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Discovering Ferrania’s P30 film

Discovering Ferrania’s P30 film

I don’t deny that I have a deep appreciation of Italy and of the Italian language and culture. I learned a lot during my two years in Bologna more than a decade ago. Today, I enjoy every trip that I make back there. Each time I return there is a chance to speak Italian with Italians in Italy and to re-immerse oneself again in that complicated, beautiful, contradictory country. I don’t hesitate to repeat to everyone, in three different languages, the perhaps apocryphal quote from James Joyce: The only difference between Ireland and Italy is the weather and the food.

Ferrania in 1918 (from Ferrania’s excellent history page)

And so to Ferrania. At one time this company was the largest manufacturer of film in Europe, and thousands worked in their vast factory in the woods in Liguria. In Italy, the Ferrania name is associated indelibly with film. So, when I learned that two friends Nicola Baldini and Marco Pagni had launched a kickstarter to buy all the old Ferrania machinery and re-start production at a scale appropriate for the digitally-dominated early 21st century I was intrigued. Their first product would be… Ferraniacolour film. I was interested, but you know, colour is not really my thing. Then, at the beginning of 2017, came the surprising announcement: In fact, Ferrania would start by producing black and white film, and not any black and white film, but P30, the stock used by many famous Italian neorealist directors, among them Michelanglo Antonioni.

A still from M. Antonioni’s L’eclisse

Antonioni is a little different from the other directors of his era. Antoniennui say the detractors. Nothing much happens his films, but then should it? Life is not always about fighting wars, saving the planet, being heroic. A few years after I arrived in Paris I discovered all his films at the Champo cinema, and I even wrote about them on this blog. Although probably my favourite now is wonderful (colour) film “The passenger” with Jack Nicholson, the trilogy of L’Avventura, La Notte, L’Eclisse are for me one of the high points of cinema. Each scene of each film is so carefully, cooly framed. And, as I discovered reading the Ferrania web-site, shot in P30! You have to understand why this is important: one of the reasons Italy is so unique is because of that aesthetic sensibility so deeply ingrained in the culture and attitude. There is different approach towards beauty, something which is at the same time casual but profound. Different again I think from France or Japan, for instance. I follow with interest the announcement of new photographic films, and Ferrania P30 immediately announced itself as something different, a film with a uniquely storied history, from a country with a long and important cinematic tradition.

The handwritten formula for P30 (Ferrania)

I ordered five rolls just as soon as I could. Yes! Like the old Ferrania publicity, my photography would be transformed (or perhaps not)! And then last week, returning from a meeting, I found my film waiting for me, just in time for the weekend. Ever better, bright sunshine was forecast, and I had a friend visiting who wanted to walk around Paris with me and take photographs. Appropriately, I broke out my second Leica M6, together with the wonderful fifty-year-old Summicron-M 50mm lens that my friend Jean-Francois has loaned to me, and loaded it up with P30. My friend an I walked around the Marais on a hot Sunday afternoon where there were a lot of people and not many of which paid attention to me and my camera. Soon enough, I had shot my first roll of P30.

But first: these days, many people scan film. It is the easiest way to get the images into a computer, and good-enough scanners can be had for a few hundred euros. But scanning does not tell you the full story about the film, how it has been exposed, what it looks like. I’m fortunate: I have access to a darkroom. So a few days after developing my first roll of P30 in Rodinal at 1+50 for 8mins in the kitchen of our small Parisian apartment (sorry for the technical details, but it’s important to mention them) I made a trip to the observatory darkroom which I maintain. Despite having already scanned the roll a week previously, I am old-fashioned, so the first thing I did was to make a set of contact prints, following the rule that one should expose enough so that the sprocket holes are as dark as anything in the frames. I like looking at contacts, although I admit they are not very practical today.

Contact prints from my test roll of P30

Looking at the print with the light on I realized that something was wrong: the images looked underdeveloped (underdeveloped and not underexposed, because in most cases the shadow details are still visible). The developing time quoted by Ferrania in their “best practices” for Rodinal seemed too short. And in fact, when I got out of the darkroom I discovered that this was the case: the data sheet has been updated a day or two ago and the new times in Rodinal are almost double the old ones. But I could already see from these underdeveloped contact sheets and from the scans I had made earlier that P30 was something special.

Rather than showing scans of the negatives, I thought I would show here scans of the prints which were made, appropriately enough, with an Italian Durst enlarger. Remember, these emulsions were formulated to be printed and not scanned, of course! In the dark-room, trying to adjust the focus and looking through the grain enlarger I discovered that I almost couldn’t see the grain. Ferrania P30 must the be finest grain film I have ever used (although I admit I never tried film slower than 100 ISO before). Peering through the grain enlarger I could well understand why such a film was so attractive to cinematographers. I made all on the prints with a grade 2 filter: the contrast is nicely reduced. Eagle-eyed folk will note the notch on the left-hand side of the images: my friend’s camera has a hole cut in the shutter, so you can easily tell which photograph was taken with which camera. Apparently, many photographs did this once…

Beaubourg
A certain Parisian elegance (but don’t smile)
Listening
On the street, with a cat.

(I think it’s fun scanning the prints, but you’re even more at the mercy of bits of dust and imperfections; of course it is time consuming. I think the best thing to do with prints is to give them to people, or put them on the wall).

So, what do I think of the film? Like it says in the wonderful Ferrania video, it is a beautiful film. It is beautiful not just because it is fine-grained, it is beautiful because how light looks in the photographs. The scans do not do it justice. I have tried a lot of different films in the last two years, and Tri-X is probably my favourite; but after this one roll I am thinking that P30 might just might be my preferred slower film. Of course, an 80 ISO film is not ideal for shooting street photography in Paris in winter, but in bright sunlight I can just about make it work!

I have so much admiration for Film Ferrania and what they have managed to do in re-creating this film. I know how hard it can be sometimes in Italy to achieve something like this, and perhaps not everyone appreciates this. The Film Ferrania founders write modestly on their website how they were supported by the local government but to achieve something like they have achieved requires much determination and perseverance. I wish them much success, and as soon as the shop is open again, I will be buying more P30!

And I’ll be taking my other rolls of P30 with me on my up-coming one month trip to Japan and Thialand. To paraphrase Gary Winogrand, I will take photographs of these places to see what they look like when photographed… on P30.

Aki Kaurismaki’s “The other side of hope”

Aki Kaurismaki’s “The other side of hope”

I’ve long been a fan of the films of Aki Kaurismaki. I think, actually, I have seen every single film he has made (mostly at cinema festivals in Paris). So I was very happy to see that his new film, “The other side of hope” would be coming to the cinema screens in Paris this week. And this is less than six months since Jim Jarmusch’s “Paterson”, two directors who are always linked together in my mind.

I won’t say that “The other side of hope”, Kaurismaki’s new film, breaks stylistic grounds. It is merely the perfection of a cinematic style and atmosphere that Kaurismaki has spent his whole career refining. Every beam of pale, weak northern light falls through the windows at a slanting angle. Interiors are a muted pallet of blues and red, shot beautifully by Kaurimaki’s longtime cameraman, Timo Salminen. I admit I also felt relief, in the first few minutes of the film. Seeing the blue morning light on Helsinki docks together with that faint shimmer in the sky, I realised that Aki, unlike Jim, was is shooting on film. In fact, I find remarkable echoes between some photographs of Harry Gruyart and Kaurismaki’s films.

Welcome to Finland !

The plot is easy to summarise. Like his last film, “Le Havre”, Kaurismaki tells the story of an immigrant. In this case it is a Syrian, Khaled, who escapes Aleppo after almost his entire family are killed. He wants to start a new life. There are a few adventures, an arbitrary decision at the hands of the law, and after escaping “justice” he meets a traveling salesman turned restaurant owner, Wikstrom. Wilkstrom is also looking to start a new life. He is played by Sakari Kuosmanen, who’s been in Kaurismaki films since the 80s.

When people speak in Kaurismaki movies, there are no body movements. You would never expect someone to run into a room and shout “Freeze!”. You’ve perhaps heard the joke: how do you tell an extroverted Finnish person?” Answer – “He looks at your shoes”. There are long cold silences, and if one word will do, then one word is all it takes. In one scene, Khaled is is talking with a fellow refugee who advises him how to behave in Finland. “Don’t look too sad or they will send you back!” he says. But also, “Don’t smile too much, or they will think you are crazy!”

What would a Kaurismaki film be without a Volga station wagon?

Most people in the film behave with a simple common decency. We have become too accustomed to cinema where people display their emotions and the film is all the more resonant for it. Wilkstrom employs Khaled in his restaurant because it is the obvious thing to do, and no hands are wrung over the matter.

Kaurismaki has announced that this will be his last film, that he will not complete the “port city” trilogy that this film and “Le Havre” were part of. Ominously, Kati Outinen (who has been in many of Kaurismaki’s films) comes onscreen for a few minutes early on. She buys our traveling salesman’s stock of shirts at at a knockdown price, but refuses a job with him, announcing that instead she is moving to Mexico. I sincerely hope she can be persuaded to stay and Kaurismaki continues making films!

On Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

On Christopher Nolan's "Interstellar"

This weekend I saw Christopher Nolan’s new film, Interstellar. If you know something about movies, then perhaps the best way to understand this film is to say that it is based on a script that Nolan’s brother had originally written for Spielberg. There is plenty of easy and unambiguous sentiment, more so than in any other film he has made until now. Like this: if you leave someone you love, then should try to come back. You had better, you hear! Having seen all of Nolan’s previous films I feel disappointed. I thought he would make a great modern science fiction story which would show us really what it was like to travel great distances and stand on alien worlds that no human has visited before. It does … but not quite.

Toto, I don’t think it’s 1930 any more

Rewind. Here’s the story: Cooper, a drawling midwesterner and ex-fighter-pilot-turned farmer receives some mysterious “instructions” from a restless ghost, telling him to visit a certain location near his farm. There he finds … NASA engineers secretly working to prepare manned missions to a wormhole that’s conveniently opened up near the orbit of Saturn (got all that?). This is good news, because Saturn is of course the most photogenic of all the planets. Bad news, because that’s even further away than the monolith in 2001 which was in orbit around Jupiter, and it will take them two years to get there. Luckily, we at least have that other SF standby, cryosleep, so no sitting around playing cards in space. Whew!The planet Earth of Interstellar is a dried-up dusty place. People live on farms and drive pickup trucks. I almost expected to hear Woody Guthrie singing his Dust Bowl Blues: instead, we have Hans Zimmer and his sepulchral full-on organ tones (and not a church in sight). At the start of the film, we are astonished to see a cast member flip open a laptop. They have computers here? So yeah, it looks like the kind of place you would want to get out of. Weirdly, later on, even in the scenes in outer space, everything looks retro, there is not a touchscreen or hologram in sight. Lots of knobs and buttons and dials and low-def video (quite different from how recent films like Prometheus and District 9 imagine modern space travel).

What can we do with some faster computers?

Anyway, arriving at Saturn we see the wormhole, which nicely distorts the stars behind it. This wormhole leads not only to another solar system, but to another galaxy, and so yes the film should be really called Intergalactic. It’s at this point the film’s big advance from The Black Hole and 2001 become clear: tons more computing power means that we can do a much better job ray-tracing the passage of light around black holes. This, incidentally, is something one of my colleagues at IAP, Alain Riazuelo knows a lot about, having made a series of short films showing how background stars are lensed by massive objects. My friend Mr. Seagull tells me that that Kip Thorne had suggested that he help out, but it turned out that a lot of special effects people are actually recovering from PhDs in astrophysics. So hey!

On the other side of the looking glass

On the other side of the wormhole, our intrepid heroes find themselves with some choices to make: there are three potentially habitable worlds nearby and visiting all of them isn’t going to be easy, not the least because this system contains a nasty large black hole, hence the need for all that ray-tracing. It goes without saying that things don’t work out as expected. One of the most memorable scenes of the film is our explorer Cooper duking it out in a snowy wasteland with the planet’s sole inhabitant, a supposedly idealistic scientist, Dr. Mann, played cooly by Matt Damon. But human beings will be human beings after all! It turns out that Dr. Mann, like everyone else (despite affirmations to the contrary), just wants to go home too. But, this being Hollywood, it all works out fine in the end for the rest of the cast (sorry for the spoilers), thanks to some black-hole strength bending of the rules of physics and causality.

How to get to the next planet in time for tea?

Here’s the astronomer’s polemic: without any additional physics, exploring the Universe is a drag. Voyaging even to nearby stars involves decades-long travel. Nothing says interstellar travel is impossible — it just takes a very, very long time. So, to be truthful, a lot of screen time would be devoted to gliding silently between the stars. For things to happen in a reasonable duration (under three hours, yes) a shortcut needs to be found. Bending space-time with massive objects is probably the least incredible of large number of largely fantastical options. For me, the most realistic description of what the Universe might be really can be found in David Brin’s Existence. Here, the Universe is vast and violent, and all of the travelling is done by machines, in some cases carrying fragments of their creators’ consciousness. That, however, is a lot less fun than boldly going. I sympathise with the movie-director’s predicament: how can you make a good movie about interstellar travel without breaking a few laws of physics?

Going backwards to go forwards

Nolan’s first big hit, Memento was famous for out-of-order story-telling, so you might think that throwing causality out of the window might work out okay. In fact that’s not what’s wrong with the film. The problem is that it is just too much like a big-budget blockbuster movie. Hey, you might say, it is a big-budget blockbuster movie! That’s just it: Nolan was our best hope to make intelligent movies with a wide appeal where things might not work out in the end. He leans too heavily on the films he admires from cinema history, and the plot in some ways is too comforting to be credible. Yes, the alien landscapes are beautiful. However, after going through the worm-hole and travelling to the farthest reaches of the cosmos, we will not be elevated to a higher level of consciousness and become new human beings, and neither will we meet creatures from another dimension. In fact, we will just find…ourselves. The Universe might indeed be empty of life, a terrifying idea, but one could at least hope that we would be changed the journey. So yes, let’s explore. But we need to go further next time.

Irish Cinema: “Garage”

Irish Cinema: “Garage”

It’s not so often that I see an Irish movie in the cinemas here in Paris. Much longer than I remember. So it was with interest that I went to see “Garage”, a film by Lenny Abrahamson and starring the well-know Irish actor Pat Shortt, which opened here last week.

The plot is minimal: Shortt plays Josie, a simple-minded petrol station attendant deep in Ireland. It’s very much a film in that favourite genre of mine, the “Inaction movie”. His service station is a fossil, a museum of 1950’s Ireland. Shortt lives in a dingy room in back and spends his evenings either at the small pub in town (where a few of the clients are needlessly cruel to him) or staring out across the fields. The station’s owner, we are told, is content to let it decay because he knows that it will only be a matter of time before it will more interesting, financially, to bulldoze the site and build houses. This is, after all, the new Ireland. One morning the station’s owner arrives with his girlfriend’s son, who is to help Josie at the station.

Josie has been working at this garage for a very long time, and has dug a very deep hole of solitude for himself out in the fields where his garage is. He is desperate to make friends, to strike a bond with someone, but he just can’t communicate what he thinks, and no-one really takes the time to listen to him. He is relentlessly cheerful and friendly to everyone, regardless of what they tell him. Josie develops a bond of sorts with his new assistant, but all does not work out well.

I was reminded me of Patrick Kavanagh’s lonely farmer in that classic of Irish poetry,”The Great hunger”, condemned to spend the rest of his life staring at the field across the road. The countryside around Josie is beautiful and desolate in a very Irish way. You see, these fields and hills do not speak. There are no swathes of great open spaces inviting freedom and liberty here: this Irish landscape is very different from the one which Sean Penn’s wild-eyed seeker-after-truth experienced in “Into the wild” which is currently filling up the cinemas here in Paris. Instead, the flat level fields and shimmering lakes (all beautifully filmed) have a horizon which is foreshortened and proximate.

The film’s dominant register is a very subdued, tragicomic one, and the story proceeds relentlessly from one event to the next to the film’s inexorable conclusion. Everything is presented in an unaffected, ultra realist way. I thought a little of Aki Karismaki’s miserablist classic, “The matchstick girl” but the difference here is that Josie doesn’t fight back. I felt relieved to leave the cinema and find myself once again surrounded by the streets and buildings of Paris.