Saturday 27 February 2010

Early British cinema

During the first years of cinema, France, the US and the UK were the leading lights. From France, famously, came the Lumiere brothers as well as Georges Méliès. From America came among others Thomas Edison (sometimes referred to as "the thug") and Edwin S. Porter. But the British pioneers are not as well-known generally as their colleagues on the continent or in New York. So here are some names and some films from Britain.

Just look at this early gem, from 1899:

Around the same time came Mitchell & Keynon, the filmmaking team of Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon. They made films all over the place, both documents of life and more fictional things such as slapstick, as well as dramatisations of actual events. They were re-discovered in the middle of 1990s, and a DVD release is available. (Can be bought here)

An important filmmaker was also James Williamson who did experimental stuff such as this film, called The Big Swallow, in 1900:

And of course, there was the wonderful Rescued By Rover from 1905, directed by Lewin Fitzhamon, for Cecil Milton Hepworth's production company. Hepworth and his company were among the most inventive in early cinema. (The acting by the humans here may not be the best, but the dog is great.)

But I've saved the best for last, also from Cecil Milton Hepworth, here's The Explosion of a Motor Car, from 1900. Enjoy!

Tuesday 23 February 2010

Some films seen at the Glasgow film festival

There's something to be said about a guy who, at the age of 101, continues to make films, which are not only being made, but are also good. I could only be talking about one man, the Portuguese Manoel de Oliviera. On and off I've come across his films, but never on regular release, only on festivals or cinemateques. A couple of years ago I saw Belle toujours (2006) and, admittedly, I didn't like it. But since then he's made several long and short films, and the latest of these are The Eccentricities of a Blonde-Haired Girl (Singularidades de uma Rapariga Loura 2009) which I liked a lot. Friends of Oliviera will probably feel at home, although newcomers might be put off by the leisurely pace and the feeling of people rather posing than acting. It's under an hour and it's about a guy who falls in love with a blonde girl across the street from his office and what happens to that romance. It's got an interesting structure in that the guy is telling his story to a stranger he meets on a train. He's very upset and he needs to tell someone, and the woman sitting next to him is willing to listen.

It's a story which is sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating and sometimes rather moving. The subject matter might not be all that exciting, but after the film I did feel enriched by it.

The Turkish film Autumn (Sonbahar 2008) is also sometimes funny, sometimes frustrating and sometimes rather moving. Although the frustration has a different cause than in The Eccentricities... Autumn is the kind of film where characters are standing still for what seems like hours, looking at mountains and/or the ocean, whilst smoking. And sometimes they're walking on a beach or perhaps in a forest. In general it's not the kind of thing I particularly like to see in films because it can become a boring cliché, and not nearly as "meaningful" or "heartfelt" or whatever the filmmakers might think. So there was a lot of that going on. But it had also enough of good scenes about friendship and family life, and even a little bit of romance (with a prostitute of course), and in the end I kind of liked it. It told the story about a man in his 30s who's released from prison because he has a lung disease and he travels back home to his old mother. The reason he was put in prison was because he was a communist political activist, but now the old ideals seems to have died, or are dying with him.

There are a lot of films shown at the Glasgow film festival but I think those two will do for now. The festival also has a Cary Grant retrospective, but I won't write about that because I won't be able to stop.

Monday 15 February 2010

Wednesday 10 February 2010

Stig Järrel

Just wanted to point out that had he been alive today, Stig Järrel would have turned 100 years old.

His most famous role, internationally at least, was in Hets (Torment aka Frenzy 1944), written by Bergman and directed by Alf Sjöberg and shot by Martin Bodin as an expressionistic nightmare. Järrel played Caligula, the feared latin teacher with Nazi tendencies in a brilliant performance.

But he also had a long and, for both, very fruitful working relationship with Hasse Ekman. Järrel was in 20 of the films Ekman directed, starting with Ekman's very first film as writer/director Med dej i mina armar (With You in My Arms 1940) and ending in 1960 with Kärlekens decimaler (The Figures of Love). He played both funny parts and straight parts. Among his most intense was the role as yet another latin teacher, cruel and psychotic, in Ekman's Lågor i dunklet (Flames in the Dark 1942), two years before Hets. He also played a philosophical vagabond in arguably Ekman's best film, Vandring med månen (Wandering With the Moon 1945), against Alf Kjellin and Eva Henning.

Järrel was also a beloved stage actor and comedian, as well as doing a lot of radio, and he made his first film in 1935. In short, he was one of the most gifted of Swedish actors and entertainers of not only his but many generations.

Not many clips available, but here's something. Although only in Swedish I'm afraid.

Sunday 7 February 2010

Bris - Bergman's soap commercials

That famous directors do commercials is (maybe) surprisingly not that uncommon. Martin Scorsese, John Woo, Ridley Scott, Ang Lee and Roy Andersson are a few that springs to mind. Belonging to that illustrious club is also Ingmar Bergman, who did nine commercials in the early 1950s.

With three families to support, with the Swedish film industry in a lockout, and with his contract with Gothenburg City Theatre not prolonged, Bergman needed money, and they only way to get it seemed to be by signing a contract with Unilever to help them sell their new soap bar, Bris (Breeze). But Bergman wasn’t ashamed. When the head of advertising at Unilever put the question to Bergman, he said yes without hesitating. He was happy to do it, and he got a more or less free hand to do as he pleased on the set, together with his favourite cinematographer Gunnar Fischer.

These commercials are seldom shown and that’s a shame because they are clever and funny and, for Bergman scholars, there’s a lot to explore and discover. And as it happens, Bibi Andersson, star of many later Bergman films, does her first appearances in one of the commercials. Although they all, obviously, have the exact same message, “Buy Bris, the anti-Bacterial soap, free, healthy and fresh”, they all have different settings, and all the different settings are settings dear to Bergman. In fact, these nine commercials constitute a remarkable collection of Bergman’s themes and visual motifs.

One opens at the court of an 18th century king, and then suddenly it’s revealed that that was just a movie, shown on the wall of the studio making the commercial, and we see the woman doing to voice over for that commercial. There’s one that begins as a silent movie and then turns into a dream and there’s another one that’s a fake 3D movie. Another one involves a puppet theatre, which is a recurring motif in Bergman’s work. (One might say that that's where Bergman begun his artistic career, ever since he was a little child, with his own theatre.) There are also many mirrors and trompe l’œil effects.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the commercials is one that begins at a hospital, which turns out to be a film set, where the next thing to be shot is a commercial for the Bris soap. Here again is also a play with mirrors. In this one and several others Bergman is deconstructing the whole business of filmmaking, using all the tricks of his disposal to trick and treat us.

Another begins like a nightmare from Bergman's later Smultronstället (Wild Strawberries 1957) and then proceeds with weird shots edited together with no apparent logic, until it’s all revealed in the last scene. It could be from Persona (1966), but it’s not, it’s just a commercial, although made by a master craftsman having fun.

Indeed, the operative word here is fun, because what’s most striking with these commercials is how playful they all are. That Bergman had a great sense of humour, and also had the ability to laugh at himself, is not often remembered, even though he made several comedies. Here he’s obviously having a lot of fun, and so has the audience. And since the soap in question is no longer for sale we can look at the short films free from any danger of doing an impulse purchase we might later regret.

Tuesday 2 February 2010

Herbie and me

I grow up in a suburb south of Stockholm, and we had a movie theatre there, called Fanfaren. In the autumn of 1981 a film opened in Sweden called Herbie Goes Bananas (1980), and eventually it found it's way to Fanfaren. And I went to see it. I was very young and it was the first time I ever went to the movies on my own. And even though it's almost 30 years ago I remember it vividly, everything about it. I was thrilled! I remember the film, me sitting there watching it, me walking home afterwards, and then discussing it with my father when I got home. I even remember some of the things he asked me, like if it had been shot with a camera looking out through the front windscreen so the audience would feel like they were driving the car.

It's easy to see the appeal. A young boy and a cute car being manhandled by evil adults, and a lot of slapstick in between, what's not to like?

Very few movie experiences has been in the same league as that one, perhaps none can compete. And it doesn't matter that I saw all the Herbie films again a couple of years ago, not being particularly impressed. When I was seven years old, it was the best thing in the world.

There were four films made about Herbie back then, from 1968 to 1980, and they were created by Gordon Buford. The first two was directed by Robert Stevenson, the last two by Vincent McEveety. Stevenson had a long and eclectic career, doing both noirs in the 1940s and children's films in the late 1960s and 1970s, including the Irish classic Darby O'Gill and the Little People already in 1959 and Mary Poppins in 1964. McEveety on the other hand mostly made TV action series, like Airwolf, Simon & Simon and Magnum P.I. as well as various episodes of Dallas, Murder, She Wrote and The Rockford Files. I was addicted to all of those shows so perhaps McEveety has shaped me more than any other director. Or maybe not. The director wasn't exactly the major force in those TV series.

But to get back to Herbie. I'm delighted to have found that Herbie, the car, has his own page on imdb (click here), and that apparently there are more Swedes who have experienced the Love Bug as young impressionable children.

About four years ago I went to see a new version of Herbie, Herbie Fully Loaded (2005), with a friend of mine and her son Alex. Unlike me, he didn't see it on his own, but even so, I wonder if it would've made as big on impression on him as my first experience did on me. I don't remember what he said about it after. I myself found it moderately entertaining. But it felt rather nice to see it with a young boy, even if it wasn't my own son.

Why did I suddenly start to think about this? Because of a random remark by Kent Jones, or was it Barry Putterman, on Dave Kehr's blog. It was like a Madeleine cake. And now, when thinking about it, it's with nothing but joy. It was a happy day, a happy time, a happy memory. And I still get a bit misty-eyed when thinking about it all. Maybe I should call my father, or Annie and Alex, and see what they remember.