Last weekend, I spent another lovely evening at Hackney Picturehouse. I actually went slightly early and did my homework for my creative writing course, which consisted of ‘observing’ people in a crowded place. It really is a great place to people-watch…but then I end up people-watching all the time (it’s just a nicer way of saying I’m nosey really, isn’t it?)
Yakov Protazanov’s Aelita was first released in 1924, and is set in 1921. It was apparently the first science-fiction film to come out of the Soviet Union, but to be honest, the ‘sci-fi’ bit of it isn’t the main story.
A strange radio transmission is being received across the world, and one of the recipients is an engineer called Los. Newly-married to Natasha, the message intrigues Los and he starts day-dreaming of its origin.
We cut to his dreams, which are of the woman of the title – Aelita, Queen of Mars. Although Aelita is supposedly the Queen, she doesn’t really seem to have much power – that is down to the Elders. One of the inventors has built a special ‘viewing machine’, which he shows to Aelita, and she becomes obsessed with Earth, and especially one man – Los himself.
Meanwhile, Los & Natasha have been told that they have to take in a lodger, Elrich. Unknown to them, Elrich is married, and his wife is currently working on Los’ colleague, conning him out of his money. Elrich too is abusing his position and stealing from the State (the political messaging in the film is unmistakable throughout!). However, Los becomes fixated on his misguided suspicion that Natasha is having an affair with Elrich, and this in turn pushes him into day-dreaming more about Aelita.
This film is absolutely bloody bonkers!
I could see echoes of Dr Caligari in it, especially in the Mars-based sets, and I could also see shere it probably influenced some of the scenes that came a few years later in Metropolis. Some of the Mars costumes were truly odd – one girl had trousers that looked like bird cages, and there was a large amount of perspex in the costumes of the Elders – some great perspex hair and beards (see above).
However, there were a lot of scenes where me and my mate looked at each other and just said “WTF??” — I think the total surrealism of it all added to its appeal though, as I have been thinking back over it a lot over the past week.
As for the live score, Minima were once again fantastic – atmospheric, haunting, spot-on! I especially liked the dog bark that one of them managed (was it the cellist??)
I have already booked tickets for me and my mates to their double-bill at the Prince Charles Cinema next month – Dr Caligari again but also Nosferatu, which I have never seen
The film was accompanied by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by the composer of the live score, John Scott.
One of my friends had asked me if I had seen the film before, and I said that I vaguely remembered seeing it, and the only lasting impression I remembered was that it was very ‘fast’ – speeded up, like the end of the Benny Hill show.
This certainly wasn’t like that, and so I was confused as to what I had seen, until I read the blurb in the programme.
Composer John Scott (he seemed a lovely man, and after the performance, he asked Douglas Fairbanks’ granddaughter who was in the audience, whether she thought he would have approved!) originally turned down the idea of creating a new score for the film when approached in 2006 by the City of Nottingham.
One of the reasons he gave was “I found the film unbearable, all the characters moved in a stilted way, far too fast and the whole effect was quaint and unreal.” So perhaps my memory of the film hadn’t been wrong after all. they then slowed the film down to ‘real time’ action and John Scott realised that the film was now a very different subject, and that he would be able to compose the new score.
The film was actually far more lavish than I had been expecting – it apparently cost a rumoured $1million…in 1922…and at the time was the most expensive film made.
The sets were absolutely amazing for the time, including a full-scale castle built especially for the film. The jousting scenes at the start included a huge number of extras, animals and grand costumes and sets.
The film was often suprisingly dark, often laugh-out-loud funny (sometimes even intentionally!) and literally had Robin and his merry men skipping around the forest in their tights. Yes, literally. Grown men skipping.
The athleticism of Douglas Fairbanks was also a wonder to behold. Whenever they rushed off to their horses, he literally leaped over rocks, bushes, etc and jumped straight into the saddle, while the rest of the men put on a brave show of trying to heave themselves up via their stirrups while he got a head start on them.
And the score – it was faultless. Sometimes I glanced down from the screen and was almost shocked to see a full orchestra there playing, as I had momentarily forgotten that it was live, so seamless were the action and the music.
It was a fabulous evening in gorgeous surroundings, and a film that I am glad I now have a better memory of, with a faultless live score – I loved every second!
I wonder what will be my next silent film with live score experience…
I will levae you with a non-slowed down clip…pretty gruesome, aye?
A couple of weeks ago, me and three friends went along to Hackney Attic (top floor of the wonderful Hackney Picturehouse – where I happened to take The Girl to see the brilliant Avengers Assemble yesterday) to see a one-off showing of 1920 silent film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari.
This featured a live score by 4 man band Minima.
The film itself is often thought of as one of the most influential horror movies. It is a lesson in German expressionism – the sets are all highly stylized, with a lot of sharp, jagged buildings and furniture, disproportionate sets and backdrops that were painted on canvas.
The actors also often played their roles in a rather odd and jerky manner (think the Smirnoff Judderman advert) and I read that it is believed to have introduced the twist ending in film.
Obviously these days, watching such an old film, a lot of the melodrama and horror and over-acting seems rather amusing in places, but it doesn’t detract from a solid tale, and some truly iconic scenes and memorable moments.
This was completely enhanced by Minima’s score. i had never heard of Minima before, but I will certainly be looking out for them in the future – they were amazing. This definitely wasn’t your usual silent film score. They’re funky, and definitely more of a rock band, but the atmosphere they injected into the film was truly outstanding.
Minima consist of an electric guitar, drums, bass, and the necessary spooky cello – and you wouldn’t believe such a wide-range of moods and sounds could be emitted from such a tiny number of instruments…they were fantastic.
The film for this month is Piccadilly (which I had never heard of, let alone seen!) again at Hackney Attic on the 20th and will have a live score by Igor Outkine on the accordian. I will probably be going!
I will leave you with a clip.