AFW + NFSA #43: Silent Cinema / Live Scores
8pm, 25th October, AFW/arena, 2 Kerr St, Fitzroy
Kenneth Macpherson – Borderline (1930) - 63mins
Germaine Dulac – La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) - 28mins
Dimitri Kirsanoff – Ménilmontant (1926) - 38mins
Live scores have been commissioned especially for the screening by local composer/performers Rohan Drape, Andrew Cowie, Mirren Strahan and Lily Tait.
Rohan Drape is is a composer and performer. He lives in a northern suburb of Melbourne.
Andrew Cowie is a musician who records as Angel Eyes and Match Fixer. He has released music on Not Not Fun, Altered States, Nice Music, Bedroom Suck, and Moon Glyph.
Mirren Strahan and Lily Tait are composer-violinists based in Melbourne and form the duo Meat Brain. Over three years of collaboration they have primarily focused on improvised sound-scapes and interdisciplinary works.
Borderline (1930) – Kenneth Macpherson – 63mins – 16mm, B&W, silent
Live score: Rohan Drape
A formally arranged narrative drama, described by the director as an attempt to take film ‘into the minds of the people in it’, Borderline is an early example of an alternative cinema that would only begin to flourish as such in the decades following. The POOL group, then based in Switzerland, have since been claimed as protagonists of independent filmmaking in Britain, mainly because Kenneth Macpherson was English. The group published Close-Up, a film journal whose editors, alongside Macpherson, included Hilda Doolittle (H.D.) and Winnifried Ellerman (a.k.a. Bryher), who were both from America. H.D. had been an associate of Ezra Pound and a peripheral member of the Bloomsbury group in London. Ellerman, a shipping heiress with pretentions to avant-garde art, helped to finance the undertaking. To this already complex mix was added the principle actor couple in the film, Paul and Eslanda Robeson.
Ostensibly a microcosm of social relations in Europe between the wars, told from the perspective of two African-American expats to the old world, the film situates its actors as metonyms for eroding nationalist sentiments quickly being replaced by the freed flows of capital which foregrounded the ‘new’ cultural codes that would come to mark the long 20th century. Borderline was shot in Territet, Switzerland, where Macpherson and Bryher were living and editing Close-Up at the time. The murder of Astrid (H.D.) sets the plot in motion. For his part, Robeson—an all-American Football Hall of Famer—performs as an East Coast concert artist in Europe to search out alternatives to the race relations of ‘modern’ America, where, as a member of the Council on African Affairs, his political activities would be affected by its inclusion on the Attorney General’s List of Subversive Organisations after WWII. Between 1925 and 1961 Robeson, a bass baritone, also made 276 records. In this sense the actors play crystalline versions of themselves in a fictional set piece shot in the central European alps.
La Coquille et le Clergyman (1928) – Germaine Dulac – 28mins – 16mm, B&W, silent
Live score: Andrew Cowie
Written by Antonin Artaud (or, in Dulac’s preferred phrasing, dreamed up by Antonin Artaud and directed by Germaine Dulac), La Coquille et le Clergyman premiered in 1928 to a riotous audience at Studio des Ursulines, one of the oldest French cinemas dedicated to avant-garde film. With an audience consisting partially of the disgruntled scenarist Artaud, André Breton, Louis Aragon and Robert Desnos, the film sparked a riot between defenders and dissenters of Dulac’s film which, paradoxically, abided by the guiding principles of Artaud’s film theory, creating both on and offscreen a “theatre of cruelty”. Dulac’s refusal to abide by Artaud’s overly psychologised scenario fractures the ensuing action, in which a woman seeking absolution (played by Romanian actress Genica Athanasiou, the former lover of Artaud) is groped and lusted after by a doughy faced, ground dwelling clergyman, originally intended to be played by Artaud until budgetary constraints disallowed potential wish fulfillment (he would have been paid doubly for both his screenwriting and acting credits). The actor in his place, Alex Allin, exudes a wimpish demeanour and stares with the fervour of a chronic masturbator, more suitable to be foiled by a surrounding temporal space whose stuttering rhythms replicate the ceaseless shattering vials that open the film.
In accordance with the shattered vials, Dulac devised a montage according to a set rhythm, carefully timed to couch each sequence within the following meter;
“Each expression, each movement by the clergyman is measured according to the rhythm of breaking glass. So also the series of doors that open and close, and the number of images ordering the direction of these doors that merge in opposing beats measured from 1 to 8.”
The film follows a methodology shared with Dimitri Kirsanoff, the filmmaker/musician whose film Ménilmontant (1926) will additionally playing as part of the program. Each of their films refute the explication of intertitles, abiding by the following sentiment, courtesy of Kirsanoff; “One does not explain a symphony using words.” One could feasibly do such a thing, articulate the inner workings of a symphony, but the rhythms of both Dulac and Kirsanoff elevated film form into unmoored territory, a form whose contradictions (composition without music, narrative without narration) enabled the necessary autonomy of a still forming art, the emergence of the seventh art.
Ménilmontant (1926) – Dimitri Kirsanoff – 38mins, 16mm, B&W, silent
Live score: Mirren Strahan and Lily Tait
“In absolute cinema, the subtitle should not exist. It is a palliative. The subtitle persists and has entered the public's habits because people lack sensitivity, because they are not yet won over by the new aesthetic. One does not explain a symphony using words. A film must be comprehensible by itself.”
– Dimitri Kirsanoff (1899 – 1956)
Having arrived in Paris in 1923 from Estonia, intending to study composition at École Normale de Musique, Kirsanoff began his film career playing cello in the Max Linder orchestra, accompanying silent films in Paris’ most opulent cinema space. This promptly led to an induction into the burgeoning Parisian cinephile culture, a culture whose practice was focussed on the elevation of film as the seventh art (most notably captured within the journal Cinéa-Cinéa pour tous, founded by Louis Delluc and edited by Jean Epstein and Germaine Dulac). Kirsanoff’s contributions to Cinéa-Cinéa inadvertently lump him together with the avant-garde impressionism of both Dulac and Epstein, despite his contrasting practice as an independent filmmaker unmoored by studio financing. Tentatively affirmed as the first French film without intertitles, the very existence of Ménilmontant is one of necessity, complimenting the on-off filming schedule Kirsanoff took on due to his refusals of outsourced finance in order maintain basic autonomy over the work, defiance that allowed for his “new aesthetic” of non-existent intertitles.
Named after the impoverished Parisian arrondisement in which it’s largely set, Ménilmontant speaks through clipped edits, a collage of raw materials (mud, blood, tears, breathy condensation) that perversely strip down the conventions of melodrama into a rough and ready vocabulary of glances; hunger, horror and desire largely emanate from the anachronistically made-up, porcelain face of Kirsanoff’s wife and collaborator, Nadia Sibirskaïa, here playing the younger of the two leading sisters. The love triangle between these two orphaned siblings and a lowly hustler is foretold and summated with unannounced bludgeonings: firstly, with the axe murder of their parents and secondly with a stone plunged into the head of their philandering pimp. Unmoored by intertitled didacticism, Kirsanoff buttresses the surrounding action with increasingly harmonious quotidian nuance. His economy of form and content create an intuitive montage wherein brutal murders are at a piece with the charitable passing of bread and salami: Beauty and horror indistinguishable amongst a poetic reworking of then-nascent film convention.