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For the first time in a good couple of months, this coming weekend is completely blank for me. Nothing booked up whatsoever. And while having fun things to do most weekends is great and I wouldn't want to change that, every now and again a weekend which I can just spend pottering at home is very welcome. Apart from anything else, it gives me a chance to get caught up on some unwritten LJ posts - and that still includes the final day of the Bradford Fantastic Films Weekend. Previous posts cover the Friday and Saturday, both of which were very enjoyable. But in fact the Sunday was the real highlight for me - mainly thanks to my first ever experience of proper full-blown Cinerama!

22. The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm (1962), dir. Henry Levin and George Pal

See, every year at the Fantastic Films Weekend, there is one event which really stays with me. Last year, it was Jonathan Miller, the year before it was The Sorcerers, and this year it was The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm. I can't be sure how much I'd have liked this film if it had been shot in traditional fashion. It certainly takes sugary and sentimental to their logical extreme, in a way that only American technicolor films of the early '60s really know how. But then again, it's a charming period piece with some great character actors, fundamentally concerned with the magic of story-telling and making good use of music, settings and special effects to achieve that. So, yeah, I guess I'd have kinda liked it even if it weren't for the Cinerama - but it was the experience of that obsolete technology which really made me fall in love with it.

So what's Cinerama? Well, basically it's a cinematic technique which was first pioneered in 1952, and used three cameras pointing in slightly different directions to capture three reels of simultaneous film footage. These could then be projected side by side onto a single curved cinema screen, creating an immersive viewing experience with a slight 3D effect and a feeling of things going on in peripheral vision around the main action. It also used no less than seven speakers distributed around the auditorium to create a stereophonic sound experience, which would have been just as novel to audiences of the day as the deep curved screen. But only seven feature films (of which The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm is one) were ever made using the full three-camera Cinerama technique, which was abandoned in the early '60s. It now requires a lot of very specialist expertise and technology to screen them, and the National Media Museum is one of only three cinemas in the world which can do it. Indeed, we were told before The Wonderful World... began that this was the first time it had been shown in its original format anywhere in the world for forty years (confirmed here). Pretty special stuff, then.

As you'd expect for a novel technology, the film was very obviously shot in order to show off Cinerama's 3D capabilities to best effect. We started out with a shot of a cannon pointing directly towards us and firing outwards into the audience, and went on from there to views of a perilous mountain road shot from a carriage rattling along it at high speed, the prow of a boat forging through a river, and perspective effects for the interiors of every room we encountered. One obvious problem with an image made up of three strips of film is the noticeable joins where they meet one another, but these were actually quite cleverly handled, with that part of the composition taken up wherever possible by strong, static verticals such as columns, trees or the corners of room as a way of helping to minimise their impact. The main actors were also positioned so that they remained largely on one single film-reel, crossing between them only occasionally, to minimise the effects of 'breaks' across their bodies or faces as they did so. This led to a lot of compositions with one actor centrally positioned on each reel of film, and carefully-guarded gaps between them.

This might all sound a bit mannered, but in a film about the efforts of the Brothers Grimm to collect and publish fairy-tales, the self-conscious use of other-worldly technology was actually very fitting. The story followed a portmanteau format, with one main plot dealing with the real-life trials and tribulations of the brothers themselves while a series of cut-aways offered shorter dramatisations of the fairy-tales they were gathering (The Dancing Princess, The Elves and the Shoemaker, The Singing Bone) as they began to tell each one. These fantastical stories were meant to feel a little unreal, so that even rather heavy-handed special filmic techniques just added to their charm. More than that, the story showed us the brothers gathering what had been oral folk-tales into the new format of printed text for the first time - so being constantly aware that we too were seeing those same stories, and indeed the whole film, via an innovative technology, seemed fitting. Indeed, seeing it all fifty years later in an obsolete format which we could only experience thanks to the efforts of a few geeky specialists added an extra poignancy to a story about rescuing stories from oblivion.

The biopic itself has a distinctly fairytale quality, too. Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm live in a gingerbread town, work for a caricature of a grumpy aristocrat who lives in a big castle, and (as in all good biopics) eventually overcome the barriers put in their way to triumph and receive recognition for their work. Wilhelm follows rosy-cheeked children down a forest path to a wooden shack where they listen to scary stories, while Jacob has a romance plot - although the happy ending to this has to remain nothing more than a hint, as in reality he never married. And at the end of the film the fairytale feel of their narrative is explicitly acknowledged when a crowd of children who have read their books surround them at the train station in Berlin to demand a story, and Wilhelm begins, "Once upon a time, there were two brothers..."

Given all this, I expected to find when I checked out their Wikipedia page afterwards that the whole story had been wildly inaccurate, but actually, allowing for the fantastical genre and schmaltzy tone of the film, it wasn't too bad really. Wilhelm is depicted as a childlike dreamer - warm, enthusiastic and a little feckless - while Jacob is dry, serious and work-oriented, and these are surely caricatures. But as a way of conveying to the audience the historical Wilhelm's apparently greater interest in the work of documenting folk stories, and Jacob's in languages and dialects instead, it seemed an excusable filmic shorthand. Some historical events are displaced - e.g. Wilhelm's marriage is brought forward in time so that he can have a cosy family and adorable children to tell bed-time stories too. And it seemed a rather bizarre decision to have all the adults speaking in German accents, but their own children in American ones. But ultimately it worked dramatically, and inspired me to find out more about its subjects, which is all you can ask for from a biopic really.

Going to see films which weren't actually horrific seems seems to have been the theme of my 2012 Fantastic Films Weekend. I discovered afterwards that the only film I had seen all weekend that could be ticked off in my personal Bible of Horror was I Drink Your Blood. That's perfectly in keeping with the remit of the festival of course - 'fantastic' doesn't mean 'horrific'. But it is customary for the festival to centre on the horrific nonetheless, even if it is orbited by a generous penumbra of the macabre, the speculative and the mysterious - and this one was further from that centre than most. Still, though, I found that the fantastical character of the film itself, coupled with the context and atmosphere of the festival where I was viewing it, subtly changed into a slightly different film than I suspect it would have been if viewed in isolation. In the context of the festival, it was almost impossible not to imagine castles full of vampires in the mountains above the brothers' gingerbread village, while the casting of Martita Hunt, who becomes a vampire in Hammer's The Brides of Dracula, as a very similar witchy old lady only added to that impression. Still, in my book any good film is improved by the addition of vampires, so my hazy sense of the film's real genre only made me enjoy it all the more.

23. The Shadow of the Cat (1961), dir. John Gilling

Finally, rounding off my weekend of not-actually-horror-films was The Shadow of the Cat. This is a Hammer film, although it doesn't feature the studio's name anywhere in the credits, and so tends to get overlooked as part of their output. Like Saturday afternoon's film, The Man in Black, it's another murder mystery, this time revolving around a family pet cat. An elderly lady is murdered for her inheritance, but although her family initially think they may have got away with it, they soon become obsessed with the idea that her very ordinary-looking tabby cat witnessed the murder, 'knows' what they have done and is trying to avenge its mistress' death. As with all the best suspense stories, it's never quite clear whether the cat is really doing any such thing - its behaviour is capable of being read either way. But the notion sets off a great chain of human reactions, as the various relatives and servants who were in on the plot respond to the spectre of their own paranoia in various ways, go through a series of farcical attempts to trap and kill the cat, and eventually end up either dead or arrested for their troubles.

The film feels quite close to the horror genre, thanks to its Gothic house setting and a few nods towards Edgar Allan Poe (The Black Cat, obviously, but the elderly lady is also reading the poem The Raven before she is murdered), while obviously if you choose to believe that the cat is out to wreak revenge for its mistress' murder, then that pushes the story into the realms of the supernatural. But the cat-trapping attempts give it quite a comic air as well, while the real interest of the story lies in the character interactions between the various members of the household as they crack under the strain of feline-induced paranoia. There are some great villains around the place - some nefarious, some cool-headed, some buffoonish - but the heroine of the piece is Barbara Shelley as the elderly lady's niece, Beth. Though she has a nice young male journalist to act as her love-interest and help advance some aspects of the plot, she comes across as considerably more strong-willed and resourceful than he does, and manages to do more than any other human character to get to the bottom of her aunt's mysterious disappearance and changed will.

In the end, though, the best thing about this film was marvelling at how much time and effort must have gone into setting up all the necessary shots of the cat running up to certain characters for a stroke, jumping out at others, going up or down the stairs at the right moment, padding purposefully towards the place where the old lady's body had been buried etc. On a very small number of occasions a model cat with glowing eyes was used to peer sinisterly through people's bedroom windows, but for most of the film the cat was clearly played by a perfectly ordinary real animal. In a plot which revolved so much around the particular behaviour of the cat, I imagine there must have been a great deal of just sitting around filming it until it did the right thing, as well as large teams of people just out of shot tempting it in particular directions with tasty tit-bits. And to be fair the results were pretty impressive, creating a genuine impression of a cat which had a real agenda behind its actions. But I'm betting a lot of people finished this film with a firm resolution never, ever to work with animals ever again!

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Comments

( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
ms_siobhan
Aug. 10th, 2012 10:50 pm (UTC)
I think my highlights of the festival were Peter Cushing being v dashing indeed in Captain Clegg, v closely followed by I Drink Your Blood, v closely followed indeed by The Brothers Grimm - it was magical to see something so visually and aurally stunning - even if it was schmaltzy as hell. I really enjoyed the stories within the story - especially the jewel laden dragon and Terry Thomas being such a cad.

I still don't understand why people were laughing during Shadow of the Cat though...
strange_complex
Aug. 11th, 2012 11:54 am (UTC)
I don't remember people laughing that much during Shadow of the Cat, except when it was intentionally comic (like when they were trying to trap the cat), but then it was a fair while ago now! I think it's a film that depends very heavily on whether you see it as being about the murderers' paranoia or an actual demonic cat. If you take it as the latter, it does start to seem a bit silly.
minnesattva
Aug. 12th, 2012 06:03 am (UTC)
The nice thing about taking a while to get around to writing about this is that it reminds me of just how much I liked the movie :)
strange_complex
Aug. 12th, 2012 10:47 am (UTC)
Hehe, yes. That's quite a lot of the reason why I write these reviews, I think - a chance to relive the films as I do so. :-)
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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