True confession: in 2019, I fell in love with some flipbooks. It was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where so many good things happen, and the flipbooks in question were animated and projected on the big screen. I saw them many hundreds of times their real size, but perhaps that reflected their significance.
“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.”
The digitised, animated flipbooks I was watching were one outcome of an international film-history detective story. I 2013 Paris-based film scholar Thierry Lecointe began investigating a flipbook attributed to one Léon Beaulieu that might, just possibly, have been made from a few frames of a long-thought-lost Georges Méliès film…
The first rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club. The second rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club because Blog Club doesn’t exist. But if there were more rules, and indeed a club in the first place, round about number five I reckon would be this: “Don’t write a blogpost apologising for having not posted in a while.” Why? Because people have more important things to think about? Probably. But also because in this case it’s not hard to guess why I haven’t been Silent Londoning so much. We’re all in the same boat. But only I am in blog club. Because I made it up. And frankly even I haven’t paid my subs in a while.
This post, however, brings you NEWS. So let’s begin.
Japanese silents to come. The BFI’s new blockbuster season for 2020 was to be Japan: Over 100 Years of Japanese Cinema. And it still is. Instead of launching the season in cinemas and then transferring it over to the BFI Player, and Blu-rays etc, the BFI is flipping the model, shifting the paradigm and generally “doing a 2020”. So the season has begun in the digital realm, and while we are promised benshi screenings in the future (yay!), for now there is a feast of Japanese cinema to enjoy on the BFI Player, including one of Ozu’s best, the silent film I Was Born, But … (1932). To be fair, this one was already on there, but you need no excuse to watch it. It’s perfect. Treat yourself. And watch out for more to come. Also forthcoming are such archive treats., including gems from “the BFI National Archive’s significant collection of early films of Japan dating back to 1894, including travelogues, home movies and newsreels, offering audiences a rare chance to see how European and Japanese filmmakers captured life in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. I’m intrigued!
Women Make Film. Next Monday sees the launch of Mark Cousins’s epic 14-hour documentary about female filmmakers, Women Make Film. It’s an alternative history of cinema, entirely peopled by brilliant, creative and often sadly forgotten women. If you’re a silent cinema fan (and just on a limb here, but I reckon you must be), this story may sound familiar, but Cousins and his researchers have gone deep, and there is plenty here that was new to me. Read Kate Muir’s great piece for the Guardian to get a flavour of what’s involved. Then sit back, stream and prepare to have your mind expanded. Refreshingly, it’s not chronological, so even silent film purists will find points of interest throughout: look out familiar names such as Germaine Dulac, Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché, Paulette McDonagh and Olga Preobrazhenskaya. The whole thing is going up on the BFI Player in five blocks, starting on 18 May.
Silent cinema watch parties. They are everywhere. Ben Model’s Silent Comedy Watch Party has been enlivening Sunday afternoons (his time) and evenings (ours) for a few weeks now. And now the Kennington Bioscope has opened its YouTube channel and its first silent film and live music screening was a roaring success. Subscribe for more: their next screening is Wednesday at 7.30pm. The Netherlands Silent Film Festival event on Friday night was a blast too, making the most of the live-chat facility. Belgium’s Cinemathek is doing something on Thursday afternoons. Frankly I am astonished, heartened and tickled pink by the ingenuity, and the hard work that goes into these.
Cancellations and postponements. Not such happy news here. Sadly Hippfest has had to cancel its postponed October event, though San Francisco Silent Film Festival is still promising us a raincheck in November. Il Cinema Ritrovato says its festival is postponed (dates TBA) and Pordenone promises an announcement by the end of the month. Perhaps we have to come up with a snappy way to say it’s very sad, but we understand and we support the organisers in their new plans while appreciating how very difficult it is for them and everyone involved. Or just to say that, with proper pauses for breath, because we really mean it. Love to all our festival friends.
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Could there be a finer thought in a grey week such as this one than a burst of California sunshine? Maybe there’s one, the gilded interior of the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco, which truly has to be seen to be believed.
What I’m driving at is the fact that Early Bird Passes for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are on sale now, and it’s a very wonderful event indeed. If you’ve never been before, see below everything you need to know (that I know) about this welcoming, and rather glitzy, event in northern California.
Happy new decade Silent Londoners! Let’s kick off the Twenties with a party shall we? A Silent London Poll-Winners’ Party. You know the drill by now, these prizes go to the best of the past year in silent film, as voted for by YOU. With that said, I will starting handing out the gongs immediately
Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2019
This was a very popular winner – the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu release of the magnificent Der Golem was by far your favourite disc of the year. The package comprises a beautiful restoration of the movie, accompanied by a choice of great scores and a feast of insightful extras. An excellent choice. I reviewed this release in more detail in the January 2020 edition of Sight & Sound.
Honourable mention:Fragment of an Empire (Flicker Alley)
Best Theatrical Release of 2019
Go, Golem! The expressionist classic was your classic for the best theatrical release of the year, as this sumptuous restoration played several dates around the world. I saw it in NFT1 in the summer and I am not sure I have recovered yet.
Best Modern Silent of 2019
It may not BE silent but it WAS shot silent, as forthcoming screenings with live musical accompaniment are sure to emphasise – Mark Jenkin’s brilliant Cornish drama Bait was your favourite modern silent of the year.
This piece originally appeared in Sight & Sound magazine in 2016.
Among the treasures on display in Paris at Toute la Mémoire du Monde in February, one film seemed to justify the festival’s existence by itself. René Clair’s ingenious late silent Les Deux Timides/The Two Timid Ones (1928) harks back to an earlier age of film comedy, reworking the styles of Max Linder, Charlie Chaplin and Mack Sennett into something new and elegant. At the same time, the new restoration of this sublime farce reveals it as a silent classic in its own right – to be esteemed as highly as the films that inspired it. Thanks to a ravishing new restoration, it may be about to receive the credit it has long deserved.
By 1928, René Clair had moved on from his early art films, the science-fiction caper Paris qui dort (1923) and the cinéma pur of Entr’acte (1924) and joined Albatros, a French studio staffed mostly by Russian exiles. It was here that he made his best known silent, the beautifully elaborate farce Un chapeau de paille d’Italie/The Italian Straw Hat (1927). Clair’s 1930s triumphs Sous les toits de Paris (1930) and A nous la liberté (1931) were ahead of him, but Les Deux Timides is his silent masterpiece, folding the avant-garde and the comic into a delightful, expertly judged story of provincial romance and misapprehension.
Les Deux Timides takes what could be a Linder scenario, of a young middle-class man overcoming obstacles in pursuit of a pretty girl, merges it with Chaplinesque outsider charm and punctuates it with Keystone-quality chaos. Clair’s film is as serious and silly as its predecessors at their best, a film that is so intensely funny it makes humour itself, and the business of film comedy, seem vitally important.
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival has just closed for another year. Four days of movies and music at the sumptuous Castro Theatre – and this time I was actually there! Pinch me, I still can’t believe it’s true. In this short podcast, I run through a few of my highlights of the weekend and try to give a flavour of this fantastic event. Enjoy!
London’s great, it really is, but sometimes a blogger has to seek wider horizons. So this year I will be packing up my laptop and getting my soy cappuccino to go. I’m hitting the road to report on the silent film festival circuit – more of which anon – and I may possibly be popping up in a cinema near you.
First, an exciting announcement! The British Silent Film Festival is back this year. We have dates and a venue confirmed – 14-17 September 2017, at the Phoenix in Leicester – but no more news yet. Barring flood or fire, I’ll be there, and I recommend that you attend also.
Before that, however, I’ll be introducing two fantastic silent films by female directors at venues that couldn’t be much further from Leicester, and each other.