Are you making New Year’s resolutions this year? I am a big fan of them – I made one last year, and although it wasn’t easy I definitely followed through on it (BTW did I mention that I am freelance now? Commission me!). The best are those that combine self-improvement with a little pleasure and entertainment (in fond remembrance of the Great Theatre Binge of Early 2012). Here’s one for you – how about you go to see more silent movies in 2017?
Reckon you already clock up quite a few silent screenings? Hmmm. How about something a little different?
For example, there’s a silent film screening with a twist at the ICA in January. You should come along! The event is part of the London Short Film Festival and takes place on 10 January. The screening takes its title from a Victor Hugo quote, “What matters deafness of the ear when the mind hears?”, and will explore the relationship between silent cinema and hearing impairment. To that end, all the films screened will play without musical accompaniment, and the programme is “designed to be accessible to people with hearing impairments as well as hearing audiences, creating a shared and uniquely immersive experience of silent film”.
Ben Model, silent film historian, accompanist and film-maker, has been championing early cinema for years. One of his most interesting projects is the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs, which collect rare silent comedies that have only been saved from the ravages of time because they were put out on early home-movie formats. This way, he has been rescuing the reputations of many once-beloved silent comedians and sharing many, many laughs.
The 2017 Slapstick Festival, which takes place in Bristol from 19-22 January, will feature a programme of Model’s Accidentally Preserved comedy shorts in an event hosted by Bill Oddie and Robin Ince, with music by Günter Buchwald. That event is on 22 January and you can buy tickets here.
Ben Model was kind enough to answer some questions about the event and his silent comedy sleuthing …
Where did you discover the films that will be showing at Slapstick Festival?
Most of the films on the programme are 16mm prints that I won on eBay. If you have your radar tuned the right way, and sometimes if the sellers mislabel or mis-identify something, it’s possible to win something fun and obscure for a decent price. A Bathtub Elopement, on the other hand, was something Rob Stone from the Library of Congress (USA), Steve Massa and I turned up in a large collection of old rental prints from the 1930s at the LOC. It was a film we knew was lost, and which was of significant interest for us – especially for Steve, who has spearheaded the rediscovery of Marcel Perez’s films. I included it on the Marcel Perez Collection DVD, which I released last year on my Undercrank Productions label and which won an award at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy.
Will this Slapstick screening be the films’ first showing in the UK?
It’s hard to say without doing deep research in trade papers from England as to whether or not these films were shown there during the silent era. A Citrate Special was never shown anywhere theatrically, and clearly was a prank film made internally at a studio and intended only for private use. No one has been able to find any information about where it was made or how it wound up being made available in 16mm. There are no listings in home movie catalogues from the 1940s – when my print was made – or later for this title. We screened it at the annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop at the Library of Congress a couple years ago and none of the 125 or so experts in the audience could figure out anything more about the film. I may post it on YouTube channel for the global hive mind, as sometimes that helps yield information like this.
December is here, so it’s time to look back at the year. 2016 may not have been the happiest of times for many of us, but at least some of the movies were good. We’d love it if you would take a few minutes to share your silent cinema highlights of the year with the readers of Silent London.
This year, in addition to the usual questions about live shows and DVDs, I am also asking you to nominate your silent film book of the year. What’s the standout on your shelf? And as is now traditional, I want to know your silent hero of the year also.
This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler.
Celluloid preserves the dead better than any embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, they flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. Film is bona fide illumination – as opposed to religion’s metaphorical kind – representing the supremacy of alchemy and necromancy over sackcloth and ashes. The inmates, emboldened under the spell of Klieg lights, were not only running the asylum, but re-shaping the world in its image, and the blunt instruments of church and state proved impotent against the anarchy of this freshly liberated ghetto.
The censors were on to something, even if they could never fully articulate what precise blasphemies were being committed. God, as a vague and unseen deity died the precise moment cinema was born, and was replaced by a new celestial order. Saints and prophets made poor film characters, always carrying the feeling of having stepped out of a stained glass window, flat, Day-Glo icons uncomfortable in motion in three-dimensional space. Movies rejoiced in dirt and rags, texture and imperfection, so that the most lacklustre clown easily outperformed all the mock messiahs. At 45 minutes, Fernand Zecca’s The Life and Passion of Christ (1903) is one of the earliest feature films, but compared to the same filmmaker’s less ambitious, more playful shorts, it’s a beautiful snooze. Another execution climaxes his Story of a Crime (1901), in which we get to see, by brutal jump cut, a guillotine decapitation before our very eyes. This, as Maxim Gorky prophesied, is what the public wants.
Or maybe “the public” could suddenly define itself in ways heretofore unthinkable – the telescope, once a divining rod for mapping heaven, became the ontological instrument of a terrestrial-based voyeur. And cinema blessed mere mortals with evidence of something greater than mere “being”: empirical evidence of a shape-shifting, perception-based self, free of original sin and free to indulge in all that remained. For one glorious second, or two, the audience was regent and the watchword was Chaos.
I can’t believe I have been keeping this one to myself. As part of the process of writing a book on Pandora’s Box, I took a chance and wrote to a woman who I admire hugely, and who I know is a serious Louise Brooks aficionado. The novelist Ali Smith kindly agreed to answer a few hastily gathered questions on Brooks. Her answers were so eloquent, and inspirational, that I wanted to share them in full with you here …
It’s very common, since the 1960s, to talk about films belonging to directors. One hardly ever hears those auteurist labels on Brooks’s European films. I wondered if you felt these films mean something different when labelled as the work of their star rather than their director?
I kind of don’t care, and have never been much interested in labels. They’re always simplifications. But labels definitely preserve things over time, so thank god for that, and for the little flags they erect on the surface of knowledge so that people can see where to go to dig down deeper. I do despair, though, of the way our individual and common knowledge, both, get so lost so fast. Brooks, lost after the silent masterpiece years, till she died, was reclaimed in the 70s and 80s. I saw Pandora’s Box on TV in, I think, 1981. My mother, who wasn’t one for idle speculation or idle interests in things on TV, or idle anything, and who always went off to bed early, stayed up till 1am watching the film with me, till she couldn’t stay up any later, and in the morning the first thing she asked me was what happened at the end of that film?
Thirty years later, we have to do it all again – I heard your piece on Woman’s Hour, and sensed Jenni Murray’s astonishment at encountering Brooks for the first time. I was amazed – how could people not know Brooks? How could such a central cultural commentator not have her in her bones? (Unless she was simply being a kind introducer of Brooks to a listening audience who might bot know her.)* Where does that knowledge go? Here you are, doing that vital task.
Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”
I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.
There are silent movies and then there is Napoléon (1927). Abel Gance’s legendary biopic is ambitious in scope, style, technique, length and even breadth. And while there are competing scores and restorations, for us only the Napoléon recreated by Kevin and Brownlow and Carl Davis will do. You can see this version of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall this November, with the Philharmonia orchestra playing Davis’s monumental music, and in a cinema (probably) near you too. Plus, you will be able to take the film home too. This wonderful film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this year – a release from the BFI, which promises to come laden with lots of tempting extras.
Ahead of the Napoléon-fest that awaits us, I wanted to share something rather special with you. Last time Napoléon played in London, I interviewed Brownlow and Davis for the Guardian. Necessarily, the conversation was truncated and edited for publication, but I still have the transcripts. So here, only a little tidied-up, is Davis and Brownlow on Napoléon, full-width.
The film flies by, when I am conducting. Conducting the score requires a lot of concentration, so you forget the time. It is very long but I’m getting better at it, because when this was proposed and we did it in 1980, no one was doing this, this was something that was dead by about 1929. It was all over, so there was no one to turn to say: “How do you do it? How do you organise yourself to do it? How do you create a score that’s going to run for five hours? What should its structure be?” I had to reinvent the process for myself and Napoléon was the first. Fortunately, a whole career and a whole library followed, so now I have a very defined technique for how to create the score, which I did not have in 1980. The difficulties stop when you know how to do it, and then I didn’t know how to do it at all. I just threw things together.
There is a prehistory to Napoléon and a very important collaboration with Kevin Brownlow before Napoléon: a Thames television series called Hollywood, which was based on a book of Kevin’s called The Parade’s Gone By. My relationship with him and the whole question of silent film started in the mid 1970s, around 1976. I then had the opportunity to meet survivors of the silent period. There still were people, y’know, very old then, but who were young at the time. The two really key people I met were still working. They were still playing for silent film but mostly on the big organ in LA and the most interesting person was a lovely little woman who lived in a house just behind the Hollywood sign. And I asked her: “How do you build up a long score for a film, for your own performances on the organ?” Her name was Ann Leaf and she was known as the last organist of the Paramount Theater in New York, the last cinema organist.
Anyway, she still did shows, you see, so she went to a big cupboard she had, which was full of music, and she would start pulling pieces out. She would say: “You know this is very good for chase sequences, and here’s this piece by Grieg, this is very scary music and this is a very, very nice piece to play for a love scene and this is Roman orgies.” I remember the Roman orgy moment! They felt that world music was absolutely at their disposal. You went very, very far. And the film companies established music publishers who would provide mood music, There’s a vast amount of rather anonymous pieces written specifically for different moods you see. And every cinema musician of that period would have a big library to draw on, depending on what kind of film it was.
So that conversation was really very, very critical. One could be very broad in one’s thinking. And then we came to Napoléon, Kevin and I and a man named David Gill. When we came to the end of the series and the series was broadcast in 1980 and was a very successful and well-thought-of and sold like mad around the world, I said very loudly at a celebration party: “Now that I’ve written about 300 clips, why don’t we try to do a whole film?” And then Kevin and David came up with Napoléon – probably the longest film ever made and that ever will be made, and that was never finished anyway. It keeps growing as more of it keeps being found. The original performance, which I think was just under five, is now five and a half hours, it’s grown by half an hour. And you have to revise the score, open out the score. Because it wasn’t as if, “Oh, we’ve found this one scene,” it was “Well we’ve found this little bit and that little bit.” And that shot and that whatever. So I’m in terror, you know, that as archives open, y’know, and as people find things in attics, forgotten drawers that suddenly …
This is a topic close to my heart, and hopefully yours too. After a successful campaign to produce the handsome Pioneers of African-American Cinema box set, Kino Lorber are back on Kickstarter with another project that makes film history a bigger, more inclusive, and more representative space. This time, Kino Lorber is coming for the women, with a set called Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers.
When was the last time you enjoyed a moment of silence? Not a pause in conversation, a burst of concentration at your desk, or a moment of peace when your guests have gone, but a real, deep, out-in the-wilderness hour or two of pure aural emptiness?
You’ll rarely experience silence at the cinema – even the films this blog celebrates are mostly shown with music either live or recorded washing over them. But if you are very lucky, a trip to the cinema means a good hour and a half when you and your companions will hold your tongue, and instead of making noise, will enter a new sonic world, constructed on the screen.
That’s what makes the reflective new documentary In Pursuit of Silence so powerful. In between experts discussing the value of escaping the distractions and hums of modern living, there are scenes of dialogue-free calm, from a rippling green field in Iowa to a Remembrance Day silence in the offices of Lloyd’s of London. These scenes are shot with fixed cameras, meaning there is no “visual noise” of pans or zooms to disturb the serenity, perfectly illustrating the meaning of quiet stillness. The peace is both beguiling and refreshing, offering space for the film’s argument to seep in: the idea that by seeking out silence, we will find greater intellectual capacity, better health, philosophical wisdom, a fuller awareness of our surroundings, even equality and an end to conflict.
The parade’s gone by for another year. The projector is empty, the Verdi is empty, even the Posta is empty. Yet again I can say watched a ridiculous number of films, but still missed many I wished I had seen. The Giornate was full to the brim with silent spectacles this year. And while it may be too early to speculate about Key Trends of the Weissberg Era, we can say the festival is in safe, and loving, hands. It was a vibrant schedule, crammed with exciting films. I had an especially good Giornate. How about you?
Today was always going to be bittersweet, but I offset that sharp tang of sadness with some great films and some enjoyably ludicrous ones, too. If we are going to remember this year as the year of big, beautiful movies (and I am at least), I enjoyed a fitting final day.
First question of the day: Who’s Guilty? Me, because I missed the final instalment in this diverting series, but I did arrive at Cinemazero in time for some Al Christie funnies. My eye was caught by a cross-dressing romp called Grandpa’s Girl (1924), but that wasn’t what I had stepped out for this morning.
I had a date with cinematic greatness, in the form of Ozu’s I was Born, But … (1932), the most sensitive and character-led of comedy dramas, shown in the Canon Revisited strand. Wonderful to see this projected, with Maud Nelissen’s ambitious and sensitive accompaniment. As a smart companion said: it’s a film about children but it’s really about all of us, at any age, at any time, in any place. This film is funny and wise and always beautiful: even when the camera is focused on the scruffy and mundane stuff of our scruffy and mundane lives, there is harmony and freshness. And oh, just make sure you never miss the chance to watch (and rewatch) this one. Promise? And the perky Momataro cartoon beforehand was a treat too.