Ta-da! Silent London has had a bit of a makeover. Everything that used to be on the site is still there, but hopefully it is now easier to find. The social media is back on the front page, as a few people have requested, and some of the best stuff is displayed on a slider at the top too. All the usual menus and gizmos should be to hand as well.
It’s a stellar year for silent film screenings in London, big and small, but there is one particular show I have been looking forward to for months …
Allan Dwan’s captivating, super-sized adaptation of Robin Hood, starring the athletic, charming Douglas Fairbanks, is one of my all-time favourite family-friendly silents. It has wit, and spectacle and action and a true star to recommend it. And who doesn’t love Robin Hood?
But there is another reason to anticipate this screening. Robin Hood screens at the Barbican in October, with the BBC Symphony Orchestra playing a brand new score, by the one and only Neil Brand, a veritable swashbuckler among film composers. The Barbican promises us that Brand’s score transforms and further enlivens the classic silent, adding “a new richness and relatability to the film’s building tension and dark humour”. I think this is going to be very special.
Robin Hood set a very good example when he robbed from the rich to give to the poor. You could win a pair of tickets to experience the movie, and the new score, for yourself (and a friend).
It’s back, the perfect post-Pordenone pick-me-up: a weekend of giggles at the Cinema Museum curated by the inimitable David Wyatt. I heard great things about last year’s event, but this time you’ll have double the fun with a two-day festival. So ink 22 & 23 October 2016 into your diary and look out for tickets on sale in early September. Here’s what the Kennington Bioscope crew are promising for their second Silent Comedy Weekend:
Two days of (mostly) silent comedy – except for the audience laughter (judging from last year’s successful extravaganza) and live music from our world famous accompanists.
Feature films with Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd, Max Linder, Monty Banks, Syd Chaplin, Harry Langdon and more. Rare showings of Lupino Lane’s LAMBETH WALK and Walter Forde’s first feature WAIT AND SEE – long–neglected British stars in need of re evaluation – plus some equally forgotten funny females, European shorts from the early years and Laurel & Hardy as you’ve never seen them before! Plus presentations on Mack Sennett and Lupino.
Guest speakers are hoped to include renowned authors David Robinson, Geoff Brown and Brent Walker, legendary film archivist Bob Gitt and of course, our own Kevin Brownlow.
Please not that the programme is ‘subject to change’ as films are still to be confirmed. Please see websites for updates.
In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.
Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.
A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On and on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.
If you are reading this post and you have never seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, stop now. Skip to the end, click on the link to buy tickets and make your life better with just a few taps of the mouse. Then you can come back and read the rest of what I have to say. Passion is not just one of the very best films of all time, but one that has inspired some of the most exciting scores too – despite the director’s misgivings about it being accompanied by music at all. There have been many film adaptations of the story of Joan of Arc, but Falconetti’s haunting portrayal of the saint, in front of Dreyer’s unflinching camera, is unforgettably raw and moving.
In September, you can see Passion at one of London’s most fascinating venues, Shakespeare’s Globe, as part of a season of live music events called Wonder Women curated by Lauren Laverne and The Pool. The music for this screening is a very special score – it’s a mixture of choral singing, electric guitars, harp, horns and synthesisers, written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) and conducted by Charles Hazlewood. I’ve heard it, back in 2011 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and I really loved it. The ancient and modern elements suit this timeless film well. I reviewed that event for a now-defunct and much missed arts blog, so here it is, reprinted, if you like.
Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.
Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.
Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.
The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.
As regular readers of this blog have probably guessed, I dwell in splendid isolation in a Hollywood mansion. Occasionally I kidnap a passing blogger to help me refine a post or two, but normally the only people I see are my pet leopard and Georg Wilhelm the butler. So it makes a nice change to be leave the house and talk about silent cinema in the presence of the beautiful people of London. I am doing that twice in the near future – so read all about it.
The fabulous Phoenix Cinema in Finchley is hosting a silent cinema festival on the weekend of 15-17th July, which promises to be very special. On the Saturday they are showing Steamboat Bill Jr, in a special kids screening,with Neil Brand, and also Why Be Good? with the wonderful Colleen Moore and a “live flapper performance”. On the Sunday, Ian Christie introduces a selection of archive films of north London with music by John Sweeney, followed by a screening of the cockney silent East is East, with Lillian Henley at the piano and Gerry Turvey introducing. On Friday 15th July, Stephen Horne is accompanying one of the greatest films of all time, the magical Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and I will be on introduction duty. Expect much inarticulate swooning from me, and sumptuous music from Mr Horne.
When I wrote about the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, last year I ended with the slightly pessimistic hope that we would get to see a silent film on nitrate next time around. My fear was that shrinkage issues with such old prints might prevent that from happening. I am delighted to report that my cynicism was misplaced as this year’s festival ended on a sensational high, an American silent film from 1928! But more about that later.
As with last year, the festival organisers kept the 2016 programme under wraps until the morning of the first day of the festival. I know this approach is controversial. Potential attendees have complained to me that they are reluctant to incur the not inconsiderable expense in traveling to upstate New York when they have no idea what films will be screened. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but there is something undeniably exciting about opening the brochure on the first day and seeing what treats lie ahead of us. There is also merit in the organisers’ position that it is the physical condition and pictorial beauty of the prints that governs their selection, with the quality and reputation of the works coming next. Personally, I favour a middle ground, perhaps naming three or four films in advance and keeping the rest secret.
I suspect that few, if any,who made the journey to Rochester were disappointed with the films presented to us. I was initially sorry to see that no silents were listed but was keeping my fingers crossed that the final screening of the festival, our Blind Date with Nitrate, might possibly fulfill that wish. And so it did.
The festival kicked off with a selection of short films – my favourites were a colorful Julius Pischewer animation Cent Ans de Chemins de fer Suisses celebrating 100 years of the Swiss railway system and a delightful 1934 Universal animation Jolly Little Elves featuring doughnut-loving kindly elves.
These were followed by one of the highlights of the festival and a film I had not seen before, Enamorada (1946) a tempestuous romantic drama set against the background of the Mexican revolution. Featuring the masterful framing of the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, the film looked gorgeous, especially the exterior shots of the Mexican town in which the story is set. María Félix, probably Mexico’s most famous actress, was beguiling as the feisty female lead and Figueroa makes masterful use of light and shade, given added depth and texture by the nitrate print.
Our final film on the first day was the classic noir, Laura, which we were told was a pre-release version that included footage that was cut for its theatrical distribution. Nobody I spoke to could spot the additional material, however, and although the print was good there were only moments when the benefit of nitrate showed through.
So is this like Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman? Well yes a little, but mostly, very much no.
Not a comedy then? Not American either, it’s a Soviet documentary, a City Symphony in fact.
I know about those – which city does it portray? Erm. Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev. And Odessa. But you’re not always sure which is which.
A fake then? No, it’s art.
Which means it’s not a factual film at all? Well that is a tricky question. A group of Sight & Sound critics recently voted it the greatest documentary of all time. So that’s that, but I’d argue it isn’t really a documentary at all. As is often the case, I agree with David Cairns, who calls it a “Non-fiction Film Thing” in a new video essay.
That is not so catchy. How about just “Film” then? The stated intent of Man With a Movie Camera was to make a film that owed nothing to the other arts, literature, theatre, painting. Check out the opening intertitle. “This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY.”
That sounds amazing. It is, full of astonishing cinematic tricks and playful philosophizing and passion. It is the most filmic of films and you should watch it, which is kinda the point of this conversation.
You always have an ulterior motive. Yes, I am sneaky that way. Man With A Movie Camera, my forgetful friend, was released last year in the cinema and on Blu-ray – my review is here.
I’ll read that later, I’m really busy. Asking silly questions must take up a good deal of your time. The TL;DR version of that review is that the cinema release of the movie was great, a gleaming restoration with a dazzling score by the Alloy Orchestra, but the Blu-ray release was not quite up to the same standard (although fans of the Michael Nyman score might overlook that).
I’ve missed my chance then. No. There is a new Blu-ray of Man With a Movie Camera in the shops – and it is the theatrical version that knocked my socks off last year. Put simply I recommend that you buy this version, from Masters of Cinema, forthwith, without delay.
Anything else to sweeten the deal before payday? LOTS. The aforementioned video essay by Davis Cairns and Timo Langer, and the not insubstantial matter of four of Vertov’s other important works (Kino-Eye, Kino-Pravda #21, Enthusiasm, Three Songs about Lenin). Plus an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Ian Christie, a booklet crammed with treats from the archives. And a very nice box.
You can read more about the Masters of Cinema release here and buy it from lots of places including here.
Sometimes you can fight it. You can keep those thoughts at bay, and resist your deeper impulses, urging you to indulge that secret side of yourself that you usually keep hidden. On other days, what the heck, you just need to geek out.
Thank nerd heaven, then, for the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, now in its fourth year – and more specifically, thanks to Lawrence Napper of King’s College London who organises this impressive event.
For the first time, we had two days in which to sympose. First, a long afternoon (2pm-9pm) of screenings with a couple of presentations thrown in, then a full day of papers. I like this new arrangement, which gives you a bit of choice as to how deep your geekery will run. In case you really need to ask, I was there for both days …
The three features on the Thursday all had much to recommend them. It’s a little unfair to single out my least favourite, because it was an ambitious ensemble drama, a literary adaptation made in Ireland at a time when that country barely had a film industry at all – and it had scenes missing. But do look out for a forthcoming restoration of Knocknagow (1918), which has a fascinating history and sumptuous landscapes. And we were lucky enough to have Neil Brand at the keys, so those landscapes became even more lush.
The most awe-inspiring film of the day was The Somme – not the very well-known documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916), but a 1927 feature, which nevertheless borrows some documentary tricks, and archive footage, to tell the story of the famous offensive of 1916, with painstaking detail and high drama. It is impossible not to be moved by the bravery and stoicism of the men involved, and the scene in which our lads first see a tank wreaking destruction on the trenches is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Slow tracking shots along the mighty beast’s riveted hide create an impression of looming, sinister dominance that Stanley Kubrick would salivate over. And Stephen Horne’s accompaniment was astonishingly good – and often unexpected. Do seek this out if you ever get a chance to see it, especially if you have a particular interest in world war one. And you can read a little more about the film in Lawrence Napper’s excellent book, excerpted here.