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The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince

Would you like to discover the truth – messy, inconclusive and unflattering as it might be? Or would you rather be vindicated by discovering not only were right all along, but the answer lay close to home, a triumph you could take personal pride in? For any rigorous film historian, there’s clearly a right and a wrong answer to that question. But wouldn’t we all veer a little to the latter option? And might, perhaps, the second denouement make a better movie?

Film producer and former actor David Nicholas Wilkinson would definitely choose the second result. His documentary The First Film records not a search for the origins of cinema, but his quest to prove that Louis Le Prince was its key progenitor. Wilkinson, a proud and dogged Yorkshireman, is on a mission to put Leeds on the early cinema map, by asserting that the Frenchman shot the first authentic moving images in that fair city. Step aside, Messrs Lumiére, Edison and Friese-Greene …

What follows is a meandering, engaging, often bizarre but definitely over-long tribute to two men and their obsessions: Le Prince and his determination to crack the problem of the moving image, and Wilkinson’s devotion to boosting Le Prince.

It’s a noble quest, and I applaud Wilkinson for taking it on. Inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 but moved to Leeds in 1869 to work in a factory there. After several camera experiments, including a model with 16 lenses, in 1888, he succeeded in creating a moving image. He shot two short scenes, using a single-lens camera on paper film: a view of Leeds Bridge and a gorgeous domestic snippet called Roundhay Garden Scene. As such, he may well have been the first movie-maker, the “Father of Film”, the chap who beat all the rest to the punch. And it happened right here in the UK. We should be proud, and also outraged that other people have taken the credit. Wilkinson already is, more than enough for the rest of us.

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Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

As of next week, Man With a Movie Camera could be coming to a big screen, or a Blu-ray machine, near you. And there’s always a good reason to watch Man With a Movie Camera again. First, because it’s such a stunning film: exhilarating, avant-garde and witty. And second, because each time you do, you’ll grapple with the questions it throws at you again – and just possibly come up with different conclusions. This magnificent movie may be a film studies set text, but it defies attempts at explanation, and in fact, it has a unique way of wriggling out of any category you might try to impose on it. Recently crowned top documentary of all time, it is also an experimental art film. It appears to be a City Symphony but it is a fraudulent one – filmed in three cities and naming none of them. Its absurdities of composition and action make the audience think of comedy, even cartoons and its trick cuts and frame manipulation are closer to animation than conventional film-making.

If I could rechristen this film as its director did himself when he went from plain David Kaufman to the far more evocative Dziga Vertov, I would call it Woman with a Moviola. The new name would be in honour of Yelizaveta Svilova, who edited the film with Vertov, and whom we see stitching together frames midway through the film. The man of the title clambers, and tilts and gets where the action is, that’s for sure, as any camera operator should do. But the magic of this film is in its elaborate construction, its celebration of those arts that are purely cinematic – not offcuts from other media. As Roger Ebert said when he reviewed the film in 2009: “It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it cinema.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Svilova is also arguably the least well-known of the “council of three” comprising herself, her husband Vertov and his brother-cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. And it seems appropriate to the film’s perversities to proclaim her the heroine: at this point, perhaps, the only way to look at Vertov’s film is sideways.

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Five films I saw at the 1st Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

Silent film marathon #kenningtonbioscope

A photo posted by Katie Graham (@katiegra) on

At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.

We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.

The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.

But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.

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On Yer Bike: a History of Cycling on Film DVD review: rattling wheels and retro charm

Lady Cyclists (1899)
Lady Cyclists (1899)

London teems with cycles and cyclists. And though the sight of a pedal bike overtaking a double-decker always makes me chew my nails, this has got to be a good thing. While most of us are too sedentary, and too reliant on fossil fuels, cycling looks like a miracle cure for the whole human race. Heck, I have even been to a silent movie screening powered by stationary bikes hooked up to a generator. There may be something magical about these contraptions.

Which brings me to On Yer Bike, the BFI’s new archive compilation DVD of cycling throughout the years. Despite the exertions of Bradley Wiggins and co on their sleek carbon frames, cycling is decidedly retro. You couldn’t reach for a more solidly Edwardian image than a lady in a shirtwaist perched on a bone-shaker or a moustachioed gent atop a penny-farthing. And who doesn’t associate biking with their childhood? The pride when you lose your stabilisers; the terror when your parent lets go of the back of your tiny bike for the first time; a gleaming new cycle on your 11th birthday; or roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?

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Silents by Claire Crowther review: like watching a silent film for the first time

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This book is the result of a powerful encounter that poet Claire Crowther had with a sublime silent film: The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Th Dreyer. The sadly prosaic truth of the matter is that Crowther’s first glimpse of Falconetti’s tear-streaked face was on YouTube, the result of typing “passion” into the search box, hoping to find an image to use in a poem. After seeing Joan, and being moved by it, Crowther set off on another search, however.

That YouTube moment sent Crowther on a silent spree, watching everything that she could find from cinema’s early years: from The ‘?’ Motorist to The Seashell and the Clergyman. Crowther was fascinated by the artistry of the films, by the mystery surrounding their production, and by the “gagged look” of the films’ stars.

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Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray review

Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)
Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)

This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.

Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.

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Nitrate Picture Show 2015 review: putting the silver into the silver screen

nitrate picture show

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amran Vance, who runs the London Silent Film Meetup group and is part of the team behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope.

Nitrate. Dangerous, volatile, endangered, nitrate.

Its allure drew film curators, historians and cinephiles from around the world to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, last weekend, for the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show.

Nitrate, as a film base, was first developed in Rochester, by Eastman Kodak in 1889. It is a high-quality, but highly flammable, film stock which produces its own oxygen supply as it burns. A single spark from a torn frame during projection can set off a raging fire. Audience deaths from projection booth fires were not uncommon during the first few decades of cinema and nitrate’s ability to self-combust has caused several studio vault fires, including the tragic 1937 fire in which almost all of the Fox Film Corporation’s silent film holdings were lost.

Nitrate was discontinued in 1951 and strict regulations now govern its storage,transportation and projection. Only a few venues in the world are equipped to project it, including our venue, the Dryden Theatre.

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Hitchcock Lost and Found review: in search of the Master’s MacGuffins

LostAndFound

Alfred Hitchcock may be the only British director of the silent era we don’t automatically label “underappreciated”, or “little-studied”. From Leytonstone to Los Angeles his fame is global, his influence inescapable. After the films themselves, and the TV series, the books, the biopics, the magazine articles and yet more books, there isn’t a cinephile alive who can’t pronounce with some authority on the Master of Suspense.

One subject that all Hitchcock “experts” can expand upon is the MacGuffin device – the pursuit of an elusive object that drives the narrative of a film forward, allowing the business proper to take place along the way. One way of looking at this new book by scholars Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr would be that it is a magnificent MacGuffin hunt. Hitchcock Lost & Found: the Forgotten Films goes after the grey patches on Hitchcock’s CV, the abandoned, incomplete or a loosely connected works that linger largely unwatched and unappreciated.

As well as missing films, this book tracks down the films that Hitchcock scripted, or art-directed, or otherwise assisted on, or one where he jumped into the director’s chair halfway through shooting. The discovery of a few reels of The White Shadow (Graham Cutts, 1923) in 2011 proves that a film doesn’t to be Hitchcock through-and-through to raise the heart rate. And it’s surely not too much to hope that on the trail of these MacGuffins, a hardy Hitchophile could learn a thing or two about Psycho, Rear Window and the man who made them? Not to mention that impressive string of surviving silents running from The Pleasure Garden to Blackmail or Hitchcock’s famously “lost” film, The Mountain Eagle?

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Review and competition – Neil Brand’s Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes

Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes, by Neil Brand.
Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes, by Neil Brand.

If you attend the occasional silent movie screening, like I do, you’ll have experienced a particular bittersweet feeling. As much as you enjoyed the show, you fear you could never quite recreate the magic. You know the film is out there waiting for you to watch again (somehow), but nine times out of 10, the improvised music that accompanied it lives only in the corner of your memory.

The genius of improvisation is that the melodies, or that special combination of them, are conjured out of thin air, and disappear just as fast. Unless … someone, say Neil Brand, were to sit down at the piano and record some of those tunes for posterity.

So that is exactly what Brand has done – he has released an album of some of his favourite tunes to accompany classic silent films (from Pandora’s Box to Safety Last!). It’s a pleasure to listen to, and an enjoyably infuriating silent movie quiz too: the sleeve notes will tell you which film each track belongs to: can you guess without looking, and for an extra 10 points, can you pinpoint the scenes that inspired each excerpt?

Over to Brand’s notes to explain further:

In this album I have tried, for the first time, to give my improvised silent movie accompaniments a little life of their own away from the films, as piano pieces. They carry the essence of my musical thoughts on what these films are about, but you can listen to them without knowing the films, and let the pieces create your own pictures in your head.

Those sleeve notes also include a short intro by Brand to each film. So if you like what you hear, and you haven’t yet encountered the movie in question … well you couldn’t really ask for a better introduction.

Pandora's Box (1929)
Pandora’s Box (1929)

I’ve had a listen to the album, and it really is wonderful. What I didn’t expect, was to feel the same shivers down my spine that I would experience when watching Louise Brooks dance, or Murnau’s camera swooping through the morning mist. This is the most evocative of music – I felt that I was in the film as much as viewing it, whirling through the streets of Berlin (People on Sunday), Charlestoning with Clara Bow (It), marching in step with John Gilbert (The Big Parade) and dangling precariously with Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!).

Continue reading “Review and competition – Neil Brand’s Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes”

The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-35 review: ‘A beautifully textured visual history’

Clara Bow, with her red hair on show
Clara Bow, in Red Hair (1928)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Rosie Taylor. An event producer and freelance film researcher and historian, Rosie is festival curator for Afrika Eye Festival, and assistant curator and head of digital media at the Slapstick Festival.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Dawn of Technicolor since I first saw James Layton and David Pierce’s presentation in Pordenone in October 2014. And the immediate thing that struck me when I first lay eyes on this book is its sheer size. It is second in size only to an enormous old and out-of-print book I have on Paul Cézanne – I’m going to struggle to fit it on my bookshelves!

The reason for its size is immediately obvious from looking at the cover, which boasts a closeup of a strip of “35mm nitrate Technicolor cemented print” from Fig Leaves (1926). As you turn the pages you are not overwhelmed by images (as I was originally expecting, which slightly disappointed me at first), but instead the book is carefully laced with a variety of photographs, film strips, diagrams, and images of archival texts and diaries, giving a beautifully textured visual history, which complements the reading nicely. The quality of the illustrations “reproduced almost entirely from original artefacts”, is excellent, so if like me you enjoy having a good look at everything, it’s exciting.

However, as much as one likes to take a gander at the impressive pictures, a bit of reading is also important. And, if I am honest, I did find the size of the book a little daunting at first. However, once I started reading, I discovered that the language is very accessible, and though it is essentially a factual history, it is passionately written without being too personal. It takes you through the complex and multifaceted aspects of the company’s development, giving a great sense of the personal and professional aspirations, challenges, set-backs, and triumphs – all to the point that I was rooting for the Technicolor team!

Continue reading “The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-35 review: ‘A beautifully textured visual history’”

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