Saturday, July 04, 2015

Rapsodia satanica film concert (Teatro Comunale di Bologna) (2015 4K digital restoration Bologna / Lausanne)

Nino Oxilia: Rapsodia satanica (1917). Lyda Borelli as Contessa Alba d'Oltrevita.

Nino Oxilia: Rapsodia satanica (1917). Lyda Borelli as Contessa Alba d'Oltrevita.

IT 1915–1917. D: Nino Oxilia. Story: Alfa (Alberto Fassini), Fausto Maria Martini. SC: Alfa. DP: Giogio Ricci. M: Pietro Mascagni.
    C: Lyda Borelli (contessa Alba d’Oltrevita), Andrea Habay (Tristano), Ugo Bazzini (Mephisto), Giovanni Cini (Sergio), Alberto Nepoti.
    P: Cines. DCP. 45’. Tinted, toned and stencil. Italian intertitles [not with English subtitles, contrary to what was announced]. From: Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna.
    The 4K digital restoration was produced from a tinted, toned and hand-painted positive print belonging to the Cinémathèque Suisse. The original score, composed by Pietro Mascagni, allowed for the correct reconstruction of the film. The restoration was promoted by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna and the Cinémathèque Suisse.
    Musiche originali di Pietro Mascagni eseguite dell'Orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna adattate e dirette di Timothy Brock.
    Revisione della partitura a cura di Marcello Panni pubblicata da Edizioni Curci in collaboratione con il Comitato Pietro Mascagni.
    In the presence of members of the Pietro Mascagni family introduced by Gian Luca Farinelli.
    Viewed at Teatro Comunale di Bologna (Il Cinema Ritrovato) (Recovered & Restored, Cento anni fà), [no translation], original score by Pietro Mascagni, conducted by Timothy Brock and performed by the Orchestra of the Teatro Comunale di Bologna, 4 July 2015.

Il Cinema Ritrovato (catalogue and website): Giovanni Lasi: "The story of Rapsodia satanica is as agonizing and troubled as the fate of the countess Alba d’Oltrevita, played by the divine Lyda Borelli. Nino Oxilia’s masterpiece was completed in spring 1915 but was not released in theaters until 1917 due to mysterious inside disputes at Cines: that would result in a delay of almost three years in giving the world a film that was the most genuine attempt at making a total work of art for the screen. In deference to the Gesamtkunstwerk of Wagnerian fame, the film condenses pictorial quotations that range from Symbolism to the Pre-Raphaelites, literary references to the Faust tradition and Dannunzian decadence, spectacular architectural allusions to art nouveau, all embellished with original music by Pietro Mascagni."

"Rapsodia satanica, however, was not only a sophisticated and aesthetic compendium of the best artistic movements: it’ s a film in a league of its own with Nino Oxilia’s poetic sensitivity and compositional expertise and Lyda Borelli’s extraordinary performance. She expresses with her body and eyes the controversial aspects of her character, distilling the sensuality of eroticism, the raving hysteria of madness, the dark mood of death." Giovanni Lasi

Eric de Kuyper: "The restoration of Rapsodia satanica is an extreme case: its reconstruction took place slowly and by degrees under our very eyes. As if a faded rose were regenerating and one petal after another, regaining its freshness in the height of its brilliance. An unexpected miracle was slowly taking shape, progressively and irreversibly. A slow backwards decomposition, a patient re-composition. As if this masterwork did not wish to give itself to our eyes all at once. Might it have been too blinding?"

"In the beginning this copy in black and white was rather ugly... And yet it was clear that we were dealing with a splendid film. Then the music by Mascagni composed specially for Oxilia’s film was discovered. A new surprise. Then to this – was this the last stage? – the discovery of a good copy in colour!"

"Rapsodia Satanica, from the point of view of colour, places us in front of another problem, because – a unique case in the history of cinema? – the use of stencil colouring is not alternative to that of toning and imbibition, but contemporaneous. On monochrome images we thus have coloured detail [...], the result is extraordinary. Here colour fully realises the explicit ambition of the opera to be a total art." (Eric de Kuyper, Rapsodia satanica ou le frémissement des couleurs, “Cinegrafie”, n. 9, 1996)

Timothy Brock: "Pietro Mascagni invented an approach that most film composers only began to discover more than 10 years later. He wrote one of the most intricate and delicate accompaniments in the history of cinema, both sound and silent. His score goes well beyond the visual perception, but contains character studies that seem to clearly define the mostly hidden conditions of their personality. This is the gift an opera composer brings to cinema."

"There is not a visual or symbolic moment (or movement) that passes unnoticed by Mascagni, and the depth of reflection within his score, is startling. The use of inverted and doubled thematic material (the 2 brothers), mirrored intervals (Borelli’s final scene with mirrors) and pure musical leitmotif (symbiosis of the 2 butterflies and Borelli’s flight on the terrace) plays heavily in Mascagni’s designation of material. Even the reading of inter-titles was not left untouched. Every expression, dismantled shoulder and fluttering veil has it’s place in the score. The question is just a matter of finding it."

"Only when a score of this caliber is anchored to its film correctly, does the clarity of musical symbolism truly exhibit composer’s cognition, and more importantly, his intentions as an artist. The most common misconception about the score is that there is simply too much music. This view set an unfortunate precedent of making large cuts in the score in order to make the music ‘fit’ the length of the film. The reason for this misguided conclusion is quite simple. Nowhere in the full score, nor in the piano reduction, did he give any written visual synchronization indications. Nor did Mascagni give a single metronome mark. This makes for intensive score analysis on the part of the conductor to find out where each few seconds of music should start and end, how fast or slow it should go, and for how long." (Timothy Brock) (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website)

AA: A Symbolistic piece of Italian Divismo, star-driven: based on the unique persona of Lyda Borelli, and as this performance confirms, a music-driven silent pantomime, powerfully moving along the operatic original score by Pietro Mascagni (Cavalleria rusticana).

I knew the film and the music from a previous 1990s presentation, but this restoration and this performance felt even more powerful.

The movie is also colour-driven, and the reproductions of the beautiful tonings and tintings and original hand-colourings feel just right. Also the blues and the purples seem good (they have been difficult to convey in previous Desmet interpretations, threatening to become too dark).

The story is a female Faust variation: in search for eternal youth the Countess makes a pact with the Devil. But she loses both her lovers. Rapsodia satanica belongs to the general area of fairy-tale films, fantasy films, even horror films, although it is not a true horror film in the genre sense.

As a visual composition this collaboration of Lyda Borelli, Nino Oxilia, and Pietro Mascagni is refined and elegant.

There is an affinity with Il fauno, inspired by the poem of Stéphane Mallarmé and the composition of Claude Debussy.

L'orchestra del Teatro Comunale di Bologna (the Bologna City Opera Orchestra) played very well at a strength of 61 players. There was no translation.

A beautiful closing gala to an impressive edition of Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Good Sam

Leo McCarey: Good Sam (US 1948). Gary Cooper (Sam Clayton), Ann Sheridan (Lu Clayton).

Leo McCarey: Good Sam (US 1948). Gary Cooper (Sam Clayton).

Il buon samaritano / Pennitön paratiisissa / Panik i paradiset. 
    US 1948. P: Rainbow Productions. 
    D: Leo McCarey. Story: Leo McCarey, John Klorer. SC: Ken Englund. DP: George Barnes. ED: James McKay. AD: John B. Goodman. M: Robert Emmett Dolan. 
     C: Gary Cooper (Sam Clayton), Ann Sheridan (Lu Clayton), Ray Collins (reverendo Daniels), Edmund Lowe (H. C. Borden), Joan Lorring (Shirley Mae), Clinton Sundberg (Nelson), Minerva Urecal (Mrs. Nelson), Louise Beavers (Chloe), Ruth Roman (Ruthie), William Frawley (Tom). 
    35 mm. B&w. 115’. 
    From: UCLA Film and Television Archive per concessione di Paramount Pictures.
    Viewed at Cinema Jolly (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (Seriously Funny. The Films of Leo McCarey), with e-subtitles in Italian, 4 July 2015.

Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "Good Sam is the last of McCarey’s religious films, and perhaps the most troubled. Another series of loosely linked episodes, centered on the trials and tribulations of a middle-class, suburban family of the type that was coming to define postwar America (and soon, post-war American television comedy), Good Sam has corners as grim and shadowy as Frank Capra’s nearly contemporaneous It’s a Wonderful Life, including a Christmas Eve climax that finds the saintly hero broke, drunk, and contemplating suicide."

"Said to be the closest of McCarey’s protagonists to his own personality, Sam Clayton (Gary Cooper) is a modern day Good Samaritan, who discovers that living by a code of Christian charity in the world of 1948 is to invite an endless parade of freeloaders and deadbeats to take advantage of his generosity. It’s up to his wife, Lu (Ann Sheridan, warm, womanly and practical) to keep their household functioning, up to the point where Sam gives away the down payment on the dream house she’s been yearning for. Just as the film poses an irresolvable question – is it possible to live a good life in the world as we know it? – so does the film have difficulty reaching resolution."

"McCarey shot and tested several different endings before settling on the climax as we have it – an extended, meandering sequence that involves a McCareyesque mixture of heavy drinking, group singing and stealth spirituality (in the form of a marching Salvation Army band), leading up to a definitive laughing-through-tears moment."

"NB: A substantially different, 130 minute cut of the film also exists, which gives much freer play to McCarey’s improvisational genius. Included are a magnificent sequence in which the family watches home movies and attempts a game of jacks, and a flashback in which Lu explains how she and Sam met. One can only hope that this version will someday be restored and made available for public screening."
(Dave Kehr)

AA: Living as a Good Samaritan in a mercantile society can lead to extraordinary situations if the charitable person does not work within institutional norms as a priest or a monk. Good Sam has affinities with Luis Buñuel's Nazarín. It has also affinities with the contemporary Italians, Roberto Rossellini and Federico Fellini with their Franciscan interests (Francisco, giullare di Dio, La strada). Good Sam is also a film which would have interested Leo Tolstoy (his "good begets good" theme in the latter part of The Forged Note). The highly charged Catholic religious approach also brings to mind John Ford's The Fugitive.

The tale of the man who is so good to others that he is about to lose everything in his own life is fascinating. Sam lends his possessions and money to everybody, but when he is finally broke, nobody lends him. This is a fairy-tale but where Frank Capra pulled it off with his quite similar It's a Wonderful Life Leo McCarey does not quite succeed with Good Sam. It is interesting to discover a current of deep melancholy in such a feelgood narrative. There is even an undercurrent of bitterness. But still this is a film à thèse. The performances and the narrative fail to convince.

We love Leo McCarey for his high aspirations even when the end result does not work like it should. There is a lot to enjoy in Good Sam. The performances of Ann Sheridan and Gary Cooper are very agreeable in this tale of an unconventional marriage.

A fine print from UCLA.

Yek ettefagh-e sadeh / A Simple Event (2014 print from the negative by National Film Archive of Iran)

Sohrab Shahid Saless: اتفاق ساده / Yek ettefagh-e sadeh / A Simple Event (IR 1973).

Sohrab Shahid Saless: اتفاق ساده / Yek ettefagh-e sadeh / A Simple Event (IR 1973).

یک اتفاق ساده / [Un semplice evento].
    IR 1973. D: Sohrab Shahid Saless. DP: Naghi Maasoumi. ED: Kazem Rajinia. C: Mohammad Zamani, Anne Mohammad Tarikhi, Habibullah Safarian, Hedayatullah Navid, Majid Baghaie. P: Sazman-e Cinemaie Keshvar. 35 mm. 82‘. Col. Farsi version. From: National Film Archive of Iran.
    Preserved by National Film Archive of Iran in 2014 from the original 35 mm negative.
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Scorsese (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (A Simple Event: the Birth of Iranian New Wave Cinema) with subtitles in Italian and English, introduced by Olaf Möller, 4 July 2015.

Ehsan Khoshbakht (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "A few days in the life of a young boy living by the Caspian Sea. At school he is falling behind his classmates and almost expelled. He helps his father to fish illegally, and at home watches as his mother’s health deteriorates."

"Sohrab Shahid Saless’s debut feature was made clandestinely with the budget and crew assigned to him for a short film by the government-run Sazman-e Cinemaie Keshvar, for whom he had previously made around 20, mostly uncredited shorts. The film was shot in Bandar Shah."

"Shahid Saless, who admired Čechov, chose the location for its ‘Russian-looking’ atmosphere and the fact that it was at the end of the railroad – at a dead end, like the lives of his characters. Mohammad Zamani, who had never been to a cinema, plays the young boy and one can feel the weight of the world on his frail shoulders. Mysteriously quiet and empty, the film’s characters are apparently devoid of any feeling, yet still capable of making an enormous emotional impact on the audience."

"The numbing pace and incisive sense of reality creates a world in which the moment of the ‘simple event’ – the death of the boy’s mother – hardly moves the child or the audience; as significant, or insignificant, as the dogs barking or the crickets chirping throughout the film. Indeed the only difference between all such events in a Shahid Saless film involving death is that the latter occurs silently and without a trace."

"Born in 1944, Shahid Saless was the ultimate loner figure in Iranian cinema. He moved to Austria in 1963 where he studied theatre and cinema before relocating to Paris in 1966 to study at Le Conservatoire libre du cinéma français."

"Diagnosed with tuberculosis and an ulcer, he returned to Iran and undertook documentary work for the Ministry of Culture."

"A Simple Event, arguably one of the most influential of all Iranian New Wave films, was shown at the second Teheran International Film Festival where it won the FIPRESCI award. Shahid Saless went on to make the even bleaker Tabi‘at-e bijān (Still Life) in the same location, probably his greatest cinematic achievement. Problems with the censor forced him to give up working on a documentary and he left Iran for Germany where he made at least 13 films, mostly produced by German TV."

"Always detached and melancholic, in 1998 he moved to Chicago where he died following struggles with persisting illnesses, cancer and poverty. His long-lasting influence on Iranian cinema can be traced in filmmakers from Abbas Kiarostami to Mohammad Ali Talebi."
(Ehsan Khoshbakht)

AA: The beginning of this film was delayed so much due to introductions and other obstacles that I only managed to see 29 minutes of it before having to dash to the screening of Good Sam.

Olaf Möller in his introduction told us about the Viennese studies of Sohrab Shahid Saless, his Chekhov passion, and his later German career where length was the quality in works such as Utopia (3½ hours) and Grabbes letzter Sommer (4 hrs).

My impressions from the first third of this film: it reminds me of 1950s Finnish literary modernism (Hyry, Haavikko, Meri) in its precision, austere observations, laconic and elliptic style, and sense of durée.

It also belongs to a familiar tradition of Iranian cinema: the protagonist is an alienated schoolboy. He is a stranger in the school class, a stranger at home. There is ennui during the class. The life on the other side of the window is more interesting. He is forever running. "Il court" (Claude Beylie). He delivers fish to the store at daytime. He carries water when night is already falling. The fisherman father commands him to "study, study".

There is vitality in the soundscape.

The colour is rich, full, and pleasantly saturated in this new photochemical print.

Oon shab ke baroon oomad ya hemase-ye roosta zade-ye Gorgani / The Night It Rained or the Epic of the Gorgan Village Boy (2012 digital restoration in 2K by Pishgamane Cinemaye Arya / National Film Archive of Iran)

Kamran Shirdel: حماسه روستازاده گرگانی یا اون شب که بارون اومد / Oon shab ke baroon oomad ya hemase-ye roosta zade-ye Gorgani / The Night It Rained or the Epic of the Gorgan Village Boy (IR 1967).

حماسه روستازاده گرگانی یا اون شب که بارون اومد
    IR 1967. D: Kamran Shirdel. SC: Esmaeel Noori Ala, Kamran Shirdel. DP: Naghi Maasoumi. ED: Fatemeh Dorostian. C: Nosratollah Karimi (narratore). P: Ministero della Cultura e dell’Arte dell’Iran. DCP. 40‘. B&w. Farsi version. From: National Film Archive of Iran.
    After scanning the original negative in 2K, digital restoration was done by Pishgamane Cinemaye Arya in 2012 with funding by the National Film Archive of Iran. Due to some laboratory errors in the processing stage of the film’s production, the original negative was damaged with circular corrosion. These circles were removed and a new negative was produced and approved by the film’s director.
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Scorsese (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (A Simple Event: the Birth of Iranian New Wave Cinema) with subtitles in Italian and English, introduced by Ehsan Khoshbakht, 4 July 2015.

Ehsan Khoshbakht (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "This satirical documentary film offers a crash course in 1960s Iran. A newspaper story of a heroic village boy who prevented a train disaster appears and spreads quickly. The incident, reported on and challenged by local officials and journalists, is soon doubted and leads ultimately to confusion, with nobody knowing exactly who has saved whom."

"Born in 1939, Shirdel is best remembered for his clandestine documentaries about impoverished people – not forgetting his remake of Breathless under the title Sobh-e Rooz-e Chaahaarom (The Morning of the Fourth Day, 1972)."

"A graduate of Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, his other films prior to The Night It Rained were funded and banned by the Iranian government, never shown under the Shah. This anti-authoritarian, Rashomonesque tale was also initially banned, but six years after production was deemed harmless. It was then premiered at the Tehran International Film Festival where it won the Best Short Film award." (Ehsan Khoshbakht)

AA: A witty montage film taking its inspiration from Citizen Kane and Rashomon and putting the concept of incompatible testimonies into a wild spin. The newspapers have made a big media event about the Gorgan village boy who prevented a train crash by a bridge under construction on a rainy night. All officials and railway professionals deny that anything like that happened but the boy sticks to his tale. There is a hint that the denial is a cover-up of massive corruption and ineptitude in the administration. The truth we'll never learn. Watching this delicious film I was also thinking about a movie in another style, Vadim Abdrashitov's Ostanovilsya poezd / The Train Stopped, made during the final stage of the Soviet Union.

The DCP is bright and clean.

Friday, July 03, 2015

L’Île enchantée / [The Enchanted Island]

L’Île enchantée. Click to enlarge the image below.
[Not released in Finland]. FR 1927. D+SC: Henri Roussel. DP: Maurice Velle, Paul Portier. AD: Georges Jacouty. C: Rolla Norman (Francesco Della Rocca), Jacqueline Forzane (Gisèle Rault), Jean Garat (Firmin Rault), Gaston Jacquet (Gabriel Lestrange), Renée Héribel (Chilina Leonardi), Paul Jorge (Martino Della Rocca), Roby Guichard (Pepino), Geymond Vital (Ferrari), Pierre Delmonde (Leonardi), Mario Nasthasio (Paglietti). P: Lutèce Films. 35 mm. 2394 m. 96’ a 22 f/s. Col. Intertitres français. From: CNC – Archives Françaises du Film.
    The duration of this screening was 101 min.
    Viewed at  Cinema Lumiere - Sala Officinema/Mastroianni (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (The Velle Connection 1900-1930. Gaston, Maurice and Mary Murillo), earphone translation in Italian and English, Gabriel Thibaudeau at the grand piano, introduced by Mariann Lewinsky, 3 July 2015.

Lenny Borger (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "L’Île enchantée is unlike anything else Roussel ever did, and is perhaps his best film. Having passed the innovative Jules Kruger on to Gance, Roussel renewed his collaboration with Maurice Velle, an older, now-forgotten but superb cameraman whom Roussel may have met during his acting-directing débuts at Éclair. Most atypically, it is a very physical film, a Corsican Western of sorts, full of pursuits and cliff-hanging incident, all directed with vigor. Roussel’s hero is a Corsican outlaw wanted by local gendarmes for a vendetta killing. He is also pitted against an industrialist who has built a steelworks in the region and wants to raze the outlaw’s ruined ancestral castle. The protagonist then falls in love with the industrialist’s daughter, who tragically thinks she can bring both men to see reason, but only succeeds in provoking more tragedy and permanently alienating the outlaw from society."

"Roussel shot much of the film on location in Corsica, whose wild, beautiful mountainscapes, canyons, and villages contribute to the theme of Progress vs. Tradition. Best of all, Roussel cast faultlessly: Rolla Norman, who had a second-rank film career, is like a romantic, virile figure out of Mérimée’s Colomba or Dumas."

"Jacqueline Forzane, whose career was sadly brief, is touching as a modern, idealistic professional woman confused by love and filial devotion. There is also a poignant supporting performance by Paul Jorge, who was the saintly Archbishop Myriel in Henri Fescourt’s Les Misérables (1925) and would shortly play a compassionate priest in Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc - here he is the outlaw’s grandfather, who clings proudly to the ancestral hearth."
(Lenny Borger)

AA: There is really nothing to add to Lenny Borger's program notes above.
    L’Île enchantée is an image-driven film. It is a tragic love story between a man of the wilderness and a woman boss of the factory. The Machine vs. Nature imagery is magnificently caught in the cinematography of Maurice Velle and Paul Portier. The powerful tonings and tintings (sepias, oranges, browns, blues, reds) have been impressively reproduced on this AFF Bois d'Arcy print. The might of the foundry is contrasted with the sublime of Corsican nature. Rolla Norman cuts an impressive figure as the rebel Francesco Della Rocca. The man of the wilderness has a function similar to the man of the West. He saves the woman of civilization, Gisèle Rault (the distinguished Jacqueline Forzane) from a literally cliffhanging situation (see the poster above). He later saves a child on its deathbed. Yet, no matter, his family is doomed, their castle is exploded, and to make matters worse, Francesco shoots old man Rault in revenge.
    There are affinities in the imagery with the Nordic lumberjack genre (the man of the wilderness, the wild nature, the might of the waterfalls).
    The poetic touch is appropriately enchanting, and the quotations from Hugo and Lamartine distil the tone of the tale. Yet in the overall approach in directing, storytelling, and performances there is something mediocre. Individual dimensions and aspects of the movie are stronger than the sum of the parts.
    A beautiful print.

You Can Change the World

You Can Change the World. Finally Bob Hope is caught via telephone, but Jack Benny gets nervous about the phone bill.
US 1950. D: Leo McCarey. C: Padre James G. Keller, Eddie ‘Rochester’ Anderson, Jack Benny, Ann Blyth, Bing Crosby, Paul Douglas, Irene Dunne, William Holden, Bob Hope, Loretta Young (se stessi). P: William Perlberg per Christopher Films. 16 mm. B&w. 27’. English version. From: UCLA Film & Television Archive.
    The duration of this screening was 33 min.
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Scorsese (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (Seriously Funny. The Films of Leo McCarey), with earphone translation in Italian, 3 July 2015.

Dave Kehr (Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue and website): "Father James G. Keller was a charismatic Catholic priest whose message of personal responsibility for social justice and of America as a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles found surprising resonance in the early years of the Cold War, as a “compassionate conservative” response to Communism."

"The media-savvy priest attracted many followers among Hollywood’s religious community, including McCarey, who apparently saw him as a real-life version of Going My Way’s Father O’Malley."

"This intriguing 30-minute film, produced by William Perlberg (The Song of Bernadette) for Father Keller’s charity, The Christophers, was distributed without charge for television and theatrical showings, and represents McCarey’s principled response to the Red Scare: before an unlikely group of celebrities gathered in Jack Benny’s home, the good father lays out his method for achieving an America free of racial and religious prejudice, where poverty will be eliminated by individual acts of kindness (as in Good Sam) rather than a radical redistribution of wealth. McCarey had testified before the House Un-American Activities Committee in 1947, but declined to ‘name names’ on the eminently democratic grounds that, while the Communist Party was clearly a malignant agent of a foreign government, party membership was not against the law. A fascinating companion piece to McCarey’s 1952 My Son John, shown in Il Cinema Ritrovato in 2006. This is a rare, uncut print which includes Bing Crosby’s performance of the song Early American."
(Dave Kehr)

AA: Leo McCarey's grandeur of spirit is unmistakable in his entire oeuvre: in the profound sense of joy of his comedies, and in the unique tact in his stories about human relationships (Make Way for Tomorrow, Love Affair). His religious films (Going My Way, The Bells of St. Mary's) are deeply spiritual in a rich register from comedy to elegy.

The sincerity in McCarey's Cold War films is unmistakable, and he went beyond the call of duty in making them. My Son John and Satan Never Sleeps are key anticommunist films which reveal an unhinged emotional foundation with which we are asked to identify. They are not far from being unintentional parodies.

Good Sam and You Can Change the World are also exhibits for a discussion about the trouble with the message movie. It is hard to believe that anyone would be convinced by them. In You Can Change the World the main spectacle is about the cast of famous stars being put ill at ease.

The film takes place at Jack Benny's house, but Benny acts like he is a stranger at his own home. This is a film of lost looks, being incredulous, and hamming one's trusted routines (Benny's "being stingy"). I was thinking about Joseph Tura playing Colonel Ehrhardt and complaining to his fellow theatrical conspirators that "I'm running out of dialogue", having had to repeat his single line "so they call me Concentration Camp Ehrhardt, ha ha ha" one time too many.

A weird experience.

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (2014 BFI National Archive digital restoration)

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands. Click to enlarge the images.
Falklandin meritaistelu. GB 1927. D: Walter Summers. SC: Frank C. Bowen, John Buchan, Harry Engholm. DP: Jack Parker, Stanley Rodwell, E. E. Warneford. ED: Merritt Crawford. C: Craighall Sherry (ammiraglio Sturdee), Hans von Slock (ammiraglio von Spee). P: H. Bruce Woolfe per British Instructional Films Ltd., The British Admiralty, The Navy League. DCP. 105’. B&w. English intertitles. From: BFI – National Archive.
    Restored by BFI – National Archive in association with Deluxe Digital. Original music performed by The Band of Her Majesty’s Royal Marines. New score composed and orchestrated by Simon Dobson, commissioned by BFI and supported by Arts Council England, the Gosling Foundation, the Hartnett Conservation Trust, PRS for Music Foundation and the Charles Skey Charitable Trust. Restored with the support of Matt Spick.
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Officinema/Mastroianni (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (Recovered & Restored), introduced by Bryony Dixon, simultaneous translation in Italian through headphones, 3 July 2015.

Bryony Dixon (Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue and website): "Is The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands a drama or a documentary? Along the spectrum of fiction to non-fiction this feature film is placed far towards the drama end but with strong documentary credentials. It is essentially a highly accurate dramatic reconstruction of the two eponymous related naval actions in the early months of the First World War. In the first battle off Coronel in Chile, a German Admiral, Maximilian Graf von Spee, engaged a British squadron which had been sent to stop him attacking British shipping. He sank the battleships Good Hope and Monmouth with the loss of all hands (1,570 dead) including Vice Admiral Craddock. The British Admiralty, now under Winston Churchill and Admiral ‘Jackie’ Fisher, despatched two new battle cruisers Inflexible and Invincible under Rear Admiral Sturdee and engaged von Spee off the Falkland Islands."

"The film was the most ambitious of a series of battle reconstructions made by Harry Bruce Woolfe’s company, British Instructional Films. [...] The photography, composition, lighting and pacing are masterly but the film also retains a strong documentary impulse with its detailed research, and use of exteriors and real locations and some stand-ins, as St Mary’s in the Isles of Scilly doubles as Port Stanley in the Falklands. Most impressive, perhaps, to a modem audience is the use of real warships, made possible with the full co-operation of the Admiralty. The ships are the stars of the show and significantly, in the surviving print, the ships are credited, the actors are not."

"With access to the ships of the Mediterranean Fleet off Malta and to the docks at Devonport, Summers was also able to take advantage of excellent advisors and writers such as John Buchan and Harry Engholm and he even had the assistance of a young Anthony Asquith hanging around the studio anxious for his first break. There was also an excellent technical team that could handle the logistics of shooting at sea on a warship and edit complex montage sequences. The seven-minute section titled The Effort showing the preparations of the two great battleships is, to my mind, one of the best pieces of filmmaking in British cinema."
(Bryony Dixon)

Ben Thompson: "The film had suffered extensive wear and tear during its 86-year history and there was severe damage in some key shots as well as some missing inserts, such as letters and telegrams, which we were lucky enough to be able to retrieve from another copy. The original materials were acquired by the BFI National Archive sometime around the late 1940s but the original nitrate negatives decomposed early on. We have worked primarily with a second generation positive copy, and some other later elements which were scanned at 4K resolution. Extensive grading and months of digital restoration with the specialist team at Deluxe were needed to represent the quality of what is a brilliantly cinematic work. We have made both a new 35 mm negative and digital masters for permanent preservation for the nation." (Ben Thompson, Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue and website)

AA: Sometimes erroneously called a documentary The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands is an excellent realistic fictional reconstruction of two naval battles between Britain and Germany on the coasts of Chile and Argentine in 1914.

The First World War on European fronts was an unheard-of theatre of carnage and massacre that forever washed away notions of glory from warfare.

Nothing of the kind is on display here. When the Germans celebrate their triumph over the Brits in Valparaiso one of them suggests "eternal damnation to the British Navy". Admiral von Spee rejects this outright and suggests "a glass in honour of a gallant enemy".

An impressive big budget epic with exciting montages of battles and processes of repairing and maintaining battleships, also with a sense of humour in the painting scenes. A film of old world gallantry.

The new score is perfect for the movie, and it has even interesting moments of machine music in the style of Edmund Meisel for Battleship Potemkin.

The restoration is brilliant.

BFI Screenonline synopsis:

"The British Navy mount guard over the outposts of the Empire. In the South Pacific, Admiral Sir Charles Cradock commands the 5th Light Cruiser Squadron consisting of HMS Good Hope, Monmouth and Glasgow. The German fleet is sighted under the command of Admiral Graf von Spee, with the vessels SMS Leipzig, Nürnberg, Dresden, Gneisenau and the flagship Scharnhorst. Acting on standing orders, Cradock decides to attack the vastly superior German force but is outgunned and outclassed. During fighting Monmouth is destroyed and flagship Good Hope is also shattered by the enemy force and slowly sinks."

"In London, Lord Fisher, the first sea lord, hears of the defeat and orders a counter-attack to be carried out by the new battles cruisers Inflexible and Invincible under the command of Admiral Sir Doveton Sturdee. The ships are refitted in record time at Plymouth and proceed to the South Atlantic in pursuit. Meanwhile, Admiral von Spee is fêted by the German colony at Valparaiso in honour of his great victory. He decides to proceed to the Falkland Islands in order to seize coal supplies and destroy the wireless station at the Port Stanley. Sturdee's fleet arrive and commence re-coaling. The Islands' army volunteers prepare to defend the harbour and radio transmitter. Von Spee orders two of his ships, the Gneisenau and Leipzig, to approach the Islands to make a landing party. From Port Stanley, the enemy ships are sighted on the horizon and feverish preparations ensue. Sturdee creates fake smoke in one of the ships to give the impression that they are fully fuelled and ready for action, while he makes ready his five light cruisers."

"They weigh anchor and prepare to do battle with the enemy ships. The vessels Invincible and Inflexible together with HMS Kent, Cornwall, Glasgow and Carnarvon eventually set out in pursuit of the enemy. Realising he is outgunned, Von Spee orders Dresden, Nürnberg and Leipzig to retire. Before reaching neutral ports, they are attacked by Sturdee's fleet, resulting in the sinking of Leipzig and Nurnberg. The remaining German vessels, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau fight desperately but are slowly overpowered. Scharnhorst catches fire and prior to sinking her crew abandon ship. The Gneisenau is scuttled by her crew and her survivors with are saved by the men of Sturdee's flagship."

"In London, Admiral Fisher is brought the news of the victory."
(end of synopsis)

Bryony Dixon: introduction in BFI Screenonline:

"The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands was one of a series of First World War battle reconstructions made by Walter Summers at British Instructional. If not exactly propagandist, they were certainly patriotic; this film in particular was made "with the co-operation of the British Admiralty, The Navy League and an Advisory Committee"."

"The film was partly a response to a German production of the previous year, Unsere Emden (1926), representing another famous WWI naval engagement. Despite German navy support, it was a detached, detailed account of the events with a scrupulous fairness in dealing with the British enemy. In his own film, Summers was equally fair in his depiction of the Germans and their actions. Much later, Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger followed in this tradition with their own The Battle of the River Plate (1956), which describes an almost identical sequence of South Atlantic naval conflicts during WWII."

"The Battles of Coronel and the Falkland Islands is a painstaking reconstruction with necessarily dramatised sections, in which, for example, Lord Admiral Fisher is seen making his strategic response to the German action at Coronel. It was a monumental production, shot almost entirely on location on battleships supplied by the Admiralty. St Mary's in the Scilly Isles convincingly stood in for the Falklands. The few studio sequences are carefully disguised: in one sequence, a lighting effect simulates the reflection of water coming through a porthole and playing on the opposite wall."

"Meticulous naval and military detail was supplied by a litany of expert advisors and the script, by a small group headed by John Buchan, celebrated author of The 39 Steps, is pared down and well structured to build dramatic tension in what is essentially a documentary. Summers was an aficionado of the latest cinematic techniques, and some of the film's most striking moments are the montage sequences of the mechanical workings of the ships and shipyards - the inferno of the engine rooms, pumping pistons and dramatically mounting pressure gauges. These sequences may have been influenced by Abel Gance's La Roue (France, 1922), but Summers probably hadn't yet seen Battleship Potemkin (USSR, 1925) or Metropolis (Germany, 1924). Either way, Summers clearly revelled in the beauty of the form, scale and movement of the machines, and his images of them are as good as anything in any of those more celebrated films.

Bryony Dixon (BFI Screenonline)

My favourite movie about a cow and a boy

Considering that there are tens of thousands of cowboy movies it is extraordinary that only Buster Keaton has truly focused on the relationship of a cow and a boy (in Go West, 1925).

Gaav / The Cow (2014 digital restoration by Pishgamane Cinemaye Arya / National Film Archive of Iran)

گاو / Gav / La vacca / Lehmä (Yle TV1 16.5.1978). IR 1969. D: Dariush Mehrjui. Story: Azadaran-e Bayal [Gholam-Hossein Saedi]. SC: Dariush Mehrjui. DP: Fereydon Ghovanlou - 1,66:1. ED: Dariush Mehrjui. M: Hormouz Farhat. C: Ezzatolah Entezami (Mash Hassan), Mahin Shahabi (la moglie di Hassan), Ali Nassirian (Mash Islam), Jamshid Mashayekhi (Abbas), Jafar Vali (Kadkhoda). DCP. 104’. B&w. Farsi version. From: National Film Archive of Iran.
    After scanning the original negative in 2K, digital restoration was done by Pishgamane Cinemaye Arya in 2014 with funding by the National Film Archive of Iran. A new negative was produced and approved by the film’s director.
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Scorsese (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato) (A Simple Event: the Birth of Iranian New Wave Cinema) with e-subtitles in English and earphone translation in Italian, 3 July 2015

Ehsan Khoshbakht (Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue and website): "There are other films about men and cows (The Cow and I, for one) but unlike The Cow they can hardly be called love stories, nor are they works that so powerfully explore madness, solitude and obsession as this film does. This milestone of Iranian New Wave cinema tells the story of a poor villager (played by stage actor Ezzatolah Entezami in one of Iranian cinema’s greatest performances) whose only source of joy and livelihood is his cow, which provides milk for the village. (Not surprisingly, when the film came out, the milk was viewed by the left as symbolic of oil). One night the cow is mysteriously killed and that’s when the madness, or rather transformation, begins."

"A filmmaker who has reinvented his approach to cinema in every decade since the 1960s, Mehrjui can move from the sombre tone of a Salinger adaptation, to a hilarious comedy of sorts. From humble beginnings he went on to study philosophy at UCLA and upon his return to Iran was assigned to direct a James Bond-type thriller which had nothing to do with his authorial ambitions."

"It was his second film, The Cow, based on short stories by Marxist psychiatrist Gholam-Hossein Saedi, which served as his breakthrough. “While making The Cow I had no idea what effects it would have on the history of Iranian cinema”, says Mehrjui, “it was more a reaction on my part to the trend of the totally commercial and somehow vulgar film industry dominating that period. I always wanted to make a film in a village with rustic spaces, especially after seeing Au hasard Balthazar and Los olvidados”."

"Promptly banned from export, one of Mehrjui’s French friends smuggled a print out to the Venice Film Festival, where it was shown without subtitles and became one of the first films of the Iranian cinema given international appraisal. Poignantly wrapped in layers of religion and leftist politics (two major forces of the 1979 revolution), The Cow came under the spotlight more than a decade later, when Ayatollah Khomeini identified it as an example of good cinema, in opposition to the many ‘corrupting films’ from the Pahlavi era."
(Ehsan Khoshbakht)

AA: A tale of a man so devoted to his cow, essential for the entire village, that when the cow dies, nobody dares to tell him the truth, but he guesses it anyway, and turns (mentally) into the cow himself. A tale of a society in a state of madness. A tale of backwardness and dishonesty so deep that it is hard to face. A tale of the vicious circle of lying: one lie begets another, and lying keeps getting worse. There is an important parallel motif of harassing and bullying village fools. There are three thieves, the Boulouris, constantly looking for a chance to strike at night and steal livestock.

A simple and realistic approach to a weird tale. The milieux and the weathered faces look true. There are ellipses in the narrative.

The music is interesting and original, performed on native instruments apparently.

The cinematography is stark.

The DCP is bright and clean. There was a digital freeze of some three minutes in the middle.

Thursday, July 02, 2015

Namus / Honor

Hamo Beknazaryan / Amo Bek-Nazarov: Նամուս / Namus / Honor (SU-AM 1926). Click to enlarge the images. Poster by Stenberg. Susan (Maria Shakhubatyan-Tatieva) surrounded by visions of her lover Seyran (Samvel Mkrtchan) and husband Rustam (Grachya Nersesyan).

    SU-AM 1926. D+DC: Hamo Beknazaryan / Amo Bek-Nazarov. DP: Sergej Zabozlaev. C: Ovanes Abelyan (Barchudar), Asmik (Mariam), Olga Maysuryan (Gul’naz), Grachya Nersesyan (Rustam), Avet Avetisyan (Ayrapet), Nina Manucharyan (Shpanik), Samvel Mkrtchan (Seyran), Maria Shakhubatyan-Tatieva (Susan), Ambartsum Khachanyan (Badal), Siranush Aleksanyan (Susambar), Ripsimiya Melikyan (Sanam), Amasy Martirosyan (Sumbat).
    P: Goskinoprom Georgia, Gosfotokino Armenia. 35 mm. 1904 m. 83’ a 20 f/s. B&w. From: Gosfilmofond.
    Based on the novel (1885) by Alexander Shirvanzade.
    As a change into the programme in which the sonorized version was announced a silent version of Namus was screened instead, with Gabriel Thibaudeau at the grand piano. (The sonorized version to be screened separately.)
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Officinema/Mastroianni (Bologna) (Armenia. Genocide and After) in an original bilingual version with Armenian and Russian intertitles with simultaneous earphone translation into Italian and English with an introduction by Peter Bagrov, 2 July 2015.

Anna Malgina (Il Cinema Ritrovato catalogue and website): "Namus was the first Armenian film to be released in June 1926 by the film studio of Gosfotokino in Armenia, in collaboration with the Goskinoprom of Georgia. The film, based on a novel by the Armenian writer Alexander Shirvanzade, describes the everyday life in a provincial town of Shamakhi during the 1860-70s, and the tragic events that result from the prejudices of pre-revolutionary Armenia. The plot evolves around the drama of the two young lovers who fall victim to the cruel and omnipotent adat, the traditional rules and laws. After extensive acting experience in pre-revolutionary Russian cinema, as well as experience directing film at the Georgian film studio, Hamo Beknazaryan became the first film director of the Republic of Armenia."

"Namus became the first realistic Soviet film that portrayed the everyday life of the 19th century East. In contrast to the many examples of previous Oriental films, which were made in other countries, the director managed to avoid vulgarization and simplification of Eastern exoticism. On the contrary, Beknazaryan’s realism reaches its depth in such episodes as the wedding scene. In its depiction of an earthquake, for instance, the film even becomes a striking example of extreme naturalism. Some critics defined Namus as an ethnographic film, mainly because of its focus on the ancient customs and the old way of life. But for Beknazaryan the ethnographic material is only a background for the depiction of the national characters."

"Similarly, through the use of close-ups he highlights characteristic details in images of the Armenian people. The real, non-schematized portraits of Armenians with their gestures, facial expressions, habits, relationships appear on the film screen. One of the main advantages of the film, in the critics’ opinion, was the choice of the actors who mainly came from the national Armenian theatrical background."

"Beknazaryan combines good acting with cinematic techniques like cross-cutting and dissolves and the film surely benefits from the combination. On the one hand, it is a powerfully accurate image of reality, on the other, – a romantic love story."

"The film enjoyed a tremendous success – to which the Moscow tobacco factory Java responded by the immediate introduction of a new popular cigarette brand called Namus. The film was released not only in the Soviet Union, but also in Europe, America and in the Middle East."

"In the early 1930s the film was post-synchronized (according to the common practice in Soviet cinema) with specially written music by Armenian composers Nikoghayos Tigranyan, Sargis Barkhudaryan, Martyn Mazmanyan and with authentic folk music played on a traditional instrument, the zurna."

"Gosfilmofond holds two versions of Namus: the sound print with the original bilingual (Armenian and Russian) intertitles, plus a silent version, re-edited in 1938 at the Erivan film studio, with slightly modified intertitles. The recently rediscovered sound version of Namus with the Armenian musical accompaniment will be presented at the festival." (Anna Malgina)

AA: A memorable, important film, a strong tragedy from the Caucasus.
    In his introduction Peter Bagrov told us about Hamo Beknazaryan / Amo Bek-Nazarov, the founding father of Armenian cinema, of both fiction and non-fiction, works of ethnographic value. He worked both in Armenia and Georgia, and he covered many genres. Not obsessed with montage he found excellent actors from the Armenian theatre. Nobody took him seriously as an artist. Pepo is generally considered his masterpiece.
    The tragedy of Namus starts in 1895 with an earthquake. We are introduced to the brutal patriarch who disciplines his family horribly with beatings and whippings, also on the soles, also his daughter Susan, to the point that a doctor is needed. Susan loves Seyran, the potter's son, but a matchmaker is engaged, and the deal is made of a marriage with Rustam the rich merchant. There is a grand wedding, a failed kidnapping plan by Seyran, a long account of wedding traditions, and a stream of consciousness montage of Susan's wish to commit suicide. After the wedding Rustam goes on with his successful business and Seyran becomes a drunken tramp. Yet Rustam is madly jealous, and due to a ruse of Seyran's (as a childhood friend he is aware of a mark in Susan's breast) he is ready believe anything. There is a general grief in the end as the parties of the tragic triangle die.
    Dignity in the visages of people facing devastation. The milieux and the situations are strikingly realistic. The acting is underplayed.
    In the relay translation into Italian and further into English a lot was left untranslated or badly translated which made it occasionally difficult to follow the film. (Also the introduction on this Gosfilmofond Istoriya series print was not translated).
    The print was fine to ok.

American Military Mission to Turkey and Armenia 1919

American Military Mission to Turkey and Armenia 1919. Click to enlarge.

US 1919. 425 m /18 fps/ 21 min. B&w. English intertitles. Silent. 35 mm. From Nara Archives.
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Officinema/Mastroianni (Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna) (Armenia. Genocide and After), with earphone translation in Italian, introduced by Jay Weissberg, with Neil Brand at the grand piano, 2 July 2015.

Jay Weissberg (Il Cinema Ritrovato, catalogue and website): "With peace declared in 1918, opportunities opened for intrepid cameramen to record the humanitarian crises left in the War’s aftermath. Significant voices in the American press including Ezra Pound, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, and H. L. Mencken had been calling for forceful condemnation and/or intervention following the Armenian Genocide (then referred to as massacres), so with the public stirred, the chance to show moving images of impoverished refugees and traumatized orphans became a powerful tool for disaster relief efforts."

""Sensationalism guided Auction of Souls (1919), aka Ravishing Armenia, the embellished story of Aurora Mardiganian (poor quality fragments are available on YouTube). Less exploitative were newsreels from a still volatile Turkey, many produced under the auspices of charities and missionary societies. In February 1919, Glen Russell Carrier, cameraman for International Film Service, sailed to Asia Minor under the sponsorship of the American Committee for Relief in the Near East; he took with him 23,000 metres of film, charged with making “permanent records of the atrocities of the Turks and Huns”."

"American Military Mission to Turkey and Armenia had a different purpose, and was not meant for public view. In August 1919, Woodrow Wilson appointed Major-General James G. Harbord to lead a commission investigating Ottoman atrocities against the Armenians, and to advise on the feasibility of creating a U.S. mandate in the fledgling Armenian state. Among their number were two photographers from the Signal Corps – presumably one or both of these as yet unidentified men shot the footage we’re viewing. The trip, via boat, train and car, lasted 30 days and encompassed a broad swathe of territory throughout Turkey and Transcaucasia, including Mardin, Diyarbakır, Malatya, Erzurum, Kars, Erivan, and Tbilisi."

"The footage is a remarkable record of an area wracked by war: massive refugee crises, deadly tensions between ethnic groups, territorial uncertainty, civil war, and shifting spheres of influence. In the end, Congress ignored Wilson’s mandate request, paving the way for the Soviet invasion of 1922." (Jay Weissberg)

AA: There is little to add to Jay Weissberg's excellent program notes above. The film is a basic record of life in Armenia: agriculture, herding livestock, customs of the people, children looking at the camera, a bridge under construction, a military procession, wandering people, tents, music and dance, posing for the camera. Visually uneven, mostly modest, like raw footage, slightly boring, partly in low contrast. Yet a priceless document.

[Armenia, Cradle of Humanity] (2015 digital restoration / Bologna)

1919-1923. 70 m. 4 min. B&w. Silent. From: Library of Congress. Digitally restored in 2015 by Fondazione Cineteca di Bologna at L’Immagine Ritrovata laboratory from a nitrate positive print from Library of Congress
    Viewed at Cinema Lumiere - Sala Officinema/Mastroianni (Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna) (Armenia. Genocide and After), introduced by Mariann Lewinsky, Neil Brand at the grand piano, 2 July 2015

AA: Stark Armenian imagery, boats full of refugees, faces in pain, desolate views. From a tinted source.

Vertigo 5: Music and more

Making Vertigo: Alfred Hitchcock and Bernard Herrmann. Reportedly this image is not posed.
Each time Vertigo is different. This time I identified with its profound sense of mortality. Its special personal charge may be due to the fact that both Alfred and Alma Hitchcock had become seriously ill for the first time in their lives during the pre-production. Watching Vertigo now I was of the same age as they were then, and a survivor of a recent near death experience. I could now appreciate more deeply James Stewart's compelling interpretation of Scottie's rehabilitation after his mortally dangerous accident.

One of my memorable Vertigo experiences has been at Cinema Orion when the film felt particularly music-driven. (Cinema Orion has good natural acoustics as it was designed as a silent cinema with a permanent live orchestra). We the audience were haunted by the music, and everybody stayed dumbfounded after the final crushing deep chord of Bernard Herrmann's compelling score. (Every film programmer can tell when an audience is gripped by a movie and by what elements: the audience seems the breathe in the rhythm of them. That time it was the music that moved us most).

The motifs of the haunting score are famous and have been performed and recorded independently as suites, although they work best in their original context. The "Madeleine", "Scène d'amour", "Liebestod" and "vertigo" motifs are among the strongest. This time I paid attention to the haunting prelude theme being repeated in the d'entre les morts scene where the metamorphosis of Judy back to Madeleine is completed. I also enjoyed the old-fashioned dramatic narrative passages: "The Letter" (peripeteia), "The Park" (passing by the loving couples at the Golden Gate Park / Conservatory of Flowers / Lloyd Lake / Portals of the Past), "The Necklace" (anagnorisis), and "The Return" (driving back to the scene of the crime). They evoke silent film scores, in turn inspired by narrative traditions in melodrama and opera. Herrmann had already a rich experience in narrative dramatic uses of music as the composer of the Mercury Theatre radioplays for CBS Radio in the 1930s.

The Spanish dimension of San Francisco and the Carlotta Valdes story is acknowledged also in Herrmann's music, in its vibrant, sensual habanera rhythms (the "Carlotta's Portrait" motif).

Of the performances I found James Stewart's part even greater than before. I also realized the importance of Barbara Bel Geddes's Midge in a new way as a foundation stone of the movie, a difficult part connecting the oneiric story with human reality. Barbara Bel Geddes, daughter of the great designer Norman Bel Geddes, was a big Broadway star, blacklisted in Hollywood since 1951. Hitchcock revived her Hollywood career in four episodes of Alfred Hitchcock Presents (including in Lamb for Slaughter), and in Vertigo.

Kim Novak got to play one of the most unforgettable dream women in the Dream Factory. She is so easy on the eye that it is easy to ignore the complexity of the role - or roles. We get to know her as Madeleine Elster, then we learn that she is actually Judy Barton, whom Scottie Ferguson starts to remake as Madeleine, but by now she is reluctant to play that part again. Dual roles are an actor's dream, and Kim Novak uses the opportunity well in her unique fashion. She displays the cool, ethereal, otherworldly Madeleine elegantly. There is the short sequence as Judy Barton where she is her natural, sensual, and temperamental self. All too soon starts the long tragic process of Scottie trying to make her over. He also brings her to tears, he causes her agony, he robs the smile from her face. The romantic obsession is one-sided, although the feeling of love is mutual.

The first story of Madeleine and Scottie is based on fraud, but the love affair is genuine even though both are committed to prevent it. The second story is based on Scottie's obsession which is so extreme that he fails to connect with the real woman although her feelings are true. Kim Novak rises to the occasion in all these complex situations. We feel her torment, yet realize the love underneath. Without it she would not have risked everything in starting the affair with Scottie again.

Women have a harder time in relating to Vertigo than men.* For a male viewer relating to Vertigo is a matter of simultaneous identification and distanciation, perhaps in a way similar to the famous Vertigo shot of simultaneous tracking and zooming. Scottie is an anti-hero, in the final movements of the story in the grip of an obsessive aggression towards a woman who loves him. Both are victims of the master criminal.

From a female viewpoint I would imagine that Vertigo would be important as a story relevant to feminism, as an essential thriller about male domination (the original Carlotta Valdes backstory, the Gavin Elster master plot, and Scottie Ferguson's imitation). There is a center of sanity, Midge, but she is perhaps too practical and mother-like for identification in a movie which is both romantic and anti-romantic, again perhaps like the Vertigo shot which moves simultaneously forward and backward. The figure of Madeleine / Judy may be too difficult for identification: we are introduced to her as an image, and when we learn that her act was a fraud all possible previous identification is demolished, and of the real woman we get to learn very little. Judy is an accessory to murder, after all, also hard for a lawman / retired policeman to relate to, either. Madeleine is an Idea, a ghost, and a personification of death, not even meant to be identified by us in any normal sense.

From a female viewpoint Scottie is not a strong love object. An important hint is the remark in the beginning that Midge and Scottie had been engaged, but after three weeks she had cancelled the engagement. Each viewer can speculate why. In the beginning Scottie is a sober and nice guy. But perhaps he is not a good lover, perhaps he is emotionally challenged, perhaps he is not the family kind of guy, perhaps he has little interest in sex, perhaps his mind is abstract. His entire Madeleine / Judy affair has an otherworldly character, dealing with a romantic ideal rather than a woman of flesh and blood. Judy, a red-blooded woman, complains that Scottie does not even want to touch her.

Postscript, 2 August 2015: I have been jotting down these remarks for a month now after the Bologna screening of Vertigo. I had not written about Vertigo since I contributed an essay called "Kohti pyörteen silmää" ["A Descent into the Maelström"] on the re-release of the "five missing" films for the special Hitchcock issue of Filmihullu magazine (5/1984). I then covered Hitchcock in general with a focus on Vertigo. I had read Peter von Bagh's thesis on Vertigo in the 1960s and been deeply influenced by Robin Wood's book from which I was learning English in 1969. In 1984 I had recently been impressed by the excellent special issue on Vertigo of the German Filmkritik magazine (Juni 1980) with illuminating passages of close reading.

About Vertigo interpretations I agree with Heikki Nyman's sober judgement about terms such as "voyeurism" and "necrophilia" in this context. They have been a little flippantly used, not least by Hitchcock himself, who could be amazingly shallow in his verbal statements about his most profound achievements. In their literal meaning those terms refer to clinical, pathological conditions, and as such they are not illuminating here. Vertigo is about love in death, but not in the sense of necrophilia. I agree with Robin Wood that Vertigo is about the lure of death in which Scottie feels not only an attraction but an identification with Madeleine as a personification of death.

* Postscript, 12 August 2015: In a profound sense, Vertigo might have been fertile material for George Cukor because of the Pygmalion theme: in the Cukor approch the protagonist is a woman whose hidden potential is awakened by an encounter with a man who becomes her mentor (What Price Hollywood?, Little Women, Born Yesterday, Pat and Mike, A Star Is Born, Wild Is the Wind, My Fair Lady). The horror reversal of the male protector's mental power is Gaslight. In Vertigo Cukor might have been able to solve the overwhelming challenge of female identification in the narrative but the result would have been more sober and lacking in tragic urgency and l'amour fou.


Vertigo 4: Death drive

Alfred Hitchcock: Vertigo (US 1958). Ferguson (James Stewart) rescues Madeleine (Kim Novak) at Fort Point by Golden Gate Bridge.

With a chuckle, Jean Douchet summed up his Bologna introduction by saying that Vertigo is about premature ejaculation, and we chuckled, as well. That gross explanation makes little sense, as so much about Vertigo. It would make a bit more sense to say that Vertigo is about coitus interruptus. It is true that there are sex symbols in Vertigo. The towers are male symbols; the spirals are female symbols; the spiral movement is a symbol of intercourse (the union of the straight line and the circle). And rather than premature ejaculation Vertigo is about impotence. The fear of heights is (among other things) an image of the inability of getting to the top, reaching a climax / fulfillment / release. Hitchcock loved to flavour his films with saucy touches (he is on record on insisting on the visibility of Coit Tower as a phallic symbol), but they are not what Vertigo is about. Rather they are part of the sense of the life force important for the poetic balance in a tragic mystery play which is really about the death drive.

Robin Wood visited Vertigo twice in superb essays which are in my opinion the best written about the film. Typically for him, the essays are totally different but not incompatible. The later essay focuses on patriarchy, revealing the structure of male domination. In the name of romantic love the male protagonist remakes the female protagonist according to his dream image, thereby divesting her not only of her preferred clothing and outlook but also of her sense of humour, her joy of life, her identity, her autonomy, her self, turning her to a shadow of her former self, a ghost, shattering her to death. The contemporary story of Madeleine also reflects back into history, "the power and the freedom" of patriarchy to exploit women mercilessly, exemplified in the tragedy of Carlotta Valdes.

This time I experienced Vertigo more in the sense of Robin Wood's earlier, original essay which I had not read in a long time. A key concept of his there is the death drive. The death drive (der Todestrieb) is a concept first invented by Sabina Spielrein (who, however, did not use that word) in her essay Die Destruktion als Ursache des Werdens (1912). It was soon adopted by her mentor Sigmund Freud as an intriguing speculation, but gradually it grew into the second foundation of his entire theory especially after the experience of World War I. Eros and Thanatos became the twin drives of his metatheory. There is nothing mystical in the death drive. All organic beings have a drive to grow and reproduce, and they have also an inbuilt drive to wither and die.

Wood connects the death drive to the theme of vertigo in the first sequence of the film where Scottie Ferguson remains hanging from the rooftop gutter. Life is hard: it is strenuous to keep hanging on. Death is easy: let go, and everything is over. The life force and the death drive are dramatized in an extremely simple and powerful image. The secret of vertigo is in the simultaneous contradictory upward pull of the life force and the downward temptation of gravity.

The same idea is expressed in Bernard Herrmann's score, in its vertigo motif: the ascending chords rising step by step (twelve steps in the music) - and then the swirling, inviting, seductive, descending spiral melody.

Herrmann also does an open hommage to Richard Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, and creates his own version of the Liebestod theme. Further, he appropriates Wagner's famous Tristan chord and integrates it into Hitchcock's sound of suspense.

Liebestod, "love death", means the consummation of the impossible love of Tristan and Isolde in death. From this perspective, the logical final image of Vertigo would be of Scottie jumping after Madeleine. Having overcome his fear of heights Scottie would overcome his fear of falling. We see no such image, but the music continues after the final image of Scottie standing by the abyss, and the music ends with a crushing, tragic, deep, descending chord. There is no "The End" caption in Vertigo.


Vertigo 3: Making sense of Vertigo

Madeleine (Kim Novak) watching the portrait of Carlotta Valdes at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor
Although Vertigo was voted as the best film of all time in the 2012 Sight & Sound poll, most voters did not mention it on their list (some 20% did), and it is important to realize the factor of growing dispersion on lists like this.

Most of my film expert friends do not particularly like Vertigo or do not rate it among Alfred Hitchcock's best. A deeply mixed reputation is part of the Vertigo enigma.

On the other hand, there are those of us for whom Vertigo is a cult movie. When we visit San Francisco or drive the Pacific Coast Highway, whether we make the Vertigo tour or not, we are spellbound, we sense the spirit of the place like Hitchcock did in Vertigo.

Vertigo is a surrealistic film, and like Luis Buñuel, Alfred Hitchcock knew that the most persuasive cinematic dream visions are grounded in physical reality. (Vertigo's dream sequences are less oneiric than the regular action.)

In the English-speaking world Vertigo's reputation started to grow after the publication of Robin Wood's book Hitchcock's Films in 1965. Before him, Frenchmen had written on Vertigo with great insight, for instance Eric Rohmer in his article "L'Hélice et l'Idée" ["The Spiral and the Idea"] (Cahiers du Cinéma, 93, mars 1959). Intriguingly, Rohmer and Claude Chabrol had published their book Hitchcock (Paris: Éditions Universitaires, 1957), the first monograph on the master, just before the release of Vertigo, covering his oeuvre until The Wrong Man. Yet in that book one can already anticipate Vertigo as a culmination of motifs and themes examined by the writers. For instance Rohmer and Chabrol study Hitchcock as a great inventor of forms, focusing on the figures of the circle and the straight line. The spiral motif in Vertigo is of course a combination of the two - the circle moving in depth.

Several monographs have been written on Vertigo, and inspired by the Bologna screening I read what I consider the best of them, Dan Auiler's Vertigo: The Making of a Hitchcock Classic. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1998.

The first Vertigo monograph may have been Peter von Bagh's Elokuvalliset keinot ja niiden käyttö: Alfred Hitchcockin Vertigo [Cinematic Means and Their Use: Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo], Helsinki: Helsingin yliopisto, 1968, his master's thesis also published as a mimeograph edition, republished as a regular printed book in 1979 as Hitchcock: merkintöjä Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvasta Vertigo [Hitchcock: Remarks on Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo]. There is even another Finnish monograph on Vertigo, Heikki Nyman's Vertigo: rakkaus kuvaan: tutkielma Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvasta [Vertigo: Loving the Image: A Study on Alfred Hitchcock's Film], Helsinki: Heikki Nyman / Yliopistopaino, 1990, also incorporated in his magnum opus Hitchcockin kosketus: Alfred Hitchcockin elokuvat 4, Väärästä miehestä (1956) uran loppuun [The Hitchcock Touch: Alfred Hitchcock's Films 4, From The Wrong Man (1956) Till the End of His Career], Helsinki: Heikki Nyman, 1992. Nyman's works have been published as private mimeographed limited editions, available at the National Library and the KAVI Library.

Both Finnish Vertigo monographs cover a lot of ground and have interesting points of emphasis. Among other things, Peter von Bagh discusses Vertigo's affinities with the works of Edgar Allan Poe, including "The Oval Portrait". ("And then the brush was given, and then the tint was placed; and, for one moment, the painter stood entranced before the work which he had wrought; but in the next, while he yet gazed, he grew tremulous and very pallid, and aghast, and crying with a loud voice, 'This is indeed Life itself!' turned suddenly to regard his beloved: -- She was dead!") The philosopher Heikki Nyman's entire Hitchcock project focuses on themes of perception and the question of seeing - in all meanings of the word.

The disappointment of many people with Vertigo may have something to do with expectations of Alfred Hitchcock as "the master of suspense". As a thriller, detective story or murder mystery Vertigo fails miserably.

The composition is full of loose ends. How did Scottie Ferguson survive the rooftop chase? (Did he?) How did Madeleine disappear from McKittrick Hotel? (Was she even there?) The murder plot is outlandish, unconvincing and full of holes. Nobody would plan a murder like that. And why did Judy keep the bracelet of Carlotta Valdes?

Things look different when we see Vertigo without genre expectations, outside conventional categories, or perhaps in a special category such as a tragic mystery play, a surrealistic dream play, a mythic tale of modern romanticism, or an Orphic legend. Pygmalion and Galatea, Orpheus and Eurydice, Tristan and Isolde, and Svengali and Trilby have been evoked in discussions about Vertigo, as well as Edgar Allan Poe's tales of mystery and imagination. Vertigo is a suspense story, but the suspense is of an existential kind, a soul battle in realms of immanence and transcendence.

The Finnish counterpart of Orpheus in Kalevala is Väinämöinen, a shaman and a bard able to visit Tuonela, the Land of Death. Jean Sibelius's shamanic composition The Swan of Tuonela has been playing in my mind as I've been thinking about Vertigo.

It is interesting to observe how Hitchcock was expanding his scope as "the master of suspense" in the late 1950s. The Man Who Knew Too Much is based on a different psychological structure than the regular suspense thriller because the protagonists do not feel anxiety for themselves but for their child. The Wrong Man is quasi-documentary. And Vertigo is a Wagnerian Liebestod legend.

I would argue that French film critics had a lot to do with the fact that Alfred Hitchcock got the courage to produce a highly personal and poetic film such as Vertigo in the heart of the Hollywood studio system (he produced it himself, to be distributed by Paramount). Hitchcock had always been known as a skillful entertainer; even André Bazin saw him only so. But Rohmer, Chabrol, and Truffaut saw more. It is an important turning-point in a man's life when he sees his most private and precious aspirations appreciated on the most profound level of understanding. Hitchcock had met sympathetic critics about to become fellow artists and professionals, all deeply influenced by him. That encouraged him to create his most personal masterpiece.