This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Project Fear Blogathon. Happy Halloween!
“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”
That’s the motto attached to Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is also one of the inspirations for an utterly disturbing new dialogue-free film. Jonathan Glazer’s The Fall (2019) screened on BBC2 on 10pm on Sunday, unannounced in the listings, and at a selection of cinemas across the country. It’s a scant seven minutes of unnamed horror – a mob, a victim, an escape attempt – soundtracked by an eerie score from Mica Levi.
Shipwrecked and bewildered, a lone man washes up on an island that has lush, forest vegetation, fresh water, fruit, and everything a person needs to survive, except human company. His attempts to escape his isolation by raft are repeatedly scuppered by a mysterious, and gorgeous sea creature, with which he forms a lasting, and surprising relationship.
The Red Turtle, an animated feature film that was widely admired at Cannes, plays the London Film Festival next month. You may have heard of if because it represents a first in the world of animation – a Studio Ghibli co-production, being a collaboration between the well-known Japanese outfit and Dutchman Michaël Dudok de Wit. It is also that beast rarer than a giant red sea turtle: a new, and very accomplished feature-length film without dialogue.
The silence, washed over with a sophisticated sound mix of animal noises and ferocious waves, is supplemented by a gorgeous, rousing score that helps to elevate the castaway’s solitary struggles to edge-of-the-seat, blockbuster events. And it is in the first third that the film is its most successful, as the hero adjusts to his surroundings, carves himself an awkward niche in the island ecosystem, and valiantly attempts to sail away into the sunset and towards civilisation. One early sequence, in which he slips through a crevice and must use all his strength and courage to swim to safety, cranks the tension to its utmost. In these first scenes, we are privileged to share his fears and frustration, his dreams and his sickness, so that each time he tries to make a break for it, alone on his wobbly raft, the interference of the red turtle is a cold shock. This portion of the film is closest to a horror movie, the most obvious analogue being Jaws, with a silent, invisible terror lurking beneath the waves. Sometimes he screams, but of course there is no one to hear him. It is a masterful feat of sustained silent film narrative, engrossing and terrifying.
The self-proclaimed “loudest silent movie on earth” may just sound like fingernails down a blackboard to more sensitive readers. Gutterdämmerung (“It’s not like you know who fucking Wagner is, anyway”) is a heavy metal silent film of sorts, which has announced itself this week with an elaborate social media campaign. I say “of sorts”, because actually, don’t you know, this is “a new rock ‘n’ roll / film / gig concept from the mind of Belgian-Swedish visual artist Bjorn Tagemose” rather than a boring old movie.
Gutterdämmerung, proud owner of a heävy mëtal ümlaut, has been featured mostly in rock magazines so far, but is already proving to be a bit of a tease, releasing its cast list of rock icons one at a time, and even offering prizes for anyone who can guess the lineup in advance. There’s no trailer, just a launch video in which director Tagemose and two of his stars, Henry Rollins and Jesse Hughes from Eagles of Death Metal, chat about the film. They introduce some of the movie’s “icons” in this vid, Iggy Pop and Grace Jones, as well as rock bassist and adult film actress Tuesday Cross and the star Olivia Vinall, whom the Independent recently called a “National Theatre darling”. But you’ll have to wait for the rest …
Trust me, I have never been ready for my close-up. But when I backed the new silent film project London Symphony, I recklessly ticked the box to say that yes, I’d be in the movie. I envisaged the back of my head in a crowd, perhaps. Something nice and anonymous.
But cometh the hour, cometh the poseur, and today I spent an hour or so shooting a snippet of a scene for London Symphony. Or sitting mostly still and doing what I was told while trying not to get the giggles. Here’s what I learned from my experiences on a silent movie “set”:
There’s a reason those silent-era directors had megaphones. We were filming on the Victoria line (yes, we had permission) and while no doubt director Alex Barrett was talking me through my big scene, I could barely hear a word he said.
There are a lot of angles to cover – two cameras, shooting front-on, overhead, from a distance, crammed next to my cheek … The London Symphony crew were using handheld digital cameras, of course, I can’t imagine how this would play out with a wooden-boxed hand-cranked job.
I didn’t realise how much structure dialogue gives to a scene. I’m not an actor, so of course I was going to feel a little self-conscious being photographed by those moving picture contraptions. But without anything to say, I really felt a little untethered. Anything could happen! Luckily Adam Hickey, the actor I was working with, was actually an actor and very professional.
Londoners are not in the least bit fazed by seeing people filming and playacting on the tube. We caused not a ruffle. Though Alex did tell me that amateur photographers often approach him in the street to chat about the gear. Mmmm, lenses.
“In the early days of the cinema, there were several great City Symphonies – for Berlin, Paris, Rotterdam, but never for London. Alex Barrett is going to put that right, and his plans suggest a remarkable picture.” – Kevin Brownlow
A few months back, I promised you the chance to support the making of a new London City Symphony. Now the day has arrived, as the London Symphony team have launched their crowdfunding campaign. They need the help of Silent Londoners to turn their vision into a reality. They’re asking for your financial support, and offering you some chances to be involved in the making of the film too. If you can’t afford to help out yourself, they’d love you to spread the word about the project.
Alex Barrett, the film’s director (and Silent London contributor) explains why he wants to revive the City Symphony style for his new film: “We believe that by looking at the present through recourse to the past, we can learn something new about life today,” he says. “We won’t be parodying the style. We will be true to the spirit of the filmmakers that came before us, and we hope to capture the rhythm, the motion and the experimentation that made their films so wonderful, while simultaneously reimagining the City Symphony for the 21st Century”.
LONDON SYMPHONY is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture, religion and design via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.
Alongside making the film, the team will also be creating a new score – an original symphony – written by composer James McWilliam. Says James: “Music plays an important role in silent cinema, and our score will help take viewers on a journey through modern-day London”. The filmmakers plan to record the music with a live orchestra, but also have it performed live at special event screenings of the finished film. LONDON SYMPHONY reunites the team behind the short film HUNGERFORD: SYMPHONY OF A LONDON BRIDGE. A three-minute city symphony in its own right, the short film now serves as a pilot for the team’s intentions with the feature-length LONDON SYMPHONY.
This beautiful short, Hungerford: Symphony of a London Bridge, is a mini city symphony directed by Alex Barrett in 2010. It has won several awards, appeared at many festivals, and here at Silent London we have long admired it. Barrett, a writer, film-maker and regular Silent London contributor, has a more ambitious project in the works, though: London Symphony, a feature-length silent film about our fair capital. Barrett is a huge admirer of European silent cinema, and the city symphonies of the 1920s avant-garde. He plans to start shooting London Symphony later this year. Here’s how he describes the project:
London Symphony is a poetic journey through the city of London, exploring its vast diversity of culture and religion via its various modes of transportation. It is both a cultural snapshot and a creative record of London as it stands today. The point is not only to immortalise the city, but also to celebrate its community and diversity.
He’ll be asking for your help though – Barrett and his team want to crowdfund their movie, and you’ll be hearing more about that in the summer on these very pages.
Film-maker Steve Simmons sent me this short film, his second piece of work, and how could I resist sharing it with you? It was shot in south London, in Lambeth in fact, and any hard-working city-dweller will recognise this scene. As a crossword fan, I found Crosswords‘ wry comedy compelling: its premise initially seems simple but spirals into something a touch murkier and more dangerous as events unfold. The witty combination of text and image really caught my attention and I think it’s bound to raise a smile with the readers of this blog.
Steve tells me that he was influenced by the widest possible range of movies, silent or otherwise: “Films that haved inspired me are Metropolis, Once Upon a Time in The West, City Lights,Escape from Alcatraz and I loved The Artist.”
That’s a very diverse list and you’ll notice that although Crosswords is a modern silent, it’s far from an exercise in mimicry. For one thing, it has text, but not intertitles: “I initially considered traditional title cards to display the clues and the man’s thoughts,” says Steve, “but eventually I decided it would work best if the text was incorporated into the action. I think it helps the viewer concentrate on the clues and keeps the story flowing.”
Steve would love to make another silent, he tells me, and not just a short film: “At the moment I’m writing another silent film script but it’s more of a science-fiction based story. One day, if I had the funding I would love to make a feature-length silent – that’s the dream!”
Alfred Hitchcock and Alma Reville are back in the cinemas this weekend, courtesy of Sacha Gervasi’s controversial Hitchcock, which imagines what may have gone into the making of the notorious Psycho.
Who leered at who during the filming of the shower scene is not the biggest mystery in Hitchcock’s career, however. For anyone who enjoyed this summer’s programme of silent Hitchcock films, the big question is: where is The Mountain Eagle (1926)?
Though The Mountain Eagle was only Hitch’s second film, the reviews were unenthusiastic and he described it himself as “a very bad movie”, he made it just before he directed The Lodger, so there really is a chance that it’s not half bad. It starred Malcolm Keen with American vamp Nita Naldi and the plot focused on a school teacher and a hermit in rural Kentucky:
Pettigrew, a shop-keeper in a mountain town of Kentucky, falls in love with the teacher, Beatrice. The girl doesn’t consider him as a lover, so he gets angry and accuses her of molesting his son Edward who has a mental illness. The girl marries the hermit, Fear O’God Fulton in order to calm the people’s anger and day by day she falls in love with her husband and a child is born. Pettigrew hides Edward and charges the hermit with his son’s murder. Fear O’God is imprisoned but he escapes and takes refuge in the mountain with his wife and son. (From Hitchcock Wiki)
Shades of The Birds maybe? Perhaps that’s just me.
By Hitch’s own account, he did not get along with Naldi at all well:
First we quarrelled about her nails. They came down from half an inch beyond the finger to a quarter. We had another discussion. They came down to an eighth. Another discussion and they were all right. The heels came down layer by layer. The makeup was altered shade by shade. The hair was changed curl by curl.
A few weeks later, when Alma and I were married, we went to Paris for our honeymoon and spent the first day of it with Nita. But that is another story — and one I’m not going to tell.
Anyway, the reason I bring this up is that no, I have not stumbled across The Mountain Eagle, but I did discover this rather chilling but elegant silent short on Vimeo. It’s called The Projectionist, it was written and directed by film student Jamie Thraves last year and it features a piano score by Costas Fotopoulos – plus it is loosely inspired by the mystery of The Mountain Eagle.
Enjoy – and keep your eyes peeled.
Visit The Space for a collection of videos on Hitchock’s silent years, including featurettes on The Pleasure Garden and Matthew Sweet and Henry K Miller talking about “Hitchcock at the Picture Palace”
You may feel weary at the prospect of another love-letter to the silent era. You may feel fatigued by the thought of another Snow White movie. Wait, though – nothing should deter you from seeking out this intriguing, gorgeous film. Director Pablo Berger describes his Blancanieves as a “homage to European silent cinema”, but happily, it has the confidence to wear its influences lightly and transform them into something new, magical and utterly distinctive.
Blancanieves is a sharp, heady cocktail of fairytales, Spanish iconography and silent cinema: a black-and-white film with gorgeous musical accompaniment that tells the story of Carmen, whose matador father remarries after her flamenco dancer mother dies in childbirth. But if you’re expecting a straight 1920s-set adaptation of Snow White, you will be wrongfooted right to the bittersweet end. When we finally encounter the dwarves, we find they’re bullfighters, they’re not all sweet, and there aren’t quite seven of them. A celebrity magazine takes the place of a magic mirror, the wicked stepmother indulges in S&M with her chauffeur and the young heroine’s best friend is a neckerchief-wearing rooster called Pépé.
Carmen is no fairytale princess either, but in both her younger (Sofía Oria) and older (Macarena Garciá) incarnations, she is a serious, lonely young woman on a tragic path – both actresses share intense, dark eyes, which Berger makes the utmost of. Maribel Verdú turns in a wickedly funny pantomime performance as her scheming stepmother – although it often feels as if she is in a different, more histrionic, film to everyone else – and Daniel Giménez Cacho is heartbreaking as the destroyed father. Plaudits must also go to the rooster, or rather his handler. There may never have been a cuter cockerel in the cinema.
So why is Blancanieves a silent film? Perhaps it’s because in this version the girl’s parents are both wordless performers, in old-fashioned artforms. Her grandmother teaches her to dance, and her first encounter with bullfighting is via the flickering images of a praxinoscope. Berger also says he was inspired by a screening of Greed with Carl Davis’s orchestral score, and by silent film-makers including Sjöstrom, Herbier, Murnau and our own Anthony Asquith. Whatever the cause, it’s an artistic choice that pays dividends.
This is no pastiche, although I will admit I could have lived without the Instagram-style rough edge to the Academy frame, a bafflingly naff decision considering the film’s visual achivements: sumptuous photography, and impressionistic editing. There’s so much here that recalls the silent era – a clatter of flashcuts, the rustic faces in the crowd, superimpositions, irises and a restrained number of intertitles – but it feels modern too, with lovely soft light washing over the interiors and nimble, intimate handheld camerawork. There’s nothing in Blancanieves’ exquisite cinematography that could not have been achieved in the 1920s, but its strength is that it never feels anachronistic or nostalgic. And those sumptuous images tell the story too, as when Carmen’s first-communion dress is plunged into a tub of black dye, or she sees Pépé’s face hovering on her dinner plate.
With such riches at his disposal, I almost wish Berger had made a more serious film than this twisted fairytale, which occasionally veers into camp. Blancanieves is a strange piece of work, but a precious one, however, so even if it lacks ambition, its integrity and beauty are to be treasured.
I wrote about this silent Spanish adaptation of Snow Whitea few weeks ago, but now we have some footage to whet our appetites. Blancanieves is a new film by Pablo Berger (Torremolinos 73) and it’s a modern silent, set in the world of bullfighting in 1920s/30s Madrid.
Maribel Verdú plays the wicked stepmother, and Macarena García our heroine, the first Snow White I have ever seen face off with an angry bull. The dwarves are bullfighters too, as you’ll see in this Spanish teaser trailer.
According to this article from El Pais, Berger was inspired by watching Eric Von Stroheim’s Greed and the film contains some references to Carl Th Dreyer and Abel Gance also. The lush music you can hear, at least some of it is composed by Alfonso Vilallonga, and yes, they do plan some live orchestral screenings of the film before its theatrical release.
Speaking of which, we only have a Spanish release date for the film so far: 28 September 2012, bang on schedule for a debut at the San Sebastian film festival.
So what do you think? I reckon this could be quite special…
A few weeks ago, I posted about a competition held by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. The task set was to create a short animation, featuring a city landmark, to be accompanied by one of the pieces of silent film music recently unearthed in the archives of Birmingham Library. Now the winner, whose film will be screened at a gala event on 20 April, alongside some Charlie Chaplin classics and accompany by the CBSO, has been announced.
Gareth Hirst’s short film Street Act explores the dark and violent side of slapstick comedy, and the action takes on Birmingham’s Corporation Street. The movie uses the Indian War Dance music from the archive, to great effect – you can listen to eight more extracts here. If you want to find out more about Hirst, his animation work and his prize-winning film, you can read more on his blog. You’ll see that he put an awful lot of work into the film, including a heck of a lot of research. I understand he is a keen silent movie fan and a regular visitor to the Slapstick Festival in Bristol. Congratulations, Gareth!
Tickets for the Charlie Chaplin gala at the Symphony Hall Birmingham on 20 April 2012 are available here.
You may have read somewhere or other that 2012 is the year of silent cinema. Well, wouldn’t that be nice? Far more certain to be an influence on your multiplex visits this year are a beautiful princess, a wicked stepmother and a poisoned apple. But silent cinema should still get a look-in.
The first of 2012’s adaptations of Snow White, with Julia Roberts as the vain queen and Lily Collins as her red-lipped, fair-skinned stepdaughter will be released in time for the Easter holidays on 2 April. Mirror Mirror is a family film, but it’s a modern twist on the fairytale, which gives Miss White a few more exciting tasks than whistling while she works. Judging by the trailer, she spends most of her time swordfighting with her bandit-dwarf chums and giving Prince Charming a spot of sass.
Released later in the summer, on 1 June, Snow White and the Huntsman is a darker, more violent version of the fairy tale, with Kristen Stewart as the heroine and Charlize Theron as the queen. There are buckets of CG effects in this one and the whole thing has a gritty Twilight-meets-Lord of the Rings vibe, although some of Theron’s scenes look uncannily like a certain perfume ad. This film tweaks the plot even further than Mirror Mirror, with Snow White as a chainmail-clad warrior on a mission to kill the queen. Chris “Thor” Hemsworth plays the hunky huntsman.
There’s even a TV Snow White in the States. Once Upon a Time is made by American broadcaster ABC and stars Ginnifer Goodwin as the long-lost daughter of Prince Charming and Snow White, trying to rescue a town of fairy-tale characters from a curse.
But enough of the talkies. The Snow White movie I’m really excited about this year hasn’t had a fraction of the publicity of those other flicks. In fact, it hasn’t got a UK release date yet, but it will debut on 28 September 2012 in its home country. Blancanieves is a Spanish film, directed by Pablo Berger, and it’s a Gothic horror-cum-melodrama, which retells the Snow White story in 1930s Madrid. From what I can gather, young Carmen has been tormented from childhood by her vile stepmother, so she escapes to the woods where she joins a troupe of dwarf bullfighters. Maribel Verdú plays the older woman, and Macarena García the younger. Did I forget to mention that it is a silent film? And black-and-white to boot. Splendid.
Berger’s previous feature film, which appeared nine years ago, Torremolinos 73, was a very different beast: a comedy about a man who wants to make arty films but gets into pornography instead. That at least proves he’s no stranger to taking a commercial risk. I really like the suitably Gothic approach he is taking to one of the Brothers Grimm’s nastiest tales, and this gallery of production stills on Facebook suggests that Blancanieves will be a truly gorgeous film. If you need another reason to get your hopes up, back in 2009 the Blancanieves script won a special award at Sundance to help fund the finished film.
There’s something else a little special about Blancanieves, though. The score for the movie is by Oscar-winning composer Alberto Iglesias, who has written for films including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and The Constant Gardener, as well as several of Almodóvar’s works. The wonderful news is that, according to the stories I have read, Blancanieves will complete a tour of cinemas with live orchestral accompaniment before its theatrical release. We’re still waiting for The Artist to do the same, though such a jaunt is in the works, we hear.
It’s facetious to draw comparisons at this stage with that other European monochrome silent, but I’m tickled pink to see this outsider muscling into what has been pitched as a battle between two blockbusters. There is always room for a silent film or two to cleanse our palates of all that too-familiar fare.
So which is the fairest of them all? Only time will tell, but I clearly already have a favourite – and a fairytale ending in mind. The other question is, how will Blancanieves compare to the whimsical 1916 Snow White, starring Marguerite Clark:
Walthamstow is at the very heart of the British film industry, or at least it used to be. Between 1910 and 1930, 400 movies were made in London’s E17 postcode at four studios, including a very grand establishment on Wood Street that was built by the Broad West Film Company in 1914. Nowadays, the suburb is more associated with a 90s boyband than film pioneers, but that doesn’t mean that the locals have turned their back on the area’s cinematic heritage. This summer, for example, the BFI will be showcasing the silent work of a little-known local film-maker called Alfred Hitchcock.
Check out this picture of the Wood Street Studio in the silent era. And do read this interview by Kevin Brownlow with Tilly Day, a woman who worked there as a Continuity Girl at the time. Her memories of a sharing a scene with Kenneth McLaglen, being frightened by the horses on location shoots in Epping Forest and watching Walter West directing silent films are all fascinating.
The Wood Street Pop-up Picture Palace will celebrate the days when Walthamstow was in the movie business in grand style on Friday night, with a special event that includes live music and the chance to dress up like a vintage film star. There’ll also be a screening of a new silent film, which incorporates animation and live action, and was filmed with help from the children of Woodside Primary School. I haven’t seen the movie myself, but the artists involved in the project are Elizabeth Hobbs, who makes animated films, and Emily Tracy, who produces beautiful light sculptures and collaborative art projects.
I popped down to the project’s offices at the new Wood Street Indoor Market on the weekend, but sadly they were closed. However I did spot a few sketches of the old Wood Street Studio that certainly intrigued me. Do get along to the special event on Friday 30 March, if you can. It’s free and promises to be very interesting and a lot of fun.
To read more about the indoor market, and other cultural events in E17, visit the very hip and happening Walthamstow Scene website.
More than 100 years ago, film-makers Mitchell and Kenyon advertised their services to the public with the line: “See yourselves as others see you.” A new film, shot last summer in London, offers us the opportunity to see ourselves, now, as Mitchell and Kenyon might have seen us. Londoners is a 21st-century “actuality”, comprising film shot on the streets of the capital, outside Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium, in Hyde Park and at the Notting Hill Carnival. The twist is that the footage was filmed on a 1915 vintage camera, an old-school hand-cranked machine.
Director Joseph Ernst discovered the camera in a warehouse filled with old film-making equipment, and taking the Mitchell and Kenyon films as his inspiration, set out to record London circa 2011, but at 18 frames per second. As he told Wired.com, the people he photographed with the vintage camera were just as happy to be filmed as the customers of his Edwardian predecessors, and just as astonished by the technology. “Modern society finds no comfort in the digital camera. We shy away from them. We complain if someone points it in our direction. But if you bring out some spectacular relic from the past, people forget all that. They’re surprised that such a thing still exists and that it actually still works.”
And you can see that amazement in the film, which I was lucky enough to be granted a preview of. Londoners who might well be expected to be unmoved by the sight of a cameraphone, camcorder or iPad pointing in their direction, smile, point and nudge their neighbours when they see Ernst’s vintage machine. A Hell’s Angel dances an old-timey jig, a football fan guffaws and a wag at Speaker’s Corner mimics the cameraman’s movements – the the hand-cranking motion we all recognise from games of Charades. A group of photographers on Millennium Bridge snap the camera from all angles with their hi-tech DSLRs. The dancers at Carnival put on a display too, one that would probably have made the Edwardians blush.
But perhaps the Edwardians weren’t as stuffy as we think. There’s a uncanny, out-of-time quality to Londoners, with its faded, flickery footage of people who dress, stand and gesture just like us, but walk, thanks to the lower frame rate, with a hint of the jerky stiffness we associate with people from days gone by. It’s a reminder, if we needed one, that people don’t change very much at all over the years. Yes, the people in Londoners are more casually dressed, less formal, and overwhelmingly more racially mixed than in those Mitchell and Kenyon films, but they’re just as likely to hurry past or pose for a close-up, to smile or leer at the camera. The faces are the same. In a scene of commuters hurrying down the steps to a tube station, we’re drawn to a man who’s taking the descent a little slower, clutching on to the handrail, struggling to contain the tremors that are running through his body. It seems as if only the film-maker notices, as the crowd streams past him unaware, that the rush-hour journey is not the same for everyone.
In fact, even when the film is joyous, as when primary school children are bouncing in front of the lens, Londoners strikes a mournful tone. The music, which is taken from a gorgeous Bat For Lashes track, sets the mood. But there’s more to this movie. At a time when we’re losing our grip on real film, and apps from Hisptamatic to Silent Film Director offer us to the chance to remodel our snaps and home videos as relics from another time, Londoners’ deliberately archaic, lo-fi construction offers a more powerful blast of nostalgia. In another hundred years, the technology this documentary uses will seem irredeemably quaint, but so too will its subjects’ clothes, their junk food and even their risqué dance moves. But a project such as this compresses the years and shrinks the distance between us and our forebears. Mitchell and Kenyon would feel right at home, and I hope we see something just like it in 2112.
“[Talkies] are spoiling the oldest art in the world – the art of pantomime. They are ruining the great beauty of silence.” – Charlie Chaplin to Motion Picture Magazine, 1929
The phenomenal success of The Artist has sparked an understandable resurgence of interest in silent film. The success at the Baftas and the Golden Globes was a foreshadow of last night’s Oscar triumph, where the film bagged, as hoped, statuettes for best picture, director, actor, costume and score. A number of projects have developed in recent years that disregard dialogue in the quest to tell a story, from Silent Life – a silent film about Valentino currently in post-production, to a Charlie Chaplin musical set to open on Broadway this year and Louis, a silent film about Louis Armstrong complete with live score that had its European premiere last year at the Barbican. This interest, reductively dubbed the rise of ‘Retrovision’ by the Guardian, is more than just a passing fad. Creating silent films in a post-silent era, while unusual, isn’t unique: from Chaplin in the 30s to Jacques Tati in the 50s and Mel Brooks in the 70s, many directors have embraced the challenges of creating a narrative based on images rather than speech. It’s often the lament of film composers that their work is considered successful only when the audience is oblivious to it; when it forms such a seamless continuity between emotion and story that the viewer barely notices it’s there. But with ‘Soundies’ – films that have synchronised music and sound effects, but limited speech, the sound paradoxically reaches an elevated level. In fact, such ‘Soundies’ often use their score as a fundamental part of the narrative in a more progressive and successful way than most regular films, and the sound itself becomes a character in the action. In celebration of The Artist’s Oscar success, here’s an introduction to a few of my favourite post-silent-era silent films.
At the core of the narrative of The Artist is the issue of sound itself; the seminal point in Hollywood history where film transitioned from silents to talkies. Hollywood itself has long been enamoured with this era, and classics such as Singin’ in the Rain (1952) and Sunset Boulevard (1950) have both helped to mythologise this process. The descent of silent stars as talkies were developed has become part of Hollywood folklore, but in reality it was more often the case that moguls used the coming of sound to renegotiate or break contracts with stars they wanted to lose – it was used as as a purging process to usher in fresh meat for cinema audiences.
We are living in strange, glorious times. The Artist, Michel Hazanavicus’s silent billet-doux to Hollywoodland, has officially “swept the board” at the Baftas. Best director, best actor, best original screenplay and best picture all fell to a modern silent film, for the first time, it should go without saying, in Bafta history. The Artist also picked up much-deserved prizes for cinematography, costume and score. It has all made for an unexpectedly emotional night here at Silent London towers.
Why? The Artist isn’t the only modern silent to have been made in recent years. It isn’t even the best. But when you are as passionate about a particular corner of film history as I am, and as the readers of this blog are, it does the heart good to see it in the spotlight, with a trophy in each hand. The air has been punched, a stray tear has been wiped and now a glass of vin blanc has been poured, and raised in honour to the lovely M Hazanavicius. The Artist is a lovely film, and most quibbles I, and other early cinema enthusiasts, have with it, are impossible to untangle from its privileged position as a standard-bearer for the silent era. At some point we have to give it credit for getting into that position in the first place. So congratulations to The Artist – for earning both popularity and critical acclaim and being so damn charming with it.
Martin Scorsese’s Hugo won a brace of awards too: best production design and best sound (ho ho). So I’ll raise another couple of toasts: to cinema pioneer Georges Méliès, and to Martin Scorsese, a masterful director and the world’s greatest living advocate for film preservation. That’s part of the reason he won the biggest award of the night – the Bafta fellowship.
UPDATE: I updated this post on 2 April 2013, because The Scaffold has just been made available on YouTube. Enjoy!
What a joy to return from a weekend of visual comedy at the Slapstick Festival (more of which anon) to hear about a modern silent comedy, “inspired by and dedicated to the grand masters of slapstick”, screening in London later this week. The Scaffold, directed by Peter Hübelbauer, is showing at the Student Film Festival on Friday 3 February 2012. It’s a knockabout, retro treat, very much in the vein of Laurel and Hardy. The three characters are painters and decorators, working on a rickety scaffold – expect planks, pratfalls and precarious pots of glue. The Scaffold is screening in Competition Block 2: Eclectic Mix, at 12:15 on Friday 3 February 2012. The venue is the London College of Communication. Buy tickets here. The film-maker will be there, so hopefully you’ll be able to hear about his inspiration for the film, and how he recreated the noble art of slapstick movie-making in the 21st century. To find out more about the Student Film Festival, visit the website.
Modern silent films. They’re the hottest thing since 3D, but far more popular in this neck of the woods. One film we’ve had our eye on for a while is the fantasy short Dogged (2011), written and directed by Jo Shaw and starring Lucy Goldie in all nine roles. The sinister premise of the film is summarised thus on IMDB: “In a world where bogeymen roam freely, devouring people randomly and the only creatures they fear are dogs, old dog does her best to defend the family home.” I think this dog is a very different breed to Uggie.
Dogged was described as “intriguing and insightful” by the judges at the Aesthetica film festival in York, who awarded it the prize for Best Experimental Film (read more here), but now, happily, you have the chance to see it in London and make your own mind up. Dogged is playing as part of the Making Tracks night programmed by Whirlygig Cinema at the London Short Film Festival. This event is especially notable because all the soundtracks for the short films being screened will be played live, by The Cabinet of Living Cinema. It’s a treatment that should particularly suit Shaw’s spooky silent film.
Want to know more about Dogged? There’s a trailer, which you can see on the IMDB page here and a regularly updated Facebook page.
Making Tracks is at Rich Mix, Bethnal Green on 14 January at 7.30pm. Tickets are £8 on the door or book them in advance for £6 at the Rich Mix website.
Ensemble Amorpha are a contemporary chamber music group that puts the emphasis on contemporary. Primarily, they play music by living composers, and in some of their upcoming shows they are championing the art of modern silent film-making as well.
Shorts Amorpha at the BFI Southbank is a programme of contemporary silent films, which will be shown not in a gallery, but on the big screen at NFT1. Ensemble Amorpha will play music by Dominic Murcott, Luke Styles, Christopher Mayo, Marc Yeats, Damon Lee, Alwyn Thomas Westbrooke, Philippe Kocher, Naomi Pinnock, Phil Vennables and Yoav Pasovsky to accompany films by Pavla Sceranková, Jan Pfeiffer, Sebastian Schmidt, Daniel Bisig, Gabriela Lang, Damon Lee, Nicolas Wiese and Zoe Payne. The music will be played on strings, woodwind, percussion and electronically too. This promises to be a fascinating and experimental evening – plenty here to inspire musicians and film-makers alike.
Later in the month, at Kings Place, the ensemble are putting on programme called Modern Silence. This will include scores for modern silent films by Alwyn Westbrooke and Damon Lee, as well as Luke Styles’s beautiful music for Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924). It’s great to see Kings Place continuing to support silent film, both here and with its Not So Silent Movies shows.
Modern Silence will be performed in Hall Two of Kings Place on 12 December at 8pm. Tickets start at £9.50 and are available here on the Kings Place website.
To find out more about Ensemble Amorpha and to listen to samples of their performances, visit their website.
Louis (2010) is definitely helping to put modern silents on the map, but you won’t be seeing it in your local Odeon any time soon, because it is only to be shown with its live musical accompaniment, a score composed by Wynton Marsalis and performed by a hand-picked band of musicians. This is a film all about jazz in fact, set in New Orleans in 1907 – it’s a fictionalised account of the early years of Louis Armstrong, with a few nods to the cinema of the time.
Louis is a companion piece to a sound film, Bolden, which is coming out next year, about the ‘Cornet King’ Buddy Bolden. Both films have been directed and co-written by Dan Pritzker, a billionaire musician turned film-maker, who has certainly hired some big names to help realise his vision – not just Marsalis, but an Oscar-winning director of photography too.
Shot by Academy Award-winning cinematographer Vilmos Zsigmond as a modern re-imagining of early silent film, “Louis” is an homage to Louis Armstrong, Charlie Chaplin, beautiful women and the birth of American music. The grand Storyville bordellos, alleys and cemeteries of 1907 New Orleans provide a backdrop of lust, blood and magic for 6 year old Louis (Anthony Coleman) as he navigates the colourful intricacies of life in the city. Young Louis’s dreams of playing the trumpet are interrupted by a chance meeting with a beautiful and vulnerable girl named Grace (Lowry) and her baby, Jasmine. Haley, in a performance reminiscent of the great comic stars of the silent screen, plays the evil Judge Perry who is determined not to let Jasmine’s true heritage derail his candidacy for governor.
When Roger Ebert saw a preview of Louis in Chicago, he praised its “energy and wit,” saying: “It’s not a social documentary, and its recreation of New Orleans is certainly on the upbeat side, but then Louis Armstrong was on the upbeat side … What he’d especially approve of might be Marsalis – who took his performances as an inspiration – and the jazz band.”
I have taken a peek at the trailer, and at first glance Louis’s moody colour palette doesn’t look quite like any silent film I’ve seen before – but the Chaplinalike villain, speeded-up chase sequences and some neat physical comedy all recall the silent era. Some of the slick superimpositions and swooping camera movements feel comfortable, too, despite their 21st-century sheen. That said, the raunchy dancing in some scenes is more reminiscent of a Christina Aguilera video than anything I’ve seen in a silent film.
We will be able to judge properly soon, though, as Louis comes to London as part of the London Jazz Festival, with two screenings at the Barbican Arts Centre. This is an exciting opportunity to see a new silent film on the big screen and hear some leading jazz musicians play. Whether the music or the film will shine the brightest remains to be seen.
Louis screens at the Barbican on 13 November 2011 at 3pm and 8pm. Tickets cost between £10 and £25 and are available here. It’s worth pointing out that this film is not suitable for children – it was rated R in the US for sexual content and nudity.