Latest from Adam Roberts

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War and Peace update…

08 Oct, 2012 Posted in: Guest blog, Opinion

Adam Roberts fills us in on the screening of War and Peace at ‘A Nos Amours’, a regular event showing rarely screened classics and cult cinema, which he runs with Archipelago director Joanna Hogg

So the day came and went.

The print held out despite joins and warping and brittle dryness. The Renoir was all but full  – over 200 people bought tickets! There were even some children there – their mother had seen the film as a child herself and wanted them to see the film that has so overwhelmed her then. I spotted them in the lobby at the end, hours later, looking very happy!

The introduction by Susan Larsen of Cambridge University School of Slavonic Studies was a cracker. Susan was emotional as she told how the entire Soviet Union, from the Minister of Culture and down, threw themselves into the making of the film, pinching props from the Hermitage, gathering horses from anywhere and everywhere and drilling soldiers into a reformed cavalry regiment, even training dogs that had never hunted to run in packs…

Soviet film stock of the time was not of the best quality, but the freedom to shoot liberally was preferable to stinting with very expensive imported stock. Susan related how the faults included film punched with sprockets on one side only, or identification text wrongly put into the centre of the film, which only showed up when the precious exposed film was processed.

The print stock is also why 70mm prints are now beyond use, and all the widescreen release prints of the time that A Nos Amours inspected were rotten and brittle and certainly useless. Only the 35mm print we screened is runnable and that because, we concluded, it was made in the 80s, a version made especially for TV transmission. And TV of the era was always 4×3 – hence this one being a pan and scanned version for TV, and of lowish contrast.

Those problems aside, what came across was a wonderful piece of flamboyant and hugely energetic film-making. The director was at play – the entire team, including cast and crew were at play. No CGI, just jaw-dropping spectacle, alternating with scenes of tenderness. And above all, a compassionate, reflective philosophical thread running through it all: the voice of Tolstoy, incarnated by Bondarchuk himself, ruminating and commenting, delivering a pantheistic call for love and common feeling. The camera lifted high into the air, loving the trees and endless steppe before soaring off into the clouds.

Everything about the film was on a huge scale. The applause at the end of seven and a half hours was deserved – we had all, after all, been there and been carried through it. Time flew.

Thanks are due to the many who tweeted and mentioned and liked this event. By this means we came together to watch this wonderful chunk of cinema.

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How to get a 7 1/2 hour Russian epic onto the big screen

06 Oct, 2012 Posted in: Guest blog, Opinion

Ever wanted to put on a film in a cinema? Adam Roberts walks us through ten steps to setting up A Nos Amours, a regular event showing rarely screened classics and cult cinema, which he runs with Archipelago director Joanna Hogg


War and Peace

War and Peace


The beginning

Joanna Hogg and I started A Nos Amours because we compared notes one day and found we had just watched exactly the same films on DVD at home. The films were French – by Maurice Pialat. The one we both loved best was called A Nos Amours. Why didn’t we do this together, we asked? Why not on a screen with friends? Why not in a cinema, where we should have been in the first place, with an audience? Why ever not? The answer is of course that there aren’t any rep cinemas like there used to be, where for a small charge you could go in and see triple bills or all-nighters of the best, or even the worst films. The cinemas produced booklets, fliers, and Time Out listed them all. It was easy to discover great films, to find the films that would make a big difference.


So where and how to start?

I won’t pretend that Joanna’s success with Unrelated and Archipelago didn’t make a difference. And I work in the world of film and television too. Between us we know a lot of people: distributors, programmers, critics, journalists, editors. We had a lucky break when the Nomad Cinema – the wandering pop-up bit of the Lexi – had a couple of slots in a pop-up they had put into a shopping centre, in an old Waterstone’s bookshop. They made it look nice: bean bags and sofas and a big enough screen. Digital projection. Joanna and I didn’t hesitate: Pialat’s A Nos Amours would be our first screening and Peter Watkin’s beautiful, radical, powerful account of the expressionist painter Edvard Munch would be the second.

Not many people bought tickets, but enough did to cover the costs. We got a good price for the right to do the screenings from distributors who had not had many bookings (if any!) of these rather lovely but under exposed masterpieces. It was winter and it was cold. For Edvard Munch, Peter Watkin’s own brother showed up. He was enthusiastic, despite the fact that we were screening a DVD – via a posh machine with up-sampling that made the image look amazingly good.


The manifesto develops

We went on to program other films for Lexi in their cinema in Kensal Rise. Lovely people and a great social enterprise. The surprise screening was of the most obscure film imaginable: The Chronicle of Anna Magdalena Bach by the French husband and wife team of Straub and Huillet. This is a film with almost no dialogue, just diary entries, and long accurate recreations of musical performance from J. S. Bach’s time. A really very important and much more emotional film than it sounds. A number of people after the event were so happy they’d come even though they had never even heard of the filmmakers. What people said was that they want to see films that are off the map, shown in a decent cinema with a not impossible entry price, and to trust the programming. And this became the A Nos Amours creed: “A Nos Amours is dedicated to programming over-looked, under-exposed or especially potent cinema. A Nos Amours is a moveable feast that goes wherever and whenever opportunities arise. A Nos Amours invites film-makers and others to advocate and present films that they admire or would like to see on a big screen. A Nos Amours believes in the value of watching film as a shared experience”.


Getting the word out

Social media – Twitter and Facebook – are the way to do this. We have a respectable number of followers now, and everyone has opted in. Screenings at the Renoir followed – starting with two sell out screenings of Tarkovsky’s philosophical science fiction fable Stalker. Renoir were well impressed with that and offered us some more slots. We had no trouble programming a play of Tarkovsky’s auto-biographical masterpiece (or so we think) Mirror. The cinema was almost full. Renoir were still impressed.


What next?

I’m not sure where the thought came from, but one rule Joanna and I have is that even if we haven’t seen a particular film, or if they are not strictly canonical films that enjoy automatic support, we will still give any film consideration if it has something extraordinary about it. We were talking in the street, outside Joanna’s house about the sheer range of what has been put on screen, from the smallest low-budget two-hander, to Bondarchuk’s War And Peace. If the Soviet Union had budgeted its film-making, it would be perhaps the most expensive movie ever made. It is famous for battle scenes with tens of thousands of extras recruited from the Red Army. It is famous for the lavish aristocratic gowns in ball room scenes brilliant with gold and gem stones. A Nos Amours could and should show such a film.


The rights

The first thing you need when you want to put on a film is find out who controls the theatrical rights to it. This can be tricky since there is no central data base to look up who that might be. Some rights owners are cagey – they won’t give you a list of what rights they own. Others are very open and send you a catalogue immediately. We very quickly realised that Mosfilm owned the theatrical rights to War & Peace, that no-one had licensed them for the UK. Mosfilm is the organisation that ultimately owns almost all of Russia’s film heritage. The first enquiry seemed to be positive: yes, we could screen the film.
The screen
Next we had to persuade Renoir that we could sell enough tickets to make this worthwhile. The film is after all 7½ hours long! They are a business, with no state funding. They are naturally sceptical. Luckily we were riding high. Yes, we could put on the film, and an all-day event in October was agreed. Sunday 7th October at the Renoir in the Brunswick Centre.


The print

Next we needed a 35mm film print to show (we are determined to keep running film as long as we can). Research showed that there were choices to be made. The film was shot in French and Russian, but was released internationally in an English dubbed version. This was not good. Here in the UK we don’t much like dubbed films. Then there is the question of ratio. The film was shot on 70mm negative, with a screen ratio of 2.20:1. It turned out if we could screen 70mm we could only have a dubbed copy. There is no 70mm projection at the Renoir (or almost anywhere else now!). We could have Russian dialogue only on 35mm in a 4×3 down-print (where only the central portion of the image is used). Anamorphic prints had been made. We inspected them. All were disintegrating – the film cans giving off a stench of vinegar. The print stock of the era was not good (Sovcolour, I think it was). The good print we have, on its way from Australia at this very moment is supposed to be in good condition. We shall see on Sunday…


Last minute disaster

Meanwhile, we are not out of the woods yet. We e-ailed Mosfilm to confirm the date for our screening. They wrote back that there had been change – the films screening would not be licensed. Horror! We had already mailed our membership, we had tweeted, Curzon Group (who own the Renoir) had already sold tickets and mailed out to their enormous list too. Our reputation with Renoir and with our audience would be smashed. Luckily, we have friends. Letters were sent and the head of Mosfilm offered us the permission we craved. Joy! All we need now is a sell-out. Renoir will be amazed. We will be amazed. This is after all a big commitment – all day in the dark watching a film that isn’t on the recent BFI top 10 list. It has no stars in it. It is 40 or so years old. It isn’t studied on film courses. It is however an epic on a scale that can only be comprehended it you see it big, on a screen. The energy and commitment of the film-making culture that produced it is gone, and we can only marvel now at the CGI free scale of it all. And it is 200 years to the month since the Battle of Borodino that takes up most of the second half of the film.


Critical introductions

A Nos Amours often has guests introduce the films. Richard Ayoade was superb for a pair of rare Ingmar Bergman documentaries. Geoff Dyer was marvellous for Stalker (he had just written a book about the film). War and Peace might benefit from a bit of background to help give the frame for the story. What we are hoping is that we’ll have a Cambridge don who is a specialist on Tolstoy and Bondarchuk to set things up in the morning, and then after a short lunch break we are banking on a well-know war correspondent. After all, the film’s main protagonist Pierre spends time wandering around on the battle field. He is a kind of early war correspondent.

What A Nos Amours is saying is: seeing films on a big screen together is how it should be. Home cinema is simply no substitute.


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