Category Archives: Review

100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon
100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon

Have you ever read a movie list you agreed with 100%? Of course not. And that’s the fun of them. A cinema buff’s spluttering outrage over the omission of a favourite title, just like his or her tutting dismay over the running order, fools no one. We love other people’s lists, because they give us the opportunity to write our own. And no doubt our first move is to increase the number of silent films in the countdown.

Well I’m happy to say that Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films offers a very different kind of pleasure. For one, all these films are silent, and its alphabetical presentation means that we are not faced with the problem of comparing, and placing in order, such disparate films as The Big Swallow (1901), Napoleon (1927) and The Battle of the Somme (1916). (You’re thinking about it now, though, aren’t you?)

Dixon, the curator of silent film at the British Film Institute and co-founder of the British Silent Film Festival, has written an engaging guide to the world of silent cinema – ostensibly for novices, but with plenty to please those longer in the tooth. 100 Silent Films is part of a series of Screen Guides that includes 100 Westerns, 100 Shakespeare Films, and so on – but as the author points out, silent cinema is not as easily digestible a topic. “Silent cinema is not a genre; it’s the first thirty-five years of film history … a complex negotiation between art and commerce, and a union of creativity and technology.” So Dixon makes no bones about the fact her project is a vast one, and many of her chosen films have very little in common. Refreshingly, she doesn’t try to fit the awkward square pegs into round holes, but presents each film on its own terms. She’s wary of misplacing “isms” (expressionism, surrealism, feminism) and hesitates to put the titles into anachronistic categories such as film noir.

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The Artist (2011): The Cannes reviews

Berenice Bejo in The Artist (2011)
Berenice Bejo in The Artist (2011)

As far as I know, The Artist (2011) is the first silent film ever to be placed in competition for the Palme d’Or. It’s been a long time coming, and it’s fair to say that silent film fans will take a keener interest than usual in the Cannes judging this year. There has been a lot of early buzz about The Artist, not least because it was swiftly snapped up and flaunted around town by the Weinstein Company. But then again, some of the other films in the competition have earned rave reviews already: notably Lynne Ramsay’s We Need to Talk About Kevin.

Winner or not, The Artist is the most high-profile modern silent in a long, long time and we’re all keen to see it, to find out whether it lives up to the hype, and whether it’s a sensitive tribute to an era of exquisite film-making, or a heavy-handed pastiche.

To this end, I’ve pulled together as many reviews from Cannes as I can find so in the long wait for The Artist to hit UK cinemas we can amuse ourselves by forming our own opinions. We can base this a little on what the critics say, and mostly, of course, on our own preconceptions springing from the extraordinarily beautiful trailer:

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The British Silent Film Festival: reporting back for the Guardian

Beggars of Life (1928)
Beggars of Life (1928)

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.

*Maybe

Battleship Potemkin: review

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925, 71 minutes, cert PG

As the Black Sea foams and crashes into the shore, an intertitle describes the waves of revolutionary feeling sweeping Russia in 1905, and the 55-piece orchestra swells into action. Sergei Eisenstein opens his classic film Battleship Potemkin (1925) with an adroit combination of image, word and music – which we can now experience here in Britain for the first time.

So much is fresh to UK audiences about this 86-year-old film resident on countless Greatest Ever lists and pored over by generations of film students. First, there’s the original orchestral score written by Edmund Meisel and a handful of reinstated shots, some of which were excised from the unforgettably tense Odessa Steps sequence. Not only this, but the film has been beautifully restored, and the title cards recreated according to the director’s wishes. The language is stronger and more socialist than before. It’s bolshier.

Eisenstein’s second feature film is all about solidarity, as it tells the story of a mutiny aboard the eponymous battleship. A group of sailors refuse to eat soup made with rotten meat, and face a firing squad of their peers, but the spirit of comradeship intervenes as the crew rise up against the senior officers – and proudly hoist a bold red flag as they sail into Odessa harbour. On shore, the locals also support the sailors, with terrible consequences. The question is, will the rest of the fleet welcome the revolutionaries home, or follow the command to fire?

Because Battleship Potemkin is an appeal to fellow-feeling and collective action, it is only right that the restoration work creates a more immersive film, one that places no barriers between a 21st-century audience and its monumentally powerful imagery.

In this print, the maggots in the sailors’ dinner squirm in all their greasy glory and the splatters of blood on the Odessa Steps glisten, wetter than before and more gruesome. But it’s not all about horror. The sunlight glints sharply off the calm waters, or is diffused gently through the early morning mists. The scenes of small boats with white sails bringing supplies to the Potemkin are particularly gorgeous. That red flag is vividly, almost luridly hand-tinted red – as aggressively bright as the senior officers’ white trousers, in cruel contrast to the lower orders’ dingy uniforms.

The gloomy scenes below deck are free of murk, too, and we can pick out individuals in the massive crowd scenes. It’s perfect for tracing each extra’s individual path down those infamous steps, some trampling on bodies, and some stumbling over them as they fall.

Then there’s the score. Motoring through the film’s brisk 71-minute running time with a booming bass drum, the music is at its best mostly when it is bombastic. I liked the sustained woodwind sound before that first, fatal thrown plate, and the crashing percussion that announced the arrival of the cossacks. I wasn’t so convinced by the cracking sounds that synchronised with the gunshots, but soon these musical sound effects won me over. Occasionally the score tends towards jaunty, when perhaps it could have been tense, such as when the sailors dive off the Potemkin in an attempt to rescue a fallen comrade. But my qualms were swept away by the film’s final sequence: the music pulses faster and faster as the ship gains speed and prepares for battle, ratcheting up the tension superbly.

Battleship Potemkin, restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, is on theatrical release from 29 April, screening in London at the BFI Southbank and the Curzon Renoir among other venues.