I couldn’t let 2020 go by without talking to you about Away, a truly remarkable animated feature, and a modern silent too. This deceptively simple quest film has zero dialogue, and was all, every frame, the work of one man, Latvian filmmaker animator Gints Zilbalodis. He wrote, directed, scored and yes animated this award-winning film over the course of three and a half years.
He admits that that he concocted the screenplay on the fly, but that it soon came to feel that that film’s story was a metaphor for his struggles to complete the film. That’s why I say deceptively simple: beneath Away’s bright, almost cute surface there’s something deeper at work.
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Happy December! The good news is that 2020 is almost over, and the even better news is that it is Silent London Poll time again.
I don’t need to remind you that this year has not been like other years. But in the face of adversity the silent film community has more than rallied. The pandemic did not stop people screening, scoring, restoring and publishing. So we want to applaud and honour those efforts.
Also, think back to the beginning of the year. There were real-life screenings and festivals – and we want to celebrate those achievements too.
Perhaps this year your own silent film activities were curtailed, but maybe you were able to attend far more events than usual, albeit virtually. Share your discoveries via the Poll!
As ever, only two questions in the poll are mandatory – so even if you have to skip some sections, I really, really want to collect your votes in the other categories. Especially in this, Silent London’s 10th year of doing business.
Scroll down to start voting, or click here to load on a new tab. The poll will stay open until early January, so you have time to think and watch and think some more … We won’t ‘stop the count’ early, whatever happens.
• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
Happy birthday to us! Break out the socially distanced celebrations! Today Silent London reaches double digits. The blog was born on 26 November 2010, with a sketchy tumblr and a humble tweet.
Since then this site has grown, and made many new friends, around the world. I am honestly astonished by everything that has happened since then, and feel so very lucky to be part of it. It’s Thanksgiving in America today, which is appropriate as I am very, very grateful for all the films, the fantastic music, and the people who have supported Silent London over this decade. That’s you, that is. Everyone who has read and shared the posts here, and the brilliant people who have contributed their own posts too. I am grateful for the archives, festivals and cinemas who have welcomed this blogger to watch their work, and the musicians who have brought the films to new life with every screening. The silent film community is a wonderful thing and I am honoured to one of its members.
If you needed proof, just look at this year and how this community has coped in a crisis. I tip my hat to the way that silent cinema has thrived online, from the Kennington Bioscope (catch up with last night’s programme, it was fab!) and Ben Model’s Silent Comedy Watch Party screenings on YouTube to the online versions of Bologna and Pordenone’s festivals. Let alone all the archive material accessible on websites from Paris to Amsterdam to Copenhagen to San Francisco … mind, blown. This very weekend, Scotland’s wonderful HippFest is hosting an online screening of a fascinating silent film as part of the third edition of St Andrew’s Fair Saturday. Please read on for more details.
Can a fictional film damage a real person’s reputation? William Randolph Hearst certainly thought so, as he mobilised to stop the screenplay of Citizen Kane being turned into a movie. Charles Foster Kane was modelled, blatantly and pointedly, on Hearst himself, and within its fiction, Citizen Kane contained some painful, and subversive truths. That’s a moment captured in David Fincher’s fascinating new film Mank, which dramatises the process by which Herman J. Mankiewicz, holed up in a desert ranch with a collection of broken bones, wrote that incendiary movie script. And also, how his words were received in San Simeon, Hearst’s famous Californian castle.
Naturally, the film unfolds via a series of flashbacks, Kane-style, including a fun scene in which the MGM writing room pitches a remake of Caligari to Irving Thalberg, off-the-cuff. The central dramatic tension here is not between Mankiewicz (played here by Gary Oldman) and Tom Burke’s Orson Welles (although there was plenty of aggro there), but Mank’s previous encounters with Hearst (Charles Dance), and Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more than studio politics at stake, but actual politics too – here we see the genesis of Citizen Kane, which is here explicitly Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst. But while there no love lost between the men at the table, Mank does have a soft spot for Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, played here radiantly by Amanda Seyfried.
This is a platonic, playful friendship, and among Mank’s cast of fulminating and frustrated men in suits, Marion’s scenes leap off the screen. Marion and Mank chat while admiring the San Simeon elephants, while sipping from a flask hidden in one of the terraces’ stone benches – what’s not to love? Mank and Marion are great pals, who enjoy each other’s company and see the best in each other. Seyfried’s performance is every bit as captivating as Oldman’s, bursting through the heavy makeup she wears as Marion. Their dialogues are wonderful, but there is one devastating scene in which Marion sits silently horrified while Mank delivers a bitter, drunken monologue to her and Hearst’s guests at San Simeon. Seyfried proves an excellent silent actress, which is just as well, because she doesn’t have any lines.
Which brings us to an uncomfortable problem with Citizen Kane. Why did Mankiewicz expose his enemy Hearst by writing the undignified truth about him, but also humiliate his friend Davies by distorting her image with untruths? To summarise, a little bluntly: in the movie, Kane’s mistress and second wife is a talentless and lonely alcoholic with naïve dreams of being a great opera singer. Davies was a talented comic actress, whose films were very profitable. She was also an extremely popular person, whose career was stymied only because of Hearst’s insistence that she play prestige dramatic roles. Welles ferociously denied there was any connection between Davies and the fictional character of Susan Alexander Kane:
“That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. … The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than 30 years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”
And yet Hearst read the script as an insult to Davies and many people fear that the mud, as it were, has stuck. Mank explains in full why Mankiewicz wanted to attack Hearst, but offers only one reason why his screenplay diminished his friend Davies. Some people, Mank asserts are headliners, and others are merely secondary characters. That’s a dramatist’s distinction, not the words of a friend.
What makes Davies a secondary character though? I can’t possibly imagine. Mank tantalises the audience by giving us a glimpse of Davies’s brilliance, and then pushing her back to the sidelines. Because … she’s a secondary character, a distraction from the wranglings of men over their own legacies. Davies has a legacy worth protecting too, as anyone who has seen The Patsy or Show People, or any number of her other films, can tell you.
If you want to discover the truth about Marion Davies, you can read the many testimonies of her Hollywood friends in their own memoirs, you can even read her own autobiography of sorts (The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst) if you can find it. But I recommend you wait a little, until 2022, and the publication of Lara Fowler’s impressively researched biography, Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies (University of California Press).It’s bound to be worth a read, because the work Fowler has done already is exemplary, and because Davies deserves to be more than just a secondary character in someone else’s life story – whether that story belongs to Hearst, or Mankiewicz or anybody else.
I programmed a film season! Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again plays at BFI Southbank in December and includes the wonderful silent film she starred in: The Three Lovers/The Woman Men Yearn For (Curtis Bernhardt, 1929)
Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
True confession: in 2019, I fell in love with some flipbooks. It was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where so many good things happen, and the flipbooks in question were animated and projected on the big screen. I saw them many hundreds of times their real size, but perhaps that reflected their significance.
“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.”
The digitised, animated flipbooks I was watching were one outcome of an international film-history detective story. I 2013 Paris-based film scholar Thierry Lecointe began investigating a flipbook attributed to one Léon Beaulieu that might, just possibly, have been made from a few frames of a long-thought-lost Georges Méliès film…
Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.
The last night of Pordenone is always bittersweet – the fun is over for another year. There are bags to be packed and it’s time to make one’s journey home, marathons and rail strikes permitting.
The same melancholy accompanied the closing of the 39th Limited Edition, but there’s a note of triumph too. The online version snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, you might say. Fewer films, of course, and none of the bonhomie that brews in the Verdi and the Posta, but something else. A celebration of the global silent film community.
The Giornate welcomed twice as many accredited delegates as usual this year. Many of those will be people who can’t usually travel to Italy, but perhaps there are some among them who might visit for the first time in person next year – the dates are 2-9 October 2021 people, mark it in your diaries. The Limited Edition has been a great advertisement for the real deal.
Three things I can’t resist: a film about a ballerina, a Nordisk romantic drama from the early teens, and accompaniment by John Sweeney. So although I had an elsewhere to be on Saturday, I raced home to catch up with Balletten Datter (Holger-Madsen, 1913). German dancer Rita Sacchetto, known for her Tanzbilder dance interpretations of famous works of art, plays Odette, a feted ballerina who gives up the stage to marry a count. But the footlights are calling, and jealousy is festering between her titled husband and her dance director …
The absolute highlight was a solo scene in which Sacchetto plays dressup in her old stage gear in front of the mirror. A joyous diva moment, thrilling acted and deftly staged of course. This was, I fear, a silly film. But I loved it and the Danish Film Archive is to be credited for its recent swath of first-rate digital restorations, and for making them so accessible in this of all years. Sweeney, of course, did us proud with a film that swung between on and off-stage sequences – he made it all feel like a dance.
By Friday night of Pordenone the cracks are usually beginning to show: sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction and FilmFair splurge-shopping. Are we holding up better or worse in this Limited Edition year? Hydrating, taking regular screen breaks and a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day? No, me neither. In fact I am just warming up, and I could handle a silent movie show every night please, for at least a month.
A showstopper of a masterclass today, as the multi-instrumentalists assembled: Gunther Buchwald, Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. Another double book presentation too, and the announcement of the Jean Mitry prize, but all roads lead to Mary Pickford here on Silent London. And A Romance of the Redwoods, courtesy Cecil B DeMille and Jeanie MacPherson in 1917.
Did you spend your Thursday evening straying with Brigitte Helm? I hope so …
GW Pabst’s Abwege (1928) is, as Jay mentioned in his intro, a certain thread of what we think of when we imagine Weimar cinema. Not the exoticism of Expressionism of high-concept fiction, nor the relentless realism of Street Films, but a sampler of the era’s endless fetisished culture. This is a tale of infidelity, intrigue, independence and the famous temptations of the Berlin nightlife in the 1920s.
Now remind me, did I mention already that I was in Athens recently? Yes, Athens, the cradle of western civilisation. Well I was. And today I returned there via the magic of silent cinema …
But first, an audience with the maestro. I was lucky enough to catch the masterclass today and so I spent a happy hour listening to Mr Neil Brand discussing his career and approach to silent cinema accompaniment. His explanation of how to read a scene backs up my theory that the musicians have all the best critical insights when it comes to silent cinema. It’s all about close reading, and rolling with the narrative punches. Still, catch up with this for yourself if you can – Neil has far more interesting things to say than I do.
Today’s trip to Pordenone should probably have been made available on the National Health, pandemic or no pandemic. In times of stress, laughter is the best medicine, after all.
A real treat this afternoon before the films began was the masterclass of masterclasses. John Sweeney hosted a roundtable conversation between some of the Giornate’s wonderful accompanists: Philip Carli, José María Serralde Ruiz, Daan ven den Hurk and Mauro Colombis. Lots of insights here into writing, recording and improvising silent cinema scores, and I really like the way that Pordenone has incorporated live events into the online limited edition, and especially the sense of collegiate conversation, and the sharing of expertise that characterises a week in the Verdi. This was a superb example of that. Do catch up if you can, if only to understand why John and Philip have such an aversion to thinking of rabbits, or squirrels.
Pordenone is about halfway between Athens and London, right? So at some point on Monday I was probably there, just 37,000ft above it. Travelling cramped my style somewhat at the start of this week, but I don’t give up on silent cinema. Not ever.
It might seem perverse that I was at a open-air cinema in Athens watching Ammonite when I could have been trying to force my hotel wi-fi into rendering a masterwork of Chinese cinema on my laptop,. However, I’ll tell you this: there is a magic lantern scene in Ammonite, while made me smile, ruefully, and remember the fantastic first programme of the day, which of course was …
Day Two The Brilliant Biograph! The name contains its own review. Many of you will have seem many of these films before, or at least heard me bang the drum for them, but still, it’s worth reminding ourselves what marvels they really are.
There is nothing like watching a film in Pordenone, the collective joy of sharing a discovery or a fabourite classic, with hundreds of fellow silent film enthusiasts in the Teatro Verdi. This year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto Limited Edition, also, will be nothing like that. We will be dialling in online, streaming films in our separate spaces, alone. But that is not to say I haven’t been anticipating it with relish. I have been counting down the days.
This year I will not be blogging the collective experience of sharing the silents in the Verdi, of discussing them over coffee and spritzes in the Posta. My experience of the festival will be different to yours, very different in some cases. This is my Giornate journal and it won’t be like the ones I have written before.
Day One It’s a silent film fan’s nightmare. I am late for the Giornate! When the first programme was broadcast on Saturday afternoon I was not at home with my projector poised, I was … at a film festival in Europe. Lucky me, I was on the jury of the Athens International Film Festival this year, a festival that took place IRL, in the open-air. So as Pordenone began I was in an outdoor cinema in the National Gardens in Athens, handing out prizes and then watching Christian Petzold’s gorgeous water-nymph romance Undine.
So I learned about something new today. Have you heard of the Instagram “VFX magicians”? These are visual effects whizzes who post short videos to Instagram (also TikTok, and once upon a time Vine) that are digitally manipulated to create illusions, or magic tricks, you might say. Zach King is one of the most famous, a 30-year-old “internet personality, filmmaker, and illusionist based in Los Angeles” according to Wikipedia, whose content is appealing whimsical and really quite slick.
He first became known for a 2011 YouTube video of kittens fighting with lightsabers. Last December, a video he posted of himself apparently riding a broomstick got 2.1 billion views on TikTok. In four days.
As baffling as King’s digital sleights of hand appear to be, there is something familiar about his work. Essentially, they are trick films, and excellent ones too.
Abwege, GW Pabst’s 1928 film about the descent of one respectable married woman into the depth of the notorious Weimar nightlife is one of the unmissable titles in the programme, and it will be available for 24 hours from Thursday 8 October, with musical accompaniment by Mauro Colombis. You can explore the rest of the programme online.
Pabst was born in Austria in 1885. He started out in the theatre, an actor turned director who only began making films in 1923 at the age of 37. He soon became known as an actor’s director, and especially an actress’s director. His 1925 film The Joyless Street, for example, starred both the Danish diva Asta Nielsen and a then little-known Greta Garbo. He also made two films with the iconic Louise Brooks. But Brigitte Helm, the star of Abwege, was the special one for him.
No time to blog today but there is NEWS to share. So here goes, welcome to Silent London’s News in Brief column.
• The virtual Pordenone lineup is live now! Laurel and Hardy, Brigitte Helm, Sessue Hayakawa, Ruan Lingyu! And all your favourite Pordenone musicians. Tickets for the whole shebang start at €9.90, and go on sale next week.
I will have more news to share soon. Exciting news!
• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.
If I were in a Pollyanna frame of mind, I could argue that it was my good fortune to be in cloudy England and not sunny Italy when contemplating spending the bank holiday weekend indoors. I promise you I did some bank holiday-ish things in between films, but I wasn’t going to miss out on virtual Il Cinema Ritrovato. There are a few things more important than movies, but not many.
It was a fine weekend at the sofa-festival. For one thing, on Friday night we announced the winners of the DVD awards, after meeting to discuss the candidates on Zoom earlier in the week (rather than over lunch in Bologna as is customary, but roll on next year).
And then there were the movies. A film such as the recently found and restored Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976) from Iran really exemplifies all that ‘s so great about this festival, and indeed Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation too. And there was a killer silent feature too, my most anticipated film of the virtual festival: Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), brilliantly restored from the BFI’s nitrate print.
I think this blogpost contains spoilers, but it’s very hard to tell.
Christopher Nolan’s new film is notoriously complex, or perhaps just convoluted. I say that because although I wasn’t always ready to answer probing questions on either the plot or the physics that propelled it, I was fascinated by Tenet’s central use of the simplest, and most effective weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the rewind.
Film is a time-based medium, which is always played forwards but can be recorded backwards. And at the heart of Tenet, this is all there is: film moving backwards and forwards. This being a Nolan blockbuster, we know it was actually shot on film, which makes it extra satisfying. Tenet calls the rewind “negative entropy” and so would you if you were making a multimillion-dollar movie.
Simple maths question for you? How long does it take to watch an 85-minute movie? If I had answered “85 minutes” this morning I would have been wide of the mark. It took me more like 140 minutes to get through an at-home screening of Marco Ferreri’s brilliant military satire Donne e Soldati (1955).
That time lag is on me, and my susceptibility to drop what I am doing when a piece of work comes through on email, on the fact that I was doing a load of laundry, that I made coffee and that the postman knocked twice (well, this is a movie blog). I’m not proud of it, and I need to try harder (other screenings today were far less interrupted). I am beyond grateful to Il Cinema Ritrovato for organising this online companion to the festival, so I promise I will get better at tricking myself I am in the Cinema Jolly, and not my front room.
Today’s films were excellent and Donne e Soldati is one of my top recommendations from the fest so far. Away from Ferreri’s medieval siege, we had law courts and circuses galore today. So the question of the day is, I guess, if you absolutely had to be cross-examined under oath, would you rather that Henry Fonda or Mae West was doing the questioning? Be careful, anything you say may be used against you … etc etc.