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November 2011

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.

Battalion (1927) at the Barbican, 20 November 2011

Battalion (1927)
Battalion (1927)

A rarely seen gem from Czechoslovakian silent cinema, Battalion (1927) tells the story of a lawyer who becomes a champion of the Prague underclass. It was remade in 1937 as a sound film, but the 1920s version is considered superior: gritty and emotionally affecting.

A much loved novel and play in its day, Josef Hais Tynecky’sBattalion was based on the fortunes of a real-life reluctant hero who took on the legal system. Popular Czech singer Karel Hasler stars as the disillusioned lawyer who swaps his home for the ill-famed pub Battalion after finds his wife with a lover. Living among the poor and drop-outs of Prague he becomes their patron, and when one of them is shot during a police raid, he stands as a key witness in the trial. Raw and effective, director Premysl Prazsky imbues his 14th film with an intellectual and emotional depth exceptional for its time.

The film’s star Karel Hasler, was a very popular Czech musician, director and actor who appeared in several film. Tragically, he was arrested by the Gestapo in 1941 for “crimes” including singing patriotic songs, taken to a concentration camp, and tortured to death.

Battalion screens at the Barbican on 20 November 2011 at 4pm, with a live piano score from Jiří Hradil, a Czech rock musician who is also known for his silent film accompaniments. Tickets start at £7.50 and are available here, on the Barbican website.

The Wolves at the Barbican, 13 November 2011

The Wolves (1923)
The Wolves (1923)

What can I tell you about The Wolves? I’ve not seen it, but I hear very good things. It’s a Portuguese silent film, from 1923, shot on location and with non-professional actors. It was directed by Rino Lupo, who had previously worked elsewhere in Europe, most notably for Gaumont in Paris. He made one hit film in Portugal, Mulheres da Beira (1923), but it sounds as if The Wolves was a troubled production – Lupo was sacked by the studio after the film wrapped, for missing deadlines and for financial “disagreements”.
It’s an unusual film by all accounts, described as having a “paradoxical uniqueness”, and telling the story of a stranger’s damaging arrival in a rustic community, fresh out of jail. The title refers to the two lead characters: “wildly violent in their desires and impulses”. It’s a elemental film, we’re told, and that location photography is very important. “The sea and the mountains push heavily, encircling their psyches and ways of life.” Also, The Wolves features Portuguese cinema’s first scene of full nudity, if that is of any interest to you.

Having shunned the studio and the professional actor, and also the temptation to import a foreign, tried and tested formula that was common practice in Portugal and other peripheral film industries of the time, Lupo opened the way, some would say, to the specific irregularity of a cinema, that of Portugal, that only during the years of the dictatorship, and elsewhere recently, has walked the tracks of mainstream production.

The Wolves screens at the Barbican Cinema on 13 November at 4pm. This will be the film’s UK premiere, which will be accompanied by live music composed by Luis Soldado, conducted by Maestro Rui Pinheiro, and performed by Grupo de Música Contemporânea de Lisboa. The film will be introduced by Tiago Baptista, Rino Lupo’s biographer. For tickets, visit the Barbican website.

The Battle of the Somme – on tour

However many big-budget war films come and go, real footage of frontline combat is still shocking. How much more powerful would such images have been 95 years ago, when The Battle of the Somme (1916) was released, and watched by 50% of the British population? JB MacDowell and Geoffrey Malins’s documentary was intended to boost morale, but its scenes of wounded and dead soldiers, not to mention the contentious “over-the-top” sequence, make it a more complicated, thought-provoking and mournful piece of work. One of the “over-the-top” scenes was staged, but so much else is horribly real here – and the film was inscribed on UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register in 2005.

The Battle of the Somme‘s footage may be familiar to you as it has been mined for many a first world war documentary, but it is an entirely different experience to watch it all, in one sitting. This upcoming short UK tour offers a very special opportunity to do just that. Composer Laura Rossi’s orchestral score for the film will be performed at four special screenings of The Battle of the Somme in 2011 and 2012, by four different ensembles:

For more details, and to listen to clips of the score, visit Laura Rossi’s website. To find out more about the film, read this post from The Bioscope. Also, the Times reviewed the premiere of the score, when it was performed in the Queen Elizabeth Hall with the film in 2006. The Battle of the Somme is also available on a DVD produced by the Imperial War Museum, with two scores, both Rossi’s and a recreation of a likely contemporary soundtrack, by Stephen Horne, based on cue sheets.

If you want to contribute to the the tour, you can do so here, on the crowdfunding website, We Did This.

Hat-tip to the Bioscope for alerting me to this one.

Nosferatu with Minima and organ, Halloween 2011

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Murnau’s acclaimed Dracula adaptation, Nosferatu (1922) is still one of the most chilling horror movies ever made – and probably the most influential. So if you’re looking for a cool halloween night out, you can’t beat watching Max Schreck’s shadow creeping up those stairs with Minima’s heavy rock soundtrack. Luckily, then, there will be a few chances for you to catch the Nosferatu-Minima show this witching season. They’re playing two gigs in London, at Stoke Newington International Airport on 29 October 2011 and at the Prince Charles Cinema on 24 November. Check out the venues’ website for times and ticket prices, and if you live outside London, have a look at Minima’s website for performances of Nosferatu in Devon, Hertfordshire and Somerset.

And if you prefer a more traditional silent film accompaniment, Nosferatu is also playing at the Brentford Musical Museum, with a live organ score by Donald Mackenzie on 19 November 2011. Tickets cost £10. For more information and to book, visit the museum website.

The Phantom of the Opera for Halloween 2011

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

Call it a spooky coincidence, but there are three screenings of The Phantom of the Opera (1925) coming up in the London area this month. Could it be that Halloween is approaching?

From the novel by Gaston Leroux, Lon Chaney creates one of his most grotesque performances as the crazed man without a face, who lives in the catacombs beneath the Paris Opera, and falls in love with the voice of a young opera singer. Infatuated, he kidnaps her, dragging her to the depths below where she will sing only for him.

The Phantom of the Opera is a spectacularly grand horror film – from its Paris Opera House setting, to lead actor Lon Chaney’s gruesome makeup, and the early use of Technicolor in the Bal masqué sequence. You really can’t beat seeing this on the big screen – and with live musical accompaniment, of course. And this month, you have two chances to do.

On 19 October 2011, you can watch The Phantom of the Opera in a very unusual location: the medieval Croydon Minster in Surrey. The screening will be accompanied by David Griggs, who will improvise a score on the church organ. Tickets cost £10 and are available by emailing enquiries@croydonminster.org or calling 020 8688 8104. For more details, visit the Croydon Minster website.

The Phantom of the Opera is haunting the West End too. On 27 October 2011, the Prince Charles Cinema will be screening the film with piano accompaniment by Costas Fotopoulos. The PCC’s silent screenings always have a great atmosphere, so this should be a suitably spine-tingling way to kick off the the Halloween weekend. Tickets cost £11 or £7 for concessions and are available from the PCC website.

And the Phantom can also be found at London’s newest cinema. The box-fresh Hackney Picturehouse hosts a screening of the film, with a live soundtrack by Wirral band the Laze.

 This Halloween they bring Picturehouse their bespoke score for the classic silent horror Phantom of the Opera (1925).  Influenced by a history of horror soundtracks, from Bernard Hermann & Angelo Badalamenti to Goblin & John Carpenter, The Laze implement elements of Progressive Rock, Classical, Jazz, Doom and Electronica in their auteur musical accompaniment.

The band are also performing their score at cinemas in Liverpool, Newcastle and Aberystwyth. Find out more on their Facebook page and click here to book tickets for the Hackney show.

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.

Louis (2010) at the Barbican

Louis (2010)
Louis (2010)

Modern silent films come in all shapes and sizes, but we’re used to seeing them online or at amateur film festivals. However, since The Artist charmed the critics, and the Weinsteins, at Cannes, and Martin Scorsese is serving up Méliès to kids in Hugo, perhaps the day will come when modern silents invade the multiplex, too.

Louis (2010) is definitely helping to put modern silents on the map, but you won’t be seeing it in your local Odeon any time soon, because it is only to be shown with its live musical accompaniment, a score composed by Wynton Marsalis and performed by a hand-picked band of musicians. This is a film all about jazz in fact, set in New Orleans in 1907 – it’s a fictionalised account of the early years of Louis Armstrong, with a few nods to the cinema of the time.

Louis is a companion piece to a sound film, Bolden, which is coming out next year, about the ‘Cornet King’ Buddy Bolden. Both films have been directed and co-written by Dan Pritzker, a billionaire musician turned film-maker, who has certainly hired some big names to help realise his vision – not just Marsalis, but an Oscar-winning director of photography too.

Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond as a modern re-imagining of early silent film, “Louis” is an homage to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, beautiful women and the birth of American music. The grand Storyville bordellos, alleys and cemeteries of 1907 New Orleans provide a backdrop of lust, blood and magic for 6 year old Louis (Anthony Coleman) as he navigates the colourful intricacies of life in the city. Young Louis’s dreams of playing the trumpet are interrupted by a chance meeting with a beautiful and vulnerable girl named Grace (Lowry) and her baby, Jasmine. Haley, in a performance reminiscent of the great comic stars of the silent screen, plays the evil Judge Perry who is determined not to let Jasmine’s true heritage derail his candidacy for governor.

When Roger Ebert saw a preview of Louis in Chicago, he praised its “energy and wit,” saying: “It’s not a social documentary, and its recreation of New Orleans is certainly on the upbeat side, but then Louis Armstrong was on the upbeat side … What he’d especially approve of might be Marsalis – who took his performances as an inspiration – and the jazz band.”

I have taken a peek at the trailer, and at first glance Louis’s moody colour palette doesn’t look quite like any silent film I’ve seen before – but the Chaplinalike villain, speeded-up chase sequences and some neat physical comedy all recall the silent era. Some of the slick superimpositions and swooping camera movements feel comfortable, too, despite their 21st-century sheen. That said, the raunchy dancing in some scenes is more reminiscent of a Christina Aguilera video than anything I’ve seen in a silent film.

We will be able to judge properly soon, though, as Louis comes to London as part of the London Jazz Festival, with two screenings at the Barbican Arts Centre. This is an exciting opportunity to see a new silent film on the big screen and hear some leading jazz musicians play. Whether the music or the film will shine the brightest remains to be seen.

Louis screens at the Barbican on 13 November 2011 at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets cost between £10 and £25 and are available here. It’s worth pointing out that this film is not suitable for children – it was rated R in the US for sexual content and nudity.

Silent films at the Cheltenham Film Festival, 4-6 November 2011

Piccadilly (1929)
Piccadilly (1929)

The beautiful regency town of Cheltenham is home to a very impressive film festival and this year’s lineup is particularly exciting for lovers of silent cinema. Across the festival weekend in November there are no fewer than six silent events – all with live music, and incorporating fiction and non-fiction films. Some of these special events have already been seen in London – but by no means all of them. Let’s go straight into a list:

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