Glasgow Film Festival

15 – 26 February 2017

Lipstick Under My Burkha directed by Alankrita Shrivastava.

One of the highlights of the annual festival calendar is visiting Glasgow each February. GFF programming is always stimulating with imaginative twists in presentation in different venues across the city. The post screening Q&A’s are plentiful, the audiences are demonstrably enthusiastic and the combination of inspired retrospective screenings with the latest releases from around the world is second to none. This year there was a lot to savour including exciting new work by emerging directors, a wonderful showcase strand of Canadian Cinema and a delightfully Noirish focus on Dangerous Dames. I’m still thinking about many of the films I’ve watched or have rediscovered over the last week including Elle, Paradise, Zoology, Lipstick Under My Burkha, Hounds of Love, Angry Anuk, Werewolf, Illegitimate, The Demons, The Levelling, A Quiet Passion, Berlin Syndrome, Lady Macbeth, Out of the Past, The Postman Always Rings Twice, Gun Crazy, Secretary and Little Annie Rooney. The immersive experience of Film, place and people that is uniquely GFF is always invigorating and the perfect interior winter escape.

Winner of the GFF17 Audience Award Lipstick Under My Burkha had two sell-out screenings in Glasgow, ironically in the same week that the film was banned in India. Unjustifiably it has not been granted a certificate in writer/ director Alankrita Shrivastava’s home country on the grounds that it is too “lady orientated”. What’s shocking isn’t actually the content of the film which follows the lives, loves and desires of four women in Bhopal, India, but the regressive attitudes towards equality exposed by this blatant act of censorship. Filmmakers have a duty to address such basic issues as freedom of expression and human rights through their work, enabling voices that have been previously denied, suppressed or silenced to be heard. That this is perceived as a threat by those who benefit from maintaining patriarchal power under banner of tradition, righteousness or religious doctrine isn’t surprising but deeply regrettable. The main complaint against the film appears to be that women are doing “unspeakable” things in the film- like making essential life choices; seeking education, jobs outside the home, love outside of arranged marriage, the right to use contraception and to have satisfying sex lives.  As Shrivastava suggests; “our films and governing bodies tell us that women can be object of desires but can’t have desires of their own. That needs to change.”

Lipstick Under My Burkha brings into focus the increasing conflict between traditions of power and conformity vs accelerated economic development, media consumption and changing attitudes in a digital age. Globalisation and increased access to information technology promote the idea of freedom of choice and expression for all, however these rapid advances in communication don’t necessarily translate to political or social reform on the ground. Having to live an emotionally, intellectually or sexually secret life actively denies those freedoms. All four characters face consequences of judgement, ostracism, punishment and exile from their family / community by daring to dream, love or in refusing to accept the limiting role imposed on them. In the end as the characters are brought together, the opportunity of potentially supporting each other through shared experience brings hope and validation. This is something that festival audiences should never take for granted while there are still places in the world where assembling to watch a film or the act of screening it are a crime. Whether it is denial of film certification, representation of women on screen or opportunities working behind the camera, there isn’t a national film industry on the planet that could claim gender equality in 2017, which is why alternative independent film production is so vital in terms of advocacy. These aren’t just “lady orientated” stories but human ones that have a right to be heard.  An appeal has been lodged against the ban in India and hopefully success on the international festival circuit will bring many more people to this film, raising awareness, ensuring its wider distribution and promoting positive change where it is most needed.

Zoology Directed by Ivan I Tverdovsky.

Transformation of a different kind is the subject of writer/ director Ivan I Tverdovsky’s  Zoology, a wonderfully original take on the universal theme of the outsider. The story centres on a middle aged woman Natasha (Natalya Pavlenkova) living with her devoutly religious mother in a Russian seaside town. It’s an unrelentingly bleak and confined existence. Natasha is a lonely, isolated figure, constantly mocked and bullied by colleagues at the zoo where she works. The only warmth in her life is her own compassion in caring for her mother and her interactions feeding and petting the animals at the zoo. Then she grows a tail and starts living! She experiences the liberation of being herself for the first time, attracting the loving attention of a young doctor, together with the prejudice, superstition and intolerance of her community. Whilst the story might sound bizarre it is very much a modern fable tempered by Pavlenkova‘s subtle and completely engaging central performance. The tail becomes whatever the audience projects onto it and feels pertinently real in the questions it raises about personal and political freedom in Putin’s Russia and beyond. It’s a contemporary fairy tale with heart, soul, irrepressible joy and deep sadness at its core, where difference is celebrated but ultimately suppressed. We are reminded that conformity and belonging to an established order often trumps pursuit of personal happiness. Natasha’s acceptance by her young lover is rendered as emotionally void as her mother’s rejection because the focus is on her difference rather than her whole self. Moments of intimacy as the character begins to open up to her feelings and to those around her are particularly moving, but there is also a lot of humour making the film both hugely enjoyable and critically illuminating. Zoology is a strikingly unconventional film, focusing on a middle aged female character rarely permitted to take centre stage in mainstream cinema, but I love it most for the universally radical human value of empathy at its heart.

A Quiet Passion directed by Terence Davies.

Following the screening of his latest work A Quiet Passion starring Cynthia Nixon as Nineteenth Century American poet Emily Dickinson, a Q&A with director Terence Davies (Distant Voices Still Lives, Of Time and the City, The House of Mirth, Sunset Song) also provided a focus on the outsider and the empathic role of the director. A witty, articulate, sensitive and intensely passionate interviewee, Davies talked about the essence of Dickinson’s poetry and personality in his “most autobiographical film” to date. He described the way that she “guarded her soul” with ruthless integrity, but was also subject to the same creative ambitions, longing and desire for recognition that all artists crave. Discovering Dickinson’s poetry as a young man through readings by Claire Bloom on television, Davies immediately went out and bought a book of her works. What he found within her poetry was a spiritual quest parallel to the lapsed Catholic in him, each trying to answer the question of “What do you do if you’ve got a soul and there’s no God?” What is inspirational in Davies’ creative approach is his humane spirit in the face of adversity; “Actors open their hearts to you and you must do the same” as a director. “You have to be open, then wonderful things happen”. His latest film is testament to the enduring power of imagination and the creativity that saves us. Wherever we may find ourselves in life, even within the confines of four walls “we have to have a rich inner life or the soul dies.”

Hounds of Love directed by Ben Young.

The death of the soul is one way of describing the murderous couple at the centre of Australian Writer/Director Ben Young’s debut feature Hounds of Love, the most psychologically disturbing film to come out of Australia since Rowan Woods’ The Boys (1998). Developed, filmed, produced and set in Perth, Western Australia, the blinding heat and light of Christmas 1987 fuels the oppressive atmosphere of a film which explodes the myth of suburban safety. Based on real crimes such as the infamous David and Catherine Birnie case, there is an unnerving familiarity of place and events in living memory entwined with the film’s fiction, together with a uniquely Australian masculine undercurrent of potential violence. Young’s exploration of women who kill as co-dependent partners of men able to emotionally control them is distilled in the character of Evelyn. Emma Booth delivers a performance of astonishing range, convincing cunning and innate vulnerability, reminiscent of a young Judy Davis. She is joined by Stephen Cummings who is absolutely chilling as her manipulative, predatory and sadistic boyfriend John. We learn that at the age of 13 Evelyn was simultaneously recruited and “saved” from a life of familial abuse by John for the sole purpose of satisfying his own twisted desire for control, sexual violence and murder. Physically slight and frighteningly unassuming to the outside world, we also see in a scene with local drug dealers demanding payment how emasculated he is, later distilled into fury. Evelyn’s ability to use identification with their female victims to control them is equally horrific in its mastered execution. Evelyn’s children have been removed from her care and the nature of the couple’s co-dependency is intensely driven with John’s constant promise of their return to her. Shaped by abuse, rejection and self-loathing Evelyn’s need to be loved is so strong and has become so powerfully deformed that the cost is irrelevant, whilst  John needs her to lure trusting teenage girls into their car in order to abduct, torture and kill them for his pleasure. When they kidnap schoolgirl Vicky (Ashleigh Cummings) on her way to a party she must turn her captors against each other if she’s to have any chance of escape.

Use of slow motion, cruising through suburbia past scenes of every day family life, places the audience very uncomfortably inside the killer’s car looking for victims, playing on our deepest urban fears of random violence from strangers coupled with the hard truth of premeditated calculation. The framing of scenes through doors and barred windows creates an atmosphere of increasing tension which becomes concentrated even further in the confined, claustrophobic interior spaces of the couple’s house. Sound is the perfect tool to communicate terror over and above the visual depiction of brutal acts or gore. It’s the primal sense we fall back on in the dark, hard wired for survival and here it is used with brilliance and restraint to suggest the escalation of violence and the warped nature of the killers’ relationship. Songs of love and Christmas celebration are juxtaposed with opposing scenes of suggested violence and foreboding. Young’s film may be low budget but this is not a cheap slasher flick as it attempts to unravel and understand the motivations of its disturbing central characters, demonstrating great promise in terms of the director’s evolving skill. What Young deliberately chooses not to show the audience is pivotal in how this film communicates directly, viscerally and psychologically with the audience. Although the subject is harrowing and the suspended tension in some scenes is almost unbearable, I’m sure that it will be continue its momentum on the festival circuit, having already won Best Actress for Emma Booth and Best Director at the Brussels International Film Festival and the Fedora Award at the Venice Film Festival for best actress in a debut film for Ashleigh Cummings.

Werewolf directed by Ashley McKenzie.

Another tough drama worthy of attention followed by a fascinating Q&A with writer/ director Ashley McKenzie was her debut feature Werewolf, part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand of the festival.  Her story of Blaise and Vanessa, two homeless junkies still in their early twenties on a methadone recovery programme will have resonance for many rural communities throughout the Highlands and Islands of Scotland. Crewed and cast locally with all non-actors bar one, McKenzie’s film highlights the lives of young people falling through the cracks, failings in government policy and the Canadian Health and Social Care system. She also addresses the void of displacement and despair experienced by so many people living with addictions, bound to each other in toxic relationships or fatally addicted to the methadone cure. The style of framing, pushing characters to the edge of the composition, amplifying their feelings of being trapped with intimate close ups or just showing their mouths speaking because that is all the person behind the counter is seeing captures their predicament beautifully. There is also the poetics of the everyday in play with improvised scenes evolving naturally, characters slotted into working shifts and the creation of spontaneous moments of reflection, like the image of the Oreo grinder in the ice-cream shop and its endless cycle of halted movement. Mckenzie commented on the Drama of addiction portrayed in films such as Trainspotting as something she wanted to avoid in terms of the mundane, deadening reality of the methadone cycle where there is a lot of waiting involved; at the pharmacist, the clinic or social security office, moving from house to house doing odd jobs to scrape together hand to mouth cash, waiting for the opportunity to leave for a better life that never comes. Although addiction comes in many forms and touches many lives in rural areas it is a subject which is not openly discussed both in Scotland and in Canada.  Werewolf is an important first step in acknowledging that struggle in many communities, asking why dependency exists and what the nature of “the void” triggering it actually is. The film doesn’t provide answers but is a very compassionate attempt to understand, opening up a dialogue based on trust and familiarity with the local community. My only criticism would be that we don’t learn the backstory of the two protagonists and what has lead them to this point in their lives. This is something which begs further exploration as projecting the substance of this local problem has global implications and also feels like the next logical step up for this promising young director.

The Demons/ Les Demons directed by Philippe Lesage.

Another talented director showcased as part of the True North: New Canadian Cinema strand was Philippe Lesage. His impressively composed examination of childhood fears real and imagined in The Demons/ Les Demons presented a different slant on a “coming of age” drama. Set in suburban Montreal the story centres on Felix, a sensitive ten year old boy (Edouard Tremblay-Grenier) grappling with friendship, guilt, love, parental conflict and the insecurities of growing up. Lesage captures beautifully the state of childhood, separate from the adult world where the smallest detail or suggestion becomes magnified, taking on its own reality. It is a pre- internet world where information and reassurance comes from overhearing adult whispers and from peers or siblings. In spite of dangerous turns of the plot in many ways Lesage’s vision of childhood through the eyes of his central protagonist is a resoundingly gentle one, founded on innocence and the doubts we all experience in the process of maturing. The comforting conclusion of the film is that all will be well. We feel that Felix has escaped childhood relatively unscathed with the support of his elder brother and sister and the image of his parents together by the lake waving to him like a living remembrance also affirms this. Clearly the experience is autobiographically close to the director which is part of the film’s authenticity and winning sentiment. It is refreshing to watch a film that quietly explores its subject in such a measured way. Even though there is a seriously deadly threat within Felix’s neighbourhood, it does not become part of his individual story nor is it introduced for tear inducing dramatic effect. These events punctuate Felix’s world but his awareness is thankfully still that of a child sitting in the sun smiling in the final frame, an image that is reassuringly ordinary and stylistically poised.

Angry Inuk directed by Alethea Arnaquq-Baril.

Director Alethea Arnaquq-Baril’s documentary Angry Inuk exposes the damaging impact of the global anti-sealing movement on Inuit communities. Focusing on the diminishing economy and threatened way of life in director’s homeland on Baffin Island, located in the Canadian Territory Nunavut on the edge of the Arctic Ocean, it is a film about ancient knowledge, resilience and survival. Angry Inuk  is an important film on many levels, a positive statement about ways of being in the landscape that are traditional, sustainable and respectful, lessons that must be learned if human beings are going to survive on this planet into the next century. With the Arctic region rapidly becoming the latest international battleground for natural resources (ironically opened up by global warming fuelled by unsustainable industry, mass consumption and decades of unchecked greenhouse gas emissions) the understanding of indigenous peoples on how to sustain life and thrive in challenging conditions is of paramount urgency and global significance. This is a revealing, articulate and insightful film which offers a different type of dialogue between indigenous people, environmental and animal rights groups to address the overarching threats to all life on our planet. The Inuit way of resolving conflict, expressed face to face, de-escalated through song and resolved in laughter has something to teach us all.

Dependence on seal meat and skins to simply maintain communities living in some of the harshest conditions on earth, in the face of climate change, economic uncertainty and widespread poverty is not a luxury trade. The quiet anger of a people decimated by decision making outside their territory without dialogue or consultation demands a new kind of activism to challenge misinformation and the multimillion dollar anti sealing campaigns endorsed by celebrities. It is heartening that Angry Inuk is succeeding in reaching audiences, winning the People’s Choice Award from Canada’s Top Ten Film Festival in Toronto. The screening at GFF generated a lot of discussion afterwards and it was clear from audience comments that the film was actively changing perceptions. Angry Inuk provides evidence of a different way for human beings to exist in relation to the environment whilst also being part of a global economy and providing much needed leadership. What emerges is the inspiring and enduring strength, dignity and pride of the Inuit people, together with possible solutions for sustainable hunting, management of natural resources and environmental conservation that the world and its leaders simply cannot afford to ignore any longer.

Mary Pickford as Little Annie Rooney.

The 1925 Silent Film Little Annie Rooney starring the luminous Mary Pickford was an unexpected delight in the True North Canadian Cinema strand and one of the great joys of this year’s festival.  It is easy to see why Pickford was one of the most internationally renowned and best loved stars of her day. As tomboy Little Annie Rooney, Pickford’s superb comic timing, pure pathos and innate sensitivity is conveyed in every thought, gesture and expression on screen. As a pioneer of the Motion Picture industry she understood the power of film as an empathic medium, not just in her artistry as an actor but in her understanding of film as a screenwriter, producer, director and co-founder of United Artists with Charles Chaplin, D.W. Griffiths and Douglas Fairbanks. With all the debate about the lack of female representation in mainstream film both behind and in front of the camera, Pickford is an inspirational figure and a commanding presence in the history of Film in spite of the demure label of “America’s Sweetheart”. Her intelligence plays out on screen in scenes which take the audience on a journey from laughter to loss and uplifting celebration. Racial stereotyping aside, Little Annie Rooney’s heartfelt innocence and earnest sincerity may belong to an earlier and less cynical age, but it is no less relevant in terms of sentiment, Craft and cinematic storytelling. Representation of Silent Film at contemporary film festivals should never be absent or underestimated. The origins of Film and why we need it emerges in the collective memory of shadow play, illumination and entertainment. If we strip back the medium it is at base about emotional connection and audience investment in what is depicted on screen. When Annie receives news of her Father’s shooting we run the gamut of complex emotions from the child hiding under the table to adult realisation of loss and despair. It’s a deeply affecting and satisfyingly layered scene, testament to how much the audience has invested in the central characters, their relationship to each other and how we project ourselves into the frame. There’s nothing primitive about the mode of expression, nor can it be dismissed as “vintage fun” although it is that too in terms of the whole enjoyment factor.  Watching Silent Film always revives me and after watching Little Annie Rooney I think I understand why.  As a critic I come to Art to be stimulated, challenged and to understand the Craft behind it, but on a more basic level I come to it in order to feel and connect with something uniquely, perceptively human and as part of an audience I know I’m not alone. As many actors and filmmakers have suggested at recent awards ceremonies we need empathic cinema now more than ever. In that respect the Silent Era is a wellspring and I hope that the Mary Pickford Foundation www.marypickford.org will continue to make more of her extraordinary work accessible to future GFF and other festival audiences. There is so much inspiration to be found in her personal story and in what she so skilfully communicates on screen.

Isabelle Huppert in Elle.

One of the most confrontational and controversial films of the festival in its depiction of an exceptionally strong and equally unpredictable woman is Paul Verhoeven’s latest work Elle.  I must confess that Verhoeven (Robocop, Total Recall, Basic Instinct, Hollow Man, Showgirls, Black Book) isn’t on my list of favourite directors! In seeing Elle I was very much putting my faith in lead actor Isabelle Huppert who clearly doesn’t suffer fools in real life and is a formidable presence even in her most subtle performances. The words “fierce” and “fearless” are often used to describe both her personality and on screen potential. I can’t imagine anyone else capable of playing the role of Michele in this film; the character is very much a vehicle for Huppert’s undeniable mastery of her Craft. Here she plays a thoroughly uncompromising, wilfully intelligent and beguiling woman, the head of a successful gaming company living in Paris. As a creative meeting makes clear it’s an industry and market she excels in, comfortably directing whatever content is necessary for maximum audience consumption. This typically male creative/ fantasy space is an interesting setting for a female character who by the sheer force of her personality and obvious skill commands respect, although not without resentment from younger male colleagues. She’s supremely confident in body and mind, unapologetically goes after what she wants, including having what she defines as a meaningless affair with her best friend’s husband and pursuing a neighbour’s husband, without any question of loyalty being part of the scene.

When she is raped in her home by a masked assailant who then stalks her, Michele’s response is to pursue him although not for revenge as we might expect. It is an incredibly rare and complex role in which the female protagonist behaves against type, refusing outright to become a victim of what has happened to her. Given the subject matter it’s a very fine line to walk and the reactions from male and female audience members around me were quite fascinating in that respect. I have no doubt that the film will create controversy, but I hope that on its wider release it will serve a more essential function as fuel for debate on what Femininity means, who our Female role models actually are on screen, the casting of women in particular roles and how in denial or acceptance we cast ourselves as well. The problem here is that neither the character or her backstory are in any way ordinary and this places a certain distance between the main character and the audience. As we learn Michele’s extreme history of childhood trauma the inference is that her strength is ironically borne of psychological damage which is a weakness the Drama demands. So when she starts to behave in an unorthodox way towards her attacker, actively seeking him out, confronting and stopping him in his tracks at one point, but also becoming a participant in his lived fantasy, she’s arguably exerting control, but only as part of a very highly developed coping strategy. Part of what makes Michele tick is the art of detachment, the ability not to make herself vulnerable or to surrender her powers of self-preservation to anyone. In this way she’s able to turn the tables on her attacker almost treating him like a case study, but there’s a disarming understanding between them, identified by his partner who observes that Michele fulfils a role that she cannot. Michele declares both herself and her attacker as “diseased” which to some extent taints her strength, resilience and truth as a character.

I’ve been debating the film’s many conflicted ambiguities in my head ever since and Bravo to Huppert because no other actress could manage believability and conviction within the same story line. This is a film that raises more questions than it answers and this is largely due to Huppert’s totally invested performance. Like all great artist/ collaborators I think she lifts Verhoeven’s game considerably and it didn’t surprise me to read a recent interview with the director in which he stated that this production was so far outside his comfort zone it generated real fear in him, which creatively speaking is a good thing. Elle is a psycho-sexual thriller set distinctly outside the Hollywood vein and surprisingly there is a lot of genuine humour in the film. Family scenes are hilarious and beautifully comedic, particularly those between Michele, her Mother, her son Vincent and their respective manipulative, gold digging partners. Michele delivers blunt summations of what the audience is thinking and so the truth like castor oil is down the hatch whilst our mouths are still open from laughing. Huppert’s naturally wry comedic turns are as sharp as her handling of the film’s most dramatic scenes and this brings welcome relief in a film dealing with very dark and loaded subject matter.    Adapted by screenwriter David Birke from the novel “Oh…” by Philippe Djian, Elle (or She) is complicated, provocative, confrontational, iconoclastic and impossible to definitively classify- arguably all the things a satisfying work of Art should be. So why does it make me uneasy? Perhaps because one woman however feistily played by Isabelle Huppert still doesn’t feel like enough!

Paradise directed by Andrei Konchalovsky.

Another film etched into my mind is Andrei Konchalovsky’s Paradise, winner of the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival and a well-deserved accolade. Konchalovsky delivers a beautifully crafted, intensely affecting and painfully relevant human response to the Holocaust. Sadly the misappropriated extremist ideal of building a paradise on earth is still creating Horrors around the globe and the director’s strength here is in choosing to bring the audience intimately face to face with three different characters that push the boundaries of resistance, acceptance and morality.

Jules (Philippe Duquesne) is a seemingly innocuous middle aged family man who we learn is an official with the French police and a Nazi collaborator responsible for the torture and deportation of prisoners to concentration camps. He is Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” personified, a figure of pitiable mediocrity, part of the complicit Vichy administration, betraying fellow citizens for personal gain and carrying out his duties without conscience or ever getting his own hands dirty. Olga (Julia Vysotskaya) is a former Russian aristocrat accused of being part of the Resistance and helping to hide Jewish children, threatened with “interrogation” leading to inevitable confession and doing whatever she can moment by moment to survive. Helmut (Christian Clauss) is a well-educated, cultured and suitably Ayran nobleman selected by Himmler to audit the death camps. Prior to the war Helmut and Olga moved in the same privileged circles, dancing on the edge of an abyss in pristine, sunlit flooded oblivion. Whatever truths or lies each character has constructed in order to deal with the hell they find themselves in are laid bare in a way that resists simplistic readings of good or evil. Everyone is inescapably haunted by these events, even if a veil of delusion is drawn across their faces. The film brings the audience face to face with just how easy it is to reduce human beings to animals or machines in the service of a higher cause. For good or ill redemption and righteousness rest upon belief.

Hungarian director László Nemes’ Son of Saul (2015) immersed the audience as never before in the mode of survival of its main character, revealing the unhinged chaos of lives being systematically destroyed by Nazism. The emotional immersion of Paradise operates in a different way, in the confessional delivered to camera testimonials and memories of three characters whose lives are entwined by war and genocide. This quality of placing the audience in the position of counsellor, judge and witness is heightened by the use of film stock which provides seemingly time based edits. Film cuts out or dissolves into light, blurring the line between archive, documentary and fiction. Cleverly using a 4:3 ratio, 35mm and 16mm home movie type film stock Paradise recreates 1940’s historical authenticity. This isn’t just an aesthetic choice but an ethical one in terms of how the lives of the characters are experienced by the audience. Alexander Simonov’s cinematography is absolutely exquisite, fully exploiting the beauty and clarity of Black and White, weighing the soul of every frame, perfectly aligned with the film’s subject matter and mode of storytelling through disclosure. He uses the medium of photography as expanded light, creating breath taking compositions, from vivid dreams, aspirations and remembrances to the soiled sweat, filth and smoke of the concentration camp which invades every pore of your skin and stops your breath. The aesthetic is superbly poised on a knife edge, like a scene in Himmler’s office lit to perfection. It’s the blacker than black inner sanctum of the Reich with its Neo Classical sculpture consummately staged and illuminated. This atmosphere also links to the sound design. As Himmler welcomes Helmut to the SS we feel what the character feels, there’s a sickening presence in the room disguised as honourable authority. Helmut excuses himself and goes to the luxuriously appointed and spotlessly clean bathroom to vomit and hears through the ventilation system tortured voices floors below more animal than human. Although he doesn’t consciously recognise it having been blinded by Nazi doctrine, his gut response being in Himmler’s presence and to the SS brotherhood ring on his finger betrays his humanity in that moment. This is unlike any other cinematic treatment of the Holocaust I’ve seen, bringing history vividly and mindfully into the present.

Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum in Out of the Past/ AKA Build My Gallows High.

One of the features of GFF I most enjoy most is the regular series of themed free morning screenings held in GFT1. This year’s focus on Dangerous Dames with a welcome dose of 1940’s Film Noir was outstanding and thoroughly enjoyed judging by the audience applause. Given my love of films from this particular era and even though I had seen them many times before, I timed my visit to include screenings of Out of the Past (1947) directed by the incomparable Jacques Tourneur starring Jane Greer and Robert Mitchum, Gun Crazy (1950) starring Peggy Cummins and John Dall and The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946) starring Lana Turner and John Garfield, looking forward to the added bonus of GFF Co-Director Alan Hunter’s magnificent introductions. How we think of the Femme Fatale and the actresses who played them, doubly framed by the studio system, is a whole other blogpost! It isn’t just the quality of retrospective films in this strand I keep coming back for. There is really nothing better that watching Vintage films with a packed house embraced by the equally vintage elliptical curvature of Glasgow Film Theatre or “The Cosmo” which opened in 1939. Waiting in line to go in or immersed in the comforting pre-screening half-light I often hear people’s reminiscences of the cinema emerging out of the chattering hum. Hearing how they met friends there- some still with them others passed away, how they courted their spouse, discovered a particular film, fell in love with a mesmerising star or simply escaped to a different reality.  For me the magic isn’t just in the story on screen but within the walls of the cinema, in all of the lives, hopes and dreams that have passed through it. It is always a privilege to be there on a weekday morning captivated by the action, romance, comedy and tragedy of what we all are. It’s the kind of connective experience that can’t be replicated on any technological device because people and place are such an integral part of the live cinema experience.  In that respect Glasgow offers something very special which is why I keep returning year upon year.

www. glasgowfilm.org/Glasgow-film-festival

The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film 16 – 20 March, Bo’ness

HippFest Stella DallasStella Dallas (1925) Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Film.

“In many of the films now being made, there is very little cinema: they are mostly what I call ‘photographs of people talking.’ When we tell a story in cinema we should resort to dialogue only when it’s impossible to do otherwise.”

“The silent pictures were the purest forms of Cinema.”

Alfred Hitchcock.

There is nothing quite like the live experience of Silent Film to reconnect us to the power of pure visual storytelling. Coupled with the immediacy of sound every performance is unique, appealing to our basic human need for connection and illumination. From the earliest flickers of light on cave walls to projected images on the cinema screen, it’s here in the dark that we make sense of ourselves, individually and collectively. The Silent era is a wellspring of creative innovation and imaginative possibilities, testing the boundaries of the new medium in visionary ways. If you wanted effects in the early days of film you had to hands on invent them, grappling and redefining your Craft in the process. For contemporary artists/ musicians and audiences, stripping the medium back to the clarity of black and white with musical accompaniment, experienced directly by the audience, is a creatively liberating experience.  In the hands of the right accompanist(s) an entirely different relationship between moving images and sound emerges. It isn’t about lazy emotional button pushing, providing sound effects, an overlaid decorative soundtrack or the ego of the musician(s) on stage. At its best Silent Film accompaniment is the Art of placing the film centre stage- taking your cues directly from what the film projects into your own soul, mirrored in the hearts and minds of the audience. At its highest level it’s an Art of interpretation rather than illustration, integrating sound and image to such a degree that as a viewer it becomes impossible to consciously separate them.

HippFest generic 1

The Hippodrome Cinema, Bo’ness. Image Courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

Now in its 6th year, The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is an annual event unlike any other, bringing the best Silent Film accompanists in the world to Bo’ness every March. Held in Scotland’s oldest purpose built picture house (opened in March 1912) and other sites in the town, it’s the perfect place to rediscover Film. The atmosphere of the Hippodrome is intimately spacious, combining a sense of community with a celestial high domed ceiling of deep indigo peppered with stars and a rising sun above the screen, decoratively restored circa 1926. Night and day are perceptively under one roof and enfolded in the circular embrace of the architecture, you feel part of the seemingly infinite space above, ready to be transported beyond the everyday. The building is reminiscent of an astronomical observatory or a pre-Deco temple of dreams and illuminations. Heightened perception and the collective experience of Cinema is part of the architectural design and also central to the appeal of a festival “where Movies and Music come alive” through palpable energy of live performance.

Musical improvisation in direct response to film is a particularly skilled Art of being absolutely present in the moment, aurally serving the story/ vision on screen and communicating human experience sonically with the audience. Over the years I’ve watched many orchestras, ensembles and soloists accompany Silent Film, but I have seldom seen a more complete union of Craft, musicianship, artistry, intuition and expression than in the extraordinary duo of Stephen Horne (piano, flute, accordion) and Frank Bockius (percussion).  Their interpretation of Ewald André Dupont’s Variety (1925), harnessed the raw emotion and human complexity beneath the story of love, lust, moral corruption and redemption. Set in the circus carnival world of Hamburg and the theatre that was Weimar Berlin, it is the ill-fated tale of an unknown orphaned female immigrant, named after the cursed ship Berte Marie which brings her to port and into the life of a married carnival owner. Leading the audience deeper into the light and shade of the human psyche Horne and Bockius are perfectly matched. Although the duo has played at film festivals internationally, this was the first UK performance by Bockius, a collaboration made possible by the support of the Goethe –Institut, Glasgow. The level of applause from the audience clearly demonstrated that I wasn’t alone in being transfixed and elated by their satisfyingly layered interpretation. With no fixed score, the singular energy and intensity of their performance produced an unforgettable cinematic experience, one that simply cannot be replicated by any form of technology that currently exists or has yet to be invented. Between celluloid and sound the human connection was absolute.

HippFest Variety

Actor Emil Jannings in Variety (1925) Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

Being in the service of cinematic storytelling is a quality shared by both artists and from the first note to the last the result was totally immersive. Variety is a film which like the paintings of Otto Dix, George Grosz and Max Beckmann portrays humanity’s base instincts, the sharp off kilter rhythms of a society wrestling with its own demise, lost in sensual distractions of the dance hall, cabaret and brothel, poised on a knife edge of human passion and obsession. Introduced by a drumroll of spectacle and channelling the spirit of Kurt Weill with entertaining unease, Horne and Bockius established in their opening sequence the moral compass of this work which is a good deal more complex than David Cairns’s accompanying film notes would suggest.  The aural stage is set in alignment with tone and inner conflicts of the film, like the self-reflexive irony of the “Parisian Beauty Pageant”, a parade of dishevelled and dispossessed humanity placed on an inverted side show pedestal.

The beauty of this performance was the way that the internal motivations and impulses of the characters (which we share regardless of what age we live in) are revealed. Sound becoming integral to how we read film might seem like an obvious observation, were it not for the lack of this skill in much mainstream filmmaking and the consequent dulling of our collective senses. In the hands of Horne and Bockius accompaniment is more than a soundtrack, it’s integral to film’s internal architecture- emotionally, intuitively and intellectually, which is what made this performance so satisfying. Drums were used as a potent undercurrent of unconscious drives rather than an obvious illustrative driver. It’s achieving a deeper level of musical dialogue which makes this subtle duo such distinctive and consummate performers. The anticipatory combination of snare drums, coupled with the snake-like deception of the flute when ambiguous Femme Fatale Berte Marie transforms desire into persuasion is masterful. There was a musical knife edge lived in this performance that captured beautifully the moral dilemmas of the characters and the prevailing Zietgeist; transitional moments of complicity when a dutiful husband abandons his wife and becomes a murderer, surrendering to his passions and abandoning reason. This sense of teetering on the brink of moral collapse was communicated magnificently in sound and image, enhancing our experience of a largely unknown film and bringing its themes vividly to life through direct engagement with our internal and external senses.

This quality, like the world on screen has an immediate physicality; it’s in the blood beat raw energy of unbridled, exuberant Jazz, the plucked interior strings of the piano resonating in the nervous system, the heavy breath bellows of the accordion and in the melodic shame that twists like Carnival owner “Boss” Huller (Emil Jannings) fingers through his belt when the awkward truth of his adultery is exposed.  The way we experience the film as a live performance is simultaneously visceral and cerebral, triggered by inner projections of sound that enable us to discern more than just black and white morality or simplistic Melodrama. The precarious trapeze movement of Karl Freund’s “unchained camera” is coupled with the concentrated power of the close up, enabling audience identification with the human face and emotional trajectory of the film. The escalation of tension throughout this performance wasn’t loudly announced but crept in like the emotive power of jealousy itself. In the ticking suspense of night a Tibetan singing bowl scrapes and chimes with Huller’s inner torment; realising that the woman he has abandoned his wife and child for is sleeping with his acrobatic partner. In a café scene where he sees cartoon confirmation of this deceit, tension and Drama build in the scraped lower register of piano and crescendo of cymbals, a vibration of trembling emotion, surfacing in anger and causing the room to spin.  Back in the dressing room preparing for the show, applying ghostly grease paint like a sad clown, we hear Huller’s resolve in the plodding rhythm of the piano adding emotional gravitas to the resignation we see contained in his desolate eyes. This isn’t cause and effect sound tracking but something far more nuanced, psychologically real and inwardly complex. The tone and human step of the piano conveys the loss of all happiness we see in Huller’s face and posture, in unison with the drum and skull motifs on the acrobat’s costumes which portend the entwined fates of the three unhappy lovers. I feel certain that if the author of the accompanying film notes had experienced this particular performance with its inner depth and insightful range of sound, his perception of Variety would be significantly expanded- because that’s exactly what great live accompaniment does. Over five days Hipp Fest provides opportunities to experience something spectacularly unique in cinematic terms and to reappraise how we watch, enjoy, appreciate and make films. It’s an experience that can’t be replicated at home watching a DVD, a posting on You Tube or seeing film on any reductively small screen.

The crowd pleasing Laurel and Hardy 1928 triple bill; From Soup to Nuts, We Faw Down, and Liberty accompanied by John Sweeney (piano) and Frank Bockius (percussion) was pure unadulterated enjoyment where the musical and comic timing resoundingly equalled each other. I can’t begin to explain why having a crab in your pants up a skyscraper scaffold or poking someone’s throat so they stick out their tongue is so damn funny! It’s a brand of physical comedy never goes out of style; universally timeless human foibles and outlandish scenarios stacked one on top of the other until all you can do is collapse in a heap with laughter, wiping the tears and cream pie out of your eyes. I haven’t had that much fun in a cinema for a long time, the accelerated pace and set up of visual gags brilliantly enhanced by the sheer quality of musicianship. Laughter really is the best medicine, especially when it’s shared.

Betty Bronson - Peter Pan Pub Photo 1924

Betty Bronson as Peter Pan, Image courtesy of The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.

Harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry’s interpretation of Herbert Brenon’s Peter Pan (1924) was a moving, magical experience of childhood wonderment and adult recognition.  True to the spirit of J.M.Barrie, who encouraged his audience regardless of age to see again through the eyes of a child, Baldry’s musical alignment with the film’s themes; loss of childhood innocence, the nature of motherhood and unconditional love, made this more than a whimsical fantasy for children. An early work by master cinematographer James Wong Howe, the film’s luminous, enchanting imagery, beautifully crafted special effects of fairies and flights of imagination are tempered with human fragility. The direct appeal to the audience; “do you believe” in fairies? to save Tinkerbell could easily have felt like pantomime, but Baldry’s musical interpretation of this film created the environment for a deeper level of perception. This moment of communal applause and engagement from the audience felt more about the magic of cinema and the collective function of storytelling, linked to the ancient bardic tradition of the harp, than just an amusing theatrical device. The direct appeal to camera presents the viewer with a mirror. How do we know who we are and what tribe we belong to? Art, Poetry, Music and in the case of Cinema, all three combined. In her introduction to the film Elizabeth-Jane Baldry highlighted the near loss of this explosively volatile silver nitrate film and the truly miraculous rediscovery/ restoration of the only surviving print in the world. Her performance naturally invoked childhood memory and I think for adults in the audience this was not without the acknowledgement and poignancy of loss. The harp is the perfect instrument to express this delicate vulnerability, the joyful state of eternal youth and the imaginative space that is Neverland. Exploring the timbre of the instrument through tactile sound; hands and metal on strings and the harp’s sound board, Baldry created a sense of the essential, ephemeral nature of human life; the loss and resistance we feel at different stages of maturation and the imaginative wonder that sets us free.

Early Chinese Cinema was brought into focus at this year’s Hipp Fest with a series of screenings and events in collaboration with the Confucius Institute for Scotland and the University of Edinburgh. John Sweeney’s sensitive accompaniment to Sun Yu’s Daybreak (1933), starring Li Lili was a captivating study of society, politics and gender in a time of rapid industrial modernisation. The film encodes natural/rural and urban environments with the morality of good and evil, virtue and corruption, yet the human element of the drama is fascinatingly harder to define. The dynamics of the central female character; an innocent country girl sold into prostitution who becomes a strong willed, defiant, self-sacrificing woman, embodies the conflicted ambiguities of violence, revolution and the human cost of an emerging nation, driven by production. Daybreak also reflected the emphasis on silent women at Hipp Fest 2016, celebrating the work of (now lesser known) stars of the era such as Pola Negri, Beatrice Lillie, Anita Garvin and Marion Byron.

Hipp Fest has established a tradition of commissioning and touring new scores for Silent Film including this year’s world premiere of Hans Walter Kornblum’s Wunder der Schöpfung (Wonder of Creation 1925) with accompaniment composed and performed by Jazz duo Hershel 36. The stars being in alignment in terms of the band’s name, interest in space and a strong family connection with astronomy would have made this film an obvious choice, however gravitating towards what you know is not always the most creative or ultimately satisfying option for the artist(s) or the audience. Although the early animation and perceptions of space are of technical /historical interest, this episodic fusion of science, religion and fiction in seven parts has the overwhelming tone of an educational lecture, begging the accompanist to delve into its documentary subtext. I got the feeling that engagement with Silent Film was primarily a vehicle for Hershel 36 the band, rather than an opportunity to significantly push the creative boat out. There were hints of exploration in terms of the spatial qualities of sound which could have been developed further, but too often this promise gave way to snippets of synth soundtrack reminiscent of Blade Runner or The Clangers. For such expansive subject matter the accompaniment felt frustratingly narrow, although to be fair experimentation and experience in working with Silent Film are necessary for a deeper level of interpretation which the timescale of a single commission doesn’t usually permit. With the calibre of accompaniment at the festival so outstandingly high, I found this new score disappointingly obvious and hope that if Hershel 36 choose to accompany Silent Film again, they challenge themselves and the audience, dig deeper into their primary source material and really come to grips cross-disciplinary practice. Enthusiasm for your own music isn’t enough when it comes to accompanying Silent Film, you’ve got to examine your intent (it’s not about you it’s about the film) and refine your Craft as an artist (or group)in response to what’s on screen- doubly so in a professional arena where the bar is set so comparably high. Anything less than that looks and sounds painfully superficial and artistically self-indulgent, whatever the musical style. The finest performances at the festival were those that altered or enhanced perception of what was projected on screen. I am still thinking about them and I know I’ll remember them months and years from now.

With over 25 years’ experience in the Art of Silent Film accompaniment, musician and composer Stephen Horne is an artist who consistently raises the bar. The world premiere of his newly commissioned score for Henry King’s Stella Dallas (1925), written for piano, flute, accordion and harp and performed with Elizabeth-Jane Baldry was a highlight of the festival. The story of a mother’s love and sacrifice for her daughter is the story of parents the world over who want their children to have a better life than the one they were born into. In Stella Dallas the cost of the American dream; of bettering yourself, rising above poverty and circumstance, comes at enormous personal cost. Francis Marion’s screenplay presents complex portrayals of Motherhood, the Mother/ Daughter relationship, class, social mobility and the modern familial realities of separation, divorce and re-marriage. From the opening sequence in Springtime there’s the dappled light of Romance in the score but also the presence of underlying shadows; no love without loss.  The main melodic theme introduced by the piano is naturally fluid, open and humanely fragile; a sweet melodic line that fades out with passing time and first love lost. Refreshingly Horne knows how and when to use silence and his sensitive orchestration informs our perception of the inner state of the characters. In many insightful ways the contradictions between what Stella appears to be in the eyes of the world and polite society and who she is are explored musically.

From the beginning the score enables the viewer to feel the dignity of the main character; a woman from the wrong side of the tracks, who does her best to adopt the right clothes and manners but remains who she is. There is something unreservedly compassionate about the musical/ cinematic frame through which we see Stella that is intuitively empathic, mirrored in the audience’s investment in the character because she is, like all of us, a flawed individual. Stella isn’t an idealised or demonised stereotype of a woman, but a person; instinctively brash, refreshingly direct, gaudy, gauche, “a disaster” of a mother (as she describes herself) but equally governed by innate integrity; a depth of unconditional love for her daughter that seemingly only her rival, her husband’s new wife Mrs Morrison, can understand. The “other woman”/ stepmother isn’t defined stereotypically either and the two women are brought together, united in mutual concern for the wellbeing of Stella’s daughter Laurel. Stella’s sacrifice in exiting her daughter’s life so that Laurel can move in respectable, educated circles and marry the man she loves is grounded in the sad truth, acknowledged by both mothers, that who Stella is isn’t compatible with securing her daughter’s happiness. The dialogue between harp and piano in this scene sets this tone of understanding between the two characters, their civilised acknowledgement of each other played against type and their selfless love for Laurel.

The emotional range of Belle Bennett’s performance as Stella and Stephen Horne’s music bring the viewer to powerful moments of recognition where we physically and emotionally project ourselves into the frame. A sequence where Stella is standing outside in the rain seeing her daughter’s wedding through a window is a particularly fine example. Initially the wedding march is announced grandly on the piano, then hushes as the viewer aurally stands in Stella’s shoes outside. We hear what character hears with all the intimacy and tenderness of the attendant piano. The brightly fluid theme is irrevocably changed; it heightens in tone to a moment of surrender and transformation we see on Stella’s face. We feel acutely in that in this moment, she is happy to die, fulfilled in witnessing her daughter’s happiness, in transcendence of her own destitution. The music acts like a conduit between inner and outer worlds, like the reflections on the window in this scene- the falling rain reflected on Laurel’s face shadowing a loss that has not been fully brought into her conscious awareness, yet there it is emerging in our own.  There is great beauty and impressive restraint in paring down the musical palette, especially in relation to a film dealing with emotive subject matter. We are so used to being emotionally manipulated by mainstream movie soundtracks that to experience the subtleties of what image and sound can be is revelatory.

When Stella reads her daughter’s diary and decides that Laurel would be better off without her, she retreats from the room where her daughter is sleeping into sound, the dark night of her soul through the window is central to the composition within the frame and in the score, the lone flute turning to the isolation of one hand on the piano. We feel Stella turn in on herself in that moment of real time and awakening consciousness, realising what she must do and what she has to lose. It takes humility, artistry and understanding of the human condition to score a film like that, to create a space that feels true to the vision on screen and one that the audience is free to project themselves into without heavy handed, prescriptive musical prompts. Horne and Baldry performed their accompaniment with tremendous skill and understanding, absolutely in the service of the film and there could be no better introduction or experience of Stella Dallas than this performance of Horne’s new score. At its best Cinema humanely connects us all and that shared experience between filmmakers, accompanists and the audience is taken to a whole new level at Hipp Fest. Though I only managed to attend the final two days of the festival the experience was so rich, rewarding and entertaining I would recommend it to anyone, whether you are a film buff or not. It puts the world of talking photographs into perspective and in the hands of the best Silent Film accompanists in the world, the experience of what live Cinema can be is thrilling, inspirational and totally immersive.

www.hippfest.co.uk

www.frankbockius.de

www.stephenhorne.co.uk

www.elizabethjanebaldry.com

 

Silence is a Virtue- The Artist

Ahead of Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season screening at Eden Court Cinema in February/ March 2015 I revisited Michel Hazanavicius’ multi award winning film The Artist.

The artist 1

The first time I saw The Artist it instantly became one of my favourite films. I’ve watched it many times since both in the cinema and on DVD and it never fails to lift my spirits. I have always believed that when an artist of any discipline is fully invested in their work, the audience will feel that energy and connect with it. In the Visual Arts this communication is predominantly silent and although mainstream cinema makes us forget, telling the audience the story through dialogue, Film is at its heart a visual medium. Its power lies in the audience’s felt sense of the unspoken narrative within the frame. All great Artists/ Directors regardless of the age understand this as an intuitive part of their creative vision. Perhaps what struck audiences and critics between the eyes with The Artist on its release was a language or visual literacy we intuitively know as human beings, but that mainstream TV, Advertising, Gaming and Studio Film product largely fail to awaken within us. There is a division in Cinema, mostly in the heads of film financiers, producers and studios, between Mainstream Film and Art House; a belief that you either have to make something “entertaining” for the masses, appealing to the lowest common denominator in order to generate as much profit as possible, or something “intellectual” and aesthetically driven that relatively few people will see and even fewer will appreciate. The Artist explodes this myth in its making and its global reception by both audiences and critics.

The success of The Artist doesn’t just lie in over 150 international film awards it has won including those at Cannes, the Golden Globes, BAFTAS and Academy Awards, or in its box office takings. Almost single handed it has been responsible for a resurgence of public interest in Silent Film. Following its award season success in 2012 LOVEFiLM, Europe’s largest subscription service, streaming films over the internet and sending DVDs by post, showed that “viewing of the 66 films in its Silent Film Collection significantly increased with as much as a 300 percent increase on some individual titles. Of the ten movies in LOVEFiLM’s collection that enjoyed the highest growth, four starred Buston Keaton- one of the greatest silent movie actor-directors of all time.”[1] From Roaring Twenties chic Fashion Design to DVD rentals and the growth of Silent Film screenings with live accompaniment, The Artist has raised awareness about a tradition of seeing the rise of digital technology had almost made us forget. It isn’t about nostalgia for an era of cinema long past, but a living Art, tapping into a wellspring of pure visual storytelling.

The late great American Film Critic Roger Ebert wrote;

“Is it possible to forget that ‘The Artist’ is a silent film in black and white, and simply focus on it as a movie? No? That’s what people seem to zero in on. They cannot imagine themselves seeing such a thing. I’ve seen ‘The Artist’ three times, and each time it was applauded, perhaps because the audience was surprised at itself for liking it so much…” [It speaks] “to all ages in a universal language. Silent films can weave a unique enchantment. During a good one, I fall into a reverie, an encompassing absorption that drops me out of time. I also love black and white, which some people assume they don’t like. For me, it’s more stylized and less realistic than color, more dreamlike, more concerned with essences than details.”[2]

That sense of “reverie” and “enchantment”, the feeling of “dropping out of time” that Ebert describes is the essence of visual storytelling. We imaginatively project ourselves into the flickering illumination between each frame and The Artist consciously invokes that experience being shot at 22 frames per second. Before The Artist many considered Silent Film an obsolete Art Form; however the ability of filmmakers to silently communicate narrative is the foundation of cinema, originating in ancient shadow play on cave walls. Our need to make sense of ourselves and the world around us in visual terms is timelessly necessary and why we need Art in the first place. I first discovered the world of Silent Film in my childhood pouring over stills in my Father’s movie books. What immediately struck me, even aged 10, was the heightened clarity of black and white, the faces of actors and actresses alive with human expression, every tantalising image with a story to tell. That sense of wonder and immersion has never left me; it’s what I hope for every time I go to the cinema and what I found in The Artist the first time I saw it.

It’s true that it’s a charming and highly entertaining film, a winning combination of Comedy, Drama, Romance and a performing dog, but more significant (for me at least) is the Artist/ Director’s intention. Above all else it is a film crafted with love- a film it was thought nobody would want to watch. By the Director’s own admission, The Artist is a love letter to his wife and leading lady Bérénice Bejo and to a Golden Age of Hollywood founded on European artistry. For me it is a film resoundingly about the Art of filmmaking and what it is to be an Artist. There is love invested in every frame, in the meticulous crafting and sensuous attention to detail of Director Michel Hazanavcius’ entire creative team. It is seen and felt in the rich textures and tonal qualities of Mark Bridges’ costume design, the emotional layers of Ludovic Bource’s original musical score, in the extraordinary cinematography of Guillaume Schiffman and  the beautifully nuanced performances of actors; Jean Dujardin, as suave, charismatic antihero George Valentin, Bérénice Bejo as the young, effervescent rising star Peppy Miller, James Cromwell  as Valentin’s loyal chauffeur Clifton and Penelope Ann Miller as Doris, Valentin’s long suffering wife.

The artist 4

Modelled on Douglas Fairbanks Dujardin’s George Valentin is both masked, swashbuckling super star and fallible human being, marked by his own pride. Dujardin is an intensely physical actor who conveys all of George’s confidence, bravado and vulnerabilities, like Keaton and Chaplin before him. One of the most beautiful and immersive sequences in the film is a series of five takes where we see Valentin fall in love with studio extra Miller set to Bource’s theme music “Peppy’s Waltz”. We see the character evolve from playing his dashing on screen persona with intensely focused Silent eyebrow acting to the immense subtlety of expression which mirrors his awakening love for Miller. In cinematic and emotional terms it is a seamless fusion of historic and contemporary sensibilities.

In Dujardin’s acting and Bource’s music there is growing consciousness, bewilderment, intoxication and desire, evaporating quizzically in the moment. It’s an emotionally complex scene, a far cry from a clichéd swooning embrace or consummate screen kiss, which in The Artist we never see. Its Romanticism lies in creative possibility, expressed rapturously in the final dance sequence as the real beginning of the relationship between Valentin and Miller. Although this scene signifies the end of Silent Film it remains optimistic in tone, recalling the joy and glamour of big 1930’s Hollywood production dance numbers. The visual storytelling allows us to imagine a bright future as our two stars reinvent themselves; Valentin grounded in his craft from his days in Vaudeville and Miller the “It” girl of the moment with boundless energy, enthusiasm and good natured ambition. Miller’s rise as America’s Sweetheart, Valentin’s fall and their reinvention are a wry comment on the nature of fame in a media dominated age; “Out with the old, in with the new-make way for the young- that’s life!” declares a Miller in an interview with two eager newshounds.

The Artist isn’t just a homage or clever imitation of Silent Era moviemaking but a film very much of Now in its reinvention of the genre. I love the way it visually tips its hat to all the artists of European origin who created Hollywood’s Golden Age. Hazanavcius’ vision is informed by his understanding of the visual grammar of Silent Directors like Lang, Murnau, Vidor and Chaplin, but he is also very much his own man. The Artist was conceived visually and storyboarded in intricate detail by its Director, who went to Art School before working in advertising and then progressing to feature film. When long-time collaborator Ludovic Bource came to compose the music, although he listened extensively to the work of film composers of the era; Steiner, Hermann, Korngold and Waxman, what he achieves isn’t an imitation of those film composers, but a new voice grounded in their source material from Strauss to Stravinsky. The subtlety of the five take sequence is achieved because, as Hazanavcius has described in interview; “The script is the right hand and the music is the left.” Interestingly there have been screenings all over the world of The Artist since its initial release accompanied by a full orchestra, an aspect of live performance that was common during the Silent Era. Wonderfully this is becoming more commonplace at contemporary screenings and festivals worldwide as audiences rediscover the excitement of pure visual storytelling with the immediacy of live music.

At the end of The Artist George Valentin reveals his French accent and it is a telling moment on multiple levels. The advent of the Talkies extinguished the careers of many actors from abroad and behind the scenes advancement was often hindered by being an immigrant. As a Hollywood outsider, Hazanavicius takes the visual language of Tinseltown’s Golden Age and entirely makes it his own. It is ironic that Hollywood has accepted the film with open arms, most notably at the Oscars, perhaps not realising that its own visual inheritance is actually European in origin and that Hazanavcius is in fact reclaiming his cultural roots. In The Artist he takes us back to the early years of Hollywood with its origins in European cinema as a baseline of authenticity. Hazanavicius isn’t saluting the American Dream Factory in empty admiration but taking back language. He’s a visually literate Director and the fact that the film’s most dramatic moment is entirely silent speaks volumes.

The artist 2

The Artist is a film made with love, respect and recognition of the Silent Era and the artists who defined it. Rapid technological change is upon the industry as a whole and the digitalisation of cinema puts us in danger of forgetting the history and crafting of moving images to our collective detriment. The Artist asserts the importance of acknowledging that (in the words of the late Scottish composer Martyn Bennett) “to be pioneers we first have to acknowledge that we are heirs”. The visual grammar referenced by The Artist is also a rallying point for film conservation and restoration. Of the films that we know of produced during the Silent Era it is estimated that 80% have already been lost. The Artist is the story of the rise of young starlet Peppy Miller, the “fresh meat” of a new age of moviemaking and the fall of aging Silent star George Valentin, who cannot accept the technological change sweeping the industry he helped to create. It isn’t hard to draw a parallel between this and the transition from film to digital in contemporary Cinema.

It is perhaps for this reason that for me the most moving image in the film is the moment when Valentin is standing in the ruins of his apartment; the windows are smashed and the room has been ravaged by fire, the only movement is a slight breeze coming through the window, the light muted but illuminating- it feels very much like a fragment of very early film. He is literally and metaphorically standing in the celluloid ashes of his career. Everything seems hopeless and the grain of the image suggests that like nitrate, the film could burst into flames any second and be extinguished- much like the life of the central character. In that moment the personal becomes the universal, the mark of a true Artist/ Director and in a single frame it says everything about the vulnerability of film as a medium. The texture of the image reminded me very much of the work of photographers like Steichen and Stieglitz who in the early days of photography were a bridge between painting and the new technology. At the time photography was thought to herald the death of painting. Similarly many have proclaimed the death of film in recent years. The Artist is a film about film making in a time of great change and upheaval- that is what elevates it above and beyond mere entertainment. It speaks powerfully and resoundingly of Now and of the choices made by both Artists and audiences. In years to come it will become source material of our age.

The Artist 3

What I love about this film is the breath taking eloquence of its visual communication; the fanciful mime of the empty suit, the Surrealist cloud screen and dancing legs, the studio staircase sequence where Schiffman balances tone, movement and architecture in a composition that feels like pure music, the shadows of rain that fall down George’s face as he’s inwardly crying, George’s heightened dream sequence infiltrated by sound, his confrontation with his own shadow self and his world reduced to a pile of burning celluloid. I love The Artist it for its intelligence, humour and unashamed Romance, for the exquisite camerawork and its impeccable performances. I love that it has a brain and a heart- it makes me think, laugh and cry. But above all it makes me value those Artists who are told their film is one that nobody will want to watch, but toil to make it anyway  and change the way we see as a result. It’s the reason I feel renewed and invigorated every time I watch it.

Inverness Film Fans (InFiFa) Modern Monochrome Season

The Artist Wednesday 25th February 7.15pm

Ed Wood – Tuesday 10th March at 7.15pm

The Man Who Wasn’t ThereTuesday 24th March at 7.15pm

All films will be followed by a post-screening discussion, all welcome.

www.invernessfilmfans.org

www.eden-court.co.uk

[1]  6th March 2012, www.Film-News.co.uk

[2] Roger Ebert, The Artist, December 21, 2011.  www.rogerebert.com