José gave an introduction to the MAC’s screening of The Old Dark House, a 1932 comedy horror directed by James Whale, focusing on queerness. James Whale was openly gay – although what it meant to be openly gay in the 1930s is up for discussion – and knowledge of his sexuality has led to interpretations of his work in that light, including Frankenstein (1931) and The Invisible Man (1933). The Old Dark House arguably invites such readings more explicitly than those, with the demeanour of Ernest Thesiger as Horace Femm (not to mention his surname), the relationship between Morgan (Boris Karloff) and Saul (Brember Wills), and the casting of a woman in the role of patriarch, with actress Elspeth Dudgeon credited as John Dudgeon.
As well as its queerness, we discuss its preponderance of tropes and how well they cohere, its use of distorted imagery, its pacing and more.
An illuminating talk not only about David’s hopes for the Midlands Arts Centre cinema program but also about distribution practices in general, about the different factors that need to be weighed in relation to programming, the availability or lack thereof of works in relation to particular venues, new distribution practices and video on demand.
We talk about programming for venues as part of a network of information on film, the brochure, local listings information, the importance ofFilmwire and the usefulness of at least a second screen in relation to what can become pragmatically programmable.
We also discuss audiences from different social formations and how to engage and involve them (LGBTQ, East Asian, Polish, Spanish-speaking, differently abled audiences etc.). What do audiences go to the cinema for nowadays and what to entice them with? How important is the projection system and what do introductions to films and discussions after bring to an event? What’s been doing well and what hasn’t and why?
Cold War is Paweł Pawlikowski’s follow up to the Academy Award winning Ida. We delighted in the Midlands Arts Centre’s fabulous projection system, which Mike says makes these beautifully lit and composed images “sing”, allowing their poetry to resonate. The film is unashamedly a love story, framed in a 4:3 ratio that best frames faces and sharpens the focus on the feelings they express, in glistening black and white.
Cold War begins unusually in that the love each of the protagonists has for the other is never in doubt. The problem, the threat, the barrier, is how the geopolitics of the post-war period interrupt that love – the whole world is against them! We discuss the resonances of the film’s setting, the period 1949-1964, and the significance of the film moving back and forth from Paris and several ‘Iron Curtain’ countries; with settings in the Polish countryside, Warsaw, Berlin Yugoslavia, Zagreb and then back to Poland. Is part of the theme that in the Iron Curtain countries they’re forced to prostitute their art whilst capitalist countries encourage the prostitution of the self?
José swoons over the sadness, sexiness and romance of the film. Mike draws attention to a certain sketchiness and notes that Tomasz Kot looks like he belongs in a Stella Artois ad whilst admiring his performance and that of Joanna Kulig as Zula. José loves it so much he wants to see it again to further explore the patterning of images and sounds. Mike feels he’s seen enough but is willing to go along, particularly since the film is unexpectedly short at only 85 minutes. It’s certainly good, but precisely how good is Cold War is the question that overhangs the podcast.
The podcast can be listened to in the players above or on iTunes.
Mike’s brother corrects our pronunciation of director Jia Zhangke’s name, helping us settle into a discussion of his ambitious, deeply moving tale of friendship and loss that spans two and a half decades. We talk about motifs of keys and coats, themes of capitalism and home, the changing aspect ratios and clarity of the image, the documentary feel to its portrayal of Fenyang and the way of life there, and much more besides. We admire almost everything and still can’t get Go West out of our heads.
Recorded on 11th January 2018.
The podcast can be listened to in the player above or at this link
I wish I’d been able to go to more events at the 10th edition of Flatpack. But I did manage quite a few: the excellent exhibition of the Projection Project at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s beautiful Gas Hall; a bittersweet screening of Dreyer’s Vampyr at the Adrian Boult Hall at the Birmingham Conservatoire (sweet due to the greatness of the film and the superb new score played live by its composers — Stephen Horne and Minima; and bitter due to it probably being the last event hosted in the hall before the imminent demolition of the Birmingham Conservatoire); I saw Les Trucs’s performance of their score for Murnau’sThe Last Laugh at the Lyttleton Theatre in the late-Victorian marvel that houses The Birmingham and Midland Institute; all three volumes of Miguel Gomes’ extraordinary Arabian Nights at the Midlands Arts Centre; and the superb finale that was Murnau’s Faust with a great new score by Matt Eton and Gareth Jones performed at the lovely old Birmingham Rep Theatre, where Olivier and other English theatrical greats first learned their trade in rep. I don’t think a working person with commitments could have gone to many more events in what was only a period of five days.
What I love and admire about Flatpack this year is partly what I’ve praised it for in the past. In 2013, I wrote ‘I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich the cultural life of the city’.
On the evidence of just the few events I was able to go to, Flatpack involved a wide range of city spaces and institutions (The Birmingham Museum and Gallery, the Birmingham Conservatoire, The Birmingham and Midlands Institue, the Midlands Arts Centre, the Old Rep), thus not only involving those institutions but exposing new audiences to the beauty of those spaces and the facilities that those institutions offer. They commissioned new work and involved other local organisms (e.g. The Feeney Trust) in that commissioning, whilst also looking outward and involving bodies like The Goethe Institute in an exchange with Frankfurt Lichter Filmfest in bringing in Les Trucs for The Last Laugh. And the remit they’ve chosen is not only to introduce audiences to a range of new work but also a scholarly and pedagogical one of introducing new audiences to the great works of the past in exciting new ways. It’s a superb festival that Birmingham is very lucky to have.
My only criticism, a selfish one, is that rather than growing in size over a short space of time (i.e. packing in as much as possible across the city over the space of five days), I wish they’d split up part of their programming, do a festival of silent cinema with new scores say in the Autumn, The Optical Sound element in the Spring and so on. I would certainly go to more if it were more spread out. However, it might be best to not tempt fate, value what we now have in Birmingham, and let someone else take up the challenge of creating new but equally exciting and enriching festivals of culture at other times of the year.
F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise (1927), screened to a live score by Alcyona Mick at The Arena venue of the Midlands Arts Centre, made for a magical and very English Summer evening on the 28th of June, 2013. People gathered on this outdoor yet intimate performance space, obviously modeled on a miniature Roman arena but reminding me a little of the small ‘plaza de toros’ of the village I’m from in Spain, with seating built into the space itself out of rock and cement: basic, functional, social. There were grandparents, families, kids running around, groups of friends. A Murnau film had drawn a lot expected film types and some queer folk; the jazz trio, quite a lot of music lovers; everyone at ease with each other. The forecast had dissuaded the mob but there was still a good crowd. There was indeed a gentle drizzle that accompanied the screening, seeming to fall or not, in weightier and lighter drops, as the mood took it; umbrellas came up, went down, came back up again. But the film so enraptured the audience that no one left.
Ian Francis, founder of Flatpack, was on hand to introduce the screening, which he did with a soft voice and with information so humbly presented one might not easily notice how clever it was, and how well thought-through various elements of this event had been put together. He told us that we were watching a copy of Sunrise which had recently been discovered in an archive in the Czech Republic; that at 79 minutes it is considerably shorter than the official 97 minute version; that it was nonetheless of great interest because it was edited differently, not only to make it shorter, but to allow for shots not included in the original; that the original version had had a Fox Movietone sound-on-film soundtrack, but that this 79 minute version had no official score, thus handing Flatpack and Birmingham Jazz an opportunity in 2010 to commission a score from Alcyona Mick; that this lovely score had been performed once before at a special screening in St. Martin’s Church and here it was being performed again, for us, by Alcyona Mick on piano, Calina DeLa Mare on violin and Jon Wygens on guitars.
I want to pause here for a moment to praise Ian Francis and Flatpack because they are excellent at doing all the things film festivals are expected to do: put together an excellent programme; discover and nurture new talent, introduce new works to audiences; create a space for artists to meet and exchange ideas; create new audiences for new, different and difficult types of works; draw people from other localities at home and abroad into the city for the event, generate press, etc. But they are also superb at doing what film festivals sometimes see as beneath their remit and which should by rights be fundamental to it: to contribute to and enrich the cultural life of the city, and not only on the dates the festival is scheduled for.
This screening of Sunrise was an example of the multitude of ways Flatpack is contributing to Birmingham’s cultural life and indeed simply making of Birmingham a more pleasant place to live in. It’s an instance of Flatpack being involved not only in programming, distributing, publicizing, exhibiting etc. but of commissioning and, furthermore, from the moment of commissioning to the screening I saw, of collaborating with at least three other city institutions (Birmingham Jazz, The Midlands Arts Centre, St. Martin’s Chruch); of introducing jazz fans to film, film fans to jazz, young audiences to Silent Cinema, audiences of all ages to one of the great screen classics and in a new and interesting version. The archival, the historic, the cultural and the social all brought together for our attention and pleasure at this event.
Flatpack has introduced me to new parts of the city, places that after living here for ten years I’d never actually been to (I’d been to the MAC but not to the Arena, I’d seen St. Martin’s Church, but only from the outside, I’d never been to the Ladywood Broadway Cinemas). Thus it wasn’t just that Flatpack is introducing Birmingham to festivalgoers arriving for the first time in the city but also a way of re-introducing Brummies into the riches Birmingham has to offer, amongst which Flatpack, both as conduit and as a destination in itself, must be counted and treasured.
As the sun went down and the film began, as we saw George O’Brien and Janet Gaynor try to rediscover what they’d once loved about each other, as the plastic macs went on and the umbrellas up, as the band played, my mind turned to humans making magic. Sunrise is the result of Murnau’s orchestration of a whole army of people arranging particular imprints of light on celluloid, and that now once more needed the absence of light and then more light to bring it to life. The music, the physical effort, breath even, evident in the bending of every note, of the choice of particular rhythms by a group of people making sound out of notations; sounds that surrounded these very beautiful images and connected them to us in a newly designed way; then the event itself, the result of a combination of state (funding for MAC), church (the original site for the first screening in Birmingham), arts organisations (Flatpack, Birmingham Jazz) and the whole team of volunteers who contribute to Flatpack.
The Sub-title of Sunrise is ‘A Tale of Two Humans’. This screening was the result of many humans coming together over time (at least 80 years), space (Hollywood To Birmingham), across many different organization, both state-funded and community-led, professional and volunteer, to create something beautiful. At the end of the screening, when the musicians seem both shy and delighted by the mad applause that accompanied their efforts, I felt gratitude to everyone involved for having taken the trouble. It does take an army. It was worth it. I felt very lucky to be there and to have benefitted from everyone’s efforts. They deserved even more applause than they got.