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The 55th London Film Festival, dispatch #6
by Jerry Whyte

The London Film Festival is like a marathon to dedicated cinephiles determined to see as many films as possible; it demands concentration and stamina. After a week or so of criss-crossing London's West End while rushing from screening to screening with barely a pause for breath, fatigue sets in. You have to force yourself on at times. A certain light-headed giddiness and blurring of the memory is inevitable if you watch three or four films a day over a period. On my first day at the festival I saw 10 films and, although seven of those were jam-packed into the Rural Life shorts programme, the experience of watching so many films in one day was an intense one. Which is one of the reasons why, after those quick-fire shorts, I was grateful to watch James Benning's languid film Twenty Cigarettes.

The film lasts nearly 100 minutes and is divided into shots of approximately five minutes, all lasting as long as it takes each of the 20 individuals involved to smoke a single cigarette. Some smoke quickly and nervously, others are unhurried and laid back, just as some approach the LFF with nervous energy while other pick films off in more relaxed fashion. Benning's film focuses the viewer's attention on faces and opens up a space into which thought eases. It feels as if time has slowed down. The cumulative effect of the festival pulls in the opposite direction. The films, thoughts and feelings rush at you. Time seems to speed up and slip its anchor. Life and history, of course, operate that way too, at a similarly unrelenting, disorientating pace. That is especially true in our times of fast living and accelerated average shot lengths. So many films are packed with deliberate or unwitting references to other films that the LFF is like a headlong rush through film history, which is the history and record of the 20th Century.

Here I will pause, to dip my flag in honour of the unsung heroes of film culture: those who archive, collect, restore and preserve films in order that generations to come might see how life was lived by us and those now dead. A recent edition (Volume XXXVI, No. 4) of the magnificent US film journal Cineaste was largely devoted to a critical symposium on film preservation, and to what it called, "an uphill battle against the forces of time and decay." The magazine reminds us that, although cinema is a comparatively new art form, hundreds of thousands of films have already been lost and many more teeter on the edge of oblivion. The gulf is growing between the volume of films demanding preservation and the number that, for reasons practical and financial, can realistically be attended to before celluloid ceases to be a viable option. Films are as precious to our civilization as books. A desperate crisis faces cinema, the consequences of which might prove as culturally catastrophic as the loss of ancient manuscripts in the fires that destroyed the great library of Alexandria or which, more recently, attended the burning of books by Nazis and Stalinists.

It is as if celluloid stock were disintegrating before our very eyes. Across the dozen pages it devotes to film preservation, Cineaste displays stills depicting the five stages in the death of films: firstly, images begin to fade; in the second stage of nitrate decomposition, the images disappear and the rolls of film become sticky; thirdly, they develop gas bubbles and a noticeable odour; in the fourth stage of decay the celluloid become dangerously flammable, before, finally, decomposing into a pile of dust.

The problem is not, though, restricted to celluloid. Digitization is not, at this point, the solution; rather, it is another aspect of the problem. Digital media are insufficiently stable to offer an adequate replacement for preserving to celluloid, so, the problem of preservation applies to the scores of films created digitally as surely as it does to the silent films of cinema's infancy. As Margaret Bodde, Director of the Film Foundation (a nonprofit organisation founded by Martin Scorsese in 1990), says in that Cineaste symposium: "The preservation of born-digital films is going to be the biggest challenge ever to face archivists."

Just as the human costs of the earth's ecological, economic and political crises are unevenly and unjustly distributed, so too, in the case of this crisis in cinema, the damage will be most disastrously born by the underdeveloped nations. Even though funding for film preservation has fallen off during the economic depression, precisely at the time it is most needed, the overdeveloped nations of the West are, needless to say, better equipped to preserve films. This additional inequity is mirrored within film culture by inequalities between contenting traditions; with avant-garde, experimental, industrial, instructional, independent and non-commercial film, as well as home-movies and newsreels, far less likely to be preserved than the films that issued forth from Hollywood studios.

Jan-Christopher Horak, Director of the UCLA Film and Television Archive, though, summed the situation up succinctly when he told Cineaste that, "It is no longer a question of whether specific film types are falling through the cracks, but, rather, how much material in every genre, era and style, is disappearing because capacities are miniscule compared to need."

Anyone in any doubt about the value of preservation and restoration, and cinephiles now in need of laughter, would have done well to join the audience in NFT1 last weekend for the delicious festival double-bill that paired George Méliès' 1902 short, Voyage dans la lune/A Trip to the Moon with Roberto Rosselini's ‘lost' 1952 feature La macchina ammazzacattivi/The Machine That Kills Bad People.

Méliès' silent classic will be familiar to all, containing as it does the iconographic image of the man in the moon with a rocket in his eye. It was hugely popular in its day, indeed, the Méliès brothers' films were so popular that commanded massive fees and were shown the world over. The film has recently been restored to its original condition and we saw it, as its first audiences would have and those who attended its second ‘premiere' in Cannes earlier this year, in full colour. The last surviving copy of the hand-coloured version of the film had been unearthed as recently as 1993, in the Filmoteca de Catalunya, Catalonia's central film archive, and was painstakingly restored in the Technicolor Lab of Los Angeles. Presented with a scorching soundtrack by French band Air, the film was a joy to behold. It arrives with perfect timing just before the imminent release of Martin Scorsese's Hugo, his homage to the Méliès.

The Machine That Kills Bad People is an equally important rediscovery, a new digital restoration from the L'Immagine Ritrovata lab in Bologna and Cinecittá Luce. Long believed lost, the film is unique in Rossellini's work and characteristic of his capacity for experiment. As Godard said: "When I get discouraged I think of Roberto. Old with many kids, loads of dogs, many mouths to feed – and each time he sets off in a radical new direction, taking risks which often end in catastrophe, always struggling on." A Commedia dell'arte influenced satirical masterpiece, it tells the story of a photographer whose camera is given magical power by a hilariously horned devil. As he develops his photographs in his tiny studio, his subjects begin to die elsewhere in the town. It isn't long before he begins to put the camera's power to good use, by bumping off the most deserving among the town's most greedy and venal. The film also features a telling metaphor about the Marshall Plan and Americanization (Rossellini lampoons a group of affluent American tourists), and contains a scene of comic genius in which a policeman dies with his arm outstretched in the fascist salute and is buried in a customized coffin, a scene that immediately recalls Peter Seller's turn in Dr Strangelove.

As if that were not enough, the film, unique though it is, also echoes neo-realism's documentary propensities. It does so, particularly, in sequences involving the town's fishing fleet that might have been copied directly from Visconti's La terra trema (1948). Yet above all it is Rossellini's rebellious sense of humour that drives this wonderful film. It is a long time since I heard an audience laugh so joyously, uproariously or often. It reminded me of that sense of the social alluded to by André Gide when, after watching a Chaplin movie, he said, "What a thrill to be in tune with the responses of a mass audience." It is also reminded me, even more forcibly, of that scene in Bernardo Bertolucci's Before the Revolution in which the cinephile played by Gianni Amico, shouts after his departing friend Fabrizio, "Remember, one cannot live without Rossellini."

The 55th London Film Festival
Dispatch #6
Twenty Cigarettes

USA 2011
99 mins
James Benning
James Benning
James Benning
James Benning
James Benning
Sompot Chidgasornpongse
Francesca Sloane
Thom Andersen
Stefan Pascher
Blake Derrington
Norma Turner
Fabian Euresti
Sharon Lockhart
Dick Hebdige
Hye Sung Moon
UK premiere
17 October 2011 (London Film Festival)

The Machine That Kills Bad People
La macchina ammazzacattivi

Italy 1952
80 mins
Roberto Rossellini
Salvo D'Angelo
Sergio Amidei
Giancarlo Vigorelli
Franco Brusati
Liana Ferri
Roberto Rossellini
Enrico Betti Berutto
Tino Santoni
Jolanda Benvenuti
Renzo Rossellini
Gennaro Pisano
Marilyn Buferd
William Tubbs
Helen Tubbs
Pietro Carloni
Giovanni Amato
Joseph Falletta
Clara Bindi
Camillo Buonanni
Giacomo Furia
UK premiere
16 October 2011 (London Film Festival)
article posted
22 October 2011

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