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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2012: Pordenone post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

The fairies that adorn the Giornate posters are not fairies, but vengeful butterflies. In La Peine duTalion (1906), which concluded this afternoon’s gorgeous programme of early cinema, the dazzlingly costumed scamps take rather lighthearted revenge on a butterfly collector for all the times he trapped their friends and pinned them to a cork. Mystery solved!

There were many more treats in that programme, including Méliès’ clown caper Automaboulisme et Autorité (1899), valiantly (I shall say no more) accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau and Frank Bockius, an extravagant serpentine dance (Danse de l’Eventail, 1897) and a loopily charming comedy about a girl so tall she can’t stand upright (Eugenie, Redresse-toi, 1911). The butterflies fluttered out of the Corrick Collection, along with the familiarly lurid delights of Dreams of a Rarebit Fiend (1906), a vividly coloured but sadly damaged L’Enfant Prodigue (1909), and a real crowd-pleaser: the cunning canine stars of Les Chiens Contrebandiers (1906).

Automaboulisme et Autorité (1899) Photograph: Cinématheque Française
Automaboulisme et Autorité (1899) Photograph: Cinématheque Française

A rare pleasure, the discovery of a precious Yevgenii Cherviakov film starring the luminous Anna Sten (in Buenos Aires) is a moment to be treasured. And although we only have a few reels of Moi Syn (My Son, 1928), transferred rather basically to DVD, it was enough to show us that the only director Dovzhenko admitted as an influence was a prodigiously talented film-maker. This is a poetic piece, with a devastating opening, as after a series of close-ups (which characterise the film), Sten turns to her husband and says, indicating the newborn in her arms: “This is not your son.” There is a fire, a lecture on childcare, and an infant funeral to follow but not in that order. Impressionistic, but frank, and subtly accompanied today by Neil Brand, Moi Syn is unforgettable even in its present state. I dearly hope the rest will be restored to us soon.

The Spoilers (1914)
The Spoilers (1914)

Another landmark film, but of a very different kind, Selip Polyscope’s trailblazing feature The Spoilers (1914) was a diverting two hours. A gold mine, and a community, in peril; a maverick and his gal to the rescue; the Bronco Kid; corrupt politicians … there was perhaps an excess of plot, even for the running time, but who cares? Kathlyn Williams as Cherry Malotte, a good-time girl made good, stole the show, particularly in her outrageous costumes.

Less enjoyable was Familientag im Hause Prellstein (1927), an UFA Jewish comedy, directed by the notorious Hans Steinhoff. This convoluted tale of debt, divorce and double-dealing fizzled out after its opening 20 minutes or so.

Still, reports from La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (1928), screening in the cathedral with a new score by Touve Ratovondrahety, were excellent, and the day’s action in the Teatro Verdi concluded with Manning Haynes’ lovable coastal comedy The Head of the Family (1922).

What we didn’t learn today: Helen in The Spoilers was “wrapped in a woof of secrecy”. Whatever that is. Answers on a postcard or in the comments field below, please.

  • You can read Nathalie Morris’s excellent report from the festival for the BFI website here.
  • I have also written an article for the Guardian film website about Méliès’ Les Aventures de Robinson Crusoé – it’s here.
  • For full details of these and all other films in the festival, the Giornate catalogue is available as a PDF by following this link.
  • My previous reports from the festival are hereherehere and here.

The Artist and Hugo clean up at the “silent Oscars”

It's Oscar!

Well, I think we can allow ourselves to enjoy the moment. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has become the first silent film to win the best picture Oscar since Wings. It also carried away best actor (for Jean Dujardin), best director, best score and best costumes. Martin Scorsese’s not-quite biopic of Georges Méliès, Hugo, was the other big story of the night, winning the same number of awards, including heavyweight gongs for cinematography and art direction as well as three technical awards: best sound mixing, best sound editing, visual effects. I’d like to think it doesn’t take anything away from Scorsese to suggest that his awards were also a tribute to Méliès himself, in recognition of his beautiful, magic films.

We all know that Hollywood loves films about the movies, and there are those who love silent film who don’t necessarily love these two films – but there is no doubt that last night was a triumphant one for fans of the silent era. Let’s not forget that the Buster Keaton-inspired The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore triumphed in the best animated short category too. And the 2012 Academy Awards capped a joyous year in which early cinema was talked about more than it had been for years.

Here’s a quick look back at how it was reported on Silent London:

The Artist is announced for Cannes

The Cannes critics fall for The Artist

The Hugo trailer lands

The Artist: London film festival review

Hugo: review

I meet Uggie, star of The Artist

The Artist triumphs at the Baftas

What to watch when you have watched The Artist

Video: Air talk about scoring A Trip to the Moon by Georges Méliès

Culturethèque met French duo Air during their trip to the Institut Français on 12 December 2011 for an exclusive screening of Georges Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon (1902), in its restored colour version. Watch this interview with the band about Air’s contribution to A Trip to the Moon and about their new album, released on 6 February.

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.

A Trip to the Moon: London Film Festival review

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

This review is a guest post for Silent London by Philip Concannon of the Phil on Film blog.

Even if you’ve never seen Georges Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon (1902) you’ll be familiar with its most enduring image, that of the Man in the Moon grimacing as a rocket lands in his right eye. However, you probably recall that shot in black-and-white, as that’s how the film has been presented for so many years, but Méliès also made A Trip to the Moon in colour. Following the rediscovery of a severely damaged colour print in Barcelona in 1993 – and a painstaking, frame-by-frame restoration – we finally have the opportunity to enjoy the director’s original vision, which surely hasn’t looked as good as this since it premiered in 1902.

Méliès was cinema’s first magician, and he blesses his characters with the same gift for wizardry. In the opening scene, a group of bearded astronomers gather in a great hall, clutching telescopes that they quickly transform into stools so they can sit and listen to their leader’s lunar exploration plans. You might expect editing tricks such as this to appear rudimentary to the modern viewer, but there’s something delightful about the casual ease with which Méliès pulls them off, and the whole film contains moments to thrill and enchant. The lavish sets create a remarkable sense of depth and scale as the intrepid explorers stroll around on the moon’s surface, and there are some wondrously inventive touches, such as the stars coming to life and observing the explorers while they sleep, or the alien creatures who suddenly ambush them, prompting a frantic escape. Our heroes only have their umbrellas to defend themselves with (never visit the moon without one) but it proves to be enough, as one strike from that deadly weapon turns each alien into a puff of smoke, an effect that looks even better now that the smoke is green.

The restored version of A Trip to the Moon that screened this week at the London Film Festival is a beauty. The tinting respects Méliès’s original intentions and helps us pick out details in the background of his often busy compositions, with the celebratory scenes of the explorers’ departure and return being particularly well-served by this new presentation. Visually, A Trip to the Moon is a constant delight, but I have doubts about the score, which has been composed for the film by the French duo Air. One audience member amusingly cried “Oh no!” as the band’s credit was revealed, and while the score doesn’t quite deserve such a despairing reaction, it does feel like an odd fit for the movie. In some scenes, notably the preparations for launch, the music possesses a sense of rhythm that perfectly matches the action, but in other sequences their electric guitars and animal noises (!) jar discordantly with Méliès’s images.

That caveat aside, A Trip to the Moon is essential viewing. It is 14 minutes of pure imagination and it remains as surprising and charming as ever – 109 years on, Méliès the magician still knows how to cast his spell over an audience.

Philip Concannon

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”

The Adventures of Prince Achmed and A Trip to the Moon, Folly for a Flyover, 25 June and 9 July 2011

A Trip to the Moon (1902)
A Trip to the Moon (1902)

It is shaping up to be a great summer for outdoor cinema screenings in London – and that includes silent films as well. For starters, Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd are camping out in Canary Wharf with Neil Brand and the Create London festival is putting on these two gems in an unusual location in Hackney. The Folly for a Flyover is a temporary arts space in Hackney Wick, situated right under the A12. It opens later this month and is hosting five weeks of events. You can read more about this exciting project here on their website.

First up, Sawchestra are back with another interactive silent film show. The group make beautiful music from musical saws, children’s toys and other outlandish instruments and you can join them in playing along to Lotte Reiniger’s classic animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed on 25 June. That same night you will also have the chance to watch a selection of short films from The show starts at 8.30pm on Saturday 25 June and tickets cost £4. More details here.

July brings more delights, as the Folly hosts a screening of George Méliès’s A Trip to the Moon and other early animations, with a live score from the musicians at the Guildhall Electronic Music Studios. This event might sound a little familiar – that’s because it’s a repeat of the Barbican show on 26 June, which I wrote about in more detail here.  This looks great, and I hope the atmospheric location adds to the strangeness of it all – in a good way, I mean! The show starts at 8.30pm on Saturday 9 July and tickets cost £4. More details here.

These screenings are of the Create London festival, a series of cultural events in London’s Olympic host boroughs. For more information on these and the other events in the festival, check out the website.

And thanks to @susan_carey on Twitter for the tip.

A Trip to the Moon and silent animated shorts at the Barbican, 26 June 2011

A Trip to the Moon (1902)
A Trip to the Moon (1902)

The Barbican is devoting the summer to animation, with a multifaceted season called Watch Me Move. There’s an exhibition in the art gallery and screenings in the cinema of everything from anime to Jan Svankmajer. And there’s this, a presentation of early animated films, accompanied by the musicians of the Guildhall Electronic Music Studios.

Top billing goes to the earliest film here: Georges Méliès’s science-fiction spectacular A Trip to the Moon (1902): possibly the most influential 14 minutes of film ever recorded. It’s fair to say that your year of Méliès mania starts here. 2011 marks the 150th anniversary of the director’s birth and there are two big releases in the pipeline to celebrate. First, the painstaking full-colour restoration of A Trip to the Moon, which premiered at Cannes and should be coming to these shores soon. Second, Martin Scorsese’s 3D movie Hugo Cabret, based on a children’s book, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, which features Méliès and his beautiful trick films. This snippet from Le Figaro suggests that we might just see both films together when the latter gets its theatrical release.

Back at the Barbican, and the other films on the bill include four of Winsor McCay’s whimsical hand-drawn animated films:

Silent film The Artist in competition at Cannes Film Festival

The Artist (2011)
The Artist (2011)

This is a turnup for the books. A new silent feature film by French director Michel Hazanavicius has been added to the competition lineup for this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Artist (2011), starring John Goodman, is a silent, black-and-white, 1.33:1 film about the demise of a silent star’s career during the arrival of sound – and it will be competing with titles including Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia for the prestigious Palme d’Or prize.

There’s no confirmed UK release date for The Artist yet, but this news would suggest that we’ll see it sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, your correspondent is not a Cannes delegate, but I will be keeping track of the reviews coming back from the festival, and of course, hoping that this film does justice to the era we love. The 20 films in competition include work by Aki Kaurismaki, Pedro Almodovar, Lynne Ramsay and the Dardenne brothers. Still, wouldn’t it be something if a silent film won the Palme d’Or in 2011?

People who have seen Hazanavicius’s previous films – the retro OSS-117 spy capers – say he has a sure touch with period detail. His first film, La Classe Américaine, was actually a redubbed collage of extracts from the Warner Bros archive, so it’s reasonable to assume he knows his film history. The question is whether The Artist can avoid pastiche, and satisfy silent film fans as much as the wider audience – let alone the judges at Cannes. Goodman is joined in the cast by Hollywood veteran James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller, who you might remember played Edna Purviance in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin biopic.

The Artist (2011)
The Artist (2011)

UPDATE: The Artist has been bought at Cannes by the Weinstein Company. The Weinsteins are saying “Oscar season release”, which we should perhaps take with a pinch of salt, not least because it means quite a long wait until we see the film in the UK. Talking about Oscars raises other questions, though. Would they be angling for a nomination for Best Picture or Best Picture in a Foreign Language? Will the intertitles be translated or subtitled outside France? Still, it’s definitely a vote of confidence in the film, and let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

You can watch some extracts here. Yes the interviews with the director and actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are in French, but as you’ll see, the language barrier is no obstacle for the clips, which demonstrate a sophisticated visual approach to film-making. From the evidence here, The Artist definitely has more than a flavour of late 1920s Hollywood, using dance and humour rather than dialogue to tell its story. Bejo talks about: “un rapport tres sensuel entre le spectateur et l’histoire”, which seems to sum it up rather well.

The Artist screens at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday 15 May.

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

And The Artist isn’t the only silent film screening at Cannes this year. Hugely excitingly, the festival will also host a screening of George Méliès’s  La Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) – like you’ve never seen it before. A nitrate print of the elusive hand-painted colour version of the film was discovered in Barcelona in 1993 and has been salvaged, frame by frame, by Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema  and Technicolor Foundation for Heritage Cinema. The beautiful film will be premiered at Cannes with a score by the dreamy French band Air. As soon as I hear about a chance to see this new version in London, you’ll be the very next people to know.

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