Come break the Sound Barrier with us again. In this episode, we go to the edge of the world and the ends of the earth and back again with two animated features.
We’re talking about Studio Ghibli’s modern silent The Red Turtle (in cinemas now), and also Pixar’s beloved Wall-E from 2008. We talk about ‘Dustbuster Keaton’, teenage mutant turtles, pizza plants and bad romance, as well as artistic animation, dialogue-free direction and creation myths. You can even hear Pete sing!
So, yesterday I spent the afternoon in the cinema watching 18 movies. Jealous, right? I was lucky enough to be part of the judging panel for the Walthamstow International Film Festival and we were watching the shortlisted works in order to hand out some prizes. It’s a fun job, and a great local festival that I am chuffed to be a tiny part of. All the entries are around five minutes or less, and while the festival encourages local film-makers, particularly young people, it is open to all, and this year we saw films from as far away as Australia, Argentina and Hong Kong. Our overall winner was the fantastically moving, and intriguing, Speed by Jessica Bishop – a film that interrogates the grieving process by counterpointing family photos and voices. A worthy winner indeed.
I barely knew a thing about Charles Lane this time last week. But since Saturday night I have been trying to find out as much as I can. Twenty five years ago, Lane directed a modern silent film of great style and bounteous charm, which was warmly received at the time, but has barely been heard from since. Like so much in the history of silent film, Sidewalk Stories (1989) is buried treasure, though from a rather more recent past. The good news is that the tail end of 2014 may finally be the time when Sidewalk Stories gets its due. The likelihood is that you will get a chance to see it soon, and I definitely recommend you take the opportunity when it arises.
As a film student, Lane was apparently very sniffy about silents, but when a chum insisted that he catch a screening of The Gold Rush, he relented. Chaplin worked his magic, and Lane was hooked for life. The influence of Chaplin is powerfully strong in Sidewalk Stories, a silent black-and-white comedy shot on the streets of New York;Lane directs and stars in the film, which has more than a touch of The Kid about it. Lane plays a street artist, who sleeps rough in a derelict building in Greenwich Village (yes, you might say he was a tramp), but, through some convoluted circumstances finds himself in charge of a small child. No messing about: the Artist’s foldup easel looks uncannily like the window-repair kit Chaplin equips himself with in the earlier movie. It’s clear that Lane has an eye for the most devilish of details. Lane’s two-year-old daughter plays the Child, and although it seems strange to critique a toddler’s performance, she’s fantastic and of course, utterly adorable. Sandye Wilson, an elegant woman with a devastating smirk, plays the Artist’s bewildering and benevolent love interest. Lane’s character is a cheeky one, all right, and a dreamer too: a nonchalant riff on Chaplin’s Tramp, which retains the sweetness and the acrobatics of the original but with a pared-down ego. Lane’s Artist is a more of an everyman than a showstopping clown: a little guy in a zip-up denim shirt and cargo pants with neatly cropped hair. Perhaps it’s because the big city is just a wee bit more terrifying in the late 80s. The Manhattan of this movie is perniciously hostile: crushing Lane’s character, and maybe squashing his performance a little too.
No matter. Here’s why Sidewalk Stories is easily worth 97 minutes of your precious time. It’s funny, it’s touching, it’s very clever and it has a quite remarkable lightness of touch. There’s some virtuoso material here, including some fantastically choreographed fight scenes and (a first for a silent movie?) a fantasy slapstick sex nightmare. There’s not a single intertitle here either. Most impressive of all perhaps is a sustained tracking shot early on that takes us from one end of a street in the Village to another, from the panhandlers and street sleepers, to the Artist’s patch where he and his fellow dancers and magicians are busy making believe that they are anywhere but urban hell. There’s some comic business with a piece of string and two beds that is simultaneously hilarious and terribly sad. I also enjoyed the way that a laugh-out-loud, but silly, gag at the start of the movie with yuppies grappling over a yellow cab (it’s the 80s, I’m allowed to call them yuppies) was replayed later on with a more sinister meaning. I particularly liked the fact that the second time around the carfight takes place during a chase that’s straight out of Harold Lloyd’s Speedy – Lane was clearly in close touch with his New York silent forebears.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Duncan Carson, a film event producer who organises the Nobody Ordered Wolves screenings. You can follow Duncan on Twitter at @nowolvesplease
It would be easy enough to despair at our current cinema choices. Although film houses are more comfortable and technologically sophisticated than ever, what is actually on the screen is terrifyingly narrow. Even though almost every cinema in the land is now equipped for digital prints, opening up programmers to a cheap and vast library of films, this hasn’t broken the stranglehold of loud, ephemeral and repetitive Hollywood fare.
Standing as an antidote to this conservatism, Scalarama brings the weird, the underseen, the expanded and emboldened to the cinema and beyond. In its fourth year and now bolstered by BFI funding, Scalarama takes place across September and operates in a similar fashion to the Edinburgh festival fringe: the organisers take no cut of the profits, they only encourage a broadening of what is on offer. Originally created as a tribute to the freewheeling programming of the Scala Cinema in King’s Cross, it attempts to bolster film clubs, give cinemas the confidence to take on riskier programming and move cinema outside of its traditional homes.
Two films that are at the heart of Scalarama’s offering this year are of special interest to silent film lovers. The first will be familiar to all: Das Cabinet des Dr Caligari. The second is almost a ghost to all but a few dedicated film fans: Charles Lane’sSidewalk Stories.
Shot in 1989, Sidewalk Stories is a modern silent feature film. And it has an impressive progeny: Michael Hazanavicius, the director of the Oscar-winning behemoth The Artist, credits this neglected classic as the direct inspiration for his indie smash. Yet if this might lead you to expect a nostalgic recreation of cinema pre-1928, guess again. Lane’s setting and attitude is more Spike Lee than FW Murnau. Made the same year as Do the Right Thing, Sidewalk Stories is cut from the same cloth as other grimy pre-Giuliani New York city films like Taxi Driver, Serpico and The French Connection.
That said, the plot itself is pure Chaplin: the star (played by Lane himself) finds himself in loco parentis of a young girl when her father is killed. As with Chaplin’s The Kid, our hero’s hapless parenting is the centre of the story here. The dynamic between the two is heartwarming, no doubt because of their connection as real-life father and daughter. Having confessed to loathing silent cinema as an art student, Lane embraces the medium to tell a universal story about homelessness and desperation. It is a story of deep compassion and this is why it is being released in the UK in partnership with Open Cinema, a charity that provides opportunities to access culture and film skills for marginalised people. Londoners have two opportunities to catch the film: Nobody Ordered Wolves (AKA yours truly) will be showing the film at popup cinema Hollywood Spring with a live score by pianist Stephen Horne. Tickets here. Later in the month, Hotel Elephant will also be showing the film. To see where else in the UK this neglected gem is getting an outing, click here.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Stephen Horne, silent film musician and composer. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Looking at some of the dictionary definitions of the word “haunting”, it strikes me that they are applicable to silent films in general. After all what could be more poignant, evocative or difficult to forget than watching long passed-away performers, their mute emotions given voice by music? The following films have extra elements that have made them lodge in my memory like nagging melodies. Usually there is something about them that is unexpected, unresolved or ambiguous. They often feel as though they end on an ellipsis, a cinematic ” … ”
These are all films that I have accompanied at some point, which is probably a big reason for their place in my heart. As I’m sure every silent film musician can testify, when a live accompaniment is going well, it can sometimes feel as if you are channeling the film in a way that can be positively uncanny. One warning. It’s in the nature of this subject that often what lingers most in the mind is the denouement. Therefore, what follows could potentially be regarded as an extended spoiler. Please approach with caution!
The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917)
While The Battle of the Somme is much better known, the final images of its “sequel” remain more firmly in my mind. Seen in spectral silhouette, soldiers prepare “to continue the great fight for freedom”, as the intertitle puts it. Of course, what they are also heading towards is further slaughter. The original official score, a cue sheet medley rediscovered by Toby Haggith of the Imperial War Museum, calls for this finale to be accompanied by Land of Hope and Glory. Seldom has a musical suggestion seemed, at least to a modern sensibility, more heartbreakingly wrong. Which somehow makes it right.
J’Accuse (Abel Gance, 1919)
Gance’s first world war classic is full of images that scarify the memory. The March of the Dead is the most famous example: is it to be interpreted literally, allegorically or as a mass hallucination? The knowledge that Gance used real soldiers on leave from the front as actors makes the viewing experience all the more impactful: we are watching the cinematic portrayal of a phantom army, played by people who were soon to become phantoms themselves.
However, the moment that always slays me is a quiet one in the scene that immediately follows. Jean, now completely mad, re-enters his old home, looks around … and calls out his own name. He has lost everything, including himself.
The Woman from Nowhere (Louis Delluc, 1922)
In 1996 the BFI programmed a season of films to coincide with the publication of Gilbert Adair’s book Flickers. Marking the centenary of cinema, this often-whimsical tome wove brief essays around a single still from one film of every one of those hundred years. Gilbert explained in his introduction to the screening of this little-known film that he had never actually seen it. All he knew was the still image included in his book, but it was one that had haunted him: a woman standing alone, perhaps lost, on a path in the middle of nowhere. He had always wondered about the backstory that had led her to this point and was almost scared to watch the film, in case the reality disappointed him. Truthfully I don’t remember the film in detail, but now the same image lingers in my mind. For me the woman from nowhere is still standing on that road, lost for ever.
Visages d’Enfants (Jacques Feyder, 1925)
One of the most heartbreaking films ever made, despite the perfectly rendered happy ending. What lingers is the impression of a child’s struggle to comprehend bereavement, uncannily conveyed in Jean Forest’s dark eyes. The moment when the boy sees his father crying for the first time is very prescient of the ending of The Bicycle Thieves.
Stella Dallas (Henry King, 1925)
Where does Stella go, after she walks away from the window? Something in her expression indicates that she has come untethered and I always imagine that she eventually drifts into homelessness. Sometimes if I see an elderly homeless woman, having a conversation with an unseen third party, I think: “Stella – talking to her daughter … ”
Exit Smiling (Sam Taylor, 1926)
Is it possible for a comedy to be haunting? The film is delightfully funny, but it is the heartbroken expression on Beatrice Lillie’s face at the bittersweet climax that seems to resonate longer. Her character has been courageous and loveable and she deserved better. It’s also a surprising and brave way for a comedy to end.
Jenseits Der Strasse (Leo Mittler, 1929)
I saw this at the Bonner Sommerkino many years ago. The expression on the face of Lissy Arna’s streetwalker in the last scene burned itself into my memory. The moment itself is partially comic, as the gross belly of her next client protrudes centre-frame. However as she tries to smile at him, her vacant eyes belie the fact that her personal window of happiness has definitively slammed shut.
A Cottage on Dartmoor (Anthony Asquith, 1929)
What I love most about Asquith’s masterpiece is the ambiguity of its final act. Few other silent films seem to generate so much discussion of character motivation. Is Sally’s forgiveness of Joe purely born of compassion or does she perhaps regret her life choices? When he asks “are you happy?” she seems to pause a beat too long, before turning her head away from him and answering “very”.
The final scene, which transcends an often wonderful but undeniably uneven film, is poignant in many ways. Louise Brooks’ character is watching herself in a screen test – one that will determine her future career in talking films – when she is shot dead by her ex-lover. While silent film Louise dies in the foreground, sound film Louise continues to sing on, framed in the screen behind her. It seems like a metaphor for both Brooks’ own soon-to-be curtailed career and the imminent death of silent films.
The Force That Through The Green Fire Fuels The Flower (Otto Kylmälä, 2011)
A slight indulgence, partly as this is a 21st-century silent, but also because I provided the music. However, I make no apology, as Otto Kylmälä’s seven-minute jewel of a short ends with a truly haunting moment that I won’t spoil, as it’s not generally available to watch at the moment. But you’ll know it when you see it. Come to think of it, the moment is accompanied by a rather haunting melody… …
There’s a silent half-hour comedy on the iPlayer right now. It will be there until 19 March 2014 and I reckon you should check it out. Here’s the link.
Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith’s new anthology series of standalone half-hour comedies has been picking up rave reviews. But the excitement turned positively feral on Wednesday night when episode two, A Quiet Night In, aired on BBC2. The episode features an old rich geezer (Denis Lawson), the two cat burglars who are trying to half-inch his priceless modern art (Pemberton and Shearsmith), his trophy, er, wife (Oona Chaplin) and a door-to-door salesman (Kayvan Novak) – and for the very most part, it is deliciously dialogue-free.
Just to be clear, Inside No.9 last night was a masterclass. IN EVERYTHING. iPlayer at your earliest convenience.
What I really like about what Pemberton and Shearsmith have done is that the idea may be an old one (they have talked about Mel Brook’s Silent Movie as an inspiration), but the tone of A Quiet Night In is far from rowdy slapstick of much modern silent humour, or even the genre-spoofing horror-comedy of their Psychoville series, which was just as inventive as Inside No 9 is shaping up to be. A Quiet Night In is a clever, and very dry comedy – in parts it is almost bleak. It is certainly not for kids, nor sensitive dog lovers. And you’ll never look at kitchen paper, Post-Its and baking foil the same way again.
That Oona Chaplin has a starring role will doubtless please the silent fans – one can only imagine what her grandfather would have made of what lurks under the bedstead here …
On this site you can find out a little more about A Quiet Night In, and watch clips, including a video of the creators discussing their motivation for writing a silent episode.
All this will have to tide us over until Matt Lucas’s Pompidou airs later in the year on BBC1. Yes, the Little Britain star is working on an entirely silent comedy series for the Beeb’s flagship channel. No catchphrases, no David Walliams. Lucas is co-writing, and he will play the title character, “an elderly aristocratic English oddball who has fallen on hard times but who remains upbeat and resourceful”.
It seems the idea is catching: two very famous ITV stars want to develop their own silent comedy project too. Mr Lucas is very supportive, as you can see.
I wonder if @antanddec’s forthcoming silent comedy TV show will be called ‘Let’s Get Ready To Mumble.'
This is a guest post for Silent London by Alison Strauss, director of the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema, Bo’ness. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
Our Dancing Daughters (1928, Harry Beaumont)
The moment when fun-loving flapper Joan Crawford launches herself on to the dance floor and sets the party alight with a high-tempo Charleston, ripping her skirt to a more liberating length as she goes.
Danse Serpentine (1896, Auguste and Louis Lumiere)
The 45-second kaleidoscopic record of a vaudeville dance – created by pioneering dancer Loie Fuller – in which an anonymous performer elegantly whirls her arms in the long-flowing fabric of her costume to mesmerising effect, thanks to the immaculate hand-tinting work of the Lumiere Brothers’ army of finely skilled women behind the scenes.
Pandora’s Box (1929, Georg Wilhelm Pabst)
Trained dancer and former Ziegfeld Follies girl, Louise Brooks is electrifying as Lulu, especially when, with all eyes on her, she takes to the floor at her own wedding with yet another admirer – a female guest – and the pair dance in a sexually charged vertical embrace.
The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921, Rex Ingram)
Another raunchy tango, this time with Rudolph Valentino in a sequence that launched him as a legend. The woman in Julio’s arms submits to his overpowering masculinity in this iconic routine that set the standard for all subsequent movie tangos.
(Watch from 14 mins, 50 seconds)
That’s My Wife (1929, Lloyd French)
Stan Laurel is persuaded by Oliver Hardy to masquerade as his wife in order to secure the bequest of a rich uncle. In one of the funniest sequences Stan, looking lovely in an evening gown, dances the two-step with Ollie in an effort to shimmy a stolen necklace down through his undergarments!
No pressure guys. The East End Film Festival‘s “sonic cinema” screenings have won the, ahem, coveted Silent London poll first prize not once, but twice. And this year, the festival is going off-piste with an evening called A City Without a Voice. The free screening will feature a modern silent film from Argentina, a live “gothic pop” score – and an “immersive” contemporary dance performance. If the prospect of all that doesn’t get your senses tingling, then quite frankly you may as well stay at home and watch Millionaire.
First, the film: La Antena (2007) is a visually delirious modern almost-silent film, a fantasy about a city in reduced to silence after the residents’ voices have been stolen by an evil capitalist villain. The intertitles dance across the screen, becoming almost physical objects, and the film’s imagery is explosively ineventive, combining silhouettes, surrealism and a heavy debt to the cinema of Fritz Lang. You can read more about this fantastic film in a post that the fashion and film historian Amber Jane Butchart wrote for Silent London.
As for the music, Esben and the Witch, who will provide the score, are a three-piece from Brighton, named for a Danish fairytale. The NME described them as “gothic but not goth”, and many of the songs on their new album are inspired by literature: from Vladimir Nabokov to Robert Frost. Here’s a taster of their music:
Over to the festival themselves to set the scene for the screening:
La Antena is screening as EEFF 2013′s free outdoor screening, soundtracked by a specially commissioned score by Esben and the Witch. Setting the scene for Esben and the Witch’s atmospheric performance, the London premiere of contemporary dance piece The Intention, performed by East London dance company Neon Dance, will be led by world-renowned choreographer Adrienne Hart. Inspired by ‘The Invention of Morel’, a novel by Adolfo Bioy Casares, ‘The Intention’ explores a world of disjointed presences; where the playback of a recording of events takes on a greater reality than the continued existence of its subjects.
A City Without A Voice is set to be a festival highlight and there are limited seats available, so bring your cushion and grab a front row seat for this unmissable event.
A City Without a Voice takes place at 8.30pm on Saturday 6 July 2013 in Old Spitalfields Market as part of the East End Film Festival. Arrive early to get a good seat and wrap up warm. Read more and book tickets here.
Do not adjust your set. The Naked Island is not from the silent era; in fact, it was made in 1960. However, this soul-wrenching Japanese film exemplifies the art of visual story-telling. With well-placed music, a choice smattering of ambient sound, next-to-no speech and the barest of captions, director Kaneto Shindô relies on his imagery to craft an engrossing realist drama. This is one of the most sophisticated, and powerful, of modern silent films. I found it completely engrossing – and the moment it finished, I pressed play and watched it all over again.
Shindô, best known for Onibaba and Children of Hiroshima, started out in the studio lab, before getting work as an art director and screenwriter and assisting Mizoguchi in the late 1930s. His common-law wife died of TB in 1943; the following year he was drafted into the army to do menial work as a cleaner. More than with many other cineastes, you could say that by the time he found success as a film director, Shindô had an appreciation for the struggles of working people. Many of his early films portray the degradations of poverty, and emphasise female suffering in particular. The Naked Island is no exception, described by Shindô as “a cinematic poem to try and capture the life of human beings struggling like ants against the forces of nature”.
A family of four live alone on a remote, hilly island in Japan’s inland sea. The mother and father raise their crops by hand, carry fresh water from the mainland in pails slung across their shoulders on painful yokes, and live at the mercy of the elements. It’s the definition of a hand-to-mouth existence, thrown into relief when the boys catch a fish and the family take it to town to sell. There, all four experience the baffling luxuries of televisions, restaurants and leisure time before they return to their relentless routine. A third of the way through the film, a shocking act of violence reinforces the fragility of their livelihood. The tragic final act is an object lesson in how poverty crushes the human spirit.
Nobuko Otowa, Shindô’s favourite actress and his lover, plays the mother; and it’s an expert performance, for all its apparent naturalism. As she repeatedly makes her way up the hillside with her buckets of water, the tension is every bit as high as when Lila Crane creeps into the cellar of Bates family home, say, but drawn out over an agonising half-hour. With no lines other than sobs, and little opportunity to emote, Otawa portrays suffering without recourse to melodrama. Taiji Tonoyama, another Shindô regular, plays her stoical husband as a bruised soul. The two young boys, particularly Shinji Tanaka as the eldest son, are excellent too: conveying the effervescence of youth frustrated by a life of difficulty and disappointment.
The film is elegantly, cleverly photographed too – in lush monochrome CinemaScope by Kiyoshi Kuroda. The long takes of the family’s manual labour create not a documentary effect, but in their reworking and repetition, bring foreboding, life-or-death fear and sorrow. As the central couple, picked out against the overbearing hillside or the lowering sky, bear their yokes like crosses or dredge for seaweed in the pouring rain, their story speaks for itself. It is abundantly clear that the strength of this film would be diluted by conversation or narration. Shindô himself (in conversation with composer Hikaru Hayashi on the commentary track) explains during The Naked Island‘s heartbreaking climax: “We decided at the beginning to have no dialogue and that enabled us to express this scene so boldly.” The finale is all the more horrifying for its wordlessness – a twist of fate that is inexplicably cruel.
The Naked Island is accompanied by the aforementioned audio commentary, the option to watch without English subtitles, a video intro by Alex Cox and a booklet of supporting material including an interview with Shindô.
We’ve been waiting for this news as patiently as Snow White awaited her kiss of life – and here, in the shape of StudioCanal, is our Prince Charming. Pablo Berger’s utterly gorgeous, slightly twisted, Gothic fairytale Blancanieves gets a UK release on 12 July 2013. I have been intrigued by this film since we first heard about it in March 2012, and in October last year when I saw it at the London Film Festival, I became smitten. If you saw it then, or at the recent Ciné Lumière screening, you’ll know what I mean.
Blancanieves is a silent, black-and-white film – a loose adaptation of Snow White set in 1920s Spain. There is a poisoned apple, a wicked stepmother (brilliantly played by Maribel Verdú) and a coterie of dwarves, but also bull-fighting, flamenco and a pet cockerel called Pépé. It’s a beautifully accomplished homage to European silent cinema (at the screening I attended, the director paid tribute to everyone from Abel Gance to our own Anthony Asquith) and at the same time satisfyingly rich and quirky – this is a very hard film to categorise. The cinematography is at times exquisite, and the score, by Alfonso de Vilallonga, is fantastic. As yet, I don’t know whether we can expect a full or limited release – but if you love silent cinema, and Blancanieves is playing near you, you really should go to see it.