Friday 12 July 2024

Iranian New Wave: 1962–79 at Melbourne International Film Festival

Dead End by Parviz Sayyad

Iranian Cinema Before the Revolution, 1925-1979, a landmark retrospective held last year at The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York, was an eye-opener that traced a national cinema still largely unknown to a wide international audience. Thanks to the availability of new restorations and rare archival film prints, the majority of which now banned in Iran, an immensely creative period was revisited in splendid detail, revealing the roots of a rich and visionary cinematic tradition. While the New York program featured over five decades of Iranian cinema encompassing the avant-garde and the popular, this selection for the Melbourne International Film Festival, curated by the original team behind the MoMA exhibition, focuses on works associated with Cinema-ye Motafavet, or the Iranian New Wave.

Sunday 7 July 2024

HE Who Gets Slapped (Victor Sjöström, 1924)

A chilling study of humiliation and obsession, blending circus-world spectacle with symbolism and philosophical undertones, HE Who Gets Slapped was Swedish master Victor Sjöström’s second Hollywood film. This is a tale of the fickleness of social status and a treatise on “man as clown”. There were major transformations at work in and around this seminal silent: Sjöström’s full transformation into Seastrom, a major Hollywood director; the merger of Goldwyn Pictures and Metro Pictures Corporation into Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, with this film as the new company’s first production; and, in the story, Lon Chaney’s metamorphosis from a heartbroken and disillusioned scientist researching the origins of mankind, into a clown letting lions loose on evil men.

Il Cinema Ritrovato 2024: Favourites & Discoveries

70mm projection of North by Northwest in the Piazza Maggiore

The XXXVIII edizione of Il Cinema Ritrovato ran from June 22 to 30. In reality, it started a few days before the official date and stretched into one extra day at the tail end of it. Four hundred-plus titles were screened, from early cinema to documentaries made in 2023-2024, from great classics to obscure gems, from experimental films to pornography. This edition also finally saw the opening of the restored Cinema Modernissimo which now has turned into the heart of the festival.

5,700 from 72 countries acquired the festival pass, 700 higher than last year.

The title of all the films and moving images screened can be accessed here.

I asked some of the attendees about what they had taken from the festival. They generously sent me the titles they have liked and those they have discovered, or those they have rediscovered and now loved. More than 145 festivalgoers –  including curators, archivists, festival bums, film historians, 35mm fanatics, programmers, writers and critics – have responded to this call for building a new canon based on what we played this year.

Friday 5 July 2024

The Lady with the Torch: Columbia Pictures, 1929-1959 [book]


Columbia Pictures, 1929-1959

Edited by Ehsan Khoshbakht

Published by Les éditions de l’oeil

Published on the occasion of the retrospective of the Locarno Film Festival 2024

288 pages, fully illustrated (rare stills from the collection of Sony/Columbia and the Cinémathèque Suisse

Contributors: Jeremy Arnold on Nick Grinde, Matthew H. Bernstein on the history of Columbia, David Cairns on Edward Dmytryk, Paola Cristalli on Richard Quine, Chris Fujiwara on Joseph H. Lewis & Robert Rossen, Philippe Garnier on Roy William Neill, Haden Guest on Phil Karlson, Milan Hain on Hugo Haas, Pamela Hutchinson on torch-bearers, Elena Lazic on Alexander Hall, Christina Newland on CP stars, Kim Newman on William Castle, Geoffrey O’Brien on Hawks, Jonathan Rosenbaum on Andre De Toth, Christopher Small on Capra, Farran Smith Nehme on John Sturges, Imogen Sara Smith on Boetticher and David Thompson on Charles Vidor.

The hyperrealist image of a lady on a pedestal holding a burning bright torch was an idealised vision of Americanism. It proclaimed the arrival of another Columbia Pictures film, very often in black-and-white, most probably short in length but fast and furious in tone and pace. The Columbia films, however, tended to drag this figurehead of liberty down and examine her more unglamorous side. American values were dissected and questioned through tales of fast-talking career women, existentialist cowboys, and prophetic anti-fascist quickies. Yet, the symbol of the still burning torch over The End title was an affirmation of the values being rebuilt through the skilful art of John Ford, Dorothy Arzner, and Nicholas Ray.

This book, accompanying a Locarno Film Festival retrospective celebrating the centenary of Columbia Pictures, follows the period of the retrospective, 1929-1959, but expands on its directors and directions.

The collection of essays to follow examines the particularities of Columbia in relation to what is generally known as the Genius of the System. This volume acknowledges the brilliance of the system but finds the genius somewhere between a filmmaker’s vision and the industrial infrastructure that allowed them to nourish.

Illustrated with hundreds of rare stills, the stories are as much in the images as in the words. Both words and images aim at reconstructing three exuberant decades of incessant creativity, evolution, and growth, reminding us that once upon a time there was a brilliant exchange between art and commerce, between the system and the artist.

Thursday 4 July 2024

L'Héritage de la chouette (Chris Marker, 1989)

L'Héritage de la chouette [The Owl's Legacy], directed by Chris Marker plays on July 28 at Closeup Cinema in London. For this screening I have selected three episodes of the series around the themes of memory, image and cinema. – EK

Chris Marker's rarely seen magnum opus about the influence of the ancient Greek culture on the contemporary world remains his most elaborate project for television. Produced by the Onassis Foundation, Marker found the budget and freedom to invite some of the world’s leading philosophers, writers, logicians, politicians, artists and filmmakers (very often with explicit links to Greece, such as Theodoros Angelopoulos and Elia Kazan) to sit in front of his camera and, in a clear act of creating a cinematic forum, discuss thirteen themes, including Democracy, Nostalgia, Music, Cosmogony, and Misogyny. There is an abundance of Marker’s usual wit and his use of the image of animals for linking his philosophical investigation, here, in the form of the owl which was the symbol of wisdom for the Greeks. Marker’s words, in the English version, are spoken by Bob Peck.

City for Conquest (Anatole Litvak, 1940)

A captivating and tragic symphony of New York, this precursor of Raging Bull tells the story of two brothers, one a boxer, the other a musician rising from the slums of the city. The elder, James Cagney’s Danny Kenny, is a prize-fighter who eventually loses both his girl (Ann Sheridan) and his eyesight. Only when his vision is gone, does he begin to see his place in the world and opens – perhaps in an allegorical move –a newsstand. It is from his modest kiosk that he listens to his kid brother’s triumphant debut classical concert. The idol of Madison Square Garden falls so the new god of Carnegie Hall can rise. Litvak’s nods to sophistication didn’t sit too well with Cagney who wanted Raoul Walsh to direct, and more rawness and action. Litvak’s re-examination of Cagney’s popular persona – similar to what he achieved with Edward G. Robinson in The Amazing Dr. Clitterhouse – irked Cagney, as did his unfamiliar, camera-oriented style. Yet, it is not hard to see how much Litvak has toned down and sometimes even repressed his signature methods in favour of Warner’s fast-paced, editing-based house style. But who else could give Cagney the scene at the end when, in his blurred vision, the image of Ann Sheridan comes into full focus? It is one Litvak’s most lyrical moments and one of Cagney’s most moving.

L’Équipage (Anatole Litvak, 1935)

Opening with the same train whistle that closed Cœur de lilas (1932), Jean, a young officer in the French air force during WWI, bids farewell to his lover Denise and heads for the front. There he comes to admire the unpopular Lieutenant Maury whose gunner he becomes, only to discover that Denise is in fact Maury’s wife. Following this revelation, the two men head off on a suicide mission where the hard choice has to be made between fraternal loyalty and grand passion. The final sequence after the battle is pure Litvak: in a sacrificial gesture, Maury pretends he is not aware of his wife’s love for Jean. The deepest of emotions are swept under a rug, left unspoken.

Wednesday 12 June 2024

Symphonies in Black: Duke Ellington Shorts

Black & Tan

Symphonies in Black: Duke Ellington Shorts

A programme by Jonathan Rosenbaum and Ehsan Khoshbakht (Il Cinema Ritrovato, Bologna, June 2024)

Introductory note by Jonathan Rosenbaum

In 16 shorts made over a stretch of almost a quarter of a century (1929-1953), Duke Ellington and his Orchestra perform in a variety of settings, often with dancers and singers – including Billie Holiday in Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life. The latter cuts freely between Ellington alone in thoughtful composing mode, Ellington in a tux performing the same extended composition with his band at a concert, arty images of men engaged in heavy labour, a wordless church sermon, a nightclub floorshow, and even a short stretch of story showing Holiday being pushed to the ground by an ungrateful lover before singing there about her misery – a near replica of the musical setup accorded to Bessie Smith in her only film appearance six years earlier.

Indeed, although the pleasures to be found here are chiefly musical, the narrative pretexts for these performances offer a fascinating look at how both jazz and Black musicians were perceived and expected to behave during the first three decades of talkies. At least half of the films are Soundies made for sound-and-image jukeboxes in the 40s, but even these often trade on narrative details such as the adoring women digging the solos by Ray Nance, Rex Stewart, Ben Webster, and others at an “eatery” after hours in Jam Session (1942), or the spectacular dancing by athletic jitterbugging couples in Hot Chocolate (Cottontail) from the same year.