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.]

Westerns: A Routledge Film Guidebook

Westerns, A Routledge Film Guide Book by John White (2010), £16.99, 208pp ISBN 9780415558136

The Routledge Film Guidebooks are slim A5-sized books. The list so far includes director studies (James Cameron and Jane Campion) as well as genre guides such as Horror and Romantic Comedy. With the imminent UK release of True Grit by the Coen Bros., the appearance of John White’s guide is timely.

The first task for the reviewer in this instance is to consider exactly what can be fitted into a relatively small guidebook when dealing with a genre as extensive as the Western. Inevitably, what to leave out and what to make a focus becomes a major issue. The decision will also determine the address of the book to a particular audience. Unfortunately John White doesn’t give any direct indication of who he thinks his readers might be. Since he teaches undergraduates at Anglia Ruskin University but also writes textbooks for A Level film students in the 16-19 sector, his target presumably spans this range. The book’s blurb and the short explanation of the film guidebook project inside suggests that this will be an ‘introductory book’ and indeed all the guidebooks seem to have a similar structure: the evolution of the genre/movement/directorial career, discussion of a variety of critical approaches that could be applied to the films and then a more detailed discussion of key films.

Herein lies a problem. White argues in his opening that many books on the Western spend too much time re-telling the stories of a wide range of films. His focus instead will be on the exploration of different critical approaches, so he tells us that his outlines will be kept to the minimum and he will assume that “readers are already familiar with the basic plot”. Well, he may well be right since the repertoire of elements of the Western has permeated not just American but global culture over a long period. On the other hand it seems to me that younger audiences viewing one of the relatively rare Westerns in contemporary cinema (such as Brokeback Mountain or The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, two of his key films) are coming to the Western in quite different ways than similar-aged audiences in the 1950-70s. Apart from any other contextual/conjunctural factors, audiences now are not being exposed to Westerns as ‘genre texts’, available everywhere in a more or less constant stream (during the 1950s literally dozens of different Western TV series played on American television every week). Instead, a Western is now a ‘one-off’ (unlike horror films which do still appear in a constant stream, even if some of them are marketed heavily as single titles).

But perhaps I am being unreasonable? John White lays out his aim and pursues it. The chapter on ‘the evolution of the Western’ manages to cram a great deal into under 30 pages and I found the material on ‘silent Westerns’ in particular informative and helpful. For students without detailed knowledge of the genre, this short section will provide a useful primer. White references key films and important scholarly work – and at the end of the book he provides a timeline of important historical events that inform the narratives of many Westerns set in the nineteenth century. He then continues the timeline to include the release dates of key films and the events in later American history that help to contextualise production and reception of the films. The guide overall is well served by its bibliographies, index and endnotes.

The second part of the book offers 5-6 pages on each of a range of critical approaches: genre, semiotic analysis, representation, ideology, discourse analysis, narrative structure, realism, auteur theory, star theory, psychoanalytical theory, postmodernism and audience response. In each case, two or three films are used as case studies. The film choices seem to me to be pretty sound, but the brevity of each analysis means that students will probably need supplementary material to get the most from them.

The third section then applies combinations of the critical approaches from section two to eight key films: Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Shane (1953), The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), McCabe and Mrs Miller (1971), Unforgiven (1992), Brokeback Mountain (2005) and The Assassination of Jesse James (2007). Again, this seems a good selection and offers a film from virtually each decade from the 1930s onwards. All the films are easily available and many of them are accompanied by extensive online critical commentaries. I do wonder if some films/directors could have overlapped a little more – enabling more depth at the expense of more examples. For instance, the critical approaches section references another two John Ford films, plus John Wayne and Clint Eastwood as actors and directors. But suggesting other ways of organising the material is not particularly helpful – we will all have our own preferences.

This little book does what it sets out to do. It’s well-referenced and will provide a good introduction. You can’t ask for too much more.

BIFF 11: Le fantôme d’Henri Langlois (France 2004)

Henri Langlois

Bradford International Film Festival programmer Tom Vincent introduced this documentary by saying that he’d been inspired by seeing the film and that he believed that Henri Langlois, legendary founder of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris in the 1930s, was an important figure in establishing the importance of exhibition practice in film culture. I agree totally and all film programmers should be required to read about Langlois or watch this documentary.

If this is history that you don’t know, the Wikipedia page on Henri Langlois gives the basic background. Anyone with pretensions to be a cinéphile will know that it was the screenings of films (three or four screenings a night) in the tiny auditorium of the cinémathèque that allowed the young Godard, Truffaut, Chabrol, Rohmer et al to acquire the background that would enable them to become first critics and later the directors of la nouvelle vague in the 1950s. But there was much more to Langlois than only being an exhibitor – even though that was crucial. He more or less invented the notion of a properly curated film archive, rescuing films from the trashcan, keeping them out of the hands of Nazi occupiers (and potential censors) in 1940 and eventually opening a novel kind of film museum.

The documentary, written and directed by Jacques Richard (who seems to have made two earlier films about Langlois and the film museum) is primarily a procession of talking heads with occasional film clips and newsreel reports. Interviews with Langlois himself (clearly at different times, given his changing hair length and increasing bulk) are intercut with statements by a host of French directors, critics and archivists. One of the pleasures of the film is to spot all the names that you might just have read about in the French Cinema of the 1950s and 1960s, seeing which ones are still alive and which exist only in archive footage etc. The most engaging personality turns out to be Chabrol. The old rogue is interviewed outside a café but it’s worth straining to hear above the traffic noise as he gives his memories.

There are roughly three parts in the documentary (which runs for 128 mins). The first covers the 1930s through to the 1950s as Langlois developed the cinémathèque, the second focuses on the increasing problems associated with the clash between Langlois the maverick curator and the bureaucracies of state funding, culminating in the famous 1968 protests when Langlois was removed by the Culture Minister. The final section covers the creation of the film museum and the last days when Langlois finally got the recognition he deserved, including an honorary Oscar (which he seems to have appreciated far more than some of us cynics might have expected). This section includes hilarious archive footage in which Langlois attempts to pin a medal on Alfred Hitchcock – several times to accommodate the photographers. This reminds me of the only Langlois anecdote that I remember from the time. Hitchcock’s three films made for Paramount between 1954 and 1958 (Rear Window, The Trouble With Harry and Vertigo) for some reason could not be shown in the UK as the rights had expired and not been renewed. So for the whole of the 1970s (when Hitchcock was a major focus for film studies) there was no legal way to see the films. During this period the NFT in London programmed a Hitchcock retrospective without the trio – only for Langlois to turn up with a copy of Vertigo in a large hold-all. The NFT refused to show the film. I’ve no idea if this is true. Can anyone corroborate? Anyway, it’s a good story and it fits with the Langlois in this documentary.

The film is available on a Region 1 DVD from Kino and there is rumoured to be a longer version of the film somewhere.