Wednesday, 16 September 2015

Leicester and the British Silent Film Festival

Friday and I was off to Leicester to join the bf at the 18th British Silent Film Festival which was being held at the Phoenix, Midland Street.  He had already been there for a full day.  In the end I caught five films.  The bf's experience was immersive, not missing a single one.  I spent my time off (for good behaviour!!) discovering Leicester.  This was my first proper visit and it was a delight.  But more of that in my next post.

My attendance kicked off with the slightly bizarre experience of watching a British film, 'Three Live Ghosts', in a re-edited, and indeed re-written form for Soviet distribution.  We were watching the Soviet version because the original was lost; its interest lay in the fact that Hitchcock had worked on this film (as title designer), not with the quality of the finished article.  It was a dog's dinner.  The plot had been changed beyond recognition, and the editors in the USSR had shown little knowledge of the setting, London.  The original, produced by the 'Famous-Players Lasky British', had been a screen adaptation of Frederick Isham's 1920 play of the same name; a story of men returning from WWI, fitting in, then, with the theme of the festival: the Heroic man.

Friday night's main feature followed: 'Michel Strogoff' - a sprawling epic of a film lasting just over three hours!  It was based on Jules Verne's novel 'A Courier of the Czar' and starred the smouldering Ivan Mosjourkine as the eponymous hero.  He is also credited, according to 'wiki', with working on the script with Boris de Fast and the director Viktor Tourjansky.  It was, ostensibly. a French production though a cursory glance through the titles shows a massive presence of Russian emigres before and around the camera.  It is a typical nineteenth century tale of action, set, in this case, in the Russian Empire.  It is a straight forward linear narrative telling the exploits of the Czar's secret courier on a perilous journey east to Irkutsk.  Not so far, in retrospect, it seems to me from James Bond.  Except that miracles do not take place on Her Majesty's secret service.  The scale then suitable for this Russian tale, and it was a lavish spectacle too.  Hard to believe at times that this was shot in France.  And although perhaps over long, it was, in fact, a convincing piece of cinema. The performances were very restrained for such a melodramatic story rich with incident.  Appealing too the small details of Russian life.

Saturday evening and a further two films.  Things kicked off with a piece of Soviet science-fiction: 'Kosmicheskiy reys; Fantasticheskaya novella' or 'The Cosmic Voyage' of 1936.  Family viewing.  It is the story, set in 1946, of the USSR's first sortie in to space - an ambitious one too for the amazing-looking rocket ship is bound for the moon!  The model of the launch facility, and the subsequent launch sequence were fantastic.  They reminded me of Alexander Korda's 'Shape of Things to Come' in particular the city of tomorrow sequence.  Both displayed a belief that the future would be incredibly clean and ordered.  They both thought too that it would be possible to launch a rocket from inside a major conurbation. The fun was brought by a young stow-away aboard the rocket, played by Vassilli Kopenenko.  There was love interest too.  And a missing cat.

After dinner we decamped to the Cathedral and a showing of the early British historical epic 'Jane Shore', 1915.  Based loosely on real events, and an adaptation of the play 'The Tragedy of Jane Shore' by Nicholas Rowe, it is the story of Jane Shore, played by Blanche Forsyth, who became the mistress of Edward IV. Unlike the other historical epic, 'Michel Strogoff', the acting was at times lacking in restraint.  There was all too often an element of  the histrionic to the proceedings.  Although there were some immense crowd scenes; the dramatic flow, unlike that in 'Michel Strogoff', was staccato and at times confusing.   However any flaw in the action was more than made up for a a marvelous new score by Laura Rossi which was performed live by her and three other musicians. It was an incredibly beautiful and utter compelling piece of music making.  It held me spell bound, giving to 'Jane Shore' a deep undertow of sadness and tragedy.  The shot that remained with me was the execution of Lord Hastings - the event viewed (discreetly) through an open window at which sat, gloating, the Duke of Gloucester.

Sunday evening and the remarkable film 'Aresenal'.  This was not a film for the faint hearted.  It was intense and visceral cinema.  The story of the 1917 Revolution and beyond as seen from the Ukraine, a succession of brilliant, haunting images heightened by a fantastic dark score by Bronnt Industries Kapital - aka Guy Bartell.  Made in 1928 (released in 1929) at the behest of Stalin himself by Alexander Dovzenko it depicts the hero as revolutionary - as in Semyon Frank's analysis 'Sacrificing himself for the sake of this idea, he does not hesitate to sacrifice other people to it.... the great love of mankind of the future gives birth to a great hatred for people; the passion for organizing an earthly paradise becomes a passion for destruction'.  I can't help but see both 'Arsenal' and 'Michel Strogoff' as relevant to our times.  The terror that the Revolution released, like that of the French Revolution, is the progenitor of the Taliban, Al Qaeda and Isil.  The hero of this film is just as Frank said of the Revolutionaries in general: 'militant monks of the nihilistic religion of earthly contentment'.  He appears to have no family, certainly no love interest.  Not surprisingly then this film failed in its goal of bringing the Ukraine 'on-side'.  It is imagery, although intensely striking, is ambiguous; what are we to make of the image of peasant women standing around dazed in there grief as a horde of Revolutionaries approach with one of their dead, when we have seen something very similar at the beginning of the film but in a different context?  Seeing this film did help me put Tarkovsky's work in context.  That Russian way with the close-up, surely that derives from the icon? A final thought it would help your understanding of 'Arsenal' if you know a little Ukrainian history as the story is told in a series of emblems or tableaus rather than a conventional narrative.  Characters are cyphers, not individuals in the usual cinematic sense.

Three Live Ghosts 1922
Director:                  George Fitzmaurice
Cinematographer:  Arthur C Miller

Michel Strogoff 1926

Prod:     Noe Bloch, Gregor Rabinovitch
Dir:        Viktor Tourjansky
Cine:     Fedote Bourgasoff, Leonce-Henri Burel, Nikolai Toporkoff

The Cosmic Voyage 1936
Prod:     Boris Shumyatskiy
Dir:        Vasili Zhuravlov

Jane Shore 1915

Prod:      Will Barker
Dir:         Bert Haldane, F Martin Thornton
Cine:      Will Barker

Arsenal 1929

Prod:      Alexander Dovzhenko
Dir:         Alexander Dovzhenko
Cine:      Danilo Demutsky

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