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.”
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.
The fifth instalment of Scotland’s only silent movie festival announces its programme today – and judging by previous years, you should start snapping up tickets straight away (tickets go on sale today, 10 February 2015, at noon). The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema takes place in Bo’ness, a small town tucked away on the banks of the Firth of Forth in Falkirk, Scotland. Bo’ness has a stunning vintage cinema, the Hippodrome, which has been restored to its 1920s glory, and each year hosts of a celebration of the silent era that is as welcoming as it is wide-ranging.
HippFest celebrates its fifth birthday in style with three major World Premiere Festival Commissions, a pop-up cinema at Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, the chance to discover forgotten stars Colleen Moore and Eric Campbell and get hands-on with a series of workshops and interactive events covering everything from beatboxing to Joan Crawford’s favourite dinner party recipes.
You can find all the information about the festival, and how to book tickets for the events, on the festival website here. You can also follow the festival on Facebook and Twitter. This year’s event runs from 18-22 March 2015 and below I have picked out some highlights from the programme. I have to say I am pretty excited.
The Friday night gala screening will be the hilarious Synthetic Sin, starring Colleen Moore. There’s a dress code ladies and gents – flapper glamour! Neil Brand will accompany on piano and some silent movie blogger or other will be introducing the film …
“The Film Explainer” Andy Cannon will perform alongside extracts from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, along with musicians Wendy Weatherby and Frank McLaughlin.
Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.
There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.
But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.
The mountain footage in 'Colored Views from the Entire World' with musical accompaniment by Stephen Horne was particularly magical. #GCM33
The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.
Colleen Moore, first among flappers, is so universally adored among the silent cinema crowd that she can get away with anything. Case in point: today’s screening of the irrepressible Synthetic Sin (1929), in which La Moore plays an aspiring actress whose talents lie further towards comedy than tragedy. So much so that she interrupts a dance show to perform a wigglesome, gigglesome routine of her own … in blackface. She wins the crowd in the movie, and perhaps a little more guardedly she repeated the trick in Teatro Verdi today. You can’t edit the past, and you can’t deny the crowd-pulling power of Colleen Moore.
Synthetic Sin was a winner today, a restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone project; this film has been primped back to its best, and even comes with a snippet of its original sound-on-disc score. That blackface moment wasn’t only thing that was “of its time” about the movie, but Moore’s personality, and charm, and sheer comic talent brook no obstacles. An early scene in which she mimics “Paderewski playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude” was far funnier than such a skit had any right to be. A thunderous round of applause ensued, from a live audience 85 years too late to catch the real thing.
But Moore only arrived four screenings into the day. We’re calling this a Manic Monday, with three heavyweight movies in the morning alone: two Barrymores (Ethel and Lionel) and a treat from the Russian Laughter strand: Zakroischchik iz Torzhka (The Tailor from Torzhok, Yakov Protazanov, 1925).
Yes, the name of the Russian Laughter strand has raised some sniggers in the hotel corridors and café terraces of Pordenone already, but we don’t listen to haters here at Silent London. And we’re right, as usual, because The Tailor from Torzhok was a hoot. This is Soviet cinema’s first feature-length comedy, and it’s definitely western-style in its reliance on physical stunts and romance. It was intended to promote the state lottery, but enjoyably not a single likable character gives two figs for the lotto – the government bond is sold on, rejected, crumpled and, ahem, fixed to the wall with nasal mucus. Ick. Great comic work from Igor Illiinsky in the lead role, whether pratfalling or winningly rubbing shoulders with his pretty miss.
As with recent exhibitions of the photography, typography and graphic design work of Aleksandr Rodchenko (at the Hayward in 2008 and at Tate Modern in 2009), it is gratifying to see the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, London, introducing a new generation to the stunning power and exuberance of Soviet film posters. This show reinforces an impression that disorientation and montage were methodically deployed across a number of design practices to arresting and persuasive effect. The respect for this work accorded by contemporary critics is acknowledged by the GRAD show’s inclusion of an advertisement for the 1926 Second Exhibition of Film Posters: people came to recognise the monograms of “named” designers; the dedication of artists to public art was officially celebrated and promoted.
The largest collection of Soviet film posters, to my knowledge, is held by the Russian State Library in Moscow, deposited as a consequence of copyright requirements. Unfortunately, in many instances, little is known about the commissioning process, nor the circumstances and extent of information supplied to designers at the time the posters were produced concerning the films advertised. To those of us familiar with the Moscow archive, the range of formats will come as no surprise – nor will the anonymity of some designers. For visitors acquainted with glossy, flat, reproductions of posters in such coffee-table compilations as Susan Pack’s Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde (Taschen, 1995), the raw texture of the lithographs on display will serve as a reminder of the technical constraints under which the work was produced. Photogravure and modern offset printing came to Russia only late in the 1920s. Offprints of the posters are here available as postcards or at A3 (£25) and a1 (£60). Posters, I recall, were a great hit at the British Council’s Yuri Gagarin installation.
The GRAD show, drawn from two private collections mostly of the monogrammed variety – the Stenberg Brothers feature prominently), alongside readily identifiable excerpts from films: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Victor Turin’s Turksib (1929) sit alongside Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Chess Fever (1924) and Storm over Asia (1928); an excerpt from Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg (1927) is accompanied by posters by Izrail Bograd and Semyon Semyonov-Menes for the same film (both featuring the monumental equestrian statue of Alexander III – as it appears in the film). An “Avrora” sailor’s hat-band, in a section of a Stenbergs’ hoarding, is sufficient to evoke Eisenstein’s October (1927).
The show confirms an appetite on the part of Soviet audiences for cinematic entertainments tragic, dramatic and comedic. The Stenbergs’ poster for Aleksandr Ivanovskii’s The Decembrists (1926) demonstrates the Soviet regime’s concern to establish precedents in Russian history for the October Revolution. There is also ample evidence of the export of American and European films to Russia in the post-Revolutionary period, likely to receive a welcome reception: for instance, Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924), significantly known in Russia as A Man and a Livery, is represented by Emil Jannings proudly standing foreground in his preposterously braided hotel commissionaire’s uniform, with, in the background, the shadowy, hunched figure he is destined to become once retired to the hotel’s basement washroom.
The show’s thin catalogue (overpriced at £25) includes short essays by co-curator Lutz Becker and co-editor Alexandra Chiriac. The former covers key aspects of art school training, film production and distribution; the latter pays obeisance to Walter Benjamin (the 1926-27) Moscow Diary and 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility) while, sadly, failing to counter Benjamin’s uninformed estimation of the talents of Igor Ilinskii, undeservedly reported as “an inscrupulous and inept imitator of Chaplin”. Russian audiences appreciated Ilinskii as one of their finest actors, on stage and screen. An appendix outlines the education, careers and varied output of the designers recognised.
I look forward to GRAD’s coming exhibitions, notably its 2014 summer show of Soviet textiles.
You like your silent film screenings with a touch of rock’n’roll? No problem. Filmphonics presents silent movies with live soundtracks in the quirky Hackney Attic venue at the top of the Hackney Picturehouse, and this month they’re showing an out-there Soviet sci-fi classic with a rock score.
Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) is a futuristic fantasy, about a love affair between a Russian man and a member of Martian royalty. But there’s a twist, of course, and some outlandish headgear too. This is a unique and fascinating film, which you can read more about in this feature from The Quietus.
Aelita was an event. The novel, by Alexey Tolstoy, had been the first undisputed classic of Soviet science fiction. The release of the film was preceded by extensive ‘teaser’ campaigns in Pravda andKinogazeta (“What is the meaning of mysterious signals received by radio stations around the world? Find out on September 30!”). Alexander Exter, the film’s designer, was one of the few Russian futurists to have been on good terms with F.T. Marinetti and spent considerable time in Italy. She had taken part in the Salon des independents in Paris and socialised with Picasso and Braque. Special music had been commissioned to be performed by full orchestra in the cinema at screenings of the (silent) film. It was, perhaps, as film historian Ian Christie has argued “the key film of the New Economic Policy period.” Its release was so successful that many parents named their children ‘Aelita’ after the eponymous Martian princess. Years later, it would lend its name also to a Soviet-made analogue synth.
Minima’s score for the film is really excellent, making use of a cello as well as more traditional rock instruments to draw out the best of this wonderful film.
Aelita: Queen of Mars screens at Hackney Attic on Sunday 16 September at 7.30pm. Tickets start at £7 for members. Find out more here.
To win a pair of tickets to the Aelita: Queen of Mars screening simply email the answer to this simple question to email@example.com with Aelita in the subject header by noon on Wednesday 12 September 2012.
What is the name of the director of Aelita: Queen of Mars?
Two silent films, both with a lot to say, concluded the London Film Festival archive strand on Wednesday night. The double-bill of Soviet war film The Nail in the Boot (1931) and Lois Weber’s drama Shoes (1916) was not, we were assured, meant to be witty – rather it was a happy accident of programming. The films are from different times and continents, with contrasting styles. If they have anything in common beyond their titles, it is that they both issue moral warnings to the audience: look what can happen if you let your standards slip.
Expectations were raised for The Nail in the Boot when we were told that not only has it long been championed by our musician for the evening, Stephen Horne, but that he has won an award at the Bonn Sommerkino silent film festival for his accompaniment. And a spectacular soundtrack it was too, dynamic and inventive, incorporating accordion, flute and piano – often played in unconventional ways. Piano strings were plucked as missiles exploded in the battlefield; the accordion bellows hissed as soldiers were choked with gas. The same melody Horne plays on the accordion as the red soldiers celebrate a victory is repeated later on the flute after a terrible loss.
The film, by Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, I am Cuba) is in three sections: a battle scene featuring an armoured train under aerial bombardment; a nervy sequence when one soldier is despatched from the train to call for help, but is hobbled by the eponymous nail injuring his foot; a trial scene, which tips into fantasy, as the soldier is accused of sabotage. The first two thirds are by far the most thrilling, and not just because the trial scene carries the weight of the film’s propagandist message. Kalatozov’s combat scenes are unforgettable: frenetic montage, extreme close-ups (even inside a gun barrel) and low angles make the viewer feel as if they too are being bombarded. I lost count of the number of times the camera appeared to be run over by enemy tanks, but I’m sure I flinched each time. Modern audiences will enjoy Kalatozov’s extravagant use of formalistic trickery for the same reason that the Soviet authorities suppressed it – it draws attention away from the film’s message and towards the skill of the film-maker. His triumph is that his abstract style makes the violence more tangible, not less.
Reeling from the battlefield, we were all urging the soldier on as he raced across open country. Faced with barbed wire, and a bare, bandaged foot, he nobly attempts to climb the fence. We wince. He tries again. Aah. So many curled toes and pained faces in one audience.
The Nail in the Boot has recently been restored by Gosfilmofond, and although we had no information as to the state of the print before work began, the film we saw was crisp, clean, with a wonderful quality of light and rich in detail. The latter was particularly noticeable in a lattice of shadows cast by a broom on our protagonist’s face.
We had more clues about the restoration of Shoes (including a neat before-and-after comparison reel), which has been rescued from a blizzard of nitrate deterioration and bacterial damage by the EYE film institute in the Netherlands. Based on two tinted and toned nitrate prints with a few frames grabbed from a sarcastically dubbed 1930s version, the new Shoes is hugely improved, although it still retains unobtrusive marks at the edge of the frame in some scenes.
Lois Weber was one of the silent era’s very few female film directors and for that reason alone her work will always be of interest. Shoes is a simple enough tale of young shop worker, Eva (Mary MacLaren), who can’t afford a replacement pair of boots, and the moral dilemma she faces when opportunity presents itself, albeit in an unwelcome form. If it feels that Weber spends too long moralising in the title-cards, that may be because visually she expresses her heroine’s predicament so well. We were forewarned by as representative of EYE to play close attention to the end. After an hour spent walking inEva’s tattered, sodden shoes, a 21st-century audience may find less to condemn or lament in the choice she makes.
At one point a superimposed hand labelled “Poverty” appears to crush Eva as she sleeps, but Weber’s touch is not quite always so heavy. While the film is always elegantly composed, the kitchen-sink details of slum life, from watered-down milk and sugar sandwiches to empty shelves and broken furniture are everywhere – Shoes is relentlessly unglamorous. Even MacLaren’s lead performance is sullen, quietly anguished, rather than melodramatic. If I were her, I’d be seething too.
You live in London and you love silent film, so you’re probably a member of the BFI. Well, I hope so, because there are two silent film screenings coming up in August – one that is members-only and another that almost is.
First, on 4 August, is Turksib (1929), a Soviet documentary about efforts to build a railway through Central Asia. The name Turksib stands for the Turkestan-Siberian railway, which starts near Tashkent in Uzbekistan, and joins the Trans-Siberian railway in Novosibirsk, Russia. If you enjoyed Salt for Svanetia during the BFI’s recent Soviet silents season, this screening has your name all over it. The August screening will feature a live musical score by Guy Bartell of the electronica band Bronnt Industries Kapital, which previously soundtracked the silent witchcraft documentary Häxan. Their most recent album was described by a German magazine this way: “As if Joy Division, Can and The Human League were locked in a room together.” I think that means we can expect something pretty dark and moody but with a disco beat. Works for me.
Turksib is a BFI Members Exclusive event. So, if you’re a member, log on the BFI Members page and you can enter a ballot for tickets. If you’re successful, your first ticket is free and the second is member guest price, ie £8. The ballot is open now, and closes at 8.30pm on 8 July. Turksib screens at 6.30pm on Thursday 4 August at NFT1, but please note that there will be reduced seating due to to refurbishment work.
A few days later, the new, improved NFT1 will host a screening of Franz Osten’s Light of Asia (1925). This event is in partnership with the South Asian Cinema Foundation and is part of a celebration of the film’s screenwriter Niranjan Pal. Screenings of the other two films he made with Osten, Shiraz and A Throw of Dice, as well as A Gentleman of Paris, will be held at the Watermans Arts Centre in July. Light of Asia is the first of the trilogy, and tells the story of the life of the Buddha and how he renounced his worldly wealth in favour of enlightenment. It’s an epic film, shot on location in Rajasthan with hordes of extras. Live musical accompaniment come in the form of “an original score composed by Pandit Vishwa Prakash and performed by tabla maestro Sri Sanju Sahai, sitarist/vocalist Debipriya Sircar, flautist Jonathan Lawrence and many others.” The SACF will provide an illustrated introduction before the film.
This short video explains more about the South Asian Cinema Foundation’s Niranjan Pal project, and the film itself:
Light of Asia is a BFI Members Ballot event. So, if you’re a member, log on the BFI Members page and you can enter a ballot for tickets. Each member can enter the ballot for two full-price tickets. The ballot is open now, and closes at 8.30pm on 8 July. Any remaining tickets will then go on general sale. Light of Asia screens at 2pm on Saturday 6 August at NFT1.
The BFI’s year-long celebration of Russian cinema is in full swing. It may be a matter of some sadness to us that the first section of the season, covering the silent years, is over, but we still have some treats to look forward to. There is still a chance that the throat-singing band Yat-Kha will overcome their visa problems and return to the BFI for a live performance of their Storm Over Asia score. Having heard the recording the other day, I’d definitely say that would be worth checking out.
More immediately the Russian space exploration strand of the Kino season kicks off with a hugely popular silent film, the delightfully potty Aelita, Queen of Mars (1924). This Soviet space fantasy features some genuinely hilarious moments and some mind-boggling costume designs – wild constructions of wire and plastic that have to be seen to be believed. Also playing with Aelita is Interplanetary Revolution (1924), a satirical cartoon in which, much like in the main feature, a group of Soviet citizens fly off on a consciousness-raising mission to Mars. It looks like the perfect accompaniment. Check it out:
Next up in the season is a science-fiction film from 1936 called Cosmic Voyage, all about the first journey to the moon, a dangerous mission aboard the USSR 1 – Josef Stalin. Accompanying that film will be a 1912 short by animator Ladislaw Starewicz, Voyage to the Moon. Starewicz is celebrated for his charming, early “insect films”, which use stop-motion animation and beetles with wires for legs. You may know, for example, The Cameraman’s Revenge, a whimsical tale of marital infidelity among insects.
Aelita, Queen of Mars with Interplanetary Revolution screens on Sunday 10 July at 6pm in NFT1 and Monday 25 July at 8.30pm in NFT 2. Both screenings will have live piano accompaniment.
Cosmic Voyage with The Moon (1965) and Voyage to the Moon (1912) screens on Sunday 24 July at 8.20pm in NFT3 and on Tuesday 26 July at 6pm in NFT3.
Tickets are on sale as of today to BFI members and soon for everyone else. Tickets cost £9.50 or £8 for members and you can buy them here, on the BFI website.
You may also be interested in the lecture that opens the Kosmos strand, which will be given by Soviet cinema scholar Sergei Kapterev on Friday 1 July at 6.20pm in NFT2. Tickets cost £5.
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.