John Wick: Chapter 2, Buster Keaton and silent comedy

If you want to see Buster Keaton on the big screen next weekend, go see John Wick 2 – but be careful not to blink. The action sequel opens in New York, with a Buster Keaton movie being projected on the external wall of a building. Why? “We want to let you know we’re having fun and we stole this all from silent movie people,” says director Chad Stahelski.

As soon as you have clocked, and cheered, the reference, the action has begun, down on the streets with a blistering collision between a motorcycle and a car. The movie’s opening sequence is very funny, hugely violent, and actually a pretty clever example of how to cover a lot of exposition (for those like me who hadn’t seen the first film) with a minimum of dialogue. All you need to know about the plot, and all I can really tell you, having seen the film, is that John Wick (played by Keanu Reeves) is a hitman, with a revenge motive. The film takes him from New York to Rome and back again – and en route, he kills a hell of a lot of people.

The nods to silent cinema don’t stop with the Keaton film, though*. One of the movie’s key shootouts takes place in a hall of mirrors. Very Enter the Dragon (1973), a little The Lady from Shanghai (1947). But surely Chaplin got there first with The Circus in 1928. Despite his smart suit, John Wick is essentially a tramp like Charlie – homeless and friendless, he’s a hired hand for a shadowy and moneyed elite, and he’s happiest trudging about with his dog by his side. The film reveals a fearsome network of derelicts, in fact, assassins just like Wick who pass through the city unseen. When Wick puts on his fancy togs and goes to a party his presence is disquieting – he’s not one of the in-crowd, but someone they have hired to do their dirty work. That tension is the source of many of Chaplin’s best gags.

Continue reading John Wick: Chapter 2, Buster Keaton and silent comedy

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It’s Destiny! Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod to get a theatrical release

Well, this was clearly meant to be. Fritz Lang’s groundbreaking allegorical fantasy Der Müde Tod (1921) is getting a theatrical release in the UK and Ireland along with a DVD/Blu-ray edition:

Eureka Entertainment have announced the theatrical release of DER MÜDE TOD (aka Destiny), Fritz Lang’s visually ambitious, cinematic allegory starring Lil Dagover and Bernhard Goetzke, in cinemas nationwide (UK & Ireland) and Digital HD from 9 June 2017.

Talking to Françcois Truffaut many years later, Alfred Hitchcock recalled that when he saw Der Müde Tod it made a “special impression” on him. He will have seen it un 1924 under its British release name Destiny, at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London. I wonder if we will have a chance to see it in the same venue?

Continue reading It’s Destiny! Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod to get a theatrical release

Battleship Potemkin and a Century of Revolution at the Regent Street Cinema

Silent cinema was a revolutionary medium – bringing a world of news, travel, culture, art and storytelling to a mass audience, a working-class audience. This democratic art form changed the way we learned to look at ourselves and to tell stories about who we are, as well as sharing stories of fantasy, hope and change.

Therefore it’s appropriate that Kino Klassika’s year-long celebration of insurgency on film begins with a film that was both politically and artistically revolutionary: Sergei Eisenstein’s galvanising masterpiece Battleship Potemkin. The film screens next Friday, 17 February at the wonderful Regent Street Cinema, with a live score by Max Reinhardt the Instant Orchestra. It’s sure to be invigorating experience, and a wonderful way to kick off this exciting season A World to Win: A Century of Revolution on Screen, which includes films by Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard and Costa Gavras.

October (1927)
October (1927)

The season concludes with silent cinema too: a screening of the epic October: Ten Days that Shook the World, with the London Symphony Orchestra at the Barbican Centre on 26 October 2017, which is exactly 100 years to the day after the start of the Bolshevik Revolution.

Marx proclaimed that the proletariat had “a world to win”. On the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution, Kino Klassika hosts a season of cinematic masterpieces from around the world, as well as workshops and curated talks, which investigate that impulse of profound change. The season will be hosted at London’s iconic Edwardian cinema hall on Regent St before a planned regional tour. The season explores the revolutionary spirit through the camera lens. It asks what these films can mean today.

Here is the full list of films in A World to Win screening at the Regent Street Cinema:

  • 7.30pm on Friday 17 February: Gala Opening Battleship Potemkin by Sergei Eisenstein (1925)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 22 February: I am Cuba by Mikhail Kalatozov (1964)
  • 8.15pm on Wednesday 1 March: Weekend by Jean-Luc Godard (1967)
  • 7pm on Wednesday 8 March: Beginning of an Unknown Century by Larisa Shepitko and Andrei Smirnov (1967)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 22 March: Black God White Devil by Glauber Rocha (1964)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 29 March: Z by Costa Gavras (1969)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 5 April: Danton by Andrzej Wajda (1983)
  • 7.30pm on Wednesday 12 April: Land and Freedom by Ken Loach (1995)
  • 2pm on Saturday 15 April: Gala Screening of Novecento by Bernardo Bertolucci (1976)

The Barbican is also commemorating 100 years since the Russian Revolution, with a series of first-rate screenings of great Soviet silents: A Sixth Part of the World, accompanied by John Sweeney, Mother, with music by Stephen Horne, and The New Babylon, with Shostakovich’s lost piano score performed by Sasha Grynyuk.

Mother (1926)
Mother (1926)

Back in Bo’ness: the 2017 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the latest Hippfest programme landing on the digital doormat. I’m a big fan of Hippfest, a welcoming event, with an ambitious, highly entertaining, lineup of screenings and a frankly beautiful venue. If I could, I’d turn the Scottish thermostat up a couple of notches next month, because this southern softie will be back in Bo’ness for the festival, which runs from 22-26 March 2017, and takes place mostly in the town’s gorgeous vintage cinema, the Hippodrome.

As the schedule is announced today, that means the tickets are on sale already, and if something here catches your eye, book as soon as you can – Hippfest screenings can, and very often do, sell out.

nell-shipman

So what’s on offer this year? The first day is devoted to female film pioneers, a subject close to my own heart: with a talk from film expert Ellen Cheshire, and an evening screening of Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake (1923), with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and an introduction by yours truly. Read more about the amazing Nell Shipman here.

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

Thursday afternoon brings a Chinese double-bill – a lecture on the women of Chinese silent cinema by Professor Paul Pickowicz, and a screening of the BFI’s revelatory archive compilation Around China with a Movie Camera, introduced by composer Ruth Chan. On that subject, watch out for the Saturday afternoon screening of an unmissable Chinese silent, The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Lingyu as a mother in a terrible predicament, with music by John Sweeney.

Continue reading Back in Bo’ness: the 2017 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

David Shepard: 1940-2017

Unfortunately, I never had the honour of meeting David Shepard, who died this week aged 76, but it’s true to say that his work has had a tremendous impact on my life. I wrote a short obituary of him for Sight & Sound, which you can read here.

Many wonderful tributes have been posted to this man who did so much to rescue, preserve and share American silent film (and more): from Thomas Gladysz at the Louise Brooks Society; Howie Movshovitz at the Denver Silent Film Festival; Kyle Westphal on the Chicago Film Society blog; on the Cartoon Research site; from the brilliant Movies Silently site; and on Nitrateville (who changed the famous banner for the occasion) for starters. There will be many I have missed. Others have posted on social media or issued statements that were quoted in this very nice piece by The Hollywood Reporter.

On Facebook, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival announced that the 2017 event would be dedicated to Shepard. A splendid idea. He is already very much missed.

Nell Shipman and the pioneer spirit of silent cinema

Nell Shipman, silent-era actress, writer, producer and director, gives new meaning to the phrase “film pioneer”. A truly adventurous soul, at the height of her career she starred in a series of outdoorsy action films featuring a menagerie of animals and seriously risky stuntwork – when she nearly drowned shooting a scene in a river, it didn’t occur to her to complain: instead she said, “I should have paid Vitagraph for the adventure.” Furthermore, she worked completely outside the system, running her own production company and filming her “little dramas in big places” deep in the hills of Idaho, more than 1,000 miles north of Los Angeles.

But isolation from Hollywood has contributed to a neglect of her legacy. Along with many of her contemporary female film-makers, she was missing from the first histories of the film industry, and remains little-known. A new documentary directed by Karen Day, The Girl from God’s Country, intends to rectify that. The film tells the story of Shipman, but also broadens the scope to examine how her peers’ histories have also been erased and the impact of that on the modern industry and on generations of female filmgoers.

Canadian-born Shipman was a thrillseeker through and through, who “refused to be a lady” and ditched school early to go into rep, becoming what she called a “vagabond actress”. She wrote her first novel soon after marriage and the birth of her first child, then moved into screenwriting. When the star of a film failed to turn up to the set one day, Shipman stepped in and started her career as a screen actress. Her breakthrough role was in Vitagraph’s God’s Country and the Woman (1916), an adaptation of a novel by James Oliver Curwood, bestselling author of American wilderness adventures, and the first in a series of God’s Country films.

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Look sharp: support the Fashion in Film Festival 2017

Not all of Silent London’s best-loved festivals are devoted solely to pre-sound film. A longstanding favourite here at Silent London HQ is the wonderfully glamorous Fashion in Film Festival. This event’s focus on cinematic design and unforgettable visuals, plus its enthusiasm for digging into the archives, means that silents often feature, of course, but it is always a wide-roaming affair. And this festival is a beautiful thing, a jewel in the London repertory film calendar.

costume
Le Costume à travers les âges – Reconstitué par le couturier Pascault, 1911

This year, the Fashion in Film Festival will take place in London venues from 19-26 March. The full programme has not been unleashed yet, but I do have reason to believe a silent or to may be on the cards. I’m posting today because the Fashion in Film Festival is asking for a little help this year. The organisers have launched a Kickstarter to raise £5,000 before the event begins. If you support them, rewards range from designer knick-knacks such as an Eley Kishimoto tote bag, a copy of the fantastic Birds of Paradise book and tickets and passes for the festival itself. Hurry, the festival passes are running out!

Here’s what the festival team have to say:

The festival celebrates our last ten years and EVERYONE who has been involved in making it a success, contributing or holding our hand. We have lined up an ambitious programme, co-curated with the wonderful Tom Gunning, including an exhibition and some 28 events, with fantastic speakers and some true archival gems we think everyone must see. But some of this is in danger due to a dire funding landscape in the UK. It has been a really tough year!

 

corsets
A Retrospective Look at Corsets, 1920s

And here’s a taste of this year’s programme:

Our programme features cinema’s well-loved as well as neglected masterpieces (Parajanov’s The Color of Pomegranates, Ophuls’ Lola Montes, Hitchcock’s Vertigo, Leisen’s Lady in the Dark, Protazanov’s Aelita), artist films (by Joseph Cornell, Jane and Louise Wilson, Cindy Sherman, Michelle Handelman, Jessica Mitrani), fashion films (by Nick Knight and Lernert & Sander), industry films and many archival gems. There will be talks, film introductions and panel discussions. As special highlights we are staging two film-based performances – with Rachel Owen (at Genesis Cinema) and with MUBI and Lobster Films (at the Barbican).

If you can spare a little money for the festival, I am sure it will be hugely appreciated. Just think of it as paying for your ticket in advance. I did!

Silent London hits the road

 

London’s great, it really is, but sometimes a blogger has to seek wider horizons. So this year I will be packing up my laptop and getting my soy cappuccino to go. I’m hitting the road to report on the silent film festival circuit – more of which anon – and I may possibly be popping up in a cinema near you.

First, an exciting announcement! The British Silent Film Festival is back this year. We have dates and a venue confirmed – 14-17 September 2017, at the Phoenix in Leicester – but no more news yet. Barring flood or fire, I’ll be there, and I recommend that you attend also.

Shoes (1916)
Shoes (1916)

Before that, however, I’ll be introducing two fantastic silent films by female directors at venues that couldn’t be much further from Leicester, and each other.

Continue reading Silent London hits the road

Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies: DVD/Blu-ray review

 

In 1914, Mack Sennett attempted to persuade Chaplin to renew his contract at Keystone. Chaplin demurred, declaring that he had no need of the Keystone facilities when all he needed to make a comedy was “a park, a policeman and a pretty girl”. And so, Chaplin turned his back on the “fun factory” and signed with the Chicago-based Essanay outfit, for a head-turning $1,250 a week and a frankly astonishing $10,000 handshake.

Despite the generous financial rewards on offer at Essanay (which itself took some time to materialise), Chaplin was largely unimpressed with the bare-bones setup. Still, he discovered a few great comic foils among the Essanay troupe including the rawboned, cross-eyed Ben Turpin. And while working at Essanay’s San Francisco studio, Chaplin first met Edna Purviance, a beautiful, funny young actor who enlivens both his Essanay films and many later works too.

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So the 14 films that Chaplin made at Essanay, which are collected on this BFI box set after being restored by Lobster Films and Cineteca di Bologna (a revamp of last year’s Flicker Alley release), are something more than rough diamonds. Chaplin gleams, whatever the setting, although many camera setups and the scenarios betray the fact that these movies were made in less-than-ideal circumstances. Or perhaps they were ideal – much here adheres to the classic “park, policeman, pretty girl” model after all. Chaplin’s earliest films at the studio, free-for-all slapstick parties such as ‘His New Job’ or ‘In the Park’, return to the barely controlled chaos of the Keystone mode, but with a central performance that elevates them to a kind of poetry.

Chaplin is magnetic, whether practising tiny bits of stage business such as flicking a single speck from a grubby jacket (‘Work’), or bouncing around a gymnasium in ornate setpiece gags that anticipate the boxing scenes in City Lights (‘The Champion’). The perfectionism of his stage training (best displayed in the theatre shtick of ‘A Night in the Show’) combine with his graceful movements and his way of spearing the camera lens with a winningly impish look to create an effect that is unmistakably cinematic.

Continue reading Charlie Chaplin: the Essanay Comedies: DVD/Blu-ray review

Saddle up for Silent Western Saturday at Kennington Bioscope

This just in on the pony express. The dudes at the Kennington Bioscope are celebrating the Silent Western with an all-day event of screenings on Saturday 11 March 2017 – hosted by Silent London’s hero of 2016, Kevin Brownlow. Now then, didn’t we tell you this was going to be a good year?

Here’s the message from the Lambeth ranchers in full.

‘Hitch up your wagon, fasten on your gun belt, saddle your horse and prepare to ride the range with the Kennington Bioscope as we explore the silent Western in the company of such Western heroes as Broncho Billy Anderson, William S. Hart, Tom Mix and – not forgetting our pistol packin’ frontier gals – Texas ‘Queen of the West’ Guinan.

Highlights will include Fred Thomson in THUNDERING HOOFS (1924) and Hart’s THE NARROW TRAIL (1917) – and will you dare ride THE DEVIL HORSE (1926)? – with the main evening event being a screening of Henry King’s classic rip roaring contemporary Western THE WINNING OF BARBARA WORTH (1926), with the popular romantic pairing of Ronald Colman and Vilma Banky, together with Gary Cooper in his first major screen role.’

Don’t know who Texas Guinan was? Allow Vogue to educate you Allow Vogue to educate you on the subject of the star it is calling “the original nasty woman”.

Continue reading Saddle up for Silent Western Saturday at Kennington Bioscope

1917 on film: a world at war and a country feeling the pinch

Hey silent cinephiles. This is a quick note to tell you about the treasures to be found in the BFI Player’s freshly launched collection 1917 on Film. The footage collected here paints a striking portrait of a world at war and a nation doing its best to stay strong, conserve resources, fight its foes and keep the country on track. From celebrity philanthropy to citizen volunteers helping to work the land and feed the country; reports from the grim events in continental Europe to morale boosting cartoons and celebrations. I’d love to talk you through the lot, but I lost a few crucial hours watching the films myself. So why not explore for yourself?

Seriously, this is great stuff, and I have had the teeniest, tiniest involvement in putting it together so I felt a burst of pride to see it online and ready to stream. Silent London is a big fan of the BFI Player – a truly fantastic historical resource and the most diverting use of a rainy day lunchbreak I can imagine. So dive in to 1917 – and watch out for future additions to the site. Don’t tell anyone, but there are good things ahead .

katecarney

That said, please don’t miss my favourite … ‘Coster Comedienne’ Kate Carney stepping out of the music hall and on to the streets of London to deliver fresh veg and fruity jokes.

Silent London Poll of 2016 – the winners!

Picture the scene: a vast, gilded theatre in the West End, where the beautiful people of the silent film world are taking their seats, taking care that their rented diamonds, and their profiles, are displayed to their best advantage. The orchestra strikes up a tune, the lights are dimmed, and the audience is tipsy but expectant as I, your dear hostess, take to the stage in a floor-length pink satin gown, with a young Charles Farrell on my arm. After a few witty remarks, I turn my attention to a stack of golden envelopes on the lectern. Ladies and gentlemen, child stars and Rin Tin Tin, it’s time to announce the winners of the Silent London Poll of 2016, as voted for by the readers of this humble blog. Sorry you didn’t get an invite to the ceremony, or the bacchanalian after-party, but perhaps this roundup will do instead…

Best silent film DVD/Blu-ray release of 2016

If I were betting woman, I might have profited from this result. The winner of our first category is the BFI’s sumptuous release of Napoléon (1927), Abel Gance’s epic biopic. Honourable mention goes to the Kino/BFI Pioneers of African-American Cinema set, which many of you placed in the top spot.

Napoléon (1927)
Napoléon (1927)

Best silent film theatrical release of 2016

Quelle surprise! Napoléon romped home in this category too. A worthy winner, and I blow a kiss to those of you who gave up the best part of a day to experience this astonishing film – and to the friends and partners you coerced into joining you.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

Best modern silent of 2016

Slim pickings for this category, but we have a winner, just about, in the form of The Red Turtle, Studio Ghibli’s desert island tale, which impressed a few of you on the festival circuit this year. It really is a very fine film, and the good news is that it will be released “proper” in UK cinemas in May 2017. You can read our London Film Festival review here.

Continue reading Silent London Poll of 2016 – the winners!

The Pioneers of African-American Cinema review: an ambitious and excellent release

Christmas is a time for happy endings. And box sets too, to be honest. Last year I posted about an ambitious new project from Kino Lorber – a box set of early work by African-American film pioneers. Films that were funded, produced, written, directed by and starring people of colour. These were films we have had precious few chances to see, or less than that, and they were going to be restored, and where appropriate, rescored. Not easy.

The first happy ending is that Kino pulled it off – and if you supported the project on Kickstarter, you may well have received a parcel this summer containing a shiny set of discs and a thick booklet of essays by Paul D Miller (DJ Spooky), Charles Musser, Jacqueline Najuma Stewart, Rhea L Combs and Mary N Elliott.

I can't lie – this is some pretty exciting post! #silentfilm #classicfilm #africanamericancinema

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For those who didn’t have the cash to pledge at the time, or who can’t play imported discs, the BFI has stepped in to create another happy ending. This Christmas, the BFI has released its own matching version of the box set for the UK– and this isn’t so much a review as a recommendation.

This collection, The Pioneers of African-American Cinema, comprises five discs, with more than 20 hours of material, ranging from 1915-1946, with archive interviews from much later. There are feature-length musicals, war movies, evangelical films, anthropological footage shot by writer Zora Neale Hurston, amateur actualities by an Oklahoma Reverend, several works by Oscar Micheaux, and much more on these discs.

Watching these films is revelatory. In fact, just browsing the list of titles is an education. These films represent an obscured history of African-American filmmaking, an alternative film industry that existed largely separate to but alongside Hollywood, and a survey of African-American culture in the first half of the century. Many of these films directly address social issues, or comment slyly on Hollywood whitewashing. And many of them deal directly with faith and religion, from full-on cinematic sermons to the posturing preachers that so often appear in Micheaux’s films. As James Bell writes in his comprehensive review of the set in this month’s Sight & Sound: “Its significance for expanding a wider understanding of American cinema history can hardly be overstated.”

Continue reading The Pioneers of African-American Cinema review: an ambitious and excellent release

LSFF: Silent cinema and deaf culture event at the ICA in January 2017

Are you making New Year’s resolutions this year? I am a big fan of them – I made one last year, and although it wasn’t easy I definitely followed through on it (BTW did I mention that I am freelance now? Commission me!). The best are those that combine self-improvement with a little pleasure and entertainment (in fond remembrance of the Great Theatre Binge of Early 2012). Here’s one for you – how about you go to see more silent movies in 2017?

Reckon you already clock up quite a few silent screenings? Hmmm. How about something a little different?

For example, there’s a silent film screening with a twist at the ICA in January. You should come along! The event is part of the London Short Film Festival and takes place on 10 January. The screening takes its title from a Victor Hugo quote, “What matters deafness of the ear when the mind hears?”, and will explore the relationship between silent cinema and hearing impairment. To that end, all the films screened will play without musical accompaniment, and the programme is “designed to be accessible to people with hearing impairments as well as hearing audiences, creating a shared and uniquely immersive experience of silent film”.

Florence Turner in Daisy Doodad's Dial (1914)
Florence Turner in Daisy Doodad’s Dial (1914)

Continue reading LSFF: Silent cinema and deaf culture event at the ICA in January 2017

Slapstick 2017: Ben Model on being a silent comedy detective

Ben Model, silent film historian, accompanist and film-maker, has been championing early cinema for years. One of his most interesting projects is the Accidentally Preserved series of DVDs, which collect rare silent comedies that have only been saved from the ravages of time because they were put out on early home-movie formats. This way, he has been rescuing the reputations of many once-beloved silent comedians and sharing many, many laughs. 

The 2017 Slapstick Festival, which takes place in Bristol from 19-22 January, will feature a programme of Model’s Accidentally Preserved  comedy shorts in an event hosted by Bill Oddie and Robin Ince, with music by Günter Buchwald. That event is on 22 January and you can buy tickets here.

Ben Model was kind enough to answer some questions about the event and his silent comedy sleuthing …

Ben Model
Ben Model
Where did you discover the films that will be showing at Slapstick Festival?

Most of the films on the programme are 16mm prints that I won on eBay. If you have your radar tuned the right way, and sometimes if the sellers mislabel or mis-identify something, it’s possible to win something fun and obscure for a decent price. A Bathtub Elopement, on the other hand, was something Rob Stone from the Library of Congress (USA), Steve Massa and I turned up in a large collection of old rental prints from the 1930s at the LOC. It was a film we knew was lost, and which was of significant interest for us – especially for Steve, who has spearheaded the rediscovery of Marcel Perez’s films. I included it on the Marcel Perez Collection DVD, which I released last year on my Undercrank Productions label and which won an award at the Cinema Ritrovato festival in Italy.

Will this Slapstick screening be the films’ first showing in the UK?

It’s hard to say without doing deep research in trade papers from England as to whether or not these films were shown there during the silent era. A Citrate Special was never shown anywhere theatrically, and clearly was a prank film made internally at a studio and intended only for private use. No one has been able to find any information about where it was made or how it wound up being made available in 16mm. There are no listings in home movie catalogues from the 1940s – when my print was made – or later for this title. We screened it at the annual Mostly Lost film identification workshop at the Library of Congress a couple years ago and none of the 125 or so experts in the audience could figure out anything more about the film. I may post it on YouTube channel for the global hive mind, as sometimes that helps yield information like this.

Continue reading Slapstick 2017: Ben Model on being a silent comedy detective

The Silent London Poll of 2016: time to vote!

December is here, so it’s time to look back at the year. 2016 may not have been the happiest of times for many of us, but at least some of the movies were good. We’d love it if you would take a few minutes to share your silent cinema highlights of the year with the readers of Silent London.

rr_03b_kean
Kean ou Désordre et génie (1924)

Don’t know where to begin? How about … a change of direction at Pordenone, a new orchestral score from Neil Brand, the cinema of the Great War on show at BFI Southbank, and around the world, with some sharp new music, the ascent of Napoléon, The Informer in London, a celebration of black talent in silent cinema, great repertory programming, festivals all over the world, the decline of dialogue, and the rise of silence, and everything else I missed that was rocking your silent world.

The Red Turtle (2016)
The Red Turtle (2016)

This year, in addition to the usual questions about live shows and DVDs, I am also asking you to nominate your silent film book of the year. What’s the standout on your shelf? And as is now traditional, I want to know your silent hero of the year also.

Follow this link to fill in the survey – or scroll down and get started straight away.

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2016: time to vote!

Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler.

Celluloid preserves the dead better than any embalming fluid. Like amber preserved holograms, they flit in and out of its parameters, reciting their own epitaphs in pantomime; revenant moths trapped in perpetual motion. Film is bona fide illumination – as opposed to religion’s metaphorical kind – representing the supremacy of alchemy and necromancy over sackcloth and ashes. The inmates, emboldened under the spell of Klieg lights, were not only running the asylum, but re-shaping the world in its image, and the blunt instruments of church and state proved impotent against the anarchy of this freshly liberated ghetto.
The censors were on to something, even if they could never fully articulate what precise blasphemies were being committed. God, as a vague and unseen deity died the precise moment cinema was born, and was replaced by a new celestial order. Saints and prophets made poor film characters, always carrying the feeling of having stepped out of a stained glass window, flat, Day-Glo icons uncomfortable in motion in three-dimensional space. Movies rejoiced in dirt and rags, texture and imperfection, so that the most lacklustre clown easily outperformed all the mock messiahs. At 45 minutes, Fernand Zecca’s The Life and Passion of Christ (1903) is one of the earliest feature films, but compared to the same filmmaker’s less ambitious, more playful shorts, it’s a beautiful snooze. Another execution climaxes his Story of a Crime (1901), in which we get to see, by brutal jump cut, a guillotine decapitation before our very eyes. This, as Maxim Gorky prophesied, is what the public wants.
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Sherlock, Jr (1924)
Or maybe “the public” could suddenly define itself in ways heretofore unthinkable – the telescope, once a divining rod for mapping heaven, became the ontological instrument of a terrestrial-based voyeur. And cinema blessed mere mortals with evidence of something greater than mere “being”: empirical evidence of a shape-shifting, perception-based self, free of original sin and free to indulge in all that remained. For one glorious second, or two, the audience was regent and the watchword was Chaos.

Continue reading Better stars than there are in Heaven: the anarchy of early cinema

Ali Smith on Louise Brooks: ‘the revelation of movement’

I can’t believe I have been keeping this one to myself. As part of the process of writing a book on Pandora’s Box, I took a chance and wrote to a woman who I admire hugely, and who I know is a serious Louise Brooks aficionado. The novelist Ali Smith kindly agreed to answer a few hastily gathered questions on Brooks. Her answers were so eloquent, and inspirational, that I wanted to share them in full with you here …

Ali Smith
Ali Smith

It’s very common, since the 1960s, to talk about films belonging to directors. One hardly ever hears those auteurist labels on Brooks’s European films. I wondered if you felt these films mean something different when labelled as the work of their star rather than their director?

I kind of don’t care, and have never been much interested in labels. They’re always simplifications. But labels definitely preserve things over time, so thank god for that, and for the little flags they erect on the surface of knowledge so that people can see where to go to dig down deeper. I do despair, though, of the way our individual and common knowledge, both, get so lost so fast. Brooks, lost after the silent masterpiece years, till she died, was reclaimed in the 70s and 80s. I saw Pandora’s Box on TV in, I think, 1981. My mother, who wasn’t one for idle speculation or idle interests in things on TV, or idle anything, and who always went off to bed early, stayed up till 1am watching the film with me, till she couldn’t stay up any later, and in the morning the first thing she asked me was what happened at the end of that film?

Thirty years later, we have to do it all again – I heard your piece on Woman’s Hour, and sensed Jenni Murray’s astonishment at encountering Brooks for the first time. I was amazed – how could people not know Brooks? How could such a central cultural commentator not have her in her bones? (Unless she was simply being a kind introducer of Brooks to a listening audience who might bot know her.)* Where does that knowledge go? Here you are, doing that vital task.

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Continue reading Ali Smith on Louise Brooks: ‘the revelation of movement’

Kevin Brownlow on Napoléon: ‘What I thought the cinema ought to be, but never was’

Ahead of the orchestral screening, cinema release and Blu-ray/DVD of Napoléon I am revisiting some old interviews I did at the time of the 2013 event at the Royal Festival Hall. Yesterday I published the edited transcript of my chat with Carl Davis about Roman orgies, perverting Beethoven and the pitfalls of watching Napoléon on a 1980s TV. Today, we have restorer Kevin Brownlow on his own epic Napoléon journey:

Kevin Brownlow (Vanityfair.com)
Kevin Brownlow (Vanityfair.com)
It began with my 9.5mm film collection when I was a teenager. I had a film, another French silent film, funnily enough, by one of the pets of the French intellectuals at the time, Jean Epstein, which I thought was awful. And when I’ve got an awful film I can’t bear to have it around so I rang the library I got it from, which was in Bromley in Kent, and asked them if they had got anything else, and they said they had two reels of a thing called Napoléon Bonaparte and the French Revolution. So I said very knowledgeably: “Oh that will just be a classroom film, full of engravings and titles and all very static.” They said: “Well, it’s all we’ve got.” So I said “All right I’ll send this back if you’ll send that”, and meanwhile I rang up the British Film Institute and asked them for a review. And they said: “Well the only film that comes close is this 1927 French film but do you want me to read the review?” and I said “yes, go ahead” and I can still remember that it said: “The man playing plating Napoléon struts around with all the futile bombast of a turkey cock.” So I thought: “Oh my god, I’ve got another dud.”

I was at home, and suffering from flu or something. I wasn’t at school. And this parcel arrived and I made a miraculous recovery. I got my parents in the front room and we ran it on the wall, and I had never seen cinema like this. This is what I thought the cinema ought to be, but it never was. I realised that what I had got was two reels of a six-reel version put out for home cinema use in the 20s. My mother said: “ That’s the most beautiful film you’ve got.” And so I started advertising in the Exchange and Mart until, I got the rest of it. And then people started coming to see it. I remember David Robinson was brought by Derek Hill, who was the assistant editor of Amateur Cine World, and he’s coming again 60 years later on the 30th [the 2013 screening]. He now runs the Pordenone Silent Film Festival [Robinson actually stepped down this year, and the new artistic director is Jay Weissberg].

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Abel Gance
At the very latest I saw it in 1954, but I think it was 1953. I can’t remember precisely but it is 60 years ago, since I first saw it, virtually 60 years ago since I saw it on the screen on my projector. And then I wrote a letter to Gance. I couldn’t believe what I’d seen. I wrote a letter, it must have been care of the Cinématheque Francaise and he actually got it, and even answered it, which was very, very unusual for celebrities. And I started asking people about him and the reaction was not very strong or even interested, except one journalist, Francis Koval, and he was very enthusiastic, remembered the picture and had actually interviewed Gance, in the 50s, just before I met him I think.

Continue reading Kevin Brownlow on Napoléon: ‘What I thought the cinema ought to be, but never was’

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