Finally, the time has come for me to stop sitting on my hands. Those of you who are on Twitter may have seen a sneak preview of this, but I am delighted to say that I can finally announce … Astafest!Continue reading In the Eyes of a Silent Star: Asta Nielsen at BFI Southbank in February and March 2022
This is a guest post for Silent London by composer, broadcaster, writer and silent film accompanist Neil Brand.
I will be playing Oscar Micheaux’s wonderful Body and Soul at BFI Southbank on 31 October. I have to say, that movie means a great deal to me for a very important reason – one which has affected my whole attitude towards silent cinema since a memorable night a decade or so ago…
In the 35 years that I have been a silent film accompanist, I have been privileged to have a front-row seat for all the major discoveries of early cinema during that time. I have seen films come and go, attitudes shift, and loyalties become challenged, and never more so than at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone, the spiritual home and trade show of our industry. There and elsewhere, I have tried never to stop learning, hearing from people vastly more experienced than me about films I thought I would never get to see, and, from time to time, films I should avoid.Continue reading Neil Brand on Oscar Micheaux: an audience for Body and Soul
All things bright and beautiful are coming to our fair city once more this March. The fifth International Colour in Film Conference will take place at BFI Southbank, London, 11-13 March 2020. That’s the week before Hippfest, people.
Highlights for this year include James Layton’s presentation of new MOMA restorations and Barbara Flueckiger’s closing report on the massive ERC project, FilmColors: An Interdisciplinary Approach. Eva Hielscher will present the ColorMania book and there will be a curatorial keynote from Paolo Cherchi Usai, who will also be signing copies of his latest book.
There will be papers and presentations on matters pertaining to colour film and colour film restoration, and an evening screening that is currently TBA. Plus I hear Neil Brand will be on hand to accompany films on the Monday … Psst, but my insider informs me there will be also be some 1970s luridness that has to be seen to be believed!
The event is co-organised by the Colour Group GB (http://colour.org.uk/) and HTW –University of Applied Sciences Berlin (http://www.fiafnet.org/pages/Community/Supporters-HTW.html and http://krg.htw-berlin.de/files/Stg/KR/Bachelor/KRG_Audiovisuelles_und_Fotografisches_Kulturgut-Moderne_Medien_En.pdf.pdf), and ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors (University of Zurich) (http://filmcolors.org/2015/06/15/erc/) in collaboration with The British Film Institute (BFI) .The event will include screenings, keynote lectures and presentations from international film and colour scholars in the BFI’s – National Film Theatre 3.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand, writer, composer, silent film accompanist and TV and radio presenter. The Big Parade screens at BFI Southbank on 2 February 2020 with musical accompaniment by Neil Brand and an introduction by author Michael Hammond.
In 2006 my wife and I experienced a very personal, very deep loss. Happy events since have well overtaken the pain it involved, but it occurred just as I was about to leave to play for the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Sacile and I had to delay my arrival there until the Monday. Two days later I played The Big Parade. It was last thing on a midweek night, I had asked for the gig and nobody, least of all me, was expecting anything special.
The morning after, as I looked back in horror at what I can only describe as a traumatic experience, I felt that I had to write a document that could be given to the audience at that screening, explaining a few things. With the permission and profound support of my pianist colleagues, and particularly Giornate director David Robinson, I wrote this… Continue reading ‘Hopeless destruction’: Neil Brand looks back on The Big Parade
UPDATE: This release will actually be the most recent restoration of the film. Hurrah! Read more here.
Welcome to your latest Lulu alert, courtesy of a website in danger of needing to rename itself “Pabst London”. I assure you that I am working on some non Pabst-related content, which will be with you soon.
Anyway, the Big News is … that the BFI is giving Pandora’s Box a theatrical re-release in June this year. The version that will be shown is a 2K DCP of the 1997 Munich Film Museum restoration, not the more recent one, which is slightly disappointing, but that said, I saw this version on a big screen recently and it really is grand. The print really does well by Gunther Krampf’s complex patterns of light and shade in his cinematography, and there is enough detail to highlight all the nuances and symbols lurking in the background. Louise Brooks sparkles as she ought to, of course.
Good news for dyed-in-the-wool fans of colour film in all its multiple chemical, electronic, stencilled and washed forms. The Third International Conference, Colour in Film, will take place 19-21 March 2018. The first two days will be at BFI Southbank, and the third will be at Birkbeck College, University of London.
As usual there will be lectures, presentations and screenings as well as a special workshop by University of Zurich’s projects ERC Advanced Grant FilmColors and SNF Film Colors Technologies, Cultures, Institutions led by Prof. Dr. Barbara Flueckiger.
All films will be shown in NFT3, and included The Ruins of Palmyra and Baalbek (1938), This is Colour (1942) and Münchhausen (1943). Sessions devoted to early film include a presentation by Bryony Dixon on Applied Colour, one by Olivia Kristina Stutz on The Transparency of Early Film Colours and Eirik Frivold Hanssen on Polar Colours in Roald Amundsen’s Films, Photographs, and Writings.
To read the full programme, find out who else is attending, and book your place, visit the Colour in Film website.
I am very excited to share this screening with you – The Woman Under Oath (John M Stahl, 1919) is a really special film that I was lucky enough to research last year, and it is showing on 35mm with live music in NFT1.
Most of you will be familiar with the work of John M Stahl – even though he is best known for a few films that were remade by more famous directors. Douglas Sirk remade both his The Magnificent Obsession and Imitation of Life, while Max Ophüls’ Letter from an Unknown Woman is based on the novella by Stefan Zwieg that seems also to have inspired Stahl’s 1933 Only Yesterday. Perhaps Stahl’s most famous film is 1944’s Leave Her to Heaven. If you have seen any of those titles, it won’t surprise you to learn that Stahl is celebrated as master of melodrama who directed films with strong, passionate heroines. If you’ve seen the last one, you’ll be excited to learn that The Woman Under Oath pivots on a trial.
Until last year, I had never seen any of Stahl’s silent films, which is partly because so few of them have survived (just nine features and various fragments) and even more so because they are very rarely screened. Stahl was born Jacob Morris Strelitsky in Baku, Azerbaijan, but moved to New York as a youngster. Taking the name John Malcolm Stahl, he made a series of movies in the teens and early twenties in New York, before signing with Louis B Mayer Pictures (which later became MGM) in Hollywood in 1924. He was a founding member of the Academy and briefly an executive at the Tiffany studio. He went on to make 20 sound films, however (all of which survive), including the ones mentioned above. His final picture, made in 1949, was the musical Oh, You Beautiful Doll.
This guest post is an edited version of an article on the origins of the early British thriller by Bryony Dixon, curator at the British Film Institute. The full article appears in the BFI’s new compendium on the thriller, Who Can you Trust?, now available in the BFI shop.
Next month’s Sunday Silent at the BFI Southbank is a rare chance to see a rare early film version of Edgar Wallace’s first great success, The Four Just Men. Released in 1921 by the Stoll Company, it was adapted by its director George Ridgewell, who worked on many of the Sherlock Holmes episodes for the same company. It’s a well-made film – nothing fancy but surprisingly competent for its year – from a well written novel, in fact a novel that is noticeably cinematic.
Try this passage from the opening of the original novel:
A NEWSPAPER STORY
On the fourteenth day of August, 19—, a tiny paragraph appeared at the foot of an unimportant page in London’s most sober journal to the effect that the secretary of state for foreign affairs had been much annoyed by the receipt of a number of threatening letters, and was prepared to pay a reward of fifty pounds to any person who would give such information as would lead to the apprehension and conviction of the person or persons, etc. The few people who read London’s most sober journal thought, in their ponderous Athænaeum Club way, that it was a remarkable thing that a Minister of State should be annoyed at anything; more remarkable that he should advertise his annoyance, and most remarkable of all that he could imagine for one minute that the offer of a reward would put a stop to the annoyance.
News editors of less sober but larger circulated newspapers, wearily scanning the dull columns of Old Sobriety, read the paragraph with a newly acquired interest.
“Hullo, what’s this?” asked Smiles of the Comet, and cut out the paragraph with huge shears, pasted it upon a sheet of copy-paper and headed it:
“Who is Sir Philip’s Correspondent?” As an afterthought—the Comet being in Opposition—he prefixed an introductory paragraph, humorously suggesting that the letters were from an intelligent electorate grown tired of the shilly-shallying methods of the Government.
The news editor of the Evening World – a white-haired gentleman of deliberate movement – read the paragraph twice, cut it out carefully, read it again and, placing it under a paper-weight, very soon forgot all about it.
The news editor of the Megaphone, which is a very bright newspaper indeed, cut the paragraph as he read it, rang a bell, called a reporter, all in a breath, so to speak, and issued a few terse instructions.
“Go down to Portland Place, try to see Sir Philip Ramon, secure the story of that paragraph—why he is threatened, what he is threatened with; get a copy of one of the letters if you can. If you cannot see Ramon, get hold of a secretary.”
And the obedient reporter went forth.
He returned in an hour in that state of mysterious agitation peculiar to the reporter who has got a “beat.” The news editor duly reported to the editor-in-chief, and that great man said, “That’s very good, that’s very good indeed” – which was praise of the highest order.
What was “very good indeed” about the reporter’s story may be gathered from the half-column that appeared in the Megaphone on the following day:
Cabinet Minister in Danger
Threats to Murder the Foreign Secretary
“The Four Just Men”
Plot to Arrest the Passage of the Aliens
It reads like a screenplay. The ramping up in stages of tension from the total under-reaction of the old codgers of the Athenaeum, to the more informed curiosity of the Comet, to the instant action of the Megaphone creates a mental image very reminiscent of the condensed montage-opening of the standard film thriller of the 1930s and 40s. To us the vision of whirling presses and scurry of the newspaper boys may be a cliché from the opening scenes of a thousand crime films, but it was a relatively new thing in 1921, when the story was first filmed, and certainly in 1905 when it was written.
For 1905 it was, when one of the best known British thriller novels was penned by a man who would come to be known as the ‘King of Thrillers’. Edgar Wallace was a Londoner of humble origins, who overcame a modest education to become a journalist and then an astonishingly prolific writer of ingenious thrillers, plays and film scripts. His lowbrow (his word) thrillers were written to be easily readable, were hugely popular and eminently adaptable for the screen. His works spawned some 200 films and television programmes, including famously at the end of his life, the first script for King Kong (1933). He died of a chill contracted while in Hollywood working on the film for Merian Cooper.
The BFI’s mega India on Film season kicks off this month and continues all year. The season culminates (for us early cinephiles at least) in this year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala, which will be the sumptuous silent drama Shiraz (1928), at the Barbican on 14 October 2017, beautifully restored with a brand-new score by Anoushka Shankar.
But before all that, there are plenty of films to be getting on with, and if you’d like to take advantage of a two-for-one ticket offer for the films showing at BFI Southbank in the India on Film season, step this way …
Simply quote INDIA241 when booking on line, in person or over the phone to claim the offer. Only valid for all films and events in the BFI’s India On Film season in 2017.
Please note that this ticket offer does NOT include the Archive Gala.
The first silent morsels that caught my eye in the season are a couple of talks on Saturday 20 May 2017:
- Exploring Silent Indian Cinema + Q&A with Lalit Mohan Joshi and Pandit Vishwa Prakash on Saturday 20 May 2017 14:00 – the history of India’s silent film era is explored, plus rare screening of Raja Harishchandra.
- The Coming of Sound and the Golden Era + Pandit Vishwa Prakash and Lalit Mohan Joshi in conversation on Saturday 20 May 2017 16:30 – discussion of the coming of sound and music in Indian cinema, with illustrations and live performance.
The first of those talks concludes with a screening of Raja Harishchandra – a rarely seen film from 1913, and the earliest extant Indian movie. To find out a little more about the making of this film, and early Indian cinema in general, why not read a little feature I wrote for the Guardian in 2013, to mark the Centenary of Bollywood’?
If you can’t make it to BFI Southbank this year, look out for screenings of Shiraz around the country after the Archive Gala, and check out the India on Film collection on BFI Player.
What’s that bright spot on the horizon? It’s the Second International Conference on Colour in Film, which is back in London from 27-29 March 2017. The really good news is that the conference is half a day longer than before, and to my untrained eye, that extra time is mostly made up of screenings – including a very special silent “treat” on the first night.
The 2017 Colour in Film Conference will cover the entire breadth of colour in moving images, from early (pre)cinema’s chromolithographic printing through the applied colours of tinting, toning and their Desmetcolor rendition, from chromogenic Agfacolor and Eastmancolor through the video- and film-based look of the golden age of British colour television and up to modern, current grading in the digital domain.
The screenings take place at BFI Southbank (NFT3 to be precise) on the first day of the conference, and include colour films from all eras, not just our favourite one. One highlight I can already see in the programme is a selection of hand-drawn, hand-painted “Chromolithographic Loops”. These took our breath away at Pordenone last year – you’ll love them, and I’m intrigued to hear more about them at the conference. All the clips and films are introduced by experts who can tell you more about the use of colour and how it has been restored.
The big-ticket event is in the evening of the first day, when Neil Brand accompanies a screening of Behind the Door (1919), which will be introduced by Rob Byrne of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I’ve mentioned this film before: a rape-revenge drama featuring a taxidermist, the first world war and some pretty savage xenophobia. It’s not explicitly gory, but it’s quite a shocker, so hold on to your hats.
The following two days of the conference is made up of papers – with an awesome lineup of experts, restorers and archivists taking you deep into the detail of colour-film science and history. These will be held at Friends House on Euston Road – and you can see the full list of speakers and papers here. The second day at Friends House is devoted to Sarah Street’s project workshop on the Eastmancolor revolution.
There are an array of ticket prices for the conference, depending on how many days you attend and whether you are a student or a member of the Colour Group or not. All the details are here. Bear in mind that if you want to see Behind the Door that’s extra, even if you have a ticket for the screening day.
- The Second International Conference Colour in Film takes place 27-29 March at BFI Southbank and Friends House, Euston. Read more and book tickets here.
Anniversaries are bittersweet at the best of times, but this summer marks an especially painful date. It is 100 years since the Battle of the Somme, the largest battle of the first world war, in which more than a million men were killed or injured. The date was marked publicly in the UK this weekend with tributes across the country.
Many people who read this site will know that relatives of their lost their lives in the First World War – almost all of us will have heard family tales of hardship and resilience from those four bruising years. The power of cinema, even during the war when it was only around twenty years old, is that it can show us the small human stories of the home front, as well as the epic tales of the battlefield. In fact, it can tell us the intimate, personal incidents of the trenches, as well as the soothing narrative of stoicism and sentiment back in Blighty. And on the cinema screen, these experiences can be shared with a crowd, and something therapeutic happens when we face our fears together. This summer, you can see some of the contemporary films from WWI, back on the big screen, and at the bottom of this post you will find a two-for-one ticket offer too.
Back in 1916, millions of Britons flocked to the cinema to see The Battle of the Somme, a documentary that showed the families at home what their boys were facing on the front line. It’s haunting, sometimes terrifying, and always fascinating work – a letter home from the trenches to reassure and inform. A hundred years later, it has lost none of its power. If you want to know more about the film, I highly recommend Lawrence Napper’s article in the current issue of Sight & Sound, in which he calls it “one of the most extraordinary documents of our cinematic history”. Luke McKernan’s excellent Picturegoing site has also posted a contemporary review of the film, which says that it “shakes the kaleidoscope of war into a human reality”.
The Battle of the Somme is back in cinemas and concert halls across the world, to mark the centenary, with live orchestral performances of Laura Rossi’s wonderful score. You can read more about that, and find a screening near you, on the official website here. There will be 100 performances in the tour, so there is very likely to be one near you.
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.
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.
Not that silent film history is complicated, but put it this way: it’s not black and white. Joshing aside, one of the most exciting themes to emerge in recent cinema scholarship is the exploration of film colour – from the earliest hand-painted frames to today’s teal-and-orange “realism”. And it’s arguably more exciting to learn about the colour pioneers and their various attempts to make films appear lifelike – or better than that – than later developments.
So I thought you’d like to hear about a two-day event in March that puts tinting in the frame – Colour in Film, which takes place in London, at the BFI Southbank and Friends House on Euston Road. The keynote speakers are Sarah Street, who will give a paper on British Cinema in Colour: Creativity, Culture and the Negotiation of Innovation and Barbara Flueckiger, tackling the subject of Bridging the Gap between Analogue Film History and Digital Technology. Other contributions will come from Ulrich Rüdel, Kieron Webb, and more names that will be familiar to you.
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.
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)
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)
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).
Last month we previewed the blockbuster DW Griffith taking place at BFI Southbank in June. This week, tickets went on sale! But before you start flashing your debit cards around, Silent London can save you a little cash, with a two-for-one ticket offer. You could buy twice as many tickets, or even bring a friend along, free, and share the greatness of Griffith at a bargain rate.
Forgive me if I’m wrong, but it feels like a long time since we saw a solid silent retrospective in this town. No need to bleat about it much longer though, eh, as the BFI has just the thing. DW Griffith – still arguably the most important American movie director of all time – will inhabit the BFI Southbank for most of June.
The season concentrates on the feature films up to and including Abraham Lincoln (1930), Griffith’s first talkie. Especial care is taken over Griffith’s best-known, and still-controversial, film Birth of a Nation (1915), in its centenary year. The movie will screen with introductions on both occasions, and a special roundtable event will bring together keynote speakers from UCL’s “In the Shadow of Birth of a Nation” conference to discuss the film. To provide further context, on 7 June the BFI will screen all three parts of Kevin Brownlow and David Gill’s DW Griffith: Father of Film documentary.
This is one of those events that should have every cinephile in the city licking their lips. And you don’t have to be a silent nerd or a completist to understand why. There’s far more to DW Griffith than the awful things he believed and the clever things he is credited with doing first. Watching the films, especially on the big screen, is the best way to appreciate his genius. And look at the cast list here too: the season features several turns from the wonderful Lillian Gish, as well as Richard Barthelmess, Lionel Barrymore, Douglas Fairbanks and Mae Marsh.
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)
“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.
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.
Don’t tell me you missed the fact this year, this February in fact, we are celebrating 100 years of Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp. Kid Auto Races, Chaplin’s first screen appearance as the anarchic scruff, was released on 7 February 1914. It’s a cinematic centenary of the best kind – one that affords the opportunity for screenings of wonderful films and some clever-clever comment and analysis too. An event at the BFI Southbank on 4 February will add a little star power to proceedings, as well as some new insights into the Tramp and his creator.
At The Centenary of the Little Tramp David Robinson will be talking specifically about how Chaplin drew on the music hall tradition of his youth to create his signature character – and how those influences stayed with him and found a beautiful expression in the gorgeous 1952 film Limelight.
This special event marks the centenary of the birth of Charlie Chaplin’s ‘little tramp’. One hundred years ago this week the iconic character first stepped in front of the camera at the Keystone studios. David Robinson, Chaplin’s official biographer, presents his latest thoughts on Chaplin and the tramp and celebrates the launch of his new book ‘The World of Limelight,’ commissioned by the Cineteca di Bologna, which draws on previously unpublished material from the Chaplin Archive.
Robinson will be launching his book at the event and I think copies will be on sale after the talk with perhaps a booksigning too. A particularly well-informed little bird tells me that Chaplin’s co-star in Limelight, English actress Claire Bloom, will be in attendance also. In fact, Robinson’s book is dedicated to her. Here’s a little more about the book:
Limelight was first cast not as a film script, but as a long novella, Footlights, with the supplementary Calvero’s Story. Both are here published for the very first time – the ultimate raison d’être of this volume. Out of these Chaplin extracted a screenplay which passed through several drafts before being transferred to the screen.
The accompanying commentary in this volume explores the documentary reality of the world which Chaplin recreated from his memories and evoked for posterity – London, the music hall and ballet at the end of an era, the outbreak of the First World War. The book is illustrated with images from the author’s own collection, and reproductions of documents and photographs from the Chaplin archives, which clearly depict the development of the film LIMELIGHT that David Robinson so intricately describes.
The event takes place at 6.20pm in NFT3. For more details, see the event page on the BFI website.
Buster Keaton’s The General (1927) goes on theatrical release this Friday – which should be cause for celebration and mass ticket-buying among all of you. However, if you are a regular reader of this blog, you have probably seen this classic, poll-bestriding Civil War caper before, very possibly in the dim and distant. What worries me, what keeps me up at night, is that if so, you may feel a bit “so-whattish” and “seen-it-all-beforeish” about Keaton’s masterpiece. That would be a tragedy, as The General is one of the funniest, most ingenious and gosh-darn exciting films you will ever see in your long and happy life. If familiarity has bred a touch of contempt, or just complacency, in your bosom, I would gladly bend your ear about the pin-sharp 4k transfer, and the booming rendition of Carl Davis’s nimble and turbo-charged score on this digital print. But that geeky stuff isn’t for everyone, so if that doesn’t tempt you, here are five more reasons to see The General … again.
The early, funny stuff
So we all know The General as a chase film, packed with stunts and crashing locomotives. Well, it actually starts in a very sedate fashion, as our hero Johnnie (Buster Keaton) goes to visit his girl Annabelle, who prompts him to enlist and fight for the South. Patience is a virtue – don’t be in a rush to get to the fast and furious business on the tracks. Johnnie’s pratfall as he leaves Annabelle’s house, the beautiful recruiting-office sequence and that wonderful selfie of Johnnie and his other beloved are all worth arriving at the cinema nice and early for. The scene-setting opening ends with one of the quietest, but most dangerous stunts in the whole movie, as Johnnie perches forlornly on the coupling rods of a locomotive that is picking up speed …
The General‘s Southern belle is far more than a damsel in distress. To be frank, she’s a pain in the neck – watch her daintily selecting firewood and feel Johnnie’s pain. But to be fair, she takes more than her share of punishment too: kidnapped, soaked (twice), caught in a bear trap, stuffed into a sack and loaded as freight. Not only that, but consider this: to paraphrase Ginger Rogers, you try doing everything Buster Keaton does, but backwards and in a crinoline.
There is another reason to take note of Annabelle – she is played by a fascinating woman. Marion Mack knew more than most about the silent movie business. A former Mack Sennett Bathing Beauty, she later turned her hand to screenwriting, including a semi-autobiographical flick called Mary of the Movies, which she also acted in. In the the 30s, she even wrote a talkie short for Keaton. And when critical favour began to smile on The General in the 70s, she was on hand to speak at screenings and festivals, explaining what it was like to play one of Keaton’s not-so-straight women. We don’t have opportunities like that any more, so thank you Marion.
Yes, that is a real train
The one that falls through the burning Rock River Bridge? Yup. It’s not a model (you’re thinking of The Blacksmith). And if you thought it was CGI – shame on you. Famously, the destruction of the train in The General is the most expensive shot in silent movie history, and it’s a salient reminder that everything you see on screen here is real – including the danger that Keaton and Co frequently faced as they went about those wild stunts.
Those damn Yankees
Marion Mack isn’t the only thing here that gives us a flashback to Mack Sennett’s mid-teens romps. Those Yankee soldiers giving chase to Johnnie and Annabelle are enjoyably, hilariously inept. Hoot as a whole gaggle of them fail to fix the points our man has so thoroughly snookered, until their driver appears with a an axe and a shove; chortle as they topple like dominoes with every jolt of the engine. These buffoons are Keystone Kops in all but name. A guilty pleasure in a very sophisticated film.
War is hell
It’s not all larks and big kids playing with big train sets, of course. The General is a war movie, based on a true story – the hijacking of a train headed for Chattanooga, Tennessee. And it’s easy to forget that The General has a rather grim battle scene of its own, with swords and snipers and several deaths. Even the jokes fail to lighten the mood here. The flag gag, in which Johnnie grabs a confederate pennant from his falling comrade’s hand, and waves it in victory from a rocky outcrop, only to discover he has seriously misplaced his feet, is an unexpected splash of black humour. It’s a nifty moment that sharply undercuts any jingoistic vibes you may get from this story of a plucky underdog and his little engine that could.
If you see The General on its extended run at BFI Southbank, it will accompanied by Keaton’s sublime early short One Week. If you were to ask me, right now, which of the two were the better film, I would have to say … “tough call”.
Next weekend is spookier than most at BFI Southbank – which is saying something, since the BFI Gothic season rolled into town. The Hauntology weekend takes over, with a screening of the majorly creepy drama-documentary Häxan on Friday 13 December, and on Saturday night, a collection of gothic treasures soundtracked by a group of seriously talented musicians – Sarah Angliss and the Spacedog ensemble. Here’s a little more about what you can expect from the shows – scroll down for a chance to win tickets to see Häxan.
The ensemble was put together by Sarah Angliss, a composer, automatist and theremin player, whose singularly unsettling music was recently heard at the National Theatre as a tense underscore to Lucy Prebble’s The Effect. Angliss’ music for Gothic film will be performed by her band: recent Ghost Box guests Spacedog. They’ll be joined by Exotic Pylon’s Time Attendant (Paul Snowdon) who will be supplying a new work on simmering, tabletop electronics. There will also be some extemporisations from Bela Emerson, a soloist who works with cello and electronics. Fellow Ghost Box associate Jon Brooks, composer of the haunting Music for Thomas Carnacki (2011), will also be creating a studio piece for the event.
Sourced by Bryony Dixon, the BFI’s curator of silent film, many of the short films inspiring these musicians were made in the opening years of the twentieth century. The Legende du fantôme (1908) and early split screen experiment Skulls Take Over (1901) are on the bill, along with the silent cubist masterpiece The Fall of the House of Usher (US version, 1928) and more.
“There is undoubtedly something uncanny about the earliest of these films”, said Angliss. “Many are stencil-coloured in vibrant hues, adding to that sense of the familiar taking on a strange cast. They seem to demand music that suggests rather than points up the horror, a motif that discomforts as it soothes, or a sweet sound that is somehow sickly, as though heard in a fever.”
Brooks added “the visuals suggest aural textures reminiscent of painted glass, to strange derivatives of stringed instruments. Hopefully I’ve conjured some playfulness amongst the macabre too.”
Adding to the strangeness are Angliss’ automata, who will also be performing live. These include a polyphonic, robotic carillon (bell playing machine) and Hugo, the roboticised head of a ventriloquist’s dummy who is of the same vintage as some of the films. The event will be directed by Emma Kilbey. After the BFI Southbank performance there are plans to take Vault to Gothic revivalist buildings around the UK.
Sarah Angliss is grateful to PRS for Music for financially supporting her new work. Vault: Music for Silent Gothic Treasures is part of the BFI’s Hauntology Weekend, in association with The Wire magazine (Fri 13 Dec – Sat 14 Dec)
To book tickets for Vault: Music for Silent Gothic Treasures, click here http://bit.ly/bfivault. The screening takes places a 8:45pm NTF1, BFI Southbank, Saturday 14 December.
On the Friday night, the Häxan screening will also be accompanied by live music: a specially commissioned score from Demdike Stare.
This 1922 documentary-horror masterpiece explores the effect of superstition on the collective medieval consciousness. Presented for the first time with a BFI-commissioned score by electronic artists Demdike Stare. The duo base their music on samples from old recordings, twisted into new sonic shapes. The blend of Demdike Stare’s resurrected aural phantoms and Christensen’s Satanic horror promises to be a singularly modern yet arcane live experience.
Häxan is a thrilling movie, and an amazing thing to experience on the big screen – an effect that will surely only be enhanced by those “aural phantoms”.
To book tickets for Häxan with Demdike Stare, in association with Wire Magazine, click here. The screening takes place at 7pm in NTF1, BFI Southbank, Friday 13 December. Tickets cost £15 full price – concessions are available.
Win! Win! Win!
To win a pair of tickets to Häxan with Demdike Stare, email the correct answer to this question to firstname.lastname@example.org with “Haxan” in the subject line by noon on Wednesday 11 December 2013.
- Which American writer provided the voiceover for Häxan’s jazzy 1968 re-release?
The winner will be chosen at random and notified by email. Good luck!