Category Archives: At the talkies

Looking at new releases from a silent cinema perspective

Baby Driver: where we’re going we don’t need words

In the Three Flavours: Cornetto trilogy directed by Edgar Wright, the joke was that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters find themselves thrust into an ersatz version of the media they consume. In Shaun of the Dead (2004), it was zombie movies, in Hot Fuzz (2007), action blockbusters, and in The World’s End (2013), apocalyptic sci-fi. Similarly, in the same director’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), a geeky musician in Toronto is faced with a set of super-villains to battle. The film was adapted from a series of graphic novels and incorporates comic-book styling in its mise en scene as well as its plot. Its structure and visual style also intentionally recall video games, and the Xbox and PlayStation adaptations were released alongside the movie.

Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver, is about a young man living inside a music video, or attempting to. Specifically, a music video that Wright himself directed, for ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale, in which Noel Fielding plays a getaway driver who grooves along to a track on his CD player while his fellow crims rob a bank. Our callow, taciturn hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), was listening to his iPod when his parents were killed in a car collision, and now he can only get through the day with his earplugs in, tapping his head to a carefully selected soundtrack, and lipreading his way through his interactions with others. The tunes are there to down out his tinnitus, caused by the crash, but it’s heavily implied that they protect him from emotionally engaging with other people too.

On a good day for Baby, as for all of us, his iPod track of choice synchs perfectly with the world around him. There is an especially fun sequence, almost like something from a musical, when he buys coffee to the sound of ‘Harlem Shuffle’. Or, in his work as a getaway driver, he can play air-drums to ‘Bellbottoms’ by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the time it takes for his employers to relieve a bank of its cash. On a bad day, the city does not groove to Baby’s vibe, and a holdup in the holdup will mean he has to grab his iPod and rewind ‘Neat Neat Neat’ by the Damned to keep on track.

There’s something very attractive about staying plugged in, and living life to your own soundtrack, seeing the world as if it were a silent movie, or a succession of three-to-five-minute silent movies, all strung together. So I was intrigued by Wright’s new film, as a former Walkman-addicted teenager, and a silent-movie buff both. Of course, Baby’s failure to listen to the world around him would make his stunt-driving even more lethal than it already is. And his lip-reading skill a) has to be explained by giving him a deaf foster father* and b) has to be translated on screen into floating intertitles.

baby-driver-image-1

Though, to be honest, the dialogue is largely redundant in this likeable, if slight film: Baby drives a getaway car for a man called Doc (Kevin Spacey, camp as Christmas); Baby falls in love with a waitress called Debora (Lily James, doing the best she can) and wants to go straight; Baby has to do One Last Job. The film begins as quite charming, almost whimsical, but gets better, and far more action-heavy in the last half hour. Sadly the characters that surround young Baby are barely sketched, or even named. He has a colleague called Bats who is, well, batty (Jamie Foxx, providing most of the humour) and another just called Buddy (a menacing, enjoyably odd, Jon Hamm), whose girlfriend is called Darling (Eiza Gonzalez, though why they bothered casting anyone for such a thinly drawn role is beyond me).

The influences on Baby Driver extend beyond the world of pop videos, but not much further. Much here, from the slightly dreamy twist on60s-Americana settings (check out the Technicolor washing in the laundromat) to the pop-culture chit-chat, recalls Quentin Tarantino (apparently a supporter of the project) and it is little surprise that when a pizza restaurant appears it is called Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster saga is surely the ultimate in jukebox movies, and although Wright’s playlists skew more 90s indie and cult classics than the stomping sounds of the 60s and 70s, it’s clear what Baby Driver’s pop collage aspires to. As those two influences suggest, there’s a retro tinge to Baby Driver. Baby may be only a young man, but this is an action movie with a title taken from a Simon and Garfunkel B-side and a soundtrack that could have been lifted straight from Radio 6 Music. Even Baby’s collection of iPods, like his C90s full of sampled electronica, are pretty outdated these days. Hasn’t he heard of Spotify Premium?

Ansel-Elgort-in-Baby-Driver

However it appears, the film is smothered in music, and a lot has been written about Hollywood films ditching most of their dialogue to play well in Asian markets, but surely these aural reference points would reverse that? And Baby Driver is full of chatter too, which even if it isn’t as comic as Wright’s previous work, is often full of geeky pleasures. Debora and Baby leap straight into a discussion about the songs featuring their names; the best, possibly only, joke here, involves a heavy mistaking comedian Mike Myers for Michael Myers from Halloween. Ultimately, Baby Driver is a very likeable, entertaining film (Spacey is fabulous and the stunt sequences are brilliant) but emotionally every bit as a shallow as a pop video. After every setpiece, it seems to start again from first positions, especially for the blank female characters. It’s like La La Land, but if nobody got out of their cars. And Baby’s non-committal moral stance and self-enforced social isolation is hard to root for, which wouldn’t be a problem if the plot didn’t later hinge on him being a saintly kind of criminal.

Maybe one day Wright will channel this particular strategy, which has worked so often before, but backfired here, into a drama about a young man whose world transforms into a silent drama. That I would like to see. Or a woman, for once, even more so.

  • Baby Driver is released on 28 June, but preview screenings are available now.

*I give the film credit for casting a deaf actor, CJ Jones, in this role.

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Stockholm My Love: an intimate City Symphony

Mark Cousins’ new film is a City Symphony, he says, citing many of the classic early examples of this particularly silent genre, including Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Rien que les heures, but also later, more complicated urban hymns such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. I’ve added the director’s credits in the later works because those films move away from the collective City Symphony format, offering a distinctive filmmaker’s own view of a place, adding in a story those focuses on individuals instead of the modern, urban mass. So does this one.

Cousins’ Stockholm My Love, like those films, breaks some of the ‘rules’ of the City Symphony: there’s a single subjective perspective, and a fictional narrative. Our guide to the Swedish capital is Alwa, an architect and academic, pacing around her home city while she comes to terms with a traumatic event that took place on these streets a year before. Alwa is played by Neneh Cherry, a starry figure, who nevertheless offers a restrained, often quite still performance. It doesn’t distract us from our view of the city that a famous singer is standing in front of it. This is not her film, so much as it is Cousins’.

There is sound too, although this film was largely shot silent, with Cousins coaching Cherry live through her performance like Griffith and Pickford, sometimes, he says, even holding her hand during the close-ups. At the Q&A after the screening I saw at BFI Southbank, he quoted Fellini, saying that he made a visual film, and then added a radio play on top of it.

In the soundtrack there is music, three sets of it. New, gorgeous, tracks from Cherry, with lyrics by Cousins; folk songs written by Benny Andersson (from Abba); and Swedish classical music by Franz Berwald. Most notably, though, there is a voice-over. Alwa describes the city around her, talking directly to her father (who may have passed away), to a man called Gunnar who is linked to the traumatic event a year ago, and to the city itself. Cherry speaks naturally, sympathetically, and quietly but full of compassion. However, this narration belongs almost wholly to Cousins. He has such a distinct written and spoken style (you’ll remember his epic cinema documentary The Story of Film) that it is impossible not to recognise him in the rhythm of these words. Writing about Stockholm My Love, I almost feel that I am echoing his rises and falls. Cousins-speak has seeped into my brain.

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Sound Barrier: Der Müde Tod (1921) & The Seventh Seal (1957)

We’re breaking the Sound Barrier rules again. Or bending them slightly. Once more, the new-release film we want to discuss in this episode is actually silent. It’s the theatrical re-release of Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (Destiny, 1921), so we decided to pair it with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). This means that today we are talking about two critically acclaimed films in which young people play games with death.

We’ll be talking about faith, symbolism, storytelling and Max von Sydow’s handsome face. Enjoy!

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Sound Barrier: The Red Turtle & Wall-E (2008)

Come break the Sound Barrier with us again. In this episode, we go to the edge of the world and the ends of the earth and back again with two animated features.

We’re talking about Studio Ghibli’s modern silent The Red Turtle (in cinemas now), and also Pixar’s beloved Wall-E from 2008. We talk about ‘Dustbuster Keaton’, teenage mutant turtles, pizza plants and bad romance, as well as artistic animation, dialogue-free direction and creation myths. You can even hear Pete sing!

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Sound Barrier: Mindhorn & The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

This episode of the Sound Barrier features two druggy and slightly dim detectives. We’re talking about Julian Barratt’s absurdly funny TV spoof Mindhorn and the cult favourite that is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), starring Douglas Fairbanks as sleuth Coke Ennyday. We talk about outrageous accents, preposterous plasticine, obscene graffiti and excessive amounts of cocaine.

Sound Barrier: Mindhorn & The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

In the studio, I am joined as ever by Peter Baran, and also by special guest Julian Coleman (you can follow him on Twitter here).

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.

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.

The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.
Silent London in no way, not even with a wink, endorses the consumption of illegal narcotics. We prefer the consumption of Class-A silent movies.

Sound Barrier: Lady Macbeth and The Wind (1928)

In this episode of the Sound Barrier, Silent London’s cinematic sommeliers pair Victor Sjostrom’s majestic The Wind (1928) with William Oldroyd’s astonishing debut feature Lady Macbeth, out in cinemas now. We highly recommend both films, which feature isolated women doing battle with the elements, and come laced with sex, violence and vengeance.

In the studio, I am joined as ever by Peter Baran, and also by special guest Ewan Munro, who reviews films at Filmcentric.

Sound Barrier: Lady Macbeth and The Wind (1928)

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.

Should you wish to, you can read my review of Lady Macbeth for Sight & Sound magazine here.

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.

The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.

Sound Barrier: Neruda & The Beloved Rogue (1927)

In episode two of the Sound Barrier podcast we wax poetic, with two films about poets – specifically poets in exile. The two films we will discuss – one new release and one silent classic – are Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and The Beloved Rogue (1927) starring John Barrymore. The two films may appear to be very different, but they have a lot in common, as we discover …

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Letters from Baghdad review: an engrossing portrait of an intrepid woman

The publicity for compelling new documentary Letters From Baghdad quotes a description of Gertrude Bell as the “female Lawrence of Arabia”. To be strictly accurate, it was T. E. Lawrence, at 20 years her junior, who followed Bell rather than the other way around – first to Oxford, then to the Middle East and into government service. It hardly needs stating that these routes were rather less well-trodden for Bell than for Lawrence, although there is no need to diminish the achievements of either one. Bell’s story, as told in this engrossing semi-dramatised documentary, is that of a pioneer – a woman whose ambitions exceeded the expectations of her class and gender, who experienced bitter personal disappointment but achieved a notable and important career. Although her story has a sad ending, the work she did had far-reaching consequences, ones that are still felt today.

Bell was born in 1868, in County Durham, and raised in Yorkshire. After graduating from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford with a first in history, she began to travel the world. Initially to Persia to visit an uncle who was a diplomat there, and then around the world indulging a passion for mountaineering. She learned several languages, including Arabic and returned to the Middle East in 1899, travelling right across the region and writing an influential book on Syria. She spent some time working as archaeologist in the Ottoman Empire and also in Mesopotamia, where she first met Lawrence.

gertrude-bell-1921
Gertrude Bell (1921)

It’s during the war that Bell’s story gets especially interesting, as the British intelligence service recognised her expertise and hired her to assist with their operations in the region. After the war she would continue in the Middle East until her death, later as part of the team drawing up borders of modern Iraq, and after that she was given responsibility for the safeguarding the area’s antiquities.

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Sound Barrier: The Lost City of Z & The Lost World

Welcome to a new format for the Silent London podcast – Sound Barrier, in which myself and Peter Baran partner a new-release movie with a classic from the silent era and let them fight until we find a winner. In this instalment the two contenders in the ring are both movies inspired by the British explorer Percy Fawcett: James Gray’s The Lost City of Z (2017) and Harry O Hoyt’s The Lost World (1925).

We’ll be talking about dinosaurs, derring-do and disease – also singing the praises of Wallace Beery and Sienna Miller. Have a listen!

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes. Click here for more details and to subscribe – if you like what you hear, please leave a rating or review too. The intro music is by kind permission of Neil Brand, and the podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, tweet @silentlondon or leave a message on the Facebook page: facebook.com/silentlondon.

The Silent London Podcast: Toute la mémoire du monde 2017 part four

My final Silent Paris Podcast from the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema covers three films: one silent classic, The Italian Straw Hat (1928), and two experimental American features from the 70s and 80s: The Notebook of (1971) and American Dreams (1984).

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The Silent London Podcast: Toute la mémoire du monde 2017 part three

Welcome to another edition of the Silent Paris Podcast. I am at the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema all weekend and podcasting my reports from the screenings. Saturday was a game of two halves: two silent films and two British films noir. Listen to today’s podcast to find out what I made of them …

habit-of-happiness
The Habit of Happiness (1916)

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The Silent London Podcast: Toute la mémoire du monde 2017 part two

It’s the Silent Paris Podcast! I am at the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema all weekend and podcasting my reports from the screenings. Today, I am talking about a day spent watching musicals and what they taught me about jazz, CinemaScope and silent comedy.

Please do enjoy this podcast, even though it seems to veer away from silent territory – there is a connection, I promise.

Continue reading The Silent London Podcast: Toute la mémoire du monde 2017 part two

The Silent London Podcast: Toute la mémoire du monde 2017 part one

Welcome to the long-awaited return of the Silent London Podcast – coming to you straight from Paris. I am at the Toute la mémoire du monde festival of restored cinema and I will be podcasting my reports from the screenings. Today, my first two days at the festival including lots of of Hollywood fare: the good, the bad and the baffling. This podcast tackles a lot of films about war and racism: films by D W Griffith, Abel Gance, Thomas Ince …. But there is plenty of star power too, from Rudolph Valentino, Douglas Fairbanks and Lillian Gish.

I hope you enjoy this first podcast from the festival!

Continue reading The Silent London Podcast: Toute la mémoire du monde 2017 part one

John Wick: Chapter 2, Buster Keaton and silent comedy

If you want to see Buster Keaton on the big screen next weekend, go see John Wick 2 – but be careful not to blink. The action sequel opens in New York, with a Buster Keaton movie being projected on the external wall of a building. Why? “We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people,” says director Chad Stahelski.

As soon as you have clocked, and cheered, the reference, the action has begun, down on the streets with a blistering collision between a motorcycle and a car. The movie’s opening sequence is very funny, hugely violent, and actually a pretty clever example of how to cover a lot of exposition (for those like me who hadn’t seen the first film) with a minimum of dialogue. All you need to know about the plot, and all I can really tell you, having seen the film, is that John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) is a hitman, with a revenge motive. The film takes him from New York to Rome and back again – and en route, he kills a hell of a lot of people.

The nods to silent cinema don’t stop with the Keaton film, though*. One of the movie’s key shootouts takes place in a hall of mirrors. Very Enter the Dragon (1973), a little The Lady from Shanghai (1947). But surely Chaplin got there first with The Circus in 1928. Despite his smart suit, John Wick is essentially a tramp like Charlie – homeless and friendless, he’s a hired hand for a shadowy and moneyed elite, and he’s happiest trudging about with his dog by his side. The film reveals a fearsome network of derelicts, in fact, assassins just like Wick who pass through the city unseen. When Wick puts on his fancy togs and goes to a party his presence is disquieting – he’s not one of the in-crowd, but someone they have hired to do their dirty work. That tension is the source of many of Chaplin’s best gags.

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In Pursuit of Silence review: the case for peace and quiet

When was the last time you enjoyed a moment of silence? Not a pause in conversation, a burst of concentration at your desk, or a moment of peace when your guests have gone, but a real, deep, out-in the-wilderness hour or two of pure aural emptiness?

You’ll rarely experience silence at the cinema – even the films this blog celebrates are mostly shown with music either live or recorded washing over them. But if you are very lucky, a trip to the cinema means a good hour and a half when you and your companions will hold your tongue, and instead of making noise, will enter a new sonic world, constructed on the screen.

In Pursuit of Silence (2015)
In Pursuit of Silence (2015)

That’s what makes the reflective new documentary In Pursuit of Silence so powerful. In between experts discussing the value of escaping the distractions and hums of modern living, there are scenes of dialogue-free calm, from a rippling green field in Iowa to a Remembrance Day silence in the offices of Lloyd’s of London. These scenes are shot with fixed cameras, meaning there is no “visual noise” of pans or zooms to disturb the serenity, perfectly illustrating the meaning of quiet stillness. The peace is both beguiling and refreshing, offering space for the film’s argument to seep in: the idea that by seeking out silence, we will find greater intellectual capacity, better health, philosophical wisdom, a fuller awareness of our surroundings, even equality and an end to conflict.

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The Red Turtle review: the silence of an enchanted island

 

Shipwrecked and bewildered, a lone man washes up on an island that has lush, forest vegetation, fresh water, fruit, and everything a person needs to survive, except human company. His attempts to escape his isolation by raft are repeatedly scuppered by a mysterious, and gorgeous sea creature, with which he forms a lasting, and surprising relationship.

The Red Turtle, an animated feature film that was widely admired at Cannes, plays the London Film Festival next month. You may have heard of if because it represents a first in the world of animation – a Studio Ghibli co-production, being a collaboration between the well-known Japanese outfit and Dutchman Michaël Dudok de Wit. It is also that beast rarer than a giant red sea turtle: a new, and very accomplished feature-length film without dialogue.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

The silence, washed over with a sophisticated sound mix of animal noises and ferocious waves, is supplemented by a gorgeous, rousing score that helps to elevate the castaway’s solitary struggles to edge-of-the-seat, blockbuster events. And it is in the first third that the film is its most successful, as the hero adjusts to his surroundings, carves himself an awkward niche in the island ecosystem, and valiantly attempts to sail away into the sunset and towards civilisation. One early sequence, in which he slips through a crevice and must use all his strength and courage to swim to safety, cranks the tension to its utmost. In these first scenes, we are privileged to share his fears and frustration, his dreams and his sickness, so that each time he tries to make a break for it, alone on his wobbly raft, the interference of the red turtle is a cold shock. This portion of the film is closest to a horror movie, the most obvious analogue being Jaws, with a silent, invisible terror lurking beneath the waves. Sometimes he screams, but of course there is no one to hear him. It is a masterful feat of sustained silent film narrative, engrossing and terrifying.

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Have You Seen my Movie? review: a good reason to go to the cinema

Cinema has always found itself delicious. Showing at the London Film Festival next month is a movie made out of movies in which people watch movies at the movies. There are movies within the movies within this movie, and it will leave you with an intense craving for popcorn – as well as celluloid.

Paul Anton Smith was one of Christian Marclay’s assistants on his tick-tock supercut The Clock. For his debut feature, he has dipped back into the archives to create Have You Seen my Movie? (2016) – a less ambitious film, but with a more romantic theme. Have You Seen my Movie?, which screens in the Experimenta strand, stitches together sequences from feature films in which characters watch films, mostly at the cinema, but occasionally in screening rooms or edit suites and in one very enjoyable sequence, at the drive-in. The movie is roughly chronological not by era, but by the stages of movie-going: beginning in the ticket queue, taking us through the whole feature presentation and ending only when the cinema has closed and the last customer has been booted out.

The Aviator (2004)
The Aviator (2004)

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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 at all in relation to 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 to 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.

l_f
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.

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Love Is All DVD review: a gift for armchair romantics

Love makes gluttons of us all. So if you enjoyed Love Is All, Kim Longinotto’s romantic sweep through the film archives at the cinema, you may be toying with picking up the DVD also. Then again, there are so many great clips from brilliant films, both popular and obscure, in Love is All that it might have prompted you to buy several other DVDs instead. 

Love is All sprawls across the history of cinema, picking up clips from classic films and home movie so the and editing them together into a gorgeous mess of love and romance. It contains flirtations, seductions, marriages and babies; young love, forbidden love, gay love and straight. It leans quite heavily on silent cinema, possibly because those films work particularly well in this treatment, possibly because they are just the most romantic. Who knows? And the whole thing is set to a gruffly melancholic soundtrack of songs by Richard Hawley. So it’s really rather eye-catching, but could be a head-scratcher too. What does it all mean?

Love is All (2014)
Love is All (2014)

This DVD release from the BFI does attempt to reveal the mysteries of this swooping documentary, with a package of extras including explanatory essays and statements from the film-makers, plus a bundle of complete short silent films from the archive. There is also a recorded Q&A with Longinotto in which she happily admits that she had never heard of Hindle Wakes or Anna May Wong before including them in Love is All. Yes, really. 

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The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince

Would you like to discover the truth – messy, inconclusive and unflattering as it might be? Or would you rather be vindicated by discovering not only were you right all along, but the answer lay close to home, a triumph you could take personal pride in? For any rigorous film historian, there’s clearly a right and a wrong answer to that question. But wouldn’t we all veer a little to the latter option? And might, perhaps, the second denouement make a better movie?

Film producer and former actor David Nicholas Wilkinson would definitely choose the second path. His documentary The First Film records not a search for the origins of cinema, but his quest to prove that Louis Le Prince was its key progenitor. Wilkinson, a proud and dogged Yorkshireman, is on a mission to put Leeds on the early cinema map, by asserting that the Frenchman shot the first authentic moving images in that fair city. Step aside, Messrs Lumiére, Edison and Friese-Greene …

What follows is a meandering, engaging, often bizarre but definitely over-long tribute to two men and their obsessions: Le Prince and his determination to crack the problem of the moving image, and Wilkinson’s devotion to boosting Le Prince.

It’s a noble quest, and I applaud Wilkinson for taking it on. Inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 but moved to Leeds in 1869 to work in a factory there. After several camera experiments, including a model with 16 lenses, in 1888, he succeeded in creating a moving image. He shot two short scenes, using a single-lens camera on paper film: a view of Leeds Bridge and a gorgeous domestic snippet called Roundhay Garden Scene. As such, he may well have been the first movie-maker, the “Father of Film”, the chap who beat all the rest to the punch. And it happened right here in the UK. We should be proud, and also outraged that other people have taken the credit. Wilkinson already is, more than enough for the rest of us.

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