Hippfest is how fans and admirers endearingly refer to the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival that takes place annually at Scotland’s oldest cinema – The Hippodrome, built in 1912, in Bo’ness. Under Alison Strauss’ guidance, the festival has become a force internationally, bringing to the UK newly discovered or newly restored silent classics, and presented in a varied and imaginative programme under the best conditions: with programme notes by leading scholars (Dina Iordanova, Charles Musser, David Cairns) with accompaniment by leading musicians (Neil Brand), sometimes with scores especially composed for the film (by the likes of John Sweeney and Dr. Chris Letcher), with introductions by specialists (Victor Fan), with an inclusive programme (this year including a strand on amateur filmmaking with a discussion lead by Melanie Selfe and Keith M. Johnston); guest speakers (Bryony Dixon, Lawrence Napper, Donald Smith); performers (Chris Letcher, Paul McGann, Meg Morley) and special events (Mark Kermode in Conversation with Neil Brand and Mike Hammond).
José has always wanted to go. This year was Richard’s second year at the event. We wanted to find out more; and who better to tell us than Ms. Silent London herself, Pamela Hutchinson, critic, curator, programmer, and also author of, amongst other gems, the BFI classic on Pandora’s Box.
The podcast may be listened to below:
Lead-in and Lead-out music in the podcast from the score to The Patsy by The Sprockets –
When I was growing up, everything I heard or read about The Boys in the Band was terrible. Recently, after the Broadway revival, it was meant to be ´period´and wonderful. I´d never seen the film until now and found it a difficult and unpleasant watch, with some of the worst-directed acting I can remember seeing. If I´d been invited to this party, I´d have told the host to f**ck off, left within five minutes, and there would have been no play. The most interesting aspect for me was the décor (Fire Island greetings, Marlene in Concert posters), pausing the film to eye up the bookshelves (Berlin Stories, etc), the line dancing scene in the rooftop, and the wonderful pop music of the period that the characters put on (Tammy and Marvin, lots of Burt Bacharach).
Talking about it with friends (worth naming since so many of their views are drawn on and collectively summarised below: Andy Medhurst, Matthew Hays, Andrew Griffin, Matthew Motyka, David Greven, Lawrence Napper, Bryan Johnson, Andrew Moor), there were lots. of mixed feelings. Most loved the first half, where we´re introduced to each of the characters and New York seems alive with cruising, and sex and secret and hidden knowledges. They can cite by heart reams of dialogue which remain acidly witty. The camp elements of the period are still recognisable as such and still work, though I wonder if younger people will catch the extent to which all of these characters are talking through a particularly intimate and shared knowledge of the careers of Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Marlene and Maria Montez. For other generations shared reference points would be Liza and Diana Ross, or Madonna, or Britney or Rihanna and Beyoncé. The film evokes that, brings it to life, vividly. It´s like a secret code made from knowledge of the stars.
Friends have made various comparisons. David Greven for example talks about how the film is like Rope in that it´s about the agony of and violent reaction against the closet. And one can certainly see that. Other friends such as Matthew Hays have made comparisons to Albee and Waiting for Godot and Abigail´s Party. And again those comparisons are understandable but to my mind only superficially so. I think even existential theatre has some utopian dimension that drives it, there´s no emphasis on the fun of company, even of the repartee (most of it is meant to hurt), of the joys of sex, or the pleasures in overcoming oppression or even of the pleasures in being marginal. It´s relentlessly grim, and thus I find it untrue.
I´ve seen a marvellous production of Virginia Woolf with Imelda Staunton recently and it was alive with pain and hopes and a kind of deep love within the hurt that is nowhere evident in this. I´ve also been seeing a lot of Pinter, and this certainly doesn´t have all the significant ’empty spaces’ within the dialogue that he does. So he might have been inspired by Pinter but it doesn´t feel Pinteresque.
The interesting thing to me is that queer cultures continue to connect on the tangents of this work but perhaps only because that´s all the work gives you, the odd line, the camp, an imagined sense of a history of how things used to be etc. But they are tangents. All the characters are to me one dimensional stereotypes…and yet they echo something we recognise, which is what makes it interesting, but the moments where it echoes are not necessarily the best bits.
My suspicion is that the play IS better than the film. I´ve never seen the play but…even the SCREENPLAY feels better than the film. I hated almost all of the performances and I think it is the director rather than the actors that are to blame. That Emory, the queeny camp one, is meant to be an interior decorator beggars belief. We´re TOLD that but nothing in the way he dresses, acts or behaves would connote that. I can´t imagine him talking to an ageing wealthy matron about colours in a way that would lead to his hiring. So Friedkin´s direction is in some ways wonderful (in the way it moves, its use of space, the highlighting of moments) but terrible in that it shows so little understanding of the psychology of the characters represented.
I think there´s something interesting about this and Killing of Sister George, generally badly reviewed upon first release, flops, films that gays and lesbians felt they had to see because of a dearth of representation but that annoyed or appalled those same people that flocked to them (at least from the accounts we have) and that are now being re-appropriated in a somewhat ironic way by new audiences.
An afterthought but perhaps interesting. I thought the screenplay´s treatment of ‘Cowboy’ the hustler was appalling in that it took for granted or supported all the insults the rest of the group threw at him, normalised them in classist terms, and I actually thought the film was better than the screenplay in this instance, the camera lingered on him, made him tender and beautiful in a way not allowed by the dialogue, and gave him a symbolic curtain.
It´s a cruel and dishonest film, one that I think would have made me even more scared than I already was had I seen it as a teenager. It´s still a type of attitude from a type of world I like to stay away from, though that in itself might account for my response in contrast to that of others. And yet, by virtue of being ‘first’ or at least early, it´s become a kind of landmark. That is not necessarily a good thing.
I´ve been told that Matt Bell´s book on the film is wonderful and I might yet read it, though at this moment I have no plans of ever re-watching what to my mind is an unpleasant and untruthful film, albeit one with a great deal of gay input (the actors, Crowley obviously, the agonised closet queen that was Dominick Dunne etc.)
I posted a version of the above on facebook and it lead to a great discussion which in turn informed the post. I hope to hear from at least some of you and continue the process.
Commemorating the centenary of the First World War, Peter Jackson was approached by 14-18 NOW and the Imperial War Museum to make use of their extensive archive of wartime footage. He responded to the call by performing significant alterations to it, including colourisation and conversion to 3D, hoping to present it afresh and help modern audiences feel closer to the war it documents. It’s been a controversial project, surrounded by much commentary on its ethics, but after all the hype and chin-stroking, They Shall Not Grow Old – even the title of which has been edited to suit modern syntax – is finally here.
Those ethical questions occupy a good deal of our attention, justifiably so, but we find there’s a good deal more to consider about the film too. Perhaps unusually for a First World War film, it eschews entirely any discussion of the political background to the war or criticism – even mention – of the top brass, instead focusing entirely on the experience, in quite general terms, of the British soldiers. Narrated entirely by some 114 different servicemen, their commentary drawn from BBC and IWM interviews, Jackson builds a portrait of a mindset of the salt-of-the-earth Tommy, keen to go to war at a tender age, open to new experience, happy to do as he’s told and get on with his job under terrible, and terrifying, circumstances. It’s a portrait that leaves out at least as much as it includes, and the question of how choices were made as to what footage and audio was included from the archives made available to Jackson is arguably more pressing, and certainly less clear, than that of why the footage was altered in the ways it was.
We grapple with all sort of these issues and touch on several more, particularly the traditional, unfair, untruthful, and insidious permission the film gives English audiences to believe we won the war without help – an issue that angers José, a Canadian, and rightly so. Mike also picks up on a couple of moments that struck him as of particular relevance in the age of Brexit, though that’s also because it’s a topic he can be relied upon to bring up at a moment’s notice.
As to those pesky ethics, we come away, despite some fair criticisms, a little milquetoast on the subject. Mike has a bigger issue with the quality of the alterations than the justification, finding them genuinely unpleasant to look at for the most part, but suggests that the modifications have been so extensive that the footage has been transformed into something qualitatively different, that to take the film seriously as a document would be an act of madness. José, rather more simply, sees value in the work, pointing out how it allows us to pick out aspects of scenes, and particularly faces, more easily, and allowing a more visceral closeness to the environments depicted than we might otherwise have.
All in all, as long as the original black and white film remains extant and publicly available, and provided that, when used as teaching material, the conceptualisation and production of They Shall Not Grow Old is included as a matter for classroom discussion, we’re not convinced that the film is a bad idea.
Below are links to a few blog entries and reviews we mentioned in the podcast, from Lawrence Napper and Pamela Hutchinson.
The first of a series of interviews of books on cinema. The intention is to expand and disseminate our understanding of cinema and its diverse histories and various cultures by bringing attention to recently published books in the field in order to enhance understanding of and access to the knowledge the books provide. This first one is an interview with Lawrence Napper — author of ‘British Cinema and Middlebrow Culture in the Interwar Years’ (2009) and ‘The Great War in British PopularCinema of the 1920s: Before Journey’s End’ (2015) — on his contribution to Wallflower Press’ Short Cut series, an excellent introduction to silent cinema, ‘Silent Cinema: Before The Pictures Got Small,’ (2017).