1935 film GUESTS OF THE NATION has US Premiere at Alice Tully Hall, Sept. 22

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How It’s New York:  It is screening at Alice Tully Hall at Lincoln Center, and it’s buzzy.  So buzzy almost everyone I’ve spoken to in the Irish New York scene will be here.  And “buzzy,” that’s so New York.  And there are two short contemporary silent films before the main event, so it’s a must-see for film-lovers.  AND it’s based on a short story by Frank O’Connor, who was a frequent contributor to The New Yorker.

How It’s Irish:  Guests of the Nation is a silent film made by Irish playwright/director Denis Johnston, though made in 1935 when talkies were well-established.  Budgetary restraints kept it a silent film.   This one is set during the Irish War of Independence.  It portrays two I.R.A. men who end up befriending their British hostages– that they will have to execute.  War Is Hell.

“But like a lot of things in Ireland we owe a debt to England.”

Gabriel Byrne, Ireland’s Cultural Ambassador, who also curated the “the Quiet Man Revisited” exhibit at MoMA a few months back, will introduce the film.  Two short films  by Andrew Legge will appear first.

The film comes with a new score from Niall Byrne, performed by David Brophy and the RTÉ Concert Orchestra. It’s considered one of the greats of the silent film canon in Ireland– and it was made by amateurs, when the weather allowed, Sunniva O’Flynn, Curator of the Exhibit explained.   Theatre director Denis Johnston made the film, and the IFI Irish Film Archive has restored it.  

There wasn’t an original score, Niall told me; they used to show it with Gustav Holst’s “The Planets.”  Director Denis Johnston’s son Michael owned the rights to the film, so Niall had to clear his music with him.  He tried to give the film an old-fashioned feeling, that fit the 1935 film which is set in 1921.  “The score comes from the Republican point of view,” he said.  “There’s a lyrical Irish theme that looks at the story from an Irish point of view.  I’m hoping the sudience will see things through the I.R.A. soldiers’ eyes.”  The theme reprises “like the James Bond theme,” he says.  “At heightened moments you’ll hear the theme.  it’s kind of ironic that it’s played on an English horn.  But like a lot of things in Ireland we owe a debt to England.”  It was the high emotion of the film that appealed to him, and how the film tells how dehumanizing war can be.  He wasn’t a huge fan of silent films, but he was drawn to the depths in this one, and the freedom a silent film could give him.

You can catch more of Niall Byrne’s work in Parked, directed by his brother, starring Colm Meany.  You can see it this weekend as part of the Irish Film New York Festival (details in the scrolling calendar at right!). 

The Irish Film Archives received copies of the film from Denis Johnston’s son in the early 90s, including the original 16-mm film that had been shot on a handheld in 1935.  Originally the concern was preservation.   A few academics showed interest, but it was the screening last week at the National Conference Hall last week that has really gotten everyone’s attention.  “I think they came together to make this film to explore this relatively new medium and see how they could make a coherent narrative from a short story,” Sunniva says about the theatre actors and directors who made the film over two years, on weekends and the rare sunny day.  There was no sound crew.  The inspiration for the film was from Russian filmmakers like Eisenstein, and from Robert Flaherty‘s documentry (with sound) Man of Aran in 1934.  The film was made so be shown in town halls, not large scrrens like the one at Lincoln Center, so some digital work had to happen.  But they didn’t clean up things like handheld mirrors for reflections, as those are part of the history in the movie.

The theatre actors include Cyril Cusack and Barry Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald, Sunniva points out, usually played Stage Irishman (like the one he plays in The Quiet Man).  So casting him as an Englishman was a way of making sure the audience would root for him. 

Two short films from Andrew Legge start the evening:  The Unususal Inventions of Henry Cavendish, accompanid by Isabelle O’Connell, solo pianist, about a victorian inventor, about a man trying to win a womn’s love by inventing a mechanical flower picker.  he incorporates films made by the Lumiere brothers in Dublin in 1897 and with film he shoorts with a 16-mm Russian camera.  “If you didn’t know better you’d think it actually was made in 1902,” Sunniva told me.  The second is called The Lactating Automaton about a widower who thinks that would be a good idea,  starring The Wire’s Dominic West.  It not only has an orchestral score from Liam Bates but live Foley artists doing all of the sound effects.

I’m intrigued by this feature and its gently subversive messages (though I suspect that in the height of jingoism everybody also knows that deep down, people are people) made so long ago.  And the shorts sound like a strange homage that couldn’t be more contemporary.  See you there! 

Admission: $30 orchestra / $20 balcony
By Phone: CenterCharge 212.721.6500 (TTY 212.957.1709), or online.

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