I claimed a bit of owed time back and left work slightly early to catch a classic screening of one of my favourite movies at the Filmhouse on the way home from work, Woody Allen’s 1979 film Manhattan. I have it on DVD at home in my (probably way too large) film collection, but it’s a different experience watching a movie in the cinema than it is at home. Not just the obvious screen size difference – you concentrate more on the film in the cinema, you’re there in the dark, with an audience all reacting to the scenes alongside you, not at home, pausing the DVD to go and put the kettle on or check your Twitter feed.

And it was still wonderful after all these years – I think Manhattan has one of the greatest openings in cinema, Woody’s dialogue, his writer trying out lines “he adored New York, he idolised it…” over a montage of all sorts of views of the city, from the expensive fashion stores to the family neighbourhood, that iconic skyline and then, as the Gershwin soundtrack soars that skyline erupts with fireworks, all of this in glowing black and white cinematography. New York has rarely looked more beautiful on film, it’s a magical movie moment (what I call a Triple-M, just perfect scenes in a film that live in your mind’s eye ever after and always raise that reaction no matter how often you see it). And then there’s that perfectly composed scene of Woody with Diane Keaton, sitting by a bench by the river next to the Queensboro Bridge, as dawn starts to break. Sublime.

I had a little time before the early evening showing, so I parked myself in the Filmhouse cafe-bar for some food and drink before the screening. The Filmhouse is one of my “happy places”, it’s been a second home for me since I moved to Edinburgh as a student a long time ago, and being there for a movie, the film fest or even just in the cafe-bar makes me content. As I was having my drink I was, of course, reading (always a book in my bag), in this case Simon Garfield’s On the Map, a history of cartography which I picked up in a charity store recently. And right before it was time to close the book and head up to the auditorium what do I read but a paragraph on the first appearances of America on world maps, and the first mention, in the mid 1600s, of Manhattan on a map, here referred to as “Manhattes”, just as I was about to go in to see the film Manhattan. I love little meaningless coincidences like that…

Magic Lanterns

Magic lantern 01

During the Edinburgh International Film Festival last week I saw a film called Cinema, Mon Amour, a documentary about a group trying to save an old cinema in Romania. Afterwards the Filmhouse very kindly gave us a short tour of the main projection booth – we had to be quiet and I couldn’t use the flash as another festival screening was going on below us (we could see it through the wee rectangular window in the booth). The pair of decades old cine projectors are named Kenneth and Sid – even in this bastion of arthouse and international film, the Carry On movies have influence!

Magic lantern 02

Quite nostalgic for me to see these and hear them – the whirring sound of anaologue projectors is part of my childhood memories of cinema, and at home we had a Super 8mm cine camera as well as our 35mm still cameras, and we screened them quite often on long winter’s nights for the family. There’s something satisfying about old analogue tech like this, you can see it moving, see how it works. The Filmhouse must be one of the last cinemas in the city that retains the ability to show actual film prints as well as digital and properly trained projectionists. They were telling us about their skills, from being able to change from one projector to the other seamlessly mid-film, fixing broken celluloid to adjusting focus, ratio and even speed for different formats and eras (early films shot on hand-cranked cameras require a lot of skill to adjust the film speed, since their shooting rate varied as cameramen’s arms got tired. Lovely to see these magic lanterns which paint stories on a screen using nothing more than light…

Magic lantern 03

Magic lantern 04

Night Will Fall

Back in the autumn I went to my second home, Edinburgh’s wonderful Filmhouse, to watch a remarkable documentary, Night Will Fall. Actually it’s more a documentary about a documentary – as World War Two faded into its final days in 1945 and the Allies liberated the concentration camps, camera teams were sent in to record and document the hideous atrocities, partly for evidence for the planned war crime trials, partly because even then they knew some people would say it never happened, or it had been exaggerated. The British team had film reels from British, American and Soviet teams and decided to also make a full length documentary film (appropriately, given British cinema in the 20s and 30s was the birthplace of modern documentary film). Sadly for various reasons, some political, the plug was pulled just after the war and the film, which was two thirds complete, was left in limbo, unseen, for decades, despite a script by Richard Crossman (later the famous politician and diarist) and having involvement by Alfred Hitchcock. Seven decades on and Andre Singer has made Night Will Fall, telling the story of this project.

night will fall film poster

And while I note this as one of the most impressive films I saw in 2014, I must also say it was, quite simply, the hardest film I have ever sat through. I’ve watched every kind of horror film there is over the decades, but this was true horror, the sort it is hard not to turn away from, the sort that makes you spiritually and physically ill. I have never seen an audience leave a cinema in a silence that roared so loud. Obviously given I knew this was about the Holocaust I knew to expect this going in. But you can’t really prepare yourself for it. In one scene we see captured German guards forced to clear up the piles of bodies of the murdered they hadn’t had time to bury or cremate before the Allies reached their camps (the soldiers could smell them long before they saw them, the stench of the dead and of the diseased, weakened survivors, giving lie to German civilians nearby who pretended they didn’t know what was going on). You see them picking the bodies off of piles, hoisting them over their shoulders, the arms and heads loll horribly, like a marionette with the strings cut. This was a person. This obscene thing was once someone’s dad, mum, aunt, sister, brother, son, daughter, reduced to this thing after abject, long suffering… It’s beyond vile. And those are just the remains that can be seen, not including the ones who went up the chimneys from ovens designed for human bodies…

Why the hell did I subject myself to watching something like this, you might ask? A few days before I saw this in the cinema Nigel Farage and his odious Ukip band of bigots made a deal with a far right Polish party. A party whose leader denies the Holocaust (among many other reprehensible beliefs he holds on women and other groups). This was not even for ideological reasons, Farage cosied up to this bastard and his party simply for money-grubbing reasons, to get funding for a group of like-minded parties in the European parliament. I was already considering going to see this, but that decided me – when a British politician is making deals with right wing Holocaust deniers it makes it all the more important more of us see this film, not matter how horribly hard we find it to watch what monsters in a human skin can do to others. Because we need to be reminded where their kind of bigotry leads to – first of all it is treat them different because they are ‘different’ from us, so it becomes acceptable to talk about them like that in public, in the media. Then demand legislation to legally differentiate their rights from other citizens. And then what? Smashed windows? A new crystal nacht? Then it is okay to treat them any way you want, remove them from society, put them in camps… We have been down this road. We know that small starts like that sort of xenophobic bigotry can lead to the most awful acts imaginable.

The documentary makes the point that this happened in a civilised, educated, Western society in the heart of Europe, and given the right manipulation of people’s opinions this could happen anywhere, again. And right now every country sees a rise in these right wing movements attacking immigrants, multi-culturalism, the place of women, gays, anyone who they think is ‘different’. And there is Farage, his “cheeky chappy with pint and ciggie” mask revealed for what it is, an odious little creature who happily makes deals with a party of Holocaust deniers, for which there can be no forgiveness (and why has this not been more widely debated in the media?? How can any UK politician get away with doing that in this day and age??). There is an old adage about dreadful events which we, as individuals are powerless to prevent – but if we cannot stop it (and obviously we cannot stop an even that happened decades ago) we can still bear witness. We bear witness so that it will be remembered and not allowed to happen again. And so I watched Night Will Fall, all the way through, hard as it was. On January 24th, as part of Holocaust Memorial Day, Channel 4 will be screening the film on British television. It is difficult to watch, I know, but please try. And Farage, perhaps you should watch this then explain to the entire British electorate why you are making friends with scum like your Polish Holocaust denying party chums.

Edinburgh, wet, dark night

I was off at my second home, the Filmhouse this afternoon, to catch some of the annual French Film Festival. I was taking in some short films today; as usual with a collection of shorts, be it movies, prose stories or whatever, it’s a mixed bag, some good, some so-so, some quite interesting, some that seemed meandering and had no point, others that were nice little examples of a brief but well contained tale or experience (because not all of them were narratives). I think my favourites were an old one from the 70s (judging by the film stock and the vehicles. I later found it was actually made in 76), C’était un rendez-vous , which was simply a high speed drive through the streets of Paris as dawn was breaking, coming up the the Place d’Etoile, round the Arc du Triomphe, down the Champs Elysee, Place de la Concord, roar along the Rive Droit alongside the Ports de Lyons gate of the Louvre then turn and through the Louvre (no IM Pei glass pyramid visible back when this was filmed) and eventually, judging by the increasing slops heading into the Montmartre region and stopping near Sacre Couer at the end (I was quite pleased I remembered my Parisian geography and could follow where he was going for the most part). Camera position stays fixed all the way through and the car never stops (alarmingly at some points!), very simple but really cool. Just found what looks like the whole thing on YouTube, so have a look:

I was also drawn to the short films session because they were showing the first short animated work by Sylvain Chomet, creator of two of my favourite animated features, Belleville Rendezvous and The Illusionist. The Old Lady and the Pigeons is a bit rougher than his later films, but still interesting and you can see some of his styles and approaches (the Ralph Steadman influence is visible even here). Fun to see. Again it seems to be available online, so here you go:

La vieille dame et les pigeons
Uploaded by XLanig. – Independent web videos.

Came out the Filmhouse to find night had fallen and the earlier drizzle had turned to much heavier rain, so decided to catch a bus rather than walk home, while I was waiting by the stop outside the Usher Hall I had the urge to take a pic as the area has only recently been opened up again after some construction work revamping it, so the space in front of it is now opened up, with illuminated signs for upcoming events. With the lights reflecting off the wet streets I felt like getting a shot, but lacking the tripod I had to improvise, bracing the camera against a nearby post, so it isn’t quite as sharp as I’d like, but you take what you can get. Colour didn’t work well for it, but black and white seemed to suit it much better:

waiting for a bus

and while I was at it I took a quick one of the Usher Hall with it’s brand new modern extension, again with the lights reflecting on the wet paving stones:

Usher Hall, wet November night

Evelyn Glennie at the Filmhouse

One of my favourite musicians, Scottish virtuoso and solo percussionist Evelyn Glennie, will be at the Edinburgh Filmhouse for a return visit to coincide with a screening of the documentary about her, Touch the Sound. For Evelyn the title is highly approriate – she started to lose her hearing when she was a young girl and yet still continued to learn music, attend music college after leaving school then blaze an internationally successful career as a solo percussionist, a role in music that’s all but unheard of. She feels the music, the vibrations of the instruments, the feel of the material and she creates an astonishingly diverse musical world from this very physical method of listening and playing (she’s very physical on stage, I’ve seen her live several times and she’s a dynamo) from classical to folk to jazz to improv music played right on the street.

I saw this documentary a few years back at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and it was an incredible experience, touching, moving, inspiring, as music (or any real art) should be. Afterwards, in front of a sold out audience Evelyn came on with the director for a Q&A session (always one of the pleasures of Film Fest screenings, that often some of those involved will be there for a talk before or after the movie). Then one of the simplest of instruments was produced, a snare drum. The lights went back down in the cinema except for an uplighter shining up through the clear skin of the snare to Evelyn standing over it and this amazing woman improvised an incredible musical set using just a pair of sticks and a snare drum. Watching and listening to her it strikes you that sometimes some people were just born to do something, regardless of obstacles placed in their way, such as deafness; her music is inside and no lack of hearing can touch that. The screening is on Tuesday at 6 with Evelyn on hand, if you haven’t seen it I encourage you to experience it.