Tag Archives: Arts Picturehouse Cambridge

Dersu Uzala: Kapitan, my Kapitan!

Big respect and thanks are due to the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge for screening a 70mm print of Akira Kurosawa’s little known Dersu Uzala last weekend. This film is a real oddity in the CV of its celebrated director – Kurosawa’s fame is due to the string of classics he directed in the 50s and 60s, most notably Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Yojimbo and The Hidden Fortress (a direct influence on Star Wars), but by the 70s his fortunes had turned and, unable to get funding from the Japanese studios for his epic projects, he shot Dersu in Russia in collaboration with Mosfilm. It’s therefore the only Kurosawa film not to use the Japanese language and the only one to feature a predominantly Caucasian cast.

You don’t need to know any of that however to enjoy this film. While its title and description (an early 20th Century army captain is sent on a mission to chart remote regions of Siberia, where he enlists the aid of a local trapper) might lead you to expect a gruelling and austere arthouse folly, Dersu turns out to be charming and accessible, the sort of thing the BBC should be showing every Christmas to promote goodwill among mankind. The story couldn’t be simpler, with the film presenting a series of testing episodes during which the formally-trained but resourceful and open-minded Captain Arseniev and the ostensibly uncivilised but highly observant and never recklessly impulsive Dersu find their mutual respect and affection deepening. There are no sub-plots, no villains or unsympathetic characters, no metaphors and no subtext even, and its a blessed relief – apart from anything else, the stunning locations shown here really don’t need any spurious dramatic help to hold our attention. With the exception of a few short scenes towards the end of the film, we’re outdoors in completely natural environments all the time: autumnal forests, mighty rivers, ice floes and in the movie’s pivotal sequence a forbidding and seemingly infinite stretch of tundra, upon which Arseniev and Dersu are forced to desperately fashion an ad-hoc shelter out of reeds when it becomes clear they won’t have time to get to cover before night draws in. This scene is intensely dramatic and entirely convincing and shows that Werner Herzog doesn’t have a monopoly on capturing extreme natural circumstances on film.

Dersu Uzala is a joy, with its overall positive humanist message allowing one to forgive its occasional dips into mawkishness, and it’s the kind of film that just wouldn’t get made these days due to advances in technology and altered expectations of audience sophistication. The 70mm presentation beat my DVD hands down, both in terms of picture quality and sheer scale – a film like this really needs to be seen on the biggest screen available. Old movies should never die. Not if they’re as lovely as this one.

P.S. Apparently this is comedian Sean Lock’s favourite film. Good for him.

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Enjoying the silents: The Clicking Of Cuthbert and The Long Hole

Nosferatu and Metropolis aside I’ve never been particularly drawn to silent cinema but like everybody else I loved The Artist, so this year made an effort to turn up to a screening at The 15th British Silent Film Festival, an event that had previously passed me by entirely. I was glad I did. The festival’s comprised mainly of rarely seen films drawn from the archives of the British Film Institute and similar organisations and they’re being presented at The Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge and other appropriate venues with live musical accompaniment in a manner as close as possible to how they would have originally been screened. I bought a ticket to a pair of 1924 adaptations of P.G.Wodehouse’s golfing stories, The Clicking Of Cuthbert and The Long Hole, expecting them to be at best quaint museum pieces, and at worst hopelessly stilted and dated, and was delighted to be proved utterly wrong: both of these brisk half-hour comedies are engaging, witty and at times surprisingly incisive. The whole form makes sense when you’re seeing the films projected in a proper cinema with a live pianist in front of an appreciative audience in a way that it never could on television, and while the stories and characters may be lacking a bit in what would these days probably be called “development” there’s also a level of sophistication apparent that goes far beyond mere slapstick. Part of the art is in the casting – when you can’t hear the actors’ words it becomes even more important that the faces fit the parts, and in both of these pieces they generally get it spot-on, from the deliciously smug sneer of the unapologetically philistine Cuthbert and the hilariously over-intense Russian poet Brusiloff in the first film to the scheming Roger Bingham and starchy Arthur Jakes in the second, with the constantly put-upon and wonderfully expressive Harry Beasley cropping up in both films as a thankless golf caddie. It’s not just the visuals though: many of the inter-titles are laugh-out-loud funny and display the sort of self-referential wit I didn’t think was invented until Monty Python. Praise too for the way the films were set in context, with both an introduction and readings of sections from the Wodehouse stories adding to one’s appreciation. These films were a real tonic, and next year I’ll think about getting a pass for the full four days.

Cave Of Forgotten Dreams: Werner Herzog drops into the abyss of time

The Chauvet cave system in the south of France was first explored in 1994 and was found to contain the earliest, and arguably most accomplished, prehistoric rock art ever discovered. This was a major find – the famous cave paintings at Lascaux are around 13,000 years old whereas some of those at Chauvet have been in existence for at least 30,000 years, making them the oldest surviving evidence of human culture by a margin of thousands of years. In addition, the caves are littered with unique geological formations and priceless remains of long-extinct animal species. The French government immediately took all the necessary steps to protect and preserve the site, which is highly vulnerable to the effects of human investigation. Even the breath of visitors is potentially dangerous as it would encourage mould to form and could disperse the fragments of charcoal from where the cave artists did their work, and treading on the soft floors could destroy evidence of animal tracks. A few narrow metal walkways have been lowered into position, but it’s still not possible to get within three metres or so from any of the artwork.

Until recently, only a handful of archaeologists, anthropologists and scientists have been allowed access to the caves. A couple of years ago, however, the French ministry of culture did grant permission for a small film crew to enter in order for a visual record of the cave system to be captured. Happily (for me at least), the film-maker granted this honour was the legendary maverick Werner Herzog, who is no stranger to operating in extreme environments and recording unique and often perilous human experience. The decision was also made to film the caves in 3D, on the face of it a bizarre choice for a documentary, particularly one made by a director as famously dismissive of the gimmickry of modern culture as this one. Cave Of Forgotten Dreams is the result of the somewhat restricted shooting time and conditions that Herzog had to operate under.

Given the cramped conditions, the fact that the film crew was limited to four people and the total lack of natural light down there, the sequences of this film shot in the caves look extraordinary. The chambers are sprawling, irregularly shaped and packed with visual wonders: protruding stalagmites as smooth as porcelain, delicate rippled curtains of rock, skeletons of animals that haven’t existed for millennia. The cave art is amazingly accomplished and elegant, often reminiscent of the work of early twentieth century artists exploring the possibility of depicting motion. Animals are typically rendered via clear, uncomplicated single strokes, with detail being reserved for the heads. They seem unfeasibly accurate once you start to think about the conditions they were drawn in, but dating of the silicate that has built up on them has established that they really do pre-date all other known human art. The walls of the chambers rarely present a flat surface, but the artists have used this to their advantage by wrapping depictions around protrusions of rock, and it’s here that the decision to film in 3D really pays off: Herzog lets his cameras pan gently across the rock formations and often holds for several seconds on particular images, and the technique really does finally deliver on its promise of putting you in a virtual reality. The director narrates the film in his idiosyncratically dry, yet hypnotic, monotone and uses choral and chamber music to heighten the mood, but never in a crass fashion, and sometimes he just lets the cameras slowly move in silence.

Herzog intercuts the cave sequences with interviews with the scientists working on the site and experts in the field of prehistoric art, and while the use of 3D here becomes distracting and irrelevant these conversations do allow his deadpan sense of humour to assert itself. You get the feeling he’s sometimes chosen his interview subjects for their arresting physical appearance or behavioural tics as much as their knowledge and expertise, and relishes opportunities to play up their personal quirks – he’s delighted when he discovers that one young scientists used to work in a circus, and he’s happy to include a somewhat gratuitous clip of a master perfumer sniffing a rockface in the hope of detecting air currents from an undiscovered cavern. You wouldn’t have got this if the film had been made by the BBC or National Geographic.

We were lucky enough to go to a screening of the film at the Arts Picturehouse in Cambridge that was followed by a brief Q and A session with Herzog himself, and the great man was on form. He declared himself unconvinced by the value of 3D, at least not until film-makers had worked out how to edit it correctly, and talked about his sadness that the three discovers of the caves had become embroiled in a legal case concerning their claim over intellectual property rights which meant that they didn’t feel able to appear in the film. He also delivered a typically blackly funny anecdote about his archaeologist grandfather’s descent into senility which featured the classic Herzogian phrase “deep in the darkness of insanity”. A true one-off, and long may he continue.