Japanese Cinema

Source: Carl Koch, from ‘Japanese Cinema’, Close-up vol. VIII no. 4 (December 1931), pp. 296-298

Text: The Japanese film director and actor, Katsumi, recently showed me his latest film in a Berlin projection room. This film, in which he played the main role, told of the downfall of a Samurai who fought against the reigning Shogun about two centuries ago. The plot developed slowly and was punctuated by innumerable captions, until after about 6,000 feet a tremendous fight broke out between the Samurai and (apparently) the whole assembled bodyguard of the Shogun. This ended in the hero’s suicide after an incredible struggle against overwhelming odds. Although the movements were extremely interesting both in their details and in the way they followed through, yet it was clearly impossible to expect a European audience to tolerate anything so long. In fact, I was quite at a loss how this film could be adapted for the European market.

A few weeks later I received an invitation from Katsumi to a Sunday morning performance of this film in a small west-end cinema, where it was to be privately shown to the Japanese colony in Berlin. As I came into the cinema, I was given a printed slip containing a synopsis of the film. At the side of the screen was a lectern where Katsumi stood.

The film started. At the same time Katsumi began a running commentary to the preliminary titles in the normal explanatory tones of a narrator. The Samurai were strolling about on the screen. Silence. The actors conversed with each other. The voice began again, no longer in explanatory, everyday tones, but using the guttural utterance of the Japanese classical theatre to provide an exact accompaniment to the various actors’ conversation. Then a long caption, unaccompanied perhaps for half its length. Then some monotonous instrument like a guitar began to play, continued through the following scenes and stopped suddenly in the middle of a scene. The film continued. Silence. Then, the quiet explanatory voice of the speaker. A humorous remark elicited a titter from the audience — apparently some personal allusion of the speaker’s. Presently the voice became pathetic, continued so through scenes and captions, and then suddenly stopped dead. Silence. More music. Single plucked notes with long pauses in between. Another conversation in the deep gutteral style of the classical theatre, very carefully synchronised with the film and the various actors, who were made to speak sometimes high, sometimes low, clearly, confusedly, slowly or quickly, according to the context. Silence again. On the screen the chief of Shogun’s bodyguard vainly interrogated his daughter whom he had sent to spy on the hero in order to convict him of treason. She was in love with the hero and attempted to persuade her father that she had been unable to discover anything. The old man had now shot his last bolt. He sat there for some time, alone, motionless. Suddenly a gesture — and a man’s shriek. The girl rushed back into the room and flung herself on her father. He tried to free himself in order to reach his sword. His daughter tried to prevent him. The same terrible shriek recurred everytime the old man made some violent effort. At last his daughter broke down, gave him the required information and betrayed her lover. Light guitar music. It was all very thrilling. Finally came the fight, which was accompanied, partly by an exciting rhythmic figure that rose and fell, partly by the solemn declamation of some text that was probably well known to all the Japanese present.

A movie had suddenly been turned into a talkie by the extraordinary art of the speaker, the restrained but subtly differentiated use of different kinds of elocution, and the persistence of the transparent monodic, nearly always unisonal, music. This music had no resemblance to the illustrative music usually to be heard in the European cinema; it ran counter to the action on the screen in a kind of dialectical counterpoint. (For instance, doleful music usually accompanied gay scenes on the screen; quick and lively music, slow sad scenes.) The restraint with which this was carried out made for clearness, lucidity, excitement, variety. The subtleties of tone often lent scenes which had dragged in the projection room an extraordinary tension.

This is the way in which films are shown in Japanese cinemas. The idea of an announcer and a completely independent musical accompaniment is foreign to us, and so we can hardly hope to import Japanese films with any success, since, in spite of adaptation and revision, some passages would still remain too long and deliberate in tempo, and (apart from that) the film sequences are not such as are customary according to the unwritten convention between public and producer here in Europe.

Comments: Carl Koch (1892-1963) was a German film director, whose credits included Nippon, a compilation short of extracts from Japanese films, which at this time were scarcely known about in the West. Katsumi is presumably the Japanese actor-director Yôtarô Katsumi. The article is illustrated with stills from a Japanese film whose title is given as The Torch (made by the Shochiku company). My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this passage to my attention.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

The Journals of Arnold Bennett

Source: Arnold Bennett, journal entry 6 March 1924, in Newman Flower (ed.), The Journals of Arnold Bennett: 1921-1928 (London: Cassell, 1933)

Text: Thursday, 6 March – German film last night at Polytechnic Cinema. One has the idea that all films are crowded. The balcony here was not 15% full. Front row, where Duff Tayler and I were, 8s. 6d. for 1½ hours’ entertainment. A gloomy place, with gloomy audience. No style or grace in them. All lower middle class or nearly so. The hall tricked out with a silly sort of an ikon, illuminated, of Death, to advertise or recall or illustrate the film. The orchestra most mediocre. Played all the time, and three performances a day! Hell for the players I should think. Also the habit of illustrating certain points musically, or noisily. The clock must strike, etc. And a special noise as a sort of leit motif for death. Lastly three small common Oriental mats (probably made in England) laid in front of the screen on the stage to indicate that much of the story was Oriental. The captions, etc, were appalling, and even misspelt, such as ‘extention’, ‘Soloman’ etc. The phrasing! Good God. The City of Yesteryear meant, I believe, the cemetery.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British writer, best known for his novels of life in the Potteries with its ‘five towns’ that now equate with Stoke-on-Trent. The Polytechnic Cinema was part of what was originally the Royal Polytechnic Institution, a venue for popular science lectures and entertainments, which hosted the UK debut of the Lumière Cinématographe in February 1896. It operated as a cinema in the 1920s, and was recently re-furbished and relaunched as the Regent Street Cinema. The film Bennett saw was Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod aka Destiny (Germany 1921), which features Death as a character and a sequence set in Persia.

The Promise of Air

Source: Algernon Blackwood, The Promise of Air (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1918), pp. 170-173

Text: The rush of the wonderful cinema then began, and he forgot himself.

They experienced the sense such a performance leaves behind of having been—as Mother put it—all over the place. Sitting in the dark the individual at first is conscious only of himself, neighbours ignored if not forgotten. The screen then flashes into light, and with the picture, consciousness flashes across the world. The lie of the stationary photograph is corrected, time is denied, partially at least, and space is unable to boast and swagger as it loves to do. The cinema frees and extends the consciousness, restores the past, and sets distance close beneath the eyes. Only the watching self remains—pregnant symbol!—in the darkness.

It was one of the best performances in London; within an hour or two the audience danced from the dingy streets of the metropolis into the sunlight of India, Africa, and of islands among far southern seas. The kaleidoscope of other lands and other ways of thinking, acting, living carried them away with understanding sympathy. From savage wild life drinking at water-holes in the sun-drenched Tropics, they darted across half-charted oceans and watched the penguin and the polar bear amid arctic ice. Over mountains, down craters, flying above cities and peering deep under water, the various experiences of strange distant life came into their ken. They flew about the planet. The leaders of the world gazed at them, so close and real that their emotions were legible on their magnified features. They smiled or frowned, then flashed away, and yet still were there, living, thinking, willing this and that. Widely separated portions of the vast human family presented themselves vigorously, registered a tie of kinship, and were gone again about their business, now become in some sense the business of the audience too. Fighting, toiling, loving, hating, meeting death and adventure by sea and land, creating and destroying, differing much in colour, custom, clothing, and the rest, yet human as Wimble and his family were human, possessed with the same griefs, hopes, and joys, the same passion to live, the same fear of death—one great family.

Joan slipped her arm into that of her father; they nestled closely, very much in sympathy as the world rushed past their eyes upon the screen. “We’re flying,” she whispered, with a squeeze, as the penguins on the polar ice gave place to a scene of negroes sweating in the sun and munching sugar-cane while they lazily picked the fluffy cotton. “We’re everywhere all-at-once, don’t you see?” A moment later, as though to point her words, they looked down upon a mapped-out country from an aeroplane. The unimportance of earth was visible in the distance.

“You can’t fly under water anyhow,” mumbled Wimble, as they left the air and flashed with a submarine upon sponges, coral, and inquisitive, perfectly poised fish. A black man was trying to knife a shark.

“I can see what they feel though,” was the whispered answer. “Inside their watery minds, I mean.”

“Wherever I am I go,” he thought, but didn’t say it, because by the time he had reflected how foolish it was to remain stuck only upon the minute point of his own tiny personal experience, they were climbing with a scientific Italian of eminence down a crater full of smoke and steam, and could almost hear the thunder of the explosions. But while they went down, everything else went up. Smoke, steam, masses of rock all trying to rise. “Gravity is the devil,” he remembered; “it keeps us from flying into the sun.”

The idea made him chuckle, and Joan pinched his arm, giggling too audibly in her excitement. “Hush!” said Mother. They watched in silence then; a bird’s-eye view of the planet was what they watched. With each picture they took part. Every corner of the globe, with its different activities, touched their hearts and minds with interest—busy, rushing life in various forms, and all going on simultaneously, at this very moment—now. Life obviously was one. The strange unity was convincing. Nothing they saw was alien to themselves, for they took part in it. In each picture they “wondered what it felt like.” They took for an instant, longer or shorter, the point of view of a new aspect of life, of something as yet they had not actually experienced. They longed—or dreaded—to stand within that huge cavern of blue lonely ice and hear the waves of the Polar Sea lick up the snow; to taste that sugary cane with animal-white teeth, and feel the fluffy cotton between thick, lumpy fingers; to swim under water and look up instead of down; to crawl fearfully a little nearer to the molten centre of the planet through smoke and fire and awful thundering explosions. They longed or dreaded. Mentally, that is, they experienced a new relationship in each separate case, a relationship that stretched a suburban consciousness beyond its normal ken.

Comments: Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was a British writer of ghost stories and fantastical fiction. The Promise of Air is one of his novels on a mystical theme, and is concerned with freeing the spirit from the limitations of the human frame. Characters are either earthbound or airy. The above passage is part of a long sequence covering the central Wimble family’s visit to a cinema, in which their rhapsodic experience are occasionally touched by the practicalities of attending a cinema.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Twenty Minutes from Before the War

Source: Extracts from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘Twenty Minutes from Before the War’, in The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939 (London: Granta, 2004), pp. 175, 177-178. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 11 June 1926

Text: In a Parisian cinema they are showing old newsreel footage – infinitely past, because sundered by us from the war – of such dusty novelties as the fashions, dances, the five o’clock teas, of an era that waltzed straight out of its pathetic whimsicality into a bloody horror; an epoch so deceitful that it didn’t even experience the truth of its own demise. It was already dead by the time it died. Its children were living ghosts, having been molded from papier-mâché in, oh, let’s say, pergolas.

These old films, changed every time there’s a change of program, appear under the heading “Twenty Minutes from Before the War.” It’s because of them that the cinema is sold out every day, and sometimes full to bursting. The sons all want to go, to laugh at their fathers. The great family album of the past is opened up before their eyes. It is made up of graves that elicit not shudders of horror but irresistible mirth. The effect of the pictures is like that of twenty top hats at a funeral: The hats are so ridiculous that they rather take the edge of the coffin. The result is a rather peculiar sort of dread that touches not the soul but the funny bone.

[…]

These are the sort of shocking displays we now put ourselves through, we, the children of the present day, we, who have gotten over Darwin and Ibsen, give ourselves over to the exotic woman with the “pleureuse” veil, the suffragette, the parade uniform, the umbrella, the large man with the goatee, , the train, and the towering hairdo made of pigtails and spikes; we, who go to Negro revues and watch naked girls, we toughened and bred in drum fire, scornful of beautiful lies, we devotees, as we would have it, of the ugly truth.

We sit in front of the whole deceitful misery of our fathers, who appear to have invented the cinema purely to show us themselves in their full absurdity, and we laugh, we laugh. We have prizefights and sports fans, America and endurance runners, girls drilled by preachers, a whole internationale of Sunday windbreakers. But we don’t have bodies instead of breasts, feather boas instead of necks, curtains instead of legs, and top hats in place of mourning! Where the goose-step is still practised, we know it’s dead; really, at the worst, the parades of our times are to celebrate living memorials (not dead ones). We know that once we had the “pleureuse,” the steel helmet was only a matter of time, that there’s a straight path from the modest veil to the gas mask, and from the pergola to the trench. And those unarmed reservists who plowed the fields of honor and sowed us there with their pathetic blessings – that deceitful eve of the war is something that makes us laugh our heads off every evening, for twenty minutes, and no longer.

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The full article describes the various newsreel scenes shown: military parades, Parisian crowds, an instructor illustrating the latest dance craze, the latest creations from a fashion house, and pre-war fiction films.

Magic Lantern

Source: Ingmar Bergman (trans. Joan Tate), Magic Lantern: An Autobiography by Ingmar Bergman (London: Penguin Books, 1988 – orig. pub. Laterna Magica, Norstedts Förlag, Sweden, 1987), pp. 14-16

Text: More than anything else, I longed for a cinematograph. The year before, I had been to the cinema for the first time, and seen a film about a horse. I think it was called Black Beauty and was based on a famous book. The film was on at the Sture cinema and we sat in the front row of the circle. To me, it was the beginning. I was overcome by a fever that has never left me. The silent shadows turned their pale faces towards me, and spoke in inaudible voices to my most secret feelings. Sixty years have gone by and nothing has changed; the fever is the same.

[…]

After breakfast, everyone went to bed for a few hours. The internal domestic routine must have gone on working, for at two o’clock, just as dusk was falling, afternoon coffee was served. We had open house for anyone who cared to come and wish the parsonage a happy Christmas. Several friends were practising musicians and part of the afternoon festivities was usually an improvised concert. Then the sumptuous culmination of Christmas Day approached: the evening meal. This was held in our spacious kitchen, where the social hierarchy was temporarily set aside. All the food was laid out on a serving table and covered working surfaces, and the distribution of Christmas gifts took place at the dining-room table. The baskets were carried in, Father officiated with a cigar and glass of sweet liqueur, the presents were handed out, verses were read aloud, applauded and commented on; no presents without verses.

That was when the cinematograph affair occurred. My brother was the one who got it.

At once I began to howl. I was ticked off and disappeared under the table, where I raged on and was told to be quiet immediately. I rushed off to the nursery, swearing and cursing, considered running away, then finally fell asleep exhausted by grief.

The party went on.

Later in the evening I woke up. Gertrud was singing a folk song downstairs and the nightlight was glowing. A transparency of the Nativity scene and the shepherds at prayer was glimmering faintly on the, tall chest-of-drawers.

Among my brother’s other Christmas presents on the white gate-legged table was the cinematograph, with its crooked chimney, its beautifully shaped brass lens and its rack for the film loops.

I made a swift decision. I woke my brother and proposed a deal. I offered him my hundred tin soldiers in exchange for the cinematograph. As Dag possessed a huge army and was always involved in war games with his friends, an agreement was made to the satisfaction of both parties.

The cinematograph was mine.

It was not a complicated machine. The source of light was a paraffin lamp and the crank was attached with a cogwheel and a Maltese cross. At the back of the metal box was a simple reflecting mirror, behind the lens a slot for coloured lantern slides. The apparatus also included a square purple box which contained some glass slides and a sepia-coloured film strip (35mm). This was about three metres long and glued into a loop. Information statd on the lid that the film was called Mrs Holle. Who this Mrs Holle was no one knew, but later it turned out that she was a popular equivalent of the Goddess of Love in Mediterranean countries.

The next morning I retreated into the spacious wardrobe in the nursery, placed the cinematograph on a sugar crate, lit the paraffin lamp and directed the beam of light on to the whitewashed wall. Then I loaded the film.

A picture of a meadow appeared on the wall. Asleep in the meadow was a young woman apparently wearing national costume. Then I turned the handle! It is impossible to describe this. I can’t find words to describe my excitement. But at any time I can recall the smell of the hot metal, the scent of mothballs and dust in the wardrobe, the feel of the crank against my hand. I can see the trembling rectangle on the wall.

I turned the handle and the girl woke up, sat up, slowly got up, stretched her arms out, swung round and disappeared to the right. If I went on turning, she would again lie there, then make exactly the same movements all over again.

She was moving.

Comments: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) was a Swedish film and theatre director, whose films include The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Persona. He was the son of a Lutheran Pastor, and his childhood was spent in Uppsala, Sweden. Toy cinematographs that could show a mixture of slides and short film strips were quite common. Black Beauty is the American feature film of 1921, based on the novel by Anna Sewell. Mrs Holle may be connected with the fairy tale of Frau Holle, or Mother Holle, collected by the Grimm brothers.

Everything to Lose

Source: Frances Partridge, Everything to Lose: Diaries 1945-1960 (London: Victor Gollancz, 1985), pp. 332-333

Text: July 13th. [1959] Ralph came with me to London for the night, Burgo driving up with Robert. Ralph was reading Burgo’s translation in the train, I Robert’s new novel.

Visiting Robert’s flat, we admired his new carpet, chair, and moving Irish gramophone records. then came the television set, but ah! there we were unable to follow him. He showed us Tonight, said to be one of the best programmes. It certainly riveted one’s attention in a horrid, compulsive sort of way, yet I was bored and rather disgusted, and longed to be able to unhook my gaze from this little fussy square of confusion and noise on the other side of the room. It’s so old-fashioned and amateurish! ‘Ah, here’s one of the great television personalities – the best-known face in England!’ said Robert, and a charmless countenance with the manner of a Hoover-salesman dominated the screen. lt’s contemptible, it has nowhere near caught up with any of the other modes of expression; it’s the LCM of the common man, one’s mind has to shrink to get inside it. It’s as lightweight as a feather duster, yet vast numbers of people are daily and hourly beaten on the head with it.

Comments: Frances Partridge (1900-2004) was a writer, translator, diarist and member of the Bloomsbury Group. Robert is the broadcaster Robert Kee; Ralph is her husband; Burgo their son. Tonight was a popular BBC current affairs series, broadcast 1957-1965. The main presenter was Cliff Michelmore. LCM stands for ‘least common multiple’.