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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.

Continue reading “The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer”

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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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?

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

Trento Tunnel exhibition: a unique perspective on cinema and the first world war

The Trento Tunnel exhibition
The Trento Tunnel exhibition (tgcom24.mediaset.it)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter.

Deep beneath the mountains of the Trentino range of Italy and Austria’s Dolomites lies one of the most extraordinary exhibits, in one of the most extraordinary galleries, in the world. One walks into a gigantic road tunnel, through a curtain and into one of the most potent and gripping representations of WWI cinema anywhere on the planet. From the very first image (from the Imperial War Museum) as a real shell strikes a galloping troop of British field artillery, leaving dead horses and soldiers on the field as the smoke clears, we are in the binary world of WWI “reality” as seen by the cameras of the time and the imaginations of those who came after.

 

That this exhibition, by the Trentino History Museum, should be a chilling reminder of the inhumanity of Italy’s White War on the Austrian border is no surprise – what is utterly unexpected is that it should also be a clear meditation on the very notion of cinema as “point of view”, with our attention continually drawn to the voyeurs and showmen, the “victors” and “victims”, the selective nature of documentary and the over-exaggeration of the “real”.

The exhibition’s existence is the result of a fruitful collaboration between Fondazione Museo Storico del Trentino and Cineteca del Friuli (with the assistance of archives around the world) in which the Museum, which owns and programmes the tunnels, has turned to experts at the Cineteca (particularly Pordenone mentor Luca Giuliani), to trace the history of WWI on film all the way from the outbreak in 1915 to the most recent films on the subject.

 

All the classics are contextualised on the way: J’Accuse, All Quiet on the Western Front, La Grande Illusion, Paths of Glory. The result is 46 full-size academy screens, through which we walk, looking to left and right, for half-a-mile, taking in a century of imagery and cinematic treasures beautifully configured into intriguing sub-genres; wounds, adventure, heroism (Italian strong-man star Maciste fighting the Austrians), fiction, imperialism, and more. Three-quarters of the way up the tunnel we emerge into sound, via a soundproof screen and the “Control Room” which is almost the most fascinating part of the exhibition. There we are introduced to the magic behind the screens: the film-makers, their equipment, and ourselves as their intended audience.

J'Accuse (1919)
J’Accuse (1919)

Continue reading “Trento Tunnel exhibition: a unique perspective on cinema and the first world war”

Love Is All: 100 years of Love and Courtship (2014) review: a kaleidoscopic kiss with history

Love is All (2014)
Love is All (2014)

Love is private, intimate. Speak its name aloud and the spell is broken. Share it and the magic is shattered. Except, except … in the 20th century popular culture crashed into the space between lovers, the gap between two pairs of moist lips, the air that thrummed to their heartbeats. Pop music ran away with love, spinning out each precious moment of desire or sorrow for three minutes of passion and repetitive heartbeats. But the movies, arguably, got straight to the dirty bits first. In the dark of a cinema, that is to say a tent or a grubby room, crammed next to a sweetheart or a maybe-sweetheart in the dark, we could watch actors (imagine!) play-act the the motions of love: smooches in train carriages, swoons on the hearth. Illicit affairs, happy marriages, flings, crushes … all the joy and misery of human existence on the screen. And in the cheap seats (they were all cheap), a fumble, a fondle, a kiss or maybe more. And did I mention it was dark? A private act in a public place – disapproval be damned.

Kim Longinotto knows exactly what goes on in the dusky darkness of the Odeon. Her new collage film Love is All (2014) is a super-cut of romance: sexy, sedate or seditious. It’s a full-tilt rush for the hormones, soundtracked by the grizzled, tender love songs of Sheffield music legend Richard Hawley. Not strictly a silent film, this, but one in which the few fragments of dialogue are incidental, another instrument in the orchestra. Hawley sings what is on our lovers’ minds – what they actually have to to say is rather beside the point.

Continue reading “Love Is All: 100 years of Love and Courtship (2014) review: a kaleidoscopic kiss with history”

Before Mickey Mouse: support a new documentary about American silent animation

UPDATE July 2015 : Cartoon Carnival is now looking for completion funds. Support the film here

Well, this looks like an interesting investment. Andrew Smith, one of the brains behind the critically acclaimed Gerry Anderson documentary Filmed in Supermarionation, wants to make a new documentary about a less well-known era of animation – the silent years. He has turned to Kickstarter to fund his film, so if you like his idea, you can back Cartoon Carnival yourself. For those who pledge £1 or more, Smith is promising “a virtual hug”. Some of the other rewards are even more enticing!

To many, the history of American animated cartoons begins with the story of Walt Disney and Mickey Mouse. Before the mouse, however, Disney was simply one of many who attempted to make their name in animated cartoons. From the earliest experiments with moving drawings, to the technical and artistic triumphs that arrived just prior to the introduction to synchronized sound, men like Winsor McCay, John R. Bray, and Max Fleischer pushed to make each cartoon better than the last. To our mind, their names deserve to be as venerated as their counterparts in the live-action film industry.

Beyond their historic significance, it it worth stressing that many of the animated films produced during the silent period are wildly entertaining and often down right weird and wonderful. In the days before film censorship or the misconception that cartoons were only for children, anything went. The result is a valuable canon of films which firmly reflects American society of the time.

The proposed documentary film will make use of a treasure trove of early American animation, held by collector Tommy José Stathes, who has an impressive archive, which he delves into for regular screenings in New York.
Continue reading “Before Mickey Mouse: support a new documentary about American silent animation”

London Symphony: play your part

 

 

“In the early days of the cinema, there were several great City Symphonies – for Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, but never for London. Alex Barrett is going to put that right, and his plans suggest a remarkable picture.” – Kevin Brownlow

A few months back, I promised you the chance to support the making of a new London City Symphony. Now the day has arrived, as the London Symphony team have launched their crowdfunding campaign. They need the help of Silent Londoners to turn their vision into a reality. They’re asking for your financial support, and offering you some chances to be involved in the making of the film too. If you can’t afford to help out yourself, they’d love you to spread the word about the project.

Alex Barrett, the film’s director (and Silent London contributor) explains why he wants to revive the City Symphony style for his new film: “We believe that by looking at the present through recourse to the past, we can learn something new about life today,” he says. “We won’t be parodying the style. We will be true to the spirit of the filmmakers that came before us, and we hope to capture the rhythm, the motion and the experimentation that made their films so wonderful, while simultaneously reimagining the City Symphony for the 21st Century”.

LONDON SYMPHONY is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture, religion and design via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.

Alongside making the film, the team will also be creating a new score – an original symphony – written by composer James McWilliam. Says James: “Music plays an important role in silent cinema, and our score will help take viewers on a journey through modern-day London”. The filmmakers plan to record the music with a live orchestra, but also have it performed live at special event screenings of the finished film. LONDON SYMPHONY reunites the team behind the short film HUNGERFORD: SYMPHONY OF A LONDON BRIDGE. A three-minute city symphony in its own right, the short film now serves as a pilot for the team’s intentions with the feature-length LONDON SYMPHONY.

You can visit the London Symphony crowdfunding page here. Check out the range of rewards and watch the video, in which the film-makers set our their plans for the movie.

 

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

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

 

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

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.

Continue reading “Man With a Movie Camera: the greatest documentary of all time?”

A modern city symphony for London – and how you could get involved

This beautiful short, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, is a mini city symphony directed by Alex Barrett in 2010. It has won several awards, appeared at many festivals, and here at Silent London we have long admired it. Barrett, a writer, film-maker and regular Silent London contributor, has a more ambitious project in the works, though: London Symphony, a feature-length silent film about our fair capital. Barrett is a huge admirer of European silent cinema, and the city symphonies of the 1920s avant-garde. He plans to start shooting London Symphony later this year. Here’s how he describes the project:

London Symphony is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture and religion via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.

He’ll be asking for your help though – Barrett and his team want to crowdfund their movie, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the summer on these very pages.

For now, the best way to follow the progress of London Symphony is to sign up to the mailing list here . You can also follow London Symphony on Twitter @LondonSymphFilm and Facebook too.

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