Category Archives: Review

Bait review: Silent landscapes, angry voices

It’s a great week for new British cinema. I don’t get to type that very often. But this week, as the heatwave cools, you can spend your cinema money on two fascinating and brilliant new movies by young British filmmakers: Joanna Hogg’s finely polished dissection of a troubled romance, The Souvenir, and Mark Jenkin’s Bait. I highly recommend both*, but it’s Bait I want to talk to you about today.

Bait is Jenkin’s debut feature and it continues the themes and techniques he has explored in his short work. He’s a Cornish filmmaker, and in shorts such as Bronco’s House (2015), he has tackled subjects very close to his own home, the dissolution of the local way of life due to housing shortages exacerbated by unchecked tourism and the loss of traditional crafts and livelihoods. Those themes surface again in Bait, a portrait of a belligerent, bereaved young man called Martin (Edward Rowe) who lives in Newlyn, once a busy fishing port. Martin’s family home has been bought by a middle-class London family who have decked it out with tacky nautical accessories and use it only for holidays and Airbnb income, and his job as a fisherman has also dwindled to a shadow of itself. He no longer has his own boat, and relies on what he can catch from hand-cast nets instead. His brother has a boat, but adding insult to injury, uses it for pleasure cruises rather than the family business. It’s important, not to say simply refreshing, to see British filmmakers bringing regional issues to light in this way. Too many commercial films portray the British countryside as a moneyed idyll or a folksy home for cute eccentrics. Bait doesn’t do that. Continue reading Bait review: Silent landscapes, angry voices

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Arctic review: the silent survival film

Contains spoilers

Silent movies are action movies. Instead of Hitchcock’s “pictures of people talking”, the images in silent films are of people doing, being: walking, fighting, dancing, poking the fire, stirring their tea, knitting a scarf. Sometimes the reverse is true. Action movies can be silent, or at least, so unreliant on dialogue as to function like a silent film.

Which brings us to Arctic, and a subgenre I am going to call the ‘silent survival film’. I named it myself, because I made it up myself. Arctic, like All is Lost or The Red Turtle, recently reviewed on this site, offers the spectacle of a lone survivor, one man among the voiceless elements, fighting for his own life. We see the hero of the silent survival film act, and more importantly plan, in silence. The suspense is not just about whether he or she will survive, but how they will make the attempt. The silence, or rather the absence of dialogue, increases the tension, and the fascination.

You could add films such as A Quiet Place and the excellent The Naked Island to this list. The circumstances are different, but the families in each of these films work together, in mostly silence, to get by. We watch them as we do the characters in a silent movie, without verbal cues as to what they will do next, we scrutinise their expressions, their eyelines, the objects they pick up. The intuitive family bond is expressed, rather than hidden, by their mutual silence. Continue reading Arctic review: the silent survival film

Silent reading: book reviews roundup

Who can resist a good film book? Not me. Sometimes I have to close my eyes when I pass a bookshop, just to save my bank balance..

Recently, I’ve been lucky enough to dip into several new silent movie-related books – some of which have been sent to me to review. In fact I have spent so much time reading them that there aren’t enough hours left in the day to report on them all. Here instead, are some rapid-fire reviews of books worthy of your consideration.

Every one of them would repay the decision to spend a leisurely afternoon browsing in the library of your choice – some you may even want to splash out on as a gift or a treat to yourself. I am sure you deserve it.

Assunta Spina (1915)
Assunta Spina (1915)

Silent Features: The Development of Silent Feature Films 1914-1934

Edited by Steve Neale (University of Exeter Press)

A great idea for a book, and one that is bound to be popular with students and scholars alike. The idea is to track the development of the feature film as a form, via a series of meticulous case studies. Each essay here functions as a mini-monograph on one feature film, covering its sources, production and critical reception in admirable depth.

This book has 17 chapters and almost as many contributors. It roams across films from Europe, Russia, America, China and Japan, and many of the choices are far from the usual suspects. There are some much-feted classics here, Assunta Spina, Wings, I Was Born, But …, The Phantom Carriage, but also The Strong Man, Lazybones, Miss Mend and The Wishing Ring. With each leap to different place and time, it’s hard not to wish for a second or third volume to fill in all the gaps.

Two British silents are covered, while Steve Neale’s essay on Lubitsch’s Lady Windermere’s Fan notes the similarities of that film with the 1916 adaptation from the Ideal studio. Piccadilly is the subject of a rich analysis by Jon Burrows which is both a pleasurable read and consistently illuminating. Another great silent London film, Maurice Elvey’s Palais de Dance (1928), is discussed in detail by Martin Shingler. Hopefully, his excellent essay may pique more interest in this overlooked film.

STAHL_06_HUSBANDS
John M Stahl (centre), directing Husbands and Lovers (1924)

The Call of the Heart: John M Stahl and Hollywood Melodrama

Edited by Bruce Babington and Charles Barr (John Libbey)

You can’t have failed to notice the spread of Stahlmania by now, and not before time. Babington and Barr have been on a mission to put John M. Stahl back where he belongs in the annals of great American film directors. Perhaps it’s because he made “women’s films”, because melodrama is an unfashionable word, or because some of his best films were remade by  Douglas Sirk (and it’s not long since he was fished out of the “forgotten” category), but Stahl hasn’t had his due for a while. That was before screenings of his best silent and sound films became some of the most popular programmes at Pordenone and Bologna last year. And before this impressive book.

This volume, with contributions from writers around the globe, represents a truly exhaustive study of a single director. There are essays on each of his films, even the lost ones, and biographical pieces by Babington to fill in some of the mystery surrounding this undersung director. Many people will be familiar with Stahl’s sound films, such as Leave Her to Heaven (1945) and the 1930s melodramas Back Street, Only Yesterday and Imitation of Life. Showcased at last year’s Giornate, however, the silent films are a revelation, and in their command of emotional complexity, freewheeling narrative and telling human detail cast a fresh light of the triumphs of the best sound films.

Richard Koszarski kicks off the silent section with a meticulous study of Stahl’s first substantial screen work, The Lincoln Cycle of short films on the beloved US president. Watching these shorts, Stahl’s ambition and talent is obvious from the outset. It’s clear now, that Stahl’s silent work alone deserves re-evaluation and a series of brilliant essays in this book by Lea Jacobs, Charles Barr and Imogen Sara Smith explore his first features with insight and clarity. Many of these films are very rarely shown,  but this book should encourage more screenings.

Those of us who have been working on Stahl as part of this project expressed just one regret when we gathered at Pordenone. It was that we had been able to see all the other films before writing our individual pieces, because they are all connected, in such fascinating ways. The lurid plotting of Leave Her to Heaven has its roots in Stahl’s silent era melodramas, the immense sensitivity of his 1930s “women’s pictures” is trailed in the emotional delicacy of the later silent features. Thorough as this work is, and definitive as it feels right now, it may well be the start of something bigger.

The Exploits of Elaine
The Exploits of Elaine

Film Serials and the American Cinema 1910-1940: Operational Detection

By Ilka Brasch (Amsterdam University Press)

The film serial was once a staple of cinema programming, until TV came along and spoiled the fun. In this thoroughgoing study of the form, scholar Ilka Brasch gets to grips with what exactly made the serial such a compelling format. It’s goes beyond the thrill of the cliffhanger. Brasch has plenty to say on the appeal of the weekly thriller, but also drills into the “operational aesthetic” that informs our love of technological wizardry on screen and the particular pleasures of the police procedural drama.

And although the film serials may no longer grace our cinema screens, as Brasch points out, the rise of home video and digital streaming has allowed many of us to become 21st-century serial fans all over again. I couldn’t help but think of how popular daily serial screenings have become at Pordenone and Bologna. Maybe the serial has legs after all. How’s that for a last-minute twist?

Continue reading Silent reading: book reviews roundup

LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

This is a guest post for Silent London by filmmaker Alex Barrett (London Symphony, Life Just Is).

Although the subtitle of Pamela B Green’s new documentary might be something of a misnomer given the publication of a number of books on the same subject, notably  Alice Guy Blaché: Cinema Pioneer, edited by Joan Simons, there’s no denying that Guy-Blaché remains a marginalised figure in cinema history. The first female filmmaker, and one of the first directors of either sex to tell a fictional narrative on film, Guy-Blaché has never quite gained the fame of, say, Louis Feuillade, whose career she helped launch. Straining to prove this point, Green pulls in a large raft of famous faces, including the likes of Catherine Hardwicke, Patty Jenkins and Peter Bogdanovich, to declare they’ve never heard of her. It’s a saddening state of affairs, and one that the film seeks to interrogate: how could a figure who played such an important part in the birth of cinema become so forgotten?

Using flashy animation, a voiceover narration by Jodie Foster, and a plenitude of interviews, including some with Guy-Blaché herself, Green presents an overview of Alice’s life: from her early work as secretary to Léon Gaumont, through to the first films she made for Gaumont’s fledgling company, her marriage to Herbert Blaché and their emigration to the United States, the formation of Guy-Blaché’s Solax Company (then the largest film studio in America), and the eventual dissolution of Solax and her marriage. Continue reading LFF review: Be Natural: The Untold Story of Alice Guy-Blaché

LFF review: Stan & Ollie revives the joy of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy magic

This is just a short review – I’ll be writing more about the film closer to its release.

There’s a scene in Stan & Ollie, in the offices of a London production company, in which Steve Coogan, playing Stan Laurel, sits down to wait for his appointment and arches his back just enough that his bowler hat rises off his head. And then lets it fall back on again. In the next few minutes he performs a silent slapstick comedy routine that is as exquisitely delicate as it is hilarious. The receptionist gazes at him with contempt. She doesn’t recognise him, and she isn’t impressed. It’s a sublime moment in Jon S Baird’s bittersweet film, which expresses on what exactly it means to be a has-been in a world of novelties, to be dismissed by the ignorant and constantly rediscovered even by the faithful.

It’s 1953, and Laurel and Hardy find themselves on tour in Britain. Their toxic split is several years behind them, but they are back together to transfer their movie hits to the stage and they are competing with new talent at every turn: Norman Wisdom in the theatres, and Abbott and Costello in the cinemas. Stan and Ollie are reduced to the smallest halls, and horribly diminished audiences. Even their most loyal fans assume they have retired, or worse. Still, when they perform Hard-Boiled Eggs and Nuts, or The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, the audience is in hysterics. Stan, forever the brains of the outfit, keeps Ollie’s spirits up by promising a movie at the end of the tour. But if he can’t even win over the producer’s receptionist, that prospect looks doubtful.

Continue reading LFF review: Stan & Ollie revives the joy of Laurel and Hardy’s comedy magic

My 20th Century: Ildiko Enyedi makes the familiar seem new again

This post is a version of an introductory talk I gave at the Cinema Rediscovered festival in Bristol this year. The next Cinema Rediscovered festival will take place 25-28 July 2019.

This film, My 20th Century (1989), is a very special and intriguing piece. For my money, it is the perfect film to see at this festival. It may be only 29 years old, so it barely qualifies as vintage, but it is not shown as much as it should be – so it is ripe to be rediscovered. And it has as much in common with the cinema of a hundred or more years ago as it does with modern work, so it sits well in a festival devoted to film history.

It’s a fact, also, that Ildiko Enyedi fits perfectly with the name of this strand of the festival: Women on the Periphery. Hungarian director Enyedi was born in 1955 and has forged a thoroughly independent career. She studied philosophy at university, but quit because she considered the course to be badly taught. Then she went to the Budapest Film Academy and managed to complete the course, despite considering leaving because she felt that “some of those in power were lazy thinkers”. She became a visual artist and joined the Bela Belazs studio in Budapest 1979 – this is the place that produced works by such Hungarian notables as Béla Tarr. Enyedi made several short films, but My Twentieth Century was her first feature, and it won the Camera d’Or at the 1989 Cannes Film Festival, the prize for the best debut feature showing in competition.

In the intervening decades, Enyedi has made five more feature films, including On Body and Soul, her acclaimed 2017 film that is still available to stream on Mubi. That was her first feature film in 17 years, though, during which time she has also been teaching and working as a TV director. Continue reading My 20th Century: Ildiko Enyedi makes the familiar seem new again

LFF review: They Shall Not Grow Old honours veterans but not the archive

Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ celebrates the immortality of the WWI soldiers who died in service. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.” The word contemn isn’t used very often – it means “to treat with contempt”. The poem, popularly recited at Remembrance Services, argues that the sacrifice of the fallen will be honoured by the following generations, but also means that they are suspended in the aspic of their youth. While we grow feeble, they retain their strength and vitality.

In a similar spirit, Peter Jackson’s new film, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, seeks to erase the lapsed years between today and the Great War. The soldiers in his film are ostensibly unwearied – living, breathing, talking men in full colour, rather than the silent, black-and-white figures of archive footage. It’s telling that Jackson has taken Binyon’s line and contorted it. The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old – a more digestible, less archaic version of the original, with modern grammar, and arguably less mystery and grandeur. It also seems to have a more literal meaning, pointing to their demise, not their immortal memory. Continue reading LFF review: They Shall Not Grow Old honours veterans but not the archive

Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

These reviews of Slapstick Divas: the women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa and Specters of Slapstick & Silent Film Comediennes by Maggie Hennefeld first appeared in the June 2017 and July 2018 issues of Sight & Sound, respectively. I am reposting them here ahead of a slew of events celebrating silent cinema comediennes coming up soon.

Marion Byron & Anita Garvin

 

Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy by Steve Massa

In the silent era, as now, film comedy looks a lot like a boys’ club – and that disparity is more deeply entrenched in the arena of physical humour. For those who would like to see Marie Dressler and Marion Davies, let alone Flora Finch and Anita Garvin, as celebrated as their male peers, Steve Massa’s Slapstick Divas: the Women of Silent Comedy, will be a welcome resource. A followup to Massa’s survey of lesser-known male silent comedians, Lame Brains and Lunatics, Slapstick Divas tells an engrossing tale of female performers beating a path in the silent film industry.

An entire chapter is devoted to the most famous slapstick comedienne of them all, Mabel Normand, who segued from modelling work to acting, first in Vitagraph comedies and then at Biograph where she played dramatic roles for D.W. Griffith, but was happier putting over gags for Mack Sennett. Normand would become a fixture at Sennett’s new Keystone studio, starring in ever more physically demanding films. The chapter is named after a Photoplay description of Normand as “the sugar on the Keystone grapefruit”, but her work was as rough-and-tumble as her peers. “I have fought with bears, fallen out of a rapidly moving automobile, jumped off a second story roof into a flower bed and risked life, limb and peace of mind in innumerable ways,” she told the Los Angeles Times in 1916. She appeared in several films with Charlie Chaplin, including the feature Tillie’s Punctured Romance (1914) and was regularly paired with Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle. Although she was later dismissive of her skills behind the camera, she directed several films too, including Mabel’s Strange Predicament (1914), Chaplin’s first performance as the Tramp. Sadly, an accident on set one day contributed to Normand’s slow decline. While she continued to act into the 1920s, her career faltered owing partly to a series of scandals, but mostly her increasingly erratic behaviour in the studio, and gaunt appearance on film, consequences either of her brain injury, or her drug use. She died from tuberculosis in 1930, aged 37, and although she is the star of this volume, Massa notes that “her work has rarely been screened and her talent has been taken for granted”. Continue reading Sisters in slapstick: two books on silent comediennes

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 8

What do you need to make a great movie? At the end of a week at Pordenone, is it the images that burn in your mind, or the stories that tug at your heart? Today we had more films that wooed us with visual than narrative pleasure, making for an exhilarating lineup that celebrated the artistry of silent cinema.

Let us begin at the end – with the gala performance of The Chess Player (Raymond Bernard, 1927), restored by Photoplay in 1990 and playing here with a superb orchestral rendition of Henri Rabaud’s original score. This story of revolutions and robotics is a tremendous one, but it’s the images that scorch: The automaton army raising its sabers in unison; Edith Jehanne surveying the wreckage through a broken window; the pyrotechnic display of the firing squad in a snowy palace courtyard. A wonderful, rousing, and visually thrilled film that provided a suitably grand flourish to a week that has revelled in epic excitement.

 

A case in point: the tremendous The Last of the Mohicans (1920), one of those Canon Revisited films that is tucked away in an unassuming slot in the schedule and acts like a shot in the arm to the jaded festivalgoer. I had not seen it before and my expectations were somewhere around the middle, but this is wonderful stuff. Amid the action (which is wonderfully staged and always nailbiting) what emerges is an unexpectedly tragic and touching romance – one you wouldn’t go looking for in material like this, but there you go. I was moved. And of course that cliffhanger sequence is the best we have seen all week and we have seen some excellent ones.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 7

I probably should have mentioned this before, but the 37th Giornate del Cinema Muto is officially the best yet ever, no returns. Why? Because Pola Negri is this year’s poster girl.  Artistic Director Jay Weissberg knows the truth – she’s the greatest. So tonight, we were all (the wise among us) enthralled and delighted to see La Negri on the big screen, in a freshly restored print of Ernst Lubitsch’s Forbidden Paradise. In this 1924 Paramount film, Negri plays Catherine the Great and everyone else acts awestruck. Rightly so.

The morning began with one of this blog’s other favourite silent stars: Large Handsome, AKA Lars Hanson. In the frothy pastoral comedy A Dangerous Wooing, he scales a mountain to win his sweetheart, sharply described in the catalogue as a model of “passive female sexuality”, wanly waiting for Lars to reach her. Well, she does put out a hand to help pull him to the top in the end I suppose. This was a thing of gossamer really, four acts of light comedy and magnificent scenery. But Hanson adds heft and I couldn’t think of a more joyful morning movie.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 6

Lyda Borelli, Lillian Gish, Florence Vidor, Stacia Napierkowska. Let’s hear it for the ladies after an exceptionally strong day at the Giornate. My favourite film of the day was a Stahl that surprised us all, so let’s start with the great master of melodrama himself. or do I mean, the master of comedy?

Husbands and Lovers (1924) was one of the few silent Stahls I had seen before, sort of. I had seen a cutdown version of this film, which stars Vidor and Lewis Stone as a married couple, and Lew Cody as their friend who makes up one of those triangles we have learned so much about this week. It’s dedicated to “the tired American wife who has a husband and craves a lover, or some such. The shortened version gave me a bum steer, turning it into a mini-melodrama. This is a sparkling, and very smart marital comedy, much in the same vein as Lubitsch’s The Marriage Circle. In the opening sequence, Vidor does everything she can do for her helpless man to assist with his morning routine, dashing about in her dressing gown. And then the cad has the verve to say she looks frumpy and untidy.  Does that mean there was not a hint of tragedy or an outlandish coincidence in sight? No, but it was played for laughs. And the joy of it is the slowly shifting relationship between the three characters, first one way, then another, until a joyous ending. Fantastic cinematography, sharp lead performances and a very adult understanding of what gets lost and goes unsaid in a long-term relationship. Do look out for this if you can. And it goes without saying, it gave us plenty more to talk about at today’s Stahl collegium presentation. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 5

I heart John M Stahl. He’s revealing more and more to me with each movie I watch. But I have to be honest. For me, the Lincoln Cycle has gone off the boil – too much folksy moralising, not enough of either cute childish antics or actual grownup politics. Perhaps tomorrow morning’s final instalment will change that…

Today’s Stahl feature was the very definition of a kitchen-sink drama, with the director abandoning his customary upper-class milieu for The Song of Life (1922). He’s establishing himself in my mind as a first-rate New York filmmaker, but here he abandons the lavish Park Avenue apartments for cramped tenements, where life is hard and people live so cheek-by-jowl that their darkest secrets can deep through the floorboards. A hard-pressed housewife, sick of spending her day with her hands sunk deep in the dishwater abandons husband and child in a fit of dissatisfaction with the rural life. But years later we find her still living in the city, all alone, but still doing the dishes to get by. She’s on the verge of saying goodbye to it all with a bottle of Lysol, when the novelist downstairs takes her in as housekeeper to himself and his, yes, dissatisfied wife. Maybe it’s the Bess Meredyth screenplay, or just Stahl honing his skills, but this was a neat and to-the-point melodrama, despite the crashingly improbably coincidences powering the story. And strong performances all round too, especially from Georgia Woodthorpe as the mother and Gaston Glass as the novelist.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 4

It’s always a joy to travel the world in a day at the Giornate, but we tarried a little in  Sweden this afternoon. A screening of Victor Sjostrom’s deathless The Phantom Carriage was preceded by two less well-known Swedish films, a recent rediscovery of an early work by Sjostrom and a reconstruction of one by his compatriot Mauritz Stiller that survives only in fragments.

Accompanied expertly and very melodically by John Sweeney (coping heroically with the amount of stills in the Stiller), this was an intriguing and very enjoyable double-bill. They were both three-act drama, which unfolded swiftly and with a rich emotional impact. Sjostrom’s recently discovered Judaspengar (1915), starring Egil Eide and John Ekman was a story of betrayal, naturally, as a hard-up worker resorts to increasingly desperate measures when his wife is sick. The attraction here is the aesthetic more than the drama – with interior shots framed prettily by windows on several occasions. The opening is very striking, when the camera glides through an open window to the sick room. Elsewhere, dramatically lit scenes in a gloomy attic contrasted well the open countryside, where our heroes came cropper out poaching.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 3

As the great sage Rachel Bloom has pointed out, the mathematics of love triangles isn’t hard to learn. But what happens when one of the angles in the love triangle is so very much more acute than all the others? Which is to say, age ain’t nothing but a number, but some numbers are certainly far higher than others. And we learned a lot about May-December relationships at the Giornate this morning.

First, the sweetly pretty Swedish film Dunungen (1919), in which a young lady known as Downy (yes, I know, I tried to swap in Fluffkins to make sense of it as a nickname) gets engaged to a fancy dude who is actually the mayor’s son. And she is just the baker’s daughter so she should be grateful right? Well despite her disadvantages he takes her along to go butter up his uncle for an inheritance. Uncle has a big ironworks business and a country estate, and maybe, just maybe he likes Fluffkins more than her rubbish fiancé does. Perhaps they should be together and live happily in rural bliss. Well, it takes some elongated shenanigans and many beautifully hand-drawn folk art intertitles to get there, but yes, she swaps her immature snob for a classy chap who knows what he wants out of life eventually. This was a treat, a film from the Scandinavian Challenge strand that has had a little resto work to fill in the missing reels. It’s gorgeous and funny and spins out its domestic drama until the conclusion feels fully earned.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 2

Sunday in Pordenone, and it’s time to get this John M Stahl show on the road. We spent the morning with the master of melodrama, give or take an hour or so in the company of Jean Epstein and it was … exhilarating, actually.

Most mornings the Giornate will be showing instalments from The Lincoln Cycle, a series of standalone, two-reel dramas taken from the life of the 16th POTUS. The impetus for these films came from Benjamin Chapin, a renowned Lincolnalike, known for plays and monologues in which he impersonated the great man. He’s credited here as writer, director and producer – which I think we should be discreetly booing by the end of the week. JMS directed these beauties, very early in his career and got no credit for it. I must admit, honest Abe, that the prospect of the first two instalments, devoted to each of Lincoln’s parents, respectively (Chapin plays Lincoln Sr), didn’t sound too thrilling. But, that’s where Stahl (perhaps) comes in. Delicately directed, nuanced performances (especially Madelyn Clare as Abe’s mother) and brisk, smart storytelling – these were actually gems, and though these childhood episodes never featured in Chapin’s stage shows, so we could be tempted to assign praise to our man Stahl, I suppose we’ll never know exactly how much influence he had. Can’t wait to see more though. Sadly some dramatic-sounding stories are missing, but let’s treasure what we have. Gorgeous prints too.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 1

How long would you wait for a date with Lars Hanson? Maybe don’t answer that, but the past year we have spent yearning for Lars, after seeing his brooding visage on all those beautiful posters for the 2017 Giornate, has flown by. This year, the artwork celebrates the divine Pola Negri, but we’ll have plenty of time to get to her later in the week. Tonight, on the opening evening of the 2018 Giornate, we finally had our night with Lars, and Dr Philip Carli, thanks to a triumphant orchestral screening of Captain Salvation (1927). It was an invigorating start to proceedings, and just the kind of high-quality discovery that keeps us coming back (and back) to the festival.

Captain Salvation? No, I hadn’t come across it before, but it’s a wonder. Hanson plays Anson, a young vicar-in-training living in a coastal village near Boston. He loves the sea, his fiancé Mary (Marceline Day) and God. Quite possibly in that order. When a shipwreck washes up a sex worker named Bess (a wonderful Pauline Starke), Anson defies the locals to offer her charity, rather than the bum’s rush. Ostracised by the piety police, Anson and Bess take passage on a ship captained by a leering Ernest Torrence (excellent as always), which turns out not to be quite what it seemed.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2018: Pordenone Post No 1

Les Deux Timides (1928): a bold comedy of shy lovers

This piece originally appeared in Sight & Sound magazine in 2016. 

Among the treasures on display in Paris at Toute la Mémoire du Monde in February, one film seemed to justify the festival’s existence by itself. René Clair’s ingenious late silent Les Deux Timides/The Two Timid Ones (1928) harks back to an earlier age of film comedy, reworking the styles of Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett into something new and elegant. At the same time, the new restoration of this sublime farce reveals it as a silent classic in its own right – to be esteemed as highly as the films that inspired it. Thanks to a ravishing new restoration, it may be about to receive the credit it has long deserved.

By 1928, René Clair had moved on from his early art films, the science-fiction caper Paris qui dort (1923) and the cinéma pur of Entr’acte (1924) and joined Albatros, a French studio staffed mostly by Russian exiles. It was here that he made his best known silent, the beautifully elaborate farce Un chapeau de paille d’Italie/The Italian Straw Hat (1927). Clair’s 1930s triumphs Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and A nous la liberté (1931) were ahead of him, but Les Deux Timides is his silent masterpiece, folding the avant-garde and the comic into a delightful, expertly judged story of provincial romance and misapprehension.

Les Deux Timides (1928)
Les Deux Timides (1928)

Les Deux Timides takes what could be a Linder scenario, of a young middle-class man overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a pretty girl, merges it with Chaplinesque outsider charm and punctuates it with Keystone-quality chaos. Clair’s film is as serious and silly as its predecessors at their best, a film that is so intensely funny it makes humour itself, and the business of film comedy, seem vitally important.

Continue reading Les Deux Timides (1928): a bold comedy of shy lovers

Wonderstruck review: a storm of sorrow, nostalgia and silence

Two just-teenage runaways arrive in New York City, one in monochrome 1927 and the other in the notorious, sultry summer of 1977. That’s the simple premise of Todd Haynes’s latest, Wonderstruck, a film that is as rich as it is gentle. The film is based, as Martin Scorsese’s Hugo was, on a graphic novel by Brian Selznick, but this is more impressionistic and less didactic than that affectionate tribute to Georges Meliès. There is a silent cinema connection again, though. Both children are deaf, and the 1920s scenes are filmed entirely silent, but this is no fussy exercise in cinematic nostalgia; it’s a film about deaf culture, but also the silence of loneliness, of being friendless in a big city, or unloved at home.

In fact, and let’s get this out of the way at the very beginning, the brief silent-film-within-the-film here is a thuddingly offkey pastiche, witlessly mashing up The Wind and Way Down East with bone-headed intertitles. That aside, there are some nice mockups of silent-era movie magazines, and a couple of nods to Nosferatu and The Crowd, but Haynes is doing something more interesting than reconstruction. His film, carried along by Carter Burwell’s brilliantly alive score, creates an almost silent movie – a wordless communion between two periods of time, interrupted by snatches of dialogue.  Continue reading Wonderstruck review: a storm of sorrow, nostalgia and silence

Brighton: Symphony of a City/Symphonic Visions review: fascinating faces past and present

Are we in the midst of a City Symphony revival? As well as recent essayistic examples from Terence Davies and Mark Cousins we have had last year’s London Symphony, and in 2016, Brighton Festival commissioned another, which has been screened a handful of times around the country and is now out on DVD, and about to screen again in London and Brighton soon.

I’ve been keen to set my eyes on Brighton: Symphony of a City for a while, especially once I started hearing such good things about it. The DVD it is available on is called Symphonic Visions, and it is a showcase for the work of composer Ed Hughes. Alongside Brighton: Symphony of a City, directed by Lizzie Thynne, which is a whisker over 47 minutes long, there are four silent shorts featuring new scores by Hughes and Sky Giant (1942), a British Movietone film from the Imperial War Museum archive about the Arvo Lancaster Bomber.

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The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923): GW Pabst’s compelling debut excavates the root of all evil

This review is an extended version of the programme notes I wrote for a screening of The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923) at the 2018 Hippodrome Silent Film Festival.

– contains spoilers

Austrian director Georg Wilhelm Pabst made great films in the early 20th century. However, by the time that he died in 1967, his reputation was all but demolished – his decision to work in the German film industry during the second world war having overshadowed his earlier achievements. Underrated for decades, Pabst’s work is ripe for a reappraisal and his sophisticated and progressive silent films in particular deserve to be more widely seen.

His first film, Der Schatz (The Treasure, 1923), is a Gothic fable in the German Expressionist mode. As such, it initially seems to be out of step with Pabst’s better-known silents, including the gritty drama The Joyless Street (1925), or the iconic Pandora’s Box (1929), starring Louise Brooks, which belong to a different movement altogether: the harsh realism of Neue Sachlichkeit, or New Objectivity. In this early work there are nevertheless glimmers of Pabst’s later style, his political values and his psychological insights as well as his sympathy for his female characters and their right to assert their independence.

The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923)
The Treasure (Der Schatz, 1923)

Pabst was born to Austrian parents in what is now part of the Czech Republic in 1885, and moved to Vienna when he was a child. He studied engineering but by the time he was 20, he realised that the theatre was his passion and he enrolled in drama school. He worked as an actor across Europe and in New York, where the poverty he witnessed, and his contact with the trade union movement, forged his socialist beliefs. Deciding to concentrate on directing, he returned to Europe in 1914 to recruit actors, but on landing in France he was arrested as an enemy alien and taken to a prisoner-of-war camp for the next four years. After the war he directed many plays, especially Expressionist dramas, before, in 1920, going to work with Carl Froelich in the German film industry. In 1922, aged 37, Pabst directed Der Schatz, his first film.

Der Schatz had been adapted by Pabst and his co-writer Willy Henning from a short story by Nobel-prize-nominated author Rudolph Hans Bartsch, published in collection called Bittersweet Love Stories in 1910. A bell-founder called Balthasar (Golem star Albert Steinrück), his wife (the brilliant Ilka Grüning, with salt-and-pepper streak and a bell-shaped dirndl skirt) and daughter Beate (Lucie Mannheim, who later made several films in Britain during the war) and an apprentice called Svetelenz (Expressionist film and stage star Werner Krauss) live in a strange house in a sinister landscape.

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