I couldn’t let 2020 go by without talking to you about Away, a truly remarkable animated feature, and a modern silent too. This deceptively simple quest film has zero dialogue, and was all, every frame, the work of one man, Latvian filmmaker animator Gints Zilbalodis. He wrote, directed, scored and yes animated this award-winning film over the course of three and a half years.
He admits that that he concocted the screenplay on the fly, but that it soon came to feel that that film’s story was a metaphor for his struggles to complete the film. That’s why I say deceptively simple: beneath Away’s bright, almost cute surface there’s something deeper at work.
Can a fictional film damage a real person’s reputation? William Randolph Hearst certainly thought so, as he mobilised to stop the screenplay of Citizen Kane being turned into a movie. Charles Foster Kane was modelled, blatantly and pointedly, on Hearst himself, and within its fiction, Citizen Kane contained some painful, and subversive truths. That’s a moment captured in David Fincher’s fascinating new film Mank, which dramatises the process by which Herman J. Mankiewicz, holed up in a desert ranch with a collection of broken bones, wrote that incendiary movie script. And also, how his words were received in San Simeon, Hearst’s famous Californian castle.
Naturally, the film unfolds via a series of flashbacks, Kane-style, including a fun scene in which the MGM writing room pitches a remake of Caligari to Irving Thalberg, off-the-cuff. The central dramatic tension here is not between Mankiewicz (played here by Gary Oldman) and Tom Burke’s Orson Welles (although there was plenty of aggro there), but Mank’s previous encounters with Hearst (Charles Dance), and Louis B Mayer (Arliss Howard). There’s more than studio politics at stake, but actual politics too – here we see the genesis of Citizen Kane, which is here explicitly Mankiewicz’s revenge on Hearst. But while there no love lost between the men at the table, Mank does have a soft spot for Hearst’s mistress, Marion Davies, played here radiantly by Amanda Seyfried.
This is a platonic, playful friendship, and among Mank’s cast of fulminating and frustrated men in suits, Marion’s scenes leap off the screen. Marion and Mank chat while admiring the San Simeon elephants, while sipping from a flask hidden in one of the terraces’ stone benches – what’s not to love? Mank and Marion are great pals, who enjoy each other’s company and see the best in each other. Seyfried’s performance is every bit as captivating as Oldman’s, bursting through the heavy makeup she wears as Marion. Their dialogues are wonderful, but there is one devastating scene in which Marion sits silently horrified while Mank delivers a bitter, drunken monologue to her and Hearst’s guests at San Simeon. Seyfried proves an excellent silent actress, which is just as well, because she doesn’t have any lines.
Which brings us to an uncomfortable problem with Citizen Kane. Why did Mankiewicz expose his enemy Hearst by writing the undignified truth about him, but also humiliate his friend Davies by distorting her image with untruths? To summarise, a little bluntly: in the movie, Kane’s mistress and second wife is a talentless and lonely alcoholic with naïve dreams of being a great opera singer. Davies was a talented comic actress, whose films were very profitable. She was also an extremely popular person, whose career was stymied only because of Hearst’s insistence that she play prestige dramatic roles. Welles ferociously denied there was any connection between Davies and the fictional character of Susan Alexander Kane:
“That Susan was Kane’s wife and Marion was Hearst’s mistress is a difference more important than might be guessed in today’s changed climate of opinion. The wife was a puppet and a prisoner; the mistress was never less than a princess. … The mistress was never one of Hearst’s possessions: he was always her suitor, and she was the precious treasure of his heart for more than 30 years, until his last breath of life. Theirs is truly a love story. Love is not the subject of Citizen Kane.”
And yet Hearst read the script as an insult to Davies and many people fear that the mud, as it were, has stuck. Mank explains in full why Mankiewicz wanted to attack Hearst, but offers only one reason why his screenplay diminished his friend Davies. Some people, Mank asserts are headliners, and others are merely secondary characters. That’s a dramatist’s distinction, not the words of a friend.
What makes Davies a secondary character though? I can’t possibly imagine. Mank tantalises the audience by giving us a glimpse of Davies’s brilliance, and then pushing her back to the sidelines. Because … she’s a secondary character, a distraction from the wranglings of men over their own legacies. Davies has a legacy worth protecting too, as anyone who has seen The Patsy or Show People, or any number of her other films, can tell you.
If you want to discover the truth about Marion Davies, you can read the many testimonies of her Hollywood friends in their own memoirs, you can even read her own autobiography of sorts (The Times We Had: Life with William Randolph Hearst) if you can find it. But I recommend you wait a little, until 2022, and the publication of Lara Fowler’s impressively researched biography, Captain of Her Soul: The Life of Marion Davies (University of California Press).It’s bound to be worth a read, because the work Fowler has done already is exemplary, and because Davies deserves to be more than just a secondary character in someone else’s life story – whether that story belongs to Hearst, or Mankiewicz or anybody else.
I programmed a film season! Marlene Dietrich: Falling in Love Again plays at BFI Southbank in December and includes the wonderful silent film she starred in: The Three Lovers/The Woman Men Yearn For (Curtis Bernhardt, 1929)
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.
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.
If you have never seen a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers musical before, Top Hat is a great place to start. I would say that if you only see one Fred‘n’Ginger musical you should make it this one, but the thought of only seeing one Fred‘n’Ginger musical is too awful to contemplate.
Top Hat was made in 1935, and it is the fourth film that Astaire and Rogers made together, but the first one that was written especially for them, and it is popularly known as their lightest, brightest film. It became the second biggest box-office hit of the year, RKO’s greatest hit of the decade, and Astaire’s second most profitable film of all time, just behind Easter Parade from 1948.
Top Hat makes the most of the particular opposites-attract chemistry between Rogers and Astaire. Katharine Hepburn famously said of the duo that “he gives her class and she gives him sex appeal”. Well plenty of people have disagreed with Hepburn (though none to her face I’ll bet) and you might even say the positions were reversed here, with Rogers playing a rather pompous socialite, and Astaire the amorous dancer who recklessly pursues her. But this film is all about class and sex. It “simply reeks” with both of them. It’s set in prim and proper London, for the most part, and in this scenario, the class-bound etiquette of the stuffy upper-classes is perpetually undermined by the wandering desires of husbands, lovers, and Americans, as well as a stream of sexual innuendo – both straight and queer. In the same way that Fred’s noisy tap shoes constantly disturb the peace.
This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Project Fear Blogathon. Happy Halloween!
“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
That’s the motto attached to Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is also one of the inspirations for an utterly disturbing new dialogue-free film. Jonathan Glazer’s The Fall (2019) screened on BBC2 on 10pm on Sunday, unannounced in the listings, and at a selection of cinemas across the country. It’s a scant seven minutes of unnamed horror – a mob, a victim, an escape attempt – soundtracked by an eerie score from Mica Levi.
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→
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.
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.
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→
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→
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.
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 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.
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.
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
Silent movies are action movies. Instead of Hitchcock’s “pictures of people talking”, the images in silent films are of people doing, being: walking, fighting, dancing, poking the fire, stirring their tea, knitting a scarf. Sometimes the reverse is true. Action movies can be silent, or at least, so unreliant on dialogue as to function like a silent film.
Which brings us to Arctic, and a subgenre I am going to call the ‘silent survival film’. I named it myself, because I made it up myself. Arctic, like All is Lost or The Red Turtle, recently reviewed on this site, offers the spectacle of a lone survivor, one man among the voiceless elements, fighting for his own life. We see the hero of the silent survival film act, and more importantly plan, in silence. The suspense is not just about whether he or she will survive, but how they will make the attempt. The silence, or rather the absence of dialogue, increases the tension, and the fascination.
You could add films such as A Quiet Place and the excellent The Naked Island to this list. The circumstances are different, but the families in each of these films work together, in mostly silence, to get by. We watch them as we do the characters in a silent movie, without verbal cues as to what they will do next, we scrutinise their expressions, their eyelines, the objects they pick up. The intuitive family bond is expressed, rather than hidden, by their mutual silence. Continue reading Arctic review: the silent survival film→
Agnès Varda died on Friday – an event that I had to mark in some way. There is no real connection between Varda and silent cinema, apart from that irreverent interlude in Cléo de 5 à 7 (1962). However, her films meant a great deal to me, so this is a very small tribute. This video is a condensed version of a talk I gave at BFI Southbank on 2 June last year as part of an event called The Many Faces of Agnès Varda, in collaboration with Cléo. I was asked to discuss women and feminism in Varda’s films. Here are a few thoughts, inspired by her beautiful body of work.
If you don’t know her work, two of the films that I discuss here, Le Bonheur (1965) and Vagabond (1985), are streaming on Mubi right now. I highly recommend both.
Today the Bafta-nominated Stan & Ollie is released in cinemas, and I highly recommend it. Starring Steve Coogan and John C Reilly as Stan and Babe respectively, this bittersweet movie tells a tale of the boys’ final tour in Britain. I found it to be a remarkably poignant film about their friendship and also, especially thanks to Coogan’s fine impersonation of Laurel, an accomplished evocation of the duo’s comedy magic. Watch out for Shirley Henderson and Nina Arianda stealing the show as the duo’s bickering wives, too. Yes, it’s not always strictly, strictly true to the history, but the changes made have a clear dramatic purpose, and I think what it captures of their relationship is very special, so I hope you enjoy it.
In celebration of the film’s release, here are some links you may enjoy:
A Quiet Place, directed by and starring John Krasinski, is not a silent movie, but it is a movie that revolves around silence. It made me think about what sound gives to a movie, and what it takes away. Krasinski’s co-writers Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, who originated the idea, say that they watched a lot of silent films in college, but their excellent horror film made me ponder silent film presentation rather than production. In fact, I kept thinking about a recent, controversial score for a 1920s movie, and what the purpose of music and sound is in a film.
Hitchcock said that one mark of a good film is that you can follow it with the sound turned off, and that is certainly true of A Quiet Place. Our heroes are a family of five, led by Krasinski and his real-wife wife Emily Blunt. Their daughter is played by Millicent Simmonds, the young deaf actress who is every bit as remarkable here as she was in Todd Haynes’s Wonderstruck, and her little brother is played by Noah Jupe, whom you may have seen in The Night Manager or Suburbicon. The premise, as with the best horror movies, is both simple and devastating. New York State has been left desolate after an influx of seemingly indestructible monsters. They’re blind, but highly sensitive to sound, so staying silent is the only way to stay alive.
The opening sequence, in which the family raid a deserted drugstore for supplies, illustrates their survival strategy. The cast go barefoot, move slowly and deliberately, and communicate only via sign language (subtitled for those viewers who don’t read it). There are just two intertitles, counting the days since the invasion. Because the scenario unfolds so neatly with so little spoken or audible dialogue, much has been made of the film’s clever visual exposition, though that may be laying it on a bit thick. There’s a whiteboard back at the family’s base camp with helpful notes writ large, and a selection of carefully curated headlines from the New York Post pinned up alongside it. Continue reading A Quiet Place (2018): the horror of silence→
This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Late Show Blogathon. I have chosen to write about the final screen appearance of the wonderful Lillian Gish, but this movie is a late or last film for many of the people involved.
“Alas dear ladies, all of this is in the past.” Vincent Price’s elegant Mr Maranov delivers the sad news to his elderly neighbours Sarah Webber (Lillian Gish) and Libby Strong (Bette Davis). He is talking about his heyday, his rarefied life as a Russian noble, before the revolution, before the war, before the coming of sound. Lindsay Anderson’s The Whales of August (1987), announces itself with a whiff of sawdust, and nitrate. It’s a film based on a play, a very quiet and melancholy play, and it opens with something far too gentle to be called a flashback, a monochrome glimpse of three young girls with flowing hair and white dresses excitedly rushing to the shore to catch sight of the ocean’s summer visitors. A glimpse of the silent era, in tribute to the film’s iconic and beautiful star.
Do the whales come to Maine in August any more, now those young girls have lived a lifetime each, separated, and reunited to live in awkward interdependence? That constitutes this delicate movie’s only real note of suspense. Sarah and Libby live the definition of a twilight existence, quietly in a house that is really a summer cottage, although it is early autumn, exposed on a grassy cliff. They brush their long white hair (Sarah’s a has a touch of blonde still, as she can’t quite resist letting Libby know) and dress for dinner in floral and powder-blue chiffon, and low-heeled pumps. It’s a beautiful spot, Cliff Island in Maine, where each evening they can “dine by moonlight” when the twilight floods their parlour. A picture window would make the most of that sumptuous view, and a friendly handyman neighbour (not Price, no fear) offers to install one for the ladies. Libby has doubts, though. Aren’t they too old to make changes? And besides, although she doesn’t like to mention it, Libby is blind. She can no longer see the whales, whenever they may or may not arrive.
Gish was 93 when she made The Whales of August, but preternaturally youthful, in the unique way of a waif who barely grew up. She plays a widow who mourns her soldier husband, and patiently takes care of cantankerous Libby, her older sister (though Davis was 15 years younger, and had one more feature in her, despite the decades of chain-smoking). She lives resolutely in the present, though, lobbying for that picture window and delighting in good food, fresh conversation, and the changing beauty of nature. She still believes the whales will return in August. Davis, who often seemed to delight in complaining about her co-stars, said it was a nightmare to work with Gish, who was all but entirely deaf. Anderson, inevitably, drew a different preference. Gish was an angel to direct, and rebellious Davis more of a headache. “Lillian’s first instinct is to try to give the director what he asks for. Her professional attitude comes from those days with DW Griffith. Bette tries to dismiss the director.” As such, they were perfectly cast as Sarah and Libby.
This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).
Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?
Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage. Continue reading LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché→
This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.
There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.
It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.
This post is a version of an introductory talk I gave at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol this year. The next Cinema Rediscovered festival will take place 25-28 July 2019.
This film, My 20th Century (1989), is a very special and intriguing piece. For my money, it is the perfect film to see at this festival. It may be only 29 years old, so it barely qualifies as vintage, but it is not shown as much as it should be – so it is ripe to be rediscovered. And it has as much in common with the cinema of a hundred or more years ago as it does with modern work, so it sits well in a festival devoted to film history.
It’s a fact, also, that Ildiko Enyedi fits perfectly with the name of this strand of the festival: Women on the Periphery. Hungarian director Enyedi was born in 1955 and has forged a thoroughly independent career. She studied philosophy at university, but quit because she considered the course to be badly taught. Then she went to the Budapest Film Academy and managed to complete the course, despite considering leaving because she felt that “some of those in power were lazy thinkers”. She became a visual artist and joined the Bela Belazs studio in Budapest 1979 – this is the place that produced works by such Hungarian notables as Béla Tarr. Enyedi made several short films, but My Twentieth Century was her first feature, and it won the Camera d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, the prize for the best debut feature showing in competition.
Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ celebrates the immortality of the WWI soldiers who died in service. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.” The word contemn isn’t used very often – it means “to treat with contempt”. The poem, popularly recited at Remembrance Services, argues that the sacrifice of the fallen will be honoured by the following generations, but also means that they are suspended in the aspic of their youth. While we grow feeble, they retain their strength and vitality.
In a similar spirit, Peter Jackson’s new film, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, seeks to erase the lapsed years between today and the Great War. The soldiers in his film are ostensibly unwearied – living, breathing, talking men in full colour, rather than the silent, black-and-white figures of archive footage. It’s telling that Jackson has taken Binyon’s line and contorted it. The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old – a more digestible, less archaic version of the original, with modern grammar, and arguably less mystery and grandeur. It also seems to have a more literal meaning, pointing to their demise, not their immortal memory. Continue reading LFF review: They Shall Not Grow Old honours veterans but not the archive→
This is a slightly unusual guest post for Silent London, by Daniel Riccuito from the Chiseler, who promised me he could persuade us that 1964’s Castle of Blood/La Danza Macabra was essentially a silent film. What do you think?
Her appearance in 1960’s Black Sunday had already conquered him. And thereby imbued Raymond Durgnat’s now famous one-liner – “She is the only girl in films whose eyelids can snarl” – with more than surrealist fancy. His Companion to Violence and Sadism in the Cinema came out in February 1963. Reading it today, I’m humbled by its prescience: Barbara Steele would soon prove that “snarls” should remain metaphors, and that synchronised sound never amounted to more than a tattered cloak. Cinema is visual and, therefore, silent.
And the screen’s own metaphorical whisper (“There must be other Alices”) invites new, unexpected iterations of Lewis Carroll’s looking glass.
Enter a 26-year-old: maturing as an actress while retaining a profound sense of uncontrollable childhood rage, capable of playing emotions too vast for the human body — commanding them into air. Barbara Steele, who holds the patent on gothic atmosphere, occasionally leases it to cinema. Here, she’s pursued by a camera that may as well be the all-engulfing eye of some hypnotised cat, as Ricardo Pallottini’s lens captures the most erotic blacks and whites ever filmed. Picture the primordial shadow, rather than the reflection of Alice to fathom 1964’s cinematic tone poem La Danza Macabra AKA Castle of Blood. Her face “chops and changes its character as the lights carve at its neat, stark cheekbones, high forehead.” I share Durgnat’s rather pointed fascination with the way Steele transforms via filmic reproduction, as if he were channeling Jean Epstein’s theories of “photogénie”, the notion that movies can reveal and magnify a subject’s moral character.