Performance (UK 1970)

Saturday July 27th 5.30 p.m.

This is both a cult movie and a seminal British film. Chas, (James Fox) is an East End gang member who collects protection money. When his methods result in a killing he goes on the run and hides out in Notting Hill Gate basement, where, upstairs there is a ménage à trois. Chas becomes involved in the hedonistic activities at the house and, in particular with an ex-rock musician Turner (Mick Jagger).

The film became infamous for its melee of explicit violence, sex and drug-taking. The 1970s also became infamous for the clash between adventurous film-making and conservative values, embodied in another British film The Devils (1971) and the campaign against it by an organisation called ‘The Festival of Light’.

This film was produced by Warner Brothers, who also were involved in the equally controversial A Clockwork Orange (1971). The studio executives did not know how to manage the film and enforced cuts in the finished property. The British Board of Film Censorship [as it then was] made more cuts. On release it received an ‘X certificate’ whilst in the USA it received an ‘R’ rating. It received similar certificates in other territories and often additional cuts. The USA release suffered the further indignity of having some cockney dialogue being dubbed [re-voiced]; a fate also experienced by the radically different Kes (1969).

Two people received director credits. Donald Cammell, a bona fide maverick, who wrote the screenplay and was also associate producer. He was born in Edinburgh in the ‘Outlook Tower’ later home for a ‘Camera Obscura’; how apt. Cammell started out as a painter, took up script-writing and then Performance. This is his most famous and successful film; later works have a similar combination of the exotic and the erotic, but not the acclaim.

His fellow director was Nicolas Roeg. He was born in London; and also appropriately nearly opposite the old Marylebone Film Studio, used at one point by Hammer Films. He started out as a cinematographer and indeed shot this film. He went onto direct several successful and highly praised films, including Don’t Look Now (1973), screened in a digital version here last week. He had an unconventional style of film photography. One critic, Steve Rose, remarked that his films

“shatter reality into a thousand pieces” .

His film work, as in this title, is always memorable.

The film runs 105 minutes in colour and black and white, and in the European widescreen ratio. This screening presents the restoration by the BFI from 2004 in 35mm.

The background to the film and its handling by the industry and censors will be illuminated in the Q&A that follows with Sanford Lieberson, the producer on the film. His other work includes a number of documentaries including the very fine ‘Brother Can You Spare a Dime (1975). He will be accompanied by Jay Glennie who has produced a book; ‘Performance: 50th Anniversary Book’.

Red Joan, Britain 2018

Sun 2nd June 3.00 p.m., Wed 5th June 11.00am [BYOBaby] and 1.20pm

This is the story of a fictional character, Joan Stanley, who in the 1940s passed secret information to the Soviet Union. However, it and the novel from which it is adapted, are based on the life of a actual historical character, Melita Norwood. Norwood was exposed publicly in 1999 when information from an ex-Soviet agent and now-defector revealed her past activities.

The film version presents the story in a fairly conventional-style narrative [warning – plot spoilers]. The film opens with the arrest of Joan (Judi Dench) by Special Branch in 1999. Then we view a series of interrogations which are intercut with flashbacks by Joan to the 1930s and 1940s. The interrogations fill out the action in 1999 where information has led to the exposure of a senior Foreign Office official as well as Joan. The flashbacks presents Joan’s personal life and then her spy activities. At Cambridge ‘Young Joan’ (Sophie Cookson) meets glamorous European émigré Sonya Galich (Teresa Srbova) and cousin Leo Galich (Tom Hughes). Both are communist activists.

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Out of Blue, (Britain / USA 2018)

Wed 24th April at11.00 a.m. [BYOBaby], 8.30 p.m. and Thu 25th April at 5.30 p.m.

This movie has received mixed reviews. But Mark Kermode, whose visits to the Picture House have been very popular, was really positive. The drama presented in this title is rather unconventional. The narrative mixes objective scenes [the audience assume we are watching a record of realistic events] and subjective scenes [a character’s internal memories and musings] and it is likely to take time for viewers to be able to clearly distinguish them. The plot also mixes actions by characters with philosophical musings by them.

The latter aspect is exemplified by the opening sequence which commences with the night sky and an astronomer speculating on the cosmos. This would appear to be a homage to the British film masterpiece, ‘A Matter of Life and Death’ (1946). It also sets up a treatment of the characters and their experiences which suggest issues of existential consideration.

On the surface this is a story of a murder investigation shot in a noir manner, with a world of chaos, a ‘seeker’ hero, flashbacks, triangles of relationships and nights and chiaroscuro. The setting is New Orleans and the production makes good use of the varied character of this city, which at times has an exotic tinge. It is though a symbolic city and despite location filming it is not the city seen in contemporary news. Visually the film is treat. The colours are evocative and suggestive, not just the ‘blue’ of the title but a range of tones which match the different facets of the city. The cinematography, in colour and a ratio of 2.35:1, by Conrad Hall is excellent and the title is well served in all production departments.

The other compelling aspect of the film is the performance of Patricia Clarkson as detective Houlihan, the investigator. This is a tour de force. I actually pay little attention to the Academy Awards but this performance deserves a Best Actor trophy. It is also a still rare pleasure to see an older actress with a lead role in a thriller.

This is the latest movie by Carol Morley. Her Dreams of a Life (2011) stood out amongst recent British documentaries. Mark Kermode commented that she was ‘born a film-maker’. I actually think that quality film-makers develop by commitment and hard work, attention to detail and a serious study of cinematic form. Carol Morley seems to have done all of this. And, uncommon among the ‘new auteurs’, she has mastered both the direction of film and script-writing for film.

The film is adapted from a novel by Martin Amis, ‘Night Train’ (1997) though, apparently, changing the tone and the plot. Amis’ novel aimed to be a parody, this is a fairly bleak film noir. It was mainly funded by the BBC and the BFI. This may be part of the reason that it stands out in productions by British directors working on US-based stories. Frequently such films are a disappointment and less satisfying than earlier British-based stories by the same film-maker. Here Carol Morley succeeds with a really effective treatment which also develops some of the themes found in her earlier works.

Definitely a film to see. Mark Kermode suggests it repays seeing more than once; I fully agree. If you do enjoy it there is an article, ‘Under Investigation’, privileging the female protagonist in the April edition of Sight & Sound, and followed by an interview with Carol Morley.

Cinema and Film Heritage

This Sunday, September 10th, film fans have a chance to explore the Hyde Park Picture House as part of a Heritage Open Day. Between 1000 and 1500 they can enjoy the beauty of the cinema auditorium, one of the finest surviving examples in Britain, with its distinctive gas lighting. There will also be conducted tours of the Projection Room every half-an-hour: including the 35mm projectors, fine specimens of a species that is in danger of extinction. These tours will be a little like the recently screened German silent film, Berlin: Die Sinfonie der Grosstadt (1927:  just as the Berlin of 1927 is no longer, the Picture House will soon be remodelled thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund Award.

Appropriately there will also be a screening of 35mm films. There will all be the work of the ‘Poet of British Cinema’, Humphrey Jennings. His films are beautifully crafted and imaginative portraits of Britain in the 1930s and 1940s.

There will be Spare Time (1939, 13 minutes) a film that reflected the work of Mass Observation, a pioneering sociological research movement of the period. The film visits several regions in 1930s Britain to examine the culture of ordinary working people. The commentary is by Laurie Lee, another poet. I especially enjoy the sequence with the Welsh choir.

Then the wartime film Words for Battle (1941, 8 minutes): documentary footage of Britain during the Blitz is accompanied by a selection of poetry and prose read by Lawrence Olivier.

The Silent Village (1943, 36 minutes) is a retelling of the massacre by the Nazi occupiers of the villagers of Lidice in 1942. This was notorious event early in the war. The film relocates the story to Wales to increase the immediacy of the barbarity.

And finally Listen to Britain (1942, 20 minutes) is one of the true masterpieces of British cinema. Jennings weaves a tapestry of documentary footage, dialogue, sound and music to present the Home Front of a Britain at War.

All these films are in black and white. Note that the last three all enjoy the editing of Stewart McAllister, not always credited but a key colleague in Jennings’s film work. Also important are the regular cameraman H. E. Fowle and the sound engineer Ken Cameron. All contributors to these heritage classics.

Dunkirk, Netherlands, UK, France, USA 2017

Opens on Friday  July 21st at 6.15 p.m.

This is the new film directed by Christopher Nolan. He is not only an extremely talented filmmaker but also one who appreciates the superior qualities of ‘reel’ film. In an interview in Sight & Sound (August 2017) he explained that

“The entire film is shot on 65mm film. Seventy per cent of the film is 15 perf IMAX 65 and the other 30 per cent is 5 perf 65mm [‘perf” refers to the number of perforations on the print: the IMAX format runs horizontally rather than vertically]. …

Also, the entire film is finished photo chemically and so where we’re doing 70mm prints and were doing reductions of the IMAX photography, those are done on an optical printer. [A device for copying or altering film prints].”

However, the 70 mm version does not appear to be screening in West Yorkshire and the IMAX screenings all seem to be digital. So the screening of a 35mm print at the Hyde Park is definitely the best version on offer locally.

The epic of Dunkirk, a ten day military disaster that somehow is presented as a victory, looms large in the British psyche. And it also figures frequently in British cinema.

The Foreman Went to France (Ealing Studio 1942, in black and white) presents a parallel story about the evacuation of vital machinery from France to Britain.

A fictional treatments of the actual evacuation appears in a Hollywood product, M-G-M’s Mrs Miniver (1942 in black and white) with Greer Garson holding up the home front whilst husband Walter Pidgeon joins the heroic armada rescuing British and allied soldiers.

The definitive version to date is Ealing Studio’s Dunkirk (1958, in black and white and standard wide-screen) with John Mills, Richard Attenborough and Bernard Lee leading a familiar cast of British characters. This is very much in the mould of the low-key British war movies. It combines scenes of military action with the intervening moments of the troops waiting and watching as the evacuation proceeds.

Intriguingly there is a French treatment, Week-end à Zuydcoote / Weekend at Dunkirk (Paris Film Production, 1984 in colour and a scope format). This deals with French troops stranded on the beaches.

More recently Atonement (Universal Pictures and Studio Canal 2007, in colour and standard wide screen) has a fine sequence as James McAvoy’s Private Turner waits and dies on the crowded beaches.

Most recently Their Finest (BBC Films, Pinewood Pictures , 2016 in both colour and black and white and a scope format] offers a film-within-a film [The Nancy Starling] celebrating the event, whilst the main narrative celebrates British filmmakers of the period with a certain amount of irony.

It will be interesting to see where the treatment by Nolan and his team fits into this cinematic discourse.

The Edge of the World, UK 1937

Sunday May 21st 16 3.30 p.m.

[Following the Annual General Meeting]

The 1930s is often seen as a ‘low decade’ for British films. But, apart from many of the ‘Quota Quickies’ [made on the cheap to take advantage of state subsidies] there were  some fine and well made movies This title is one of those. It was directed by Michael Powell, shortly before he began his famous partnership with Emeric Pressburger.

The film is a melodrama set in a traditional community where modern influences are threatening the established way of life. Tensions within communities are accentuated by rivalries between families. These characters are well played by familiar actors like John Laurie (Peter Manson), Finlay Currie (James Gray) and Niall MacGinnis (Andrew Gray)  with lesser known performers like Belle Chrystall (Ruth Manson) and Kitty Kirwan (Jean Manson – seen in other classic films like I Know Where I’m Going (1945) and Odd Man Out (1947)]. They were supported by actual islanders living on the location, the Isle of Fulva in the Shetlands: and [rather Hitchcockian] Michael Powell as a Yatchsman.

Three cinematographers worked on the film but the key lighting cameraman was Ernest Palmer who captured the beauty of the wild terrains and massive cliffs of the island. Nearly the whole of the film was shot on location with a few linking shots added at the studio. The production team had to live on the island for several months from June till October, a long way from the studios which were the normal home of film crews. The latter stages saw them battling wind and rain. Michael Powell wrote the story and script: it was inspired by his reading of the reports of the actual evacuation of St Kilda [in the Hebrides] in 1930. The film was produced by a US émigré, Joe Rock, who ran a small independent studio near Elstree. Most of the technical crew had worked with Powell before. He had established himself with a number of ‘quota quickies’, including a recent success for the Rock Production Company The Man Behind the Mask (1936). The film’s pre-release was in the summer of 1937. Michael Powell recalled [in his autobiographical ‘A Life in the Movies’  (1986)]:

“The film opened at the New Gallery Cinema in Regent Street, now the London headquarters of the Seventh day Adventists, but then a rather classy movie theatre. [It is now a Burberry store, but the auditorium and its screen can still be seen and are used for promotional videos]. The critics gave it a cautious reviews. But my old admirer, C. A. Lejeune, writing in The Observer knew the difference between a lyric drama and a documentary, and said: “I hope everyone who can will make a point of seeing The Edge of the World. In some obscure judgement day, when these things are measured, I have a feeling it will come up somewhere near the top of English classics.”

And Basil Wright [of the British Documentary Movement] trumpeted in the Cinema: “If The Edge of the World achieves the success it so well deserves, it will be yet another reminder that vast production costs, exotic casts, and cosmopolitan scenarios are perhaps not the ultimate plan for the British Cinema.”

[Later] Joe Rock, who was fighting for the film, had sent a copy to New York to a small distributor, who submitted it to the National Board of Review film critics, and they chose it as one of the best foreign films of the year, which gave me a wonderful lift.”

This was well before British films won the occasional Academy Award. It was also seen and liked by film impresario Alexander Korda, And it was at his Denham Studio that Powell and Pressburger commenced the most memorable partnership in British Cinema.

The film was restored by the National Film Archive in 1990, though the present 35mm print is slightly shorter than the original release.

 

T2 Trainspotting, UK 2017

Daily from Friday February 10th until Thursday February 16th

t2-trainspotting

This is a sequel twenty years on from the popular and well received original.  I suspect that the pleasures of watching the film will depend on how much you liked the 1996 title: this is clearly an exercise in retro-pleasure, even nostalgia. The original cast are all there; Ewan McGregor as Renton; Robert Carlyle as Begbie; Ewan Bremner as Spud; John Lee Miller as Simon. Kelly MacDonald also returns as Diane, but only in a brief walk-on part. She does tell Renton that the new romantic/sexual character Veronika (Anjela Nedyalkova) is ‘too young for you’.

The film also returns with familiar settings and tropes from the original: including toilets and the great Scottish outdoors. The new film also has the same certification as the earlier title, 18. However, from memory, I would say that this has slightly less violence and drug-taking and a little more sex.

The film uses extracts from the 1996 film, more frequently than I thought was justified or necessary. But it also shows the characters’ lives before the plot of 1996 and we get to see on-screen the meaning of the title of both films. At the same time it brings the story up-to-date in terms of changed mores and social settings. Thus we have Veronika who is from Bulgaria. And the ending of the film moves on from  that of 1990s Edinburgh.

The production values, including the cinematography and editing are very well done. However the film is circulating in  a 2K DCP which I think does less justice to the visual than the 35mm of the original. But probably as Renton proposes, ‘choose  Trainspotting 2′.

 

 

I, Daniel Blake UK/France/Belgium 2016

Screening daily from Friday October 21st until Thursday November 3rd               [excepting Sunday October 30th]

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The new film directed by Ken Loach comes garlanded with the Palme d’Or from the Cannes Film Festival. As usual it is scripted by Paul Laverty and has been part-funded by the BBC, the BFI and European companies. The film is set in Newcastle-upon-Tyne among the northern English working class. And the plot revolves round the travails of ordinary working people attempting to cope with an unsympathetic and exploitative state system. Thus it combines situations and themes that have dominated Loach’s films since the seminal Cathy Come Home (1966).

Ken Loach’s long and illustrious career makes him one of the most productive of contemporary British film-makers and the oldest recipient of the Cannes Festival’s premier award. Yet his work has a continuity and repetition that makes all his films easily recognisable. We are told that, as is his wont, the film was shot chronologically. It uses both experienced and non-professional performers. And it relies to a degree on the long shot and the long take, giving it an observational style. Note, despite the clips in the Versus… documentary this film screens in standard widescreen, 1.85:1 and is in colour. It was shot on Kodak film stock but is being distributed on a DCP.

In an interview this week Loach took the BBC and television generally to task for their failings in representing the working class of Britain in any meaningful manner. So his continuing engagement with this world and with the politics of resistance makes the film essential viewing.

South Riding UK 1938

8.30 p.m. Monday August 1st
Free for members – preceded by a Special General Meeting at 7.30pm

Richardson, Best and Clements.

Richardson, Best and Clements.

This is a fine adaptation of Winifred Holtby’ s 1936 novel with a screenplay by Ian Dalrymple and directed by Victor Saville. This was

“A novel of Yorkshire life between the two wars.”

The author dedicated the book to her mother, an Alderman in the County Council. Here she wrote,

“I have laid my scene in the South East part of Yorkshire, because that is the district which I happen to know best: … [and] … when I came to consider local government, I began to see how it was in essence the first-line defence thrown up by the community against common enemies – poverty sickness, ignorance, mental derangement and social maladjustment.”

The film preserves much of the social consciousness of the novel, but one relationship takes centre stage. This is between the two stars of the film, Ralph Richardson as landowner Robert Carne and Edna Best as the modern headmistress Sarah Barton. The film even retains an extremely unconventional [for the period] dramatic scene between them. The drama concerning local government is especially filled out by Edmund Gwenn as a businessman cum councillor Alfred Huggins and John Clements as ‘socialist’ councillor Joe Astell. Both the latter parts are fairly conventional for the period.

The film was also produced by Victor Saville who was one of the outstanding talents in British film in the 1930s. It was filmed at and around the Denham Studio and features some excellent location sequences. Unfortunately, I do not think that there are any Yorkshire locations in the film, but you may spot some. The production is very well done, particularly the cinematography of Harry Stradling and the production designs of Lazarre Meerson. And there is an excellent score by Richard Addinsell.

This is a good example of a first class drama of the period.  Marcia Landy, in her study of British genres, notes that the film is one of the most successful examples of a ‘melodrama of conversion and initiation’.  There is more compromise in the film than in the novel but it remains a fine portrait of 1930s Yorkshire life. And on this year’s Yorkshire Day it is screening in its original format of 35mm black and white academy.

Versus: The Life and Films of Ken Loach UK 2016

Screening On 11th June – 6.45 PM : On 12th June – 3.30 PM Wednesday 15th June 8.50 p.m. 

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This new biopic comes out at a propitious time. Ken Loach has won his second Palme’ d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for I, Daniel Blake. He joins an elect group of filmmakers, Bille August, Emir Kusterica and Shohei Imamura, who have also won this prestigious award twice since its inception in the current form in 1975. The award confirms Loach’s status as one of the most important of contemporary European filmmakers: though one who has been honoured more on the continent than in his home territory.

The documentary has been produced by Loach regular Rebecca O’Brien, scripted by his colleague Paul Laverty, and directed by Louise Osmond. It also includes many of the people who have worked with Loach, including Tony Garnett, whose output at the BBC is also seminal. My main reservation is that Osmond’s previous film, Dark Horse (2015), was made like a typical television documentary and utilised archive and found footage of rather low quality. But its focus was ordinary working people who are the recurring centre of Loach’s own films.

It was shot in 2.35:1 and that ratio does allow some striking shots by cinematographer Roger Chapman. But it also means that the extracts from Loach’s own films have been re-framed to fit this format. This does not do them any favours, in some frames heads are cut off. The footage of Loach working on I, Daniel Blake is in the same ratio. Some of this is interesting, but often it feels like a ‘making of ….’ treatment.

Where the films scores are the interviews with Ken Loach and Tony Garnett. Loach is unassuming but rigorous in his comments. And Tony Garnett is both intelligent and stimulating. We also get a brief interveiw with Nell Dunn [Up the Junction] and recordings of Jim Allen. The latter was an important collaborator and influence on Loach. And there is an excellent comment by Gabriel Byrne on the suppression of the production of Perdition. It would have been good to have more from other important collaborators like Rebecca O’Brien and Paul Laverty.

The documentary is also strong on the frequently myopic and predjudiced treatment of Loach’s film among British critics. As Derek Malcom remarks, he is much more honoured on the continent. Whilst he has won many awards at the Cannes Film Festival, The Berlin Film Festival and even a French César. None of his films has ever been awarded a BAFTA!

Certainly Loach’s film and television output has deserved this. From the pioneering work in the 1960s, notably Cathy Come Home, made for the BBC with Tony Garnett, to the recent series of annual film releases, his work has been among the best and most interesting produced in the UK. And this film does pay due attention to his early work for the BBC. Whatever its limitations this documentary is worth seeing as a deserved retrospective of his contribution.

Cathy come home

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