In the silent era, the movies became such a popular phenomenon that special halls were built to house them, nicknamed “picture palaces”. So it is not such a stretch that a festival dedicated to the period should be held in Killruddery House, Bray, Co. Wicklow, an estate owned by festival patrons Lord and Lady Meath. In another sense, however, this move from picture palace to country house reflects the shift in silent film viewing from a mass to an elite audience, and hides the fact that cinema, especially in its infancy, was condemned and controlled by much of the ruling class.

Nevertheless, it will be hard to endure a regular cinema again after four days watching old films in an earl’s library: the screen set up in an alcove where puppet shows or magic displays were perhaps once staged; the portraits, oak-lined panelling, gilded candelabra, worn volumes, bone china and the old clock that chimed every half-hour to test the mettle of the three accompanists (Elaine Brennan, Stephen Horne and Josh Johnston); the Big House chill that forced some spectators to bring blankets – all of this was as marvellous and remote and antiquated as the silent cinema being celebrated (Screen 2 was a mobile cinema parked in the stableyard which, Tardis-like, was more spacious than it seemed outside).

With such a setting, it was appropriate that the opening feature should be by an aristocrat, Anthony Asquith, A Cottage on Dartmoor (1929). Other screenings included the mawkish and misogynist Poil de carotte (Julien Duvivier, 1925), which anticipates Sunrise in surprising ways, and the politically incorrect Chang (Merian C. Cooper and Ernest B. Schoedsack, 1927), made hugely enjoyable by the virtuosity of accompanist Horne, a veritable one-man-band with flute, percussion as well as piano (he had previously jangled the latter’s wires during the “murder” sequence of A Cottage on Dartmoor), and the pervading scent of Siamese basil provided by the festival’s artist-in-residence, Jenny Moran. These films are relatively well known, so this report shall concentrate on the less familiar portions of the program.

High Treason (Maurice Elvey, 1929) was made as a British response to Metropolis, and can only seem impoverished in comparison, with its crude model work, religiose didacticism (I know, Lang’s film has a strong element of this too), and failure to convincingly imagine a future world, focussing on waffly ideas rather than details. In this, its nearest British descendent is the more skilfully designed but equally inert Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1936; that film’s star, Raymond Massey, has a small role here), rather than the classic dystopias of Orwell or Huxley, although an organ whose multi-instrumentalism is shown in a dazzling montage, may have influenced the famous synaesthetic organ in Brave New World.

Films of this sort are either noted for the accuracy of their predictions – here we have early webcams and TV streams, proto-hand-dryers, and an aerial bombardment that augurs both the Blitz and Hiroshima; or its allegorical engagement with the issues of its own time. High Treason was based on a play by right-wing MP, Noel Pemberton-Billing, and the black-suited military commanded by a mustachioed lothario (Jameson Thomas) unintentionally, inevitably and unfortunately evoke memories of P.G. Wodehouse’s later Roderick Spode and his Black Shorts. The heroine (Benita Hume) conflates the two aspects of Metropolis’ Maria that, split, made her so alarming: she is a gold lamé-wearing, shimmying instigator of popular revolt, as well as the apostle of peace.

The film’s most interesting sequence imagines the result of conscription on the female population, the camera lingering as women change into their uniforms, discussing the ethics of war in their underwear, just as it did earlier to peek at Evelyn in the shower. In fact, as with the films of Cecil B. De Mille, it is at such prurient moments, with their appeal to a (male) audience’s less noble instincts, rather than with the idealistic speechifying, that High Treason comes alive. The screening, part of a program entitled A Future Past, was followed by a demonstration of making ice cream with some sort of liquid nitrogen poured into a dry-ice-coughing machine. Yum.

Roger Doyle performed a new suite of variations on his Budawanny soundtrack, performed after a screening of that film (Bob Quinn, 1987). Just as Doyle seems to force wave upon wave of sound from the piano’s physical limits, so Quinn’s spare tale reverberates with images, ideas and emotions. Budawanny has been called a modern “silent” film, but the mute central narrative is a flashback framed by a Bishop (Peadar Lamb) dictating a reply to an ex-priest (Donal McCann) who has written a book based on his experiences on the island of Budawanny, which form the subject of the film. Thus the verbal, the Jesuitical and the hypocritical are linked to organised religion, cynically appropriating the right to exercise social control – what seems like the Bishop’s personal confession is stillborn and suppressed when his letter isn’t sent. The illicit affair between a Catholic priest and his housekeeper (Maggie Fegan), on the other hand, is expressed through “silent” imagery, camera movement and music – the stark yet luminous landscapes are shot in the manner of Flaherty, Murnau and, especially, the Scandanavian silent cinema (Budawanny was appropriately screened after Ingeborg Holm [Victor Sjöström, 1913]); while the “primitive” medium is used to question clichés of the “primitive” West so prevalent in 20th-century Irish self-perception.

This is not to suggest that Budawanny is crude anti-religious polemic. Rather, it seeks to renew Christian art in the manner of the early Celts, the mediaeval manuscript illuminators, Caravaggio, Gauguin and Godard, through provocative analogies designed to startle the viewer out of received opinions, and to reaffirm and expand the definition of the spiritual. So Marian‘s suicide attempt in Clew Bay becomes a baptism or rebirth, not damnation; the “quare Holy Family” consists of an adulterous priest, an unmarried pregnant woman, and a mentally disabled child (Susan O’Flaherty), who, as the Jesus figure, finds the lost sheep (her dog) while the islanders flounder in the dark.

Or, as so often with Quinn, these could be traps for the unwary or pretentious; if the mark of the auteur is personal style, than Quinn’s consists of a unique, slippery tone. In its mix of caricature, empathy, farce, tragedy, melodrama, allegory and scholarship, it is impossible to know Quinn’s position on anything, which was surely the point in the deeply conformist Ireland of the 1980s, where everybody was expected to take a side and advocate it shrilly. With its echoes of the Kerry Babies and Anne Lovett, the divorce and abortion referenda, mass emigration, and its intimations of the religious and secular abuses of power that would come to light in the 1990s, it is Budawanny, rather than the more immediately “relevant” or “engaged” likes of Pigs (Cathal Black, 1984), The Courier (Frank Deasy and Joe Lee, 1988), or Hush-a-bye Baby (Margo Harkin, 1990), that tells us what life was like in that low, dishonest decade, postcard-perfect imagery marred by rubbish strewn in sites kept away from the tourists. For someone who grew up in the 1980s, it was like looking at a family photo album.

As you would expect from a Bob Quinn film, underpinning all this is History: the crone who wanders through the story, part-walking panopticon, part-Peig Sayers, part-Kathleen Ni Houlihan; the sheela-na-gigs as reminder of a pagan-inspired Christianity suppressed by mainstream Catholicism; the flying geese. The film was shot on Clare Island, Co. Mayo, and Quinn invokes the island’s paradoxical historical and cultural status. It is a repository of Ireland’s lost visual heritage (the medieval wall paintings of Clare Island Abbey which, like Budawanny, fuse secular and sacred); its independence – and possible psychic insularity – from Ireland’s historical invaders due to geographical remoteness; its status as possibly the most mapped, and therefore most known and colonised place on Earth when it was surveyed between 1909-11 by Robert Lloyd Praeger (an Ulsterman; Budawanny was made at the height of the Northern Ireland troubles) – all these associations feed into the film’s complex mixture.

The 2010 Killruddery Film Festival, produced by Killruddery Arts and directed by Daniel Fitzpatrick, was a sequel to last year’s Silent Film Festival, which grew out of shorter seasons at Killruddery in 2007 and 2008. As suggested by its subtitle – “Celebrating lost, overlooked and forgotten cinema” – this year’s event expanded to include lectures, artists’ films (curated with Elisa Kay and Eilís Lavelle), workshops for children, and favourite films chosen by Festival Guests and staff (so, for example, John Boorman introduced Seven Days to Noon [John and Roy Boulting, 1950]; Rebecca Miller picked Devi [Satyajit Ray, 1960]). The core of the festival was still silent cinema, programmed by filmmaker and historian Kevin Brownlow, who inadvertently and ruefully provided the festival’s emblematic moment when the 16mm projector screening The Patsy (King Vidor, 1928) broke down, and Kevin had to rush to his bedroom to retrieve a Harold Lloyd DVD, although Never Weaken (Fred C. Newmeyer, 1921) did provide welcome comic relief in an often heavy-going schedule.

Another strand focussed on the video essay, and when signing up for Matt Zoller Seitz’s talk “On the developing art of the video essay”, I was thinking of the form practised by the likes of Chris Petit or Agnès Varda, but got instead the kind of illustrated fanboy blog you find as extras on countless DVDs. In the speaker’s otherwise excellent analysis Zen Pulp: the World of Michael Mann, “the viewer” is represented by a pair of male eyes, and that is the whole problem with this genre, much film criticism of the last 15 years, and, to be frank, the ideology behind worthy DVD producers like Criterion and (the pointedly named) Masters of Cinema. It is a project to return film culture to the Lost Eden of “pure” cinephilia (somewhere around the mid-1960s), before the knowledge offered by feminist, Marxist, post-colonial, queer and other progressive serpents opened up what a film could (or could not) mean, and questioned the very white middle-class masculinity that allowed such cinephilia to flourish.

With the possible exception of Steven Boone’s outstanding, complex and moving Notes for a David Lynch Adaptation of Moonwalk, none of the “essays” screened during the talk even acknowledged a social, cultural or historical world outside of cinema; all treated film like the New Critics studied poetry – as self-sufficient constructs – and took their makers at their word. Okay, so it’s nice to be able to see visual evidence of the points these cinephiles make, but compared to a print article like Mark Sinker’s rich, allusive and wide-ranging “Alice through the Lens” in April’s Sight & Sound, or recent video essays by Tag Gallagher, Jean-Pierre Gorin or Roland François Lack, these pieces seem impoverished and illiterate.

Thom Andersen’s much-admired but rarely seen Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003) looks at the relation between the “real” Los Angeles, its histories and mythologies, and the way these have been represented (or, more usually, not) by the industry which represents it around the world: Hollywood. It was introduced as a video essay in the tradition of Histoire(s) du cinéma (Jean-Luc Godard, 1988-98), but Andersen is by day an academic, and at times Los Angeles played like a very long, dutifully structured essay or illustrated lecture, with few of the ludic free associations of a Godard or Chris Marker.

Nevertheless, the range of clips – over 200, from Keystone to Jacques Demy to soft porn and independent via the usual suspects like film noir, Zabriskie Point, Chinatown and Blade Runner – and the beguilingly crabby commentary affirmed Andersen’s stated credo: “If we can appreciate documentaries for their dramatic qualities, perhaps we can appreciate fiction films for their documentary revelations.” The film was properly angry at how omissions in popular film representation mirror wider social prejudice; and if, as is claimed, it is responsible for the rediscovery of Kent MacKenzie’s The Exiles (1961), then Los Angeles is worth playing.

Brownlow gave a talk on his legendary series, Unknown Chaplin, broadcast by Thames Television in 1983. Made with his late partner David Gill, the documentary utilised previously unseen footage found in Chaplin’s own vaults, the collection of Raymond Rohauer (described bitterly by Brownlow as a “pirate”), and elsewhere to show how the effortless clowning we see on screen was the result of hours, days, months of filmed rehearsals, re-shoots and experimentation, where brilliant ideas would be refined and usually discarded. The nadir of this process was the shooting of City Lights (1931), where the amount of “idle” days recorded in the studio schedule ran well over a year, as Chaplin tried desperately to rationalise the crucial scene where the blind flower-seller (Virginia Cherrill) mistakes the Tramp for a millionaire.

To make this three-hour treasure, Brownlow and Gill had to battle ungracious estates, extortionate copyright holders and resentful collaborators, including, perhaps understandably, Cherrill, who endured the punishing schedule with little encouragement or guidance, was excluded from off-set socialising by Chaplin, and was at one point sacked and replaced by Georgia Hale, before being rehired on more favourable terms at the instigation of Marion Davies, and only when the cost of further re-shoots was prohibitive. And yet, as Brownlow reminded us, these were the golden days when long, detailed programs about silent cinema (encouraged by the famous 1980 revival of Abel Gance’s Napoléon [1927], and Brownlow and Gill’s previous series Hollywood [1980], which spawned Unknown Chaplin) were financed by major television studios and broadcast to primetime audiences.

An over-riding theme of the festival was the importance of film archives, their preservation and dissemination through public screenings, and the role they play in constructing or contesting local and national identities and historical consciousness. Its potential highlight was the two programs of home movies, newsreels, travelogues, advertisements, shorts and other “orphan” films hosted by Sunniva O’Flynn of the Irish Film Archive (IFA): Down Wicklow Way and Back Down Wicklow Way. However, archival – and, indeed, aesthetic – principles must include the actual projection of films. One can forgive, as part of the winning amateur spirit that pervaded the festival, projector malfunctions, but not silent films shown at the wrong speed (as many of the IFA films were), or the screening of works shot in the Academy ratio stretched to widescreen or cropped. The audience didn’t seem to mind, however…

Newcastle Sanatorium (Pat Butler, 1946) was commissioned by radical doctor Noël Browne, and is a kind of snuff-movie-cum-public-information-lecture as it shows what Browne called “macerating” surgery performed on tuberculosis sufferers in the appalling conditions obtaining in Irish sanatoria at the time, and which would be remedied when Browne was appointed Minister for Health in 1948. An episode from John Tompkins’ Country Magazine series (1950s) featured a young Imogen Stuart with her husband Ian in their studio before she achieved fame as Ireland’s pre-eminent ecclesiastical sculptor. Liam Ó Laoghaire, pioneering historian of Irish cinema, made Mr Careless Goes to Town (1949), a film about dangerous driving for the Department of Local Government, and is worth comparing with Dreyer’s contemporary De nåede færgen (They Caught the Ferry, 1948) on the same theme. An Irish edition of the British Movietone newsreel series showed Robert Mitchum, Dan O’Herlihy and Cyril Cusack filming A Terrible Beauty (Tay Garnett, 1960) in the national film studio at Ardmore, up the road from Killruddery.

But the most astonishing discovery featured Cusack’s wife Maureen; From Time to Time (1954) was a follow-up to Return to Glennascaul (1951) by Gate Theatre founders Hilton Edwards and Mícheál Mac Liammóir, which had been shot with Orson Welles during one of the many breaks in the shooting of Othello (1952). From Time to Time is immeasurably richer: a cyclist (Cusack) bumps her head in a fall, and hallucinates that she is being taken prisoner by guerrilla fighters in the Wicklow mountains. The fusion of dream and nationalist heritage, with its often brutal effect on women, is unparalleled in Irish cinema, and this film deserves to be more widely known. The screening was made even more moving by the presence of its writer, George Morrison, future director of classic found-footage documentaries Mise Éire (1959) and Saoirse? (1961), whose funny anecdotes and self-deprecation belied his recent stroke.

It was at these screenings that some semblance of the “popular” was revived, with the local audiences responding vocally to films shot in their home county and often featuring people they knew. But not too popular – one film showed a ploughing match held in Killruddery House in the 1950s; Lord Meath recognised one of his old servants in it!

Killruddery Film Festival
11-14 March 2010
Festival website: http://killrudderyarts.com/filmfestival/entry/