It would be easy enough to despair at our current cinema choices. Although film houses are more comfortable and technologically sophisticated than ever, what is actually on the screen is terrifyingly narrow. Even though almost every cinema in the land is now equipped for digital prints, opening up programmers to a cheap and vast library of films, this hasn’t broken the stranglehold of loud, ephemeral and repetitive Hollywood fare.
Standing as an antidote to this conservatism, Scalarama brings the weird, the underseen, the expanded and emboldened to the cinema and beyond. In its fourth year and now bolstered by BFI funding, Scalarama takes place across September and operates in a similar fashion to the Edinburgh festival fringe: the organisers take no cut of the profits, they only encourage a broadening of what is on offer. Originally created as a tribute to the freewheeling programming of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, it attempts to bolster film clubs, give cinemas the confidence to take on riskier programming and move cinema outside of its traditional homes.
Two films that are at the heart of Scalarama’s offering this year are of special interest to silent film lovers. The first will be familiar to all: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. The second is almost a ghost to all but a few dedicated film fans: Charles Lane’s Sidewalk Stories.
Shot in 1989, Sidewalk Stories is a modern silent feature film. And it has an impressive progeny: Michael Hazanavicius, the director of the Oscar-winning behemoth The Artist, credits this neglected classic as the direct inspiration for his indie smash. Yet if this might lead you to expect a nostalgic recreation of cinema pre-1928, guess again. Lane’s setting and attitude is more Spike Lee than FW Murnau. Made the same year as Do the Right Thing, Sidewalk Stories is cut from the same cloth as other grimy pre-Giuliani New York city films like Taxi Driver, Serpico and The French Connection.
That said, the plot itself is pure Chaplin: the star (played by Lane himself) finds himself in loco parentis of a young girl when her father is killed. As with Chaplin’s The Kid, our hero’s hapless parenting is the centre of the story here. The dynamic between the two is heartwarming, no doubt because of their connection as real-life father and daughter. Having confessed to loathing silent cinema as an art student, Lane embraces the medium to tell a universal story about homelessness and desperation. It is a story of deep compassion and this is why it is being released in the UK in partnership with Open Cinema, a charity that provides opportunities to access culture and film skills for marginalised people. Londoners have two opportunities to catch the film: Nobody Ordered Wolves (AKA yours truly) will be showing the film at popup cinema Hollywood Spring with a live score by pianist Stephen Horne. Tickets here. Later in the month, Hotel Elephant will also be showing the film. To see where else in the UK this neglected gem is getting an outing, click here.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari requires far less introduction. Besides being a touchstone in Expressionist art, a giant of silent cinema and one of the foundation films of the horror genre, it also freaked out Virginia Woolf something wicked (“The monstrous quivering tadpole seemed to be fear itself, and not the statement “I am afraid”‘, she wrote in 1926). Despite Caligari’s importance, previous restorations have not done the film full justice. This year, the reliable Masters of Cinema series resolves this by releasing a brand new restoration by L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna. As Sabina Stent wrote on this site, “The digital image restoration in 4K is sharp, tinted and the experience is like watching the film through fresh eyes.” To celebrate the film’s release at the end of August, Scalarama has invited programmers to provide new scores to the film, a call that has been amply responded to. The Curzon Community Cinema in Clevedon is making superb use of its 1930s Christie organ to score the film. Sound collective Partial Facsimile add their noise to film in the amazing surroundings of Eastbourne’s Redoubt Fortress. Things get even more hardcore in Nottingham as Kino Klubb let doom metal band Nadir loose on the film at the Broadway Cinema. And these are just the highlights for a full tour (Silent Londoners should note they can catch the film in the plush surroundings of the Everyman).
But the beauty of Scalarama is that it is an open programme that encourages breadth. And the silent selection is no exception in this. For a sample, click over here: there are screenings of Metropolis, Faust, A Night at the Cinema in 1914, The Cameraman and more. Long may the good ship Scalarama sail onwards, encouraging imaginative screenings wherever she alights!
By Duncan Carson
- Scalarama runs 1-30 September: visit the website
- Visit the Nobody Ordered Wolves website
- Buy tickets for the Nobody Ordered Wolves screening of Sidewalk Stories here