Thursday, September 12, 2013

Flickers Flashback...

As I said last time, my film-going this year can be split into two new, two old...

The day after seeing the Pet Shop Boys at the O2, we went to the National Film Theatre (I still refuse to call it BFI Southbank) where Neil Tennant was introducing a screening of the great Russian classic BATTLESHIP POTEMKIN which was being shown with the 2004 Pet Shop Boys score for the first time in a cinema.  Up until now it had only been shown in open-air screenings - so a big thank you to Yoko Ono for including it as part of her Meltdown festival!

As always, Neil gave good interview and told us of how they got involved in writing a score for the film and the challenges they overcame in getting it right, he even revealed that the score was written with the aid of a dvd which they watched while fitting the music to it!  I simply *had* to give him a huge round of applause as he exited - I hope I didn't attract too much attention wearing the new bright orange tour t-shirt.

I had seen the film before on TV (and with a rinkydink score) but you really need to see this on the big screen to get the full overpowering effect of Eisenstein's vision and the combination of the Pet Shop Boys and the Dresden Symphonic Orchestra only added to a great experience.

Sergei Eisenstein based his film on an incident during the 1905 Russian uprising which was a response to the Bloody Sunday massacre in St. Petersburg.  The sailors on the Potemkin mutinied against their officers when provided with rotten meat as rations. The ringleaders were threatened with execution on deck but rioted when one of the mutiny's leaders Grigory Vakulinchuk was mortally wounded by the Chief Officer.  He was killed along with six other officers and the ship sailed to the town of Odessa where they were greeted as heroes by striking workers who were also rioting.

Eisenstein builds up the tension aboard the ship until the overthrow of the officers is seen as a great moment of liberation.  The excitement of this sequence is also ramped up by the Pet Shop Boys switching to a thumping beat with the repeated chances of "Da! Nyet!" The Revolution Will Have A Disco Beat!
Eisenstein wasn't interested in telling a linear story, he wanted to provoke his audience to revolutionary fervour, and with the next sequence he created cinema history.  Although there were instances of the army firing on the rioters in Odessa there was no massacre as Eisenstein portrays - but why let such details get in the way of good propaganda?  In a sequence which is still as thrilling as it is shocking, the inhabitants of Odessa are chased down the massive stairs to the port by a phalanx of Tsarist soldiers shooting rifles at their fleeing backs while a troop of Cossacks waits for them at the bottom with sabres slashing down on them.  For 88 years this ground-breaking sequence has been lampooned, ripped off and copied but still is one of the most exciting pieces of film ever.
Remarkable too are the faces he found to be the most iconic victims of the massacre: the woman walking toward the advancing soldiers holding her shot child, the old woman with the shattered pince-nez and the young mother whose dying fall launches her baby's pram to bounce down the stairs.  The time has come to give these women names - they were played by Prokopenko, N. Poltavtseva and Beatrice Vitoldi respectively.
Nothing can equal this sequence but it is not the end of the film as Eisenstein then shows us how the squadron sent to intercept the Potemkin capitulate at the very last second, lowering their guns and joining the mutiny.  After the ratcheted tension of the Odessa sequence, the squadron section is a bit dawdling - there is only so much tension to be gained from long shots of big ships going in opposite directions but once over, I almost staggered from the cinema, bedazzled by the imagery.
As propaganda it is unsurpassed - the film was banned in the UK for nearly 30 years - although as a film it's a trifle unsparing in it's severity but it still grips like a vice.
Otto Preminger's BONJOUR TRISTESSE from 1958 has just been re-released in a sparkling new print highlighting the lush cinematography of Georges Périnal.
It was also re-issued the same week as the 34th anniversary of the death of Jean Seberg.  TRISTESSE was the second film she made with Preminger who had chosen her from 18,000 submissions to be the unknown star of his 1957 film ST. JOAN.  The film was panned by critics who delighted in pointing out Jean's seemingly amateur-dramatic performance.  But determined to prove the critics wrong, Preminger cast his protégée in the role of 'Cecile' in his screen version of Francoise Sagan's debut novel.
The precocious Cecile lives with her playboy father Raymond enjoying a close relationship despite his constant relationships.  However Cecile's position is threatened when Raymond invites his late wife's friend Anne to their holiday villa in the south of France.  Unlike the flighty young women he usually has dalliances with, Anne is more mature with a career as a fashion designer and it's not long until Cecile finds her father becoming more sober and siding with Anne against her.  Cecile decides to try and ruin the growing relationship, using her own wiles and her knowledge of her father's weaknesses, with devastating consequences...
I have seen film before but this was my first time seeing it on a big screen and it looked great.  Preminger utilises black and white for the 'modern' setting in Paris and vibrant colour for Cecile's remembrances of 'last summer'.
Seeing it again made me fully appreciate the nuanced performances of David Niven as Raymond and Deborah Kerr as Anne as well as the vibrant supporting performances of Mylene Demongeot as Raymond's Bardotesque girlfriend, Martita Hunt as the gambling-mad mother of Cecile's boyfriend and Jean Kent as a bored English wife on the Riviera with a roving-eye and gossiping nature.

Again, Jean Seberg was heavily criticised when the film was released but her performance now looks fresh and constantly intriguing.  She draws your eye constantly and Cecile's conflicting emotions are fully understandable through her.  In the 'modern' Cecile, she is brittle, bored and closed-off and looking great in her Givenchy evening dress but in the devastating closing scene, the mask slips and as she smears her face with cold cream, she cries like the lost girl she still is inside. 
Seberg, who was bullied relentlessly by Preminger during the filming, finally had a box-office hit in 1959 with THE MOUSE THAT ROARED and in 1960 she starred in Jean-Luc Godard's A BOUT DE SOUFFLE (BREATHLESS) and her place in film history was set.  Ahead lay the disappointing film roles, disappointing love affairs and worst of all, the effect on her mental health when she was targeted by the FBI for her support of the Black Panthers which led to her miscarrying her daughter.  In August 1979, she was found dead in her car parked a few streets away from her Paris apartment, a seeming suicide although questions over what really happened will remain unanswered.

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