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.
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.
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.
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.
A few years back, when the world may not have been young but this blog certainly was, and I had begun to hit the silent film festival trail, I received some alarming advice from Neil Brand. “What you really want to do as well,” he said, “is to go to Bologna. The weather’s great, the food’s amazing – and there are even talkies, too.”
Well two out of three ain’t bad. By Bologna, Neil meant Il Cinema Ritrovato, a festival of archive cinema that takes place every summer. Ritrovato means something like rediscovered. So, fittingly this festival shows rediscovered films, but also rarely seen films, films on rare formats and vintage prints, and newly restored films too. Largely, anything more than thirty years old qualifies for the festival, which gives it a giant scope.
I knew lots of people who went to this festival, but as always with anything new, I was a little wary to dipping my toe in the water. Worst-case scenario – I might really enjoy it and develop an expensive habit. So, the first year I went for just three days, then I skipped the next year and was filled with regret. For the past three years running I have turned up for about five or six days, almost the whole thing. And every time I have had a ball. Great films, in vast quantities, and a celebratory atmosphere that is almost as warm as the Italian sunshine.
There is more than one way to build a silent film festival, but perhaps some events might like to acknowledge twins – fellow fests that take the same approach to curating and commissioning archive cinema screenings. I think I have found a kindred spirit for the Hippodrome Silent Film Festival. I wonder if they would agree?
Saturday night at Hippfest was a bit of a departure – a horror double-bill. Is this the start of a new tradition? If so, it has begun well. We finished the night with Benjamin Christensen’s loopy house-of-horrors caper Seven Footprints to Satan (1929), gorgeously accompanied by a brilliant new score from Jane Gardner. The first feature was a classic: Lon Chaney as the villainous double-amputee Blizzard in the sharp shocker The Penalty (Wallace Worsley, 1920). That film is set, beautifully, in San Francisco, which was perfect – at least according to my latest theory!
I’m a Europhile, so imagine my shock to see ‘Frexit’ posters on the streets of Paris. In one respect at least, I hope France can learn from our own messy example. Our own deed has not yet been done, and even when it has been, and we have well and truly Brexited, I suspect there will still be yellow stars looped around my heart. So in the spirit of European togetherness, I am always happy to pop over to Paris at the drop of un chapeau to watch old movies and connect with my silent-film-loving friends.
This weekend was just such an occasion – I am posting this on the train home to London. Toute La Mémoire du Monde AKA the International Festival of Restored Cinema, takes place in the drizzly days before spring has truly sprung, at the Cinématheque Francaise and a handful of other cinemas in Paris. This is the sixth edition, and it’s a slightly odd festival, very serious in atmosphere for one so young, despite the fact that it features such populist events such as Russ Meyer all-nighters, and celebrity guests including, this year, Wim Wenders. It’s as diverse in scope as Bologna’s Il Cinema Ritrovato, but not as welcoming or as easy to navigate. Still, I think of it as a rather shy friend, who always has something fascinating to say if you can coax it out of her. With that in mind I spent two and a bit days in Paris this year, seeing as many silents as possible, and some talkies just for luck. I do it all for you, mes amis!
UPDATE/EVENT RESCHEDULED: the below event was scheduled to take place during the 2018 Glasgow Film Festival, but due to the bad weather, it has now been rescheduled for 9 May, at the Glasgow Film Theatre. Please see this message from Glasgow Film Festival:
The event has been rescheduled for Wednesday 9th May in GFT with a start time of 8pm. All tickets will remain valid. We apologise for any disappointment and thank you for your understanding and patience. If you are unable to attend on 9 May, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line ‘Assunta Spina’.
Every good film event deserves a diva, and the Glasgow Film Festival has one of the best. This is just a short note to bring your attention to a special screening in Glasgow next month of the wonderful early Italian film Assunta Spina, starring the incandescent Francesca Bertini.
Assunta Spina (1915) is the tale of a young and beautiful laundress (Bertini, naturally) living in Naples. Assunta is engaged to possessive, aggressive butcher, but courted by another man. When her fiancé’s jealousy erupts in violence, Assunta is forced to make a terrible sacrifice to save the man she loves. It’s a passionate, highly dramatic story, and Bertini’s high-voltage acting style suits it perfectly. One of the other pleasures of the new restoration of this film is the depth of the original colour tinting, which resonates perfectly with the film’s emotional vibrancy.
The festival has collaborated with Shona Thomson, AKA A Kind of Seeing, to commission a new score for the film by Scottish-based Italian folk band The Badwills, who will also play some more after the film. And the screening takes place in the gorgeous St Andrew’s in the Square, a former 18th-century church. It’s bound to be a very atmospheric evening.
Passion. Jealousy. Revenge. Join us for a rare screening of this silent Italian drama with a new live score by seven-piece band The Badwills, followed by Italian folk dancing in the grand setting of St Andrews in the Square. Assunta Spina stars Francesca Bertini, one of Italian cinema’s greatest ‘silent diva’ actresses, smouldering on-screen as she’s caught up in a violent love triangle. Complementing the film’s striking Neapolitan backdrop, this new score is co-commissioned by Glasgow Film Festival and A Kind of Seeing. After the film, enjoy The Badwills’ furious live music and try your hand at some traditional Italian dancing. Tambourines at the ready!
It’s that time of year again, when we get to delve into the Hippfest programme. The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival in Bo’ness, Scotland, is the most welcoming event in the early cinema calendar, with one of the most glamorous venues. The lineup is always an enjoyable mix of the classic and obscure too, so I await this announcement with more interest than most.
You can read the full lineup and schedule on the Hippfest website, but here are some selected highlights – and yes, I am terribly, terribly biased.
Pabst! So much Pabst around these days, which is great. The Hippfest is showing GW Pabst’s first film, the most traditionally expressionist of his career, Der Schätz, with live accompaniment written and performed by acclaimed German composer and musician Alois Kott.
More Pabst! On 22nd March, yours truly will be giving an illustrated “Cuppa Talk” lecture entitled Lost Girls and Goddesses, all about women in Pabst’s silent films. Brooks, Garbo, Nielsen, Helm … all will be in (virtual) attendance.
Galas! The opening night screening has already been announced as The Last of the Mohicans with live accompaniment from David Allison.
On the Friday night, get yourself glammed up for a date with The Student Prince in Old Heidelberg starring Ramon Novarro and Norma Shearer, with live music from the maestro Neil Brand. This silent comedy, directed by Ernst Lubitsch, is perfect in practically every way. And Brand, yeah he’s a bit of a legend too.
Lon Chaney swings by on Saturday night. You can watch him play “the master of the underworld” in The Penalty with a new score, commissioned by the festival, from Graeme Stephen and Pete Harvey on guitar and cello.
Stick around after The Penalty for an ideal late-night movie: Benjamin Christensen’s loopy Seven Footprints to Satan, with a live score from the always excellent Jane Gardner and Roddy Long. This film has to be seen to be believed!
Sunday night closes with two screening of recent BFI silent restorations. First, the sumptuous Indian romance Shiraz, accompanied by the wonderful John Sweeney, and then Anthony Asquith’s Underground, accompanied live by the dream team of Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius.
A little of what you fancy does you good. Right? I think so, and with that in mind I treated myself to a day of giggles at Bristol’s Slapstick Festival. My seventh visit, and suitably, I saw some heavenly sight gags.
Buster Keaton, who made his first appearance on film 100 years ago, was the special focus of the festival’s silent offering this year. So it’s no surprise that I had two dates with Mr Keaton in one day. First, an energetic, and thought-provoking lecture on the Great Stoneface’s masterpiece The General (1927), by Peter Kramer, author of the recent BFI Film Classic monograph on the film. I really liked what he had to say about the film’s depiction of the Old South, and the punishment meted out to Annabelle Lee as the film continues. Plenty to consider, and I think he’s exactly right about Lee. What’s great about her character is that she behaves badly, gets punished and then grows a little. A carefully drawn female character, capable of personal development, in a silent comedy? Cheers to that.
Dorothy Sebastian’s Trilby Drew in Keaton’s MGM silent Spite Marriage (1929) also faces a bruising punishment for her sins – hilariously so, in the sequence when Buster manhandles her passed-out body into bed – but I don’t buy into her transformation as much as I do Annabelle’s. Anyway, this film is frequently hilarious, while being more of a series of sketches forced into a feature than a narrative flick, and it was an excellent way to end my day at the festival. Not least because of sublime accompaniment from the European Silent Screen Virtuosi, AKA Gunter Buchwald, Romano Tadesco, and Frank Bockius, who made a late but welcome appearance after the film had begun. We were fed some line about Bockius being caught up in traffic, but I have read enough rock biogs to know what drummers get up to. Even Trilby Drew would blush, I’m sure.