Category Archives: Blog

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7.5

Greetings, not from Pordenone, but from Marco Polo airport. Sadly I am not staying for the final day of the Giornate, so this may not be the blogging finale you were expecting.

There is a fine day ahead for those of you still at the festival, including Colleen Moore in Ella Cinders and Reginald Denny in Skinner’s Dress Suit, not to mention the conclusion of the Charles Hutchison serial The Great Gamble.

Tonight’s special event in Teatro Verdi is one that I am especially sorry to miss, and perhaps the fog surrounding the airport this morning is some kind of sympathetic sign.The closing gala for the 38th Pordenone Silent Film Festival will be Alfred Hitchcock’s murky murder mystery The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (1927), starring the beauteous Ivor Novello and the marvellous Marie Ault. I hope you’re looking forward to watching the silky new BFI restoration of this British silent classic, especially when I tell you that the music will be Neil Brand’s brilliant new orchestral score, conducted by Ben Palmer. Enjoy it for me, blub. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7.5

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7

“You must go to the KiPho!” That was the message of the morning, where KiPho means cinema: kino + photografie. It takes a certain frame of mind to rise early in the morning to learn “how to be modern” from films that are nearly a century old, but here in Pordenone it seems perfectly natural. So today’s Weimar shorts selection began with Kipho, AKA Film from 1925, a speedy run-through of the medium to that point, flipbooks and all. That was followed by the most bizarre, and brilliant, ad for a motor show I have ever seen (featuring a martian, fallen to Earth and revived with lager, and that was just the start of it), some tips on kitchen design and lighting and a couple of comical films offering hygiene advice. And that’s how to be modern.

This concoction of the weird and the well-meaning was followed by Cecil B DeMille’s 1916 epic Joan the Woman, starring opera singer Geraldine Farrar, gorgeously accompanied by Philip Carli. All 11 reels unspooled today, although I confess that I couldn’t stay for all of them, which is a shame as what I saw was h-y-p-n-o-t-i-c. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 6

Norma Desmond reckoned the silents didn’t need dialogue. But she never came to the Giornate. This may be a silent film festival but it’s good to talk. And listen. So I spent about as much time listening to people chat today as I did watching them mouth words. And yes, today did mark the return of benshi artist Ichiko Kataora to Pordenone with the Japanese silent Chushingura (1910-1917). So there is a method to this festival madness, I promise you. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 5

You can’t watch everything. Well maybe you can. I can’t. So it is with regret that I have to make some difficult choices – today of all days. Weimar cinema or William S Hart westerns, for example. I followed my heart, and my research interests. What else can you do?

So I spent my morning immersed in 1920s Germany (and my 2019 inbox). To begin with, a diverting selection from the Weimar Shorts strand, which including some utter wonders. Watching Otto Dix at work with ink, watercolour and oil paint was a real thrill. Although I felt a little “seen” by his first portrait: a lady with dark, heavy circles around her eyes. That was Schaffende Hände. Otto Dix (1924). There were more artists at work too: the uncanny elegance of Lotte Pritzel’s wax figurines came to life in Die Pritzelpuppe (1923), and when they were shot in silhouette it was hard to forget that other great female film artist of the Weimar years, Lotte Reiniger. I was especially intrigued by the tableaux at the end in which actors (including Niddy Impekoven) posed in costumes designed by Pritzel, in unheimlich imitation of the puppets’ posture, as part of a pantomime, Die Kaiserin von Neufundland, written by Frank Wedekind. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 4

Still mooning about the goat-herder? Another Giornate blogpost will take your mind off it, Marion.

One of the beauties of Pordenone is the fact that the programme is so omnivorous, ranging far and wide over the first four decades of film history, and the audience are equally diverse. No doubt the main attraction of today, the headline act as it were, was the Hollywood comedy double-bill that played this evening. While I enjoy Marion Davies and Laurel and Hardy as much as the next silent cinema blogger, like everyone here I have my own particular passions that draw me back to the Verdi every year.

So it was that I woke up this morning most excited to see an eleven-minute film playing in the middle of the morning: Gerolamo Lo Savio’s 1909 Otello. Yes, I am a silent Shakespeare fan and this was my treat for the day. Stencil-colour, Venetian location shooting, a passionate but hardly Moorish Othello (I think it was the divine Michelle Facey sho said that meant he was surely “lessish”) and a nicely malevolent Iago made this a Shakespeare to savour, even if inevitably one had to devour it in one small mouthful. The colour was especially memorable here – notably a brief bloom of scarlet at Othello’s throat as he dies. An attractive and unexpected gory entry in the silent Shakespeare canon. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 3

Not to brag*, but I recently returned from the San Sebastián International Film Festival. There I saw people falling over themselves to catch a glimpse of Penélope Cruz or Kristen Stewart. That’s cool, but I do like it here at Pordenone where the mere sight of Léontine’s name on a title cart can cause someone in the Verdi stalls to whoop so loud that I was wondering who it was from the second balcony.

This bit certainly isn’t a brag, but my day job followed me to Pordenone this week, and I was tapping away at my laptop in my hotel room, writing about H****y W*******n when I suddenly realised I only had a minute to spare to get to the Verdi for the next session, the session I really didn’t want to miss: the return of Nasty Women, curated by Maggie Hennefeld and Laura Horak. Readers, I dashed to the Verdi and what I saw there was enough to wipe such horrid thoughts from my mind. Joyously anarchic, gleefully disruptive, messy, wild and endlessly hilarious antics, perpetrated by women on an unsuspecting world. Alice Guy-Blaché’s pregnant Madame with her escalating cravings, Léontine vandalising the petit bourgeoisie of a whole town, the housemaids on strike and marching through the streets, Cunégonde trying to keep tabs on her man … I loved all these gigglesome, radical short comedies. Up to and including the wonderful La Peur des Ombres with its shadowplay, sophisticated splitscreen and good-natured gurning – it rips a classic DW Griffith actioner into shred and sprinkles it around like confetti. Would love to think Weber saw it before making Suspense. This sort of thing should be available on the NHS: National Hilarity Service. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 2

It was a day for film stars in Pordenone today: from the contract players lining up to do studio promo in this morning’s Films on Film programme to Ita Rina the Slovenian tragedienne in the Estonian drama Kire Lained at the end of the night. But when I consider all the stars shining brightly in the Verdi today, I have to confess, my heart belongs to William S.

Tonight’s evening screening was devoted to the western star William S Hart, kicking off a whole strand devoted to his peculiarly soulful machismo and hearty horsemanship. Before the feature we had two short films. One was a talkie clip from 1939 with Hart introducing his final film, Tumbleweeds (1925) and lamenting, it seemed, both the decline of the old west and the passing of his days as a western star. Only slightly less poignant was a silent fragment of Hart on a promotional tour of New York in 1919 and, so the intertitles told us, pining for the frontier lands. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 1

Charlie Chaplin, whose early masterpiece The Kid played this year’s Giornate opening-night gala, said some very wise things. Among which was the famous dictum that “a day without laughter is a day wasted”. It’s especially glorious to reflect on that idea after a day spent in fits of giggles in the Verdi. Today belonged to Chaplin, to Max Linder, to Suzanne Grandais and Léonce Perret. And more than that, to a rather more grand cosmic joke, played in Pordenone today, which thankfully had results rather more charming that catastrophic.

Yes, the slapstick gods truly smiled on us at the start of the 38th Giornate del Cinema Muto. How else to explain the fact that the industrious town of Pordenone had scheduled both a silent movie festival, and a marching band convention for the same day? Yes, a dozen or more brass bands were stepping around the piazza outside the Verdi reinterpreting pop and rock favourites, all while the afternoon films were playing. Fret not, the Verdi was entirely soundproofed, so there was no interruption to the excellent work of the day’s pianists. But just imagine what Messrs Chaplin and Linder might have made of such a circumstance?

Anyway, enough of my prattle. Welcome home! Today your humble correspondent enjoyed an especially fine afternoon of silent goodness, and she is feeling very buoyant indeed about the week to come. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 1

A Star is Born again and again

I wrote this piece for Drugstore Culture last September, when Bradley Cooper’s A Star is Born was released. Now that that site has shuttered, and Judy Garland is back in the cinema in the form of Rupert Goold’s late-life biopic Judy, starring Renée Zellweger, I have republished it here. There is not much to do with silent cinema here, but it’s all film history, so why not?

 

According to the website of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the birth of a star is a ten-stage process. To paraphrase from this already simplified version: first, clouds of gas accumulate in galaxies – and then trouble strikes. ‘Random turbulent processes lead to regions dense enough to collapse under their own weight,’ reads stage three, ‘in spite of a hostile environment.’ The star begins to form at the centre of all this collapsed matter, which the website calls a ‘blob’. The protostar achieves bona fide status as the result of fusion and, in the process, creates a lot of rubbish. By the end of the tenth stage, the new star is fully formed, along with a few collateral planets, and all that unwanted debris.

Stormy weather and a hostile environment leading to a collapse and a union, leaving us with one shining star and a heap of has-beens. As in the heavens, so in show business. Just ask Bradley Cooper. For his directorial debut, which received its UK premiere last night, the actor has just revived the Hollywood myth A Star is Born as a heady, emotional rock musical, and it is a worthy, self-aware successor to the other films bearing that name. It’s a simple story, which explains its enduring appeal. Two talented people fall in love and get married: one is a gleaming new star, and the other a falling meteor, soon to become so much showbiz detritus.

Cooper also appears as the veteran rocker on the slide who takes Lady Gaga’s ingénue on a bumpy ride to the top. It’s an old, old story, but Cooper and Gaga tell it exceedingly well. Theirs is the fourth feature to be made with the name A Star is Born since 1937, although the story began a little earlier than that. A Star is Born cropped up roughly every 20 years for a while. After 1937, there was 1954, and 1976 – which means the latest instalment is long overdue. Cooper and Gaga’s antecedents are Janet Gaynor and Fredric March, directed by William Wellman; Judy Garland and James Mason, directed by George Cukor; and Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson, directed by Frank Pierson. In the nineties and noughties, there were whispers of new chapters: for a while we expected to see Clint Eastwood directing Beyoncé, with perhaps Will Smith or Leo DiCaprio as the male lead, in a script that was apparently inspired by Kurt Cobain. Perhaps we should be grateful that never happened. Continue reading A Star is Born again and again

No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema

You may have noticed, due to the onslaught of thinkpieces and angry debate, that Todd Phillips’s Joker is released this weekend. This controversial film, starring Joaquin Phoenix, is a kind of origin story for the Batman villain of the same name.

Regular readers of this site, or anyone who has seen the trailer, may be aware that there is a little nod to silent cinema in this movie. So in honour of Joker and his famous grin, let’s count down the 10 most sinister smiles in silent cinema. Please don’t have nightmares.

Mighty Like a Moose (1926)
Mighty Like a Moose (1926)

The dog in Mighty Like a Moose

This shouldn’t really be so creepy but it most certainly is. Charley Chase’s plastic surgery comedy Mighty Like a Moose imagines what a dog would look like wearing false teeth. Dear lord above this image is not for the faint-hearted.

Blackmail1929AnnyOndrapainting
Blackmail (1929)

The Laughing Jester in Blackmail

Hitchcock transfers culpability back and forth in this late silent’s tale of rape, revenge and retribution. But who’s bearing witness to all this human misery? The scoundrel artist’s icky painting of a court clown yucking it up – and pointing the finger of guilt. Continue reading No Joker: 10 sinister smiles in silent cinema

The best and worst Charlie Chaplin films – ranked!

Why did I do this? Well partly that’s between me and my conscience. The man we know as the Little Tramp was born on 16 April 1889 and in Chaplin’s 130th anniversary year I thought it would be fun to list his feature films* in the manner of the Guardian’s Culture – ranked! series. 

So here goes …

A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

  1. A Countess from Hong Kong (1967)

Sneeze and you will miss Charlie Chaplin himself in this, his final feature, which was also his only film to be made in colour. Sophia Loren plays a stateless stowaway who catches a ride to America in the cabin of a US diplomat, played by Marlon Brando of all people. Although Chaplin pokes his head round the door to play a steward, and a handful of his children have roles too, this is barely recognizable as his. The physical comedy drags, the sentiment is forced (Brando’s mumbles are the antithesis of Chaplin’s style) and it’s hard to disagree with the New York Times critic, who wrote: “if an old fan of Mr Chaplin’s movies could have his charitable way, he would draw the curtain fast on this embarrassment and pretend it never occurred”. Continue reading The best and worst Charlie Chaplin films – ranked!

Live now: Lois Weber on Film Club with Caspar

UPADTE: the podcast on Lois Weber is live now. You can listen here, or search for it on all good podcasting platforms.

Podcast news: I am going to be appearing on a podcast soon. To talk about Lois Weber – quelle surprise. Normally, I would at least wait until the ’cast was in the digital can before posting about it. But this podcast is different, it’s Film Club with Caspar, and it’s interactive.

Caspar Salmon is a very eloquent film critic based here in London, and this podcast is his brainchild. I don’t think I have ever chatted to him about silent cinema, but let’s just say that clearly this gentleman is aware of my proclivities. Continue reading Live now: Lois Weber on Film Club with Caspar

A grand gift for silence: the search for the lost Sherlock Holmes films

If it takes a thief to catch a thief, it will surely take a team of sleuths to catch the greatest detective of them all. So I bring you news of a new project that is not only bound to be of interest to all Silent Londoners, but also one that requires your valuable assistance.

The UCLA Film & Television Archive and Holmesians par excellence The Baker Street Irregulars (BSI) have joined forces on a new project called Searching for Sherlock: The Game’s Afoot.

Currently, according to Dr Jan-Christopher Horak, more than 100 films about Holmes are lost or in need of restoration or preservation, which sounds to me like more than a three-pipe problem.

A Study in Scarlet (1914)
A Study in Scarlet (1914)

There are several silent films on the wanted list. Among the lost films are: a British production of A Study in Scarlet, produced in 1914; a Danish series, produced by Nordisk films, beginning in 1908; and The Missing Rembrandt, produced in 1932, starring Arthur Wontner.

Robert Downey Jr as Sherlock Holmes
RDJ as Sherlock Holmes

So the Searching for Sherlock team has put together a starry committee to lead the hunt, including lots of names you’ll know, from Kevin Brownlow to Bryony Dixon. Robert Downey Jr, who played the detective in two recent big-screen adaptations, is the honorary project chair. And if Iron Man himself, with that kind of support behind him, can’t get the job done, who can?

Well, actually they do need your help. Searching for Sherlock is hoping to get the word out there, to scour the streets for Conan Doyle’s most famous creation. The committee will be getting in touch with film archives, Sherlock Holmes societies, film historians, collectors, and other potential sources around the world to find, restore, and eventually screen, currently lost films featuring the world’s first consulting detective. If you know someone they should talk to, or if you are someone they should talk to, make yourself known.

William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes
William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes in 1916

There have been a few notable Sherlock Holmes film discoveries recently, including a 1916 film, starring William Gillette, reprising his acclaimed stage interpretation of the detective. After its rediscovery, this Sherlock Holmes was restored by the San Francisco Silent Film Festival and the Cinématheque Française and released on disc by Flicker Alley.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Breaking Betty Balfour news: Love, Life and Laughter (1923) at the LFF

How is that for an alliterative headline?

I was just finishing my last post (on Bait – go see it), when this very exciting news came in. The 2019 London Film Festival Archive Special Presentation will be the lost Betty Balfour film that was discovered in the Netherlands a few years ago: Love, Life and Laughter (George Pearson, 1923). Continue reading Breaking Betty Balfour news: Love, Life and Laughter (1923) at the LFF

Bait review: Silent landscapes, angry voices

It’s a great week for new British cinema. I don’t get to type that very often. But this week, as the heatwave cools, you can spend your cinema money on two fascinating and brilliant new movies by young British filmmakers: Joanna Hogg’s finely polished dissection of a troubled romance, The Souvenir, and Mark Jenkin’s Bait. I highly recommend both*, but it’s Bait I want to talk to you about today.

Bait is Jenkin’s debut feature and it continues the themes and techniques he has explored in his short work. He’s a Cornish filmmaker, and in shorts such as Bronco’s House (2015), he has tackled subjects very close to his own home, the dissolution of the local way of life due to housing shortages exacerbated by unchecked tourism and the loss of traditional crafts and livelihoods. Those themes surface again in Bait, a portrait of a belligerent, bereaved young man called Martin (Edward Rowe) who lives in Newlyn, once a busy fishing port. Martin’s family home has been bought by a middle-class London family who have decked it out with tacky nautical accessories and use it only for holidays and Airbnb income, and his job as a fisherman has also dwindled to a shadow of itself. He no longer has his own boat, and relies on what he can catch from hand-cast nets instead. His brother has a boat, but adding insult to injury, uses it for pleasure cruises rather than the family business. It’s important, not to say simply refreshing, to see British filmmakers bringing regional issues to light in this way. Too many commercial films portray the British countryside as a moneyed idyll or a folksy home for cute eccentrics. Bait doesn’t do that. Continue reading Bait review: Silent landscapes, angry voices

Book now for the 20th British Silent Film Festival

Consider this more of a signpost than a blogpost. The 20th British Silent Film Festival is just around the corner, next month in Leicester! That is to say 11-15 September at the Phoenix Cinema and Art Centre and the New Walk Museum and Art Gallery.

If you haven’t booked yet, you should know that all the details you need to make that happen, including the timetable of screenings, is on the website now. Specifically:

  • Here is the timetable of screenings
  • Here’s how to book. Passes for one day or the entire festival can be bought, on the phone only, from the Phoenix box office. Be aware that these passes include screenings at all venues. The prices are the same as they were two years ago, which is a WIN.

Continue reading Book now for the 20th British Silent Film Festival

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: the rest is silence

A friend of mine is an archeologist. She does lots of exciting work digging through history, and actual dirt, in order to discover how humans lived hundreds of years ago. Or hundreds of thousands of years ago. Which is where it gets tricky for people to understand her work, and I don’t blame them. Claire studies the Paleolithic Age, which dates back to around one million years ago. Most of our brains boggle at trying to understand that concept. One million years of human history: making tools, having babies, grinding flour, painting, writing, loving, moulding plastics, fighting wars, vaccinations, vegetarianism, the Cinématographe, the smartphone, Tinder.

See, as a silent film specialist I only have to go back 130-ish years to get the start of my period, and yet I know I lose a lot of people once I dip back any further than Modern Times (1936). We called our podcast The Sound Barrier for a reason: lots of people fail to engage properly with pre-sound cinema. Just as most of us western critics are ignorant of large swatches of Asian and African cinema. Sometimes there is too much time to take in, and too little time in which to do so.

There’s such a thing as historical anxiety. These days 10, 15, maybe more films come out every week, in cinemas and across streaming platforms. It’s basically impossible to catch up with new films, let alone with everything that came before. And while canons exist to tell us which films from the past it is most essential to familiarise ourselves with, quite rightly, researchers are beginning to question and expand those very canons. I turned to silent cinema in the first place because I loved movies, but the films I was frequently told were important and essential disappointed me. Films of value, films that many people enjoy, left me cold, or offered depictions of women that I instinctively found degrading or dismissive.

Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)
Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019)

Which brings me to Quentin Tarantino’s new movie, the evocatively titled Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood. It came out last week in the UK, so maybe you’ve seen it already. It’s set in 1969, and tells a loose and rambling story about a washed-up star, his stunt double, a sinister group of young people who live communally at the Spahn Movie Ranch, and a young starlet called Sharon Tate. Continue reading Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood: the rest is silence

The Living Picture Craze: learn all about Victorian Cinema

Hello, just wanted to share the details of this online course with you because a) it’s all about Victorian cinema b) it’s free c) it’s a partnership between the BFI and the fantastic Bill Douglas Cinema Museum d) it seems like the perfect way to whet your whistle for the British Silent Film Festival in September.

BFI Education are launching a free 3-week online course The Living Picture Craze: A Introduction to Victorian Film in partnership with Exeter University and the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum starting on 2nd September 2019.

Silent film takes a starring role in this course exploring the emergence of a new medium that was set to capture the world’s imagination. Explore the birth of film and the end of Queen Victoria’s epic reign. Using the BFI’s unique collection of surviving Victorian films this course will debate common myths about the period and the materials, as well as examine what the films reveal about the society that produced them.

This course is designed for anyone with a passion for silent film, and Victorian and British history.

Join here now – it’s FREE! Sign up link: https://www.futurelearn.com/courses/victorian-film/1

Ritrovato Roundtable: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019 podcast

The Bologna suntans are fading but the Il Cinema Ritrovato memories are still vivid. So Peter Baran and I were delighted to be joined on our latest podcast by academic and film programmer Eloise Ross, as well as filmmaker Ian Mantgani and writer Philip Concannon from the Badlands Collective. We’re chatting about our highlights, discoveries and duds from the Il Cinema Ritrovato festival – a feast of archive, vintage and restored cinema, spanning silent and sound films.

Eloise Ross, Ian Mantgani, Peter Baran and Philip Concannon in the podcast studio.
Eloise Ross, Ian Mantgani, Peter Baran and Philip Concannon in the podcast studio.

Maximum effort!

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.

Le Chat (1971)

 

Ritrovato Roundtable: Il Cinema Ritrovato 2019 podcast

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.

Baara (1978)
Baara (1978)

 

Back to Bristol: Cinema Rediscovered 2019

I should say this through gritted teeth, but Bristol is rapidly becoming Britain’s most cinematic city. Designated a UNESCO City of Film in 2017, its reputation for great cinema screenings and heritage is growing and growing. One of the newest, shiniest gems in its movie crown is Cinema Rediscovered, a kind of West-Country offspring of Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, which takes place every July at venues including the Watershed cinema in the city centre.

Disclaimer time: First, I am working with this festival again this year, and second, it’s not all silent. But genuinely, it’s one of the most exciting and ambitious archive cinema events in the country. Taking place from 25-28 July, Cinema Rediscovered will screen films ranging from the earliest experiments of Victorian cinema to a new 4K restoration of Chan-wook Park’s classic revenge thriller Oldboy (2003).

Other restorations on show include the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams (1989) and Márta Mészáros’ 1975 Berlinale Golden Bear winner Adoption (1975). There are strands devoted to the extraordinary films of legendary British director Nicolas Roeg, as well as to Nigerian director Moustapha Alassane and to feminist filmmaker Maureen Blackwood, who was the first black British woman to have a feature film theatrically released in the UK, The Passion of Remembrance (1986). Cinema heritage doesn’t always look like a pantheon of dead white men. Continue reading Back to Bristol: Cinema Rediscovered 2019