Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Early films (1905-1908)

Rescued by Rover (1905)

So far as I can tell, this is the first film with a dog in it.  Like the more famous Lassie, Rover is a collie dog with a knack for seeking out lost infants, and calling the relevant adults to their aid.  It's a strong idea for an early film, as the sight of a dog rushing down lanes and through rivers is something one couldn't represent nearly so well on stage or in print.

The film was made by Cecil Hepworth, a British director who in 1900 made the wonderfully gruesome special effects film 'Explosion of a Motorcar', and in 1903 an excitingly early film of 'Alice in Wonderland'.  The man was evidently a smart cookie, realising the potential of the cinema and delivering a blend of narrative and effects (hitherto films had often been one or the other) with a really good framing and timing.  Watch it here - it's exactly the sort of melodrama one might expect from the silent age.

Humorous Phases of Funny Faces (1906)

‘Humorous Phases of Funny Faces’ contests with ‘The Merry Frolics of Satan’ to be the most immediately arresting movie title of 1906.  It’s a logical progression of the tricks we saw in ‘The Enchanted Drawing’ (1900) - faces are drawn on a blackboard, but come alive and interact with one another.  While the earlier film was about the relationship between the artist and the art, this one puts the emphasis on the picture, which suits the camera better.  The animated part now fills the whole of the frame, and the artist is a cameo, rather than a star.  Quite amusing!  Chortle at it here, if you will.

If you’re curious, ‘The Merry Frolics of Satan’ is a hand-tinted Méliès film, and has a much less exciting title in its native France  It has a great skeletal horse in it, and some fine special effects.  Not much Satan, though.

Ben Hur (1907)

Long term readers may know that The 1959 'Ben-Hur' is my favourite film.  It’s been shot a few times, and this was the earliest.  The film is most notable for having been made without the permission of the rights-holders, meaning the production company were sued for copyright violation.

It’s not a very satisfactory adaptation, even by the standards of the age.  The film assumes a familiarity with the novel, serving as moving illustrations to aid the imagination, rather than a narrative in pictures.  We’re given no reason to think or care about the characters, and when a slate falls from the Hur family’s roof, injuring Valerius Gratus, the camera pays it no heed.  If you don’t know the plot, the movie has very little to offer.  There are crowds and chariots, but no spectacle, no excitement.  Nobody has yet thought of moving the camera to follow the action, and since everything is shown in long shot, there’s no real detail to look at.  I suspect most of the cast are in splendid historical costumes of some sort or another, but they’re all just distant blurs.  You can watch the film here if you wish.

So, those Bens-Hur, in order of preference:

1. Ben-Hur (1959), a true epic, full of excellent performances and strong dialogue (though some Esther’s more religiose comments in the second half come across rather weakly).  This version has the best theology of all, and its chariot race is one of the most exciting sequences in all cinema.  Plus, Charlton Heston!

2. Ben-Hur: a Tale of the Christ (1925).  Many people favour this silent classic over the 50s talkie.  It certainly has style, and some fantastic hats.  One of the best American silents, and certainly the most expensive.  Its chariot race is pretty thrilling, though technological limitations of the time mean parts of it are too obviously faked in studio.  Jesus is manifested as a disembodied arm, which I’m inclined so say lacks his characteristic humanity.

3. Ben Hur (2003).  An animated version, which at 80 minutes does most of the things its far-longer predecessor did in 212.  It’s for children, so simplifies the story quite a bit, and gives Messala a happy ending.

4. Ben Hur (2010).  A TV miniseries.  I’m not a fan of this version, with its jerky slo-mo, its disappointing Jesus and its wilfully unmemorable chariots.  It tries too hard to avoid copying the 50s film, and so ends up lacking its merits.  A good cast, though ill-used.

5. Ben Hur (1907).  As above, this is limited by its era, but far more by a lack of imagination.  Edwin Porter or Georges Méliès could have made it beautiful.

A new version will be in the cinemas in 2016, so expect me to pop up then to provide heavily biased comparisons with my favourite film.

Japanese Butterflies (1908)

When I resolved to plug some gaps in my chronology, I asked friends if they could name any extremely old films.  Two of my lodgers had once seen a movie ‘about butterfly women’ in a museum in Berlin, and a little research revealed it to be ‘Japanese Butterflies’, a Spanish film from 1908.

Like a lot of very early films we’ve looked at, it eschews plot for spectacle (though, as mentioned in the film above, sometimes we’re presented with neither), and gives us a number of special effects and striking images.  Japan!  Some men!  Dancing butterflies!  A woman!  A chrysalis!  A giant butterfly!  A slightly different giant butterfly!  That’s really all there is to it - a  of Oriental beauty and mystery, its frames coloured-in by hand.  You can watch it right here.

Tune in again for 1909-1912, though since films start expanding from shorts to features (which is to say, films an hour or more in length), these years may be spread across a few posts.  Technology is marching on!

Thursday, 26 June 2014

Early films (1900-1904)

A film for each year from 1913 onwards!  It seemed a good, clear concept when I began the project, but now that 1913 is no longer exactly a century ago, it seems a rather arbitrary start-point.  Shall we go a little earlier?

The Enchanted Drawing (1900)

I’ve been aware of ‘The Enchanted Drawing’ for most of my life, as it garners a mention in ’The Rudiments of Wisdom’ by Tim Hunkin, an excellent book of illustrated facts that probably accounts for a very large part of my education.  The film combines live action and animation (though not in quite the way Hunkin remembers), as an artist is seen sketching, then plucking his illustrations from the paper, like Smarty Arty in ‘ZZZap!’ (1993-98).  He draws some wine, then picks it up from his drawing and drinks it, somewhat to the chagrin of the face he has rendered.  He cheers the face immeasurably by granting it a hat and a cigar.

It’s a short, satisfying film, augmenting J. Stuart Blackton’s pre-existing live performance piece with the cinematic innovation known as the stop trick, or locking off (stopping the camera, adding or removing elements, and starting the camera again, making the elements appear or disappear as if by magic).  These days we all know exactly how it's pulled off and have the resources to do so ourselves, but this remains a very lively and effective example of it, with a pleasing sense of humour behind it.  You can watch it here, and marvel at such a thing being produced during the reign of Victoria.

Stop Thief! (1901)

The first chase movie!  The film is short, and the plot simple: a vagabond steals some meat from a butcher, and is pursued by dogs.  He hides in a barrel, but they join him there, and eat the meat.  The man is then caught and belaboured about the head.  For its time it was pretty technically impressive, joining together a variety of consecutive shots to show the man’s route - though this very soon became the standard, and within a couple of years a film so simple would seem crude and obvious.

The film is enjoyably silly, but ends with more violent aggression than the crime, or the genre, seem to merit.  It's the earliest British film I've looked at, and you can watch it here, though I wouldn't really encourage you to do so.

Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902)

Georges Méliès was an amazingly dedicated early director, building his own film camera, and making several hundred films between 1896 and 1913.  He was also a stage-magician, with all the ingenuity for trickery that comes with such an occupation.  He invented the aforementioned stop-trick, and makes thorough use of it here.

This is the source of that famous image of the moon with a rocket in its eye, though that shot makes up only a fraction of the wonders on display.  We follow a court of elderly wizards, or perhaps just wise old men who dress for a holiday, and climb into a capsule which is fired into space, where they witness several astounding phenomena, and tussle with exploding moon-men.  It's beautifully stylised, and feels like 'Mary Poppins' (1964) in ways that I can't quite pin down.

After the wizards' rocket arrives in the moon's angular marshlands, I worried about how they would take of again, since they lacked the telescoping launch contraption seen on Earth.  Clearly, I hadn’t grasped the charming naïveté of the science at play: the film seems to assume that all gravity comes from Earth, meaning one can land on the top of the moon, but make your return voyage by pushing the rocket off a cliff, and falling back to Earth.

It's certainly the best of the films I've watched for this entry.  At this point in history, Georges Méliès was the most exciting director on the planet, and it was quite a while before anybody caught up with his witty and surprising visuals, and genuinely attractive designs.  I can't think why you wouldn't look the film up on Youtube.

The Great Train Robbery (1903)

I’ve already written about a film from 1903, ‘La Vie et Passion de Jesus Christ’, which was in colour - albeit of the crudest sort - was most of an hour long, and was filled with special effects.  Given how rarely 1900s movies are spoken of, and how crude and terrible films from later decades could often be, I was astounded to find such technical and artistic competence so early in the history of cinema.

Edwin S. Porter’s ‘The Great Train Robbery’, at a more modest twelve minutes, shares some of its ambition, using techniques of compositing and back-projection to bring trains into the studio.  It also features a fist-fight on a moving train - something I’d been impressed by in ‘Dr Nicholas og den Blaa Diamant’ a decade later in 1913.

The film is the more urgent of the two 1903 works, and (unusually for so early a film) never holds its shots too long.  It has two highlights: the first comes around the five minute mark, when Broncho Billy Anderson plays a man who is shot trying to escape the bandits.  The flailing death he gives us is wonderful to behold.  The second is the final shot, the film’s only close-up, in which Justus D. Barnes pulls out a gun, aims it at the camera, and so at the audience, and fires.  The End!  Watch it here, if you dare.

Welding the Big Ring (1904)

I was disappointed not to be able to source any fiction films for 1904, indeed, the only footage I could find from that year was ‘Welding the Big Ring’.  I dwell in Sheffield, so feel obliged to take some interest in the history of industrial metalcrafting, which may have made the piece a touch more approachable.

At first it seems like nothing will happen.  Muscle-men stand with an urgent sort of attention, surveying a huge metal ring.  Suddenly, it’s all go.  The ring is pulled out of the flames and the men descend on it with long-handled hammers.  The thing’s obviously red-hot, but they leap on it, attacking with a rhythm that makes them seem mechanical.  The work looks perilous, but the men have no fear.  They’re machines!  The ring, I assume, was later handed over to Sauron.

It was a little uninspiring, after the works of ingenuity and excitement further up the page.  It presents real working men, rather than schlock or frippery, which is commendable, but isn't what I tend to look for in a motion picture.  In the future, documentary footage tends to be coupled with innovative editing as in 'Man with a Movie Camera' (1929).  But these were early days, and no amount of perilous hammering can make 6 minutes of static footage hold the attention.  You can watch it here, but I'd stick with the first two minutes.  Your time is precious, dear reader.

Tune in at an undisclosed later point for some films from 1905 to 1912 -- and beyond!

P.S. I'm particularly delighted to add 'Stop Thief!' (1902) to the Penciltonian roster, as it joins 'Shaft's Big Score!' (1972) in that most unusual sub-genre, films with exclamation marks in their titles.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The Glang Show (live, Sheffield, and Edinburgh Fringe 2014)

This May, I went to a particularly unusual evening of comedy, The Glang Show, a sort of anti-gong-show staged by Sheffield comedy organisation AltComCab.  It was strikingly unlike any other entertainment I have witnessed, and since it is this week headed to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (every evening at Sportsters Bar), it seemed appropriate to write it up at last.

The Glang Show is an anti-competiton, in which stand-up comics take turns performing their usual sets, under the direction of a sort-of regimented heckling, an interactive element that constantly threatens to shipwreck the sets, but in actuality renders them wonderful.  At the start of the show, each member of the audience was given a Point of Information card (in actuality, pages torn out of David Hume’s 18th century tract ‘On Suicide’), and when we raised our POI cards we were empowered to interrupt the performing comic with questions, directions or comments to which they might respond.

Tom Little receives a typical Point of Information
‘Could you tell that joke again, but with a different punchline?’  We could ask the comedian to elaborate on their current theme, or request that they stop talking about topics that left us uncomfortable.  At one point I asked a performer to go for a minute without saying anything funny, which in retrospect may have encumbered their ability to do their job.

Fortunately we had a dextrous set of performers, who made good use of our disconcerting interruptions.  The duration of their time on stage was partly decided by a scene-stealing electronic Bingo Corner, and their sets were underscored, silent-movie style, by live keyboard music from the show’s producer Sean Morley — so the comedians’ wit, stamina and improvisational powers were really put to the test.

Host Dan Nicholas extols the virtue of the jam from the Glang Show's
'Jam Corner', where a local business provides jam-based prizes.
Somehow the format worked.  What should have been a mess turned out to be a disorientating, fantastically entertaining evening, which challenged the stand-ups to rely on their wits rather than their usual material.  The intimacy of the format made the performers seem more human and more charming than they might have been when delivering prepared sets, but allowed them to demonstrate a real flair of comic ability.  The run of the Glang show at Edinburgh promises a fresh array of stand-ups each night, making it an appealing way to savour new talent and find new favourites.

Since I was present in my capacity as a camcorder-for-hire, the whole show can be found here on Youtube (with a trailer embedded at the top of this page, to give you the general idea of the show), but you’d be better off heading up to see it live at the Fringe, 18.45-19.45 at Sportsters Bar on Market Street in Edinburgh.  If you do drop in, be sure to say hello to show-runner Sean Morley.  If you're a comedian, you may even find yourself on the bill.

P.S. There was a trophy, of sorts, for the greatest comedian in the world ever, but the rules governing its almost arbitrary allocation were arcane and terrible, in both meanings of the word.

P.P.S. ☆☆☆☆☆

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The BQE (2007)

I claimed, when wrapping up the blog in December, that I would return to write about any particularly extraordinary movies that crossed my path.  Reader, I have found such a motion picture:  Sufjan Stevens' 'The BQE', an experimental presentation about the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, setting forty minutes of well-chosen motorway to an amazing musical score.

The film does this with with a great enthusiasm and pace.  It's presented as a triptych of images, giving us three shots of the road at once, in extreme wide-screen.  Sometimes it's the same image three times, offset by a second or two.  Sometimes the cameras give us three different shots around a theme.  Occasionally one image, mirrored back and forth.  And sometimes, for variety, we see the Hooper Heroes, a trio of hula-hoop artists, Botanica, Quantus and Electress, splendidly arrayed in old-fashioned futuristic costumes, the sort of thing normally only worn by Sufjan Stevens himself, or avant-garde roller-derbyists.  They suit the expressway and the film perfectly.

The Hooper Heroes.  Their moves aren't perfect,
nor quite graceful, but they share the road's wonky energy.
'The BQE' has a great deal in common with 'Man With a Movie Camera' (1929), a film which left me enthused and delighted.  Both are silent films without conventional narrative, characters or captions, and both present the audience intense bursts of very ordinary voyeurism, intercut with the occasional staged sequence to keep us alert - and both films are sold on the basis of their composer, rather than their director or content.  The DVD release of the Ukrainian film is labelled 'Michael Nyman's Man with a Movie Camera'; the release of 'The BQE' is sold as a soundtrack CD, with the film included as a bonus.  Indeed, the CD packaging was so intense, so colourful, exciting and wilfully illegible, that I didn't realise the film was included until I got the set home.

Of course, in the case of 'The BQE', the director and the composer are one and the same, but I suspect the movie's main audience will be fans of Sufjan Stevens, entranced by the eccentrically baroque electronica of 'The Age of Adz', or 'Silver and Gold', or the quieter Indie pop of his earlier records, and curious to see how he might point a camera and aim an orchestra.  The result is engrossing and exciting, and makes the Interstate look by turns ancient, mechanical, exciting and sad.  The film isn't too long, and the images are well-chosen and artfully woven together.

The same shot, thrice, in high speed
This isn't just shot after shot of car after car, and the music is certainly interesting enough to support the images, moving from its opening 'Introductory Fanfare' to the grand finale, 'The Emperor of Centrifuge', with each track living up to the promise of its name.  I love the stillness of 'Dream Sequence in Subi Circumnavigation', and the way it grows into crashing Gershwinesque Americana.  I keep on turing my ear to the orchestral accelerando of 'Movement III: Linear Tableau with Intersecting Surprise' which bursts so satisfyingly into the electronica 'Traffic Shock'.  I enjoyed these first as music tracks, and felt rewarded when I finally saw them with pictures attached.  This is a very pleasing record and film, and I now care far more about this far-away road than feels reasonable.

P.S. IMDB lists the film as coming out in 2009, as that's when the DVD came out, as part-and-parcel of the soundtrack release. However, it was first screened in 2007, with live accompaniment, so that's the date I've accorded it here.

P.P.S. This isn't the only motorway-based film I've seen this May.  I also went to the cinema to watch 'Locke' (2014), an excellent piece of drama about a man in his car.  I've never seen a film like it, and I very nearly wrote it up for you, but didn't - except in this paragraph, which conveys all the salient points.  Why not go and watch it?

The BQE soundtrack and film come together, and even if you hate them both the packaging is astounding.

Monday, 17 March 2014

The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014)

By merit of having gone to the cinema twice this year, I've already seen far more films there than I did in 2013.  I'd gone to Scarborough to present my grandmother with some lime-and-raspberry vodka conserve, and on the way back my parents (who were in the area) suggested we go to the movies.  They ventured either 'Gravity', which seems to be the talking-point of the decade, or 'The Grand Budapest Hotel', about which I knew absolutely nothing.  The latter had the advantages of being 2D, and hailing from 2014, thus making it eligible to fill a gap in my 102-films-from-102-years blog, as it has seemingly now become.

I came in with no preconceptions, not knowing the genre, director or stars.  The last time my mother compelled me to watch a film about a hotel I saw 'The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel' (2012), which was nice, but left me with mixed feelings.  I expected something along the same lines, but found a film far more fun and exciting.

Those colours!
If you've been following the Penciltonian from the start you'll know that I have a thing for colourful films, anything that leans heavily into rich colour, stylised design and symmetrical shots.  Such things are here in well-saturated abundance.  There is nothing more this film could do to excite my eyes.  It even has a funicular railway, my transport of preference.

The content of the film follows suit, a ridiculous, heightened escapade.  It has something of a Roald Dahl or Edward Gorey grotesquerie, and the kind of 1930s adventure I enjoy in Tintin and its ilk.  There's a particular liveliness and gusto that leaves it feeling like a children's story for adults, with the only real reminder of the intended audience being the sweary exclamations that leap out of otherwise genteel conversations.

A cake-van, and fascists.
There's a fantastic energy to it, abetted by Alexandre Desplat's musical score, which seemed to be a star in its own right.  By turns jazzy, jaunty and apocalyptically ominous, with a bevy of Balalaikas to match the faux-East-Europe of the film's Zubrowka.  I suspect that both film and its soundtrack will have my attention many more times over the course of my life, as they currently leave me enthused and delighted.

It's in cinemas now, by the way.  Why not go to see it?

P.S. Since there were no up-front credits, I spent the whole film feeling that I recognised the lead actors, but unable to place their names.  They were, in fact: Voldemort from Harry Potter (2005-2011), The Pianist from The Pianist (2002), Jesus Christ from 'The Last Temptation of Jesus Christ' (1988) and New Jersey from 'The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension' (1984).  And, of course, some young actors who aren't yet famous, but probably will be.

Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Fez of Etymology (and other stories)

Dear readers, my 2013 was not wholly devoted to the viewing of old films, nor was my writing restricted to the comments made on this blog.  With Tom Hagley, I worked on some fiction of my own - or perhaps that's poorly phrased.  Crucially, an assortment of short stories came together.  An anthology.  An E-BOOK!

What are its attributes?  It's short, it's exciting, and it's full of ghosts and talking animals and forgotten former prime-ministers.  International adventure, historical catastrophe, Old Testament fan-fiction, that sort of thing.  Most of all, it's dirt-cheap.  Much as I'd like to regurgitate the blurb, and sell the thing to you, this blog was never about adverts, it's about stories and history and where things come from.  Instead, let's ask: who were the Fez of Etymology?

...by Ben Swithen and Tom Hagley
Let's flash back a moment.  Eleven years ago, Tom and I went to university in a tiny pocket called Bretton Hall, situated in the middle of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park.  Between our houses (Litherop and Swithen, two of the squalid blocks that clustered around the mansion) we constructed a tiny comedy troupe, named in a moment after my dictionary of etymology, and a novelty fez.  I'd had fun before university making audio-dramas, and with Tom, was keen to do so again.  We made seven-and-a-bit instalments of audio adventure, a story about a Victorian submarine going to Atlantis.  We made it up as we went along, and had rather unrealistic hopes for it.

Thankfully each episode was better than the one before it.  Livelier, more energetic, more inventive.  On reflection the opening pair had very little to recommend them, and it's unsurprising that our audience was few.  Nonetheless, when the series were played on Radio KoL, Jick, the creator of fledgeling RPG The Kingdom of Loathing, enjoyed it enough to name an in-game item after the eponymous Fez.

with Dan Bloor, the neglected third member of the early Fez
We, or at least I, had high hopes of prosperity and stardom.  Bretton Hall had incubated The League of Gentlemen, and their trajectory from students to radio comedians to TV comedians and (less successfully) movie stars was an alluring one.  Fame did not fall on the Fez of Etymology.  We eschewed the campus's regular open mic evenings, and never took our series to the big city (if one can so-describe Wakefield).  In our early years we performed live only three times.  Once in a bedroom, once in a wardrobe, and once on a sculpture (which was naughty of us).

We wrote a play, which was never staged, though it exceeded the merits of our audio adventure by dint of having a plan and a plot.  It was to have been called 'The Fez of Etymology presents Jules Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth, based on Around the World in Eighty Days by Jules Verne', and rehearsals co-starred singer-songwriter Tom Hollingworth, adult actress Masie Dee, and a giant talking goose, named Goosey.

There followed a couple more seasons of audio-drama - 'The Mundane Egg', which was really quite good, but better in the memory; and 'Darius Cantor Must Die', a huge saga which no listener could bear, which saw us abandon silly comedy for silly drama and epic fantasy.  I'm inclined to think it had true greatness under its flabby folds, but my recent attempt to novelise it proved impossible.  Its merits are lost to time.

Tom's poster for Tamburlaine
At last, we did stage a play: 'Tamburlaine, the Lion of Persia' (Not a Real Lion)', a violent pantomime based entirely on the dramatis personae of Marlowe's Tamburlaine.  We'd never read nor seen his play, nor did we know its plot, but the list of character names fired our imagination.  Our play was either splendid or terrible, and nobody in the world could tell you which.  It was dense and fizzy and ran for two or three performances in Leeds.  I dearly hope some of the audience had come to see a sober classical tragedy; they didn't get one.

After that, Tom and I worked together on the start of many projects, but nothing held our attention.  We went our separate ways.  The best of our ideas had been an anthology of short stories, but who would publish such a thing: odd short stories by two unknowns?  This was before the world cared about ebooks.  When our tenth anniversary rolled around in 2013, I suggested we get together and make a short film.  Some lively ten-minute runaround on Youtube, possibly about Cromwell.  It became apparent that this could never happen.  We lived too far apart - or Tom did, at least.  But this was the age of the Kindle and the Kindle-analogue.  The stories could come alive again - indeed, in my mind the idea had never quite gone away.  We could self-publish - perhaps a vanity, perhaps a practical way to find one's own audience.

So here it is at last, the ultimate fruit of the Fez of Etymology.  'The Fez of Etymology and Other Stories'.  Our submarine tale is in there, or at least its skeleton, revivified and clad in curious meats.  Likewise Das Security Bathroom, which started life as a thirteen-minute Fez movie.  The other nine stories are new, for this is neither an exercise in recycling nor nostalgia.  Some of the characters hail from our audio and stage-work, most obviously Master Smith, a shard of Tom.  Characters we cared about, and ideas we didn't want to see trashed, can outlast those over-compressed mp3s.  Short stories are beautiful things: they're short, and they're stories.

Master Smith and Bandagongo, in 2008
Will the book prosper?  Not spectacularly, but small audiences are just as good as big audiences, and both are preferable to non-existent audiences, which is what the stories would have if the book had never been made available.  Hooray!

The book is now available from amazon.com, amazon.co.uk, amazon.caamazon.de, and all those regional amazons.  Readers, this ebook can be bought for yen!

Thursday, 30 January 2014

Gone With the Wind (1939)

1939 seems to be the year that films got colourful.  There had been excursions away from monochrome as early as 1903, but suddenly, in the last year of the thirties, we had 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz' and many lesser-remembered pictures, and it seemed that nothing would ever be the same again.  Alas, global war appears to have caused a relapse into black-and-white, and colour didn't really dominate until the big films of the fifties, and then practically all films from the mid-sixties onward.

1939 is also the year I missed, in my attempts to watch films from every year.  I rather liked the idea of leaving the project frustratingly incomplete, and made no real attempt to rectify the omission.  Eventually, a month after the Penciltonian officially ended, Saskia reminded me that there was a copy of 'Gone With the Wind' in the house; I'd sought it out after our American cousin Cassandra had seen the film and found herself surprised at how enjoyable it was.  It's easy to be daunted by classics, and the famously famous don't always deserve their reputation.

Rhett Butler (Clark Gable) and Scarlett O'Hara (Vivien Leigh)
The film, if you don't know, is a great American epic, and a romance of sorts.  It regards Scarlett O'Hara, an excellently self-absorbed Southerner, who has to survive the American Civil War (which is to say, the period of time shortly before the era most Westerns are set in.  Lincoln was on the throne, and his Northern states fought the Southern, partly because of slavery).  It's sometimes classed with 'Ben-Hur' (1959) as an 'Intimate Epic', perhaps because its scope is vast and vistas magnificent, but its focus intensely personal: it matters more what happens to our heroes than whether their country prospers or falls.

It is, as Cassandra noted, an extremely engaging film.  Scarlett is immediately likeable, a young woman too selfish to be dull.  She's wilfully ignorant of the dreary talk of a coming war, and she refuses to submit to social obligations, preferring to dance than mourn, and glad to marry people she doesn't love purely to spite those that she does.  Her story is exciting, surprising and colourful, and holds the attention very well for three hours (though after that, I begun to hope the resolution would come along).

Scarlett O'Hara, agitated and sultry.
It's a very handsome picture of America, at least in its visuals.  Other than the aspect ratio (widescreen being more than a decade away from popularity at this point) there's really nothing here to tell us that this was made in the 1930s.  Morally it's rather less appealing.  We're not really meant to agree with Scarlett's extreme measures, nor with those from the cruelly charming Rhett Butler who joins her in a complicated romance.  We are, however, expected to admire the American South, and its age of chivalry and slavery.  A slide at the film's start explicitly mentions slave-ownership as a positive part of the Sourthern States' history, and black characters in the film conform to and reinforce a number of stereotypes.  Hattie McDaniel deserves much credit for her performance as Mammie - a crude character played with an amazingly enjoyable gusto that quite rightly merited an Oscar.  Less commendable is Butterfly McQueen's Prissy, a submissive and incompetent character played with so much excitement as to bring to mind that more recent symbol of racism, Jar Jar Binks.

It's a troublesome movie, in some ways a successor to 'Birth of a Nation' (1915), that other huge tale of the American South.  It's not a good film to find yourself compared to.  'Gone With the Wind' is far more entertaining and enjoyable, which might make it the more dangerous of the two.

Hattie McDaniel as Mammie.
With 'Gone With the Wind' behind us, it seems the work of The Penciltonian, this century of cinema, can truly end.  The full list of films covered can be found here, and I think it makes a good place to start and to finish.

I suppose I ought to find some 2014 film to comment on, since the new year is now underway, but then what?  I'm giving some thought to repurposing the blog or (if the concept is different) starting a brand new one.  Not another obsessive catalogue or box-ticking exercise, but something new.  I'd be happy to hear any ideas you may have, even very terrible ones.