Category Archives: Documentary

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.

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

Advertisements

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema – documentary coming soon

thanhouser poster

The story of the Thanhouser Film Studio follows a rise-and-fall pattern familiar to all aficionados of early cinema: innovation, success, expansion, loss, obscurity. But there is a gratifying twist in the Thanhouser tale that marks it out among its fellows.

Edwin and Gertrude founded the studio in 1909 in New Rochelle, New York as an independent outfit. They were successful for many years and made more than 1,000 films, shown all over the world, including some truly fantastic early literary adaptations. The biggest star on their books was probably the wonderful Florence LaBadie, heroine of the serial Million Dollar Mystery. You may also be familiar with the precociously winsome Marie Eline, AKA “The Thanhouser Kid”. Sadly, after many profitable years, in 1917, the downturn in the movie industry forced Edwin Thanhouser to close the company for good.

The Thanhouser Studio in 1914
The Thanhouser Studio in 1914

The story would end there, with Thanhouser another footnote in film history, were it not for the tireless efforts of Edwin and Gertrude’s grandson. Ned Thanhouser has spent the past three decades hunting down the movies that his grandparents made, as well as preserving and exhibiting them all over the world. Two-hundred-odd films later, Thanhouser is a name to conjure with, and the world is lot wiser about early American film-making. Just last year, a screening of Thanhouser films played to an appreciative crowd in London at the BFI Southbank.

But Ned has been working on another film project: a documentary about the family business.

This 50-minute documentary reconstructs the relatively unknown story of the studio and its founders, technicians, and stars as they entered the nascent motion picture industry to compete with Thomas Edison and the companies aligned with his Motion Pictures Patents Corporation (MPPC). Ned Thanhouser, grandson of studio founders Edwin and Gertrude Thanhouser, narrates this compelling tale, recounting a saga of bold entrepreneurship, financial successes, cinematic innovations, tragic events, launching of Hollywood careers, and the transition of the movie industry from the East Coast to the West and Hollywood. It will be of interest to scholars, archivists, early film historians, and everyone who loves the intriguing stories about the people who pioneered independent movie-making in America.

The Thanhouser Studio and the Birth of American Cinema had a little help over the finishing line from an Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign and it will be released next year. Excitingly for those of us Pordenone-bound in October, the film will have its premiere at this year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto. I’ll be there, will you?

Read more about studio, and the documentary on the Thanhouser site.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone Promises

 

Metropolis and Metropolis Refound, Open City London, 17 June 2011

Metropolis
Metropolis (1927)

This is no ordinary screening of Metropolis.

The Open City London documentary festival is hosting a very special event on Friday night – it’s a double-bill, with live music, in a very unusual cinema. First on the agenda is Metropolis Refound, a documentary about the history of the film and the discovery of the missing reels that went into the new, complete version of the film. This is followed by a screening of the film itself, with a live orchestral score by Serum Electronique, composed by Paul Hines. You need only pay £1 to get in, but the website does suggest that you bring a bike. Why? Because the temporary cinema in Bloomsbury really is powered by bicycles. It seems to me that it would take quite a lot of leg work to get through both these movies, but it’s sure to be worth it, and you can fortify yourself at the attached cafe and barbecue before it gets too strenuous. Talk about blurring the distinction between men and machines, though!

Metropolis and Metropolis Refound screens at Open City London on Friday 17 June at 7.30pm. For more details and to buy a ticket, click here.

Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood on BBC 2

(l-r) Mary Pickford, DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, founders of United Artists
(l-r) Mary Pickford, DW Griffith, Charlie Chaplin and Douglas Fairbanks, founders of United Artists

Paul Merton is probably the most high-profile silent film fan in the country, with a book, a stage show and a series of documentaries on comedy under his belt. And now he’s back, on BBC 2 no less, with a three-part series of programmes about the early days of the American films industry – Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood.

The first programme will focus on DW Griffith, the beginnings of the star system and the relationship between music and silent film. There’s a very jolly introduction to the series on Paul Merton’s official website here, and some musings about making the documentaries on the BBC site here. You’ll be pleased to know that Neil Brand is involved too – he’s written the title music

Merton clearly has a great passion for the subject, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see documentaries on early cinema airing on one of the major channels. What would be great, of course, would be a screening of a silent film or two after the programme, but it looks like that is not to be. Better luck next time, chums.

Merton appeared on Danny Baker’s radio show on Saturday to promote the show and their 10-minute chat is well worth a listen on iPlayer, if only for the infectious enthusiasm the pair have for the subject. Follow the link here, and fast-forward to an hour and five minutes into the programme.

Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood begins on BBC 2 at 9.30pm on Friday 27 May 2011.

Anna May Wong: Song and Frosted Yellow Willows at the Cinema Museum, 26 March 2011

Anna May Wong
Anna May Wong

You want glamour? We got it. on 26 March, the Cinema Museum will host an evening to celebrate the life and work of the beautiful actress Anna May Wong, star of Piccadilly and Shanghai Express.

The night begins with a screening of the biographical documentary Anna May Wong – Frosted Yellow Willows: Her Life, Times and Legend, and a Q&A session with the film’s director Elaine Mae Woo. Frosted Yellow Willows is the literal translation of Wong’s real name: Wong Liu Tsong. The documentary incorporates interviews with those who knew Wong, and was made with the support of such luminaries as Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin.

From humble beginnings in a Chinese laundry, she went on to star in pictures such as Technicolor’s Toll of the Sea (1922), E.A. Dupont’s Piccadilly (1929) and Josef von Sternberg’s Shanghai Express (1932) with Marlene Dietrich. Never one to rest on her laurels, Anna would utilize her fame to aid her country and the country of her ancestors during times of war. Her body of work establishes her as a true pioneer of early cinema.

For more information about the documentary, visit the official website here. The Q&A will be followed by a screening of the melodrama Song (1928):

After the interval we will be screening a BFI archival 35mm print of the rarely-seen 1928 film Song (Richard Eichberg), an Anglo-German production in which Anna May Wong received top billing. In this her first European film, Anna plays a dancer drawn into a tragic romantic triangle when she meets a cabaret knife thrower (Heinrich George) and his capricious sweetheart. Song is notable both for Anna’s dancing and for the dramatic power of her performance. There will be a live piano accompaniment.

Most British silent film fans will know Wong primarily for her role in Piccadilly, but this will be a welcome chance to see one of her lesser known films, and the whole evening will be an opportunity to learn more about Hollywood’s first Chinese American leading lady.

Tickets in advance are £6.50 available from www.wegottickets.com or 0207 840 2200, and they will also be for sale on the door at £8. Doors will open at 6.30pm and refreshments will be available. The event is due to start at 7.30pm and finish at 10.30. For more information, visit the Cinema Museum website or the event’s Facebook page.

• UPDATE: This event will also be held at Liverpool John Moores University on 22 March 2011. More details here.

Silent film on Radio 4: Hollywood – the Prequel, 18 January

Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)
Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, 1914)

In 2011, many people use Hollywood as a synonym for the film industry as a whole, but in the early days of cinema, California was a long distance from the heart of the action. Hollywood – the Prequel traces the geographical shifts of the silent film industry across Europe – at different times, Britain, France, Denmark and Italy could all claim to be the centre of the cinematographic world. This absorbing documentary is presented by Francine Stock and features contributions from film historians including Kevin Brownlow, Ian Christie, Kristin Thompson, Neil Brand (with his piano) and Frank Gray. The experts take a chronological approach to early cinema, but focus on different genres in turn:

If you think the stick-em-up, the rom-com and the sword-and-sandal epic began life in the United States, then think again. The French gave the world a kinetic form of film comedy, and not only did the Danes perfect the art of the thriller, they gave the world its first bona fide movie star, Asta Nielsen, who scandalised cinema-goers everywhere with her erotic dance in 1910’s The Abyss.

Continue reading Silent film on Radio 4: Hollywood – the Prequel, 18 January