This is a guest post for Silent London by Jonathan Wakeham, the co-founder and programer of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, the 6th edition of which takes place at BFI Southbank 4-7 May 2017. Find out more at locofilmfestival.com.
We’re all familiar with the iconography of male silent comedy stars: Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Chaplin’s cane or Laurel and Hardy’s signature hats. They are brands as recognisable as Hitchcock’s silhouette, and they make the same promise: a guarantee of entertainment.
But there’s no equivalent female brand: no icon that’s known the world over. That’s not because there were no women silent comedy stars. Women such as Louise Fadenza, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Sybil Seeley and more were big names in their day. Florence Turner — “the Vitagraph girl” — was the biggest box-office draw of her era, and arguably the first true movie star.
But although they drew huge audiences there was, from the beginning, a doubtfulness about women becoming comedy stars. Part of this came from a tradition that defined comedy as inherently male; the French philosopher Henri Bergson declared in 1900 that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion … highly emotional souls in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter”.
What if all your silent cinema dreams came true? What if they found those missing reels of Greed, or a pristine print of 4 Devils, and you had to admit you were disappointed? Say it isn’t so. But consider this: if 80% of silent films are lost, does that mean that silent cinephiles, by definition, are hooked on the chase, the thrill of forbidden fruit? There are so many films we will never get to see, and others that we see only rarely or in incomplete versions – perhaps we’re all addicted to the legend.
It’s worth thinking about at least, and it was at the forefront of my mind as I sat down early this morning to watch a preview of the digital restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon. Yes, that Napoléon, the version heroically pieced together by Kevin Brownlow and magnificently scored by Carl Davis. I have been lucky enough to see it once before, at the Royal Festival Hall in 2013 – before that, I was too skint to stump up for a ticket. It was amazing, and I will never forget the frisson I felt as the film began and I thought: “Finally, finally I am going to watch this thing!”
Now, something wonderful has happened. The film has been digitised, and the score has been recorded, so soon a digital, shareable, streamable Blu-rayable version of Napoléon will be out there – to play in a cinema, living room or desktop near you. So if you’ve never had the opportunity to see the gala presentation of this epic movie, with the full orchestra, glistening in 35mm, this digital version means that your luck could be about to turn.
However, if sitting down to watch Napoléon were just as simple as sitting down to watch Coronation Street – no dinner reservation, no train to London, no babysitter, no £40 ticket – would the thrill be the same? As I took my seat in NFT1 I began to worry that the sheen of Napoléon would have faded, but the truth is no, it has just shifted a little.
In the silent era, films were far more ephemeral than they are today. The fragile nitrate was unspooled for a few shows in each cinema that rented them, and then sent away, re-used, melted, left to crumble and decay or burst, suddenly, into flames. It was a time before retrospectives and archives and museums of the moving image. Now we see films in very different way. In the digital world, although the films seem to have lost their physical presence, becoming data streamed or downloaded on to screens of all sizes, they have the illusion of permanence. Central to this is the arthouse home video market, which packages films like books, as objects to be cherished, or maybe hoarded. A shelf full of gleaming Criterion Blu-rays is as imposing as a line of leather-bound novels – talismans of high culture and prized possessions. We don’t just watch films now, we expect to own them: explore them rewind and freeze and read around them.
Marcel L’Herbier’s Art Deco science-fiction drama L’Inhumaine is as much an art object as a film, and as such, it is the perfect Blu-ray movie. This glittering feature was designed to be admired from all angeles, its intricate and self-consciously beautiful design is the 1920s equivalent of 4K high-definition. I dare you to watch it without your finger itching for the pause button.
The inhuman woman of the title is a lady who knows a thing or two about being admired from all angles. Claire (played by soprano Georgette Leblanc) is an opera singer who lives in a stunning modernist home, which she opens to a select group of guests, a fawning salon of important men who jostle for her attentions. Everything about Claire’s world is both chilly and extravagant. The dinners she hosts are served at a dining table surrounded by an indoor moat. A drift of swans putter around the guest, more of Claire’s captives, but the only ones present who are indifferent to her beauty. When Claire hears that one of her admirers, Einar (Jaque Catelain) has killed himself after she rejected him, she experiences a slow awakening of her passions, and a more literal resurrection of her body, via a poisonous snake and an electric re-animation machine.
For Jacques Tati, diegetic sound is about as useful as headlights on a broom. He’d rather not illuminate anything with such a crude tool. Playtime, his masterpiece, is a work of brow-furrowing complexity in its design and structure, but a model of narrative clarity.
Amid the Babel of un-synched language spouted by its multiple characters, Tati tells us a story of a man, M Hulot, trying to negotiate a city, Paris, that doesn’t exist. Only Hulot (Tati, of course), and an American tourist, Barbara (Barbara Dennek) seem to notice that the steel and glass skyscrapers of the soaring sixties have hidden the real city, obscuring its landmarks and dividing its citizens. Tati goes to a business meeting, is diverted to a furniture show, meets an old friend who invites him home for a drink, attends the opening of a restaurant, meets a girl and loses her, all in the space of 24-odd hours.
Each twist in Hulot’s meander is a prompted by a mistake or misapprehension. His attempt to refuse to enter the restaurant shatters the door and he stumbles inside unwillingly. If I tried to explain to you why a German door salesman then ushers him further into the dining room I would expend many, many words to explain a labyrinthine incident earlier in the film that is played out in at least three languages, none of which needed subtitles at all.
Trust me, it was a wonderful moment. I felt that door salesman’s anger, his hostility, his sarcasm, his deep shame and his ingratiating warmth so deeply, because they were so strongly expressed, not because I translated “Dumbkopf!” in my head. The only skills you need to understand this film are patience and observation, which transparently makes my German GCSE barely worth the paper it is written on.
25 years after giving Un Chien Andalou a screaming chorus and a killer bass line to create Debaser, Black Francis of the Pixies has returned to silent cinema. While his latest endeavour is unlikely to rock your world in the same way that Doolittle did, there’s a little something here to entice fans of his jagged, surreal perspective. The Good Inn was written by Black Francis and Josh Frank, and its sublime illustrations are by Steven Appleby. A novel that occasionally borrows the form of a screenplay or a graphic novel, peppered with songs, intertitle cards and subtitles, this work is determined to be elusive. In the authors’ words, it’s “an illustrated novel, based on an in-the-works soundtrack, for a feature-length film that has yet to be made, about the first narrative pornographic movie ever made”. That all adds up to so much more than a mouthful, that it may well be a dog’s dinner.
With music, film history, cinema, and literature all vying for attention here, something had to give, and something has to shine. Hands-down, it’s the illustrations that carry the day here: Appleby’s diagrams, panoramas and visual gags elevate The Good Inn from messy indulgence to a book you may well want to treasure. As well as more conventional illustrations, Appbleby has provided annotated maps, visual gags, and charts to explain the passing of time, or the fallibility of memory. Without Appleby’s input, The Good Inn could be rather an ordeal.
You may notice the widget on the righthand side of this page, ticking down the days until this blog dispatches itself to Italy, to report from Le Giornate del Cinema Muto in Pordenone. We have many reasons to get excited about the arrival of the world’s most prestigious silent film festival. There’s the debut of the lost-and-found Orson Welles short Too Much Johnson, the premiere of a new restoration of The Freshman with a score by Carl Davis, Italy’s first glimpse of Blancanieves, an Anny Ondra retrospective, a programme of Swedish silents, more treasures from the Corrick collection, Ukrainian classics, Mexican rarities, a strand devoted to Gerhard Lamprecht and much more.
I had a smile on my face this morning, however, when I learned that a documentary co-directed by none other than a fellow classic/silent film blogger – the marvellous David Cairns of Shadowplay – will be showing at the Giornate. Natan takes a look at the controversial life of French film-maker Bernard Natan, and the various scandalous assaults on his name. Natan was a Jewish French-Romanian film produced, who was at one time the head of the Pathé studio. Financial troubles, antisemitism and allegations that he was a pornographer degraded his reputation in the industry. His story ends on an even darker note – he died in 1942, in Auschwitz.
Bernard Natan used to sign his films — literally, his producer credit was an animated signature inscribing itself on the screen. And then, as Natan’s reputation was destroyed and his company taken away from him, a lot of his films were shorn of their signatures. When the movies got re-released, it was considered embarrassing for their executive producer’s name to be seen. And during the Occupation, many Jewish filmmakers were quietly erased from title sequences.
Since then, Natan’s name has been restored to some of his films, and a few historians have attempted to restore his reputation. That’s the effort Paul and I hope to contribute to with our film, which should tell a dramatic and tragic story, shine a light upon some neglected corners of cinema history — but also help give Bernard Natan his good name back ~
The film has already shown at several festivals, including Edinburgh and Telluride – and it plays at Cambridge film festival this week. The Pordenone festival will also be screening a documentary about another French cinema legend: Musidora: la Dixieme Muse. The documentary, by writer and filmmaker Patrick Cazals, promises to trace the actress’s career right form the early days of Vampires and Judex, to her work in later life as a producer and director as well as at Henri Langlois’ Cinematheque, positioning her as a cornerstone of French cinema as much as a legend.
So that’s a nicely themed double-bill at Pordenone for us to savour, but French cinema pioneers are in vogue right now – you can’t have failed to miss the successful Kickstarter campaign for the Jodie Foster-narrated Alice Guy-Blaché documentary. It has been a massive campaign, conducted enthusiastically and cannily across social media. The line they have been using is that Guy-Blaché’s name is forgotten now because she has been written out of history by her male colleagues and successors. That may be true for many film fans, but just like Musidora, her name is already well-known in silent cinema circles – if Be Natural is to redeem her reputation, it must spread her fame to a far wider audience. While certainly impressive, Be Natural‘s 3,840 Kickstarter backers represent a drop in the ocean. The movie looks like it could be great though – and it’s the popularity of the documentary, rather than the worthiness of its intentions, that will return Guy-Blaché’s name to global renown.
Catch Natan at Cambridge if you can, or if you have already seen it or Musidora, do let me know your thoughts below. There’s a Variety review here. You can also like Natan on Facebook. I have to say, I am looking forward to all three of these films.
PS: I think Lady Gaga, for one, has been mugging up on her early French film – spot the Méliès refs and Musidora costumes in her latest video, Applause
Everyone’s favourite Oscar-winning silent film historian, the erudite and tireless Kevin Brownlow, is bringing his mega-restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon back to London later this year. You already have your tickets, right? Ahead of that screening there is a timely chance to see one of his finest silent film TV documentaries at BFI Southbank this July – introduced by the man himself.
All silent film fans are familiar with Brownlow and David Gill’s landmark 1980s series Hollywood, crammed with legendary interviews with silent film stars and film-makers from the US. The documentary showing at the former NFT is from the followup 1995 series focusing on the other side of the Atlantic: Cinema Europe. This episode, The Music of Light, is all about French Cinema – and in particular the genius and ambition of Napoléon director Abel Gance.
The screening is paired with Barrie Gavin’s 1967 TV documentary The Movies: The World of Josef von Sternberg, which also features a contribution from Brownlow.
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.”
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.
And 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.
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 Head, The 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.
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.
Pierre Loti’s novel Pêcheur d’Islande combines realism and impressionism as it explores the hard life of Breton fishermen who risk their lives to catch cod in Icelandic waters. The tragic air extends as far as the novel’s love story, a romance between a sailor, Yann and a young girl, Gaud, who meet at a party. Gaud is in love with Yann, but he is also in love with the sea …
In 1927 the novel was adapted for the screen and directed by the Jacques de Baroncelli, a Frenchman who had made many films in the silent era. Pêcheur d’Islande was shot on location in Brittany, and the landscapes both on land and at sea are magnificent. It’s a rarely seen film, and so you’ll be very happy to know that its forthcoming London screening will be introduced by – Kevin Brownlow. Not only that, but Neil Brand will provide piano accompaniment.
Pêcheur d’Islande screens at the Ciné Lumière at the Institut Français on Tuesday 11 October at 6.30pm. Tickets cost £10 or less for concessions and are available on the Institut Français website here.