Category Archives: Review

A Trip to the Moon: London Film Festival review

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

This review is a guest post for Silent London by Philip Concannon of the Phil on Film blog.

Even if you’ve never seen Georges Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon (1902) you’ll be familiar with its most enduring image, that of the Man in the Moon grimacing as a rocket lands in his right eye. However, you probably recall that shot in black-and-white, as that’s how the film has been presented for so many years, but Méliès also made A Trip to the Moon in colour. Following the rediscovery of a severely damaged colour print in Barcelona in 1993 – and a painstaking, frame-by-frame restoration – we finally have the opportunity to enjoy the director’s original vision, which surely hasn’t looked as good as this since it premiered in 1902.

Méliès was cinema’s first magician, and he blesses his characters with the same gift for wizardry. In the opening scene, a group of bearded astronomers gather in a great hall, clutching telescopes that they quickly transform into stools so they can sit and listen to their leader’s lunar exploration plans. You might expect editing tricks such as this to appear rudimentary to the modern viewer, but there’s something delightful about the casual ease with which Méliès pulls them off, and the whole film contains moments to thrill and enchant. The lavish sets create a remarkable sense of depth and scale as the intrepid explorers stroll around on the moon’s surface, and there are some wondrously inventive touches, such as the stars coming to life and observing the explorers while they sleep, or the alien creatures who suddenly ambush them, prompting a frantic escape. Our heroes only have their umbrellas to defend themselves with (never visit the moon without one) but it proves to be enough, as one strike from that deadly weapon turns each alien into a puff of smoke, an effect that looks even better now that the smoke is green.

The restored version of A Trip to the Moon that screened this week at the London Film Festival is a beauty. The tinting respects Méliès’s original intentions and helps us pick out details in the background of his often busy compositions, with the celebratory scenes of the explorers’ departure and return being particularly well-served by this new presentation. Visually, A Trip to the Moon is a constant delight, but I have doubts about the score, which has been composed for the film by the French duo Air. One audience member amusingly cried “Oh no!” as the band’s credit was revealed, and while the score doesn’t quite deserve such a despairing reaction, it does feel like an odd fit for the movie. In some scenes, notably the preparations for launch, the music possesses a sense of rhythm that perfectly matches the action, but in other sequences their electric guitars and animal noises (!) jar discordantly with Méliès’s images.

That caveat aside, A Trip to the Moon is essential viewing. It is 14 minutes of pure imagination and it remains as surprising and charming as ever – 109 years on, Méliès the magician still knows how to cast his spell over an audience.

Philip Concannon

Highlights from the 2011 Pordenone Silent Film Festival

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2011
Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2011

A postcard from this year’s Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone – by guest blogger Ellie Groom.

Hello Silent London readers! I’m Ellie from the Kine Artefacts blog. Last week I travelled to Pordenone for the 30th Giornate del Cinema Muto, and have been asked to provide a few highlights. More than 150 silent films were screened across eight days, so picking favourites was no easy feat, but here goes …

2011 was a year full of significant rediscoveries and restorations of seemingly lost classics. Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films presented the digitally restored version of the hand-painted print of Méliès’s Le Voyage dans la Lune (1902). Famously, the restoration was over a decade in the making, and came complete with a controversial modern score by Air, which caused one disgruntled festivalgoer to exclaim, “It’s a disgrace!” Opinion is split on whether Lobster Films should have presented a more traditional soundtrack (and the film was screened again later in the week with Donald Sosin at the piano), but nothing could have detracted from the bold and beautiful colours of Méliès’s sci-fi wonderland.

The three surviving reels of Graham Cutts’s The White Shadow (1923) had film fans queuing all the way across the piazza, desperate to see the work of a young assistant director called Alfred Hitchcock. The shadow of Hitchcock loomed large over the screening, though the real star of the piece had to be American actress Betty Compson, who deftly hopped between the dual roles of twin sisters, one virtuous and the other flighty, in love with a man unaware that he has two paramours. Watching the film was a frustrating experience as it cut out at the most dramatic point. Someone, please, find those last three reels!

As is well known, next year silent film fans in the US will be able to see Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) in all its glory. However, Kevin Brownlow was on hand in Pordenone to give a stirring history of his plight to restore the epic biopic. Brownlow’s lecture was part of the Collegium: an education initiative whereby a dozen young film researchers are invited to Pordenone to partake in dialogues with eminent film historians and archivists. If, like me, you are interested in becoming a Pordenone Collegian then keep an eye on their website – applications will open in the new year. No formal experience is required, just enthusiasm for silent cinema.

While names such Hitchcock and Méliès will always draw a crowd, it should be noted that several other finds made their way to Italy, which may have been more obscure but were no less astonishing. RW Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship is a delightful and invaluable rediscovery from 1896 – arguably making it one of the earliest instances of fiction on film. It was thrilling to see so many festival goers enraptured by less than a minute and a half of film depicting a simple story of a couple’s attempt to grab some privacy.

There was a strong emphasis on restoring the colours of silent film. As most Silent London readers will be aware, while silent films were shot on black and white film stock, large amounts of them were tinted, toned, stencilled and hand-painted. The festival screened several examples of digital restoration and the Desmet process of turning hand-coloured films into colour prints, as well as rare examples of prints that have been tinted using dye, just as the original distributors would have done. One particularly fascinating example was a tinted fragment from Der Rätsel von Bangalor (1918), which although just five minutes long was screened seven times, each time from a print restored using a different method – including one that had been submerged in food dye!

Lastly, the festival drew to a close in style, with Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), accompanied by Carl Davis conducting his own score with the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra. This silent classic starring Lillian Gish was screened with Davis’s score in Pordenone in 1986, and so its triumphant return was a fitting finale for the festival’s 30th anniversary.

So, there you have it: a whistlestop tour of Pordenone 2011. I didn’t have time to highlight the other wonderful screenings such as New Babylon (1929) with Dmitri Shostakovich’s original score, the film of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, South (1919), accompanied by a commentary from the explorer’s diaries, read by Paul McGann, or Walt Disney’s Laugh-o-Grams (quick plug: I’ll be discussing those next week on my blog). Never mind … there’s always next year.

Thank you Ellie.

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.

Continue reading 100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

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:

Continue reading The Artist (2011): The Cannes reviews

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.