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Silent London

A place for people who love silent film

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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Poll: Which British silent film-maker is worth £20?

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The Bank of England doesn’t usually let the public have a say in its decisions, but there is a first time for everything. Having decided to boot Adam Smith’s profile off the £20 banknote, the Bank asked the public to help them choose a replacement – although the institution itself has the final say. Those of us who spend rather than print the money were invited to nominate a visual artist for the bank to select from. An astonishing 29,701 bids came in, resulting in a longlist of 592 British visual artists that someone out there deems worthy of having their face on folding money. The Bank will draw up a shortlist from these names for the Governor to examine, and they will announce the chosen face in early 2016, with the new £20 note finally coming into circulation in 2020.

This is the selection criteria for the new face of the score note:

Through its depiction of historic characters on its banknotes the Bank seeks to celebrate individuals that have shaped British thought, innovation, leadership, values and society.  We do this by representing a person or small groups of individuals whose accomplishments or contributions have been recognised widely at the time, or judged subsequently to have been of lasting benefit to the United Kingdom and, in some cases, beyond.

In choosing the character or characters to appear on a specific note, the Bank takes account of its past decisions.  This is because the Bank intends to celebrate achievement and contribution across a wide range of skills and fields and aims, through time, to depict characters with varied personal characteristics, such that our choices cumulatively reflect the diverse nature of British society.

Did you vote? I suspect some of you might have done, because the longlist is a fascinating read: so many esteemed, and not so highly esteemed, artists appear, including film-makers from Carol Reed to Stanley Kubrick. And there are definitely a few cinematic stars who fulfil that note about “a wide range of skills and fields”, as well as “characters with varied personal characteristics”, although not perhaps reflecting the “diverse nature of British society”. More specifically, I was heartened to see some key figures from the silent era there: from the expected nods to Alfred Hitchcock and Charlie Chaplin, to more leftfield choices such as Maurice Elvey and Louis Le Prince.

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The AP, British Movietone and YouTube: a million minutes of world history online

British Movietone News
British Movietone News

If there was ever a week to emphasise the power of archive film, this is it. On the weekend, the Sun on Sunday released what appeared to be home movie footage from the early 1930s of Edward VIII apparently teaching the young Princess Elizabeth, and the Queen Mother to make Nazi salutes. Not surprisingly, those few frames of film have caused a media storm – with debates raging over whether Edward was not the only Nazi sympathiser in the family, or the footage should have been released at all. It seems to me that the princess is more interested in showing off her Scottish dancing moves than practising the salute – she is on holiday at Balmoral after all. And her young sister Margaret really isn’t in the least bit involved. But what do I know? This is home movie footage, of course, not intended to be scrutinised by the public, even if it may after all hint at some disturbing information in the public interest.

The fact remains, however, that this film is owned and still guarded, privately. If there is context to this clip, we are denied it, because all that has been released is a silent, heavily watermarked 17-second snatch on the Sun website. In the era of FOI requests (the Freedom of Information Act is 10 years old this year), post-WikiLeaks and Edward Snowden, after MPs’ expenses and the Prince Charles letters, full disclosure and open access is where it’s at.

And it is in this climate of free access to information that the Associated Press and British Movietone have decided to release a monumental slice of their archive on to YouTube today, where it can be seen, shared and embedded by the public. There are two news YouTube channels as of today: one for the AP Archive and one for British Movietone. More than a million minutes of newsreel footage has been digitised and uploaded, creating what the archive call “a view-on-demand visual encyclopedia, offering a unique perspective on the most significant moments of modern history”. 

The YouTube channels will comprise a collection of more than 550,000 video stories dating from 1895 to the present day. For example, viewers can see video from the San Francisco earthquake in 1906, exclusive footage of the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Marilyn Monroe captured on film in London in the 1950s and Twiggy modelling the fashions of the 1960s

For silent enthusiasts, the fact that this upload includes the Henderson collection of news footage will be particularly welcome. In effect, this is not a release of footage (many of these films were always available to watch on the AP Archive site), but a way of liberating it. 

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Gutterdämmerung: what is the ‘loudest silent movie on earth’ playing at?

Gutterdämmerung
Gutterdämmerung

The self-proclaimed “loudest silent movie on earth” may just sound like fingernails down a blackboard to more sensitive readers. Gutterdämmerung  (“It’s not like you know who fucking Wagner is, anyway”) is a heavy metal silent film of sorts, which has announced itself this week with an elaborate social media campaign. I say “of sorts”, because actually, don’t you know, this is  “a new rock ‘n’ roll / film / gig concept from the mind of Belgian-Swedish visual artist Bjorn Tagemose” rather than a boring old movie.

Gutterdämmerung, proud owner of a heävy mëtal ümlaut, has been featured mostly in rock magazines so far, but is already proving to be a bit of a tease, releasing the its cast list of rock icons one at a time, and even offering prizes for anyone who can guess the lineup in advance. There’s no trailer, just a launch video in which director Tagemose and two of his stars, Henry Rollins and Jesse Hughes from Eagles of Death Metal, chat about the film. They introduce some of the movie’s “icons” in this vid, Iggy Pop and Grace Jones, as well as rock bassist and adult film actress Tuesday Cross and the star  Olivia Vinall, whom the Independent recently called a “National Theatre darling”. But you’ll have to wait for the rest …

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Pordenone tips: a beginner’s guide to the Giornate del Cinema Muto

Pordenone
Pordenone: click to see a bigger version – the circular building is the Teatro Verdi, and you can see the cafe Bar Posta and the library (biblioteca) nearby. (Google Maps)

Do you know the way to Pordenone? It’s about 80km north-east of Venice, but that’s not important right now. When I say Pordenone, I mean Le Giornate del Cinema Muto: the world’s most prestigious silent film festival, which takes place in the town every October. This year will be the 34th instalment of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, a veritable institution, which showcases the best (and some of the rest) of silent cinema, accompanied by the world’s leading musicians. It’s eight full days of silent cinema, and a chance to meet the most knowledgeable early film enthusiasts around.

Never been? I think I understand why. Something about the words “prestigious” and ”institution” can be a little daunting. For years I thought Pordenone was not the place for me – it was for the real experts. I was intimidated too by the website, which is actually phenomenally useful, but a little hard to navigate and very text-heavy in two languages.

But as soon as I arrived for my first Giornate in 2012, I knew I had been a fool to stay away. Pordenone isn’t intimidating at all. And if you love silent cinema, which I know you do, it’s an essential indulgence. You can call that the Pordenone paradox.

So here’s a short guide to planning and enjoying your trip to Pordenone for this year’s festival. If you have any more tips – please share them below:

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Searching for Silent London: 10 highlights from the Britain on Film archive

Covent Garden Porters (1929)
Covent Garden Porters (1929)

Attention amateur historians and nostalgic souls. The BFI has launched its Britain on Film project on the BFIPlayer, comprising around 2,5000 pieces of archive footage. It’s an incredibly easy way to lose an entire afternoon, or more of your life. But fascinating too. Simply type in a location, a decade or a subject, and the BFIplayer will throw some digitised (and contextualised) film right back at you.

I learned a lot about the fashions on sale in the local Co-Op in my hometown in the 1930s, and the story of how my High School came to have a swimming pool in the 1950s (sadly it had long since been filled in before I started there). Moving to my hood in London, I was offered footage of former local MP Clement Attlee talking about William Morris and socialism in the town hall. Not a bad selection at all.

So what of “Silent London”? At this link, you can find all the footage labelled “London” from 1890-1930 in the Britain on Film archive. That comes to 232 films, ranging in length from a few seconds up, but still more than a mouthful, even for someone as greedy as me.

But I did have a poke around, and I do already have a few favourites. Here are ten to try:

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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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The Keaton Project: polishing the Great Stoneface

Buster Keaton's One Week (1920)
Buster Keaton’s One Week (1920)

Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton – the Beatles and the Rolling Stones of silent comedy. They say you have to pick one to love, but there is nothing to stop you admiring both. If you’re a Keaton devotee, though, you may have watched the progress of the Cineteca di Bologna’s Chaplin Project with green eyes. Though of course your expression will have been too deadpan to reveal your true feelings.

Over several years and many gala screenings, the Cineteca and the L’Immagine Ritrovata lab, working in collaboration with archives, labs and historians across the world, restored all of Chaplin’s works to the utmost technical standards. You can see the results of these labours in releases such as the recent Chaplin Mutuals Blu-ray, which really is worth adding to your Christmas list. Now it’s Buster’s turn. Using material from the Cohen Film Collection, the Keaton Project will set about buffing and shining all the silent shorts and features made by the Great Stoneface. It’s a mammoth task for the ladies and gents in the lab, but a massive treat for those of us who get to watch the finished films.

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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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Second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century recovered: that’s better than a pie in the face

The Battle of the Century (1927)
Stan and Ollie in The Battle of the Century (1927)

A cream-filled pie landing – splash – in the face of an adversary is a popular trope of silent slapstick comedy, along with bumbling Keystone Kops and strategically placed banana peel. And now we hear that one of the classic piefights of all time has been rediscovered – the all-out epic splatterfest that crowns Laurel and Hardy’s silent film The Battle of the Century (1927).

That street brawl, involving a van full of pies and a cast of dozens, is gleeful, gore-free carnage – a classic movie moment in its own right. But until now, the fight, and the film it belongs to, have been truncated. The Battle of the Century was formed of two reels, and much of it has been missing since the silent era. The fight itself, or at least most of it, had been preserved, but the rest was not to be found. The first reel was discovered in the late 1970s, but the second reel, which contains the piefight, has been unseen for decades longer.

Continue reading “Second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century recovered: that’s better than a pie in the face”

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