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Silent films at Scalarama 2014: Sidewalk Stories, Caligari and more screen nationwide

August 26, 2014
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, a film event producer who organises the Nobody Ordered Wolves screenings. You can follow Duncan on Twitter at @nowolvesplease

It would be easy enough to despair at our current cinema choices. Although film houses are more comfortable and technologically sophisticated than ever, what is actually on the screen is terrifyingly narrow. Even though almost every cinema in the land is now equipped for digital prints, opening up programmers to a cheap and vast library of films, this hasn’t broken the stranglehold of loud, ephemeral and repetitive Hollywood fare. 
 
Standing as an antidote to this conservatism, Scalarama brings the weird, the underseen, the expanded and emboldened to the cinema and beyond. In its fourth year and now bolstered by BFI funding, Scalarama takes place across September and operates in a similar fashion to the Edinburgh festival fringe: the organisers take no cut of the profits, they only encourage a broadening of what is on offer. Originally created as a tribute to the freewheeling programming of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, it attempts to bolster film clubs, give cinemas the confidence to take on riskier programming and move cinema outside of its traditional homes.
Two films that are at the heart of Scalarama’s offering this year are of special interest to silent film lovers. The first will be familiar to all: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. The second is almost a ghost to all but a few dedicated film fans: Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories.
 
Shot in 1989, Sidewalk Stories is a modern silent feature film. And it has an impressive progeny: Michael Hazanavicius, the director of the Oscar-winning behemoth The Artist, credits this neglected classic as the direct inspiration for his indie smash. Yet if this might lead you to expect a nostalgic recreation of cinema pre-1928, guess again. Lane’s setting and attitude is more Spike Lee than FW Murnau. Made the same year as Do the Right Thing, Sidewalk Stories is cut from the same cloth as other grimy pre-Giuliani New York city films like Taxi DriverSerpico and The French Connection.
Sidewalk Stories (1989)

Sidewalk Stories (1989)

That said, the plot itself is pure Chaplin: the star (played by Lane himself) finds himself in loco parentis of a young girl when her father is killed. As with Chaplin’s The Kid, our hero’s hapless parenting is the centre of the story here. The dynamic between the two is heartwarming, no doubt because of their connection as real-life father and daughter. Having confessed to loathing silent cinema as an art student, Lane embraces the medium to tell a universal story about homelessness and desperation. It is a story of deep compassion and this is why it is being released in the UK in partnership with Open Cinema, a charity that provides opportunities to access culture and film skills for marginalised people. Londoners have two opportunities to catch the film: Nobody Ordered Wolves (AKA yours truly) will be showing the film at popup cinema Hollywood Spring with a live score by pianist Stephen Horne. Tickets here. Later in the month, Hotel Elephant will also be showing the film. To see where else in the UK this neglected gem is getting an outing, click here.

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Frau Im Mond: DVD and Blu-ray review

August 24, 2014

 

Frau Im Mond (1929)

Frau Im Mond (1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.

Frau Im Mond is one of the first silent movies I saw as an adult. And despite its audacious special effects I can honestly say Fritz Lang’s rocket opera was not my gateway drug to silent film. Instead I saw it to justify the décor of my recently redecorated flat. I wanted to hang an attractive film poster above my stairs; for quite some time it was going to be Metropolis, until I saw the poster for Frau Im Mond, and its iconic rocket. As a science-fiction fan, and a film buff, how could I resist this picture? However, it seemed like cheating to have a poster of a film I hadn’t seen hanging above my stairs. So that is why I saw Frau Im Mond six years ago, having bought the previous Masters Of Cinema DVD release.

Now it is back, re-released in dual format Blu-ray and DVD, and seven minutes of additional footage have been added to the film, which brings the running time up to a handsome two hours and 49 minutes. As with the recently reconstituted Metropolis, Lang takes his time but doesn’t waste a minute. It is just that for much of the film each minute could have been thirty seconds shorter, and the plotting gets in the way of what the film promises. While Frau Im Mond is a notable film in both Lang’s filmography and in the history of science-fiction cinema, it is also way too long and ponderous – considering its wonderful potential.

Written by Fritz Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou, and based on her novel of the same name, Frau Im Mond is one part conspiracy thriller and one part science-fiction tale. And that almost equally splits the running time, with the first hour and 20 minutes being a convoluted runaround between a professor, venture capitalists, enemy agents, a fiancée and a sparky kid. The rocket from the poster – and the justification for this being the first “scientific” science-fiction film – finally appears at one hour 18 minutes and the film does pick up considerably at that point, if only to give us some effects and even better Aran jumpers.

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The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema – documentary coming soon

August 23, 2014

thanhouser poster

The story of the Thanhouser Film Studio follows a rise-and-fall pattern familiar to all aficionados of early cinema: innovation, success, expansion, loss, obscurity. But there is a gratifying twist in the Thanhouser tale that marks it out among its fellows.

Edwin and Gertrude founded the studio in 1909 in New Rochelle, New York as an independent outfit. They were successful for many years and made more than 1,000 films, shown all over the world, including some truly fantastic early literary adaptations. The biggest star on their books was probably the wonderful Florence LaBadie, heroine of the serial Million Dollar Mystery. You may also be familiar with the precociously winsome Marie Eline, AKA “The Thanhouser Kid”. Sadly, after many profitable years, in 1917, the downturn in the movie industry forced Edwin Thanhouser to close the company for good.

The Thanhouser Studio in 1914

The Thanhouser Studio in 1914

The story would end there, with Thanhouser another footnote in film history, were it not for the tireless efforts of Edwin and Gertrude’s grandson. Ned Thanhouser has spent the past three decades hunting down the movies that his grandparents made, as well as preserving and exhibiting them all over the world. Two-hundred-odd films later, Thanhouser is a name to conjure with, and the world is lot wiser about early American film-making. Just last year, a screening of Thanhouser films played to an appreciative crowd in London at the BFI Southbank.

But Ned has been working on another film project: a documentary about the family business.

This 50-minute documentary reconstructs the relatively unknown story of the studio and its founders, technicians, and stars as they entered the nascent motion picture industry to compete with Thomas Edison and the companies aligned with his Motion Pictures Patents Corporation (MPPC). Ned Thanhouser, grandson of studio founders Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, narrates this compelling tale, recounting a saga of bold entrepreneurship, financial successes, cinematic innovations, tragic events, launching of Hollywood careers, and the transition of the movie industry from the East Coast to the West and Hollywood. It will be of interest to scholars, archivists, early film historians, and everyone who loves the intriguing stories about the people who pioneered independent movie-making in America.

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema had a little help over the finishing line from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and it will be released next year. Excitingly for those of us Pordenone-bound in October, the film will have its premiere at this year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto. I’ll be there, will you?

Read more about studio, and the documentary on the Thanhouser site.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone Promises

 

London Film Festival Archive Gala: instant expert

August 21, 2014

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

Name: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).

Age: 87 years old. The clue’s in the number in brackets.

Appearance: Shiny and new.

Sorry, that doesn’t make sense – I thought you said it was 87 years old. The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands may be knocking on a bit, but it has been lovingly restored by the BFI and from what we gather, it’s looking pretty damn sharp. Just take a look at these stills.

Great, where can I see this beautiful old thing? At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 October 2014 – it’s being shown at the London Film Festival as the Archive Gala. It will then be released in cinemas nationwide, and simultaneously on the BFIPlayer …

Blimey. And then it will be coming out on a BFI DVD.

Wonderful news, I’ll tell all my friends. Really?

No. I’ve never heard of it. Fair enough. You could have said that in the first place.

I was shy. Don’t worry, the BFI calls it a “virtually unknown film” on its website.

Phew. But you should have heard of the director, Walter Summers.

Rings a bell … He’s a Brit. Or he was, rather. And he was quite prolific, working in both the silent and sound eras. “I didn’t wait for inspiration,” he once said. “I was a workman, I worked on the story until it was finished. I had a time limit you see. We made picture after picture after picture.”

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Faust: DVD and Blu-ray review

August 17, 2014

The news certainly caught my attention. Masters of Cinema has upgraded its DVD release of Murnau’s Faust: a German Folktale (1926) to a shiny new dual-format edition. All the beauty of Faust, but in high-definition Blu-ray glory: temptation itself. The even better news is that this is a very beautiful disc indeed.

Faust has always been a feast for the eyes, from the cutting-edge 1920s special effects to the gorgeously, painterly compositions, and the Blu-ray transfer here more than does the film justice. Compared to the DVD, this is just far, far more filmic. There are rich blacks and sumptuous detail, making the most of crowd scenes and shadowy landscapes. On a biggish screen, you’ll notice a texture of soft grain, not sharp pixels. As was familiar practice in the 1920s, Murnau shot Faust with two cameras – one each for the domestic and export versions of the film. His favourite takes remained in the German print, and that is what has been restored here (the grandly gothic German intertitles remain, so you’ll have to turn the subtitles on). This is the best Faust you can get – screening this at home is a seriously impressive movie experience.

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Alf Collins and Gaumont: south-east London’s cinematic past

August 9, 2014

Gaumont Comes Home

This is a guest post for Silent London by Tony Fletcher, film historian at the Cinema Museum, about director-actor Alf Collins. Some of Collins’ Gaumont films will be shown on 30 August at a special open-air screening on the site of the original studio in Camberwell, with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand.

Alfred Bromhead started the English agency for Gaumont in Britain in 1898. He distributed the films produced by the French arm of the company, which was run by Leon Gaumont, and he also attempted to produce a few films in Britain in 1899. He opened a small outdoor studio on a four-acre cricket field in Loughborough Junction in south-east London. The open-air stage measured 30ft x 15ft However, this venture was short-lived and lasted for only one summer.

Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905

Alf and Maude Collins in Coster outfits in When Extremes Meet, 1905

In 1902, Bromhead decided to make another attempt at producing films. Alfred Collins came on board as stage manager, and Gaumont continued producing short films over the next seven to eight years. These were often shot in the streets of south-east London – pioneering chase comedies and dramas. Alf Collins had already had some film experience working with Robert Paul, as well as at the British Biograph Company. He had started performing at the Surrey Theatre under George Conquest, later joining the William Terris Company at the Lyceum Theatre. He also performed in Drury Lane Pantos playing The Copper in the Harlequinade. His full-time job between 1902 and 1932 was as the stage manager for the Kate Carney Company, which gave him opportunities to make films when they were appearing in London and the provinces.

During 1904, Bromhead moved studios from Loughborough Junction to a 14-acre site at Freeman’s cricket field, Champion Hill. Thomas Freeman was a local builder and decorator living at 127 Grove Lane. In 1891, he had acquired a site at the rear of Champion Hill House and Oakfield House (roughly where Sainsbury’s superstore and Dulwich Hamlet FC are now situated). Freeman built three wood and iron cricket pavilions which were hired out during the summer to the Champion Hill Cricket and Lawn Tennis Club and during the winter to Dulwich Hamlet FC. These appear in some of the films. Bromhead constructed an open-air stage to film interior shots as no artificial lights were available.

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Man With a Movie Camera: the greatest documentary of all time?

August 1, 2014

Two years ago, Dziga Vertov’s landmark art film Man With a Movie Camera crashlanded into the top 10 of the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Today, I can jubilantly announce that this year Movie Camera tops another Sight & Sound poll – the hunt for the Greatest Documentary of all time. There’s another silent in the top 10 too – the wondrous, beautiful, and controversial Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922).

1. Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

2. Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France 1985)

3. Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker (France 1982)

4. Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais (France 1955)

5. The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris (USA 1989)

6. Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin (France 1961)

7. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty (USA 1922)

8. The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda (France 2000)

9. Dont Look Back, dir. D.A. Pennebaker (USA 1967)

10. Grey Gardens, dirs. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (USA 1975)

Both of these films deserve endless discussion and analysis, it’s true – as do the others in the list, from Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) to Don’t Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967), but I want to linger on Vertov’s film for now. I think it’s rather special – but I am intrigued by its success in this poll. For me Man With a Movie Camera is really an art film, not a documentary, because it foregrounds technique and display above truth-telling and information-imparting. Not that it doesn’t do that too, but in the world of documentary film-making, City Symphonies have every right to push form over content, and Man With a Movie Camera is the most invigorating of all City Symphonies. This is a movie about the sheer joy and madness of film-making – stopmotion, superimposition, freeze-frame, split-screens, rewinds, acute angles and all. It exalts in the possibilities of photography and motion. From the opening scene in which the cinema seats slam down one by one, onwards, we are sure that this will be a movie about the movies, and all the more enjoyable for that. It’s as addictive as popcorn, as edifying as high art.

Is it worthy of comment that Man With a Movie Camera is in the ascendancy at a time when there is little good news coming out of Ukraine? I’m not sure – for most viewers, I suspect this film is lumped in with the less-specific categories labelled “Soviet”, “Silent” and “Arthouse”. But it always does us good to remember that far-away parts of the world are synonymous with more than the bad news that hits the headlines. This poll result reminds us that Ukrainian cinema, as showcased at last year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, shines in our global film heritage. There are, you’ll note, no British films in the top 10.

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