Last night I went to a silent film screening that was the very definition of upscale. It was strictly by-invitation-only I am afraid, but well worth reporting back from.
I spent the evening at the beautiful Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, courtesy of the Kino Klassika Foundation. It was a very glamorous affair and I won’t deny that there were canapés and saucers of champagne to kick off proceedings, and very nice too, but the centrepiece of the night was a screening of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, accompanied by Stephen Horne and Jeffrey Davenport. During the film, eloquently introduced by Ian Christie, the glasses were set down and the audience, as far as I could tell, were rapt, transported by the movie.
In fact it was wonderful to talk to the guests at the screening, some of whom had never seen the film in full before, others who had very evocative memories of watching Potemkin at home or school as children in the former Soviet Union. This week, the film was screening as art, rather then propaganda.
And that’s the point really. The Kino Klassika Foundation threw this shindig because it has big plans for Sergei Eisenstein, including an exhibition of the director’s drawings at GRAD, called Unexpected Eisenstein, a book, and app and a series of film screenings around the country. We’ll be hearing more from Kino Klassika in the coming year, as the Eisenstein in England project is unveiled. Meanwhile, you can visit the charity’s website to find out more, or perhap even make a donation.
Elusive films, we are always told, can turn up anywhere. And if you’ve read the Primal Screen column in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound, you’ll know the truth of that. Oliver Gaycken, an early cinema scholar at the University of Maryland, stumbled across (most of) a missing Charles Urban film, Cheese Mites (1903) on YouTube. He describes it as “a landmark of early cinema, one of the first film ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic.”
The uploader, not knowing anything about the 35mm nitrate strip he had picked up from an antiques shop, had found an ingenious lo-fi method of digitising the film, and posted it on the video site under a name of his own devising. Gaycken was sent a link by chance and recognised it immediately. Anyway, you can buy the magazine to read the full story, or indeed pre-order Gaycken’s book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.
You can see Cheese Mites, properly restored and digitised, on the BFIplayer, or indeed on the institute’s own YouTube page. One thing that will strike you, as you watch those microscopic critters wriggling under the professor’s magnifying glass, is that Cheese Mites is more than a little bit repulsive. The tweedy professor (F Martin Duncan), turns his magnifying glass from his newspaper to his lunch, and uncovers a microscopic crowd of wriggly creepy-crawlies. In the still missing last scene, he chucks his cheese away in horror. You won’t see your humble cheddar-and-pickle sarnie in the same way again. And so, to celebrate this unlikely discovery, here are 10 totally gross moments in silent cinema. Hold on to your stomachs … this is not for the squeamish.
The eye-slashing in Un Chien Andalou
Yes, I now that Bunuel and Dali cut to a calf’s eye for the breathtaking “out, vile jelly” opening to this surreal classic. But come on, weren’t you fooled the first time you saw it? And there’s nothing particularly wholesome about a dead calf wearing mascara anyway. See also: the rocket crash-landing in the man in the moon’s eye in George Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) – so much more gory in full colour.
The maggots in Battleship Potemkin
Similarly, the first time one watches Eisenstein’s bombastic Potemkin, one might expect the maggots in the Men and Maggots title card to be metaphorical rather than literal. And certainly one wouldn’t expect to see them in a gruesome close-up, squirming under the doctor’s glasses. “This meat could crawl overboard on its own!” Upsettingly, the resulting stew is only the second most disgusting casserole in this list.
Alice Guy-Blaché’s modern surgery
George Mélies made a version of this a few years later, often titled Une Indigestion, but Guy-Blaché’s earlier film Chirurgie Fin de Siecle (1900) is more widely available. And it’s not one to watch the night before an operation. In this clinic, a sign pleads “On est prie de ne pas crier/Please do not cry”, and the doctors set about the patient with saws, cheerily hacking off limbs, and then slopping them into a bucket, all the while arguing ferociously with each other. They then reattach arms and legs from a bucket of “exchange pieces” (using glue) before re-animating their victim, I mean patient, with bellows.
You know it’s Pordenone when you’re still having a conversation about melodrama, cliché and the difference between parody and sendup as you turn the key in the lock of your door at midnight. Or maybe that’s just me and the people I choose to hang out with. Still, I think it’s telling, because the penultimate day of the Giornate had plenty for us to chew on, get lost in and provoke the temper too.
But first, let me lay the scene: a medium-sized town in northern Italy, it’s Friday, spitting with rain. Interior: a bell rings, it’s nine am in the auditorium and it is clear that quite a few people in attendance have that Friday feeling. You know, the one was manifests itself in a splitting headache and grey circles under the eyes? But if there is one thing that we have learned this week, it is that Yakov Pratazanov is worth getting out of bed for.
And Chiny I Liudi (Ranks and People, 1929), a portmanteau film comprising adaptations of three Chekhov short stories, was another great “serious comedy”, leading me to kick myself that I missed last night’s Don Diego I Pelageya (1928). Each story deals with the problems of living in a rigorously stratified society: a clerk fears he has offended a high-up and apologises to death; an officer is caught between asserting his authority and sycophancy to a general; a poor woman marries a heartless rich man, but has her head turned when she experiences high society. It was all beautifully done, as witty as it was tenderly heartbreaking. A false perspective frame of the clerk approaching his senior’s desk, and a high-angled shot pretty Anna admiring herself in her finery were particularly memorable. I’m more keen than ever to see tomorrow morning’s sound-era Pratazanov. Another 9am Soviet film, just how I like it.
Knocked for six by the German dubbed/scored version of Potemkin. From gruff mutterings to blood curdling screams on the Odessa steps #GCM33
Russian cinema, but not as we know it, before the midday break without a curio from Germany: Panzerkreuzer Potemkin (1930). This is the “talkie” adaptation of Eisenstein’s classic, of course, featuring the Meisel score (in his own arrangement) and a lot of dubbed dialogue. All the intertitles apart from act breaks have been removed from the body of the film and historical explanations tacked on either end, read out in a thumping German voiceover. So it runs shorter than the original, but for me slightly less smoothly, which I freely admit may simply be due to my familiarity with the rhythms of the silent original. It seems strange to hear the men mutter their complaints rather than seeming to rise instinctively to a collective understanding of their circumstances. And because the film was conceived without so much dialogue, a lot of what we hear in this version is simply redundant. There’s an interesting, unintentional effect whenever dialogue runs over a montage cut, actually, as when an officer shakes a sailor awake or another sailor throws that fateful plate. But anyway, it would be very hard to kill the majesty of this movie – the images speak so eloquently that even if Stephen Horne were to reprise his kazoo routine from yesterday, the audience would still be moved. And of course, for a native German speaker, this may be the Potemkin they have always imagined. See what you think (please excuse the “Verdi tidemark”):
Today was a tale of two Fairbankses, both of them Douglas Sr, and of two Barrymores, both of them John, whom I think we can all agree was a bit of a beloved rogue. In the film of the same title, which came first today, he plays a gadabout poet in a 15th-century Paris so smothered in snow that it looks like a Christmas card. And this is Barrymore a la Fairbanks, just to confuse you, leaping from rooftop to rooftop with a goblet of wine in his hand and a jaunty feather in his cap. You just know that he is going to save France (despite the best efforts of feeble-minded King Louis XI, played creepily by Conrad Veidt with a finger up his nose), win the heart of a fair lady (Marceline Day as a poetry-loving aristo), complete some audacious stunts and compose lots of jaunty (terrible) verse on the spot. There is also a completely gratuitous loincloth scene, for the keener Barrymore fans among us. The Beloved Rogue (Alan Crosland, 1927) is total bunkum, but much more fun than, say When a Man Loves. The only way to enjoy this sort of thing is to commit totally to it, and we were helped along by sparkling accompaniment from not one musician but four: a harmonious grouping of Donald Sosin, Elizabeth-Jane Baldry, Frank Bockius and Romano Todesco.
But John won’t win my heart that way: I crave romance, and splendour, and something beautiful to soothe my fevered brow. Beau Brummel (Harry Beaumont, 1924) will do the trick nicely thank you. It’s gentler, and more tender than the other JB films we’ve seen this week, even if equally as preposterous. Barrymore is the foppish captain deemed too lowly to marry his lady-love (an excellent, if teenaged, Mary Astor), who therefore plots to take obscure revenge on “society” by insinuating himself into the Prince Regent’s inner circle and fighting the system from within, yeah. But dear me, he does it in style. Skinny britches, umpteen rows of frogging, diamond buttons on his frock coat and a powdered wig – and still all you can concentrate on are those flashing eyes and his wicked comic timing. Preening in front of the mirror, practising his poses, or repeating the same lines to another pretty woman until he almost believes them himself … ah he’s a belov-able rogue here too all right. And in the end, it’s very touching, if both overdone and overlong. Stephen Horne was there for the duration (the Giornate showed the fullest print possible, of course), with a light touch on piano, flute and accordion bringing out the best of the comedy and plucking on our collective heartstrings. Good for the soul.
Douglas Fairbanks is just as reliable a star as JB, if a simpler proposition all round. We were lucky enough to see The Good Bad Man (Allan Dwan, 1916) today, a western that went about its business as swift and straight as an arrow. Fairbanks is a Robin Hood cowboy, stealing from the rich-ish and giving to illegitimate children. Is there a dark secret in his past? Will he discover it, have his vengeance and live to make eyes at Bessie Love another day? I thought he just might – but was I right, kids? Kudos to London-based musician David Gray who accompanied the movie with verve and accuracy – he has been partaking in the Giornate’s musical masterclasses all week and this show marked his graduation.
Our second sighting of Dougie was far more epic. The evening show brought another eye-popping collection of two-strip Technicolor treats, including a bizarre set of out-takes from The Gaucho (1927): a reel of attempts to shoot Mary Pickford as a vision of the Virgin Mary on a rockface. Shimmering loveliness its very self until an assistant hovers into view with a clapperboard. Fairbanks showed his face, and his biceps for the main feature, the unstoppable force that is The Black Pirate (Albert Parker, 1926): as gruesome as it is gorgeous and grand, this is a hard film to take against. If only because that dagger-down-the-main-sail makes you catch your breath each time. And in case you were wondering, John Sweeney can even make a sea shanty sound elegant. Classy stuff.
Almost time to turn in, and Whoozit (Harold L Muller, 1914) was our first bedtime story. Now, if a whole Charley Bowers movie makes very little sense at all, then I think it’s fair to say a single rediscovered reel will be a puzzler indeed. Great larks though: oysters with eyes humping across the bathroom floor, a teddy bear growing a beard, magic spectacles and an ogre sharpening a giant razor. Deeply enjoyable, brilliantly surreal.
One last thing before we go. The return of Sidney Drew, paired up here with Clara Kimball Young, to prove that the silent movies were spoofing silent movies long before pesky 21st-century scamps thought to do so. I thought Goodness Gracious; Or Movies as They Shouldn’t Be (1928) was ragged, but good clean fun, with hapless Gwendoline careering through loopy scenarios while chomping on her chicklit and waiting for her “brave youth” Cornelius to rescue her from another poorly framed misadventure. Undercranked and overegged and mad as a box of oysters. But a wiser soul than I caught up with me and raised a valid question: if this is the parody what is the original? Especially bearing in mind that this was made in 1928. Hmmm …
Corpse of the day: Bessie Love’s dear old pa in The Good Bad Man, God love him. Flat out on his front porch and breathing like a freshly landed fish.
Absurd romantic metaphor of the day: Home is where the hearth is for John Barrymore and Marceline Day in The Beloved Rogue – “Your eyes have swept my heart clean and kindled a fire there that will outlast me.”
Tiny things I love about Pordenone No 36: When the logo appears before a film and a group of dedicated colleagues cheer their own archive. Adore it.
My blog from the first day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the second day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the third day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the fourth day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the fifth day of the Giornate is here.
My blog from the sixth day of the Giornate is here.
Do you feel lucky, Silent Londoners? I hope so, because I am giving away tickets to watch a stone-cold Soviet classic at the marvellous east London venue Hackney Attic. In June, Filmphonics is screening Sergei Eisenstein’s stirring Battleship Potemkin, with live music from Costas Fotopoulos.
Don’t tell me you haven’t seen Potemkin: it’s a landmark of cinema and its violent, vital film-making is utterly unforgettable. Battleship Potemkin is a masterpiece of Eisenstein’s celebrated montage techniques, heart-in-mouth revolutionary propaganda, and in many ways a template for the best in modern action-movie spectacle. So get on it.
To win a pair of tickets to see Battleship Potemkin, simply email the answer to this simple question to email@example.com with Potemkin in the subject header by noon on Friday 14 June 2013.
In November, the BFI will release a dual-format DVD/Blu-Ray edition of an intriguing double-bill: Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (1925) and John Grierson’s Drifters (1929). It’s the second instalment of the BFI’s The Soviet Influence series, which has the stated aim of revealing the impact of 1920s Russian films on later British film-makers.
Drifters premiered at the Film Society on November 10, 1929, on the same bill as Battleship Potemkin, which was receiving its British premiere. Grierson had previously produced an English language version of Eisenstein’s film for its American screening and the influence of Eisenstein is clearly revealed in Drifters.
To tide us over until the home video release, we have a screening of Drifters, a film about herring fishing, and fishermen, directed by the father of the British documentary movement, John Grierson:
Like Potemkin, Drifters employs montage in an expressive manner, creating dramatic tension in the absence of any psychological characterisation. Both films also use ‘types’ (non-professional actors) instead of actors in order to create a more ‘authentic’ reality, and both films make use of extensive location shooting. Grierson, nevertheless, always stressed that he was keen to make a film with distinctively ‘British’ characteristics, which he saw as moderation and a sense of human importance. Drifters is, therefore, slower paced than Potemkin, and focuses on more mundane, less inherently dramatic events. (BFI Screenonline)
I am resisting making a “red herring” gag, but you should feel free to do so. This NFT1 screening of Drifters will be accompanied by a live score from Jason Singh, a recording of which will also be presented with the film on the disc. Singh is a “beatboxer, vocal sculptor and sound artist”, and his score combines both live and prerecorded vocals with all manner of processing and sampling. You can read more here, and watch a snippet of Singh in action below. I think you’ll agree it’s very atmospheric.
Are you a silent film fan? Do you live in London? Are you a little bit eccentric? If you answered yes to all three of those questions you probably want to know about this interactive art performance taking place at the ICA next Saturday:
In flash-mob-performance-art-meets-iconic-cinematic-history, the Odessa Steps scene from Battleship Potemkin will be re-created on the Duke of York steps, adjacent to the ICA, in three separate performances of 60 people. It might be slightly irreverent, it might end up nothing like Eisenstein’s visionary comment on the social and political state of Russia, but it will be a lot of fun, and a chance to pay tribute to one of the greatest moments in early 20th century cinema. Members of the public can book a slot to play a role in the reconstruction and filming of the scene. Each slot will be fast-paced and full of improvisation, complete with costumes and props. An eclectic mix of artists and personalities from the art world including Norman Rosenthal, Johnny Woo, Andrew Logan, Sue Tilley and Christopher Biggins will be taking on the major roles.
Christopher Biggins? That’s what it says here. Anyway, finally, you will have the chance to experience the thrill that Brain de Palma and Kevin Costner felt when filming The Untouchables. The re-enactments will be recorded for posterity too. Artists Jane and Louise Wilson will record the performances using the 8mm apps on their iPhones, and the resulting footage will be posted online.
Tickets for one of the sessions cost just £5. I’m assuming, and hoping, that this will all be totally safe and no babies (or adults) are liable to get hurt during proceedings. Still, you might prefer to play a cossack than a peasant, if you’re worried.
Re-enacting Eisenstein takes place on the afternoon of 26 November 2011. To book, and for more information, visit the ICA website.
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925, 71 minutes, cert PG
As the Black Sea foams and crashes into the shore, an intertitle describes the waves of revolutionary feeling sweeping Russia in 1905, and the 55-piece orchestra swells into action. Sergei Eisenstein opens his classic film Battleship Potemkin (1925) with an adroit combination of image, word and music – which we can now experience here in Britain for the first time.
So much is fresh to UK audiences about this 86-year-old film resident on countless Greatest Ever lists and pored over by generations of film students. First, there’s the original orchestral score written by Edmund Meisel and a handful of reinstated shots, some of which were excised from the unforgettably tense Odessa Steps sequence. Not only this, but the film has been beautifully restored, and the title cards recreated according to the director’s wishes. The language is stronger and more socialist than before. It’s bolshier.
Eisenstein’s second feature film is all about solidarity, as it tells the story of a mutiny aboard the eponymous battleship. A group of sailors refuse to eat soup made with rotten meat, and face a firing squad of their peers, but the spirit of comradeship intervenes as the crew rise up against the senior officers – and proudly hoist a bold red flag as they sail into Odessa harbour. On shore, the locals also support the sailors, with terrible consequences. The question is, will the rest of the fleet welcome the revolutionaries home, or follow the command to fire?
Because Battleship Potemkin is an appeal to fellow-feeling and collective action, it is only right that the restoration work creates a more immersive film, one that places no barriers between a 21st-century audience and its monumentally powerful imagery.
In this print, the maggots in the sailors’ dinner squirm in all their greasy glory and the splatters of blood on the Odessa Steps glisten, wetter than before and more gruesome. But it’s not all about horror. The sunlight glints sharply off the calm waters, or is diffused gently through the early morning mists. The scenes of small boats with white sails bringing supplies to the Potemkin are particularly gorgeous. That red flag is vividly, almost luridly hand-tinted red – as aggressively bright as the senior officers’ white trousers, in cruel contrast to the lower orders’ dingy uniforms.
The gloomy scenes below deck are free of murk, too, and we can pick out individuals in the massive crowd scenes. It’s perfect for tracing each extra’s individual path down those infamous steps, some trampling on bodies, and some stumbling over them as they fall.
Then there’s the score. Motoring through the film’s brisk 71-minute running time with a booming bass drum, the music is at its best mostly when it is bombastic. I liked the sustained woodwind sound before that first, fatal thrown plate, and the crashing percussion that announced the arrival of the cossacks. I wasn’t so convinced by the cracking sounds that synchronised with the gunshots, but soon these musical sound effects won me over. Occasionally the score tends towards jaunty, when perhaps it could have been tense, such as when the sailors dive off the Potemkin in an attempt to rescue a fallen comrade. But my qualms were swept away by the film’s final sequence: the music pulses faster and faster as the ship gains speed and prepares for battle, ratcheting up the tension superbly.
Battleship Potemkin, restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, is on theatrical release from 29 April, screening in London at the BFI Southbank and the Curzon Renoir among other venues.
Battleship Potemkin is coming to a cinema near you. Not just any old Battleship Potemkin, but a crisp restored print of this astounding film, with the original orchestral score, which will boom out of the walls of the cinema – in synch with the film. Wild, I know. As I have said elsewhere, Potemkin is released on 29 April. There will be several chances to see it at the BFI Southbank on the bank holiday weekend and all through May, and no doubt it will pop up in a few of London’s coolest, artiest, independent cinemas too. Much like The Complete Metropolis has done, and continues to do (it’s on at the Riverside Studios tonight).
Now, it’s in the interests of everyone’s sanity that I don’t write a blogpost every time either one of these films is showing – I’ll update the listings calendar as soon as I hear about any shows, but you don’t need me to keep telling you that both of these films are amazing, essential viewing for film fans (not just silent film fans) and ruddy exciting as well. This blog will concentrate on reporting and celebrating the one-off screenings with live music that are becomingly increasingly common in London.
That said, I can’t sign off without telling you a little about two very groovy screenings of Metropolis that are coming up soon. First, the Ritzy in Brixton continues to mark its 100th anniversary in fine style with an Alphabet of Cinema strand. It starts on 10 April with A is for Androids and they’re showing Alphaville, Westworld and … Metropolis. They’re carrying on through to Z is for Zombies over the course of the year. I’m crossing my fingers for an F is for Flappers triple-bill. But maybe that’s just me.
And on 15 May, the Prince Charles Cinema in the West End is showing Metropolis as part of its vintage films strand. Again, it’s great to see cinemas continuing to support Metropolis – and audiences enjoying it. The Prince Charles Cinema seems to be increasingly enthusiastic about putting on silent films, which is definitely a Good Thing All Round.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m as excited as the next silent film fan about the theatrical release of the the newly restored Battleship Potemkin (1925) with Edmund Meisel’s orchestral score. I circled the date in my diary, I even wrote a blog about it. But when I heard that the government had called a bank holiday, purely to celebrate its UK release, well, I felt like my own efforts were a little inadequate. Wow, David Cameron sure likes Sergei Eisenstein a lot more than you would expect.
So, while the rest of you are distracted by the preparations for your Battleship Potemkin street parties (the bunting must be red, of course, but let’s not put maggots in the bread eh?), I will make it my mission to keep you updated with where and when you can catch this masterpiece on the big screen. This is quite an endeavour for a woman who still, still, can’t watch that pram bump down the Odessa Steps without squirming.
Our first port of call (see what I did there?) is the BFI Southbank, who will be screening Battleship Potemkin on 29 and 30 April and all through May. The April dates have been announced and they are as follows:
29 April 2011: 4.20pm, 6pm, 8.45pm
30 April 2011: 3.30pm, 6.10pm, 8.30pm
Tickets as usual cost £9.50, or less for concessions and members. Of those screenings, I would recommend 6pm on Friday 29 April or 3.30pm on Saturday 30 April, as those are the NFT1 shows. You really want to see this on a big screen if you can. Grab your tickets here, on the BFI website.
Sergei Eisenstein’s dramatic reconstruction of 1917’s October revolution is more than Soviet propaganda – it’s a ferociously exciting film, too. Rightly hailed as a classic, October‘s audaciously rapid montage editing is as violent and incendiary as its subject matter The bridge sequence in this film bears comparison with the Odessa Steps scene in Eisenstein’s more famous film Battleship Potemkin, but it’s a tough watch for horse lovers.
October (1927) will screen at the BFI on 8 April as the first half of a double-bill to accompany Phil Collins’s Marxism Today project, on display in the Gallery, which compares life in Germany before and after the fall of the Berlin Wall. Collins has chosen and will introduce the two films in the double-bill: first, October and then Lunch Break, a 2008 documentary film made by American photographer and film-maker Sharon Lockhart. Lunch Break consists of a single tracking shot down a corridor in an iron works in Maine. The shot has been slowed down to a snail’s pace, making the film last for 80 minutes, becoming an anthropological study of the workers and their environment. The BFI brochure says: “Its intimate, meditative tone offers an empathetic consideration of the workforce in our contemporary post-industrial condition.”