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Silent London

A place for people who love silent film

Instant expert: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Name: Man with a Movie Camera

Date: 1929

So is this like Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman? Well yes a little, but mostly, very much no.

Not a comedy then? Not American either, it’s a Soviet documentary, a City Symphony in fact.

I know about those – which city does it portray? Erm. Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev. And Odessa. But you’re not always sure which is which.

A fake then? No, it’s art.

Which means it’s not a factual film at all? Well that is a tricky question. A group of Sight & Sound critics recently voted it the greatest documentary of all time. So that’s that, but I’d argue it isn’t really a documentary at all. As is often the case, I agree with David Cairns, who calls it a “Non-fiction Film Thing” in a new video essay.

That is not so catchy. How about just “Film” then? The stated intent of Man With a Movie Camera was to make a film that owed nothing to the other arts, literature, theatre, painting. Check out the opening intertitle. “This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

That sounds amazing. It is, full of astonishing cinematic tricks and playful philosophizing and passion. It is the most filmic of films and you should watch it, which is kinda the point of this conversation.

You always have an ulterior motive. Yes, I am sneaky that way. Man With A Movie Camera, my forgetful friend, was released last year in the cinema and on Blu-ray – my review is here.

I’ll read that later, I’m really busy. Asking silly questions must take up a good deal of your time. The TL;DR version of that review is that the cinema release of the movie was great, a gleaming restoration with a dazzling score by the Alloy Orchestra, but the Blu-ray release was not quite up to the same standard (although fans of the Michael Nyman score might overlook that).

I’ve missed my chance then. No. There is a new Blu-ray of Man With a Movie Camera in the shops – and it is the theatrical version that knocked my socks off last year. Put simply I recommend that you buy this version, from Masters of Cinema, forthwith, without delay.

Anything else to sweeten the deal before payday? LOTS. The aforementioned video essay by Davis Cairns and Timo Langer, and the not insubstantial matter of four of Vertov’s other important works (Kino-Eye, Kino-Pravda #21, Enthusiasm, Three Songs about Lenin). Plus an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Ian Christie, a booklet crammed with treats from the archives. And a very nice box.

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You can read more about the Masters of Cinema release here and buy it from lots of places including here.

British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: two days in movie-geek heaven

Sometimes you can fight it. You can keep those thoughts at bay, and resist your deeper impulses, urging you to indulge that secret side of yourself that you usually keep hidden. On other days, what the heck, you just need to geek out.

Thank nerd heaven, then, for the British Silent Film Festival Symposium, now in its fourth year – and more specifically, thanks to Lawrence Napper of King’s College London who organises this impressive event.

For the first time, we had two days in which to sympose. First, a long afternoon (2pm-9pm) of screenings with a couple of presentations thrown in, then a full day of papers. I like this new arrangement, which gives you a bit of choice as to how deep your geekery will run. In case you really need to ask, I was there for both days …

Knocknagow (1918)
Knocknagow (1918)
The three features on the Thursday all had much to recommend them. It’s a little unfair to single out my least favourite, because it was an ambitious ensemble drama, a literary adaptation made in Ireland at a time when that country barely had a film industry at all – and it had scenes missing. But do look out for a forthcoming restoration of Knocknagow (1918), which has a fascinating history and sumptuous landscapes. And we were lucky enough to have Neil Brand at the keys, so those landscapes became even more lush.

The most awe-inspiring film of the day was The Somme – not the very well-known documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916), but a 1927 feature, which nevertheless borrows some documentary tricks, and archive footage, to tell the story of the famous offensive of 1916, with painstaking detail and high drama. It is impossible not to be moved by the bravery and stoicism of the men involved, and the scene in which our lads first see a tank wreaking destruction on the trenches is nothing less than awe-inspiring. Slow tracking shots along the mighty beast’s riveted hide create an impression of looming, sinister dominance that Stanley Kubrick would salivate over. And Stephen Horne’s accompaniment was astonishingly good – and often unexpected. Do seek this out if you ever get a chance to see it, especially if you have a particular interest in world war one. And you can read a little more about the film in Lawrence Napper’s excellent book, excerpted here.

Continue reading “British Silent Film Festival Symposium 2016: two days in movie-geek heaven”

My summer with Lulu

Hello. I have news! And a little request to make.

Silent London may be a little neglected over the summer, because I am writing a book. Yay! Just a little one. The site won’t entirely close though: I hope to pop back here occasionally to update you on the progress of the book, and my research, and maybe to find a little company during my summer hibernation.

The book will be a BFI Film Classic, on a very special and beautiful movie. I’ll be writing about …  Pandora’s Box (1929), GW Pabst’s dazzling take on Wedekind’s Lulu plays, starring the endlessly fascinating Louise Brooks. I know that many of you love this film – and quite right too. So I am very pleased to be spending the summer with Georg and Louise and Frank, sweating happily over a hot keyboard. 

Film Classics are short and sweet as you may know, but I will still be working full-time so it may take me a little while to get there. And I will probably still be writing elsewhere. As always, the best way to keep up with the other things I write is here on my portfolio site, or by clicking on the “More by me” tab at the top of the site.

Pandora's Box
Pandora’s Box

Obviously, in what feels like the dim, distant future when the book is published, I’d love it if you could buy it, or put it on your Christmas lists, or borrow it from your library, or just tell some interested friends about it.

But that’s not the request I want to make today. It’s simply this: don’t be a stranger! Bear with with Silent London while it is on a go-slow – I’ll still post here, and on Facebook and Twitter sometimes. And please be patient if all I seem to talk about is Neue Sachlichkeit and Brooks’s razor-sharp fringe for a while.

Thank you Silent Londoners!

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Book now for the British Silent Film Festival Symposium

You heard it here first …  but now the details of April’s British Silent Film Festival Symposium have been released. You can peruse the lineup of speakers and films (I’m picking favourites already, natch) and even more excitingly you can book your ticket now. The two days of papers and films comes in at a very reasonable £20 and I am confident that I can confirm a resounding YES to the “Will there be tea and biscuits?” question.

The Somme (1927) (Image: BFI)
The Somme (1927) (Image: BFI)

Check out the lineup here:

Thursday 28 April 2016
Arthur and Paula Lucas Lecture Theatre

2pm – LAWRENCE NAPPER Welcome (no registration needed on this day)

2.10 – TONY FLETCHER ‘Sound Before Blackmail’ – a programme of early sound-on-disc films matched with their discs (30mins)

2.40 – SCREENING KNOCKAGOW (Fred O’Donovan, 1918) (80mins)

4pm BREAK (30 mins)

4.30 – DAVID ROBINSON ‘Leopoldo Fregoli, Superstar and Progenitor of Montage’ (40 mins)

5.10 – SCREENING MAISIE’S MARRIAGE (Walter Summers/ Alexander Butler, 1923) (95 mins)

6.45 BREAK (30 mins)

7.15 SCREENING THE SOMME (M.A. Wetherell, 1927) (109 mins)

9pm END

The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)
The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918)

 

Friday 29 April 2016
Nash Lecture Theatre (K2.31)

1918 AND ALL THAT (9.30-11)
1. Ellen Cheshire – Charlie Chaplin in the British Press
2. Lucie Dutton – The Life Story of David Lloyd George: New Findings from the Archives
3. Gerry Turvey – Doing the Economics: A Post-War British Company Takes on the American Market
4. Charles Barr – British Silent Cinema: How Does Ireland Fit In?
K2.31

IN THE AUDITORIUM (11.30-1.00)
5. Stephen McBurney – Arrested Beginnings of Colour Cinema in Inverness
6. George Barker – On Smells in the Auditorium
7. Mara Arts – The Royal Family on the London Screens
8. Nyasha Sibanda – Directing The Kingsway Cinema (Birmingham), 1927

1920s BRITISH CINEMA (2.00-3.30)
9. Esther Harper – Women Jockeys: From Films to Fact?
10. Henry K Miller – In Northcliffe Jail: Iris Barry, Film Journalist
11. Rachel Moseley – ‘Picturing Cornwall’ in early Promotional and Amateur films
12. Amy Sargeant – Boarding House Blues K2.31

PRE-SOUND AND SOUND 4.00-6.00
13. Joe Evans – The Depiction of Sound in Animated Film from the Silent Era
14. Julie Brown – Listening at the ‘Silent’ Cinema
15. Geoff Brown – Al Jolson, The Singing Fool and the advance of the talkies in Britain)
16. Laraine Porter – ‘The Americanisation of England’
17. Rebecca Harrison – All Quiet on the Home Front: Child Evacuees and a Silent Cinema Revival in the Second World War
18. CLOSING REMARKS

Continue reading “Book now for the British Silent Film Festival Symposium”

Hippfest ever after: the 2016 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

When the glasses were clinking and plans were being made at the close of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema this year, there was one thing that gave us pause. A sobering thought among the celebrations…

2016, it seemed, was the year of the unhappy ending. From the high tragedy of Stella Dallas, to the poignancy of Peter Pan, the sweet irony of Exit Smiling, and the apocalyptic predictions of Wunder der Schöpfung – there was not a happy-ever-after in sight. And don’t get me started on Variety, Mania or Daybreak

But despite that, I was grinning like a loon for most of the weekend. Hippfest offers a warmer welcome than most film festivals, but crucially, it has the quality to match its quirkiness. An excellent range of films, screened with accompaniment from some of the world’s best silent cinema musicians. The vintage cinema may be cute, but the festival itself is seriously credible. Here’s a flavour of the fun we had in Bo’ness this year.

See you next year!

Competition: Win tickets for Charlie Chaplin on Screen at the Royal Festival Hall 

Competition time! You could win two top-priced tickets for a very exciting event, Charlie Chaplin on Screen at the Royal Festival Hall.

On Sunday 10 April the Philharmonia Orchestra presents a screening of three Charlie Chaplin films, with live music conducted by Carl Davis. Chaplin’s own music accompanies A Dog’s Life, in which Charlie strikes up a friendship with a stray dog that leads him into farcical antics, and Shoulder Arms, where hapless Charlie is sent over the top whilst fighting in the First World War. Davis also conducts his own score to short film Kid Auto Races at Venice, the first ever film appearance of Chaplin’s “Little Tramp” character.

A few words from Carl Davis: “The scores are each in their own way highly evocative with a strong music hall style. A Dog’s Life even has a music hall scene in which the leading lady is accompanied by a musical saw. These, what I call ‘half features’, are a stepping stone from Chaplin’s cycle of two-reelers – The Mutuals – and his first feature-length film The Kid of 1921. Our evening opens with a real collector’s item, Charlie’s third short, Kid Auto Races in Venice released in 1914. Its significance is that Charlie is wearing for the first time on film the iconic makeup and costumes that he became so strongly identified with: the little moustache, top hat and oversized shoes. I tried to pretend I was composing for a little band that might have been brought in to entertain the public attending the race, i.e. rough and raucous!”

For your chance to win two top-priced tickets for Charlie Chaplin on Screen, simply email your answer to the following question to orchestra@philharmonia.co.uk:

Which actress appeared in two of the three films shown at Charlie Chaplin on Screen?

  • a) Georgia Hale
  • b) Edna Purviance
  • c) Mabel Normand

Good luck! The competition closes on Friday 1 April at 12pm.

 

 

 

L’Inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, 1924) Blu-ray review: the high art of cinema

L'Inhumaine, Fernand Léger, 1924
L’Inhumaine poster designed by Fernand Léger, 1924

In the silent era, films were far more ephemeral than they are today. The fragile nitrate was unspooled for a few shows in each cinema that rented them, and then sent away, re-used, melted, left to crumble and decay or burst, suddenly, into flames. It was a time before retrospectives and archives and museums of the moving image. Now we see films in very different way. In the digital world, although the films seem to have lost their physical presence, becoming data streamed or downloaded on to screens of all sizes, they have the illusion of permanence. Central to this is the arthouse home video market, which packages films like books, as objects to be cherished, or maybe hoarded. A shelf full of gleaming Criterion Blu-rays is as imposing as a line of leather-bound novels – talismans of high culture and prized possessions. We don’t just watch films now, we expect to own them: explore them rewind and freeze and read around them.

Marcel L’Herbier’s Art Deco science-fiction drama L’Inhumaine is as much an art object as a film, and as such, it is the perfect Blu-ray movie. This glittering feature was designed to be admired from all angeles, its intricate and self-consciously beautiful design is the 1920s equivalent of 4K high-definition. I dare you to watch it without your finger itching for the pause button.

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The inhuman woman of the title is a lady who knows a thing or two about being admired from all angles. Claire (played by soprano Georgette Leblanc) is an opera singer who lives in a stunning modernist home, which she opens to a select group of guests, a fawning salon of important men who jostle for her attentions. Everything about Claire’s world is both chilly and extravagant. The dinners she hosts are served at a dining table surrounded by an indoor moat. A drift of swans putter around the guest, more of Claire’s captives, but the only ones present who are indifferent to her beauty. When Claire hears that one of her admirers, Einar (Jaque Catelain) has killed himself after she rejected him, she experiences a slow awakening of her passions, and a more literal resurrection of her body, via a poisonous snake and an electric re-animation machine.

Continue reading “L’Inhumaine (Marcel L’Herbier, 1924) Blu-ray review: the high art of cinema”

Win tickets to see Shooting Stars

Welcome, wherever you are … Shooting Stars, Anthony Asquith’s bittersweet movie biz satire, is screening at the BFI Southbank on Thursday 3 March 2016. As you no doubt know, this is the gorgeous new restoration that graced the London Film Festival Archive Gala in October. Also, at this screening, there will be live music, courtesy of John Altman’s jazzy new score. It’s a fantastic British film, and a glorious treat for all silent movie buffs. Think of it as a forerunner to Hail, Caesar!, but with Brian Aherne in a stetson rather than George Clooney in a toga.

If you’re quick, you could win two tickets to this screening, so listen up.

Shooting Stars (1928)
Brian Aherne in Shooting Stars (1928)

To be in with a chance of winning some tickets, email Filmcompetitions@bfi.org.uk with STARS in the subject header by Wednesday 2 March at 9am. Tickets are limited to one pair per person and it is first come first served.

You will only be contacted by if you are successful.  In which case, your name will be added to a guest list and you will receive an email  by 7pm on 2nd March.

Sonic Cinema Presents: Shooting Stars with live score from John Altman and the Live Film Orchestra An unmissable screening of Anthony Asquith’s silent film set to live music.

 

Synthetic Sin (1929): Colleen Moore and the joyful noise of the Jazz Age

Synthetic Sin (1929) is an artefact from a time long gone. That is to say that this film is delightful, glamorous, witty … And they really don’t make them like this any more. It’s typical of this movie that the title is a roaring twenties in-joke, a bit of jazz-age wordplay on “Synthetic Gin”. That’s not a phrase you hear too often these days, but this prohibition-era film sloshes with bathtub hooch. In fact, this is the kind of wisecracking romp where a gal can say to a fella: “Let’s you and I make hey-hey while there’s moonshine!”

When the twenties roared, there was mischief to be made. In the inner cities, in real life, gangsters took advantage of the prohibition laws to make plenty of illicit cash hawking illegitimate booze. But in the movies, and in the anxious imagination of Middle Americans, the flappers, a new breed of confident young women with bobbed hair and short hemlines, were wreaking just as much havoc.

Synthetic Sin has all the hallmarks of a classic flapper film, even though its heroine, aspiring actress Betty Fairfax, is really quite an innocent. Betty is played by Colleen Moore, an impish natural comedienne who was the first of Hollywood’s bright young starlets to bob her hair and embody the newest, freshest way to negotiate the path between girlhood and womanhood. If any writer encapsulated the spirit of the Jazz Age, it was F Scott Fitzgerald, and he doffed his fedora to our star. “I was the spark that lit up Flaming Youth,” he said. “Colleen Moore was the torch.” And if you love Louise Brooks, Clara Bow or Jean Harlow, then you need to know Moore.

Colleen Moore

Preternaturally youthful and vivacious, Moore defined the flapper, the modern, sexually liberated young woman, in terms that high-school girls could love and emulate. After Moore’s mother cut her hair into her trademark fringed bob (“whack, off came the long curls. I felt as I’d been emancipated”), teenage girls across the US rushed to the salon. She was unthreateningly friendly and funny, but a beauty too. Moore has a cute charisma that works instantly on the audience, like a fast-acting drug. She is both irresistible and unforgettable – and she was a huge star in the 1920s. But the sad fact is that many of her films have now been lost, which means that most people don’t know her work at all. Synthetic Sin itself was only recently rediscovered and restored. So this film is a very precious chance to see Hollywood’s foremost flapper in action.

“Moore created comic heroines who are as engaging in their failures to be glamorous as they are in their often accidental triumphs in love and career,” wrote Molly Haskell. That’s Synthetic Sin in a nutshell.

Here Moore plays a young girl desperate to grow old too quickly, to become a “woman of the world” with the necessary life experience to be a serious dramatic actress. All flappers want to push the boundaries imposed by their old-fashioned parents, so Betty runs away from her comfortable home to a fleapit hotel in the big city, in the name of art, and of love. The audience is in on the joke from the beginning: Betty is wonderful just as she is. Her improvised show at the family piano early in the film is Grade A comedy, and the steps she takes to widen her horizons bring her into dangerous territory: grubby, sleazy, violent. A place where this flapper might just encounter a gangster or two.

Continue reading “Synthetic Sin (1929): Colleen Moore and the joyful noise of the Jazz Age”

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