Friday 26 March 2010

More early British cinema

In a previous posting I shared some great examples of early British cinema with you. And now I want to advertise the upcoming British Silent Film Festival. It's between 15th and 18th of April, in Leicester.

Here's a link:

Wednesday 24 March 2010

Screenings in Haiti

In the Guardian the other day there was an article about outdoor screenings for children in Haiti, to help them cope with the shock and trauma after the earthquake. It's a very good example of how films can be used to do good, can be used for therapeutic reasons, and I'm sure there are many other stories like this. I've personally been arguing the case for this use of cinema for many years and I feel that this is a field of cinema studies that perhaps could do with some more research.

Besides just showing films for the children, they are also encourage to do their own films:
Led by film enthusiasts from the Bristol's leftfield Cube Cinema, the project involves showing feature films and messages of support from children in Britain. The idea is eventually to help youngsters in Haiti make their own films, which will then be sent back to Bristol, forging a cinematic link between Britain and the earthquake-hit Caribbean country.
As for what the they are being shown, it's a collection of silent comedies, animation (both WALL-E (2008) and Bugs Bunny) and films such as The Red Balloon (Le ballon rouge 1956).

Sunday 21 March 2010

Howard Hawks, scene 5

The first scene I chose for my Hawks selection was a musical scene from Only Angels Have Wings (1939). Today I have also chosen a music scene, from Rio Bravo, made 20 years later, and just as clear an expression of Hawksian ideas and values.

This is a lovely scene, and Dean Martin is ever so cool, lying there. I especially like when he gesticulates to Ricky Nelson to take over. There are many scenes such as these in Hawks's films, where group solidarity is built and expressed by and through music, by singing together. And I like that. The hierarchy between the men is also clearly established, from John Wayne to Dean Martin to Ricky Nelson to Walter Brennan.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Letter From an Unknown Woman

I've been swamped with work, hence the silence here, but now my time is more manageable.

One of the greatest of all films, Letter from an Unknown Woman (1948), has been re-released in Britain this month, and it's an opportunity not to be missed by anyone. I've seen it many times but yet I had to see it again, and it was just as perfect as ever. It's based on a short story by the Austrian writer Stefan Zweig, written for the screen by Howard Koch and Max Ophüls, and of course directed by Ophüls, one of the greatest of filmmakers, in Germany, the US and France.

This is the kind of movie where the story is so utterly unimportant that I'm even reluctant to say what the film is about. What matters is the camera movements, the voices, gestures and looks of the characters, and the milieu. Suffice to say that it's about tragic love in Vienna around 1900, that Lisa (Joan Fontaine) loves Stefan (Louis Jourdan), but he never realise it until it's too late.

The film is only 88 minutes long, but those 88 minutes are handled so beautifully it's like it was made by angels. The compositions, the pacing and the graceful movements, both of the camera and of the people in the shots, are so brilliant it's enough to bring tears to your eyes. And on top of that there's the acting by Jourdan and especially Joan Fontaine. Her shy, nervous personality, so dedicated and yet so hesitant, is both very moving and somewhat scary. It's debatable whether or not she is really mentally stable, in the sense that her fixation with Stefan is clearly unhealthy. And Stefan, who goes from a man in full possession of his powers, a man who believes himself to be flawless, to a man who loses everything without even understanding why, is also very moving.

And with this material, Ophüls and his cameraman Franz Planer (credited as Frank Planer), builds an elaborate mise-en-scène, with shadows like spiderwebs, and repetition of scenes that add to the poignancy and tragedy in the story. An example of this is one early scene we see Stefan entering his home with a woman, from the perspective of Lisa hidden on a staircase. Later in the film the camera is in the same position, although now the woman Stefan brings home is Lisa, and there is no one hiding on the staircase, no one but us. A passing moment of happiness.

This is a film about dreams and make-belief, and perhaps the central sequence in the film is when Lisa and Stefan, on a first date, takes a fake train journey to, first, Venice and then Switzerland, staged in an amusement park in Vienna. This is a very cinematic scene, and it is not in Zweig's short story.

What adds to the tragedy and the complexity of the film is the fact that although Lisa is the one hopelessly and selflessly in love, she is also the one with insight and awareness. She knows both herself and Stefan better than he does, and yet she's incapable of controlling herself when he shows up.

As she says in Zweig's novella: "I know that what I am writing here is a record of grotesque absurdities, of a girl's extravagant fantasies. I ought to be ashamed of them; but I am not ashamed, for never was my love purer and more passionate than at this time."

Coincidentally, there's a review in today's Guardian of another short story by Zweig, Fear, and in it the critic debates with both himself and a critical article in The London Review of Books on whether Zweig was a good writer. Michael Hofmann in The London Review of Books says vehemently No!. But Nicholas Lezard in The Guardian is much more sympathetic, and ends the review with the words "Make up your own minds." Personally I love Zweig's The World of Yesterday, but the short stories are of lesser quality, at least the ones I've read. And, as Lezard, I much prefer Arthur Schnitzler of that time and place (Vienna in the beginning of the previous century). But none of Schnitzler's stories ever became such a flawless cinematic masterpiece as Letter from an Unknown Woman. Surely even Hofmann would agree with that?

Thursday 4 March 2010

Google on trial

A court in Italy last week delivered a harsh verdict against three executives at Google because an offensive video clip was being broadcast on YouTube (which is part of Google). The issue was that Google should have had the video removed instantly, or rather, not let it be broadcast to begin with, i.e., they should watch all clips before broadcasting to check that they're not offensive or illegal. Google is appealing against the verdict.

I'm a bit troubled by this in the sense that internet is different from a paper newspaper or a TV-channel, where the editors clearly are in charge of what is being printed or broadcast. It's a whole new concept online, and if only clips being pre-screened could be broadcast on YouTube, it would be so different from what it is now as to be almost pointless. Of course I don't approve of malicious clips being shown, but some other system than mandatory pre-screenings should be used here. Apparently Google didn't remove it until many months after it was put online. Had there been a simple, direct way for viewers to be able to tell Google to have a look at a clip and then remove it if it was against a clearly formulated posting policy, than perhaps that would do the trick. Now we have the ability the "flag" a clip, but perhaps it might be called something else, like "delete request" and after someone has clicked on it, Google must look in to it immediately.

Here are some comments:

(The reason why I didn't write anything sonner than today was that I wasn't sure if this was a topic for Fredrik on Film. But of course it is. Everything connected with film is a valid topic here, and in this day and age, digital media should not be treated any differently here than traditional 35mm film.)