Category Archives: Screening

All aboard the Silent Railway Day at the Kennington Bioscope

What’s better than a film set on a train? A silent film set on a train. You know it’s true, and so do the wonderful people at the Kennington Bioscope, who have compiled a day of railway-themed silent films with live music for next month.

Taking place at the glorious Cinema Museum on 7 July 2018, this event should prove the perfect pick-me-up for those who missed out on Il Cinema Ritrovato, or who went, but already miss spending all day watching old films with fabulous people.

It’s bound to get pretty steamy, too …

Here are the details from the Bioscopers themselves:

An all-day excursion into the greatest railroading moments of silent cinema. Thrill to the train of events that put movie heroines Ruth Roland, Helen Holmes and Gloria Swanson in peril! Express hilarity with Monty Banks aboard a runaway train, and sneak ‘A Kiss in the Tunnel’ from 1899! Signal your approval of Jean Arthur in ‘The Block Signal’ (1926).
Climb aboard ‘The Flying Scotsman’ (1929), in the rare silent version that differs radically from the talkie. Take a round trip with Kevin Brownlow as he pilots ‘The Runaway Express’ (1926) before conducting us through the making of Abel Gance’s ‘La Roue’ (1923). Ride along with the  ‘Railroad Raiders of ’62’ (1911) – a precursor to Buster Keaton’s ‘The General’ – which will be rolling in from the sidings alongside other shorts, from the Lumière brothers’ famous ‘L’arrivée d’un train en gare’ de ‘La Ciotat’ (1896) to a hair-raising journey ‘When the Devil Drives’ (1907). After that, don’t be afraid of ‘The Ghost Train‘ (1927), the first film adaptation of the famous stage play by a (very) pre-Dad’s Army Arnold Ridley. The booking office is opening NOW so couple up to a season ticket for the whole day!

Kevin Brownlow on Abel Gance! Rare silents! Live music!

The Silent Railway Day takes place at the Cinema Museum, 2 Dugard Way (off Renfrew Road), London SE11 4TH, from 10am (doors 9.30am) to 10pm on 7 July 2018. Full-day tickets cost £18, or £10 for a half-day ticket, or £5 for the last show only. Book tickets here. Or find out more at kenningtonbioscope.com where you can read all about the regular silent screenings, at which you can see all manner of beautiful and rare silents with live music on a Wednesday night.

The Ghost Train (1927)
The Ghost Train (1927)

You haven’t been to the Kennington Bioscope yet? Hush your mouth. It’s a really vibrant element of the rich silent film culture in this fantastic city, and should be a regular fixture in your diary. As I reported on this site back in 2015:

Since 2013, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best  – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out …Long may it run, and run – the Kennington Bioscope is a cherished addition to London’s silent film scene.

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Bologna tips: A beginner’s guide to Il Cinema Ritrovato

A few years back, when the world may not have been young but this blog certainly was, and I had begun to hit the silent film festival trail, I received some alarming advice from Neil Brand. “What you really want to do as well,” he said, “is to go to Bologna. The weather’s great, the food’s amazing – and there are even talkies, too.”

Well two out of three ain’t bad. By Bologna, Neil meant Il Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of archive cinema that takes place every summer. Ritrovato means something like rediscovered. So, fittingly this festival shows rediscovered films, but also rarely seen films, films on rare formats and vintage prints, and newly restored films too. Largely, anything more than thirty years old qualifies for the festival, which gives it a giant scope.

I knew lots of people who went to this festival, but as always with anything new, I was a little wary to dipping my toe in the water. Worst-case scenario – I might really enjoy it and develop an expensive habit. So, the first year I went for just three days, then I skipped the next year and was filled with regret. For the past three years running I have turned up for about five or six days, almost the whole thing. And every time I have had a ball. Great films, in vast quantities, and a celebratory atmosphere that is almost as warm as the Italian sunshine.

Are you pondering a trip to Bologna this summer? I know some Silent London readers are Ritrovato regulars, but for those who haven’t had the pleasure yet, here are some hints and tips for getting the most out of the festival (without breaking the bank). Continue reading Bologna tips: A beginner’s guide to Il Cinema Ritrovato

Hippfest 2018: I left my heart in Bo’ness

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

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

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

Toute La Mémoire du Monde 2018: Silents, Cinerama and scares

I’m a Europhile, so imagine my shock to see ‘Frexit’ posters on the streets of Paris. In one respect at least, I hope France can learn from our own messy example. Our own deed has not yet been done, and even when it has been, and we have well and truly Brexited, I suspect there will still be yellow stars looped around my heart. So in the spirit of European togetherness, I am always happy to pop over to Paris at the drop of un chapeau to watch old movies and connect with my silent-film-loving friends.

This weekend was just such an occasion – I am posting this on the train home to London. Toute La Mémoire du Monde AKA the International Festival of Restored Cinema, takes place in the drizzly days before spring has truly sprung, at the Cinématheque Francaise and a handful of other cinemas in Paris. This is the sixth edition, and it’s a slightly odd festival, very serious in atmosphere for one so young, despite the fact that it features such populist events such as Russ Meyer all-nighters, and celebrity guests including, this year, Wim Wenders. It’s as diverse in scope as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, but not as welcoming or as easy to navigate. Still, I think of it as a rather shy friend, who always has something fascinating to say if you can coax it out of her. With that in mind I spent two and a bit days in Paris this year, seeing as many silents as possible, and some talkies just for luck. I do it all for you, mes amis!

Silence (1926)
Silence (1926)

Continue reading Toute La Mémoire du Monde 2018: Silents, Cinerama and scares

The divine diva: Assunta Spina at Glasgow Film Theatre

UPDATE/EVENT RESCHEDULED: the below event was scheduled to take place during the 2018 Glasgow Film Festival, but due to the bad weather, it has now been rescheduled for 9 May, at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Please see this message from Glasgow Film Festival:

The event has been rescheduled for Wednesday 9th May in GFT with a start time of 8pm. All tickets will remain valid. We apologise for any disappointment and thank you for your understanding and patience. If you are unable to attend on 9 May, please contact ticketing@glasgowfilm.org with the subject line ‘Assunta Spina’.

Every good film event deserves a diva, and the Glasgow Film Festival has one of the best. This is just a short note to bring your attention to a special screening in Glasgow next month of the wonderful early Italian film Assunta Spina, starring the incandescent Francesca Bertini.

Assunta Spina (1915) is the tale of a young and beautiful laundress (Bertini, naturally) living in Naples. Assunta is engaged to possessive, aggressive butcher, but courted by another man. When her fiancé’s jealousy erupts in violence, Assunta is forced to make a terrible sacrifice to save the man she loves. It’s a passionate, highly dramatic story, and Bertini’s high-voltage acting style suits it perfectly. One of the other pleasures of the new restoration of this film is the depth of the original colour tinting, which resonates perfectly with the film’s emotional vibrancy.

Assunta Spina (1915)

The festival has collaborated with Shona Thomson, AKA A Kind of Seeing, to commission a new score for the film by Scottish-based Italian folk band The Badwills, who will also play some more after the film. And the screening takes place in the gorgeous St Andrew’s in the Square, a former 18th-century church. It’s bound to be a very atmospheric evening.

Passion. Jealousy. Revenge. Join us for a rare screening of this silent Italian drama with a new live score by seven-piece band The Badwills, followed by Italian folk dancing in the grand setting of St Andrews in the Square. Assunta Spina stars Francesca Bertini, one of Italian cinema’s greatest ‘silent diva’ actresses, smouldering on-screen as she’s caught up in a violent love triangle. Complementing the film’s striking Neapolitan backdrop, this new score is co-commissioned by Glasgow Film Festival and A Kind of Seeing. After the film, enjoy The Badwills’ furious live music and try your hand at some traditional Italian dancing. Tambourines at the ready!

 

Francesca Bertini herself
Francesca Bertini knows the truth!

 

 

 

 

Around India with a Movie Camera: the ghosts in the archive

“You guys have a lot of excruciating RP in your archive.” Director Sandhya Suri is at BFI Southbank describing the joys and pains of making her fascinating new compilation film Around India with a Movie Camera. In a Q&A session after the premiere of the film, Suri explains that while the BFI offered her a selection from its stash of films of and about India up to 1947, she insisted on watching it all herself. That meant viewing more than 130 films, all of which had been digitised as part of the Unlocking Film Heritage project. At least, until the clipped, plummy accents became too much to bear.

Suri’s film is really remarkable, making use of some occasionally beautiful films to tell a complex story. Some of the most breathtaking silent footage features includes a lushly stencil-tinted film of Villenour or the famous 1899 Panorama of Calcutta, which, a caption tells us, was actually shot in Varanesi.

Around India with a Movie Camera (2017)
Around India with a Movie Camera (2017)

Continue reading Around India with a Movie Camera: the ghosts in the archive

Colour in Film 2018: early cinema is not just black and white

Good news for dyed-in-the-wool fans of colour film in all its multiple chemical, electronic, stencilled and washed forms. The Third International Conference, Colour in Film, will take place 19-21 March 2018. The first two days will be at BFI Southbank, and the third will be at Birkbeck College, University of London.

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As usual there will be lectures, presentations and screenings as well as a special  workshop by University of Zurich’s projects ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors and SNF Film Colors Technologies, Cultures, Institutions led by Prof. Dr. Barbara Flueckiger.

All films will be shown in NFT3, and included The Ruins of Palmyra and Baalbek (1938), This is Colour (1942) and Münchhausen (1943). Sessions devoted to early film include a presentation by Bryony Dixon on Applied Colour, one by Olivia Kristina Stutz on The Transparency of Early Film Colours and Eirik Frivold Hanssen on Polar Colours in Roald Amundsen’s Films, Photographs, and Writings.

munchhausen- ball.jpg To read the full programme, find out who else is attending, and book your place, visit the Colour in Film website.

Hippfest 2018: unveiled!

It’s that time of year again, when we get to delve into the Hippfest programme. The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, Scotland, is the most welcoming event in the early cinema calendar, with one of the most glamorous venues. The lineup is always an enjoyable mix of the classic and obscure too, so I await this announcement with more interest than most.

You can read the full lineup and schedule on the Hippfest website, but here are some selected highlights – and yes, I am terribly, terribly biased.

Der Schatz (1923)
Der Schatz (1923)
  • Pabst! So much Pabst around these days, which is great. The Hippfest is showing GW Pabst’s first film, the most traditionally expressionist of his career, Der Schätz, with live accompaniment written and performed by acclaimed German composer and musician Alois Kott.
  • More Pabst! On 22nd March, yours truly will be giving an illustrated “Cuppa Talk” lecture entitled Lost Girls and Goddesses, all about women in Pabst’s silent films. Brooks, Garbo, Nielsen, Helm … all will be in (virtual) attendance.
  • Galas! The opening night screening has already been announced as The Last of the Mohicans with live accompaniment from David Allison.
  • On the Friday night, get yourself glammed up for a date with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, with live music from the maestro Neil Brand. This silent comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is perfect in practically every way. And Brand, yeah he’s a bit of a legend too.
Lon Chaney in The Penalty
Lon Chaney in The Penalty
  • Lon Chaney swings by on Saturday night. You can watch him play “the master of the underworld” in The Penalty with a new score, commissioned by the festival, from Graeme Stephen and Pete Harvey on guitar and cello.
  • Stick around after The Penalty for an ideal late-night movie: Benjamin Christensen’s loopy Seven Footprints to Satan, with a live score from the always excellent Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. This film has to be seen to be believed!
  • Sunday night closes with two screening of recent BFI silent restorations. First, the sumptuous Indian romance Shiraz, accompanied by the wonderful John Sweeney, and then Anthony Asquith’s Underground, accompanied live by the dream team of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.

Continue reading Hippfest 2018: unveiled!

Buster, Denny and Dutch: all in a day at the Slapstick Festival

A little of what you fancy does you good. Right? I think so, and with that in mind I treated myself to a day of giggles at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival. My seventh visit, and suitably, I saw some heavenly sight gags.
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Buster Keaton, who made his first appearance on film 100 years ago, was the special focus of the festival’s silent offering this year. So it’s no surprise that I had two dates with Mr Keaton in one day. First, an energetic, and thought-provoking lecture on the Great Stoneface’s masterpiece The General (1927), by Peter Kramer, author of the recent BFI Film Classic monograph on the film. I really liked what he had to say about the film’s depiction of the Old South, and the punishment meted out to Annabelle Lee as the film continues. Plenty to consider, and I think he’s exactly right about Lee. What’s great about her character is that she behaves badly, gets punished and then grows a little. A carefully drawn female character, capable of personal development, in a silent comedy? Cheers to that.
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Dorothy Sebastian’s Trilby Drew in Keaton’s MGM silent Spite Marriage (1929) also faces a bruising punishment for her sins – hilariously so, in the sequence when Buster manhandles her passed-out body into bed – but I don’t buy into her transformation as much as I do Annabelle’s. Anyway, this film is frequently hilarious, while being more of a series of sketches forced into a feature than a narrative flick, and it was an excellent way to end my day at the festival. Not least because of sublime accompaniment from the European Silent Screen Virtuosi, AKA Gunter Buchwald, Romano Tadesco, and Frank Bockius, who made a late but welcome appearance after the film had begun. We were fed some line about Bockius being caught up in traffic, but I have read enough rock biogs to know what drummers get up to. Even Trilby Drew would blush, I’m sure.

Continue reading Buster, Denny and Dutch: all in a day at the Slapstick Festival

Divine inspiration: Greta Garbo and Carl Davis at the Royal Festival Hall

The divine Greta Garbo, queen of the close-up, is celebrated in a special event at the Royal Festival Hall in March. One of her full-length Hollywood features and the only remaining reel of another, will screen with orchestral accompaniment by the Philharmonia Orchestra . The really good news is that they will be playing scores by the maestro Carl Davis.

The Mysterious Lady (1928)
The Mysterious Lady (1928)

The feature film is The Mysterious Lady, in which Garbo stars as a Russian spy who falls in love with the man she is supposed to be stealing secrets from, a soldier played by Conrad Nagel. It’s one of my favourite Hollywood romance, filled with glamour, lavish sets and smouldering passion from the two sultry leads. This will be shown alongside the single recovered reel from The Divine Woman, a drama based loosely on the life of Sarah Bernhardt and directed by Victor Sjöstrom. Garbo’s co-star in this is Lars Hanson – you may remember their chemistry from Flesh and the Devil.

 

 

Shiraz: coming to a screen near you soon

Were you at the Barbican for the London Film Festival Archive Gala last year? It was a really special evening: the premiere of the BFI’s immaculate new restoration of Indian-Anglo-German romance Shiraz: A Romance of India with a stunning new score composed by Anoushka Shankar. I was there, and you can read my review here.

However, whether you missed out, or you just want to relive the magic, there is good news. Shiraz gets a theatrical release very soon – it lands in cinemas from 2 February 2018. If you want to take Shiraz home, you’ll be able to buy it on DVD/Blu-ray on 26 February too. You’ll also be able to watch Shiraz on the BFI Player, and BBC4 will broadcast a behind-the-scenes documentary on the recording of Shankar’s ambitious score at some point during the year.

Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography
Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography

Last night I had a sneak preview of the DCP of Shiraz – the digital version that will be shown in cinemas and appear on disc, with the recorded score. A repeat viewing confirmed that this is an especially gorgeous film, with beautifully composed frames full of detail. The first time round I was distracted by the leading players, but on second viewing the landscapes in the background caught my eye, not to mention a donkey scratching his neck on a tentpole, a potter spinning his wheel. And sorry, Hollywood, but all your grandest designs can’t compete with the stunning architecture in this film. Shankar’s score, too, is full of surprises, bold decisions and graceful melodies. The range of instruments and styles in this piece of music is really breathtaking, and yet it’s always sensitive to the film – a really accomplished silent movie score.

Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

There may be more good news too – although you’ll have to cross your fingers. The BFI hopes to stage some more screenings of the film with the music played live, but we will just have to wait and see …

Buster and beyond: silent comedy at the 2018 Slapstick Festival

More silent film goodness to look forward to in 2018, and this time a little closer to home.

The 2018 edition of Bristol’s Slapstick festival takes place at venues across the city centre from 25-28 January and tickets are on sale now. If you’re not familiar with this event let me tell you how it breaks down. Funny films. Funny people. That’s it, really. The Slapstick Festival celebrates the tradition of visual comedy on screen, beginning in the silent era. And it invites famous comedians to present and share their favourites, as well as a host of experts and the best silent movie musicians in the business.

So next year, silent comedy fans can look forward to:

Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)
Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)
  • The Silent Comedy Gala at Colston Hall on Friday night will be hosted by Tim Vine. The headline film is the superlative Sherlock, Jr, accompanied by Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life and Angora Love, starring Laurel and Hardy. The Buster Keaton feature will be accompanied by the world premiere of a new, semi-improvised score composed by Günter Buchwald and performed by the renowned European Silent Screen Virtuosi and members of Bristol Ensemble. A Dog’s Life features Chaplin’s own composition for the film and will be performed by a 15-piece Bristol Ensemble conducted by Buchwald.
  • Comedian Lucy Porter introduces two screenings of female-led silent comedies at the Watershed Cinema: Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen, and Constance Talmadge in Her Night of Romance. Porter is great at these intros, both knowledgeable and passionate, so don’t miss these. Music by John Sweeney too.

Skinner's Dress Suit (1926)

  • Someone else who is rather good at introducing silent movies is Kevin Brownlow, who will introduce a lesser-known film, Skinner’s Dress Suit, starring the brilliant Laura La Plante and Reginald Denny. Piano accompaniment by Daan Van den Hurk.
  • Meet the Austrian answer to Laurel and Hardy, Cocl and Seff, with a screening of some of their rarely seen work at the Watershed, with music by Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
  • And there will be a chance to see even more rare films at a screening called Lost and Found, in which collector Anthony Saffrey and historian David Robinson will present some recently rediscovered silent comedies, from André Deed (AKA Foolshead) Marcel Perez, Max Linder, Karl Valentin and more. Music will be provided by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Daan Ven den Hurk.

Continue reading Buster and beyond: silent comedy at the 2018 Slapstick Festival

Weimar Cinema Revisited at Berlinale 2018

An early Christmas present for silent film fans in the form of some excellent news from the non-archive festival circuit. The retrospective strand at next year’s Berlin Film Festival will be devoted to Weimar Cinema – one of the most exciting, attractive periods in film history. Not only that but we can expect a sweep of some lesser-known titles, including new restorations.

According to the director of the retrospective strand, Rainer Rother: “Now, with this thematic look back, it’s time to turn our attention to the films that are not necessarily part of the inner canon.

“The diversity of the Weimar film landscape is best grasped via the works of filmmakers who are not usually counted among the great and prominent directors of the era. The variety of the films, by directors as varied as Franz Seitz, Sr. (Der Favorit der Königin, 1922), Hermann Kosterlitz (The Adventure of Thea Roland, 1932), and Erich Waschneck (Docks of Hamburg, 1928), is evident in the abundance of not only differing subject matter, stories, and characters, but also aesthetic approach. Looking at this legendary epoch in German film history from a new perspective reinforces its artistic reputation.”

Continue reading Weimar Cinema Revisited at Berlinale 2018

The Four Just Men and the early British thriller

thrillThis guest post is an edited version of an article on the origins of the early British thriller by Bryony Dixon, curator at the British Film Institute. The full article appears in the BFI’s new compendium on the thriller, Who Can you Trust?,  now available in the BFI shop.

Next month’s Sunday Silent at the BFI Southbank is a rare chance to see a rare early film version of Edgar Wallace’s first great success, The Four Just Men. Released in 1921 by the Stoll Company, it was adapted by its director George Ridgewell, who worked on many of the Sherlock Holmes episodes for the same company. It’s a well-made film – nothing fancy but surprisingly competent for its year – from a well written novel, in fact a novel that is noticeably cinematic.

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Try this passage from the opening of the original novel:

A NEWSPAPER STORY

On the fourteenth day of August, 19—, a tiny paragraph appeared at the foot of an unimportant page in London’s most sober journal to the effect that the secretary of state for foreign affairs had been much annoyed by the receipt of a number of threatening letters, and was prepared to pay a reward of fifty pounds to any person who would give such information as would lead to the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons, etc. The few people who read London’s most sober journal thought, in their ponderous Athænaeum Club way, that it was a remarkable thing that a Minister of State should be annoyed at anything; more remarkable that he should advertise his annoyance, and most remarkable of all that he could imagine for one minute that the offer of a reward would put a stop to the annoyance.

News editors of less sober but larger circulated newspapers, wearily scanning the dull columns of Old Sobriety, read the paragraph with a newly acquired interest.

“Hullo, what’s this?” asked Smiles of the Comet, and cut out the paragraph with huge shears, pasted it upon a sheet of copy-paper and headed it:

“Who is Sir Philip’s Correspondent?” As an afterthought—the Comet being in Opposition—he prefixed an introductory paragraph, humorously suggesting that the letters were from an intelligent electorate grown tired of the shilly-shallying methods of the Government.

The news editor of the Evening World – a white-haired gentleman of deliberate movement – read the paragraph twice, cut it out carefully, read it again and, placing it under a paper-weight, very soon forgot all about it.

The news editor of the Megaphone, which is a very bright newspaper indeed, cut the paragraph as he read it, rang a bell, called a reporter, all in a breath, so to speak, and issued a few terse instructions.

“Go down to Portland Place, try to see Sir Philip Ramon, secure the story of that paragraph—why he is threatened, what he is threatened with; get a copy of one of the letters if you can. If you cannot see Ramon, get hold of a secretary.”

And the obedient reporter went forth.

He returned in an hour in that state of mysterious agitation peculiar to the reporter who has got a “beat.” The news editor duly reported to the editor-in-chief, and that great man said, “That’s very good, that’s very good indeed” – which was praise of the highest order.

What was “very good indeed” about the reporter’s story may be gathered from the half-column that appeared in the Megaphone on the following day:

Cabinet Minister in Danger

Threats to Murder the Foreign Secretary

“The Four Just Men”

Plot to Arrest the Passage of the Aliens

Extradition Bill

EXTRAORDINARY REVELATIONS

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It reads like a screenplay. The ramping up in stages of tension from the total under-reaction of the old codgers of the Athenaeum, to the more informed curiosity of the Comet, to the instant action of the Megaphone creates a mental image very reminiscent of the condensed montage-opening of the standard film thriller of the 1930s and 40s. To us the vision of whirling presses and scurry of the newspaper boys may be a cliché from the opening scenes of a thousand crime films, but it was a relatively new thing in 1921, when the story was first filmed, and certainly in 1905 when it was written.

For 1905 it was, when one of the best known British thriller novels was penned by a man who would come to be known as the ‘King of Thrillers’. Edgar Wallace was a Londoner of humble origins, who overcame a modest education to become a journalist and then an astonishingly prolific writer of ingenious thrillers, plays and film scripts. His lowbrow (his word) thrillers were written to be easily readable, were hugely popular and eminently adaptable for the screen. His works spawned some 200 films and television programmes, including famously at the end of his life, the first script for King Kong (1933). He died of a chill contracted while in Hollywood working on the film for Merian Cooper.

Continue reading The Four Just Men and the early British thriller

‘Rhythm, rhythm and pure rhythm above all’: How Edmund Meisel scored Eisenstein’s October

This is a guest post for Silent London by John Leman Riley, a writer and editor, specialising in Eastern European culture, and film sound.

Film theory is usually visually driven, and the Soviet kind – with its emphasis on editing – especially so. And since the theorisers were often directors, they are better known than the men (and, inevitably, they were almost always men) who argued about the music. So much so that the best-known Soviet film-sound-theory text is 1928’s A Statement by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov (“on Sound” is often added to translations to clarify the subject). With its dream of asynchronous, anti-realistic sound, it was an idealistic text, and its ideas would never be fully followed through.

But beyond that is a huge bibliography of articles, pamphlets and books about the aesthetics of film music, and the competing technologies being developed for synchronised sound. The critical tracts were often written by properly trained musicians with practical experience in the cinema but their writings are rarely translated, and remain largely unknown outside Russia.

Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein

What were these competing theories about film music? Nowadays, we tend to look at the degree to which the music reflects and reinforces the images but, as A Statement argues, it could counter them. And there was a third option: the music could go its own way, fitting the film where it touched. This approach was taken by a Kiev cinema whose 60-piece orchestra simply played Tchaikovsky symphonies regardless of what was on screen, which must have made for some bizarre audiovisual moments! How successful these approaches were depended to some degree on whether the film was being accompanied by a composed score, a selection from albums or improvisation (what composer-critic Leonid Sabaneyev – a regular film-music critic – called “tasteless vamping”).

But today we’re discussing October, so we’ll go back to Eisenstein. His writings are polymathic: I opened a random page to find references to and quotes from Gounod, Bach, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dickens’ Hard Times, Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman and The Little House at Kolomna, and Dumas père in a discussion of structure, movement and the visualisation of non-visual phenomena. Unsurprising then, that he put some thought to film music (or rather, as A Statement showed, film sound). Indeed, the audiovisual was a topic with which he had long been obsessed.

battleshippotemkin
Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Continue reading ‘Rhythm, rhythm and pure rhythm above all’: How Edmund Meisel scored Eisenstein’s October

Silent films at the Cambridge Film Festival 2017: the movies men yearn for

Silent Londoners are an erudite group, and no doubt we’re all regularly found in halls of academe, talking loftily of theories and histories, of books and poems and one-reel Snub Pollard movies. But even though we’re such scholars, we could all do with a trip to Cambridge this month to complete our silent film education.

The Cambridge Film Festival is one of the best regular film festivals in the country for silents, and this year, the programme of early film is full of surprises, and wonderful music. Here’s what you should be looking out for.

Ivan Mosjoukine in The Loves of Casanova (1927)
Ivan Mosjoukine in The Loves of Casanova (1927)

 

 

The Cambridge Film Festival runs from 19-26 October 2017. Read more here.

 

 

The best of everything at the 19th British Silent Film Festival

How to relate five days of silent and early sound cinema in a pithy blogpost form? I have honestly no idea, but here goes …

The best film on Wednesday

A small choice here, cos I am selecting only from the evening screening of Edgar Allan Poe shorts at St Mary de Castro church. The rest of the day was devoted to papers. This was a wonderfully atmospheric night event though, with the candlelit church forming an eerie backdrop to the (non-German) Expressionism on the big screen. I am going to plump for a British effort – Castleton Knight’s Prelude. This is more or less Eraserhead in seven short minutes, with disquieting images proceeding across the screen motivated by a spooky kind of dream logic. And the accompaniment was sublime – John Sweeney playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude (of course) behind the screen.

The best film on Thursday

Just one silent film was shown on Thursday, and I have made my feelings about Pat and Patachon clear elsewhere, but today would have almost certainly been carried by a talkie anyway. I had heard a lot about Walter Summers’s Suspense (1930) but I wasn’t prepared for just how devastating it could be. We’re in the thick of the First World War, but happily in a “posh trench, with a clean dugout and a cushy job” when the soldiers begin to hear Germans laying mines beneath their feet. Something about the mood of the piece tells you early on that there will be no happy ending here. Eerily photographed and vibrantly acted by its ensemble cast, this a claustrophobic war epic confined into 81 minutes. There’s much enjoyment also in the dialogue, which, cleaned of actual swearing, becomes positively Shakespearean in its baroque ribaldry: “You do a mucky lot, you windsucker.”

Continue reading The best of everything at the 19th British Silent Film Festival

Are you ready for the 19th British Silent Film Festival?

Well, are you? Time is rushing by. Summer has barely ended, the LFF programme is out, the Pordenone programme will be released soon and the 19th British Silent Film Festival kicks off next week. Next week!

The festival runs 13-17 September 2017 at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester and each day or five-day pass covers you for lunch as well as every screening on that date.The full timetable for the festival is online here.  You can book here and let all your friends know you are attending by clicking on the Facebook event.

To get you up to speed on what to expect in Leicester, the festival* has been posting blogs on the festival site. Yes, silent film blogging is all the rage now. Here are all the posts so far:

And don’t forget to follow the festival on social media: Twitter and Facebook for more updates for news during the festival itself.

See you in Leicester!

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London Film Festival 2017: the silent preview

The cat is out of the bag. The programme for the 61st London Film Festival has been announced and there is only one question on our lips: “Got any silents?” The answer is …

Shiraz (1928)

First things first, we already knew that this year’s LFF Archive Gala would be Shiraz, a sumptuous late-silent Indo-German production, which relates the romantic story behind the building of the Taj Mahal. This gorgeous film, freshly restored by the BFI,  will be accompanied by a new score, composed by Anoushka Shankar. The gala screening takes place on 14 October 2017 at the Barbican and tickets are already on sale now. Read more here. And why not book a ticket here too?

Plays: 14 October 2017, Barbican

Continue reading London Film Festival 2017: the silent preview

A Page of Madness: a masterpiece of Japanese avant-garde silent cinema

Here’s something you don’t see very often. Screenings of silent films crop on this page quite often, but there is no other silent film like this one. A Page of Madness is a brilliantly dazzling, utterly uncategorisable Japanese silent from 1926, one that was thought lost for years, and now that it has been found, seems to belong to no time at all, past or future. There’s a very rare, and beautifully curated, screening of the film coming up soon, in London, so read on.

Here’s Michael Atkinson’s introduction to his excellent essay on the film for this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

“When’s the last time you were surprised by a silent film? Impressed, dazzled, yes, but genuinely surprised? You’d think by 2017, with all the silent-era history scholarship behind us, that authentic, mutant-DNA “Holy Crap” moments would be rare on the ground, and, of course, they are. But there’s no amount of buckling up that can prepare a well-versed silent cinephile for the utter unheralded weirdness of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji). Scan the sacred texts, from Paul Rotha onward—it’s not there, as if it were a disturbing dream filmgoers may’ve thought they’d had, fleeting but creepy, after a big meal and too much wine.”

Intrigued, eh?

A Page of Madness has often been compared to The Cabinet of Caligari – thanks to its fragmented flashback narrative and haunting, stylised design. In fact, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s masterpiece is a kind of Japanese Expressionist film, whose artifice helps to expose emotional truths. It is really, a story of insanity, love and loss, about a man who takes a job at a mental asylum to be close to his wife, who is a patient there. It may well be inspired a little by FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh, and like that film, it doesn’t rely on intertitles. There is just one caption card here. When the film was screened in Japan on its original release, it would have been accompanied by a benshi narrator, who would attempt to draw out the narrative, or at least accompany the audience on this strange journey. This London screening will honour that tradition.

A Page of Madness (1926)
A Page of Madness (1926)

The Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental  Film Festival will screen A Page of Madness on 24 September at King’s College London. The film will be shown on film, from a 35mm print, and will be accompanied by Benshi Tomoko Komura (who performs in English) as well as musicians Clive Bell, Sylvia Hallett and Keiko Kitamura offering a live score on the shakuhachi, piano and koto.

The film will be introduced on video by Professor Aaron Gerow, the author of the definitive book on A Page of Madness and will be followed by a panel discussion. I am honoured to be part of that panel, along with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp and Tomoko Komura.

You can book tickets herePlease don’t miss out, on what promises to be a very special evening.