Time and place alter perception. If a consumer’s opinion of a wine may be influenced by the wine’s receptacle, so may our enjoyment of a film be influenced by the cinema it is shown in and the theatre’s incumbent audience. ‘A Summer Place’ in a Los Angeles Drive-In, ‘Spartacus’ in the 1,300 seat Empire, Leicester Square, ‘Key Largo’ at home on TV, ‘Calamity Jane’ with the pensioners in Sydney’s art deco Cremorne Orpheum on a Saturday afternoon, ‘Behind the Green Door’ with an all-male, raincoated audience in Le Beverly Cinema in Paris’ Saint Denis district – all very different experiences.
The Chronicle History of King Henry the Fift with his Battel Fought at Agin Court in France 1944
At school in the 1950s we were allowed to watch two films in each of the Michaelmas and Lent terms, chosen from an approved list by a committee of boys and masters. I was charged with producing an illustrated poster to be hung in the cloisters announcing the film and the time of showing, normally a Saturday evening in the speech-hall. There was not a great deal of choice; I remember “They Were not Divided”, “The Cruel Sea”, “Oliver Twist” but never were these films received by a more appreciative audience, for we were, to all intents and purposes, prisoners starved of the popular arts. We cheered the triumph of good, booed the villains and stamped our feet when the projector failed and we went to our beds transported to the bridge of a destroyer in the North Sea or into the silken embrace of Joan Fontaine. The films were always preceded by a cartoon and the mere appearance in the titles of the name Fred Quimby, veteran director of a thousand Bugs Bunny cartoons, solicited applause. I would have to wait until I got to Paris before I found other audiences prepared to openly register their approval or disapproval of whatever film they were watching.
One Saturday evening we watched the 1944 version of Henry V, commissioned by the British Government as a wartime public morale booster. Winston Churchill gave Laurence Olivier temporary leave from the Navy to play the lead and to direct. “A triumph of colour, music, spectacle and soaring heroic poetry” wrote New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael. The film starts in the Globe Theatre and travels to France (actually County Wicklow in neutral Ireland) avoiding the problems of portraying war as a dramatic event on stage (“Think when we talk of horses, that you see them”). Don’t be distracted by the fake back-drops (inspired by the colours and scenes from the 15th century French Gothic manuscript “Les Tres Riches Heures du Duc de Berri”); the trend to ever more explicit and faithful depiction of events on film may have ruined our capacity to imagine. A wonderful supporting cast includes the drunken Pistol, played by real-life alcoholic Robert Newton. In his 1989 version of Henry V, Kenneth Branagh followed suit by casting Robert Stephens (once married to Maggie Smith) in the same role. William Walton’s score is a perfect accompaniment to the film, which also has the beautiful Bailero from Joseph Canteloube’s “Chansons d’Auvergne” playing in the background as Henry gives an English lesson to Katherine of France.
Appreciating things we are obliged to learn often requires a catalyst. Watching Henry V in that uncomfortable speech hall was, for many of us present, the moment we acquired a life-long taste for the language of Shakespeare. “Oh for a Muse of fire…”
The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp 1943
(#97 in Sight & Sound’s 250 best films of all time)
One of the earliest of London’s cinemas was the Electric in Portobello Road, built in 1910 at the heyday of silent film. In the post war years, when Notting Hill was not the fashionable London suburb it is today the Electric, with its strange, curved auditorium, became a run-down flea pit. Over the next 50 years it was continually threatened with closure but always saved at the last minute. In 1985, I was staying with my cousin at his apartment in Arundel Gardens when a new date for the Electric’s demise was announced and so we went to say goodbye. They were showing “The Life and Times of Colonel Blimp”, newly restored to its original cut. Written and directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger the film tells the story of military man Clive Wynne-Candy going first backwards in time as he dives into the pool at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall in1945 and emerges in 1903 and then forward through Candy’s involvement in the first and second World Wars. It’s the story of one man’s belief that the battle can still be won by playing fairly, even in the face of total war waged by the Nazis. The part of Candy, originally offered to Laurence Olivier, was eventually played by Roger Livesey after Churchill, who was violently opposed to the film’s message, refused to release Olivier from the Navy. The film is also about friendship, personified in the enduring bond between Candy and German officer Theo Kretschmar-Schuldorf (Anton Walbrook). Deborah Kerr, playing three roles, represents Candy’s ideal muse, a cocktail of beauty, elegance, discretion and understanding. “Sic transit gloria Candy”.
In 1895 Monsieur Morin, then owner of Au Bon Marché, the Paris department store, was so wealthy and so in love with his wife that he had built for her a full-scale replica of a Japanese Pagoda complete with curved beams and tea garden. After the divorce it was hired out for events until converted into a cinema in 1931. It’s still there, a temple of independent film, at number 57 rue de Babylone, continually threatened, like London’s Electric, by town planners, developers and accountants. It was saved from demolition in 1970 with the help of French film director Louis Malle. In 1985 I went to La Pagode for the last time before moving to Italy and, after tea in the oriental garden, settled down to watch Kurosawa’s “Ran”, a violent film of filial treachery (Ran means ‘rebellion’ in Japanese) with hints of “King Lear” and set in Japan’s Sengoku era. This is a film of great beauty, set on the slopes of Mount Fuji with much attention to detail. It is Kurosawa’s Sistine Chapel ceiling; he spent 10 years storyboarding every shot as a painting before rolling the cameras.
Rocco and his Brothers 1960
Realism, as an artistic movement and revolt against the romantic traditions of the past, began in Europe in the middle of the nineteenth century finding its expression in the paintings of Courbet and Corot in Europe and Whistler and Winslow Homer in America. While Thomas Edison and the Pathé and Lumière brothers delivered the movement a new vehicle in the early 1900s, the end of World War 2 gave a second generation of French and Italian filmmakers the opportunity to express their social and political conscience. Jean Luc Godard’s 1960 film ‘Breathless’, totally improvised and filmed with no script, was an example of what, in France, was called “Cinèma Verité”. Weaned on romanticism, I was unimpressed with what appeared to be a poorly made, boring, plotless work of self-indulgence. Italy’s contribution to realism, delivered by Vittorio de Sica, Michelangelo Antonioni, Roberto Rossellini, Federico Fellini and Lucchino Visconti however, was another kettle of fish. In one quantum leap I left behind the roomy auditoriums of my local cinemas and their diet of Hollywood standards for the refined and air-conditioned comfort of Mayfair’s Curzon Cinema and its program of art films. I was spell-bound by a whole new world that, even though it may have seemed ultra-real to Italians, was as foreign as the Mountains of the Moon for me. As good as England’s own crop of realism (“kitchen sink” dramas) like “The L-Shaped Room” and “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning” were, they were also depressingly familiar, while stories of a child sold to a traveling strongman (“La Strada”) and sex and skullduggery among the rice fields of the Pò delta (“Riso Amaro”) were excitingly new.
“Rocco and his Brothers”, made in black and white in 1960 by Visconti and starring Alain Delon and Annie Girardot, tells the story of a widow from the South of Italy moving with her four sons to Milan where her eldest son is already living. The city rewards some of the brothers, corrupts others and tears holes in the family’s unity. It’s a violent and passionate film that contrasts the pastoral and emotional South with the impersonal and industrial North. It’s also about family and the unimaginable pain that one member can inflict on another because they are, well, family.
Le Sexe qui Parle 1975
I once proposed a motion at a meeting of the school’s Debating Society that there should be no censorship of any means. In spite of employing Milton’s arguments from his ‘Areopagitica’ and stealing ideas from D H Lawrence’s essays in ‘Sex, Literature and Censorship’, I failed to persuade our opponents but managed to convince myself. I was therefore delighted (also for salacious reasons) when ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’, written in 1928, was finally published in 1960 following a successful defence by its publishers from prosecution under obscenity laws. Nobly and correctly, the publishers (Penguin) dedicated the first edition issued after the trial to the twelve jurors who returned a verdict of “Not Guilty”. Of course ‘Lady Chatterly’s Lover’ along with ‘Count Palmiro Vicarion’s Book of Bawdy Ballads’, ‘The Pearl’ and ‘Fanny Hill’ have been available in Paris to the English traveler almost from the moment they were written. The French have always understood and supported the art of titillation.
In its way “Le Sexe qui Parle” (Pussy Talk), released in 1975, was a milestone in the history of censorship, for it was one of the first full-on pornographic films to be shown in a public cinema following a relaxation of film censorship in France, an early offering in what was to be the brief, golden age of cinematic pornography. It also links the medieval fabliau ‘Le Chevalier qui fit les cons parler’ with the recent ‘Vagina Monologues’. The film was showing in Le Beverley on the Boulevard Bonne Nouvelle, close to the once risqué district of Strasboug St Denis, and I went with a friend to sample this new freedom and to experience the thrill provided by dark public places. Once a ballroom during WW2, Le Beverley is still there and still showing erotic films from the 70s. Now, in a new marketing ploy, there is a ‘couples night’ each week and, on occasion, an evening when a naked lady reads poetry. Any means that encourages people to enjoy poetry must be applauded.
Le Sexe qui Parle, along with many of those that followed, had high production values and triggered a ‘porn chic’ movement. Some of the actors, like Brigitte Lahaie, have become icons, French equivalents of Betty Page. Alas, bad taste eventually forces out good and we are now left with cheaply shot rubbish from America that goes straight to DVD and into the dustbin. But you can’t legislate against it.