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Silent films at Scalarama 2014: Sidewalk Stories, Caligari and more screen nationwide

Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, a film event producer who organises the Nobody Ordered Wolves screenings. You can follow Duncan on Twitter at @nowolvesplease

It would be easy enough to despair at our current cinema choices. Although film houses are more comfortable and technologically sophisticated than ever, what is actually on the screen is terrifyingly narrow. Even though almost every cinema in the land is now equipped for digital prints, opening up programmers to a cheap and vast library of films, this hasn’t broken the stranglehold of loud, ephemeral and repetitive Hollywood fare. 
 
Standing as an antidote to this conservatism, Scalarama brings the weird, the underseen, the expanded and emboldened to the cinema and beyond. In its fourth year and now bolstered by BFI funding, Scalarama takes place across September and operates in a similar fashion to the Edinburgh festival fringe: the organisers take no cut of the profits, they only encourage a broadening of what is on offer. Originally created as a tribute to the freewheeling programming of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, it attempts to bolster film clubs, give cinemas the confidence to take on riskier programming and move cinema outside of its traditional homes.
Two films that are at the heart of Scalarama’s offering this year are of special interest to silent film lovers. The first will be familiar to all: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. The second is almost a ghost to all but a few dedicated film fans: Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories.
 
Shot in 1989, Sidewalk Stories is a modern silent feature film. And it has an impressive progeny: Michael Hazanavicius, the director of the Oscar-winning behemoth The Artist, credits this neglected classic as the direct inspiration for his indie smash. Yet if this might lead you to expect a nostalgic recreation of cinema pre-1928, guess again. Lane’s setting and attitude is more Spike Lee than FW Murnau. Made the same year as Do the Right Thing, Sidewalk Stories is cut from the same cloth as other grimy pre-Giuliani New York city films like Taxi DriverSerpico and The French Connection.
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
Sidewalk Stories (1989)
That said, the plot itself is pure Chaplin: the star (played by Lane himself) finds himself in loco parentis of a young girl when her father is killed. As with Chaplin’s The Kid, our hero’s hapless parenting is the centre of the story here. The dynamic between the two is heartwarming, no doubt because of their connection as real-life father and daughter. Having confessed to loathing silent cinema as an art student, Lane embraces the medium to tell a universal story about homelessness and desperation. It is a story of deep compassion and this is why it is being released in the UK in partnership with Open Cinema, a charity that provides opportunities to access culture and film skills for marginalised people. Londoners have two opportunities to catch the film: Nobody Ordered Wolves (AKA yours truly) will be showing the film at popup cinema Hollywood Spring with a live score by pianist Stephen Horne. Tickets here. Later in the month, Hotel Elephant will also be showing the film. To see where else in the UK this neglected gem is getting an outing, click here.

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Jean Epstein: ‘On screen there is no still life’

Finis Terrae

Finis Terrae (Jean Epstein, 1929) screens at the Tin Tabernacle in Kilburn on 2 March 2014. Book your ticket here

This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, who blogs at pangolinblues.wordpress.com

In my screening programme Nobody Ordered Wolves, I am always seeking startling work that will match the shock of entering the unusual spaces I seek out for the events. When I happened upon Kilburn’s Tin Tabernacle – an amazing tin church built in the Victorian period, its insides later converted by sea cadets to surreally resemble a ship’s – I knew I needed a film that would produce the same “shock of the old”. As luck would have it, there remained a work about the sea that held the same surprise that entering a ship run aground in North London did for me. The film is Finis Terrae and it was produced by neglected master director Jean Epstein.

As a child, Jean Epstein (1897–1953) was, “afraid to go to the cinema”:

I had heard perfectly reasonable adults speak strongly about horrific details of the conflagration at the charity bazaar where, it seemed, a bishop was burned alive. In my premature logic, I told myself that if a bishop can die at the cinema, all the more reasonable that I would, since I was surely not so well protected by the will of God; I would cry and stamp my feet and enter into mad crises of despair when I would see my parents prepare to go to the cinema: I was never sure they’d return alive.

This piece of magical thinking maps out Epstein’s later career in the cinema. Filmmaking was a matter of mortal stakes for the Polish-French director, writer and poet, and was carried out with an evangelical, religious fervour. Despite crowning achievements and innovations in a variety of fields – encompassing silent and sound work, commercial biopics and avant-garde shorts, high cinema theory and thoroughgoing technical experimentation – Epstein’s ability to capture the life of the sea is unparalleled.

Nervous hands

Whatever childhood qualms he held were brushed aside after making the acquaintance of the Lumière Brothers themselves. Abandoning his studies as a doctor, Epstein jumped at the chance to co-direct a film biography of Louis Pasteur. He then produced a string of studio works in the 1920s, before founding his own film company where he directed some startling narrative works, from melodrama (Coeur Fidele, 1923) to horror (The Fall of the House of Usher, 1928). In parallel, Epstein was bravely and idiosyncratically theorising the world of the cinema. Although the subjects in his writings are diverse (even choosing from the sadly limited number available in translation), his consuming passion is how to make the focus of cinema what he terms “photogénie”. While even Epstein himself admitted “you fall flat on your face trying to define photogénie”, at its core, it is the specific extra quality that objects take on when they are filmed, and the new light that this casts on them. Epstein describes this process in typically lyrical fashion:

One of cinema’s greatest power is its animism. On screen there is no still life. Objects have attitudes. Trees gesture. Mountains … signify. Each element of staging becomes a character.

For Epstein, this idea held equal weight in theory and practice: his version of The Fall of the House of Usher focuses on the desperate, haunted attempt by Roderick Usher to capture the image of his sister in a portrait that he is obsessively paints of her. This provides a ripe metaphor for Epstein’s own artistic battle, as he tries to use the aesthetic means of film to reflect the world back to the viewer. Epstein was known for his use of many formal techniques (superimpositions, slow-motion, extreme close up) but his aim was never to create an alienating surrealism, but instead cast a cinematic spell that would reveal an object as it truly is.

Kelp Furl

Yet, after producing … Usher, his most formally lavish film, he separated himself from the Paris cinema milieu and departed for remotest Brittany.

I had the feeling that it was impossible to further capture the real using the unreal. Finis Terrae was my attempt to get past this dead end.

Although Epstein had long been fascinated by the sea, it was a grotesque fascination: half disgust and half attraction. Citing Edgar Allen Poe’s story The Imp of the Perverse, he described his consuming fear of the ocean, though a fear ‘that obliges us to do what we are afraid to do.’ Epstein made five films about the sea across two decades, starting with Finis Terrae in 1929. All but one is set on the Breton coast; like the rhythms of the tide that he placed so centrally in these films, his mind and travel plans kept pulling him back to the region.

Lighthouse

In Finis Terrae, the untouched quality of the Breton coastline allowed him to showcase seemingly simple elements to spectacular degree: the folding of a pair of arms, the fluttering of ribbons in a girl’s hair and, most persistently, the moods of the sea against the unchanging rocks. The space of Brittany gave him licence to completely renew his aesthetics, finding in the coastline the kind of natural photogénie that he had struggle to produce through artificial means in his earlier work:

Leaving the Ouessant archipelago, I felt I was taking with me not a film, but a fact and once this fact had been transported to Paris, something of the material and spiritual reality of the island life would henceforth be missing. An occult business.

Epstein believed that cinema held the unique power to show us the fundamental objective truth that is usually shattered by subjectivity; he delighted in the French term for a camera lens, le objectif. Appropriately then, Finis Terrae’s plot was “torn from the headlines”, though markedly more sedate headlines than the cinema usually draws on. In the film, a seaweed gatherer on a remote coastal island accidentally cuts himself on a bottle, and the wound quickly becomes infected. Initially he is derided by the other seamen for his malingering, but soon they realise the mortal stakes and attempt the difficult sea crossing to the mainland.

Horse gambol

As Epstein hoped, his mode of framing life in Ouessant acts as an “eye-freshener”: one comes away from the film brimming with cinema’s potential. Although Epstein exposes much that is exotic and novel in his docudrama, the film never patronises the Breton lifestyle. One thinks of Murnau and Flaherty’s Tabu: A Tale of the South Seas (1931), which, despite its beauty and “documentary” approach, has an outsider’s touch throughout, seeking to fillet the lives of the islanders for their “otherness”. Whether or not one can claim objectivity, Epstein was not simply another Paris intellectual seeking authenticity in the “naïve” life of the natives. Brittany represents a space of the uncanny for Epstein, where the smallest mistake can have life-threatening consequences:

In this place and people is resumed the mystery of men dedicated to land that is but rock, to sea that is but foam, to a hard and perilous trade suffering a meagre self-sufficiency.

Instead of “the other”, Epstein shows life in Brittany as a legitimate alternative to the alienation of modern life. He also had other reasons for seeking alternate lifestyles: as was uncovered when his full archives were made available, Epstein was gay and, under a pseudonym had written a pioneering treatise on Masculine Homosexual Ethics. With this information, the companionship between the younger seaweed gatherers takes on a new cast. Brittany at that time was heavily dominated by the Catholic church, but fishermen – unable to attend mass on a regular basis – were relatively exempt from their sway. In the male-only world of the archipelagos, a beautiful and separate world could flourish. The narrative trajectory of Finis Terrae can easily be read as a parable of two male lovers who come to realise their value to each other.

Bottle broken

Epstein’s other works of the sea are equally compelling, but it is with this first work that he made his definitive statement about the power of the ocean. Coastal life is constantly in flux; for a filmmaker who believed that “still life is an abominable on screen … a sin against the very nature of cinema”, it allowed him the perfect location to capture the ecstatic essence of film.

Cigarette Roll

This article is heavily indebted to Jean Epstein: Critical Essays and New Translations (Amsterdam University Press), which is available as a Creative Commons licenced free e-book here. Many thanks also to Bathysphere Productions for generously sharing a viewing copy of James June Schneider’s beautiful documentary Jean Epstein: Young Oceans of Cinema, which will be included in the upcoming (and much needed) box set of Jean Epstein’s works from Potemkine, due to be released in May 2014 to coincide with a retrospective of his works at the Cinemateque Française.

By Duncan Carson