Silent London

A place for people who love silent film


December 2011

Hugo (2011): review

Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)

We’ll never know for certain whether the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph audience really were so terrified by a moving image of a train entering a station that they screamed and ran for the door. It’s an enjoyable urban legend though, and one that appeals to our idea of cinema as an immersive, perfect illusion. Martin Scorsese stages the moment twice in Hugo (2011) and by doing so makes a fair case for the story’s veracity. After all, this is a 3D film, and the savvy 21st-century viewers of this film may well have been flinching and ducking at stereoscopic images of barking dogs and speeding trains – and even the terrified patrons of the Grand Cafe – bursting from the screen.

There is more to Hugo than such cheap shocks, though. Scorsese mostly uses his 3D technology not to reach forward but to create a deep stage, as Georges Méliès so often did, pulling the scenery away from the centre of the frame to reveal more fantastical images within. Hugo‘s astounding, wordless opening sequence plunges from the Paris skyline into a train station clock, where a small boy, our hero, is gazing out at the city – we then follow him through staircases, ladders, corridors and across the concourse in one breathless swoop. It’s at this point that I knew I would want to watch Hugo again – it’s a giddily beautiful shot, and would persuade the hardest heart that there is a place for the intelligent use of 3D in cinema.

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)

Inevitably, the pace drops after that, and the first half of Hugo is really rather a sedate, downhearted affair – particularly for a children’s film. Hugo (played sweetly by Asa Butterfield) is orphan. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, and he is adopted by his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone with a very slippery accent) – whose job it is to wind the clocks at the train station. When the uncle staggers out one day, never to return, Hugo decides to stay in the station winding the clocks and hiding from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) so as to avoid the authorities. He steals food, and also scraps of clockwork to fix a melancholic automaton his father salvaged from the museum where he worked – sentimentally, Hugo believes that when the robot is working again, it will write him a message from his father. It’s a fond, foolish hope, made more metaphorically adorable still when we realise that the machine won’t work without a key: a heart-shaped key. However, the film is saved from treacly sentiment by the appearance of a young friend for Hugo, the bookish, restless Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and an enemy too: Ben Kingsley’s curmudgeonly toymaker, Papa Georges.

So much plot – and so many adorable flirtatious sub-plots among the station’s café-owners and stallholders – just to get us to the moment, about halfway through, when the automaton works, and we find out who Papa Georges really is. Now, the pulse of the film finally starts to race as the children voraciously explore the history of silent cinema, and the magical trick films made by Papa Georges in particular. Of course, Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (subtly played by Kingsley), and that’s no spoiler for readers of this blog. Scorsese’s recreation of Méliès’s studio is among Hugo’s most enjoyable sequences – the sugary colours, the pyrotechnics and lo-fi effects could be quaint, but these scenes are rendered with such love and attention to detail, it’s impossible not to feel a sharp cinephile thrill. For once, however, I am tempted to complain that this adaptation shouldn’t have been so faithful to its source. Brian Selznick’s pencil-illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a really gorgeous book, but its thin narrative feels even flimsier on the big screen, and spends a good hour pushing Scorsese away from the subject matter that is closest to his heart – and ours.

Hugo (2011)
Hugo (2011)

That said, Hugo has plenty to indulge a silent film aficionado – or to educate a young film buff. Harold Lloyd himself, dangling from the department store clock, and Hugo’s own, less jolly, homage; glimpses of Méliès at work and plenty of his films; the aforementioned Lumière moments; passing references to zoetropes and hand-tinting; even a clip reel of silent highlights. There’s also Baron Cohen’s broad slapstick, a nice sense of early 20th-century history and so many gorgeous movie posters in the background that you’ll want to leap up and freeze the projector. Hugo‘s biggest surprise is that the 3D enhances all this retromania. Whether or not we remember that the Lumières were aiming for 3D effect with that very first train movie, or that they subsequently reshot it with a stereoscopic camera, Hugo‘s look has a freshness and novelty that suits its subject matter. A switch of focus, a camera rushing along the station platform, a series of stepped cuts all look different in 3D – it’s as if we’re seeing these tricks for the very first time.

Hugo (3D) is released in the UK on 2 December 2011. And if you want to see some of Méliès’s films on the big screen – the Cine Lumière has two screenings planned for the weeks following the release.

Georges Méliès at the Ciné Lumière 4, 12 & 14 December 2011

Le voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)
Le voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)

Between Lobster films’s eye-popping restoration of the hand-tinted Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) and Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo, 2011 is a good year for remembering Georges Méliès – not to mention the 150th anniversary of his birth. To mark this auspicious time, the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Francais is celebrating the early French film-maker with three special events in December.

The first show, Classic Medley Méliès, is a Sunday afternoon matinee – a 90-minute screening of shorts to introduce the director and some of his best-loved films, restored by Lobster films:

This programme is a unique opportunity to watch what can only be described as a treasure trove of lost gems which were uncovered and lovingly restored by Lobster films. Explore the sublime realm of Méliès’ cinema through The Man with a Rubber HeadThe Magic Lantern or the colour version of The Devilish Tenant and discover his favourite themes: the moon, space, illusion and the comedy-burlesque.

Classic Medley Méliès screens at Ciné Lumière on Sunday 4 December 2011 at 2pm. To book tickets and to find out more, click here.
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Secondly, Ciné Lumière is offering the exciting opportunity to see the new restoration of the hand-tinted full-colour Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) with its new soundtrack by the French group Air, who will also attend the screening.

Six scholars, members of the Astronomers’ Club, set off on an expedition to the moon. They travel in a bullet-shaped rocket fired into space by a giant canon. After arriving on the moon safe and sound, they meet its inhabitants, the Selenites, escape their king and return to earth in their rocket which, after falling into the ocean, is fished out by a sailor. Applause, decorations, and a triumphant parade for the six heroes of the first outer-space adventure in the history of cinema.

 The screening of Le Voyage Dans la Lune is at 6pm on Monday 12 December. Entrance is free, but you must book, via the Institut Français’s newsletter, which you can sign up to here.

The third show is an evening event, a ciné-concert in which a selection of Méliès films will be accompanied by composer John Garden, who earlier this year toured a semi-improvised electronic score to The Lost World (1925):
Accompanying the films will be an original score of electronic soundscapes which revive and celebrate the sense of magic, mystery and occasional menace that play at the heart of Méliès’ films. Experience silent cinema as never before
Georges Méliès Revival screens at the Ciné Lumière on Wednesday 14 December 2011 at 7pm. To find out more and to book tickets, click here.

Nanook of the North and Storm Over Asia at Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Nanook of the North (1922)
Nanook of the North (1922)
It’s always a pleasure to learn about a new film society in London, especially one that chooses its films with as much care and originality as the Screen Shadows group, whose inaugural season includes some notable silents. The F is for Fake season features, on 18 November, Robert J Flaherty’s hit documentary Nanook of the North (1922) in a special double-bill.
We have decided to pair Nanook of the North with The Girl Chewing Gum, a 1976 experimental work by John Smith. Although from different genres and eras, both films work very well together to say something about our current theme: fakery in film. As part of our commitment to encouraging new ways of thinking about film, as much as the screening of overlooked films or the screening of films in areas underserved by the usual channels of film exhibition, the session will be introduced by a guest speaker, AL Rees from the Royal College of Art.
Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia (1928)
And on 2 December, as part of the same season, Screen Shadows will show Pudovkin’s monumental Storm Over Asia (1928), another film that raises interesting questions about authenticity:
The literally translated Russian title “The Heir to Genghis Khan” indicates the incitement to atavistic struggle that drives Pudovkin’s measured and resolute move beyond the film-mythologies of the Bolshevik revolution, in this historically charged epic based on a story of two unconnected thefts and one mistaken identity. How does a young Mongol fur-trader rebel and come to political consciousness? And just what does an Imperial British army garrison and trading outpost hope to gain by exploiting the falsehood that has come to define their captive? … How might implying a direct genealogical link between a twentieth-century Mongol fur trader and the twelfth-century Golden Horde inform a critique of imperialism in the Far-East, and what does this say about the cinema’s role in promulgating the myth of a culturally sensitive, ‘benevolent’ Soviet expansionism?
Nanook of the North screens at Oxford House, Bethnal Green E2 6HG on 18 November 2011 and Storm Over Asia on 2 December 2011. Entry is £7 or £5 (concessions and Tower Hamlets residents). The nearest tube station is Bethnal Green. For more details visit the Screen Shadows website.

Ensemble Amorpha silent film shows, December 2011

Ensemble Amorpha
Ensemble Amorpha

Ensemble Amorpha are a contemporary chamber music group that puts the emphasis on contemporary. Primarily, they play music by living composers, and in some of their upcoming shows they are championing the art of modern silent film-making as well.

Shorts Amorpha at the BFI Southbank is a programme of contemporary silent films, which will be shown not in a gallery, but on the big screen at NFT1. Ensemble Amorpha will play music by Dominic Murcott, Luke Styles, Christopher Mayo, Marc Yeats, Damon Lee, Alwyn Thomas Westbrooke, Philippe Kocher, Naomi Pinnock, Phil Vennables and Yoav Pasovsky to accompany films by Pavla Sceranková, Jan Pfeiffer, Sebastian Schmidt, Daniel Bisig, Gabriela Lang, Damon Lee, Nicolas Wiese and Zoe Payne. The music will be played on strings, woodwind, percussion and electronically too. This promises to be a fascinating and experimental evening – plenty here to inspire musicians and film-makers alike.

Shorts Amorpha screens at BFI Southbank on 1 December at 8.45pm. Tickets are available here, on the BFI website.

Later in the month, at Kings Place, the ensemble are putting on programme called Modern Silence. This will include scores for modern silent films by Alwyn Westbrooke and Damon Lee, as well as Luke Styles’s beautiful music for Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). It’s great to see Kings Place continuing to support silent film, both here and with its Not So Silent Movies shows.

Modern Silence will be performed in Hall Two of Kings Place on 12 December at 8pm. Tickets start at £9.50 and are available here on the Kings Place website.

To find out more about Ensemble Amorpha and to listen to samples of their performances, visit their website.

Not So Silent Movies at Kings Place

Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)
Harold Lloyd in Safety Last (1923)

This is a silent film screening, a concert, an experiment and lunch, all rolled into one. Not So Silent Movies will happen on the first Sunday of every month at the Kings Place arts centre in Kings Cross. It’s the brainchild of composer and cellist Philip Sheppard and puts a range of leading musicians to the ultimate test of their improvisational skills – accompanying silent films. The films will be a complete surprise to the musicians, who will have had no opportunity to watch the movies in advance, or heaven forfend, rehearse. This is what Sheppard says about the project:

‘I love throwing caution to the wind and creating a spontaneous composition, and I have absolute confidence that these musicians can pull it off. There’ll be as much slap-stick on stage as on screen; we get such a buzz from taking the risk with no safety net – it’s the adrenalin that makes it work, and when it’s over you can’t repeat it – it’s a one off!’

The choice of films will be a surprise for the audience too, of course. But a little bird tells me we can expect plenty of Buster Keaton (from the shorts to the features), some Harold Lloyd, maybe even some Chaplins in the future. Sheppard is huge fan of silent comedy and keen to show a broad range of films. He has something very special planned for Christmas, too, hopefully involving a special guest. But he’s keen to hear suggestions from Silent London readers. So if you want to nominate some silent comedies that you would like to see with a spontaneous score, comment below.

The roster of musicians involved is very impressive, and changes from month to month. Here are the line-ups for the first three Sundays.

Sunday 2 October:
Special guests
Guy Pratt bass (Pink Floyd & Roxy Music)
Geoff Dugmore drums

House band
Philip Sheppard cello
Elspeth Hanson violin (Bond)
Pip Eastop horn (London Sinfonietta)
Mark Neary pedal steel guitar

Sunday 6 November:
Special guest
Dame Evelyn Glennie OBE percussion

Sunday 4 December:
Roger Eno piano
Robin Millar CBE
 guitarist/star producer
Steve Mackey bass player, Pulp

Not So Silent Movies takes place on the first Sunday of every month in Hall Two of Kings Place. Tickets cost £9.50-£12.50, or £29.50 with Sunday lunch and a bloody mary at the Rotunda restaurant included. Find out more here.

Which silent comedies would you like to see shown at Not So Silent Movies? Please leave your comments below.

Silent film season at the West London Trade Union Club

Strike (1925)
Strike (1925)

The West London Trade Union Club on Acton high street may be a small venue, but it has won a commendation from Camra for its real ale and it has a dedicated film club too, recently hosting seasons devoted to Joseph Losey and Paul Robeson. What more could you want? Well, the W3 cineastes who meet once a month to watch movies on a 6ft screen and discuss them over a ale or two have now chosen to put together a silent film season.

The club has selected four great silent films, which will be shown at 4pm on Saturday afternoons and followed by a group discussion. I will be around too, to stir the conversation, stick up for my favourite era of cinema history and sample the beer. The four films, and dates are:

  • 17 September: Strike (Eisenstein, 1925)
  • 8 October: Faust (Murnau, 1926)
  • 12 November: Piccadilly (Dupont, 1929)
  • 10 December: Storm Over Asia (Pudovkin, 1928)

So there’s plenty to get stuck into there. A British favourite set in our own fair city, a couple of Soviet classics and even something scary for an early Halloween.

You don’t have to be a member of the club, or even of a trade union, to turn up and receive a warm welcome – and you will find the venue at 33 Acton High Street, London W3 6ND. It’s about five minutes walk from Acton Central train station, and on plenty of bus routes.

Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) – coming soon

First it was The Invention of Hugo Cabret, a charming children’s book by Brian Selznick. Then Martin Scorsese got hold of it and now it’s Hugo (2011), a 3D movie starring Ben Kingsley, Sacha Baron Cohen,  Jude Law, and Asa Butterfield in the title role. Now the trailer has arrived, we can really see what it’s going to look like – and how it pays tribute to a hero of early cinema.

It looks very much like  the film is going to stick very closely to the book’s story, which is simple, but rather sweet. Hugo is a Parisian urchin who lives in a railway station, and befriends a grumpy toymaker – who just happens to be George Méliès. Hugo starts to learn more about silent cinema and the magical films made by his new friend, and tries to persuade him out of retirement. There’s a blossoming friendship between the boy and Méliès’s grand-daughter and a magical element in the form of an exquisite clockwork automaton that appears to be passing messages to Hugo from his dead father. Perhaps, judging by the trailer, Scorsese has built up Baron Cohen’s role as the station policeman a little – adding some broad slapstick that will probably appeal more to the kiddies than to the silent film buffs who will make up a minority of the audience.

George Méliès in Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret
George Méliès in Brian Selznick's The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Continue reading “Martin Scorsese’s Hugo (2011) – coming soon”

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