Review: Winter Gardens Film Festival

42nd Street Winter Gardens Film Festival

The Opera House looked magnificent with the big screen set up for this showing. All credit is due to the people who had put all this together. These were films that I’d heard of and wanted to see for a long time, but they were unlikely to pop up on TV or at any multiplex.

Nowadays it must be hard to convince people that films once had no sound, or even that they had to be shot in black and white, rather than by choice. Some names from the era live on, in this case Lon Chaney, here as Erik, The Phantom of the Opera.

Shooting in the monochrome film stock of the time, the make-up had to give a very particular contrast providing these films with a very distinct appearance, which has now largely disappeared. Personally I love it, but some might like to hang on to get used to it.

From an almost comedy beginning, the film ratchets up the tension and mayhem steadily, building to a climactic crowd scene ending.  At first many doubt the phantom’s existence, some laughing this off, but it rapidly becomes clear that he is all too real. Although well-intentioned, the Phantom’s means to achieve his ends become increasingly extreme and almost by his own admission become evil. His hope for redemption is focused on love for an aspiring opera singer that can never be returned. As she warms to him briefly, the act he did warn her against plunges him over the abyss into deranged madness.

I read that Lon Chaney designed the phantom’s make-up. By modern standards this is fairly moderate, but it is striking and well-pitched. Whether this would be enough to plunge a man into resentful and vengeful insanity is another matter.

The film’s sets are extraordinary and bear comparison to anything today. Crowd scenes are frequent, particularly when panic spreads through the theatre and these are choreographed with extraordinary skill. With no sound the actors’ gestures and facial expressions are vital in projecting the action and the emotions, which might look extreme to a modern audience. While having the occasional ‘suspend disbelief’ moments, there are incidents of real tension and a pretty high overall body count. The costumes are excellent, the masked ball scene standing out in this respect.

Music by the group Minima playing their own original score really added to the experience and all credit to the group for its incredible skill.

Despite everything one cannot help wonder beforehand how a silent film made in 1925 is going to go, but it just seemed to shoot by, the absence of sound simply forgotten. This film is recommended to anyone, ok maybe not small children and those of an extremely nervous disposition.

After a useful break, enough to nip down to a well-known coffee shop franchise for tea and a sandwich, it was time for Rashomon directed by Akiro Kurosawa, one of my all-time favourite directors. This film’s structure of multiple re-tellings of the same story has been borrowed for other films, but then Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai is the script for The Magnificent Seven and there are several other such interchanges. Hollywood likes to remake Japanese films, but the originals are always better.

One of the reasons I am so fond of Japanese films is the generally high standard of the photography and this film does not disappoint in this respect, each scene being framed perfectly and the contrast and skin tones perfect. These look and almost feel like real people.

What we know is that a man has been killed and a bandit has raped his wife. After the bandit has drunk contaminated water, an apparently otherwise ineffectual policeman captures him when he is helpless and so the game is on. Two peasants and a priest narrate while sheltering from the rain in a derelict temple. Rain seems to feature in Kurosawa films a lot. Starting with the bandit, played by the legendary Toshiro Mifune, a succession of characters relate the story in different ways, including the dead husband who communicates through a medium (one would think that account would be the one). The peasant who found the body asserts that all these accounts are lies, finally revealing that he was an eye witness to the death.

All this leaves the poor priest losing his faith in human nature, but a final incident as the rain finally subsides, restores this to some extent. This is a very fine and affecting movie; once more the time passed quickly. However, we are left still not knowing what exactly has happened leading to the husband’s death. Naturally this does happen for real in life

If I have a criticism it’s that the acting was just that bit too extreme at times. The characters are all in an extreme situation and some are extreme characters, but histrionic crying and demented laughter can get a little wearing after a while. This is an excellent film but it’s not Seven Samurai.

Thanks again to everybody who has worked so hard to put this festival together. I wish I’d had the time to see more films.

  • David Simper

    I have worked in the housing and transport professions for several local authorities, specialising in policy, strategy preparation and bid writing. Having always had an interest in film, the visual arts in general, theatre, music and lterature, I thought it would be good to combine the writing experience with these interests to contribute to altBlackpool. In addition to writing, my hobbies include watercolour and pastel painting, photography, woodwork, cycling and vegetable gardening.

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