Paul Merton is probably the most high-profile silent film fan in the country, with a book, a stage show and a series of documentaries on comedy under his belt. And now he’s back, on BBC 2 no less, with a three-part series of programmes about the early days of the American films industry – Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood.
The first programme will focus on DW Griffith, the beginnings of the star system and the relationship between music and silent film. There’s a very jolly introduction to the series on Paul Merton’s official website here, and some musings about making the documentaries on the BBC site here. You’ll be pleased to know that Neil Brand is involved too – he’s written the title music
Merton clearly has a great passion for the subject, and I couldn’t be more pleased to see documentaries on early cinema airing on one of the major channels. What would be great, of course, would be a screening of a silent film or two after the programme, but it looks like that is not to be. Better luck next time, chums.
Merton appeared on Danny Baker’s radio show on Saturday to promote the show and their 10-minute chat is well worth a listen on iPlayer, if only for the infectious enthusiasm the pair have for the subject. Follow the link here, and fast-forward to an hour and five minutes into the programme.
Paul Merton’s Birth of Hollywood begins on BBC 2 at 9.30pm on Friday 27 May 2011.
For the vintage-lovers among you, this exhibition should be a real treat. Pam Glew’s Beautiful and Damned exhibition at Blackall Studios in east London uses vintage fabrics and techniques to create poignant but gorgeous images of silent movie stars. It’s only on for a few days, so catch it while you can:
‘Beautiful and Damned’, the shows title, is of course taken from F. Scott Fitzgerald’s 1922 novel, which explores the listless lives of moneyed society during the Jazz Age. This captivating era, drenched in glamour yet tinged with tragedy is the decadent setting for this extraordinary series of work. The exquisitely beautiful movie starlets, society icons and characters on display capture the spirit of the age all who are caught in the unforgiving glare of the limelight and some sadly burn out before their time. As Pam states, “the tragedy amongst the beauty is what has inspired this show, the sharp contrast between a blessed life and one that ends in scandal, hedonism or destitution”.
We regret to announce that this live performance is cancelled. Unfortunately key members of Yat-Kha have experienced problems with obtaining visas to visit the UK and are unable to reach London in time. We will screen a new high definition restoration of the film, that includes a live soundtrack performed by Yat-Kha at the National Film Theatre in 2001. Please note, the film will run 145min.
Ticketholders will also be able to enjoy a complimentary vodka cocktail (upon presentation of ticket to benugo bar staff), courtesy of season supporters Ivan The Terrible Vodka.
Tickets now at normal ticket price. Ticketholders who no longer wish to attend or ticketholders who wish to attend but would like to have the difference refunded, should contact the Box Office in person or by phone (020 7928 3232).
There’s a new film club in west London – Ealing’s Classic Cinema Club, which plans to show great movies from around the world every Friday night. They’re launching themselves in fine style, with a brace of silent films: Chaplin’s City Lights and Fritz Lang’s Metropolis.
From sentiment to science-fiction, that’s two very different silents, and this will be a great to watch some wonderful movies as well as an opportunity to meet fellow film fans in an area rich with its own cinematic heritage. First, the world-famous Ealing Studios are just down the road; second, I took Film Studies A-level at the local sixth-form college. OK, maybe I didn’t think that one through properly.
The following week, on 27 May, the club will show Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible (1944), which should be a fine accompaniment to the Soviet silents being screened at the BFI this month.
As ever, if your local film society is planning any silent screenings – do let me know.
City Lights screens on 13 May and Metropolis will be shown on 20 May, both at Ealing Town Hall. All screenings start at 7pm sharp and will be followed by a short discussion. Tickets cost £7.50 or £6 for concessions. Tickets may be reserved (but not bought) in advance by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org or phoning 020 8579 4925. Membership is also available at £5. More details about the club can be found here.
With thanks to @ianburge on Twitter for telling me about these screenings.
You can’t throw a plate in London this month without hitting a screening of a Russian silent film, what with Battleship Potemkin and the BFI’s Kino season, and the Barbican is getting involved too. The final episode in the cinema’s City Symphony strand is Dziga Vertov’s weird and wonderful Man with a Movie Camera. It’s a masterpiece of montage, with a whimsical sense of humour and a remarkable rhythm.
Dziga Vertov’s ‘city symphony’ creates a montage of daily life in Moscow (with some scenes shot in Odessa) and emerged as one of the most innovative and experimental films of the silent era. Stunning photography by Vertov’s brother Mikhail Kaufman depicts the pulse and energy of the city in the late 1920s, the people at work and play, and the machines that make the city tick. A landmark in avant-garde cinema.
The film will be shown on 35mm film, and will be accompanied by a live score from In the Nursery, a synth-based band from Sheffield which has soundtracked several silents. Here’s a review of their Man with a Movie Camera score from a performance in 1999.
Comprised of relatively lush, ‘intelligent’ techno, the music adds a contemporary feel to a film whose joyous celebrations of modernity in all its forms still seems fresh… Seeing the film for the first time, I found it almost overwhelming. Although In the Nursery’s techno is less ‘industrial’ than it could have been, its unashamed populism does Dziga Vertov proud.
Man with a Movie Camera screens at 4pm on Sunday 29 May 2011 at the Barbican Arts Centre. Tickets cost £10.50 or £8.50 online or £6.50 for members. You can buy them here.
This month sees the return of Brighton Festival, a three-week cultural feast, featuring music, theatre, comedy and more than the city’s usual share of jugglers no doubt. It’s a very high-profile event – Burmese activist Aung San Suu Kyi is the festival’s Guest Director this year, and she has recorded an inspiring message for the festival website, all about creativity and freedom of expression.
Therefore I am very pleased to say that early cinema is among the artforms represented at the seaside festival, most notably by a screening of Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc, accompanied by Adrian Utley and Will Gregory’s compelling new score. I was fortunate enough to see (and hear) this last week in London and it really is a tour de force, so please do attend the screening on 29 May at the Concert Hall if you can. Details here.
But it doesn’t stop there. Professor Heard will be setting up shop in the festival’s pop-up cinema, for two magic lantern shows on 16 May. First on the bill, at 7.45pm, will be the Old Curiosity Show, featuring “bearded ladies, alphabetical acrobats, prodigious pigs, baby juggling and curious cinema advertisements”. Then at 9pm the professor will return with a little something strictly for the over-18s:
A sniggerfest of artistic fluffing material. A prurient look at Victorian erotica, plus further examples of the way in which Victorian gentlemen and ladies got their jollies. Definitely not for children.
Also at the Komedia Studio, an intriguing short theatre piece called Asta Nielsen is Dead: a Silent Movie will use projections and captions to pay homage to the Danish actress:
Lady Pumpernickel and Miss Carrota interact with projected texts and images, using methods found in silent films. As in silent films the performers will suffer from the tragedies of love & attempt to escape bizarre and humorous accidents. At the end there is just one open question: Who is going to die?
If you haven’t seen Pandora’s Box (1929) before, I’m actually a little jealous of you. This film and its notorious leading lady are so irrepressibly gorgeous that your first viewing really should be a big-screen experience – and this is the perfect opportunity.
By the end of the 1920s Louise Brooks had had her fill of Hollywood, and Hollywood had pretty much had its fill of her. Lucky, then, that she caught the eye of German director GW Pabst and moved to swinging Weimar Berlin to take the lead role in Pandora’s Box. Brooks plays Lulu, a hedonistic dancer who pursues her own pleasure at the expense of bourgeois morality, or pretty much anyone’s morality, come to mention it. The role has come to define Brooks and rightly so. Who hasn’t, when watching Brooks shake her iconic bob, thought: “That girl could get away with murder”? Pandora’s Box puts that theory to the test like no other movie, and Brooks’s sensual performance radiates here – even as events take a series of sinister turns and the film transforms from a backstage comedy, to a thriller, to something approaching horror.
Keep an eye out for your chance to win a pair of free tickets to Pandora’s Box next week, here on Silent London
Pandora’s Box screens at the Prince Charles Cinema on Thursday 26 May at 8.30pm. Live piano accompaniment will be provided by the marvellous John Sweeney. Tickets cost £10 or £6 for members and they’re available here.
Dir. Sergei Eisenstein, USSR, 1925, 71 minutes, cert PG
As the Black Sea foams and crashes into the shore, an intertitle describes the waves of revolutionary feeling sweeping Russia in 1905, and the 55-piece orchestra swells into action. Sergei Eisenstein opens his classic film Battleship Potemkin (1925) with an adroit combination of image, word and music – which we can now experience here in Britain for the first time.
So much is fresh to UK audiences about this 86-year-old film resident on countless Greatest Ever lists and pored over by generations of film students. First, there’s the original orchestral score written by Edmund Meisel and a handful of reinstated shots, some of which were excised from the unforgettably tense Odessa Steps sequence. Not only this, but the film has been beautifully restored, and the title cards recreated according to the director’s wishes. The language is stronger and more socialist than before. It’s bolshier.
Eisenstein’s second feature film is all about solidarity, as it tells the story of a mutiny aboard the eponymous battleship. A group of sailors refuse to eat soup made with rotten meat, and face a firing squad of their peers, but the spirit of comradeship intervenes as the crew rise up against the senior officers – and proudly hoist a bold red flag as they sail into Odessa harbour. On shore, the locals also support the sailors, with terrible consequences. The question is, will the rest of the fleet welcome the revolutionaries home, or follow the command to fire?
Because Battleship Potemkin is an appeal to fellow-feeling and collective action, it is only right that the restoration work creates a more immersive film, one that places no barriers between a 21st-century audience and its monumentally powerful imagery.
In this print, the maggots in the sailors’ dinner squirm in all their greasy glory and the splatters of blood on the Odessa Steps glisten, wetter than before and more gruesome. But it’s not all about horror. The sunlight glints sharply off the calm waters, or is diffused gently through the early morning mists. The scenes of small boats with white sails bringing supplies to the Potemkin are particularly gorgeous. That red flag is vividly, almost luridly hand-tinted red – as aggressively bright as the senior officers’ white trousers, in cruel contrast to the lower orders’ dingy uniforms.
The gloomy scenes below deck are free of murk, too, and we can pick out individuals in the massive crowd scenes. It’s perfect for tracing each extra’s individual path down those infamous steps, some trampling on bodies, and some stumbling over them as they fall.
Then there’s the score. Motoring through the film’s brisk 71-minute running time with a booming bass drum, the music is at its best mostly when it is bombastic. I liked the sustained woodwind sound before that first, fatal thrown plate, and the crashing percussion that announced the arrival of the cossacks. I wasn’t so convinced by the cracking sounds that synchronised with the gunshots, but soon these musical sound effects won me over. Occasionally the score tends towards jaunty, when perhaps it could have been tense, such as when the sailors dive off the Potemkin in an attempt to rescue a fallen comrade. But my qualms were swept away by the film’s final sequence: the music pulses faster and faster as the ship gains speed and prepares for battle, ratcheting up the tension superbly.
Battleship Potemkin, restored by the Deutsche Kinemathek, is on theatrical release from 29 April, screening in London at the BFI Southbank and the Curzon Renoir among other venues.
The Russians are coming to the BFI Southbank. In the year that sees the release of the restored Soviet classic Battleship Potemkin, the BFI is exploring Russian cinema with a seven-month programme: two months will be spent travelling through Russian cinema history, followed by a season of science-fiction and space documentaries, and a final season devoted to the director Alexander Sokurov.
Some of these films are very rarely seen, or at least very rarely seen on the big screen. That’s a polite way of saying that a couple of them are the kind of favourites that do come round fairly regularly. Which is not to say that you should give them a miss, but this is a good opportunity to see some Russian rarities, so pick your screenings wisely. Unless, of course, you plan to see everything, in which case I tip my (fur) hat to you.
It’s not all about Russia at the BFI in May. This L’Histoire du “Look” strand is dedicated to the development of visual style in the cinema, as part of the educational Passport to Cinema programme. Quite frankly, all six titles in this first part are worth a gawp, but we’ll restrict ourselves to the silents here – three gems, each shown three times, which should keep the BFI pianists busy.
The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920) is here representing the angular, dreamlike world of German Expressionism. The shifting perspectives of the scenery mirror the shifting narrative, where nothing is ever quite what it seems for long.
1 May 3.50pm/2 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/4 May 8.30pm
The Last Laugh (1924), directed by FW Murnau, is remarkable for being (almost) intertitle-free, allowing Karl Freund’s mobile camera and Emil Jannings’s powerful lead performance to to tell the story of a doorman who loses first his job and then his social standing.
4 May 6.10pm (with introduction)/5 May 8.40pm/13 May 6pm
Queen Kelly (1929) is known as a lost film, as star/producer Gloria Swanson walked off set one day, disappointed by director Erich von Stroheim’s less than wholesome interpretation of the Hays-approved script. Von Stroheim was sacked and sections of the film removed; it was later re-edited and completed as Swanson wished. However, the luxurious sets and glamorous costumes we expect from Von Stroheim are all present and correct – as is the melodramatic plot.
Update: The restored 1985 version of Queen Kelly will be screened, which has an orchestral score already, so there will be no live accompaniment.
2 May 3.50pm/9 May 6.10pm (with introduction and short animated film from NFTS)/21 May 8.45pm
All screenings except Queen Kelly have live piano accompaniment. Tickets cost £9.50 or £6.75 for concessions, and less for BFI members. They will be available on 4 April for BFI members and from 11 April for everyone else. More details on the website here.
This May, the BFI is offering a fantastic programme of silent film screenings. There’s the theatrical release of The Great White Silence and Battleship Potemkin, three German gems in a short season devoted to cinematic style and the first tranche in a monumental celebration of Russian cinema entitled Kino: Russian Film Pioneers. And this last strand announces itself with not one but two special screenings of Soviet classics with live scores.
First up on 5 May is Sergei Eisenstein’s The Old and the New, also known as The General Line (1929). This was Eisenstein’s attempt to celebrate the Soviet system of collective farming, but he broke off halfway through to make October, and the final film is more like an essay on the mechanisation of agriculture. Eisenstein’s montage editing, and somewhat suggestive imagery, elevate the film to something more exciting though. The film’s most celebrated sequence involves a cream separator – you can watch it at the top of this post. Really, there are no words. But you can see from that clip that the editing is rhythmic, almost musical.
No score was ever written for the film, but Eisenstein did write some notes, which have been lingering in the BFI archives all these years. Musicians Max De Wardener, Ed Finnis and the Elysian Quartet have constructed a score from these notes especially for this screening. This world premiere promises to be something very special – both of historical interest, and a thrilling combination of film and music too.
The second special event is on 20 May and has been curated by “live cinema” specialist Marek Pytel. It’s a screening of Vsevelod Pudovkin’s epic Storm Over Asia (1929) accompanied by Yat-Kha, a throatsinging rock band from Tuva, which is in the south of Siberia and borders Mongolia. The film, sometimes known as The Heir to Genghis Khan, tells the story of a Mongolian herdsman, Bair, who fights with the Soviets against the occupying British army. Bair is captured by the imperialists, who come to believe that is descended from Khan and try to use him for their foolish ends.
Storm Over Asia has been restored to its full length from the original negatives, and Yat-Kha’s music, described as “brooding, growling and earthy” should provide a contemporary but wholly sympathetic soundtrack.
The Old and the New accompanied by Max De Wardener, Ed Finnis and the Elysian Quartet screens at NFT1 on Thursday 5 May at 7.15pm.
Storm Over Asia accompanied by Yat-Kha screens at NFT1 on Friday 20 May at 7.15pm.
An eerie filmed record of Captain Scott’s tragic journey to the South Pole, The Great White Silence (Herbert Ponting, 1924) was rightly acclaimed as a highlight of last year’s London Film Festival. The print had been restored to great effect: allowing us to see the vivid tints of the original film, and the Archive Gala screening featured a performance of Simon Fisher Turner’s intriguing minimalist score, which incorporated the Elysian Quartet, “found sounds”, and a haunting vocal from Alexander L’Estrange.
His part-improvised score includes some pre-recorded elements and Simon Fisher Turner has gone to great lengths to include relevant ‘found sounds’. The first was a gift from a friend, Chris Watson, who made a recording of the ambient silence in Scott’s cabin in the Antarctic. Fisher Turner has also recorded the striking of the Terra Nova ship’s bell at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. He has even managed to track down the expedition’s original gramophone to play some of the records which were played by members of the expedition.
If you have satellite TV, you may have recently caught the documentary on the small screen, but if you missed it, never fear, you have plenty of chances to catch it on the big screen in May and June.
First off, there will a special screening of The Great White Silence, with a recorded version of the score, at BFI Southbank on 18 May 2011, followed by a panel discussion led by Francine Stock, which will take the scoring of silent films as its subject – participants include Fisher Turner, sound recordist Chris Watson, plus Bryony Dixon and Kieron Webb from the BFI. The following weekend, there will be screenings nationwide of the film.
You want more? The Great White Silence will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray on 20 June.
The Great White Silence screens at NFT1 on 18 May at 6.20pm. The panel discussion will follow at 8.30pm. Tickets cost £13, or £9.75 for concessions and £1.50 less for members. They will be available from the BFI website.
The Great White Silence screens in the Studio at BFI Southbank several times throughout May and June 2011. The film will also screen at the Curzon Mayfair, Curzon Richmond and HMV Curzon Wimbledon, and at cinemas across the country including Broadway Nottingham, Cambridge Arts Picturehouse, Phoenix Oxford and Chapter Cardiff.
On Friday 20 May at 11am Bryony Dixon, BFI silent film curator, will give a talk entitled Films of the Heroic Age of Polar Exploration – The Restoration of The Great White Silence in NFT3. Tickets are free for over-60s, and usual matinee prices for everyone else.
At the Curzon Mayfair on Saturday 21 May at 4pm, and Curzon Richmond on Sunday 22 May at 3.30pm, Ian Haydn Smith will host an illustrated talk called The Great White Silence and Cinema’s Exploration of the World. Tickets are £12.50 or £9.50 for members at the Mayfair cinema and £11.50 or £9.50 for members at the Richmond branch. You can buy tickets here, on the Curzon website.
This blog is primarily, but not exclusively, about silent film screenings in London – but when there are festivals, exhibitions or special screenings elsewhere in Britain they deserve a place on these pages too. Which is my excuse for telling you about this show coming up in Lincolnshire in May.
The Kinema in the Woods is a former concert pavilion, which began showing films in 1906 and continued to do so until it burned down in a fire in 1920. Two years later the Pavilion Kinema was rebuilt as a purpose-built cinema, with a rear-projection screen and the Phantom Orchestra providing the tunes.
These days, the Kinema in the Woods (named for its rural location) is still running, showing current releases and classics in its gorgeous 1920s-style building. So what better place could there be to watch a 1920s film? Particularly a 1920s film set in a 1920s cinema? I am hugely pleased that the Kinema in the Woods will be screening Buster Keaton’s Sherlock Jr (1924) on Sunday 8 May 2011. It’s a beautiful, hilarious film about a projectionist who falls asleep in the booth and has a strange dream that he is a movie detective, prompting a series of fantastically inventive gags. Music will be provided by Alan Underwood on the Kinema’s Compton organ and a short film will be shown also.
You can buy tickets and find out more about this unusual cinema on the website here, and there is a particularly entertaining Twitter feed too.
Sherlock Jr screens at 2.30pm on Sunday 8 May 2011 at 2.30pm.