John Carpenter, live

 

On Sunday night we had the great pleasure of seeing and hearing John Carpenter, live, at Colston Hall. His filmmaking and musical talents have long been admired by those of us here in the video shop – and not just now, but by former staff members in the years before our times, too.

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For me, it was also a first visit to Colston Hall. Despite its proximity to our shop I had never stepped inside. As a dedicated and stereotypical film nerd I tend to spend the big bucks I earn here at the video shop (ahem) on cinema tickets, fancy cheese and close to my body weight in red wine, but little else. So an outing to a venue with a large audience capacity was an unusual shock to the system.

It got me thinking. There must have been more than a thousand people sat around me watching, cheering and enjoying the audio visual show. But the man performing is also a filmmaker whose films would never attract anywhere near this number of people if screened even in the very same town.

Case in point: last month, as part of Scalarama 2016, we showed In the Mouth of Madness, at Bristol’s Cube Cinema, to an audience of around 60 people. The tickets to see the film were a fiver; attending Carpenter live was a little over thirty quid.

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So, my question is this: is it only the live appearance factor that makes people turn up in droves to celebrate a renowned musician/filmmaker or is there something about venues and perceived forms of entertainment also at play?

For example, does ‘Colston Hall’ suggest entertainment that you can’t miss owing to its reputation as a venue that attracts world class acts? And does ‘Cube Microplex’, as an artists’ collective, with highly reduced ticket prices, suggest something you could watch at home or in another venue, thus removing the prestige and scarcity factors? I wonder, too, even though the performance at Colston Hall was visual as well as audio – there were several clips packaged together of footage from John Carpenter’s films, albeit sometimes in incorrect aspect ratios – is the visual (on photochemical film or in a digital format) considered an insignificant element in weighing up the attractiveness of paying to attend an event?

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I ask because, even though I thought the concert was great and while I did have a splendid time, I still rate my best John Carpenter experience as when I saw Escape From LA (far from my favourite of his films) on a 35mm film print in the small but wonderful auditorium at Paris’ Grand Action cinema. And, as great as it was to see clips of his films set to live music, complete with his totally adorable dance moves, I would have loved to have seen those films shown in full, in the correct aspect ratio, with appropriate masking, on a big cinema screen, so much more.

I know I am often in the minority (I still think running a rental store is a good idea and I know it’s 2016), so some of these questions may indeed be rhetorical, but I’m keen to hear from other people on the issue. I would love to know about your perceptions of value entertainment, appropriate film and concert admission costs and the role of film as a form of entertainment both on its own as well as as a combined element in another style of live show. Please do comment below or send an email to my attention (Tara) at: info[at]20thcenturyflicks[dot]co[dot]uk

A bunch of John Carpenter films are available to rent at 20th Century Flicks and our Kino is available for hire if you want to get a group together and see something here. 

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Silent Studies in the Kino – According to Tara

For a long time I thought I didn’t like silent cinema. It’s easy to be prejudiced against an era or a genre of film when your first encounter had you looking through the wrong keyhole.

It was about seven or eight years ago that I went to a silent film screening in Bristol. I can’t remember which film it was but I know it was a slapstick comedy with either Chaplin or Keaton, and it featured blackface. I was horrified and, quite honestly, shocked. I’d never seen a film with blackface exhibited publicly before and there had been no trigger warning before the screening. There was no context given and there I was, amidst a room full of white middle-class folk laughing their asses off.

On a less serious but still ultimately off-putting note, the music was poorly matched to the film. It was jaunty, whimsical and upbeat all the while. I hated everything about the screening and, as a result, was pretty much turned off silent cinema for life.

Or so I thought.

Several years later I met Dr Peter Walsh. He’s a feminist and a film scholar. His expertise is in early and silent cinema. He seemed immediately like a great guy who doesn’t endorse jaunty, inappropriate, crap music – or blackface. So, I thought, maybe there’s more to this silent cinema malarkey than I’ve given it credit for…

And so, with curiosity and hope, I invited Pete to run a silent cinema course at Flicks. I was first to enroll.

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The course exceeded the foolishness of my keyhole metaphor and opened an actual door to previously inaccessible cinema. Throughout the course I was introduced to The Silent Feminists: America’s First Women Directors (1993) which included the totally amazing Alice Guy who experimented with Gaumont’s sync sound system known as the Chronophone until such time as she got married and had to resign. She continued to work elsewhere after Gaumont gave her the boot but her husband kinda got in the way.

While a woman being nudged out of the way by dudes is an all too familiar story in film history it was great to at least hear about some of the women who made a mark before the patriarchy pushed them aside because documentaries (un)like this one far too often have us believing that women were altogether absent. Turns out it’s not just funny white dudes doing blackface after all. In fact, Lois Weber, who also features in the documentary, refused to work on one particular film, taking a stand against blackface – yep, there were heroes fighting for what’s right even in the early era.

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Course, I can’t help but wonder why The Silent Feminists, a forty-five minute documentary about women in a field where women are often absent from the dominant historical narrative, has yet to be released on DVD or BluRay. Please, BFI, help a sister out?

I also discovered that not all silent cinema is scored with unimaginative organ playing (like The Lost World, 1925) or jaunty piano. Having seen clips from Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902) many times before, I was amazed to discover that I have never seen the full film, restored, coloured, and gloriously scored by Air. I was also amazed at how many inappropriate scores have been recorded and released with Dziga Vertov’s Man With a Movie Camera (1929). Personally, I like it properly silent: no score. We also had a series of great, and divisive, discussions after watching Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927) with a Giorgio Moroder score.

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Perhaps most surprisingly was that I chose, of my own volition, to watch silent movies at home – not so much for homework or even extra curricular viewing, but just for the fun of it and with a genuine interest. Jean Painlevé’s wonderful sea urchins on our old never-before-rented VHS of Surrealism and Science (1925) and a beautifully scored, visually exciting and honestly suspenseful Swedish horror film, The Phantom Carriage (1921) were two such treats.

Silent Studies in the Kino was our first foray into adult education courses at Flicks and, from the perspective of both student and course administrator, I can honestly say that it was so darn good it not only makes me want to schedule more classes in the Kino but it also changed my previously rigid opinion of an entire era of cinema. Cheers, Pete.

Dr Peter Walsh is Co-director and Co-curator of South West Silents and can found on twitter as @soylent_grey.

 

South West Silents Speak Up: Mark Fuller on Piccadilly (1929)

I’m a particular fan of British Silent Film; for many decades ill-served by critics, historians and archives, to the extent that few bothered watching them, even while decrying them in print, relying on hand-me-down opinions propagated by twenties and thirties intellectuals with political axes to grind. Although this attitude lingers on in places, the fight-back began around fifteen years ago when a small group of women historians and archivists who knew better, founded the British Silent Film Festival, and a radical reappraisal begun. Long-time unseen films were finally being discovered by new generations who saw how dazzling, inventive and progressive British film could be before the sound era.

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Even now, however, British Silent Film is fairly ill-served on home entertainment formats; aside from Hitchcock’s rightly lauded silents, few are available with decent prints and thoughtful scores….but an exception is the BFI release of Piccadilly, a late silent made in 1929 by an international team, combining British and American actors, with German direction, design and photography, in a British production.

The resulting Piccadilly (1929) is a stunning film, a prototype film noir, with two femme fatales; Shosho (Anna May Wong), the young, beautiful Chinese girl washing dishes at the nightclub where Mabel (Gilda Gray) is the ageing star turn. The club’s boss, Valentine (Jameson Thomas), also Mabel’s lover, discovers Shosho, sets her dancing in the club, where she is an immediate sensation, and falls for her.

The story is not the most original, but has fine observation and some killer lines. But the film is a must-see for its visuals; German expressionist flavourings run throughout, featuring the designs of Alfred Junge (best known for his work with Powell and Pressburger in the ’40s), creating a look that would dominate Hollywood films in the forties and fifties – in 1929.

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The acting is stunning; Jameson Thomas is a seedier Ronald Colman, trapped between the two women who want him; Gilda Gray goes from awful prima donna to a sympathetic, tragic figure with great conviction, and Anna May Wong is breath-taking, utterly convincing both in the nightclub and in Limehouse, growing from timid girl to full-fledged sexual predator! You simply cannot take your eyes off her: even in the plain clothes she wears at the beginning, she has a cool, almost 1960s quality. The German director, E.A.Dupont, somehow manages to combine all these disparate acting styles, moments of high drama and touches of comed, with deft little bits of business informing us about the people behind their public masks, and about the layered nature of London society. The sequences in the old East End offers a particularly fascinating look at the sexual and racial politics of the time. If you were lucky enough to attend South West Silents’ screening of Dupont’s Varieté (1925) at The Cube late last year you will know already what a fine filmmaker, and handler of actors, he was.

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The restored print is stunning, rarely showing its age, more often showing the beautiful cinematography by Werner Brandes, ex-UFA – the sequence where Shosho debuts in the club being one of the most beautiful I have ever seen on film, although the tinting and toning of the restoration seems a bit bold to my eyes, so you may want to turn the colour settings down on your TV.

The extras on the DVD include text biographies of Wong and Dupont, a howlingly bad sound prologue for the film, but most importantly a briefing by Neil Brand about his thinking for his new score, but which also, incidentally, acts as an illuminating commentary and analysis on the film itself . The film’s background is a jazz club of sorts, and the score is a jazz-based one, but he has (thankfully) resisted the temptation of a Charleston-fest, and gone for a style that actually fits the style of the film, the emotions at work; restrained, cool, languid, but with an underlying tension. It works brilliantly.

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If you are wary of Silents, or think they begin and end with Nosferatu (1922) and Metropolis (1927), or perhaps think Film Noir started around WWII, then this is an approachable, beautiful and thrilling entry point to a whole area worthy of discovery. Enjoy…

Recommended Reading:

Destination London: German-Speaking Emigres and British Cinema, 1925-1950 by Tim Bergfelder and Christian Cargnelli

Reframing British Cinema, 1918-1928: Between Restraint and Passion by Christine Gledhill

Written by Mark Fuller of South West Silents for 20th Century Flicks.

 

Music From the Movies

Though we mostly tend to talk about movies as “moving images”, there’s a whole ‘nother dimension (outside of the silent era, of course) that has a huge impact on how we understand, read and engage with cinema.

And I’m not just talking about dialogue and diegesis either. When it comes to mainstream cinema it’s the music that’s most likely to set me off on an embarrassing blub-a-thon – all too often in spite of how stupid I might think the story/characters/narrative emoti-cue is.

Look no further than any Steven Spielberg movie, ever, for first class musical manipulation.

Or pretty much anything with Tom Hanks in it.

But it’s not all unwanted tears; movie music can also offer up joyous, upbeat earworms – anything Ennio Morricone for me, Hans Zimmer or Alexandre Desplat, perhaps, for others.

Moving, mighty and a most beautiful art all o’ its own, movie music can be magic.

Which is why we’re recommending this upcoming twilight event at The Bristol Zoo: Music From The Movies.

Including music from Harry Potter, Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Mission Impossible, Titanic and loads more big screen favourites, the Bristol Ensemble orchestra are bringing entertainment to the animals – and you.

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