This is a guest post for Silent London by Juliet Jacques. Jacques is a freelance journalist who writes about gender, sexuality, film, football and literature. She writes for the Guardian, the New Statesman and the LRB and her new book Trans: a Memoir will be published by Verso in 2015.
Film historians often credit DW Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915) with popularising the full-length feature film, if not inventing it – changing both the language of cinema and the way it was seen. Adapted from Thomas Dixon’s US Civil War novel The Clansman, it opened with “A Plea for the Art of the Motion Picture”, attempting to create new formal techniques that drew on literature and drama. Distancing it from the fairground sideshows at which Edison, Méliès and other pioneers showed their works, aiming to attract more middle-class viewers, Griffith’s epic screened in theatres with an interval and printed programme, and a three-hour score by Joseph Carl Breil, which combined original music, familiar melodies and classical compositions, notoriously Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries during the ride of the Ku Klux Klan.
The Birth of a Nation was not the first full-length feature, historical epic or literary adaptation: Giovanni Pastrone’s 200-minute Cabiria, set in ancient Carthage and Sicily, inspired by Flaubert’s Salammbô and written by poet and novelist Gabriele d’Annunzio, was released a year earlier, and several Italian studios took such risks, by now assured of their audience. So 1914 – that seismic year for Western culture – marked a turning point for cinematic convention, departing from the collections of single or double-reel comedies, adventure films, travelogues and newsreels shown at music halls, shop fronts and penny gaffs during the early 1900s.
Marking the centenary of the First World War, A Night at the Cinema in 1914 attempts to recreate the atmosphere in one of Britain’s 3-4,000 “picture houses”, featuring 14 short films from the BFI archives, curated by Bryony Dixon, all in good condition, with an improvised score by pianist Stephen Horne that references music of the time, it invites 21st-century viewers to imagine when movies would have provided not just a social occasion, with rowdier audiences happy to talk not just between reels but also during them, but also the chance to catch up with the world, illustrating what had been covered by the newspapers.
Several newsreels open the collection. First, a “light” item about British pilots Gustav Hamel and Bentfield Hucks Looping the Loop at Hendon, in March. This lasts just a few moments, but shows how bracing aviation must have been, the rickety box-planes flying low, the pilots exposed. What seems most amazing now is that just months later, 11 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight, these were used in warfare. (Less surprising is that far more British pilots died in training than combat.)
One of the biggest pre-war political concerns features in Palace Pandemonium (May), which shows Emmeline Pankhurst marching to Buckingham Palace, held by police who barely hide their contempt, to petition George V for women’s suffrage. This reminds us how high-profile the campaign was, but Austrian Tragedy immediately shifts the agenda, chronicling the Austro-Hungarian royal family’s efforts to carry on after the death of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.