Of the films I´ve been seeing recently that I loved as a child, Born Yesterday has been the most disappointing. It´s relative of course. The film is certainly interesting and entertaining; and the political satire, a relatively brave choice for a popular entertainment in the midst of the McCarthy era, seems more relevant than ever. The travelogue elements of how we´re shown Washington D.C. must have been a real attraction then and still work now. And surely playing writers chased by Gloria Swanson and Judy Holliday in two of the hit films of that year — Sunset Boulevard was the other one — is what must have catapulted William Holden into being a proper box-office star? Still that said, the film is overly pat and a little preachy, Broderick Crawford´s performance is a bit coarse, and Holliday, whom I adore, seems overly rehearsed. She´s great — it´s her most celebrated performance — but not quite real, every line reading fuelled by a clearly visible intention for very particular effects. The revelation of the re-watching has been Holden: A subtle performance, really understated and yet bringing charm and liveliness to a completely thankless role.It makes me uneasy also that the villain is a working class self-made millionaire who´s worked since he was twelve. The faith in the system is touching, its mythification less so. There are reasons the Garson Kanin´s play isn´t much revived: everything´s a bit pat and mechanical, though Cukor´s direction is controlled, masterful really, and opens up the play in interesting ways.
The Arrow Academy transfer is lovely and Pam Hutchtinson´s introductory essay is excellent. But talking-head discussion, even by prominent academics, make for quite dull extras. A disappointment, if only in relation to my memory of it.
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 second of a series of conversations about books on cinema with their authors. 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 one is with Pamela Hutchinson, founder of the great Silent London website and a regular correspondent for Sight and Sound,The Guardian and many other outlets on various aspect of Silent Cinema. The occasion for the chat is the publication of her wonderful new book on G.W. Pabst’s Pandora’s Box, a BFI Film Classic, so recent that it’s literally hot off the press, and as witty as it is informative.
What you hear in the background is the bubbles in a glass of champagne and one can only hope that our chat is as fizzy. The conversation ranges from the film’s aesthetic achievements to its continued influence, the appeal of Louise Brooks, what Marlene Dietrich might have done with the part and what the film has to tell us on sexual desire, the options open to women and the prevalence of rape culture then and now. Pandora’s Box seems more pertinent than ever and just as powerful and hypnotic as it always was. Pamela Hutchinson’s book is not just a beautifully written introduction to the film but one which provides new information and enhances our understanding in various ways and does so with great charm and wit.
I hope that the quality of the chat compensates for that of the editing and recording. It can be accessed above.
Based on Jane Austen’s Lady Susan, Love and Friendship won me over in the end. But I did wonder if it wasn’t too slight, derivative and possibly better as a play. It’s a stupid think to say — and wrong also –but for lack of a better way of putting it: I at first didn’t think it was cinematic enough (except for the explanatory subtitles at the beginning and in the letter -reading/writing scenes which structure the narrative). I thought it too talky. But then the film’s languid rhythms, its classic but slightly askew compositions and it’s tone – which a friend described as on the right side of arch – won me over. I did end up loving it. But I wasn’t sure I would until it ended.
Adrien Garvey has described Love and Friendship as a sketched-in heritage film, which I think describes it beautifully. It doesn’t offer the visual pleasures of the traditional heritage films such as A Room with a View (James Ivory, UK, 1985) or other Jane Austin adaptations: the sumptuousness of place (here the stately home is slightly run-down), costume (modest for the period, slightly worn, like the best clothes of those who can’t quite afford them) or setting: none of this is used as spectacle here. But then, to its credit, it also eschews the nostalgic tone of heritage in favour of a smarter, slightly more worldly and wittily cynical flavour. Unlike Chlōe Sevigny, who’s every appearance as Alicia Johnson seems to leap off the screen, Kate Beckinsale seems to lack charisma in the first scenes. But then her performance wins you over on merit: Her Lady Susan takes no relish in her wickedness; she doesn’t underline or make a show of it; all Beckinsale does simply becomes who the character is. It’s a shrewd, witty and understated performance. And then there’s James Fleet who steals every scene he’s in with mere intonation.
Love and Friendship is an elegant chamber piece that feels slight, echoey, thin and empty at the beginning but fills out, gets richer, more resonant, and more enjoyable as it unfolds. Very typical and very good Whit Stillman.
Pamela Hutchinson has written a wonderful piece on the film’s use of intertitles that you can find here.
The Giornatta di Cinema Ritrovatto makes crystal clear the irreducible value of form and medium; that it makes a difference to see something on a large screen or a huge screen or a small screen; that sound, both in terms of the score itself and the way that it is conveyed is crucial; that a nitrate print is something to see; that celluloid projection offers different qualities than digital. To not care about texture, hue, intensity, size – what all of these different forms of display bring to the art of cinema is analogous to the claim that you can recolour Van Gogh, print an altered reproduction and claim that it is no different to the original and can replace it in a museum without prejudice. One can see why studios intent on making profit might make those claims but how can museums? How is it permissible for museums and cinémathèques and teachers of film aesthetics and really anyone interested in film as an art to not care about what type of print is projected, how it is projected and on the size of the screen?
The programming at Il Cinema Ritrovato made the importance of this gloriously clear: So, for example, Cover Girl (Charles Vidor, USA, 1944), according to the catalogue, ‘Three-strip technicolor features 35mm print derived from black and white three strip negatives (all features printed on a nitrate base)’, but digitally projected from a 4k print, looked out of this world, in fact Mark Fuller, a friend who did not like the film, nevertheless admired the gorgeousness of the print, and how because of the print, the colours themselves seemed to sing and dance more vibrantly than anything else in the film (quite something to say when the people in the film look and move as beautifully as Rita Hayworth and Gene Kelly do). In a lovely piece on the festival for Photogenie, Tom Paulis writes of how the print of The Thin Red Line (Terence Malick, USA, 1998) ‘was as unique as they come, a Technicolor dye-transfer copy made as a gift to the director that only very rarely leaves the vaults. The result was a small miracle. The dye-transfer completely transformed the film, especially in the deep saturation of the blacks, making an already high-contrasty film (that Queensland light!) look like Caravaggio’.
Likewise, in an excellent overview of the festival in The Guardian, Pamela Hutchinson begins her piece as follows:
‘“Technicolor is like God – it cannot be copied!” Nicola Mazzanti of the Royal Belgian Film Archive is introducing a screening of Douglas Sirk’s perfect melodrama All That Heaven Allows (Douglas Sirk, USA, 1955) and, in an unexpectedly exuberant speech, he promises the crowd in Bologna’s Cinema Arlecchino “a mystical experience”. This is a screening, not from a digital cinema package (DCP) or a re-release, but an original 35mm distribution print – vintage, authentic Technicolor. Mazzanti assures us that there will be scratches (“God, I love scratches!”) and that “if we are really lucky, the film will break, the house lights will come up, and you will be discovered entwined with your girlfriend, or your boyfriend”.
Now Mazzarati might be over-fetishising the experience but anyone lucky enough to see a vintage print at the festival will admit that the colours looked and felt different than other restored versions and even other formats. I was lucky enough to see the Spanish Filmoteca’s vintage copy of Fantasia (Walt Disney, USA, 1940), one which we might have been the last people to see, as loss of quality is incurred each time a print is shown; and if colour, hue, luminosity are one of the ways films convey meaning and help evoke particularly experiences, the choice of which version and in which form should be purposeful, and great care should be taken in the projection.
And it’s not just about image. One of the highlights of the festival was the screening of Rapsodia Satanica (Italy 1914-17) at The Teatro Comunale di Bologna, in its original nitrate print, but with the Pietro Mascagni score beautifully restored so that it was was once more perfectly timed to every gesture, every eye-movement, so that everything the music originally expressed was once more revealed by Timothy Brock conducting a full orchestra at the Teatro Comunale. The beauty of the hand-tinted colours, the visual values revealed by the nitrate print, the drama on-screen once more synchronised to the music, this time conveyed with the fullness only a full orchestra is capable of and in the glorious surroundings of the Teatro Comunale: one can only say, wow! A sublime experience.
One thinks the battle for film as an art form has been won discursively but one goes to museums and one sees that the repositories of the best of our culture are not practicing what they preach. Films are often shown on a terrible youtube-like loop. Every piddly Warhol piss painting is treated like an elgin marble; every great treasure of cinema treated like used-up can of coke. It’s time museums and indeed every official repository of culture imitate the practices of the Cinema Ritrovatto in relation to film.