London Film Festival 2014: the silent review

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe

Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?

The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.

While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.

Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good? (1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.

Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.

As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.

Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation  – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

There was another new and notable restoration on show at the London Film Festival, the feather in its silent cap: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (Walter Summers, 1927), which was this year’s Archive Gala. And this evening, back at the Queen Elizabeth Hall, was certainly memorable. I have never seen so many shiny brass buttons in one room, between the Royal Marines band on stage and the many Navy personnel in dress uniform in the stalls. And at how many screenings are you greeted at the door by sailors in crisp-blue-and-white handing out programmes? Too few.

This site already contains many, many words about this movie, but I’ll just add a few more to say that Summers naval spectacular looked wonderful on the big screen, crisply restored, and superbly accompanied by the Royal Marines playing Simon Dobson’s new multilayered and high-octane score. It’s a thrilling film, and more so when seen with a large and appreciative audience. It’s a big movie too, with so many men and such vast boats on an even wider sea, so this really is the best way to see it. The “Effort” montage sequence shone particularly – I encourage you to catch a cinema screening. Brace yourself for the gunfire though, it’s every bit as loud as it needs to be.

Damn This War! (Alfred Machin, 1914)
Damn the War! (Alfred Machin, 1914)

Maudite Soit la Guerre (Damn the War!, 1914) is a dreamlike piece that rapidly becomes a nightmare, a film whose vivid beauty lingers in the mind long after it has ended. It’s a film with a tough subject: young lovers divided by a brutal war between neighbouring countries. There are two things that make this film so special: the first is the gorgeous, and very sophisticated use of Pathé-color – that is aniline dyes applied by hand to each frame using a stencil. It’s more lifelike than you might expect, with delicately variegated foliage and crisp blue skies, but in fact the stained-glass effect, like an animated watercolour, is striking in itself. And the use of red washes to convey explosions enhances the battle scenes no end, which are already very well staged and framed (the aviation sequences are particularly memorable).

The second factor is a question of eerie timing: Maudite Soit la Guerre was prescient, rather than topical. This Belgian pacifist film, directed by Alfred Machin, a Frenchman, was made and released before the outbreak of the first world war, which makes its final message, that the horrors inflicted during conflict blight an entire lifetime, all the more powerful.

But even taken out of context, watched a century later, this is an assured film, as confident in its style as its political purpose. It’s not just the colours, but those raging war scenes and the way that throughout the film, double-exposures and cutaway inset scenes are deployed to tell the story with minimal use of intertitling. The final shot, a simple close-up with delicate blue and green tinting, is utterly devastating – and rendered beautifully in this fine restoration by the Belgian Film Institute.

Ever had to rearrange your face when someone asks incredulously whether anyone makes silent films these days? Yup, me too. There were plenty of silents and sort-of silents in the experimental film strand at LFF this year. Here are a handful of those I saw.

At just shy of three minutes, Stuart Pound’s Vampire Bat (2014) plays like a pop video: being a selection of snippets from Nosferatu (1922) stitched together, duplicated, rewound and replayed. There’s a touch of polarisation and a globular device creeping across the frame that almost recalls nitrate decomposition. And it all plays out to a hard rock soundtrack: Evangelista’s Vampire Bat. It’s cool (hat-tip FW, yeah?), but it doesn’t really go anywhere – except to remind you how terrifying Max Schreck is in this role.

A silent twist on film noir, Urschrift (Julia Dogra-Brazell, 2014) “revels in the generic clichés of the 40s police procedural thriller”. The title means “original” and for most of its running time, the screen is taken up by a blank film frame, sprocket holes on display, slightly out of focus in scratchy black-and-white. Flash cuts of street neon, typewriter keys, guns, casinos and a sinister figure in a doorway combine with a juddering, collage soundtrack to evoke detective thrillers, projecting a whole movie on to those empty frames. Its remarkable how much visual and aural information Dogra-Brazell packs in this way – it’s a jumpy mini-noir and inexplicably unsettling.

Sea of Vapors (2014)
Sea of Vapors (2014)

German film-maker Sylvia Schedelbauer offered a trip to the moon, of sorts, with her experimental film Sea of Vapors (Meer Der Dünste, 2014). This peculiarly intense film is comprised of black-and-white archive footage, a pulsing light and a driving electronic score. I confess I don’t really understand how the footage in a 15-minute movie can be “cut to emulate the lunar cycle” as Schedlbauer describes it, but I do see that this is a chill, kinetic film. The POV is perpetually moving forward, our focus drawn to circular shapes (the rising sun, an eyeball, a coffee cup, even the moon itself) as the film clips spin and dissolve into each other. Riveting.

Timothy Smith’s Béton Brut (2014) is a more earthly proposition, and a little taste of silent London. This starkly photographed short is an ode to the capital’s concrete jungle, capped with an approving quote from le Corbusier. A montage of images of the Southbank, the Barbican, the Balfron tower and so on, this film reveres the austerity of these brutalist behemoths and then uncovers the subtle beauties of their architecture. It’s very grand to look upon, and the soundtrack is skilfully done: white noise blends into a collage of found sounds: first roadworks, then birdsong, as the seemingly faceless buildings reveal their true grace and character.

The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)
The Tribe (Plemya, 2014)

And the one that got away: Despite my best(ish) efforts, I didn’t get to see The Tribe (2014), which intrigued me so much. My bad, as not only did it get great reviews, it won the first feature prize. I will rectify this as soon as possible. Meanwhile, here’s something of what my esteemed colleague Peter Bradshaw had to say about it:

This is a grimly compelling, explicit and violent film which is also a silent movie … you have to hope to understand the general gist and the larger building blocks of narrative without picking up on the minutiae – which is, interestingly, how movie-makers broadly conceive of their work in its early stages … But the main question is: signing is a language like any other, so why not have subtitles? … The point, I think, is that their silence underscores their alienation from us. They are a different tribe: outside the law, below the salt … It is a bleak but simple picture – at times it looks like Slaboshpytskiy draws on Samuel Beckett or Peter Brook to create a universal language of anxiety. Read Peter Bradshaw’s full review for the Guardian here.

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6 thoughts on “London Film Festival 2014: the silent review”

  1. The Goddess is wonderful – I’d love to see it on the big screen. And I’m very jealous that you saw Why Be Good – it looks like a lot of fun! Sadly, I missed Maudite soit la Guerre by a few days, I think it screened in AMS the weekend after I left. I’m not big on war stories – perhaps it’s WW100 fatigue – but the colouring looks just incredible in that one. And some of the shorts you describe sound very intriguing …

  2. Hello

    Thank you for writing about my video Vampire Bat but could you possibly sever the link to DailyMotion as this work should not be available on the internet at the moment. I was very pleased to have my work shown in Experimenta at the London Film Festival and am hoping to get festival screenings elsewhere. Thanks again for writing about this work.

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