Restorations and recollections

18th October 2015

In the past week I have seen three exemplary film restorations courtesy of the BFI London Film Festival. Last Sunday offered a luminous, luscious print of Kiss Me Kate, 1953, in 3D; on Friday the Archive Gala screening was Anthony Asquith’s British silent Shooting Stars, 1928; and yesterday rolled out in NFT1 was Ken Russell’s 1969 adaptation of Women in Love. The first and second times, as well as the third which I think was also the last time, that I saw Russell’s film was 45 years ago. Revisiting it now, in all of its sparkling digitally touched-up glory, was a somewhat strange experience, of which more below.

Cole Porter’s Kiss Me Kate is the second-best Broadway musical ever written, and Opera North currently have a wonderful production on tour. (I have to admit here that I tried, and failed, to interest broadcasters in making a screen version of it.) It was first staged in 1948 and was the first of the composer’s musicals to integrate in Oklahoma-fashion the songs with the book (be Samuel and Bella Spewack). It’s a whip-smart adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew that is packed with great numbers, and a film version followed the stage premiere in 1953. Which was just the moment of the first great wave of Hollywood’s interest in 3D technologies, and Kiss Me Kate was shot in 35mm Ansco Colour and released widely in both 2D and 3D versions (for more details see the 3-D Film Archive page about the recent DVD release of the 3D version).

Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging have done a sensational job with the 3D restoration which unspooled in NFT1 as rapt viewers sat behind their Polaroid glasses. The use of primary colours in Charles Rosher’s cinematography is dazzling but what really impressed me was director George Stephens’ sophisticated use of the different onstage and backstage spaces of the drama. As many others have pointed out, his employment of 3D throughout the film is controlled, super-subtle and never tricksy. Bob Fosse, later to give us Sweet Charity and Cabaret, has a supporting role in which his distinctive choreography is already apparent. And when there are numbers like this (transposed from mid-way through the stage show to the opening of the film), not to mention Ann Miller in all her glory, how can you resist? Play loud and full-screen…

Friday night was archive night at the Odeon in Leicester Square where we were treated to the BFI’s loving restoration of Anthony Asquith’s drama of love and death in a film studio, Shooting Stars. There was much to admire about both the film and the new print, given with a new score by John Altman, but I didn’t totally fall in love with it. But now I understand something of why the production is revered by some film historians – and few have written about it with more sympathy and knowledge than Luke McKernan, whose excellent essay here is highly recommended. And here is the opening sequence of the film itself…

Long ago if not so far away (it was Canterbury, in fact), on one Saturday afternoon in 1970 I saw Ken Russell’s film The Music Lovers – and, reader, I fell in love. In love with the cinema, and in love with Russell’s thrilling, heady, absurd and altogether glorious filmmaking. In my own little myth this is the epiphanic moment at which I decided I had to work with moving images, and for that I am forever grateful to Ken. Back then, I saw the film again in the Christmas holidays at the London Pavilion, where it was programmed in a double-bill with Russell’s previous feature, Women in Love. In my memory the notion is locked that I went to this pairing three times, although I probably didn’t. But nonetheless I believed then that Ken Russell was an auteur to line up alongside the only other two directors I had just begun to recognise as geniuses of a certain sort, John Ford and Jean-Luc Godard. (I should say that this opinion, even in a moderated form, was met with derision when I later joined Time Out and tried to express it to my new colleagues Chris Petit and Tony Rayns.) This is a trailer that I might have seen at the time (and they really don’t make them like this anymore).

If it wasn’t quite The Music Lovers (and these days I recognise that’s probably a good thing) I was, nonetheless, deeply impressed with Women in Love, with its free embrace of sexuality, with its bold, visual story-telling, and with its simple and direct love of life. (There is also an extended pre-figuring in the film of the famous, desperate train-journey scene of The Music Lovers.) Forty-five years on, those aspects of the film remain impressive, and yesterday it was thrilling to see Billy Williams’ images brought back to their original beauty.

But revisiting one’s early loves is always risky (or so I’m told) and now there are aspects of the film that appear a touch ridiculous — see, for example, those horizontal, misty-lensed images in the trailer of spinning naked Alan Bates and Jennie Linden coupling for the first time. And it’s a much darker film than I recalled, and more complex and I think far more confused about sex and sensuality than I took it to be at the tender age of 15.

Although there were some scenes, notably the extended garden-party and associated storylines, that I recalled vividly, I found I had entirely forgotten that around the last half-hour of the film takes place in the Alps with exteriors filmed near Zermatt. Nor had I noticed before the dazzling costume design of Shirley Russell. And I don’t think I had appreciated how bold is Russell’s embrace of Lawrence’s dark, disturbing sense of the primal natures of men and of women.

The violence, especially of Oliver Reed towards Glenda Jackson, makes the film an uneasy watch today, but overall it has a strange and rather unique poetry that I found compelling. So much so, that I didn’t want the experience to be normalised, as I found it was in danger of being, by a perfectly interesting post-show panel discussion. I wanted to hold on to, even if only for my tube journey home, something of the magic and mystery that had entranced my much younger self. A few minutes into the discussion, despite hearing the delightful modern-day Glenda Jackson, I made my silent excuses and left.

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