Tag Archives: John Sweeney

Tromsø Stumfilmdager 2022: An Arctic adventure in film and music

All silent film festivals are not the same. Tromsø Stumfilmdager in northern Norway is full of surprises. For one thing, it was the first time I have ever been offered, and gratefully accepted, earplugs before a silent movie screening.

But first of all, as we’re (mostly) Brits here, you’ll want to know about the weather. And boy was there are a lot of it. Tromsø is 69 degrees north, comfortably inside the Arctic Circle and yet in late April they often expect balmy temperatures of 5 Celsius or so, and clear skies. Not this year. As our pilot informed us en route, “winter has returned”, and we spent four days in the Arctic snow. A delightful Christmas-card novelty for us, but something of a drag for the locals who were looking forward to spring.

There was no escaping the weather on-screen either. The movies included the stories of a seasonal thaw, a woman driven insane by the desert winds, a serial killer operating under the cloak of city fog and a demon destroyed by sunlight. Ten points if you guess all of those titles correctly (although you could just check out the programme here).

The Verdensteatret in Tromsø – what a venue!

Tromsø Stumfilmdager (silent film days) has been running since 2006, organised by the same people who run the Tromsø International Film Festival in January and hosted at the absolutely stunning Verdensteatret, a “kinematograf” that opened in this town in 1916. There are two or three screenings a night over four days, although you might more properly call these events ciné-concerts, as the music and the musicians are just as important as the movies.

The film programme is pretty nimble too. My absolute highlight of the festival was a late addition to the programme, Mikhail Kaufman’s Kyiv city symphony In Spring (1929). This is the seasonal thaw film, as it tracks winter giving way to spring, the snow melting, the rivers bursting, the city stretching and opening out to the sun. It could hardly be more bittersweet to see Ukrainian people enjoying their city, strolling in the sunshine, several decades ago. Are some of the plump-cheeked babies in this film alive to bear witness to the horrors of today? It’s just about possible, but chilling to think about.

In Spring was scored at the festival by two incredibly talented Ukrainian musicians, Roksana Smirnova and Misha Kalinin, who claim they are just getting started in silent film accompaniment, but you’d hardly guess. Smirnova’s piano followed the film closely, while Kalinin’s electric guitar provided an eccentric collection of melodies and noises that expanded the soundscape. I really didn’t want this one to end, and I hope we get a chance to see Smirnova and Kalinin play for this film or another in the UK soon. This is a film as much about the Ukrainian people fighting to reclaim their city from the travails of winter as the natural transition of the seasons – a breathtaking experience in 2022 or any other year.

Terrible picture of the cinema’s beautiful interior.

The other films were not new to me, I admit, but I soon realised that the musical choices are what makes this festival distinctive. The Lodger (Alfred Hitchcock, 1926) was accompanied on the festival’s opening night by modern Nordic jazz outfit Wako – a loose, melodic score that at first I felt could never quite fit, but then I realised that this is a film of awkward encounters and misapprehensions, and the sharp corners of this music rubbed against the film in interesting ways. Definitely a score compiled to fit the mood rather, or the “vibes of each scene” as the band put it, than the narrative. An experiment that mostly worked.

We were in sure hands for Erotikon (Gustav Machaty, 1929), with John Sweeney at the keys, wringing the romance out of this compelling tale of lust, loss, and sexual entanglement. It’s a dark and sensual film, and seems to be operating on a logic that is more instinctive and musical than verbal anyway, so Sweeney’s tender melodies swept the audience right through the melodrama to the wonderfully ambiguous conclusion. It left me in a daze. Sweeney is something of a regular at this festival, which shows impeccable taste on behalf of the festival curation team, I’m sure you’ll agree.

I was more or less jolted right out of that swoon with Buster Sledge and Kjetil Schjander Luhr’s country-tinged, rattling and rolling accompaniment for The Wind (Victor Sjöström, 1928), starring those two Silent London favourites Lillian Gish and Lars Hanson (AKA Large Handsome). The western flavour of the tunes lulled us into the scene-setting as our Virginian heroine finds herself isolated on the Texas prairie, but I wasn’t quite prepared for the intensity of the music for her mad scenes. It was every bit as wild as the star’s performance, which is to say 120%, at least. Gish may be trotting out some familiar tricks and mannerisms from her earlier films here but in the thick of it, there’s no one to match her for dragging the audience into the depths of her unhinged psyche. Such a beautiful, strange and disconcerting film.

Festival poster thawing!

There were a couple of films I missed in the programme due to touristing and to one being rescheduled due to illness, so we can cut now to the closing night already, and a packed hall of keyed-up stumfilm spectators passing round bowls of earplugs in preparation for the arrival of the deathbird himself, Count Orlok. Closing night film Nosferatu (FW Murnau, 1922) was accompanied by a drone metal/doom rock super group of sorts who called themselves The Nosfera 4. Whoa. Driving metal drums, eerie drone electric guitar, and a pulsing, relentless melody sent this screening into a kind of gothic overdrive. Friend, I thought I knew this film backwards and I have seen it with many different scores, but this was the scariest Nosferatu I have ever encountered. I jumped! Twice.

Tromsø Stumfilmdager may not already be on your radar, but this is a silent movie festival that really knows how to rock. And to prove it, the afterparty was shared with the Sami arts and culture festival that had been going on all week in Tromsø. A female Sami DJ collective spinning indigenous music, a sweaty dancefloor and giddy visuals – what a way to end a week of meteorological magic at the top edge of Europe.

10pm in Tromsø. Goodnight!

Q&A: AKA I just got back from a silent movie festival, AMA.

Is the festival all in Norwegian?

Short answer, no. The films are all presented in English, with English subtitles and introductions/musician Q&As. One event showcasing Norwegian archive films was in Norwegian and so was the short intro to Nosferatu, but this is a very accessible festival for anglophones.

So is it an international festival?

Yes, although surprisingly few Brits. We need to change that. It’s a very welcoming event and a trip to this part of the world is totally mind-blowing. This is a small festival, so it’s really friendly and the cinema bar is a great place to hang out and meet your fellow stumfilm fans.

How do you get to Tromsø?

Personally, we flew from Heathrow, changing planes in Oslo, with SAS. Very smooth journey, even landing in the snow. And I can recommend our hotel, the Scandic Grand, especially if you get a room on the top floor – what a view!

Snow you say… It’s in the Arctic! Is it really cold?

Not as cold as you might think. We arrived in a “trick spring” where it had been sunny, but the snow had suddenly returned for a couple of weeks. So it wasn’t as warm as it usually would be, around freezing point every day. However, with such bright sun and a nice warm cinema and lots of cafes to hang out in, I was never really chilly. Just be careful on the ice, though the pavements are mostly clear.

I took this picture while standing on a frozen lake. And lived to share it on my blog.

Does the sun ever set?

Sure, but not for long. And the five or so hours in which it is down at this time of year are mostly a combination of twilight and dusk, so yeah, make sure your hotel room has good blackout curtains if you want to kip.

Is Norway very expensive?

Yep. But there are lots of supermarkets in town where you can pick up cheaper snacks and you can’t beat the 50Kr hotdogs (reindeer, pork or soya) from the kiosk in town for a quick hot lunch. Airbnbs are available and you can hang out/use the Wi-Fi in the library (a very cool building) for free, too.

Do I need to dress up like Roald Amundsen to get around?

OK, I’m not your mum, but thermals and sunscreen are a good idea. Even though we had snow every day, I got by with walking shoes, jumpers’n’jeans, and a big coat. Not to mention my snazzy pink festival beanie. Even out in the fjords.

What is there to do when the films aren’t on?

Tromsø has lots of museums and if you’re into winter sports you will be in heaven with the opportunities to ski and sled etc. Our highlights were a trip round the local fjords, a ride on the cable car, the Perspectivet Museum (devoted to local author Cora Sandel), and the essential tour of Mack, the world’s most northerly brewery. A more low-key suggestion? Grab a coffee in the gorgeously retro Kaffebønna and take a window seat to watch the snow fall and the world go by.

C’mon, did you REALLY need earplugs for the Nosferatu soundtrack?

Yes my friend, I really did. The festival slogan isn’t Not So Silent for nothing.

Making new friends in Norway.

Hippfest is back in Bo’Ness for 2022

Hippfest returns! You don’t know how happy it makes me to think about watching silent films with live music at the stunning Hippodrome in Bo’Ness.

The festival is held from Wednesday 16 to Sunday 20 March and the full toothsome lineup just dropped, as they say. Here are a few highlights, some of which have been postponed from the sadly cancelled 2020 edition. I am so ready.

  • The Dodge Brothers accompany FW Murnau’s City Girl on Saturday night – this is the Scottish premiere of their brilliant score for this incredible, jaw-dropping Hollywood silent.
Continue reading Hippfest is back in Bo’Ness for 2022

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 7

This is my tenth Giornate, which means I have graduated from newbie, all the way to novice, but also that I have been present for a quarter of the festival’s history. This is the 40th Pordenone Silent Film Festival – an annual celebration of silent cinema that began with a short retrospective of Max Linder films at Cinemazero in 1982, viewed by around eight people. Tonight in the Verdi, it seemed like every other seat was taken for a rendez-vous with Linder.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 6

Pordenone 6

Unprecedented scenes in the Teatro Verdi tonight, as the audience of customarily meek silent film enthusiasts stamped their feet, booed and exclaimed “outrageous!” “Close the curtains!” and “Down with this sort of thing!” But more reports on the incident the papers are calling the 2021 Giornate riot later.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2021: Pordenone Post No 6

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

The last night of Pordenone is always bittersweet – the fun is over for another year. There are bags to be packed and it’s time to make one’s journey home, marathons and rail strikes permitting.

The same melancholy accompanied the closing of the 39th Limited Edition, but there’s a note of triumph too. The online version snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, you might say. Fewer films, of course, and none of the bonhomie that brews in the Verdi and the Posta, but something else. A celebration of the global silent film community.

The Giornate welcomed twice as many accredited delegates as usual this year. Many of those will be people who can’t usually travel to Italy, but perhaps there are some among them who might visit for the first time in person next year – the dates are 2-9 October 2021 people, mark it in your diaries. The Limited Edition has been a great advertisement for the real deal.

Day Eight

Three things I can’t resist: a film about a ballerina, a Nordisk romantic drama from the early teens, and accompaniment by John Sweeney. So although I had an elsewhere to be on Saturday, I raced home to catch up with Balletten Datter (Holger-Madsen, 1913). German dancer Rita Sacchetto, known for her Tanzbilder dance interpretations of famous works of art, plays Odette, a feted ballerina who gives up the stage to marry a count. But the footlights are calling, and jealousy is festering between her titled husband and her dance director …

The absolute highlight was a solo scene in which Sacchetto plays dressup in her old stage gear in front of the mirror. A joyous diva moment, thrilling acted and deftly staged of course. This was, I fear, a silly film. But I loved it and the Danish Film Archive is to be credited for its recent swath of first-rate digital restorations, and for making them so accessible in this of all years. Sweeney, of course, did us proud with a film that swung between on and off-stage sequences – he made it all feel like a dance.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 6

Norma Desmond reckoned the silents didn’t need dialogue. But she never came to the Giornate. This may be a silent film festival but it’s good to talk. And listen. So I spent about as much time listening to people chat today as I did watching them mouth words. And yes, today did mark the return of benshi artist Ichiko Kataora to Pordenone with the Japanese silent Chushingura (1910-1917). So there is a method to this festival madness, I promise you. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 2

It was a day for film stars in Pordenone today: from the contract players lining up to do studio promo in this morning’s Films on Film programme to Ita Rina the Slovenian tragedienne in the Estonian drama Kire Lained at the end of the night. But when I consider all the stars shining brightly in the Verdi today, I have to confess, my heart belongs to William S.

Tonight’s evening screening was devoted to the western star William S Hart, kicking off a whole strand devoted to his peculiarly soulful machismo and hearty horsemanship. Before the feature we had two short films. One was a talkie clip from 1939 with Hart introducing his final film, Tumbleweeds (1925) and lamenting, it seemed, both the decline of the old west and the passing of his days as a western star. Only slightly less poignant was a silent fragment of Hart on a promotional tour of New York in 1919 and, so the intertitles told us, pining for the frontier lands. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 2

The Silent London Poll of 2018: The Winners

January is a time for looking forwards, not back, right? That’s just not the Silent London way. With immense thanks to all of you for voting and sharing in the 2018 poll, I am delighted to announce your silent film highlights of the past year.

PFWF spread

  1. Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2018

It arrived late in the year, but hotly anticipated and was everything we wanted it to be. Kino Lorber’s magnificent Pioneers: First Women Filmmakers box set is your favourite release of the year. And mine too. Check out selected highlights from the set on UK Netflix now.

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  1. Best Theatrical Release of 2018

Never let it be said that there is any kind of bias in this list – but the BFI’s release of Pandora’s Box, in a gorgeous new restoration topped your choices this year. And of course I wholeheartedly agree.

  1. Best Modern Silent of 2018

Slim pickings in this category, but an overwhelming number of you got creative and chose John Krasinski’s held-breath horror A Quiet Place in this category. I see what you did there and I like the way you think.

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2018: The Winners

A weekend with Lois Weber: silent movies at the 2018 Cambridge Film Festival

Festival season is upon us. There’s Pordenone, of course, and London and also the Cambridge Film Festival all in October. A trip to the fenland city is very appealing at this time of year – and all the more so with a tempting selection of silent films.

The star of the slate is Lois Weber, one of the very best American silent film directors. And Cambridge will be showing four of her films over the weekend, all with live music. One of these in particular, The Blot, is rarely shown, but I think it’s very special indeed. Kevin Brownlow says that you won’t find a better film for showing you how life was really lived in the 1920s. That’s very probably true, but I think that inadvertently undersells it. There is a lot more to the film than its realism. It’s a real heartbreaker, and a nuanced drama too.

Lois Weber calling the shots
Lois Weber calling the shots

Continue reading A weekend with Lois Weber: silent movies at the 2018 Cambridge Film Festival

Buster and beyond: silent comedy at the 2018 Slapstick Festival

More silent film goodness to look forward to in 2018, and this time a little closer to home.

The 2018 edition of Bristol’s Slapstick festival takes place at venues across the city centre from 25-28 January and tickets are on sale now. If you’re not familiar with this event let me tell you how it breaks down. Funny films. Funny people. That’s it, really. The Slapstick Festival celebrates the tradition of visual comedy on screen, beginning in the silent era. And it invites famous comedians to present and share their favourites, as well as a host of experts and the best silent movie musicians in the business.

So next year, silent comedy fans can look forward to:

Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)
Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen (1929)

  • The Silent Comedy Gala at Colston Hall on Friday night will be hosted by Tim Vine. The headline film is the superlative Sherlock, Jr, accompanied by Charlie Chaplin’s A Dog’s Life and Angora Love, starring Laurel and Hardy. The Buster Keaton feature will be accompanied by the world premiere of a new, semi-improvised score composed by Günter Buchwald and performed by the renowned European Silent Screen Virtuosi and members of Bristol Ensemble. A Dog’s Life features Chaplin’s own composition for the film and will be performed by a 15-piece Bristol Ensemble conducted by Buchwald.
  • Comedian Lucy Porter introduces two screenings of female-led silent comedies at the Watershed Cinema: Betty Balfour in The Vagabond Queen, and Constance Talmadge in Her Night of Romance. Porter is great at these intros, both knowledgeable and passionate, so don’t miss these. Music by John Sweeney too.

Skinner's Dress Suit (1926)

  • Someone else who is rather good at introducing silent movies is Kevin Brownlow, who will introduce a lesser-known film, Skinner’s Dress Suit, starring the brilliant Laura La Plante and Reginald Denny. Piano accompaniment by Daan Van den Hurk.
  • Meet the Austrian answer to Laurel and Hardy, Cocl and Seff, with a screening of some of their rarely seen work at the Watershed, with music by Stephen Horne and Elizabeth-Jane Baldry.
  • And there will be a chance to see even more rare films at a screening called Lost and Found, in which collector Anthony Saffrey and historian David Robinson will present some recently rediscovered silent comedies, from André Deed (AKA Foolshead) Marcel Perez, Max Linder, Karl Valentin and more. Music will be provided by Elizabeth-Jane Baldry and Daan Ven den Hurk.

Continue reading Buster and beyond: silent comedy at the 2018 Slapstick Festival

Silent films at the Cambridge Film Festival 2017: the movies men yearn for

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.

Ivan Mosjoukine in The Loves of Casanova (1927)
Ivan Mosjoukine in The Loves of Casanova (1927)

 

 

The Cambridge Film Festival runs from 19-26 October 2017. Read more here.

 

 

Watch, read, repeat: Pandora’s Box at the pictures

A few weeks ago I brought you news about a release date for my book on Pandora’s Box. In that post I also promised you some news about opportunities to see the film too. Here we go …

In case you are wondering, this is the correct order of business, in my humble opinion: watch the film, then read the book, then watch the film again. Repeat as required and enjoy!

So I have a few dates and venues confirmed, where you can come along, watch the film, with an introduction or Q&A from moi, and if you feel so inclined, buy a copy of the book (very reasonably priced, lots of pictures). It would be great to see some Silent Londoners in the audience. As more dates are arranged, I’ll add them to this post, but as ever, pay attention to the Silent London social media channels to get the breaking news.

So far, ALL these screenings are 35mm projections with live musical accompaniment. Because if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. And seeing Pandora’s Box on the big screen is definitely a thing worth doing.

  • 19th November 2017: NFT1, BFI Southbank, London: 35mm projection, introduction, live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney, book launch. Book tickets here from 3 October on.
  • 24th November 2017: Cube Cinema, Bristol: 35mm projection, introduction, live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney. Book tickets here.
  • 3rd December 2017: Phoenix Cinema, Finchley, London: 35mm projection, introduction, live accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Book tickets here.
  • 10th December: Eden Court, Inverness: 35mm projection, Q&A, live accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Book tickets here.
  • 28th January 2018, Home, Manchester: 35mm projection, introduction, live accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Book tickets here.

 

 

There are at least two more dates to be announced and yes, they are further north than these three. Watch this space for details …

 

 

 

In praise of La Maison du mystère and the silent serial

 This is a guest post for Silent London by John Sweeney. John Sweeney is one of London’s favourite accompanists, composing and playing for silent film and accompanying ballet and contemporary classes. He researched and compiled the music for the Phono Cinéma-Théatre project and is one of the brains behind the wonderful Kennington Bioscope at the Cinema Museum. His score for Lois Weber’s The Dumb Girl of Portici will accompany the film on its forthcoming DVD/Blu-ray release this year.

The Silent Serial is perhaps the least watched of all the great silent film genres. Yet they were hugely popular: from about 1910 most studios produced serials, or their close relative, series (serials keep a plot going over the course of all the episodes, series have self contained plots in each episode but a common cast of characters). Some of the most famous are The Perils of Pauline (1914) and The Exploits of Elaine (also 1914), both starring Pearl White as the heroine struggling against assorted villains, The Hazards of Helen (119 episodes!), and in France Louis Feuillade directed the wonderful Fantômas (1913), followed by Les Vampires, Judex, Tih Minh, Barrabas and Parisette.

Fantômas (1913)
Fantômas (1913)

Continue reading In praise of La Maison du mystère and the silent serial

Back in Bo’ness: the 2017 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

Thwack! Did you hear that? It’s the sound of the latest Hippfest programme landing on the digital doormat. I’m a big fan of Hippfest, a welcoming event, with an ambitious, highly entertaining, lineup of screenings and a frankly beautiful venue. If I could, I’d turn the Scottish thermostat up a couple of notches next month, because this southern softie will be back in Bo’ness for the festival, which runs from 22-26 March 2017, and takes place mostly in the town’s gorgeous vintage cinema, the Hippodrome.

As the schedule is announced today, that means the tickets are on sale already, and if something here catches your eye, book as soon as you can – Hippfest screenings can, and very often do, sell out.

nell-shipman

So what’s on offer this year? The first day is devoted to female film pioneers, a subject close to my own heart: with a talk from film expert Ellen Cheshire, and an evening screening of Nell Shipman’s The Grub Stake (1923), with a brand new score from Jane Gardner and an introduction by yours truly. Read more about the amazing Nell Shipman here.

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

Thursday afternoon brings a Chinese double-bill – a lecture on the women of Chinese silent cinema by Professor Paul Pickowicz, and a screening of the BFI’s revelatory archive compilation Around China with a Movie Camera, introduced by composer Ruth Chan. On that subject, watch out for the Saturday afternoon screening of an unmissable Chinese silent, The Goddess (1934) starring Ruan Lingyu as a mother in a terrible predicament, with music by John Sweeney.

Continue reading Back in Bo’ness: the 2017 Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 7

Most people come to Pordenone in October for the silent films. Many come for the networking. Others for the music. Or the gelato, or the Aperol Spritz. But when those attractions pall, they say, you can also hop on a train and go to Venice. The idea horrifies me. Sure you could see St Mark’s Square, and meet a handsome gondolier. But think of the early cinema you would miss.
Still, even if you don’t take such a hard line as I do, Friday presented an innovative solution. Why leave town at all, when Venice can come to the Teatro Verdi? In honour of 120 years of cinema in Venice, a short programme of Lumière shorts offered us a leisurely drift down the canals. Then Max Reinhardt’s Eine Venezianische Nacht (1913) offered Commedia characters and whimsical comedy, as a nerd spends the night in the floating city and becomes infatuated with an ethereal bride, although sadly the narrative did not flow as smoothly as the canals. I really enjoyed the dream sequences, especially a neat setup whereby the local characters danced around the scholar’s bed, thanks to the magic of double exposure. But in this case the music, from a Trieste ensemble, didn’t seem to help.

blue-jeans-viola-dana-john-collins-1917-2

And we deserved a little light sightseeing, after an emotional day, which began with a melodramatic double-bill. First, our customary voyage to the dark side of human nature in a Who’s Guilty? short featuring Anna Q as a jealous wife. Very little mystery in this one, but there was a novelty for the audience, as the Giornate’s two masterclass students took to the piano to share accompaniment duties. Jonathan Best and Meg Morley both did the drama proud, and we are very lucky to have both of these talented musicians playing in the UK.

Then one of my most highly anticipated screenings of the festival: the well-known stage drama Blue Jeans (1917), rendered for the screen by John H Collins and starring the wondrous Viola Dana as a tomboyish orphan caught up in a complex small-town intrigue. There was a lot of plot and back story to pack into the 84-minute running time. It is really the kind of film where you might draw a diagram on your ticket stub in the café afterwards to make head or tail of the marriages and feuds etc. Disturbing to some of us also, that in the local elections, our hero stood for the Conservatives and the villain for the Liberals – but of course the baddie won that battle. Anyhoo, this one is well worth seeking out, if only for the famous climax at the saw mill when said hero narrowly escapes a haircut. Viola Dana to the rescue! And Donald Sosin’s music was just right, with a recording of Joanna Seaton singing a song inspired by the play adding another layer of nuanced dramatic Americana to the screening.

The rest of the morning was a delightful patchwork, the kind the Giornate excels in. A programme of French comic shorts directed by Emile Cohl, accompanied by Stephen Horne in suitably bonkers fashion on a plethora of instruments, included some wild animation, and surreal live-action comedy. Hugely inventive and almost impossible to describe in this space, but do take the chance to see these charming oddities when you can. Hopefully with Mr Horne and his bag of tricks.

THE DOVE (US 1927) United Artists/Photofest
The Dove (1927), Directed by Roland West, Shown from left: Gilbert Roland, Norma Talmadge United Artists/Photofest

The final slot of the morning was crowned with two curios from the William Cameron Menzies strand. An early sound film, The Wizard’s Apprentice (1930) was a trick-photographed forerunner to the more famous Walt Disney version with matchstick brooms sloshing tiny tin buckets. And the four reels remaining of The Dove (1927) were hot-blooded comedy drama, with the gorgeous duo of Norma Talmadge and Gilbert Roland offset by the leering machinations of Noah Beery as the self-aggrandising local Caballero. Before both of those, we met our friend Momotaro the peach boy from yesterday, this time on an underwater adventure to assassinate a shark. Brilliant fun.

EROTIKON (SE 1920) © AB Svensk Filmindustri
EROTIKON (SE 1920) © AB Svensk Filmindustri

The evening’s show promised great things. Erotikon? Erotic con more like. Yes, this Mauritz Stiller comedy could happily have been about 20% funnier, and no, there were not erotic thrills to be had on screen. Not by 2016 standards, at least. The main disappointment for me was realising that I had actually seen it years ago and what I thought was a me-premiere was in fact a retread. But it is a fine film, after all. A professor of entomology and his flirty wife seem to be headed for the skids because of her “infidelity”, but perhaps missus is not as bad as she has been painted? Maybe she is in love? Maybe the doddery professor has moved his fancy piece into their homestead under her nose and on false pretences? This Swedish sex comedy is lightly sparkled like the local prosecco and and was pleasingly open-ended. I was silently screaming at the end “C’MON, what is the real deal with that niece?” at the end. A grownup comedy, if not a totally hilarious one, and we were delighted to have John Sweeney’s witty accompaniment for this tale of crossed wires and mistaken glances.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2016: Pordenone post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1

Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien
Romeo und Julia im Schnee (1920) Filmarchiv Austria, Wien

The town was like a loaded gun, needing only a spark to set it off – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

“It’s the last time I shall say it, so I shall say it,” began David Robinson, introducing what is surely not his final Giornate, but the last over which he will preside as artistic director. The Robinson era will close with the 34th Giornate del Cinema Muto, which looks on paper at least as if it will be a very special festival, with a jewel-studded programme. And he hands the baton to the surest of hands: the marvellous Jay Weissberg of Variety, who joined him on stage tonight by way of introduction, and performed as Robinson’s personal interpreter too. We said another goodbye on Saturday evening  – this festival will be dedicated to the memory of one of its staunchest supporters, Jean Darling, who passed away in early September. A snippet of her singing Always at a previous festival began our gala evening, as Robinson took to the stage to say… what was it? Ah yes. “Welcome home!”

But before we get to the gala, and the speeches and the changing of the guard, we have a full afternoon of films to catch up on. Fasten your seatbelts, fellow Pordenauts*, we’re going on a journey.

Our world tour began with trip to Berlin – this was not classic Symphony of a City territory mind, but a visit to Gypsy Berlin – from the camp to the racetrack to the streets. Terrifying to think what lay in store for the people featured in this film, Grossstadt-Zigeuner (1932), but it was a true gem, directed by the Constructivist Laszlo Moholy-Nagy with great verve and edited with playful intricacy. Despite its many stylistic flourishes, it’s a warm, humane portrait, and served as an excellent introduction to the main feature in this afternoon’s bill from the Other City Symphonies strand. The longer film was a document of Chicago, made by a German film-maker Heinrich Hauser in 1931. Weltstadt in Flegeljahren. Ein Bericht uber Chicago (A World City in its Teens. A Report of Chicago) carried itself at an unexpectedly relaxed pace, puttering up the Mississippi on a paddle steamer for the longest time before reaching the metropolis, and even then, we moved slowly, until the film suddenly discovered the residents of the city. It was heartbreaking to see the poverty caused by the Great Depression, etched in the faces of men being turned away from labour exchanges. When workers unloading banana boats at the dock empty the rotten fruit into the river, another group of men in row boats appear to scoop them out of the water. Elsewhere in the city, too, on the south side in the streets largely populated by African Americans, on the lake beach bursting with sun worshippers, Chicago was defined by its people, not its towering skyscrapers. Hats off too to Philip Carli, for fantastic piano accompaniment for both films.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 1

British Silent Film Festival 2015: Leicester letter No 2

Not For Sale (1924)
Not For Sale (1924)

Get it together, people! We’re only on day two of the festival and it seems a collective mania has already descended. Call it camaraderie, call it cinephilia, call it cabin fever, but there was a feverish mood on Friday, for sure. I won’t criticise something that I admit I was part of but we should all know that somewhere the ghost of Ivan Mosjoukine is raising an immaculately painted eyebrow in our direction. He’s judging us, but silently, of course.

So the residents of Leicester may have heard wicked cackles emanating from the Phoenix art centre on Friday morning, because there were laughs a-plenty to be had, for the right and wrong reasons both. Forgive me for taking the films out of sequence, but I would like to introduce you to the second film first.

As I took my seat for Not For Sale (1924) I was whispering under my breath “Please be good, please be good …” And it was. This film is an out-and-out joy, with a classically British delicacy in its sentiment, humour and satirical bite. Those good vibes I was sending out were partly due to sisterly pride: the script is by Lydia Hayward, who wrote the H Manning Haynes adaptations of WW Jacobs stories that have so delighted previous iterations of this festival. I suppose I wanted a little more proof that she was crucial to their success. And Not For Sale, which is adapted from a novel by author and journalist Monica Ewer, provided it. This is a charming comedy, with an elegant structure, strongly written characters, sharp dialogue and yes, even a skein of feminism woven into its fabric. Toff Ian Hunter is slumming it in a Bloomsbury boarding-house run by the kind-hearted Anne (Mary Odette), and they fall in love … gradually. But when he offers a proposal, sadly he shows he has not left his old world and its shoddy values behind him. The central couple are adorable, but it’s the supporting characters (Anne’s lodgers, her rascally little brother and her theatrical sister) who make this a real ensemble treat. Plus, we had beautiful piano accompaniment from John Sweeney, so we were feeling incredibly spoiled. It boils down to this: the plot is preposterous but the characters, by and large are not, and so it has a grace and a truth often absent in romcoms …

The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
The Rocks of Valpre (1919)
Or romantic dramas, such as today’s opening act The Rocks of Valpré (1919), a Maurice Elvey directed adaptation of an Ethel M Dell novel. The plot, the characters and even the location (Torbay doubles for coastal France) were all preposterous here. I couldn’t really understand anyone’s motivation: it was all rash promises, damaging misconceptions, wild coincidences and needless noble sacrifices. Nice to see Basil Gill again, here playing a younger man: one with a “European reputation” who “has an intimate knowledge of men” and who still gets the girl at the end of the story. Certainly it’s pretty, but not enough to distract me from the flaws I am afraid. I chuckled, and I sighed. Fair play to Elvey – this is the only existing film from his Stoll period, when I am reliably informed he was “churning them out” out a rapid pace and the problems in the film do mostly stem from the source novel. Still, it’s enough to make one throw one’s violin off the terrace and fall into a swoon, it really is.

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In praise of the Kennington Bioscope: London’s silent speakeasy

Tol'able David (1921)
Tol’able David (1921)

London is the best city in the world for silent cinema. OK, so maybe I should admit to a little bias, but really, between the BFI Southbank, the Barbican, the London Film Festival, the Phoenix cinema in Finchley, and the capital’s many film societies, rep cinemas, arthouse cinemas, orchestras, concert halls and festivals (including the many visits of the British Silent Film Festival, the Fashion in Film Festival and the recently departed Birds Eye View Film Festival) we are sitting pretty for silents. Whether it’s a symptom or a cause I don’t know, but we also have many of the world’s best silent film accompanists based right here in the Big Smoke.

It’s in this context that in the summer of 2013, two of London’s fabulous silent film musicians, John Sweeney and Cyrus Gabrysch, set up a “silent speakeasy” called the Kennington Bioscope: “a silent cinematic event dedicated to the rediscovery of forgotten masterpieces”. Since then, they have been creating silent cinema magic in South London on a regular basis. The Bioscope is cinephilia at its best – if you’ve been, you’ll know what I mean. If you haven’t been, you are missing out, and I am about to make you jealous. I can’t let another Bioscope go by without telling you all how amazing it is.

The KB (as I have never yet heard one person call it) is held once every three weeks at the Cinema Museum – a volunteer-staffed Aladdin’s Cave of cinematic memorabilia and ephemera. There are more than a few reasons why you voted this place as your favourite silent film venue of 2014. It’s a wee bit like a time machine, whisking you back to a more sedate era of cinemagoing. There’s always an interval, ushers may well be wearing natty uniforms, someone will undoubtedly strike a gong to prompt patrons to take their seats, and the adverts before the screening will remind those assembled of the proper etiquette required. Tickets, which cost just £3, are made of cardboard and ripped off a reel. Most important of all, the projection booth is staffed by an expert projectionist, showing films of all shapes and sizes as often as possible.

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London Film Festival 2014: the silent review

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

The Goddess | Why Be Good? | On With The Dance | The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands | Damn the War! | Experimental cinema | The Tribe

Silent film screenings aren’t like other movie screenings. For one, there’s no shuffling out, or chatting during the credits. In fact, there is a distinct order to proceedings: the final card indicates “The End”; the music stops; there is a brief hush; and then, applause. But at the screening of Chinese classic The Goddess (1934) during this year’s London Film Festival, one member of the audience broke ranks. While everyone else in the Queen Elizabeth Hall caught their breath, in that precious pause between the lush orchestral music and the thunder of appreciation, a gentleman behind me forgot himself, and punctured the silence. “Wow,” he gasped. And who can blame him?

The Goddess (Shen Nu) was, is, a masterpiece, a terrible tale told with great humanity and capped by a staggeringly powerful performance from tragic star Ruan Lingyu. She plays a prostitute, a “goddess” in Chinese slang of the time, who does what she does because she has another mouth to feed at home, her cherished infant son. The scenes in which we see Ruan at work, soliciting, are obliquely shot (shadows, feet, meet at sharp angles), but still somehow bold. Perhaps that is because we are shown her as a mother, a neighbour first, and the reality of her job is a touch too tough to comprehend. And at the beginning of the film, it’s clear that she keeps her work separate from her home life. But one day a venal gambler (Zhizhi Zhang) moves in to her house, and lays his hands on her earnings. And then the gossips begin gossiping and it becomes horribly obvious that the Goddess’s plans to give her son a better life are in jeopardy. Ruan’s beauty is almost more than the film can handle at times, but her performance is deftly nuanced and terribly soulful. The joy on her face when she sees her son succeed at school, her horror when she realises the trap she has fallen into: I am haunted by both of them.

While I know I am not the first to acclaim The Goddess, audience opinion was divided on the new score written by Chinese composer Zou Ye. It was undoubtedly beautiful, in fact for some it was too lyrical, but it drifted away from the film at times, missing the cues and shifts in tone that it should have been more alert to. When Ruan skips home with a brand new toy for her son, happy to be free at last, the music expresses her joy and liberation wonderfully. But that same tune continued over the heart-in-stomach lurch when she spots a hat on the table, and the whip pan that reveals the Gambler standing triumphant in her new flat.

Nothing to quibble about with the restoration though: the film looks gorgeous, clean and bright. I want, need, to see it again.

Why Be Good? (1929)
Why Be Good? (1929)

And I would happily snap up a ticket to see Why Be Good? (1929) once more, especially as Colleen Moore’s life story, and this film, offer such a fine balance to the tragedy of Ruan Lingyu and The Goddess. Moore was quite the perkiest creation ever to appear on screen (her character’s name in this confection is aptly, if bazarrely, Pert Kelly). With her sharp bob and expert comic charm, she was the flappiest of flappers and a huge silent star. And while her career may not have prospered in the sound era, her finances did. She is a happy example of a silent star who invested wisely and lived comfortably until a ripe old age, hanging around long enough to appear in Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood TV series for example.

Sadly, however, the films she left for safekeeping in the studio archive were not so well cared for, so the chances to see her work are few and far between. Why Be Good? is a happy recent discovery and restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone Project and the Bologna labs. All of the Vitaphone discs for Why Be Good? were salvaged, so this silent film has continual sound: music mostly. I confess I was a little wary of the prospect of a running soundtrack of jazz tunes, but I was wrong to worry. The songs are carefully chosen and as well as some mundane sound effects (clattering dance steps, bells and whistles), there are some nifty sound-design jokes, including a comic scene in which two drunken sots “sing” and pound on a car horn.

As to the movie itself, Why Be Good? is a far more likeable rendition of Synthetic Sin, which showed at Pordenone this month. Colleen is a dance-loving shop assistant, who likes to ham it up as a fast-living flapper when really she’s a good girl through and through. When she falls for the boss’s son (a rather deramy Neil Hamilton) he can sense this instantly, but once their respective fathers start meddling the scene is set for hilarious and heartbreaking misunderstandings. Featherlight fun, with a feminist twist (no, really) and Moore is as sweet and smart as the jazz age scene-setting is seductive. Apparently Jean Harlow is in there among the extras. I well believe it, everything in this film looked too gorgeous for words.

Speaking of which, Why Be Good? was preceded by a delightful colour short called On With the Dance (1927) in which Josephine Baker herself and many lesser-known, un-named chorus girls take to the stage. Baker’s dance is labelled the Plantation  – after the club, and no doubt the other thing too. She’s wonderful, but it’s a little uncomfortable to watch her dancing in dungarees and rags. Anyway, a real treasure from the archive this, and the following scenes of chorus lines spinning through dances ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous are notable for their splendid colour and kooky camera angles. The closeup of a bewildered punter, his sweating face superimposed with a kaleidoscope of high-kicking legs, was hilarious. Very The Pleasure Garden … And of course, this sort of thing is always better with John Sweeney on the keyboard, so we were very much in luck.

Continue reading London Film Festival 2014: the silent review

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 8

City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S
City Lights (1931) © Roy Export S.A.S

By now, I think we agree that the global capital of silent cinema is Pordenone, and Charlie Chaplin is its patron saint. It was surely fitting that our last glimpse of the Giornate, on the capacious screen of the Teatro Verdi, was the little feller himself, in extreme close-up, at high risk of having his heart broken, smiling to the end. City Lights, our gala screening tonight, is not my favourite Chaplin feature but that doesn’t mean it didn’t have power enough to sweeten the end-of-the-festival blues. Rumours that certain of the delegates are likely to be found curled up in Piazza XX Septembre like the Tramp himself come Sunday’s dawning were unsubstantiated as we went to press …

The Last Edition (1925)
The Last Edition (1925)

Speaking of which! I can’t wait a moment longer to to tell you about my most hotly anticipated movie of the Giornate. We all have our foibles, and as a newspaper journalist of increasingly long years, I do like a flick about the inkies. The Last Edition (Emory Johnson, 1925), freshly restored by EYE and the San Francisco Silent Film Festival, promised much joy for the unbridled newspaper geek. Shot on location at the offices of the San Francisco Chronicle, and with its full collaboration, this hotheaded movie is actually a rather clear portrait of the newspaper production process – from commissioning desk to printing press. Mostly the printing press. I was a bit bemused by the moment when the printer turns the masthead and headline upside-down on a plate that has already been made, just by turning a handle. Huh? But I loved the “rush the extra” sequence (“We’ve got eighteen minutes to change the story. C’mon boys!”), which follows the process of swapping in new copy at the last minute from the reporter filing to the copy desk, the typesetters and on to print. I’ve been there myself, with slightly different technology, but the same adrenaline, many a time. Although, needless to say, there were no female journalists in The Last Edition. All stonking if rather rough and ready and a fantastic picture of San Francisco in the 1920s too. I have no earthly idea why they needed to jazz up all this fascinating typesetting material with a plot involving gangsters, corruption and a massive fire at the newspaper office, but I may be slightly biased.

I should mention that The Last Edition was preceded by a 1912 Thanhouser short The Star of the Side Show, about a young “midget”, who refuses to marry the neighbours’ boy, also short-statured, so gets signed up for the carnival instead. It is described in the catalogue as “a prototype for Tod Browning’s Freaks, only more endearing”. That about sums it up. A tricky film to love but another fabulously expressive performance from Marie Eline, the Thanhouser Kid in the lead role. No, in case you’re wondering, she was just a little girl …

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 8