At the EYE

Jay Weissberg

Pola Negri in The Spanish Dancer.

From Amsterdam Centraal it looks as if a flying saucer crash-landed on the other side of the IJ. But as the ferry leaves the railway station and crosses the water towards the EYE Film Museum, designed by Delugan Meissl Associated Architects, the building seems to shift form, and there’s a pleasing, if baldly angular, aerodynamism to it that doesn’t lessen the retro-modernist aesthetic but makes the shape more interesting. However, like so many recent museum designs this one seems intent on rivalling, if not overshadowing, the works inside.

Compared to the former location’s severely limited public areas and two cinemas, the EYE boasts 1200 square metres of exhibition space and four extremely handsome cinemas of various sizes, along with a soaring atrium. The opening exhibition, Found Footage: Cinema Exposed, is calculated to erase the border between contemporary art institutions and traditional movie museums. Composed of video installations and 16 mm projections by the likes of Bruce Conner, Douglas Gordon, Anri Sala and David Claerbout, some incorporating fragments from the EYE’s extraordinary archival holdings, the exhibition highlights the obvious but often ignored celluloid origins of these artists’ work. The architects were apparently unhappy that the curators enclosed part of their open plan and darkened the large, solitary window – so unhappy that they boycotted the opening ceremony at the beginning of April – though it’s unclear how Delugan Meissl imagined a light-filled space could work in a gallery devoted to the celebration of moving images projected in a dark room.

There was meant to be another building, for offices and possibly the library, but the economic crisis squashed such expansive plans. For now, some offices have moved to the new site, while others, along with the library, remain where they were; film reels are kept somewhere else again, and posters and stills are in Haarlem.

This seems to be a trend in film institutes of late: years ago New York’s Museum of Modern Art shipped their film stills collection to central Pennsylvania, and there was concern that the BFI would similarly orphan their library, though recent announcements suggest the bulk will be integrated into the Southbank. Even the Cinémathèque française has been forced to shoe-horn its library into a wildly inadequate space, with far too much material housed off-site.

The library isn’t the only element missing from the Film Museum. By privileging new media, visitors are hard pressed to learn anything about the history of cinema. At the moment, the EYE has only an ‘interactive’ room in the basement where you can choose film clips according to themes, or watch digitised movies in a few bright yellow pods. There are no posters, no stills, no movie cameras; none of the ephemera that appeal to old-fashioned (and unfashionable) cinephiles and give a sense of the way cinema has changed over the years.

The opening celebrations culminated on 6 April with the screening of a new restoration of Herbert Brenon’s 1923 smash hit, The Spanish Dancer. Known in a severely truncated version of 70 minutes, the abridged film hardly justified the accolades of contemporary critics. Yet their descriptions, and tantalising photographs, spoke of something much more engaging. The Film Museum’s peerless curator for silent film, Elif Rongen-Kaynakçi, identified the four best surviving prints (in the EYE as well as Belgian, French and British archives) and oversaw a restoration that brought back all but 167 metres for a near-complete running time of 105 minutes. The results are enchanting. Most modern movies set in the past either ridicule the history or treat it with an equally ridiculous seriousness; it’s refreshing to watch a film that’s full of humour without mockery.

The Spanish Dancer is based on Don César de Bazan, an 1844 play by Adolphe d’Ennery and Philippe Dumanoir, which in turn drew on a character in Victor Hugo’s Ruy Blas. When Famous Players-Lasky/Paramount decided in 1922 to make a film version, they announced Rudolph Valentino would be the star, but Valentino broke his contract and the studio executives reworked the material as a vehicle for Pola Negri, recently arrived from Europe. Her first two US productions hadn’t appealed to the fans of her German films directed by Ernst Lubitsch; with The Spanish Dancer, the studio found a perfect match.

Negri, a dancer by training, plays Maritana, a gypsy performer in the reign of Philip IV who steals the heart of the disgraced nobleman Don César (Antonio Moreno, never more charismatic). Wallace Beery is the roué king, Kathlyn Williams the queen (it’s hard to imagine anyone else carrying off her extravagant wig with such aplomb), and Adolphe Menjou the duplicitous courtier Don Salluste. The studio lavished all its attention on its most expensive feature to date, building a Spanish city on the Hollywood backlot and spending a fortune on sumptuous costumes (Negri’s autobiography has a photo of her critically inspecting a rather poor wax replica in ermine-trim). Yet the film is more than mere pageantry, and Brenon, best known for his enchanting Peter Pan (1924), creates real characters within the 16th century stylisations. The production brims with wit and charm – enough even to overcome the disappointingly plodding live score.