I said something a little flippant in a Q&A once. OK, more than once, but let’s just talk about this one time. The occasion was a screening of A Page of Madness (1926) as part of the Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival, and I was responding to a comment about experimental silent film, and whether there was anything out there in the same vein as the movie we had just seen. According to the notes of Dr Lawrence Napper, I said “when you’re talking about silent cinema, you’re talking about the first four decades of film history, so in a way it’s all experimental, you can show almost anything”.
So much, so overstated. But there’s a truth there, to my credit.
Happy 10th birthday to our favourite friends north of the border, The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival! This annual Bo’ness bonanza of silent cinematic goodness has pulled out several stops for its 10th anniversary edition, which runs from 18-22 March 2020, and features great movies, brilliant musicians, special guests and apparently, a barrage of custard pies.
“My four-year-old thinks One Week is a Sybil Seely film that just has Buster Keaton in it.” Polly Rose said many wise things in her introductions to three restored Keaton shorts to kick off the Slapstick Festival this year, but this one really stuck with me. The annual celebration of visual comedy had a fantastic lineup of silent cinema this year, and I saw lots of it. In between chuckles, I had plenty of time to ponder the fact that that Rose’s four-year-old made a really good point.
This year, as it has done for a few years now, Slapstick Festival goes beyond the big three, or big four, or however you want to cut the comedy canon. There are programmes devoted to those performers designated “forgotten clowns” and a dedication throughout the schedule to showcasing female talent. There was a screening of suffragette comedies for example, and even an entire distaff gala on Thursday evening – a presentation of female-led movies at Bristol Cathedral, introduced by Shappi Khorsandi, running along the same lines as the Friday night gala, hosted by Paul McGann and featuring Keaton, Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Applause emojis all round for all of this. I absolutely loved it.
The insightful conversation between (hero) Samira Ahmed and Lucy Porter about the manifestation of the campaign for universal suffrage in silent cinema was a real highlight for me. Great to see these newsreels and comedies not just shown, but contextualised and deeply considered as well. And Porter’s line about “Darren” will stick with me for a long time. There was quite a meandering discussion in the room and the bar afterwards about the intent of filmmakers presenting such violent farces as Milling the Militants or Did’ums Diddles the Policeman. And how audiences took them! It’s hard to know the truth, but I feel that copper-bashing suffragettes and those who opposed them had both become popular caricatures by this point. So, many people watching the films, instead of looking for points of identification or moral victory, would have been merely enjoying the spectacle of a bunfight between two camps reduced to their most absurd and extreme positions – like switching on Question Time, say. Certainly one could see a few upper-middle-class white men claiming to be oppressed by intersectional feminism in these comic shorts. Though, I guess I have just proved that we all bring our own perspective to the films we watch. Make your own minds up – you can see many of these films on the BFI Player or indeed on the fine BFI DVD Make More Noise.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. The Big Parade screens at BFI Southbank on 2 February 2020 with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand and an introduction by author Michael Hammond.
In 2006 my wife and I experienced a very personal, very deep loss. Happy events since have well overtaken the pain it involved, but it occurred just as I was about to leave to play for the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile and I had to delay my arrival there until the Monday. Two days later I played The Big Parade. It was last thing on a midweek night, I had asked for the gig and nobody, least of all me, was expecting anything special.
The morning after, as I looked back in horror at what I can only describe as a traumatic experience, I felt that I had to write a document that could be given to the audience at that screening, explaining a few things. With the permission and profound support of my pianist colleagues, and particularly Giornate director David Robinson, I wrote this… Continue reading ‘Hopeless destruction’: Neil Brand looks back on The Big Parade→
This is a guest post for Silent London by Kevin Brownlow, the Oscar-winning film historian, filmmaker and author. On 16 November 2019 the Kennington Bioscope is holding a Cecil B DeMille Day at the Cinema Museum in London, in honour of the great director who started out in the silent era. The programme for the day has been curated by Brownlow and includes prints from his own 16mm collection. All the silent films will have live piano accompaniment. Here Brownlow introduces his highlights of the day and DeMille himself.
When did you last notice anyone screening a Cecil B DeMille Retrospective? He is the most neglected of the Great Pioneers – DW Griffith, Thomas Ince and Mack Sennett – and yet he could be as controversial as Griffith, as innovative as Ince and as funny as Sennett.
Here’s how to book. Passes for one day or the entire festival can be bought, on the phone only, from the Phoenix box office. Be aware that these passes include screenings at all venues. The prices are the same as they were two years ago, which is a WIN.
I should say this through gritted teeth, but Bristol is rapidly becoming Britain’s most cinematic city. Designated a UNESCO City of Film in 2017, its reputation for great cinema screenings and heritage is growing and growing. One of the newest, shiniest gems in its movie crown is Cinema Rediscovered, a kind of West-Country offspring of Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, which takes place every July at venues including the Watershed cinema in the city centre.
Disclaimer time: First, I am working with this festival again this year, and second, it’s not all silent. But genuinely, it’s one of the most exciting and ambitious archive cinema events in the country. Taking place from 25-28 July, Cinema Rediscovered will screen films ranging from the earliest experiments of Victorian cinema to a new 4K restoration of Chan-wook Park’s classic revenge thriller Oldboy (2003).
Other restorations on show include the landmark documentary Hoop Dreams (1989) and Márta Mészáros’ 1975 Berlinale Golden Bear winner Adoption (1975). There are strands devoted to the extraordinary films of legendary British director Nicolas Roeg, as well as to Nigerian director Moustapha Alassane and to feminist filmmaker Maureen Blackwood, who was the first black British woman to have a feature film theatrically released in the UK, The Passion of Remembrance (1986). Cinema heritage doesn’t always look like a pantheon of dead white men. Continue reading Back to Bristol: Cinema Rediscovered 2019→
First: a disclaimer. I approach Ritrovato like an omnivore, tasting a little of everything, talkies and all, so this is not an exhaustive report of the silent offering, just the ones that I especially enjoyed.
This is a guest blog for Silent London by Maria Wyke, professor of Latin at University College London.
Recently I came across a silent short in the archives of the US Library of Congress that displays the eruption of Vesuvius in 1906. It was the first time the destructive volcano had been captured in moving images. But what caught my attention even more than that was how the (as yet unidentified) Italian filmmaker had juxtaposed scenes of destroyed buildings and dead bodies in the local towns with shots of tourists serenely visiting the ancient city of Pompeii – as if to accuse the elegant visitors of preferring to look at the pretty ruins of the past instead of helping overcome present suffering. I’ve managed to got hold of a digital copy of the film and now you too can see it alongside three other rarely seen silents about the classical world (including a recently restored feature about the emperor Caligula, about which more below).
The screening takes place at the Bloomsbury Theatre, on Saturday 6 July, 7.30 to 10pm. Tickets are £12 and available from the Bloomsbury Box office. Live accompaniment will be provided by Stephen Horne, whose impressive performances have won several Silent London awards.
Silent cinema delivers a democratic take on the classical world. That’s one theme that emerges from across the films I’ll be screening. From Filmarchiv Austria comes a Pathé travelogue, An Excursion in Ancient Greece (1913), that follows its well-dressed sightseers along the Corinthian canal to view various celebrated monuments on and around the Acropolis. Distributed worldwide, the short rescues ancient Greece from its associations with high culture and moneyed tourism and offers its spectators the opportunity to visit sites affordably from the comfort of their local picture house. Continue reading Ancient and modern: how silent cinema animated the classical world→
Psst … this just in from the whisper network. There’s a new silent movie venue in town and it’s strictly underground.
I mean, it’s literally underground: underneath a candlelit garden, at the entrance to one of the capital’s engineering masterpieces – the Thames Tunnel. Cocktail experts Midnight Apothecary have founded a night called the Down the Shaft Film Club to screen classics in this unique space. Hey, the name may not be elegant, but you get the drift.
For two nights in May Down the Shaft will be showing classic silent movies with – crucially – live music, courtesy Meg Morley (2 May) and Neil Brand (16 May). The movies? Deathless comedies from Messrs Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy. Are you down?
Oh yes, and there will be fancy booze too, naturally. Here’s the blurb:
For your delectation we present Charlie Chaplin’s ‘Easy Street’ and Laurel & Hardy’s ‘Big Business’ and ‘Liberty’. They will be accompanied on grand piano by the virtuoso talents of the UK’s leading silent film piano accompanists Meg Morley (2 May) and Neil Brand (16 May) in the Victorian underground Grand Entrance Hall to Brunel’s Thames Tunnel at the Brunel Museum.
This is one of London’s secret and most unusual underground venues to enjoy classic silent cinema. This historic venue is directly below our hidden candlelit garden where you will be able to toast marshmallows around the firepit and sample a hot toddy, delicious street food or one of our award-winning botanical cocktails made from ingredients grown in the garden or foraged close by. We also have rather wonderful beer from local Bermondsey brewers Hiver and Anspach & Hobday and gin from award-winning Bermondsey distiller Jensen.
Forbidden Paradise – You know that your humble scribe is smitten with Pola Negri. So when I saw the restoration of the sizzling Ernst Lubitsch comedy starring Negri and Rod La Rocque at Pordenone, I was bowled over. I am looking forward to watching it again, slightly more composed, but also glammed up for the HIppfest Friday Night Gala. This film deserves your best bib and tucker. I am also psyched to hear the new score by Jane Gardner. Here’s what I said when I saw it in October: “Hearts and reputations are won and lost. Moustaches are twirled. Fingers and furtive glances are everywhere. A revolution rages and is quashed, and always, behind a door Negri is making a conquest or throwing a plan into disarray. It’s ironic and light, but also physical and passionate. I can’t tell you what a treat it is. Seek it out and savour if you can.”
You love the British Silent Film Festival. I love the British Silent Film Festival. We all love the British Silent Film Festival. So I am delighted to share the good news that the British Silent Film Festival is back, back, back for 2019. The 20th British Silent Film Festival will run 12-15 September 2019 at the fantastic Phoenix in Leicester – so save the date, Silent Londoners. Will there be special events to mark that big round 20 number? I don’t know, but I hope so. The 2017 event was absolutely brilliant, so I have great expectations for this year.
It’s an article of faith in these parts that silent cinema is live cinema. We’re talking about the magic of live musical accompaniment, for the most part, but also, if we go right back to the early film period, narration, as well as the timing and skill involved in the projectionist changing reels, and perhaps the odd audience member reading the intertitles out loud.
There’s more discover in this vein though, and a project at the University of Reading aims to revive the art of the movie prologue. Not just any silent movie prologues, but Brazilian silent movie prologues. It’s an international project then, part of a wider quest to explore intermediality in Brazilian cinema, and connecting Reading to Rio de Janeiro, specifically that stretch of the coast that was once known as Cinelandia, because there were so many cinemas there.
Anniversaries are a wonderful reason to show some archive film, and some anniversaries are better than others. The Kennington Bioscope, which has had a spectacularly busy year, has added yet another special event to the calendar. Silent Guns is a celebration of First World War cinema, to commemorate 100 years since the conflict ended, curated by the KB team and Kevin Brownlow himself.
The screenings will take place on Saturday 17 November 20187, from 10am to 10.30pm at where else but the wonderful Cinema Museum in south London. Most of the film prints will be 35mm or 16mm and of course all the silent films will be accompanied by live music.
The gala film, so to speak, is King Vidor’s The Big Parade, a rare chance to see this Hollywood classic starring John Gilbert on the big screen and on film too. But there are some very intriguing titles further down the programme, including some little-seen British films, including Maurice Elvey’s Comradeship (1919) and and George Pearson’s Reveille (1924) – and a German one too. There are shorts (From Pearl White to Chaplin), extracts from films that don’t survive intact, and even a couple of sound artefacts too.
Festival season is upon us. There’s Pordenone, of course, and London and also the Cambridge Film Festival all in October. A trip to the fenland city is very appealing at this time of year – and all the more so with a tempting selection of silent films.
The star of the slate is Lois Weber, one of the very best American silent film directors. And Cambridge will be showing four of her films over the weekend, all with live music. One of these in particular, The Blot, is rarely shown, but I think it’s very special indeed. Kevin Brownlow says that you won’t find a better film for showing you how life was really lived in the 1920s. That’s very probably true, but I think that inadvertently undersells it. There is a lot more to the film than its realism. It’s a real heartbreaker, and a nuanced drama too.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Michelle Facey, a member of the programming team at the Kennington Bioscope.
There are many treats coming up in the 4th Kennington Bioscope Silent Film Weekend 8 & 9 September 2018, held at our beloved Cinema Museum, the Jewel of Lambeth. From Canadian canine capers with wonder dog Rin Tin Tin, putting his best paw forward to start off the weekend in WhereThe North Begins (1923), to sparkling comedy with Constance Talmadge and Ronald Colman in Her Night Of Romance (1924), through to marvellous Mary Pickford in our Saturday night feature Sparrows (1926) by way of other films from the USA with William C deMille’s naturalistic drama Miss Lulu Bett (1921) and Herbert Brenon’s Dancing Mothers (1926).
Mothers’ lead actress was Alice Joyce but with Clara Bow also featuring in what was her first picture for Paramount, she was left more than a little in the younger woman’s shade. Louise Brooks (quite popular around these parts, I’m led to believe) commented that: “Everybody forgot Alice Joyce because Clara was so marvellous; she just swept the country. She became a star overnight with nobody’s help.”
Happy London Film Festival programme launch day! The festival runs 10-21 October this year and there are oodles of films showing, from the competition titles and the galas to the weird and wonderful pieces in the experimental and short categories. Yadda, yadda, yadda. Let’s cut to the chase. We have no time here for talkies. What does the 62nd London Film Festival have to offer in the way of silent cinema? Plenty. More than usual, I’d say. Some we knew about, some we didn’t.
The really good news – none of these silent screenings need clash with Pordenone. That is to say, there are duplicate screenings to avoid that.
The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show
Nineteenth-century films, shot on 68mm film, beautifully restored, introduced by Bryony Dixon and accompanied by John Sweeney and his Biograph Band. Oh, and they are screening at the actual, flipping IMAX. This is going to be massive. If your mouth isn’t already watering, I don’t know what to do with you. This year’s Archive Gala should be a silent cinema experience like no other. Book now.
This year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala has been announced – and it’s big.
You may have had a sneak preview of the Victorian films, shot on 68mm film, that the BFI has been restoring recently. Samplers have popped up at a few festivals and conferences over the past year or so. The clarity and the detail in these early films are incredible. For this year’s Archive Gala, the BFI are going to project these beauties in their natural home – at the IMAX. Step aside, Christopher Nolan. Your host for the evening will be Bryony Dixon and music will be provided by the maestro John Sweeney – and his Biograph Band.
Sweeping away the veil of time, this Archive Gala will project Britain’s earliest films at their grandest scale (68mm, almost four times the image size of regular 35mm film) on the nation’s biggest screen, the BFI IMAX. Festival-goers will be astounded by the sheer clarity, scale and spectacle of these incredibly rare surviving fragments of our first films, preserved by the BFI National Archive. Breathing new life into these filmic ghosts, superbly restored from the 68mm original nitrate prints under the meticulous and painstaking supervision of the BFI’s Conservation Centre, these films will be presented digitally in their fully fleshed, large format, high-definition glory for the first time in over 120 years.
The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show will reveal the quality, scope and scale of their technical ambition in developing a new media, combined with their avid curiosity in the world opening up around them. It also showcases the drive and media savvy of the showmen and film pioneers who sold audiences this new perception of reality. This unique opportunity promises to show the Victorians in a whole new light, blowing the lid off any preconceptions of our forebears and dispelling the image of the stuffy, stoic, stern Victorian for good.
In a night not to be missed, this one-off gala event will transport the audience back to the end of Victoria’s long reign, a time when competing showmen were projecting their moving picture shows in London’s great West End theatres. Among the frontrunners was the peerless William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, whose British Mutoscope and Biograph Company enjoyed a long residency at the Palace Theatre of Varieties (now known as the Palace Theatre on Cambridge Circus, home to a different magician in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Of Scottish heritage, Dickson, who had worked for Thomas Edison, arrived in London in 1897 with his own very special USP: large-format films – the IMAX films of their day – aiming to outgun his rivals with his high quality pictures.
At only a minute or so long, these films range in date from 1897-1901, serving up an eclectic spread of subjects, from gorgeous panoramic vistas to dizzying ‘phantom rides’, from music hall turns to the pomp of royal pageantry, from the bustle of the Victorian street to genuine dispatches from the Boer War. The night has been programmed by and will be presided over by BFI silent film curator Bryony Dixon, with music from composer/pianist John Sweeney and his Biograph Band.
I can’t wait. The Great Victorian Moving Picture Show will take place on 18 October at the BFI IMAX in London. Tickets will go on sale soon, I guess, with the rest of the London Film Festival events.
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Greetings from Cinema Rediscovered in Bristol – the fabulous west country weekend inspired by a certain Bolognese festival of archive cinema. I am here to work a little and watch a lot – or that’s the plan. If you haven’t made it to this annual event (and this is the third instalment, so why not?) do try to rectify that next year. Bristol is a lovely place to be at the end of July and it’s a warm and wide-ranging festival too, based mostly at the fantastic Watershed cinema on the harbourside.
While I am here, I really must share some more festival news with you, because I have lots. First, because we’re in Bristol, but also last, as it is not until next year, I have Slapstick news. The Slapstick Festival is going ahead for 2019, but as the Colston Hall is closed for refurbishments, a few changes have been made to the setup. The festival will go ahead as usual 18-20 January at the Watershed and the Bristol Old Vic. The Gala screening of Modern Times will become a standalone event and take place at the beautiful Hippodrome Theatre on 10 February instead. Here are the details:
Hosting the event will be stand-up, TV and radio show panellist, writer, satirist and actor Marcus Brigstocke. Its centrepiece will be a complete screening of the Charlie Chaplin masterpiece Modern Times (1936), showing on a super-sized HD screen and accompanied live by the 40-piece Bristol Ensemble playing Chaplin’s own score for the film and conducted by Guenter A Buchwald.
In addition, there will be pre-show entertainment by students of the Circomedia circus-theatre school; screenings, with music, of Bacon Grabbers (1929), starring Laurel & Hardy, and Buster Keaton’s The Scarecrow (1924) and comedy magic from John Archer – the first act on Jonathan Ross’s Penn and Teller: More Fool Us series to perform a trick which left the duo baffled and a regular on the BAFTA-winning CBBC series Help! My Supply Teacher’s Magic.
You can book your seat for the Modern Times gala now on the Slapstick website. And keep your eye on that site too, as the full programme for the festival should be announced in October.
Is Cabaret (1971) every film historian’s favourite fetish? There’s the perfection of its razor-cut New Hollywood take on a golden age genre, and its tribute to the “divine decadence” of the Weimar years, with every other scene boasting an Otto Dix homage and the Kit-Kat Club staging its own x-rated shadow plays. Then there’s the sight of the tearaway daughter of Vincente and Judy playing a wannabe screen siren, circling UFA junior executives, posing like “early Clara Bow” with a parasol, running hot and cold on Lya de Putti and namedropping Emil Jannings at the dinner table. Alongside her there’s Michael York, who links us out to Fedora and therefore to Billy Wilder and Sunset Boulevard too – another pet of the hardcore retro cinephile.
It’s one of my favourites at least, and I was delighted that my 2018 visit to Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato festival concluded with seeing Cabaret on a vintage Technicolor print in a packed house. A fitting end to a filmic week.
I saw more than 30 films in Bologna this year, and some, but by no means all of them, were silent. It’s strictly unscientific, but it seemed like an especially strong year for early films – with strands devoted to 1898 and 1918 running through the festival (curated by Bologna’s silent doyenne Mariann Lewisnky), and even a “mutiflix” special, offering a daily dose of the Wolves of Kultur serial in the soon-to-be-renovated Cinema Modernissimo. The silent gods smiled on us this year, even if they worked in mysterious ways. A planned open-air screening in the Piazza Maggiore of Frank Borzage’s Seventh Heaven, freshly restored and scored by Timothy Brock, was rained off, but then rescheduled to play in the city’s grand opera house on Friday night instead.
My festival began in the Piazza Maggiore, more or less, with a must-see silent event – the new restoration of a film that was not lost but rather buried. When Mary Pickford first brought Ernst Lubitsch to Hollywood, the film they made together was Rosita – a Spanish Dancer-esque film widely considered a failure and squashed by the star herself. I’ve long been intrigued to watch it though, naturally, so it was a thrill to see it on the big screen, with an orchestra playing a reconstruction of the original score, by Gillian Anderson. The sad fact is that Pickford was right to be embarrassed by it, but not that much. There’s some first-rate Lubitsch humour here, but Pickford simply isn’t the right heroine for the film and when she is on-screen she barely seems herself. It’s as if she is so uncomfortable in this passionate, witty world, that the film collapses in on itself, offering neither the pleasures of one of Pickford’s great spitfire sweetheart roles, nor the sophistication of the Lubitsch touch. Rosita is not a bad film by any means, but it conjures shadows of two different, better movies that it could have been. If only. And I can’t deny that it was a wonderful screening, with an enthused audience in the piazza, warmed up nicely by a sumptuous restoration of René Clair’s Entr’acte (1924) accompanied by Erik Satie’s piano score. Paul Joyce has a full report here.