Fantastic news. Two events coming up in London explore the Japanese art of Benshi narration for silent film, both of them courtesy of the Japan Foundation. You may have already heard that there will a screening of the masterpiece I was Born, But … (Yasijuro Ozu, 1932) at the Barbican on 25 June with piano accompaniment and Benshi narration. Book your tickets here.
Before that, on Friday 23 June at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, you can learn more about Benshi itself, with Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and silent film pianist Mie Yanashita. There’ll be a talk, demonstration (with a scene from Orochi, 1925) and even the chance to have a go yourself. I’ll be there too, giving an introductory talk about silent cinema to set the scene and chairing the Q&A with Yamashiro. More details below – it’s free but you have to book your seat on Eventbrite.
In conjunction with the Barbican’s screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s I was Born, But… organised as part of The Japanese House exhibition, the Japan Foundation is delighted to present a special evening exploring the art of Benshi. Following an introductory talk by silent cinema specialist Pamela Hutchinson, Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and Silent Film Pianist Mie Yanashita will perform a clip from Orochi (1925) recreating an authentic Benshi experience. As part of his illustrated talk, Yamashiro will discuss Benshi as a contemporary occupation as well as the unique appeal of Japanese silent cinema.
This fascinating event will also offer a few audience members the chance to take to the stage and perform the role of Benshi under instruction from Yamashiro himself!
This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To book your place via Eventbrite, please click here
Do you remember London Symphony? It’s a project this site has long been excited about. You may even have backed it on Kickstarter, or like me, even appeared in it. The film is directed by Alex Barratt and it’s a sumptuous new city symphony for the capital – an entirely silent movie that swoops around more than 300 locations in London to the tune of a newly composed musical score by James McWilliam. And finally, you’re going to get the chance to see it.
London Symphony will have a ’boutique’ theatrical release, with a screening at the Barbican on 3 September 2017, accompanied by the Orchestra of St Paul’s playing McWilliam’s score live. You can book tickets here.
There will be further UK screenings after the Barbican event, which will be announced shortly, and the film will be distributed internationally by Flicker Alley.
LONDON SYMPHONYis a contemporary take on the ‘city symphony’, a genre of creative non-fiction that flourished in the 1920s and consisted of works that attempted to build poetic portraits of city life. As well as serving as a form of virtual tourism, city symphonies raise important and universal questions about the nature of community life – questions that have become vital within the current political climate.LONDON SYMPHONY’S September release will coincide with the 90th anniversary of Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY, one of the most important examples of the original city symphonies. Ruttmann was one of the great pioneers of experimental film, and Barrett and McWilliam have worked hard to bring a similar sense of poetic playfulness to LONDON SYMPHONY, while also updating the form for the 21st Century.
The project’s September release will be launched with a special screening at the Barbican Centre, the home of silent cinema in London, where it will be presented with the live premiere of McWilliam’s musical composition, as performed by OSP (the Orchestra of St Paul’s) and their conductor Ben Palmer. Says Palmer: “It’s always a thrill to bring a new piece to life, but this promises to be an unusually interesting collaboration for OSP. We’re very excited to be premiering James McWilliam’s fantastic music forLONDON SYMPHONY, especially at the iconic Barbican Centre”.
The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Barrett, McWilliam, Palmer and London history specialist Mark Rowland, chairman of Footprints of London. It will also mark the opening of the Barbican’s autumn ‘Silent Film and Live Music’ series. Tickets can now be purchased here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/film/event-detail.asp?id=21462.
After this special launch event, LONDON SYMPHONY willtour around a number of carefully selected venues throughout the UK, including conventional cinema spaces and alternative spaces such as a Parish Church and a Buddhist Meditation Centre. “In many ways,” says Barrett, “LONDON SYMPHONY is a community project, and we hope to bring it directly into those communities during our release”.
Jazz musician and composer Roy Budd was well known for his film scores, for popular movies including Get Carter, but one of his compositions has never seen the light of day. In 1993, Budd was due to premiere his symphonic score for the classic silent film The Phantom of the Opera, but just a few weeks before the screening, he died suddenly, from a brain haemorrhage. Budd was just 46 years old. The screening was cancelled and Budd’s score has never been played in public, but it will finally get its belated premiere this year, on 8 October 2017.
A self-taught pianist and child prodigy, Budd performed his first concert at The London Coliseum in 1953 at six years of age and went on to perform with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Hope, and Antonio Carlos Jobin as well as scoring 40 feature films. In 1989 Budd acquired an original 35mm film print to the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera from a collector. He restored the film to its full glory using an experimental two colour process and original tints from the film’s original release. Budd completed a full orchestral score for the film using an 84-piece orchestra and recorded this with the Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, with five weeks to go before a London premiere and European tour, Budd suffered a brain hemorrhage and passed away at just 46 years of age.
This is an exciting match of venue and film, before we even get on to the score. Imagine the thrill of seeing The Phantom of the Opera in a beautiful opera house – the Coliseum in Covent Garden no less. Hold on to your seats, and watch the chandeliers, because Lon Chaney’s phantom will take to the stage at the home of the English National Opera.
Budd’s score, which was described by Geoff Brown of the Times as “succulent” will be performed by the Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra and conducted by Spencer Down. This is a very special premiere, in a prestigious venue, of a long-anticipated piece of music.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who writes and lectures on film and television
Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.
This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.
My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.
This is a guest post for Silent London by John Sweeney.John Sweeney is one of London’s favourite accompanists, composing and playing for silent film and accompanying ballet and contemporary classes. He researched and compiled the music for thePhono Cinéma-Théatre projectand is one of the brains behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscopeat the Cinema Museum. His score for Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici will accompany the film on its forthcoming DVD/Blu-ray release this year.
The Silent Serial is perhaps the least watched of all the great silent film genres. Yet they were hugely popular: from about 1910 most studios produced serials, or their close relative, series (serials keep a plot going over the course of all the episodes, series have self contained plots in each episode but a common cast of characters). Some of the most famous are The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (also 1914), both starring Pearl White as the heroine struggling against assorted villains, The Hazards of Helen (119 episodes!), and in France Louis Feuillade directed the wonderful Fantômas (1913), followed by Les Vampires, Judex, Tih Minh, Barrabas and Parisette.
The British Silent Film Festival is great, but it only happens once a year, when we are lucky. So the annual British Silent Film Festival Symposium, taking place each spring at King’s College London, is a very Good Thing indeed. It’s a meeting of the clan, really, a gathering together of everyone who cares about British silent cinema in this town, and hopefully beyond. At the symposium, these likeminded souls can gather to watch films, debate them, listen to papers and eat biscuits.
This year’s event takes place over two days (6-7 April 2017) and builds on the format of previous years by incorporating screenings in between the papers. And biscuits. These screenings are of little-seen films, and the papers cover a wide range of topics all within the field of British cinema and cinemagoing during the silent era.
Here is what the organisers have to say:
The British Silent Film Festival affords scholars, archivists and enthusiasts the opportunity to re-asses film-making in Britain between 1895 and 1930. By bringing forgotten films out of the archive, and encouraging scholarly activity that can place those films in appropriate production and reception contexts, the festival has been the driving force behind a complete re-appraisal of what was previously an almost unknown cinema.
This two-day symposium is intended to complement the festival itself – an opportunity to consider the achievements and the key debates brought to light by the festival, and to discuss the new directions that future research may take. Highlights of the programme this year include screenings of A Lowland Cinderella (Sidney Morgan, 1921) starring Joan Morgan, in a romance set in Scotland but filmed on the English south coast, and two films not seen publically since their release – The Unsleeping Eye (Alexander Macdonald, 1928) and Empire adventure shot by a Scottish production company, and A Light Woman (Adrian Brunel, 1928) which was previously thought lost, but has now been discovered in a truncated home-market version.
What’s that bright spot on the horizon? It’s the Second International Conference on Colour in Film, which is back in London from 27-29 March 2017. The really good news is that the conference is half a day longer than before, and to my untrained eye, that extra time is mostly made up of screenings – including a very special silent “treat” on the first night.
The 2017 Colour in Film Conference will cover the entire breadth of colour in moving images, from early (pre)cinema’s chromolithographic printing through the applied colours of tinting, toning and their Desmetcolor rendition, from chromogenic Agfacolor and Eastmancolor through the video- and film-based look of the golden age of British colour television and up to modern, current grading in the digital domain.
The screenings take place at BFI Southbank (NFT3 to be precise) on the first day of the conference, and include colour films from all eras, not just our favourite one. One highlight I can already see in the programme is a selection of hand-drawn, hand-painted “Chromolithographic Loops”. These took our breath away at Pordenone last year – you’ll love them, and I’m intrigued to hear more about them at the conference. All the clips and films are introduced by experts who can tell you more about the use of colour and how it has been restored.
The big-ticket event is in the evening of the first day, when Neil Brand accompanies a screening of Behind the Door (1919), which will be introduced by Rob Byrne of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I’ve mentioned this film before: a rape-revenge drama featuring a taxidermist, the first world war and some pretty savage xenophobia. It’s not explicitly gory, but it’s quite a shocker, so hold on to your hats.
The following two days of the conference is made up of papers – with an awesome lineup of experts, restorers and archivists taking you deep into the detail of colour-film science and history. These will be held at Friends House on Euston Road – and you can see the full list of speakers and papers here. The second day at Friends House is devoted to Sarah Street’s project workshop on the Eastmancolor revolution.
There are an array of ticket prices for the conference, depending on how many days you attend and whether you are a student or a member of the Colour Group or not. All the details are here. Bear in mind that if you want to see Behind the Door that’s extra, even if you have a ticket for the screening day.
Well, this was clearly meant to be. Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking allegorical fantasy Der Müde Tod (1921) is getting a theatrical release in the UK and Ireland along with a DVD/Blu-ray edition:
Eureka Entertainment have announced the theatrical release of DER MÜDE TOD (aka Destiny), Fritz Lang’s visually ambitious, cinematic allegory starring Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke, in cinemas nationwide (UK & Ireland) and Digital HD from 9 June 2017.
Talking to Françcois Truffaut many years later, Alfred Hitchcock recalled that when he saw Der Müde Tod it made a “special impression” on him. He will have seen it un 1924 under its British release name Destiny, at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. I wonder if we will have a chance to see it in the same venue?
Silent cinema was a revolutionary medium – bringing a world of news, travel, culture, art and storytelling to a mass audience, a working-class audience. This democratic art form changed the way we learned to look at ourselves and to tell stories about who we are, as well as sharing stories of fantasy, hope and change.
Therefore it’s appropriate that Kino Klassika’s year-long celebration of insurgency on film begins with a film that was both politically and artistically revolutionary: Sergei Eisenstein’s galvanising masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. The film screens next Friday, 17 February at the wonderful Regent Street Cinema, with a live score by Max Reinhardt the Instant Orchestra. It’s sure to be invigorating experience, and a wonderful way to kick off this exciting season A World to Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen, which includes films by Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard and Costa Gavras.
The season concludes with silent cinema too: a screening of the epic October: Ten Days that Shook the World, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre on 26 October 2017, which is exactly 100 years to the day after the start of the Bolshevik Revolution.
Marx proclaimed that the proletariat had “a world to win”. On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Kino Klassika hosts a season of cinematic masterpieces from around the world, as well as workshops and curated talks, which investigate that impulse of profound change. The season will be hosted at London’s iconic Edwardian cinema hall on Regent St before a planned regional tour. The season explores the revolutionary spirit through the camera lens. It asks what these films can mean today.
Here is the full list of films in A World to Win screening at the Regent Street Cinema:
7.30pm on Friday 17 February: Gala Opening Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein (1925)
7.30pm on Wednesday 22 February: I am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov (1964)
8.15pm on Wednesday 1 March: Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard (1967)
7pm on Wednesday 8 March: Beginning of an Unknown Century by Larisa Shepitko and Andrei Smirnov (1967)
7.30pm on Wednesday 22 March: Black God White Devil by Glauber Rocha (1964)
7.30pm on Wednesday 29 March: Z by Costa Gavras (1969)
7.30pm on Wednesday 5 April: Danton by Andrzej Wajda (1983)
7.30pm on Wednesday 12 April: Land and Freedom by Ken Loach (1995)
2pm on Saturday 15 April: Gala Screening of Novecento by Bernardo Bertolucci (1976)
The Barbican is also commemorating 100 years since the Russian Revolution, with a series of first-rate screenings of great Soviet silents: A Sixth Part of the World, accompanied by John Sweeney, Mother, with music by Stephen Horne, and The New Babylon, with Shostakovich’s lost piano score performed by Sasha Grynyuk.
Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the latest Hippfest programme landing on the digital doormat. I’m a big fan of Hippfest, a welcoming event, with an ambitious, highly entertaining, lineup of screenings and a frankly beautiful venue. If I could, I’d turn the Scottish thermostat up a couple of notches next month, because this southern softie will be back in Bo’ness for the festival, which runs from 22-26 March 2017, and takes place mostly in the town’s gorgeous vintage cinema, the Hippodrome.
As the schedule is announced today, that means the tickets are on sale already, and if something here catches your eye, book as soon as you can – Hippfest screenings can, and very often do, sell out.
So what’s on offer this year? The first day is devoted to female film pioneers, a subject close to my own heart: with a talk from film expert Ellen Cheshire, and an evening screening of Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake (1923), with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and an introduction by yours truly. Read more about the amazing Nell Shipman here.
Thursday afternoon brings a Chinese double-bill – a lecture on the women of Chinese silent cinema by Professor Paul Pickowicz, and a screening of the BFI’s revelatory archive compilation Around China with a Movie Camera, introduced by composer Ruth Chan. On that subject, watch out for the Saturday afternoon screening of an unmissable Chinese silent, The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Lingyu as a mother in a terrible predicament, with music by John Sweeney.
Not all of Silent London’s best-loved festivals are devoted solely to pre-sound film. A longstanding favourite here at Silent London HQ is the wonderfully glamorous Fashion in Film Festival. This event’s focus on cinematic design and unforgettable visuals, plus its enthusiasm for digging into the archives, means that silents often feature, of course, but it is always a wide-roaming affair. And this festival is a beautiful thing, a jewel in the London repertory film calendar.
This year, the Fashion in Film Festival will take place in London venues from 19-26 March. The full programme has not been unleashed yet, but I do have reason to believe a silent or to may be on the cards. I’m posting today because the Fashion in Film Festival is asking for a little help this year. The organisers have launched a Kickstarter to raise £5,000 before the event begins. If you support them, rewards range from designer knick-knacks such as an Eley Kishimoto tote bag, a copy of the fantastic Birds of Paradise book and tickets and passes for the festival itself. Hurry, the festival passes are running out!
Here’s what the festival team have to say:
The festival celebrates our last ten years and EVERYONE who has been involved in making it a success, contributing or holding our hand. We have lined up an ambitious programme, co-curated with the wonderful Tom Gunning, including an exhibition and some 28 events, with fantastic speakers and some true archival gems we think everyone must see. But some of this is in danger due to a dire funding landscape in the UK. It has been a really tough year!
And here’s a taste of this year’s programme:
Our programme features cinema’s well-loved as well as neglected masterpieces (Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, Ophuls’ Lola Montes, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Leisen’s Lady in the Dark, Protazanov’s Aelita), artist films (by Joseph Cornell, Jane and Louise Wilson, Cindy Sherman, Michelle Handelman, Jessica Mitrani), fashion films (by Nick Knight and Lernert & Sander), industry films and many archival gems. There will be talks, film introductions and panel discussions. As special highlights we are staging two film-based performances – with Rachel Owen (at Genesis Cinema) and with MUBI and Lobster Films (at the Barbican).
If you can spare a little money for the festival, I am sure it will be hugely appreciated. Just think of it as paying for your ticket in advance. I did!
Are you making New Year’s resolutions this year? I am a big fan of them – I made one last year, and although it wasn’t easy I definitely followed through on it (BTW did I mention that I am freelance now? Commission me!). The best are those that combine self-improvement with a little pleasure and entertainment (in fond remembrance of the Great Theatre Binge of Early 2012). Here’s one for you – how about you go to see more silent movies in 2017?
Reckon you already clock up quite a few silent screenings? Hmmm. How about something a little different?
For example, there’s a silent film screening with a twist at the ICA in January. You should come along! The event is part of the London Short Film Festival and takes place on 10 January. The screening takes its title from a Victor Hugo quote, “What matters deafness of the ear when the mind hears?”, and will explore the relationship between silent cinema and hearing impairment. To that end, all the films screened will play without musical accompaniment, and the programme is “designed to be accessible to people with hearing impairments as well as hearing audiences, creating a shared and uniquely immersive experience of silent film”.
Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”
I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.
There are silent movies and then there is Napoléon (1927). Abel Gance’s legendary biopic is ambitious in scope, style, technique, length and even breadth. And while there are competing scores and restorations, for us only the Napoléon recreated by Kevin and Brownlow and Carl Davis will do. You can see this version of Napoléon at the Royal Festival Hall this November, with the Philharmonia orchestra playing Davis’s monumental music, and in a cinema (probably) near you too. Plus, you will be able to take the film home too. This wonderful film is finally coming to DVD and Blu-ray this year – a release from the BFI, which promises to come laden with lots of tempting extras.
Ahead of the Napoléon-fest that awaits us, I wanted to share something rather special with you. Last time Napoléon played in London, I interviewed Brownlow and Davis for the Guardian. Necessarily, the conversation was truncated and edited for publication, but I still have the transcripts. So here, only a little tidied-up, is Davis and Brownlow on Napoléon, full-width.
The film flies by, when I am conducting. Conducting the score requires a lot of concentration, so you forget the time. It is very long but I’m getting better at it, because when this was proposed and we did it in 1980, no one was doing this, this was something that was dead by about 1929. It was all over, so there was no one to turn to say: “How do you do it? How do you organise yourself to do it? How do you create a score that’s going to run for five hours? What should its structure be?” I had to reinvent the process for myself and Napoléon was the first. Fortunately, a whole career and a whole library followed, so now I have a very defined technique for how to create the score, which I did not have in 1980. The difficulties stop when you know how to do it, and then I didn’t know how to do it at all. I just threw things together.
There is a prehistory to Napoléon and a very important collaboration with Kevin Brownlow before Napoléon: a Thames television series called Hollywood, which was based on a book of Kevin’s called The Parade’s Gone By. My relationship with him and the whole question of silent film started in the mid 1970s, around 1976. I then had the opportunity to meet survivors of the silent period. There still were people, y’know, very old then, but who were young at the time. The two really key people I met were still working. They were still playing for silent film but mostly on the big organ in LA and the most interesting person was a lovely little woman who lived in a house just behind the Hollywood sign. And I asked her: “How do you build up a long score for a film, for your own performances on the organ?” Her name was Ann Leaf and she was known as the last organist of the Paramount Theater in New York, the last cinema organist.
Anyway, she still did shows, you see, so she went to a big cupboard she had, which was full of music, and she would start pulling pieces out. She would say: “You know this is very good for chase sequences, and here’s this piece by Grieg, this is very scary music and this is a very, very nice piece to play for a love scene and this is Roman orgies.” I remember the Roman orgy moment! They felt that world music was absolutely at their disposal. You went very, very far. And the film companies established music publishers who would provide mood music, There’s a vast amount of rather anonymous pieces written specifically for different moods you see. And every cinema musician of that period would have a big library to draw on, depending on what kind of film it was.
So that conversation was really very, very critical. One could be very broad in one’s thinking. And then we came to Napoléon, Kevin and I and a man named David Gill. When we came to the end of the series and the series was broadcast in 1980 and was a very successful and well-thought-of and sold like mad around the world, I said very loudly at a celebration party: “Now that I’ve written about 300 clips, why don’t we try to do a whole film?” And then Kevin and David came up with Napoléon – probably the longest film ever made and that ever will be made, and that was never finished anyway. It keeps growing as more of it keeps being found. The original performance, which I think was just under five, is now five and a half hours, it’s grown by half an hour. And you have to revise the score, open out the score. Because it wasn’t as if, “Oh, we’ve found this one scene,” it was “Well we’ve found this little bit and that little bit.” And that shot and that whatever. So I’m in terror, you know, that as archives open, y’know, and as people find things in attics, forgotten drawers that suddenly …
When was the last time you enjoyed a moment of silence? Not a pause in conversation, a burst of concentration at your desk, or a moment of peace when your guests have gone, but a real, deep, out-in the-wilderness hour or two of pure aural emptiness?
You’ll rarely experience silence at the cinema – even the films this blog celebrates are mostly shown with music either live or recorded washing over them. But if you are very lucky, a trip to the cinema means a good hour and a half when you and your companions will hold your tongue, and instead of making noise, will enter a new sonic world, constructed on the screen.
That’s what makes the reflective new documentary In Pursuit of Silence so powerful. In between experts discussing the value of escaping the distractions and hums of modern living, there are scenes of dialogue-free calm, from a rippling green field in Iowa to a Remembrance Day silence in the offices of Lloyd’s of London. These scenes are shot with fixed cameras, meaning there is no “visual noise” of pans or zooms to disturb the serenity, perfectly illustrating the meaning of quiet stillness. The peace is both beguiling and refreshing, offering space for the film’s argument to seep in: the idea that by seeking out silence, we will find greater intellectual capacity, better health, philosophical wisdom, a fuller awareness of our surroundings, even equality and an end to conflict.
Shipwrecked and bewildered, a lone man washes up on an island that has lush, forest vegetation, fresh water, fruit, and everything a person needs to survive, except human company. His attempts to escape his isolation by raft are repeatedly scuppered by a mysterious, and gorgeous sea creature, with which he forms a lasting, and surprising relationship.
The Red Turtle, an animated feature film that was widely admired at Cannes, plays the London Film Festival next month. You may have heard of if because it represents a first in the world of animation – a Studio Ghibli co-production, being a collaboration between the well-known Japanese outfit and Dutchman Michaël Dudok de Wit. It is also that beast rarer than a giant red sea turtle: a new, and very accomplished feature-length film without dialogue.
The silence, washed over with a sophisticated sound mix of animal noises and ferocious waves, is supplemented by a gorgeous, rousing score that helps to elevate the castaway’s solitary struggles to edge-of-the-seat, blockbuster events. And it is in the first third that the film is its most successful, as the hero adjusts to his surroundings, carves himself an awkward niche in the island ecosystem, and valiantly attempts to sail away into the sunset and towards civilisation. One early sequence, in which he slips through a crevice and must use all his strength and courage to swim to safety, cranks the tension to its utmost. In these first scenes, we are privileged to share his fears and frustration, his dreams and his sickness, so that each time he tries to make a break for it, alone on his wobbly raft, the interference of the red turtle is a cold shock. This portion of the film is closest to a horror movie, the most obvious analogue being Jaws, with a silent, invisible terror lurking beneath the waves. Sometimes he screams, but of course there is no one to hear him. It is a masterful feat of sustained silent film narrative, engrossing and terrifying.
What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.
It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.
However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.
So we already know that the Archive Gala will be the Irish-set thriller The Informer. And we already know that it is on the same day as Robin Hood. So that’s your first now-traditional schedule clash.* It’s also something of a shame that the Archive Gala will be at BFi Southbank, not the festival’s specially built 780-seat pop-up cinema in Victoria Embankment Gardens, where all the other galas will be held, although I assume that is to do with finding space for the band. Designers of these new-fangled cinemas always forget the orchestra pit.
However, here’s what the rest of the 60th London Film Festival has got planned for you, silents-wise. Erm, not quite as much as I would have hoped …
It’s back, the perfect post-Pordenone pick-me-up: a weekend of giggles at the Cinema Museum curated by the inimitable David Wyatt. I heard great things about last year’s event, but this time you’ll have double the fun with a two-day festival. So ink 22 & 23 October 2016 into your diary and look out for tickets on sale in early September. Here’s what the Kennington Bioscope crew are promising for their second Silent Comedy Weekend:
Two days of (mostly) silent comedy – except for the audience laughter (judging from last year’s successful extravaganza) and live music from our world famous accompanists.
Feature films with Eddie Cantor and Clara Bow, Harold Lloyd, Max Linder, Monty Banks, Syd Chaplin, Harry Langdon and more. Rare showings of Lupino Lane’s LAMBETH WALK and Walter Forde’s first feature WAIT AND SEE – long–neglected British stars in need of re evaluation – plus some equally forgotten funny females, European shorts from the early years and Laurel & Hardy as you’ve never seen them before! Plus presentations on Mack Sennett and Lupino.
Guest speakers are hoped to include renowned authors David Robinson, Geoff Brown and Brent Walker, legendary film archivist Bob Gitt and of course, our own Kevin Brownlow.
Please not that the programme is ‘subject to change’ as films are still to be confirmed. Please see websites for updates.
If you are reading this post and you have never seen The Passion of Joan of Arc, stop now. Skip to the end, click on the link to buy tickets and make your life better with just a few taps of the mouse. Then you can come back and read the rest of what I have to say. Passion is not just one of the very best films of all time, but one that has inspired some of the most exciting scores too – despite the director’s misgivings about it being accompanied by music at all. There have been many film adaptations of the story of Joan of Arc, but Falconetti’s haunting portrayal of the saint, in front of Dreyer’s unflinching camera, is unforgettably raw and moving.
In September, you can see Passion at one of London’s most fascinating venues, Shakespeare’s Globe, as part of a season of live music events called Wonder Women curated by Lauren Laverne and The Pool. The music for this screening is a very special score – it’s a mixture of choral singing, electric guitars, harp, horns and synthesisers, written by Adrian Utley (Portishead) and Will Gregory (Goldfrapp) and conducted by Charles Hazlewood. I’ve heard it, back in 2011 at the Queen Elizabeth Hall – and I really loved it. The ancient and modern elements suit this timeless film well. I reviewed that event for a now-defunct and much missed arts blog, so here it is, reprinted, if you like.