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.

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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.

BIFF 2013 #3: A Throw of Dice (Prapancha Pash, India/UK/Germany 1929)

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BIFF19logoThis print restored by the BFI provides a glimpse of the possibilities of ‘global film’ just before ‘hegemonic Hollywood’ began to exert its control with the coming of sound. German filmmaker Franz Osten had already worked in India on two films with Bengali actor-producer Himanshu Rai – Prem Sanyas (The Light of Asia) 1925 and Shiraz (1928). These were the fore-runners of modern co-productions. Osten brought in German crews and the backing of a German studio (Ufa). According to IMDB, two British studios were also involved. The script seems to have had both German and British input into what was initially an Indian story scripted by Niranjan Pal who with Himanshu Rai would eventually set up Bombay Talkies in 1934 as one of the major studios of the sound period. The British contribution seems to have been ‘supportive’ since the main creative and technical roles were undertaken by Germans and Indians. Much of the film was shot on location in Rajasthan.

The 2006 restoration includes a Nitin Sawhney score that I was a little wary of at first but eventually I found worked very well. The camerawork by Emil Schunemann is excellent and at one point he gave us a stunning tracking shot seemingly out of nowhere. The film’s title neatly describes the narrative which involves two kings who are cousins, neighbours and inveterate gamblers in a period before the arrival of Europeans. It’s all fairly predictable stuff in the sense that they compete for the hand of a beautiful girl with one of them rather more devious than the other. But the story isn’t the main attraction – with 10,000 extras, footage of tigers in the jungle and ceremonial elephants, palaces and stunning landscapes, this is an action melodrama (the two terms once meant the same thing).  One thing that struck me about the camerawork was that several of he compositions can be seen as being imported from German cinema and then incorporated in later Indian popular cinema narratives. I’m thinking in particular of some of the fight scenes on cliff tops and a couple silhouetted on a mountain skyline. The spectacular German cinema of the 1920s was very interested in the ‘exotic Orient’ with Murnau travelling to the South Seas for one of his early Hollywood titles in Tabu (1931) and Fritz Lang in aspects of Destiny (Germany 1921). (He would later return for his two-part film The Tiger of Eschnapur in 1959 based partly on his script for another 1920s film.) What we see in A Throw of Dice I think is not so much a German view of India as an example of the potential of Indian cinema to take the technical skills and creative vision of Osten and Schunemann and use them in developing the Indian cinema that would flourish in the 1930s.

Before the main feature (74 mins), BIFF elected to show an extract from Raja Harishchandra, the film usually taken to mark the beginning of Indian feature films in 1913 (and therefore the key film for the 100th Birthday tribute). The film was  originally a ‘four reeler’ of 3,700 feet running around 48 minutes at silent speeds. Producer-director-writer Dadasaheb Phalke had travelled to Germany and to the UK to acquire the skills and the technology to enable him to become the first Indian filmmaker of note, completely in control of his own productions in Bombay. Later he founded Hindustan Films, but the company struggled and Phalke’s brief career which should have flourished in the 1920s was cut short. Nevertheless, he stands as one of the founders of the film industry in Bombay and the Indian genres of the ‘devotional’ and the ‘mythological’. The extract was presented from Blu-ray and there seem to have been problems in transferring the material (I think that the original was lost in a fire at the Film Institute Archive in Pune). I confess that I found what was presented was quite difficult to follow but in 1912 when Phalke was making the film, cinema worldwide was in a state of very rapid innovation. To pick out a few points, there is still a reliance on what might be termed ‘proscenium arch’ shots with a tableau of characters as if on a stage, some occasionally looking at the camera. There are special effects and it is possible to see links to the Ramayana (Phalke is said to have been inspired by Christian narratives). The main plot involves a king who loses his kingdom and his wife and child through various accidents and by deceit but who then recovers them because the gods wish to reward him for his moral integrity.

There is a documentary on Phalke and the making of the film on YouTube (it’s not the ‘complete film’ as it claims) and it’s interesting to see the variety of comments (including the surprise shown by some Indians that Indian cinema goes back so far). Well done to BIFF for showing this and giving us all a chance to consider the whole 100 years.