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.
Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.
Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.
Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.
The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.
When I wrote about the inaugural Nitrate Picture Show at the George Eastman Museum, Rochester, New York, last year I ended with the slightly pessimistic hope that we would get to see a silent film on nitrate next time around. My fear was that shrinkage issues with such old prints might prevent that from happening. I am delighted to report that my cynicism was misplaced as this year’s festival ended on a sensational high, an American silent film from 1928! But more about that later.
As with last year, the festival organisers kept the 2016 programme under wraps until the morning of the first day of the festival. I know this approach is controversial. Potential attendees have complained to me that they are reluctant to incur the not inconsiderable expense in traveling to upstate New York when they have no idea what films will be screened. I have a lot of sympathy with that view but there is something undeniably exciting about opening the brochure on the first day and seeing what treats lie ahead of us. There is also merit in the organisers’ position that it is the physical condition and pictorial beauty of the prints that governs their selection, with the quality and reputation of the works coming next. Personally, I favour a middle ground, perhaps naming three or four films in advance and keeping the rest secret.
I suspect that few, if any,who made the journey to Rochester were disappointed with the films presented to us. I was initially sorry to see that no silents were listed but was keeping my fingers crossed that the final screening of the festival, our Blind Date with Nitrate, might possibly fulfill that wish. And so it did.
The festival kicked off with a selection of short films – my favourites were a colorful Julius Pischewer animation Cent Ans de Chemins de fer Suisses celebrating 100 years of the Swiss railway system and a delightful 1934 Universal animation Jolly Little Elves featuring doughnut-loving kindly elves.
These were followed by one of the highlights of the festival and a film I had not seen before, Enamorada (1946) a tempestuous romantic drama set against the background of the Mexican revolution. Featuring the masterful framing of the legendary cinematographer, Gabriel Figueroa, the film looked gorgeous, especially the exterior shots of the Mexican town in which the story is set. María Félix, probably Mexico’s most famous actress, was beguiling as the feisty female lead and Figueroa makes masterful use of light and shade, given added depth and texture by the nitrate print.
Our final film on the first day was the classic noir, Laura, which we were told was a pre-release version that included footage that was cut for its theatrical distribution. Nobody I spoke to could spot the additional material, however, and although the print was good there were only moments when the benefit of nitrate showed through.
It might be the northern welcome, it could be the gorgeous vintage cinema, but it’s probably the combination of great films and first-class music … the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema is a highlight of our calendar. This year’s festival runs from 16-21 March 2016 and excitingly, the programme has just dropped!
This means you can start booking your tickets now and believe me, these events often sell out, so act fast.
One of the greatest films of all time, Dovzhenko’s Earth, is the opening night gala, with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and Hazel Morrison.
Camera acrobatics in Dupont’s thrilling love-triangle drama Varieté starring Emil Jannings and Lya di Putti, with Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius providing excellent, multilayered accompaniment.
The hilarious Exit Smiling starring Beatrice Lillie (“the funniest woman of our civilisation,” according to Noël Coward) as an aspiring stage star in a shabby touring company, with the ever-brilliant Neil Brand on the piano. That’s the Friday night gala with an introduction by Bryony Dixon – and the perfect excuse to dress up.
The unbeatable tearjerker Stella Dallas (the 1925 version), with a new score by Stephen Horne performed by himself and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, and an introduction by your own humble correspondent.
Intergalactic German space documentary Wunder der Schöpfung screens with a wild soundscape score by Herschel 36 (who will be talking about how they wrote their score in another event at the festival) on Saturday night.
Late Chinese silent Daybreak, starring Li Lili, with accompaniment by John Sweeney. This screening will be supported by a talk on early Chinese Cinema, which is sure to be illuminating.
My own favourite film star, Pola Negri, in one of her early German films, Mania, with music from kraut-rock band Czerwie.
Reel rations – Bryony Dixon’s tour of British propaganda films from the Great War.
Herbert Brenon’s charming, inventive Peter Pan, with an acclaimed live score by harpist Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
British train crash drama The Wrecker – screened at Bo’ness train station!
Comedy! Courtesy of a Laurel & Hardy triple-bill, as well as Buster Keaton in My Wife’s Relations and Anita Garvin and Marion Byron in A Pair of Tights.
This year’s London film festival did not make life easy for cinemutophiles. Many of the silent films in the 2015 programme were scheduled slap-bang against each other, or almost, necessitating a frantic cab ride across to town. All very glamorous in its own way, and nice to be spoiled for choice, but frustrating for those who aren’t lucky enough to have seen some of these films in other festivals, or want to cram as much as possible into a trip to London. That said, the LFF pulled off a coup to make those Londoners who wished they were at Pordenone instead feel smug for once. The two festivals always clash, but if you stayed home this year, you’d have had the chance to see the restoration of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century, a day before your counterparts in Pordenone. Ta-da.
As you might have noticed, your humble correspondent was indeed in Pordenone, but when I got home, I managed to squeeze in a few trips to the London film festival. Rude not to, after all. And if the programme seems a little light on silents at first, as is always the way, things pop up where you might not expect to find them. Festival opener Suffragette (Sarah Gavron, 2015) closed with a fragment of archive footage; and I spotted Gloria Swanson in one of the festival most-talked about movies, Todd Haynes’s magnificent Carol (2015).