The Silent London Calendar
Costas Fotopoulos is based in London and works internationally as a concert and silent film pianist, and as a composer and arranger for film, the stage and the concert hall. He regularly provides live improvisations to silent films at BFI Southbank and he has also accompanied films at other major British venues as well as in New York, Warsaw and Italy. I interviewed him after a screening of Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans in Winchmore Hill, north London, organised by Around the Corner Cinema. We also discussed his score for modern silent film The Projectionist.
It’s podcast o’clock once more. This time I’m joined in the studio by the marvellous Pete Baran, and in the pub by Lucie Dutton, who tells us all about British silent film director Maurice Elvey. All that, plus a guest appearance by Otto Kylmälä, film-maker and festival organiser, praising the “subtle brilliance and mature beauty” of his favourite silent movie, Chaplin’s City Lights.
Is City Lights a silent film? Perhaps it’s an “unsilent film” – we’ll be talking about them, as well as discussing your suggestions for the best silent films for small children and taking a look at the listings too – including the British Silent Film Festival’s 2013 incarnation and not forgetting Napoléon.
There’s also a lot more Robocop than you may expect. Don’t ask.
It’s not often I find myself recommending a natural history programme, but on Tuesday night this week a BBC4 nature documentary will celebrate the work of film pioneer Percy Smith. Edwardian Insects on Film is punchy name of the hour-long doc, which is part of the channel’s Alien Nation insects season. As the video above shows, the film follows wildlife film-maker Charlie Hamilton Jones’s attempts to replicate Smith’s ingenious film The Acrobatic Fly (1910). It promises to be a rare opportunity to look in detail at early cinema methods and technology – and an even rarer opportunity to see such things on TV.
While the tricksy manipulations of The Acrobatic Fly are many miles away from modern wildlife film’s hands-off observe-from-a-distance approach, the documentary also looks at Smith’s pioneering work in timelapse photography (the gorgeous The Birth of a Flower, 1910), which is still a staple of the genre – used for example in David Attenborough’s The Private Life of Plants (1995). Attenborough himself makes an appearance in the programme, as will a few other faces familiar to readers of this blog.
Smith continued working in the film industry into the 30s, most notably making the Secrets of Nature series for British Instructional Films from 1922-33. Should you want to know more, BFI Screenonline has plenty of information about Smith and his films, some of which are available on DVD, or like the clips above, on the BFI YouTube channel:
Smith was a true pioneer, inventing original (and bizarre) methods for time lapse and micro cinematography, involving all kinds of home-made devices, including alarms all over his home to wake him up in the middle of the night if the film in the camera needed changing. With endless patience, he could spend up to two and a half years to complete a film. He also had the popular touch, with the happy knack (as he put it himself) of being able to feed his audience “the powder of instruction in the jam of entertainment”. Modern film technique could hardly better the results achieved by Smith in the first decades of the century and his early masterpiece Birth of a Flower (1910) has never been out of distribution.
Edwardian Insects on Film screens on BBC4 at 9pm on Tuesday 19 March 2013 and again at 2.40am on Wednesday 20 March 2013.
Yasujiro Ozu wasn’t always quite the Yasujiro Ozu we know from Tokyo Story and Late Spring. And he was certainly nothing like the film-maker you would expect if you had never seen those films, just been told about them as slow, domestic dramas on the theme of loss. Ozu has always put the fun into formalism, with playfully picturesque compositions and his famous cutaway “pillow shots” inserting frames of pure, simple cinema into his simmering narratives.
Later Ozu films are so routinely described as distinctively Japanese, as distinctively Ozu-esque that it may surprise many to learn that the director was actually a huge fan of Hollywood cinema. When he first started work at the Shochiku studio as a young man, he horrified the boss by claiming to have only seen a handful of Japanese films, and hundreds of American pictures. The twentysomething Ozu first aspired to make comedies, aping the slapstick of Harold Lloyd and the wit of Lubitsch.
The BFI collected a handful of Ozu’s campus comedies in a box set last year – and while their subject matter and setting seem very different from Ozu’s sound films, there was much that was familiar: a certain poignancy to the humour; the awkwardness of social and family situations; the sense of change and loss on growing old and leaving friends and family behind.
Now the BFI has brought together more of Ozu’s earlier, funnier material for a second set, but this time with a darker theme. The Gangster Films set reflects Ozu’s Hollywood influences, sure, but also a changing Japan, more urban, more hi-tech, more susceptible to western influences. In the student comedies, our slacker heroes are horrified by the brazen manners of so-called modern girls – Ozu’s gangsters embrace them, at least for a short while. The films featured in this new set are Dragnet Girl, A Straightforward Boy (fragment), Walk Cheerfully and That Night’s Wife. I don’t want to lump these films together, certainly the fragment is its own beast, but they do share some characteristics. The three features are all set in an Americanised Tokyo, accented with deep shadows and populated by Japanese gangsters straight out of US novels and films – double-breasted suits, sharp-brimmed hats and shiny leather shoes. Their molls have bobbed hair and fur collars, high-heeled shoes and glint in their eye.
The beauty of watching the gangster movies is to see Ozu’s cinematic style grow despite his influences. Or to put it in David Bordwell’s words: “The exotic and formulaic genre allows Ozu to experiment stylistically, moving toward that highly overt narration that was to become his trademark.” While the gangster films offer us Hollywood thrills in the shape of guns, girls and skulduggery, the poetics, the cutaways and composition are all Ozu’s own.
Full disclosure: I’d quite like you to buy this box set. I contributed one of the essays in the accompanying booklet, on Walk Cheerfully. You’ll find more erudite words there too from Tony Rayns, Bryony Dixon and Michael Kerpan. The films are the thing, of course, and they are beautifully accompanied by Ed Hughes’ scores. The set has been reviewed in Film International, by Wheeler Winston Dixon, and in Sight & Sound, by Philip Kemp.
However, I’m not just writing to plug the box set, but to bring you some information about a forthcoming screening of Walk Cheerfully at BFI Southbank on 22 April. This is a members’ ballot screening, and you should know by now whether you have a ticket, though I suppose there may also be some more available nearer the date. This is a special screening and will be an experience very different to watching the DVD. First, the music will be a live improvised score that combines traditional Japanese music with electronic distortions – and a 78rpm record player. Walk Cheerfully is certainly a toe-tapping film, so I have high hopes for this. More details below:
Sylvia Hallett and Clive Bell are the two musicians improvising a live score for Walk Cheerfully. The pair have worked together for several years on projects for film, dance and theatre, as well as numerous international concert and festival performances. Their duo album The Geographers is on the Emanem label.
Clive Bell is a specialist in Japanese traditional music; he lived in Tokyo where he studied the shakuhachi (Japanese flute). Later he learned to play the khene, a bamboo mouth organ from Thailand – a bright-toned, chordal wind instrument that is an ancestor of the accordion. Sylvia Hallett is a violinist, composer and instrument maker, with a unique personal approach to live electronics.
Clive Bell writes: “Walk Cheerfully is a film full of subtle surprises, that deserves a fresh-sounding score. Our musical accompaniment will blend these Far Eastern instruments, and the more familiar violin, with electronic looping and pitch-shifting. The live orchestra which accompanied Japanese screenings in the 1930s often mixed traditional Japanese instruments such as shamisen (lute) and taiko drum with trumpet, violin, clarinet and piano. Instead of a piano, we use electronics to extend the music’s range into magic and atmospheres.
“Ozu was a keen student of American cinema, but made films that remained essentially Japanese. We hope to return the compliment by creating a rich musical mix of Western and Japanese, of contemporary and traditional. And, when the gangsters play their 78rpm records in their club, we will activate an antique 78rpm record player of our own.”
The second surprise is that the film will be accompanied by live Benshi narration – as Japanese film screenings were in the silent era. The Benshi will be performed by Tomoko Komura, who will both translate the intertitles and narrate the film.
If you want to learn more about Ozu, and his silent work, I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to begin.
Walk Cheerfully screens at NFT1 on 22 April 2013 at 6.30pm. Read more here.
This date should already be in your diaries. Charlie Chaplin’s wise and heartwarming not-so-silent silent film Modern Times screens at the Royal Festival Hall on the South Bank on 22 March, with the Philharmonia Orchestra conducted by Carl Davis. It’s a magnificent movie: a slyly hilarious portrait of Depression-era America, with a tremendous score written by Chaplin himself. There’s a lot to love about Modern Times – not least the final screen appearance of the Little Tramp and the debut of Chaplin’s song Smile.
If you’d like to see Modern Times, and who wouldn’t, you can take advantage of this special offer and get best available seats for just £10 if you quote FILM when booking online or by calling 0844 847 9910. Find out more and book online here.
It’s a commonplace that the cinema struggles to translate the scope and nuances of great literature. Conversely, fiction often fails to capture the joys and texture of the film experience. There are exceptions to both rules, of course, and Beatrice Hitchman’s Paris-set debut aspires to the latter form of bilinguality; to commute the strange pleasures of early cinema to the printed page.
The simplest but least effective way to go about this involves a lot of research and an evangelist’s joy in sharing knowledge. These pages are littered with Max Linder postcards, asides on the intricacy of in-camera editing and the (re)invention of the Latham Loop – but there’s more to Petite Mort than that. The geek in me delighted in this scene-setting, notably the flies swarming around the studio, but Petite Mort is most cinematic when it dispenses with the history lessons.
Hitchman’s classy prose reveals not just a film lover’s appreciation not just for the pictorial, but a photographic appreciation for the texture of light: ‘slanted light’, or ‘light that moves like treacle’. Naturally enough, Hitchman’s silences are also tangible. In one scene, a painful pause between two lovers transmutes a cinematic trope of romance into something far more disturbing: ‘The silence runs down from their joined hands and over them and spreads out over the carpet, blending with the sunset, which is unexpectedly fiery and distinct. They sit like statuary of a king and a queen, saying nothing to each other. Eventually the silence fills the whole house.’
Petite Mort takes place in two distinct golden ages of French cinema. And these reels are clipped, cut up and spliced together in a way that immediately betrays the author’s experience as a film editor. In 1967 a journalist called Juliette investigates the rediscovery of a film from 1913; while in the earlier part of the century, country girl Adèle moves to Paris, finds work at Pathé and becomes romantically and fatally involved with a rich married couple. Juliette’s curiosity is aroused by the fact that the rediscovered print is still missing a section – a trick ‘doppelgänger’ shot that made the film, Petite Mort, famous and may, she intuits, contain the secret of the murder trial that made its star, Adèle, notorious.
And Adèle has a doppelgänger of her own, her sister Camille, introduced as ‘a bright-eyed, sly duplicate of myself’. Doubles and duplicity abounds – from the multiple plotlines to that bold double entendre of a title and Adèle’s bisexual affairs. While Petite Mort builds to a whodunnit revelation, it’s these flashy patterns that catch the eye – just as that complicated ‘doppelgänger’ special effect is advertised as the highlight of the lost film. This diversionary tactic is perfectly in keeping with the novel’s cinematic contexts – both of them. Early film has been characterised by Tom Gunning as a transition between the “cinema of attractions” (trick films such as those by Méliès, or the absinthe fairies and ghosts conjured by Adèle’s lover André) and the “cinema of narrative integration” (bluntly, Griffith’s developments in storytelling across the Atlantic). However, as Vicki Callahan argued in Sight & Sound last year, the epic serials of Louis Feuillade (Fantômas and Les Vampires) from this era blur the distinctions between the two modes, following a “principle of uncertainty … a use of cinema that questions our understanding of the real”. Those early serials and their knotted narratives are evoked by Petite Mort in the two-timing, amateur-sleuthing plot, but also in the slippery, fused identities of our heroines. Callahan traces this tricksy approach to narrative cinema to the French New Wave and beyond (citing Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and Assayas’ Les Vampires remix Irma Vep (1996)).
That Petite Mort incorporates a history of French film audacity into its sexy plot is a trick shot of its own. It’s an elegantly written, richly satisfyingly novel, and in its own distinctive way, utterly cinematic too.
Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman is published by Serpent’s Tail, RRP £12.99 as a hardback or ebook. Find out more.
Birds Eye View is one of Silent London’s favourite film festivals – a celebration of female film-makers with an exceptionally strong and musically adventurous silent cinema strand. Last year, even though the festival was on haitus, the Sound & Silents programme brought us a selection of newly scored Mary Pickford films. This year, in keeping with the overall theme of the festival, the screenings have an Arabian flavour.
The two films in the Sound & Silents segment are, to be frank, German – but the first, Lotte Reiniger’s trailblazing cutwork animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) is based on a story from 1,001 Arabian Nights, as also, perhaps more loosely, is the second, Ernst Lubitsch’s boisterous harem farce Sumurun (1920). Achmed, widely acknowledged as the first animated feature film, and still as elegantly beautiful today as in the 1920s, probably needs no introduction from me.
The latter film is a slightly guilty pleasure of mine – a rather well-made romp, enlivened by the sinuous presence of the young Pola Negri, and the more demure charms of Swedish ballerina Jenny Hasselqvist. Lubitsch himself appears as a leery clown with hunchback, but his real star turn is behind the camera, crafting a fast-paced and vivacious comedy out of unpromising material. Sumurun had been a stage hit for Max Reinhardt’s company in Berlin, and Negri had starred in both that production as well as one back in her hometown of Warsaw – perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that this film is so slick, with such larger-than-life performances, including Paul Wegener as a bully-boy sheik. I will concede, of course, that it is rarely, if ever, politically correct.
Sound & Silents is as much admired for its musical commissions as its programming, and it’s intriguing that these German Arabian pastiches will be accompanied by scored from musicians whose roots lie in both Western Europe and the Middle East – British-Lebanese Bushra El-Turk and Sudanese-Italian Amira Kheir.
Multi-award-winning contemporary classical composer Bushra El-Turk creates a new work for a chamber ensemblecombining classical Western and traditional Middle Eastern instrumentation, accompanying The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first feature-length animation. Currently on attachment to the London Symphony Orchestra’s Panufnik Programme, British-Lebanese El-Turk’s acclaimed work has also been performed by the BBC Symphony Orchestra and London Sinfonietta.
Singer, musician and songwriter Amira Kheir blends contemporary jazz with East African music for a multi-instrumental 5-piece band, scoring landmark fantasy-drama Sumurun (One Arabian Night). Kheir has recently won acclaim for her ‘beautiful and fearless’ (Songlines) first album and her BBC Radio 3 and London Jazz Festival debuts.
Initially at least, the Sound & Silents screenings will be held in London and Bristol. Bushra El-Turk’s score for The Adventures of Prince Achmed premieres at a screening at the Southbank Centre on Thursday 7 March, with a second performance on Friday 5 April at the Barbican. Sumurun plays with Amira Kheir’s new score at BFI Southbank on Thursday 4 April and will then show at the Watershed Cinema in Bristol on Sunday 14 April. Click on the links for more information and to book tickets. Find out more about Birds Eye View here.