The future’s bright: Colour in Film 2017

What’s that bright spot on the horizon? It’s the Second International Conference on Colour in Film, which is back in London from 27-29 March 2017. The really good news is that the conference is half a day longer than before, and to my untrained eye, that extra time is mostly made up of screenings – including a very special silent “treat” on the first night.

The 2017 Colour in Film Conference will cover the entire breadth of colour in moving images, from early (pre)cinema’s chromolithographic printing through the applied colours of tinting, toning and their Desmetcolor rendition, from chromogenic Agfacolor and Eastmancolor through the video- and film-based look of the golden age of British colour television and up to modern, current grading in the digital domain.

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Chromolithographic loops. Photograph: StephenHerbert.co.uk

The screenings take place at BFI Southbank (NFT3 to be precise) on the first day of the conference, and include colour films from all eras, not just our favourite one. One highlight I can already see in the programme is a selection of hand-drawn, hand-painted “Chromolithographic Loops”. These took our breath away at Pordenone last year – you’ll love them, and I’m intrigued to hear more about them at the conference. All the clips and films are introduced by experts who can tell you more about the use of colour and how it has been restored.

The big-ticket event is in the evening of the first day, when Neil Brand accompanies a screening of Behind the Door (1919), which will be introduced by Rob Byrne of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I’ve mentioned this film before: a rape-revenge drama featuring a taxidermist, the first world war and some pretty savage xenophobia. It’s not explicitly gory, but it’s quite a shocker, so hold on to your hats.

The following two days of the conference is made up of papers – with an awesome lineup of experts, restorers and archivists taking you deep into the detail of colour-film science and history. These will be held at Friends House on Euston Road – and you can see the full list of speakers and papers here. The second day at Friends House is devoted to Sarah Street’s project workshop on the Eastmancolor revolution.

There are an array of ticket prices for the conference, depending on how many days you attend and whether you are a student or a member of the Colour Group or not. All the details are here. Bear in mind that if you want to see Behind the Door that’s extra, even if you have a ticket for the screening day.

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John Wick: Chapter 2, Buster Keaton and silent comedy

If you want to see Buster Keaton on the big screen next weekend, go see John Wick 2 – but be careful not to blink. The action sequel opens in New York, with a Buster Keaton movie being projected on the external wall of a building. Why? “We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people,” says director Chad Stahelski.

As soon as you have clocked, and cheered, the reference, the action has begun down on the streets with blistering collision between a motorcycle and a car. The film’s opening sequence is very funny, hugely violent, and actually a pretty clever example of how to cover a lot of exposition (for those like me who hadn’t seen the first film) with a minimum of dialogue. All you need to know about the plot, and all I can really tell you, having seen the film, is that John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) is a hitman, with a revenge motive. The film takes him from New York to Rome and back again – and en route, he kills a hell of a lot of people.

The nods to silent cinema don’t stop with the Keaton film, though*. One of the movie’s key shootouts takes place in a hall of mirrors. Very Enter the Dragon (1973), a little The Lady from Shanghai (1947). But surely Chaplin got there first with The Circus in 1928. Despite his smart suit, John Wick is essentially a tramp like Charlie – homeless and friendless, he’s a hired hand for a shadowy and moneyed elite, and he’s happiest trudging about with his dog by his side. The film reveals a fearsome network of derelicts, in fact, assassins just like Wick who pass through the city unseen. When Wick puts on his fancy togs and goes to a party his presence is disquieting – he’s not one of the in-crowd, but someone they have hired to do their dirty work. That tension is the source of many of Chaplin’s best gags.

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It’s Destiny! Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod to get a theatrical release

Well, this was clearly meant to be. Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking allegorical fantasy Der Müde Tod (1921) is getting a theatrical release in the UK and Ireland along with a DVD/Blu-ray edition:

Eureka Entertainment have announced the theatrical release of DER MÜDE TOD (aka Destiny), Fritz Lang’s visually ambitious, cinematic allegory starring Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke, in cinemas nationwide (UK & Ireland) and Digital HD from 9 June 2017.

Talking to Françcois Truffaut many years later, Alfred Hitchcock recalled that when he saw Der Müde Tod it made a “special impression” on him. He will have seen it un 1924 under its British release name Destiny, at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. I wonder if we will have a chance to see it in the same venue?

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Battleship Potemkin and a Century of Revolution at the Regent Street Cinema

Silent cinema was a revolutionary medium – bringing a world of news, travel, culture, art and storytelling to a mass audience, a working-class audience. This democratic art form changed the way we learned to look at ourselves and to tell stories about who we are, as well as sharing stories of fantasy, hope and change.

Therefore it’s appropriate that Kino Klassika’s year-long celebration of insurgency on film begins with a film that was both politically and artistically revolutionary: Sergei Eisenstein’s galvanising masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. The film screens next Friday, 17 February at the wonderful Regent Street Cinema, with a live score by Max Reinhardt the Instant Orchestra. It’s sure to be invigorating experience, and a wonderful way to kick off this exciting season A World to Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen, which includes films by Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard and Costa Gavras.

October (1927)
October (1927)

The season concludes with silent cinema too: a screening of the epic October: Ten Days that Shook the World, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre on 26 October 2017, which is exactly 100 years to the day after the start of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Marx proclaimed that the proletariat had “a world to win”. On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Kino Klassika hosts a season of cinematic masterpieces from around the world, as well as workshops and curated talks, which investigate that impulse of profound change. The season will be hosted at London’s iconic Edwardian cinema hall on Regent St before a planned regional tour. The season explores the revolutionary spirit through the camera lens. It asks what these films can mean today.

Here is the full list of films in A World to Win screening at the Regent Street Cinema:

  • 7.30pm on Friday 17 February: Gala Opening Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein (1925)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 22 February: I am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov (1964)
  • 8.15pm on Wednesday 1 March: Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard (1967)
  • 7pm on Wednesday 8 March: Beginning of an Unknown Century by Larisa Shepitko and Andrei Smirnov (1967)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 22 March: Black God White Devil by Glauber Rocha (1964)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 29 March: Z by Costa Gavras (1969)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 5 April: Danton by Andrzej Wajda (1983)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 12 April: Land and Freedom by Ken Loach (1995)
  • 2pm on Saturday 15 April: Gala Screening of Novecento by Bernardo Bertolucci (1976)

The Barbican is also commemorating 100 years since the Russian Revolution, with a series of first-rate screenings of great Soviet silents: A Sixth Part of the World, accompanied by John Sweeney, Mother, with music by Stephen Horne, and The New Babylon, with Shostakovich’s lost piano score performed by Sasha Grynyuk.

Mother (1926)
Mother (1926)

Back in Bo’ness: the 2017 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the latest Hippfest programme landing on the digital doormat. I’m a big fan of Hippfest, a welcoming event, with an ambitious, highly entertaining, lineup of screenings and a frankly beautiful venue. If I could, I’d turn the Scottish thermostat up a couple of notches next month, because this southern softie will be back in Bo’ness for the festival, which runs from 22-26 March 2017, and takes place mostly in the town’s gorgeous vintage cinema, the Hippodrome.

As the schedule is announced today, that means the tickets are on sale already, and if something here catches your eye, book as soon as you can – Hippfest screenings can, and very often do, sell out.

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So what’s on offer this year? The first day is devoted to female film pioneers, a subject close to my own heart: with a talk from film expert Ellen Cheshire, and an evening screening of Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake (1923), with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and an introduction by yours truly. Read more about the amazing Nell Shipman here.

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

Thursday afternoon brings a Chinese double-bill – a lecture on the women of Chinese silent cinema by Professor Paul Pickowicz, and a screening of the BFI’s revelatory archive compilation Around China with a Movie Camera, introduced by composer Ruth Chan. On that subject, watch out for the Saturday afternoon screening of an unmissable Chinese silent, The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Lingyu as a mother in a terrible predicament, with music by John Sweeney.

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David Shepard: 1940-2017

Unfortunately, I never had the honour of meeting David Shepard, who died this week aged 76, but it’s true to say that his work has had a tremendous impact on my life. I wrote a short obituary of him for Sight & Sound, which you can read here.

Many wonderful tributes have been posted to this man who did so much to rescue, preserve and share American silent film (and more): from Thomas Gladysz at the Louise Brooks Society; Howie Movshovitz at the Denver Silent Film Festival; Kyle Westphal on the Chicago Film Society blog; on the Cartoon Research site; from the brilliant Movies Silently site; and on Nitrateville (who changed the famous banner for the occasion) for starters. There will be many I have missed. Others have posted on social media or issued statements that were quoted in this very nice piece by The Hollywood Reporter.

On Facebook, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced that the 2017 event would be dedicated to Shepard. A splendid idea. He is already very much missed.

Nell Shipman and the pioneer spirit of silent cinema

Nell Shipman, silent-era actress, writer, producer and director, gives new meaning to the phrase “film pioneer”. A truly adventurous soul, at the height of her career she starred in a series of outdoorsy action films featuring a menagerie of animals and seriously risky stuntwork – when she nearly drowned shooting a scene in a river, it didn’t occur to her to complain: instead she said, “I should have paid Vitagraph for the adventure.” Furthermore, she worked completely outside the system, running her own production company and filming her “little dramas in big places” deep in the hills of Idaho, more than 1,000 miles north of Los Angeles.

But isolation from Hollywood has contributed to a neglect of her legacy. Along with many of her contemporary female film-makers, she was missing from the first histories of the film industry, and remains little-known. A new documentary directed by Karen Day, The Girl from God’s Country, intends to rectify that. The film tells the story of Shipman, but also broadens the scope to examine how her peers’ histories have also been erased and the impact of that on the modern industry and on generations of female filmgoers.

Canadian-born Shipman was a thrillseeker through and through, who “refused to be a lady” and ditched school early to go into rep, becoming what she called a “vagabond actress”. She wrote her first novel soon after marriage and the birth of her first child, then moved into screenwriting. When the star of a film failed to turn up to the set one day, Shipman stepped in and started her career as a screen actress. Her breakthrough role was in Vitagraph’s God’s Country and the Woman (1916), an adaptation of a novel by James Oliver Curwood, bestselling author of American wilderness adventures, and the first in a series of God’s Country films.

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Look sharp: support the Fashion in Film Festival 2017

Not all of Silent London’s best-loved festivals are devoted solely to pre-sound film. A longstanding favourite here at Silent London HQ is the wonderfully glamorous Fashion in Film Festival. This event’s focus on cinematic design and unforgettable visuals, plus its enthusiasm for digging into the archives, means that silents often feature, of course, but it is always a wide-roaming affair. And this festival is a beautiful thing, a jewel in the London repertory film calendar.

costume
Le Costume à travers les âges – Reconstitué par le couturier Pascault, 1911

This year, the Fashion in Film Festival will take place in London venues from 19-26 March. The full programme has not been unleashed yet, but I do have reason to believe a silent or to may be on the cards. I’m posting today because the Fashion in Film Festival is asking for a little help this year. The organisers have launched a Kickstarter to raise £5,000 before the event begins. If you support them, rewards range from designer knick-knacks such as an Eley Kishimoto tote bag, a copy of the fantastic Birds of Paradise book and tickets and passes for the festival itself. Hurry, the festival passes are running out!

Here’s what the festival team have to say:

The festival celebrates our last ten years and EVERYONE who has been involved in making it a success, contributing or holding our hand. We have lined up an ambitious programme, co-curated with the wonderful Tom Gunning, including an exhibition and some 28 events, with fantastic speakers and some true archival gems we think everyone must see. But some of this is in danger due to a dire funding landscape in the UK. It has been a really tough year!

 

corsets
A Retrospective Look at Corsets, 1920s

And here’s a taste of this year’s programme:

Our programme features cinema’s well-loved as well as neglected masterpieces (Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, Ophuls’ Lola Montes, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Leisen’s Lady in the Dark, Protazanov’s Aelita), artist films (by Joseph Cornell, Jane and Louise Wilson, Cindy Sherman, Michelle Handelman, Jessica Mitrani), fashion films (by Nick Knight and Lernert & Sander), industry films and many archival gems. There will be talks, film introductions and panel discussions. As special highlights we are staging two film-based performances – with Rachel Owen (at Genesis Cinema) and with MUBI and Lobster Films (at the Barbican).

If you can spare a little money for the festival, I am sure it will be hugely appreciated. Just think of it as paying for your ticket in advance. I did!

Silent London hits the road

 

London’s great, it really is, but sometimes a blogger has to seek wider horizons. So this year I will be packing up my laptop and getting my soy cappuccino to go. I’m hitting the road to report on the silent film festival circuit – more of which anon – and I may possibly be popping up in a cinema near you.

First, an exciting announcement! The British Silent Film Festival is back this year. We have dates and a venue confirmed – 14-17 September 2017, at the Phoenix in Leicester – but no more news yet. Barring flood or fire, I’ll be there, and I recommend that you attend also.

Shoes (1916)
Shoes (1916)

Before that, however, I’ll be introducing two fantastic silent films by female directors at venues that couldn’t be much further from Leicester, and each other.

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Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies: DVD/Blu-ray review

 

In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.

Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.

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So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.

Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.

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