Friday, 18 March 2011

Against the Silence

The Birds Eye View Film Festival in London, which opened on International Women's Day (March 8th), and significantly on 100th anniversary of this auspicious day, is one of the most internationally acclaimed women’s film festivals. It is a collection of tastefully selected new films, short films, documentaries, classics, exhibitions, as well as live music performance. Their motto is “From Lois Weber to Lucy Walker”, thus acknowledging Weber (1881-1939), the first female director of feature length films and Walker, the documentary maker whose work Countdown to Zero, on the subject of nuclear race, has recently been screened.
Lillian Gish in The Wind
In its seventh year, the festival which in itself is as tasteful and tidy as an organized woman’s kitchen, introduces a category, “Bloody Women” which can be interpreted as the dark basement under the kitchen. It is a look at women’s contribution to horror, from gothic psychodrama to vampire chic. It includes films such as Victor Sjoström’s The Wind and Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Hard as it is to believe, some of the most delightful moments of this section are provided by silent movies, accompanied by live music, screened to young and old audiences in a packed theatre.
John Barrymore in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde
One of my most unforgettable movie experiences in the past few months was seeing John S. Robertson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920) as a part of “Bloody Women” screenings. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde was filmed at least nine times in the silent era alone, and this adaptation owes its entrance into this festival to its script-writer Ms. Clara Beranger (1886-1956), who acquired fame by working with director Cecil B. DeMille on 24 films. Later, she married DeMille’s older brother William, also a director. The fact that she was using the pseudonym of Charles S. Beranger, might give a new meaning to the theme of duality in Dr. Jekyll. Her part in this wonderful interpretation is more than meets the eye initially. Rather than opting for the more usual “mad scientists” of the genre (Dr. Frankenstein, Francois Delambre, etc.), Beranger, in her feminine presentation, prefers to show Dr. Jekyll as one whose social status does not permit frequenting a mere dancer, subsequently resorting to his alter ego. Barrymore’s portrayal of Jekyll/Hyde is simply the best, better than Spencer Tracey or even Fredrick March. When “the great profile” up on the screen, is transforming into one of the most disturbing icons in history of cinema, is the moment one can not forget easily. Barrymore’s metamorphosis even overwhelms those audiences familiar with slashing bodies with saws in the contemporary Hollywood films. It must have been widely seen at its time, because obviously Jekyll’s long nails, hair and deformed skull were to served as models for Murnau’s Nosferatu (made two years later). Barrymore, a Jekyll/Hyde type of man in life, believes "there are lots of methods in acting. Mine involves a lot of talent, a glass, and some cracked ice." Later on, his Mr. Hyde side destroyed his Dr. Jekyll’s. By the 1930’s he was unable to remember his lines. “Lot of talent” vanished, and just remained “a glass, and some cracked ice.”
Laura Groves
Berangers feminine views in this screening were supplemented by the brilliant work of young musician Laura Groves and her trio, Blue Roses (she released a self-titled debut album in 2009). It was an imaginative, experimental and contemporary approach to the film, loaded with care and feminine sensibility. Despite my personal resistance upon unnecessary musical playfulness with silent movies, Groves’ music contributed very well to the pleasure and thrill of the film. Her instrumentation was a combination of keyboards, synthesizers, guitar, piano, violin and innovative percussions. She even sang in two scenes. Those scenes were involved with Jekyll’s fiancée, played by Martha Mansfield, and by Groves’ treatment of the mood and feeling of them, they transcended to the film’s some of best sequences. Thanks to her, it was hard to believe the film was made 91 years ago. The way she musically emphasizes on Mansfield character, brings her to the center of attention, and even makes her the tragic figure in the story. I’m sure Groves is very well aware of the importance of this film in the lost and forgotten career of Martha Mansfield: she was just starting to gain attention as a motion picture star when a tragedy took her life. Three years after Dr. Jekyll, when she was working on The Warrens of Virginia, somebody carelessly dropped a lighted match near her dress, which erupted into flames. After a week of pain and agony, she died from the severe burns that she suffered. This film, significantly, is her only surviving work. [picture at the top]
Lola Perrin
Music bonds spectators together in the three-dimensional space of the theatre. Thinking of a silent film without accompanied music is like watching a big canvas of painting. Nobody knows what part the other spectator is looking at, and what sound is heard in her or his mind. So in a way, music’s function is to direct all looks to a certain point. This task could have a Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde effect. If it draws the attention to the wrong point, as Lola Perrin did in The Wind, it will take the audiences feeling to a detour, and since silent film is all about emotions and feelings, that would be the impairing of the whole cinematographic experience. (Perrin who has been called “the female Steven Reich” under the guise of minimalism, which actually was playing a few notes during the whole screening and without paying any attention to importance of silence, ruined the film – let’s not forget that “silence remains, inescapably, a form of speech,” as Susan Sontag puts it.)
Ladies performing for a silent film
Once again, women are reviewing their part in the world of cinema, and film history. They have many things to explore. They have their giants and masters, Lois Weber, Dorothy Arzner, Ida Lupino, Shirley Clarke, numerous scriptwriters, best editors in the business, costume designers, and, fortunately, many more in all corners of contemporary cinema. We are to expect more Dr. Jekylls and Mrs. Hydes now. Hopefully a big wave is raising. -- Ehsan Khoshbakht

Many thanks to Linda Saxod.

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