Monday, October 02, 2017

For a Better Vision (GCM 2017, a Desmet Collection show from 1910-1915 curated by Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi)

Water Lilies (US 1911). Photo: Collection EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

Prints from EYE Filmmuseum / Desmet Collection (expect A Flash of Light by Griffith).
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone.
Grand piano: Mauro Colombis.
Teatro Verdi, e-subtitles in English and Italian, 2 Oct 2017.

Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi (GCM 2017): "Cinema is visual entertainment. It seems only fair then that filmmakers are obsessed with themes around seeing and not seeing. Not being able to see provides an intensely dramatic plot, with regaining one’s vision often constituting the climax. Whether melodramas, comedies, or even documentaries, plots are often constructed in such a way to achieve “better vision”."

"This year’s Desmet selection contains fewer comedies and more dramas. The consequences of not being able to recognize a face or read a letter, and constantly being dependent on others, are so powerful that blindness seems to be more often used for drama."

"As usual, this year’s compilation consists of fiction and non-fiction films (from 1910-1915), relevant to the same theme in very different ways. The programme brings together various films in which men or women go blind and then recover their vision; there’s also a charity fashion show to help the blind, as well as films in which characters pretend to be blind, and others in which doctors perform eye surgery to overcome blindness.
" Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi

Mieux valait la nuit (FR 1911).

MIEUX VALAIT LA NUIT (Was ik maar blind gebleven) / [Night Would Have Been Better] ? (FR 1911), cast: ?. prod: Éclair, copy: 35 mm, 214 m, 11’26” (18 fps), (tinted, Desmet process); titles: NLD. Preserved in colour in 1990 using an internegative.
    While preparing to go out with her husband, Simone is blinded by a sudden explosion in her face while her maid helps her do her hair (this accident is shown in a neighbouring room via a reflection in a mirror, while her husband reads a newspaper in the foreground). The doctors tell her she can never see again. Despite giving Simone loving care, her husband eventually grows fond of one of her best friends. The lovers get careless, trusting that Simone can never see them together. But Simone secretly tries an alternative cure which does heal her. She rushes to tell her husband, only to witness him in the arms of his lover, and collapses of a broken heart.
    Not much is known about this mysterious Éclair film. The identification of the title is not fully confirmed, and no information about the cast is available in written sources. We believe that Simone is played by Renée Sylvaire, and her rival by Cécile Guyon. Could the husband be the Éclair veteran André Liabel
. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
    AA: Drama. A startling mini-movie on the perennial motif of melodrama: blindness. The Finnish counterpart would be Teuvo Tulio's Restless Blood. In both, the woman believed blind discovers what is going on with her husband and another woman. Here she dies of heartbreak. Mirrors expand the scope of vision. From a tinted and toned source with sometimes a soft and duped look.

Amma, le voleur aveugle (FR 1912). Photo: Collection EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

AMMA, LE VOLEUR AVEUGLE / [Amma, the Blind Thief]. ? (FR 1912), cast: ?, prod: Pathé Frères (The Japanese Film), copy: incomp., DCP, 4’45”; intertitles missing.
    The plot, as related by the Pathé Catalogue: “The delicate Lotus Flower is tired after attending to her bonsai trees, and calls for a masseur. She leaves her jewels in a precious box and slips them under her pillow while her maid brings in the masseur Amma, who, like all his colleagues in Japan, is blind, or at least seems to be. Lotus Flower soon falls asleep; the masseur, taking advantage of her slumber, searches the room. Noticing the box resting under her head, he tries to take it, but awakens the sleeper. After a short struggle Lotus Flower faints and Amma runs away with his booty. The maidservant alerts her mistress. Amma is discovered and punished.”
    Only 108 metres of this film (of the original 280 m.) were found and identified in 2014. This is believed to be the second half of the film. It only shows the “blind” masseur being escorted out by the maidservant, who then goes to check on her mistress and finds the wooden box is empty. She wakes up her mistress, who is distraught at the robbery. In the meantime, a policeman arrives and the gardener is summoned; they all go after Amma, who is hiding up a tree in the garden. A struggle ensues, the thief is captured, and the jewellery is recovered.
    The original nitrate is tinted and toned. However, for the moment the film is preserved via a black & white duplicate negative only. The intertitles are missing. The DCP is based on the HD scan of the duplicate negative made from the nitrate in 2014 at Haghefilm
. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
    AA: Crime drama. Again, the fact of being believed to be blind leads to suspense and drama. Furious action. There are some damage marks in the source.

Le Cœur et les yeux (FR 1911), D: Émile Chautard. Photo: Collection EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

LE COEUR ET LES YEUX (Ziek hart et zieke oogen) (US: Hearts and Eyes; GB: The Heart and the Eyes), FR 1911, dir, scen: Émile Chautard, cast: Cécile Didier (Cécile Aubry [Dutch print: Cecilie]), Philippe Damorès (Dr. Paul Humbert), Maria Fromet (Jeanne Aubry), prod: ACAD [Association Cinématographique des Auteurs Dramatiques], dist: Éclair, 35 mm, 182 m., 9’35” (18 fps), col. (tinted, Desmet process); titles: NLD. Desmet Collection. Preserved in colour in 1989 using an internegative.
    Cécile is blinded while cleaning a pair of gloves with benzine. As she is the sole provider for her little sister Jeanne, they now become poor and eventually homeless. Jeanne begs money from strangers, one of whom turns out to be Dr. Humbert, an eye specialist, who offers to operate on Cécile’s eyes. The surgery is successful, and by the time Cécile has regained her sight the doctor has desperately lost his heart to his beautiful patient.
    The Association Cinématographique des Auteurs Dramatiques (ACAD) was established in 1910 in Paris, with the stage actor and director Émile Chautard (1864-1934) as one of its founding partners. A subsidiary of Éclair, the company was meant to compete with Film d’Art and S.C.A.G.L., and similarly aspired to make film adaptations of celebrated literary classics and popular works by contemporary authors. This film is an adaptation of a popular novel of the same title by the prolific author Pierre Sales (1854/56?-1914)
. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
    AA: A love story. Startling images of eye surgery in a story of love as healing. "Restoring light in eyes you restore the heart". A mirror introduces the shot-countershot effect without cutting.

[MESSTER-WOCHE:] MODESCHAU IM ZOO, ? (DE, ca 1915), prod: Messters Projektion, copy: fragment, 35 mm, 60 m, 2’56” (18 fps), tinted; titles: GER.
Printed in 2009 at Haghefilm, from an internegative made in 1988.
    This short fragment of a Messter-Woche newsreel item doesn’t really contain anyone blind or otherwise visually impaired. Instead, it features a charity fashion show held for blind war veterans. Kriegsblindenheim, a home for the war blind, was established in 1915 at Bellevuestrasse 12 in Berlin by Mrs. Ernst Von Ihne, the wife of an acclaimed architect, who reportedly spent her entire fortune on helping the war blind to reintegrate into society. After the passing of her husband in April 1917, she also started a library for the war blind.
    The fashions shown in the film include designs by Christoph Drecoll in Berlin. The headwear is from the Seidenhaus (Silk House) of the Gebrüder Frank (Frank Brothers) in Munich. The models strolling and posing in the single parlour set are also credited, as “Misses Tönnessen, Liebe, Hansen and others”. The “Misses Tönnessen” may possibly refer to models hired by the pioneer American commercial art photographer Beatrice Tonnesen (1871-1958) to pose for the earliest advertising pictures using live models; her business spanned 1896-1930
. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
    AA: Newsreel. An intriguing fashion show.

Water Lilies (US 1911). Irmgard von Rottenthal (Albertina).

WATER LILIES (De Waterlelie), ? (US 1911), scen: ?, cast: Irmgard von Rottenthal (Albertina), ? (Maurice), ? (Aunt Mary), ? (Maurice’s mother), prod: Vitagraph Company of America, filmed: 1910, rel: 13.1.1911, copy: incomp., 35 mm, 282 m (= 925 ft; orig. 991 ft), 14’51” (18 fps), col. (tinted, Desmet process); did./titles: NLD. Preserved: 2010 (lab. Haghefilm).
    Even in 1911, commentators scoffed at the idea of someone being permanently blinded by merely looking at a flash of lightning: in his largely positive review of Water Lilies, the critic for The Nickelodeon singled out just such a scene for his complaint: “No stage trickery could have made it convincing anyhow, because it seems to be inherently impossible.” Apparently, he hadn’t been reading the newspapers, which not infrequently featured just such stories. It’s true the scene in Water Lilies is weakly staged, but clearly the unidentified director and writer were more interested in the consequences of Maurice’s loss of sight rather than the cause. For without an ability to see, the young man couldn’t take in the terpsichorean magnificence of the film’s raison d’être, its star Baroness Irmgard von Rottenthal.
    She was born in Croatia circa 1890, the daughter of Baron Josef von Rothenthal, an illegitimate son of Prince Heinrich XX Reuß – why she changed the spelling to Rottenthal remains a mystery. By 1906 she was in the U.S., where she became a pupil of Rita Sacchetto and Mrs. Richard Hovey, the latter a leading teacher of the Delsarte technique, a theory of movement and expression whose profound influence on modern dance is well known. Only recently however has the impact of François Delsarte and his acolytes on silent film acting been explored, and watching Rottenthal in Water Lilies offers a fascinating opportunity to see Delsartean technique brought whole to the screen. The Baroness is all about gesture, even when not dancing: her hands and arms are ultra-expressive in an almost pantomimic way, reflecting her moods and the beauties of nature. As poetically stated by Moving Picture World, she’s “like a thistle-down wafted by some gentle zephyr.” In the film she plays Albertina, a dancer for high society (not unlike herself) who falls in love with Maurice while she’s recovering at her aunt’s from heart trouble. When he’s struck blind, he claims not to love Albertina, so as to spare her the burden of looking after him; however, true love will out. Not everyone was enchanted – the critic for Moving Picture News grumbled, “The young lady should never have been allowed to run at large. Her place was in a padded cell.”
    In the early-to-mid-1910s, she was high society’s preferred artiste at charity functions, performing her interpretive dances in the mansions of Manhattan, Newport, Chicago, and beyond. Among her most popular roles were “Temptation of Eve,” dressed in two giant fig leaves, “Schmerzen,” performed (incredibly) with 30 pounds of chains on her wrists, and “Gold Fish,” praised for its fidelity to nature. In 1914, Rodney Lee of the Toledo Blade enthused, “The Baroness possesses to an unusual degree the power of expressing various emotions by a glance of the eye, a turn of the head, and the use of her long, shapely hands.” The self-same hands, it was said, which had been admired by Rodin himself.
    Rottenthal’s film appearances are few: after Water Lilies, she was absent from screens until Kalem’s Midnight at Maxim’s (1915), where she does two specialty numbers; later that year she was seen in Hearst-Selig News Pictorial No. 61, dancing in New York’s Central Park. By late 1916 Rottenthal disappears from the press entirely, most likely because her German surname wasn’t the best calling card in the lead-up to America’s entry into the War. Rottenthal died in New York in 1935, three years after the death of her second husband. My research into the life and career of this fascinating figure is ongoing
. Jay Weissberg
    AA: A romantic drama. A lovely sense of nature is a major feature in this lyrical and elegiac story of healing and sacrifice. The man goes blind during a thunderstorm and pretends that he does not love her anymore. But inevitably they find each other again.

MR. MYOPE CHASSE (The Sportsman), ? (FR 1910), cast: ?, prod: Pathé Frères, 35 mm, 115 m, 5’06” (18 fps), col. (tinted, Desmet process); main title: ENG; no intertitles. Preserved: 2011 (lab. Haghefilm), from an original print from the collection of the Archive Film Agency, London.
    Over the years it has become a tradition to include in our Desmet selection a breakneck-style chase comedy, where the action builds and everything comes crashing down in the end. In order not to break with tradition, we present Mr. Myope, a short-sighted hunter. Poor eyesight can be employed as a natural comedy element when a main character is unable to see what is right in front of him. Believing to have found game, Mr. Myope shoots at a young calf that has been tethered by two farm workers. They start to chase him with the calf, and mayhem ensues. He knocks down an apple picker with a ladder, a washerwoman, a shopkeeper waiting on her customer at a vegetable stall, a worker with a wheelbarrow, a china salesman, and two men carrying a basket of birds, and they all join in the chase. The sportsman finally heads home to his wife for safety. After paying off all the damages he adopts the calf, and he and his wife are left petting and feeding the animal (now wearing spectacles!), from a baby’s milk bottle via a tube. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
    AA: A funny catastrophe farce where the myopic hunter is a peril to the world, as detailed above. A fine sense of escalation, and a droll denouement.

Le Mensonge de Jean le Manchot (FR 1911). D: Michel Carré. Photo: Collection EYE Filmmuseum, Amsterdam.

LE MENSONGE DE JEAN LE MANCHOT (Door bedrog voor een treurig leed bespaard) / [The Lie of Jean le Manchot], (FR 1911), dir, scen: Michel Carré, cast: Adrien Caillard (Jacques Reynaud), Paul Capellani (Jean le Manchot), Marie Ernestine Desclauzas (the mother), Charles Mosnier (the father), Blanche Albane (Jeanne Sabourée, Reynaud’s fiancée), prod: Pathé Frères – S.C.A.G.L. [Société Cinématographique des Auteurs et des Gens de Lettres], 35 mm, 256 m, 12’29” (18 fps), col. (tinted, Desmet process); titles: NLD.
    Captain Reynaud is engaged to the pretty schoolteacher Jeanne. Following unrest in Yunnan province, Reynaud is called to fight in Indo-China. Two years go by, during which everyone waits for the captain to return to France, including his best friend, the one-armed Jean. In the meantime Reynaud’s old father goes completely blind. After Reynaud dies heroically during an attack, his belongings are sent home. While the others know the sad news, Reynaud’s blind father believes his son is back when he discovers his trunk has been brought in. In an attempt to protect the old man’s feelings Jean puts on his dear friend’s uniform, leading the father to believe that his son has returned from the front, having only lost an arm, and Jeanne and Jean are compelled to pledge their troth, joining hands in a silent alliance.
    This is one of the few films starring the influential French stage actress Blanche Albane-Duhamel (born Blanche Alice Sistoli, 1886-1975), who was the wife of the acclaimed author Georges Duhamel (1884-1966) from 1909 until his death. She was greatly admired by André Gide and Jean Cocteau among others, as recalled by her husband in one of his books
. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
    AA: Drama. That the father would not know: this film is theatrical but expressive in the blind father being deceived to believe that his son has come home from the front. A lively mise-en-scène.

BLINDENINSTITUUT EN OOGLIJDERSGASTHUIS TE BANDOENG [Istituto per ciechi a Bandung / Institute for the Blind Home in Bandung], J. C. Lamster (NL, 1912-1913), Prod: Koloniaal Instituut, Amsterdam, 35 mm, 139 m, 6’45” (18 fps), col. (tinted, Desmet process); titles: NLD. Preserved: 1999 (lab. Haghefilm).
    This documentary from the Colonial Institute Collection shows the Ooglijdersgasthuis, the Institute for the Blind facility at the Dutch colony of Bandung in Indonesia, which was established by Doctor C. H. A. Westhoff in 1901. The film shows the patients’ daily life at the Queen Wilhelmina home and clinic, including making brooms, basket weaving, and schooling. It ends with rather graphic footage of an eye operation performed by Dr. Westhoff – not for those of a weak disposition!
    C. H. A. Westhoff was born in 1848 in Nijmegen, and died in 1913 in Sydney, Australia. He first went to Indonesia in 1872 as young doctor. After going back to the Netherlands in 1884 to specialize in eye surgery, in 1900 he returned to Indonesia, where he established the Ooglijdersgasthuis
. Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi
    AA: Straight non-fiction about the blind being taught to earn a living in Bandung as detailed above. There is an unflinching account of an eye operation. The composition is fine. Very watchable although with a soft visual quality.

A Flash of Light (US 1910). D: D. W. Griffith. Stephanie Longfellow (the older sister who truly loves John), Charles West (John Rogers, chemist), Vivian Prescott (Belle Rogers, the younger sister who is John's wife and wants to pursue her stage career). Photo: EYE on YouTube.

A FLASH OF LIGHT, D. W. Griffith (US 1910), scen: Stanner E. V. Taylor, photog: G. W. Bitzer, prod: Biograph.
    C: Charles West (John Rogers, chemist), Vivian Prescott (Belle, the younger sister), Stephanie Longfellow (the older sister), Verner Clarges (dad); George D. Nicholls (surgeon), Wm. J. Butler (family doctor), Grace Henderson (Mrs. Walton, society hostess), Joseph Graybill (Horace Dooley, stage impresario), Tony O’Sullivan (lead servant), W. C. “Spike” Robinson (2nd servant), Kate Toncray (nurse), [Charles Craig, Gertrude Robinson, Alfred Paget, George Siegmann, Mack Sennett (wedding guests), Edward Dillon, Claire McDowell, Dorothy West, John Dillon, Guy Hedlund (at Mrs. Walton’s soirée), Guy Hedlund, Ruth Hart, John Dillon, Henry Lehrman(?) (at theatre party)].
    Filmed: 14-17.6.1910 (Biograph Studio, NY), rel: 18.7.1910, 35 mm, 973 ft (orig. ca 998 ft), 17′ (16 fps); titles: ENG, source: BFI National Archive, London.
    "In one of his most tortured Biographs, Griffith saves his wildest moment for his final shot, where his immovable plot meets the irresistible metaphors that go with blindness and light. In the front parlor of his home, the bandages of a blinded chemist are about to be removed. He is flanked by the two women in his life – his frivolous wife, who is ready to leave him because she finds his blindness stifling; and his long-suffering sister-in-law, who secretly loves him and who, thanks to his blindness, has fooled him into thinking she is his wife. The bandages come off and he sees – i.e., understands – who has been caring for him. But his wife, recoiling, knocks down the heavy parlor drapes and the blaze of sunlight blinds her husband again – this time permanently. Aghast, the wife runs out, leaving her re-blinded husband with the woman who will now be his eyes for the foreseeable future. Overwhelmed, he kneels down and kisses the hem of her dress."
    "In a single amazing shot, Griffith (with his prolific writer Stanner E. V. Taylor) manages to jam together the time-honored connections between moral, emotional, and physical blindness. What starts as a story about a chemist blinded by one of his experiments develops as a tale of two sisters: one who basks in the bright lights and glitter of high society; the other whose selfless devotion makes her literally invisible, playing off her would-be lover’s multiple forms of blindness by masquerading as a wife with the help of her sister’s discarded ring."
    "For post-moderns (and who among us has escaped?) what leaps out is the tension between the overt moralism of the film and the medium in which Griffith is working. As Scott Simmon notes in his first-rate chapter on the Biograph woman’s film in The Films of D. W. Griffith, the movie takes an unambiguous stand against the corruption of superficial sight and gaudy entertainment. In case we miss the point, the intertitles are there to help, as is Griffith’s intercutting between scenes of parties and receptions with scenes of care and nurture. But as a commercial filmmaker, Griffith inevitably traffics in exactly the world of display and glamour he disparages. As Simmon writes, “‘A flash of light’ twice blinds the chemist, but the phrase also defines the silent film apparatus, and the wife [in all her finery] is put on display for us, come what may.”"
    "This light-obsessed film culminates in a wonderfully compressed and sublimely silly coup de thêàtre that brings the contradictions to the fore, and arguably lets in more than Griffith knows. The dazzling burst of sunlight that the celebrity sister (by now a comic-opera diva) dramatically exposes is a moment bristling with ironies and multiple meanings. Like the Cooper Hewitt lights (which in fact produce the flamboyant ultra-theatrical “sunlight” effect), the sun that re-blinds the chemist also puts the other sister in the spotlight, making her stand in stark relief from the other characters. However, the exposé of the noble sister (who in this single moment shines brighter than her sister) is mainly a way to dramatize the superiority of the shadows. The re-blinding brings with it both insight – the chemist’s recognition and appreciation of true virtue – and a means for matching the noble heroine who prefers to work unseen with a partner whose blindness gives her the perfect opportunity to continue her self-sacrificing mission.
" Russell Merritt
AA: Tragedy. Last seen at Le Giornate in 2000 in Sacile, probably in the same print in The Griffith Project marathons, this DWG opus 272 startles in a new way in this context. Having lost his eyesight the man never finds out who his true lover is. A tragic surprise leads us to a Russian ending.

Another of Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi's curated thematic shows from the Desmet Collection of the EYE Filmmuseum. Inspired film programming of the highest order.

Seeing and blindness have multiple and complex meanings in the cinema, from the literal to the philosophical. "I see". But sometimes it is blindness that makes us see beyond the surface.

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