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London Film Festival 2015: a silent preview

Shooting Stars (1928)
Shooting Stars (1928)

Surprises can be fun, but maybe, when you’re stumping up for film festival tickets say, it’s good to get what you really wanted. The silent movies on offer at this year’s London Film Festival may not contain any unexpected treasures, but they do comprise some of the year’s most anticipated restorations, so let’s fill our boots. Our only reservation is that a few of these silent screenings do clash, so choose your tickets carefully.

Variety (1925)
Variety (1925)

Variety (1925)

Well don’t I feel a little less sick about missing this new restoration of EA Dupont’s romantic drama at Bologna? Emil Jannings, Lya De Putti, that woozy unleashed camera … you know this is going to be a treat. Variety is a highlight of Weimar cinema, and deserves to be seen at its shimmering best. It’s screening just once at the festival, in NFT1, so make sure you’re there. The word from those who have seen the new 2k resto already is: the print is gorgeous, but there is less enthusiasm for the new score, from the Tiger Lillies. No such worries for us cockney sparrows, who will have the pleasure of Stephen Horne’s assured accompaniment.

The Battle of the Century (1927)
Stan and Ollie in The Battle of the Century (1927)

The Battle of the Century (1927)

You might have heard a whisper about this one. The rediscovered second reel of Laurel and Hardy’s The Battle of the Century makes the film almost entirely complete – and essential viewing for fans of Stan and Ollie. Enjoy it at the London Film Festival with three more L&H shorts for company and musical accompaniment from messrs John Sweeney or Stephen Horne, depending on which of the two screenings you attend. Bear in mind, if you’re not heading to Pordenone, that the first screening is a full 24 hours before it plays at the Giornate – could this be a world premiere of the restoration?

Sherlock Holmes (1918)
Sherlock Holmes (1918)

Sherlock Holmes (1918)

Benedict Cumberbatch is all very well (very well indeed if you ask me), but if any actor could lay claim to the “definitive” Holmes, it was William Gillette. And for many a long year, the film that committed his stage performance of the gentleman detective to celluloid was thought to have vanished in the night. An elementary mistake, Dr Watson – the film was rediscovered at the end of last year and has been prepped for a Blu-ray release and a handful of festival screenings, including this one, in NFT1 on Sunday 18 October. There’s live music from Neil Brand, Günter Bichwald and Jeff Davenport and an irresistible accompanying short, A Canine Sherlock Holmes (1912).

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Silent cinema at the 2014 London Film Festival

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

The launch of the London Film Festival programme is a cascade of A-list stars, esteemed auteurs, Oscar contenders, Hollywood blockbusters and world premieres. But enough of all that. Did someone mention Colleen Moore? Here’s our rundown of the silent cinema offering at the BFI London Film Festival this year.

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

“Virtually unknown” it may be, but this fantastic British war film was a real genre game-changer. Walter Summers directs the noble tale of “a victory and a defeat almost as glorious as a victory”, which was a hit with audiences and critics both on its release. Unjustly neglected for years, TBOCAFI has been rescued from osbcurity via a gleaming new restoration and a modern brass score, which will be performed by members of the Royal Marine band at the LFF Archive Gala screening.

Screens: 7pm, 16 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

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The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess (1934)

This sumptuous Chinese melodram stars Ruan Lingyu as “goddess” or sex worker, trying to care for her child, who is pushed into taking violent revenge on her pimp. Described on these pages by John Sweeney as: “Unsentimental and quite without melodrama, this is a great film.” The festival screening will be accompanied by the English Chamber orchestra, playing a new score by Chinese composer Zou Ye.

Screens: 7.30pm, 14 October 2014, at the Queen Elizabeth Hall. Buy tickets here.

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London Film Festival Archive Gala: instant expert

The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)
The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927)

Name: The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927).

Age: 87 years old. The clue’s in the number in brackets.

Appearance: Shiny and new.

Sorry, that doesn’t make sense – I thought you said it was 87 years old. The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands may be knocking on a bit, but it has been lovingly restored by the BFI and from what we gather, it’s looking pretty damn sharp. Just take a look at these stills.

Great, where can I see this beautiful old thing? At the Queen Elizabeth Hall on 16 October 2014 – it’s being shown at the London Film Festival as the Archive Gala. It will then be released in cinemas nationwide, and simultaneously on the BFIPlayer …

Blimey. And then it will be coming out on a BFI DVD.

Wonderful news, I’ll tell all my friends. Really?

No. I’ve never heard of it. Fair enough. You could have said that in the first place.

I was shy. Don’t worry, the BFI calls it a “virtually unknown film” on its website.

Phew. But you should have heard of the director, Walter Summers.

Rings a bell … He’s a Brit. Or he was, rather. And he was quite prolific, working in both the silent and sound eras. “I didn’t wait for inspiration,” he once said. “I was a workman, I worked on the story until it was finished. I had a time limit you see. We made picture after picture after picture.”

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Man With a Movie Camera: the greatest documentary of all time?

Two years ago, Dziga Vertov’s landmark art film Man With a Movie Camera crashlanded into the top 10 of the Sight & Sound Greatest Films of All Time poll. Today, I can jubilantly announce that this year Movie Camera tops another Sight & Sound poll – the hunt for the Greatest Documentary of all time. There’s another silent in the top 10 too – the wondrous, beautiful, and controversial Nanook of the North (Robert Flaherty, 1922).

1. Man with a Movie Camera, dir. Dziga Vertov (USSR 1929)

2. Shoah, dir. Claude Lanzmann (France 1985)

3. Sans soleil, dir. Chris Marker (France 1982)

4. Night and Fog, dir. Alain Resnais (France 1955)

5. The Thin Blue Line, dir. Errol Morris (USA 1989)

6. Chronicle of a Summer, dir. Jean Rouch & Edgar Morin (France 1961)

7. Nanook of the North, dir. Robert Flaherty (USA 1922)

8. The Gleaners and I, dir. Agnès Varda (France 2000)

9. Dont Look Back, dir. D.A. Pennebaker (USA 1967)

10. Grey Gardens, dirs. Albert and David Maysles, Ellen Hovde and Muffie Meyer (USA 1975)

Both of these films deserve endless discussion and analysis, it’s true – as do the others in the list, from Shoah (Claude Lanzmann, 1985) to Don’t Look Back (DA Pennebaker, 1967), but I want to linger on Vertov’s film for now. I think it’s rather special – but I am intrigued by its success in this poll. For me Man With a Movie Camera is really an art film, not a documentary, because it foregrounds technique and display above truth-telling and information-imparting. Not that it doesn’t do that too, but in the world of documentary film-making, City Symphonies have every right to push form over content, and Man With a Movie Camera is the most invigorating of all City Symphonies. This is a movie about the sheer joy and madness of film-making – stopmotion, superimposition, freeze-frame, split-screens, rewinds, acute angles and all. It exalts in the possibilities of photography and motion. From the opening scene in which the cinema seats slam down one by one, onwards, we are sure that this will be a movie about the movies, and all the more enjoyable for that. It’s as addictive as popcorn, as edifying as high art.

Is it worthy of comment that Man With a Movie Camera is in the ascendancy at a time when there is little good news coming out of Ukraine? I’m not sure – for most viewers, I suspect this film is lumped in with the less-specific categories labelled “Soviet”, “Silent” and “Arthouse”. But it always does us good to remember that far-away parts of the world are synonymous with more than the bad news that hits the headlines. This poll result reminds us that Ukrainian cinema, as showcased at last year’s Pordenone Silent Film Festival, shines in our global film heritage. There are, you’ll note, no British films in the top 10.

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Lost Betty Balfour film discovered by EYE: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

Genuinely exciting news for silent film fans. A long-thought-lost film starring the wonderful Betty Balfour, and directed by the somewhat elusive George Pearson, has been returned to us. The film is Love, Life and Laughter (1923): Betty “Queen of Happiness” Balfour stars in a typically winning role as Tip Toes, an impoverished chorus girl who dreams of fame on the music-hall stage. She befriends a young aspiring writer, also down on his luck, and they decide on a plan – to meet two years later back at their tenement building to see if either of them have achieved their fondest wishes.

Love, Life and Laughter was found in a cinema in Hattem, in the Netherlands. The cinema was due to be rebuilt and so the anonymous film cans stored there were taken to EYE, the the Dutch Film Museum, in the hope that they might contain footage of local historical interest.

The BFI’s curator of silent film, Bryony Dixon, welcomes the discovery with open arms, saying:

Contemporary reviewers and audiences considered Love, Life and Laughter to be one of the finest creations of British cinema, it will be thrilling to find out if they’re right! We hope to be able to acquire some material from our colleagues at EYE soon so that British audiences can have a chance to see this exciting discovery.

We know that the copy EYE has acquired of Love, Life and Laughter has Dutch intertitles and has the original tints and tones intact – and we do have reason to believe that it is a very special picture. Contemporary reviews praised the film, with the Telegraph saying it was “destined in all probability to take its place among the screen classics”. In the Manchester Guardian, CA Lejeune’s gives nicely rounded sense of the film, and its importance:

Love, Life and Laughter is the latest Pearson film, and legend has it that the latest Pearson film is aways the best. It is certainly the most ambitious, spectacular at times in the De Mille ballroom manner, lit and photographed with a beauty to dream of. Devotees have called it George Pearson’s masterpiece, and so it is – of bluff. He lights common things uncommonly, and legend makes them symbolic; he catches a series of farcical situations, and legend makes them comic; legend turns sentimentality into sentiment, and confusion into mystery.

This fantasy of a chorus girl and a young poet is clever, but chiefly clever in simulating cleverness, in tickling the intellectual vanity of its audience with a goose feather, coloured peacock by imagination. It will succeed. And its success will be the result not of innate quality but of the great Welsh-Pearson legend – and, when all is said and done, nothing else matters.

That rather guarded review takes on a new aspect when we remember that the “great Welsh-Pearson legend” has now been forgotten, and their films have almost entirely vanished – which has the affect of rather enhancing the title’s allure. Until its rediscovery, Love, Life and Laughter sat on the BFI’s 75 Most Wanted list of much-missed British films.

A 1923 programme for the film offers this romantic and tantalising description:

“The Story is but a simple exposition of the oldest, yet ever youngest desire of the human heart, the achievement of an earnest ambition. The incidents tell in picture form of the striving of a boy and girl, against the odds of the world. The portrayal of this struggle towards a final goal of the desired happiness is unconventional in treatment. The Boy and Girl laugh and weep, succeed and fail, move onward and forward to an inevitable destiny, and to a climax which should live long in the memory.”

One of the many attractive elements to this news is that the film’s subject matter – of two starry-eyed types struggling to achieve their artistic ambitions – resonates against the life stories of the director and star both. Poignantly, in light of the fact that this film has been missing for so long, both Balfour and Pearson were highly acclaimed in the silent era and subsequently forgotten by most. It’s discoveries such as this, in fact, that make us appreciate anew how terrible the odds of survival for silent cinema are – with 75% of silents by the wayside, for each one we treasure there are three more we may never see.

Continue reading Lost Betty Balfour film discovered by EYE: Love, Life and Laughter (1923)

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari at the Roundhouse with Innervisions, 19 August 2011

The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)

The Roundhouse in Camden has long been one of London’s most inventive and atmospheric arts venues – and now it has just had a radical, zoetrope-inspired makeover courtesy of artist Ron Arad. What could be better? Perhaps a late-night screening of the mind-bending expressionist horror The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, with cool electronic accompaniment.

The illustrious Berlin-based electronic music label Innervisions joins forces with Ron Arad to present a spell binding evening of film, music and artistic installation. The evening will feature a projection of the epic 1920’s classic Dr. Caligari with Innervision’s Henrik Schwarz, Ame and Dixon performing a live score they’ve written to accompany the film.

The evening also features a live DJ set in collaboration with the technical and aesthetic expertise of Arad’s studio to project a range of stunning visuals by Berlin visual collective JUTOJO, providing a completely immersive and unique experience for the audience.

Tickets cost £25 or £18 for concessions. Doors open at 7.30pm and the film will begin at 8.30pm. To find out more, and to book tickets, visit the Roundhouse website.

The White Shadow – when a Hitchcock film isn’t a Hitchcock film

The White Shadow (1924)
The White Shadow (1924)

Celebrity sells, and newspapers, news websites and trade journals alike all know that the likelihood of a story being read increases if a big name is attached to it. Woe betide you if you want to write about the silent era without mentioning Chaplin, Hitchcock or DW Griffith – preferably in the first paragraph.

So reports of the discovery of “Alfred Hitchcock’s Earliest Surviving Film” need to be taken with a pinch of salt. To recap, a few reels of The White Shadow (1923) have been discovered in a film archive in New Zealand. And this is how the BBC opens its online news story:

Footage from Alfred Hitchcock’s first film has been uncovered in New Zealand.

The British director was 24 when he made the 1923 silent film, The White Shadow.

The piece goes on to mention the film’s stars Clive Brook (Shanghai Express) and Betty Compson (The Docks of New York) – but there is no word of the film’s director. Because yes, Hitchcock worked on The White Shadow, as assistant director, art director, editor and writer, but the film was directed by someone else – Graham Cutts. While we’re always interested in early work by Hitchcock, whatever his job title, particularly with the forthcoming 2012 silent Hitchcock extravaganza on the horizon, we should also be happy to find out more about Cutts.

In the 1920s, Graham Cutts was ticket-office gold. He was called “a sure-fire maker of box-office attractions” by Kinematograph Weekly, and his Rat trilogy, starring Ivor Novello as an absurdly attractive Parisian jewel thief, is still celebrated and enjoyed today. Cutts’s films are sophisticated, sexual and employ any number of tracking shots, dramatic lighting and off-kilter camera angles to ramp up the tension – and the cinematic pleasure. Yes he worked with Hitchcock as a young man, but also Novello, Noël Coward and Basil Dean. He even made a successful transition to sound – with a career behind the camera that ran into the 40s.

The White Shadow looks like a fascinating find, with Compson playing twin sisters, one good and one evil, and plenty of opportunity for Cutt’s dynamic style to come into play. But please don’t take the credit away from a name that has almost been forgotten and give it to someone who doesn’t deserve it.

And if you have a copy of The Mountain Eagle in your loft at home, that really is a lost Hitchcock silent – so please call the British Film Institute right away, and tell them I sent you.

Share your cinema this Christmas

Hello. As it’s Christmas time, many of us are thinking about giving gifts, and helping people less fortunate than ourselves. I am no exception to that – and I have recently found out about a charity that does fantastic work, which film lovers might like to support. Open Cinema is “a nationwide network of film clubs programmed by and for homeless and socially excluded people”. The idea is that socially excluded groups, whether rough sleepers, recovering drug addicts, former soldiers or migrant workers, can come to an Open Cinema to watch a film, meet film-makers and have a go at making a movie themselves. You can take a look at the variety of films they show here.

This is quite simply a brilliant idea. If you’ve ever experienced the joy of sharing a much-loved film with a friend, you’ll know why. But they put it much better than I could:

People suffering from homelessness and deprivation urgently need the benefits of culture, as well as information and food. Entertainment and culture are another kind of nourishment, and have been shown by research to measurably contribute to the mental health and wellbeing of socially marginalised people.

Our work is supported by research carried out by Broadway, one of London’s leading homelessness charities, together with Westminster Primary Care Trust. It revealed that taking part in social and cultural activities provided significant benefits to mental health. These included the alleviation of isolation, the reduction of anxiety and depression, and the promotion of relaxation and healthy sleep patterns. A study conducted by the Salvation Army found that 51% of their clients spent most of their time alone, lacking support networks and beneficial relationships.

If you want to help Open Cinema, who have branches in Newcastle and Bradford as well as several in London, you can donate, volunteer or become a friend for £10 or £20. That’s the cost of a DVD – and guess what, with the £20 option you do receive a free DVD of short films made by people participating in Open Cinema events.

All the details are on the website here. And you can follow Open Cinema on Twitter here.

Merry Christmas!

Silent Christmas: Cage Against the Machine

John Cage, composer of 4'33"
John Cage, composer of 4'33"

It’s a fairly safe bet that the discerning readers of this blog won’t be buying Matt Cardle’s single this Christmas.* But what should we be slipping into the fleecy stockings of our loved ones instead?
Well, in a moment of rare cross-medium helpfulness, Silent London advises you to forgo Surfin’ Bird, When We Collide and anything that has ever been recorded by Cliff Richard, in favour of 4′ 33″ by Cage Against the Machine. Not just because it’s the most genuinely subversive record to have a chance of entering the UK charts in ages, but because of the video. Yes, there’s a video, and it’s a thing of beauty.

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