In an influential 1998 essay, the theorist and critic Vivian Sobchack invited us to understand film noir through the spaces that the characters in these movies inhabit. Not the psychological or metaphorical spaces, but the real bricks-and-mortar locations in which the tough guys and femmes fatales pass their time – a kind of time that Sobchack called “lounge time”. The places “to which we should pay heed,” she wrote, “are the cocktail lounge, the nightclub, the bar, the hotel room, the boardinghouse, the diner, the dance hall, the roadside café, the bus and train station, and the wayside motel. These are the recurrent and determinate premises of film noir and they emerge from common places in wartime and postwar American culture that, transported to the screen, gain hyperbolized presence and overdetermined meaning.”
Sobchack identifies the fact that film noirs are hardly ever set inside traditional family homes, but in transient places instead – hotels, stations and bars, even prison cells. When we spend any length of time in a character’s home, as in Fritz Lang’s The Big Heat, it looks more like an upmarket cocktail lounge than a dwelling. Sobchack talks about “cold glitter of the houses of the rich, where money buys interior decoration and fine art but no warmth, no nurturance”. Or, in the same film, we see a traditional family home, with a nuclear family living within it, only to see that ideal destroyed in an instant.
Are you making New Year’s resolutions this year? I am a big fan of them – I made one last year, and although it wasn’t easy I definitely followed through on it (BTW did I mention that I am freelance now? Commission me!). The best are those that combine self-improvement with a little pleasure and entertainment (in fond remembrance of the Great Theatre Binge of Early 2012). Here’s one for you – how about you go to see more silent movies in 2017?
Reckon you already clock up quite a few silent screenings? Hmmm. How about something a little different?
For example, there’s a silent film screening with a twist at the ICA in January. You should come along! The event is part of the London Short Film Festival and takes place on 10 January. The screening takes its title from a Victor Hugo quote, “What matters deafness of the ear when the mind hears?”, and will explore the relationship between silent cinema and hearing impairment. To that end, all the films screened will play without musical accompaniment, and the programme is “designed to be accessible to people with hearing impairments as well as hearing audiences, creating a shared and uniquely immersive experience of silent film”.
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.
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.
Studying 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
I’ve just returned from the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Bo’ness, Falkirk. It’s a fantastic event – I really enjoyed myself and only wish I could stay longer. To give you a flavour of the weekend, if you missed out this time, here’s a mini-podcast and a selection of social media updates too. Surely there is no cooler hashtag for a #silentfilm event than #hippfest?
Hats off to Alison Strauss and her team and Falkirk Community Trust to – Hippfest is a triumph.
This is a guest post for Silent London by Nina Giacomo from Brazil, who blogs at Primeiro Cinema. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
The great majority of the films made between the origins of cinema and the 1910s had colour in some way. People often don’t know that because a lot of films from the 1920s were actually released in black and white and so the evolutionary view of film history makes us think that silent cinema was deprived of colour. But, since the beginnings of cinema, a lot of research was done into colour film and two tendencies were explored: the colourisation after the film had been shot and the capture of “natural colours” while shooting.
This is not a “top 10” list … It is a selection of 10 films that show a variety of ways of giving colour to the moving image. It is my list of 10 must-watch silent colour films!
Annabelle Serpentine Dance (Edison, 1895)
The first of many films dedicated to the “serpentine dance” created by the american dancer Loïe Fuller in 1889. The hand colourisation, frame by frame, represents Fuller’s spectacular stage effects, which combined the constant flow of the dress’s movement with the projection of electrical lights.
Pierrette’s Escapades (Alice Guy-Blaché, 1900)
A vibrant example of hand-colouring made by Gaumont.
Untitled experiments (Edward Turner, 1901/02)
Theses pictures, recently discovered, are actually a series of tests for a new invention. They show how early the attempts to reproduce “natural colours” began.
A Trip to the Moon (Georges Méliès, 1902)
The colour version of this film was unknown until 1993, when it was found in Barcelona in a terrible condition. Not until 2010 could the restoration could be released and it transformed the image we have of this most iconic of all silent films.
The Lonedale Operator (DW Griffith, 1911)
Here we have an interesting use of colour in silent cinema. The young lady can only trick the bandits (making them believe that she has a gun, when actually it is a wrench) because the scene takes place at night. The blue tinting suggests the time of day.
This classic has just been restored and the new version will be shown in February at the Berlin International Film Festival with its original tinting and toning … I can’t wait to see it.
Virginian Types: Blue Ridge Mountaineers (1926)
An amazing example of Pathécolor, just recently discovered. It shows us a late use of this method that was pioneered by Pathé in France during 1905. Stencils were used to automate the hand-colouring of films.
Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
A hybrid in many ways: this is a silent, talkie, black-and-white and colour motion picture. The colour scenes are just marvellous.
The Love Charm (Howard Mitchell, 1928)
And here is a little known example of the two-colour Technicolor process. A weird love story in amazing colours.
Do you agree with Nina’s choices? Share your suggestions below
This is a guest post for Silent London by noted silent cinema musicians Neil Brand and Philip Carli. The Silents by Numbers strand celebrates some very personal top 10s by silent film enthusiasts and experts.
There are more of these X-rated moments than you might think and people will have plenty of their own choices according to taste, shockability and squeamishness. By definition, all silent cinema is pre-Code and Will Hays was brought into the Hollywood fold as censor in the 1920s not just because of Hollywood’s own scandals, but because filmmakers were pursuing stronger, more adult storylines and nobody seemed to be taking the lead on what was acceptable. So, by way of giving the lie to the idea that silent cinema is somehow cinema in adolescence, here’s a list of some memorable times when the boundaries were pushed, in descending chronological order.
All Quiet on the Western Front (1930)
And yes it was also released as a silent! A soldier grips the barbed wire during an attack, a shell explodes and only his arms remain hanging from the wire. One of many unforgettably horrific images from this great film.
Diary of a Lost Girl (1929)
The brothel dance as the couples peel off to their various rooms is as easygoingly suggestive as you could want and easily more “real” than anything Von Stroheim could have dreamed of. Mind you, Louise Brooks would undoubtedly have made it into this list somewhere.
The Unknown (1927)
Having cut off his own arms for love of Joan Crawford (who can’t bear to be touched), murderer Alonzo (Lon Chaney) has to watch her responding sensually to the arms of a circus Strong Man (Norman Kerry) she has fallen in love with. Again, most Chaney films would qualify for this list, particularly the Tod Browning ones, for a whole different set of reasons. The Penalty, Victory, West of Zanzibar, all feature scenes or entire plotlines that would have trouble getting past the censor five years later. Meanwhile, Joan Crawford had already made at least one appearance in an extant pornographic film while still a struggling actress.
Captain Salvation (1927)
An X-certificate intertitle in which Pauline Starke screams at Lars Hanson “My step-pa ‘helped’ me once – a good thing the baby died!”
The Flame of the Yukon (1926)
A fiery end for the villain in this movie (if memory serves) who is set alight by a kerosene lamp thrown at him, the flames only being quenched when he falls to his death.
Behind the Door (1919)
With memories of WW1 still fresh in the minds of audience and makers alike, this uncompromising tale of a husband’s bloodthirsty revenge on brutal German submariners who raped his wife ends with the title “I tried to skin him alive but the sonofabitch died on me!”
DW Griffith gave Babylon the full treatment, including a bathing orgy with lovingly shot nudes. Even more so than was the case with Cecil B De Mille and scantily clad classical maidens, Griffith seems to have demanded jaw-dropping realism and sensuality from his cast.
The Cheat (1915)
Sessue Hayakawa brands Fannie Ward in unflinching close-up, because as he puts it, he brands “all his property …”
Lois Weber’s film has a quite gorgeous “Naked Truth” wandering through most of the four allegorical reels. Although this was obviously intended to edify rather than titillate, audiences were unlikely to have been as artistically mature about this as Weber might have hoped. Mayor James Curley of Boston supposedly insisted that clothing be painted on her in every frame in order to get the film past the city censors.
An Interesting Story (1904)
A man gets run over flat by a steamroller in James Williamson’s An Interesting Story – OK, two cyclists inflate him back to life again, but think what a shock it would have been to audiences of the time!
There have been some wonderful screenings at our favourite venues – from the Gothic silents at the BFI Southbank to a range of international films at the Barbican cinema. Retrospectives of Marcel L’Herbier and Jean Grémillon at both venues introduced many of us to the further reaches of French silent cinema. Theatrical releases of Underground, Nosferatu and The Epic of Everest boosted silent movie awareness hugely. Blancanieves proved that the art is not lost.
On a personal note, I was lucky enough to visit the festivals at Bologna and Pordenone, and I have enjoyed another year of blogging, writing and speaking about the silent cinema I love.
Next year, we’re anticipating a Buster Keaton season at the BFI Southbank, the 10th Slapstick festival and several events to mark the centenary both of the Little Tramp and the onset of the first world war. For more details, of course, you can check the ever-expanding listings.
But before we get too ahead of ourselves, let me know below what your highlights and yes, maybe lowlights, of 2013 were silent-film wise. Was it a good year for the silents?
• Update: Sorry, guys, I’ve just been told that these events have been cancelled. Don’t know why as yet, but hope to find out more soon – including whether they will be rescheduled for later in the year.
Have you ever been to a Silent Disco? It’s great fun. You dance around in a huge group of people but the music isn’t played out loud, it’s piped into your headphones. Hilarious for onlookers, but there’s a great sense of community on the dancefloor – like you’re sharing a secret with everyone in the crowd. The Silent Cinema in Deptford, south London, works on the same principle, but with films. The wireless headphones deliver the film’s soundtrack, but filter out the popcorn munching and chatter from your fellow audience members.
Although the name has obviously caught my attention before, I never thought they would show silent films there. But I was wrong. Silent Cinema is devoting a weekend in August to … silent cinema. They’re calling the programme the “Black & White Classics Weekend”, and why not? Here’s the lineup: