Category Archives: Blog

Discovering lost films in fin-de-siècle flipbooks: Léon Beaulieu and Georges Méliès

TL;DR: book news, see below.

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.

Here’s what I wrote for Criterion on the plane home:

“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…

Continue reading Discovering lost films in fin-de-siècle flipbooks: Léon Beaulieu and Georges Méliès

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

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.

Day Eight

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.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 6

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.

Day Seven

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.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 6

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 5

Did you spend your Thursday evening straying with Brigitte Helm? I hope so …

Day Six

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.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 5

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4

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 …

Day Five

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.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 3

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.

Day Four

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.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 3

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 2

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.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 2

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 1

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.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 1

In-camera kings: The VFX magic of Georges Méliès and early trick filmmakers

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.

Continue reading In-camera kings: The VFX magic of Georges Méliès and early trick filmmakers

Abwege (1928): delirious dissolution in the Weimar nightlife

Abwege, otherwise known as Crisis, or The Devious Path, is streaming as part of the 2020 Limited Edition Pordenone Silent Film Festival. You can sign up here – tickets start at €9.90.

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.

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News in brief: Festivals and stars

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.

• The London Film Festival lineup is also live now, and the screenings will be more accessible this year. The big silent film this year is Paulette McDonagh’s The Cheaters, restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and co-presented by the wonderful Kennington Bioscope. Cyrus Gabrysch will provide the accompaniment and you’ll be able to catch the film on the BFI Player.

• I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this morning, to talk about Olive Thomas, who died 100 years ago tomorrow.

• Exciting news from Denmark, where an exhibition devoted to Asta Nielsen will run from the end of October to the middle of next August. More on this soon …

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.

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #5: To Fight a War

The festival closed, for me at least, on a grim note. Apocalyptic in fact. Perhaps it was end-of-festival anguish. Perhaps it’s just the end of the world as we know it.

Here’s how I rounded off my virtual Il Cinema Ritrovato.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #5: To Fight a War

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #4: a long weekend online

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.

So let’s begin.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #4: a long weekend online

Tenet (2020): the oldest special effect in the world

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.

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Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #3: courtrooms and circuses

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.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #3: courtrooms and circuses

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #2: Wish you were here

Day Two of Il Cinema Ritrovato, in this sala at least, was filled with cinematographic splendour, and I am not just talking about Mr Grant’s dimple.

Today we’re dividing the films geographically rather than by era. Don’t @ me, I don’t make the rules. Well, I do make the rules but a) I make them up as I go along, b) I am usually too busy watching films to reply to constructive criticism.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #2: Wish you were here

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #1: Have fun, honey bunch

Finally, east London has a world-class archive film festival. Almost.

Il Cinema Ritrovato has shifted a little in time and (virtual) space this year, for reasons I am sure you all understand. The postponed festival is now going ahead in Bologna, Italy, IRL but in late August rather than late June. However, for reasons that are slightly more obscure, I am not there. I am at home in east London, with a laptop, a projector and a white wall. And high hopes. I have very high hopes.

Although I am very sad not to be taking part in the living breathing festival this year but I am determined to make the most of my streaming pass. I intended to clear the week of work as much as possible, but the very second that the first virtual event began, I found myself in an actual cinema, in Soho, for a press screening. Still, the clever people at Ritrovato allow 24 hours for you to catch up with each screening, so as soon as I got home, I was ready to get started.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #1: Have fun, honey bunch

Hollywood history: Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley

Quick question. Can you remember March 2020? Me neither. Far too long ago.

So, a few things have happened since then, but at the beginning of March I reported for the Guardian on film historian John Bengtson’s campaign to have one alley in Hollywood renamed in honour of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, who all shot famous scenes there. When I wrote the piece, I hoped to be visiting the alley to see it for myself quite soon. Now there’s a bad joke.

The point is, that the campaign continues, and gathers support. Also, I wanted to share this video John has made that sums up the importance of the alley rather smartly. Why share, give it a thumbs-up, or just enjoy the gags?

 

  • Find out more about John’s campaign here.
  • On a not-entirely-related topic, did you know that you can watch Il Cinema Ritrovato from home this year? Sign up here for a streaming pass.
  • Eureka releases another great Buster Keaton box set next week, comprising College, Our Hospitality and Go West.
  • 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.

 

Hippfest at home: horribly good news

I am delighted to share some very welcome news. Personally, I was really sorry that Hippfest had to be cancelled this year – a week or two earlier and it would have been fine. It’s no secret that it’s one of my favourite festivals, so I am already excited about returning to Bo’ness in 2021.

So I am chuffed to my boots to let you know that on Saturday 4 July, at 8pm (BST) Hippfest will be screening a classic silent horror movie with live accompaniment by the maestro Neil Brand on YouTube. That’s what I call a Saturday night. Continue reading Hippfest at home: horribly good news

Pordenone goes online: news about the 2020 Giornate del Cinema Muto

The news you were waiting for, or perhaps dreading, is here. The Pordenone Silent Film Festival has announced that its programme for 2020 will be postponed until 2021. But! There will be a virtual, “limited edition” version of the festival online this year, running 3-10 October 2020.

The need to make health our number one priority, and the impossibility of welcoming a full complement of international guests in the Teatro Comunale Giuseppe Verdi for our annual rendezvous with silent film, has led the organizers of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival/Giornate del Cinema Muto to shift the 2020 programme set by director Jay Weissberg to 2021. Given that eight days of thematic screenings and events is simply not viable in an online format, the decision has been made to make the world’s leading film archives the Festival’s co-producers, in a sense, offering them the opportunity to present some of their riches online to the Giornate’s public during the established dates.

So, as always but even more so, the festival will be an international collaboration of film archives – and there will be plenty for us to watch. The cinematheques involved include: the Library of Congress in Washington D.C., Lobster Films in Paris, Det Danske Filminstitut in Copenhagen, the China Film Archive in Beijing, EYE Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, the National Film Archive of Japan in Tokyo, together with the Cineteca del Friuli, co-founder with Cinemazero of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

There will be everything we come to expect from Pordenone: rarities, restorations, live music, a collegium, the Jean Mitry award and even the bilingual catalogue. I can’t actually wait.

Wait, there’s more. The Giornate has a blog now? I’m beaming.

With an eye to reinforcing the ties between the Festival and its international public, a new blog is being launched this weekend, called La Gatta Muta; or, The Silent Cat, created by director Jay Weissberg and hosted on the Giornate’s website. Its aim is to stimulate discussion by uncovering the forgotten people and episodes of the silent era, privileging storytelling as a path towards rediscovery.

See you in the cyber-Posta!