Category Archives: Lecture

Japanese silent film: brush up your Benshi

Fantastic news. Two events coming up in London explore the Japanese art of Benshi narration for silent film, both of them courtesy of the Japan Foundation. You may have already heard that there will a screening of the masterpiece I was Born, But … (Yasijuro Ozu, 1932) at the Barbican on 25 June with piano accompaniment and Benshi narration. Book your tickets here.

I_Was_Born,_But..._1932.jpg

Before that, on Friday 23 June at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, you can learn more about Benshi itself, with Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and silent film pianist Mie Yanashita. There’ll be a talk, demonstration (with a scene from Orochi, 1925) and even the chance to have a go yourself. I’ll be there too, giving an introductory talk about silent cinema to set the scene and chairing the Q&A with Yamashiro. More details below – it’s free but you have to book your seat on Eventbrite.

benshiflyer

In conjunction with the Barbican’s screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s I was Born, But… organised as part of The Japanese House exhibition, the Japan Foundation is delighted to present a special evening exploring the art of Benshi. Following an introductory talk by silent cinema specialist Pamela Hutchinson, Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and Silent Film Pianist Mie Yanashita will perform a clip from Orochi (1925) recreating an authentic Benshi experience. As part of his illustrated talk, Yamashiro will discuss Benshi as a contemporary occupation as well as the unique appeal of Japanese silent cinema.

This fascinating event will also offer a few audience members the chance to take to the stage and perform the role of Benshi under instruction from Yamashiro himself!
This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To book your place via Eventbrite, please click here

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Wish Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp a happy 100th birthday with David Robinson and Claire Bloom

Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)
Claire Bloom and Charlie Chaplin in Limelight (1952)

Don’t tell me you missed the fact this year, this February in fact, we are celebrating 100 years of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Kid Auto Races, Chaplin’s first screen appearance as the anarchic scruff, was released on 7 February 1914. It’s a cinematic centenary of the best kind – one that affords the opportunity for screenings of wonderful films and some clever-clever comment and analysis too. An event at the BFI Southbank on 4 February will add a little star power to proceedings, as well as some new insights into the Tramp and his creator.

At The Centenary of the Little Tramp David Robinson will be talking specifically about how Chaplin drew on the music hall tradition of his youth to create his signature character – and how those influences stayed with him and found a beautiful expression in the gorgeous 1952 film Limelight.

This special event marks the centenary of the birth of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’. One hundred years ago this week the iconic character first stepped in front of the camera at the Keystone studios. David Robinson, Chaplin’s official biographer, presents his latest thoughts on Chaplin and the tramp and celebrates the launch of his new book ‘The World of Limelight,’ commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna, which draws on previously unpublished material from the Chaplin Archive.

Robinson will be launching his book at the event and I think copies will be on sale after the talk with perhaps a booksigning too. A particularly well-informed little bird tells me that Chaplin’s co-star in Limelight, English actress Claire Bloom, will be in attendance also. In fact, Robinson’s book is dedicated to her. Here’s a little more about the book:

Limelight was first cast not as a film script, but as a long novella, Footlights, with the supplementary Calvero’s Story.  Both are here published for the very first time – the ultimate raison d’être of this volume.  Out of these Chaplin extracted a screenplay which passed through several drafts before being transferred to the screen.

The accompanying commentary in this volume explores the documentary reality of the world which Chaplin recreated from his memories and evoked for posterity – London, the music hall and ballet at the end of an era, the outbreak of the First World War.  The book is illustrated with images from the author’s own collection, and reproductions of documents and photographs from the Chaplin archives, which clearly depict the development  of the film LIMELIGHT that David Robinson so intricately describes.

The event takes place at 6.20pm in NFT3. For more details, see the event page on the BFI website.

Further reading

Kevin Brownlow’s The Other Hollywood: The Music of Light, BFI Southbank, 26 July

Kevin Brownlow (Vanityfair.com)
Kevin Brownlow (Vanityfair.com)

Everyone’s favourite Oscar-winning silent film historian, the erudite and tireless Kevin Brownlow, is bringing his mega-restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon back to London later this year. You already have your tickets, right? Ahead of that screening there is a timely chance to see one of his finest silent film TV documentaries at BFI Southbank this July – introduced by the man himself.

All silent film fans are familiar with Brownlow and David Gill’s landmark 1980s series Hollywood, crammed with legendary interviews with silent film stars and film-makers from the US. The documentary showing at the former NFT is from the followup 1995 series focusing on the other side of the Atlantic: Cinema Europe. This episode, The Music of Light, is all about French Cinema – and in particular the genius and ambition of Napoléon director Abel Gance.

Abel Gance
Abel Gance

The screening is paired with Barrie Gavin’s 1967 TV documentary The Movies: The World of Josef von Sternberg, which also features a contribution from Brownlow.

The Music of Light screens on Friday 26 July at 6.10pm in NFT2, with an introduction by Kevin Brownlow. Click here to read more and book tickets.

This news seems like the perfect excuse to post this 1980 clip of Brownlow talking about Abel Gance, just to whet your appetite:

Cut! An introduction to silent film, at the Pathology Museum, 21 November 2012

Image courtesy The Pathology Museum
Image courtesy The Pathology Museum

The Pathology Museum at St Bartholomew’s Hospital is a fascinating place – and one of London’s best-kept secrets. Access to the collections is currently by appointment only, but if you want to peruse the specimen jars of an evening, while enjoying a glass of wine and learning a little something, you should look out for their lecture and seminar events. Topics covered so far range from the history of tattoos to Marilyn Monroe – and this November, silent cinema.

The Phantom of the Opera (1925)
The Phantom of the Opera (1925)

I will be speaking at the Museum on 21 November, about the history of silent cinema generally, and also, inspired by the surroundings, some of the more bizarre bodies on silent film. There will be drinks, freshly made popcorn, film clips and an opportunity to ask questions after the talk.

Do come along, admission costs just £6 a person and we’re hoping that this will be the first of many silent cinema events at the museum.

Cut! takes place at the  Pathology Museum, Robin Brook Centre, West Smithfield, London EC1A 7BE on 21 November 2012. Doors will open at 6.30pm for a 7pm start. To book a ticket and find out more, follow this link. The museum’s Time Out listing is here.

The Women of Old Hollywood and Sunset Boulevard (1950)

When the tintypes first galloped westward in the 1910s, what was it like to be a woman working in the film industry? A special event at Conway Hall, part of the Looking In Looking Out festival of film and philosophy, hopes to find out. The evening will take a look at the earliest days of Hollywood, the era of Lois Weber, Frances Marion, June Mathis Mary Pickford, Mabel Normand and Clara Bow.

We’ll be asking questions such as: how much did women contribute to the formation of the cinema as we now know it? Were there more opportunities for women in the then-new industry or did broader social ideas about women’s roles hold them back? Do the films that women made during this period represent a specifically female or even feminist point of view? Have women been written out of cinema history? But we’ll also be celebrating the many fantastic achievements by women both well-known and obscure in silent-era Hollywood.

The LILO event will comprise, first, a panel discussion chaired by Bidisha and featuring Kira Cochrane, Jenny Hammerton and Muriel Zagha as well as um, me. This will be followed by a screening of Billy Wilder’s sublime Sunset Boulevard (1950), with its unforgettable lead performance by Gloria Swanson as the embittered silent film star Norma Desmond.

6.30pm Bidisha leads a high-kicking whirl through Hollywood history and a celebration of the brilliant women who co-founded Hollywood, with film experts, critics, Old Hollywood fans and film lovers Jenny HammertonMuriel ZaghaPamela Hutchinson and Kira Cochrane.

8pm Sunset Boulevard (1950) Gloria Swanson’s career-defining performance in Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett’s Oscar-winning tragic tale of a star in decline. As much a reflection on the idea of Hollywood itself, as it is on love and loss.

So please, come one, come all – this should be fun. The Women of Old Hollywood event takes place at Conway Hall, Red Lion Square, London on Tuesday 3 July 2012. Doors open at 6pm. Tickets cost £10 and are available here. You can read more on the Conway Hall website, or on Facebook. There’s a Twitter feed too. And if you want more, here’s a very smart feature from the clever chaps at Real|Reel Journal introducing the festival.

Neil Brand: The Silent Pianist Speaks at the Cinema Museum, 19 May 2012

Neil Brand – and friends
Neil Brand – and friends

Who do you watch silent movies with? Your friends? Your partner? Toute seule on the front row taking notes? The answer is that we all watch silent films in the company of the musician, who is not just accompanying the movie, but guiding the audience through it as well. Whether composing a score or improvising on the fly, silent cinema musicians are arguably closer to and more involved with the film then anyone else in the auditorium. Which is why it’s always fascinating to hear what they have to say about the movies.

Neil Brand does more to share his wisdom than most, with regular appearances on TV and radio discussing film history and film scores – as well as his work with the British Silent Film Festival too. But for the real skinny on silent cinema as he sees it, you need to catch him on stage, with a projector and a piano, holding forth. The good news is that Brand’s The Silent Pianist Speaks show is back in London on Saturday, at our beloved Cinema Museum.

From the earliest, earthiest comedies and thrillers, through a silent cine-verité classic scripted by a young Billy Wilder, to the glories of Hollywood glamour and the sublime Laurel and Hardy, Neil provides improvised accompaniment and laconic commentary on everything from deep focus to his own live cinema disasters. He investigates how music works with film by inviting the audience to score a love scene, and the show culminates with Neil accompanying a clip ‘sight unseen’ whilst simultaneously describing his reactions to it. The result is a hilarious, sharp and ultimately moving show about cinema and music which pays tribute to the musicians of the silent era through the observations of one the world’s greatest improvising accompanists.

You don’t want to miss this, do you?

The Silent Pianist Speaks is at the Cinema Museum on Saturday 19 May 2012 at 7.30pm. To read more about this particular event, and to buy tickets at the bargainous price of £8.50 or less for concessions, click through to the Cinema Museum website here. Read more about The Silent Pianist Speaks here. If you don’t live in the capital, you;ll be pleased to know that the Silent Pianist Also Speaks Elsewhere. Visit Neil Brand’s website for details of shows around the country (there’s one coming up in Ipswich on 27 May).

The Chess Player at the Cinema Museum, 18 September 2011

The Chess Player (1927)
The Chess Player (1927)

There has been a lot of talk about Napoléon (1927) recently – Abel Gance’s extravagant film, painstakingly restored by Kevin Brownlow, scored by Carl Davis and scheduled for some long-overdue screenings in San Francisco next year. But Napoléon is not the only lavish French epic to have benefited from a Photoplay restoration. Raymond Bernard’s The Chess Player (1927) is a wildly ambitious film, and if you are interested in the far reaches, excesses and extraordinary achievements of late-period silent cinema, you won’t want to miss it.

The Chess Player is based on a novel that takes the true story of the Turk, a seemingly ingenious 18th-century chess computer, subsequently revealed to be a devastatingly simple hoax, and introduces it to Catherine the Great’s Russian empire. The inventor of the device is an eccentric man who lives in Polish Lithuania and is friendly with some leading local revolutionaries. After a peasant uprising is violently quashed (the film is celebrated for these battle scenes, and associated fantasy sequences), he attempts to smuggle one of his friends across Europe using the device as a cover…

The Chess Player is screening at the Cinema Museum on Sunday 18 September at 2pm as part of the first in a series of lectures on French cinema by Jon Davies. This lecture deals with the silent era, specifically “Méliès, Lumière, Gance and their contemporaries”. Tickets are £10 or £7 for concessions and they are available from WeGotTickets here. There is no mention of musical accompaniment for this screening, but the Milestone DVD of The Chess Player includes a performance of the original orchestral score by Henri Rabaud.  Find out more here on the Cinema Museum website.

Paul Merton and Neil Brand’s Silent Clowns at the Cinema Museum

Laurel and Hardy
Laurel and Hardy

Whether Paul Merton’s recent Birth of Hollywood documentaries piqued your interest in silent cinema, or you are already a fan of the era’s exquisitely hilarious comedians, this is a date for your diary. Merton, and silent film pianist Neil Brand, are reprising their Silent Clowns show, which toured throughout 2009, at the Cinema Museum this September.

According to my sources, we can expect some classic moments from Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd as well as a complete Laurel and Hardy short, We Faw Down, their first film to be directed by Leo McCarey, which is sometimes known under the simpler title We Slip Up. Paul Merton will introduce the clips, and Neil Brand will provide musical accompaniment. You really can’t go wrong. Anyone who has read Merton’s Silent Comedy book or watched his recent TV programmes, will know that he is passionate about this subject, and if you only know him from the radio, you’ll know that he is exceedingly funny himself.

Silent Clowns is at the Cinema Museum in Kennington on Saturday 3 September at 7.30pm, but doors will open an hour earlier for you to look around the collections. Refreshments will be available too, and there should be some time for you to mingle and have a high old time. Tickets cost £6.50 or less for concessions. For more information, visit the Cinema Museum website, or to buy tickets, visit WeGotTickets.

Want more links? Try Paul Merton’s official website, and Neil Brand’s site, too.

Shadow Play: gallery talk and master class at the Barbican, 1 September 2011

Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)
Cinderella (Lotte Reiniger, 1922)

The Barbican’s Watch Me Move animation exhibition continues all summer, and is well worth a look. These two events may be of particular interest to silent film fans, though. On 1 September, writer Marina Warner will be giving a talk in the gallery about “shadow play” animation, from Lotte Reiniger, through to more contemporary artists such as William Kentridge and Kara Walker (below):

The lecture is followed by a shadow play animation workshop – Warner will be joined by artist Reza Ben Gajra, and you’ll learn all you need to know to create your own piece in the vein of The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

Both events take place on 1 September 2011, at 6.30pm and 7.30pm. Tickets for the talk cost £10, and for the master class £12. For more details, click here, and here.

Kevin Brownlow talks about Winstanley. Plus, tour the BFI National Archive

Inside the BFI National Archive (bbc.co.uk)
Inside the BFI National Archive (bbc.co.uk)

These two events caught my eye in the JuLy BFI brochure.  They’re not silent film screenings, and one of them isn’t even in London, but they are definitely worth a peek.

First up, your favourite silent film historian and mine, Kevin Brownlow, will be appearing at BFI Southbank to introduce a screening of his film Winstanley on 5 July. There’ll be time for a discussion after the film too, which is bound to include some talk of silent cinema. I’d bet my second-best cloche on it, in fact. This event is free for seniors, so if you’re over 60 this is a can’t-miss. The rest of us whippersnappers are invited too, but we’ll have to pay usual matinee ticket prices.

Winstanley screens at 2pm on Tuesday 5 July in NFT1. There are no details on the BFI website, so it might be worth ringing the box office on 020 7928 3232.

Second, there is an opportunity for BFI members to pay a visit to the National Archive in Berkhamsted. It’s a three-hour tour, including light refreshments, and you’ll have the chance to talk to some of the talented people who work there, and find out how films are restored. It seems like an apposite time to visit, with all the work currently being done on the Hitchcock 9 project, and the fact that the archive has recently been placed on the Unesco World Heritage register.

The cost of the archive visit is £25 or £20 for concessions, and the tour will take place on Tuesday 19 July. Log in to the BFI website to find out more or call 020 7928 3232 to book.

Walpurgisnacht Gothic Magic Lantern Show at the Last Tuesday Society, 30 April 2011

A magic lantern

Did you know that 30 April is Walpurgisnacht? It’s pagan festival celebrated in lots of countries across Europe. There are several different interpretations of the feast, but it’s always on the same date each year and it is usually associated with dancing, bonfires – and sorcery.

In one corner of Hackney, Walpurgisnacht will be celebrated this year not with a witch-burning, but a spooky magic lantern show. It’s always a joy to see a little bit of pre-cinema technology being used, shared and enjoyed in the capital, so I’m glad that Professor Heard, who treks up and down the country with his glass slides, is coming to the Last Tuesday Society to terrify the good people of east London.

Professor Mervyn Heard will conjure up the black art of Phantasmagoria with his 19th Century Magic Lantern. Watch and behold as skeletons waltz across the wall and nuns bleed to their death despite a life of virtue.

The Last Tuesday Society is based at a curiosity shop in Mare Street, Hackney, and hosts an eclectic series of lectures and workshops on everything from tantric sex to Iranian literature. The magic lantern show will be returning to the venue for Halloween, but that’s far too long to wait for your vintage thrills.

There will be two seatings for the Walpurgisnacht Gothic Magic Lantern Show. Tickets cost £10, and are available at the website here.

The Silent Western: The Covered Wagon at the Cinema Museum, 23 June 2011

The Covered Wagon (1923)
The Covered Wagon (1923)

“Horse operas” are almost as old as cinema itself. Edwin S Porter’s The Great Train Robbery is regularly claimed to be the first western – and that was made in 1903. So this special event at the Cinema Museum mines a rich seam. You’ll spend the evening in the company of BFI archivist John Oliver and pianist Cyrus Gabrysch, touring the history of westerns in the silent era, incorporating screenings of several rarely seen films:

The first part of the evening will be devoted to Western star Tom Mix, with the premiere of the MoMA’s 35mm restoration of some of his early films from the Selig Studio: The Foreman of Bar Z, comprising four 1915 shorts, and Ranch Life in the Great South West (1910), featuring Mix’s first screen appearance. The evening’s second half features the work of controversial Hollywood star J. Warren Kerrigan, with screenings of James Cruze’s celebrated epic Western The Covered Wagon (1923) and the short The Poisoned Flume (1911), directed by Allan Dwan.

Tom Mix was a hugely popular star, known as the “King of the Cowboys” who really defined our idea of a western hero. J Warren Kerrigan was another successful actor in the silent years – the controversy that surrounded him was less to do with his homosexuality than his outspoken refusal to enlist during the Great War.

The Silent Western is at The Cinema Museum on 23 June 2011 at 7.30pm. Tickets are £6.50 in advance from WeGotTickets or £8 on the door or £5 for concessions. For all the details, visit the Cinema Museum website.

Those Surprising Silents with Kevin Brownlow, The Cinema Museum, 14 April

The Fire Brigade (1926)
The Fire Brigade (1926), from silentfilmstillarchive.com

Fresh from winning an Oscar last year, Kevin Brownlow will be in London in April to give an illustrated lecture at the Cinema Museum. The talk will use clips (all projected in 35mm) to explore the development of silent film technique, from one-shot shorts, to epic features. The clips will include newsreel footage as well as a sequence from The Fire Brigade (1926, hat-tip to mrbertiewooster on Nitrateville for that information), and will be accompanied on the piano by Stephen Horne.

Those Surprising Silents will begin at 7.30pm and should finish at 10pm, on 14 April. Full information can be found here at the Cinema Museum website.

The Birth of a Nation, BFI Southbank, 24 January – postponed

The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The Birth of a Nation (1915)

Due to technical difficulties, the screening of The Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915) at the BFI Southbank on 24 January has been cancelled, but it will be rescheduled for later in the year. Hopefully, the rearranged screening will also benefit from an introduction from Kevin Brownlow as originally planned. Of course, we’ll pass on the details as soon we know more.