“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.” (1)
Bologna’s Cinema Ritrovato festival invites us to explore the past. But it reveals that there are many different worlds in the past, and there are many rewarding ways of exploring those worlds.
On offer for exploration was a total of 360 films, from 1895 to the present, and from less than a minute to over three hours. As acknowledged in the catalogue, this was a festival for “the historians and archivists…for those interested in stars or auteurs or genre, or those obsessed with cinema science or erotic aficionados.” Reflecting this, a variety of underlying approaches were used to develop the programming streams.
The personality as auteur is a popular way of programming films, whether that personality is an actor, director, writer or some other role. Bologna continued its dedication to Charles Chaplin with restorations of some of his early works, marking 100 years since the emergence of the tramp – in Kid Auto Races in Venice (1914). From half a century later, James Dean’s three major studio films (Rebel Without a Cause, Nicholas Ray, 1955; East of Eden, Elia Kazan, 1955; and Giant, George Stevens, 1956) were presented in new digital restorations
William Wellman was this year’s subject for a Hollywood career straddling both the silent and sound eras. This career of around 80 films stretches from his first credit The Man Who Won (1923) (2) to Lafayette Escadrille (1958). I’ve generally had a less than enthusiastic response to Wellman, based mainly on access to his later films, such as The High and the Mighty (1954), an entertaining but rather bland product more characterised by studio control and best-seller syndrome.
But Bologna’s unearthing of some of his earlier work revealed a lively personality closely in tune with his times. For his career, the dividing mark is surely 1934, and the enforcement of the Production Code. Wellman’s pre-Code films have a vitality and engagement that some of his later films miss. They are marked by the Depression, and the sense that “We’re all in it together.” Wild Boys of the Road (1933), possibly his best known film of this period, (3) takes us on the road with a group of kids who have to support each other to survive in a world that has turned its back on them. Wellman’s sympathy and admiration is for these youngsters who survive because they work as a group, not as individuals. These are kids who face homelessness and hunger, disability caused by the actions of authorities, rape and exploitation. But it is their sense of camaraderie and mutual support that at the end sees at least a glimmer of hope for their futures.
In The Star Witness (1931) the contemporary evil, and box-office magnet, of gangsters and organised crime is defeated when the Leeds family acts as one. Acting styles are stilted to today’s ears in this early talkie, and the pivotal character of old Grandpa (Chic Sale) comes across as an ersatz- Fordian character of the lovable, eccentric Civil War veteran. Its climax anticipates how Doris Day located her also-kidnapped son in The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock, 1956). But the film has palpable warmth in its depiction of the family, with Wellman taking the time in his opening reels to establish the Leeds as a family, both universal and unique.
The scene of conflict and co-operation is more concentrated in Other Men’s Wives (1931). Railroad worker Jack falls in love with Lily, his work-mate’s wife, when Lily and Bill take him in as a boarder during the depression. Wellman presents this triangle situation without the hypocritical moralising or guilt that would mark similar Hollywood dramas post-Code. As Lily, Mary Astor has never been more vibrant and enchanting. The scale model work shows how far special effects departments have come since the 1930s, but no allowance needs to be made for the insight into human behaviour from Wellman.
Wellman was so clearly part of this Depression-era America, and despite its social, economic and political problems, the films of this period respond to the humanity that was also part of it. As the Depression faded, however this brotherhood also seems to have faded. The loss of this sense of community marks his 1948 Yellow Sky. Although set in 1867, it is very much a post-Depression, post-World War II world that Wellman is really depicting, a cut-throat, competitive world. And it is, socially and emotionally, a much impoverished world. Don’t work together, just look out for Number One. Dude (Richard Widmark) sees an opportunity to profit for himself at the expense of his companions, a small band led by Gregory Peck who had given the film a rip-roaring start, when they held up a small bank in an isolated Western town.
This is a stylised world, Wellman using his graphic sense of composition and Joseph MacDonald’s crisp black-and-white photography to highlight the suspense and tension of the plot. But it is also a film that has an elegiac sense of loss. Now we live in a world of selfishness, mistrust and lack of humanity, not the world he had depicted so forcefully in his pre-Code, depression-era films at the start of his career
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With its commitment to film restoration and preservation, it is not surprising that several programming strands for the Cinema Ritrovato take as their focus the development of various components of cinema’s technology allied with the use of that technology by creative filmmakers. A new technology becomes another key to the past.
This year saw the culmination of a three-year survey exploring filmmaking in Japan during the transition. We are familiar with film criticism exploring the distinctive characteristics of Hollywood’s studios – MGM’s gloss, the grit of Warner Bros. for example. This instalment of the Bologna focus drew on the early sound output of the Shochiku studio, still a major production outfit in Japan today.
Where in many parts of the world the conversion of the movie industry to sound was almost overnight, the silent tradition lingered for about half a decade in Japan, bolstered perhaps by the popularity of star benshis, the performers who “narrated” the silent films for their audiences. Other factors affecting the introduction of sound in Japan include issues around which sound system would prevail, and a shortage of sound stages for the production of talkie films.
Shochiku had started in 1895 as a kabuki production company, and is still involved in this highly stylised Japanese form of theatre, with its traditions and many of its stories dating back over three hundred years. But the films screened at Bologna are of a very different world. It is almost as though the lives of the audience of the day were being reflected back to them from the screen, in stories of teenagers spying on their newly-wed neighbours, or a mother coming to stay with her son who has not quite made the brilliant career they both at one time envisaged.
The Only Son (Hitori Musuko, 1936) was Yasujiro Ozu’s belated first sound film, and has had good exposure in the west. Ryosuke had stood out in his provincial school, and his teacher had encouraged his mother to continue his education, though as a sole parent, factory worker she could hardly afford to do this. Now, he is in Tokyo and is almost out of touch with her. She doesn’t even know she has a grandson. Ozu views his characters with understanding and pleasure. Their flaws and short fallings are clearly visible, but they are never seen as any less than real people, trying to do their best for those close to them.
A year earlier, Kenji Mizoguchi had made his first sound film, Gubijinso (The Field Poppy). He had already made over fifty silent films, many of which are now lost – and ahead were another thirty films, many of which are among the great films of world cinema. As in many of his films, a woman is the protagonist, viewed with at times an almost merciless insight, but also with a sensitivity to the way that a woman’s life is proscribed heavily by society, with a tension between traditional expectations and new Westernised values. A woman’s future seemed to lie only in marriage, usually arranged for her. But when a young woman exercises some independence in wanting to decide for herself who her partner will be, she cannot always be sure that she really can control her future.
If Ozu and Mizoguchi have become giants of world cinema, the selection at Bologna demonstrated there were other fine directors at work at Shochiku at this time, directors who deserve to be better known. Hiroshi Shimizu’s Nakinuretta Haru No Onna Yo (A Woman Crying in the Spring, 1933) again looked at the role of women, in its story of a bar hostess trying to make a life for herself in the harsh wintry north of Japan, in a mining community. Within its seemingly detached observation of its characters, it had a tenderness and affection for its men and women hardened by life trying to find ways of regaining their humanity, with a child or in a new relationship.
Yasujiro Shimazu was represented by two films. Tonari No Yae-Chan (Our Neighbour Miss Yae, 1934)again was a film that could have been about many of the people watching it in Japan on its release. Its story set among a small group of neighbours is typical of the shomin-geki genre, or dramas of the lower middle class that were so much part of Shochiku’s output.
The following year he made Shunkinsho: Okoto To Sasuke (Okoto and Sasuke, 1934).This is from a novella by Junichiro Tanazaki. (4) This is a very romantic melodrama, where you do accept that a young man can be so enamoured of his capricious, self-centred mistress that he willingly blinds himself so he can devote himself even more wholeheartedly to her. Like other films in this selection its use of the new technology of sound shows an almost complete awareness of the artistic potentials of sound, with its sophisticated use of diegetic music, bird song and sounds as perhaps only a blind person is aware of.
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Polish New Wave and CinemaScope was another interesting strand linking a national cinema and a developing cinematic technology, in this case the wide screen process of CinemaScope. A sample of the films screened showed an interesting tension between filmmakers and the official state-controlled means of production. CinemaScope was inherently a capitalist, market-driven development, introduced by Hollywood not for artistic or aesthetic purposes, but as a marketing tool in the war with the new medium of television. As a communist controlled economy, Poland did not have the same commercial imperatives. But CinemaScope was a process that could be employed as part of the propaganda arsenal of the state, showing its citizens it was up to date with the west.
Przygoda z piosenką (Adventure with a Song, Stanisław Bareja, 1968) is an example of a film where these propaganda intents dominate at the expense of any credible work. It is an attempt at a hip pop movie, aimed at its youth market aware of pop and teen culture sweeping the west at that time. Communist attempts to limit this western capitalist phenomenon by declaring it decadent and by banning it were having less and less success, so let’s beat them at their own game!
The result is now little more than a curiosity, an example of deeply insincere filmmaking. You start to worry when our heroine triumphs at an outdoor pop festival with a song called “The Donkey Has Two Troughs”. But soon she’s on her way to make it in the west – where else but Paris. This is a Paris cobbled together from stock footage, Stalinist concert halls and perhaps some minimal location shooting. This Paris is perhaps as unreal as the Paris of Gentleman Prefer Blondes (Howard Hawks, 1953). But Hawks’s Paris never pretended to be real, and was complete in its own creation. The Polish film grabs elements of the ‘60s Western teen pic, but never integrates them into a satisfying or sincere whole. But, it must have had some impact in Poland. In 2005, the director had a street in Warsaw renamed after him.
Pharaoh (Faraon¸Jerzy Kawalerowicz, 1966) is an example of a work from a very strong filmmaker, seemingly comfortable with State controlled filmmaking. It certainly required full State support, for a film that took over three years to make, with extensive location shooting abroad,including in Uzbekistan. It was adapted from a novel byBolesław Prus, published in 1895-6 – and according to one source, the favourite novel of Joseph Stalin.
Although Stalin was no longer a Communist immortal, it is easy to see the ideology in the film that would have been endorsed by the Polish regime in the 1960s. It is a story of corruption and contempt for the ordinary person perpetrated by an all-powerful priesthood. This is a political situation justifying revolution. When he succeeds his father, Pharaoh Rameses XII (d. 1070 BC), attempts to confront this religious control, but it is ultimately a losing battle. The entrenched power of privilege is too formidable, even for the pharaoh. The priests are presented as cynically using their knowledge and the citizenry’s ignorance to resist any attacks onto their power. Rameses is motivated to use his position for the good of his people, but is defeated by the cunning and self-interest of the priests, who are able to manipulate those around him.
Interestingly, this view of a society with institutions so corrupt and powerful that it destroys its best matches another major Eastern European film of the same time, Grigori Kozintsev’s Hamlet (Gamlet, 1964). This presented Hamlet as a man only too aware of the corruption around him, desperate to overcome it, but ultimately crushed by forces more powerful and self-seeking.
Kawalerowicz’s control of the ‘Scope screen is masterly, with the sandy yellow palette embodying a sense of heat, and sterility. It is just as appropriate for scenes with one or two characters caught in a corner of the royal buildings, as for moments with thousands of citizens and an army stretching far off into the distance. The pace is slow but steady, relentless luring us into the very psyche of this would-be humanitarian ruler.
It is also easy to see why the Communist authorities would have beamed on Andrzej Wajda’s Ashes (Popioły, 1965) Here we are in a momentous period of Poland’s history, its experiences in the Napoleonic wars. Based on a classic novel published in 1902 by Stefan Żeromski, as it follows Rafal Olbromski (Daniel Olbrychski) as he drifts from his life among the gentry, feeling remote from world event until he becomes caught up in the turbulence of the Napoleonic era. It is a film that addresses questions of Polish identity, sovereignty, nationality.
Before the credits, we see a group of Polish soldiers from the 1797 Italian campaign, bedraggled but singing the new Polish national anthem. After the credits we are in a very different world, with the carefree gentry enjoying the exhilaration of a sleigh ride, remote from whatever is happening in the rest of Europe. In crisp black and white CinemaScope, with the camera racing along with the horses over the ice this is an exuberant sequence, leading us into the world of the nobility, and ultimately to Olbromski. In a film structured around a series of episodes, he becomes our guide into and through this world, and Olbrychski’s charisma is well used by Wajda for this purpose.
Gradually, very gradually, we sense the impact of Napoleon creeping into this carefree world. We come across an injured soldier from a campaign. A landlord finds the conflict between French emperor and Holy Roman emperor is having an impact on his relationship with his peasants. As an audience, we, like the gentry, are confronted with troubling issues of how far we should be involved in events in other countries that at first don’t seem to affect us.
This is a subject with clear relevance to the Polish state of the time. But Wajda is an artist who can make a state-approved subject and suffuse it with his own thoughts. Because by the end of the film, we are not in a simple nationalistic story, but one that is questioning what good ever does come from adventures like this. In a powerful but sickening scene, we see mutilated soldiers dragging themselves along the ground, their faces glowing with joy, to salute their emperor Napoleon. If ever the emptiness of hero-worship was on screen this is it.
Ashes illustrates a problem in determining the correct form of a film, the “director’s cut” issue, as also does Pharaoh. (5) The version showed at Bologna was 169 minutes long, the version released internationally at the time, and as such an “official” version. But there was also a “local” version of 234 minutes. This longer version is actually viewable online and its extra running time further strengthens Wajda’s themes. But another part of Ashes is its overpowering CinemaScope (2,35 : 1) ratio, which is not reproduced in the online version, where is always a sense of the visual composition straining at the edges of the screen, with important elements sometimes lost to the wrong ratio. On the large screen of Bologna’s Cinema Arlecchino Ashes was an overwhelming experience.
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Of course, perhaps the most obvious way of exploring the past is to pick a date! It has been a Bologna tradition for a number of years to have a strand looking at 100 years before, and this way it has charted the growth in the cinema from its beginning. In the words of the program, “Searching year by year (and not by director, country or genre) has …yielded programmes made up of virtually unknown films, and for both the curator and the audience, the element of surprise, discovery, and astonishment was always an important part of the experience.”
But now when the cinephile looks back at 1914, there are already many well-known titles. Some of these were screened, such as Giovanni Pastrone’s monumental epic, Cabiria. This was given a gala presentation in the local opera house, with full symphonic accompaniment, plus choral cantata as a prelude. The film’s historical significance is undoubted, but in itself it is a stolid plod through Roman history at the time of the Second Punic War. Pastrone has definite control over the epic scenes, but the narrative structure is wayward by today’s standards.
Some lesser known films were more interesting, including some reflecting a Europe on the brink of World War I. Maudite soit la guerre (Damn the War, 1914) was directed by Alfred Machin, a French director who deserves to be better known. Its story anticipates part of Birth of a Nation (D.W. Griffith, 1915). A young officer stays with his best friend from military school, and falls in love with his sister. But war finds the two men on different sides. In the climax, the two are locked in combat not knowing that their opponent is in fact their best friend. Machin’s mise-en-scène pushes the available technology to its maximum, as did another film Machin made in 1914, Un drame dans les airs (A Tragedy in the Clouds). Impressive depth of field in the image heightened the drama of the mishap when a hot air balloon plunges to earth. Given the date, the aerial photography is stunning.
Nino Oxilia is an Italian director of the same period, who also deserves to be better known. But where Machin was anxious about where the world was heading, Oxilia in a way was looking back to the past, unaware when he made his glorious Sangue Bleu (1914) that the forthcoming conflict would claim his life in 1917. His forte was the “diva” film, glorious melodramas with a noble, suffering heroine. The upper class setting was an excuse for opulent sets and high fashion for its women. The plot at times creaks, with fortuitous events not really arising believably from the cause-and-effect. But the reflection of the way that the social dices are loaded against women has the same power and validity as would be seen several generations later in the “women’s films” of Douglas Sirk. And again, his mise-en-scène is already sophisticated, his camera prowling through the palaces and lower depths as his diva finds her world spiralling out of control.
28 June – 5 July 2014
Festival website: http://www.cinetecadibologna.it
1. The opening lines of L.P. Hartley’s The Go-Between (1953), and also of Joseph Losey’s film version (1970)
2. IMDB lists an earlier uncredited film The Twins of Suffering Creek (1920) as well as uncredited contributions to a number of other films.
3. Apart from Wings (1927), winner of the first Academy Award for Best Picture. It is widely available in DVD and BluRay restorations already, and was screened at Bologna in 2012.
4. Several of his other works were also made into distinguished films including Sasame-yuki (The Makioka Sisters, Kon Ichikawa, 1983) and Kagi (The Key/ Odd Obsession, Kon Ichikawa 1960)
5. Pharaoh was screened in a version running approx. 145 minutes. There is also a listing for the film at 180 minutes. It was also released in a dubbed version in the 1960s reportedly running closer to 2 hours.