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LFF review: They Shall Not Grow Old honours veterans but not the archive

Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’ celebrates the immortality of the WWI soldiers who died in service. “They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:/ Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn.” The word contemn isn’t used very often – it means “to treat with contempt”. The poem, popularly recited at Remembrance Services, argues that the sacrifice of the fallen will be honoured by the following generations, but also means that they are suspended in the aspic of their youth. While we grow feeble, they retain their strength and vitality.

In a similar spirit, Peter Jackson’s new film, produced in collaboration with the Imperial War Museum and 14-18 Now, seeks to erase the lapsed years between today and the Great War. The soldiers in his film are ostensibly unwearied – living, breathing, talking men in full colour, rather than the silent, black-and-white figures of archive footage. It’s telling that Jackson has taken Binyon’s line and contorted it. The film is called They Shall Not Grow Old – a more digestible, less archaic version of the original, with modern grammar, and arguably less mystery and grandeur. It also seems to have a more literal meaning, pointing to their demise, not their immortal memory. Continue reading LFF review: They Shall Not Grow Old honours veterans but not the archive

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London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years – review

London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years, by Gary Chapman

This is a guest post by Henry K Miller for Silent London. Henry K Miller is the editor of The Essential Raymond Durgnat (Palgrave Macmillan, 2014). He is a regular contributor to Sight & Sound and has taught film at the University of Cambridge.

Though it was built by the grandest American film corporation, Famous Players-Lasky, no contemporary report of the film studio on the Regent’s Canal ever confused Shoreditch with Southern California. All were in agreement over its incongruous location, noting the contrast of imported glamour and native poverty – unscrubbed children, the smell of fried fish. There was less agreement, however, on what to call it, at least in the 1920s: sometimes “the Lasky studios”, sometimes “Islington” (the local telephone exchange was Clerkenwell; Hoxton is also arguable), often “Poole Street”. “Gainsborough” seems to have stuck only later, probably because of the famous Gainsborough melodramas, made towards the end of the studio’s life in the 1940s. Uncertain nomenclature notwithstanding, Gary Chapman is right to describe his subject as “a microcosm of the evolution of the British film industry during the silent era”.

FP-L established itself in what had been a power station soon after the Great War, apparently in order to exploit European locations and West End playwrights, and sent over some of its most talented staff; but the first films to emerge from N1 were poorly received, and by the time the reviews began to improve the plug had been pulled. Most of the Americans departed by the middle of 1922. They left behind the best-equipped studio in Britain – early difficulties with the London fog having been overcome – but its survival as a rental facility was not guaranteed. The practices of “blind” and “block” booking – mastered by Famous Players-Lasky itself – made it very difficult for British filmmakers to get a look-in, even in British cinemas, and production was in the middle of a five-year slump. As Chapman shows, the producers who took on the Islington studio in 1922–3 were the bravest of a new breed.

Continue reading London’s Hollywood: The Gainsborough Studio in the Silent Years – review

Frau Im Mond: DVD and Blu-ray review

 

Frau Im Mond (1929)
Frau Im Mond (1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by Peter Baran. You can follow Peter on Twitter at @pb14.

Frau Im Mond is one of the first silent movies I saw as an adult. And despite its audacious special effects I can honestly say Fritz Lang’s rocket opera was not my gateway drug to silent film. Instead I saw it to justify the décor of my recently redecorated flat. I wanted to hang an attractive film poster above my stairs; for quite some time it was going to be Metropolis, until I saw the poster for Frau Im Mond, and its iconic rocket. As a science-fiction fan, and a film buff, how could I resist this picture? However, it seemed like cheating to have a poster of a film I hadn’t seen hanging above my stairs. So that is why I saw Frau Im Mond six years ago, having bought the previous Masters Of Cinema DVD release.

Now it is back, re-released in dual format Blu-ray and DVD, and seven minutes of additional footage have been added to the film, which brings the running time up to a handsome two hours and 49 minutes. As with the recently reconstituted Metropolis, Lang takes his time but doesn’t waste a minute. It is just that for much of the film each minute could have been thirty seconds shorter, and the plotting gets in the way of what the film promises. While Frau Im Mond is a notable film in both Lang’s filmography and in the history of science-fiction cinema, it is also way too long and ponderous – considering its wonderful potential.

Written by Fritz Lang’s wife Thea Von Harbou, and based on her novel of the same name, Frau Im Mond is one part conspiracy thriller and one part science-fiction tale. And that almost equally splits the running time, with the first hour and 20 minutes being a convoluted runaround between a professor, venture capitalists, enemy agents, a fiancée and a sparky kid. The rocket from the poster – and the justification for this being the first “scientific” science-fiction film – finally appears at one hour 18 minutes and the film does pick up considerably at that point, if only to give us some effects and even better Aran jumpers.

Continue reading Frau Im Mond: DVD and Blu-ray review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

A Night at the Cinema in 1914
A Night at the Cinema in 1914

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.)

Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914
Emmeline Pankhurst arrested outside Buckingham Palace in 1914

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.

Continue reading A Night at the Cinema in 1914 – review

Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall: review

Our Hospitality (1923)
Our Hospitality (1923)

I watched my first silent films, not on my grandpa’s knee, nor at one of these grand screenings with live music that they have nowadays, but in a sixth-form college classroom while being guided through my film studies A-level. It’s not a very romantic story, but I loved what I saw, and while studying for my exams, and subsequently at university, I sought out, saw, and enjoyed many more silents – going from a teenage film fan to an early cinema buff-in-waiting. The film studies syllabus (WJEC, a few years ago now) that I took was great – introducing us to relatively obscure arty silents as well as a healthy appreciation of Hollywood industry mechanics and even a smattering of theory. It stood me in good stead for my English lit & lang degree and a master’s in film history. Plus, I doubt the 18-year-old me would ever have got to see Un Chien Andalou without it. If you want someone to take the blame for Silent London, you can point your finger squarely at a tertiary college in Ealing W5. (I chose the college, incidentally, primarily because it was so close to the famous film studios.)

The point is, I think that sixth form is a great time to introduce people to early and silent film. Teenagers who seek out noisy bands and edgy art want off-beat films to watch too. Silents fit the bill perfectly. There’s something off-kilter about silent movies when you first meet them, and something unexpected about a supposedly modern subject area taking you so far back into the past.

A Corner in Wheat (DW Griffith, 1909)
A Corner in Wheat (DW Griffith, 1909)

Cheering then, to see Keith Withall’s Studying Early and Silent Cinema land on my desk. It’s an expansion of a 2007 volume and clearly informed by two things: his years spent teaching film studies at FE and HE level, and a passion for attending the film festivals at Pordenone and Bologna. This is a useful work for anyone interested in silent cinema to use as a reference but a great introduction to the subject for students. It’s a read-this-now-watch-that thing, and I’m all for it. Not only that, but Withall blogs too, posting thoughtful, erudite essays at cinetext.wordpress.com

Withall’s expanded book is an enjoyable and wide-ranging introduction to the key concepts and landmarks in the early and silent film period. This guide tackles a breathtakingly vast amount of material in the clearest of terms, and always with one eye on the here-and-now. There are references not just to modern films and attitudes, but also practical consideration of the availability of viewing material. Case studies examine classic films in detail, while wider sweeps take in potted histories of alternative and smaller national cinemas. Throughout, Withall encourages students towards wider exploration of the subject area – and most importantly, towards further viewing.

E&SC Cover 2014 v2Studying Early and Silent Cinema by Keith Withall will be on sale in May 2014, priced £16.99 in paperback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-69-8) and £50 in hardback (ISBN: 978-1-906733-70-4), published by Auteur

A Trip to the Moon – DVD review

Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Le Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

At the Cannes film festival in May 2011, one of the world’s finest movies was reborn – for the first time in nearly 100 years, we were able to see Georges Méliès’ masterpiece A Trip to the Moon (1902) in vibrant, psychedelic colour. And yet, there were those who considered the new restoration of the film to be a travesty. The hand-coloured print had been rescued from nitrate decay, cleaned and mended frame by frame – so far, so uncontroversial – and then a soundtrack had been commissioned. And we all know how contentious modern silent film scores can be.

Groovy electronic duo Air had been lauded for their movie soundtracks in the past – their music for Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides in 1999 was a big hit –with a debut album called Moon Safari the French band seemed an apt choice.  But the loudest reactions at Cannes – and at other festival screenings throughout the year – were those of horror. Air’s squelchy, organic electronica and mystifying animal noises were not, it seemed, music to the ears of the cinephile crowd. “It’s a disgrace!” commented one audience member at the Pordenone showing. “Oh no!” cried another at the London film festival.

Which is why, when I finally saw the restoration of A Trip to the Moon at the Ciné Lumière in London, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the music, which is presented here on the DVD release of the restored film. It’s often bizarre, and puzzling, but so is the film, and it powers through at a clattering pace that brings a real sense of blockbuster excitement back to this science-fiction landmark. Given the controversy, there’s an argument to be made for offering an alternative piano score on the disc – but there’s also a case to be made for sticking to one’s artistic guns. It’s ridiculous to speculate on what Méliès would have thought of the soundtrack. He may well have been more mystified that with his own narration missing, no alternative commentary was written. But given the film-maker’s love of cheeky humour and absurd theatricals I think he would have enjoyed it, just a little.

Georges Méliès' Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)
Georges Méliès’ Voyage Dans la Lune (1902)

And the music remains a side issue with a film of this visual brilliance – enhanced by those deftly applied inks, which add both warm, natural skin-tones to the chorus line and lurid primary colours to the lunar landscapes and aliens on the attack. A Trip to the Moon follows the adventures of a group of bearded, chattering astronomers from their lab to the moon’s surface and back to earth again. It’s endearing dappy, from the first simple sketch of their flight, to the gory moment the rocket gouges the eye of the man in the moon, to the scientists’ battle with the selenites – umbrellas at the ready. This is live-action film, but transformed by Méliès’s ingenious in-camera editing and those gorgeous paints to be something more like a cartoon. It’s gorgeous, it’s ludicrous and it’s heaps of fun. The new restoration is a revelation, and here on DVD, it looks brilliant. I wanted to watch it again and again. So I did.

But for all its wonders, A Trip to the Moon is only a quarter of an hour long. It’s very rare to see such a short film as the sole attraction on a DVD, we’re more used to compilations of early cinema. Happily, however, there’s more to this disc than the headline act. Alongside image galleries, you’ll find a fantastic documentary by Lobster Films’ Serge Bromberg and Éric Lange called The Extraordinary Voyage. It’s an hour long, packed with talking heads from the French cinema – and well worth a watch, particularly if you are new to Méliès’ work.  The documentary introduces the film-maker, his techniques and personal history, discusses the film and particularly its restoration in depth. There are also re-enactments of Méliès at work in his Paris studio, with Tom Hanks, yes, Tom Hanks playing the director. There’s also a slightly odd interlude when Hanks proposes Méliès as a pioneer not just in film-making but in space travel too.

That may be a stretch, but I remember that when I left the Ciné Lumière last year my mind was boggling that we had managed to put a man on the moon more than 40 years before we had managed to restored A Trip to the Moon back to its full-colour best.

A Trip to the Moon with accompanying documentary The Extraordinary Voyage is released on DVD in the UK from Monday 26 November 2012 by Park Circus. Buy on Amazon here.

 

100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon

100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon
100 Silent Films, by Bryony Dixon

Have you ever read a movie list you agreed with 100%? Of course not. And that’s the fun of them. A cinema buff’s spluttering outrage over the omission of a favourite title, just like his or her tutting dismay over the running order, fools no one. We love other people’s lists, because they give us the opportunity to write our own. And no doubt our first move is to increase the number of silent films in the countdown.

Well I’m happy to say that Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films offers a very different kind of pleasure. For one, all these films are silent, and its alphabetical presentation means that we are not faced with the problem of comparing, and placing in order, such disparate films as The Big Swallow (1901), Napoleon (1927) and The Battle of the Somme (1916). (You’re thinking about it now, though, aren’t you?)

Dixon, the curator of silent film at the British Film Institute and co-founder of the British Silent Film Festival, has written an engaging guide to the world of silent cinema – ostensibly for novices, but with plenty to please those longer in the tooth. 100 Silent Films is part of a series of Screen Guides that includes 100 Westerns, 100 Shakespeare Films, and so on – but as the author points out, silent cinema is not as easily digestible a topic. “Silent cinema is not a genre; it’s the first thirty-five years of film history … a complex negotiation between art and commerce, and a union of creativity and technology.” So Dixon makes no bones about the fact her project is a vast one, and many of her chosen films have very little in common. Refreshingly, she doesn’t try to fit the awkward square pegs into round holes, but presents each film on its own terms. She’s wary of misplacing “isms” (expressionism, surrealism, feminism) and hesitates to put the titles into anachronistic categories such as film noir.

Continue reading 100 Silent Films by Bryony Dixon