Saturday, July 13, 2024

Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation / Rīgas vēstures un kuģniecības muzejs (permanent exhibition


Unknown artist: Port of Riga. Second half of the 17th century. At the time Riga was under the rule of the king of Sweden. Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation / Rīgas vēstures un kuģniecības muzejs. 

Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation / Rīgas vēstures un kuģniecības muzejs
Palasta iela 4 - Riga - Latvija
Visited on 13 July 2024

Based on a private collection by Nikolaus von Himsel and launched in 1773, Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation is one of the oldest museums in Europe. What is now called Riga has been an important hub for millennia, thanks to the sheltered harbour by the river Daugava which during the Viking era was instrumental in the trade with the Byzantium, via the Dvina-Dnieper route.

The artefacts date back to around 9000 BC, the end of the last glacial period. There are tools from the Stone, Bronze and Iron Ages. We witness the times of the resistance to Christianisation, the Livonian Crusade, the founding of Riga in 1201, and the reign of the Hanseatic League. Because of its strategic location, Riga was a focus of combats between the Teutonic Order and the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. In the Great Northern War, the Swedish Empire crumbled and the Russian Empire was born under Peter the Great. In 1710 Riga became a Russian city. The first independence started in 1918 after the Russian Revolution and the First World War, until 1940. This ends the period covered by the fascinating and beautiful displays of the Riga history museum.

Scale model of a frigate. Museum of the History of Riga and Navigation / Rīgas vēstures un kuģniecības muzejs.

Among the special exhibitions there is a fabulous Silver Cabinet and an impressive Navigation Exhibition - including beautifully crafted scale models from Viking ships till modern vessels. There are some 400 exhibits on display. Also the development of the Latvian ports of Riga, Ventspils and Liepaja is documented. This section is a joy to behold for admirers of arts and crafts.

Friday, July 12, 2024

The Kumu Art Museum in Tallinn: permanent and topical exhibitions


Eesti Kunstimuuseum Kumu. The Kumu Art Museum is situated on the limestone cliff between Kadriorg Park and the Lasnamäe district. Weizenbergi 34 / Valge 1, 10127 Tallinn. The building opened its doors to the public on 18 February 2006. Architect: Pekka Vapaavuori.

Eesti Kunstimuuseum Kumu. The Kumu Art Museum 
Weizenbergi 34 / Valge 1, 10127 Tallinn
Visited on 12 July 2024

I have visited Kumu before and admired it as a building of inspiration, a space for rich associations with plenty of room to breathe. Today I visited the permanent exhibitions of the Art Museum of Estonia for the first time. They are on display on the third and the fourth floors. It was a fabulous day.

    Friedrich Hartmann Barisien, Christian Gottlieb Welté: Põltsamaa lossi talvine vaade / Põltsamaa Palace at Winter (1783). Oil on canvas. 210,5 x 160. Eesti Kunstimuuseum EKM j 9257 M 3700.

The Third Floor houses "Landscapes of Identity: Estonian Art 1700-1945". We are welcomed by distinguished busts of Estonian cultural figures such as Lydia Koidula sculpted by August Weizenberg. Over the centuries, Estonian visual arts reflect the general outlines of continental trends, but peculiar landscapes, seascapes, faces, costumes, buildings, climates, seasons and qualities of light and air give it all an original distinction. From the Great Northern War to the end of the Second World War we experience the persistence of the Estonian spirit against the Swedish Empire of King Charles XII, the rise of Russia since Peter the Great, the German landlords, the Nazi Occupation and the Soviet Occupation. There is much to discover. Innovative solutions of hanging break the routine. There is an excursion in the depiction of sex work. There is a portrait room where the quantity of the portraits transforms into quality - and into an act of installation art / conceptual art. Similarly, and even more so, in a bust room developed by Villu Jaanisoo around Tamara Ditman's bust The Seagull, with dozens of important figures ranging from Peter the Great to V. I. Lenin. I am also impressed by the Black Room where selected paintings glow with rare illumination - paintings such as Ernst Hermann Schlihting's Toolse varemed / Toolse Castle Ruins (n.d.). 

Aili Vint: Mees merd kuulamas / Man Listening to the Sea (1972). Oil on canvas. 160 x 98 cm. Eesti Kunstimuuseum EKM j 15105 M 4599.

The Fourth Floor exhibition is called "Conflicts and Adaptations: Estonian Art of the Soviet Era (1940-1991)". The curator is Anu Allas working with an inspired team, and they have also written an excellent guidebook, which is a true keepsake. Estonian art reflected the same periods as Soviet art in general: Stalin - Thaw - Stagnation - and Glasnost. But because Estonia was the most Western outpost of the USSR, liberty was reflected more openly. I learn about the image of power and the power of the image. I learn about inner exile. I learn about trauma in secret art such as Olga Terri's Prisoner (1949) and Fear (1952). I learn about Stalinist Impressionism - a paradox, because Stalinist art was tendency art, and impressionism, whose 150th anniversary we celebrate this year, was against tendency and even against big subjects in general, art for art's sake. After 1956, modernism was tolerated within limits, and even abstraction, when it was understood in a context of architecture and design. Surrealism, whose centenary we celebrate this year, flourished in the underground circle of Ulo Sooster in Tartu. A work like Ilmar Malin's Fading Sun (1968) was possible to register as surrealist art, abstract art, figurative art or symbolic art. It is striking to notice how the international trends of 1960s modern art found expressions in Estonia. Pop Art was an ambiguous reaction to consumer society - a phenomenont absent from Estonia. But here we have Estonian Pop Art - an original and different reflection. We have also psychedelia, collages, assemblages, records of performances, media art, happenings, self-referential art, found photographs and environment art. The individual spirit was highlighted against the collectivist agenda. Socialist realism was never abandoned, but artists transcended it via hyperrealism.

Jevgeni Zolotko: an installation of gravestones with names erased in the exhibition The Secret of Adam (2024).

The Fifth Floor is dedicated to a monograph exhibition of Jevgeni Zolotko (born 1983) called The Secret of Adam.

Kumu: "Jevgeni Zolotko’s large solo exhibition in the Kumu Art Museum displays some of the earlier chapters of his creative legacy and creates new ones. The Secret of Adam is an exhibition that consists of various works, and constitutes his most massive work thus far, synthesising recurrent subjects and images in his oeuvre. Zolotko, who entered the art scene in the late 2000s, is one of the most idiosyncratic contemporary artists in Estonia. Instead of dealing with the topical and political, the context of his art is Western cultural history in the broadest sense, embracing antiquity, the Bible, belles-lettres, philosophy and folklore. His works deal with human existence: life, death, loneliness, silence and decay, as well as hope."

Curator Triin Tulgiste-Toss (1987–2024) about the exhibition: 

"While it is often possible to point out shifts in artists’ choices of subject matter or emphasis over time, Zolotko’s art can be compared to a tower: every new work of art grows out of the previous one, specifying and elaborating on what has been said. The Secret of Adam combines previously used elements and those that have been developed further with completely new ones, returning to the central issue in Zolotko’s art: the question of the relationship between things and language."

"It seems like the artist is finally providing us with a clear answer. Words are as old as the first human being and inseparable from his nature, serving in addition to the physical body as a way of communicating with the world and understanding it. The realisation that we need both the physical and language to cope in society becomes evident."

"According to Zolotko, his works are not autobiographical, and his main interest in art is to deal with universal topics. Considering the emotional effects of his works and their perceptiveness, one gets the sense, however, that only a person whose works emanate from personal experience and acknowledgement, not theoretical ideas, can say something like that."

"The purpose of Zolotko’s works has never been to generate intellectual reflection but to induce recognition. You may approach them like a detective trying to find the clues hidden in the installations, but by doing so you will miss something intrinsic. Zolotko’s works are meant to be inside of, like being in nature, and it seems that the sole purpose of the artist is to make sure that the viewer does not feel alone during these moments." (Kumu)

This exhibition is not only monumental but possesses true magnificence and gravity. I am thinking about Anselm Kiefer, now topical also because of Wim Wenders's remarkable movie. The Jevgeni Zolotko exhibition consists of sculptures, images, photographs, paintings, assemblages, objects and videos. It is a one-man adventure in the multitude of contemporary art. The most impressive entry for me is a vast room full of gravestones with names erased. An original and haunting image about the evanescence of memory.

Elisàr von Kupffer (1872-1942): Uus liit / The New Covenant (1916). The central figure is an auto-portrait of the artist himself. Elisarioni keskus, Minusio omavalitsus.

In the nooks and crannies of the Third Floor we can discover a very special exhibition: “Elisarion. Elisàr von Kupffer and Jaanus Samma”. "Come if you dare", we would have said in the 1980s about these flamboyant displays of queer pride created a hundred years ago. They are also idyllic celebrations of gay happiness. Irresistible.

Kumu: "This exhibition brings together the works of the Baltic-German artist Elisàr von Kupffer (1872–1942) and the Estonian artist Jaanus Samma (b. 1982). Elisàr von Kupffer, also known as Elisarion, was a colourful personality, versatile creator and something of a visionary. He was passionate about painting, literature, art history and philosophy. He was also one of the founders of the neo-religious movement Clarism (German klar “clear”).Today, Kupffer is recognised as a pioneer who promoted tolerance for people of different sexual orientations."

"In the exhibition, Elisàr von Kupffer’s homoerotic paintings, influenced by ancient and Renaissance art, are in dialogue with contemporary works by Jaanus Samma, who explores the sexuality of Estonian peasants and queer folk art. His works highlight the relationship between Estonian peasants and the German-speaking elite: a fusion of fear, hostility and desire, and a juxtaposition of the high and the low."

"Jaanus Samma has created a new video work for the exhibition, The Clear World of the Blissful. Also on display is Karl Joonas Alamaa’s installation Limited Fun."

Friday, July 05, 2024

Richard Wagner: Lohengrin (2024 Savonlinna Opera Festival)


Richard Wagner: Lohengrin, Savonlinna Opera Festival, 3 July 2024. Photo: Jussi Silvennoinen.

Richard Wagner: Lohengrin, Savonlinna Opera Festival, 3 July 2024. Sinéad Campbell Wallace, Karita Mattila, Timo Riihonen, Lucio Gallo & Choir. Photo: Jussi Silvennoinen.

Olavinlinna, 2 October 2023. Photo: Savonlinna Opera Festival.

THE OPERA
    Lohengrin : Romantische Oper in drei Aufzügen
    DE 1850 [Weimar, Thüringen, Königreich Preussen]. Musik und Libretto: Richard Wagner. Durchkomponiert. Originalsprache: Deutsch. Literarische Vorlage: Wolfram von Eschenbach: Parzival (1200-1210). Uraufführung: 28 August 1850 - Grossherzogliches Hoftheater - in Weimar - unter der Leitung von Franz Liszt.
    Figuren: Heinrich der Vogler, deutscher König - Lohengrin - Elsa von Brabant - Friedrich von Telramund, brabantischer Graf - Ortrud, seine Gemäldin - Der Heerrufer des Königs - Vier brabantische Edle - Vier Edelknaben - Vier Kammerfrauen - Sächsische und thüringische Grafen und Edle, brabantische Grafen und Edle, Edelfrauen, Edelknaben, Mannen, Frauen, Knechte.
    Die Handlung spielt in Antwerpen in der 1. Hälfte des 10. Jahrhunderts

SAVONLINNA OPERA FESTIVAL TEAM
Conductor / Stephan Zilias
Director / Roman Hovenbitzer
Set designer / Hermann Feuchter
Costume designer / Hank Irwin Kittel
Lighting designer / Wolfgang Göbbel 
Video designer / Andreas J. Etter 
Choreographer / Janne Geest
Chorus master / Jan Schweiger
Savonlinna Opera Festival Choir
Savonlinna Opera Festival Orchestra
Language / German
Surtitles / Finnish and English
Duration : approx. 4 hrs 30 min, 2 intervals

CAST
TUOMAS KATAJALA / LOHENGRIN
KARITA MATTILA / ORTRUD
SINÉAD CAMPBELL WALLACE / ELSA
LUCIO GALLO / FRIEDRICH VON TELRAMUND
TIMO RIIHONEN / HEINRICH DER VOGLER
KRISTIAN LINDROOS / THE KING’S HERALD

PERFORMANCES AT OLAVINLINNA CASTLE
Olavinkatu 27 ; 57130 Savonlinna ; Finland
Capacity: 2.264 seats
5.7.2024 - 9.7.2024 - 12.7.2024 - 15.7.2024 - 18.7.2024
Visited on Friday, 5 July 2024

Savonlinna Opera Festival introduction: " Finally – here is Karita Mattila’s debut at the Savonlinna Opera Festival. She is a cunning sorceress and deep-voiced plotter in Wagner’s opulent Lohengrin. And what a Finnish celebration the evening will be, with Tuomas Katajala, the most internationally successful Finnish tenor of today, singing the title role. "

Only one Finnish star can fill Olavinlinna alone. ’
Helsingin Sanomat about Karita Mattila’s concert, 15 July 2012 

" Wagner’s mythical work of art is a fairy tale about the relationship between utopia and reality. ‘It is a child’s dream of an intact, reconciled world. The world has dreamed of this hundreds of times and keeps dreaming of it again and again. The work is about this human longing – and the painful realization that it can never come true’, says director Roman Hovenbitzer. "

" Right from the intense prelude, Lohengrin grips the listener. There’s a rumble of thunder in the castle walls. The music is highly charged, even hypnotic. With Wagner, time loses its meaning. When the secrets are revealed and the performance ends, you walk out of Olavinlinna into the summer night and ask yourself what really happened. "

There is an empire on the verge of collapse, a people waiting for its saviour, and Lohengrin, the saviour. There is love, loyalty and Wagner’s medieval world of myths. ’ – Director Roman Hovenbitzer 

AA: The setting, Olavinlinna castle, provides a magnificent context. The building was launched around 1475 by the Kalmar Union (1397-1523), in what proved to be the last stage of this union of Denmark, Norway and Sweden, with Copenhagen as its de facto capital. The monarch then was the Danish King Christian I, followed by his son Hans. The construction was launched by Erik Axelsson Tott, the regent of Sweden.

The Kalmar Union had been established as a counterforce to the Hanseatic League, but by now new powers were gaining prominence. Lithuania had grown into the greatest state of Europe. Ivan III, Grand Prince of Moscow, pushed Lithuania back from the East. The Byzantine Empire (330-1453) ended in the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire. Ivan III wed Sophia Palaiologina, niece of the last Byzantine emperor. Moscow finally liberated itself from the Mongol / Turkish rule of the Golden Horde (1242-1502). It also annexed the mighty Novgorod Republic (1136-1478).

Against this new formidable power of Ivan III the Kalmar Union fortified itself by strengthening the Castle of Vyborg (est. 1293) and building Olavinlinna.

Visiting Savonlinna Opera Festival today we cannot help meditating the power of history and the history of power. The troubles of history and the history of troubles. "The past is never dead. It's not even past" (William Faulkner: Requiem for a Nun).

Richard Wagner's Lohengrin is set in a precise moment of history 500 years before Olavinlinna, but it is not a historical play. It is a dream play, a fairy-tale and a mythological quest inspired by Arthurian legends. The formidable walls of the real castle provide a rock solid sounding board to the ethereal fabula.

As a music lover I am an amateur and armchair listener who hardly ever ventures to a live event. Knowing Lohengrin as a radio listener only I am moved and stunned by the subtle power and refined perfection of detail in a first class live performance. Live music is a superior physical experience, shared by a spellbound audience in a castle with a capacity of over 2000.

I realize that Richard Wagner started to discuss "unendliche Melodie" ("endless melody") only ten years after the premiere of Lohengrin and that this work is the last which he called an opera, meaning that it still obeys the conventions of arias and choruses. Yet already here I am most moved by the unity of the suspense that begins with the Vorspiel and holds until the tragic finale. 

Later Wagner works have been compared with the stream of consciousness and inner monologue, but already here it is the most compelling feature. "The poet's greatness is mostly to be measured by what he leaves unsaid, letting us breathe in silence to ourselves the thing unspeakable; the musician it is who brings this untold mystery to clarion tongue, and the impeccable form of his sounding silence is endless melody" (Wagner 1860).

The cast of characters are like sleepwalkers in a shared dream, which we are invited to join. The most striking feature of the music is its gentleness and tenderness. It is an experience of serenity, nobility and a presence of the sacred. The Arthurian element (Lohengrin, Graal) belongs to Christianity, but there is also a presence of the ancient Teutonic gods of Wotan and Freya invoked by the witch Ortrud, Lohengrin's formidable adversary.

The most famous feature of Wagner's music is das Leitmotiv, although Wagner was not the inventor of the method  nor did he use the word himself. He only spoke of motifs (Motive), but did not accept the standard discourse about his work. Wagner's emphasis was always on organic unity and the integration of elements, including motifs.

I stumbled upon a beautiful online lesson by Professor Laurence Dreyfus (Faculty of Music, University of Oxford, 7 Nov 2019) in a "Lohengrin TimeMachine app". He discovers 14 motifs in Lohengrin and selects one of them for close study, das Frageverbot ("don't ask"), which appears 18 times in the opera. Dreyfus really opens Wagner's way of composition in a fascinating way.

After the Olavinlinna performance I have been listening to the opera on cd, and for the first time registered something that aficionados must have always recognized: the affinity of the Frageverbot motif with the "Flight of the Swans Theme" (the key theme first introduced in Act I:9: Finale andante and Act I:10: Scène moderato) in Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake (comp. 1875, perf. 1877). A profound and meaningful homage by the Russian master to the creator of the Swan Knight.

The prohibition to ask the question is at the core. Elsa is the suspect of the murder of her brother, but comes a knight in shining armour drawn by a swan to save her. He also proposes to her, with one condition:

Nie sollst du mich befragen,
noch Wissens Sorge tragen,
woher ich kam der Fahrt,
noch wie mein Nam' und Art!

(Never shall you ask me / nor trouble yourself to know / whence I came / my name nor my kind!)

The most famous passage of the opera is the Brautlied / Bridal Chorus in the first scene of act three ("Treulich geführt" / "Here comes the bride"), probably the most popular and joyous of all Wagner melodies. Again, I am impressed by the sober and gentle interpretation. Less is more. The restraint and the solemnity make it feel special.

But: in the context of the opera it is a tragic song, because Elsa breaks her vow never to ask the question. The mysterious stranger is compelled to reveal that he is Lohengrin, the son of Parsifal the Grail King, a guardian of divine power, which he loses if he reveals who he is.

Lohengrin gets ready to go and leaves his horn, sword and ring for Elsa's brother. The swan sinks, and Lohengrin lifts Gottfried from the water. Gottfried will be the new ruler of Brabant, Lohengrin vanishes in his boat now drawn by a dove. Ortrud collapses. Elsa embraces Gottfried and sinks lifeless to the ground.

For the first time in my life I see Karita Mattila in a live performance. It is also her first visit to the Savonlinna Opera Festival. I am a long term Karita Mattila admirer. The title of her biography is characteristically Korkealta ja kovaa ([High and Loud], 2019). Her star quality is ideal for the biggest arenas, and only they are big enough for her. As a radio listener I have never felt that I have really known her.

Now I do. All singers are great, but I focus on Karita Mattila because this performance revealed a new aspect that I did not know before. She is the villain and the monster, and she commands the stage effortlessly with her mere presence. It is an understated performance with psychological nuance. There is bitterness, and a barely hidden sense of condescension and superiority. And a pathos of evil. The monster is finally a victim of herself.

This is a new Karita Mattila. Even her voice has changed. The soprano is a mezzo-soprano for a change.

Lohengrin is a mystery play, but it is never confused or insecure. It is always compelling, often in a quietly self-assured manner. It is based on myths, but there is nothing decorative in Wagner's approach. Claude Lévi-Strauss admired Wagner's audacious way of grasping complex associations from various myths and his ability of conveying a profound and genuine emotional impact via them. Lévi-Strauss even called him the "father of the structural analysis of myth".

Otto Rank put Richard Wagner on the couch, paying attention to the hero's arrival on "the billows' azure mirror", the forbidden question and the white swan pulling a newcomer out of the water, and the even more devastating implications of the unknown identity and the anxiety with triangle situations.

Otto Rank's suggestions may seem preposterous, unless we pay attention to Wagner's recurrent obsessions both in his work and his life: Already in his first opera, Die Feen (comp. 1833, unproduced until prem. 1888) includes themes of the forbidden question, search for father, conflict between worldly and otherworldly love, compassion for an animal and a key musical motif expressing aspiration towards transcendence. Wagner never found certitude about the identity of his father. He hardly knew how to live except in a triangle situation, usually with a married woman. But this private trouble he sublimated into works of universal grandeur.

The Wagnerian swan image in Lohengrin and Parsifal stems from the Knights of the Holy Grail for whom the swan was a sacred creature. Universally swans are also a symbol of everlasting love. Universally and since ancient times birds in general are sexual symbols. But often birds also appear as images related to death: harbingers from beyond, images of souls flying to heaven. I also think about The Swan of Tuonela by Sibelius based on Kalevala mythology but also "Sparven om julmorgonen" ("Sparrow on Christmas Morning") written by Zachris Topelius in memory of his little son, in the superior Finnish translation "en mä ole, lapseni, lintu tästä maasta ; olen pieni veljesi, tulin taivahasta" ["My child, I am not a bird from this earth, I am your little brother coming from heaven"].

Because this is the first production of Lohengrin that I have seen I cannot compare it, except perhaps with Lohengrin scenes in Luchino Visconti's Ludwig. I was impressed with the musical achievement, the performances and the Olavinlinna Castle. I was puzzled by the production and costume design. They look impressive in photographs, but in the real experience I felt like following a children's room performance. I was asking: are we still too close to Hitler that we must deconstruct Wagner glory to the max? Are we living in an écolo period of opera design that the approach must be ars povera, recycling. (I don't mean that this is the third revival of this production in Savonlinna, seen before in 2011 and 2013). Video: whenever there is video in a stage performance or art exhibition I look the other way or close my eyes.

I guess that the director Roman Hovenbitzer does not believe in transcendence. The sacred dimension may not be mean much to him. From the first notes to the last, Wagner's opera is an exalted piece of spiritual poetry, but Hovenbitzer's stage interpretation remains in the world of prose. Entzauberung instead of Zauberfeuer.

But the musical performance is triumphant.

...
Wagner and the cinema? "The Wedding March" from Lohengrin has been one of the most popular themes in film music since the early days. For some reason I'm thinking about the double wedding of Dorothy and Lorelei in Gentlemen Prefer Blondes: "Remember, honey, on your wedding day, it's alright to say yes." Today the wedding ceremony might be between Dorothy and Lorelei.

Les Timidités de Rigadin (FR 1910) is an early comedy with Rigadin (Charles Prince) as Lohengrin, the knight in shining armour. Luchino Visconti's Ludwig (IT/FR/DE 1973) is a key film about Wagner's faithful patron of arts, with a lavish scene about staging Lohengrin at Schloss Neuschwanstein. Lohengrin was for Ludwig a point of complete identification.

In a class of his own is Hans Jürgen Syberberg, especially in Parsifal. His Ludwig, Requiem für einen jungfräulichen König (DE 1972) is naturally deeply Wagner relevant, including Lohengrin passages.

Not Wagnerian but Arthurian: two unique films untypical for them by Frenchmen: Lancelot du Lac by Robert Bresson and Perceval le Gallois by Éric Rohmer. Walt Disney's The Sword in the Stone (1963) and Monty Python and the Holy Grail (1975).

A book could be written on Wagner and the cinema, and probably has. Suffice it to mention the controversial side: "The Ride of the Valkyries" in The Birth of a Nation and Apocalypse Now. Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg inevitably in Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens (shot on location in Nuremberg). 

À propos: Daniel Barenboim in dialogue with Edward Said on Wagner and Ideology: " A lady who came to see me in Tel Aviv when the whole Wagner debate was taking place said, “How can you want to play that? I saw my family taken to the gas chambers to the sound of the Meistersinger overture. Why should I listen to that? ” (Daniel Barenboim.com, 1998)

One film is genuinely Wagnerian. Vertigo.

BEYOND THE JUMP BREAK: MORE DATA FROM THE SAVONLINNA OPERA FESTIVAL WEBSITE:

Tuesday, June 25, 2024

The Annihilation of Fish


Charles Burnett: The Annihilation of Fish (US 1999) with Lynn Redgrave (Flower ‘Poinsettia’ Cummings) and James Earl Jones (Obadiah ‘Fish’ Johnson).

US 1999. Prod.: Paul Heller, William Lawrence Fabrizio, John Remark, Eric Mitchell, Kris Dodge per Intrepid Productions, Inc. 
    Director: Charles Burnett. Scen.: Anthony C. Winkler F.: John L. Demps Jr., Rick Robinson. M.: Nancy Richardson. Scgf.: Nina Ruscio. Mus.: Laura Karpman. Int.: Lynn Redgrave (Flower ‘Poinsettia’ Cummings), James Earl Jones (Obadiah ‘Fish’ Johnson), Margot Kidder (signora Muldroone), David Kagen (assistente sociale). 
    DCP. 108’. Col.
    Not released in Finland.
    From Kino Lorber
    Courtesy of UCLA Film & Television Archive. Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive and The Film Foundation in collaboration with Milestone Films at Roundabout Entertainment, FotoKem, Audio Mechanics e Simon Daniel Sound laboratories, from the original 35 mm and soundtrack negatives. Funding provided by Hobson/Lucas Family Foundation. Special thanks to Charles Burnett, John Demps, Dennis Doros, Amy Heller.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2024: Recovered and Restored
    E-subtitles in Italian by Mirta Boschietti.
    Introduced by Jillian Borders and Dennis Doros (UCLA), hosted by Gian Luca Farinelli.
    Viewed at Cinema Lumière - Sala Scorsese, 25 June 2024

Jillian Borders (Bologna Catalogue 2024): " In a quiet Los Angeles boarding house, an unlikely romance develops between eccentrics Obadiah “Fish” Johnson (James Earl Jones) and Flower “Poinsettia” Cummings (Lynn Redgrave). Fish is newly released from a mental institution despite his regular physical wrestling matches with his demon, Hank. Poinsettia, prone to belting out arias from Madame Butterfly, contends with her own invisible partner, the ghost of the composer Giacomo Puccini, to whom she is engaged to be married. All this unfolds under the loving eye of the matron of the house, Mrs Muldroone, played almost unrecognizably by Margot Kidder. "

" The seemingly outlandish setup by screenwriter/novelist Anthony C. Winkler may lead viewers to expect a slapstick comedy, but instead the film handles the issues of aging, mental illness and finding a life’s purpose with a gentle touch. The leads impress in the character-driven story, with an emotional and athletic performance from Jones as the widower Fish, and a bold but nuanced turn by Redgrave as the over-the-top Poinsettia. "

" Revered director Charles Burnett has had a prestigious career since his time in the Master of Fine Arts program at the UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television. Two of his acclaimed films have been placed on the National Film Registry: the “LA Rebellion” masterpiece Killer of Sheep (1978) – which was just ranked the 43rd Greatest Film of All Time in “Sight and Sound” – and the devilish family drama To Sleep with Anger (1990). Previously unreleased and unavailable on any home video format, The Annihilation of Fish is ripe for discovery as a worthy volume in Burnett’s impressive oeuvre. It is due to the persistence of Dennis Doros of Milestone Films, who pursued the rights for 19 years, that audiences will finally be able to experience this charming and poignant film. " Jillian Borders (Bologna Catalogue 2024)

AA: Charles Burnett's unknown milestone (pun intended), The Annihilation of Fish is one of the most tender and open-minded movies about people in spectra of mental conditions. 

It was brave of the actors to live the parts such as these, James Earl Jones as "Fish" Obadiah Johnson, Lynn Redgrave as "Poinsettia" Flower Cummings and most of all Margot Kidder as Ms. Muldroone. There is no drama or melodrama emphasis. The tale is gripping without embellishment and reveals difference in a singular way, without stereotyping.

All three main characters are living with ghosts, Mr. Fish with a personal demon: Hank the Demon whom he is literally wrestling, Poinsettia with Giacomo Puccini, and Ms. Muldroone in the memory of Mr. Muldroone. 

Music is important, ranging from calypso, mariachi and tango to Irving Burgie and inevitably highlighting Puccini, the centenary of whose death we are observing this year. Poinsettia's one-sided love affair with Puccini includes sacrilegious interpretations of "Un bel di" from Madama Butterfly, even competing disastrously with a professional live performer.

The Annihilation of Fish has even been called a romantic comedy, and while it is hardly a genre movie, the label is not wrong either. It is one of a kind, a great therapeutic story, and love is the greatest therapy. It is about characters living in illusions, with illusionary companions, but the love between Mr. Fish and Ms. Poinsettia is no illusion.

The colour palette emerges in vivid and vibrant hues in the digital resurrection. A refined restoration of a film that has been forgotten because it was ahead of its time. Today it can be welcomed as an embrace of diversity, and above all a celebration of the universal human bond.

Monday, June 24, 2024

Sarah Maldoror Trilogy (2024 restoration by CNC)


Sarah Maldoror: À Bissau, le carnaval (GW 1980).

Sarah Maldoror: Fogo, l'île de feu (FR/CV 1979).

Sarah Maldoror: Cap-Vert, un carnaval dans le Sahel (FR/CV 1979).

Festa - a Trilogy by Sarah Maldoror 
Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2024: Cinemalibero.
Introduced by Annouchka De Andrade.
Viewed at Jolly Cinema, Monday 24 June 2024.

FOGO, L’ÎLE DE FEU
FR/CV = Cape Verde 1979. Director: Sarah Maldoror. Scen.: Sarah Maldoror, François Maspéro. F.: Pierre Bouchacourt. M.: Salvatore Burgo. Mus.: José Pereira Cardozo. Prod.: Sarah Maldoror. DCP. 33’. Col.
In French and Portuguese with English subtitles - e-subtitles by Valentina Cristiani
From: CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée
Restored in 4K in 2024 by CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, using the original 16 mm camera negative and magnetic track.

CAP-VERT, UN CARNAVAL DANS LE SAHEL
Carnaval à São Vicente / Carnival in the Sahel
FR/CV = Cape Verde 1979. Director: Sarah Maldoror. Scen.: Sarah Maldoror. F.: Pierre Bouchacourt. M.: Salvatore Burgo. Prod.: Sarah Maldoror. DCP. 28’. Col.
In French and Portuguese with English subtitles
From: CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée
Restored in 4K in 2024 by CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, using the original 16 mm camera negative and magnetic track.

À BISSAU, LE CARNAVAL
Carnival in Bissau
Director: Sarah Maldoror
Year: 1980
Country: GW = Guinea-Bissau
In French with English subtitles
T. alt.: Carnaval en Guinée Bissau. F.: Jean-Michel Humeau, Sana Na N’hada, Florentino Gomes. M.: Stéphanie Moore, Catherine Adda, Sylvie Blanc. Prod.: Sarah Maldoror per INCA – Instituto Nacional de Cinema e Audiovisual, Guinée-Bissau. DCP. 30’. Col.
From: CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée
Restored in 4K in 2024 by CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée, using the original 16 mm camera negative and magnetic track.

Annouchka de Andrade (Bologna Catalogue 2024): " After having filmed the struggle for independence in Angola (Monangambé, 1968; Sambizanga, 1972) and Guinea-Bissau (Des fusils pour Banta, 1971), Sarah Maldoror travelled to the Cape Verde Islands in 1979 and Guinea-Bissau in 1980 to film the first years of their independence. "

" Given the international acclaim of Sambizanga, the first film to raise awareness of the ordeals endured by the former Portuguese colonies, the leaders of Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau soon called upon Maldoror to direct a film to document the countries’ newfound independence. "

" On the occasion of the Carnival and May Day festivities, the filmmaker reaffirms the convictions of her friend and leader Amílcar Cabral – founder of the African Party for the Independence of Guinea and Cape Verde (PAIGC) – for whom culture is an expression of history, the foundation of liberation and a means of countering colonial domination. "

" Shot prior to the coup d’état of November 1980 in Guinea-Bissau – bringing an end to the PAIGC – these films remain the last testimonials of the union of the two countries. "

" During the May Day celebrations depicted in Fogo, l’île de feu, we attend the speech given by the Prime Minister of Cape Verde surrounded by Guinean-Bissé leaders, who have gathered to celebrate Amílcar Cabral. François Maspero’s commentary reminds us of the historical significance of the archipelago – from a trading post for the Portuguese to a safe haven for sailors crossing the headlands. He points out that today, although Fogo has become an island deserted by drought, its population organises a unique festival every year, combining conquest and legends in a spectacle of light. "

" In Cap-Vert, un carnaval dans le Sahel and À Bissau, le carnaval, Maldoror films the preparatory stages for the procession – from its meticulous mask-making to its inventive costumes – and her camera lingers on gestures and faces to reveal the display of the imaginary, a source of pride for an entire people. "

" In this trio of shorts, Sarah Maldoror interweaves culture, tradition and politics, somewhere between documentary and poetry, culminating in a singular result. "

" My sister Henda and I were committed to restoring these three films to be able to present them together in a single programme as an expression of the emancipating force of culture, and as an illustration of the poetic cinema of our mother, Sarah Maldoror. " Annouchka de Andrade (Bologna Catalogue 2024)

AA: In celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Carnation Revolution, three marvellous films by Sarah Maldoror, made in 1979-1980 in Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau, then newly independent from Portuguese colonialism.

Cape Verde had been for 500 years a Portuguese colony and a hub of slave trade in its time. Parts of Guinea-Bissau had been under some rule of the Portuguese empire for half a century, and it was also one of the earliest centres of Atlantic slave trade. The great leader in the fight for freedom for Guinea-Bissau and Cape Verde was Amílcar Cabral (1924-1973), fondly remembered in the films.

In her jubilant trilogy Sarah Maldoror (1929-2020) celebrates the vitality of the newly liberated people. They are poor in materia but rich in spirit, beauty and joy of life. The volcanic force of Cape Verde seems to emanate even from the people.

I included Maldoror's fiction drama Sambizanga in my Sight & Sound 2022 Top Ten list of the greatest films of all time. This documentary trilogy shares its vibrant feeling, energy and life-affirming rebel spirit.

Maldoror displays her art and talent of observation in scenes of quotidian life and hard work, for instance in fishermen dealing with huge catches of fish. Education is covered in views of school classes. African unity and freedom is celebrated in epic demonstrations. "But but they also know how to party" - and mount festivals: life is a party. The last film is dedicated to a carnival. Maldoror excels both in magnificent establishing shots and vivid close-ups.

These films are also about the joy of colour and gorgeous music.

I was thinking about the engrossing Nome (Guinea-Bissau /Angola /France/Portugal 2023) by Sana Na N'Hada that covers the war for the independence of Guinea and Cape Verde. The story starts in 1969 and follows a troubled path long past independence. I was moved to hear on its soundtrack "Grândola, Vila Morena" by José Afonso. I was singing it, too 50 years ago in events of solidarity to the liberation fighters.

Tovarich (US 1937)


Anatole Litvak: Tovarich (US 1937). Claudette Colbert (Grand Duchess Tatiana Petrovna/Tina), Charles Boyer (Prince Mikail Ouratieff/Michel). 

Tovarich (title in Italy) / Tovarich or Tovaritsch (title in Finland) / Kamrater i Paris.
    US 1937. Prod.: Anatole Litvak per Warner Bros. Pictures. 
    D: Anatole Litvak. Sog.: dalla pièce omonima (1933) di Jacques Deval e dall’adattamento (1935) di Robert E. Sherwood. Scen.: Casey Robinson. F.: Charles Lang. M.: Henri Rust. Scgf.: Anton Grot. Mus.: Max Steiner. 
    Int.: Claudette Colbert (granduchessa Tatiana Petrovna/Tina), Charles Boyer (principe Mikail Ouratieff/Michel), Basil Rathbone (il commissario bolscevico Gorotchenko), Anita Louise (Helene Dupont), Melville Cooper (Charles Dupont), Isabel Jeans (Fernande Dupont), Morris Carnovsky (Chauffourier-Dubieff), Victor Kilian (gendarme). 
    98’. Bn.
    Helsinki premiere: 20 March 1938 Capitol.
    35 mm print from Warner Bros. Pictures, concession by Park Circus
    Bologna: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2024: Journeys Into Night: The World of Anatole Litvak
    Viewed at Jolly Cinema, 24 June 2024

Ehsan Khoshbakht (Bologna Catalogue 2024): " Opening with the Bastille Day celebrations in Paris (embellished with Litvak’s trademark crane and rooftop shots) and quickly singling out two down-and-out Russian exiles, a former Prince and a Grand Duchess played by Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert, the couple innocently ask a musician why people are dancing all over the city."

" “It has something to do with history,” the musician replies. Colbert and Boyer need the rest of the film to find out how much their own personal relationship and struggle for survival has something to do with history. The Czarist fortune they faithfully safeguard puts a Bolshevik Commissar on their tail. The penniless aristocrats seek a job as servants for the spoiled Duponts whose mansion becomes the stage for a soft screwball comedy as things go charmingly hokey pokey. "

" The script was penned by ever-reliable Casey Robinson, based on Robert E. Sherwood’s English adaptation of a French play by Jacques Deval which had a successful 4-year run in Broadway. After having bowed out of Cette vieille canaille, and with Mayerling making him a huge star, Boyer and Litvak were reunited in the US. When Warner rejected a remake of Cette vieille canaille, Litvak pitched Tovarich. Despite Boyer’s reservation about playing a Russian in Paris – he argued that the only cast member with a real French accent would be him – he gave in. The film’s success, even in France, proved Boyer’s worries baseless. In an example of star power contributing to the overall look of a film, Charles Lang was summoned from Paramount on Colbert’s request. When Lang’s slow pace in setting up the camera upset the studio who fired him, Colbert defended him and gave up two weeks’ worth of her salary to reinstate him. "

" Premiered at the same time as Mayerling was enjoying a delayed US distribution, this forerunner of Anastasia in terms of investigating identity, history and displacement had all the elements that Litvak cared for: role-playing, old world sophistication winning over socialism, couples losing privilege but finding their place in the new world, and the acknowledgment, albeit in an ambivalent tone, of new political structures which makes for the film’s fantastic finale. " Ehsan Khoshbakht (Bologna Catalogue 2024)

AA: Anatole Litvak's screwball comedy is based on a French play, itself based on the true story of Count Alexei Ignatiev. The truth is very much stranger than fiction, but the core is the same: the White Russian handing over the Imperial Treasury to the Soviet Union, for the good of the country.

The popular screenwriter Jacques Deval's play had already been filmed in France by himself as Tovaritch (FR 1935), and in its interesting cast we can discover Pierre Renoir as Commissar Gorochenko and the writer Louis-Ferdinand Céline (Voyage au bout de la nuit) in a bit part.

The comedy is crazy and witty. It starts on Quatorze Juillet, and the aristocratic Russian immigrants are ignorant of what it is. When they learn it is a feast for a Revolution, they don't feel like celebrating.

I find the Charles Boyer and Claudette Colbert duo a bit insecure in the beginning (although this was already their third film together), but they develop an engaging approach to the complex charade later on. The characters they portray are members of high aristocracy in exile who have to disguise as common servants. They are in possession of the Russian State Treasury, but they live like bums from hand to mouth, even having to resort to stealing groceries, because the millions in the bank are meant to be used for a Counter-Revolution in Russia. 

The most astounding encounter is with the Soviet Commissar Gorochenko, portrayed by Basil Rathbone in his best icy villain mode. Tables have turned many times. Gorochenko as a revolutionary has been persecuted by Imperial Russia, and our aristocrats have been subjected to torture in Ljubljanka by Gorochenko. 

The anthology piece of Tovarich is their discussion which consists of death threats and menaces of extreme torture. That is the official self, and so much for diplomacy. Privately they are attracted to each other.

Finally they share the commitment of keeping the Baku oil fields in the hands of the Russian people. That is why the State Treasury has to be returned to Russia. An extraordinary ending for a Hollywood movie.

"Suomi mainittu" ("Finland was mentioned") as we in our provincial-self-ironic mode register anything with Finland in it. In this movie Finland appears as the gate to freedom for our beloved aristocratic rascals. Beyond the fabula: the real life Alexei Ignatiev was a friend of the Marshal of Finland C. G. E. Mannerheim.

The first Hollywood role of the incredible Curt Bois (1901-1991) who started his film career in Imperial Germany in 1907 and ended it in Wim Wenders's Der Himmel über Berlin.

...
One of the best books of the year is Anna Reid's A Nasty Little War : The West's Fight to Reverse the Russian Revolution (2023). According to Reid, during the Civil War, the Czech Legion guarded a train full of imperial gold and probably "handed it over to the Red Army in exchange for safe passage, but the story persists that they took it home and founded Czechoslovakia's National Bank with it" (p. 268).

George Pal: Date with Duke (US 1947).
 
DATE WITH DUKE
US 1947. Director: George Pal
Running time: 7'
RECOVERED AND RESTORED
Copy: UCLA Film & Television Archive Library
AA: Puppet animation to "The Perfume Suite". Perfume bottles appear as instruments, and a live action Duke Ellington is the leader of the minuscule band.
From IMDb: " Pianist Duke Ellington performs his Perfume Suite while conducting a group of stop-motion animated perfume bottles. Wonderful early integration of live action and animation. Actor: Duke Ellington. Voice: Walter Tetley. Director of Photography: William Snyder, A.S.C. Technicolor Color Director: Natalie Kalmus. Story: Jack Miller. Puppet Photography: John S. Abbott. Animation: Gene Warren. Sound: Western Electric Mirrophonic Recording. 35 mm/7:24. Paramount Presents A George Pal Puppetoon in Technicolor. Produced and Directed by George Pal.—© Arnold Leibovit "

Khak-e sar bé mohr / The Sealed Soil (2024 UCLA restoration)


Marva Nabili: خاک مهر شده / Khak-e sar bé mohr / The Sealed Soil (IR 1977).

Marva Nabili: خاک مهر شده / Khak-e sar bé mohr / The Sealed Soil (IR 1977).

خاک مهر شده / La Terre scellée / Die versiegelte Erde.
    IR 1977. D: Marva Nabili. Scen.: Marva Nabili. F.: Barbod Taheri. Mus.: Hooreh. Int.: Flora Shabaviz (Roo-Bekheir). Prod.: Marva Nabili. DCP. 90’. Col.
    Copy from UCLA Film & Television Archive Library
    In Farsi with English subtitles on DCP. E-subtitles in Italian by Valentina Cristini.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2024: Cinemalibero.
    Introduced by Marva Nabili (via cellphone video)
    Introduced by Jillian Borders (UCLA)
    Viewed at Jolly Cinema, 23 June 2024

Restored by UCLA Film & Television Archive with funding provided by Golden Globe Foundation, Century Arts Foundation, Farhang Foundation and Mark Amin, from the 16 mm original A/B negatives, color reversal internegative, magnetic track, and optical track negative. Laboratory services by Illuminate Hollywood, Corpus Fluxus, Audio Mechanics, Simon Daniel Sound. Special thanks to Thomas Fauci, Marva Nabili, and Garineh Navarian.

Ehsan Khoshbakht (Bologna 2024 Catalogue): " Khak-e Sar bé Mohr chronicles the repetitive and repressed life of Roo-Bekheir, a young woman in a poor village in southwest Iran, and her resistance to forced marriage. It’s a formally rigorous, if emotionally distanced, critique of patriarchy and the spurious reform of Iranian agricultural life that was a factor in the 1979 revolution. "

" Nabili conceived Khak-e Sar bé Mohr as her graduation film when studying in New York. With the help of Iranian producer and cinematographer Barbod Taheri, she returned to Iran and got a deal to direct part of the Ancient Persian Fables series for Iranian public television in exchange for raw 16 mm film stock and a crew for her film project. She wrote the script as she was directing the series, making frequent trips to the village she had scouted for the film, and it was eventually shot by Taheri in 1976 with his wife, Flora Shabaviz, playing the main role. After completion, Nabili edited the film in the US, though the post-production work (especially the professional dubbing) indicates that support from Iran must have continued after her return to New York. "

" Using long shots, static camera, and long takes, Nabili cites the Persian miniature, in which the story is always depicted from a distance, allowing the viewer free interpretation of characters and situations, as her main influence. She also refers to Bertolt Brecht and Robert Bresson, the latter’s influence most evident in the lyrical and quiet sequence in which the film finds a momentary poetic release as Roo-Bekheir undresses in the rain. This measured and restrained rebellion against patriarchy – Nabili’s only feature, other than a TV film made for PBS in 1983 – might explain the renewed interest in her work in post-Woman/Life/Freedom Iran, even if Khak-e Sar bé Mohr was never screened in its country of production and a generation saw it only on ghastly VHS tapes. " Ehsan Khoshbakht (Bologna 2024 Catalogue)

AA: I among many became aware of Marva Nabili's The Sealed Soil thanks to Mark Cousins, who in his mega-series Women Make Film (GB 2019) highlighted it in episodes 4, 7 and 11 (chapters 10 Journey, 18 Bodies, and 31 Leave Out). Since then it has been a "must see" for me.

It is a work of imagist poetry, belonging to a special lineage in Iranian cinema. The images are completely realistic, yet they emanate a spiritual presence and an imagination that transcends the limits of the ordinary. I would call it the presence of the sacred in everything.

There is also a poetic kinship between Iranian cinema and its northern neighbours Georgia, Armenia and Ukraine, personified in the cinema of Sergei Paradjanov, also inspired by Persian miniatures. The tableau aesthetics reminiscent of early cinema, the plan-séquence approach, the emphasis on the image instead of storytelling.

The Sealed Soil is a movie about quiet violence inflicted on the young woman Roo-Bekheir (Flora Shabaviz) in a patriarchal, traditional village society. Marriage is overdue, and like in Japanese shomin-geki of the 1950s, such as Kozaburo Yoshimura's Yoru no kawa / Undercurrent shown in this festival, the young woman would prefer to remain free. By the way, this is also a major theme in the Finnish folklore collection Kanteletar based on ancient oral tradition in poems sung by women.

Finally, Roo experiences a fit of possession, and an official exorcist is summoned to help her get rid of the demon. After the elaborate rite, Roo is numb and expressionless like a zombie. There is a proposal waiting for her.

Shot in Academy and in subdued colour by Barbod Taheri, with meaningful images of roosters, Persian carpets and children's games. Nature is ever-present in the sound world and in scenes of rain escalating into a rainstorm. Roo's freedom is memorably expressed in a scene where she is alone by the river in the rain and takes off her clothes. The scene is special because it is not about exploitation, quite the contrary.

The 2024 restoration by UCLA Film & Television Archive is refined and vivid, based on 16 mm original negatives. A remarkable work of art has been rediscovered for the world.

Sunday, June 23, 2024

Napoléon vu par Abel Gance - première partie: Bonaparte - 2024 reconstruction and restoration La Cinémathèque française


Napoléon vu par Abel Gance, première partie (FR 1927). The Double Tempest. The vision of Marianne - Goddess of Liberty, personification of the French Revolution, the French Republic and embodiment of Liberty, Equality, Fraternity and Reason.

International title: Napoleon.
    FR 1927. Director: Abel Gance. Scen.: Abel Gance. F.: Léonce-Henri Burel, Jules Kruger, Joseph-Louis Mundwiller, Nikolai Toporkoff. M.: Abel Gance, Marguerite Beaugé. Scgf.: Alexandre Benois, Ivan Lochakoff, Eugène Lourié, Pierre Schildknecht. Int.: Albert Dieudonné (Napoleone Bonaparte), Vladimir Roudenko (Napoleone Bonaparte da giovane), Edmond Van Daële (Robespierre), Alexandre Koubitzky (Danton), Antonin Artaud (Jean-Paul Marat), Abel Gance (Saint-Just), Gina Manès (Joséphine de Beauharnais), Suzanne Bianchetti (Maria Antoinetta), Marguerite Gance (Charlotte Corday), Yvette Dieudonné (Elisa Bonaparte). Prod.: Société du Film Napoléon, Société Générale de Films. DCP. D.: 220’. Col.
    From: La Cinémathèque française.
    French intertitles with English subtitles and e-subtitles in Italian.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2024: Recovered and Restored
    Introduced by Costa-Gavras and Frédéric Bonnaud (La Cinémathèque française)
    Viewed at Cinema Modernissimo, 23 June 2024

Reconstructed and restored by La Cinémathèque française, with the support of CNC – Centre national du cinéma et de l’image animée and Ministère de la Culture, under the direction of Georges Mourier at Éclair Classics – L’Image Retrouvée laboratory. Music composed by Simon Cloquet-Lafollye and performed by Benjamin Bernheim, tenor, Orchestre National de France and Orchestre Philharmonique et le Choeur de Radio France, under the direction of Fabien Gabel.

This is not about morals, or politics, but art.
– Abel Gance

Joël Daire (Bologna Catalogue, 2024): " The new restoration’s frame rate has been fully re-established at 18 frames per second, previously only the case for the Brienne episodes. This gives the film a new fluidity. The effect on the audience of the singing of La Marseillaise in sync with the actors’ lips at long last remains to be seen. Moreover, while the new restoration’s extra 90 minutes provide the merest hint of new, rediscovered sequences, they exist nonetheless; beginning with the powerful images of civil war that open the siege of Toulon sequence and conclude the first part of the film, a rigorous and painstaking piece of reconstruction. The restoration also made every effort to respect the experimental dimension that Abel Gance wanted to give his work, and this shines through in many iconic sequences (Brienne, La Marseillaise at the Cordeliers, the “double tempest,” the shadows at the National Convention, the famous triple-screen of the Italian army’s departure…). As the first entirely digital restoration, this new version strove to overcome many difficulties previously considered unsolvable, working with photochemical technology alone: colours chart, aspect ratio, authentic reproduction of the original tinting etc. The combination of all these elements is sufficient to guarantee audiences a film that is very different from the one they may remember. "

" But what is it that engenders the emotion of film, or in other words, poetry on the screen? What the extended version of Napoléon offers visually takes viewers far beyond anecdotal narrative and plunges them into the mystery of what Gance called his “music of light,” and his friend Epstein “the idea between the images.” In his great works of the preceding years, such as J’accuse! and La Roue, Gance works in his themes and motifs in the form of overlays, juxtaposing rather than combining them. In Napoléon – especially in the “Apollo” version – in full mastery of his art, he reaches new heights of dazzling virtuosity. Nothing escapes Gance and he’s indifferent to nothing. Right up to the eleventh hour, he adjusts the editing of any given scene. "

" Conceived as a gigantic visual symphony, Napoléon exposes, juxtaposes, combines and interweaves themes and instruments – in the form of his camera operators, actors, extras, landscapes and sets – right down to his title cards… He applied the same scientific method, the same combinatory genius, to his characters and to emotions. There isn’t one sequence in Napoléon that isn’t woven through with drama mixed with comedy, shot through with sense of rhythm – a kind of music, if you will – propelling the viewer out of the diegetic time of the action into a sublime visual symphony, further enhanced by the new score. "

" Over the top or inspired, the triptychs assured the film its triumph at l’Opéra de Paris, but only the second one, featuring the Italian army, has survived; the “double tempest” triptych surviving only in its single-screen version. Like a Renaissance altarpiece, the three-screen extravaganza of symbolist dramaturgy, combining the horizontal (the conquest of Italy) and the vertical (multiple superimpositions of images of Bonaparte, Josephine, the yet-to-be-imperial eagle, the world on a globe and the “beggars of glory”) form the obligatory epilogue of the extended version, even if it wasn’t shown at the Apollo in May 1927. In his “proclamation” of 4 June 1924, addressed to all his contemporary and future collaborators, Abel Gance concluded: “Today it is for the public to tell us whether we achieved our goal.” We couldn’t have put it better ourselves! " Joël Daire (Bologna Catalogue, 2024)

AA: Napoléon vu par Abel Gance is a towering achievement of the cinema, and in its first half seen today in a brilliant digital restoration by La Cinémathèque française it's as vigorous, exhilarating and troubling as ever. The visual quality is exquisite.

It's a classic but also an ever-young achievement of experimental cinema, of the première avant-garde of the 1920s French cinema. D. W. Griffith had gone far in exploring montage in Intolerance, and Abel Gance went even further in J'accuse, La Roue and Napoléon, the culmination of his exploration in the possibilities of the film media. It is intoxicating and stimulating at the same time. It's the portrait of a revolutionary turning into a reactionary.

I have been a champion of Napoléon since I saw Kevin Brownlow's documentary Abel Gance - The Charm of Dynamite (GB 1968) at the Cinemateket / Svenska Filminstitutet in 1981. Then in 1984 at Arsenal in West Berlin I saw the 1981 Zoetrope Studios version of Napoléon in a 16 mm print with the house pianist, a veteran from the 1920s, playing live for the duration of 285 minutes, Arsenal perhaps slowing down the projection speed of the version that runs 235 min at sound speed?

Came the first full experience: a live cinema event of the Kevin Brownlow restoration  with Carl Davis conducting his own score at the Finlandia Hall in Helsinki in 1986. It was 320 minutes, and the polyvision was realized with a dual projection of 35 mm and 70 mm. I had the privilege of being the Finnish Film Archive liaison of the event, launched by Peter von Bagh, who had left the Archive the year before.

I also saw live Kevin Brownlow's third Napoléon restoration in the 20th anniversary gala of Le Giornate del Cinema Muto at Teatro Nuovo Giovanni da Udine in 2001, Carl Davis again conducting his score. It was 333 minutes long and felt exquisite with refined tinting passages achieved with vintage chemical methods. Tinting almost invariably fails in modern copies, whether photochemical or digital, but this time they got it right.


Of this year's restoration I had the pleasure the enjoy an "appetizer screening" at La Cinémathèque française in March in which Simon Cloquet-Lafollye demonstrated the impact of the new music in six scenes: La Marseillaise, Siège de Toulon, La Terreur, Mariage de Bonaparte, the Double Wedding and the Italian Campaign.

...
This year I pay attention to new aspects. Abel Gance portrays the royal family with dignity. Napoléon is such an extreme workaholic that he never properly registers his best friends, the Fleuri family. But they register him, and there can be no better recommendation for a man. This is a film so rich in telling details, that I am not always sure if there is a newfound moment added to the restoration or whether I have just not noticed it before.

In Oppenheimer, Christopher Nolan inserts experimental passages to convey thinking about quantum physics. Segundo de Chomón's special effect montage superimpositions of Napoléon's thinking fully bear comparison.

Certainly something new is the compilation score by Simon Cloquet-Lafollye, a jigsaw puzzle of 104 compositions by 48 composers. I could not believe my ears when I registered Sibelius (Pelléas et Mélisande and The Tempest), but those entries do fit in the film. How about Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Wagner? No problem. In the finale of this Part One, Cloquet-Lafollye finally gives in to Beethoven, and we hear the funeral march from Eroica in Gance's devastating "war's peace" sequence of the casualties of Toulon and the burning of the French Navy.

After the Udine screening in 2001 I launched a "too much Beethoven?" discussion with my friends from La Cinémathèque française. Is there too much Beethoven in the Carl Davis score? Or can there ever be enough of Beethoven? Today I think that one thing is sure: Beethoven is the Napoléon composer par excellence, expressing both the revolutionary bravado and the tragedy of Napoléon's transformation into an imperialist, nationalist and militarist - the Emperor. They were contemporaries: Beethoven (1770-1827), Napoléon (1769-1824). Napoléon, Beethoven and Gance share a common spiritual dimension of grandeur. Gance directed also Beethoven biopics: La Dixième Symphonie and Un grand amour de Beethoven.

Beethoven is the obvious choice, and the real issue is: is it too obvious?

Ridley Scott in his Napoleon avoided the obvious - no Beethoven, not even La Marseillaise, instead drawing from Haydn.

It is rewarding to get lost in the details of Napoléon. There is an abundance of them. But over it all there hovers a powerful spirit of history. Sometimes centuries pass and nothing changes. Sometimes there is a moment when things start to turn and everything changes. Abel Gance catches this moment and this spirit unforgettably. His movie is deeply human, deeply tragic and deeply historical.

The 2024 restoration by La Cinémathèque française is destined to become the standard version, and the standard is high indeed. It is full of joys to behold. I trust that La Cinémathèque française also pays fair tribute to Kevin Brownlow in the process.

Napoléon was never a lost film, but Kevin Brownlow was the one whose restoration in 1979-1980 rediscovered the full glory of Abel Gance and his film to a modern global audience. More than that, his Napoléon restoration was instrumental in reviving the glory of the silent cinema in general, after it had been lying semi-dormant for half a century.

...
Until now, I have always seen Napoléon with English intertitles only (the Brownlow and Coppola versions). Today, for the first time with French intertitles. Vive la France!

...
The week after Bologna, the full 2024 restoration was premiered in Paris.
The Polyvision (triptych) sequences were screened letterboxed = half the size of the regular image.

Simon Cloquet-Lafollye wrote the score for the 2024 reconstruction of Napoléon vu par Abel Gance drawing on 104 works by 48 different composers. Photo from: Frédéric Bonnaud & Joël Daire (ed.): Napoléon, vu par Abel Gance (Paris: La Table Ronde, 2024). From: The Realm of Silence, Paul Cuff, 5 June 2024.

Vražda ing. Čerta / Murdering the Devil (2023 restoration by Karlovy Vary International Film Festival)


Ester Krumbachová: Vražda ing. Čerta / Murdering the Devil (CZ 1970) with Jiřina Bohdalová as Ona = She.

CZ 1970. Director: Ester Krumbachová. Sog., Scen.: Ester Krumbachová. F.: Jirí Macák. M.: Miroslav Hájek. Scgf.: Boris Moravec. Mus.: Angelo Michajlov. Int.: Jiřina Bohdalová (Ona = She), Vladimír Menšík, (signor Čert = Devil), Ljuba Hermanová (Miriam), Helena Ruzicková (Helena Ruzicková). Prod.: Filmové studio Barrandov. DCP. D.: 75’. Col.
    Copy from NFA
    Restored in 4K in 2023 by Karlovy Vary International Film Festival in collaboration with Národní filmový archiv and Státní Fond Kinematografie at UPP and Soundsquare Studios laboratories, from the original image and sound negatives. Funding provided by Milada Kučerová and Eduard Kučera
    In Czech with English subtitles by Alex Zucker, e-subtitles in Italian by Ada Caterina Nanni.
    Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna 2024: Recovered and Restored.
    Introduced by Marie Barešová (Národní filmový archiv)
    Viewed at Cinema Lumière - Sala Scorsese, 23 June 2024

Martin Šrajer (Bologna Catalogue 2024): " “We live and operate in a man’s world. That’s why we as women are like guests. Of course, this could be an advantage for us, because we can mock the male world more easily,” Ester Krumbachová said in an interview with A. J. Liehm. The Czech set designer, costume designer, screenwriter and director did not consider herself a feminist, but deconstructing patriarchal structures was a lifelong mission for her – as it was for her friend Věra Chytilová. The battle of the sexes was also the subject of her only directorial effort Vražda ing. Čerta. "

" The simple plot woven from many fairytale archetypes consists of a series of meetings in the apartment of the nameless protagonist. A friend she hasn’t seen in years, engineer Bohouš Čert [Devil in Czech], arrives. While she lovingly prepares a feast of many courses, he just sips, munches and grunts without restraint. And still he isn’t satisfied. The more empty plates and chewed-up furniture legs he leaves behind, the more his hostess is horrified. But she still dreams that the visitor from hell will rescue her from her boring, lonely life, so she lets Devil invade her privacy again and again. She only keeps him away from the fridge, her Pandora’s box… "

" With previous projects, Krumbachová could only use a fraction of her skills. On Vražda ing. Čerta she embraced everything she was fascinated by and excelled at. She herself gave form to a detailed mise-en-scène with a touch of Art Nouveau and occultism, sewed the clothes, made the jewellery, designed the furniture, and even prepared the food that conveys more meaning than the dialogue. The film passed censorship and was allowed to premiere in September 1970. However, artistic opportunities of Krumbachová, who collaborated on many politically problematic films of the Czechoslovak New Wave, were gradually cut down. She never made another film. This visually opulent parable about male and female roles not only launched but also ended the directorial filmography of this Renaissance woman. " Martin Šrajer (Bologna Catalogue 2024)

AA: "Between two evils I always pick the one I never tried before", said Mae West. 

But Ona (= She) (Jiřina Bohdalová, born in 1931 and still with us) invites the devil she knows, Engineer Čert (= Devil) (Vladimír Menšík, 1929-1988).

Perhaps she believes that she can change him with her attractions, most importantly, lavish multi-course meals. Mr. Čert does gorge himself thoroughly, paying no attention to table manners, elementary courtesy or even clean dress. He is the Chauvinist Pig incarnate.

It is about time to pay tribute to Ester Krumbachová (1923-1996), a key talent in the Czech New Wave of the 1960s, including in the movies of Oldřich Lipský whose playfulness is relevant also here, Otakar Vávra, Jan Němec, Karel Kachyňa, Jaromil Jireš, and particularly Věra Chytilová. Murdering the Devil has profound affinities with the crazy world of Daisies, whose co-screenwriter, creative consultant and costume designer Krumbachová was. Both Daisies and Murdering the Devil are also films relevant to feminism.

In Murdering the Devil, Krumbachová appears as a total film-maker: director, screenwriter and costume designer. Her touch is evident in every detail, including make-up, hair design, jewel design and food design. From Marie Barešová's introduction we learned that Krumbachová was a great cook, and Murdering the Devil earns a place in anthologies of cinema and cooking.

It is a design-driven movie, exquisite, ornate, staging an artificial paradise welcoming the Devil. It is unique and unforgettable. But sometimes the Devil can be in the detail.

The 4K restoration is impeccable. That it is also slightly airless and missing photochemical juiciness may be intentional.