Sapphire (1959) for #BlackHistoryMonth

The Hyde Park Picture House’s ‘On The Road’ programme has restarted this month, with daily screenings at the City Varieties attracting film audiences back to see films on the big screen.

However, as it’s still too soon for some people to return to cinemas, this weekend the Hyde Park Picture House team selected a film that can be watched at home as a #HydeParkPick and are sharing it as a way to mark this year’s Black History Month.

Poster for Sapphire with the tagline "The sensational story of a girl who didn't belong"

Sapphire is a British drama directed by Basil Dearden in 1959, it’s a fascinating film that reveals much about levels of prejudice in multi-cultural London just as it was on the cusp of a more permissive 1960s.

We’re presenting this choice with an exclusive new essay written for us by author and film scholar Josiah Howard.

Josiah is a specialist in film and cultural studies who has written four books, including Blaxploitation Cinema: The essential reference guide in 2008. He is a senior contributor at Furious Cinema and his writing credits include articles for The American Library of Congress, The New York Times and Reader’s Digest.     


 The 1959 release in Britain of Basil Dearden’s Sapphire and the same year’s release of Douglas Sirk’s Imitation of Life in America, marked the cinema’s return to the controversial topic of black people passing for white—be they British or American. Subterfuge, “misrepresentation” and the fluid nature or racial identity made good copy: it reinforced the notion that you can’t trust anyone and that things were often not what they seemed.

Released in a world devoid of the internet, cell-phones, home video and digital entertainment, cinematic depictions of passing had a proven and lucrative pedigree: they were titillating, headline-grabbing attractions that appealed to the prurient; the curious visitor who wanted to know about the netherworld but also wanted to remain at a safe and respectable distance.

Elia Kazan’s Pinky and Alfred L. Werker’s Lost Boundaries (both 1949), George Sidney’s Showboat (1951; made three times over the years), and Fred M. Wilcox’s I Passed for White (1960) captivated audiences and did what film studios and distributors wanted: they made money—Pinky even garnered three Academy Award nominations.

Sapphire, under referenced and generally underseen remains a watershed: a bold, audacious, modern tale (itself occasionally insensitive and racist) that dealt with the challenges of immigration, class, culture, the youth generation, identity, and the power of costume, charade, sexual attraction and fetishism. That was a large plate for prolific director Basil Dearden, best-known for his fast-moving procedurals, but he and everyone else involved delivered the salacious goods in fine fashion.

A beautiful conservatively dressed, white girl (whose lacy undergarments are deemed incongruous and “flashy”) is found stabbed to death in a park. But is she white? And what does “white” mean? That’s the essential question that Sapphire explores and it’s a compelling one, especially as Britain’s racial discomfiture was, for the most part, generally unfamiliar outside of Europe. America was the place where there was racial strife and division that was firmly on record. The long-established history of slavery, segregation and, of course, the Civil War were part of America’s dark past: a stark truth that everyone could point to.

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A Hole in Babylon, BBC 1979

BBC Tuesday October 20th at 10 p.m. and on the I-Player

This was a drama in the BBC’s ‘Play for Today’ series. The series followed on from the pioneer ‘Wednesday Play’ series and ran from 1970 to 1984. There were some 300 hundred entries by notable dramatists, film-makers and craft people often commenting on their contemporary world. Fifty years on from the launch of the series BBC Four  is offering a celebration. ‘Drama out of a Crisis’ offered an overview of the series last week and is still available on catch-up. Now we can look forward to screening of some of the highlight dramas, though which and how many is as yet unknown.

This drama from 1979 was written by Horace Ové and Jim Hawkins and directed by Ové. It presents the events in which three Africa-Caribbean men attempted a robbery at the Spaghetti House Restaurant in Knightsbridge and held the staff and customers hostage for six days whilst the police lay siege. This was a dramatisation of actual events in 1975.

The director Horace Ové was one of the really talented and interesting film-makers in Britain over the last sixty odd years. However, he is seriously under-represented in the film canon. He was only able to produce two features in that period though these are seminal films; Pressure (1976) and Playing Away (1987). His career started with three short documentaries, including Baldwin’s Nigger (1968). He did an amount of work for television including two for ‘Play for Today’: episodes in the popular series Empire Road (1979): and a drama mini-series The Orchid House (1991). He also worked in photography and in the theatre.

His film work, including A Hole in Babylon, still speaks to the contemporary world of Britain: especially in a period when ‘Black Lives Matter’ has achieved such influence. The drama presumably will be on the I-Player well into 2021. The overview ‘Drama out of a Crisis’ is already on the iPlayer. It is a little selective in its coverage but a full listing of the ‘Play for Today’ series is on Wikipedia.

 

The Watermelon Woman (1997)

Throughout lockdown and beyond, you may have noticed the daily #HydeParkPick service that the staff of the Hyde Park Picture House have organised. Our favourite cinema screen may be dark for now, but films still go on, only for now they’re being watched and talked about online.

This activity has been greatly enriched through the partnerships the cinema has with people and organisations who, under different circumstances, would have contributed events, panels and discussions to the various programme strands at the cinema.

Between 17th and 24th August, the LGBT+ staff community at the University of Leeds, Leeds Beckett University and Leeds Arts University are promoting a ‘Digital Pride’ programme. This is a series of online events and resources that they have put together to mark Pride 2020, a celebration in the city which, which like pretty much everything else this year, has had to be redesigned for a safe and socially distanced world.

We wrote about three films that we’d have liked to have screened this month. One of them, The Watermelon Woman, is a particular favourite of another of our valued collaborators, So Mayer, who has written this excellent article about this important and groundbreaking film.

So Mayer writes about The Watermelon Woman

So Mayer: film scholar, author and researcher

In the 1996 film The Watermelon Woman, filmmaker and film buff Cheryl (played by filmmaker Cheryl Dunye) sets out to learn more about a beguiling Hollywood-era performer credited as ‘The Watermelon Woman.’

‘Is the Watermelon Woman her first name? Her last name?’ Cheryl asks her video camera. With almost nothing to go on bar reductive racist credits, Cheryl finds a way to recover Fae Richards’ story – using every means necessary. She consults the main library in Philadelphia, where she’s turned away by a snooty clerk – so she turns to a grassroots archive, CLIT (Center for Lesbian Information and Technology), where she has to deal with both chaos and an over-protective volunteer. She watches Richards’ Hollywood films that are available on VHS, and finds out her other cinematic career, in ‘race’ films, from film historians and viewers. She asks her mom and aunt, who remember Richards as a sultry singer. And finally, she meets Richards’ longterm lover, who shares stories and ephemera that challenge Cheryl’s perceptions of Richards’ career – and of film history.

Fae Richards, 1930s film actress, with director Martha Page

Unlike the Watermelon Woman, The Watermelon Woman is out there, especially since the restoration in 2017 for its 20th anniversary. It’s been written about brilliantly by scholars such as Kara Keeling, in her books The Witch’s Flight and Queer Times, Black Futures, paying respect to its visionary significance for Black queer feminist cinema. One of the reasons that the film remains so thrilling is that, like Richards’ long career across different kinds of performance, The Watermelon Woman brings together, spins off from and continues to inspire multiple modes of Black queer feminist cultural production. Whether you’re looking for your next viewing or reading after watching the film, or want new ways to approach its multi-layered excellence… inspired by Cheryl’s search, here’s a few routes to try:

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Ironworks report shines a new light on Leeds lamppost

Laura Ager, Creative Engagement Officer at the Hyde Park Picture House, has written a guest blog post for the Friends of the Hyde Park Picture House about her ongoing research during lockdown into the remarkable history of the iron lamppost that stands outside our building. 

Laura joined the small team of permanent staff at the cinema last summer and her work is facilitated by funding we received from the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF). A big part of her job is to communicate the value of our cinema’s unique heritage to our local community and beyond. We hope that you enjoy reading this article and please contact us if you have any further information to share about the lamppost or anything related to it!

Image 1
1. The corner of Brudenell Road and Queens Road. Image source: Meenhan 2019

I have always liked to gaze out of the cinema doors at this red painted cast iron lamppost, it has been a familiar symbol in the neighbourhood for almost three decades of my life. I sometimes wonder about how many of us have arranged to meet friends beside it, or will have smiled as its familiar shape has appeared in view as we headed down Chestnut Avenue or Brudenell Road towards our favourite cinema, looking forward to the friendly greeting at the door. 

Its thick, opaque plastic globes are lit up every evening, maybe you have stopped to take a picture there as you have departed, perhaps trying to mark that moment in which we discovered something new about the world, or ourselves, through the power of the film we’d just been watching.

Since 1996 the lamppost has been protected with a Grade 2 listing (listing No 1255796) which means it is inscribed on the National Heritage List for England, these are all buildings and structures that are considered nationally important, being of ‘special architectural or historic interest’. That list is currently managed by Historic England, who offer the following information about the Hyde Park lamppost on their website:

Gas lamp post. Early C20. Cast-iron, Approx 7m high, base and column with relief decoration, ladder arms and 2 scrolled arms, vase finial between.

Historic England

Last year, in August, Peter Meehan, a specialist from the Historic Metalwork Conservation Company Ltd, visited the cinema to assess our lamppost and he wrote a report about it that contained a lot more detail. In his report he said that the lamppost likely dates from after 1904 and it was certainly manufactured at the Saracen Foundry in Glasgow. The side of the lamppost that faces the cinema doors quite clearly bears their company mark: Macfarlane & Co, Glasgow.  

As I have had a little extra time on my hands recently, during these endless months of lockdown, I thought that I’d like to find out a bit more about the history of the foundry and of this unique heritage feature, and to share my findings with our Friends. This has since become a fascinating project in its own right, because it turns out that our lamppost is part of the story of Walter Macfarlane, who was a prolific Scottish ironworks manufacturer in the 19th century. His company flourished for over one hundred years, like our cinema. 

From there we are able trace a much deeper set of connections that link our much-loved and perhaps slightly eccentric Victorian lamppost, situated on a corner in a Leeds suburb, with the combined global histories of the British Empire, urban development, technical innovation, public aesthetics, public health, and 19th Century free trade.

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The Best Of 2020 So Far

2020 was always going to be a strange year for the Hyde Park Picture House, we were somewhat prepared for the doors to be closed whilst the renovation work got underway but none of us could have predicted how things have turned out.

As we enter the second half of the year we normally take a look back over the last 6 months and pick out our highlights of the year so far. Fortunately there were quite a few good releases before lockdown begin and there have been a number of great films released straight to streaming since. It’s also been great that online discussions, watch parties and interviews have been able to continue.

Here are my 10 highlights of films I did see (mostly on the big screen)

  • Uncut Gems (Netflix)
  • JoJo Rabbit (Rent/Buy)
  • Amanda (Rent/Buy)
  • Waves
  • A Hidden Life (Rent/Buy)
  • The Lighthouse (Rent/Buy)
  • Parasite (Rent/Buy)
  • Portrait Of A Lady On Fire (Mubi)
  • Bacurau (Mubi)
  • Never Rarely Sometimes (Rent/Buy)

I’d also like to recommend Lynn Shelton’s final film Sword Of Trust. I don’t think it got a proper release in the UK but it turned up on Sky Movies/NowTV earlier this year.  I’ve always loved Shelton’s films and this is no different, hear death was a tragic loss because it feels like she had so much more to offer. There is a celebration of her on YouTube which I haven’t had chance to watch yet and Birds Eye View interviewed her a few weeks before her death.

There are other films that I’ve heard good things about but still haven’t had chance to watch:

  • Little Joe (Rent/Buy & Bfi subs)
  • The Assistant (Rent/Buy)
  • Color Out Of Space (Rent/Buy)
  • Queen & Slim (Rent/Buy)
  • Woman Make Film (Bfi subs)
  • Da 5 Bloods (Netflix)

Don’t forget about the Hyde Park Picks on Facebook and Twitter for more recommendations of great things to watch at home.

Surviving Lockdown With Mubi

Portrait of a Lady On Fire available in the Mubi library
What with the temporary closure of the Hyde Park Picture House and the lockdown of other venues, I was really missing my regular cinema visits.
 
I took out a free 90 days trial of MUBI (still available via the Picture House). which I had never used before. You have to give MUBI your card details when you sign up and if you don’t unsubscribe in time you they start charging you monthly until you do. Current rates are £9.99 a month or £95.88 for a year. You might find some other free trials, for example through Amazon Prime.
 
MUBI is a streaming platform https://mubi.com which they say will work on any device, (computers, mobile devices iPad, iPhone, Android and smart TVs). They have an ever-changing collection of international, classic, arthouse and indie films. It’s a good chance to see films that you missed first time round, and explore ones that you’ve never even heard of before. Every day MUBI adds a new film that stays online tor 30 days, and they’ve just added a lot more from their film library too.To give a glimpse of what is on offer, here are some titles to give an idea of the range:
 
  • Portrait of a Lady on Fire (2019) feminist tale of lesbian desire
    Frank (2014) comedy
  • Persepolis (2017) animated story of girl growing up in Iranian revolution
  • Pan’s Labyrinth (2006) dark fairy tale
  • Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972) satire
  • Orgy of the Dead (1965) cult classic 
  • Army of Shadows (1969) French resistance, suspense
  • The White Sheik (1952) early Fellini
  • La Bête Humaine (1938) psychological thriller
  • Grand Illusion (1937) anti-war classic 

Let us know in the comments if you’ve joined Mubi (or other services) and have any recommendations.


Bill Walton

Lockdown Film Club

Our friends at HEART have been organising a weekly online film discussion club during the lockdown.

LOCKDOWN FILM CLUB with Gurj Kang meets on Zoom on Fridays from 7pm

We are a friendly group who discuss films that have been keeping us going through Lockdown. We have a theme each week such as comedy or rom coms and you are encourage to nominate two favourites in advance.

To give you an idea of the variety, rom com favourites included:

  • Bringing up Baby (1938)
  • Notting Hill (1999)
  • When Harry Met Sally (1989)
  • ChungKing Express (1994)
  • Her (2013)
  • Tie Me Up, Tie Me Down (1989)
  • Say Anything (1989)
  • Gregory’s Girl (1981)

The film club is organised by HEART, the arts, enterprise and community centre in the middle of Headingley run by the community for the community.  HEART will be the venue for Hyde and Seek family friendly films and for Memory Matinees (screenings inclusive for people with dementia) as the Lockdown ends. There is no charge but members are encouraged to support HEART’s work through Just Giving. https://crowdfunding.justgiving.com/heartheadingley

The theme for May 8th is music-related films. To get the Zoom link and password email centremanager@heartcentre.org.uk


Bill Walton

L’eclisse, Italy 1962

The #HydeParkPick for today is L’eclisse (1962) by Michelangelo Antonioni which is available to watch on MUBI for the next 20 days.

Fresh off the end of an affair with an older man Vittoria meets the vital and exciting Piero. The two start to explore their passion for one another while wandering the deserted suburbs of Rome but their affair soon reveals itself to be doomed.

This pick was selected by Leeds Cineforum who invited Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University, to write about themes in Antonioni’s work for  us.

Leeds Cineforum are also keeping active during lock down in part by compiling this rich list of sites where films can be streamed for free. We’re always looking for new contributors so if you find anything interesting on that list or elsewhere and would like to flex your writing muscles please get in touch.

L’eclisse
by  Fabio Vighi, Professor of Italian and Critical Theory at Cardiff University

The dominant theme throughout Antonioni’s filmography is what we could call, borrowing from French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan’s 1960s motto, “the non existence of the sexual relationship”. This theme is especially apparent in L’eclisse, where the couple’s failure works as the film’s leitmotif from start (Vittoria leaves Riccardo) to end (Vittoria and Piero break up), effectively bringing the main character back to her initial position. Particularly in his Italian films, Antonioni explores fraught relationships by focusing on middle-class alienation against the background of the country’s rapid modernization. But the originality of his cinema has less to do with sociology than with aesthetics. More specifically, it lies in the way narrative content is over-determined by precise formal choices, which result in a stylized framing of the characters’ positioning within their space. Let us consider the long, almost experimental opening sequence of L’eclisse (1962), set in Riccardo’s flat. The sequence details both Vittoria’s inability to come to terms with her state of emotional drainage and Riccardo’s morose ineptitude at responding to it. Antonioni’s minimalist long takes convey a sense of impasse and claustrophobia, while dialogue is sparse and cryptic. This is clearly a cinema that works by subtraction: while the viewer is denied assistance in retrieving narrative information, the camera slowly pans over various objects scattered around the room, as if more interested in framing them than narrating the lovers’ separation. This aspect of Antonioni’s cinema epitomises his typically modernist penchant for sabotaging narrative progression through the erosion of conventional representations of space and time. That is to say, tension is created not so much through action and reaction, as in classical cinema, but by the opposite process of abstraction, fragmentation and de-dramatization, which ultimately reveals the director’s fascination with seemingly meaningless formal patterns.  Continue reading

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Britain 1943

BBC 2 Sunday April 26th at 12 noon.

This is a film from Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; arguably the most imaginative British filmmakers to work in our mainstream industry. The 1940s was the great decade for the duo with a string of master-works that were both popular and ground breaking. The pair had their own production company, ‘The Archers’, with the famous logo of an arrow striking a target.

The ‘Colonel Blimp’ of the title was well known in war-time Britain; a character in a cartoon series by David Lowe which satirized the traditionalist British military. Powell and Pressburger transformed the character though they cleverly retained aspects of the series as with the Turkish bath sequence that opens the film.

At this point the ‘Blimp’ character, Clive Candy [Roger Livesey) has come out out retirement to manage the newly organised Home Guard. He retains traditional military attitudes which come into conflict with the modern and ruthless attitudes of a young brash regular army lieutenant. The action leads into a flashback which traces Clive career and personal life from the Boer War period.

This, the main part of the film, is partly a war story, partly a romantic drama, but also a moving portrait of ageing, devotion and friendship. The friendship is with a member of the German military, Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorff (Anton Walbrook). The devotion involves a series of women, Edith, Barbara and Angela, all played by Deborah Kerr.

The cast are superb. Roger Livesey also played the lead in the later and equally fine I Know Where I’m Going (1945). Deborah Kerr was the lead in several films by Powell and Pressburger, notably Black Narcissus (1945). And Anton Walbrook played the far less sympathetic ‘’Svengali’ producer Boris Lemontov in The Red Shoes (1948).

Walbrook – Livesey – Kerr.

Whilst Clive Candy’s career and personal-life are full of interest there is also a strong thematic current. This is the critical examination of the mores of war when Clive commenced his career at the turn of the century and those now required by the current European war against the ruthless Nazi regime. The film manages to marry this critical perspective with an emotional interest in Candy and his friends and his loves.

The film runs 183 minutes, but I never found this a long film to watch. As is the case with really talented film-makers, Powell and Pressburger had a fine eye for skilled craft people. The Technicolor cinematography by Georges Perinal is excellent. The Production Design by Alfred Junge together with the Costumes by Joseph Bato are very fine. And there is clear crisp editing by John Seabourne with well-scored musical track Allan Gray.

The film has undergone two restorations over the years. Contemporary 35mm prints enjoy a high standard of colour and definition. This film is screening on BBC HD which should do sufficient justice to the original. And be thankful. Winston Churchill disliked the film but his efforts to stop the production were in vain. Whilst the British public liked the film which came fourth in the 1943 box office.