Pordenone diary 2010 – day six

Pordenone at night

Thursday 7 October loomed, and your scribe was packing his bags. I had decided that five days in Pordenone at the Giornate del Cinema Muto was enough for me this year, and I was heading off to spend a couple of days in beautiful Trieste. But I could not do so without having set in place plans to ensure that the Bioscope could provide its habitual comprehensive coverage of the festival. You may remember that last year, when I didn’t attend the Giornate, the Bioscope reports were written by an anonymous reporter, subsequently dubbed The Mysterious X. Happily X was at the festival this year and just as keen to pick up the quill pen once again, while just as insistent on maintaining his anonymity. And, by a remarkale coincidence, the first film he reports on is a Benjamin Christensen masterpiece, the film the great director made after producing The Mysterious X … spooky, eh?

Bright and early – well, early – to the Verdi for a film I had anticipated since seeing it had been programmed; Hævnens Nat (Denmark 1916) (Blind Justice) an early feature directed by Benjamin Christensen; Pordenone in the past has given me a taste for Scandinavian silents; on the whole, the lighting and camera techniques seem to me, to have been way in advance of the rest of the world … and one sequence in particular in this thriller demonstrated that to me yet again.

After a strange prologue where we see the director demonstrating an illuminated model of the house where the main action of the film is to take place, we’re into the action; Strongman John is on the run, for a crime he didn’t commit and with his very young son; hiding out in a barn, he decides to try and steal milk from the main house, but is discovered by the young daughter of the family; he explains the situation, and persuades her not to betray him … but the awakened father forces the story out of her, John is captured while vowing revenge, and jailed …

Hævnens Nat (1916), with director Benjamin Christensen playing Strongman John, from http://www.dfi.dk

Fifteen years later, John has suffered physically and psychologically inside the prison, but is now out; naively, even unknowingly, he falls in with a gang of burglars intent on robbing the same house … fifteen years on, the girl is married and now the mistress of the house with a young family … in his confused state, John starts to exact his revenge, not knowing that one of the children is his now-adopted son …

The setting of the film – an ornately reproduced and highly realistic mansion, as introduced proudly at the start – almost becomes a character within it; while light and airy during the day, it seems both claustrophobic and yet flimsily undefendable as night falls and menace lurks. The bravura sequence occurs at the point where the invader spies the young woman through the keyhole; we see it from his point of view, the young girl vignetted, deep focus, within the ornate Edwardian escutcheon, the layers of the lock’s mechanism visible; she senses the viewer’s presence and moves out of shot … seconds later the keyhole cover is slid across our view from her side of the door. We cut to a view of the room’s interior … the woman seemingly
paralysed with fear; the camera slowly tracks back, initially revealing the french windows we are looking through … and then the silhouetted shape of the hulking intruder, seeing the same thing … and those french windows look so fragile now …

It’s a powerful shot now; through the use of imaginative sets, superb lighting and a dramatic camera move, the audience is utterly involved in the menace at work … in the voyeuristic sense, and in the complete powerlessness of our situation as an audience, let alone the situation of the girl in the room … it would be impressive in a film made ten or
twenty years later; stunning in a film of 1916. I won’t reveal the ending; that would spoil things for you if you have yet to see the film; if not screening near you, it’s available on DVD from the Danish Film Institute with a Neil Brand piano score.

Shingun (1930), from http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm

Straight on into the next film in the Shochiku strand of Japanese dramas, Shingun (Japan 1930) (Marching On) … in the programme billed as being the Japanese near-equivalent, and inspired by, Wings and The Big Parade … well, up to a point … it starts delightfully; a farmer’s boy, obsessed with his balsa-and-paper flying models and with dreams of real aircraft, develops a friendship with the daughter of the local squire, who introduces the lad to her pilot brother and his flying officer friends; through hard work, and despite the handicap of a lowly class status, he eventually succeeds in qualifying as a pilot and joining the air force. So far, so good, a peacetime Wings story, a cute cross-class nascent love story developing through fine performances by the two leads; Denmei Suzuki and Kinuyo Tanaka were becoming old friends to us by now … the pairing obviously a prized asset to the studio. But right at this point the film takes the most sinister turn, particularly with the hindsight of history. “Is War Likely??” asks a title (I may be paraphrasing, but not wildly) “Yes, Japan has suffered enough indignities” and so we march into the final third of the film …

Well, from here, The Big Parade or Wings, it ain’t. The film-makers might well have seen them, but failed to learn much from them in how to construct either feasible aerial or battlefield sequences. Unlike Wings, the aerial sequences are constructed from a combination of appalling model work – honestly, they look like they were shot using the boy’s balsa models from the start of the film – and laughably bad back projection, as the gunner from a doomed plane passes vital strategic information to another by wing walking and handing it to his opposite number … our farmboy hero. Inevitably, this second plane, piloted by the girl’s brother, is brought down into the battlefield – full of shellfire but little else – but look! A convenient Harley Davidson and sidecar for our hero to requisition, and to load his wounded friend into … after a few minutes bouncing around the field – if the pilot wasn’t seriously injured before, he would be now – they get caught in an explosion, and the bike wrecked … but look!! A convenient horse, grazing in a contented manner, but about to get a rude shock as two airmen clamber on board to complete their getaway … except more shrapnel comes their way, and the horse is abandoned … but look!!! A convenient artillery tractor, abandoned in full working order, it seems, and our heroes complete their escape to safety at around 1½ miles per hour … the strategic information is delivered to the relevant Colonel, the battle is heroically won, etc. Which would be fairly hilarious, except for the nagging thought that the massive amount of military hardware on and personnel on screen, supplied by the Japanese army, are rehearsals for the invasion of Manchuria that would happen within the year. If a silent film with such a nationalistic propaganda theme existed from, say, Germany in 1938, would it be shown with such alacrity? I wonder … anyway, it could have been a great film; it started with real charm, but it did seem as if the film was kidnapped by a propaganda ministry two-thirds of the way through.

The film screened after lunch, Bukhta Merti (USSR 1926) (Death Bay), was an Abram Room-directed film set in the Russian Navy at the time of the Russian Civil War, and described by Ian Christie in the catalogue as a “Propagandist adventure story” … well, I had just sat through one of those, so I gave it a rest, and decided a Spritz Aperol in the Italian sunshine, and a bit of a natter with like-minded people held more appeal. These things happen on the Thursdays, I find … shamingly, I enjoyed the chatting so much that I decided to forego the Jonathan Dennis lecture, given by former Channel Four supremo Jeremy Isaacs, and the man who green-lit Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series; for which the world remains grateful; on the basis that he had given a talk locally and recently, so I felt no desire to hear it again; a mistake, as this was a totally different event, and took the form (I was told subsequently) of an extended tribute to Kevin Brownlow, David Gill, and the making of Hollywood; that I would loved to have seen. A mistake on my part … these things, too, happen on Thursdays …

But no missing the night’s big event; the farewell performance of Laura Minici Zotti and her magic lantern show La Grande Arte della Luce e dell’Ombra (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), culled from the enormous collection she has established at her museum in Padua, the Museo del Precinema; the transportation of priceless fragile glass slides no longer being a good idea; Madame Zotti acts as lanternist herself (resplendent in a late-Victorian blue-black shot-silk evening dress, bustle and all) while a lecturer read from the stage; the Verdi had been heavily adapted to enable the lantern to display on the cinema screen, which looked fine from where I was sat, but I did wonder quite how much some people saw from their positions, what with the Verdi’s sightlines.

The show was terrific; the slides spectacular, particularly those examples where, by use of fades, daytime scenes transform to night as we watch; not to mention special slides designed to hold live insects, and live small fish, swimming across the screen … extraordinary. The stalwart of every magic lantern show I’ve ever seen seem to be the kaleidoscopic slides … here they were spellbinding; we really were getting the highlights of the collection. If there was one slight personal disappointment, it was that it was presented very much as a history lecture … which is fine as an approach, obviously; but I was hoping for a recreation of a big magic lantern show of the era, and that wasn’t quite what we saw. But what we saw was unforgettable too.

There was then a fair gap in the programme as the Verdi was turned back into its cinema format, ready for the late screening of more of the 1910’s French comedy shorts … so I took in some air, honestly meaning to take in the second half of the set which included some Max Linder … and possibly the 1hr 37m Shochiku drama Kinkanshoku (Japan 1934) (Eclipse) due to start at 11.20pm … but I failed you. I feel deeply ashamed …

No shame, please, Mysterious. I haven’t made it to a late screening at Pordenone for years now. Many thanks for an attentive and illuminating account. The report on Friday’s offerings will follow soon (hopefully with just as many eye-catching ellipses, semi-colons and classy use of words like ‘escutcheon’).

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day four

Giornate del Cinema Muto poster in a Pordenone shop window at night

And then it rained. There’s always one day of heavy rain at Pordenone (it is quite near the Alps, after all) and on Tuesday October 5th it came down in torrents. This was certainly a day for sheltering in the cinema and viewing everything that came up.

Unfortunately that meant starting at 9.00am with another selection of Boireau films. As noted in day three, the French comedian André Deed’s second stint as Boireau (1911-1914) produced work that was markedly inferior to his time in Italy playing the character Cretinetti. This second selection sufered from the same frantic gesticulation and body-bending from a performer who did not know how to stand still. Une Extraordinaire Aventure de Boireau (France 1913) stood out for the extraordinary comic conceit of having two men welded together after a heavy weight falls on top of them. One, Boireau, adapts to his new circumstances with zest; the other is wretched and complains all the time. It wasn’t exactly funny, but it was memorable. I kept thinking of the British comedian Norman Wisdom, whose death had just been reported, someone who once had audiences tearful with laughter only to live on to a time when audiences could only look on his work with bemusement and embarassment. What happens to humour when it isn’t funny any more? We just want to turn away.

And then we got a series of Calino films starring Roméo Bosetti, and Boireau looked like a comic master once again, at least by comparison. Enough of all this, let’s have some challenging Soviet documentaries.

Even at this short distance in time, I have little memory left of Mati Samepo (Their Kingdom) (USSR 1928) a 22-minute fragment from a five-reel documentary compilation of Georgian newsreel material made by Mikhail Kalatozov. All that remains are some impressions of satirical intent about oil in Kalatozov’s native Georgia, and a noticeable number of stray dogs. Unforgettable, however, was his documentary Jim Shuante (Salt for Svanetia) (USSR 1930). This was a strange film about a strange corner of the world. Svanetia is a remote area of Georgia, high in Caucasus mountains. The areas is inhabited by the Svans, and in its focus on their hard lives and distinctive cultural practices, it was another in series the films of anthropological interest that featured throughout the festival. However it was far from being a conventional, fact-based documentary. Some of the customs featured were a fiction – such as turning pregnant women out of a house to give birth, which was the practice in another region of Georgia but not in Svanetia. It showed life at its most rudimentary and functional, with miseries piled upon miseries to the point where it was almost comical (I was reminded of Buñuel’s Las Hurdes which similarly piles on the wretchedness beyond the point of sympathy). The images were often brutal or earthy, and they were always astonishing composed, but they told you nothing about the people. They were merely ciphers – and ciphers for a society that bore only a tangential relationship to reality. They existed to serve as subjects for an exercise in filmic style, not as people in their own right. The film did not inform; it exploited. It was the antithesis of the model anthropological film.

Salt for Svanetia (1930), from Wikipedia

Nor did it work as piece of Soviet propaganda. The ostensible reason for making the film was to show how a road-building programme was bringing the much needed salt to Svanetia and connecting it to the outside world, ensuring its modernisation and survival. But, as the programme note told us, the road-building was fiction too, and the whole message felt tacked on, as no doubt it was to please the party critics and censors (though they suppressed the film anyway). For Kalatozov the poetics of the image is all, and one comes away with visions of sun and shadow sweeping over the mountain sides, the stark villages with their tall towers and seemingly no people out and about, and unanswered questions about how the people were persuaded to play for the cameras, and whether actors were used. Salt for Svanetia is an amazing film, but not an honourable one.

And they we were back in Japan. I missed a couple of short films, but then settled down for the afternoon’s epic, the 188-minute Ginga (The Milky Way) (Japan 1931), directed by Hiroshi Smimizu, he of the restless camera and uncertain directorial purpose. Or at least that’s how he had seemed so far, but for Ginga he reined in the gimmicks, aside from some deft lateral tracking shots which acted as an effective visual motif. The plot was pure soap opera once again. It concerned a daughter of a businessman who marries her seducer to avoid social disapproval, a storyline that was starting to get a bit too familiar, while the passive suffering of Japanese women was starting to grate just a tad. But in truth the plot was not that important, or rather the various relationships were obscure (at least to these Western eyes), and you just surendered to the gentle style and the astute balance of understated realism and melodrama. If there had been silent television, its dramas might have unfolded much like Ginga.

There then followed a pleasant interlude – an Irish television documentary on archivist and film historian Liam O’Leary, At the Cinema Palace: Liam O’Leary (Ireland 1983). This was a delightful account of the man who virtually single-handedly established the idea of Irish film history as something to document and the need for an Irish film archive. He also worked for a time at the British Film Institute, and there were some gorgeous archive images – David Robinson (the festival director) sporting a florid 1970s moustache, David Francis (one-time curator of the National Film Archive) with a truly terrible jacket, and such a young Kevin Brownlow (O’Leary introduced Brownlow to Abel Gance when no one at the BFI was available to greet the great silent director in Britain. What must Gance have thought when the BFI sent a 17-year-old schoolboy instead?). A film about a man whose purposeful passion for film spoke to every film archivist in the audience.

Charlie Chaplin (left) in A Thief Catcher, courtesy of Paul Gierucki and Slapsticon

In the evening we were treated to two of the most notable ‘lost’ film rediscoveries of the past year. First up, A Thief Catcher (USA 1914). Yes, at last a chance for us on this side of the pond to see the sensational discovery, made by Paul E. Gierucki, of a previously unknown performance by Charlie Chaplin in a Keystone comedy. It was known – because Chaplin said so in an interview – that he had appeared uncredited as a Keystone Kop early on in his film career, but never before had anyone rracked down such an appearance. A Thief Catcher is thought to have been either his second or fourth film for Keystone in terms of production (the catalogue told us it was shot 5-12 and 25-26 January 1914, with Chaplin’s bit probably in the latter) and the fourth in terms of release (19 February 1914). But enough of the historical minutiae – is it funny?

You bet it is. Not outstandingly so, but it gained more laughs in eight minutes than poor Boireau had managed to raise in two or three hours. It’s all in the cutting. The film is a typical breakneck speed Keystone offering, with routine knockabout elevated to something special simply by the speed of the action and the deftness of the edit. Boireau showed us comedy still rooted in the stage, the comic business contained within the single shot. Keystone gave us cross-cutting, the comedy of consequences, as each shot played off against the previous one. Ironically the film’s star, Ford Sterling, outdid André Deed in face-pulling, and probably no unfunnier man ever graced the cinema screen. But Chaplin was on the ball as a performer right at the start. He plays an inspector who investigates a shed where Sterling, playing a sheriff, has been imprisoned by three robbers. In his two-minute cameo (he appears briefly at the end as well) Chaplin gives an expert display in comic bemusement, ending up being knocked out by Sterling for his pains. The moustache is there, the baggy clothes, even a hint of splayed feet. It was a magical moment when he ambled on screen (the audience cheered). A Thief Catcher easily lived up to expectations.

Next up, after a trailer for the otherwise lost John Ford film Strong Boy (USA 1929) was an entire Ford feature film not known to exist until it turned up in New Zealand recently, Upstream (USA 1927). This was a comedy-drama set in a New York boarding house full of ‘resting’ actors, one of whom (Earle Foxe) unexpectedly gets an invitation to play Hamlet in London, because he comes from a great line of actors whose name he has inherited but with none of the necessary talent. But the plot didn’t matter much; what made Upstream such a delight was the series of comic vignettes of down-on-their theatrical types – knife-thrower, a pair of comic dancers, an old Shakespearean hand – a in a zippy, joyous opening sequence that was J.B. Priestley on roller skates. It showed you everything about why American cinema conquered the world – much as A Thief Catcher did, in fact.

It’s a minor film for all that, which ends rather abruptly with the rejection of the insufferably pompous Foxe character by his former colleagues, and one sensed that had they only had a stronger cast then the film could have been spun out to twice its length, because we wanted to know more about the characters. So, a lot of fun, a film to chalk up for those with an interest in Shakespeare on film (Foxe’s Hamlet mines every cliché about theatrical ham), and a film which does John Ford’s reputation no harm whatsover.

Capabalanca’s unwitting performance in Chess Fever, from ChessBase.com

In what was a peach of an evening’s programming, things were rounded off with me for one my all-time favourite films, Shakhmatnaya Goryachka (Chess Fever) (USSR 1925). This delirious comedy is terrific if you are a silent film fan, but if you are a chess fan as well, you’re in heaven. You get all startstruck in the opening sequence – look, there’s Réti! And Torre! And Marshall! And Grünfeld! And, wow, Capablanca! Chess Fever was shot by Vsevolod Pudovkin during the international chess tournament held in Moscow in November 1925. Its slight plot revolves around a man so obsessed with chess (even his socks have black-and-white squares) that he forgets his own wedding, but chess brings the two hearts together in the end. It’s filled with a succession of superb sight gags, where all of Moscow is shown to be chess-mad. It culminates with the great José Raúl Capablanca himself, the world chess champion, who appears in the film when the frustrated fiancée accosts him, though he was not aware that a dramatic film was being made with himself as a crucial character. Günter Buchwald (on top form all week) provided an appropriately lively score for violin, piano (he played both), double bass and drums, revealing himself in the catalogue to be a chess enthusiast as well. And has there ever been a better closing line for film than, “Darling, let’s try the Sicilian Defence”?

After all that I wasn’t much in the mood for Lev Push’s Gypsy Blood (USSR 1928) – some film titles make you fear the worst – and I called it a day.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day three

Interior of the Verdi, showing the cover which goes over the central seats of the lower circle to prevent people sitting in front of the projector beam

Some said that it was a strong programme at Pordenone this year. But maybe they were misheard and what they really said as that you had to be strong for the programme at Pordenone this year. It certainly felt that way as we faced up to the epic offering on Monday morning, Ai Yo Jinrui To Tomo Ni Are (Love, Be With Humanity) (Japan 1931), all four hours and one minute of it. It took up the entire morning and the screening had to start half an hour earlier than usual, at 8:30, to fit it in.

I will confess that I lingered over breakfast and did not get to the Verdi until 9.00, where I expected to catch five minutes of the film and then head out for a coffee somewhere. But I got hooked. This wasn’t directed by Shimizu, it was the work of Shimazu (Yasujiro Shimazu), and what a difference the change in vowel made. This was as polished and authoritative a piece of direction as you could hope to find, aided by some outstanding performances. Love, Be With Humanity (is the title really that dreadful in Japanese too?) was the dramatic highlight of the festival so far.

The story was pure Peyton Place, or Jeffrey Archer. A rich, selfish father, superbly played by Sojin Kaminyama (who had returned to Japan after a period in Hollywood appearing in The Thief of Bagdad and as Charlie Chan), is deservedly saddled with four ungrateful, awkward children, each of different mothers. One is a wealthy wife most interested in jewelry than her child, another daughter is getting married, one son is a cold, intellectual, the other son is a fiery rebel (played by Denmei Suzuki) who refuses to take any money from his father, after the way his mother died wretchedly. The stage is set for a soap opera of epic proportions and concomitant confusion, but unlike his near namesake Shimazu so ably managed the interlocking elements of his narrative that you were never lost, and never impatient, despite the indulgent running time. In the end the father is ruined and the only child who cares for him is the rebellious son. Their climactic argument, where they trade insults yet the son’s wife recognises that they have actually already forgiven one another, exemplified the intelligent approach, constantly playing against expectation, that characterised the film.

And then there was the final reel. No one who was there is likely to forget it in a hurry. Father and son have emigrated to the USA, and taken up the cowboy life. The intertitles have switched from Japanese to English, and the whole conclusion, with stetsons, cowboy boots, beaming neighours and the home on the range, just boggled the mind. Doubtless it all rang true in Japan, but here we couldn’t quite believe our eyes. And then it was over, and there was huge applause for pianist Mie Yanashita, whose vivid accompaniment had been subtly attuned throughout to the film’s ebbs and flows, but it was sort of applause for ourselves as well for having made it all the way through.

I had been looking forward to the afternoon’s first offering. André Deed is generally thought of as one of the great non-American comic performers of the silent cinema period. He was a music hall comedian who joined the film business in 1901 with Georges Méliès in 1901, moving to Pathé in 1906. The character that he established, Boireau, became progressively popular throughout Europe and effectively established the idea of the comic character appearing in a series of films. He moved to Italy in 1908, establishing a new character, Cretinetti, for the Itala company (known as Foolshead in English) and it is Cretinetti films that I’ve long revered for their energetic style and clever mixture of half-wittedness with quick-wittedness. He returned to Pathé in 1911 and became Boireau once more before his career faded with the onset of the First World War.

Pordenone was presenting a strand on French comedy films (a speciality of festival director David Robinson) so it was Boireau that we got on Monday afternoon, ten titles, of which two were from his first period with Pathé, eight from his second. Sadly they were a huge disappointment. Deed mugged and gurned for all he was worth in a series of sloppily conceived scenarios that were resolutely unfunny. In the place of any visual invention we got face-pulling from Deed and much laughter directed at the camera from other performers – it’s always a bad sign when the actors feel obliged to laugh at the comic business, when that is our business. Alas, Boireau on this evidence was tedious, certainly no match for Cretinetti.

Variety is guaranteed at Pordenone. From pre-war French comedy we moved to late 20s Soviet cinema. One of the festival’s main strands was ‘Three Soviet Careers’, looking at the work of Mikhail Kalatozov, Abram Room and Lev Push. Lursmani Cheqmashi (The Nail in the Boot) (USSR 1931) was made by Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozishvili, who as Kalatozov would gain international fame for The Cranes are Flying (1957) and I Am Cuba (1964). His documentary films of the late 20s/early 30s were characterised by a truly extraordinary visual style but also a muddled ideology that saw them fall foul of Stalin’s censors.

The Nail in the Boot adapts the old tale of the nail eventually causing some great disaster as things build up because the original small irritation was not dealt with (“and all for the want of a horseshoe nail”). A group of soldiers in an armoured train come under attack. One of their number goes off to find help, but because of a nail in his boot he is hampered in his journey and the battle is lost. He is the subjected to a trial, where he comes in for intense criticism but eventually successfully argues his case.

The film was roundly criticised by the Soviets (particularly the Army) for being confusing and ideologically unsound, as a consequence of which it was banned. Seeing it now you have some sympathy with those critics. The nail theory is ridiculous, and the succession of calamities that befalls the soldier encourages our sympathies not our censure, so that he seems cruelly victimised by the subsequent show trial. Whosever’s fault it was that the armoured train was lost, it was surely not his. If there was a message there at all, it was not one that any true Soviet would wish to champion.

But in truth there is no message there at all. The Nail in the Boot is an exercise in pure cinematic style. No doubt Kalatosov was driven by some ideological certainties, but his camera drove him elsewhere. It is just an astonishing film to experience. Every image is burnished to perfection. The stylised results look like nothing on earth. There are the statuesque faces, the unreal landscapes, the astonishing shots from within gun barrels, the eerie intensity of the court room. It is cinematically brilliant – except that cinematic must mean more than technique, it must be technique applied to a particular and consistent aim. Here Kalatozov fails – but what an extraordinary failure.

Talking of extraordinary things, Stephen Horne‘s music was a multi-instrumental tour de force. Some may have though that there was a piano, accordion and flute trio accompanying the film, but no, it was the one man. Stephen can so far only play two of those three instruments at the same time, but it surely can’t be long before he is able to add the third as well.

Torres Straits islanders recreating ceremonies of the Malu cult for A.C. Haddon’s camera, from the 1898 film in the BFI National Archive

Anthropology was an unexpected sub-theme of the festival. Next up came The Masks of Mer (UK 2010), a documentary made by Michael Eaton about the Cambridge Anthropological Expedition of 1898 to the Torres Strait islands to the north of Australia. The expedition was led by Alfred Cort Haddon, a zoologist who became so fascinated by the native people he met on the islands when he first visited them in 1888 that he returned a decade later to study the humans. Remarkably he took with him not just notebooks to record his findings, but a phonograph to record songs and speech, and a motion picture camera.

The films survive, and form the centrepiece of Eaton’s fascinating and rather wise film. Haddon only received his camera a day or two before he was due to leave, but he captured short scenes of fire-making, of dances by some visiting Australian Aborigines, and most remarkable of all a Malu cult initiation ceremony dance which had had been suppressed by Christian missionaries. Haddon invited the people of the island of Mer to recreate three sacred masks (out of cardboard) which were essential to the ceremony and got them perform the forbidden dance for the camera. Some might think that this recreation falsifies the value of the film and the anthropological study, but Eaton argues persuasively that the collaborative nature of the film – Haddon working closely and sympathetically with his subjects – displays a deeper truth. Just pointing a camera at actuality does not reveal its true substance. It is what its subjects wanted to be shown that counts. This was as much the Torres Straits islanders’ film as it was Haddon’s, and that what was so extraordinary about Haddon, that he recognised this. The film also runs the sound recordings alongside the films. The two were not recorded together, but Haddon certainly exhibited them together (in 1906, if not before), so the experiment was justified. The film’s most magical moment was when Eaton visited Cambridge University and was shown the very masks that appear in the film, lovingly stored in the Haddon archive. It was a mysteriously moving moment. Anyway, a fine documentary of the kind you just don’t see on television any more.

So that was the afternoon done. Supper was spent in conversation about archives, exhibitions, scholarly project and the rich subject of colour, the fruits of which you may learn of at some other time. But then it was time to hurry back to the Verdi for the great treat of the evening, a film I had been waiting twenty years to see, ever since Kevin Brownlow programmed it at the National Film Theatre, describing it as one of the most amazing visual spectacles of the silent era, and for some reason I was unable to see it. This was going to be good.

Le Miracle des Loups (The Miracle of the Wolves) (France 1924) has a reputation as one of the highpoints of French silent cinema. It is set in the fifteenth century during the reign of Louis XI (Charles Dullin) and it tells of the challenge to the king’s authority by the rebellious Charles the Bold, Duke of Burgundy (Vanni Marcoux), while rival noblemen fight over heroine Jeanne Fouquet, played by Yvonne Sergyl. The film, directed by Raymond Bernard, is on a truly epic scale, with setpieces of the battle of Montlhéry and the siege of the castle of Beauvais which are meant to show off the millions of francs that were clearly spent on them. Romance, rivalry, intrigue, violence, spectacle, all in the hands of a skilled director – what could possibly go wrong?

Oh dear, oh dear. Right from the start it was clear that something was wrong, when the prelude introduced us to the romance between Jeanne and Tobert Cotterau, played by the toe-curlingly unromantic-looking Romauld Joubé, during which she gets her pet dog to pass a message to him by lifting the bewildered dog over a wall. On top of this we were fed long and tedious intertitles filling us in on all the history, with all of the unwelcome earnestness of a history teacher of very much the old school. It set the tone for the disaster that was to unfold before us over the next two hours or more.

A more turgid plod of a movie it would be hard to imagine. What it did remind me of, in fact, is a 1909 Gaumont one-reeler, Le Huguenot, which crams in a complex plot with too many characters, overlong intertitles obsessed with pedantic detail, all put over with histrionic performances strong on gesture and redundant when it comes to human feeling. The Miracle of the Wolves is simply a 1909 historical film stretched out to 130 minutes. It was so half-hearted throughout. The performances were lethargic (particularly Charles Dullin, who tried to look Machivellian but just looked like he was struggling to remember where he was), and even the battle scenes were undercooked (despite some bloody examples of what fighting in the Middle Ages was actually like), with extras just about going through the motions.

The key scene was the miracle itself. Jeanne is being pursued by the evil Comte du Lau (Gaston Modot, chewing up the scenery) in the mountainside snows when she is surrounded by wolves, who settle down around her before attacking the Comte’s men. We were meant to be awe-struck – instead all too many of the audience laughted heartily at the scene’s absurd piety. All in all, a film without any heart at all. I’d waited twenty years to see it and it felt like twenty years watching it. There was some historical interest in the screening for which Touve Ratovondrahety played a piano transcription of Henri Rabaud’s original score, but to be honest it had little to stir the imagination. But then it had such poor material to work with. Oh dear oh dear.

But there would be better fare on the morrow.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day two

Verdi theatre, Pordenone

There’s no time for slouching at Pordenone if you are serious about your film-watching. A few habitués of the Giornate del Cinema Muto seem to have come for the sun and conversation, taking up near permanent residence in the pavement cafés, but for the rest of us breakfast was swiftly followed by the first film of the day at 9.00am sharp and the final film of the day concluding around midnight. They do let you out for lunch and dinner, but in general it’s a tough regime we had to follow.

And so we move to day two, Sunday 3 October, and what was to become the daily routine of starting off with a long Japanese film, just to test our stamina. Our 9.00am offering was Nanatsu No Umi (Seven Seas) (Japan 1931-32), made in two parts and shown back-to-back over 150 minutes. The films were made by Hiroshi Shimizu, director of the previous day’s Japanese Girls at the Harbour, and there were clear similarities in preoccupations and style.

The film tells of Yumie (played by Hiroko Kawasaki) who is torn between two brothers. She is engaged to the first but seduced by the second, following which her father dies and her sister goes mad. She marries her seducer but takes her revenge by refusing to let him touch her and spending all his money on her sister’s care in a mental hospital. It was pure soap opera, with a somewhat discontinuous narrative (particularly in part 1) characterised by seemingly random elements (just who was it who committed suicide in part 1, and why?) and unclear connections between some of the characters. Then it all ended with a happy ending so rapidly organised that you suspected that a reel was missing. As with Saturday, Shimizu showed off plenty of directorial tricks but lacked the basic skill of connecting one shot with another to propel a narrative forward. But he also showed the same intriguing, codified cultural elements, dividing the action up into public lives that showed the influence of the West (clothing, occupations, the key location of a sports shop) and traditional Japanese dress and manners within the private sphere. You felt you had been given a privileged glimpse into early 1930s Japanese life in the kind of middle-brow film that doesn’t usually make it to retrospectives. Japan’s leading silent film pianist Mie Yanashita was an excellent accompanist for this and all the other Japanese films that featured in the festival.

Scenes from Rituaes e festas Borôro (1916), from http://www.scielo.br

Now these dramatic films are fine in themselves, and even the severest of film critics likes to see a story told well, but regulars will know that what really stirs the heart of the Bioscope is the non-fiction film. So I was looking forward greatly to what was next on the list – Brazilian documentaries – and was not disappointed. In particular the first film of three, Rituaes e festas Borôro (Rituals and Festivals of the Borôro) (Brazil 1916) was one of the highlights of the festival. The filmmaker was Luiz Thomas Reis, photographer and cinematographer with the Commission of Strategic Telegraph Lines from the Mato Grosso to the Amazon, more simply known as the Rondon Commission. The Commission was tasked with mapping the unknown regions of Brazil and making contact with remote tribes. Reis documented this work on film, in part with the hope that the exhibition of such films would raise further funding.

Rituaes e festas Borôro is an extraordinary work, simply by letting the extraordinary speak for itself. Its subject is the Borôro people of the Mato Grosso region, specifically the funeral ceremonies for an elder of the village. I am no expert in anthropology, but the film seemed to me notable for its observant, unpatronising, humane manner. The camera never intruded, only witnessed, and the Borôro were not looked upon as objects of curiosity but as people respected for their customary practices and milieu. This was somewhat charmingly exemplified by the dogs. Stray dogs in early films are something of a Bioscope fetish, and Reis’ film captured not just the dances of the Borôro but the dogs who casually wandered in and out of the frame, surveying the strange things that these humans do in whatever part of the globe that humans happen to gather. The only questionable note was the assurance made by the film’s titles that these rites were not permitted to be seen by whites or women – yet here was the camera filming them. Such are the paradoxes of the anthropological film, a subject to which the Giornate would find itself returning in subsequent days.

Two other Reis films made for the Rondon Commission followed, Parima, fronteiras do Brasil (Brazil 1927) and Viagem ao Roroima (Brazil 1927). Each just under 30mins in length, these were more conventionally ‘travelogue’ in style. The first documented an inspection of the Brazilian-French Guiana border, following the river, with some thrilling shots taken from the front of a travelling canoe (the Brazilian version of the phantom ride), but with plenty of signs of encroaching colonisation in the builings that littered the banks of the river. The second explored the borderland between Brazil, Venezuela and British Guiana and concluded with breathtaking views of 1,000-foot high rock faces. In both films there were sequences where they came upon tribes, so positioned in the film as to be the big pay-off shots, the exotic conclusions which would capture the interest and wallets of likely funders. Rituaes e festas Borôro was in every sense the better film.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück, with a band in the understage area playing the Internationale

So that was the morning session. A foul snack lunch and earnest conversations about budget cuts (again) and we were back at 14:30 for Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück (Mother Krause’s Journey to Happiness) (Germany 1929). This was being shown as pat of the Giornate’s ‘The Canon Revisited’ strand. There is an occasional air of pompousness about the festival, and this idea of re-assessing canonical films exemplifies it. It’s a good idea to revisit classics, especially for the new audiences the festival is attracting, but a number of these films were titles that many of us had not had any chance to see the first time round; indeed I suspect most of us had not even heard of them. Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück was a case in point; a film I’d vaguely heard of, but never seen, though I will admit it’s a classic of sorts and certainly merits being brought back to the screen once more.

Mutter Krausens Fahrt ins Glück is as agit-prop a film as you could expect to see. Directed by Piel Jutzi, it combines melodrama with documentary realism in its depiction of the ground-down lives of the Berlin proletariat. It tells of the family and tenants of an apartment managed by the aged Mother Krause (Alexandra Schmidt), pitting the apathy and resignation of the individualised poor (generally the elderly) against the positive binding together of those who follow the Communist party (generally the young). Its highpoint is where the harassed daughter (Ilse Trautschold) joins her boyfriend in a protest march to the sounds of the Internationale – literally so in our case, because at this point a marching band of red-suited musicians entered the Verdi theatre and played the marching song to much applause. It was a wonderful thearical coup – typical of the imagination that goes into the Giornate.

However, despite such rousing gestures, the film’s message was an unsettling one. We were supposed to reject Mother Krause’s miserablist view of her fate, but only after the film had done all it could to make us feel sorry for her, so that the ending – where she gasses herself and a sleeping child, because life simply isn’t worth it for either of them – was distasteful and the conclusion ambiguous. It was a stylish and imaginatively experimental film, but what it expounded was more posture than principle.

Next up came a selection of Pathé short comedies with surprisingly sophisticated live musical accompaniment from pupils of the Scuola Media “Balliana-Nievo” from nearby Sacile, music that was a good deal richer in colour and instrumentation than other schools’ work with silent films that I have heard. They were followed by pupils of Pordenone’s Scuola Media Centro Storico, who took on the truly bizarre Charley Bowers, an American comedian whose gimmick was to combine comedy with stop-frame animation. In There it is (USA 1928) he plays a Scottish detective from Scotland Yard who tackles the case of a haunted house with the aid of his cockroach sidekick, MacGregor. It wasn’t strictly funny, but it left this viewer – whose first Bowers film it was – opened-mouthed at its unabashed weirdness. If Salvador Dali had been employed by Leo McCarey, he might have made There it is.

In need of a break, I missed the new documentary Palace of Silents (USA 2010) on the story of Los Angeles’ Silent Movie Theater, returning for the evening’s screenings. The Giornate was celebrating the 75th anniversary of two of the world’s leading film archives, MOMA and the BFI National Archive. To mark its 75th year, the BFI took the interesting decision to try and recreate part of a programme of the Film Society. The Film Society was formed in London in 1925 by a bunch of radicals led by the Hon. Ivor Montagu, which eventually included such notables as Anthony Asquith, Iris Barry, Sidney Bernstein, Roger Fry, Julian Huxley, Augustus John, Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. The Society (the first of its kind in the world) put on films of artistic, historic or political interest at the New Gallery Kinema in Regent Street, often showing films from the USSR which had been refused a licence by the British Board of Film Censorship (they could do so because the films were shown to members of a private club). The Film Society had a huge influence on British film culture, and after it ceased operating in 1939 its collection went to the BFI.

On 10 November 1929 the members of the Society witnessed perhaps the most remarkable film programming coup ever – the world premiere of John Grierson’s Drifters, the cornerstone of the British documentary movement, and the UK premiere of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, plus James Sibley Watson’s avant garde classic The Fall of the House of Usher (USA 1928) and Walt Disney’s Barn Dance (USA 1929). Now that’s programming.

Drifters (1929)

Audiences were made of sterner stuff in 1929, because we were only shown the first two. Drifters (UK 1929) is one of those classics more cited than seen and those who have seen it generally did years ago. Looking at it again after twenty years in my case, it is a work that easily merits its high reputation. It documents the work herring fishermen, and by its Soviet-inspired use of montage combined with a very British tatse for understated realism it immediately stands out from any other film of actuality produced in the UK (or anywhere else) to that date. One understands why its effect on audiences at the time was so electric, and why it did indeed inspire a whole school of documentary filmmaking.

However, it is also an odd film. It falls into three parts. The first, where the fishermen go out to sea, is in classic documentary style, showing man pitted against the elements, elevated (but not excessively ennobled) by toil. Part two, the night-time sequence, is strange. The fishermen sleep, but in the seas beneath we see the herring shoals swimming to and fro, menaced by dogfish. What has this to do with documentary? It tells us nothing of the people involved. Are we mean to gain insight into the lives of the fish? What is going on? It’s a sequence that dosn’t seem to get discussed much in studies of Drifters, yet here is the archetypal Griersonian documentary, and at its heart it slips into a strange, blue-tinted reverie, a fisherman’s dream. Part three is where the catch is taken to harbour, with often exhilaratingly scenes of commerce, industrialisation and human interaction. As Russell Merritt notes in the Giornate catalogue, “Grierson claimed the sequence was pointed social critique, exposing capital’s exploitation of the workers”. It is no such thing. It is unabashed championing of the power of the marketplace. Grierson the instinctive filmmaker was not the political filmmaker that he thought that he should be – he was too good for that.

Do you really need my thoughts on Bronenosets Potemkin (Battleship Potemkin) (USSR 1925)? As probably the most discussed film in history outside of Citizen Kane, I guess not. It was an odd way of celebrating the anniversary of the BFI National Archive, especially as the print came from the Deutsche Kinemathek, but it was enriching to compare and contrast with Drifters. It’s a film that disappointed me greatly when I first saw it (with the original Edmund Meisel score), probably because I was so expecting to be impressed and because of the absence of conventional narrative. As a story, it hasn’t got much going for it. As cinematic posturing, particularly as one of a planned series of films celebrating the 1905 revolution, it makes absolute sense. Every scene is overplayed, but it is always compelling to watch. There is not a dull composition in it.

And that was enough for a Sunday. I did see the first twenty minutes or so of Dmitri Buchowetski’s Karusellen (Sweden 1923), which looked fabulous. but I was sceptical of any story where a circus sharpshooter somehow is able to afford a vast country house and where the happily married wife instantly falls for a stranger because that’s what always happens with strangers. Enough of such artificiality – give me the kine-truth of documentary, and better still the unvarnished simplicity of actuality. For all of the canonical classics on show, the film of the day was a plain record of tribal dances from the Amazonian forest in 1916. So often the simplest is best.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one

Verdi theatre and Posta cafe, Pordenone, Italy

Every Giornate del Cinema del Muto has its particular theme. The world-renowned silent film festival, held in Pordenone, Italy every October, programmes according to themes. This year we were offered films from the Japanese Schochiku Company, three Soviet filmmakers (Kalatozov, Room and Push) and French clowns 1907-1914 as the main strands, but there is always another theme at play, usually a reflection of the world outside from which we festival-goers enjoy a week’s respite. And 2010’s theme was hard times.

Hard times first of all for the festival itself. The world economic crisis hit the Giornate as it has hit everywhere else, and the results were evident everywhere. The modest accreditation fee had gone up. The traditional Film Fair could not take place. There was only the one film venue (with the positive spin to be taken from this that everyone had a chance to see every film on show). There were fewer films on show. Early publicity for the festival had promised films from Weimar Germany and the comedy short films of Leo McCarey – they were not there.

Hard times were also the topic of many a festival conversation, particularly among those from cultural institutions, and especially among the British waiting to see how deeply the axe will fall come the Comprehensive Spending Review later this month. Everything cost a little more, the exchange rates were unkind, the invitations to guests were down. Hard times indeed.

And yet, and yet. This was also a particularly successful Giornate. If there were few out-and-out classics on display, there was a profusion of discoveries and revelations. The audiences were excellent (it was a struggle to find a seat for the evening shows), and among them there were many new, young faces either eager for silent films alone or simply widening their appreciation of film culture overall. There was a vitality about the place. Add on top of that some glorious sunshine (the one obligatory day of torrential rain aside – Pordenone is near to the Alps, after all), a most welcoming town, convivial company and an embarrassment of fine eating places, and we were in the best place possible enjoying the most civilised of activities.

And so we begin another Bioscope Pordenone diary – daily reports on each of the eight days of the Giornate, which ran 2-9 October 2010. Because your scribe was only there for five days or so, there will be some additional reporting from our substitute reporter who is known only by the name of The Mysterious X. His (or her) views on the films on show will be given in due course. But to kick things off, you are in my hands.

Cadging a lift in the Giornate car

There are three airports to choose from if you are flying to Pordenone. Most come via Venice or Treviso; I took the more scenic route via Trieste, which takes longer but rewards you with glorious views over the Adriatic as you take the airport bus into the city. Or at least I would have gone that way had I not been fortunate to be offered a lift in a Giornate car with John Sweeney, one of the festival’s team of supremely talented pianists. So it was that I arrived at Pordenone well ahead of schedule and in royal style. Registration was in the new town Library, set around a beautiful colonnaded square, and armed with catalogue, other literature and a lurid orange festival bag, I was able to get to my first film having only missed a collection of French clowns films and Nelly Kaplan’s 1983 documentary on Abel Gance. The films are screened in the new Verdi theatre in the centre of Pordenone, a strikingly modernist building with curving white walls, lots of glass, and oh so comfortable seating within for the several hundred accredited to the festival (locals swelled our numbers still further by coming to the evening screenings).

And so to Minato No Nihon Musume (Japan 1933), or Japanese Girls at the Harbour. The festival’s main strand was films of the Shochiku studio, founded in 1920, and three of its leading filmmakers, Yasukiro Shimazu, Hiroshi Shimizu and Kiyohiko Ushihara. All three worked at Shochiku’s Tokyo studios, where the preference was for modern dramas with a strong element of Western influences. This was very clear in Shimizu’s Japanese Girls at the Harbour. The film told of two young women, Sunako (Michiko Oikawa) and Dora (Yukiko Inoue). Sunako falls in love with Henry (Ureo Egawa) who becomes involved with gangsters. He falls for another woman, who is shot and wounded by Sunako, who flees the city and becomes a prostitute. Meanwhile Henry marries steady Dora. Then Sunako returns…

The film was distinguished by striking pictorial compositions and an array of eye-catching devices, among them dissolves, tracking shots and jump cuts. When Sunako shoots her rival the camera zooms in on her face in jolts, then just as joltingly zooms out again. It was further distinguished by fascinating elements of Westernisation, particulaly associated with Henry, including suits, dance styles, clothing, motor cars, cigarette smoking, piano playing, and the prominent positioning of a Christian church. What was problematic was that none of these elements combined to make a coherent film story. Right from the outset you got an unsettling sense of no one shot really connecting with another. The narrative drifted, and just what point the director hoped to make became obscured as the plot thickened. Uncertainty hung over everything, and not in a deliberate way. There were good things there, but the individual elements never quite cohered.

But there was more than enough there to whet the appetite, and I see that the film is available on a Shimizu boxed set from Criterion, which includes the one film of his that I knew beforehand, the utterly delightful Mr Thank You (Arigatau-san) (1936). This was a great favourite of the late John Gillett, programmer extraordinaire at the National Film Theatre who did so much to bring Japanese films to the West. But Mr Thank You is a sound film – Japanese films continued silent for quite some while into the 1930s, but not quite as far as 1936.

The entertainments carried on, but I did not. I’m not a one for shows were every seat is taken and you have to sit where a ticket tells you too (if you’re as tall as me this is a major issue), so I avoided the evening’s special, ticket-only screenings that launched the festival. For the record there was Ivor Montagu’s short film The Tonic (UK 1928), based on an idea by H.G. Wells and starring Elsa Lanchester and Charles Laughton (which I do regret missing); a new animation by Richard Williams, Circus Drawings (UK 2010) and Buster Keaton’s peerless The Navigator (USA 1924) with musical accompaniment from the grandly named European Silent Screen Virtuosi (Günter Buchwald and friends).

Instead I chatted to friends at the Posta cafe, which is situated opposite the Verdi and fuels the festival with cappuccini, where we discussed looming budget cuts with gallows humour. Then I shuffled off back to my hotel and prepared myself for the rigours of the day to come. Which you’ll learn all about in Day Two.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Salim Baba

From time to time I’ve been posting on the bioscope tradition in India and the delightful examples of the handful who preserve the tradition of the travelling bioscope showmen or bioscopewallahs by taking film projectors – sometimes of great age – into the streets to show film clips to audiences of eager children.

This phenomenon has been picked up on by a number of filmmakers, as noted in an earlier post about the bioscopewallahs. Some of these videos are available online, and we have already posted the wonderful Prakash Travelling Cinema about a man who tours the streets of Ahmedabad operating a c.1910 Pathé projector, handcranked but adapted for sound.

Children crowding round the street projector, from Salim Baba

Now another of the films has been published online, Salim Baba, a 15-minute documentary by Tim Sternberg, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 2008 in the best short documentary category. It’s about as good a short film as you could hope to find – not startling in any way, just immaculately observant. It tells of 55-year-old Salim Muhammad, who lives in Kolkata and pushes round a small cart with a hand-cranked, customised projector of venerable age (one source says it is an 1897 Bioscope, another says that it is Japanese in origin). Again it has been adapted for sound, and he shows shows snippets of Bollywood songs and action sequences for a gaggle of excited children who crowd round the cart and pop their heads under a curtain to view the blurred and colour faded images. Salim inherited the tradition from his father, who used the same projector from the silent era onwards, and he is now passing it on to his sons. The love of cinema – its contents, its technology and its effect on people – fills the film. Do take a look.

A previous Bioscope post, The last bioscopewallah, tells Salim Muhammad’s story in greater detail.

Acknowledgments to the Documentary Blog where I found the link to the film.

Lifting the curtain

A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash)

I had an idea to devote August to a particular theme here at the Bioscope, namely catalogues and databases, but problems with some resources I’ve been testing have put that on the back-burner for the time being. Instead, it looks like Asian cinema is becoming our hot topic. If you follow the comments to the recent post on digitised newspapers from Singapore you will find a rich array of information on early Asian cinema studies from two expert scholars in the field, Stephen Bottomore and Stephen Hughes.

It is Stephen Hughes who has alerted us to the existence of BioScope: South Asian Screen Studies, a new journal which will be including early film subjects within its remit, as an essay in its first number indicates, Sudhir Mahadevan’s “Traveling Showmen, Makeshift Cinemas: The Bioscopewallah and Early Cinema History in India”. If you follow the Asian cinema category here at this Bioscope you will find a number of posts which cover bioscopewallahs or Indian touring film showmen, some of whom are still operating original silent-era projectors. The term comes from the Bioscope projector first marketed in the USA and the the UK by Charles Urban in the late 1890s/early 1900s, which proved so popular that it spread worldwide not just as a projector but as the name of where you saw films (the term is still common as a place where you see films in South Africa). UK fairground film shows were called bioscopes, many of the first UK cinemas were referred to as bioscopes, and one of the leading British film trade journals of the period was called The Bioscope. Anyway, a warm welcome to a well-named journal, which is operating in a grand tradition.

And then there’s more. On 25 August, at the Nehru Centre in London, there is a launch event for a year-long project (funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund) on the linkages between silent cinema in India and Britain, entitled Lifting the Curtain: Niranjan Pal & Indo-British Collaboration in Cinema in the UK (1902-29). This project is being managed by the South Asian Cinema Foundation (SACF) and began this May. The project main subject is screenwriter, director and playwright Niranjan Pal, who wrote the Anglo-Indo-German silent features The Light of Asia (1925), Shiraz (1928) and A Throw of Dice (1929, now available on DVD), before becoming chief scenarist at Bombay Talkies in 1934.

The Nehru Centre event will feature film clips and presentations on early cinema, filmmakers, filmmaking and film exhibition in Britain and India, together with information the various film sources that are available for students keen to conduct research in this area – a key aim of the project. The project is supported by the British Film Institute and the British Library, and among the speakers is the BL’s moving image curator, Luke McKernan i.e. me, talking about Charles Urban and the filming in Kinemacolor of the 1911 Delhi Durbar.

More information from the Nehru Centre (scroll down to 25 August) and the SACF site.

Singaporean times


It’s been a while since the Bioscope covered a digitised newspaper collection. Since we wrote about The Times, The Guardian, New York Times, and about collected archival databases such as France’s Gallica, Austrlian Newspapers, New Zealand’s Papers Past and the UK’s 19th Century Newspapers, more digitised newspapers have become available. Our long-promised round-up of these will get produced one of these days, but you can always check the Wikipedia list of online newspapers or the handy International News Archives on the Web.

One resource I’ve not covered previously is NewspaperSG. I stumbled across it quite by accident the other day, and was amazed first to find digitised newspapers from Singapore and Malaya dating from the early years of this century, and then to find such interesting material there that relates to film.

Feature film production only began in Malaysia and Singapore in the mid-1930s, but there was a history of film exhibition that went back to 1896. One of the treasures of the NewspaperSG site is a report on the inaugural exhibition of the Edison Kinetoscope in Singapore, reported on by the Straits Times on 13 July 1896:


Dr. Harley, the entertainer, ventriloquist, illusionist, and electrician, has brought the novelty of which the reading and scientific public have heard and read so much, viz., the novelty that Edison failed to finish in time for the Chicago Exhibition, and which he calls the Kinetoscope. It is in the shape of an upright hardwood pillar letter-box, being square instead of round, having a hooded slit in the top and a magnifier beneath, through which the beholder views the scene to be enacted.

The writer goes on to describe the film Bar Room Scene, then adds:

It should be understood that this is not an imaginary scene from the brush of an artist, but is an accurate photograph of a scene that has taken place … Dr. Harley will lecture and exhibit the machine at Messrs. Robinson’s music store from 10 till 5 to-day and Tuesday. Only a limited number will be able to view it as his accumulators are running low and he will not get them filled in Singapore.

There is so much information here, from the showman Dr. Harley, to the intelligence that Edison did not exhibit the Kinetosope at the 1893 World’s Fair (many a history still states the opposite as a fact, but they knew better in Singapore in 1896) and the revealing information about the lack of an electricity supply in Singapore in 1896.

A quick browse through the site using some likely keywords reveal an advertisement telling buyers to beware of buying bioscope projectors that were not proper Bioscopes (Straits Times, 25 October 1902); notices of the exhibition of Japanese films in 1907 (Eastern Daily Mail and Straits Morning Advertiser, 23 October 1907); an interview with Maurice Bandman, a leading cinema and theatre entrepreneur in India and East Asia, about his Shakespeare productions and connections with Kinemacolor (Weekly Sun, 30 September 1911); many hundreds of cinema programmes, such as that for the Harima Hall Cinematograph, which showed Zigomar v Nick Carter, film of ‘The Balkan Crisis’, Vitagraph’s Justice of the Sage, Edison’s The Living Peach and a Gaumont Graphic newsreel, issue number 41 (Straits Times, 12 November 1912); and opinion pieces on what Singaporean audiences liked and did not like (Straits Times, 22 October 1930). As well as information on screenings in Singapore, then is plenty of information culled from British and American journals, ensuring that local cinema-goers were kept up-to-date with the latest Hollywood gossip.

Many of the reports are quite short (one of the commendable things about the resource is that the search results list tells you how many words are in each article) but the wealth of documentary evidence about what was being seen in Singapore in the silent era is considerable, and practically every search term yields many hits. The resource itself is plain in style but helpfully put together. There is an advanced search option which allows you to narrow down researches by date, newspaper (there are seventeen on offer ranging 1836-2006) and content type (article, advertisement, letters etc.). There is also a fuzzy search option. The results page gives you title (hyperlinked to the article itself), newspaper, date, page, a portion of the OCR text (with plenty of errors, beware), word count and links to a full page view and a table of contents for that issue of the newspaper (a very nice feature). All of the digitised documents are heavily watermarked (though quite legible).

The early cinema in Singapore and Malaya is not going to be of abiding interest to most, but it is further and rich evidence of the rapid spread of motion pictures into every corner of the globe. It’s also a site that’s just a pleasure to browse.

The art of the benshi

Here’s an interview from the Japanese Times with Midori Sawato, best-known of the small band of voice artists who keep alive the art of the benshi. There are around ten modern benshi in Japan, who continue the tradition of adding live narration to silent films, which was the standard manner in which silent films were exhibited in Japan up to the late 1930s, when – at its peak – there were some 7,000 such benshi in employment. The benshi would be positioned alongside the screen and take on the multiple roles, accompanied by live music, and putting their particular personality onto the film entertainment. Sawato gives around 100 such shows per year.

Sawato has been featured here before, as she is main voice artist featured on Digital Meme’s Talking Silents series of Japanese silents with benshi narration, reported on here. In the interview (which takes a couple of minutes before she gets to silent films) she describes how she was working in publishing in 1972 when she went to a silent film narrated by master benshi Shunsui Matsuda, one of a number of celebrated benshi still active. She became so engrossed by the art that she became his apprentice, making her debut with Chaplin’s The Rink. One of the interesting aspects of the interview is the realisation that benshi narrate for non-Japanese silents as well as Japanese – which is of course how it was during the silent era.

The interview covers how she learned the art (mostly by listening), how she conveys different characters, and her thoughts about the importance of silent film as a means to preserve history and culture. There’s also the oblique admission that she continues to perform to the films despite relatively small audiences, believing that it is good work to be doing whether the audience be large or small. It’s a noble activity.

The video serves as my means to introduce The Bioscope on YouTube. I’ve set up a channel, or playlist, on YouTube which lists almost all of the videos featured on The Bioscope since its inception in February 2007. I say almost all, because some videos have been taken down since then, and some have come from other sites (such as Vimeo). But it’s most of them, and I think they make interesting browsing. I’ll continue to add each new video to the channel as they are featured on the blog. The Bioscope on YouTube is now a link on the right-hand column of this site, alongside our other satellite sites, The Bioscope on Flickr (images featured on or associated with the blog), The Bioscope Bibliography of Silent Cinema (selected from the British Library catalogue, still ongoing), The Bioscope on Twitter (a feed from blog posts only), and Urbanora’s Modern Silents (another YouTube playlist, with some overlaps with the new channel).

Viewing scarlet maple leaves

Ichikawa Danjuro IX (right) and Onoe Kikugoro V in Momiji-gari (Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves), filmed by Shibata Tsunekichi in November 1899

This is an extraordinary image. It’s a Japanese postcard dating from 1908 (the postage stamp says Meijii 41, which is 1908). However the image that it shows dates from November 1899. It shows on the right the greatest of all kabuki actors, Ichikawa Danjuro IX (1838-1903), and on the left Onoe Kikugoro V (1844-1903), second only in fame at the time to Danjuro. They have been photographed in a scene from the dance drama Momiji-gari, translated as Viewing Scarlet Maple Leaves or Maple Leaf Hunters. And the reason the drama was performed because it was done for a motion picture camera.

Projected film first came to Japan when businessman Inabata Katsutaro, a friend of Auguste Lumière, played host to Lumière operator François-Constant Girel, who gave a film show at the Nanchi Theatre in Osaka on 15 February 1897 (peepshow Kinetoscopes were exhibited in Japan in 1896). Film was an immediate hit with Japanese audiences, and several Japanese entrepreneurs enthusiatically adopted the new medium, among them Yokota Einosuke, Kawaura Ken’ichi and Arai Saburo.

It was Arai who was the first person to approach Danjuro with a proposal to film him, in 1897. Danjuro IX (left) was a legend of the kabuki theatre, ninth in an unbroken line of actors named Danjuro, and considered one of the greatest of all Japanese actors. He did much to preserve the art of kabuki and to raise the status of actors generally. However the actor, a deeply conservative character, reacted to Arai’s proposal with repugnance, refusing to have anything with a ‘shipbrought thing’ (thus equating the cinematograph with any other kind of foreign goods).

Two years later, Danjuro was sixty years old, and his manager Inoue Takejiro, was anxious to record his great art for posterity. On the understanding that such a film would go into his private vault and not been seen by the sort of commonfolk who frequented film shows, Danjuro assented. A film would be made of part of the dance play Momiji-gari, with Danjuro playing an ogress who has disguised herself as a princess (male actors always play female roles in kabuki) and Onoe Kikugoro V as the hero Taira no Koremochi. Wikipedia gives this summary of the plot of the original play (not the film, which could only show a part of the drama):

The original play, performed in both noh and kabuki, is a story of the warrior Taira no Koremochi visiting Togakushi-yama, a mountain in Shinshū for the seasonal maple-leaf viewing event. In reality, he has come to investigate and kill a demon that has been plaguing the mountain’s deity, Hachiman.

There he meets a princess named Sarashinahime, and drinks some sake she offers him. Thereupon she reveals her true form as the demon Kijo, and attacks the drunk man. Koremochi is able to escape using his sword, called Kogarasumaru, which was given to him by Hachiman. The demon gnaws on a maple branch as she dies.

(A longer summary is available on the Kabuki21 site)

The filmmaker selected to create this important document was Shibata Tsunekichi, who had previously made films of geisha dances. Shibata employed a Gaumont camera and left this account of how the film was made:

There was a gusting wind that morning. We decided to do all the shooting in a small outdoor stage reserved for tea parties behind the Kabuki-za. We hurriedly set up the stage, fearing all the time that Danjuro might suddenly change his mind again. Every available hand, including Inoue, was called upon to hold the backdrop firm in the strong wind. Danjuro, playing Sarashi-the-maiden, was to dance with two fans. The wind tore one from his hands and it fluttered off to one side. Re-shooting was out of the question so the mistake stayed in the picture. Later people were to remark that this gave the piece its great charm.

The film was kept from public view, as had been Danjuro’s wish, but a year later it was shown to an audience of kabuki actors. According to historian Hiroshi Komatsu, the film was first shown to a general audience on 7 July 1903 when Danjuro fell ill and was unable to appear on stage. He died in September of that year. Happily the film has survived for posterity to treasure (it is held by the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo) and when it was shown at the Pordenone silent film festival in 2001 (where I missed it!) this description of the six-minute, three-scene film was provided in the catalogue:

The first shot, in which Princess Sharashina dances with a fan, is viewed head on, as though she were center stage. The second shot, of the “Yamagami scene”, captures Koremori (played by Kikugoro) in the foreground and Yamagami’s dance behind Koremori. The third shot is from the same camera angle as the first, and shows Koremori and the ogress’s dance.

This is where the postcard comes in, which documents the film’s third scene.

The full postcard with postage stamp

The postcard definitely shows Danjuro IX and Onoe Kikugoro V performing for the Momiji-gari film. It has been photographed in the open air, as one can see from the shadows thrown by the sunlight. Clearly Shibata not only commemorated the event in film but took a photograph (maybe more? maybe three, one for each scene?) at the same time. The postcard, however, dates from 1908, with the legend stating something along the lines that it had been produced to honour the fifth anniversary of his passing. It seems that the production was a little more planned and commercial in intent than the anecdotal histories have suggested. Certainly Danjuro was the subject of innumerable ukiyo-e prints, which suggests an awareness of the importance of image.

There is an interesting parallel with what happened in Britain at almost exactly the same time. In September 1899 the renowned actor-manager Herbert Beerbohm Tree was persuaded by the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company to appear before the Biograph camera in short scenes from Shakespeare’s King John, the play he was presenting at the Her Majesty’s Theatre in London. Four scenes from the play were filmed, which did not tell the whole story but rather showed key points from the drama, just as with Momijigari. In another parallel, a set of promotional photographs were also taken at the same time. Tree was never so fastidious as Danjuro, and his intent was probably more commercial than concerned with posterity, but it is worth noting the coming together of the new medium with the old, the former gaining kudos by association with the other and showing the advantages that it had – to capture performance and defy time. It also demonstrates an idea of cinema as filmed theatre which was to influence Japanese film for several years thereafter, impeding its development as an independent art form for two decades or more.

Herbert Beerbohm Tree (dressed in white) in King John (1899)

I am able to reproduce the postcard by kind permission of its owner, a US collector by name of Dan. He is looking for a buyer for the postcard, and anyone with a serious proposal should get in touch with me and I’ll pass on details to him. My thanks to him also for translations from the Japanese. The postcard is also reproduced on the Ukiyo-e Prints website, and I am grateful to its host Jerry Vegler for being so helpful, and to Stephen Herbert for having first brought the card to my attention.

There are biographies of Danjuro IX on the Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema site and on Portraits of Modern Japanese Historical Figures. Much of the historical information in this post comes courtesy of Peter B. High’s article ‘The Dawn of Cinema in Japan’, Journal of Contemporary History, vol. 19 no. 1 (January 1984), with acknowledgment also to Hiroshi Komatsu’s notes for the 2001 Pordenone catalogue and his essay ‘Questions Regarding the Genesis of Nonfiction Film‘.

Extensive information on kabuki – the performers, theatres, stories and characters – can be found on the Kabuki21 site. You can get an idea of how Momiji-gari would have been performed from this YouTube video (with helpful English subtitles) which shows a modern-day production (part 8 of 8, showing the finale of the drama as depicted in the postcard).

Finally, it was recently suggested that the film be designated by the Japanese government as an Important Cultural Property (juyo bunkazai), the first film to be so honoured.