Tag Archives: Pudovkin

Cheese Mites (1903) and 10 more disgusting moments in silent cinema

Silents by numbers

Elusive films, we are always told, can turn up anywhere. And if you’ve read the Primal Screen column in this month’s issue of Sight & Sound, you’ll know the truth of that. Oliver Gaycken, an early cinema scholar at the University of Maryland, stumbled across (most of) a missing Charles Urban film, Cheese Mites (1903) on YouTube. He describes it as “a landmark of early cinema, one of the first film ever made for general audiences about a scientific topic.”

The uploader, not knowing anything about the 35mm nitrate strip he had picked up from an antiques shop, had found an ingenious lo-fi method of digitising the film, and posted it on the video site under a name of his own devising. Gaycken was sent a link by chance and recognised it immediately. Anyway, you can buy the magazine to read the full story, or indeed pre-order Gaycken’s book Devices of Curiosity: Early Cinema and Popular Science, forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

You can see Cheese Mites, properly restored and digitised, on the BFIplayer, or indeed on the institute’s own YouTube page. One thing that will strike you, as you watch those microscopic critters wriggling under the professor’s magnifying glass, is that Cheese Mites is more than a little bit repulsive. The tweedy professor (F Martin Duncan), turns his magnifying glass from his newspaper to his lunch, and uncovers a microscopic crowd of wriggly creepy-crawlies. In the still missing last scene, he chucks his cheese away in horror. You won’t see your humble cheddar-and-pickle sarnie in the same way again. And so, to celebrate this unlikely discovery, here are 10 totally gross moments in silent cinema. Hold on to your stomachs … this is not for the squeamish.

Un Chien Andalou (1929)
Un Chien Andalou (1929)

The eye-slashing in Un Chien Andalou

Yes, I now that Bunuel and Dali cut to a calf’s eye for the breathtaking “out, vile jelly” opening to this surreal classic. But come on, weren’t you fooled the first time you saw it? And there’s nothing particularly wholesome about a dead calf wearing mascara anyway. See also: the rocket crash-landing in the man in the moon’s eye in George Méliès’ Voyage Dans La Lune (1902) – so much more gory in full colour.

The maggots in Battleship Potemkin

Similarly, the first time one watches Eisenstein’s bombastic Potemkin, one might expect the maggots in the Men and Maggots title card to be metaphorical rather than literal. And certainly one wouldn’t expect to see them in a gruesome close-up, squirming under the doctor’s glasses. “This meat could crawl overboard on its own!” Upsettingly, the resulting stew is only the second most disgusting casserole in this list.

Alice Guy-Blaché’s modern surgery

George Mélies made a version of this a few years later, often titled Une Indigestion, but Guy-Blaché’s earlier film Chirurgie Fin de Siecle (1900) is more widely available. And it’s not one to watch the night before an operation. In this clinic, a sign pleads “On est prie de ne pas crier/Please do not cry”, and the doctors set about the patient with saws, cheerily hacking off limbs, and then slopping them into a bucket, all the while arguing ferociously with each other. They then reattach arms and legs from a bucket of “exchange pieces” (using glue) before re-animating their victim, I mean patient, with bellows.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 6

Konstgjorda Svensson (1929) Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm ©1929 AB Svensk Filmindustri. All rights reserved.

Another disappointing Anny Ondra performance – but in an unforgettable movie – two Mothers, a part-talkie that wants to be a silent, a Lamprecht with a happy ending, and Buster Keaton with a Benshi. Day six at Pordenone, coming right up.

Let us begin with Anny Ondra. It has been extremely stressful. On paper, a programme of early films made by the bewitching star of The Manxman and Blackmail, Czechoslovakia’s first true silent movie star, promised to be my festival highlight. The reality has been brutal. In these early roles Ondra has had terribly little to do and been physically encumbered by towers of curls on her head and tentlike, unflattering dresses too. She has also, I would venture, been horribly underdirected. Hitchcock may have been a brute, but he would not have stood for her gazing into the near distance, twiddling her hair, when the camera was turning. Maybe she just needed a decent part to get her teeth stuck into; maybe the Czech film industry just didn’t know what they had in her. Maybe …

Otrávené svìtlo (1921) árodní filmový archiv, Praha
Otrávené svìtlo (1921) árodní filmový archiv, Praha

Anyway, we’ve seen some enjoyable if occasionally hamfisted movies in this strand, and while there has been not as much as we hoped to see from Ondra, I am calling her sometime husband Karel Lamac as the hardest-working man in the Prague movie industry at the time. We have seen drama, action and slapstick from this chap. And he even directed some of these flicks, including today’s absurdity, which was admittedly early in his career. Otrávené Svetlo (The Poisoned Light, 1921) was a bizarre concoction almost like an adventure serial, with a meandering plot, ever-present danger and nonsensical movie-science of the highest order. Lamac stars as well as directs, in a story that contains much codswallop, but principally codswallop concerning a series of assassinations carried out via toxic lightbulbs. When the filament gets too hot, the glass shatters, releasing … poison gas! Thus, late in the movie, we have the threat of murder courtesy of a desk lamp. An anglepoisoning. Ondra appears to be tranquilised, Lamac is heaving the whole messy endeavour on his broad shoulders and, yes, the quarry sequences are quite nice. I bust a gut laughing: definitely in the so-bad-it’s-good-OK-maybe-it’s-just-bad-no-stuff-it-I’ve-not-had-this-much-fun-in-years camp. Camp being the operative word.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2013: Pordenone post No 6

Nanook of the North and Storm Over Asia at Oxford House, Bethnal Green

Nanook of the North (1922)
Nanook of the North (1922)
It’s always a pleasure to learn about a new film society in London, especially one that chooses its films with as much care and originality as the Screen Shadows group, whose inaugural season includes some notable silents. The F is for Fake season features, on 18 November, Robert J Flaherty’s hit documentary Nanook of the North (1922) in a special double-bill.
We have decided to pair Nanook of the North with The Girl Chewing Gum, a 1976 experimental work by John Smith. Although from different genres and eras, both films work very well together to say something about our current theme: fakery in film. As part of our commitment to encouraging new ways of thinking about film, as much as the screening of overlooked films or the screening of films in areas underserved by the usual channels of film exhibition, the session will be introduced by a guest speaker, AL Rees from the Royal College of Art.
Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia (1928)
And on 2 December, as part of the same season, Screen Shadows will show Pudovkin’s monumental Storm Over Asia (1928), another film that raises interesting questions about authenticity:
The literally translated Russian title “The Heir to Genghis Khan” indicates the incitement to atavistic struggle that drives Pudovkin’s measured and resolute move beyond the film-mythologies of the Bolshevik revolution, in this historically charged epic based on a story of two unconnected thefts and one mistaken identity. How does a young Mongol fur-trader rebel and come to political consciousness? And just what does an Imperial British army garrison and trading outpost hope to gain by exploiting the falsehood that has come to define their captive? … How might implying a direct genealogical link between a twentieth-century Mongol fur trader and the twelfth-century Golden Horde inform a critique of imperialism in the Far-East, and what does this say about the cinema’s role in promulgating the myth of a culturally sensitive, ‘benevolent’ Soviet expansionism?
Nanook of the North screens at Oxford House, Bethnal Green E2 6HG on 18 November 2011 and Storm Over Asia on 2 December 2011. Entry is £7 or £5 (concessions and Tower Hamlets residents). The nearest tube station is Bethnal Green. For more details visit the Screen Shadows website.

Storm Over Asia at BFI Southbank – change to the advertised programme

Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia (1928)

Just to let you know that the throatsinging band Yat-Kha will no longer be making an appearance at the BFI screening of Storm Over Asia on Friday. This is what the BFI has to say

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).

Kino: Russian Film Pioneers season at BFI Southbank, May 2011

Strike (1925)
Strike (1925)

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.

It’s the first month that mostly concerns us, and the BFI is showing 12 silent features, plus a programme of early shorts (all playing twice) and a couple of educational events. That’s alongside Potemkin’s extended run and two special screenings with live scores (Eisenstein’s The Old and the New and Pudovkin’s Storm Over Asia). Plus, don’t forget that Eisenstein’s October is on in April. It could be a little daunting, so here’s the Silent London guide to what’s on when and what it’s all about.

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.

Continue reading Kino: Russian Film Pioneers season at BFI Southbank, May 2011

The Old and the New and Storm Over Asia with live scores at BFI Southbank, 5 & 20 May 2011

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.

 

Storm Over Asia (1928)
Storm Over Asia (1928)

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.

Tickets cost £13, or £9.75 for concessions, and £1.50 less for members. They will be available at the BFI website here.