Category Archives: Review

Slapstick Festival 2012: reporting back

Charlie Chaplin famously said that a day without laughter is a day wasted. If that’s true, then the three days I spent at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival were the most productive of my life. Morning, noon and night we chortled at physical comedy, from the gala screening of The General (in sparkling high-definition) to Chaplin’s early shorts, via a panoply of less well-known silent comics, from Larry Semon to Charley Chase. All the screenings were introduced by fans, that is to say historians, film collectors and comedians – but fans all the same.

I filed a report for the Spectator Arts Blog, about the web of influence and collaboration that connects all these comics, but there were other themes that emerged over the weekend too. David Robinson and Sanjeev Bhaskar lamented the fall in Chaplin’s popularity in this country in recent decades. Perhaps we British aren’t inspired by his life story, ending his days as he did, comfortable and well-loved, suggested Robinson, quoting commments made by Chaplin’s widow. Perhaps we’re not so ready to connect with the “emotional journey” of his films, posited Bhaskar, pointing to Chaplin’s stellar popularity in India. Whatever the reason, there was plenty of evidence of Chaplin’s genius and sensitivity on display at the weekend. Whether you’re already a Chaplin fan, or a budding convert, you may like to know that the Roundhouse in Camden, north London is showing The Circus in April. Robinson also drew our attention to Chaplin’s concern with social issues, noting that his speech at the end of The Great Dictator is as timeless as his comedy, citing for proof this YouTube mashup:

Elsewhere, Griff Rhys Jones obligingly “pratfalled” on the stage of the Colston Hall when introducing The General and Graeme Garden gave us a thorough introduction to the charms of Charley Chase, which went down so well, surely Chase is due for a new surge in fame. David Wyatt taught us all about the silent film industry’s ability to laugh at itself with a selection of early spoofs including Will Rogers’ burlesque of Douglas Fairbanks’ Robin Hood, a film I’ve always loved but considered way beyond the reach of parody. How wrong I was.

Pierre Étaix, who directed beautiful comedy films in the 1960s, was this year’s recipient of the Aardman Slapstick Award for Excellence in Visual Comedy. He tipped his hat to Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd and Laurel – and also to Harry Langdon and Snub Pollard (a name that sounds so much cooler with a French accent). He needn’t have bothered though: you can’t miss the influence of silent comedy on his work, which charmed the festival on Sunday night. Here’s a piece I wrote about him for the Guardian last year, and here’s one of his earliest shorts.

And the most bizarre outcome of the weekend? A fresh appreciation for Lloyd “Poor Boy” Hamilton, if only briefly, on Twitter. Enjoy:

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Hugo (2011): review

Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield and Ben Kingsley in Hugo (2011)

We’ll never know for certain whether the Lumière brothers’ cinematograph audience really were so terrified by a moving image of a train entering a station that they screamed and ran for the door. It’s an enjoyable urban legend though, and one that appeals to our idea of cinema as an immersive, perfect illusion. Martin Scorsese stages the moment twice in Hugo (2011) and by doing so makes a fair case for the story’s veracity. After all, this is a 3D film, and the savvy 21st-century viewers of this film may well have been flinching and ducking at stereoscopic images of barking dogs and speeding trains – and even the terrified patrons of the Grand Cafe – bursting from the screen.

There is more to Hugo than such cheap shocks, though. Scorsese mostly uses his 3D technology not to reach forward but to create a deep stage, as Georges Méliès so often did, pulling the scenery away from the centre of the frame to reveal more fantastical images within. Hugo‘s astounding, wordless opening sequence plunges from the Paris skyline into a train station clock, where a small boy, our hero, is gazing out at the city – we then follow him through staircases, ladders, corridors and across the concourse in one breathless swoop. It’s at this point that I knew I would want to watch Hugo again – it’s a giddily beautiful shot, and would persuade the hardest heart that there is a place for the intelligent use of 3D in cinema.

Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)
Asa Butterfield in Hugo (2011)

Inevitably, the pace drops after that, and the first half of Hugo is really rather a sedate, downhearted affair – particularly for a children’s film. Hugo (played sweetly by Asa Butterfield) is orphan. When his father (Jude Law) dies in a museum fire, and he is adopted by his drunkard uncle (Ray Winstone with a very slippery accent) – whose job it is to wind the clocks at the train station. When the uncle staggers out one day, never to return, Hugo decides to stay in the station winding the clocks and hiding from the station inspector (Sacha Baron Cohen) so as to avoid the authorities. He steals food, and also scraps of clockwork to fix a melancholic automaton his father salvaged from the museum where he worked – sentimentally, Hugo believes that when the robot is working again, it will write him a message from his father. It’s a fond, foolish hope, made more metaphorically adorable still when we realise that the machine won’t work without a key: a heart-shaped key. However, the film is saved from treacly sentiment by the appearance of a young friend for Hugo, the bookish, restless Isabelle (Chloe Moretz) and an enemy too: Ben Kingsley’s curmudgeonly toymaker, Papa Georges.

So much plot – and so many adorable flirtatious sub-plots among the station’s café-owners and stallholders – just to get us to the moment, about halfway through, when the automaton works, and we find out who Papa Georges really is. Now, the pulse of the film finally starts to race as the children voraciously explore the history of silent cinema, and the magical trick films made by Papa Georges in particular. Of course, Papa Georges is Georges Méliès (subtly played by Kingsley), and that’s no spoiler for readers of this blog. Scorsese’s recreation of Méliès’s studio is among Hugo’s most enjoyable sequences – the sugary colours, the pyrotechnics and lo-fi effects could be quaint, but these scenes are rendered with such love and attention to detail, it’s impossible not to feel a sharp cinephile thrill. For once, however, I am tempted to complain that this adaptation shouldn’t have been so faithful to its source. Brian Selznick’s pencil-illustrated The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a really gorgeous book, but its thin narrative feels even flimsier on the big screen, and spends a good hour pushing Scorsese away from the subject matter that is closest to his heart – and ours.

Hugo (2011)
Hugo (2011)

That said, Hugo has plenty to indulge a silent film aficionado – or to educate a young film buff. Harold Lloyd himself, dangling from the department store clock, and Hugo’s own, less jolly, homage; glimpses of Méliès at work and plenty of his films; the aforementioned Lumière moments; passing references to zoetropes and hand-tinting; even a clip reel of silent highlights. There’s also Baron Cohen’s broad slapstick, a nice sense of early 20th-century history and so many gorgeous movie posters in the background that you’ll want to leap up and freeze the projector. Hugo‘s biggest surprise is that the 3D enhances all this retromania. Whether or not we remember that the Lumières were aiming for 3D effect with that very first train movie, or that they subsequently reshot it with a stereoscopic camera, Hugo‘s look has a freshness and novelty that suits its subject matter. A switch of focus, a camera rushing along the station platform, a series of stepped cuts all look different in 3D – it’s as if we’re seeing these tricks for the very first time.

Hugo (3D) is released in the UK on 2 December 2011. And if you want to see some of Méliès’s films on the big screen – the Cine Lumière has two screenings planned for the weeks following the release.

Louis (2010): review

Anthony Coleman in Louis (2010)
Anthony Coleman in Louis (2010)

The difference between homage and pastiche is largely a question of respect. It perfectly possible to pastiche something you don’t care for very much, or don’t understand, whereas a homage aims to be a worthy tribute to the art that inspires it. Louis (2010) is a pastiche. It’s a glossy, fast-paced film, with a charming lead performance from the young actor who takes the title role – and it’s occasionally funny, too – but I didn’t feel the love.

Louis, a “modern re-imagining” of a silent movie, is ostensibly both a tribute to Louis Armstrong, whose early life is mythologised here, and to the films of Charlie Chaplin. These two aims get so terribly bungled that the film shifts its attention away from the young Louis and towards what should be a sub-plot, featuring a villain who looks, and moves, in imitation of Chaplin. The idea of having an actor (Jackie Earle Haley, who is really very good in the role) mimic the Tramp while playing such an unpleasant character is bizarre: he’s a corrupt local judge who is guilty of murder and extortion. We see him attempting to pay off the prostitute who has given birth to his child, and when that fails, trying to suffocate the newborn in question. Adorable.

Louis may be ludicrous, but it very nearly gets away with it. There’s an undeniable pleasure in clocking all the Chaplin references, Vilmos Zsigmond’s back-and-white photography is crisp and the speeded-up chase sequences are a hoot. Yes, the film is set in a deprived quarter of early 20th-century New Orleans, but Louis is designed as a retro fantasy and if it stuck to its comedy guns, it could have been a family-friendly caper. Sadly, however, Louis loses its way very early on.

What might have been a charming film about a young boy’s love for music gets lost when it wanders on to adult territory, specifically the brothel. The scenes inside the bordello are both sanitised and horribly puerile at the same time – the women perform raunchy, anachronistic dance routines in perfectly laundered white petticoats. It’s more like a pop video than a movie in these sequences, but they are enough to give the film its US ‘R’ rating. More problematically, the storyline involving a prostitute going back to work after having an illegitimate baby raises issues that Louis is not sophisticated enough to deal with.

And then there’s the music. The score, written by Wynton Marsalis and featuring many pieces by Armstrong himself and Louis Moreau Gottschalk, is played by a 10-piece band at a volume that goes way beyond “accompaniment” – meaning, at least, you can barely concentrate on the plot holes. There’s rich, squelchy brass in almost every scene, and the tempo rarely takes a breath. You do wonder whether the music was meant to accompany the film or vice versa.

Louis is filmed in widescreen, with looping, extended Steadicam sequences and crane shots – it’s not a perfect replica of a silent film, but it will remind you of one. I don’t mind that it’s “inauthentic” in the slightest. Modern silents should come in all forms, and the idea of a silent biopic of a musician with a live score is an inspired one. The problem with Louis is that it gets distracted from what it does best, and a Chaplin pastiche is no substitute for the real thing.

Read more about Louis.

The Nail in the Boot & Shoes: London film festival review

The Nail in the Boot (1931)
The Nail in the Boot (1931)

Two silent films, both with a lot to say, concluded the London Film Festival archive strand on Wednesday night. The double-bill of Soviet war film The Nail in the Boot (1931) and Lois Weber’s drama Shoes (1916) was not, we were assured, meant to be witty – rather it was a happy accident of programming. The films are from different times and continents, with contrasting styles. If they have anything in common beyond their titles, it is that they both issue moral warnings to the audience: look what can happen if you let your standards slip.

Expectations were raised for The Nail in the Boot when we were told that not only has it long been championed by our musician for the evening, Stephen Horne, but that he has won an award at the Bonn Sommerkino silent film festival for his accompaniment. And a spectacular soundtrack it was too, dynamic and inventive, incorporating accordion, flute and piano – often played in unconventional ways. Piano strings were plucked as missiles exploded in the battlefield; the accordion bellows hissed as soldiers were choked with gas. The same melody Horne plays on the accordion as the red soldiers celebrate a victory is repeated later on the flute after a terrible loss.

The film, by Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, I am Cuba) is in three sections: a battle scene featuring an armoured train under aerial bombardment; a nervy sequence when one soldier is despatched from the train to call for help, but is hobbled by the eponymous nail injuring his foot; a trial scene, which tips into fantasy, as the soldier is accused of sabotage. The first two thirds are by far the most thrilling, and not just because the trial scene carries the weight of the film’s propagandist message. Kalatozov’s combat scenes are unforgettable: frenetic montage, extreme close-ups (even inside a gun barrel) and low angles make the viewer feel as if they too are being bombarded. I lost count of the number of times the camera appeared to be run over by enemy tanks, but I’m sure I flinched each time. Modern audiences will enjoy Kalatozov’s extravagant use of formalistic trickery for the same reason that the Soviet authorities suppressed it – it draws attention away from the film’s message and towards the skill of the film-maker. His triumph is that his abstract style makes the violence more tangible, not less.

Reeling from the battlefield, we were all urging the soldier on as he raced across open country. Faced with barbed wire, and a bare, bandaged foot, he nobly attempts to climb the fence. We wince. He tries again. Aah. So many curled toes and pained faces in one audience.

The Nail in the Boot has recently been restored by Gosfilmofond, and although we had no information as to the state of the print before work began, the film we saw was crisp, clean, with a wonderful quality of light and rich in detail. The latter was particularly noticeable in a lattice of shadows cast by a broom on our protagonist’s face.

Shoes (1916)
Shoes (1916)

We had more clues about the restoration of Shoes (including a neat before-and-after comparison reel), which has been rescued from a blizzard of nitrate deterioration and bacterial damage by the EYE film institute in the Netherlands. Based on two tinted and toned nitrate prints with a few frames grabbed from a sarcastically dubbed 1930s version, the new Shoes is hugely improved, although it still retains unobtrusive marks at the edge of the frame in some scenes.

Lois Weber was one of the silent era’s very few female film directors and for that reason alone her work will always be of interest. Shoes is a simple enough tale of young shop worker, Eva (Mary MacLaren), who can’t afford a replacement pair of boots, and the moral dilemma she faces when opportunity presents itself, albeit in an unwelcome form. If it feels that Weber spends too long moralising in the title-cards, that may be because visually she expresses her heroine’s predicament so well. We were forewarned by as representative of EYE to play close attention to the end. After an hour spent walking in Eva’s tattered, sodden shoes, a 21st-century audience may find less to condemn or lament in the choice she makes.

At one point a superimposed hand labelled “Poverty” appears to crush Eva as she sleeps, but Weber’s touch is not quite always so heavy. While the film is always elegantly composed, the kitchen-sink details of slum life, from watered-down milk and sugar sandwiches to empty shelves and broken furniture are everywhere – Shoes is relentlessly unglamorous. Even MacLaren’s lead performance is sullen, quietly anguished, rather than melodramatic. If I were her, I’d be seething too.

The First Born: London Film Festival review

Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)
Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928)

When you’re watching a silent film and the whole audience gasps in horror and surprise at the same time, you know it’s not a museum piece you’re looking at. The First Born was released in 1928, just as Britain was first being seduced by those new-fangled “talkies”, but it has more than enough tricks up its sleeve to tempt moviegoers in any decade.

Chosen as this year’s Archive Gala for the London Film Festival, The First Born is a disarmingly frank story of sex and love among the aristo set, shot with precocious flair. Actor Miles Mander directs, and also plays the lead: a scoundrel of a baronet named Hugo Boycott, whose marriage is inevitably in crisis. Hugo and Maddie’s relationship runs hot and cold. One day they’re falling into each other’s arms, the next they’re having one of their rows – and real shoe-flinging, bag-packing, door-slamming humdingers they are too. Maddie (Madeleine Carroll) blames the arguments on her own jealousy, which is to say her pain at Hugo’s philandering. But there is another reason for the couple’s unhappiness: their childlessness. Whether this is anything more than the baronet’s old-fashioned desire for an heir is open to question, but Maddie certainly believes a baby will solve her marital woes. Hugo’s behaviour is fairly abominable at every turn, but his wife’s decision to deceive him in order to save their marriage provides the drama’s fatal twist.

And this is a complex story, with the truth about the Boycotts’ marriage and the outward appearance of it constantly at odds – a conflict that comes to the fore horribly when Hugo runs for parliament and a distraught Maddie is forced to stump for him at a public meeting. We can’t hear what Maddie is saying, and there are no intertitles to help us, just her pained expression, and superimposed cheers of encouragement from the crowd: “Good old missus!” They think she’s a sweetheart, Hugo thinks she’s a monster. Fans of The Graduate (1967) will note the speed with which their faces fall in the cab journey home. It’s delicately done, but it’s a heartbreaking moment.

The First Born is a wonderfully well directed film, in fact, eliciting a tremendous, anguished central performance from Carroll, and a sizzling one from her irresistibly dashing “noble admirer”, David (John Loder). Both actors, like Mander himself, went on to further success – Carroll most notably in The 39 Steps (1935) and The Secret Agent (1936), and Loder in another Hitchcock film, Sabotage (1936). Mander’s only venal directorial sin is vanity: he gives himself far too many lip-curling closeups, and risks turning Boycott into a pantomime villain. Mander’s performance is enjoyable, but it is not a tenth as sophisticated as his co-star’s. His virtue on the other hand, is his audacious use of camera movement, dissolves and overhead angles to disorient and excite the narrative. There’s one prowling handheld tracking shot that plunges the audience straight into the psyche of a suspicious husband, running his hands over ruffled bedsheets. Elsewhere, a sequence of dissolving closeups of Carroll and her manicurist Phoebe shows the transferral of one idea between two minds: a folie à deux in the making. We’re in the latter stages of the silent era here – Mander had made short sound films before but this was his debut feature – and The First Born is the work of a confident director on top of his material and with creativity to spare.

That’s not to say that he was not ably assisted. The screenplay for The First Born was co-written by Alma Reville, a woman with many years’ experience in the film business, but yes, better known to us now as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s tempting to credit her with some of the film’s sophisticated touches – from its elegant structure, to its sparse use of intertitles and the sensitive portrayal of Maddie as far more than just a wronged wife. The First Born is never afraid of emotional complexity, from the ambiguities of Maddie’s friendship with David, and her betrayal by a close friend, to a brisk montage of painfully contradictory telegrams.

The quality of the film should stand for itself, and those who have seen it at festivals over the years have long championed The First Born as a lost British classic. Critics at the time of its release thought it was a bit “sordid”, but they said pretty much the same thing about Pandora’s Box (1929), so there’s no reason that a film this accomplished, and entertaining, shouldn’t be embraced by a wider audience in the 21st century. And that is why the BFI has showered so much love on it. We see it now in a more complete state than before – frames from a 16mm print found in the George Eastman House in New York have been spliced in where there were gaps in the BFI’s 35mm copy, reinstating an expression here, an exit there, to make the film a more smoothly satisfying experience. Cue marks, scratches and holes have been erased and the original, delicate tints restored. The film also now benefits from a fresh score – composed by Stephen Horne and performed live at the gala screening. It’s melodic, and elegant, but fantastically adept at ramping up the tension in the crucial moments. There’s a haunting theme, played on the oboe and underscored by percussion and piano, that seems to appear when Hugo’s own jealousy gets out of control; there’s a humorous use of the accordion when Maddie’s friend Nina raises a sardonic eyebrow; and a thunderous combination of piano keys and strings during an unexpected violent catastrophe.

The exquisite new score is the finishing touch in the rebirth of The First Born – a fascinating film, ripe for rediscovery.

Wonderful London: London Film Festival review

Cosmopolitan London (1924)
Cosmopolitan London (1924)

This review is a guest post for Silent London by Ewan Munro of the Pubology blog.

Among the many wonderful restorations in the Treasures from the Archives strand at the London Film Festival this year was a programme of silent short films, nine- to 12-minute long travelogues from a series made in the early 1920s by film producer Harry B Parkinson, and entitled Wonderful London. The BFI National Archive chose six of these films to restore and present at what turned out to be a packed-out screening (attributed by silent film curator Bryony Dixon to a resurgence of interest in historic London).

The subject of these quirky little screen-fillers is, of course, London. And while there are certainly occasional shots of the tourist London we’re all familiar with, perhaps more interesting is the time spent looking around the corners, into the back streets and out into the suburbs of the working-class city. Street markets and grimy housing, docks, shops, scenes of daily life, and even a few pubs all show up in these films. The East, the North, the West End and the City all show up, though the South is represented by only a few shots of streets around the site of the Globe.

There’s Petticoat Lane market (still bustling today) and Club Row market (no longer), where live animals of all kinds are traded under the still-familiar railway arches down by Sclater Street (arches which now hold the lines leading to Shoreditch High Street station). There are grand West End theatres alongside street performers and Punch & Judy shows. There’s Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese pub, just off Fleet Street, one of the few views that hasn’t changed at all, even as we briefly spot the drays of long-defunct brewers such as Truman Hanbury Buxton and Mann Crossman’s. There are the flower sellers usually at work underneath Eros on Piccadilly Circus, but moved from this attractive spot due to London Underground construction works (little change there, though back then it was for the station’s grand booking hall). There are the canals around Mile End, Islington and Hackney (with a brief cutaway to show Broadway Market), mules working along their towpaths to pull the barges. This is just one example of perhaps the greatest change since these films were made: the extent to which the London shown is a city of industry and manufacturing, where the canals are still busy with freight and the docklands still bustling with ships.

Flowers of London (1924)
Flowers of London (1924)

This “unofficial” view of London is matched by the narration, with the intertitles frequently offering humorous asides and boundless sarcasm, especially in the Barging Through London film (any given intertitle card makes reference to dizzying speeds, as the film cuts to, say, a barge moving languorously under a bridge alongside Regent’s Park, while befrocked and behatted tourists on the way to London Zoo stop to watch). A personal favourite is the introduction of Southwark Bridge, newly constructed at a cost of £3 million and “sometimes it gets VERY busy”, cutting to show a few hackney carriages trundling across while a handful of people walk along the outside.

The titles remain fairly light-hearted, but this only exposes some of the period’s unpleasant attitudes, communicated with an at times disarming frankness, especially in the Cosmopolitan London short. In what must be a staged scene, the film’s “white trash” are swiftly kicked out of a “negro club” on Whitcomb Street, while the film is unsparing in its negative judgment on the poverty and unfriendliness of the Chinese population of Limehouse. When the film returns pointedly to scenes on Horse Guards Parade, it expresses greater relief at their comforting Englishness than perhaps the modern audience can muster. Nevertheless, the scenes of Limehouse provide interest when compared to similar ones staged for the roughly contemporaneous Piccadilly (1929).

Through it all, piano accompaniment is sensitively provided by Neil Brand, an accomplished master of the art. The tone is largely jaunty as befits the films, though he sensibly opts for a quieter register at key points towards the end of the Cosmopolitan London short, and a briefly uncomfortable silence within the auditorium at one point further brings into focus the discomfort engendered by the film itself (not to mention highlighting the very rarity of silence at screenings of silent films).

The restoration has been handled magnificently, and Scott Starck from the restoration team speaks before the film, rattling off a quick account of the process, along with dizzying statistics on the number of frames that needed repair. Colour tinting has been retained as per the original films, and this is used to good effect to depict the passing of the day in London’s Sunday, or the colours of the flowers in Flowers of London. One can only hope that the success of this screening leads to further such archival restorations and that the Wonderful London series may one day be available in its entirety.

Ewan Munro

The Artist (2011): London Film Festival review

The Artist (2011)
The Artist (2011)

Could a silent, black-and-white film really become a box-office hit in 2011? At festival after festival around the world, critics have been raving about The Artist (2011), Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to late-1920s Hollywood. Leading man Jean Dujardin has picked up the Best Actor award at Cannes, and thanks in part to Harvey Weinstein’s support, the Oscar speculation has already begun. Surely this is madness, though – even the director himself says, “nobody watches silent movies any more”.

But The Artist is gorgeous enough to make anyone lose their reason: it’s lushly photographed in silvery monochrome, romantic and funny, too. Dujardin’s sparkling performance as silent star George Valentin comes across like a new Douglas Fairbanks – but incredibly, he’s more suave – and when he bumps into Bérénice Bejo’s flirtatious flapper Peppy Miller, the chemistry is irresistible. The Artist tells the story of their troubled love affair, and the way their career paths diverge when the “talkies” arrive. The scene is almost always stolen, however, by Uggy, Valentin’s dog, whose adorable tricks will charm the most silent-sceptical of audiences.

So far, so sugary, but here’s another layer to The Artist. This is a film all about cinema: about the highest achievements, and the follies, of the silent era and all the films that have come since. The silent-film references come thick and fast: from Clara Bow to Erich von Stroheim, from the Fantômas serials to Spione (1928) to The Last Command (1928). There are even a few frames from The Mark of Zorro (1920) in the mix. The talkies get a look-in too, of course. Valentin’s blonde co-star recalls Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain (1952); his scenes with his wife riff on Citizen Kane (1941) and the score borrows liberally from Vertigo (1958). We’re so often watching a film within a film, or spotting a sly cinematic reference, that The Artist is almost a silent movie by stealth. Hazanavicius, like Dujardin, nearly always has one eyebrow raised about his own nostalgic project, sometimes to the detriment of the film. There’s a dramatic moment towards the end of The Artist that is almost entirely ruined by an intertitle gag, for example. It gets a laugh, but it’s a cheap one.

The Artist (2011)
The Artist (2011)

These knowing moments are dangerous, because they threaten to break The Artist‘s enchanting spell and pull the audience out of what is for the most part a dreamily seductive experience. At its best, The Artist is a triumphantly modern silent film, which shows the influence of Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Frank Borzage but never looks like a relic. I loved the early sequences when Valentin and Miller first fall for each other: their backstage tapdance, and their repeated takes of the same scene (from cool, to sexy, to loving and finally collapsing into giggles) are pure silent cinema magic. When Miller is alone in Valentin’s dressing room, she snuggles up to his suit jacket, slips one arm into the sleeve and begins to canoodle with herself. It’s a wonderful piece of visual film-making, and says far more, with more charm, than dialogue ever could. Silent cinema fans will recognise the move from a scene in Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), when Janet Gaynor shrugs her lover’s jacket on to her shoulders and wraps the sleeves around her. It has to be said, though, that The Artist‘s version is a lot sexier – it’s not 1927 any more.

The Artist isn’t always so cuddly. The lively, if anachronistic, score is not quite continuous; it’s brave enough to drop away for a moment’s pause, leaving the cinema in dead, unaccustomed, silence. That’s a bold move, and a self-conscious one, too. And as Valentin’s confidence takes a knock, expressionist shadows, spinning headlines, trick photography and one audacious nightmare sequence are all piled on to make us feel his pain. Sadly, it’s here that the film veers between homage and pastiche, and suffers just a little in the process. Does Hazanavicius want us to love silent cinema, or to laugh at it? Ultimately, The Artist doesn’t want to answer that question, it just wants to entertain, which it does, brilliantly.

I entered the cinema worrying about whether this film will be able to charm mass audiences or just film buffs and furrowing my brow over whether its potential success could spearhead a silent film revival. As the credits rolled I really didn’t care any more. The Artist is a joy and it doesn’t deserve to be weighed down with such responsibilities. If you’re watching it at the London Film Festival this week, you’re in for a treat.

For the rest of us, Launchingfilms.com currently lists the UK release date as 30 December 2011.

The Goose Woman: London Film Festival review

The Goose Woman (1925)
The Goose Woman (1925)

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

During his interesting (if incredibly long) introduction to The Goose Woman at its London Film Festival screening, Robert Gitt suggested that Louise Dresser would have won an Academy Award if the ceremony had existed in 1925. Having watched the film, few will disagree with his assessment. Dresser plays Mary Holmes – the eponymous goose woman – an alcoholic, embittered old crone living on a remote farm. Twenty years earlier, she was Marie de Nardi, a beautiful singer on the cusp of fame, but she gave up her career to have her son Gerald (Jack Pickford) and now she has nothing but her memories, her geese and a pile of broken booze bottles outside her window. Dresser’s performance as this unsympathetic protagonist is remarkable, expressing sadness, regret and bitterness through her subtle but forceful acting.

Clarence Brown’s film is adapted from a story by Rex Beach, which was itself based on the real-life “Pig Woman” case (heavily publicised by William Randolph Hearst’s press at the time). It’s the tale of a murder that Mary claims to have witnessed, milking the subsequent publicity and press attention for all it’s worth, and propelling herself back into the spotlight, but her fabricated account of what happened that night inadvertently frames her own son for the murder. This narrative is given an extra charge by the tensions that are already simmering between Mary and Gerald, with Mary blaming her son for her ruined career, and their relationship reaches its nadir when she hits him with a revelation about his parentage that’s so shocking the film can’t even articulate it. The Goose Woman is so coy about the nature of this secret that for some time I wasn’t sure what it was; all we see is Mary spitefully mouthing the truth as her son recoils in horror, and then he tearfully runs to his fiancée Hazel (Constance Bennett) who reacts with similar dismay.

Aside from that confusing plot niggle, The Goose Woman‘s story is handled with great skill and sophistication by Brown, who keeps the action down-to-earth and rooted in character, sustaining an impressive level of suspense (with welcome burst of humour) until the final scenes. He has a great eye for detail and there are some lovely, telling moments scattered throughout the movie, like the running gag involving Mary’s attempts to hide her whisky bottle, or her habit of judging every man she meets by rubbing his business card (if you don’t have embossed lettering, you’re not worth a damn, clearly). His visual style is simple but effective, and he puts together a terrific sequence during Gerald’s interrogation, cutting away to a dripping tap, nuts being cracked and coins jangling, as the suspect’s anxiety grows. This latter scene is also the kind of interlude that allows accompanist Stephen Horne to get creative on his piano and flute; as ever, his playing at this screening caught the tone and mood of the picture perfectly.

In the years following this film, Brown went on to direct a number of stars to some of their most celebrated performances (including Greta Garbo, who called him her favourite director) and it’s clear from The Goose Woman that he was very much an actors’ director. All of the performances here are a pleasure to watch, particularly the scene-stealing James O Barrows and Gustav von Seyffertitz as a detective and district attorney who have a competitive relationship in the movie’s background, and it’s nice to see Jack Pickford – so often in his sister’s shadow – given a rare chance to shine. However, The Goose Woman ultimately belongs to Louise Dresser, whose outstanding lead performance, like the film itself, deserves to be rediscovered and celebrated.

Philip Concannon

A Trip to the Moon: London Film Festival review

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

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

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

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

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

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

Philip Concannon

Highlights from the 2011 Pordenone Silent Film Festival

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you Ellie.

100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

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

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

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

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

Continue reading 100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

The Artist (2011): The Cannes reviews

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

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

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

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

Continue reading The Artist (2011): The Cannes reviews

The British Silent Film Festival: reporting back for the Guardian

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

The 14th British Silent Film Festival was held at the weekend, in the Barbican, the Cinema Museum and the BFI Southbank. A full report of the films, the lectures, the music and the gossip* will be forthcoming on this blog shortly. Meanwhile, here’s a piece I wrote for the Guardian Film Blog. It’s not quite a roundup of the festival, but it brings together some of the things we learned about silent film and music over the weekend – and I hope you enjoy it. If you were at the festival, let me know what you made of it, too.

*Maybe

Battleship Potemkin: review

Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin (1925)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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