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Around China With a Movie Camera review: bewitching scenes from another world

In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.

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Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.

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A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On an on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.

Continue reading “Around China With a Movie Camera review: bewitching scenes from another world”

The Passion of Joan of Arc at Shakespeare’s Globe: a film out of time

If you are reading this post and you have never seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, stop now. Skip to the end, click on the link to buy tickets and make your life better with just a few taps of the mouse. Then you can come back and read the rest of what I have to say. Passion is not just one of the very best films of all time, but one that has inspired some of the most exciting scores too – despite the director’s misgivings about it being accompanied by music at all. There have been many film adaptations of the story of Joan of Arc, but Falconetti’s haunting portrayal of the saint, in front of Dreyer’s unflinching camera, is unforgettably raw and moving.

In September, you can see Passion at one of London’s most fascinating venues, Shakespeare’s Globe, as part of a season of live music events called Wonder Women curated by Lauren Laverne and The Pool. The music for this screening is a very special score – it’s a mixture of choral singing, electric guitars, harp, horns and synthesisers, written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) and conducted by Charles Hazlewood. I’ve heard it, back in 2011 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and I really loved it. The ancient and modern elements suit this timeless film well. I reviewed that event for a now-defunct and much missed arts blog, so here it is, reprinted, if you like.

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

For Jean Cocteau, The Passion of Joan of Arc was ‘an historical document from an era in which the cinema didn’t exist’. And somehow that makes sense. Carl Theodor Dreyer’s 1928 masterpiece about the trial and martyrdom of the Maid of Orleans claims fidelity to the 15th Century court transcripts, but has little in common with contemporary filmmaking. Continue reading “The Passion of Joan of Arc at Shakespeare’s Globe: a film out of time”

The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond

Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.

Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.

The Battle of the Somme (1916)
The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.

The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.

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The Guns of Loos (1928)

Continue reading “The First World War on film: at the BFI and beyond”

Sunrise and Sunset: Silent London speaks

As regular readers of this blog have probably guessed, I dwell in splendid isolation in a Hollywood mansion. Occasionally I kidnap a passing blogger to help me refine a post or two, but normally the only people I see are my pet leopard and Georg Wilhelm the butler. So it makes a nice change to be leave the house and talk about silent cinema in the presence of the beautiful people of London. I am doing that twice in the near future – so read all about it.

The fabulous Phoenix Cinema in Finchley is hosting a silent cinema festival on the weekend of 15-17th July, which promises to be very special. On the Saturday they are showing Steamboat Bill Jr, in a special kids screening,with Neil Brand, and also Why Be Good? with the wonderful Colleen Moore and a “live flapper performance”. On the Sunday, Ian Christie introduces a selection of archive films of north London with music by John Sweeney, followed by a screening of the cockney silent East is East, with Lillian Henley at the piano and Gerry Turvey introducing. On Friday 15th July, Stephen Horne is accompanying one of the greatest films of all time, the magical Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans, and I will be on introduction duty. Expect much inarticulate swooning from me, and sumptuous music from Mr Horne.

Read more about the event, and book your tickets here

Sunrise (1927)
Sunrise (1927)

Continue reading “Sunrise and Sunset: Silent London speaks”

Stella Dallas (1925): a melodrama that quickens the pulse

Olive Higgins Prouty’s 1923 novel Stella Dallas was destined to become a great movie. In fact, it has been adapted for the screen three times: in 1937 with Barbara Stanwyck in the lead role and in 1990 with Bette Midler, but before both of those in 1925 starring Belle Bennett as the unforgettable Stella.

Prouty’s novel is very cine-literate. It describes exactly the pleasure of a trip to the movies, but also the way that we can look at our real life as if it were a film. Sometimes we feel like an actor who is part of the spectacle, but at other times an onlooker, observing the action but not truly involved. Teenage Laurel, who is used to “standing on the outside” understands true love in real life because she has seen it in the movies: “Laurel had seen too many close-ups of faces not to recognize that look!”

The genius of this filmed Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925) is that it captures the poignancy of watching life from the dark of the auditorium, but its emotional reach draws us in, even from the back of the balcony. The final scene of the film, in which Stella watches her daughter’s wedding through a lit window on the dark and rain-drenched street, is the perfect visual incarnation of Laurel’s horrified realisation, voiced early in the novel, that she had “become a part of the picture on the screen, while her mother was still in the audience, out there in the dark, looking on”.

Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)

On its release, the Manchester Guardian’s film critic CA Lejeune described the “painful beauty” of Stella Dallas, saying: “We are stirred into sympathy with all these people because we cannot help identifying ourselves with them … the whole picture is full of the half-tones of which ordinary life is composed.” In the New York Times, Mordaunt Hall praised one of the romantic scenes in the strongest terms: “It is all so natural, so sweet and genuine, so true to life, so fervent and sincere, so tender.”

Stella Dallas was made by Samuel Goldwyn in 1925, and the mogul was determined that it would be his masterpiece. He would end up spending $700,000 on the film – which was twice his line of credit.

Stella Dallas (1925)
Stella Dallas (1925)

Key to the success of Stella Dallas is Frances Marion, the woman who wrote its sophisticated screenplay. Marion takes the events of the novel, which are jumbled by flashbacks to create the drama of suspense and revelation, and straightens them out into a flowing narrative that begins in a garden in spring and ends on a city street in the cold. She also takes a few discreet liberties, rearranging scenes and editing them slightly to emphasise the agonies that plague Stella and Laurel. Her screenplay for this silent adaptation became the basis for the subsequent sound film starring Stanwyck – making that film a true remake rather than a second adaptation. And the film is beautifully directed by Henry King, who tells the story visually, exploring the novel’s concern for appearances both contrived and mistaken, but who also coaxes excellent performances from his cast.

Continue reading “Stella Dallas (1925): a melodrama that quickens the pulse”

Love and Friendship and intertitles: the archaic and the modern

 

As if the prospect of Whit Stillman adapting Jane Austen for the screen wasn’t enough to tickle my fancy, a glimpse at Peter Bradshaw’s five-star review for Love and Friendship in the Guardian made it a must-see. Yes, he liked the film, a lot, and called it “hilariously self-aware”. More specifically, he mentioned “arch intertitles”, saying that Stillman uses them “as a kind of visual archaism, almost like a literary silent movie”. This had me scanning the room for the nearest couch to swoon on. I confess I first misread that as “visual anarchism” which didn’t surprise me in the slightest when we’re talking about intertitles, but “visual archaism” is another concept that intrigues me. Likewise, a “literary silent movie”, which may have been intended as an oxymoron or a joke, is perfectly plausible, although it is a form that has confounded many a critic.

The question I want to raise is this: are intertitles archaic? They were introduced in early film and widely understood as a way to circumnavigate the “problem” of having no audible dialogue, so surely they must be. But I would argue that they didn’t die out with the coming of sound. In the silent era, intertitles provided exposition, character introduction, geographical and chronological markers – and ready laughs. They still do. First, the quick, compact wit found in intertitles transformed into the quickfire comic dialogue of comedies from the screwball era to the finest romcoms by Nora Ephron, Woody Allen, et al. There’s many a modern film that begins with a title card, too, the most famous and best-loved being the scrolling scene-setters in the Stars Wars films. And you’ll see practical intertitles of many kinds popping up in modern films, from captions to introduce characters in a freeze-frame (think Trainspotting and its many imitators) to a kind of punctuation, used either for a gag or mark a shift in time and space (“New York, ten years later”, that sort of thing). Despite the expository potential of dialogue, modern films still rely on cards of sorts to impart all kinds of information. An excellent recent example is The Big Short.

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Love and Friendship (2016)

More intriguingly, modern technology means that intertitles, or the intertitle tradition, are having a renaissance. Honestly. It’s all to do with mobile phones, really. Many of us spend increasingly large portions of the day engrossed in long-running, silent conversations: from text messages and Whatsapp, to chat forums and Facebook threads. Text alerts interrupt our browsing to tell us about breaking news, or a “like” on Instagram or interaction on Twitter. I love all this, it means we live in a world of words and conversation. It doesn’t appear very cinematic, though. We look down, at a small gadget, instead of outward, and upright, facing the world.  We’re a little like Love and Friendship‘s Frederica, constantly hunched over a book, with the firelight reflected on her face recalling the glow of a phone or tablet. Cleverly, film and TV makers have incorporated this trend and made it work on screen, from the floating text messages in BBC’s Sherlock to the grainy screen close-ups of Catfish. We now expect to see text on screen at the cinema again. And I hear there is a particularly spooky use of SMS in Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, which debuted recently to excellent reviews at Cannes.

Continue reading “Love and Friendship and intertitles: the archaic and the modern”

Nitrate Picture Show 2016 review: intoxicating celluloid

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amran Vance, who runs the London Silent Film Meetup group and is part of the team behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope.

When I wrote about the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, last year I ended with the slightly pessimistic hope that we would get to see a silent film on nitrate next time around. My fear was that shrinkage issues with such old prints might prevent that from happening. I am delighted to report that my cynicism was misplaced as this year’s festival ended on a sensational high, an American silent film from 1928! But more about that later.

As with last year, the festival organisers kept the 2016 programme under wraps until the morning of the first day of the festival. I know this approach is controversial. Potential attendees have complained to me that they are reluctant to incur the not inconsiderable expense in traveling to upstate New York when they have no idea what films will be screened. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but there is something undeniably exciting about opening the brochure on the first day and seeing what treats lie ahead of us. There is also merit in the organisers’ position that it is the physical condition and pictorial beauty of the prints that governs their selection, with the quality and reputation of the works coming next. Personally, I favour a middle ground, perhaps naming three or four films in advance and keeping the rest secret.

The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum, our venue for the festival
The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum, our venue for the festival

I suspect that few, if any,who made the journey to Rochester were disappointed with the films presented to us. I was initially sorry to see that no silents were listed but was keeping my fingers crossed that the final screening of the festival, our Blind Date with Nitrate, might possibly fulfill that wish. And so it did.

The festival kicked off with a selection of short films – my favourites were a colorful Julius Pischewer animation Cent Ans de Chemins de fer Suisses celebrating 100 years of the Swiss railway system and a delightful 1934 Universal animation Jolly Little Elves featuring doughnut-loving kindly elves.

 

These were followed by one of the highlights of the festival and a film I had not seen before, Enamorada (1946) a tempestuous romantic drama set against the background of the Mexican revolution. Featuring the masterful framing of the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, the film looked gorgeous, especially the exterior shots of the Mexican town in which the story is set. María Félix, probably Mexico’s most famous actress, was beguiling as the feisty female lead and Figueroa makes masterful use of light and shade, given added depth and texture by the nitrate print.

Enamorada (1946)
Enamorada (1946)

 

Our final film on the first day was the classic noir, Laura, which we were told was a pre-release version that included footage that was cut for its theatrical distribution. Nobody I spoke to could spot the additional material, however, and although the print was good there were only moments when the benefit of nitrate showed through.

Continue reading “Nitrate Picture Show 2016 review: intoxicating celluloid”

Instant expert: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Name: Man with a Movie Camera

Date: 1929

So is this like Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman? Well yes a little, but mostly, very much no.

Not a comedy then? Not American either, it’s a Soviet documentary, a City Symphony in fact.

I know about those – which city does it portray? Erm. Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev. And Odessa. But you’re not always sure which is which.

A fake then? No, it’s art.

Which means it’s not a factual film at all? Well that is a tricky question. A group of Sight & Sound critics recently voted it the greatest documentary of all time. So that’s that, but I’d argue it isn’t really a documentary at all. As is often the case, I agree with David Cairns, who calls it a “Non-fiction Film Thing” in a new video essay.

That is not so catchy. How about just “Film” then? The stated intent of Man With a Movie Camera was to make a film that owed nothing to the other arts, literature, theatre, painting. Check out the opening intertitle. “This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

That sounds amazing. It is, full of astonishing cinematic tricks and playful philosophizing and passion. It is the most filmic of films and you should watch it, which is kinda the point of this conversation.

You always have an ulterior motive. Yes, I am sneaky that way. Man With A Movie Camera, my forgetful friend, was released last year in the cinema and on Blu-ray – my review is here.

I’ll read that later, I’m really busy. Asking silly questions must take up a good deal of your time. The TL;DR version of that review is that the cinema release of the movie was great, a gleaming restoration with a dazzling score by the Alloy Orchestra, but the Blu-ray release was not quite up to the same standard (although fans of the Michael Nyman score might overlook that).

I’ve missed my chance then. No. There is a new Blu-ray of Man With a Movie Camera in the shops – and it is the theatrical version that knocked my socks off last year. Put simply I recommend that you buy this version, from Masters of Cinema, forthwith, without delay.

Anything else to sweeten the deal before payday? LOTS. The aforementioned video essay by Davis Cairns and Timo Langer, and the not insubstantial matter of four of Vertov’s other important works (Kino-Eye, Kino-Pravda #21, Enthusiasm, Three Songs about Lenin). Plus an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Ian Christie, a booklet crammed with treats from the archives. And a very nice box.

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You can read more about the Masters of Cinema release here and buy it from lots of places including here.

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: two days in movie-geek heaven

Sometimes you can fight it. You can keep those thoughts at bay, and resist your deeper impulses, urging you to indulge that secret side of yourself that you usually keep hidden. On other days, what the heck, you just need to geek out.

Thank nerd heaven, then, for the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, now in its fourth year – and more specifically, thanks to Lawrence Napper of King’s College London who organises this impressive event.

For the first time, we had two days in which to sympose. First, a long afternoon (2pm-9pm) of screenings with a couple of presentations thrown in, then a full day of papers. I like this new arrangement, which gives you a bit of choice as to how deep your geekery will run. In case you really need to ask, I was there for both days …

Knocknagow (1918)
Knocknagow (1918)
The three features on the Thursday all had much to recommend them. It’s a little unfair to single out my least favourite, because it was an ambitious ensemble drama, a literary adaptation made in Ireland at a time when that country barely had a film industry at all – and it had scenes missing. But do look out for a forthcoming restoration of Knocknagow (1918), which has a fascinating history and sumptuous landscapes. And we were lucky enough to have Neil Brand at the keys, so those landscapes became even more lush.

The most awe-inspiring film of the day was The Somme – not the very well-known documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916), but a 1927 feature, which nevertheless borrows some documentary tricks, and archive footage, to tell the story of the famous offensive of 1916, with painstaking detail and high drama. It is impossible not to be moved by the bravery and stoicism of the men involved, and the scene in which our lads first see a tank wreaking destruction on the trenches is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Slow tracking shots along the mighty beast’s riveted hide create an impression of looming, sinister dominance that Stanley Kubrick would salivate over. And Stephen Horne’s accompaniment was astonishingly good – and often unexpected. Do seek this out if you ever get a chance to see it, especially if you have a particular interest in world war one. And you can read a little more about the film in Lawrence Napper’s excellent book, excerpted here.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: two days in movie-geek heaven”

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