Tuesday, 27 July 2010

News Review - The Death of British Cinema? UK Film Council is scrapped by the British Govt.

Ralph Waldo Emerson once said that “a creative economy is the fuel of magnificence.” Yesterday’s announcement that the Tory government is abolishing the U.K. Film Council confirms the suspicion that many of us Brits have in regards to their complete inability to support the arts and therefore understand Emerson’s astute point. The arts are one of Britain’s strongest exports, and as one of the articles from below will point out, the UKFC has seen the films they have invested money in over the last decade make an average profit of 400%. The UKFC has financially backed films with an array of diversity: Gosford Park, Streetdance 3D, The Constant Gardener, Bend it Like Beckham, Bright Star, etc.

We were willing to throw money at banks which were haemorrhaging money, but we can no longer provide what is a paltry sum in terms of the government’s annual budget for a public body that was and is a terrific financial success? If you think that government’s decision is incorrect, then please sign this petition and get your friends to do so as well.

This decision could also be a bellwether for Britain's long term future as a major economy. Whereas India are spending $140 million to restore their classic films, the British government can no longer afford to spend £15 million a year to help produce current films. Could this be the beginning of the end for British cinema?  

The decision is short-sighted and foolish; it will have devastating effects for the long term future of an already dwindling British Industry – in 2003 there were 74 independent features made in the UK, last year there were only 40.

Best For Film set up the petition, and they go into more details in regards to the figures, thus demonstrating the buffoonery of Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt.
The UK film industry is one of our few sectors which has enjoyed consistent growth throughout the recession. Last year, its contribution to the economy was an extraordinary £4.3 billion – an increase of 50% on 2000, the year the UKFC was formed. UKFC-funded films have grossed in excess of £700 million worldwide, and its investments garner an average profit of 400%. Sorry, I’ll say that again – FOUR HUNDRED PER CENT. That’s £5 for every £1 you spend, and I defy any of Jeremy Hunt’s colleagues in the state-owned banks to offer us as good a rate.
Incredibly, the UKFC manages all this on a budget of only £15 million a year, much of which is money drawn from the countrywide tax on hope which is the National Lottery. This is compared to the £12 million being spent on the Pope’s controversial UK visit later this year, or the £7 billion which it’s costing us to host the Olympics – at its present budget, that’s enough money to run the UKFC for almost 467 years. Jeremy Hunt’s claims that destroying the UKFC was a cost-cutting measure are clearly specious, betraying his motives to be ideological rather than financial; for unclear reasons of its own, in attacking both the Film Council and the licence fee which funds the BBC the Conservative Party is holding a knife to the throat of contemporary British culture.

The article is absolutely correct to call out Jeremy Hunt’s claim that ‘destroying the UKFC was a cost-cutting measure’. The figures do not lie and it begs the question as to why they are demolishing such a profitable organisation. It may well be that they are making cuts for the sake of making cuts, because the sum invested in the UKFC will not help our economic recovery. Or perhaps David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ involves a world where we are all volunteers and none of us are artists?

                                          Jeremy Hunt - the man who could be responsible for destroying the British      film industry.

The Telegraph reports Mike Leigh’s outrage at the decision:
Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, said that the abolition of the council would wipe out a layer of bureaucracy and ensure ''greater value for money''.
But Leigh, whose credits include Happy-Go-Lucky and Vera Drake, described the decision as "extremely worrying" and "totally out of the blue".
He said: "It's very hard to know what they are actually going to sustain and what they will abandon. It really is no way to operate.
''It's like if they suddenly said: 'We're abolishing the NHS' ... It's totally out of order.''
The UK Film Council was created in 2000, and has invested more than £160 million of Lottery funding into more than 900 films which has helped generate over £700 million at the worldwide box office.
It receives £30 million a year of Lottery money and around £25.5 million from the Government. 
Leigh calls out another one of Hunt’s hollow phrases as it is unclear to all of us how the government will proceed and exactly how they intend to get a better return than they are already receiving.

Andrew Pulver describes the move  as both a ‘hammer blow’ and ‘tragically naive’. His article is well worth reading in its entirety:
It was nothing short of a hammer blow. This morning, word came through of John Woodward's email to UK Film Council staff informing them that the government was planning to shut them down. Then the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) confirmed it in a written statement at lunchtime. I was genuinely shocked. It felt like I'd nipped out for 10 minutes to get a pie and while I was out they closed the British film industry...
I can't help feeling that this is a tragically naive decision by the government. I've spent a significant amount of my time as a Guardian film journalist reporting on the various attempts to disburse lottery funding, which began in the mid-1990s. To summarise: first it was directly administered by the Arts Council, on a project-by-project basis, in the same way as theatre shows or brass bands. This setup was clearly inadequate– for keeping out both naive amateurs who wasted the money and smart operators who just ripped them off. In 1997 the franchise system was dreamed up. This meant established outfits would band together, offer a slate of projects, and be given a large amount of money. That system proved unwieldy and unworkable. It was quietly abandoned when the Film Council was set up in 2000 to operate like a mini studio, allowed to invest in big films (Gosford Park, The Constant Gardener) and also help out with small (Better Things, Red Road), as well as funding ancillary activities like the Independent Cinema Office, print and advertising assistance, and digital projection. The Film Council was essentially the most sophisticated method found so far to deal with the lottery money, and I simply don't believe any existing body will do a better job.
If the system returns to films being approved on a case by case basis it will surely once again prove to be inadequate. The lack of a concrete proposal for a replacement for the UKFC is of great concern.

The BBC makes clear that although the BFI may be asked to do the UKFC’s work, they may not have the capacity to do so:
What remains unclear, however, is who or what will distribute lottery money after its proposed closure in 2012.
The British Film Institute, the organisation charged with preserving and promoting the nation's film and television heritage, would seem the most likely candidate.
The body is directly funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and was mentioned by Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt as he made Monday's announcement.
Last year it was reported the BFI and UK Film Council might merge in order to create what the DCMS called "a streamlined organisation".
Some at the BFI were said to be unhappy with the proposals, concerned they might come off worse were the bodies to combine operations.
Earlier this year the BFI lost the £45m funding it had been promised by the last government for a new film centre on London's South Bank.
How equipped is the BFI to take on the complex and time-consuming business of distributing public funds to film producers?
But damage will be done, and what’s most at risk is the continued existence of film in the UK, not as an entertainment medium but as a practised artform. Specifically, the prospects for British film-makers with ambitions to create truly great cinema seem very bleak indeed...
Yet Daniel Trilling of The Guardian suggests the decision to scrap the UKFC is a good idea:
We should not, though, let the shock of this announcement stop us seeing the shortcomings as well as the successes of the movie-making culture fostered by the UKFC in its 10 years of existence. A key element of Labour's arts programme, the organisation took its structural cue from the City, with executive salaries well above the industry norm. Using a mix of lottery money and direct government subsidy, the UKFC has spent more than £300m – and the tax credit system it promoted has indeed enabled a commercial renaissance.
...According to the critic and producer Colin MacCabe, the UKFC's "aggressive commercial strategy" has frequently stifled creativity. Organisations like the British Film Institute Production Board, which funded experimental films, were abolished to make way for it, and the UKFC has often insisted on having the final cut on films it funds.
The past decade has not been a creative desert – Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank and Steve McQueen's Hunger are wonderful examples of daring British films with political bite and potential mass appeal. But the praise deservedly showered on their directors also serves as a reminder that others have been allowed to fall by the wayside. 
In the long run, this week's announcement could be good news for British film. Money is likely to be tighter, but there is an opportunity at least to rethink what kind of films we want to emerge from Britain in the years to come. It is encouraging that the government is now looking to work directly with the BFI, whose chair, Greg Dyke, has already fought hard to maintain the independence of his organisation.
If only he had seen this excellent graphic on his own website, the main thrust of his argument, that the UKFC has somehow ‘stifled creativity’, he would recognise the diversity and quality of the films that they have backed is an impressive showing. When he states that ‘there is an opportunity at least to rethink what kind of films we want to emerge from Britain in the years to come’; this vague, non-committal phrase may as well have been uttered by Hunt.

Perhaps he should read Sight and Sound’s take on the matter, which makes clear just how much damage the scrapping of the UKFC could do to the British film industry:
But damage will be done, and what’s most at risk is the continued existence of film in the UK, not as an entertainment medium but as a practised artform. Specifically, the prospects for British film-makers with ambitions to create truly great cinema seem very bleak indeed...
And what the statistical yearbook tells us is that the independent film sector in the UK – the proving ground for all young film-makers – is under increasing pressure. Where there were 74 independent features made in 2003, in 2009 there were just 40. You might say that’s natural during a recession, but then the industry is wrongly seen as recession-proof – and the R&D side of it is most emphatically not. Given the apparent success of our industrial activity, it is remarkable how very few new directorial talents have been nurtured here in the past decade. Where are the new Shane Meadowses and Lynne Ramsays, let alone the new Ridley Scotts? The answer is, of course, that they’re out there, but they haven’t had the chances to develop that their forebears enjoyed...
The final sentence puts the whole discussion into perspective – where will the next important British director emerge from? Where will the next Hitchock, Nolan or David Lean hone his craft?

Thursday, 22 July 2010

A surreal comic delight - 1908 - The Thieving Hand - J. Stuart Blackton

One can draw a comparison between the birth and exponential growth of cinema and the formation of a star:
Stars are formed from huge clouds of dust and gases, mainly hydrogen and helium (which, combined, are called nebula). As the dust and gases swirl around, they break into clumps and contract due to gravitational forces. As the clumps bump each other and collect more dust and gases, they get bigger, and their gravity, which holds the star together, becomes stronger. Since gravity is so strong, the particles become more tightly packed. Once it is hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur, a star is formed. 

What makes this period (1904-13) so exciting is that it is before the art of film is ‘hot enough for nuclear fusion to occur’ and its star is born. Due to the rapidly evolving technology of the camera (within thirteen years, filmmakers were already making films that were twenty times the length of the Lumiere Brothers’ first actuality films from 1895) and the pioneering vision of filmmakers around the world (the Australians made the first feature film in 1906, the Italians made the first explicit political film a year earlier, etc.) film was very much still ‘dust and gases swirling around’.  

In 1908, film had yet to settle on an expected estimate length or branch off into particular genres; there was a wonderful overlap and fusion of unexpected ideas. There are few better examples of this then J. Stuart Blackton making The Thieving Hand two years after making the first American animated film, Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. Whereas Humorous Phases was a primitive but entertaining attempt at making an animated film, The Thieving Hand was a pseudo-surrealist live action comedy centring around a false limb.

The Thieving Hand amalgamates some of the most interesting ideas that we have encountered in the films of the first decade of the twentieth century; one can find the visual trickery of Méliès, the comic timing of Max Linder, the narrative sequencing of Porter and the playfulness of Blackton’s own animation work. The film shares certain surrealist elements with Porter’s Dream of a Rarebit Fiend
; however, the surrealist aspects of The Thieving Hand are less explicit but more comic. 

The film involves a one-armed street cobbler helping an upper class man (whose hat and cigar bear an uncanny resemblance to Max Linder in Le Premier Cigare d’un Collegien
), who repays the favour by purchasing him an arm from a limb shop (see above). The otherworldliness of the limb shop juxtaposes with the previous scene on the street in an unerring manner that Méliès’ shorter films do not quite manage. The use of a false limb functions in a more subtle and effective manner than one of Méliès’ demons; the limb also manages to function as the proverbial devil on the shoulder of the protagonist (or perhaps even, the protagonist’s subconscious) and land him in trouble.   

The film successfully synergises the aforementioned influences and styles and delivers a simple and thoroughly enjoyable film. In fact, I would suggest that it is an excellent ‘entry point’ for films from this decade. It is thoroughly engaging for a first time viewer, while also alluding to much of the best work of this decade.

Sunday, 18 July 2010

News Review - 80% of European silent films have been lost - this figure will increase...

“I read the news today, oh boy” sang John Lennon 43 years ago. Having researched the following story, I share his sentiments. It is not only estimated that 80 percent of European silent films are lost; poor preservation awareness may mean that this number increases significantly.

Unfortunately, the story has been ignored by the majority of the mainstream media (who clearly needed to write 10,000+ pieces in Inception this week), and there are only two sources for this depressing story. 

Please tweet, facebook or email this story to any friends or colleagues who have a fondness for classic film. Only with greater awareness of the matter can the necessary solutions be reached.

The EU Observer tells us (I am going to dissect the article paragraph by paragraph, as there is a lot to digest): 
Some 80 percent of European silent films are estimated to have been lost, and, due to legal challenges, even modern digital technology may not be sufficient to prevent something similar happening to other types of film, the European Commission has warned in a new report...
This news comes as quite a surprise. As reported in an earlier News Review article, it had previously been suggested that fifty percent of silent films were missing. Now this article only concerns European films, so the Americans and Asian countries may have done a much better job than the Europeans, but surely not to such a large extent? Will the figure for global films now be revised to be closer to 80% than 50%? A quote from the Irish Times piece below suggests the problem, and perhaps figure, is indeed universal.

Given that up until World War One, France was the global city for film, it would be helpful to know how many French silent films are estimated to have been lost.
Only Latvia and Denmark have so far developed film digitisation strategies covering the whole national heritage. Hungary has decided to digitise only a hundred of its movies. Less then a third of member states currently collect digital material in the way they do analogue material, the report shows...
Have Latvia and Denmark been able to develop ‘film digitisation strategies covering the whole national heritage’ because their archives only contain a small portion of the films the French or the Italians do, or can their strategy be shared with other European countries to aid them with their film preservation efforts.
It is shocking to learn that over two thirds of member states are not collecting digital material in the way they collect analogue material. A potential solution to both problems would be to establish a European centre for film preservation. This would allow the restoration process to be synergised, lower costs and hopefully provide film archivists a more substantial voice than they currently have.
All early films by Fritz Lang, Friedrich Wilhelm Murnau or Georg Wilhelm Pabst are believed to be lost, along with hundreds of others from the end of the 19th century.
This piece of information seems incredulous. Given that many of the earliest filmmakers’ work survives (e.g. The Lumiere Brothers, Méliès and Edison), it seems strange that the early films of directors working twenty years later have all been lost. Was the problem specific to German film preservation or perhaps that particular era? Either way, it is quite distressing news to learn.
According to the commission, the problem with rescuing the films lies in the lack of a new approach to preserving ageing movie tapes. Conservation of old film in sealed boxes cannot guarantee preservation for future generations. In the digital age, a new access model is needed, the commission says. However, questions about how to store and preserve digital material remain unanswered...
Why do questions about storage and digital material remain unanswered? What are the current solutions being proposed, and what are their shortfalls? Is this problem unique to cinema, or can we look to America or perhaps India, with their promise to spend $140m restoring their classic films. Perhaps an annual conference involving film preservationists would kick start the process and ensure that such an important question does not remain unanswered.
Simple digitalisation is not enough, according to Mr Koerber.
"We need to keep the analogue masters intact in case one has to come back to them. The need for this is certain, as distribution channels and technologies are changing rapidly, and re-digitalisation with better resolution and better technologies in the future should be allowed as a option," he said.
How do we make this happen, and more importantly, how much will it cost if it was implemented throughout Europe?
Beyond the technological issues, legal difficulties also constrain the effective use of and access to old films. There are several different regimes under which EU member states collect, preserve, restore and share their national film collections.
Simple administrative costs and the time needed to clear the rights often prevent the institutions from providing access to archive material. Some member states would welcome EU intervention on the question of copyright, the report from the commission says.
The solution again has to be scrapping the different regimes and agreeing on one system. And EU intervention is absolutely crucial to allow the importance of preservation to supersede film rights, administrative costs and other such unnecessary burdens.
Film industry professionals themselves can also present an obstacle, Mr Koerber thinks.
"Many producers, especially the smaller units, have no means, no understanding of and no strategy for long term archiving," he said, adding: "It is an important political task to bring producers and archives closer and make them work together."
The Irish Times is the only major publication that I could find that reported the above matter and added some important pieces of information, such as the problem of nitrate and what the process would ultimately cost:
The loss of silent movies was not confined to Europe and most American films from the same era have also disappeared, Mr Koerber says.
“It’s universal. It has to do with the fact that there were no archives,” he said.
“It’s a fact of life. People don’t keep things. They get lost. It’s not only true for silent movies. The early 1930s is very bad because it was before the first archiving.
“The early 1950s is a problem period because not everything was well organised, for obvious reasons.”
Research cited in Ms Kroes’s report says the biggest cause of the disappearance of silent movies was systematic destruction by studios, who feared piracy and considered films to be of little value beyond their theatrical run.
Neither did studios want to bear the expense of storing nitrate, the standard film stock until the introduction of acetate-based film in 1949.
Nitrate film was susceptible to fire – and decomposed if not stored in the right conditions.
Ms Kroes said digital technology can help rescue Europe’s “fragile” film heritage, adding that the preservation process needed to be improved to achieve optimum results.
Legal issues and administrative costs prevented the full exploitation of films and related material for educational and cultural use, she said.
But digital archiving is expensive. Mr Koerber suggests it would cost €500 – €600 million to save the entire backlog of German film and television, and as much as $2 billion (€1.58 billion) to safely secure the backlog of global film.
“That’s high enough to deter anyone from thinking further about it.”
The studios’ short-sightedness was farcical. They destroyed the film rather than allowing it to be preserved, they would made a lot more money in the long term. Some may come to the defence of the studios by correctly pointing out that until the rental system began (around 1912); film was either recorded over or destroyed. However, any film that came after the rental system began would not be allowed to utilise this excuse.

What is of fundamental importance now, is that we find a way to raise the money necessary to preserve silent film. This article suggests that $2bn is required to safely secure the backlog of film. Mr. Kroeber suggests that this deters anyone from thinking about it, but as previously mentioned, the Indian government is going to spend $140m to restore classic Indian films, 2,500 of which are silent films.

As we are in the midst of a global recession, it is highly unlikely that over governments will follow suit. This becomes depressingly obvious when we see the BFI having to ask the public to raise £1m to preserve nine of Hitchcock’s earlier films .

The public alone will not come close to raising the necessary money. Therefore, my suggestion would to get the major governments to agree to a 1% tax on all film revenue. I unfortunately have not been able to track down a specific figure for cinema’s global revenue – but I am sure that such a tax would help raise the money sooner rather than later. Modern day film owes a great deal to classic film, both artistically and technologically, and this is the least they could do to ensure that we do not unnecessarily lose any more films.
What are your thoughts on this matter? Does this news upset you as much as it upsets me? Do you have any potential solutions for this very expensive problem?

Tuesday, 13 July 2010

The first fully animated film - 1908 - Fantasmagorie - Emile Cohl

As with fellow early animation pioneer J. Stuart Blackton, Emile Cohl had been a cartoonist before he entered into the world of animation. According to popular myth, Cohl was walking down a Parisian street, when he noticed an advertisement for a movie that had been stolen from one of his strips. After confronting the manager of the film studio responsible for the advert (Gaumont), he was hired on the spot. Blackton and Cohl share another connection: Blacton’s 1907 film The Haunted Hotel inspired Gaumont to produce animated films:
The idea for doing animation was born from the huge success of the film "The Haunted Hotel", released by Vitagraph and directed by J. Stuart Blackton. It premiered in Paris in April 1907 and immediately there was a demand for more films using its incredible object animation techniques. According to a story told by Arnaud in 1922, Gaumont had ordered his staff to figure out the "mystery of 'The Haunted Hotel'." Cohl studied the film frame by frame, and in this way discovered the techniques of animation. 

As mentioned in one of this site’s earliest posts, there is an inextricable link between film and modern capitalism. As with contemporary cinema, if a particular genre or style of film became popular with audiences; other studios would attempt to build on (or to put it a bit more crudely, exploit) the success of such films. Whereas in modern cinema this often results in pale imitations of the film that makes a particular genre ‘fashionable’ (see the big budget ‘Roman’ films inspired by Ridley Scott’s Gladiator), during cinema’s embryonic phase, attempting to replicate a particular genre’s success often resulted in boundary pushing and wildly inventive films.

Fantasmagorie is an excellent example of this point. Both technically and visually, it significantly develops animation’s scope from Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces. Animation Xpress explains the developments Fantasmagorie makes:
...Gaumont's Emile Cohl created the first fully animated film, Fantasmagorie(1908), and in the process lifted cartoons out of the realm of trick films and started them on the path toward animated features. The two-minute film Fantasmagorie (alternatively, in English: A Fantasy, Black and White, or Metamorphosis) is made up on approximately 700 double-exposed drawings, using what is known as a "chalk-line effect", a technique probably borrowed from early animator James Stuart Blackton...
Technique of the film

To make his film, Cohl placed each drawing on an illuminated glass plate and then traced the next drawing-with variations-on top of it until he had some 700 drawings. This simple technique produced consistent movement and continuity between the drawings, and allowed just Cohl and a camera assistant to create the film. In those days, chalkboard caricaturists were common attractions and the characters in the film look as though they've been drawn on a chalkboard, but it's an illusion. By filming black lines on paper and then printing in negative Cohl makes his animations appear to be chalk drawings. 

Cohl’s film did manage to lift ‘cartoons out of the realm of trick films and started them on the path toward animated features’. In Blackton’s Humorous Phases of Funny Faces, we are presented with separate vignettes of various characters. In Fantasmagorie, there is a remarkable fluidity throughout the entire film; each scene effortlessly interweaves with the next.

The film requires repeat viewing, because some of its transitions are so rapid that the viewer misses some of the movement during a first viewing. The film’s highlight (see above) is when a woman with a pineapple-esque hat sits in front of our protagonist stick figure, and the protagonist attempts to remove various things from what turns out to be a multi layered hat. The slapstick humour one derives from the scene is similar to that found in Max Linder’s Debut d’un Patineur, which had been released a year earlier.

Fantasmagorie confirms the notion which Humorous Phases of Funny Phases suggested: animation is a distinctive branch of film that differs significantly to the moving picture. The films’ rapidity and ability to shape-shift demonstrates that animated film can perform different, and on a certain level, more impressive, visual tricks that those found in Méliès’ or Porter’s films.

Fantasmagorie’s constant inventiveness typifies the forgotten decade of cinema. During this era of film, ideas supersede concerns with both form and narrative. 

Friday, 9 July 2010

The first dramatic Russian film - 1908 - Stenka Razin - Vladimir Romashkov

One need only compare American, French and German films to see how greatly nuances of shading and colouration can vary in motion pictures. In the photographic image itself, to say nothing of the acting and script, there somehow emerge differences in national character

This astute observation from Japanese author Tanizaki Junichiro can apply equally to the film of other nations, and with this idea in mind, we can compare and contrast various countries initial attempts at film making. Stenka Razin, Russia’s 1908 entry into the world of film, re-tells a specific moment in Russia’s history, thus drawing immediate parallels with Italy’s first feature film, La Presa Di Roma. Where La Presa Di Roma was based on the key events which led to the unification of Italy in 1870, Stenka Razin focuses on the Cossack leader of the same name, who led an uprising against the Russian nobility two centuries earlier.
And as with the 1903 version of Alice in Wonderland and the 1907 version of Ben Hur, it was based on a literary source. However, unlike Alice and Ben Hur, it was not based on a source that was so long that meant only specific moments could be shot from that text. Instead, it was based on a popular Russian folk song, which had been written in 1883:
From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.

On the first is Stenka Razin
With his princess by his side
Drunken holds in marriage revels
With his beauteous young bride

From behind there comes a murmur
"He has left his sword to woo;
One short night and Stenka Razin
Has become a woman, too."

Stenka Razin hears the murmur
Of his discontented band
And his lovely Persian princess
He has circled with his hand.

His dark brows are drawn together
As the waves of anger rise;
And the blood comes rushing swiftly
To his piercing jet black eyes.

"I will give you all you ask for
Head and heart and life and hand."
And his voice rolls out like thunder
Out across the distant land.

Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Wide and deep beneath the sun,
You have never seen such a present
From the Cossacks of the Don.

So that peace may reign forever
In this band so free and brave
Volga, Volga, Mother Volga
Make this lovely girl a grave.

Now, with one swift mighty motion
He has raised his bride on high
And has cast her where the waters
Of the Volga roll and sigh.

"Dance, you fools, and let's be merry
What is this that's in your eyes?
Let us thunder out a chanty
To the place where beauty lies."

From beyond the wooded island
To the river wide and free
Proudly sailed the arrow-breasted
Ships of Cossack yeomanry.
This was a sensible, smart move which allowed Stenka Razin to use a literary source that actually matched film’s relatively short length at that period.
The folk song is a helpful companion piece to the film; it is clear that the film follows its plot quite closely. It is worth pointing out that by using the folk song as the film’s source rather than any historical account of Razin’s life, it allows the film to focus on an emotionally charged moment in his life, rather than focusing on one of his military conquests. The mythology of Razin would only add to the film’s popularity, as was the case with earlier films passed on popular figures, The Great Train Robbery and The Story of the Kelly Gang. Yet unlike those two films, which centre on the violent actions of outlaws, Stenka Razin focuses on its protagonist’s (drunken) abandonment of his princess. 
Thus from its inception, Russian film proved itself to be capable of combining various themes in a populist yet subversive manner.

Stenka Razin, produced by Alexander Drankov (who had previously made a number of Lumiere-esque actuality films), was released on 15th October 1908 (see the original poster for the film above), a date widely acknowledged as being the birth of Russian cinema. Drankov was very much aware of the importance of this film:
Having spent enormous amounts of money, human labour and time I did everything in my power to ensure that the technical and artistic level of the movie is appropriately high for an epoch-making film in our cinema. 
Unfortunately, the version of the film we have does not contain any score. This is a pity, because Brigit Beumers’ well written A History of Russian Cinema emphasises the importance of the film’s score:
The score for the film was specially composed by Mikhail Ippolitov-Ivanov; this was an outstanding innovation at the time, if we bear in mind that most cinemas of the period employed only pianists to accompany the films. The use of specially composed music highlights the importance of the occasion: the folk songs written for this first Russian film were intended for the audience to hum along to.
Therefore from its inception, Russian cinema was attempting to form a more symbiotic relationship with its audience. Rather than the audience being passive and merely watching the film, Stenka Razin actively encouraged their participation. This adds further weight to the suggestion that choosing a popular folk song as the film’s source was a clever idea. The audience would not only be aware of the film’s story, but the score would also have been familiar to them (listen to the full Russian folk song at the bottom of this post).

The film opens with a shot of Razin’s boat in the distance, with the Volga river at the forefront of the shot. The movement of the river foreshadows some of Tarkovsky’s finest cinematic moments, and is perhaps this film’s most visually impressive scene. 
The majority of the film involves a large number of characters accompanying Razin and his Persian princess around his ship and a forest. Their function is similar to that of the mob in one of Shakespeare’s Roman plays – they are a fickle bunch who will ultimately have a big say in the protagonist’s prospects. After joining in the merriments of the princess’ arrival, then soon turn on her and decide to get Razin drunk in order to make him abandon her and return to their cause.
A slight criticism of the film would be that the titles play too large a role in conveying the plot.  For example, they make us aware of the mob’s plot to get Razin drunk, but we then only get a glimpse of the mob throwing their hats in the air – it would have been more helpful to have actually seen the act of Razin getting drunk.  
Returning to Junichiro’s quote, Stenka Razin is a distinctly Russian film. From its shots of the Volga to its almost obstinate refusal to focus on its main protagonist for more than one minor scene, it is a real pleasure to see Russia enriching the melting pot of cinema with its unique ingredients.



Monday, 5 July 2010

The first 'Roman' film -1907 - Ben Hur - Sidney Olcott

The first cinematic adaptation of Lew Wallace’s novel Ben Hur (watch the first part above) is almost completely ruined by the abysmal quality of the film’s print. It is perhaps what those who have negative pre-conceptions of early silent film would expect from films from this era: the print is so poor that at times it is hard to decipher what action is taking place; it is the sort of copy that you might expect when you foolishly decide to buy a pirated DVD from a street vendor, only to find that the film has been recorded with a shoddy hand held camcorder.

However, given how much film has been lost from this era, we should be grateful for any surviving films, no matter how poor their quality is. Nevertheless, this is the first film that we have looked at from the forgotten decade (1904-1913) that does not appear to be of great significance (apart from one scene), from either a technical or aesthetic point of view.

The film’s greatest legacy is legal:
This movie is most notable as a precedent in copyright law. The movie was made without the permission of the author's estate, which was common practice at that time. The screenwriter, Gene Gauntier, remarked in her 1928 autobiography how the film industry at that time infringed upon everything. As a result of the production of Ben Hur, Harper & Brothers and the author's estate brought suit against Kalem Studios, the Motion Picture Patents Company, and Gauntier for copyright infringement. The United States Supreme Court ultimately ruled against the film company in 1911. This ruling established the precedent that all motion picture production companies must first secure the film rights of any previously published work still under copyright before commissioning a screenplay based on that work.
Given the recent spate of legal action being taken by the film industry taken against file-sharers, there is a certain degree of irony to the fact that the film industry was on the receiving end of legal action for copyright infringement in its infancy.

Returning to the film, even if the print were to be restored to its full glory, there is not much in the film to suggest that our perception of it would alter to a significant extent. This adaptation of Ben Hur appears to be a competent attempt at staging scenes from the film. I have seen several reviews of the film criticise its inability to follow the book’s plot, but given the fact that the film is eleven minutes long, such criticism misses the point.
We are about to look at several literary adaptations from this era (mostly from the works of Shakespeare and Dickens), and to dismiss all of these films simply because film technology has not allowed these works to be filmed unabridged would seem illogical. In fact, it is exciting to see which parts of the various works the director’s find to be the most cinematic and to what extent their decision making was correct. Limitations have never hindered great art; often, they enhance it.

On this occasion though, the film maker, a Canadian named Sidney Olcott, has emphasised the theatrical rather than the cinematic. The first half of the film feels as if it is a play is being filmed, and given the obvious fact that early films are silent and that there is a scarcity of explanatory titles, the only things on offer in this section of the film are the marvellous costumes.

The one exception to this criticism is the chariot race, which appears at the film’s denouement (watch the second part of the film above), and it is this section which warrants this film’s inclusion on this list. The speed with which the chariots fly past the camera highlights the audacious nature of the scene, nothing this daring had been attempted up until this point in cinematic history. The film successfully masks the fact that this section of the film was shot on a beach in New Jersey with fireman playing the roles of the charioteers and the horses that pulled their fire carts being used to pull the chariots.

Twelve years earlier, in the Lumiere Brothers’ Arrivee d'un train en gare a La Ciotat, a train gradually crawled its way into the centre of the shot, mesmerising and frightening contemporary audiences. Now, horses were flying past the camera at a blistering pace, symbolising the rapidity of film’s growth.

This scene alone does not justify the remainder of the film. But you cannot help admire Olcott’s attempt to create a film that may have beyond film’s capabilities at that particular point.. 

Saturday, 3 July 2010

Slapstick is born - 1907 - Début d'un patineur (The Unskillful Skater) - Louis J. Gasnier

The cinematic development of slapstick comedy can be traced back to films such as Début d'un patineur. As Linder’s character flounders in his skates and later gets chased by a group of children who are far superior skaters than he is, the endless possibilities for this genre, particularly during the silent era, becomes readily apparent.

Even though it had been only a year since he filmed Le premier cigare d'un collegian, it is clear that Linder’s style and comedic timing had evolved. Despite the impressiveness of the latter film, Début d'un patineur is a better orchestrated and funnier film. Most importantly it makes better use of the visual medium.

Whereas Le premier cigare d'un collegian was based around the experience of Linder’s character smoking a cigar, which did not lend itself particularly well to visual comedy (although Linder did an excellent job of portraying the effects the cigar has on him), the decision to base this film around Linder’s character attempting to skate opens itself to a greater array of visual comedic possibilities.  

The opening shot of Début d'un patineur demonstrates the magnetic effect of Linder’s  Parisian boulevardier persona. The camera focuses on a pathway in a busy park as various Parisians walk by. As Linder wanders into the shot, even from a distance his languorous movements draws the audience in. From Méliès Voyage Dans La Lune to Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, many of the movies of this era relied on an ensemble cast to portray the film’s storytelling. Linder though, somehow manages to create a persona that captivates his audience almost single-handedly.

As mentioned in the previous post on Linder, movement is crucial to the effectiveness of Linder’s persona. Whereas previously we admired the subtleties of Linder’s movement, on this occasion it is his crass movements, for example, as he first attempts to use the ice skates, which must be commended. And it is this form of physical action that lends itself ever so well to silent film. Such action rarely requires exposition and can thus exist independently of language. It is no coincidence that the silent films that have endured among mainstream modern viewers are usually Chaplin or Keaton films. 

Despite Linder’s character clearly having little idea of how to balance himself on his skates, the audience is always left with the impression that Linder the actor is in complete control of every action. One might suggest that this is giving Linder too much credit; however, the comic timing of Linder’s acrobatics are almost perfect, which suggests that he knew exactly what he was doing.

The decision to show the entire process of Linder’s journey, from entering the park up to attempting to skate, only adds to the humour of his skating antics. His character clearly stands out among the usual skaters, and the look of bemusement of the men renting the skates is shared by the audience. It is in these scenes where Linder’s brilliance truly shines. There is embellishment that does not slip into exaggeration, everything is measured.

Perhaps the highlight of the film is when a more experienced skater attempts to help him up and the two of them engage in an accidental dance. As good as Linder is when he is performing a comic routine by himself, his comic chemistry with this other character suggests that his finest moments in his future films will come when he is placed in such scenarios.  

Finally, the film also played a key historical role in regards to recognising the author of a film:
"Les Debut d'un patineur" (1907) is remarkable because Linder's confused snob appeared for the first time. When in his credits for the movie "Max et la doctoresse" appeared the following text: "written by Max Linder and played by the author". It was the first time in film history that there was mentioned an author in connection with a cinematic work.
Their is a delicious irony to this milestone - Linder was not yet a director! Which in turn asks important question about who actually authors a film, particularly in the case of a slapstick comedy. The fact that this post has not mentioned this film's director even once suggests that I agree with the crediting of this film. But in a broader context, the question of authorship becomes far more ambiguous.