All in the Family – a film evening class

The classic tableau shot of the Edwards family at the beginning of The Searchers.

One of the classic tableau shots of the Edwards family in The Searchers.

This evening class at the National Media Museum in Bradford offers the chance to study three films currently on release and to explore how ideas about the family can be exploited to develop different kinds of film narrative and different genres. There are seven sessions on Wednesday evenings from 25 September, 18.15 – 20.15.

The three films are Looking for Hortense, Metro Manila and Like Father, Like Son – all screened in full in the museum’s cinemas with a short introduction.

The first of these films is a comedy drama set amongst the ‘creative/academic’ bourgeoisie of Paris in which family relationships constrain and ‘trip up’ the central character with comic effects. The second becomes a genre thriller when it tests what characters will do to keep the family together. The final film is a form of family melodrama/relationship drama. Since the films come from different filmmaking cultures (France, Philippines/UK and Japan) there will also be the opportunity to explore the extent to which genres and representations of the family are ‘universal’ or heavily skewed by ‘local’ cultural considerations. We’ll also consider a range of other films that use the family as an important driver of the narrative. The image at the head of this posting refers to the famous John Ford Western in which Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) searches obsessively for his two nieces who have been taken by a Comanche raiding party.

A course outline can be downloaded here: (pdf) FamilyCourseProg

We’ll try to post some of the handouts here over the next few weeks and also to discuss some of the issues that arise.

1,000 posts and counting

(From http://jigsawabacus.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/mystery-of-abacus/) An abacus is an ancient Chinese form of counting widely used in Asia.

(From http://jigsawabacus.wordpress.com/2010/05/15/mystery-of-abacus/) An abacus is an ancient Chinese form of counting widely used in Asia.

With the flurry of postings last week, The Case for Global Film passed 1,000 individual postings. The 1,000th post was on Vicky Donor. Our stats tell us that we have a regular group of visitors that is steadily growing but that most of you visit us when you are looking for something specific on a film and on average you visit just under 2 separate postings on your visit. Perhaps you aren’t aware of the vast array of material (approaching 1 million words and thousands of images) that we hold?

The best way to get the most out of this blog is to have a quick look at the How to navigate this site page and discover how to search through the material.

We are moving forward onto the next 1,000 now, so watch this space! Suggestions for better ways of organising the material are always welcome.

100 Years of Cinema in Keighley

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

Bob Thorp of Keighley Film Club introduces the programme

As an addendum to my earlier post about the centenary of Keighley’s Picture House Cinema, the cinema operator Charles Morris decided to hold a centenary celebration (some two months late) on July 10 in conjunction with the town’s Film Club which began  to screen films at other venues earlier this year.

Wednesday’s film programme put together by the Film Club comprised a free afternoon programme, part of which was then repeated in the evening alongside a screening of The Artist (France/US 2011) for which tickets were sold. The afternoon programme was introduced by Charles Morris, fresh from lunch with invited guests. He quickly handed over to the Film Club’s Secretary Bob Thorp who explained that the Film Club would in future be showing films once per month in the cinema. We then watched a short film by one of the film club members on the history of early cinema and also a documentary on the Picture House itself made last year (see it here). The main part of the programme which I want to comment on here was the selection of Maya Deren’s At Land (US 1944) and Episode 1 of the Fantômas serial directed by Louis Feuillade and starring Renée Navarre as Fantômas and which was released in five episodes each of 54 minutes in 1913.

Maya Deren in 'At Land'

Maya Deren in ‘At Land’

At Land was shown first with a musical accompaniment – a piano in front of the small stage, played very well (but the pianist’s name wasn’t given). However, I’m not sure whether Maya Deren ever intended that her silent films should have accompaniment. Some of Deren’s films had music soundtracks created by her collaborators, but not this one to my knowledge. Music does change the experience of watching a silent film. Commercial film screenings of films without soundtracks up to the early 1930s usually had some form of accompaniment but later avant-garde films (often shown in non-theatrical spaces) might be shown silent. Anyone who has watched a film in a cinema without any sound at all knows what a strange experience it is, so perhaps accompaniment here was a wise decision. As an aside, the three major texts on Deren and the 1940s American avant-garde that I consulted all failed to discuss soundtracks (or at least to include a reference in an index).

Maya Deren had arrived in the US from Ukraine as a small child in 1922 and by the mid 1940s she was becoming a leading figure in the ‘New American Cinema’ as the group of avant-garde filmmakers working out of New York became labelled. Her collaborators included the composer John Cage and her husband Alexander Hammid and others who appear in At Land. Hammid co-directed and photographed Meshes in the Afternoon (1943), Deren’s first film (but not Hammid’s first). At Land was photographed mainly by Hella Heyman. This creative collaboration is just one of the reasons why Maya Deren has been so celebrated within feminist film studies. She effectively controls her own liberated image on screen – ironically, she photographs so well that her image equals if not surpasses those of the artificial Hollywood goddesses of the period. Her background was in anthropology and poetry. She wasn’t a trained dancer but she was interested in dance cultures which featured directly in her later films and her work generally acquired the tag of ‘trance films’. The films are indeed ‘dreamlike’, not just in the strange juxtaposition of sequences but also in their rhythms which through careful camerawork and editing create almost seamless transitions and a sense of swooning. At Land begins with Deren washed up on a beach, but as she pulls herself up on a tree stump she climbs directly onto a long dining table where she is seemingly oblivious to the diners. Later she enters a building with an array of doors to open. There is clearly a relationship with surrealism, but most critics of avant-garde film see Deren as an original rather than simply a follower of Buñuel and Dali.

Maya Deren’s work is now easily accessible on DVD and much of it is also on YouTube. If you haven’t seen it before, it is well worth seeking out. I always assumed that Kate Bush must have been a fan.

fantomas

The selection of Fantômas was announced as simply an example of a film released in 1913. Bob Thorp said he didn’t yet know whether Fantômas ever played in the Picture House at the time. Nevertheless it was an interesting choice and given its great influence on subsequent filmmakers such as Fritz Lang and Alfred Hitchcock it reminded us of some of the thrills and spills that cinemagoers of the next forty or fifty years would have enjoyed. I haven’t seen the serial before but from the little I’ve read the first episode was perhaps not the best to show since it is mostly setting-up the battle between Inspector Juve and the mysterious criminal Fantômas. The vision behind the adaptation of a successful novel is such that at first it is easy to forget that the film is 100 years old. Soon, however, it becomes apparent that most scenes are still conventional tableaux with a more or less static camera. The main movement comes in the sequence detailing  a remarkable prison escape. At the end of the episode is a piece of Méliès camera trickery, matching some of the promotional footage for the series which emphasises Fantômas as a master of disguise, constantly changing his appearance – and demonstrating what we would now term ‘morphing’ on screen.

The Film Club programme was enjoyable and it showed imagination and enthusiasm from what is essentially a volunteer group. There were a few problems in the projection of the films but the projectionist assured us afterwards that these had been sorted in time for the evening screening. The next step is to attract audiences to the monthly screenings being organised by the Film Club in this grand old venue and we wish them well.

Keighley Picture House is 100 today!

Keighley Picture House in 2006

Keighley Picture House in 2006 with its birthdate proudly presented to the world

The focus for film scholarship should be global – and local. I’m delighted then to celebrate the 100th birthday of my local cinema. The Picture House in Keighley opened its doors to the public for the first time on Saturday 10th May 1913 and it’s still showing current releases today on its two screens. Unfortunately there were a couple of periods in the 1980s and 1990s when its doors were closed for repairs with the building changing ownership, but it has seen more than 90 years of film projection as well as occasional variety performances and pop concerts.

The Picture House wasn’t the first cinema in Keighley. It wasn’t even the first purpose-built cinema, but it was the first to fully embrace the possibilities of cinemas as distinctive architectural expressions of a new entertainment form and as important social amenities. The period from roughly 1910 to 1914 is recognised as the beginnings of the cinema industry that would come to dominate mass entertainment for the next fifty or sixty years. During this period films developed rapidly in terms of production, distribution and exhibition and it is interesting to place the emergence of the Picture House in this context.

In the 1890s Keighley was a thriving manufacturing town with significant employment in textiles mills and engineering. The population of the town, which is located at the confluence of the Rivers Aire and Worth in what was then the West Riding of Yorkshire, grew rapidly and reached 43,000 by 1911. It had become a municipal borough in 1882 and it had all the ambitions of a modern urban community. Bradford, some ten miles away, became a city in 1897 and an early centre for entrepreneurship in cinema (See Mellor 1996). Keighley was determined not to be left behind. Films were first shown in Keighley in the autumn of 1896 and filmshows became part of the mix of programmes at the Mechanics Institute – the centre for all kinds of activities in the industrial towns of Northern England and elsewhere in the anglophone world. The first purpose-built cinema in Keighley was the Picture Palace in Russell Street that opened on 27 December 1909. A year later the same entrepreneur, Walter Pallister, opened a second cinema in Cavendish Street, just days after the opening of the Theatre de Luxe in Market Street by John Watson. This latter cinema was financed by the London Animated Film company which had previously shown films at the Mechanics Institute. In March 1911 the Oxford Hall opened on Oakworth Road and in 1912, the Cosy Corner in an alleyway off Low Street. These cinemas were located within a few hundred yards of each other in Keighley’s town centre (with the Oxford Hall slightly further out). They also competed with the town’s Frank Matcham-designed theatre, the Hippodrome – previously the Queen’s Theatre.

With all these local attractions, the new Picture House had to be something special. It was funded by a group of local business people including the Smith family of ‘Dean, Smith and Grace’, one of the town’s major employers. The cinema was built on North Street, one of the two main streets in town. It was conceived as a ‘superior’ amenity with specialist cinema contractors brought in to create an 800 seat cinema with a balcony (a ‘grand circle’) and two cafés, a small one in the foyer which had an Italian mosaic floor and a larger one upstairs with ‘wicker furnishings, potted plants, best cutlery and Foley china’ (Liddle 1996). The cinema had its own four-piece orchestra and a stage for live events. The local newspaper’s coverage of the May 10th opening emphasises the lavish decorative work and the safety features (fire hoses and ‘chemical extinguishers’ – fires were a major problem in early cinemas), the new electric lighting and the electric fans that drew out the smoke from all the pipes and cigarettes smoked by audiences. Local historian Cathy Liddle suggests that Keighley cinema audiences were predominantly working-class until after the First World War but the descriptions of the Picture House appointments suggests an attempt to attract the gentry. The opening programme ran from 2.30 on the Saturday afternoon for  two and a quarter hours and from 6.30 for four hours. Tickets were 3d and 6d in the ‘Body of the Hall’ in armchairs and 9d and 1/- in the Grand Circle.

Liddle goes on to suggest that the Picture House did not take customers away from the existing five cinemas, but that eventually it was forced to lower its prices (which elsewhere were more like 2d, 4d and 6d). After the war Keighley got another new cinema, the Regent Picture Palace built almost opposite the Picture House in 1920. It proved to be very popular and the building survives today as a nightclub. In the 1930s the Picture House also hosted live variety performances by the Arcadian Players from Morecambe – and later in the 1960s, pop music concerts. Keighley’s last new cinema, the Ritz, was built in 1938 for the Union circuit but by the time it opened Union had been bought by the ABC chain. The Ritz was the ‘next step’ up from the Picture House with seating for over 1500 and a ‘mighty organ’. It also had the advantage of being able to take the circuit releases from ABC which by the late 1940s had become part of the duopoly of British cinema production, distribution and exhibition with only the Rank Organisation as its major rival. However, the Ritz was tucked away in a back street round the corner from the Picture House and behind the old Keighley Grammar School. I don’t know how well it did compared to others in the chain, but it was closed as a cinema by 1974, switching to bingo (which still operates today). When I researched Keighley’s cinemas operating in the early 1950s, most of them were still open with only the two earliest, the Russell Street and Theatre de Luxe having closed. The Picture House was eventually sold to the Essoldo chain and then became a Classic briefly before closing first in 1983. By this time the upstairs café had become a second small screen and the Picture House was the only survivor of the original eight cinemas. After some extensive repairs paid for out of public funds it re-opened in 1984 as a workers’ co-operative, only to close again in 1991 when it was proving difficult to get new releases and even the addition of a video rental business wasn’t enough to keep the operation afloat. Bradford Metropolitan Council bought the building and sought to find an exhibitor to take it on after further building repairs. At one point it looked like the building might become parts of an arts complex  linked to the town’s Central Hall, but in 1997 the cinema finally re-opened as part of the Northern Morris chain run by Charles Morris. The 1913 Picture House joined three 1912 cinemas in Skipton (Plaza), Elland (Rex) and Leeds (Cottage Road) plus the Royalty in Bowness (1926) and the Roxy in Ulverston  (1937). Keith reported on the Centenary of the Cottage Road cinema last year and a history of the Rex is available from the cinema.

Unfortunately there don’t seem to be any signs of celebration at the Picture House this week, though the ‘100 Years of Cinema’ banner did figure in the cinema’s advertising for a few weeks. For the record, this week the cinema is showing Iron Man 3  and Star Trek into Darkness with matinees/early evening showings of All Stars and The Croods. Cinema 1 has 300 seats and Cinema 2 has 93 seats. The lack of celebration is perhaps explained by the uncertainty surrounding the cinema’s future. Cineworld have been announced as one of the the tenants of a new development in Keighley with plans for an 8-screen cinema. The site has been cleared and the development is scheduled to be built over the next two years. Charles Morris has reportedly said that he will end his lease with Bradford Council as soon as the Cineworld operation becomes a reality – leaving the council with an empty 1913 building. Let’s hope the building, now the oldest working cinema in Bradford can find a suitable new purpose for many years to come. In the meantime. Happy Birthday!

References/Sources

Mellor, Geoff (1996) Movie Makers and Picture Palaces: A Century of Cinema in Yorkshire 1896-1996, Bradford Libraries

Liddle, Cathy (1996) Picture Palace: Cinema and Community, Silsden, West Yorkshire: Sleepy Heron Publishing

Keighley News Archives

[For various reasons I haven’t been able to finish my research on the cinema’s opening programme in 1913, but I’ll try to add further details later.]

Forget the Oscars – where's the politics?

The Oscars this year celebrated nostalgia and the overall quality was poor. Far more interesting was the attempt in a recent issue of Cineaste to raise discussion of ‘The Prospects for Political Cinema Today’. You’ll note that the cover of Vol XXXVII No 1 (December 2011) features A Separation, probably the best film on the Oscars list, coming from a country where making a film still seems like a political act. Nick’s recent postings remind us how rare it is to find films with political aspirations.

Cineaste‘s symposium rounds up the thoughts of 14 filmmakers with a variety of perspectives on what makes a political film. In his introduction to these responses British film studies academic John Hill, one of the UK’s leading writers on social realist cinema, offers some reasons why now is a good time to revisit the concept of political cinema. He suggests that recent political action in response to economic crises in the West and political crises in the Arab world in particular have seen the growing importance of the impact of ‘social media technologies’ and new types of political action which were inconceivable before the era of digital media. He then wonders what an ‘old medium’ like the cinema still has to offer.

We don’t have space here to summarise all 14 contributions and you can buy the issue concerned direct from Cineaste. Cineaste posed four questions to the filmmakers (as well as asking for any personal insights):

1. What do you understand by the idea of a political – or ‘politically oppositional’ – cinema in the current economic and political climate?

2. What specific role does political cinema have in an era of social media and instant communication?

3. What aesthetic models of political cinema do you believe are most relevant today? Which styles work best to engage an audience? What’s the difference between documentary and fiction in terms of political effectivity?

4. What are the main political and economic obstacles to making political films or getting them adequately distributed?

In response to Q2, Costa-Gavras said: “Film needs time and space in order to be thought out and created. Instantaneousness the enemy of film’s thoughtfulness.” Amos Gitai refers to the “image rebellions expressed through social media” as being “almost in the midst of a Jean-Luc Godard wet dream. The image is becoming a very powerful vehicle of change. It’s not really cinema – they’re raw images, crude images. It’s not a coherent discourse, not articulated. It’s just images.” Gianni Amelio concludes on the same question: “Film must, above all, find in the new means of communication a stimulus to renew itself, without losing its own nature”. Kelly Reichardt ponders why there are so few Hollywood films referencing the economic downturn and she suggests that we should look back not at the 1960s and 1970s but at the 1950s: “Can you imagine Bigger Than Life getting made today?” (We commented on Nick Ray’s work in our review of We Need to Talk About Kevin.) John Sayles says that the biggest problem in getting his movies to a general audience is not their ‘political’ content but their complexity. He suggests that in mainstream cinema the place to find political comment is buried in fantasy movies like Iron Man where the audience is “free to attend to it or just let it slide past with the reassurance that this is ‘just a movie’.”

There are some good points here (and plenty more in the other contributions) so I’d like to invite our contributors to pursue some of them and discuss the four questions, perhaps selecting specific films as case studies? Contributions and comments please!

Are you one of the 2 in a 100?

London's Prince Charles cinema – home to the 'Indie Mainly' crowd?

The UK film market has a new audience research model to contend with. Film3Sixty spent six months interviewing 18,831 people across the UK and digesting the results according to a report by Wendy Mitchell in Screen International, 27 January 2012. Their conclusion was that nearly 90% of film watchers think that cinemas are the best places to watch films – but that they think that cinemagoing is getting more expensive. The conclusion is that this reflects unease with 3D pricing but presumably it also reflects the impact of the recession.

The report summary makes for interesting reading. The sample was drawn from the most frequent cinemagoers – the 40% of the audience who account for 80% of admissions. The sample overall watched an average of just over 120 films per year of which just over 17 were in the cinema (the per capita figure for UK cinema visits is under 3). Two-thirds of the films watched outside cinemas were ‘not paid for’ – mostly on TV but sometimes via pirated copies. The research did however confirm the often quoted observation that those who admit to piracy are also the heaviest cinemagoers.

The headline finding/suggestion is the breakdown of these ‘frequent cinemagoers’ into four groups:

Blockbuster Only – 10%

Blockbuster Mainly – 59%

Indie Mainly – 29%

Indie Only – 2%

This breakdown can be compared to the ‘qualitative study’ of ‘avids’ for the UK Film Council, downloadable here. This was part of the UKFC approach which divided audiences into four groups – Mainstream, Mainstream Plus, Aficionados and Avids. The two sets of categories are actually quite similar, but this new research offers more detailed data. In both cases the categories run from the occasional interest in tentpole pictures through more diverse tastes to a rejection of Hollywood and an ‘obsession’ with specialised films (the avids). What’s quite interesting is that the new figures – based on a survey of the most frequent cinemagoers – demonstrate the commercial importance of diversity. We can see this in two ways. The majority may prefer blockbusters, but 31% actually opt mainly for ‘independent films’ – whatever that might mean. On the other hand, we can say that a bigger majority of 88% are interested in at least a range of films (i.e. not just blockbusters). This seems to send a different message than the usual assumption that the audience for more specialised films is only a tiny percentage of the whole.

The survey further tells us that the ‘Blockbuster‘ groups are more likely to be female (53-56%) and younger. The blockbusters they like are comedies and rom-coms. They are also more likely to watch TV, own games consoles, buy the most home entertainment products but also to pirate movies. It’s ironic that these audiences who prefer big budget films are less likely to see them in cinemas – these are the lightest cinema attenders. The heaviest cinema users are the ‘Indie Mainly‘ group who are 52% male with an average age of 44.5 years. They are also the most likely to buy DVDs, to stream films online and watch them on computers. They are also the heaviest Twitter users (whereas the Blockbuster groups are the heaviest Facebook and YouTube users). The report suggests that social media use is an area the film exhibition industry needs to think about much more – quoting a respondent who has 43 Facebook friends who he frequently persuaded to make cinema visits. A stand-out observation is that those who are influenced by social media are likely to make up to five times as many cinema visits as the average cinemagoer. Some people clearly take the ‘like’ button seriously.

So what of the 2%? We (certainly me – the others can speak for themselves) are most likely to be male (55%), aged over 54, least likely to pirate but also least likely to ‘consume’ DVDs. We prefer drama and foreign language titles and we are the lightest users of Facebook. Apart from the DVDs that sounds like me!

On the whole this looks like a pretty useful breakdown of the audience in terms of frequent cinema users. I do recommend the UKFC Research as well. The discussion of avids is fascinating and it’s interesting that the research did try to look quite carefully at the very frequent cinemagoers – many of whom work in the film industry or in film education (although quite a lot of the film teachers I meet seem to go to the cinema only occasionally). The real avids see two movies a week at the cinema – a figure I would struggle to achieve without the boost of festival screenings. Such dedication is of course only possible for avids if they live somewhere with a diverse range of films available in several cinemas rather than just a single multiplex with only Hollywood on offer.