Before Essie Fox turned her hand to writing, she worked as an illustrator, designing cards, wrapping paper and decorative ceramics. Always keen on the quirks of the past, her first three novels were Victorian Gothic, but her fourth, The Last Days of Leda Grey, steps into the Edwardian era and the world of silent film. She also explores the ‘facts, fancies and fabrications’ of history on her blogs The Virtual Victorian and The Eclectic Edwardian. The research for her latest novel has informed her choice of a filmic alter ego. Eithne Farry
Having just come up for air after writing my latest novel set during the dawn of cinema, I know at once who I would choose as my flickering alter ego on screen – and that is Theda Bara.
Bill Morrison creates stunning works of cinema from forgotten fragments of footage. His debut feature, Decasia (2002), a beautiful composition of decaying nitrate celluloid, was the first film of the 21st century to be selected for preservation by the National Film Registry, although UK audiences might know him best for The Miners’ Hymns(2010), his majestic, poetic rendering of lost coal mining communities in North East England.
Eleanor McKeown spoke to the American filmmaker ahead of the UK premiere of his latest masterwork, The Great Flood, at Birmingham’s Flatpack Film Festival in March 2014.
Bill Morrison: Selected Films 1996-2014 is released in the UK on 4 May 2015 by the BFI. The 3-disc Blu-ray box set includes The Great Flood, Decasia, Beyond Zero: 1914-1918 and many more.
Eleanor McKeown: How did you find the material for The Great Flood and how did the project come about?
Bill Morrison: I had been looking for a longer project to work on with Bill Frisell. We’d done a couple of shorts before – The Film of Her and The Mesmerist – where I used pre-recorded tracks of his. We were looking for a project where we would start from the ground up; he would write new music and I would find new footage to make a new film. I had been working on looser, more metaphorical treatment of flood footage and was looking for any old footage of flood-inundated houses for a project called Shelter (this was back in 2005), and I kept coming across footage from 1926 and 1927. It wasn’t until some time later that I was at a dinner party where they were discussing a book by John M. Barry called Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How it Changed American Culture, as it related to Katrina and the problems with that storm and the flood in New Orleans. I read that book. Knowing that there was a lot of footage out there from that era and that Bill wanted to work on a project with me, and that there were musical ramifications from people moving out of the area into the newer cities like Chicago, Cleveland and New York, it all kind of conspired and I realised that this could be a long-form project.
Once we had decided that we wanted to go forward with this project, Bill approached his management team – that’s Phyllis Oyama and Lee Townsend at Songtone – and they were able to assemble a list of performing venues that would co-commission the project. It was not the regular route most filmmakers take to finance a film, but it really came about as part of the multimedia side of the live performance. There were a number of venues that contributed more or less money to the thing, and quite a few would premiere the piece in that region.
Was there a difference between how The Great Flood was originally performed live and how it currently appears in its finished version? With The Miners’ Hymns, your last UK film release, I understand that the film was shown on a double screen when it premiered, with live music, at Durham Cathedral.
Both films were much looser when they were originally performed live, before we had a definitive master recording, which we re-cut to. With The Great Flood, it was a very unique set of circumstances, where I was on tour with Bill in the Mississippi River Delta in the spring of 2011. We had booked a tour just to give Bill and his bandmates a chance to familiarise themselves with the material and to work on it together through rehearsals and performances, on sort of a mobile artist’s residency, if you will. We had absolutely no indication, of course, that the tour would be during another major flood of the Mississippi River. Indeed, the flood levels that spring were as high as they had been since 1927, so it became a very real sort of history lesson on what it feels like to be in a community not knowing whether the levees are going to hold or not.
It was through recording all those soundchecks, and rehearsals and performances that I was able to structure a sort of narrative and emotional arc of how I thought the film would sound. That tour became a tool, both for me to start forming a rough cut of the film, and for Bill to write more music or re-write music that was recorded. It was also just a chance to talk to him about things that I was really enamoured with on his previous records, and how I saw the opportunity for some of those same dynamics to work: the idea of taking a theme and expanding on it. He was really receptive to that collaboration, really more so than any other composer-collaborator I’ve worked with.
How was it different to working with other composers in the past? Was there more improvisation?
I work a lot with classical composers and, once they’ve written the score, it’s really in the hands of the conductor and orchestra to perform it the way the composer wrote it. We arrive at a master recording that way. With Bill, it’s almost exactly the opposite. He doesn’t want to repeat himself two performances in a row. In fact, if it’s something’s good, he tries to avoid it the second time, and if it’s bad, of course, he’s going to avoid it the second time! It’s really a completely different way of approaching performance. The music grew from the spring tour but, after it premiered that fall, we used a recording from the premiere to re-edit the film. Then a few months later, we had a better recording that we made at Duke and that became the basis for the film, and the edit that was used during much of the film’s performance life in 2012. It wasn’t until about a year ago, in March of 2013, that the band did a performance in Seattle that we felt very strongly could be the definitive soundtrack of the film. The film, as released in 2014, was entirely re-cut to this soundtrack to support every note and every chord change. It is cut to the beat in a way that would be impossible to do in a live situation, and that was the same with The Miners’ Hymns too. We started out with a very loose edit and then, when we had a final recording, we re-cut to it, sometimes as many as three or four different times.
Thinking about the narrative arc of the film, The Great Flood is divided into chapters. How did you make decisions about these and, in particular, the segment that uses a montage of the 1927 Sears Roebuck Catalogue and the change of pace in this sequence?
Bill was really adamant that we include these up-tempo musical numbers: music that I associate with Thelonious Monk or a bebop tempo. I’m really enamoured with his dirges and ballads, but he was adamant that those don’t work unless you have something that also cuts them and changes the pace and the mood. He’s a real master at constructing a set – and this was after all a set – so including that type of mood was really Bill’s influence. It was something that initially I was resistant to, but I came to see how he was right.
The Sears Roebuck catalogue was my idea. As you can see from the start of that chapter, it’s listed with a circulation of 75 million, so you can imagine how prevalent this book was in just about every house. It would be like the internet is for us today. It was sort of the portal to all the stuff that’s out there. I’ve been told that some houses had only two books: The Bible and the Sears Roebuck Catalogue. There’re also stories about children making up fantasy stories based on the characters in that book. It was a source of amusement but also a source of dreaming. This is all the stuff you could own, if you had a better life. Then, in the context of the film, it’s also all the stuff that’s getting destroyed by the flood and getting thrown away –what you grab onto. I was able to find a reprint of the 1927 catalogue, which is really upheld as an emblem of the Roaring Twenties. It was financially a very fat time in this country, before The Great Depression, and so this book is an artefact of everything we had and everything we could own. Because the layout page-to-page is very similar, it lent itself to this fast de facto animation. I simply scanned every page and then played with it in edit until it kind of moved. It was also a different way of treating up-tempo material rather than relying on fast action or fast editing.
This up-tempo music reoccurs at other points in the film, such as the segment showing footage of politicians visiting the flood sites.
Yes, also in the dynamiting Poydras chapter. It’s an ironic use of the music, because of course the chapter is showing large class discrepancies, treated as business as usual, and I think that the music communicates that.
Out of all the footage you were working with, you chose a woman dancing to live music in Chicago as the last shot of the film. How did you decide on this final image?
That had always been the premise of the film. The water came down the river and the people moved up it – to the north – and, in so doing, brought music and a way of life and a culture to northern American cities that then went global and really affected popular music and popular culture in the latter half of the century. That shot said so much. It’s obviously an old shot, it’s over 50, almost 60, years old. You can see a woman in the back carrying a large poster of John Kennedy, so one can assume that it’s either an election party or an inauguration party. It’s something that would place it in November 1960 or January 1961. My guess is November 1960. It comes from a film that was released in 1964 by Mike Shea, called And This Is Free, which is a beautiful depiction of Maxwell Street in Chicago, a flourishing musical area and commercial area, which no longer exists in the way it did back then, of course. For me, coming from the South Side of Chicago, I always thought of this film as ending there. It’s as much about me trying to understand where I’m from, as how my neighbourhood became that way and the significance of Chicago as a conduit to the rest of the world. We came across that shot and it encompassed so much. It was at once modern, as well as being ancient. It was very beautiful. It showed passion and great intimacy. There was something very real about it; something where the people were oblivious of the use of the camera, or seemingly so.
And after all the work and really demeaning and unpleasant situations that you’ve seen people in throughout the film – and really you haven’t seen that many women, it’s mostly been a lot of men – to see this woman dancing was so emblematic of survival and of strength. That story goes on. This is not just an ending but the river continues.
Her expression is an interesting one, which provokes a lot of different ideas. She seems to convey so much in that expression.
Yes, there’s a lot of resolve to her. She’s very serious about her dance and she’s extraordinarily beautiful. That’s what I wanted the film to be.
It certainly was. What are your plans for The Great Flood and what projects are you currently working on?
The Great Flood is being distributed in North America by Icarus Films and they’re doing a phenomenal job with it. They oversaw a successful opening here in New York and also in Los Angeles, and they are now taking it to independent theatres throughout the United States and Canada. There’s also going to be a DVD release in May, again through Icarus Films. We don’t have an international distributor yet, and I am interested in finding a UK distributor.
The Great Flood is released in the US on DVD (R1) and VOD on 20 May 2014.
In terms of my upcoming projects, I’m working on a new long-form doc about an archive that was found in Dawson City in the Yukon territory in the late 1970s, after having been buried in a swimming pool for 50 years. And I just finished a film on World War One with a score by a Serbian composer, Aleksandra Vrebalov, which will be performed by The Kronos Quartet. That will premiere in Berkeley, California, and make its international premiere at the Edinburgh International Festival in August. With this film, I worked with the Library of Congress to find footage that other people aren’t able to access on the war. Through soaking and restoration, we were unspooling rolls of film that hadn’t been seen in decades. We’re very much looking forward to the reaction to this film.
Read about Bill Morrison’s Decasia in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology.
In her introduction to a compilation of shorts from the BFI collection, silent film curator Bryony Dixon explained how she has long admired the Flatpack Film Festival for its strong programming of archival footage. Over its eight-year-festival history, Flatpack has revealed an unusual appreciation of rediscovered lost films and celluloid fragments, creating events around amateur cine-clubs, cans fished out of skips by ex-projectionists and highlights from local archives. Dixon added to this year’s line-up with a thoughtful selection of films focused around the theme of water. Regen, Joris Ivens’s wonderful 1929 study of a city rainstorm, and Peter Greenaway’s Water Wrackets (1975) rounded off a compilation of early 20th-century travelogues and examples from a turn-of-the-century popular genre, the wave film. Watching the simple crash of salt water against an English stone pier, caught by a static camera in Rough Sea at Dover (1896), created a primeval rush, transporting us back to the powerful ‘train effect’ days of early cinema.
Bill Morrison‘s archival footage masterwork, The Great Flood (2013), which screened as part of a mini-retrospective, was a relatively late addition to this year’s programme, but in many ways it acted as the centrepiece of the festival, bringing together various programme themes, including the festival’s preoccupation with depictions of water on film. Morrison crafts a narrative of the 1927 flooding of the Mississippi River using a poetic swell of historical footage, gleaned from the archive of the University of South Carolina. The Great Flood begins with a bird’s eye sweep of the flood plain; a printed map merges into a vast, featureless landscape of water. We see the corner of an aeroplane wing – caught in shot by the news reporter’s camera – and indistinguishable rows of triangles. Social, human history gradually comes into focus over the course of eleven segments, grouped by theme: shots of sharecroppers; fragments of politicians visiting flood sites; refugees living in makeshift tents (those triangles we viewed impassively from the air). The footage is slowed down to a meditative pace and synched to Bill Frisell’s shimmering guitar, allowing Morrison’s history to unfold gradually with a reflective beauty. Punctuation comes in the form of a type of commercial break – a flipbook-style rendering of the 1927 Sears catalogue – playing out to the tsk-tsk of cymbals and bebop-infused rhythms. Clothing, pianos, pens, clocks, books, rugs, cameras, ovens, ploughs – all the material necessities and non-necessities of life – race past until the sequence ends abruptly on a page full of headstones, prices artfully arranged. This up-tempo jazz re-surfaces at various points in the film – when politicians pose for photos, or engineers use dynamite to unsuccessfully divert the course of the flood, sacrificing Poydras, Louisiana, in a bungled effort to save New Orleans – to underline the farcical aspects of political self-interest, all the more tragicomic when set against the almighty, unstoppable force of the flood.
The last segments of the film use footage showing the migration of displaced African-American communities to the north of the US and the development of the blues in places like Chicago (the Great Mississippi Flood caused a spike in an on-going exodus and, at the post-screening Q&A, Morrison was quick to emphasise the problematic oversimplification of the idea that conditions were uniformly better in the northern cities than in the south). The film’s final shot lingers over a woman dancing and twisting with urgent, vital intensity. The bewitching, soaring energy of this sequence echoes the close of Morrison’s last UK film release, The Miners’ Hymns (2010): when the miners’ march, the fluttering banners, the children skipping hand-in-hand combine in an expansive surge of visual majesty and melancholy.
Transience is an inherent quality of the type of footage preserved in archives such as the BFI and creatively used by Morrison. The everyday and forgotten emphasise the passage of history in a way that a narrative film from the early days of cinema does not. Morrison explores this quality in The Great Flood and The Miners’ Hymns, but it is most explicitly on display in his debut film, Decasia (2002), which screened on the final day of the festival. Taking nitrate celluloid that is partially eroded, Morrison celebrates the odd distortions, explosions and ripples that physically mark the march of time on film. A tangled selection of newsreels and works of cinema intertwine to create unified loops and circular patterns – a whirling dervish, a fairground carousel, a group of faded figures turning their heads to the camera, recurring visions of suns – in a progression of time that is not a linear line towards destruction, but instead hints at rebirth or unstoppable mutations that lead to new beginnings. Human figures try to escape the inevitability of decay or mortality – most directly demonstrated by the boxer who hits straight into a vertical column of celluloid distortion – and while they might fail individually, the footage continues to roll on. All the while, a strange, unnerving crescendo is created by Michael Gordon’s soundtrack, which sounds like a stretched-out, looping echo of the orchestral melange in The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’, never reaching its end.
Read about Bill Morrison’s Decasia in The End: An Electric Sheep Anthology.
Henry Hills, another guest filmmaker celebrated over Flatpack’s closing weekend, also takes assemblage of footage as a starting point for exploring ideas of structure and narrative. A programme of shorts brought together Hills’s films from the early 1980s with a more recent work, Arcana (2011). The latter was born when Henry Hills received an invitation from American composer John Zorn: an assortment of filing cards, each with a different image to be included in a short film. The resulting montage of strange juxtapositions – videos of domestic scenes, archival footage of a zeppelin crash, pictures of code, shots from cinematic works – creates mini-sequences of suspense and menace, cut to The Bribe, John Zorn’s tribute to the American crime fiction writer Mickey Spillane. Hills’s earlier works are dense and tightly packed. Hills talked about how he obsessively listened to 45s when young and how he wanted to make films that he could re-watch over and over in the same way. He started out making silent works in San Francisco, keen to make films that could be readily viewed by anyone across the globe, regardless of language barriers, but was influenced by a move to New York and its noisy energy. The 1980s shorts are staccato edits of film and sound, where narrative becomes fragmented in a cacophony of noise: half-finished sentences and monosyllables, spoken by Hills’s poet and musician friends; truncated experimental dance sequences; and cut-up assortments of music and radio interference. In his shorts Radio Adios (1982) and Money (1985), odd phrases ring out – ‘this generation has gone mad’, ‘a certain kind of capitalism’, ‘the man lives across the street and you can’t mess with the man’ – but they are endlessly intercepted and interrupted to create a free-jazz improvisation of language. The splicing of footage starts to point towards the difficulty of imposing meaning or reaching consensus, mirroring our often fragmented experiences in life.
Flatpack has never taken a conventional approach to the screening of film or the medium itself. By exploring the very nature of footage in inventive ways, the festival and its guests open up new perspectives in how we might view film; we can see it not just as an immersive way to tell narratives, but as a poetic form that can sometimes, at its best, throw new light on how we exist in the world.
Cast: Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Aud Egede-Nissen, Gertrude Welcker
Original title:Dr. Mabuse, der Spieler
‘M’ marks the spot: Murder, Metropolis, Mabuse. At the heart of Fritz Lang’s most innovative period, from 1922 to 1933, lies a fascination with metropolitan modernity and the ambivalence of mass phenomena. On the one hand, in M (1931), the sheer number of milling souls amounts to a sort of chaos into which a child murderer can easily disappear, until a capital ‘M’ chalked on his back puts him back on the map. Yet the city is also, as in Metropolis (1927), a vast machine in which individuals are mere cogs, and chaos may only be an appearance generated by the limited point of view of each cog. Mabuse above all names the spectre of someone who has grasped the laws of this ordered chaos, but who has no desire to rule, only to play, to show how thoroughly the everyday can be simulated and controlled.
Rather like cinema itself, Mabuse is a force that links disparate scenes with precision timing. What can connect a man feigning sleep in a train compartment with a chauffeur standing by his car in a country lane in Dr Mabuse, the Gambler (1922)? Rhyming close-ups of their respective watches point back to Mabuse at his desk. The rail traveller leaps up to steal his fellow passenger’s briefcase and throws it out of the window just as the train crosses a bridge, and just as his colleague’s car passes underneath. A toot on a horn from the chauffeur, and a brisk cut to an engineer atop a telegraph pole: Mabuse knows the deed is done almost to the second. The very efficiency and order of modern transport and telecommunications have been turned against themselves, and film, the cannibal of modernity, is in its element. The secret trade contract in the stolen briefcase, Mabuse ordains, will be ‘found’ again in exactly 30 minutes. Cut to the Stock Exchange. Amid the panic caused by falling shares, a glossy moustachioed figure mounts a table, impassive above the throng, buying when everyone else sells, then selling at the top. At close of trading, over the paper-strewn empty space, the giant, superimposed, Cheshire-cat head of the rogue trader looms, before melting into the face of – Mabuse.
But behind even Mabuse there is another face, which has loomed over the Stock Exchange from the very start of the scene, a vast luminous clock with the 24 hours picked out in a single dial. Ideally, it ought to stand as the patron deity of orderly commerce, a monumental display of reliable regularity. But time itself is indifferent, available for whosoever cares to master it. This is the first of a series of remarkable clocks punctuating the film. Before we see the lobby of the Hotel Excelsior, its 24-hour clock, with Arabic and Roman numerals in concentric circles, fills the screen. Again, what is meant as a sign of affluence and security is actually the sign that Mabuse is at work. Vast as they are, these clocks are not out of keeping with the great majority of the film’s interiors. For a nation in the grip of economic disaster, Germany seems to be composed of cavernous chambers full of oddly lit planes and alcoves like some expressionist-cum-art deco hallucination. From spivvy casinos run by war profiteers, to hotel suites and private residences, there is nothing resembling a comfortable domestic space here. This is a world of gigantic imposture and in many ways Mabuse is merely an extrapolation of its logic. At any rate, dwarfed by an architecture meant to represent their own grandeur, the effete aristocrats of 1922 are easy pickings. It is hard to feel too much sympathy for the limp Count von Told as, under the spell of Mabuse, his impressive collection of ethnic fright masks turns against him. Mabuse is not above murder, but inducing suicide is more worthy of his talents. Having invited his future destroyer into his home, von Told asks him what he thinks of expressionism. ‘Spielerei,’ replies Mabuse: everything is game-playing these days. A languid aristo who dabbles insipidly in representations of extreme psychological states is fair game.
When Mabuse returns in The Testament of Dr Mabuse (1933), he is confined to an insane asylum, but being a spectre anyway, has no difficulty spreading the word. He acts only as a voice from behind a curtain in a basement room whose walls bear the outlines of decommissioned urinals, but the goal of anarchy for the hell of it is more insistent than ever. That his empire was crushed by a mere shoot-out in the first film was due to the urbane amateurism of State Prosecutor von Wenk. This time, he has a different sort of adversary in beefy police inspector sensuel moyen Lohmann, fresh from tracking down Peter Lorre in M.
The Complete Fritz Lang Mabuse Box Set is out on DVD in the UK as part of Eureka Entertainment’s Masters of Cinema Series.
The forces of order are, in other words, a little more professional, more bourgeois. Likewise the decor is more in keeping with Germany’s parlous state. Indeed, one could say desks are the heroes of the piece. Beautifully composed workspaces litter the film, filling the screen like still lifes. A pane of glass bearing enigmatic scratch marks is the object of a number of wonderful compositions before they are finally deciphered as spelling ‘Mabuse’. Later, as the tide turns, Lohmann shows one of Mabuse’s captured associates the evidence: two bullets in a little case are set against a beautiful composition of file and gun, all crisscrossing at 45 degrees. As the crim looks on, an oblong magnifying glass glides into view, perfectly covering the case. Round-headed Lohmann stands behind the desk in a spotlight with the map of the city behind him. Order has almost been restored.
But desks also communicate with each other in some pretty strange ways. At the very start, fallen cop Hofmeister has already tried to tell Lohmann that Mabuse is back, but while he is on the phone he is driven mad by some unspecified shock. Later, when Lohmann visits him in his cell, we see Hofmeister still on an imaginary phone at a spectral desk littered with animal ornaments in glass, superimposed, doubly transparent. Madness, clearly, but how do these relate to the little glass crocodile on Lohmann’s own desk? The desk behind the curtain from which Mabuse booms his orders is an empty shell. But the desk that communicates to it gramophonically is not straightforwardly occupied either. The scene in which he takes possession of it, so to speak, makes staggering use of superimposed images, and remains genuinely spooky to this day. In both films, psychoanalysis is an instrument of deception defeated by common sense and decency. But Lang’s eye is a little bit of the devil’s party.
By 1960, Mabuse’s sphere has narrowed to a single hotel once frequented by Nazis. And after years of relatively routine cop flicks, Lang is at the end of his career. As it turns out, Mabuse’s was only getting started: The Thousand Eyes of Dr Mabuse (1960) begat the thousand sequels of… Even so, the film is well worth seeing, and it is fitting that Lang returned to place the third and final pillar of a giant ‘M’ over his career.
Beatrice Hitchman was born in London, studied in Edinburgh, lived in Paris for a year and then headed back to the UK to work as a documentary film editor. Her debut novel, Petite Mort, is set in the languorous Deep South and Belle Epoque Paris, and features a mysterious silent movie, with a missing scene, an ambitious seamstress, a starry actress and an illusionist husband. Petite Mort (Serpent’s Tail) is out now at £12.99 (ebook/hardback). Beatrice Hitchman’s filmic alter ego is Irma Vep from Les vampires. Eithne Farry
Paris, 1915: the city is in the grip of a deadly band of criminals, Les vampires. A severed head is found in an air duct! A stage performer is murdered with a poisoned ring! A hundred aristocrats are sent to sleep with gas and their jewels stolen! And at the epicentre of this dizzying crime spree is anagrammatic mistress of disguise, ringleader Irma Vep.
In an early scene, Irma’s dressed as a Breton maid, complete with lacy head-dress – a look that takes guts, I’m sure you’ll agree, to pull off. In this outfit she infiltrates the apartment of the useless journalist who’s trying to unmask her, Philippe Guérande, and then makes a midnight escape out of his bedroom window. He’s too frightened to follow, and stands shaking his fist at her as she retreats. Later, she’ll expand her costume repertoire to include: exotic dancer, secretary, cat-suited sneak thief and – in a too-brief scene that set my cold heart racing – 1915 men’s lounge wear. But through it all, Vep is instantly recognisable – the eyes have it, flashing at the camera, utterly distinctive, utterly threatening, defying us to outwit her.
But it isn’t about the fabulous outfits. It’s not even about the enviable way Paris becomes Irma’s personal playground: a world of sliding bookcases, vertical climbing and operatic hideouts. It’s that, although Vep is a woman surrounded by men, she doesn’t seem to notice, or care. She’ll just keep on doing what she’s going to do – stealing, cheating, upsetting people – indifferent to who’s watching, and with complete conviction. When she creeps away from Guérande’s apartment across the rooftops, Breton headgear shining in the light of the moon, she doesn’t look down once.
Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist may be the first ‘silent film’ made in America to trouble the attention of the Oscars committee for several generations; and yet, paradoxically, no other film this year pays such close attention to sound. It is the absence of sound that first makes us pause. As the film begins, we find ourselves caught in a mise en abyme: in a cinema, watching an audience in a cinema watching a silent film. So the sound of your traditional silent film music comes as no surprise. It is only when this film ends, and the film music with it, and the camera pulls back to reveal the wildly applauding audience, that we are confronted with the curious horror of nothing to hear. Wherever we expect sound, we are confronted with its absence (elsewhere, the music stops just as someone puts a needle on a record, for instance).
We have just about got used to this uncanny reversal when the beginning of the second act is announced with a dream sequence. More properly, a nightmare. It is a nightmare, precisely, of synchronised sound. For what could be more horrifying to a star of the silent screen (such as our George Valentin, played by Jean Dujardin) than the sudden coherence of sounds with their source. A glass falls and clinks against a wooden desk and the sound – because it is the first sound ‘effect’ of the film so far – is like a knife in the ear.
George Valentin, our titular ‘artist’, is haunted throughout the film by the traumatising power of the voice. What becomes increasingly clear as the narrative progresses is that it is not any particular quality of the voice or any given enunciation. It matters not what the voice is saying. It is the horror of the voice as such: the voice in its orality, the infinite demand of its insistent address. While the musical soundtrack (almost) literally never shuts up with its endlessly signifying chain of references to classic Hollywood scores, the voice remains that which says nothing, communicates nothing.
The Artist is released in the UK on 30 December by Entertainment Film Distributions.
Segundo de ChomÃ³n belonged to a generation of nameless film directors; his films were cast with nameless stars. With film only just stumbling into the 20th century, cinema was still a credit-less art form. No title sequence, just an abrupt ‘Fin’. It was the studios that supplied a name and an identity. The iconic Pathé cockerel repeatedly pops up mid-action while de ChomÃ³n’s name is nowhere to be found. Yet de ChomÃ³n is not forgotten; by sifting and piecing together film history, his name has become attached to an impressive filmography of tableaux and film fragments, celebrated at this year’s New York Film Festival.
The programme of films – some broken and some complete – was held together by early cinema specialist and playful commentator Tom Gunning. Introducing the films in an entertaining and pleasingly unobtrusive manner, Gunning rejoiced in de ChomÃ³n’s ‘Spanish sense of total weirdness’, speculating that perhaps a young BuÃ±uel or DalÃ might have settled down to his Andalucian Superstition (1912) years before they started work on their Chien andalou (1929). There are many similarities between the works, although there is a difference in authorial temperament; Gunning painted de ChomÃ³n as less of the artistic, controversial auteur and more of a technician. He was working at the very beginning of film when technology was being mastered and explored. The key was not making a statement, but rather entertaining the audience and experimenting with ‘what the camera could do’.
His early films show a fairly straightforward approach. A historical reproduction of Spanish resistance to Napoleon was a static affair with muddled crowd scenes and, as Gunning amusingly pointed out, ‘dead bodies finding comfortable ways to die’. Next came a slapstick chase film, which saw a newly rich man advertising for a wife and then beating a hasty retreat from swarms of pushy females. Again the camera was positioned stock-still while the action rushed in and out of frame but the charming conceit obviously took off and many variations were made, most famously Buster Keaton’s Seven Chances (1925). Gunning was quick to point out that in early cinema ‘ripping each other off was business’. Indeed, I also spotted similarities between de ChomÃ³n’s Electric Hotel (1908) and Keaton’s Electric House (1922), which both show electrical gadgets wreaking havoc on unsuspecting residents. Using a beautiful range of effects, de ChomÃ³n creates gizmos – from a mechanised letter-writer to an automatic undresser – to rival those of Keaton’s glorious silent comedy.
It was with such later films and in particular, Ah la barbe (1905), that the NYFF screening took a decided turn for the surreal. As Gunning said of the film, ‘there is no plot, just plain weirdness’. Seated in front of a full-length mirror, a man lathers up and begins to shave, but is repeatedly thwarted in his attempts as his reflection morphs into strange, animal-like visages. Increasingly bemused and frustrated, the actor turns to camera to pull puzzled, exasperated faces.
These expressive facial asides highlight the enchanting theatricality running through de ChomÃ³n’s work. Vaudeville theatre is key and a major contributor to the bizarreness of his visions. One of his films even takes place inside a miniature children’s theatre with wrestling and fencing puppets playing out the action. Magic tricks are ever-present. A magician oversees the action in Les cents trucs (1906), turning ballerinas into clowns and back again; in The King of the Dollars (1905), a hand deftly plays with gold coins, creating optical illusions before our eyes; and in The Unseizable Pickpocket (1908), a crafty thief turns into a slither of fabric in his attempt to evade the law. De ChomÃ³n was himself a magician with his camera work, using editing and stop-motion techniques that we would associate with 21st-century expertise. For his 1907 film, Ki Ri Ki Acrobats, de ChomÃ³n shot actors lying in various formations on a black sheet using an overhead camera. Through this trick in perspective, the acrobats appear to be performing gravity-defying gymnastics. The funniest routine involves a tiny acrobat straining and holding up his huge colleagues on a narrow plank of wood. The exotic troupe of ‘Japanese’ performers, the physical comedy and the optical illusions are pure vaudeville.
According to Gunning, in addition to this theatricality, the other key contributor to the weirdness of de ChomÃ³n was his Spanishness. The Andalucian Superstition takes its plot from a traditional Spanish folk tale; a woman seethes with jealousy on seeing her lover talking to a Romani woman and dreams that her lover is captured by gypsies. The dream sequence is worthy of Hitchcock’s 1945 Spellbound (giving further weight to the idea that DalÃ, who worked on the film, did see de ChomÃ³n!), beginning with the camera pulling up to a close-up shot of the jealous woman’s face, all haunted eyes and furrowed brow. The following interlude with its gypsy cave of strange bottled creatures is a strange, fantastical marvel. Again de ChomÃ³n seems light years ahead of what one might expect; the use of psychology and odd surreal visions seems like it could belong to a much later period of film history. This enchanting use of folkloric material also shines through in The Red Spectre (1907). A nonsensical work that roughly plots the rivalry between a male and female magician (played by de ChomÃ³n’s wife), the repeated images of skeletons and fire seem like symbols from a traditional folk tale. Reading between the lines, the film reveals a pre-occupation with the manipulation of the female image. Tiny women appear trapped in glass bottles and an image of a woman appears on a box composed of moveable segments. They are images that linger in your mind, playing out in strange colourised tones.
Interestingly, de ChomÃ³n started out working as a colouriser and would end his career in a similar technical role, working as a cameraman for the Italian director Pastrone, and as one of the many technicians on Napoleon (1927). He may not be remembered like a Keaton, a DalÃ or a Hitchcock, or even like his contemporary MéliÃ¨s, but his work as a director is imaginative and extraordinary and deserves a credit at last.
Segundo de ChomÃ³n’s Metempsychosis screens at Tate Modern in London on Friday 3 December as part of the 3rd Fashion in Film Festival.
Cast: Kyle McCulloch, Gosia Dobrowolska, Sarah Neville, Paul Cox, Brent Neale
‘Careful, Arthur’, intones the narrator at the beginning of the prologue to Guy Maddin’s third film. His warning to a child seen lifting the lid off a steaming pan of water is one of many that follow. Each is accompanied by a scene illustrating the hazards of living in Tolzbad, a mountain community threatened by the imminent risk of avalanche. Any unprovoked noise could unleash catastrophe on the town. Such is the fear that its inhabitants talk in hushed tones, all the town’s animals have had their vocal chords severed and children are made to play in silence. The narrator ends the prologue, however, by pointing out the existence of certain ‘nodes’ in the mountains, spaces where sounds are cancelled out and where the folk of Tolzbad can pursue their more noisome activities without the danger of catastrophic snowfall. Nodes notwithstanding however, the town lives in constant fear of flocks of geese flying overhead on their yearly migration…
The Electric Sheep Film Club will screen The Saddest Music in the World at the Prince Charles Cinema on Wednesday 10 March. More details on our events page.
From the start, the steaming pan of water alerts us to physical processes, in particular what happens to water when it’s agitated. Steam has its complement in the avalanche, which is what happens to frozen water when it’s disturbed. And humans too are subject to such processes. Little Arthur’s ‘lifting the lid’ on the pan is what Maddin proceeds to do with the townsfolk of Tolzbad, showing us a weird world of raging but repressed desires, and the rest of the film gleefully and preposterously plays out one Freudian tableau after another. Johann, a young man betrothed to his beloved Klara, has disturbing dreams about sleeping with his mother. After drugging her and kissing her breasts, he kills himself. The mother, the widow of a blind swan feeder, reveals she has always loved Tolzbad’s local aristocrat, the wonderfully named Count Knotgers, whom Johann’s brother Grigorss fights in a duel when he discovers her perfidious desire. In a nod to the eccentric Swiss author Robert Walser (who died, by the way, walking out one day into a snowstorm), Grigorss has also for a while been training to become the Count’s butler. Since Johann’s death Grigorss has moved in on Klara, only to find out she has already been deflowered by her own father. There’s also a mute brother hidden away in the attic. This is all presented as melodramatically as can be, though with a fairy tale or folk gentleness it’s hard not to like, due in great part to the fantastically intricate and kitschy sets and to what looks like the use of hand-coloured film processing throughout. It’s all distinctly otherworldly.
Indeed, there’s a contrast between the apparently cosy world of the town nestled in the valley and the high mountains beyond, where the extreme action of the film occurs. Here Johann commits suicide by throwing himself off a precipice, Grigorss and the Count duel (silently with knives, of course) to the death and Grigorss deliberately fires a pistol in the air to precipitate the dreaded avalanche in the end. At these moments of high drama, Maddin reverts to shooting in blue monochrome, an effect taken from Arnold Fanck’s silent film The Holy Mountain. Careful, as it’s often pointed out, is indebted to the Bergfilme, or silent German mountain films of the 1920s, and in particular to Fanck’s 1926 feature in which a young Leni Riefensthal plays a dancer pursued with tragic consequences by two mountain men, a downhill skier and a climber. At the end of the film, the two men spend a fateful night on a bare mountain, which Fanck shoots in blue to dramatise the freezing conditions and the intensity of their exploits.
Effects aside, it’s instructive to consider how Maddin transforms many of Fanck’s themes. In The Holy Mountain, the mountains are the sublime domain of men. Whenever Fanck shows mountains they are looming pillars of solid rock. Snow clings to their sides and it’s the solidity of rock and snow that enables men to ski down them, man and nature in perfect harmony. By contrast, Riefensthal is a woman of the lowland shore. She lives by the sea, and her dancing mimics the movement of the waves. As such, she is clearly very attractive to men of the uplands, but of course also a threat. When the inevitable avalanche happens towards the end of the film, the swirling snow is meant to mimic the unpredictability and deadly allure of Riefensthal’s dancing.
Maddin’s view of the mountains is far less black and white. For one, it’s not an exclusively masculine domain – Klara has a mountain hideaway – and there’s none of Fanck’s overriding phallic symbolism and certainly no recourse to the sublime. Maddin’s mountains are obviously made of papier mÃ¢ché (he himself lives on the Canadian prairies), and although he employs the melodrama of silent film it’s undercut by an absurdist wit; for example when Grigorss and the Count fight their duel, each must first unbutton the other’s coat to get at their knives. Nor is there with Maddin such an overt division between male and female spheres of action. His sexual politics are much more fluid, and with hindsight he can read gender ambiguities into the expressive gesturing of silent film.
Of course, Maddin’s fondness for the anachronistic vocabulary of silent cinema (including the use of intertitles) also flies in the face of Hollywood’s doctrine of technological progress. Paradoxically, his own films might be placed in one of the silent mountain nodes to which the narrator alludes in the prologue as an example of ‘calm’ amidst the overwhelming ‘noise’ of mainstream cinema. He constantly plays with effects that conventional filmmakers would consider ‘mistakes’ such as blurred and flared shots, and by turning up the static when the dialogue lapses. It’s also interesting that Maddin returns to the Bergfilm genre in which the ideology of progress is writ large, especially in terms of the development of cinematography. Fanck, for instance, was famed for his insistence on filming on location in adverse conditions and thus setting a cinematic precedent for outside shooting (Maddin, by contrast, is famous for his meticulously constructed indoor sets). And one can’t forget the course that Riefensthal’s career would take in the name of progress over the next decade.
In the end, Careful is something delicate and strange and it made me think back to the snowy paperweight in Citizen Kane. It’s as if Maddin managed to find his way inside the glass orb stopping time to shoot an entire film in the seconds before it broke open, the name ‘Tolzbad’ ringing in our ears as weirdly as that other name that has become part of the mythology of mystery in cinema. Maddin shows no real interest in mythmaking – he’s Canadian, from Winnipeg for goodness’ sake – but Careful is presently as radical a redefinition of the possibilities of cinema as I can think of.
This Reel Sounds column takes the form of a dialogue as it is an edited extract of an episode of Resonance FM’s visual culture show I’m Ready for my Close-Up broadcast in September 2008, in which Alex Fitch and Virginie Sélavy discussed modern silent movies, including the work of Guy Maddin.
Alex Fitch: Before we discuss Guy Maddin, I want to bring up the episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer called ‘Hush’, which – suitably as it celebrates a form of filmmaking that most people think is anachronistic – was the last episode to be broadcast on TV in the 20th century. It won many awards and is based on German nightmarish tales like Struwwelpeter; by removing the dialogue from the soundtrack Buffy’s creators have brought something very primal and nightmarish to the storytelling.
Virginie Sélavy: Yes, it is a bit like one of those nightmares that everybody has at some point: you’re running away in slow motion from something scary that is chasing you! It’s the same idea in ‘Hush’: the characters scream as they are attacked but no one can hear them. The other interesting thing is that it shows how powerful the human voice is when Buffy finally gets her voice back and screams, breaking the silence and killing the evil guys.
AF: Maybe it’s because we grew up on a diet of MTV, or rather TV influenced by MTV, where the combination of music and visuals became a new language for film. That said, people from the ‘MTV generation’ are increasingly reliant on bad dialogue rather than visual storytelling to drive the plot of their movies, which is bizarre.
VS: It’s not surprising that someone like Guy Maddin is attracted to primarily visual storytelling. I think that it’s much easier to create surrealist types of narratives or fantasy worlds with silent film because dialogue can make certain scenarios seem a bit trite or too literal. I think Maddin avoids the excesses of melodrama by not having dialogue. Through silent film you’re able to create a more poetic world, because it is not purely representational. It’s a bit like animation: it can’t be realistic, it doesn’t attempt to recreate the real world, which makes it a lot easier to create a convincing fantasy world.
AF: I thought Maddin’s first film, Tales from the Gimli Hospital, which does have dialogue, wasn’t particularly good. It could just be because he was learning as a filmmaker, but I think he found his voice – ironically – when he started making silent movies. He started using dialogue again a few years ago in The Saddest Music in the World, but that works really well because it feels informed by his silent work. It is as if his development reflected the history of cinema itself: he had to learn how to make sound movies by doing silent films first. He doesn’t need dialogue to tell a story, but The Saddest Music in the World is as much about music as it is about pictures, and I guess that also came from his work on the ballet Dracula: Pages from a Virgin’s Diary the year before.
VS: These modern silent films are different from the films from the silent era because old silent films didn’t have a synched soundtrack – it was generally played live in each cinema, and improvised by the pianist. In a film like Cowards Bend the Knee, the soundtrack is very important and so suggestive and well used that you don’t feel the need for dialogue at all.
AF: It makes me think of animation, from Fantasia to episodes of Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes – the ones that won awards were quite often the ones without dialogue, I’m surprised people haven’t noticed this correlation over the years! Film is such a visual medium; particularly when you’re making something like a cartoon, when you’re drawing a character 24 times every second, to have to then think about how the mouth might move and dub over it seems a needlessly convoluted way of telling a story.
VS: Definitely. Hitchcock once said something like ‘silent film is the purest form of cinema’, and I can really understand that, it’s often a much more poetic form than sound film. It is unfortunate that modern silent films, like Guy Maddin’s movies, or Esteban Sapir’s La Antena, are categorised as ‘arty’ movies, and therefore only get the attention of a minority audience, because if more people got to see them they would realise that not only are they stunningly beautiful, but they’re also really entertaining…
Listen to the podcast of the discussion of modern silent movies.
A Deviant View of Cinema – Features, Essays & Interviews