The Bologna suntans are fading but the Il Cinema Ritrovato memories are still vivid. So Peter Baran and I were delighted to be joined on our latest podcast by academic and film programmer Eloise Ross, as well as filmmaker Ian Mantgani and writer Philip Concannon from the Badlands Collective. We’re chatting about our highlights, discoveries and duds from the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival – a feast of archive, vintage and restored cinema, spanning silent and sound films.
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I should say this through gritted teeth, but Bristol is rapidly becoming Britain’s most cinematic city. Designated a UNESCO City of Film in 2017, its reputation for great cinema screenings and heritage is growing and growing. One of the newest, shiniest gems in its movie crown is Cinema Rediscovered, a kind of West-Country offspring of Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, which takes place every July at venues including the Watershed cinema in the city centre.
Disclaimer time: First, I am working with this festival again this year, and second, it’s not all silent. But genuinely, it’s one of the most exciting and ambitious archive cinema events in the country. Taking place from 25-28 July, Cinema Rediscovered will screen films ranging from the earliest experiments of Victorian cinema to a new 4K restoration of Chan-wook Park’s classic revenge thriller Oldboy (2003).
Other restorations on show include the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams (1989) and Márta Mészáros’ 1975 Berlinale Golden Bear winner Adoption (1975). There are strands devoted to the extraordinary films of legendary British director Nicolas Roeg, as well as to Nigerian director Moustapha Alassane and to feminist filmmaker Maureen Blackwood, who was the first black British woman to have a feature film theatrically released in the UK, The Passion of Remembrance (1986). Cinema heritage doesn’t always look like a pantheon of dead white men. Continue reading Back to Bristol: Cinema Rediscovered 2019→
William Holden is drawn into the dysfunctional, secluded household of a fading Hollywood star, seduced and horrified by what he finds. In his familar crisp voice-over, he tells a sad story of Hollywood brutality. This beautiful screen siren, her heyday far behind her, has a terrible secret, but despite her advanced age, she remains fascinating, almost irresistible…
No, it’s not Sunset Boulevard, but Billy Wilder’s penultimate movie Fedora, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Masters of Cinema on Monday 26 September. Made in 1978, Fedora belongs to a different era than 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “The kids with beards have taken over,” as Holden’s character laments, referring to those cinematic titans who were once movie brats: Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. And Fedora is not a silent movie star either. She belongs especially to the 1930s and 1940s, when she made woman’s pictures, a genre that has gone out of date in 1978. But still, her career was suspiciously long.
It’s said that Wilder may have modelled Fedora on Pola Negri – she is Polish, aristocratic and melodramatic, and she was one of the women approached to play Norma Desmond way back then, too. Negri also retired to live quietly with a lady companion, after a couple of brief comebacks in the 1940s and 1960s. But Negri’s latter years were spent in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to Catholicism. Fedora skulks in an island villa in Corfu, and her end is much less pleasant.Wilder refused to pin this character down though. “I have known Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich, Lombard, and Monroe,” he said. “Fedora is a fictitious combination of them all.”In the opening sequence, in fact, Fedora looks like a much earlier screen goddess, Musidora, as she sprints in a fluttering black cloak towards her fate.
When I wrote about the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, last year I ended with the slightly pessimistic hope that we would get to see a silent film on nitrate next time around. My fear was that shrinkage issues with such old prints might prevent that from happening. I am delighted to report that my cynicism was misplaced as this year’s festival ended on a sensational high, an American silent film from 1928! But more about that later.
As with last year, the festival organisers kept the 2016 programme under wraps until the morning of the first day of the festival. I know this approach is controversial. Potential attendees have complained to me that they are reluctant to incur the not inconsiderable expense in traveling to upstate New York when they have no idea what films will be screened. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but there is something undeniably exciting about opening the brochure on the first day and seeing what treats lie ahead of us. There is also merit in the organisers’ position that it is the physical condition and pictorial beauty of the prints that governs their selection, with the quality and reputation of the works coming next. Personally, I favour a middle ground, perhaps naming three or four films in advance and keeping the rest secret.
I suspect that few, if any,who made the journey to Rochester were disappointed with the films presented to us. I was initially sorry to see that no silents were listed but was keeping my fingers crossed that the final screening of the festival, our Blind Date with Nitrate, might possibly fulfill that wish. And so it did.
The festival kicked off with a selection of short films – my favourites were a colorful Julius Pischewer animation Cent Ans de Chemins de fer Suisses celebrating 100 years of the Swiss railway system and a delightful 1934 Universal animation Jolly Little Elves featuring doughnut-loving kindly elves.
These were followed by one of the highlights of the festival and a film I had not seen before, Enamorada (1946) a tempestuous romantic drama set against the background of the Mexican revolution. Featuring the masterful framing of the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, the film looked gorgeous, especially the exterior shots of the Mexican town in which the story is set. María Félix, probably Mexico’s most famous actress, was beguiling as the feisty female lead and Figueroa makes masterful use of light and shade, given added depth and texture by the nitrate print.
Our final film on the first day was the classic noir, Laura, which we were told was a pre-release version that included footage that was cut for its theatrical distribution. Nobody I spoke to could spot the additional material, however, and although the print was good there were only moments when the benefit of nitrate showed through.
Its allure drew film curators, historians and cinephiles from around the world to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, last weekend, for the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show.
Nitrate, as a film base, was first developed in Rochester, by Eastman Kodak in 1889. It is a high-quality, but highly flammable, film stock which produces its own oxygen supply as it burns. A single spark from a torn frame during projection can set off a raging fire. Audience deaths from projection booth fires were not uncommon during the first few decades of cinema and nitrate’s ability to self-combust has caused several studio vault fires, including the tragic 1937 fire in which almost all of the Fox Film Corporation’s silent film holdings were lost.
Nitrate was discontinued in 1951 and strict regulations now govern its storage,transportation and projection. Only a few venues in the world are equipped to project it, including our venue, the Dryden Theatre.
The chances are, you will recognise the name on the spine of this book. Farran Smith Nehme is one of the smartest, most elegant writers on classic and silent film that you can find. She blogs at her own site called Self-Styled Siren, and writes for publications from Film Comment to the New York Post. The chances are that you will recognise some of the characters in Missing Reels, Smith Nehme’s debut novel, also.
There are a few names dropped here that will chime – from Kevin Brownlow to Jean Harlow to Mordaunt Hall, in fact this novel is peppered with more classic film references than you might think feasible. But it’s the personalities here that will resonate. Ceinwen, our heroine, is a young woman living in a scuzzy New York flatshare in the late 1980s, working in a vintage dress shop and spending all her free time at the movies watching the classics. She’s a bit of a mess, but she’s all right by me. Her job is awful, and low-paid – she is sustained only by cigarettes, hairdye and the pleasure she gets from sashaying around town in a genuine 1930s ensemble. By chance (don’t roll your eyes), Ceinwen discovers that her grumpy downstairs neighbour once starred in a silent movie, a lost curio directed by a precocious talent. That’s all it takes to get Ceinwen hooked on the hard stuff, and before you know it, our vintage vixen is a deeply embedded within the silent film nerd community.
Now, I’m not a nerd, and you’re not a nerd (though you may be a geek), but some of those silent movie fans out there are a little nerdy don’t you think? Not that there is anything wrong with that. Missing Reels is a paean to nerds and nerdery – I felt my silent movie obsession toughening up with every page I turned. Ceinwen’s hunt for those abandoned reels takes her, and her stuffy English academic boyfriend, through film fairs, archives, private collections and secret stashes. She meets people who love silent cinema and people who fetishise and hoard it – but mostly, people who respect it. I love the sequence when she settles down to watch her first Roscoe Arbuckle two-reelers at a Mack Sennett fanclub screening.
“this was the best silent-movie audience she’d ever encountered. No restlessness … No talking. Every laugh was related to something on screen. They picked up every gesture, no matter how small. The first glimpse of Fatty – Roscoe got a round of applause, Mabel Normand’s face got an audible sigh, Buster Keaton got a shout of recognition … And Arbuckle was a marvel, holding his own even with Keaton, supple and flexible in the way he moved.”
The silent-movie bug can be contagious that way. When you’re with people who love silent cinema, those old movies seem to be even more precious.
I saw a lot of myself in Ceinwen – I suspect there is rather a lot of Smith Nehme in there too – and I have met a few Freds, Harrys and even Andrews too, her mostly lovable, mostly eccentric guides through the silent cinema maze. How could you not adore Harry, a cinephile maths professor who encourages Ceinwen’s flickering interest, and who patiently drops this sassy line on a firefighter dead set on destroying a cache of nitrate: “Think of it more like, the Mona Lisa happens to be really flammable”? In fact, Ceinwen joins their ranks – going from film fan to silent “nut” in a few hundred pages. This is really a book about passion, misdirected, perverted or beautifully nourishing – it’s Fever Pitch for the Pordenone crowd. You could write a book like this about stamp collecting I suppose, but it wouldn’t have the same glamour for me.
I must confess, the hilarious scene in which Ceinwen attempts to keep her end up in an awkward post-sex conversation with that no-good British boyfriend of hers, while simultaneously reading a movie monograph, was almost too close to my bones. Smith Nehme knows better than most what it is to be immersed in this world, and Missing Reels is a portrait of a woman following her heart and blowing her cool at the same time. That’s what makes it funny, and poignant too.
Now I asked you not to roll your eyes earlier, because we have seen a few hunt-for-a-lost-movie novels before. But that doesn’t stop us getting excited when it happens in real life does it? And the Murnauesque Gothic romance that Ceinwen makes it her mission to uncover really does sound like a beauty. Part of this novel’s charm is that we’d all like to discover a lost film. And more than that, we’d all like to represent for silent cinema, to combat the prejudices that the elderly star of that film, the snippy neighbour, has clearly taken to heart: “Ooooh folks, here’s this little clip from the dark ages, before everybody figured out how it was really done. Don’t worry, it’s not too long, we don’t want to bore anybody.” That’s Ceinwen’s real mission.
Now it’s my turn to blow my cool. I love this book: it’s witty and sharp and feminine and fabulous. If you know how to pronounce Borzage, if the mere mention of a nitrate copy of Flaming Youth sets your heart a-flutter and if you’ve ever worn a scarf in your hair and hoped you looked like Clara Bow, then this is the novel for you.
Missing Reels is out now in the US, published by The Overlook Press, priced $26.95. It will be published in the UK by Duckworth in spring 2015.