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.
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.
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!
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).
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 …
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
Love is private, intimate. Speak its name aloud and the spell is broken. Share it and the magic is shattered. Except, except … in the 20th century popular culture crashed into the space between lovers, the gap between two pairs of moist lips, the air that thrummed to their heartbeats. Pop music ran away with love, spinning out each precious moment of desire or sorrow for three minutes of passion and repetitive heartbeats. But the movies, arguably, got straight to the dirty bits first. In the dark of a cinema, that is to say a tent or a grubby room, crammed next to a sweetheart or a maybe-sweetheart in the dark, we could watch actors (imagine!) play-act the the motions of love: smooches in train carriages, swoons on the hearth. Illicit affairs, happy marriages, flings, crushes … all the joy and misery of human existence on the screen. And in the cheap seats (they were all cheap), a fumble, a fondle, a kiss or maybe more. And did I mention it was dark? A private act in a public place – disapproval be damned.
Kim Longinotto knows exactly what goes on in the dusky darkness of the Odeon. Her new collage film Love is All (2014) is a super-cut of romance: sexy, sedate or seditious. It’s a full-tilt rush for the hormones, soundtracked by the grizzled, tender love songs of Sheffield music legend Richard Hawley. Not strictly a silent film, this, but one in which the few fragments of dialogue are incidental, another instrument in the orchestra. Hawley sings what is on our lovers’ minds – what they actually have to to say is rather beside the point.
You hate bad dialogue, I hate bad dialogue. And clunky, needless expository dialogue is the worst: the most heinous crime in sound cinema. A good rule of thumb for screenwriters would be to look at each line they want their actors to spout and say: “Would this be an absolutely essential intertitle?” Without all those words, actors have to tell the story physically, by acting, rather than describing: they say a picture tells a thousand words after all. With 24 frames a second, who needs text, by that logic?
This is clearly a pet hate of mine – I rarely see a new movie without wanted to take a red pen to the script here and there. So thank heavens for All is Lost, the tremendous new film from JC Chandor (Margin Call), starring Robert Redford as a sailor lost in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Redford is the only actor in the film – it’s just him, the boat, the water and a series of catastrophes until the bitter end. And he’s fantastic in it – his nicely grizzled features reacting moment by moment to his impending doom. It’s a physical role for sure, as he tackles the high winds and rolling waves – but for the full Ancient Mariner angst, he needs to capture our sympathies too, and let us know what’s going on behind those famous blue eyes.
You’ll have guessed the twist: as Redford helms the movie solo, there’s no real dialogue at all. I don’t want to spoiler the film, but he speaks a few words; wouldn’t you curse a little, in his deck shoes? For most of the film’s 106-minute running time, however, all you’ll hear is the roar of the ocean, the clattering and cracking of his boat and a hell of a lot of weather. The score, by Alex Ebert, appears only sporadically, and there’s no intrusive internal monologue to break the tension either. So with all that space in which to act, and such a simple story, Redford is free to give an indelible, immense performance that’s a pleasure to watch. Or it would be, if one weren’t so terrified for him.
All is Lost wouldn’t qualify as a silent movie, I know that. In fact its stunning sound design is as Oscar-worthy as Redford’s star turn. But it is a rare sound film that has learned the extraordinary power of silents – and it’s really very special indeed.
We’ll never know for certain whether the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph audience really were so terrified by a moving image of a train entering a station that they screamed and ran for the door. It’s an enjoyable urban legend though, and one that appeals to our idea of cinema as an immersive, perfect illusion. Martin Scorsese stages the moment twice in Hugo (2011) and by doing so makes a fair case for the story’s veracity. After all, this is a 3D film, and the savvy 21st-century viewers of this film may well have been flinching and ducking at stereoscopic images of barking dogs and speeding trains – and even the terrified patrons of the Grand Cafe – bursting from the screen.
There is more to Hugo than such cheap shocks, though. Scorsese mostly uses his 3D technology not to reach forward but to create a deep stage, as Georges Méliès so often did, pulling the scenery away from the centre of the frame to reveal more fantastical images within. Hugo‘s astounding, wordless opening sequence plunges from the Paris skyline into a train station clock, where a small boy, our hero, is gazing out at the city – we then follow him through staircases, ladders, corridors and across the concourse in one breathless swoop. It’s at this point that I knew I would want to watch Hugo again – it’s a giddily beautiful shot, and would persuade the hardest heart that there is a place for the intelligent use of 3D in cinema.
Inevitably, the pace drops after that, and the first half of Hugo is really rather a sedate, downhearted affair – particularly for a children’s film. Hugo (played sweetly by Asa Butterfield) is orphan. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, and he is adopted by his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone with a very slippery accent) – whose job it is to wind the clocks at the train station. When the uncle staggers out one day, never to return, Hugo decides to stay in the station winding the clocks and hiding from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) so as to avoid the authorities. He steals food, and also scraps of clockwork to fix a melancholic automaton his father salvaged from the museum where he worked – sentimentally, Hugo believes that when the robot is working again, it will write him a message from his father. It’s a fond, foolish hope, made more metaphorically adorable still when we realise that the machine won’t work without a key: a heart-shaped key. However, the film is saved from treacly sentiment by the appearance of a young friend for Hugo, the bookish, restless Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and an enemy too: Ben Kingsley’s curmudgeonly toymaker, Papa Georges.
So much plot – and so many adorable flirtatious sub-plots among the station’s café-owners and stallholders – just to get us to the moment, about halfway through, when the automaton works, and we find out who Papa Georges really is. Now, the pulse of the film finally starts to race as the children voraciously explore the history of silent cinema, and the magical trick films made by Papa Georges in particular. Of course, Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (subtly played by Kingsley), and that’s no spoiler for readers of this blog. Scorsese’s recreation of Méliès’s studio is among Hugo’s most enjoyable sequences – the sugary colours, the pyrotechnics and lo-fi effects could be quaint, but these scenes are rendered with such love and attention to detail, it’s impossible not to feel a sharp cinephile thrill. For once, however, I am tempted to complain that this adaptation shouldn’t have been so faithful to its source. Brian Selznick’s pencil-illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a really gorgeous book, but its thin narrative feels even flimsier on the big screen, and spends a good hour pushing Scorsese away from the subject matter that is closest to his heart – and ours.
That said, Hugo has plenty to indulge a silent film aficionado – or to educate a young film buff. Harold Lloyd himself, dangling from the department store clock, and Hugo’s own, less jolly, homage; glimpses of Méliès at work and plenty of his films; the aforementioned Lumière moments; passing references to zoetropes and hand-tinting; even a clip reel of silent highlights. There’s also Baron Cohen’s broad slapstick, a nice sense of early 20th-century history and so many gorgeous movie posters in the background that you’ll want to leap up and freeze the projector. Hugo‘s biggest surprise is that the 3D enhances all this retromania. Whether or not we remember that the Lumières were aiming for 3D effect with that very first train movie, or that they subsequently reshot it with a stereoscopic camera, Hugo‘s look has a freshness and novelty that suits its subject matter. A switch of focus, a camera rushing along the station platform, a series of stepped cuts all look different in 3D – it’s as if we’re seeing these tricks for the very first time.
Hugo (3D) is released in the UK on 2 December 2011. And if you want to see some of Méliès’s films on the big screen – the Cine Lumière has two screenings planned for the weeks following the release.