Warning: this blogpost contains spoilers! Close this tab on your browser. Go to the cinema and watch The Artist. Then we can talk…
The Oscars are looming now, and The Artist is still the frontrunner for the biggest awards, which is one of the most exciting triumph-of-the-underdog stories Hollywood has produced in years. So the chances are, lots of people who would never have thought to watch a silent movie have now done so, and fingers crossed, they’re hungry for more. If you’re one of those people, read on. The Artist gives nostalgia, and film geekery, a good name, and whether you think it matches up to the films it pays tribute to or not, it’s the perfect prelude to a movie marathon. But where to begin, especially if you’re new to silent cinema?
Cecil Court is a tiny turning off Charing Cross Road in the West End of London. Nowadays it is packed with bookshops, boutiques and ‘psychic advisers’, but back in the beginning of the 20th century it was “the heart of what was new in the British film industry, attracting young companies who clustered together to learn from one another” (Simon Brown, Film Studies, 2007). Following last year’s summer film festival, these ‘blue plaques’ have been posted in the shop windows of Cecil Court, as a reminder of the time when it was known as ‘Flicker Alley’. Read more here.
@Drangula knows a nine-year-old boy who loved The Artist and wanted to watch more silent films. What would be suitable? Considering this request came through at around 9pm GMT on Valentine’s Day, I was overwhelmed by how many people responded and by the quality of their suggestions too. It’s a great question, which prompted some great answers. Thanks to all the people who took part.
I have attempted to collate all the responses using Storify, so these random acts of cinematic kindness could be saved for posterity. I’m sure you’ll agree that this was a Good Thing, and I really hope the young lad enjoys the films, and his mother overcomes her aversion to Chaplin.
We are living in strange, glorious times. The Artist, Michel Hazanavicus’s silent billet-doux to Hollywoodland, has officially “swept the board” at the Baftas. Best director, best actor, best original screenplay and best picture all fell to a modern silent film, for the first time, it should go without saying, in Bafta history. The Artist also picked up much-deserved prizes for cinematography, costume and score. It has all made for an unexpectedly emotional night here at Silent London towers.
Why? The Artist isn’t the only modern silent to have been made in recent years. It isn’t even the best. But when you are as passionate about a particular corner of film history as I am, and as the readers of this blog are, it does the heart good to see it in the spotlight, with a trophy in each hand. The air has been punched, a stray tear has been wiped and now a glass of vin blanc has been poured, and raised in honour to the lovely M Hazanavicius. The Artist is a lovely film, and most quibbles I, and other early cinema enthusiasts, have with it, are impossible to untangle from its privileged position as a standard-bearer for the silent era. At some point we have to give it credit for getting into that position in the first place. So congratulations to The Artist – for earning both popularity and critical acclaim and being so damn charming with it.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo won a brace of awards too: best production design and best sound (ho ho). So I’ll raise another couple of toasts: to cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, and to Martin Scorsese, a masterful director and the world’s greatest living advocate for film preservation. That’s part of the reason he won the biggest award of the night – the Bafta fellowship.
Season’s greetings to all our dear readers – may your stockings be filled with treats and all your nights be silent. There’s plenty to look forward to in the new year, but until then, eat, drink, be merry – and why not enjoy a few festive movies too? I’ll see you in 2012!
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.
The reviews are already in for German film-maker Uwe Boll’s latest venture, and it isn’t even ready to view yet. “Worst idea ever,” said Anne Thompson on Indiewire. Wretched and doomed,” tweeted Roger Ebert. Thompson’s Indiewire blogpost reports that a representative of the German distributor Kinostar has approached a “major studio” with a pitch for “one 90 minute 3D movie titled Chaplin 3D – Little Tramp’s Adventure.” The plan involves the conversion of several Chaplin films into 3D, which will then be compiled into one feature-length movie. Retro-fitted 3D is rarely a happy experience, so even if the idea of Chaplin drunkenly tumbling down steps and into your lap, or skating wobbily past your nose, appeals, this doesn’t bode well. When you consider Boll’s critical reputation, which is somewhere between “joke” and ”criminal” this project is beginning to look disastrous. Led, perhaps, by Ebert, the reaction to the story on Twitter yesterday was of near-universal revulsion.
The truth is, there is more to this Chaplin in 3D story than meets the eye. Or both eyes. Clarification and elaboration arrives courtesy of a revelatory post by film preservationist David Shepard on the Nitrateville forum:
Serge Bromberg and I are among the people involved in this project. The principals, a film company in Istanbul which has been operating successfully for more than 70 years, is run by people of integrity; their proprietary 3-D conversion process is far superior to any other I have seen. Even the folks at Association Chaplin were impressed.
L’Immagine Ritrovata in Bologna or Technicolor scanned our earliest generation nitrate negatives to 2K and have done the highest quality of frame-by-frame image restoration of which they are capable for THE IMMIGRANT, THE RINK and EASY STREET. The films will be presented in b&w, at 20 fps, with new large-orchestra scores by Robert Israel, but in 3-D.
Obviously, Chaplin’s films are about performance; they are not highly pictorial films like, for example, those of Maurice Tourneur; we think they will look and sound wonderful and that the 3-D conversion does them no violence. We hope they will be rolled out first as family concerts with live orchestral performance, moving later on to other platforms with the recorded scores.
Obviously the intended audience is not the readers of Nitrateville, although you will not be excluded from attending the shows to see them for yourselves. If this project is successful it will be expanded to other silent films that can also deliver excellent experiences to 21st century audiences. We hope it will promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar. Think of it as a solution for one of the performance arts (along with opera and classical music) for which the present audience is rapidly aging out, and for which something innovative must be done to insure their survival.
So, the precious films are in the hands of the experts, not a multiple Razzie-winner, and we can be fairly certain that they will look and sound great, due to the restoration and rescoring work. Those who share Mark Kermode’s aversion to 3D in all its forms will still have qualms, of course, but Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo (2011) may well be about to charm cinephiles into a newfound love of stereoscopy. Chaplin himself shot 3D test footage for The Circus (1928), though the fact that he dropped the idea may tell us as much as the fact that he attempted it. He was also known, of course, to retrospectively rework his films, such as when he added a voiceover and music to The Gold Rush in the 1940s.
It is a little saddening to think that the way to “promote some awareness of silent films to many people who now do not have them even on their radar” is to change them so radically. However, the recent re-release of Giorgio’s Moroder’s Metropolis has reminded us of the unusual paths many people take towards an appreciation of silent cinema. Could a three-dimensional rendering of Chaplin movies create a new generation of silent film fans, just as his colourised, intertitle-free Metropolis did in the 1980s?
I don’t need to tell you that the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and doubtless we all have opinions on whether this project is likely to succeed in pleasing either existing or potential silent film fans. The Tramp is not quite in the perilous position we feared, and for now I recommend keeping an open mind.
This nifty little video is advertising a BFI project that some of you may want to try out – Screen Heritage UK. The idea is that you can search for archive film from your area, and locate the relevant footage, some of which will be available to view online.
Thanks to over £22.8 million in funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), this major collaboration between the BFI and regional film archives across the UK represents a historic moment for film archives, encompassing digital innovation and pioneering new methods of film archiving.
SHUK will also ensure everyone in Britain will be able to find out about their film heritage for free via a new cataloguing and online access drive – Search Your Film Archives. The national and regional film archives have created this resource to give the public online access to information about film archives across the UK.
I had a very quick root around, and found this footage of the Ripon Highland Games in Yorkshire in 1916, featuring bagpipers, wrestling on horseback and a rather incongruous Charlie Chaplin lookalike. I was also quite taken with a phantom ride taken from a tram in Glossop, Derbyshire in 1912. Fascinating glimpses of a world that bears only small resemblances to modern Britain.
Have a look for yourself, here, at the Screen Heritage UK search portal.
If you’re interested in silent cinema it’s a fair bet that you are, or would like to be, a patron of an independent cinema. The sort of cosy neighbourhood picture palace that shows the newest arthouse and foreign flicks, as well as a solid programme of classics; where you can drink shiraz rather than a litre of cola and nibble 70% cocoa chocolate rather than crunchy nachos. The sort of place, in fact, that shows silent films with live musical accompaniment. Heaven for a film fan, and vital, many would argue, to the film industry.
Independent cinemas foster audiences for films that don’t have megabucks marketing budgets or established stars, giving new film-makers the chance to get their films seen, and to get paid. A well-programmed indie cinema can educate its visitors about world cinema and film history – through “classic” strands, double-bills and festivals – which in turn creates audiences for the kind of movies that don’t get a look-in at the multiplex. If you love your local independent cinema, or you have recently lost one, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not easy to keep this kind of business afloat in the current financial climate, so I think we all feel a little protective of these lovely places.
Therefore I was interested to read a recent submission from a group of British indie cinemas (including Glasgow’s GFT, Bristol’s Watershed, Manchester’s Cornerhouse, London’s ICA and Newcastle’s Tyneside) to the UK Film Policy review, which will be overseen by a panel of industry experts, chaired by culture secretary Chris Smith. This submission is a manifesto for the independent cinema sector, and it was published on the Screen Daily website. The document sets out a list of ambitions for the sector, lists what they hope to achieve and yes, ends with a request for recognition of their value, as well as a “three to five year UK wide development strategy’, including cash and:
– A cultural exhibition investment strategy that begins with the audiences’ right to access a wider diversity of cinema. To include; an audience development fund to support initiatives that bring culturally diverse films into distribution, generate UK wide touring initiatives and alternative cultural content.
That sounds fantastic, but what does it mean? The clues are to be found earlier in the document, under the heading “What we plan to do”. I’ll quote the list in full, but with emphasis on the third item.
Provide a stronger exhibition platform for emerging UK filmmakers.
Develop cultural diversity with specific focus on developing audiences for under represented film cultures and communities e.g. African, Asian, Latin American, Caribbean and wider European.
Promote the heritage of cinema through archival strands and live music accompanying silent cinema – one of the ways film is becoming part of contemporary live performance and developing new audiences.
Engage young audiences in a wider diet of world and archival cinemas through work with schools, screenings and media literacy events.
Create wider engagement and participation in debate and dialogue with audiences through online publishing.
Provide a focus for artists moving image presentation in venue and online
Provide a UK wide platform and profile for the next generation of talent.
So the cinemas who have written this manifesto are pledging to continue offering silent films with live music. What’s more, they’re talking about silent film events in terms of “contemporary live performance” and “developing new audiences” – and also as worthy of government support. Between this, and certain newspapers talking up a major silent-movie revival (which of course should be taken with a spoonful of salt), we may well be on the brink of interesting times for silent film fans. It should go without saying that I appreciate the silent-film-and-live-music offerings of chain cinemas (notably, of course the Picturehouses chain), film festivals and concert venues – Silent London exists to support and encourage all of these events. But more is almost always merrier, and if independent cinemas around the country are able to offer events as thrilling as some of the screenings we have seen in London recently, that is cause for celebration. If it boosts the independent cinema sector into the bargain, that’s going to be an even bigger party.
I’m getting ahead of myself, of course. We’ll know more when the panel reports back, and crucially, decides what to do with some of the increased Lottery investment for the film industry that has come about as a result of the 2012 Olympics. Fingers crossed.
But if you were still wondering whether silent film screenings are an uncommercial, niche interest, read what Mark Kermode has to say in his recent book The Good, the Bad and the Multiplex.
As someone who’s spent quite a lot of time accompanying silent movies, I have indeed been thrilled by the resurgence of interest in these oft-forgotten works that seems to have flourished since the turn of the century. Spurred on by the retrospective fervour that attended the 100th anniversary of the ‘invention of cinema’ … many modern movie-goers were inspired to seek out reissued silent gems and to experience the wonder of a live soundtrack first-hand … So yes, I do have a powerful hankering for the days when films were performed rather than just screened, and directors understood that film (unlike theatre) is first and foremost a visual medium in which dialogue is not the driving force.
Everyone loves Buster Keaton, but the readers of Silent London love him more than most. So today, on 4 October 2011, which would have been Buster Keaton’s 116th birthday, let’s pause to celebrate the Great Stone Face. After all, if it wasn’t for Buster Keaton, this blog wouldn’t exist. My first silent film and live music experience was a double-bill of Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill Jr accompanied by the Harmonie Band. What a treat. I was already smitten with early film before I went, but that evening turned me into an evangelist for the ‘live cinema’ experience.
I have Buster Keaton news to share, also. In the US, movie channel TCM is celebrating by showing Keaton’s films every Sunday throughout October. Sadly, that pleasure is not available on these shores, but Scottish film blogger Jon Melville isn’t going to let that stop him. He will be rewatching the same films on DVD, and writing them up for his Holyrood or Bust(er) project. Follow his progress on his blog here.
Project Keaton will be a month long open forum in which writers, artists, everyday Joes and everyday Janes (like me) from all over the world are being invited to tip their pork pie to Buster. The goal is to foster a month of creative exchange, with Buster as muse, and to celebrate one of cinema’s few, true geniuses. There are no rules as to content: essays, reviews, art, critiques, tributes, prose, poetry, all are welcome. And, since this is a month long project, there are no pressing deadlines: participants may contribute as little or as much as they wish any time at all during the course of October.
Find out more, including how to contribute to Project Keaton, here.
If all this has reawakened your love of Buster Keaton, then you may want to join the Blinking Buzzards – the UK Buster Keaton society, who produce quarterly newsletters and hold regular meetings. They are even working on a clothing range and talking about a festival, too. There is not much information on their website at present, but their next meeting will be held at the Cinema Museum on 22 October. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook, where they are far more talkative and a regular source of Buster Keaton clips and news.
The final titbit I’ve been keeping stashed under my pork-pie hat is a date for your diary. You may already know that The Slapstick Festival, an annual orgy of silent comedy in Bristol, will take place from 26-29 January next year. This festival is organised by the fabulous people at Bristol Silents and is always enormous fun, with an enchanting mix of silent film geekery and out-and-out hilarity. Although it’s too early for the full lineup to be revealed, the four galas, the flagship events of the weekend, have been announced.
May I draw your event to the event taking place on Friday 27 January? Comedian Griff Rhys Jones will introduce a screening of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926), with a new score written by Günter Buchwald and performed by members of the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. There will also be a chance to see Laurel and Hardy in The Finishing Touch (1928) and Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1916), as well as a performance by the Matinee Idles, featuring actor Paul McGann. The Gala takes place at Colston Hall in central Bristol, and tickets are available here.
As regular readers will know, Scissor Sisters musical director John Garden is taking his new synth and guitar score for The Lost World (Harry Hoyt, 1925) on tour this month. I reviewed the show that kick-started the tour at the Barbican on Sunday, for the Spectator Arts Blog. The headline is lovely.
After months of work on his score for Undergound (1928), Neil Brand is still, happily, a big fan of the film. In fact he’s enthusiastic, and generous, enough to offer Silent London a preview of the music ahead of the world premiere next Wednesday and to chat about the film, and the process of scoring it too. Anthony Asquith’s film is set in London, but borrows its visual style from the European and Soviet art cinema that he loved so much: expect dark shadows, quickfire editing and geometric compositions. “Asquith was never again so bold as he was with Underground,” Brand says, and this score represents Brand’s attempt “to make music as bold as the film is”.
It hasn’t been an easy task. At first, he says, he was intimidated by the task ahead: the difficulty about writing for Underground, as opposed to Blackmail, which Brand scored for the BBC Symphony Orchestra last year, was that Asquith’s film requires snatches of lighter music. Blackmail is like an “icicle to the heart”, but Underground has wry, comic moments, at least towards the beginning of the film, before the characters make some disastrous decisions, and the film’s romantic triangle becomes an “Expressionist nightmare”. “Those first 20 minutes were horrendous to write,” he says. But four months later he has a complete score, which will be played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Timothy Brock, at the Barbican Concert Hall next month.
Brand is of course known for his piano scores, often improvised, for silent films, and here he has incorporated a piano into an orchestra score for the first time. He tells me this is partly because he wanted to use the love theme he had written for the film when he accompanied it at the London Film Festival with the Prima Vista Social Club two years ago. He also wanted to use the piano’s percussive bass sound and he enjoys the sound of a solo piano, at moments, over a quiet orchestra. “It’s almost a Morricone effect.”
Other than that though, Brand tackled the score as he always does, from the beginning to the end. This means that every morning, before starting work on the next segment of the film he would play through the existing score from the start. So he has heard the opening of the score, on his home computer setup, many, many times.
The London Film Festival‘s archive gala is rapidly becoming a highlight of London’s silent film calendar. This year continues the theme, presenting Miles Mander’s edgy melodrama The First Born in the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank, with a new score by Stephen Horne. I spoke to Horne about his composition, and to Bryony Dixon of the BFI about the film, and wrote this short piece for the Guardian film blog.
Last week, the Silent London Twitter account passed a milestone of sorts as it reached a total of 1,000 followers. Hurrah! In case that doesn’t mean anything to you, a little context: Lady Gaga has 12.7m followers, the British Film Institute has around 40,000 and the Prince Charles Cinema has nearly 5,000. Well, perhaps that hasn’t made things any clearer, but the point is that around 1,000 people could, if they all turned on their computer or phone at the right time, read some London-based silent film related tweetings – but they’re far more likely to be reading about Lady Gaga’s latest excursions in millinery. And the Silent London Twitter crowd are a marvellous bunch. Just a few weeks ago, @susan_carey designed this beautiful Buster Keaton postcard in honour of my invaluable incessant tweets. It’s gorgeous, isn’t it?
However, it’s worth mentioning, because Twitter, like Facebook, is a good place to share news. So they are where I will pass on news as I discover it, about DVD releases, silent film shows around the country and early cinema related happenings on TV and radio. So far, Facebook is lagging behind in followers, or ‘Likes’, a little, but there is still time for things to even out.
So if you want to keep up with Silent London and breaking silent film news beyond the confines of the blog, you can follow Silent London on Twitter here, or Like Silent London on Facebook here. You’ll occasionally find a sophisticated debate, or just some convivial banter, on both those two places – but don’t be shy of using the comments feature on the blog either. Us silent film fans are a talkative bunch!
The best thing about writing Silent London is not the international prestige or the six-figure salary*, it’s the opportunity to evangelise for silent cinema, to spread the word about the films that I love and the experience of watching them with live music. So many people have seen a few scratchy clips of Chaplin films, a glimpse of Nosferatu or a Paul Merton documentary and they’re intrigued to find out more about these films that seem both like and utterly unlike the movies they’re familiar with. So when the Culture Critic website asked me to provide a very short introduction to silent cinema I jumped at the chance.
You may well disagree with some of the things that I say, and I’ll admit that choosing five “essential” silent films was a near-impossible task, but it’s online for all to see now. There’s a brief intro to my blog, with a list of five first films for newbies and a short interview too. Click here for the Guest Guide, and here for the interview.
*I always forget that irony doesn’t work on the internet
As we are about to break up for the Easter weekend, I couldn’t resist sharing this egg-cellent 1902 trick film by George Méliès, L’Oeuf du Sorcier, with you. And as Easter is the festival of rebirth and new life, you will surely have noticed that Silent London has shelled out for a new web address. Point your browsers at silentlondon.co.uk in the future. It’s shorter, snappier and easier to remember than the old address – so chick it out. And that clunky old URL will still work anyway, so even if your brain is a little scrambled, you should be able to find the site with ease.
Have a wonderful Easter break dear readers and I will see you back here next week for egg-citing announcements about silent film shows, cracking competitions and, hopefully, no more of these terrible yolks.
The 14th British Silent Film Festival was held at the weekend, in the Barbican, the Cinema Museum and the BFI Southbank. A full report of the films, the lectures, the music and the gossip* will be forthcoming on this blog shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian Film Blog. It’s not quite a roundup of the festival, but it brings together some of the things we learned about silent film and music over the weekend – and I hope you enjoy it. If you were at the festival, let me know what you made of it, too.