Silent film with live music in independent cinemas

Sherlock Jr (1924)
Sherlock Jr (1924)

If you’re interested in silent cinema it’s a fair bet that you are, or would like to be, a patron of an independent cinema. The sort of cosy neighbourhood picture palace that shows the newest arthouse and foreign flicks, as well as a solid programme of classics; where you can drink shiraz rather than a litre of cola and nibble 70% cocoa chocolate rather than crunchy nachos. The sort of place, in fact, that shows silent films with live musical accompaniment. Heaven for a film fan, and vital, many would argue, to the film industry.

Independent cinemas foster audiences for films that don’t have megabucks marketing budgets or established stars, giving new film-makers the chance to get their films seen, and to get paid. A well-programmed indie cinema can educate its visitors about world cinema and film history – through “classic” strands, double-bills and festivals – which in turn creates audiences for the kind of movies that don’t get a look-in at the multiplex. If you love your local independent cinema, or you have recently lost one, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not easy to keep this kind of business afloat in the current financial climate, so I think we all feel a little protective of these lovely places.

Therefore I was interested to read a recent submission from a group of British indie cinemas (including Glasgow’s GFT, Bristol’s Watershed, Manchester’s Cornerhouse, London’s ICA and Newcastle’s Tyneside) to the UK Film Policy review, which will be overseen by a panel of industry experts, chaired by culture secretary Chris Smith. This submission is a manifesto for the independent cinema sector, and it was published on the Screen Daily website. The document sets out a list of ambitions for the sector, lists what they hope to achieve and yes, ends with a request for recognition of their value, as well as a “three to five year UK wide development strategy’, including cash and:

– A cultural exhibition investment strategy that begins with the audiences’ right to access a wider diversity of cinema. To include; an audience development fund to support initiatives that bring culturally diverse films into distribution, generate UK wide touring initiatives and alternative cultural content.

That sounds fantastic, but what does it mean? The clues are to be found earlier in the document, under the heading “What we plan to do”. I’ll quote the list in full, but with emphasis on the third item.

  • Provide a stronger exhibition platform for emerging UK filmmakers.
  • Develop cultural diversity with specific focus on developing audiences for under represented film cultures and communities e.g. African, Asian, Latin American, Caribbean and wider European.
  • Promote the heritage of cinema through archival strands and live music accompanying silent cinema – one of the ways film is becoming part of contemporary live performance and developing new audiences.
  • Engage young audiences in a wider diet of world and archival cinemas through work with schools, screenings and media literacy events.
  • Create wider engagement and participation in debate and dialogue with audiences through online publishing.
  • Provide a focus for artists moving image presentation in venue and online
  • Provide a UK wide platform and profile for the next generation of talent.

So the cinemas who have written this manifesto are pledging to continue offering silent films with live music. What’s more, they’re talking about silent film events in terms of “contemporary live performance” and “developing new audiences” – and also as worthy of government support. Between this, and certain newspapers talking up a major silent-movie revival (which of course should be taken with a spoonful of salt), we may well be on the brink of interesting times for silent film fans. It should go without saying that I appreciate the silent-film-and-live-music offerings of chain cinemas (notably, of course the Picturehouses chain), film festivals and concert venues – Silent London exists to support and encourage all of these events. But more is almost always merrier, and if independent cinemas around the country are able to offer events as thrilling as some of the screenings we have seen in London recently, that is cause for celebration. If it boosts the independent cinema sector into the bargain, that’s going to be an even bigger party.

I’m getting ahead of myself, of course. We’ll know more when the panel reports back, and crucially, decides what to do with some of the increased Lottery investment for the film industry that has come about as a result of the 2012 Olympics. Fingers crossed.

But if you were still wondering whether silent film screenings are an uncommercial, niche interest, read what Mark Kermode has to say in his recent book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex.

As someone who’s spent quite a lot of time accompanying silent movies, I have indeed been thrilled by the resurgence of interest in these oft-forgotten works that seems to have flourished since the turn of the century. Spurred on by the retrospective fervour that attended the 100th anniversary of the ‘invention of cinema’ … many modern movie-goers were inspired to seek out reissued silent gems and to experience the wonder of a live soundtrack first-hand … So yes, I do have a powerful hankering for the days when films were performed rather than just screened, and directors understood that film (unlike theatre) is first and foremost a visual medium in which dialogue is not the driving force.

I’ll raise a glass to that.

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