by Philip Concannon
The most exciting action sequence I saw on the big screen in 2011 didn’t occur in a summer blockbuster. It wasn’t directed by Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Paul Greengrass, or any other contemporary master of cinematic thrills, and it has nothing to do with those myriad French films in which a frantic man in a suit runs around Paris for some reason. The sequence I’m referring to is the climax of Storm Over Asia, when the protagonist – a direct descendant of Genghis Khan – picks up his sword and leads the charge against his British captors. Breathlessly paced and set to a rousing score of Mongolian throat singing, the sequence practically lifted me out of my seat in a way that very few recent films have managed to do. Storm Over Asia was directed by Vsevolod Pudovkin, and it was made in 1928.
Even in a year as unusually fruitful for current cinema as 2011 has proven to be, watching older films on the big screen remains a distinctive pleasure. I feel fortunate to live in a city with a rich and diverse repertory cinema scene that allows me to explore film history and fill the gaps in my cinematic knowledge, and this year in particular has yielded many extraordinary discoveries. That screening of Storm Over Asia was part of the BFI’s comprehensive Soviet cinema season, which revealed the energy and spirit of invention that characterised so much of the country’s early cinematic output. I was already familiar with Eisenstein, of course, but I wasn’t prepared to find a number of directors who could stand as his equal, at least. In films like Mother and The Deserter, the aforementioned Pudovkin displayed a grasp of bold editing techniques and striking imagery that could rival his more illustrious contemporary, while Boris Barnet’s chaotic comedy The House on Trubnaya and his war drama Outskirts confirmed him as one of the sharpest and most underrated filmmakers of the era.
The truly remarkable thing about so many of these films is how modern they felt, with their editing patterns and sense of visual style eclipsing most of the new features I was seeing around the same period (particularly as blockbuster season was in full swing by this point of the year). This remained a common theme throughout the year, with films from the late silent period showing how advanced filmmakers’ notions of visual storytelling had become in the years before the arrival of sound stunted their growth. In particular, two British films from the silent era’s twilight years showcased some remarkably innovative directorial touches. Anthony Asquith’s A Cottage on Dartmoor is a familiar tale of obsession and murder that is elevated by unconventional filmmaking techniques (deemed too “arty” for some countries, it was later cut into a straightforward narrative), and the scene in which Joe (Uno Henning) finally commits his long-anticipated crime features a startling flash of red onscreen at the moment he ‘snaps.’ A year later, Miles Mander directed The First Born, a saucy British melodrama that features some astonishing sequences, including a use of voyeuristic, handheld camerawork that stands out as one of the most innovative moments in silent cinema.
But it wasn’t just silent films that were ripe for rediscovery in 2011. I finally had the opportunity to see Claude Lanzmann’s 9½-hour Holocaust documentary Shoah – an unforgettable, once in a lifetime experience – and I enjoyed the sight of Donald Sutherland headbutting a cat in Bertolucci’s madcap fascism epic 1900. Laughing hysterically at Howard Hawks’ masterful romantic comedy Ball of Fire in a packed cinema was a joyous experience, and a young Jeff Bridges made moviegoing a regular pleasure in June, as I saw Bad Company, Hearts of the West and Winter Kills for the first time (and my beloved Fat City for the third time). With Essential Killing, Jerzy Skolimowski is responsible for one of my favourite 2011 releases, and in May his 1970 film Deep End was restored and re-released by the BFI, and was no less exciting. A funny, awkward and tragic coming of age story, Deep End felt as fresh today as it surely did when it first hit cinemas forty years ago, and to think that this picture was thought lost for so many years.
Ultimately, the two films that stand out in my year of rep. cinema are two similarly themed films I saw over the space of a few days this summer, Carl Theodor Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc and Ken Russell’s The Devils. I had seen Dreyer’s masterpiece on the big screen before, but the bold new score from Adrian Utley and Will Gregory added another dimension to the film, and was just one of many instances in 2011 when a film felt reenergised by its live musical accompaniment (and not just silents – I saw 1964’s The Last Man on Earth creatively rescored). The Passion of Joan of Arc remains an incomparably shattering cinematic experience, although the climactic scenes of The Devils threaten to give it a run for its money. Ken Russell’s notorious 1971 film received two rare screenings of its fully uncut version in 2011, allowing me to see it for the first time and recognise it as the masterpiece that it is. Four decades on and Warner Brothers remain terrified of The Devils, refusing to license its complete version, including the infamous “Rape of Christ” sequence, for any kind of proper release. I’m just glad I got the chance to witness Russell’s finest hour, with the man himself in attendance, before he passed away.
Seeing films like The Devils, The Passion of Joan of Arc or indeed any of the amazing features mentioned in this article(I haven’t even touched upon Les Enfants du paradis, Heaven’s Gate or Beggars of Life)on the big screen is a special experience and seen under the right circumstances the oldest of films can appear bracingly new. The multiplex might currently be a source of nostalgia for cinema’s earliest days with Hugo and The Artist arriving with weeks of each other, but there is nothing like the real thing, and although some of these rep. films may be showing their age, the magic of great cinema is truly timeless.