Tag Archives: Mark Cousins

Dispatches from lockdown: BFI Japan, Women Make Film and other stories

The first rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club. The second rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club because Blog Club doesn’t exist. But if there were more rules, and indeed a club in the first place, round about number five I reckon would be this: “Don’t write a blogpost apologising for having not posted in a while.” Why? Because people have more important things to think about? Probably. But also because in this case it’s not hard to guess why I haven’t been Silent Londoning so much. We’re all in the same boat. But only I am in blog club. Because I made it up. And frankly even I haven’t paid my subs in a while.

This post, however, brings you NEWS. So let’s begin.

  • Japanese silents to come. The BFI’s new blockbuster season for 2020 was to be Japan: Over 100 Years of Japanese Cinema. And it still is. Instead of launching the season in cinemas and then transferring it over to the BFI Player, and Blu-rays etc, the BFI is flipping the model, shifting the paradigm and generally “doing a 2020”. So the season has begun in the digital realm, and while we are promised benshi screenings in the future (yay!), for now there is a feast of Japanese cinema to enjoy on the BFI Player, including one of Ozu’s best, the silent film I Was Born, But … (1932). To be fair, this one was already on there, but you need no excuse to watch it. It’s perfect. Treat yourself. And watch out for more to come. Also forthcoming are such archive treats., including gems from “the BFI National Archive’s significant collection of early films of Japan dating back to 1894, including travelogues, home movies and newsreels, offering audiences a rare chance to see how European and Japanese filmmakers captured life in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. I’m intrigued!

  • Women Make Film. Next Monday sees the launch of Mark Cousins’s epic 14-hour documentary about female filmmakers, Women Make Film. It’s an alternative history of cinema, entirely peopled by brilliant, creative and often sadly forgotten women. If you’re a silent cinema fan (and just on a limb here, but I reckon you must be), this story may sound familiar, but Cousins and his researchers have gone deep, and there is plenty here that was new to me. Read Kate Muir’s great piece for the Guardian to get a flavour of what’s involved. Then sit back, stream and prepare to have your mind expanded. Refreshingly, it’s not chronological, so even silent film purists will find points of interest throughout: look out familiar names such as Germaine Dulac, Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché, Paulette McDonagh and Olga Preobrazhenskaya. The whole thing is going up on the BFI Player in five blocks, starting on 18 May.

  • Silent cinema watch parties. They are everywhere. Ben Model’s Silent Comedy Watch Party has been enlivening Sunday afternoons (his time) and evenings (ours) for a few weeks now. And now the Kennington Bioscope has opened its YouTube channel and its first silent film and live music screening was a roaring success. Subscribe for more: their next screening is Wednesday at 7.30pm. The Netherlands Silent Film Festival event on Friday night was a blast too, making the most of the live-chat facility. Belgium’s Cinemathek is doing something on Thursday afternoons. Frankly I am astonished, heartened and tickled pink by the ingenuity, and the hard work that goes into these.
  • More streaming silents than you can shake a stick at … You will not run short of films to watch. The perspicacious Silent Film Calendar site is posting a link to an online silent every day. The Cinémathèque Française, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and more are all uploading silents for you to watch online, making old posts like this rapidly obsolete. I am a big fan of the Eye Filmmuseum YouTube channel, specifically its Bits and Pieces strand.

  • Cancellations and postponements. Not such happy news here. Sadly Hippfest has had to cancel its postponed October event, though San Francisco Silent Film Festival is still promising us a raincheck in November. Il Cinema Ritrovato says its festival is postponed (dates TBA) and Pordenone promises an announcement by the end of the month. Perhaps we have to come up with a snappy way to say it’s very sad, but we understand and we support the organisers in their new plans while appreciating how very difficult it is for them and everyone involved. Or just to say that, with proper pauses for breath, because we really mean it. Love to all our festival friends.
  • The Fall is on Mubi. Watch Jonathan Glazer’s horror short here, and and read my review from last year here.
  • From the Department of WTF. The Neural Networks guy keeps upscaling early films, and at this point it is just funny to me. The Roundhay Garden Scene!
  • What have I been up to in lockdown? Lots of things, some of which I sadly can’t share with you yet, including a BIG EARLY FILM THING I can’t wait to share. But do sign up to Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin, if you haven’t already. And the second edition of my Pandora’s Box BFI Film Classic comes out on 28 May, if the previous artwork had not persuaded you, perhaps. I have been on the radio a bit, recording from home, and this show was particularly good fun. You can find me on this box set talking about Jean Arthur too.

 

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Stockholm My Love: an intimate City Symphony

Mark Cousins’ new film is a City Symphony, he says, citing many of the classic early examples of this particularly silent genre, including Berlin: Symphony of a Great City, Rien que les heures, but also later, more complicated urban hymns such as Woody Allen’s Manhattan, or Jean-Luc Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know About Her. I’ve added the director’s credits in the later works because those films move away from the collective City Symphony format, offering a distinctive filmmaker’s own view of a place, adding in a story those focuses on individuals instead of the modern, urban mass. So does this one.

Cousins’ Stockholm My Love, like those films, breaks some of the ‘rules’ of the City Symphony: there’s a single subjective perspective, and a fictional narrative. Our guide to the Swedish capital is Alwa, an architect and academic, pacing around her home city while she comes to terms with a traumatic event that took place on these streets a year before. Alwa is played by Neneh Cherry, a starry figure, who nevertheless offers a restrained, often quite still performance. It doesn’t distract us from our view of the city that a famous singer is standing in front of it. This is not her film, so much as it is Cousins’.

There is sound too, although this film was largely shot silent, with Cousins coaching Cherry live through her performance like Griffith and Pickford, sometimes, he says, even holding her hand during the close-ups. At the Q&A after the screening I saw at BFI Southbank, he quoted Fellini, saying that he made a visual film, and then added a radio play on top of it.

In the soundtrack there is music, three sets of it. New, gorgeous, tracks from Cherry, with lyrics by Cousins; folk songs written by Benny Andersson (from Abba); and Swedish classical music by Franz Berwald. Most notably, though, there is a voice-over. Alwa describes the city around her, talking directly to her father (who may have passed away), to a man called Gunnar who is linked to the traumatic event a year ago, and to the city itself. Cherry speaks naturally, sympathetically, and quietly but full of compassion. However, this narration belongs almost wholly to Cousins. He has such a distinct written and spoken style (you’ll remember his epic cinema documentary The Story of Film) that it is impossible not to recognise him in the rhythm of these words. Writing about Stockholm My Love, I almost feel that I am echoing his rises and falls. Cousins-speak has seeped into my brain.

Continue reading Stockholm My Love: an intimate City Symphony

The Story of Film – and Orphans of the Storm, September 2011

Orphans of the Storm (1921)
Orphans of the Storm (1921)

Mark Cousins’s epic 15-part documentary The Story of Film: an Odyssey begins this Saturday, at 9.15pm on More4. This promises to be an excellent series, with Cousins roaming far and wide to put together a history of cinematic innovations and achievements. The early episodes obviously hold the most interest for us, and people who have seen the first instalment tell me it’s a must-see. Episode one explores the birth of the medium, from the development of techniques such as close-ups to the first movie stars and the early picture palaces. Episode two takes us into 1920s Hollywood and the golden era of comedy, with Keaton and Chaplin.

Filmed in the buildings where the first movies were made, it shows that ideas and passion have always driven film, more than money and marketing.

The series’s scope is wider than just American films, though, and if you had any doubt as to whether Cousins’s heart is in the right place, check out his new tattoo:

I know what you’re thinking – it would be great if Channel 4 could schedule some silent films to accompany these early episodes. What’s the point of telling people about Chaplin, Griffith, Dreyer and Eisenstein if we can’t watch the movies themselves? Well, there is a glimmer of hope. In the week following the first episode, Film4 will be showing Griffith’s French Revolution epic Orphans of the Storm (1921), starring Lillian and Dorothy Gish. The film will be screened at 00.50am on Tuesday 6 September (set your video) and again at 11am on Thursday 8 September.

A little update, courtesy of a helpful commenter below – Film4 will also be showing Battleship Potemkin later in the month – 19th and 22nd September to be precise. More of this please, Film4!

Meanwhile, if you’re enjoying what Mark Cousins has to say about silent cinema, and you live in or near London, watch this space for news of screenings with live music in the capital.

The Story of Film: an Odyssey screens on Saturday nights on More4 and is repeated throughout the week.

I tip my hat to @LondonMovieLoon on Twitter for alerting me to the screening of Orphans of the Storm. Much appreciated.