The UK Jewish film festival features screenings across the country from 1-18 November, but we’re especially lucky in London as we will be able to see Edward Sloman’s 1925 silent classic His People, with a new improvised score. The film is set in Manhattan and film historian Tom Gunning praised it, saying that: “few silent films give so thorough a picture of Jewish home life in the American ghetto”.
This is an exciting chance to see the work of a director whose work Kevin Bownlow described as: “remarkable … with a very American smoothness of narrative”. Unfortunately, very many of Sloman’s pictures are now lost, but His People was his biggest commercial success, taking millions at the box office on its original release. It also stars Rudolph Schildkraut, one of the director’s favourite actors: “Whatever you planned with Schildkraut always came off – sometimes even better than you’d dreamed it. Rudolph Schildkraut was one of the great actors of his era,” he told Brownlow in The Parade’s Gone By.
A rare opportunity to see one of the most evocative films of the 1920s with a new, live score. The sights and smells of New York’s bustling immigrant Jewish Lower East Side have seldom been captured better than in this sparkling tale of a generational clash of cultures. The two sons of a Jewish migrant family opt for different paths in life and love, but as the story progresses, assumptions about good and bad are soon firmly challenged.
A classic morality tale with a bold, contemporary cinematic feel, accompanied by an improvised live soundtrack from Sophie Solomon, (violinist and artistic director of the Jewish Music Institute), Quentin Collins (trumpet), Ian Watson (accordion) and Grant Windsor (piano).
To win a pair of tickets to see His People at the Barbican, just send the answer to this question to firstname.lastname@example.org by noon on Friday 9 November. The winner will be chosen at random from the correct entries.
His People director Edward Sloman was born in Britain – but in which city?
You may feel weary at the prospect of another love-letter to the silent era. You may feel fatigued by the thought of another Snow White movie. Wait, though – nothing should deter you from seeking out this intriguing, gorgeous film. Director Pablo Berger describes his Blancanieves as a “homage to European silent cinema”, but happily, it has the confidence to wear its influences lightly and transform them into something new, magical and utterly distinctive.
Blancanieves is a sharp, heady cocktail of fairytales, Spanish iconography and silent cinema: a black-and-white film with gorgeous musical accompaniment that tells the story of Carmen, whose matador father remarries after her flamenco dancer mother dies in childbirth. But if you’re expecting a straight 1920s-set adaptation of Snow White, you will be wrongfooted right to the bittersweet end. When we finally encounter the dwarves, we find they’re bullfighters, they’re not all sweet, and there aren’t quite seven of them. A celebrity magazine takes the place of a magic mirror, the wicked stepmother indulges in S&M with her chauffeur and the young heroine’s best friend is a neckerchief-wearing rooster called Pépé.
Carmen is no fairytale princess either, but in both her younger (Sofía Oria) and older (Macarena Garciá) incarnations, she is a serious, lonely young woman on a tragic path – both actresses share intense, dark eyes, which Berger makes the utmost of. Maribel Verdú turns in a wickedly funny pantomime performance as her scheming stepmother – although it often feels as if she is in a different, more histrionic, film to everyone else – and Daniel Giménez Cacho is heartbreaking as the destroyed father. Plaudits must also go to the rooster, or rather his handler. There may never have been a cuter cockerel in the cinema.
So why is Blancanieves a silent film? Perhaps it’s because in this version the girl’s parents are both wordless performers, in old-fashioned artforms. Her grandmother teaches her to dance, and her first encounter with bullfighting is via the flickering images of a praxinoscope. Berger also says he was inspired by a screening of Greed with Carl Davis’s orchestral score, and by silent film-makers including Sjöstrom, Herbier, Murnau and our own Anthony Asquith. Whatever the cause, it’s an artistic choice that pays dividends.
This is no pastiche, although I will admit I could have lived without the Instagram-style rough edge to the Academy frame, a bafflingly naff decision considering the film’s visual achivements: sumptuous photography, and impressionistic editing. There’s so much here that recalls the silent era – a clatter of flashcuts, the rustic faces in the crowd, superimpositions, irises and a restrained number of intertitles – but it feels modern too, with lovely soft light washing over the interiors and nimble, intimate handheld camerawork. There’s nothing in Blancanieves’ exquisite cinematography that could not have been achieved in the 1920s, but its strength is that it never feels anachronistic or nostalgic. And those sumptuous images tell the story too, as when Carmen’s first-communion dress is plunged into a tub of black dye, or she sees Pépé’s face hovering on her dinner plate.
With such riches at his disposal, I almost wish Berger had made a more serious film than this twisted fairytale, which occasionally veers into camp. Blancanieves is a strange piece of work, but a precious one, however, so even if it lacks ambition, its integrity and beauty are to be treasured.
There are plenty of changes afoot at the BFI London film festival, with a new artistic director, more venues being used around the capital and a rejigged set of thematic categories across the programme. The Treasures strand has been beefed up, and that can only mean good news for silent film enthusiasts. So, without further preamble, here’s what you can look forward to this year:
This is the big one, the archive gala presentation. Hitchcock’s tragic coastal romance is one of his most beautiful films, and an accomplished, fascinating silent. Anny Ondra, Carl Brisson and Malcolm Keen take their places at the corners of an Isle of Man love triangle, and Hitchcock milks their doom-laden situation for every drop of suspense. This will of course be a presentation of the BFI’s new restoration of the film, and as he did last year with The First Born, Stephen Horne will be writing and performing a brand new score.
Rather dishearteningly described as ‘Tim Burton meets The Artist’, Pablo Berger’s modern silent plays three times during the festival, in the Cult strand. It’s a Gothic adaptation of Snow White, set in the world of bullfighting in 1920s Spain and it looks very intriguing. You can read more here and we’ll have a better idea what to expect when the reviews come in from its screenings at the San Sebastian and Toronto festivals later this month.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Jasper Sharp – scroll down for a chance to win tickets to these events.
Taking place at the Cinema Museum between 14-16 September, the UK’s premiere celebration of cutting-edge Japanese film, Zipangu Fest, returns for its third year, with a number of choice items of interest to silent film fans.
The centrepiece is the screening on Saturday evening of Kinugasa Teinosuke’s classic of the avant-garde, Crossways (Jujiro, 1928) from 35mm, with a new score performed live by Minima. One of the first Japanese films ever shown in the West, Crossways was Kinugasa’s follow up to his better-known Page of Madness (Kurutta ippeiji, 1926). Set in Tokyo’s Yoshiwara pleasure district, Crossways was described by its director as a “chambara [samurai action film] without swordfights” and was heavily influenced by German Expressionism.
This screening will be introduced by a visual presentation on the history of the film by Zipangu Fest director and author of the recent Historical Dictionary of Japan Cinema, Jasper Sharp. The evening kicks off at 7.30pm, and tickets are available from the Zipangu Fest website.
Crossways will be preceded by another very rare screening for those with an interest in Japan’s early cinema, To Sleep So as to Dream (Yume miru you ni nemuritai), the 1986 debut from Kaizô Hayashi (Circus Boys, Zipang, and the ‘Yokohama Mike’ trilogy).
Two private detectives hunt for an actress trapped within a frame of an ancient ninja film in this magical double-handed homage to the movie worlds of the 1910s and 1950s. Predating Michel Hazanavicius’ recent faux-silent work The Artist by 25 years, To Sleep So as to Dream is chockfull of references to Japan’s rich cinematic heritage, featuring cameos from a host of veteran talent including the benshi (silent film narrators) Shunsui Matsui and Midori Sawato, and the baroque sets of Takeo Kimura, the Nikkatsu art designer fondly remembered for his flamboyant work with Seijun Suzuki in the 1960s. Playing for the most part without dialogue, it toys with the conventions of both the silent film and hardboiled detective genres, leading the viewer through a maze of colourful locales such as a carnival fairground and a deserted film set.
Both of these titles will be screened from film. Indeed, cinema purists might want to also note Zipangu Fest’s Sunday afternoon session, beginning at 4.30pm, Spirit Made Flesh: Works from 3 Experimental Filmmakers, featuring work by Shinkan Tamaki, Momoko Seto and Takashi Makino, all of which interrogate and explore the very essence of celluloid and analogue technologies. The screenings will be followed by a panel discussion “Is There Still a Need for Film in a Digitising World?” in what promises to be a lively and fascinating event.
Zipangu Fest is generously offering a pair of tickets to all three of these events. All you have to do is sign up to our mailing list, and tell us which of the films in our 2012 lineup interests you. On submission you will be signed up to our responsibly-managed mailing list, and three names will be selected at random for a prize. The first gets a pair of tickets to the Crossways event, the second to To Sleep so as To Dream, and the third to Spirit Made Flesh. Click here to enter.
Zipangu Fest was established in 2010 to shatter existing preconceptions about what ‘Japanese cinema’ is, and to celebrate one of the most vibrant and dynamic moving image cultures anywhere in the world. The third Zipangu Fest, hosted by the Cinema Museum in Kennington from 14-16 September, looks set to be our most ambitious and exciting yet.
The Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea is contributing to Olympic mania by staging what it describes as “London’s most sophisticated street party”. It’s a festival really, featuring games, dance, science, debates, music, writers’ commissions and visual art installations, with a little nod to the Great Exhibition that took over Hyde Park in 1851. The Exhibition Road Show will take place on the street they’re calling “London‟s cultural and intellectual heartland”, just a short hop from the Olympic beach volleyball venue in Earl’s Court.
The Show runs from 28 July to 5 August, and on its opening night you can pop along to a free outdoor screening of Herbert Ponting’s elegant, unflinching Scott of the Antarctic documentary The Great White Silence – with its acclaimed live score by Simon Fisher Turner and his musicians.
Fisher Turner’s score for The Great White Silence premiered at the London Film Festival in 2010, and was described by The Guardian as “”skillfully judged, and the blend of real sounds – such as the gramophones that would have played on the ship, the Terra Nova, as well as a recording of the ship’s bell – and sparse musical scoring seemed to respect the idea of silence while making sound”.
This summer’s screening is of Nosferatu, the landmark vampire horror by FW Murnau, which is 90 years old this year. It’s a movie Minima have accompanied many times before, but not like this:
East End Film Festival presents the World Premiere of A Symphony of Horror, a unique collaboration between soundscapers Minima, Paul Ayres’ Queldryk Choral Ensemble and Hackney-based spatial artist Lucy Jones to create a re-imagined film score and performance on the 90th anniversary of the classic 1922 film.
Enter the fully immersive eerie and unsettling world of Nosferatu where the very walls of Spitalfields Market will be alive with creeping shadows and silhouettes, and reverberating with the soaring tones of the Queldryk Choral Ensemble, featuring 60 choristers, accompanied by the festival’s favourite soundtrackers, Minima.
Silent film screenings with live music have always spearheaded the immersive, live cinema trend, but this event goes a step further, combining an atmospheric location with projections and a spooky soundtrack turned up to eleven.
Admission is free, and the film won’t start until the sun goes down, but you’ll want turn up early to get a good seat and bring your own cushions/blankets/cagoules. For more information, visit the East End film festival website.
I’m very pleased to say that more details of the programme for next month’s British Silent Film Festival have just been released. The festival takes place in Cambridge this year, from 19-22 April. Delegate passes for the weekend are now available to buy here, and the full schedule is available to browse here. Screenings will include Graham Cutts’s Cocaine, to accompany the ‘What the Silent Censor Saw’ programme, The First Born, with Stephen Horne’s ensemble score, Norwegian drama Fante-Anne (Gipsy Anne) with a new score by Halldor Krogh, Soviet documentary Turksib with accompaniment from Bronnt Industries, folk films from the ‘Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow’ collection and new restorations from the Imperial War Museum. There will be some British silent cinema highlights from 15-year history of the festival, a Grand Guignol strand of macabre movies and Ian Christie will deliver the Rachael Low lecture.
All this plus the Dodge Brothers will be scoring The Ghost That Never Returns live, there’ll be an outdoor screening on the Sunday night, golfing tales from PG Wodehouse, some classic Cambridge comedies and a couple of WW Jacobs adaptations in the form of The Boatswain’s Mate and A Will and a Way. The full announcement is pasted below.
The British Silent Film Festival will be celebrating its 15th Anniversary in Cambridge at the Arts Picture House. The four-day programme will be packed with rarely-seen films from the BFI and other international archives featuring a wide range of fascinating subjects such as: P.G. Wodehouse’s golfing tales including The Long Holeand The Clicking of Cuthbert; rarities based on the charming coastal stories of W.W. Jacobs including The Boatswain’s Mate and A Will and a Way; a celebration of thecentenary of the British Board of Film Classification with a look at ‘What the Silent Censor Saw’ with the rarely screened and risqué film Cocaine. We’ll be tracing the origins of Cambridge’s brand of ‘university humour’ before the Footlights with a selection of burlesque films from the 1920s and featuring A Couple of Down and Outs, the ‘silent Warhorse’ made in 1923 which tells the tale of a WWI soldier who goes on the run with his warhorse to save it from the ‘knacker’s yard’. We are also delighted to be screening the 1920 classic Fante-Anne (Gipsy Anne), directed bythe greatNorwegian director Rasmus Breistein; accompanied by a new musical score by composer and music producer Halldor Krogh.
We’ll also be featuring some 15th anniversary highlights including the legendary Grand Guignol programme of macabre stories with a twist in the tale and we’ll be including a selection of the best of British silent feature films screened over the past fourteen years. The Imperial War Museum will be presenting their latest silent restorations from their fabulous collection and we are very pleased to announce that Ian Christie will deliver the Annual Rachael Low Lecture.
This year’s ‘hot tickets’ will be the wildly popular Dodge Brothers performing their distinctive brand of Americana to The Ghost That Never Returns at the West Road Concert Hall; Here’s a Health to the Barley Mow with live folk accompaniment to silent films of English folk traditions and the Bronnt Industries playing to the stunning Soviet film Turksib. Regular Festival collaborator Stephen Horne will be performing his fabulous new ensemble music score to The First Born, a dizzying tale of sex, death and British politics.
Screenings will take place at the Arts Picturehouse, Emmanuel College and the West Road Concert Hall. The Festival will draw to a close with an outdoor highlights screening on Magdalene Street in the evening of Sunday 22 April.
The Hippodrome in Bo’ness is Scotland’s oldest purpose-built picture palace – and it’s a real beauty. This year, the cinema is celebrating its 100th birthday in grand style, with the return of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema.
The centenary event builds on the success of last year’s festival, and tips its boater to a certain modern silent hit too. The opening night gala will be a screening of Show People, starring Marion Davies as a Hollywood wannabe whose dream comes true – shades of Peppy Miller, of course. It’s a real treat of a film, and it’s packed with cameos from silent Hollywood stars too: you’ll be able to spot Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks, John Gilbert, William S Hart and Mae Murray, among many others. William Haines is Davies’s co-star and King Vidor directs. Neil Brand will be playing the piano. If you’re attending the gala, don’t forget the dress code: the theme is Hollywood film star, the more glamorous the better.
Other events at the festival include:
The fantastic new restoration of British drama The First Born, starring and directed by Miles Mander, with a brand new score by Stephen Horne, performed by Horne and his band.
A Jeely Jar Special family screening of Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last! Bring along a clean jam jar (and matching lid) for a 2-for-1 ticket deal on the Saturday morning. Piano accompaniment by Neil Brand.
Two comedy shows: Another Fine Mess with Laurel and Hardy and The Keystone Connection, curated by David Wyatt, with Stephen Horne on the piano. You knew, of course, that Keystone Studios was founded in 1912, the same year that the Hippodrome was built.
The Lost Art of the Film Explainer will revive the live film narrator tradition with renowned storyteller Andy Cannon and cellist Wendy Weatherby.
Ozu’s poignant comedy I Was Born, But … with musical accompaniment by Forrester Pyke.
Flashback thriller A Cottage on Dartmoor, directed by Anthony Asquith.
Music and stunt workshops.
The closing night gala will be the two-strip Technicolor restoration of The Black Pirate, featuring a swashbuckling lead performance by Douglas Fairbanks, with musical accompaniment by pianist Jane Gardner and percussionist Hazel Morrison.
Tickets are available from the Steeple Box Office, High Street, Falkirk FK1 1NW, the Hippodrome Box Office, by phone on 01324 506850, and online at www.falkirkcommunitytrust.org/silentcinemafest, where you can also read the full schedule for the festival.
Mary Pickford is one of the most fascinating figures in Hollywood history. She was “America’s sweetheart” with long blonde curls and a fairytale marriage to handsome Douglas Fairbanks. But she was also the co-founder of United Artists and producer, star and director in all but name on some of her most successful pictures. More than just a pretty face indeed. Pickford knew exactly how the movies worked, and having grown up in terrible poverty as a child in Toronto, she knew what life was all about too, which you can see clearly in her finest screen performances.
Therefore, it’s a pleasure to learn that this year’s Birds Eye View Sound and Silents commissions will celebrate Mary Pickford with a triple-bill of her films at the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre. The New York Hat (1912), The Female of the Species (1912) and Amarilly of Clothes-Line Alley (1918) will be screened, accompanied by new scores by three very different musical talents:
Bouncing off Pickford’s on-screen radiance are three contemporary female artists. Anna Meredith is an in-demand composer/performer of acoustic and electronia, Welsh-born Roshi absorbs Iranian influences in her experimental folk. And multi-instrumentalist Tanya Auclair merges British, Rwandan and Canadian roots.
The New York Hat and The Female of the Species are both short films directed by DW Griffith, featuring Pickford in wildly different roles; the first of them was written by a young Anita Loos. Another legendary Hollywood screenwriter, Frances Marion, wrote the scenario for Amarilly, which is closer to feature-length and features Pickford as a young woman from a poor family who meets an upper-class sculptor but falls foul of his snobbish and cruel aunt.
The Mary Pickford Revived event is part of the Women of the World Festival and takes place at 8pm on 9 March 2012 at the Purcell Room in the Southbank Centre. Tickets cost £15 and are available here.
Also as part of the Sound and Silents programme, the magnificently gothic and strangely comic Sparrows (1926), one of Pickford’s greatest films, will be shown at Hackney Picturehouse on 11 March, with a live score by Aristazabal Hawkes from the Guillemots. You may remember that the score was commissioned by BEV last year and was due to be performed at the BFI Southbank, but the performance was cancelled. Sounds like a must-see to me. You can buy tickets here.
To find out more about the Birds Eye View Film Festival, which returns next year, visit the website.
UPDATE: I updated this post on 2 April 2013, because The Scaffold has just been made available on YouTube. Enjoy!
What a joy to return from a weekend of visual comedy at the Slapstick Festival (more of which anon) to hear about a modern silent comedy, “inspired by and dedicated to the grand masters of slapstick”, screening in London later this week. The Scaffold, directed by Peter Hübelbauer, is showing at the Student Film Festival on Friday 3 February 2012. It’s a knockabout, retro treat, very much in the vein of Laurel and Hardy. The three characters are painters and decorators, working on a rickety scaffold – expect planks, pratfalls and precarious pots of glue. The Scaffold is screening in Competition Block 2: Eclectic Mix, at 12:15 on Friday 3 February 2012. The venue is the London College of Communication. Buy tickets here. The film-maker will be there, so hopefully you’ll be able to hear about his inspiration for the film, and how he recreated the noble art of slapstick movie-making in the 21st century. To find out more about the Student Film Festival, visit the website.
Just a quick post to let you know about the silent film offering at the rather wonderful Glasgow Film Festival, which runs from 16-26 February 2012. If you include the Glasgow Youth Film Festival and the Glasgow Short Film Festival, which precede it, it all adds up to three weeks of movies – some of which are silent. Here goes:
The Loves of the Pharoah, Friday 17 February, 3.30pm, GFT 2
Ernst Lubitsch was a master of sophisticated romantic comedies but The Loves of Pharaoh reveals that he was also a filmmaker to rival the scale and ambition of DW Griffith or Peter Jackson. The Loves of Pharaoh is notable for its spectacular production design, gorgeous costumes, beautiful chiaroscuro cinematography and crowd scenes involving thousands of extras in an age before the convenience of computer generated effects. Future Oscar-winner Emil Jannings is the Egyptian Pharaoh who rejects the beloved daughter of the king of Ethiopia in favour of his infatuation with slave girl Theonis. It is a recipe for conflict, heartbreak and epic drama. A stunning digital restoration heralds the return of a major silent production. Buy tickets.
Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Saturday 18 February, 3pm, CCA theatre
Walter Ruttmann’s groundbreaking documentary captures the pulse of Berlin in a single day in the late 1920s. It is a moment of calm between the nightmare of the Depression and the horrors of the Nazi era. Inspired by Dziga Vertov (The Man with a Movie Camera), he compiles an impressionistic portrait of a bustling metropolis from the first light of dawn to the last gasp of the city’s neon-lit nightlife. Cameras hidden on vehicles and in suitcases capture an authentic picture of children hurrying to school, factories billowing smoke, rush-hour traffic and even the President Paul von Hindenburg. It is a wonderful time capsule made all the more poignant by the city’s virtual destruction in the Second World War. This special screening is accompanied by a live improvised performance from Scottish Jazz Trio AAB as musicians Tom and Phil Bancroft and Kevin Mckenzie rock the house with a unique fusion of bop, folk, house and indie rock. Buy tickets. Screening in combination with the ‘live’ film Glasgow: Symphony of a Great City.
Save the date: the 15th British Silent Film Festival will take place 19-22 April 2012 at a new venue, the Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. The change of location has influenced the programme too, which will feature some examples of undergraduate humour among a mix that includes adaptations of stories by WW Jacobs and PG Wodehouse as well a tribute to the BBFC. There’ll be a by-now customary performance by the Dodge Brothers too, skiffling along to Abram Room’s The Ghost That Never Returns.
The programme will include rarely seen silent films from the BFI and other archives around the world on a wide range of fascinating subjects such as: P.G. Wodehouse’s golfing tales including The Clicking of Cuthbert; rarities based on the charming coastal stories of W.W. Jacobs including The Boatswain’s Mate, A Will and a Way and brand new print of Head of the Family; a celebration of thecentenary of the British Board of Film Classification with a look at ‘What the Silent Censor Saw’ and the origins of ‘university humour’ before the Footlights. This year’s ‘hot ticket’ will be the wildly popular Dodge Brothers performing their distinctive brand of Americana to The Ghost That Never Returns.
Tickets are not yet on sale, but watch this space for more updates, including the full schedule and how to book. Click here for a report from last year’s festival, on the Guardian film blog. Below, Dodge Brother and film writer Mark Kermode introduces The Ghost That Never Returns at last year’s New Forest Film Festival:
Modern silent films. They’re the hottest thing since 3D, but far more popular in this neck of the woods. One film we’ve had our eye on for a while is the fantasy short Dogged (2011), written and directed by Jo Shaw and starring Lucy Goldie in all nine roles. The sinister premise of the film is summarised thus on IMDB: “In a world where bogeymen roam freely, devouring people randomly and the only creatures they fear are dogs, old dog does her best to defend the family home.” I think this dog is a very different breed to Uggie.
Dogged was described as “intriguing and insightful” by the judges at the Aesthetica film festival in York, who awarded it the prize for Best Experimental Film (read more here), but now, happily, you have the chance to see it in London and make your own mind up. Dogged is playing as part of the Making Tracks night programmed by Whirlygig Cinema at the London Short Film Festival. This event is especially notable because all the soundtracks for the short films being screened will be played live, by The Cabinet of Living Cinema. It’s a treatment that should particularly suit Shaw’s spooky silent film.
Want to know more about Dogged? There’s a trailer, which you can see on the IMDB page here and a regularly updated Facebook page.
Making Tracks is at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green on 14 January at 7.30pm. Tickets are £8 on the door or book them in advance for £6 at the Rich Mix website.
I hate to admit it, but there are good reasons to leave London sometimes. Bristol, for example, can lay a good claim to being the capital of silent cinema in this country, thanks mostly to the year-round efforts of the marvellous people at Bristol Silents. Indeed, come January there is nowhere finer for the discerning silent comedy fan to be. The annual Slapstick Festival is a four-day, multi-venue extravaganza of comedy, mostly of the silent era, presented by comedians and experts – and accompanied by live music.
The 2012 Slapstick Festival will take place from 26-29 January 2012, and the full lineup has just been announced. Yes, there will be some more recent comedy courtesy of gala screenings featuring Dad’s Army, Monty Python and the French film-maker Pierre Étaix. But Slapstick Festival is noted for its passionate endorsement of silent comedy, and it’s here in spades.
Kevin Brownlow will be talking about Buster Keaton and showing footage from his documentary A Hard Act to Follow, while Griff Rhys-Jones will introduce a night of silent comedy including a screening of The General at Colston Hall with music from Günter Buchwald and performed by The European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. On the last day of the festival, Bill Oddie, Tim Brooke-Taylor, Ian Lavender and Barry Cryer will also introduce their favourite Buster Keaton shorts.
Historian David Robinson will give an illustrated lecture, with clips, on Charlie Chaplin and also discuss his work with fan and comedian Sanjeev Bhaskar; Barry Cryer will present a Harold Lloyd double-bill and Graeme Garden will make a case for the debonair Charley Chase. David Wyatt will give two presentations: one talking about lesser-known silent comics such as Max Davidson and Larry Semon and the other on the spoofs and parodies rife in silent-era comedy.
Slapstick Festival events will take place in Colston Hall, the Watershed Cinema and the Arnolfini Arts Centre, Bristol from 26-29 January 2012. See the Slapstick Festival website for more details and to book tickets.
And don’t forget, the Slapstick Festival has its own real ale, brewed locally, especially for the event. The launch of the Slapstick Beer takes place at the Victoria Pub, Clifton on Friday 9 December at 7.30pm. Details on Facebook.
The 2012 Olympics are not just about sport. The London 2012 Festival will bring hundreds of cultural events to the capital as well. Music, dance, art and literature all get a look-in, but of course, the strand that really catches my eye is The Genius of Hitchcock. The sound films of Leytonstone’s favourite son will be shown at a complete retrospective at the BFI in August, September and October 2012. Before that, and more importantly, Hitchcock’s wonderful silent films – all nine that survive – are in the process of being restored by the BFI, and will be screened across London next summer, with live, specially commissioned scores. These special events will be must-sees for silent film fans, so I’ll be keeping you updated as the tickets go on sale.
The exciting news for readers outside London is that The Lodger will also receive a theatrical release – and the performances of The Ring and Champagne will be streamed live online too.
The first screenings have now been announced, and you can even start booking tickets. I will update this post as more details and dates are announced
28 & 29 June 2012: Hitchcock’s first film, The Pleasure Garden (1925) will be shown in the gorgeous, and apt, Wilton’s Music Hall in Limehouse, with a score written by rising star composer Daniel Patrick Cohen and performed by the Royal Academy of Music’s Manson Ensemble. Tickets cost £21.50 and you can book them on the BFI website.
6 July 2012: The wonderful silent version of Blackmail will be accompanied by Neil Brand’s magnificent orchestral score when it screens at one of its most celebrated locations – the British Museum. Tickets here.
13 July 2012: The Ring (1927) is a love triangle with rival boxers trying to win the heart of the same woman, and is one of the most recognisably Hitchcockian of his silents. It is screened here at the magnificent Hackney Empire in East London, with a jazz score by Soweto Kinch, performed by a five-piece band. Tickets start at £15 and you can buy them here.
Two silent films, both with a lot to say, concluded the London Film Festival archive strand on Wednesday night. The double-bill of Soviet war film The Nail in the Boot (1931) and Lois Weber’s drama Shoes (1916) was not, we were assured, meant to be witty – rather it was a happy accident of programming. The films are from different times and continents, with contrasting styles. If they have anything in common beyond their titles, it is that they both issue moral warnings to the audience: look what can happen if you let your standards slip.
Expectations were raised for The Nail in the Boot when we were told that not only has it long been championed by our musician for the evening, Stephen Horne, but that he has won an award at the Bonn Sommerkino silent film festival for his accompaniment. And a spectacular soundtrack it was too, dynamic and inventive, incorporating accordion, flute and piano – often played in unconventional ways. Piano strings were plucked as missiles exploded in the battlefield; the accordion bellows hissed as soldiers were choked with gas. The same melody Horne plays on the accordion as the red soldiers celebrate a victory is repeated later on the flute after a terrible loss.
The film, by Georgian director Mikhail Kalatozov (The Cranes Are Flying, I am Cuba) is in three sections: a battle scene featuring an armoured train under aerial bombardment; a nervy sequence when one soldier is despatched from the train to call for help, but is hobbled by the eponymous nail injuring his foot; a trial scene, which tips into fantasy, as the soldier is accused of sabotage. The first two thirds are by far the most thrilling, and not just because the trial scene carries the weight of the film’s propagandist message. Kalatozov’s combat scenes are unforgettable: frenetic montage, extreme close-ups (even inside a gun barrel) and low angles make the viewer feel as if they too are being bombarded. I lost count of the number of times the camera appeared to be run over by enemy tanks, but I’m sure I flinched each time. Modern audiences will enjoy Kalatozov’s extravagant use of formalistic trickery for the same reason that the Soviet authorities suppressed it – it draws attention away from the film’s message and towards the skill of the film-maker. His triumph is that his abstract style makes the violence more tangible, not less.
Reeling from the battlefield, we were all urging the soldier on as he raced across open country. Faced with barbed wire, and a bare, bandaged foot, he nobly attempts to climb the fence. We wince. He tries again. Aah. So many curled toes and pained faces in one audience.
The Nail in the Boot has recently been restored by Gosfilmofond, and although we had no information as to the state of the print before work began, the film we saw was crisp, clean, with a wonderful quality of light and rich in detail. The latter was particularly noticeable in a lattice of shadows cast by a broom on our protagonist’s face.
We had more clues about the restoration of Shoes (including a neat before-and-after comparison reel), which has been rescued from a blizzard of nitrate deterioration and bacterial damage by the EYE film institute in the Netherlands. Based on two tinted and toned nitrate prints with a few frames grabbed from a sarcastically dubbed 1930s version, the new Shoes is hugely improved, although it still retains unobtrusive marks at the edge of the frame in some scenes.
Lois Weber was one of the silent era’s very few female film directors and for that reason alone her work will always be of interest. Shoes is a simple enough tale of young shop worker, Eva (Mary MacLaren), who can’t afford a replacement pair of boots, and the moral dilemma she faces when opportunity presents itself, albeit in an unwelcome form. If it feels that Weber spends too long moralising in the title-cards, that may be because visually she expresses her heroine’s predicament so well. We were forewarned by as representative of EYE to play close attention to the end. After an hour spent walking inEva’s tattered, sodden shoes, a 21st-century audience may find less to condemn or lament in the choice she makes.
At one point a superimposed hand labelled “Poverty” appears to crush Eva as she sleeps, but Weber’s touch is not quite always so heavy. While the film is always elegantly composed, the kitchen-sink details of slum life, from watered-down milk and sugar sandwiches to empty shelves and broken furniture are everywhere – Shoes is relentlessly unglamorous. Even MacLaren’s lead performance is sullen, quietly anguished, rather than melodramatic. If I were her, I’d be seething too.
When you’re watching a silent film and the whole audience gasps in horror and surprise at the same time, you know it’s not a museum piece you’re looking at. The First Born was released in 1928, just as Britain was first being seduced by those new-fangled “talkies”, but it has more than enough tricks up its sleeve to tempt moviegoers in any decade.
Chosen as this year’s Archive Gala for the London Film Festival, The First Born is a disarmingly frank story of sex and love among the aristo set, shot with precocious flair. Actor Miles Mander directs, and also plays the lead: a scoundrel of a baronet named Hugo Boycott, whose marriage is inevitably in crisis. Hugo and Maddie’s relationship runs hot and cold. One day they’re falling into each other’s arms, the next they’re having one of their rows – and real shoe-flinging, bag-packing, door-slamming humdingers they are too. Maddie (Madeleine Carroll) blames the arguments on her own jealousy, which is to say her pain at Hugo’s philandering. But there is another reason for the couple’s unhappiness: their childlessness. Whether this is anything more than the baronet’s old-fashioned desire for an heir is open to question, but Maddie certainly believes a baby will solve her marital woes. Hugo’s behaviour is fairly abominable at every turn, but his wife’s decision to deceive him in order to save their marriage provides the drama’s fatal twist.
And this is a complex story, with the truth about the Boycotts’ marriage and the outward appearance of it constantly at odds – a conflict that comes to the fore horribly when Hugo runs for parliament and a distraught Maddie is forced to stump for him at a public meeting. We can’t hear what Maddie is saying, and there are no intertitles to help us, just her pained expression, and superimposed cheers of encouragement from the crowd: “Good old missus!” They think she’s a sweetheart, Hugo thinks she’s a monster. Fans of The Graduate (1967) will note the speed with which their faces fall in the cab journey home. It’s delicately done, but it’s a heartbreaking moment.
The First Born is a wonderfully well directed film, in fact, eliciting a tremendous, anguished central performance from Carroll, and a sizzling one from her irresistibly dashing “noble admirer”, David (John Loder). Both actors, like Mander himself, went on to further success – Carroll most notably in The 39 Steps (1935) and The Secret Agent (1936), and Loder in another Hitchcock film, Sabotage (1936). Mander’s only venal directorial sin is vanity: he gives himself far too many lip-curling closeups, and risks turning Boycott into a pantomime villain. Mander’s performance is enjoyable, but it is not a tenth as sophisticated as his co-star’s. His virtue on the other hand, is his audacious use of camera movement, dissolves and overhead angles to disorient and excite the narrative. There’s one prowling handheld tracking shot that plunges the audience straight into the psyche of a suspicious husband, running his hands over ruffled bedsheets. Elsewhere, a sequence of dissolving closeups of Carroll and her manicurist Phoebe shows the transferral of one idea between two minds: a folie à deux in the making. We’re in the latter stages of the silent era here – Mander had made short sound films before but this was his debut feature – and The First Born is the work of a confident director on top of his material and with creativity to spare.
That’s not to say that he was not ably assisted. The screenplay for The First Born was co-written by Alma Reville, a woman with many years’ experience in the film business, but yes, better known to us now as the wife of Alfred Hitchcock. It’s tempting to credit her with some of the film’s sophisticated touches – from its elegant structure, to its sparse use of intertitles and the sensitive portrayal of Maddie as far more than just a wronged wife. The First Born is never afraid of emotional complexity, from the ambiguities of Maddie’s friendship with David, and her betrayal by a close friend, to a brisk montage of painfully contradictory telegrams.
The quality of the film should stand for itself, and those who have seen it at festivals over the years have long championed The First Born as a lost British classic. Critics at the time of its release thought it was a bit “sordid”, but they said pretty much the same thing about Pandora’s Box (1929), so there’s no reason that a film this accomplished, and entertaining, shouldn’t be embraced by a wider audience in the 21st century. And that is why the BFI has showered so much love on it. We see it now in a more complete state than before – frames from a 16mm print found in the George Eastman House in New York have been spliced in where there were gaps in the BFI’s 35mm copy, reinstating an expression here, an exit there, to make the film a more smoothly satisfying experience. Cue marks, scratches and holes have been erased and the original, delicate tints restored. The film also now benefits from a fresh score – composed by Stephen Horne and performed live at the gala screening. It’s melodic, and elegant, but fantastically adept at ramping up the tension in the crucial moments. There’s a haunting theme, played on the oboe and underscored by percussion and piano, that seems to appear when Hugo’s own jealousy gets out of control; there’s a humorous use of the accordion when Maddie’s friend Nina raises a sardonic eyebrow; and a thunderous combination of piano keys and strings during an unexpected violent catastrophe.
The exquisite new score is the finishing touch in the rebirth of The First Born – a fascinating film, ripe for rediscovery.
Could a silent, black-and-white film really become a box-office hit in 2011? At festival after festival around the world, critics have been raving about The Artist (2011), Michel Hazanavicius’s homage to late-1920s Hollywood. Leading man Jean Dujardin has picked up the Best Actor award at Cannes, and thanks in part to Harvey Weinstein’s support, the Oscar speculation has already begun. Surely this is madness, though – even the director himself says, “nobody watches silent movies any more”.
But The Artist is gorgeous enough to make anyone lose their reason: it’s lushly photographed in silvery monochrome, romantic and funny, too. Dujardin’s sparkling performance as silent star George Valentin comes across like a new Douglas Fairbanks – but incredibly, he’s more suave – and when he bumps into Bérénice Bejo’s flirtatious flapper Peppy Miller, the chemistry is irresistible. The Artist tells the story of their troubled love affair, and the way their career paths diverge when the “talkies” arrive. The scene is almost always stolen, however, by Uggy, Valentin’s dog, whose adorable tricks will charm the most silent-sceptical of audiences.
So far, so sugary, but here’s another layer to The Artist. This is a film all about cinema: about the highest achievements, and the follies, of the silent era and all the films that have come since. The silent-film references come thick and fast: from Clara Bow to Erich von Stroheim, from the Fantômas serials to Spione (1928) to The Last Command (1928). There are even a few frames from The Mark of Zorro (1920) in the mix. The talkies get a look-in too, of course. Valentin’s blonde co-star recalls Lina Lamont from Singin’ in the Rain (1952); his scenes with his wife riff on Citizen Kane (1941) and the score borrows liberally from Vertigo (1958). We’re so often watching a film within a film, or spotting a sly cinematic reference, that The Artist is almost a silent movie by stealth. Hazanavicius, like Dujardin, nearly always has one eyebrow raised about his own nostalgic project, sometimes to the detriment of the film. There’s a dramatic moment towards the end of The Artist that is almost entirely ruined by an intertitle gag, for example. It gets a laugh, but it’s a cheap one.
These knowing moments are dangerous, because they threaten to break The Artist‘s enchanting spell and pull the audience out of what is for the most part a dreamily seductive experience. At its best, The Artist is a triumphantly modern silent film, which shows the influence of Fritz Lang, Josef von Sternberg and Frank Borzage but never looks like a relic. I loved the early sequences when Valentin and Miller first fall for each other: their backstage tapdance, and their repeated takes of the same scene (from cool, to sexy, to loving and finally collapsing into giggles) are pure silent cinema magic. When Miller is alone in Valentin’s dressing room, she snuggles up to his suit jacket, slips one arm into the sleeve and begins to canoodle with herself. It’s a wonderful piece of visual film-making, and says far more, with more charm, than dialogue ever could. Silent cinema fans will recognise the move from a scene in Borzage’s Seventh Heaven (1927), when Janet Gaynor shrugs her lover’s jacket on to her shoulders and wraps the sleeves around her. It has to be said, though, that The Artist‘s version is a lot sexier – it’s not 1927 any more.
The Artist isn’t always so cuddly. The lively, if anachronistic, score is not quite continuous; it’s brave enough to drop away for a moment’s pause, leaving the cinema in dead, unaccustomed, silence. That’s a bold move, and a self-conscious one, too. And as Valentin’s confidence takes a knock, expressionist shadows, spinning headlines, trick photography and one audacious nightmare sequence are all piled on to make us feel his pain. Sadly, it’s here that the film veers between homage and pastiche, and suffers just a little in the process. Does Hazanavicius want us to love silent cinema, or to laugh at it? Ultimately, The Artist doesn’t want to answer that question, it just wants to entertain, which it does, brilliantly.
I entered the cinema worrying about whether this film will be able to charm mass audiences or just film buffs and furrowing my brow over whether its potential success could spearhead a silent film revival. As the credits rolled I really didn’t care any more. The Artist is a joy and it doesn’t deserve to be weighed down with such responsibilities. If you’re watching it at the London Film Festival this week, you’re in for a treat.
For the rest of us, Launchingfilms.com currently lists the UK release date as 30 December 2011.
This review is a guest post for Silent London by Philip Concannon of the Phil on Film blog.
During his interesting (if incredibly long) introduction to The Goose Woman at its London Film Festival screening, Robert Gitt suggested that Louise Dresser would have won an Academy Award if the ceremony had existed in 1925. Having watched the film, few will disagree with his assessment. Dresser plays Mary Holmes – the eponymous goose woman – an alcoholic, embittered old crone living on a remote farm. Twenty years earlier, she was Marie de Nardi, a beautiful singer on the cusp of fame, but she gave up her career to have her son Gerald (Jack Pickford) and now she has nothing but her memories, her geese and a pile of broken booze bottles outside her window. Dresser’s performance as this unsympathetic protagonist is remarkable, expressing sadness, regret and bitterness through her subtle but forceful acting.
Clarence Brown’s film is adapted from a story by Rex Beach, which was itself based on the real-life “Pig Woman” case (heavily publicised by William Randolph Hearst’s press at the time). It’s the tale of a murder that Mary claims to have witnessed, milking the subsequent publicity and press attention for all it’s worth, and propelling herself back into the spotlight, but her fabricated account of what happened that night inadvertently frames her own son for the murder. This narrative is given an extra charge by the tensions that are already simmering between Mary and Gerald, with Mary blaming her son for her ruined career, and their relationship reaches its nadir when she hits him with a revelation about his parentage that’s so shocking the film can’t even articulate it. The Goose Woman is so coy about the nature of this secret that for some time I wasn’t sure what it was; all we see is Mary spitefully mouthing the truth as her son recoils in horror, and then he tearfully runs to his fiancée Hazel (Constance Bennett) who reacts with similar dismay.
Aside from that confusing plot niggle, The Goose Woman‘s story is handled with great skill and sophistication by Brown, who keeps the action down-to-earth and rooted in character, sustaining an impressive level of suspense (with welcome burst of humour) until the final scenes. He has a great eye for detail and there are some lovely, telling moments scattered throughout the movie, like the running gag involving Mary’s attempts to hide her whisky bottle, or her habit of judging every man she meets by rubbing his business card (if you don’t have embossed lettering, you’re not worth a damn, clearly). His visual style is simple but effective, and he puts together a terrific sequence during Gerald’s interrogation, cutting away to a dripping tap, nuts being cracked and coins jangling, as the suspect’s anxiety grows. This latter scene is also the kind of interlude that allows accompanist Stephen Horne to get creative on his piano and flute; as ever, his playing at this screening caught the tone and mood of the picture perfectly.
In the years following this film, Brown went on to direct a number of stars to some of their most celebrated performances (including Greta Garbo, who called him her favourite director) and it’s clear from The Goose Woman that he was very much an actors’ director. All of the performances here are a pleasure to watch, particularly the scene-stealing James O Barrows and Gustav von Seyffertitz as a detective and district attorney who have a competitive relationship in the movie’s background, and it’s nice to see Jack Pickford – so often in his sister’s shadow – given a rare chance to shine. However, The Goose Woman ultimately belongs to Louise Dresser, whose outstanding lead performance, like the film itself, deserves to be rediscovered and celebrated.
This review is a guest post for Silent London by Philip Concannon of the Phil on Film blog.
Even if you’ve never seen Georges Méliès’s film A Trip to the Moon (1902) you’ll be familiar with its most enduring image, that of the Man in the Moon grimacing as a rocket lands in his right eye. However, you probably recall that shot in black-and-white, as that’s how the film has been presented for so many years, but Méliès also made A Trip to the Moon in colour. Following the rediscovery of a severely damaged colour print in Barcelona in 1993 – and a painstaking, frame-by-frame restoration – we finally have the opportunity to enjoy the director’s original vision, which surely hasn’t looked as good as this since it premiered in 1902.
Méliès was cinema’s first magician, and he blesses his characters with the same gift for wizardry. In the opening scene, a group of bearded astronomers gather in a great hall, clutching telescopes that they quickly transform into stools so they can sit and listen to their leader’s lunar exploration plans. You might expect editing tricks such as this to appear rudimentary to the modern viewer, but there’s something delightful about the casual ease with which Méliès pulls them off, and the whole film contains moments to thrill and enchant. The lavish sets create a remarkable sense of depth and scale as the intrepid explorers stroll around on the moon’s surface, and there are some wondrously inventive touches, such as the stars coming to life and observing the explorers while they sleep, or the alien creatures who suddenly ambush them, prompting a frantic escape. Our heroes only have their umbrellas to defend themselves with (never visit the moon without one) but it proves to be enough, as one strike from that deadly weapon turns each alien into a puff of smoke, an effect that looks even better now that the smoke is green.
The restored version of A Trip to the Moon that screened this week at the London Film Festival is a beauty. The tinting respects Méliès’s original intentions and helps us pick out details in the background of his often busy compositions, with the celebratory scenes of the explorers’ departure and return being particularly well-served by this new presentation. Visually, A Trip to the Moon is a constant delight, but I have doubts about the score, which has been composed for the film by the French duo Air. One audience member amusingly cried “Oh no!” as the band’s credit was revealed, and while the score doesn’t quite deserve such a despairing reaction, it does feel like an odd fit for the movie. In some scenes, notably the preparations for launch, the music possesses a sense of rhythm that perfectly matches the action, but in other sequences their electric guitars and animal noises (!) jar discordantly with Méliès’s images.
That caveat aside, A Trip to the Moon is essential viewing. It is 14 minutes of pure imagination and it remains as surprising and charming as ever – 109 years on, Méliès the magician still knows how to cast his spell over an audience.