Category Archives: Review

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 3

DVA DRUGA, MODEL I PODRUGA (KANITEL S MASHINKOI / NEOBYCHAINYE PRIKLIUCHENIIA AKHOVA I MAKHOVA) (URSS 1928) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
DVA DRUGA, MODEL I PODRUGA (KANITEL S MASHINKOI / NEOBYCHAINYE PRIKLIUCHENIIA AKHOVA I MAKHOVA) (URSS 1928) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

Of what does a revolt consist? Of everything and nothing, a spring slowly released, a fire suddenly breaking out, force operating at random, passing breeze

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

On a gloriously sunny day in northern Italy (and I do mean glorious) there is nothing to be done except to duck into a dark theatre and watch Soviet cinema, right? Right? Well, that’s how we roll here in Pordenone. Today I expected  to be dominated by the screening of Eisenstein’s monumental October (1928), but as ever, the Giornate caught me by surprise. My day began with a simply stunning, and very refreshing Soviet comedy. Just as last year, the Russian Laughter strand is shaping up to be one of my favourites. And it ended with a Japanese film that I feared I wouldn’t get the most out of. Perhaps I didn’t, but I did love it all the same,

Back to Russia. That comedy, Dva Druga, Model I Podruga (Two Friends, a Model and a Girlfriend, 1928) was a real sparkler: it was gorgeously photographed, with sunlight dappling the river our heroes were pootling along, and brightly funny too. Unlike pure slapstick affairs, the comedy here was largely contained in the composition rather than the action – it was, if this is a thing, pictorially funny. Like a newspaper cartoon. Our heroes, the two friends, are seemingly daft soap factory workers who invent a machine, a contraption really, for making packing crates. They think it will increase efficiency at the factory (a noble Soviet aim, for sure) but their villainous overseer disagrees – they’re paid to work, not invent. In the end, the pals, a girl who has run away from her fiancee and this crazy “model” must travel to the big city by river to prove its worth. Endless fun, visually inventive at every turn, and so gentle it undercuts all one’s preconceptions of Soviet bombast at once. Please take any chance you get to see this one.

October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna
October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna

But if you ordered bombast, today delivered. A two-hour-plus silent movie is a weighty proposition to be honest, but October, with its “catalogue of inventions” is so dazzling, energetic, ferocious and breathtakingly geometric that it feels more like a weekend than a month. Eisenstein’s document of the Russian revolution screened in the Canon Revisited strand, and it is certainly a film that repays the revisiting. Today we were especially lucky to have Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius in the orchestra pit – performing a stirring score that was no doubt an exhausting feat. I am continually dumbfounded to find that some people are immune to this rousing strain of cinema. These Soviet classics were an early staging post on my route into exploring the silents. I came to them well before the Hollywood films, and they constantly define for me what silent cinema can achieve, which is to say what cinema in total can achieve. So there. The raising of the bridge sequence in October never fails to stop me in my tracks – from the naked viciousness of the bourgeoisie to the white horse martyred several feet above the Neva. And that poor young girl’s trailing hair … As the film continues there is far more to savour than I could even hint at here. The Women’s Death Battalion could furnish several blogposts of political-sexual analysis by themselves. By the time it was over I was ready to storm the palace of silent cinema and loot for more such treasures.

A Fool and his Money (1912) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
A Fool and his Money (1912) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 2

When the Clouds Roll By. Lobster Films, Paris
When the Clouds Roll By. Lobster Films, Paris

And in the meantime we must scrutinize the things that have vanished, needing to know if only to avoid them. Counterfeits of the past, under new names, may easily be mistaken for the future. The past, that ghostly traveller, is liable to forge his papers – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

You wait weeks for one Douglas Fairbanks picture and on a rainy Sunday in Pordenone you get two! I am beginning to suspect I may have a wee crush on Mr Fairbanks Sr, so help me. Don’t tell me we can’t be together.

Forget that nonsense for a minute, the wet Sunday morning began with another fine selection of City Symphonies. Much to admire in all of them, but my favourite was the lyrical De Steeg/The Alley (1932), a portrait of a street in Rotterdam, and the people who live there, shot so nimbly and sensitively I wanted to walk down that road and meet those people straight away. Second, for me, was a similar piece, Pierement (Barrel Organ, 1931), shot in a working-class district of Amsterdam. As we follow the progress of the organ down the road, we meet new faces, new places and the day winds on, with the passage of time marked as the barrel organ cards concertina into their neat stack at the back of cart. A simple idea, beautifully executed.

Softened up, we settled into the Woody Allen fever dream that is When the Clouds Roll By (1919), the first item in the much anticipated Victor Fleming retrospective. Dancing vegetables! Douglas Fairbanks walking on the ceiling! Fairbanks is astonishing in this one: vibrant and funny and handsome and romantic and mad all at once – and the film is shot with humour and ingenuity and bags of style. Plus, I cared about all the characters, despite the ludicrous story – the superstitious mania shared by Fairbanks and his lady-love was cute and quirky rather then maddening as it would be in real life. It is a real cutie this picture – come for the famous dream sequence and stay for Dougie’s magnetic personality.

THE RANCHMAN’S VENGEANCE (US 1911). Collection EYE Filmmuseum
THE RANCHMAN’S VENGEANCE (US 1911). Collection EYE Filmmuseum

After Fairbanks, only the most masculine of movies could satisfy the Verdi audience, so a grab-bag of six westerns scratched the itch perfectly. These were a little rough and ready at times (just how we like em, eh?) but this was no endurance feat. These early westerns may have the slenderest of plots, are sometimes crudely performed and oddly staged, but they have a dynamism that’s hard to resist. And there were touches in each film (a desperate proposal on a playing card, for example) that made them irresitibly human. This programme flew by. It was like being the despatch rider in Saved by the Pony Express (1909) leaping on to a new horse as soon as one tired out. That would make Allan Dwan’s The Poisoned Flume, the wild stallion of the bunch … which is a fair shout. As Richard Abel points out in the Giornate catalogue, the irrigation of California would prove contentious on film right up to Chinatown and this is a captivating revenge drama, where the devil really was in the details. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1

Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien
Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien

The town was like a loaded gun, needing only a spark to set it off – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“It’s the last time I shall say it, so I shall say it,” began David Robinson, introducing what is surely not his final Giornate, but the last over which he will preside as artistic director. The Robinson era will close with the 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto, which looks on paper at least as if it will be a very special festival, with a jewel-studded programme. And he hands the baton to the surest of hands: the marvellous Jay Weissberg of Variety, who joined him on stage tonight by way of introduction, and performed as Robinson’s personal interpreter too. We said another goodbye on Saturday evening  – this festival will be dedicated to the memory of one of its staunchest supporters, Jean Darling, who passed away in early September. A snippet of her singing Always at a previous festival began our gala evening, as Robinson took to the stage to say… what was it? Ah yes. “Welcome home!”

But before we get to the gala, and the speeches and the changing of the guard, we have a full afternoon of films to catch up on. Fasten your seatbelts, fellow Pordenauts*, we’re going on a journey.

Our world tour began with trip to Berlin – this was not classic Symphony of a City territory mind, but a visit to Gypsy Berlin – from the camp to the racetrack to the streets. Terrifying to think what lay in store for the people featured in this film, Grossstadt-Zigeuner (1932), but it was a true gem, directed by the Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with great verve and edited with playful intricacy. Despite its many stylistic flourishes, it’s a warm, humane portrait, and served as an excellent introduction to the main feature in this afternoon’s bill from the Other City Symphonies strand. The longer film was a document of Chicago, made by a German film-maker Heinrich Hauser in 1931. Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht uber Chicago (A World City in its Teens. A Report of Chicago) carried itself at an unexpectedly relaxed pace, puttering up the Mississippi on a paddle steamer for the longest time before reaching the metropolis, and even then, we moved slowly, until the film suddenly discovered the residents of the city. It was heartbreaking to see the poverty caused by the Great Depression, etched in the faces of men being turned away from labour exchanges. When workers unloading banana boats at the dock empty the rotten fruit into the river, another group of men in row boats appear to scoop them out of the water. Elsewhere in the city, too, on the south side in the streets largely populated by African Americans, on the lake beach bursting with sun worshippers, Chicago was defined by its people, not its towering skyscrapers. Hats off too to Philip Carli, for fantastic piano accompaniment for both films.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1

Accidentally Preserved Vol 3 review: a lost world of laughter

Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model
Wanted: A Nurse, Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model

If films can be accidentally lost, then it stands to reason that they can also be accidentally preserved. Doesn’t It? Silent film musician slash historian Ben Model certainly thinks so. This week he released the third DVD in his Accidentally Preserved series: a compendium of short silent comedies, fished from obscurity, with brand new musical scores by Model himself.

You shouldn’t expect to find the big four (or five? or six?) of silent comedy in these discs. Accidentally Preserved is for fans who want to delve a little deeper into the world of silent comedy, and spend a little time with lesser known names such as Al Christie, Jay Belasco, Malcolm “Big Boy” Sebastian or Sidney Drew.

Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model
The Whirlwind, Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model

First the science bit. The overwhelming reason that most silent films are lost is that they were reels of nitrate film, which were either mislaid and left to decay (nitrate decays terribly), destroyed in a fire (nitrate is also inconveniently flammable) or recycled to use for another movie or even melted down to make plastic goods. Neglect could mean a death sentence. 

The films that Model is releasing are from private collections of 16mm movies. These are silents that were printed on safety film stock (as the name implies, much less fragile that nitrate) mostly for home movie rentals. The 1930s and 1940s equivalent of Netflix being a 16mm projector and a subscription to a rental service. Some of the AP films were transferred to more stable stock for other reasons – for example, for rerelease or TV broadcast. 

Model hasn’t, by and large, restored these films, but rescued and scored them. And reinserted intertitles where necessary. That’s no mean feat in itself, and of course it means that via the Accidentally Preserved DVD releases, and Model’s YouTube channel,we get to see movies that we might never even have heard of.

Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model
No Vacancies, Accidentally Preserved Volume Three. Copyright: Ben Model

So what of the films in volume three? After the Drew/Barrymore season at Pordenone last year, the sight of Sidney Drew and his “missus” in Vitagraph’s Wanted: A Nurse (1915) was like greeting an old pal. This is the slightest of comedies, with Drew malingering in order to gain the attentions of a pretty nurse, but he is such a great comic actor that it works, for just as long as the running time allows.

I was also especially taken with The Whirlwind (1922), a sort of low-rent Steamboat Bill Jr (1928) in which a tornado howls into town causing havoc, especially in the residents’ love lives. The child actors in this one are particularly effective. And if you like them, you’ll love Malcolm Sebastian’s turn in Hot Luck (1928), in which the young scamp gets up to mischief with his pet dog, as per, or the poor infant in Whose Baby? (1929) rescued from an onrushing tram by Arthur Lake in his familiar role as Dagwood Bumstead.

Continue reading Accidentally Preserved Vol 3 review: a lost world of laughter

The Charlie Chaplin Archives review: a heavyweight addition to your collection

The Charlie Chaplin Archives
The Charlie Chaplin Archives

When Taschen sent me a copy of its latest book, I was overwhelmed. And so was the courier who brought it to my desk at work. Blimey, it’s big. Open the box, and you’ll discover that this is a very beautiful volume too. The Charlie Chaplin Archives is a stunning new book, which pays tribute to south London’s favourite son across 560 gorgeous pages crammed with quotes, archive imagery, classic film stills and snippets of Chaplinalia. It takes the reader step-by-step through all of Charlie Chaplin’s feature films and many of his shorter works. Along the way, you’ll find out how Chaplin made his movies, and a little bit more about Hollywood’s greatest ever rags-to-riches tale. As the foreword by editor Paul Duncan explains, Chaplin was famously secretive about the creative process, so these glimpses behind the camera are fascinating – especially when we learn how much was reworked and invented in the studio, rather than at the script stage. This is an oral history too: as much as possible, the story is told by Chaplin and his collaborators, from archive interviews and memoirs.

I wanted to do proper justice to a book that is so lavish and thorough and … majestic in scope. So I decided that the best way to review The Charlie Chaplin Archives was not with words, but with pictures.

Continue reading The Charlie Chaplin Archives review: a heavyweight addition to your collection

The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Louis Le Prince
Louis Le Prince

Would you like to discover the truth – messy, inconclusive and unflattering as it might be? Or would you rather be vindicated by discovering not only were you right all along, but the answer lay close to home, a triumph you could take personal pride in? For any rigorous film historian, there’s clearly a right and a wrong answer to that question. But wouldn’t we all veer a little to the latter option? And might, perhaps, the second denouement make a better movie?

Film producer and former actor David Nicholas Wilkinson would definitely choose the second path. His documentary The First Film records not a search for the origins of cinema, but his quest to prove that Louis Le Prince was its key progenitor. Wilkinson, a proud and dogged Yorkshireman, is on a mission to put Leeds on the early cinema map, by asserting that the Frenchman shot the first authentic moving images in that fair city. Step aside, Messrs Lumiére, Edison and Friese-Greene …

What follows is a meandering, engaging, often bizarre but definitely over-long tribute to two men and their obsessions: Le Prince and his determination to crack the problem of the moving image, and Wilkinson’s devotion to boosting Le Prince.

It’s a noble quest, and I applaud Wilkinson for taking it on. Inventor Louis Aimé Augustin Le Prince was born in Metz, France in 1841 but moved to Leeds in 1869 to work in a factory there. After several camera experiments, including a model with 16 lenses, in 1888, he succeeded in creating a moving image. He shot two short scenes, using a single-lens camera on paper film: a view of Leeds Bridge and a gorgeous domestic snippet called Roundhay Garden Scene. As such, he may well have been the first movie-maker, the “Father of Film”, the chap who beat all the rest to the punch. And it happened right here in the UK. We should be proud, and also outraged that other people have taken the credit. Wilkinson already is, more than enough for the rest of us.

Continue reading The First Film (2015) review: in pursuit of a cinema pioneer

Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

As of next week, Man With a Movie Camera could be coming to a big screen, or a Blu-ray machine, near you. And there’s always a good reason to watch Man With a Movie Camera again. First, because it’s such a stunning film: exhilarating, avant-garde and witty. And second, because each time you do, you’ll grapple with the questions it throws at you again – and just possibly come up with different conclusions. This magnificent movie may be a film studies set text, but it defies attempts at explanation, and in fact, it has a unique way of wriggling out of any category you might try to impose on it. Recently crowned top documentary of all time, it is also an experimental art film. It appears to be a City Symphony but it is a fraudulent one – filmed in three cities and naming none of them. Its absurdities of composition and action make the audience think of comedy, even cartoons and its trick cuts and frame manipulation are closer to animation than conventional film-making.

If I could rechristen this film as its director did himself when he went from plain David Kaufman to the far more evocative Dziga Vertov, I would call it Woman with a Moviola. The new name would be in honour of Yelizaveta Svilova, who edited the film with Vertov, and whom we see stitching together frames midway through the film. The man of the title clambers, and tilts and gets where the action is, that’s for sure, as any camera operator should do. But the magic of this film is in its elaborate construction, its celebration of those arts that are purely cinematic – not offcuts from other media. As Roger Ebert said when he reviewed the film in 2009: “It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it cinema.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Svilova is also arguably the least well-known of the “council of three” comprising herself, her husband Vertov and his brother-cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. And it seems appropriate to the film’s perversities to proclaim her the heroine: at this point, perhaps, the only way to look at Vertov’s film is sideways.

Continue reading Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control

Five films I saw at the 1st Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

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At this time of year, a silent film fan starts packing sun cream and sandals and contemplating a journey south to enjoy some warm weather and classic cinema in the company of like-minded souls. But there will be plenty of time to talk about Bologna later. This weekend just gone, I set forth in a southerly direction on the Bakerloo line, snaking under the Thames to the Cinema Museum in Kennington, south London. What I found there was very special indeed – and long may it continue. Everyone who was there with me will relish the idea of the Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend becoming a regular thing, and for the lucky among us, an amuse-gueule for Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna.

We love the Kennington Bioscope, that’s already on the record, so the Silent Film Weekend is a lot more of a good thing. The team behind the Wednesday night screenings, with the help of Kevin Brownlow and a few guest musicians, have translated their evening shows into a two-day event. And with the added bonus of delicious vegetarian food courtesy of the café at the Buddhist Centre next door. It was a triumph all round.

The programme for the weekend, which you can read here, packed in quite a few classics along less well-known films. I was more than happy to reacquaint myself with Ménilmontant (1926) and The Cheat (1915) – especially on high-quality prints projected by the genius Dave Locke and introduced by knowledgeable types including the afore-mentioned Mr Brownlow. What a joy also, to see the BFI’s Bryony Dixon proudly introduce a double-bill of H Manning Haynes’s WW Jacobs adaptations: The Boatswain’s Mate (1924) is surely destined for a wider audience. And if you haven’t seen Colleen Moore channel Betty Balfour in Twinkletoes (1926) you really are missing out.

But for this report I have decided to focus on the films that were new to me. I appreciate that’s an arbitrary distinction for other people, but this way I can fold in the element of … SURPRISE.

Continue reading Five films I saw at the 1st Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend

On Yer Bike: a History of Cycling on Film DVD review: rattling wheels and retro charm

Lady Cyclists (1899)
Lady Cyclists (1899)

London teems with cycles and cyclists. And though the sight of a pedal bike overtaking a double-decker always makes me chew my nails, this has got to be a good thing. While most of us are too sedentary, and too reliant on fossil fuels, cycling looks like a miracle cure for the whole human race. Heck, I have even been to a silent movie screening powered by stationary bikes hooked up to a generator. There may be something magical about these contraptions.

Which brings me to On Yer Bike, the BFI’s new archive compilation DVD of cycling throughout the years. Despite the exertions of Bradley Wiggins and co on their sleek carbon frames, cycling is decidedly retro. You couldn’t reach for a more solidly Edwardian image than a lady in a shirtwaist perched on a bone-shaker or a moustachioed gent atop a penny-farthing. And who doesn’t associate biking with their childhood? The pride when you lose your stabilisers; the terror when your parent lets go of the back of your tiny bike for the first time; a gleaming new cycle on your 11th birthday; or roaming around the local lanes with your best friends and a bag of sweaty sandwiches?

Continue reading On Yer Bike: a History of Cycling on Film DVD review: rattling wheels and retro charm

Silents by Claire Crowther review: like watching a silent film for the first time

The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)
The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928)

This book is the result of a powerful encounter that poet Claire Crowther had with a sublime silent film: The Passion of Joan of Arc directed by Carl Th Dreyer. The sadly prosaic truth of the matter is that Crowther’s first glimpse of Falconetti’s tear-streaked face was on YouTube, the result of typing “passion” into the search box, hoping to find an image to use in a poem. After seeing Joan, and being moved by it, Crowther set off on another search, however.

That YouTube moment sent Crowther on a silent spree, watching everything that she could find from cinema’s early years: from The ‘?’ Motorist to The Seashell and the Clergyman. Crowther was fascinated by the artistry of the films, by the mystery surrounding their production, and by the “gagged look” of the films’ stars.

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Charlie Chaplin: the Mutual Comedies DVD/Blu-ray review

Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)
Charlie Chaplin in One AM (1916)

This is not just a box set, more a lifestyle choice. Anyone who wants to spend a couple of hours laughing and crying with Chaplin can watch one of the features. But this new collection of the short films that Chaplin made at the Mutual Company in 1916 and 1917 offers a longer-lasting relationship with London’s favourite silent son.

Even at first glance, the BFI’s latest Chaplin release is a tempting treasure. The Mutual period includes some of Chaplin’s best and funniest shorts for one thing – the drunken ballet of One AM, the social bite of The Immigrant and Easy Street, the glorious mayhem of The Adventurer and The Cure. For the first time in the UK, all 12 Mutual films are presented on Blu-ray – and they have been newly, and immaculately restored too. These discs are a pleasure to watch. It beggars belief that these films are approaching their centenaries, because everything on screen is beautifully clear and impressively filmic, with rich detail and velvety blacks. Comedy this timeless defies age, and now the image of that comedy is every bit as immortal. I don’t have the recent Flicker Alley release to compare, but the word is that this improves on the quality of that set.

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Nitrate Picture Show 2015 review: putting the silver into the silver screen

nitrate picture show

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.

Nitrate. Dangerous, volatile, endangered, nitrate.

Its allure drew film curators, historians and cinephiles from around the world to the George Eastman House in Rochester, New York, last weekend, for the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show.

Nitrate, as a film base, was first developed in Rochester, by Eastman Kodak in 1889. It is a high-quality, but highly flammable, film stock which produces its own oxygen supply as it burns. A single spark from a torn frame during projection can set off a raging fire. Audience deaths from projection booth fires were not uncommon during the first few decades of cinema and nitrate’s ability to self-combust has caused several studio vault fires, including the tragic 1937 fire in which almost all of the Fox Film Corporation’s silent film holdings were lost.

Nitrate was discontinued in 1951 and strict regulations now govern its storage,transportation and projection. Only a few venues in the world are equipped to project it, including our venue, the Dryden Theatre.

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Hitchcock Lost and Found review: in search of the Master’s MacGuffins

LostAndFound

Alfred Hitchcock may be the only British director of the silent era we don’t automatically label “underappreciated”, or “little-studied”. From Leytonstone to Los Angeles his fame is global, his influence inescapable. After the films themselves, and the TV series, the books, the biopics, the magazine articles and yet more books, there isn’t a cinephile alive who can’t pronounce with some authority on the Master of Suspense.

One subject that all Hitchcock “experts” can expand upon is the MacGuffin device – the pursuit of an elusive object that drives the narrative of a film forward, allowing the business proper to take place along the way. One way of looking at this new book by scholars Alain Kerzoncuf and Charles Barr would be that it is a magnificent MacGuffin hunt. Hitchcock Lost & Found: the Forgotten Films goes after the grey patches on Hitchcock’s CV, the abandoned, incomplete or a loosely connected works that linger largely unwatched and unappreciated.

As well as missing films, this book tracks down the films that Hitchcock scripted, or art-directed, or otherwise assisted on, or one where he jumped into the director’s chair halfway through shooting. The discovery of a few reels of The White Shadow (Graham Cutts, 1923) in 2011 proves that a film doesn’t to be Hitchcock through-and-through to raise the heart rate. And it’s surely not too much to hope that on the trail of these MacGuffins, a hardy Hitchophile could learn a thing or two about Psycho, Rear Window and the man who made them? Not to mention that impressive string of surviving silents running from The Pleasure Garden to Blackmail or Hitchcock’s famously “lost” film, The Mountain Eagle?

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Review and competition – Neil Brand’s Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes

Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes, by Neil Brand.
Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes, by Neil Brand.

If you attend the occasional silent movie screening, like I do, you’ll have experienced a particular bittersweet feeling. As much as you enjoyed the show, you fear you could never quite recreate the magic. You know the film is out there waiting for you to watch again (somehow), but nine times out of 10, the improvised music that accompanied it lives only in the corner of your memory.

The genius of improvisation is that the melodies, or that special combination of them, are conjured out of thin air, and disappear just as fast. Unless … someone, say Neil Brand, were to sit down at the piano and record some of those tunes for posterity.

So that is exactly what Brand has done – he has released an album of some of his favourite tunes to accompany classic silent films (from Pandora’s Box to Safety Last!). It’s a pleasure to listen to, and an enjoyably infuriating silent movie quiz too: the sleeve notes will tell you which film each track belongs to: can you guess without looking, and for an extra 10 points, can you pinpoint the scenes that inspired each excerpt?

Over to Brand’s notes to explain further:

In this album I have tried, for the first time, to give my improvised silent movie accompaniments a little life of their own away from the films, as piano pieces. They carry the essence of my musical thoughts on what these films are about, but you can listen to them without knowing the films, and let the pieces create your own pictures in your head.

Those sleeve notes also include a short intro by Brand to each film. So if you like what you hear, and you haven’t yet encountered the movie in question … well you couldn’t really ask for a better introduction.

Pandora's Box (1929)
Pandora’s Box (1929)

I’ve had a listen to the album, and it really is wonderful. What I didn’t expect, was to feel the same shivers down my spine that I would experience when watching Louise Brooks dance, or Murnau’s camera swooping through the morning mist. This is the most evocative of music – I felt that I was in the film as much as viewing it, whirling through the streets of Berlin (People on Sunday), Charlestoning with Clara Bow (It), marching in step with John Gilbert (The Big Parade) and dangling precariously with Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!).

Continue reading Review and competition – Neil Brand’s Out of the Dark: Silent Movie Themes

The Dawn of Technicolor 1915-35 review: ‘A beautifully textured visual history’

Clara Bow, with her red hair on show
Clara Bow, in Red Hair (1928)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Rosie Taylor. An event producer and freelance film researcher and historian, Rosie is festival curator for Afrika Eye Festival, and assistant curator and head of digital media at the Slapstick Festival.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the arrival of The Dawn of Technicolor since I first saw James Layton and David Pierce’s presentation in Pordenone in October 2014. And the immediate thing that struck me when I first lay eyes on this book is its sheer size. It is second in size only to an enormous old and out-of-print book I have on Paul Cézanne – I’m going to struggle to fit it on my bookshelves!

The reason for its size is immediately obvious from looking at the cover, which boasts a closeup of a strip of “35mm nitrate Technicolor cemented print” from Fig Leaves (1926). As you turn the pages you are not overwhelmed by images (as I was originally expecting, which slightly disappointed me at first), but instead the book is carefully laced with a variety of photographs, film strips, diagrams, and images of archival texts and diaries, giving a beautifully textured visual history, which complements the reading nicely. The quality of the illustrations “reproduced almost entirely from original artefacts”, is excellent, so if like me you enjoy having a good look at everything, it’s exciting.

However, as much as one likes to take a gander at the impressive pictures, a bit of reading is also important. And, if I am honest, I did find the size of the book a little daunting at first. However, once I started reading, I discovered that the language is very accessible, and though it is essentially a factual history, it is passionately written without being too personal. It takes you through the complex and multifaceted aspects of the company’s development, giving a great sense of the personal and professional aspirations, challenges, set-backs, and triumphs – all to the point that I was rooting for the Technicolor team!

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Love Is All: 100 years of Love and Courtship (2014) review: a kaleidoscopic kiss with history

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

Love is private, intimate. Speak its name aloud and the spell is broken. Share it and the magic is shattered. Except, except … in the 20th century popular culture crashed into the space between lovers, the gap between two pairs of moist lips, the air that thrummed to their heartbeats. Pop music ran away with love, spinning out each precious moment of desire or sorrow for three minutes of passion and repetitive heartbeats. But the movies, arguably, got straight to the dirty bits first. In the dark of a cinema, that is to say a tent or a grubby room, crammed next to a sweetheart or a maybe-sweetheart in the dark, we could watch actors (imagine!) play-act the the motions of love: smooches in train carriages, swoons on the hearth. Illicit affairs, happy marriages, flings, crushes … all the joy and misery of human existence on the screen. And in the cheap seats (they were all cheap), a fumble, a fondle, a kiss or maybe more. And did I mention it was dark? A private act in a public place – disapproval be damned.

Kim Longinotto knows exactly what goes on in the dusky darkness of the Odeon. Her new collage film Love is All (2014) is a super-cut of romance: sexy, sedate or seditious. It’s a full-tilt rush for the hormones, soundtracked by the grizzled, tender love songs of Sheffield music legend Richard Hawley. Not strictly a silent film, this, but one in which the few fragments of dialogue are incidental, another instrument in the orchestra. Hawley sings what is on our lovers’ minds – what they actually have to to say is rather beside the point.

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Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015) review: a dialogue-free delight

Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
Animals fare far better in silents than talkies. The absence of dialogue puts them on an equal footing with their human co-stars, and what’s more, they’re cuter. The only place left in these synchronised days where feathered and furred characters can expect top billing is in animated movies – digitally rendered and belting out showtunes. While we have become accustomed to talking animals in children’s animations, ever since Mickey Mouse started to squeak, Aardman’s Shaun the Sheep is a gent from the old school, having stubbornly refused to articulate anything more complicated than a bleat for 20 years.

And now Shaun the Sheep, who like the most illustrious slapstick comedians, is both black-and-white and silent, has been given his very own feature film. And no bankable Hollywood name has been roped in to voice his inner monologue. While the advance publicity has not been playing up the silent angle, this is a dialogue-free delight, a champion of visual gags, physical comedy and unutterable joy. Following on from the 2007 series of short animations made for CBBC, Shaun and his fellows dwell in an almost wordless world, baa-ing and snorting and belching their feelings, just like their harrumphing two-legged companions. As in the shorts, the written word often appears as an incomprehensible squiggle – perfect for young children who would be challenged or bored by too many letters.

Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
Shaun the Sheep the Movie (2015)
But Shaun the Sheep has an adult audience too, who appreciated his seven-minute TV escapades not just as kid-friendly fun, but as throwbacks to the silent comedy greats. Aardman’s previous films have cheekily plundered the classics for plots and sly in-jokes – restaging The Great Escape in a hen coop for its feature debut, Chicken Run (2000). Shaun the Sheep the Movie is no exception. There’s barely a frame, or a foley effect here that isn’t a wink to Jacques Tati. And amid nods to Inception, Taxi Driver and The Terminator, there is a Hannibal Lecter-impersonating cat who wins the movie-reference game hands down. C’mon, you’d feel cheated without a mention of The Silence of the Lambs, wouldn’t you? There’s a tip of the titfer to classic British animation too. Shaun’s longing for a break from the farm’s daily grind of tedium and indignity accidentally results in a barnyard mutiny and more than a shade of Animal Farm.

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Diary of a Lost Girl (1929): DVD & Blu-ray review

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.

Louise Brooks and GW Pabst, an irresistible combination? Certainly Pandora’s Box (1929) caught lightning in a bottle, creating one of the most iconic female roles in all of silent cinema. In Pandora’s Box, Pabst and Brooks tease eroticism out of a certain ingenue naivety, whereas in her previous US films (A Girl In Every Port and Beggars of Life in particular) Brooks had offerede a slightly more world-weary sensuality. So it is no surprise that Pabst saw Brooks as the perfect person to play Thymian, the sheltered girl who will drop through the cracks of life via a workhouse for fallen women and prostitution.

This new Blu-Ray transfer of Diary of a Lost Girl (Tagebuch einer verlorenen, 1929) by Eureka’s Masters of Cinema label is a crisp and beautiful version of what is clearly an exploitation movie. As in Pandora’s Box, Pabst’s walks the tightrope of commenting on eroticism and sensuality; too often he falls off the tightrope into titillation. The film is set up for us to rue the difficult circumstances that lead to Thymian’s journey from a fine middle-class household down into poverty and eventually to selling her body. Except everything is still a bit clean. The reformatory is horrid, but only in comparison to her comfortable home – and its horridness is more due to a Miss Hanniganesque management rather than something inherent in the system. And there isn’t really too much criticism of Thymian’s shaming (AKA rape), and pregnancy. You get the sense that the original author (the film is based on a popular Margarete Böhme novel) and the film-makers are just following through the logical conclusion of these incidents. Instead, we end up with a somewhat warped fairytale, a slow-burn Snow White where the dwarves run a brothel full of happy hookers, or Cinderella with calisthenics.

Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)

There is a sensuality and rawness in Pandora’s Box, coming from Lulu’s naivity, which Thymian doesn’t share at all. At least by the time the film has put her through her paces as part of the reformatory’s  physical education routine, she has no sense of wild abandon. It is a wholly more sinister erotic thrill, underlined (perhaps a bit too heavily) by the matron whipping her gong and clearly getting far too much pleasure out of the whole affair. This part of the film could be subtitled Reform School Girls do gym:

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Spione (1928): DVD/Blu-ray review

Spione (1928)
Spione (1928)

Spies are cool.  Spy films are really cool. Spione, Fritz Lang’s epic high-octane espionage thriller from 1928, is exceedingly cool. This a sexy, dreamlike movie, heavy on the action and light on logic, which both anticipates and outpaces such noir favourites as The Big Sleep (1946). In fact, if you watch all two-and-a-half hours of this film without getting regular memory jolts of Hawks, Welles, Hitchcock and the whole pantheon of Lang’s future colleagues, I’d be hugely surprised.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. This is German Lang, not Hollywood Lang – and Spione is all the richer, and stranger, for it. Spione mashes up pulp fiction and lurid newspaper headlines with early film serials and adds in a twist of the fantastic and a dash of technolust. It’s a powerful brew.

Spione (1928)
Spione (1928)

“Throughout the world, strange events transpire …” runs the opening intertitle and that’s all the backstory you’ll get, folks. In a nameless country, a mysterious kingpin dispatches mercenaries and thugs to steal documents and sabotage treaty negotiations. The disruptive villain, Haghi,  is played by Rudolf Klein-Rogge, fresh from a similar role in Dr Mabuse, Der Spieler (1922), as a dangerously fascinating, if chilly, creature. It’s typical of this grand, sprawling movie that he’s not just a criminal mastermind but a banker too (boo-hiss) and a clown (say what?). Just go with it. And there’s no doubt whose side we want to be on, though, despite the best counter-espionage efforts of our upright-but-anonymous leading man Willy Fritsch, who goes by the digits No 326. The link between the two men is Sonja, a lethally blonde femme fatale, an employee of Haghi’s who falls for Mr 326: a seductive, dishevelled performance by Gerda Maurus.

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The Thief of Bagdad (1924): DVD/Blu-ray review

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

Just in time for Christmas, Masters of Cinema is rereleasing some more of its silent back catalogue, in gorgeous new dual-format DVD/Blu-ray editions. This is a Good Thing no doubt, and if there is one title especially suited for the pantomime season it’s The Thief of Bagdad (1924) – a middle eastern romp starring Douglas Fairbanks as Ahmed, a light-fingered adventurer, beautifully photographed and bulging with the last word in 1920s special effects.

Forget the effects for a minute though, forget Raoul Walsh behind the camera, Anna May Wong slinking around the corners, and William Cameron Menzies’s towering sets, and settle in for the Douglas Fairbanks show. This is Fairbanks at his very best: fortysomething, athletic, beaming, stripped to the waist and bouncing in and out of giant pots, swashbuckling and soaring through the air and under the sea. If you want to understand why Fairbanks was the King of Hollywood, this is a key text. He burns up the screen here, forcing you to smile, to chuckle, to gasp in awe at his latest trickery or feat of physical prowess, daring you to remain unmoved. It would take a heart of stone not to relent – it’s his ambition as producer that lends this film its grand scale, and his radiant personality that wins the audience’s affection as well as its awe.

The Thief of Bagdad (1924)
The Thief of Bagdad (1924)

But you will have to possess a mind as gymnastic as Fairbanks’ buff body not to be troubled by the fact that this movie is pure orientalist claptrap. It can be done – Fairbanks on a magic carpet with his princess Julanne Johnston by his side is a sight beauteous enough to tempt you into a little light doublethinking duty. Just like Ahmed, you’ll have to earn your happiness here. It’s not a nasty film, but it is an ignorant one. If it weren’t for the gloss of that stunning production design and the stardust sprinkled by its leading man, that would be all we had to write about. As it is, we can take heart from the fact that the guff that underpins this movie is mostly well-intentioned but misguided romanticism. Rather this, you could argue, than yet another flick where the only middle eastern characters are bloodthirsty terrorists.

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