Silent Londoners are an erudite group, and no doubt we’re all regularly found in halls of academe, talking loftily of theories and histories, of books and poems and one-reel Snub Pollard movies. But even though we’re such scholars, we could all do with a trip to Cambridge this month to complete our silent film education.
The Cambridge Film Festival is one of the best regular film festivals in the country for silents, and this year, the programme of early film is full of surprises, and wonderful music. Here’s what you should be looking out for.
How to relate five days of silent and early sound cinema in a pithy blogpost form? I have honestly no idea, but here goes …
The best film on Wednesday
A small choice here, cos I am selecting only from the evening screening of Edgar Allan Poe shorts at St Mary de Castro church. The rest of the day was devoted to papers. This was a wonderfully atmospheric night event though, with the candlelit church forming an eerie backdrop to the (non-German) Expressionism on the big screen. I am going to plump for a British effort – Castleton Knight’s Prelude. This is more or less Eraserhead in seven short minutes, with disquieting images proceeding across the screen motivated by a spooky kind of dream logic. And the accompaniment was sublime – John Sweeney playing Rachmaninov’s Prelude (of course) behind the screen.
Just one silent film was shown on Thursday, and I have made my feelings about Pat and Patachon clear elsewhere, but today would have almost certainly been carried by a talkie anyway. I had heard a lot about Walter Summers’s Suspense (1930) but I wasn’t prepared for just how devastating it could be. We’re in the thick of the First World War, but happily in a “posh trench, with a clean dugout and a cushy job” when the soldiers begin to hear Germans laying mines beneath their feet. Something about the mood of the piece tells you early on that there will be no happy ending here. Eerily photographed and vibrantly acted by its ensemble cast, this a claustrophobic war epic confined into 81 minutes. There’s much enjoyment also in the dialogue, which, cleaned of actual swearing, becomes positively Shakespearean in its baroque ribaldry: “You do a mucky lot, you windsucker.”
The festival runs 13-17 September 2017 at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester and each day or five-day pass covers you for lunch as well as every screening on that date.The full timetable for the festival is online here. You can book here and let all your friends know you are attending by clicking on the Facebook event.
To get you up to speed on what to expect in Leicester, the festival* has been posting blogs on the festival site. Yes, silent film blogging is all the rage now. Here are all the posts so far:
The Barbican is marking the weekend’s 100th anniversary of the Titanic disaster with a moving event that combines live music with archive footage. Gavin Bryars’ The Sinking of the Titanic was inspired by reports that the ship’s string ensemble continued to play the hymn Autumn as the vessel sank; it was written in 1969 and first recorded on Brian Eno’s label Obscure. It will be performed in the Barbican concert hall by the Gavin Bryars ensemble with multimedia artist Philip Jeck.
The archive footage projections have been designed by film-maker Bill Morrison, whose work, including Decasia and The Miners’ Hymns, you may already be familiar with, in collaboration with Laurie Olinder.
Tickets for the event start at £15, but readers of this blog can enjoy a 20% discount when booking online. See the promotional code below.
Throughout the 72 minute piece Bryars and the ensemble weave refrains from Autumn with layers of Jeck’s sample-based materials, creating, at times, clamouring waves of sound that suggest the great engines and massive bulk of the vessel and the ocean that swallowed it. The result is a heart-achingly intimate and direct work.
The Sinking of the Titanic also features projection design by the internationally renowned Bill Morrison, who has commissioned work for some of the most important composers of his time, such as Steve Reich and Henryk Gorecki . Collaborating alongside Morrison is Laurie Olinder, multimedia designer, founding member of New York’s Ridge Theater with previous work being screened at some of the world’s most prestigious arts venues, such as Carnegie Hall, the Lincoln Centre and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Silent London readers can claim a 20% discount on tickets for The Sinking of the Titanic. Just enter promo code 15412 when booking online, at barbican.org.uk. The Sinking of the Titanic plays at the Barbican on 15 April 2012 at 8pm.
Read more about the earliest films of the Titanic disaster and about events to commemorate the anniversary in our guest post by Greg Ward here.
Decasia, Bill Morrison’s haunting 2002 tribute to film and its fragility, screens at the BFI Southbank in March, in an expertly matched double-bill with the terrifying, elusive The Fall of the House of Usher (Jean Epstein, 1928). Don’t miss.
The double-bill screens at 8.30pm on Sunday 4 March 2012 and at 6.10pm on Tuesday 6 March. Both screenings are in NFT2. The Fall of the House of Usher will have live piano accompaniment. The Tuesday screening will be introduced by Dominic Power, the head of screen arts at the National Film and Television School. Tickets will be available here.