Category Archives: Review

Early Murnau review: a set for the silent cinephile to linger over

The concept of “Early Murnau” is a little bittersweet. The German director had such a short career that the films in this new collection from Masters of Cinema take us up to just six years before he died. And while his most famous film was made during the period (1921-25) covered by this box set, that work, Nosferatu, is not included. The set ends just one year before his hypnotic Faust was made, and two before his Hollywood masterpiece Sunrise.

This is technically middle Murnau, then, or “the Murnau you may have missed if you only knew Nosferatu and the surviving Hollywood work”. All the same, this is a gorgeous collection of distinctive, spectacular films, well worth adding to your shelf. All of the films in the set have been made available on DVD from Masters of Cinema previously, but here together, on Blu-ray, they represent a far better bargain.

Schloss Vogelöd (1921)
Schloss Vogelöd (1921)

The journey through Murnau’s lesser-sung German work begins in 1921 with Schloss Vogelöd, a country-house mystery rendered mysterious and dreamlike at the director’s touch, and climaxes with the bracing and inventive Molière adaptation Tartuffe (1925), which introduces an especially noxious virtue-signalling hypocrite and hangs him out to dry. In between we delve into the romantic and financial misery of a poetically minded clerk in Phantom (1922), and the related entanglements of an aristocrat in Die Finanzen de Grossherzogs (1924). Indisputably, the highlight of the collection is the low-key masterpiece Die Letzte Mann (1924) starring Emil Jannings as the hotel doorman whose life hits a downward spiral when he is demoted to a toilet attendant.

As the many extra features and essays included with the set attest, Murnau’s oeuvre is hugely varied, swinging from genre to genre and rarely settling in one place for long. Stylistically, though, he is mistakably himself at all times. You can see the walls of the city bend down to oppress the heroes of both Phantom and Die Letzte Mann, for example. And you may already have noticed that the films above share a set of preoccupations with money and social position, with impossible aspirations and with toxic pride.

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The Red Turtle review: the silence of an enchanted island

 

Shipwrecked and bewildered, a lone man washes up on an island that has lush, forest vegetation, fresh water, fruit, and everything a person needs to survive, except human company. His attempts to escape his isolation by raft are repeatedly scuppered by a mysterious, and gorgeous sea creature, with which he forms a lasting, and surprising relationship.

The Red Turtle, an animated feature film that was widely admired at Cannes, plays the London Film Festival next month. You may have heard of if because it represents a first in the world of animation – a Studio Ghibli co-production, being a collaboration between the well-known Japanese outfit and Dutchman Michaël Dudok de Wit. It is also that beast rarer than a giant red sea turtle: a new, and very accomplished feature-length film without dialogue.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

The silence, washed over with a sophisticated sound mix of animal noises and ferocious waves, is supplemented by a gorgeous, rousing score that helps to elevate the castaway’s solitary struggles to edge-of-the-seat, blockbuster events. And it is in the first third that the film is its most successful, as the hero adjusts to his surroundings, carves himself an awkward niche in the island ecosystem, and valiantly attempts to sail away into the sunset and towards civilisation. One early sequence, in which he slips through a crevice and must use all his strength and courage to swim to safety, cranks the tension to its utmost. In these first scenes, we are privileged to share his fears and frustration, his dreams and his sickness, so that each time he tries to make a break for it, alone on his wobbly raft, the interference of the red turtle is a cold shock. This portion of the film is closest to a horror movie, the most obvious analogue being Jaws, with a silent, invisible terror lurking beneath the waves. Sometimes he screams, but of course there is no one to hear him. It is a masterful feat of sustained silent film narrative, engrossing and terrifying.

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Have You Seen my Movie? review: a good reason to go to the cinema

Cinema has always found itself delicious. Showing at the London Film Festival next month is a movie made out of movies in which people watch movies at the movies. There are movies within the movies within this movie, and it will leave you with an intense craving for popcorn – as well as celluloid.

Paul Anton Smith was one of Christian Marclay’s assistants on his tick-tock supercut The Clock. For his debut feature, he has dipped back into the archives to create Have You Seen my Movie? (2016) – a less ambitious film, but with a more romantic theme. Have You Seen my Movie?, which screens in the Experimenta strand, stitches together sequences from feature films in which characters watch films, mostly at the cinema, but occasionally in screening rooms or edit suites and in one very enjoyable sequence, at the drive-in. The movie is roughly chronological not by era, but by the stages of movie-going: beginning in the ticket queue, taking us through the whole feature presentation and ending only when the cinema has closed and the last customer has been booted out.

The Aviator (2004)
The Aviator (2004)

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Fedora: Billy Wilder’s recurring Hollywood nightmare

William Holden is drawn into the dysfunctional, secluded household of a fading Hollywood star, seduced and horrified by what he finds. In his familar crisp voice-over, he tells a sad story of Hollywood brutality. This beautiful screen siren, her heyday far behind her, has a terrible secret, but despite her advanced age, she remains fascinating, almost irresistible…

No, it’s not Sunset Boulevard, but Billy Wilder’s penultimate movie Fedora, which is released on Blu-ray and DVD by Masters of Cinema on Monday 26 September. Made in 1978, Fedora belongs to a different era than 1950’s Sunset Boulevard. “The kids with beards have taken over,” as Holden’s character laments, referring to those cinematic titans who were once movie brats: Coppola, Spielberg, Lucas, Scorsese. And Fedora is not a silent movie star either. She belongs especially to the 1930s and 1940s, when she made woman’s pictures, a genre that has gone out of date in 1978. But still, her career was suspiciously long.

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It’s said that Wilder may have modelled Fedora on Pola Negri – she is Polish, aristocratic and melodramatic, and she was one of the women approached to play Norma Desmond way back then, too. Negri also retired to live quietly with a lady companion, after a couple of brief comebacks in the 1940s and 1960s. But Negri’s latter years were spent in San Antonio, Texas, devoted to Catholicism. Fedora skulks in an island villa in Corfu, and her end is much less pleasant. Wilder refused to pin this character down though. “I have known Garbo, Swanson, Dietrich, Lombard, and Monroe,” he said. “Fedora is a fictitious combination of them all.”In the opening sequence, in fact, Fedora looks like a much earlier screen goddess, Musidora, as she sprints in a fluttering black cloak towards her fate.

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The Gag Man review: a brutal insight into the silent comedy business

The consensus view on Clyde Bruckman was summed up by Tom Dardis, biographer of Harold Lloyd and Buster Keaton: “he was not very funny, and he drank too much”. Matthew Dessem’s The Gag Man, an entertaining and revelatory study of the writer-director, does little to erase that image, but does examine how he came to “direct” some of silent cinema’s greatest comedies, and tells one heck of a Hollywood yarn.

Bruckman was a journalist who entered the film industry as an intertitle writer, before becoming a “gagster”. The “gag men” would conceive visual jokes for silent comedies, working in groups, throwing ideas around, so it’s tricky to say who did what. However, Bruckman is credited with the brilliant concept for  Buster Keaton’s The Playhouse (1921). The star had a broken ankle, which limited his usual acrobatic display. Bruckman sketched out an idea for creating laughs out of camera trickery instead of physical exertion. Thanks to deadly timing on behalf of cameraman and star, the multiple exposures work perfectly, including a triumphant sequence in which nine Keatons dance together.

ClydeBruckman
Clyde Bruckman

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Around China With a Movie Camera review: bewitching scenes from another world

In a very welcome turn of events, the BFI releases two archive DVDs this week, both with plenty to offer the early film enthusiast. The first is the dual-format edition of Play On!, an anthology of silent Shakespeare films with newly recorded music, of which more elsewhere. The second is Around China With a Movie Camera, a disc full of surprises.

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Around China With A Movie Camera is a compilation of archive film shot between 1900 and 1948, with shimmering, groovy music composed by Ruth Chan. I’ve never been to China, so I don’t bring any geographical expertise to this disc, but these are among the most bewitching early films I’ve ever seen. There are travelogues in the mix, but also newsreels, home movies, actualities, documentaries and footage shot by missionaries. Each frame is brimful of life and activity – the familiar and the unfamiliar mingled together. We begin in Beijing in 1910, with footage shot by an unknown cameraman on behalf of Charles Urban. The streets are thronged with people: workers, families, traders, drawing carts, alpacas, horses or rickshaws, carrying water or bundles of straw. The film is vividly tinted and between the blazing sunlight and the dusty road, the heat of the day burns up the screen. The locals smoke pipes, and shave each other’s heads.

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A cut, and we see the same streets in 1925, the same crowds and rickshaws and market stalls. More industry here, if not quite high technology. Then, cut again, and it’s 1933. On and on, until we have travelled the country, and sped forward to 1948 and back again.

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Nitrate Picture Show 2016 review: intoxicating celluloid

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amran Vance, who runs the London Silent Film Meetup group and is part of the team behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope.

When I wrote about the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, last year I ended with the slightly pessimistic hope that we would get to see a silent film on nitrate next time around. My fear was that shrinkage issues with such old prints might prevent that from happening. I am delighted to report that my cynicism was misplaced as this year’s festival ended on a sensational high, an American silent film from 1928! But more about that later.

As with last year, the festival organisers kept the 2016 programme under wraps until the morning of the first day of the festival. I know this approach is controversial. Potential attendees have complained to me that they are reluctant to incur the not inconsiderable expense in traveling to upstate New York when they have no idea what films will be screened. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but there is something undeniably exciting about opening the brochure on the first day and seeing what treats lie ahead of us. There is also merit in the organisers’ position that it is the physical condition and pictorial beauty of the prints that governs their selection, with the quality and reputation of the works coming next. Personally, I favour a middle ground, perhaps naming three or four films in advance and keeping the rest secret.

The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum, our venue for the festival
The Dryden Theatre at the George Eastman Museum, our venue for the festival

I suspect that few, if any,who made the journey to Rochester were disappointed with the films presented to us. I was initially sorry to see that no silents were listed but was keeping my fingers crossed that the final screening of the festival, our Blind Date with Nitrate, might possibly fulfill that wish. And so it did.

The festival kicked off with a selection of short films – my favourites were a colorful Julius Pischewer animation Cent Ans de Chemins de fer Suisses celebrating 100 years of the Swiss railway system and a delightful 1934 Universal animation Jolly Little Elves featuring doughnut-loving kindly elves.

 

These were followed by one of the highlights of the festival and a film I had not seen before, Enamorada (1946) a tempestuous romantic drama set against the background of the Mexican revolution. Featuring the masterful framing of the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, the film looked gorgeous, especially the exterior shots of the Mexican town in which the story is set. María Félix, probably Mexico’s most famous actress, was beguiling as the feisty female lead and Figueroa makes masterful use of light and shade, given added depth and texture by the nitrate print.

Enamorada (1946)
Enamorada (1946)

 

Our final film on the first day was the classic noir, Laura, which we were told was a pre-release version that included footage that was cut for its theatrical distribution. Nobody I spoke to could spot the additional material, however, and although the print was good there were only moments when the benefit of nitrate showed through.

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L’Inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, 1924) Blu-ray review: the high art of cinema

L'Inhumaine, Fernand Léger, 1924
L’Inhumaine poster designed by Fernand Léger, 1924

In the silent era, films were far more ephemeral than they are today. The fragile nitrate was unspooled for a few shows in each cinema that rented them, and then sent away, re-used, melted, left to crumble and decay or burst, suddenly, into flames. It was a time before retrospectives and archives and museums of the moving image. Now we see films in very different way. In the digital world, although the films seem to have lost their physical presence, becoming data streamed or downloaded on to screens of all sizes, they have the illusion of permanence. Central to this is the arthouse home video market, which packages films like books, as objects to be cherished, or maybe hoarded. A shelf full of gleaming Criterion Blu-rays is as imposing as a line of leather-bound novels – talismans of high culture and prized possessions. We don’t just watch films now, we expect to own them: explore them rewind and freeze and read around them.

Marcel L’Herbier’s Art Deco science-fiction drama L’Inhumaine is as much an art object as a film, and as such, it is the perfect Blu-ray movie. This glittering feature was designed to be admired from all angeles, its intricate and self-consciously beautiful design is the 1920s equivalent of 4K high-definition. I dare you to watch it without your finger itching for the pause button.

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The inhuman woman of the title is a lady who knows a thing or two about being admired from all angles. Claire (played by soprano Georgette Leblanc) is an opera singer who lives in a stunning modernist home, which she opens to a select group of guests, a fawning salon of important men who jostle for her attentions. Everything about Claire’s world is both chilly and extravagant. The dinners she hosts are served at a dining table surrounded by an indoor moat. A drift of swans putter around the guest, more of Claire’s captives, but the only ones present who are indifferent to her beauty. When Claire hears that one of her admirers, Einar (Jaque Catelain) has killed himself after she rejected him, she experiences a slow awakening of her passions, and a more literal resurrection of her body, via a poisonous snake and an electric re-animation machine.

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Synthetic Sin (1929): Colleen Moore and the joyful noise of the Jazz Age

Synthetic Sin (1929) is an artefact from a time long gone. That is to say that this film is delightful, glamorous, witty … And they really don’t make them like this any more. It’s typical of this movie that the title is a roaring twenties in-joke, a bit of jazz-age wordplay on “Synthetic Gin”. That’s not a phrase you hear too often these days, but this prohibition-era film sloshes with bathtub hooch. In fact, this is the kind of wisecracking romp where a gal can say to a fella: “Let’s you and I make hey-hey while there’s moonshine!”

When the twenties roared, there was mischief to be made. In the inner cities, in real life, gangsters took advantage of the prohibition laws to make plenty of illicit cash hawking illegitimate booze. But in the movies, and in the anxious imagination of Middle Americans, the flappers, a new breed of confident young women with bobbed hair and short hemlines, were wreaking just as much havoc.

Synthetic Sin has all the hallmarks of a classic flapper film, even though its heroine, aspiring actress Betty Fairfax, is really quite an innocent. Betty is played by Colleen Moore, an impish natural comedienne who was the first of Hollywood’s bright young starlets to bob her hair and embody the newest, freshest way to negotiate the path between girlhood and womanhood. If any writer encapsulated the spirit of the Jazz Age, it was F Scott Fitzgerald, and he doffed his fedora to our star. “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth,” he said. “Colleen Moore was the torch.” And if you love Louise Brooks, Clara Bow or Jean Harlow, then you need to know Moore.

Colleen Moore

Preternaturally youthful and vivacious, Moore defined the flapper, the modern, sexually liberated young woman, in terms that high-school girls could love and emulate. After Moore’s mother cut her hair into her trademark fringed bob (“whack, off came the long curls. I felt as I’d been emancipated”), teenage girls across the US rushed to the salon. She was unthreateningly friendly and funny, but a beauty too. Moore has a cute charisma that works instantly on the audience, like a fast-acting drug. She is both irresistible and unforgettable – and she was a huge star in the 1920s. But the sad fact is that many of her films have now been lost, which means that most people don’t know her work at all. Synthetic Sin itself was only recently rediscovered and restored. So this film is a very precious chance to see Hollywood’s foremost flapper in action.

“Moore created comic heroines who are as engaging in their failures to be glamorous as they are in their often accidental triumphs in love and career,” wrote Molly Haskell. That’s Synthetic Sin in a nutshell.

Here Moore plays a young girl desperate to grow old too quickly, to become a “woman of the world” with the necessary life experience to be a serious dramatic actress. All flappers want to push the boundaries imposed by their old-fashioned parents, so Betty runs away from her comfortable home to a fleapit hotel in the big city, in the name of art, and of love. The audience is in on the joke from the beginning: Betty is wonderful just as she is. Her improvised show at the family piano early in the film is Grade A comedy, and the steps she takes to widen her horizons bring her into dangerous territory: grubby, sleazy, violent. A place where this flapper might just encounter a gangster or two.

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The New York Hat (1912): what women want 

This is a very slightly fleshed-out transcript of an introduction I gave to The New York Hat at the Kennington Bioscope as part of an evening dedicated to women in silent film.

It’s quite old, and very short, but The New York Hat (DW Griffith, 1912) is one of my favourite films, and I’d really like to explain why. As with Shoes (Lois Weber, 1916), this film looks at the lives of women and their finances through the lens of  consumerism, but the ramifications run deeper than the shop window.

The first reason that I love The New York Hat is that it is an early woman’s picture and I mean that in a fully feminist sense. Today we talk a lot about the Bechdel Test, which is basically a test to ascertain whether the women in a film are fully realised characters and not just appendages to the blokes. To pass the Bechdel Test, two named female characters have to have a conversation with each other about something that isn’t a man. Sounds simple. In the field, films that pass this test are rarer than hen’s teeth. It’s really hard to map the Bechdel test back on to silent films in the first place, and so many modern films fail it that you have to assume that older ones will struggle.

However, The New York Hat passes not just the letter but the spirit of the Bechdel test with flying colours, because its narrative is driven entirely by what women want, by what women understand about the world and the values that women have. We have the mother who wants the best for her daughter, the “bits of finery” that she craves, and the daughter who wants to grow up. Then we have some more women, the gossips, who create a conflict for her.

We have two male characters: the father is a no-good man who doesn’t really understand or care about women, and the minister who is a very good man, but also fails to understand women and their world.

The New York Hat (1912)
The New York Hat (1912)
The second reason that I love The New York Hat is that even though it was made in 1912, it is like a glimpse at the future, at Hollywood in the height of the 20s. If you are interested in the history of silent cinema then this film is going to give you a real kick because everyone is in it. If The New York Hat were a pop band it would be a rock supergroup. The scenario for The New York hat was written by Anita Loos, who would go on to have a fabulous Hollywood career, writing films and intertitles and also the hilarious novel Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The New York Hat is pure Loos – it’s very sharp on the way that women interact with each other and it also contains two of her favourite hobbies: fashion and gossip. When the lead character wears her new hat, the gap between the impression she thinks she is making and the one she really is, is a bitterly dark example of Loos’s vicious humour. It’s also a very poignant moment – and those mixed emotions are part of the magic of this enduring film.

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Toute la Mémoire du Monde 2016: a weekend in the city of cinema

When I first began to fall in love with the movies, I watched French New Wave double-bills at my local arthouse cinema. I saw the kids in Quatre Cents Coups and Bande à Part dashing across Paris and thought nothing could be more cinematic, more evocative of youth and passion and adventures in the city of light. Nearly two decades later and I, too, am sprinting down Parisian streets, and all in the name of le septième art.

At Toute la Mémoire du Monde, a sprawling festival of restored cinema hosted by the Cinémathèque Française, there are always far more films playing than you could hope to see, at screens across the city. So occasionally you have to forgo that customary pause and sigh of happiness at a film’s heartbreaking conclusion, grab your bag and leg it like Léaud to catch the Métro.

The Outlaw and his Wife (Victor Sjöström, 1918)
The Outlaw and his Wife (Victor Sjöström, 1918)

On my first day at the festival, as Marlene Dietrich ditched her heels and trudged across the desert to prove her devotion to Gary Cooper in the plush new Les Fauvettes rep cinema, I set out on my own speed-march back to the Cinémathèque to catch Fred Astaire getting his shoes shined. Then, of course, as I wandered back to my hotel across the Seine with ‘That’s Entertainment’ ringing in my ears, I had all the more to reflect upon.

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1896 Cinématographe-type Lumière

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I’m trying to explain why this festival offers a rush of blood through the veins, and that I felt ever so slightly light-headed all weekend. Doubtless, the effort of translating French intertitles in my head also gave my brain as much of a workout as my poor old feet. This is a French-language festival – all the sound films are “version originale” with French subs, and for silents, the only intertitles you can guarantee will be French ones. But the good news is that even though I am far from fluent in French, I understood about 80% of  the captions just fine. So if you are wondering whether the language barrier would come between you and this festival, well bonne chance!

The Band Wagon (1953)

It’s difficult not to feel close to the cinema in Paris, the city where the projection of moving images first began. The Cinémathèque, and the other screens I visited, are a long way from the upscale Boulevard des Capucines where the Lumières first unspooled their magic. But catching a programme of French shorts from the 1900s and teens gave me a little historical thrill. Not least when Oscar (Oscar au Bain, Léonce Perret 1913) whisked his ladylove around the capital in a taxi. And even the later films I saw, from The River of No Return (Otto Preminger, 1954) to Robocop (Paul Verhoeven, 1987), all owe their existence to those first flickers, it’s true.

Herr Arnes Pengar (1919)
Herr Arnes Penningar, 1919

It’s in the nature of an archive festival to be eclectic, but had I been strictly silent all weekend, it’s a fair bet that I would have seen mostly Swedish films from the teens and early twenties by Mauritz Stiller and Victor Sjöström, courtesy of the L’école suédoise strand. I stretched my wings a little further than that, but still made time to see haunting, brilliant films by both directors: Stiller’s Herr Arnes Penningar (1919) as well as Sjöström’s Berg-Ejvind och hans hustru/The Outlaw and His Wife (1918) and Körkarlen/The Phantom Carriage, (1921). All three heart-wrenching experiences of the best kind – pitching the viewer into a world that is physically tough and spiritually fraught. Continue reading Toute la Mémoire du Monde 2016: a weekend in the city of cinema

Make More Noise! Suffragettes in Silent Film DVD review: watch the world change in front of your eyes

Make More Noise!
Make More Noise!

Make more noise! More than a silent film? More noise than an Edwardian lady? No, more noise than the patriarchy.

Make More Noise! is the title of boisterous new compilation from the BFI, an anthology of films related to the British campaign for women’s suffrage. It contains newsreels of protests and personal appearances by the leaders of the movement, as well as short fiction and actuality films that reveal the changing role of women in British society. In the second category, you’ll spot Tilly films, and footage of women working in munitions factories and field hospitals. It’s a fascinating mix, beautifully programmed by Bryony Dixon and Margaret Deriaz and superbly scored by Lillian Henley.

This anthology pretty much had me at hello – the combination of early cinema and feminism is right up my street. But I’d like to think that Make More Noise! holds an appeal for people who aren’t pre-sold on the content that way. If you enjoyed Sarah Gavron’s very moving Suffragette, this programme gives you a more complete picture of the world of the characters in that movie – these are the films they would have seen at the cinema, the ideas they would have discussed at the dinner table, and just possibly, a glimpse of their future.

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Milling the Militants (1913)

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Nosferatu: back on Blu-ray

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

Name: Nosferatu.

Age: 93 years young.

Remind me which one that is? Oh come on. Nosferatu is a classic – FW Murnau’s free-floating Dracula adaptation is one of scariest films of all time, and one of the most beautiful too.

Is that the one with hunchbacked shadow lurching up the stairs? Bingo.

Surely it’s not still hanging around? Nosferatu is back baby, and now it’s on Blu-ray too, courtesy of a new release from the BFI.

Oh, Nosferatu on Blu-ray? I got that already. Really?

Well, no. I saw that Masters of Cinema brought it out two years ago but I hadn’t got around to buying it yet. Ah I thought so. Well you could buy this version instead.

Nosferatu (1922)
Nosferatu (1922)

I might. Both releases are Blu-ray updates of each label’s previous DVD release of the film.

I’m all about Blu-ray. What’s the difference between the two packages though? The extras are different, and the score. MoC used the original theatrical score, and the BFI has used a more modern, but also orchestral, score by James Bernard. And yes, both are available in stereo and 5.1.

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Variety is the spice of life: watching the silents at the 2015 London film festival

Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)

This year’s London film festival did not make life easy for cinemutophiles. Many of the silent films in the 2015 programme were scheduled slap-bang against each other, or almost, necessitating a frantic cab ride across to town. All very glamorous in its own way, and nice to be spoiled for choice, but frustrating for those who aren’t lucky enough to have seen some of these films in other festivals, or want to cram as much as possible into a trip to London. That said, the LFF pulled off a coup to make those Londoners who wished they were at Pordenone instead feel smug for once. The two festivals always clash, but if you stayed home this year, you’d have had the chance to see the restoration of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century, a day before your counterparts in Pordenone. Ta-da.

As you might have noticed, your humble correspondent was indeed in Pordenone, but when I got home, I managed to squeeze in a few trips to the London film festival. Rude not to, after all. And if the programme seems a little light on silents at first, as is always the way, things pop up where you might not expect to find them. Festival opener Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015) closed with a fragment of archive footage; and I spotted Gloria Swanson in one of the festival most-talked about movies, Todd Haynes’s magnificent Carol (2015).

Sherlock Holmes (1916). Cinémathèque française, Paris
Sherlock Holmes (1916). Cinémathèque française, Paris

Continue reading Variety is the spice of life: watching the silents at the 2015 London film festival

Love Is All DVD review: a gift for armchair romantics

Love makes gluttons of us all. So if you enjoyed Love Is All, Kim Longinotto’s romantic sweep through the film archives at the cinema, you may be toying with picking up the DVD also. Then again, there are so many great clips from brilliant films, both popular and obscure, in Love is All that it might have prompted you to buy several other DVDs instead. 

Love is All sprawls across the history of cinema, picking up clips from classic films and home movie so the and editing them together into a gorgeous mess of love and romance. It contains flirtations, seductions, marriages and babies; young love, forbidden love, gay love and straight. It leans quite heavily on silent cinema, possibly because those films work particularly well in this treatment, possibly because they are just the most romantic. Who knows? And the whole thing is set to a gruffly melancholic soundtrack of songs by Richard Hawley. So it’s really rather eye-catching, but could be a head-scratcher too. What does it all mean?

Love is All (2014)
Love is All (2014)

This DVD release from the BFI does attempt to reveal the mysteries of this swooping documentary, with a package of extras including explanatory essays and statements from the film-makers, plus a bundle of complete short silent films from the archive. There is also a recorded Q&A with Longinotto in which she happily admits that she had never heard of Hindle Wakes or Anna May Wong before including them in Love is All. Yes, really. 

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8

The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Photoplay Productions
The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Photoplay Productions

At the end of life death is a departure; but at life’s beginning a departure is a death – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Back home, when they ask me what I saw at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I will have to confess that yes, indeed, I did see a woman tied to the train tracks this year. All their suspicions will be confirmed, although you and I will know that the scene in question was part of Kinokariera Zvonaria (A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career, 1927), a Russian spoof of the movie business. But if they don’t know that women being tied to the train tracks isn’t really a silent cinema staple, then they may not be familiar with Soviet comedy. Which I would say is a shame, although my favourite of this strand this year remains Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga. This breezy two-reeler was a sweet thing, with a reluctant star being caught in the snare of a travelling film company, whose motto was the less-than-inspiring: “Don’t waste film. Be economical.” A shocking waste of film that closes the movie elicited groans from the audience in Cinemazero – talk about singing to the choir.

KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

The feature-length comedy on Saturday morning was less successful for me – mostly because it was quite hard to follow. In Serotsa I Dollary (Hearts and Dollars, 1924), mistaken identities complicated the central gag of a well-to-do American girl making her way in Russia. Familiar “types” from Soviet comedy abounded, but I couldn’t quite key in to this one, sadly.

We saw more westerners adrift in eastern parts with a film only recently made available again: Tod Browning’s opium-trade drama Drifting (1923). Priscilla Dean plays Cassie, the “poppy princess”, a opium dealer fallen on hard times in China, no doubt partly because her companion Molly has been getting high on the supply. Wallace Beery is her accomplice-cum-rival. Matt Moore is the American captain sent to China to put an end to the drugs trade, and as so often is the case, Anna May Wong is criminally underused as a local girl setting her cap at him. Set down on paper this looks like fiery stuff, and it is in parts, but the original story (in which Cassie has an even older career on the side) has been toned down, and the presentation of what remains is rather coy. There is an unexpected role for a cute tot, a small boy who belongs to an unseen missionary family, and it’s all very smartly shot and brightly tinted. Not everyone was as keen as I was on this one, but hey, we all get to be an outlier sometimes. Drifting was elevated hugely also by a superb accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who brilliantly caught the atmosphere of revolt threatened by the locals banging “sinister and solemn” drums in the background.

Wolf Song (1929) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
Wolf Song (1929) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA

We travelled way out west again after lunch, for another assignation with Victor Fleming. After a tantalising trailer for the lost film The Way of All Flesh, starring Emil Jannings, we were spoiled with a screening of Wolf Song (1929). This movie, a red-blooded western romance between trapper Sam (Gary Cooper) and a young Mexican woman called Lola (Lupe Vélez) was powerful stuff. Sam is torn between the lure of the mountain trail and his love for Lola, between the call of the “wolf song” and marital bliss. But what bliss! This is the kind of movie that reminds you that all silent cinema is effectively pre-code. The affair between the two leads is passionate, and there is enough steamy eye contact, questionable imagery and plimming bosoms to mist up your spectacles before you swoon at the sheer beauty of it. Cooper and Vélez are simply gorgeous leads, and if you haven’t heard about Cooper’s nude bathing scene in this film, well that would explain why you weren’t at the Giornate today. Seriously, though, this is the sort of film that reveals exactly why Hollywood was called a dream factory – it’s a collective fantasy, played out 10ft tall. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 7

The Battle of the Century (1927) Lobster Films, Paris
The Battle of the Century (1927) Lobster Films, Paris

Laughter is sunshine, it chases winter from the human face – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Sometimes, a seven-hour epic will come along to sweep you off your feet. At other times, 18 minutes will do the same job, or even just a few seconds. Friday at the Giornate was Laurel and Hardy’s day and no mistaking. The happy discovery of the missing reel of The Battle of the Century (1927) has been dominating the runup to the festival, and with good reason. The house was full for the evening screening, one of the first in the world, of the nearly restored, almost complete two-reel comedy. When I say full, yours truly was perched in the gods, nearly touching the ceiling. But if I was giddy, it was with excitement, and as Battle unspooled with its restorer, Serge Bromberg at the piano keys, we all felt a little thrill I’ll bet. The central pie fight sequence is slapstick gold – expertly orchestrated, constantly inventive and teasing us with the escalating violence. So often a group are poised with pies in hands … we know another splat is on its way, but we don’t know where it will come from. And because of that, seeing it in proper context, as a counterpoint to the damp squib boxing match in the first reel, was hugely satisfactory. The pie fight’s no longer a scene, but part of a real movie, albeit one with one sequence still missing.

And with that, Stan and Ollie were gone. To be replaced by something else entirely. Days don’t tend to have themes here at Pordenone, The programme is far too wide-ranging and eccentric for that. But Friday, I like to think, was also western day – with a feminine twist.

The morning dawned with cowboys – and what you might call cowgirls too. These short movies from the 1910s were equal-opportunity adventures, with women exploring the west along with their men. Of the few I saw, I most liked How States are Made (1912), in which a pioneer family must lay stake to their plot in the Cherokee Land Rush, but with hubby out of action due to a gunshot wound, it’s up to the missus (Anne Schaeffer) to ride west and beat their rivals in the big land rush. 

The Call of the Canyon (1923) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
The Call of the Canyon (1923) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

A double-bill (of sorts) of Victor Fleming westerns followed, and picked up the theme too. After a snippet of The Call of the Canyon (1923) in which young Carley must decide whether to follow her man out of the city and into the frontier land, we were treated to To the Last Man (1923), which was a real triumph. This film is based on a novel, which was based on a real family rivalry, a blood feud no less, which claimed several lives. In the fictional version at least, a youngster from each family have fallen in love, Romeo and Juliet style. As the two lovers, Richard Dix was a solid and handsome hero, and Lois Wilson was fantastic as young Ellen, seemingly the only woman for miles and miles around, whose reputation was cruelly slandered as a result. Lushly shot by James Wong Howe, with plenty of ferocious action (which Stephen Horne wrung the most out of), this was a winner from beginning to end. Except for one thing: this was a Russian print, and so were the intertitles, which means we now had third-hand versions of each line, which were often baffling, and sometimes incomprehensible. “And then your kisses were come-at-able,” for instance. This was really a minor inconvenience, but added a sour note to what would otherwise have been a sweet, sweet movie. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 6

Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). The Museum of Modern Art, New York
Lime Kiln Club Field Day (1913). The Museum of Modern Art, New York

This, too, is history  – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

You can blame it on too much caffé espresso, or Douglas Fairbanks withdrawal, or the collective post-Les Mis comedown. Whatever the reason, I saw two comedies today that I could only just follow, and which just occasionally made me laugh. If I tell you they were Soviet comedies, you might jump to a conclusion. But trust me, I have form in this area – I normally laughalonga-Lenin.

Tonight’s evening screening was Gosudarstvennyi Chinovnik (The State Official, 1931), a cheeky caper about a faceless state underling tempted by the chance to pilfer a suitcase of roubles for him and his missus and their young daughter. I suspect it is gentlest of comedy anyway, but with a propagandistic framing story about renovating the rolling stock on either end of it, it truly is, as I was warned, not a “comedy-comedy”.

Big Trouble (1930). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
Big Trouble (1930). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

Rating higher on the laughometer but lower on comprehensibility for my poor failing brain was Krupnaia Nepriyatnost (Big Trouble, 1930), in which the culture clash between old and new in a provincial village is exemplified by, at first, the rivalry between old-style carriages and imported American cars. The scene thus laid, the real set-to involves a mixup of of speakers at local events: the director of the new arts centre rocks up to the church, and the priest appears to address the culture vultures. Horror, and then an “exchange of hostages” ensues. This was much brighter, with vivid casting, compositions that took us by surprise and a real sense of pace and energy. Plus, inventive musical accompaniment courtesy of a Stephen Horne and Donald Sosin collaboration. We were still a little flummoxed though. The same director as Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga and a similar sense of fun, but not as successful.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 5

LES MISÉRABLES (FR 1925-26) Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé
LES MISÉRABLES (FR 1925-26) Fondation Jérôme Seydoux-Pathé

Where the telescope ends the microscope begins, and which has the wider vision? – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

You might be forgiven for thinking there was only one show in town today – the epic screening of Henri Fescourt’s Les Misérables. But not only were there several films on offer beforehand, there were schedule clashes – yes, clashes – meaning that I had to make some painful decisions. I can’t bear to tell you what I missed (“Here’s what you could have won,” as Jim Bowen would say), but this is what I saw before my voyage to Paris, when I took a detour to Cinemazero.

The morning began a little coldly with a sedate documentary about Gaston Méliès, brother of the more famous Georges, and his travels around the globe with a movie crew. Undoubtedly this is a fascinating topic – Gaston was an adventurous soul who travelled far and wide, making both fiction and documentary films, and occasionally hybrid affairs too. Wherever he went – Tahiti, Cambodia, Australia, New Zealand – he sought out the real locals, and cast these non-professional actors in dramatic roles. Back when so many people in the States were relying on blackface, as we have seen, Gaston sought a greater diversity and authenticity. A very interesting subject, but this film, Gaston Méliès and the Wandering Star Company (2015), was not full of the same enthusiasm as its protagonist. I wanted to know more – how he developed such wanderlust, how the films were received, how the communities he entered related to cinema after he left and whether all this jaunting about contributed to his brother’s financial ruin.

FLICKORNA GYURKOVICS © 1926 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.
FLICKORNA GYURKOVICS © 1926 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.

If anyone can raise the tempo it’s our British sweetheart Betty Balfour, and she starred in a new rediscovery, a German-UK-Sweden co-production that gives euro-puddings a good name. Would they were all as sweet. The plot was as intricate as the lovely lace gowns Betty was so fond of, but to be brief Flickorna Gyurkovics (A Sister of Six, 1926) is a comedy of repeated mistaken identities all coming between Balfour and her handsome archduke and a happy-ever-after. It’s mischievously funny, and wickedly shot too, being photographed by none other than Carl Hoffman. Balfour is brilliant, my own dear favourite Karin Swanström has a small role and there’s even a little monkey, followed around by Hoffman with a handheld camera. Such delightful touches abounded – for example, a POV shot of photograph of Balfour and her sisters, seen through a haze of cigarette smoke animated itself, as the girls wriggled and giggled. A real treat, even if it is nigh-on unsummarisable.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 4

Die Puppe (1919)
Die Puppe (1919)

What is admirable in the clash of young minds is that no one can foresee the spark that sets off an explosion, or predict what kind of explosion it will be. – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Forgive me and my fellow delegates if we are a little dazed, but today an array of high-wattage stars dazzled the Verdi: Clara Bow, Ossi Oswalda and Douglas Fairbanks all took a turn in the spotlight, and didn’t we all know about it? But they were all  playing second fiddle, I am afraid, to one of the festival’s guests of honour.

The real star of the day was Naum Kleiman, erstwhile director of the Moscow Cinema Museum, who was in town to deliver the Jonathan Dennis lecture at the Giornate. He didn’t really do that, though. He spoke a few words, and graciously answered our questions, but instead of a formal lecture we watched a new film that has been made about Kleiman, the Museum, and the frankly appalling state of affairs in Russia today, where the museum has been evicted and its good works all-but sacrificed to the opaque aims of the Ministry of Culture. It was called Cinema: a Public Affair, and it was directed by Tatiana Brandrup, who was also in attendance to answer questions. At an event where we have so much Russian cinema to celebrate, it is beyond distressing to learn that film culture in that country is in such a perilous position. Founded in 1989, the Cinema Museum used to show 20 – 20! – films a day. Important films, films from around the world, films that are now impossible to see in Russia. It was always run on a shoestring – Jean-Luc Godard made a gift to the Museum of a Dolby sound system ahead of a retrospective of his works there. But now, the situation is as absurd as something in one of the Soviet comedies screening at the Giornate. A new building intended to house the Museum has been repurposed as a parking garage, while the Museum’s collections are all in temporary storage at yes, garages at the Mosfilm studios…

Kleiman is an inspiring man, who spoke in the film movingly about the first film he remembered seeing as a four-year-old child. Before that point he had seen war, he had seen fear and devastation, in fact his own father was missing, but one night at a park near his refugee camp in Tashkent, he saw the cinema for the first time. That screening of Michael Powell’s The Thief of Bagdad was to him a “window on to another reality”. He stood on his bench, and flapped his hands, imagining that he had a magic carpet under his feet. And he has dedicated his life to sharing that magic, that escape, that understanding of a different world, with other people. A member of the Verdi audience asked simply: “How do you find the strength to go on fighting?” “I’m not fighting,” he replied. “I’m just working.”

The Darling of the CSA. Courtesy of the NFPF
The Darling of the CSA. Courtesy of the NFPF

For Kleiman, the conversation that films can spark are almost the point of screening them. “The film begins when it’s over,” he said. And although they were lighthearted in tone, this morning’s programme of shorts illustrated that perfectly. A package put together by Laura Horak on the theme of cross-dressing girls on film, these movies, which were mostly comedies, were hugely intriguing, and provided delicious food for thought. The shorts included actresses playing boys, playing dual roles or simply playing characters who dress up as lads, or take on male characteristics. The way that the teens and twenties of the last century approach these ideas is consistently intriguing – so often they skirt close to something really subversive, something to challenge the relentless heterosexuality of so much silent Hollywood cinema, and then retreat, having nibbled their doughnut and kept it too. I enjoyed Anna Q Nilsson as a rebel spy in disguise during the civil war in The Darling of the CSA (1912) (riding sidesaddle even when in drag). I also liked a futuristic “nightmare” of 21st-century gender role reversals called What  is the World Coming to? (1926), a surprisingly nifty restoration of a 16mm print, in which a kept husband worries that his bigshot wife spends too much time with her “sheik stenographer”. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 4