Instead of a Scalarama newspaper this year, we’ve gone for three bulletins spread throughout the season detailing the different films, people and ideas that make up our friendly celebration of cinema. Download the bulletins so far to see the range and scope of the season, and check back soon for the final instalment as we reflect on the 2017 edition.
includes articles from Loft Movie Theatre’s Lucy Morrow, Nobody Ordered Wolves’ Duncan Carson on why you should programme films, a look at various City Symphony films by London Symphony’s Alex Barret and an interview with Guy Maddin.
South West Silents have always been firm friends of Scalarama Bristol and we met up with founding member James Harrison to discuss how he got started out, why Bristol is a great city for cinema and the many fantastic screenings they have been involved with this time around.
How did you first get involved in cinema exhibition?
It was weird really, it was one of those situations where I just wanted to start seeing the films I had never been able to see. We once put on a William S. Hart western night and it was fantastic, but it’s not the kind of thing they would put on at somewhere like Watershed because it’s not financially viable for them. We do it in such a way that we can put it on for free and for no other reason than that we love silent cinema.
Do you remember the first screening you put on?
Yeah, it was Asphalt, the German silent film from 1929. We managed to get maybe 56 people along, and it worked. The location wasn’t perfect because you had the music from the bar upstairs and other customers were walking through to get to the toilet. But it was a great atmosphere and we got a local German historian along to do a talk.
What are your audiences like?
We do have regulars, which is great. They share our passion for cinema and in fact Rosie Taylor, who is a co-founder of South West Silents actually started out as an audience member for Bristol Silents screenings before we encouraged her to get involved. People always hang around after the screenings to discuss what they’ve seen, that’s a large part of the experience.
So there’s a nice community feel to it?
Yeah there is. It is inevitably quite a niche interest but we do try and encourage new people to come along. There’s a great silent film festival in Italy called La Giornate Del Cinema Muto, who have a collegium scheme where they will pay for your hotel and your entrance fee for you to watch films all week in return for you writing an article about the festival. So particularly with younger audience members, we encourage them to get involved with that.
Then there’s the launch of our Friese-Green beer for which we are collaborating with Dawkins Ales. That will hopefully get some new faces to come along and find out what we do.
How did that come about?
I knew Glen Dawkins, who is the owner of the Dawkins pubs as well as the brewer from when I had previously enticed him to do an ale for the Slapstick Film Festival. Then he ended up doing a beer for my wedding and then my 30th and then one for W.C. Fields so I really wanted to do one with South West Silents and also one that is a bit more summery. And it’s a real celebration of Bristol, William Friese-Green was a Bristol film pioneer and he lived just down the road from The Victoria pub where we are having the launch. He may even have enjoyed a pint there himself.
South West Silents seem to have an involvement in a lot of what is going on at Scalarama Bristol. Can you talk us through some of it?
Our main event is the A Night Of Early Colour Films we are hosting at our regular venue The Lansdown in Clifton. It is very much a celebration of colour cinematography, but also more specifically this incredible Spanish director – Segundo de Chomón – who is classed as the Spanish Georges Melies. One of our co-founders, Peter Walsh, managed to track down some of his work and it is all incredibly animated and largely unseen over here.
And you’re involved with the London Symphony screenings?
Yeah, I actually noticed this project was coming up about 4 years ago when the kickstarter appeared. My first reaction was “oh god, not another person who wants to try and imitate silent film, it’s going to be a disaster.” But the director Alex Barrett had previously made a short, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, and seeing how good that was convinced me to put some money towards the campaign.
I then got in touch with Alex and told him that if he manages to finish the project, we would be really interested in putting on a screening. I was always keeping an eye on the project as it was getting bigger and bigger and looking better and better, then one day I messaged him to check how it was going and he sent me back a screener. So I watched it and I was like “bloody hell! This is actually very good.” He is clearly a big fan of the earlier city symphonies, visually the film is stunning, but most importantly the soundtrack, which I am a real stickler for, works perfectly.
So we’ve ended up putting on three screenings of the film for Scalarama, twice in central Bristol at The Cube and then I am going to be doing a Q & A with Alex for a screening out at the Clevedon Curzon, which is a fantastic old cinema to show it in.
How do you find Bristol is for putting on screenings?
I think it’s great and that’s down largely to the diversity of interests. I’m involved in Cinema Rediscovered, and one of the reasons we decided to set that up, or had the confidence to do so, was the fact that Bristol has all these different film-related pockets and groups who all share the same passion for cinema.
If you just look at the Scalarama Bristol programme, you can see how diverse the line-up of films is. If you have our silent screenings on one end of the scale then you have Bristol Bad Film Club perhaps on the other, with 20th Century Flicks and their video rental shop acting as kind of a hub. In many ways everyone else’s activity kind of spurs us on.
That’s the reason why Bristol could be seen to stand out from other cities, is that we do have people who are passionately interested in all those different areas of Cinema.
Do you have any advice for people looking to put on their own screenings?
Don’t worry if no one turns up, at least not to begin with anyway. The entire point is that if you’re enjoying it and it’s personally what you want to see being screened, then keep at it. Our numbers fluctuate, but it always works. We’re doing this for the love of it, and that’s why our screenings are free as well.
I think uniqueness is extremely important – either in what you show or how you show it. Also actually venue – our monthly club screenings have now taken part in three different locations. Fortunately, we’re now very settled at The Lansdown in Clifton and it’s perfect for us, at our previous two venues we always had sound problems, but these places were working bars that had to make money so we couldn’t exactly tell them to shut up!
With lots of events already planned for the future keep up to date with South West Silents on Twitter and Facebook for regular updates.
Ela Orleans debuts a brand-new live score for Guy Maddin’s Cowards Bend The Knee for Matchbox Cineclub at Scalarama Glasgow. Journalist Brian Beadie, who proposed the project, spoke to Orleans ahead of the performance.
Ela Orleans is best known as an exquisite lo-fi pop miniaturist. She works integrally with images, to the extent that a journalist described her work as ‘movies for ears’, a tagline she has willingly embraced. It’s a cliché to call a musician’s work soundtrack material, but Ela’s work is imbued with a deep love of cinema. When Scalarama asked me earlier in the year if I would like to programme a screening for the festival, my first thought (and best thought) was commissioning a new soundtrack from Ela, and pairing one of my favourite musicians with one of my favourite directors, Guy Maddin.
Growing up in Oswiecim (better known in the west as Auschwitz) during Communism, Ela was exposed both to Western and Communist cinema, Polish cinema going through a golden age during her childhood (she jokes that nothing noteworthy has happened in the country since 1986). The film scores of composers such as Krzystof Komeda are incredibly rich, drawing on a wide variety of musical traditions including jazz. There was a vital underground jazz scene, officially banned by the state although, as Ela notes, the state unbanned it when they recognised that it was the music of the American oppressed.
Oswieicm itself would be a site of much location filming, due to its still having the infamous concentration camp in town, now running as a museum. Ela reminisces about being on the set of a Spielberg film when she was a kid, and that you could tell when a film crew were shooting, because all the town drunks would get their heads shaved to obtain parts as extras.
After a spell in Glasgow playing in Hassle Hound with Tony Swain and Mark Vernon, she moved to Brooklyn to study composition. “My final work for the program was slaughtered by my tutor, who told me to get out of my box. The final word, however, belonged to David Shire [composer of The Taking of Pelham 123, The Conversation and, more recently, Zodiac], who said that he loved my box.”
Her own favourite soundtracks make for an interesting comparison; she equally loves the spare, minimalist soundtracks of Jean-Pierre Melville’s films, citing the precision of the sound design on Le Samourai, and the operatic splendour of Morricone’s scores.
While Ela has composed new scores for film by directors such as Carl Dreyer and Frank Borzage (an obsession of Guy Maddin’s) she states, “This is the first time I feel that I am receiving full information on the aesthetic aspect of the score. The suggested inspiration is fantastically familiar, and I feel like my music found home with someone alive for a change and that I have freedom and a sense of direction at the same time.”
One of the reasons I wanted to pair Ela and Maddin was because I think they share a similar aesthetic, haunted by but not burdened by past forms. Ela agrees that, “The musical aesthetic of Guy Maddin is spookily parallel with my own. It’s not mainstream or techno or classical but old-time music which can be played with a rusty needle and it will still bring emotions. He doesn’t ask me to sound Lynchian, which is a bloody relief!”
“His enthusiasm for me scoring it is enormously encouraging, and I am over the moon. I feel like I found long lost family.”
One of the absolute highlights of this year’s Glasgow Film Festival was Crime Wave, an unduly neglected Canadian comedy from 1985 which, despite being over 30 years old, emerged as one of the freshest and one of the funniest films to be shown at the festival. The film was programmed by Sean Welsh of Matchbox Cineclub who, after its rapturous reception at the festival, is bringing the film back for a limited engagement for Scalarama.
Crime Wave is as visually inventive and playfully pomo as an early Coen Brothers or Sam Raimi film (no, it’s not the film they collaborated on), but its director, John Paizs, would never make it big, despite being part of the innovative Winnipeg Film Group, whose other alumni include Guy Maddin. I would go so far to say that I prefer his dark comedy on the perils of scriptwriting to the Coens’ take on the same subject, Barton Fink – it’s far less pretentious, and has far more charm.
To give you an idea of the hectic invention of the film, here’s Paizs describing the film’s genesis:
“You could say it was a slight exercise in making lemonade from lemons. I was feeling pressured because I’d just written two feature length screenplays I wasn’t happy with, one of them called Crime Wave — a completely different story — and the other, Crazy Casey. Then one night at this time, sitting at my kitchen table, in front of a blank page, I just started writing ‘THE TOP!,’ and wrote out the rest of what would become the opening narration to this second go at Crime Wave. In a jokey way, it was expressing exactly my big secret dream for myself at this time with this new movie — which was to be a big success with it, bursting onto the scene — FROM THE NORTH! Ha — OK — scene one. Then, what next? Well, often when you hit the ground running like that in a story, it turns out that that opening bit was a dream, or something staged in the story, or just otherwise not ‘real’.”
“And so I thought — well, it could have been the opening scene to a movie that someone had written — like me. OK, so what next? OK — now, in Crazy Casey, I had a guy staying in an apartment over this family’s garage, and the family included a daughter, Casey, late teens, and the guy, who’s a freshman in college, has a thing for her — and next thing, that got reversed, she has a thing for him, she’s now ten, her name is Kim, and he’s a wannabe filmmaker — Steven Penny — who’s just capable of writing fun crap like we’d just seen opening this new Crime Wave. OK, so she comes on in scene two, she’s just finishing reading what we’d just seen in scene one, which is the beginning to one of Steven’s discarded screenplays, all of them called Crime Wave, and, breaking the fourth wall, she tells us about it. OK, so then what? Well, how about then she starts reading the ending to this same discarded Crime Wave, and we jump to that? More fun crap. And then — and this may have been my best idea in all of this new Crime Wave — we come back to her, in scene four, and she says that Steven’s problem is he can’t write middles! Boom. Writer’s block comedy. At that point I knew what it was I was writing. I didn’t know it until then. That’s when I found it out. And that’s what I went ahead and wrote.”
What Paizs wrote was a wildly unpredictable comedy with a shockingly high gag rate, taking potshots at everything from film form to current fads of the eighties – you can almost feel his delight in coming up with more outlandish scenarios, throwing in everything from self-help to the death of Sid Vicious into the mix.
“I never had a method for writing screenplays in those days beyond start with the title, then just jump right into it, no outline, no treatment, just make it up as I go along. And sometimes it would turn out more like a traditional dramatic narrative, and sometimes it wouldn’t, like Crime Wave. But I was never conscious of it being one way or the other at any point. I never thought hardly at all about what I was doing. I just did it. And then, when I got to the end of each script, that was it. No second draft, no revisions pretty much. I’d just apply for grant money to make the movie and that was that. So I guess it’s no wonder Crime Wave turned out the way it did, from a story standpoint. I just did what I liked, wrote scenes that I thought were original and funny, and didn’t think hardly at all about whether they advanced the plot or anything like that. Though actually there was one idea I brought to that script that I hadn’t brought to the others before it: and that was to keep the scenes short, and to keep cycling through the same like four or five types of them — a narrated scene, followed by an action scene, followed by a music scene, followed by a dialogue scene, then back to a narrated scene — that kind of thing, over and over, in a loop. I tried my best to make it that way, to keep things hopping like that, to keep the film hopefully jumping off the screen. I was determined not to repeat my huge mistake of my film just previous to Crime Wave, which was practically nonstop dialogue. Crime Wave was supposed to have learned from that one and be fun and alive.”
Indeed, most of the biggest laughs in the film come from pure sight gags, disrupting the film’s lush but highly controlled visual style, a reflection of Paizs’ background as a graphic artist.
“Because I (almost) never move the camera in the movie, it’s like a series of tableaus, or fixed comic strip panels. And I also lit it with hard light, to give it this ‘50s Technicolor look — high contrast and bright saturated colours — which was going directly counter to the prevailing look of movies at this time. So yeah, its visual aesthetic was one of the big things I was selling with it and that was going to be new and exciting about it. Out with the old, in with the new (old), kind of thing.”
Classic slapstick comedy is definitely another influence in play here – indeed, Paizs plays the lead himself, but mute, as a homage to the master of slapstick, Buster Keaton. “I had Buster’s Great Stone Face in mind for my character. It’s something I thought I could put my own spin on, and give the movie another level of originality at the same time because a non-speaking protagonist forces you to think of alternative — and sometimes very unexpected — ways to get ideas across. And also by doing it, I got to be a lead in a movie, and be good at it, with my extremely limited acting ability were I to speak.”
This device allows the film to be narrated in faux-naif style by his landlord’s daughter, who’s got a giant crush on him (a great performance by Eva Kovacs), which leads to another of the film’s influences – Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. “If Uncle Charlie had murdered prose instead of widows it would have been almost the same movie! I got the whole darkness-in-a-small-town framework from that movie, plus the two Charlies’ relationship has a definite parallel to Steven and Kim’s.”
So if Crime Wave is so good – and it really is that good – how come you’ve never heard of it, never mind seen it? Paizs explains the reason for the film’s neglect thus:
“It went down amazingly, actually, at festivals, got amazing reviews — like a few of them almost ridiculously full of praise. But what did it in was a nightmare scenario involving the film’s first distributor. The distribution agreement I’d signed with them had a clause in it saying I’d be paid my guaranteed minimum within eighteen months of the film’s first theatrical release, which they tried not to give it! Instead, they just quickly dumped it onto home video and made some quick pay TV sales, and that they hoped was that, saving them a bundle of dough they’d otherwise be paying in advertising, etcetera, never mind my money. Finally, after taking certain actions, I was able to trigger my payment — like three years later — but by this time it was too late for the film, and I was devastated.”
When I saw the film earlier this year, with Paizs in attendance, he looked slightly nervous about the film’s reception – he needn’t have been. It brought the house down. However, he confesses, “I was so worried about how it would go over in Glasgow, for a million reasons, and was so incredibly relieved and delighted about how well it did go over. But what I hope people can appreciate today, whether they like the film or not, is how new and radical it was back in the day, because it was, then. Time may have eroded the perception of that quite a bit, but it was, what can I say.”
I can attest that Crime Wave stands the test of time very well indeed – its wit and playfulness undimmed – as one of the most inventive cinematic debuts of the eighties, and one that richly deserves a wider audience.
by Duncan Carson, Nobody Ordered Wolves / Independent Cinema Office.
If you are alive today and reading this, take solace in two things: despite the astronomical odds, you existed while Prince was alive and when digital projection was possible. If I were born not many decades ago, every time I watched a film that moved me, that made me want to take it from my sweaty palms and thrust it into yours, it would have stayed as a frustrated wish. That life-changing experience would stay as a gift offered, that I was unable to reciprocate. But now, things have changed.
One of the things that I like most about Scalarama is the number of people who show their first film as a result of the energy around the event (and the great workshops put on by them over the years). I showed my first film in public for Scalarama – a double bill of Hausu and Häxan in a Victorian asylum – and I now work at the Independent Cinema Office, daily fielding calls from people doing just the same. Behind all of the questions about film licensing and projectors, there’s that same larkiness I had: ‘Surely they’re not going to let me do it?!’ If you have sat in a screening or seen a film you desperately want to watch not coming anywhere near where you live, I want to say to you: there is literally no reason why it couldn’t be you. At the ICO we have tonnes of resources on the how of showing films in public for beginners (and you can always give us a call in the office if you want to talk it through), but here’s my thoughts on the why of showing films in public.
Think clearly about why you want to show films in front of an audience
Cinema is only two things: films and people. Maybe it’s some ineffable magnetism between souls, or perhaps it’s simply that it’s one of the few times when your attention is away from your phone for five minutes, but other bodies are the thing that sets the cinematic experience apart. So think about why you want other people to engage in what you’re doing. Passion and enthusiasm are absolutely key to what you’re doing. Even when I’ve been frustrated or perplexed by other people’s programming, there’s an assurance about the best of it that makes you wrestle with work; that says, ‘If they care about it this much, there must be more to it.’ So find ways to assure people that there’s a reason you’ve gathered them all there, either as the face of the screening, or by being an incredible unseen hand.
No one is saying you need to be P.T. Barnum. Some of my favourite programmers are natural introverts. But you should think about the fact that this is an outward thing to do. You need to be able to put energy into finding ways to connect with people, both in advance through marketing and in person. If you would just like to see your favourite film on the big screen, consider hiring a cinema for your birthday. Programming is about having an overwhelming belief that other people will connect with what you have gathered them there to watch.
Don’t get bogged down in presentation
Look, we all wish we could be showing everything we’re screening from an archival print with a brand new Xenon bulb in Cinerama. Going to the cinema is about presentation. But presentation can mean more than having a spanking 4K DCP. If what is available to you is a pub back room or a classroom data projector, then that is what you need to do. It’s down to you to demonstrate care in other ways: a handmade zine, elaborate programme notes, pre-show playlist, extended introduction, themed cocktails… Even if your screen isn’t much bigger than most people’s TVs, they will remember this feeling and that’s what counts.
So maybe there’s no 4K DCP of your favourite film. But increasing the number of screenings of certain films improves their visibility and encourages rights holders, distributors and archives to prioritise restoring these films. Gathering an enthusiastic audience who care about the films you show (more than the way you project them) is also a fast track for an independent cinema to want to work with you, if that’s the route you want to go. All that said, take time to know your equipment and look closely at what you can do maximise the viewing experience.
Do something ambitious
There’s no reason to exist if you’re not providing something more than your average cinema does. Regular programming is about delivering the current releases. It’s the Gregg’s sandwich of experiences: great when you need it in the middle of the day. Make your event the ridiculous feast that no one can make day in day out. Delight in the fact that you can spend a disproportionate amount of time on your programming, outside of a commercial need. If you want to spend five years searching for the rights to Point Break, you can do it (and win). If you’re already heading off the beaten track, why not do something further? Being niche focuses you and will let you be a beacon to others. Is it about the audience you’re targeting? Or about the films you’re focusing on? Or the experience you’re providing beyond the film itself? Do something that no one else can do and then no one can take it away from you.
Duncan Carson works at the Independent Cinema Office. He programmes under the name Nobody Ordered Wolves. He is bringing three films about British men, masculinity and the 1950s to London’s The Horse Hospital for Scalarama this year. To see more click here.