Category Archives: Review

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.

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

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.

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

Hippfest 2018: I left my heart in Bo’ness

There is more than one way to build a silent film festival, but perhaps some events might like to acknowledge twins – fellow fests that take the same approach to curating and commissioning archive cinema screenings. I think I have found a kindred spirit for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. I wonder if they would agree?

Saturday night at Hippfest was a bit of a departure – a horror double-bill. Is this the start of a new tradition? If so, it has begun well. We finished the night with Benjamin Christensen’s loopy house-of-horrors caper Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), gorgeously accompanied by a brilliant new score from Jane Gardner. The first feature was a classic: Lon Chaney as the villainous double-amputee Blizzard in the sharp shocker The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920). That film is set, beautifully, in San Francisco, which was perfect – at least according to my latest theory!

Continue reading Hippfest 2018: I left my heart in Bo’ness

Five reasons to pick up Shiraz on DVD and Blu-ray

The BFI’s sumptuous restoration of Indian romance Shiraz is out on dual format DVD/Blu-ray now. Assuming that you took this website’s advice and already saw this lush film at the London Film Festival Archive Gala or on its recent theatrical run (actually, there are probably some more screenings coming up – check here) why should you buy it on disc?

1) Because this is a film to wallow in. Hat-tip to the illustrious Anglo-German cinematography team of Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann. It takes repeat viewings of Shiraz to satisfy your hunger for those gorgeous landscapes and grand palaces. All that beauty looks great in high-definition on the Blu-ray – and you can watch a short demo of the restoration to see just the BFI put into making it look so stable and blemish-free. I am shameless, as you know by now, so I recommend using the scene selection function to skip straight to the kiss, or to the reveal of Taj Mahal. Not forgetting the fact that you can pause that elephant’s foot moment to see just how close a call it was.

2) Vintage extras. I really like the BFI’s habit of putting extra archive films on movie discs. In this case it the Temples of India, a short travelogue from 1938 that features the Taj Mahal, which was shot in blistering colour by none other than genius cinematographer Jack Cardiff. There’s also Musical Instruments of India – a government film designed to promote Indian culture, which might be of special interest if you’re drawn to reason Number Three …

Continue reading Five reasons to pick up Shiraz on DVD and Blu-ray

Michael Blu-ray review: a film to fall in love with

One of the strands running through Carl Th Dreyer’s beautiful drama Michael (1924) is the idea that art can only be truly great when it is animated by love. The artist protagonist Claude Zoret (Benjamin Christensen) struggles to finish a commissioned portrait of a rich countess – his passion project takes his young protégée Michael (a youthful, handsome Walter Slezak) as its model instead. When Michael finishes the portrait for his master, the quality of his work betrays the fact that his own affection has been transferred to the model.

The film’s famous line, “Now I may die content, for I have seen great love” carries this lesson over to the art of living itself. Better to have loved and lost, as the saying goes. It’s a conclusion that recalls the moving speech that caps off last year’s Call Me by Your Name. Far less explicitly than that film, Michael also takes gay love as its subject – a topic dealt with more openly in certain German films of the era (Sex in Chains, Different from the Others). It’s unmistakably a gay story, seen in the 21st century. Perhaps in 1924, some members of the audience might have missed it – although not in the US, where the film was released as The Invert, and not if they were familiar with the author of the film’s source novel Herman Bang, a gay writer who wrote heartfelt stories, largely, it seems, about lonely and unfulfilled women.

Continue reading Michael Blu-ray review: a film to fall in love with

Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures Got Small review – revisiting the canon

There are a handful of silent films that most cinephiles see first. Battleship Potemkin, Metropolis, Sunrise, The General and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari perhaps, give or take Nosferatu, a Hitchcock and a couple more Hollywood favourites. There is nothing dismaying about the establishment of these films as classics of the silent era, widely available on DVD and at festival screenings. However, this very select canon can offer a distorted picture of the period. At the very least, there is a risk that these isolated examples are heralded as rare triumphs from a primitive age.

Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920)
Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari (1920)

This is where Lawrence Napper’s engaging guide to late silent film comes in. Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures Got Small offers a broader picture of film style and the film industry between the First World War and the coming of sound. The opening chapter begins with the audience, tracing the history of filmgoing in this period, using the depiction of cinemas in silent movies. Subsequent sections provide context for those film-club favourites, outlining the industry and aesthetics of the cinema in Germany, Russia and America.

Die Puppe (1919)
Die Puppe (1919)

In these chapters, Napper revisits and challenges some fondly held views. Particularly, he stresses that there is far more to the national silent cinemas of Germany and Russia than Expressionism or Soviet montage respectively. He follows a detailed discussion of Caligari with the suggestion that the reader looks at Ernst Lubitsch comedies such as The Oyster Princess and The Doll to discover similar stylisation in both performance and design but applied in the name of pleasure and humour rather than the evocation of psychological trauma.

Continue reading Silent Cinema: Before the Pictures Got Small review – revisiting the canon

LFF review: Little Veronika (Innocence, 1930)

I first heard Robert Land’s name earlier this year. The context was: “Robert Land … ever heard of him?” I hadn’t, of course. But suddenly Land was in sight everywhere: films of his played at Bologna and there was a very informative piece on this Austrian-Czech director in Sight & Sound. At Ritrovato, I saw the rather plodding comedy I Kiss your Hand, Madame (1927), starring Marlene Dietrich, but I missed the screening of the rather better regarded Little Veronika (1929) and worried that I had made an error.

Hurrah for the Archives strand at London Film Festival, which brought the new restoration of Little Veronika to my doorstep today, on 35mm with live accompaniment of the highest quality from John Sweeney. Made around the same time, and for the same production company, as Pandora’s Box, and more to the point, Diary of a Lost Girl, Little Veronika is a short, sharp tale of rustic innocence in peril.

Kleine Veronika (1929)
Kleine Veronika (1929)

Little Veronika (played by Käthe von Nagy, an experienced, if young, actress) lives with her family in the Tyorl, caring for furred creatures, being polite to the neighbours and doing her chores like the good girl she promises to be. She goes to Vienna to visit her glamorous Aunt Rosie (Maly Delshaft, the wife in Varieté), who has grown impressively wealthy and well-dressed in her decade in the capital. Aunt Rosie has slinky lingerie and lives in a big house with several other women. You’d have to be as innocent as Veronika not to know what’s going on, how Aunt Rosie earns her money, or what plans her new friends have for her future.

Continue reading LFF review: Little Veronika (Innocence, 1930)

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 8

Can you believe it? It seems like only a week ago I’d never seen a French western or become intimately acquainted with The Island Girl. Our “week of miracles” is over, but the last programme delivered a fitting send-off.

When it’s the final day of the festival, the Teatro Verdi is required for orchestra rehearsals, so the Pordenauts have a change of scenery – we troop a scant 10 minutes up the road to the local arthouse cinema, Cinemazero. Little did I know, this morning, that it would be a journey to the dark side, and also from (not quite) sublime to the ridiculous.

ANNA-LIISA (FI 1922) Credit:  National Audiovisual Institute, Finland
ANNA-LIISA (FI 1922) Credit: National Audiovisual Institute, Finland

The Finnish film in the Scandinavian strand today was Anna-Liisa (1922), a rather harrowing adaptation of a stage play. The subject was infanticide, and by implication, rape. “Quiet and timid” Anna-Liisa is engaged to sweet Johannes and about to make it official – she’s spinning the thread for her wedding dress, he wants to publish the banns – but the mother of local boy Mikko is having none of that. She remembers helping Anna-Liisa to dispose of the evidence of the “bond” that exists between the girl and her son. Very, very not pleasant, and somehow not quite as dramatic as one might expect from the material, but nicely done, if occasionally awkwardly staged, and gorgeously accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (US 1929) Credit: Cineteca Italiana, Milano
SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (US 1929) Credit: Cineteca Italiana, Milano

Daan ven den Hurk was at the keys for the next film, which was an entirely different kettle of flying fish: Benjamin Christensen’s Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) was a surreal hoot from start to finish, populated by dwarves, monkey men, heavily browed housekeepers and an escaped gorilla. All of them simply having a James Whale of a time. It is best summed up here by the estimable Mark Fuller:

Think Thelma Todd and Creighton Hale in a house of horrors, beset on all sides by the henchmen and handmaidens of Satan and the fruit of the feverish imaginations of all concerned. This was a grab-bag of characters and tropes from several different horror movies, most of which had not been made yet.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 7

“Why are your thoughts in America when you tell me your heart is in Italy?” Well, Theda Bara, since you ask, it’s because the Giornate showed a mid-period silent American classic on Friday night. A Fool There Was (1915), or as I prefer to call it, The Cabinet of Dr Libido, is a bizarre film, by turns prosaic and ethereal. The plot is slight, but the imagery is immense, with Bara as an especially vampirish vamp, her long dark hair framing a milk-white face in the most demonic way. She can bat away a revolver with a rose and drive a man to distraction with a glimpse of ankle or shoulder – these are superpowers, not seduction techniques. No wonder the image of Fox’s foxy lady endures even when so many of her films are lost, burned up in the heat of her own fiery screen presence. And as silents go, A Fool There Was has great words, not least in the recurring appearance of Kipling’s ‘The Vampire’, but in a few killer lines of dialogue, one of you which you already know is going to appear below. And speaking to the film as well as for it, tonight, we had a brilliant new score written by Philip Carli and played by a quintet, which kept pace with the film’s many twists and dramatic moments and also added some much-needed nuance, as in the heartbreaking scene in New York traffic when Schuyler ignores his own daughter’s pleas, so engrossed is he in his new paramour’s charms.

A FOOL THERE WAS (US 1915) Credit: The Museum of Modern Art, New York
A FOOL THERE WAS (US 1915) Credit: The Museum of Modern Art, New York

After Theda Bara, Hollywood turned to Pola Negri for a more authentically exotic vamp, although a more romantic one too. So it was fitting that one of her early German films, Mania (1918) closed the evening’s viewing. I’ve written about that one before, a couple of times, so I skipped it tonight.

THORA VAN DEKEN (SE 1920) Credit: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm
THORA VAN DEKEN (SE 1920) Credit: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm

But it was a great day for strong leading women, from a selection of cheeky Nasty Women shorts (I loved Lea causing havoc in an office full of besotted men) and beyond. We had the rich, psychological drama Thora Van Dekan (John W Brunius, 1920), for example – a story of a woman trying to protect her daughter’s inheritance from her wayward ex-husband, in the face of opposition and judgment in her village. Pauline Brunius is hypnotic in the lead role as a spiky, often unlikeable, singleminded and clearly emotionally brutalised woman trying to do her best by her child. This was a sombre piece, all the more so with Maud Nelissen’s downbeat improvisation, and just the sort of thing that nestles into your brain cavities and makes itself at home for days.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 6

It was auteur day at Pordenone, with works by three silent master-directors scattered nonchalantly through the programme: Ozu, Murnau and Dreyer. But auteurism is anachronistic to silent cinema and anathema to many early film aficionados, so fittingly some of my favourite screenings today fell far from the canon.

UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow 
UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

One of the best things I saw all week was Valentine Robert’s presentation of Tableaux Vivants in the early cinema strand. This was something very special indeed – like a video essay, but more expansive. The idea was simple: popular paintings were projected on screen before early films that mimicked their compositions. The effect was spectacular though, and very illuminating about narrative and visual culture in the early film period. As this presentation made clear, many narrative films at this time were also adaptations of images associated with historical, literary and biblical narratives, rather than the story themselves. Or both, at least. Erotic films too, as you might imagine, took their cues from paintings and sculptures. The care and detail in this presentation was very impressive and all served the argument beautifully. All this as well as Stephen Horne’s gorgeous accompaniment for a long, and very varied presentation, comprising 30-plus films and many more art works.

The double-bill of German films this afternoon featured some very familiar names. First there was Der Golem. No, not the 1920 one, but the 1915 original, long thought almost entirely lost. The bad news is that it is still lost, but some more fragments have been discovered and spliced together with titles to form something that is not really a film, but rather a suggestion of one. In this kinda prequel Paul Wegener’s clay man comes to life brilliantly and with just the most tender and slender of movements. Other scenes reinforce the sense that James Whale’s Frankenstein would be nothing without this silent-era antecedent. Utterly fascinating.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 5

To reverse the usual order of proceedings, let’s start with the music, not the movies. This morning, in a Pordenone first for me, I attended one of the masterclasses AKA a crash course in silent film accompaniment, from the professionals, for the benefit of the Giornate audience and two very talented students. This was a fun session, led by Neil Brand and Gabriel Thibaudeau (with a little light heckling from Philip Carli and John Sweeney), who put Richard Siedhoff and Bryson Kemp through their paces with the help of some carefully chosen film clips.

Their instructions were wise, inspired, and stricter than I expected. Also quite bizarre. At one point a student was required to play to The General in the style of Wagner, and then with an added Bossanova rhythm. Another was asked to score the same film just on one bass note, and then to perform a “one-fingered love song”. Don’t google that last one, I fear you might end up somewhere untoward. From the secrets of playing ice, say, or heroism, but with fear, or without patriotism, to the use and abuse of musical cliché and the “toolbox” with which an accompanist can suddenly summons bells, trains, or even China, this was invaluable advice. Brand’s exercise in reading a film, guessing where the narrative and the characters will go next (Beggars of Life was the chosen example), was useful for us critics and punters too.

SAMMELT KNOCHEN! (DE 1918) Credit: Lobster Films, Paris
SAMMELT KNOCHEN! (DE 1918) Credit: Lobster Films, Paris

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 4

If you are the kind of fool who thinks a programme of Soviet travelogues sounds a bit dry, then you are the same kind of fool as I am. However – as I once advised on this site, when you’re at Pordenone watch one thing that scares you everyday. So I was in the Verdi for the 9am travelogues and boy was I smug about it afterwards. Pamir. Krishna Mira (The Roof of the World, Vladimir Yerofeyev, 1927) was an absolutely fascinating journey through remote mountainous Kyrgyzstan, with just the right balance of intriguing domestic minutiae and awe-inspiring geographical grandeur. One series of intertitles pithily explained: “The women do all the chores … the men mostly do nothing … Occasionally they go hunting.” Actually, there was more to it than that. The men also whittle, weave, smoke opium, traverse perilous mountain passes and even perform very watchable partner dances in costume: the horse and the rider, the old man and the young girl, the fox and the marmot.

SOV_3_PAM
Photographed in regions where the air is so thin that water boils at 86 degrees Celsius or so cold that film itself can freeze, this can’t have been an easy documentary to shoot, but if offers a vision of another world, and now, I would guess, one that is almost entirely lost. I am sure that Günter Buchwald’s meticulous accompaniment on piano and violin was key to the success of this screening, providing a silk thread through the film’s essentially episodic structure.

From raw ethnography to dream-factory fantasy, with another parcel of early Euro westerns. These are rather slight things, but the devil, or rather the joy, is in the detail. Le Railway de la Mort (Jean Durand, 1912) was a kind of compact Greed – no, really, with a not dissimilar ending, augmented by a ferocious, red-tinted explosion. And before that, a series of train stunts that Hollywood, in any era, would have been proud of. In Italian western Nel Paese dell’Oro (1914) the star was not a gunslinger, but Toby the faithful dog, who helped to build barricades, did his level best to throttle the villain, and even rescued a lost tot from kidnappers and cold water, Rescued by Rover style. A canine who can.

SHIMA NO MUSUME (JP 1933) Credit: National Film Center, Tokyo / Shochiku
SHIMA NO MUSUME (JP 1933) Credit: National Film Center, Tokyo / Shochiku

Happily, I had the chance to return to Shima No Musume this lunchtime and what a pleasure it was. This melancholic drama is a little like a Japanese Borzage movie, with an unrepentantly sorrowful conclusion. Suffering is a woman’s lot, so just tough it out for the sake of your loved ones, be they living or dead. Sensitive performances, sharp dialogue, nuanced photography … such a surprise that it was one of four films rushed out to capitalise on a surprise hit single, and such a shame that the director, Hotei Nomura, a Japanese film pioneer, died a year later.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 3

Louise Brooks is everywhere this year, not least here at the Giornate, where she adorns tote bags, mugs, programmes, T-shirts and even the festival office. The reason for the Louise love-in is that the Verdi welcomed a snippet of previously thought lost Brooks footage tonight – a few minutes of the Raymond Hatton-Wallace Beery comedy Now We’re in the Air, featuring Brooks as twins. I saw this footage at San Francisco earlier in the year. There is little to it, and Hatton and Beery are as unfunny a comic pairing as you may have already heard, but Brooks is beyond elegant, despite the material. And perhaps I did find it a little sparkier second time round.

It’s frustrating to see those two clutzes hogging the screentime while Brooksie stands idly by. At one point she is giving it her best pout-and-shout, basically rehearsing her Lulu as she rebels against her dodgy boss, but the scene is so poorly blocked she is hardly visible behind the villain in a top hat and cape. A certain kid of person would take this as a cue to rant about the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood both now and 90 years ago. I am that kind of person, but I’ll spare you.

However, if you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, you may get a little thrill from her appearance in this film. A publicity still of Brooks in costume for this film is used in the scene where the Egyptian bids for Lulu in the casino boat. Far more wholesome in this context, but some would say about as funny.

THE RECKLESS AGE (US 1924) Credit: Bison Archives/Marc Wanamaker
THE RECKLESS AGE (US 1924) Credit: Bison Archives/Marc Wanamaker

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 3