of hyperactive slapstick we’ve at length come to associate with the era (though some of the shorts, see below, fulfil this function more than adequately). Instead with this film, we see Belgian director Jacques Feyder expressively try his hand at a kind of proletarian social realism, with moustachioed Maurice de Fléraudy playing an honest working class protagonist ground down by the unfeeling, pettifogging machinations of the authorities. In this respect, it’s not unlike, say, Bresson’s L’Argent (1983), in which a chain of minor events build into tragedy, but the film I’m most minded of is Fassbinder’s Händler der vier Jahreszeiten (The Merchant of Four Seasons, 1971), which also centres on a street peddler pushing around a cart of groceries.

For me, there’s something similar here to the way Fassbinder lays on the incidents and watches his character suffer under their weight. Feyder’s touch is lighter, though, and while things seem bleak at times, it never feels masochistic. The character of Jérôme Crainquebille (or “Bill” in the name given him by the original English-language release of the film) has a largely fatalistic approach to the way he’s treated, first arrested on a false accusation of abusing a bored cop, before being processed through the justice system and eventually released, shunned by his former customers. The scenes in the court, indeed, have an almost farcical quality to them, as we see defence, prosecution and judge respectively amuse themselves, showing little interest in what’s going on before them, and the statue of justice at the front of the courtroom turns and looks accusingly at the poor wretches in the dock.

What elevates the film is the almost naturalistic acting by Féraudy and the other minor characters (shopkeepers, cops, prostitutes and newsboys) who populate this world of street vendors based around the Les Halles market, itself long gone. The set design emphasises the dirt and shabbiness of these lives, punctuated a brief fantasy interlude in which Crainquebille imagines a life in the country, growing his own vegetables rather than selling them from his cart. And while tragedy at times seems inescapable, the film remains affectionate towards its impoverished characters, and allows for a little bit of hope to shine through the gloomy black-and-white.

Crainquebille film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Jacques Feyder (based on the novel by Anatole France); Cinematographers Léonce-Henri Burel and Maurice Forster; Starring Maurice de Féraudy; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at Cinema Museum, London, Wednesday 26 March 2014.

Continue reading “Crainquebille (1922)”

Go West (1925)

This screening was presented with live piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, whose work was excellent and deft as ever. I always worry I should try to have something more precise to say, but if he had been unduly drawing attention to his playing, it would hardly have been so successful; instead I was fully engrossed in the Keaton comedy.


There’s plenty of ink that’s been spilled over the years (although that’s not entirely an apt metaphor for this modern era) discussing the differences between the various silent film comedians, along with people’s personal preferences. I’ve not seen enough by any of them (although I did, rather briefly, review a screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! last year) to contribute much that’s worthwhile to that discussion — which I can only hope will be a blessed relief to readers, who should be free to make their own judgement on this matter. I will say that of the famous ones, I’ve seen the most films by Buster Keaton, a disparity that’s hardly going to be rectified by the BFI’s current Keaton retrospective season. Amongst his fine body of work, Go West is it seems a little underappreciated, but over a series of vignettes set in the Wild West, Keaton mines plenty of humour, and even a bit of pathos.

Plot isn’t really what this kind of comedy is about, so much as the set-up. In this case, Keaton plays a friendless loner (called “Friendless” in the credits, indeed) who is evicted from his home and, exhausted by city life, hops on a train headed to Santa Fe, where he falls in to working at a cattle ranch run by a gruff but kindly Howard Truesdale. This of course motivates a series of comedic set pieces that test the untrained city-slicker neophyte against this new world, leading to slapstick pratfalls (primarily from donning chaps and spurs), incompetence (trying to lasso a calf, or milk a cow), imperilment (at the horns of some rampaging bulls) and fights (squaring up to a poker cheat). But Keaton’s Friendless also discovers a determination and tenacity prompted by his newly-kindled love.

Of course, being a comedy, the love interest angle is hardly straightforward. When Friendless shows kindness towards a cow named Brown Eyes, the cow devotedly follows him, which initially seems played for laughs — especially given the ranch owner has a daughter who is seen making eyes at Friendless. However, it soon leads to something akin to genuine pathos, as a mutual affection develops between the two that leads Friendless to want to save his love from imminent death. But this is hardly a proto-animal-welfare message movie: the last third of the film has him show loyalty to the ranch owner by trying to ensure his cattle are delivered to the slaughterhouse stockyards, which motivates a manic slapstick stampede through the local town.

Keaton’s touch is everywhere evident, not just in the unconventional relationship dynamic and in his trademark pork-pie hat (which he continues to wear even as a cowboy), but elsewhere in a number of little throwaway moments, like him catching his hat as it’s blown off in a passing breeze, staying in his stony-faced character as his poker-playing antagonist holds a gun on him and demands he smile, or leaping back onboard a runaway train so that he can comfort Brown Eyes rather than try to stop the train. There’s also a lovely sequence later on showing a black street dancer plying his trade while Friendless watches captivated, all of them happily oblivious to the growing number of stampeding cattle approaching from the back of the shot.

The film is really a framework within which to accommodate all these (and many other) virtuoso moments. There’s no point where things stop to deliver a message about character growth or the importance of friends; Keaton keeps things far subtler than all that. Instead, clichés of romantic love are skewered within the familiar fish-out-of-water scenario, and even the ‘riding off into the sunset’ shot gets a laughable twist. This film shouldn’t, therefore, be just for fans of Keaton or silent comedy: there’s plenty for everyone to love. Even farmyard animals.

Go West film posterCREDITS
Director Buster Keaton; Writers Raymond Cannon and Keaton; Cinematographers Elgin Lessley and Bert Haines; Starring Buster Keaton, Howard Truesdale; Length 80 minutes.
Seen at BFI Southbank (NFT2), London, Tuesday 21 January 2014.

Safety Last! (1923)

A new restoration of this silent classic would be the occasion for rejoicing at the best of times, but seeing it in London’s largest cinema (the Odeon Leicester Square) marking its 75th anniversary was a special treat, not least because it was a chance to enjoy the cinema’s Compton organ in its full, pulsatingly colourful splendour, rising from the bowels of the cinema’s orchestra pit. The cinema’s dedicated organist, Donald MacKenzie, put together a programme of short newsreel films about the cinema’s history, before playing the instrument both solo and with an old-time jazz band (The Hendo Washboard Kings) accompanying. He finally settled in to the feature film itself, using all the (at times, literal) bells and whistles that the organ provides the skilled accompanist.

Organist Donald MacKenzie at the Odeon Leicester Square's Compton organ.


This film is probably what comedian Harold Lloyd remains most famous for, and its image of him hanging off a building’s clockface high above the ground has become an iconic one (to the extent that one member of my audience tried repeatedly to take a photo of the screen — with flash — at this point).

Safety Last! is, broadly-speaking, a slapstick romantic comedy, with Harold playing The Boy to Mildred Davis’s The Girl (the latter would shortly become Lloyd’s actual wife). He goes off to the big city to make his fortune on the promise of marrying her when he does, but gets as far as a department store clerk before she comes to visit him, expecting from the lavish presents he regularly sends back to her that he is doing so much better. This motivates a series of swiftly-escalating comedy setpieces whereby he can make good, ultimately involving the building climb that leads to that iconic image of clock-faced peril.

If a lot of the action — the pratfalls, the mistaken identities, the distractions that come at the most sensitive moments — seems a little bit hackneyed after 90 years, that’s only because this film (and the tradition Lloyd was so prominent within) has helped to make these standbys of screen comedy so enduring. However, marshalled by Lloyd’s bespectacled and goofily boater-wearing trademark persona, the action remains filled with a peculiarly charming joie de vivre, not to mention a good few proper belly laughs. There’s also genuine suspense in the extended climbing scene, with vertiginous shots of the building’s side skilfully implying the ground’s distance far below.

It may not be challenging or mould-breaking, but this charming comedy is evidence that 90 years’ distance need not affect the ability of a film to raise laughs. Safety Last! remains a classic comedy, and deservedly so.

Safety Last! film posterCREDITS
Directors Fred C. Newmeyer and Sam Taylor; Writers Hal Roach, Taylor and Bill Whelan; Cinematographer Walter Lundin; Starring Harold Lloyd, Mildred Davis; Length 76 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Leicester Square, London, Saturday 3 August 2013.