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May 2011

Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2

(l-r) Mary Pickford, DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, founders of United Artists
(l-r) Mary Pickford, DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, founders of United Artists

Paul Merton is probably the most high-profile silent film fan in the country, with a book, a stage show and a series of documentaries on comedy under his belt. And now he’s back, on BBC 2 no less, with a three-part series of programmes about the early days of the American films industry – Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood.

The first programme will focus on DW Griffith, the beginnings of the star system and the relationship between music and silent film. There’s a very jolly introduction to the series on Paul Merton’s official website here, and some musings about making the documentaries on the BBC site here. You’ll be pleased to know that Neil Brand is involved too – he’s written the title music

Merton clearly has a great passion for the subject, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see documentaries on early cinema airing on one of the major channels. What would be great, of course, would be a screening of a silent film or two after the programme, but it looks like that is not to be. Better luck next time, chums.

Merton appeared on Danny Baker’s radio show on Saturday to promote the show and their 10-minute chat is well worth a listen on iPlayer, if only for the infectious enthusiasm the pair have for the subject. Follow the link here, and fast-forward to an hour and five minutes into the programme.

Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood begins on BBC 2 at 9.30pm on Friday 27 May 2011.

Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew at Blackall Studios, Shoreditch 25-29 May 2011

From Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew
From Beautiful and Damned by Pam Glew

For the vintage-lovers among you, this exhibition should be a real treat. Pam Glew’s Beautiful and Damned exhibition at Blackall Studios in east London uses vintage fabrics and techniques to create poignant but gorgeous images of silent movie stars. It’s only on for a few days, so catch it while you can:

‘Beautiful and Damned’, the shows title, is of course taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel, which explores the listless lives of moneyed society during the Jazz Age. This captivating era, drenched in glamour yet tinged with tragedy is the decadent setting for this extraordinary series of work. The exquisitely beautiful movie starlets, society icons and characters on display capture the spirit of the age all who are caught in the unforgiving glare of the limelight and some sadly burn out before their time. As Pam states, “the tragedy amongst the beauty is what has inspired this show, the sharp contrast between a blessed life and one that ends in scandal, hedonism or destitution”.

Beautiful and Damned runs from 25-29 May at Blackall Studios, 73 Leonard Street, Shoreditch, London EC2A 4QS. For more information, check out Pam Glew’s website here.

Storm Over Asia at BFI Southbank – change to the advertised programme

Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia (1928)

Just to let you know that the throatsinging band Yat-Kha will no longer be making an appearance at the BFI screening of Storm Over Asia on Friday. This is what the BFI has to say

We regret to announce that this live performance is cancelled. Unfortunately key members of Yat-Kha have experienced problems with obtaining visas to visit the UK and are unable to reach London in time. We will screen a new high definition restoration of the film, that includes a live soundtrack performed by Yat-Kha at the National Film Theatre in 2001. Please note, the film will run 145min.

Ticketholders will also be able to enjoy a complimentary vodka cocktail (upon presentation of ticket to benugo bar staff), courtesy of season supporters Ivan The Terrible Vodka.

Tickets now at normal ticket price. Ticketholders who no longer wish to attend or ticketholders who wish to attend but would like to have the difference refunded, should contact the Box Office in person or by phone  (020 7928 3232).

City Lights and Metropolis at Ealing’s Classic Cinema Club, May 2011

City Lights (1931)
City Lights (1931)

There’s a new film club in west London – Ealing’s Classic Cinema Club, which plans to show great movies from around the world every Friday night. They’re launching themselves in fine style, with a brace of silent films: Chaplin’s City Lights and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.

From sentiment to science-fiction, that’s two very different silents, and this will be a great to watch some wonderful movies as well as an opportunity to meet fellow film fans in an area rich with its own cinematic heritage. First, the world-famous Ealing Studios are just down the road; second, I took Film Studies A-level at the local sixth-form college. OK, maybe I didn’t think that one through properly.

The following week, on 27 May, the club will show Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), which should be a fine accompaniment to the Soviet silents being screened at the BFI this month.

As ever, if your local film society is planning any silent screenings – do let me know.

City Lights screens on 13 May and Metropolis will be shown on 20 May, both at Ealing Town Hall. All screenings start at 7pm sharp and will be followed by a short discussion. Tickets cost £7.50 or £6 for concessions.  Tickets may be reserved (but not bought) in advance by writing to classiccinemaclub@hotmail.co.uk or phoning 020 8579 4925. Membership is also available at £5. More details about the club can be found here.

With thanks to @ianburge on Twitter for telling me about these screenings.

Man With a Movie Camera at the Barbican, 29 May 2011

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

You can’t throw a plate in London this month without hitting a screening of a Russian silent film, what with Battleship Potemkin and the BFI’s Kino season, and the Barbican is getting involved too. The final episode in the cinema’s City Symphony strand is Dziga Vertov’s weird and wonderful Man with a Movie Camera. It’s a masterpiece of montage, with a whimsical sense of humour and a remarkable rhythm.


Dziga Vertov’s ‘city symphony’ creates a montage of daily life in Moscow (with some scenes shot in Odessa) and emerged as one of the most innovative and experimental films of the silent era. Stunning photography by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman depicts the pulse and energy of the city in the late 1920s, the people at work and play, and the machines that make the city tick. A landmark in avant-garde cinema.

The film will be shown on 35mm film, and will be accompanied by a live score from In the Nursery, a synth-based band from Sheffield which has soundtracked several silents. Here’s a review of their Man with a Movie Camera score from a performance in 1999.

Comprised of relatively lush, ‘intelligent’ techno, the music adds a contemporary feel to a film whose joyous celebrations of modernity in all its forms still seems fresh… Seeing the film for the first time, I found it almost overwhelming. Although In the Nursery’s techno is less ‘industrial’ than it could have been, its unashamed populism does Dziga Vertov proud.

Man with a Movie Camera screens at 4pm on Sunday 29 May 2011 at the Barbican Arts Centre. Tickets cost £10.50 or £8.50 online or £6.50 for members. You can buy them here.

Silent film at the Brighton Festival, 7-29 May 2011

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This month sees the return of Brighton Festival, a three-week cultural feast, featuring music, theatre, comedy and more than the city’s usual share of jugglers no doubt. It’s a very high-profile event – Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi is the festival’s Guest Director this year, and she has recorded an inspiring message for the festival website, all about creativity and freedom of expression.

Therefore I am very pleased to say that early cinema is among the artforms represented at the seaside festival, most notably by a screening of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, accompanied by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s compelling new score. I was fortunate enough to see (and hear) this last week in London and it really is a tour de force, so please do attend the screening on 29 May at the Concert Hall if you can. Details here.

But it doesn’t stop there. Professor Heard will be setting up shop in the festival’s pop-up cinema, for two magic lantern shows on 16 May. First on the bill, at 7.45pm, will be the Old Curiosity Show, featuring “bearded ladies, alphabetical acrobats, prodigious pigs, baby juggling and curious cinema advertisements”. Then at 9pm the professor will return with a little something strictly for the over-18s:

A sniggerfest of artistic fluffing material. A prurient look at Victorian erotica, plus further examples of the way in which Victorian gentlemen and ladies got their jollies. Definitely not for children.

Details of both magic lantern shows can be found here.

Elsewhere, on the Festival Fringe, David Watts will perform his The Silent Movie Experience on 15, 22 and 29 May, playing along to silent comedies at the Komedia Studio. Details here.

Also at the Komedia Studio, an intriguing short theatre piece called Asta Nielsen is Dead: a Silent Movie will use projections and captions to pay homage to the Danish actress:

Lady Pumpernickel and Miss Carrota interact with projected texts and images, using methods found in silent films. As in silent films the performers will suffer from the tragedies of love & attempt to escape bizarre and humorous accidents. At the end there is just one open question: Who is going to die?
Asta Nielsen is Dead will be performed at 5.15pm on 7 May – more information here.

Pandora’s Box at the Prince Charles Cinema, 26 May 2011

Pandora's Box (1929)
Pandora's Box (1929)

If you haven’t seen Pandora’s Box (1929) before, I’m actually a little jealous of you. This film and its notorious leading lady are so irrepressibly gorgeous that your first viewing really should be a big-screen experience – and this is the perfect opportunity.

By the end of the 1920s Louise Brooks had had her fill of Hollywood, and Hollywood had pretty much had its fill of her. Lucky, then, that she caught the eye of German director GW Pabst and moved to swinging Weimar Berlin to take the lead role in Pandora’s Box. Brooks plays Lulu, a hedonistic dancer who pursues her own pleasure at the expense of bourgeois morality, or pretty much anyone’s morality, come to mention it. The role has come to define Brooks and rightly so. Who hasn’t, when watching Brooks shake her iconic bob, thought: “That girl could get away with murder”? Pandora’s Box puts that theory to the test like no other movie, and Brooks’s sensual performance radiates here – even as events take a series of sinister turns and the film transforms from a backstage comedy, to a thriller, to something approaching horror.

Keep an eye out for your chance to win a pair of free tickets to Pandora’s Box next week, here on Silent London

Pandora’s Box screens at the Prince Charles Cinema on Thursday 26 May at 8.30pm. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by the marvellous John Sweeney. Tickets cost £10 or £6 for members and they’re available here.

Battleship Potemkin: review

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925, 71 minutes, cert PG

As the Black Sea foams and crashes into the shore, an intertitle describes the waves of revolutionary feeling sweeping Russia in 1905, and the 55-piece orchestra swells into action. Sergei Eisenstein opens his classic film Battleship Potemkin (1925) with an adroit combination of image, word and music – which we can now experience here in Britain for the first time.

So much is fresh to UK audiences about this 86-year-old film resident on countless Greatest Ever lists and pored over by generations of film students. First, there’s the original orchestral score written by Edmund Meisel and a handful of reinstated shots, some of which were excised from the unforgettably tense Odessa Steps sequence. Not only this, but the film has been beautifully restored, and the title cards recreated according to the director’s wishes. The language is stronger and more socialist than before. It’s bolshier.

Eisenstein’s second feature film is all about solidarity, as it tells the story of a mutiny aboard the eponymous battleship. A group of sailors refuse to eat soup made with rotten meat, and face a firing squad of their peers, but the spirit of comradeship intervenes as the crew rise up against the senior officers – and proudly hoist a bold red flag as they sail into Odessa harbour. On shore, the locals also support the sailors, with terrible consequences. The question is, will the rest of the fleet welcome the revolutionaries home, or follow the command to fire?

Because Battleship Potemkin is an appeal to fellow-feeling and collective action, it is only right that the restoration work creates a more immersive film, one that places no barriers between a 21st-century audience and its monumentally powerful imagery.

In this print, the maggots in the sailors’ dinner squirm in all their greasy glory and the splatters of blood on the Odessa Steps glisten, wetter than before and more gruesome. But it’s not all about horror. The sunlight glints sharply off the calm waters, or is diffused gently through the early morning mists. The scenes of small boats with white sails bringing supplies to the Potemkin are particularly gorgeous. That red flag is vividly, almost luridly hand-tinted red – as aggressively bright as the senior officers’ white trousers, in cruel contrast to the lower orders’ dingy uniforms.

The gloomy scenes below deck are free of murk, too, and we can pick out individuals in the massive crowd scenes. It’s perfect for tracing each extra’s individual path down those infamous steps, some trampling on bodies, and some stumbling over them as they fall.

Then there’s the score. Motoring through the film’s brisk 71-minute running time with a booming bass drum, the music is at its best mostly when it is bombastic. I liked the sustained woodwind sound before that first, fatal thrown plate, and the crashing percussion that announced the arrival of the cossacks. I wasn’t so convinced by the cracking sounds that synchronised with the gunshots, but soon these musical sound effects won me over. Occasionally the score tends towards jaunty, when perhaps it could have been tense, such as when the sailors dive off the Potemkin in an attempt to rescue a fallen comrade. But my qualms were swept away by the film’s final sequence: the music pulses faster and faster as the ship gains speed and prepares for battle, ratcheting up the tension superbly.

Battleship Potemkin, restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, is on theatrical release from 29 April, screening in London at the BFI Southbank and the Curzon Renoir among other venues.

Kino: Russian Film Pioneers season at BFI Southbank, May 2011

Strike (1925)
Strike (1925)

The Russians are coming to the BFI Southbank. In the year that sees the release of the restored Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin, the BFI is exploring Russian cinema with a seven-month programme: two months will be spent travelling through Russian cinema history, followed by a season of science-fiction and space documentaries, and a final season devoted to the director Alexander Sokurov.

It’s the first month that mostly concerns us, and the BFI is showing 12 silent features, plus a programme of early shorts (all playing twice) and a couple of educational events. That’s alongside Potemkin’s extended run and two special screenings with live scores (Eisenstein’s The Old and the New and Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia). Plus, don’t forget that Eisenstein’s October is on in April. It could be a little daunting, so here’s the Silent London guide to what’s on when and what it’s all about.

Some of these films are very rarely seen, or at least very rarely seen on the big screen. That’s a polite way of saying that a couple of them are the kind of favourites that do come round fairly regularly. Which is not to say that you should give them a miss, but this is a good opportunity to see some Russian rarities, so pick your screenings wisely. Unless, of course, you plan to see everything, in which case I tip my (fur) hat to you.

Continue Reading →

L’Histoire du ‘Look’: German silents at BFI Southbank, May 2011

Queen Kelly (1929)
Queen Kelly (1929)

It’s not all about Russia at the BFI in May. This L’Histoire du “Look” strand is dedicated to the development of visual style in the cinema, as part of the educational Passport to Cinema programme. Quite frankly, all six titles in this first part are worth a gawp, but we’ll restrict ourselves to the silents here – three gems, each shown three times, which should keep the BFI pianists busy.

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is here representing the angular, dreamlike world of German Expressionism. The shifting perspectives of the scenery mirror the shifting narrative, where nothing is ever quite what it seems for long.

1 May 3.50pm/2 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/4 May 8.30pm

The Last Laugh (1924), directed by FW Murnau, is remarkable for being (almost) intertitle-free, allowing Karl Freund’s mobile camera and Emil Jannings’s powerful lead performance to to tell the story of a doorman who loses first his job and then his social standing.

4 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/5 May 8.40pm/13 May 6pm

Queen Kelly (1929) is known as a lost film, as star/producer Gloria Swanson walked off set one day, disappointed by director Erich von Stroheim’s less than wholesome interpretation of the Hays-approved script. Von Stroheim was sacked and sections of the film removed; it was later re-edited and completed as Swanson wished. However, the luxurious sets and glamorous costumes we expect from Von Stroheim are all present and correct – as is the melodramatic plot.

  • Update: The restored 1985 version of Queen Kelly will be screened, which has an orchestral score already, so there will be no live accompaniment.

2 May 3.50pm/9 May 6.10pm (with introduction and short animated film from NFTS)/21 May 8.45pm

All screenings except Queen Kelly have live piano accompaniment. Tickets cost £9.50 or £6.75 for concessions, and less for BFI members. They will be available on 4 April for BFI members and from 11 April for everyone else. More details on the website here.

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