Tag Archives: early cinema

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman – book review


It’s a commonplace that the cinema struggles to translate the scope and nuances of great literature. Conversely, fiction often fails to capture the joys and texture of the film experience. There are exceptions to both rules, of course, and Beatrice Hitchman’s Paris-set debut aspires to the latter form of bilinguality; to commute the strange pleasures of early cinema to the printed page.

The simplest but least effective way to go about this involves a lot of research and an evangelist’s joy in sharing knowledge. These pages are littered with Max Linder postcards, asides on the intricacy of in-camera editing and the (re)invention of the Latham Loop – but there’s more to Petite Mort than that. The geek in me delighted in this scene-setting, notably the flies swarming around the studio, but Petite Mort is most cinematic when it dispenses with the history lessons.

Hitchman’s classy prose reveals not just a film lover’s appreciation for the pictorial, but a photographic appreciation for the texture of light: “slanted light”, or “light that moves like treacle”. Naturally enough, Hitchman’s silences are also tangible. In one scene, a painful pause between two lovers transmutes a cinematic trope of romance into something far more disturbing: “The silence runs down from their joined hands and over them and spreads out over the carpet, blending with the sunset, which is unexpectedly fiery and distinct. They sit like statuary of a king and a queen, saying nothing to each other. Eventually the silence fills the whole house.”

Beatrice Hitchman

Petite Mort takes place in two distinct golden ages of French cinema. And these reels are clipped, cut up and spliced together in a way that immediately betrays the author’s experience as a film editor. In 1967 a journalist called Juliette investigates the rediscovery of a film from 1913; while in the earlier part of the century, country girl Adèle moves to Paris, finds work at Pathé and becomes romantically and fatally involved with a rich married couple. Juliette’s curiosity is aroused by the fact that the rediscovered print is still missing a section – a trick “doppelgänger” shot that made the film, Petite Mort, famous and may, she intuits, contain the secret of the murder trial that made its star, Adèle, notorious.

imageAnd Adèle has a doppelgänger of her own, her sister Camille, introduced as “a bright-eyed, sly duplicate of myself”. Doubles and duplicity abounds – from the multiple plotlines to that bold double entendre of a title and Adèle’s bisexual affairs. While Petite Mort builds to a whodunnit revelation, it’s these flashy patterns that catch the eye – just as that complicated ‘doppelgänger’ special effect is advertised as the highlight of the lost film. This diversionary tactic is perfectly in keeping with the novel’s cinematic contexts – both of them. Early film has been characterised by Tom Gunning as a transition between the “cinema of attractions” (trick films such as those by Méliès, or the absinthe fairies and ghosts conjured by Adèle’s lover André) and the “cinema of narrative integration” (bluntly, Griffith’s developments in storytelling across the Atlantic). However, as Vicki Callahan argued in Sight & Sound last year, the epic serials of Louis Feuillade (Fantômas and Les Vampires) from this era blur the distinctions between the two modes, following a “principle of uncertainty … a use of cinema that questions our understanding of the real”. Those early serials and their knotted narratives are evoked by Petite Mort in the two-timing, amateur-sleuthing plot, but also in the slippery, fused identities of our heroines. Callahan traces this tricksy approach to narrative cinema to the French New Wave and beyond (citing Rivette’s Céline et Julie vont en bateau (1974) and Assayas’ Les Vampires remix Irma Vep (1996)).

That Petite Mort incorporates a history of French film audacity into its sexy plot is a trick shot of its own. It’s an elegantly written, richly satisfyingly novel, and in its own distinctive way, utterly cinematic too.

Petite Mort by Beatrice Hitchman is published by Serpent’s Tail, RRP £12.99 as a hardback or ebook. Find out more.

In praise of early cinema: the theatrical and the cinematic

A Christmas Accident (1912)
A Christmas Accident (1912)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Chris Edwards, who writes the Silent Volume blog.

Being a silent film fan can marginalise you. Recently, I went to a screening of Alfred Hitchcock’s Dial M for Murder. Afterward, the cinephiles were discussing Hitch films they’d seen. “What do you think of the Hitchcock 9?” I asked them. “The Lodger’s pretty good.”


It’s better among fellow fans. We all skirt the periphery together. We talk about the great silent classics, arguing their places in the canon; we discuss the latest restoration, the newest score, the anticipated Criterion release date, or what a crime it is that there isn’t one. We hear about an obscure gem, and then can’t wait to see it.

But it is possible to be marginalised even by silent film aficionados. I have felt it. Because, while I love all silent film, I hold a particular affection for the very earliest stuff: films made from the late-19th century to about 1913 or so. Films that many silent films fans have no use for.

Well, that’s harsh. And it’s not quite what I mean. Many silent film fans do love these old curios; it’s just that few of us love them for their artistic merit.

Rarely do we hear anyone discuss a director from this period as an artist, or the works themselves as having any profundity. Brief, stiff, and broadly acted, these ancient movies are valued primarily as museum pieces. They’re notches on a scale of development from proto-film experiments through to “modern” film as we have come to recognise it. They’re assessed in terms of what they lack. And I’m telling you, we’re missing out.

Why do I think that? Because some of these films have left me with ideas to ponder. Not just ideas about the history of film or the paucity of technique early filmmakers possessed, but real ideas. Rarely do they convey these concepts literally. Rather, they express them through their unique mashing up of the abstract and the verisimilar – the theatrical and the cinematic, the fake and the real – whatever you want to call it. They say things in their own way.

I don’t have space to describe too many examples. But I will tell you about some of the features of these films which intrigue me. Though they’re often dismissed as weaknesses, these features can also, in the hands of an artist, become the means by which early films convey meaning.

One feature is flatness. Much as a stage can only push back so far, these films, too, exist mostly in a middle distance. Vistas are, for the most part, backdrops, and not very convincing ones. Almost all shots are medium shots. This flatness is coupled with a strong sense of boundaries—top and bottom, and especially stage-right and -left. This is your space, viewer.

(Vintage gamers will see a natural comparison here to early video games. Much as films evolved from theatre, video games have evolved from board games and pinball. The games of the late 1970s to early 1980s retained the primacy of the board or static plane. There was much action in games such Pac-Man, Yars’ Revenge, Berzerk, and Asteroids, but your avatar typically stayed in that box.)

Yes, the result feels old-fashioned. But flatness and boundaries aren’t simply limitations. They can create very interesting effects. When you’re conscious of a scene as a flat plane with defined boundaries, and the actors are somewhat depersonalised by medium shots, you start looking at set, action, and boundaries as a unified object. As you would look at a painting.

I was struck by this last year while watching A Christmas Accident (1912): a holiday parable about two families (one poor and giving, the other wealthy and miserly) sharing a duplex. I blogged about it:

Director Bannister Merwin pays close attention to the two halves of his frame … he splits the lower façade of the house exactly in two, dividing the centre of the frame with a porch pillar standing between the two front doors. The rear of the house has almost-identical doors as well, with a tall railing spindle marking the midpoint between them. Gilton [the miser] almost never crosses the midpoint … We’re not to see the halves of the house as parts of a literal object, but rather, as the world of sin and the world of righteousness; compartmentalised, but close.

The pillar and spindle were not only part of the scene, but part of the frame, separating the characters visually to make Merwin’s point. In this way, A Christmas Accident resembles a medieval painting more than a modern film.

You can do a lot with a good set. And you’ll typically do more if you don’t have the luxury of multiple camera angles, close-ups and complex tricks.

Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Georges Méliès’ Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

In terms of technical excellence and versatility, Georges Méliès’ sets have probably never been equalled. They’re seamless collections of pieces, each sliding into frame, perfectly timed, layer upon layer. They embed Méliès’ often-frantic actors in a fantastical world, pulsing with action. This world bears no more resemblance to reality than a comic strip does, mind you. But that’s a good thing.

Early directors’ near-indifference to aesthetic consistency is what I love most about them. I adore scenes of time-pressed people consulting clocks with painted-on hands; struggling to lift two-dimensional vases, and on and on. On stage, this kind of thing is a practical necessity, but in a film, it’s a choice.

It’s also a declaration of faith in us, as viewers. We’re people capable of merging these disparate levels of reality into one. Anyway, what’s so “real” about the environments we wander through every day – or the ones we see in most modern, live-action movies? Art and trickery is everywhere. These early films were just blunter about showing it.

The most powerful example of this I’ve seen occurs in His Majesty, the Scarecrow of Oz (1914). His Majesty is not a well-respected film; in part, I think, because it was made in an era when true cinematography was beginning to develop. But it is nevertheless a remarkable thing. Particularly for this scene:

[Mombi the witch] captures Gloria [niece of the King of Oz] and ties her to pillar. With an incantation she summons three other witches … and combines their powers with her own to create a cauldron-full of magic potion. Then … Mombi ladles the stuff over Gloria’s blouse. Mombi now cups her empty hand just below Gloria’s breasts. A heart (a stuffed heart in the shape of a real one) appears in her hand, and ices over. The now-frozen heart disappears, and Gloria’s capacity for love goes with it.

Wikipedia describes Mombi “pulling out her heart,” but that’s wrong. Nothing is pulled from Gloria’s chest.

Filmed in close-up, this scene represents a total dismissal of the boundary between literal and abstract – they co-exist in one cinematic reality, with limitless story-telling potential. I wish more films were like this. The closest modern comparison I can think of would be Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988), but even in that case, the human actors acknowledge the physical differences between themselves and the Toons. In His Majesty, the differences are forgotten.

Look at these old, old films, and you can see the potential of the medium. Every hesitant movement of the camera inward, every subtle gesture chosen by an actor, pointed the way forward. But if you see these movies only as first steps to something truly great, you’ll be missing a lot. I say some of them are truly great on their own – in their era, in ours, and in the future.

Chris Edwards

Phono-Cinéma-Théatre at Le Giornate del Cinema Muto

Cléo de Mérode dances Photograph: Cinémathèque française / Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Cléo de Mérode dances Photograph: Cinémathèque française / Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

This is a guest post for Silent London by Neil Brand.

Among the gorgeously designed pavilions on the banks of the Seine at the Paris Exposition of 1900 was a small, ornate theatre called the Phono-Cinéma-Théatre, which contained a screen and a small musical ensemble.  Across the screen moved the greatest actors, dancers, mimes and clowns of the day – they spoke, they sang, they moved to music provided by musicians playing live and they were often in exquisite, hand-tinted colour. Five years after the birth of cinema, film and recorded sound brought France’s finest theatrical artists to mechanical life for the lucky generation of fin-de-siècle Paris. It was ephemera among ephemera, Toulouse-Lautrec’s posters pulled aside to reveal the artists that inspired him, and, of course, not made to last – half a century of progress and war on an industrial scale would sweep away those films and the spirit of The Banquet Years, as well as millions of those lucky or wealthy enough to experience them, leaving the rest of us with just the books, the posters, a few photos … until last week.

Phono-Cinéma-Théatre poster. Photograph: David Robinson Collection
Phono-Cinéma-Théatre poster. Photograph: David Robinson Collection

On Thursday last the Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone, Italy, showed 23 surviving films of the 41 originally shot, most complete with their hand-colouring, many with their synchronised sound, almost all accompanied live by a small ensemble directed and arranged by John Sweeney. John had spent months finding as much of the original music to the dances and songs as possible, then rehearsed synchronising them to the pre-recorded singing and dancers’ steps, which were set in stone over a hundred years ago – the result was an astounding time-bridge that placed us all more viscerally in the Paris Exposition auditorium than any sound and image record could have done – the artists were now  performing for us, their movements driven by John’s piano, their eyes returning our gaze and their efforts aimed at pleasing us.

It was all so relaxed – Little Tich missed a catch with his hat but just picked it up and carried on as if nothing had happened, the odd dance step was fumbled, but unlike the stiff subjects of so much still photography of the time, our performers did what they did for the camera just as they had done on stage for years (in some cases decades), blissfully uncaring of giving a “definitive” performance or of the legacy of our critical response from an unimaginable distance of posterity.

Sarah Bernhardt fought Hamlet’s duel beautifully, despite her 56 years, and with the addition of Frank Bockius’s uncannily precise sword clashes on triangle; Emilio Cossira sang Romeo’s aria from Gounod’s opera silently, his voice reproduced by Romano Todesco’s single notes on accordion, the intent of feeling vibrant in his features and his genial return for a second bow – Mariette Sully wrung genuine comedy out of singing and dancing “La Poupée” and Cléo de Mérode, La Grande Horizontale to many of the crowned heads of Europe, danced in the way that had turned those heads in the first place.

Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Sarah Bernhardt in Hamlet Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

We found out what made 1900 audiences laugh, thanks to Jules Moy’s anarchic dancing master and Polin’s Troupier Pompette singing about, among other things, stroking a lady’s leg, wondering at the lack of resistance and, on raising her skirt, realising he is touching up the table leg. The entire 90-minute show was a triumph of 1900 and 2012 technology – I have worked with early film for 30 years, and never have I felt so privileged to see these wonders more clearly than any generation before, even the one for which they were intended.

Little Tich Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris
Little Tich Photograph: Cinémathèque Française/Gaumont Pathé Archives, Paris

Above all, I now feel I understand turn-of-the-century Paris with a profundity that was impossible before last Thursday night – its potency, its sexuality, within which the highest arts of performance were also the most immediately sensual and arresting, its gaiety and love of sensation, the vibrancy and diversity of its entertainments. The combined efforts of the Cinémathèque Française, Gaumont, Lobster Films, Olivier Auboin-Vermorel and the historical and aesthetic energy of Pordenone director David Robinson have brought not just a corpse but a memory back to life – theatre as film as theatre, a heady concoction only available through the medium of “silent film” – in London, the equivalent would be seeing a complete night at the music hall from 1900, in full colour and with synchronised sound – for now, London must get to see this show, preferably in the perfect surroundings of Hackney Empire where the artists can emerge from the proscenium arch of a Matcham theatre – but maybe after Paris has seen its own long-lost child, this November at the Cinémathèque Française – and, of course, John Sweeney and his ensemble will be there to assist at the rebirth.

Neil Brand

The Artist and Hugo clean up at the “silent Oscars”

It's Oscar!

Well, I think we can allow ourselves to enjoy the moment. Michel Hazanavicius’s The Artist has become the first silent film to win the best picture Oscar since Wings. It also carried away best actor (for Jean Dujardin), best director, best score and best costumes. Martin Scorsese’s not-quite biopic of Georges Méliès, Hugo, was the other big story of the night, winning the same number of awards, including heavyweight gongs for cinematography and art direction as well as three technical awards: best sound mixing, best sound editing, visual effects. I’d like to think it doesn’t take anything away from Scorsese to suggest that his awards were also a tribute to Méliès himself, in recognition of his beautiful, magic films.

We all know that Hollywood loves films about the movies, and there are those who love silent film who don’t necessarily love these two films – but there is no doubt that last night was a triumphant one for fans of the silent era. Let’s not forget that the Buster Keaton-inspired The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr Morris Lessmore triumphed in the best animated short category too. And the 2012 Academy Awards capped a joyous year in which early cinema was talked about more than it had been for years.

Here’s a quick look back at how it was reported on Silent London:

The Artist is announced for Cannes

The Cannes critics fall for The Artist

The Hugo trailer lands

The Artist: London film festival review

Hugo: review

I meet Uggie, star of The Artist

The Artist triumphs at the Baftas

What to watch when you have watched The Artist

Georges Méliès at the Ciné Lumière 4, 12 & 14 December 2011

Le voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)
Le voyage à travers l'impossible (1904)

Between Lobster films’s eye-popping restoration of the hand-tinted Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) and Martin Scorsese’s forthcoming Hugo, 2011 is a good year for remembering Georges Méliès – not to mention the 150th anniversary of his birth. To mark this auspicious time, the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Francais is celebrating the early French film-maker with three special events in December.

The first show, Classic Medley Méliès, is a Sunday afternoon matinee – a 90-minute screening of shorts to introduce the director and some of his best-loved films, restored by Lobster films:

This programme is a unique opportunity to watch what can only be described as a treasure trove of lost gems which were uncovered and lovingly restored by Lobster films. Explore the sublime realm of Méliès’ cinema through The Man with a Rubber HeadThe Magic Lantern or the colour version of The Devilish Tenant and discover his favourite themes: the moon, space, illusion and the comedy-burlesque.

Classic Medley Méliès screens at Ciné Lumière on Sunday 4 December 2011 at 2pm. To book tickets and to find out more, click here.
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Secondly, Ciné Lumière is offering the exciting opportunity to see the new restoration of the hand-tinted full-colour Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902) with its new soundtrack by the French group Air, who will also attend the screening.

Six scholars, members of the Astronomers’ Club, set off on an expedition to the moon. They travel in a bullet-shaped rocket fired into space by a giant canon. After arriving on the moon safe and sound, they meet its inhabitants, the Selenites, escape their king and return to earth in their rocket which, after falling into the ocean, is fished out by a sailor. Applause, decorations, and a triumphant parade for the six heroes of the first outer-space adventure in the history of cinema.

 The screening of Le Voyage Dans la Lune is at 6pm on Monday 12 December. Entrance is free, but you must book, via the Institut Français’s newsletter, which you can sign up to here.

The third show is an evening event, a ciné-concert in which a selection of Méliès films will be accompanied by composer John Garden, who earlier this year toured a semi-improvised electronic score to The Lost World (1925):
Accompanying the films will be an original score of electronic soundscapes which revive and celebrate the sense of magic, mystery and occasional menace that play at the heart of Méliès’ films. Experience silent cinema as never before
Georges Méliès Revival screens at the Ciné Lumière on Wednesday 14 December 2011 at 7pm. To find out more and to book tickets, click here.

From the Archives: Made in Barnet at the Phoenix Cinema, 18 September 2011

The Phoenix Cinema
The Phoenix as it used to look

It’s always a pleasure to visit one of Britain’s oldest and most beautiful cinemas – and what a treat also to see some early films on the big screen. As part of the Phoenix Cinema’s ongoing Century of Cinema celebrations, film historian Gerry Turvey will present a selection of films from the BFI’s archives celebrating Barnet’s pioneering film-makers. There will be work from Birt Acres and RW Paul among others – and what’s more, it’s all free.


From the Archives: Made in Barnet screens at the Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley at 2pm on 18 September 2011. Tickets are free but booking is essential, so call the box office on 020 8444 6789. For more information, visit the website.

Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder

Link: Capturing Colour: Film, Invention and Wonder

Serpentine Dance

Early Cinema Myth No 1 is surely that all silent films were black and white. It’s not true in the slightest, which is why we’re so keen to see this new exhibition in Brighton, which explores early attempts to achieve colour – from magic lanterns onwards.

We take the moving image in colour for granted, but the search for a way to capture the world in colour is a story of ingenious inventions, personal obsession, magic and illusion, scientific discovery, glamour, hard work and determination.

The Capturing Colour exhibition is at the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery until 20 March 2011 and admission is free.

Silent London is planning a field trip to take a look at the show later in the week – we’ll report back here.