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.
Hello Silent London readers! I’m Ellie from the Kine Artefacts blog. Last week I travelled to Pordenone for the 30th Giornate del Cinema Muto, and have been asked to provide a few highlights. More than 150 silent films were screened across eight days, so picking favourites was no easy feat, but here goes …
2011 was a year full of significant rediscoveries and restorations of seemingly lost classics. Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange of Lobster Films presented the digitally restored version of the hand-painted print of Méliès’s LeVoyage dans la Lune (1902). Famously, the restoration was over a decade in the making, and came complete with a controversial modern score by Air, which caused one disgruntled festivalgoer to exclaim, “It’s a disgrace!” Opinion is split on whether Lobster Films should have presented a more traditional soundtrack (and the film was screened again later in the week with Donald Sosin at the piano), but nothing could have detracted from the bold and beautiful colours of Méliès’s sci-fi wonderland.
The three surviving reels of Graham Cutts’s The White Shadow (1923) had film fans queuing all the way across the piazza, desperate to see the work of a young assistant director called Alfred Hitchcock. The shadow of Hitchcock loomed large over the screening, though the real star of the piece had to be American actress Betty Compson, who deftly hopped between the dual roles of twin sisters, one virtuous and the other flighty, in love with a man unaware that he has two paramours. Watching the film was a frustrating experience as it cut out at the most dramatic point. Someone, please, find those last three reels!
As is well known, next year silent film fans in the US will be able to see Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927) in all its glory. However, Kevin Brownlow was on hand in Pordenone to give a stirring history of his plight to restore the epic biopic. Brownlow’s lecture was part of the Collegium: an education initiative whereby a dozen young film researchers are invited to Pordenone to partake in dialogues with eminent film historians and archivists. If, like me, you are interested in becoming a Pordenone Collegian then keep an eye on their website – applications will open in the new year. No formal experience is required, just enthusiasm for silent cinema.
While names such Hitchcock and Méliès will always draw a crowd, it should be noted that several other finds made their way to Italy, which may have been more obscure but were no less astonishing. RW Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship is a delightful and invaluable rediscovery from 1896 – arguably making it one of the earliest instances of fiction on film. It was thrilling to see so many festival goers enraptured by less than a minute and a half of film depicting a simple story of a couple’s attempt to grab some privacy.
There was a strong emphasis on restoring the colours of silent film. As most Silent London readers will be aware, while silent films were shot on black and white film stock, large amounts of them were tinted, toned, stencilled and hand-painted. The festival screened several examples of digital restoration and the Desmet process of turning hand-coloured films into colour prints, as well as rare examples of prints that have been tinted using dye, just as the original distributors would have done. One particularly fascinating example was a tinted fragment from Der Rätsel von Bangalor (1918), which although just five minutes long was screened seven times, each time from a print restored using a different method – including one that had been submerged in food dye!
Lastly, the festival drew to a close in style, with Victor Sjöström’s The Wind (1928), accompanied by Carl Davis conducting his own score with the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra. This silent classic starring Lillian Gish was screened with Davis’s score in Pordenone in 1986, and so its triumphant return was a fitting finale for the festival’s 30th anniversary.
So, there you have it: a whistlestop tour of Pordenone 2011. I didn’t have time to highlight the other wonderful screenings such as New Babylon (1929) with Dmitri Shostakovich’s original score, the film of Ernest Shackleton’s Antarctic expedition, South (1919), accompanied by a commentary from the explorer’s diaries, read by Paul McGann, or Walt Disney’s Laugh-o-Grams (quick plug: I’ll be discussing those next week on my blog). Never mind … there’s always next year.
Everyone loves Buster Keaton, but the readers of Silent London love him more than most. So today, on 4 October 2011, which would have been Buster Keaton’s 116th birthday, let’s pause to celebrate the Great Stone Face. After all, if it wasn’t for Buster Keaton, this blog wouldn’t exist. My first silent film and live music experience was a double-bill of Sherlock Jr and Steamboat Bill Jr accompanied by the Harmonie Band. What a treat. I was already smitten with early film before I went, but that evening turned me into an evangelist for the ‘live cinema’ experience.
I have Buster Keaton news to share, also. In the US, movie channel TCM is celebrating by showing Keaton’s films every Sunday throughout October. Sadly, that pleasure is not available on these shores, but Scottish film blogger Jon Melville isn’t going to let that stop him. He will be rewatching the same films on DVD, and writing them up for his Holyrood or Bust(er) project. Follow his progress on his blog here.
Project Keaton will be a month long open forum in which writers, artists, everyday Joes and everyday Janes (like me) from all over the world are being invited to tip their pork pie to Buster. The goal is to foster a month of creative exchange, with Buster as muse, and to celebrate one of cinema’s few, true geniuses. There are no rules as to content: essays, reviews, art, critiques, tributes, prose, poetry, all are welcome. And, since this is a month long project, there are no pressing deadlines: participants may contribute as little or as much as they wish any time at all during the course of October.
Find out more, including how to contribute to Project Keaton, here.
If all this has reawakened your love of Buster Keaton, then you may want to join the Blinking Buzzards – the UK Buster Keaton society, who produce quarterly newsletters and hold regular meetings. They are even working on a clothing range and talking about a festival, too. There is not much information on their website at present, but their next meeting will be held at the Cinema Museum on 22 October. You can follow them on Twitter or Facebook, where they are far more talkative and a regular source of Buster Keaton clips and news.
The final titbit I’ve been keeping stashed under my pork-pie hat is a date for your diary. You may already know that The Slapstick Festival, an annual orgy of silent comedy in Bristol, will take place from 26-29 January next year. This festival is organised by the fabulous people at Bristol Silents and is always enormous fun, with an enchanting mix of silent film geekery and out-and-out hilarity. Although it’s too early for the full lineup to be revealed, the four galas, the flagship events of the weekend, have been announced.
May I draw your event to the event taking place on Friday 27 January? Comedian Griff Rhys Jones will introduce a screening of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General (1926), with a new score written by Günter Buchwald and performed by members of the European Silent Screen Virtuosi and Bristol Ensemble. There will also be a chance to see Laurel and Hardy in The Finishing Touch (1928) and Charlie Chaplin in The Adventurer (1916), as well as a performance by the Matinee Idles, featuring actor Paul McGann. The Gala takes place at Colston Hall in central Bristol, and tickets are available here.
Stand by for 15 days of non-stop film-film-film in the capital – the London Film Festival approaches. High-profile events such as this are renowned for attracting the best new films, but increasingly they offer a space for freshly restored classics as well. Happily, this year, silent films fall into both of those categories.
The headline news is that Michel Hazanavicius’s hotly-tipped The Artist (2011) is coming to London. This modern silent, a love letter to 1920s Hollywood, has consistently charmed critics since it was first shown at Cannes and the Weinsteins are opening it in America at Thanksgiving, leading inevitably to what the magazines call “Oscar buzz”. There is still no news of the UK release date, so these two London gala screenings, while pricey, are certainly precious. I can’t wait to see it, myself.
The next big thing, as it were, is the London Film Festival Archive Gala, which this year will be the BFI’s brand-new restoration of Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928), as I revealed on Wednesday. This stunning film will be accompanied by the premiere of a new score written by the incomparable Stephen Horne when it screens at the Queen Elizabeth Hall on the Southbank. Do not miss.
Stephen Horne will also provide musical accompaniment for two of the other silent film screenings at the festival – in the Treasures from the Archives strand. First up is The Goose Woman (1925), a Hollywood film directed by Clarence Brown (Flesh and the Devil, Anna Christie). This film is a recent rediscovery, which been restored by Kevin Brownlow and Robert Gitt, who will introduce the screening. The Goose Woman stars Louise Dresser as a former opera singer who tries to regain some of her fame by claiming to have witnessed a murder. Unfortunately, her false testimony frames her son, played by Jack Pickford. This movie was a great success at this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival, so it’s very exciting to finally be able to see it in the UK. The screening at BFI Southbank will be prefaced by a couple of early Vitaphone shorts – yes, sound films.
Next, a double-bill of restorations from foreign archives – The Nail in the Boot (1931), from the Gosfilmofun in Moscow, is a piece of Soviet silent propaganda, that was nonetheless attacked at the time for prioritising form over content. When a soldier fails in an assignment because of an injury caused by a broken shoe, a military inquiry is held to find out whether he is a traitor to the cause. The film is partnered an American film, Shoes (1916), directed by Lois Weber. This movie, which was been restored from separate prints by the EYE institute in the Netherlands, focuses on inner-city poverty – as experienced by a young shopworker who wants some new shoes, which of course she can’t afford. This programme screens at NFT1 in BFI Southbank.
A late addition to the programme, the restoration of Méliès’s hand-tinted, full-colour Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) will screen twice at the festival, accompanying Roberto Rossellini’s The Machine That Kills Bad People (1952), “a satirical fantasy … about a photographer who discovers that his camera has magic powers: as he develops snapshots in his studio, their subjects expire in another part of the town, inspiring the cameraman to devise a scheme to kill the wicked, the greedy and the corrupt.” Click here for more information and tickets to the screenings, which will be held at BFI Southbank.
The final silent Treasure from the Archive is a collection of tinted and toned documentary travelogues, showing London in the 1920s. Wonderful London incorporates footage from all across the city, and the screening will be introduced by Bryony Dixon, with piano accompaniment by Neil Brand. Talk about silent London … you can watch these six films in two screenings at BFI Southbank.
I must add a special mention also, to a short film playing as part of a collection called Just Because You’re Paranoid, It Doesn’t Mean They’re Not After You at BFI Southbank. Henry Miller’s A Short Film About Shopping (2011) is described as “a silent study” in which a “a dentist’s mundane routine is radically altered by a trip to the shops. You can watch the trailer here.
The 55th London Film Festival runs from 12-27 October 2011. Everything you need to know about booking tickets for the London Film Festival is explained here.
The full lineup for the 55th London Film Festival has now been announced and I am pleased to say that this year’s Archive Gala film will be Miles Mander’s The First Born (1928) with a new score by Stephen Horne. The film will be screened with its new score at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in the Southbank Centre on 20 October 2011.
I’ll be writing more about the film in coming weeks, but for now I can tell you that The First Born is a sophisticated drama, adapted by Mander from his own novel and play, about a philandering politician and his wife. Mander plays the politician, Sir Hugh Boycott, and Madeleine Carroll is his unhappy wife. The couple are unable to have a child, which puts a further strain on their marriage and so Boycott’s wife attempts to dupe him into believing that someone else’s baby is his own…
The First Born … deals with difficult subjects – the double standards of the upper classes, jealousy and secrecy, miscegenation, and the tension between conformity and a more modern morality. Sewn into the plot are also references to the world of politics, of which Mander had much experience, as the younger brother of Sir Geoffrey Mander, the eminent Liberal radical … The treatment is unusually ‘adult’ and made with skill and a degree of invention. The most striking example is a point of view shot with handheld camera as Boycott stalks through the marital bedroom to tease and torment his wife as she is in the bath. The film is masterly in its construction and continuity.
Dixon goes on to speculate whether the influence of Alma Reville, who co-wrote the film, might be due credit for some of the film’s Hitchcockian flourishes. In October, we will be able to judge for ourselves.
And of course, the other big news for silent film fans is that Michel Hazanavicius’s modern silent The Artist will be screening at the festival as well. Wonderful news.
No festival worth its salt is without a silent film screening these days – which is a great way to introduce people to this world. Rock festivals increasingly offer cinema tents and film festivals are often involved in commissioning new scores for films, or simply offering musicians an opportunity to perform their soundtracks in front of a large audience. It’s well worth keeping an eye on what’s going at festivals, even if you’re not planning to attend: what debuts at a festival one year, may turn up in your city the next. Here’s a selection of interesting festival events coming up in the next month or so alone.
At the Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons (19-21 August), the rock band Minima are performing an improvised set to a selection of early science films in the Einstein Tent. Over in the Cinema Tent, Blue Roses will perform her piano score to Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1920). You may remember that this score first appeared as part of the Birds Eye View Festival’s Sound & Silents strand back in March. Watch out for news of a forthcoming UK Sound & Silents tour on their website.
The following week, at the Edinburgh Fringe, Minima will perform their score to The Cabinet of Dr Caligari six nights in a row – kicking off at midnight.
Also in Edinburgh and courtesy of the Birds Eye View Film Festival Sounds & Silents strand, there will be a screening of Lotte Reiniger’s Hansel & Gretel with a live score by Micachu – that’s at the Edinburgh Art Festival.
Also on the bank holiday Monday, Bath Film Festival is hosting a screening of Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill Jr and the short film One Week, with live music from James Harpham.
At the beginning of September, the Little White Lies cinedrome at the End of the Road festival in Dorset will be showing all kinds of good things, including The Great White Silence.
Back in London, on 17 September, gothic electronic duo In the Nursery will soundtrack The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in a pop-up cinema as part of the Portobello Film Festival. And as reported elsewhere, the Peckham Free Film Festival is screening Safety Last and Battleship Potemkin, on 16 and 18 September respectively. And entrance to all of those screenings can be had for the very reasonable price of zero pence exactly.
The New Forest Film Festival has a very exciting event planned for 18 September. The Dodge Brothers (featuring Mark Kermode) and Neil Brand are teaming up to score another movie. The Ghost That Never Returns is a Soviet film directed by Abram Room (Bed and Sofa) about a fugitive from jail being chased by an assassin in South America. What makes the screening even more exciting is that the cinema will be powered by bicycle – it’s a movie, a gig and a workout, all in one. The Dodge Brothers’ performances have been a highlight of recent British Silent Film Festivals, so let’s hope we see this one in London soon.
The Branchage Film Festival in Jersey commissions and hosts all sorts of fascination film/music combinations, and holds events in London throughout the year too. Its festival closer this year is a very beautiful thing. On Sunday 25 September, Simon Fisher Turner and the Elysian Quartet will play their intensely emotional score for The Great White Silence live at Jersey Opera House. Not to be missed.
In October, of course, it will be time for the 55th London Film Festival. Watch this space to find out silent film events await us there.
This is a lovely thing to report: openair screenings of two silent film classics, with a local twist. And best of all, they are free.
In September, the Peckham Free Film Festival will be showing Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last on a giant inflatable screen on Peckham Rye near the cafe. The film will be accompanied by Neil Brand on the piano and by a package of local archive footage including newsreels, too. You’ll be able to buy refreshments from the cafe, which focuses on “free range, fair trade, organic, locally sourced, healthy” food, but I can’t be held responsible for the consequences of laughing with your mouth full.
Safety Last screens at Peckham Rye on Friday 16 September at 8pm. Entrance is free.
The festival will close in rousing style with another free silent film screening, on the roof of Peckham multi-storey car par. Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin will be screened near Franks Cafe and Campari Bar, also located on the roof, so you can grab a drink and something to eat while you watch. Live music will be provided by Super Best Friends club, who describe themselves this way:
Super Best Friends Club are a friendly beast from London. We wonder if it’s possible to transform this cutthroat universe to a loving frequency. And we wonder if its possible to do this through nudity and frantic dancing. I think its worth trying.
Battleship Potemkin screens on 18 September at 8pm. Entrance is free. For more information on the Peckham Free Film Festival, click here.
The beautiful regency town of Cheltenham is home to a very impressive film festival and this year’s lineup is particularly exciting for lovers of silent cinema. Across the festival weekend in November there are no fewer than six silent events – all with live music, and incorporating fiction and non-fiction films. Some of these special events have already been seen in London – but by no means all of them. Let’s go straight into a list:
The much-heralded return of the midnight movie is not confined to London. Oh no. Spooky silent film soundtrackers Minima are bringing the concept to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival this year with witching-hour screenings of The Cabinet of Dr Caligari six nights in a row. Every night from 22-28 August, the band will be accompanying the landmark Expressionist horror film in Assembly George Square Gardens and the screenings start at one minute to midnight. Here’s a taster of what you can expect to see and hear:
Tickets cost £10 or £12 depending on the date. For more details and to book tickets, click here.
Latitude is a damn cool festival, bringing together music, theatre, poetry, comedy and multicoloured sheep in one beautiful package. Now they’ve have added silent film to the deal, and it’s pretty much irresistible. The wonderful people at Birds Eye View are bringing some of the highlights of this year’s festival to the Suffolk countryside, putting on a spectacular multimedia show at Latitude’s Film and Music Arena. You might have seen some of these performances at the Birds Eye View festival in March, but for those of us who missed them is a very welcome opportunity. This is what they’ve got lined up:
An a cappella choral score from Grammy award winner Imogen Heap to the first ever surrealist film ‘The Seashell and the Clergyman’ (Germaine Dulac, 1927) with the Holst Singers; Micachu and an old cassette player to Lotte Reiniger’s ‘Hansel and Gretel’ (1955); haunting vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Seaming accompanying Maya Derren’s ‘Meshes of the Afternoon’ (1943) and Tara Busch’s compelling performance alongside Lois Weber’s early thriller ‘Suspense’ (1913). In addition, hotly tipped Blue Roses is re-scoring classic ‘Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1920) and fashion photographer and filmmaker Wendy Bevan is bringing a dark 1930s cabaret inspired performance with her new band Temper Temper.
If those films and artists are unfamiliar to you this review of the Sound & Silents night at the Southbank Centre by Bidisha gives a real flavour of what you can expect. She’s pretty enthusiastic about it. And rightly so: I’m a real fan of Tara Busch’s spooky, icy score for Weber’s Suspense, in particular. And you can find out more about Blue Roses, who will be scoring Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, here.
This year, Latitude Festival is headline by The National, Paolo Nutini and Suede. You can find out more about the festival, including how to buy tickets, here on the official website.
This is a turnup for the books. A new silent feature film by French director Michel Hazanavicius has been added to the competition lineup for this year’s Cannes Film Festival. The Artist (2011), starring John Goodman, is a silent, black-and-white, 1.33:1 film about the demise of a silent star’s career during the arrival of sound – and it will be competing with titles including Terence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia for the prestigious Palme d’Or prize.
There’s no confirmed UK release date for The Artist yet, but this news would suggest that we’ll see it sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, your correspondent is not a Cannes delegate, but I will be keeping track of the reviews coming back from the festival, and of course, hoping that this film does justice to the era we love. The 20 films in competition include work by Aki Kaurismaki, Pedro Almodovar, Lynne Ramsay and the Dardenne brothers. Still, wouldn’t it be something if a silent film won the Palme d’Or in 2011?
People who have seen Hazanavicius’s previous films – the retro OSS-117 spy capers – say he has a sure touch with period detail. His first film, La Classe Américaine, was actually a redubbed collage of extracts from the Warner Bros archive, so it’s reasonable to assume he knows his film history. The question is whether The Artist can avoid pastiche, and satisfy silent film fans as much as the wider audience – let alone the judges at Cannes. Goodman is joined in the cast by Hollywood veteran James Cromwell, and Penelope Ann Miller, who you might remember played Edna Purviance in Richard Attenborough’s Chaplin biopic.
UPDATE:The Artist has been bought at Cannes by the Weinstein Company. The Weinsteins are saying “Oscar season release”, which we should perhaps take with a pinch of salt, not least because it means quite a long wait until we see the film in the UK. Talking about Oscars raises other questions, though. Would they be angling for a nomination for Best Picture or Best Picture in a Foreign Language? Will the intertitles be translated or subtitled outside France? Still, it’s definitely a vote of confidence in the film, and let’s not get ahead of ourselves.
You can watch some extracts here. Yes the interviews with the director and actors Jean Dujardin and Berenice Bejo are in French, but as you’ll see, the language barrier is no obstacle for the clips, which demonstrate a sophisticated visual approach to film-making. From the evidence here, The Artist definitely has more than a flavour of late 1920s Hollywood, using dance and humour rather than dialogue to tell its story. Bejo talks about: “un rapport tres sensuel entre le spectateur et l’histoire”, which seems to sum it up rather well.
The Artist screens at the Cannes Film Festival on Sunday 15 May.
And The Artist isn’t the only silent film screening at Cannes this year. Hugely excitingly, the festival will also host a screening of George Méliès’s La Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) – like you’ve never seen it before. A nitrate print of the elusive hand-painted colour version of the film was discovered in Barcelona in 1993 and has been salvaged, frame by frame, by Lobster Films, Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and Technicolor Foundation for Heritage Cinema. The beautiful film will be premiered at Cannes with a score by the dreamy French band Air. As soon as I hear about a chance to see this new version in London, you’ll be the very next people to know.
This month sees the return of Brighton Festival, a three-week cultural feast, featuring music, theatre, comedy and more than the city’s usual share of jugglers no doubt. It’s a very high-profile event – Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi is the festival’s Guest Director this year, and she has recorded an inspiring message for the festival website, all about creativity and freedom of expression.
Therefore I am very pleased to say that early cinema is among the artforms represented at the seaside festival, most notably by a screening of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, accompanied by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s compelling new score. I was fortunate enough to see (and hear) this last week in London and it really is a tour de force, so please do attend the screening on 29 May at the Concert Hall if you can. Details here.
But it doesn’t stop there. Professor Heard will be setting up shop in the festival’s pop-up cinema, for two magic lantern shows on 16 May. First on the bill, at 7.45pm, will be the Old Curiosity Show, featuring “bearded ladies, alphabetical acrobats, prodigious pigs, baby juggling and curious cinema advertisements”. Then at 9pm the professor will return with a little something strictly for the over-18s:
A sniggerfest of artistic fluffing material. A prurient look at Victorian erotica, plus further examples of the way in which Victorian gentlemen and ladies got their jollies. Definitely not for children.
Also at the Komedia Studio, an intriguing short theatre piece called Asta Nielsen is Dead: a Silent Movie will use projections and captions to pay homage to the Danish actress:
Lady Pumpernickel and Miss Carrota interact with projected texts and images, using methods found in silent films. As in silent films the performers will suffer from the tragedies of love & attempt to escape bizarre and humorous accidents. At the end there is just one open question: Who is going to die?