Tag Archives: silent film

Silver nitrate apotheosis: cinema in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

This is a guest post for Silent London by the Lumière Sisters, a collective of writers who hang out over at the Chiseler


The Victorians were falling away. And with them a withered system of reality embodied in overwrought virtuoso performances. Technique as a means of reflecting Nature – or, to quote Balzac, the “conjugation of objects with light” – was displaced, uncrowned by painters pursuing a darker mirror, a diabolical truth for smashing the mendacity of a bloodless representational art.

It was finally time for Edgar Allan Poe’s crepuscular light to shine. Not solely via accepted modes but written alchemically in cinematographic rays beamed through silver salts. Filmmaking is the darkest and unholiest of arts (done right, that is), and the director was emerging now – supreme pimp to a coterie of fallen angels, nymphs and sirens.

Modernism began materialising, slowly and unevenly at first, as an answer to 19th-century illusionism. The rank trickery of which academic art’s heroes lay dead and dying – granting Poe a new, posthumous plasticity to actualise delirium, converting it from literature into an art… art worthy of the name. And here, the “Decadents” became forerunners. Consider Surrealism, its nose-dive into the gulf of interiority, as a bequest from Poe – via his greatest interpreter.

Germination (Odilon Redon, 1879)

In Odilon Redon’s Germination (1879), a wan, baleful, free-floating arabesque of heads of indeterminate gender suggests either a linear, ascending involution, or a terrifying descent from an unlit celestial void into a bottomless pit of an all-too-human, devolving identity. Redon’s disembodied heads gradually take on more human characteristics, culminating into a black haloed portrait in profile. The cosmos of Redon’s etching is governed by an unexplained, inexplicable moral sentience, which absorbs the power of conventional light. Thus black is responsible for building its essential form, while glimmers of white, hovering above and below, prove ever elusive; registering as somehow elsewhere, beyond the otherwise tenebrous unity of the picture plane; adding to the depth of its unsettling dimensions.

Continue reading Silver nitrate apotheosis: cinema in the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe

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Baby Driver: where we’re going we don’t need words

In the Three Flavours: Cornetto trilogy directed by Edgar Wright, the joke was that Simon Pegg and Nick Frost’s characters find themselves thrust into an ersatz version of the media they consume. In Shaun of the Dead (2004), it was zombie movies, in Hot Fuzz (2007), action blockbusters, and in The World’s End (2013), apocalyptic sci-fi. Similarly, in the same director’s Scott Pilgrim vs the World (2010), a geeky musician in Toronto is faced with a set of super-villains to battle. The film was adapted from a series of graphic novels and incorporates comic-book styling in its mise en scene as well as its plot. Its structure and visual style also intentionally recall video games, and the Xbox and PlayStation adaptations were released alongside the movie.

Wright’s latest film, Baby Driver, is about a young man living inside a music video, or attempting to. Specifically, a music video that Wright himself directed, for ‘Blue Song’ by Mint Royale, in which Noel Fielding plays a getaway driver who grooves along to a track on his CD player while his fellow crims rob a bank. Our callow, taciturn hero, Baby (Ansel Elgort), was listening to his iPod when his parents were killed in a car collision, and now he can only get through the day with his earplugs in, tapping his head to a carefully selected soundtrack, and lipreading his way through his interactions with others. The tunes are there to down out his tinnitus, caused by the crash, but it’s heavily implied that they protect him from emotionally engaging with other people too.

On a good day for Baby, as for all of us, his iPod track of choice synchs perfectly with the world around him. There is an especially fun sequence, almost like something from a musical, when he buys coffee to the sound of ‘Harlem Shuffle’. Or, in his work as a getaway driver, he can play air-drums to ‘Bellbottoms’ by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion in the time it takes for his employers to relieve a bank of its cash. On a bad day, the city does not groove to Baby’s vibe, and a holdup in the holdup will mean he has to grab his iPod and rewind ‘Neat Neat Neat’ by the Damned to keep on track.

There’s something very attractive about staying plugged in, and living life to your own soundtrack, seeing the world as if it were a silent movie, or a succession of three-to-five-minute silent movies, all strung together. So I was intrigued by Wright’s new film, as a former Walkman-addicted teenager, and a silent-movie buff both. Of course, Baby’s failure to listen to the world around him would make his stunt-driving even more lethal than it already is. And his lip-reading skill a) has to be explained by giving him a deaf foster father* and b) has to be translated on screen into floating intertitles.

baby-driver-image-1

Though, to be honest, the dialogue is largely redundant in this likeable, if slight film: Baby drives a getaway car for a man called Doc (Kevin Spacey, camp as Christmas); Baby falls in love with a waitress called Debora (Lily James, doing the best she can) and wants to go straight; Baby has to do One Last Job. The film begins as quite charming, almost whimsical, but gets better, and far more action-heavy in the last half hour. Sadly the characters that surround young Baby are barely sketched, or even named. He has a colleague called Bats who is, well, batty (Jamie Foxx, providing most of the humour) and another just called Buddy (a menacing, enjoyably odd, Jon Hamm), whose girlfriend is called Darling (Eiza Gonzalez, though why they bothered casting anyone for such a thinly drawn role is beyond me).

The influences on Baby Driver extend beyond the world of pop videos, but not much further. Much here, from the slightly dreamy twist on60s-Americana settings (check out the Technicolor washing in the laundromat) to the pop-culture chit-chat, recalls Quentin Tarantino (apparently a supporter of the project) and it is little surprise that when a pizza restaurant appears it is called Goodfellas. Martin Scorsese’s 1990 gangster saga is surely the ultimate in jukebox movies, and although Wright’s playlists skew more 90s indie and cult classics than the stomping sounds of the 60s and 70s, it’s clear what Baby Driver’s pop collage aspires to. As those two influences suggest, there’s a retro tinge to Baby Driver. Baby may be only a young man, but this is an action movie with a title taken from a Simon and Garfunkel B-side and a soundtrack that could have been lifted straight from Radio 6 Music. Even Baby’s collection of iPods, like his C90s full of sampled electronica, are pretty outdated these days. Hasn’t he heard of Spotify Premium?

Ansel-Elgort-in-Baby-Driver

However it appears, the film is smothered in music, and a lot has been written about Hollywood films ditching most of their dialogue to play well in Asian markets, but surely these aural reference points would reverse that? And Baby Driver is full of chatter too, which even if it isn’t as comic as Wright’s previous work, is often full of geeky pleasures. Debora and Baby leap straight into a discussion about the songs featuring their names; the best, possibly only, joke here, involves a heavy mistaking comedian Mike Myers for Michael Myers from Halloween. Ultimately, Baby Driver is a very likeable, entertaining film (Spacey is fabulous and the stunt sequences are brilliant) but emotionally every bit as a shallow as a pop video. After every setpiece, it seems to start again from first positions, especially for the blank female characters. It’s like La La Land, but if nobody got out of their cars. And Baby’s non-committal moral stance and self-enforced social isolation is hard to root for, which wouldn’t be a problem if the plot didn’t later hinge on him being a saintly kind of criminal.

Maybe one day Wright will channel this particular strategy, which has worked so often before, but backfired here, into a drama about a young man whose world transforms into a silent drama. That I would like to see. Or a woman, for once, even more so.

  • Baby Driver is released on 28 June, but preview screenings are available now.

*I give the film credit for casting a deaf actor, CJ Jones, in this role.

Sound Barrier: Der Müde Tod (1921) & The Seventh Seal (1957)

We’re breaking the Sound Barrier rules again. Or bending them slightly. Once more, the new-release film we want to discuss in this episode is actually silent. It’s the theatrical re-release of Fritz Lang’s Der Müde Tod (Destiny, 1921), so we decided to pair it with Ingmar Bergman’s The Seventh Seal (1957). This means that today we are talking about two critically acclaimed films in which young people play games with death.

We’ll be talking about faith, symbolism, storytelling and Max von Sydow’s handsome face. Enjoy!

Continue reading Sound Barrier: Der Müde Tod (1921) & The Seventh Seal (1957)

Laurel and Hardy: from Ulverston to Hollywood

This is a guest post for Silent London by Katie Wright.

A pair of comics shuffle onstage at the Palace Theatre in Blackpool, England in June 1947. One is swimming in an oversized checked suit, dripping past his hands and towards the floor. The other is round and squat, sporting a moustache comically small for his wide face. Together, they frolic and play, every bit the annoyed schemer and his hapless buffoon. Laurel and Hardy finish their act to thunderous applause. The duo is famous all over the world, but one of them is playing to a “hometown” crowd.

laurelandhardyblackpoolposter

The pair were best known for their feature films and silent shorts, and shared a bond as close as brothers, although Oliver Hardy hailed from Georgia while Stand Laurel remained a proud northern Briton throughout his life. While onstage Laurel played the fool, he was writer, director, and comic mastermind behind the pair’s success.

At the heart of Laurel’s stardom lies his boyhood as a young performer in Britain. Despite moving several times in his youth, the local boy who made good is revered in various “hometowns” across the north, and many avid fans and academics have sought to better understand the boy behind the man.

The Laurel and Hardy Museum at its original location in Ulverston

 

In Ulverston, Cumbria, where Laurel was born on 16 June, 1890, long-time admirer Bill Cubin put his lovingly assembled memorabilia collection on display in the mid 1980s, leading to what is now a full-fledged museum run by his grandson.

A statue of Laurel stands in Dockwray Square, North Shields, where he lived as a boy from 1897 to 1902. The Eden Theatre in Bishop Auckland, County Durham hosts a Laurel statue erected in 2008. There are more plaques in pubs and venues from Leicestershire to Glasgow.

Stan Laurel
Stan Laurel

University of Nottingham professor of sociology Danny Lawrence grew up in North Shields, and sees in Laurel’s story a “parallel to [his] own life”. The connections drove him to begin researching Stan Laurel, and prompted his biography The Making of Stan Laurel: Echoes of a British Boyhood.

“I was born in the same town 50 years apart, nearly 100 yards from where he lived,” explains Lawrence. “Laurel lived in North Shields during the formative years of childhood and youth. It fascinated me to begin exploring the relationship between the town and the artist.”

Stan Jefferson, later Stan Laurel, began acting young, a student of Britain’s traditional music hall and pantomime. He eventually travelled to the USA with the Fred Karno troupe alongside a young Charlie Chaplin.

“It was by chance that he got to the States. I think that chance element makes his story alluring,” says Lawrence.

“His ability was there, but there was no distinctive character until he met Hardy. He only got that chance when the Karno tour was failing, and he instead chose to stay in the USA in search of greener pastures.”

Continue reading Laurel and Hardy: from Ulverston to Hollywood

San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017: podcast report

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!

Continue reading San Francisco Silent Film Festival 2017: podcast report

Sound Barrier: The Red Turtle & Wall-E (2008)

Come break the Sound Barrier with us again. In this episode, we go to the edge of the world and the ends of the earth and back again with two animated features.

We’re talking about Studio Ghibli’s modern silent The Red Turtle (in cinemas now), and also Pixar’s beloved Wall-E from 2008. We talk about ‘Dustbuster Keaton’, teenage mutant turtles, pizza plants and bad romance, as well as artistic animation, dialogue-free direction and creation myths. You can even hear Pete sing!

Continue reading Sound Barrier: The Red Turtle & Wall-E (2008)

Japanese silent film: brush up your Benshi

Fantastic news. Two events coming up in London explore the Japanese art of Benshi narration for silent film, both of them courtesy of the Japan Foundation. You may have already heard that there will a screening of the masterpiece I was Born, But … (Yasijuro Ozu, 1932) at the Barbican on 25 June with piano accompaniment and Benshi narration. Book your tickets here.

I_Was_Born,_But..._1932.jpg

Before that, on Friday 23 June at Foyles on Charing Cross Road, you can learn more about Benshi itself, with Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and silent film pianist Mie Yanashita. There’ll be a talk, demonstration (with a scene from Orochi, 1925) and even the chance to have a go yourself. I’ll be there too, giving an introductory talk about silent cinema to set the scene and chairing the Q&A with Yamashiro. More details below – it’s free but you have to book your seat on Eventbrite.

benshiflyer

In conjunction with the Barbican’s screening of Yasujiro Ozu’s I was Born, But… organised as part of The Japanese House exhibition, the Japan Foundation is delighted to present a special evening exploring the art of Benshi. Following an introductory talk by silent cinema specialist Pamela Hutchinson, Katsudo-Benshi Hideyuki Yamashiro and Silent Film Pianist Mie Yanashita will perform a clip from Orochi (1925) recreating an authentic Benshi experience. As part of his illustrated talk, Yamashiro will discuss Benshi as a contemporary occupation as well as the unique appeal of Japanese silent cinema.

This fascinating event will also offer a few audience members the chance to take to the stage and perform the role of Benshi under instruction from Yamashiro himself!
This event is free to attend but booking is essential. To book your place via Eventbrite, please click here

Film and Notfilm review: when Buster Keaton met Samuel Beckett

“I took one look at the script, and asked him if he ate welsh rarebit before going to bed at night.” Buster Keaton’s first impression of Samuel Beckett’s only foray into the cinema, Film, is entirely understandable. Although no one would wish its nightmarish scenario to appear in their own cheese dreams. This short, dialogue-free existential chase movie was made in 1966 starring a near-septuagenarian Keaton – and it remains one of the most intriguing corners of film history. The Nobel Laureate’s film might promise slapstick, but as Ross Lipman the director of a documentary on the work, NotFilm says: “It was at once an investigation of the cinematic medium, and of the human experience of consciousness.” Popcorn, anyone?

Keaton plays O, a man pursued by a camera, E. Object and Eye. O runs away from E, and when cornered in a room, goes to desperate lengths to avoid its piercing gaze. The reveal at the end of the movie is chillingly sinister, even if you see it coming. The film is shot in black and white, and although Keaton has aged, he is still recognisably the acrobatic star of the 20s – his pork-pie hat is worn at an angle, an eye-patch caps those famous cheekbones. The mood is bleak, paranoid, the camera is unsteady, Keaton shifty.

beckett-with-film-strip-copy
Samuel Beckett examines a film strip

Beckett was displeased with Film, despite conceding that it contained “the strangeness and beauty of pure image”. The critics were unimpressed at the time, but as is so often the way with these things, the reputation of Film has risen with time. This art film has become, in its own way, a cult movie: very hard to see, and referred to or homaged almost as often as it is screened. The theatrical release of Lipman’s brilliant “kino-essay” documentary was very welcome – offering historical background, cinematic context, and critical interpretation for Beckett’s movie. (I wrote about that last year for the Guardian.)

Continue reading Film and Notfilm review: when Buster Keaton met Samuel Beckett

London Symphony: a new silent film released this September

Do you remember London Symphony? It’s a project this site has long been excited about. You may even have backed it on Kickstarter, or like me, even appeared in it. The film is directed by Alex Barratt and it’s a sumptuous new city symphony for the capital – an entirely silent movie that swoops around more than 300 locations in London to the tune of a newly composed musical score by James McWilliam. And finally, you’re going to get the chance to see it.

London Symphony will have a ’boutique’ theatrical release, with a screening at the Barbican on 3 September 2017, accompanied by the Orchestra of St Paul’s playing McWilliam’s score live. You can book tickets here.

There will be further UK screenings after the Barbican event, which will be announced shortly, and the film will be distributed internationally by Flicker Alley.

Photograph: Alex Barrett
Photograph: Alex Barrett

 

LONDON SYMPHONY is a contemporary take on the ‘city symphony’, a genre of creative non-fiction that flourished in the 1920s and consisted of works that attempted to build poetic portraits of city life. As well as serving as a form of virtual tourism, city symphonies raise important and universal questions about the nature of community life – questions that have become vital within the current political climate.LONDON SYMPHONY’S September release will coincide with the 90th anniversary of Walter Ruttmann’s BERLIN, SYMPHONY OF A GREAT CITY, one of the most important examples of the original city symphonies. Ruttmann was one of the great pioneers of experimental film, and Barrett and McWilliam have worked hard to bring a similar sense of poetic playfulness to LONDON SYMPHONY, while also updating the form for the 21st Century.

 The project’s September release will be launched with a special screening at the Barbican Centre, the home of silent cinema in London, where it will be presented with the live premiere of McWilliam’s musical composition, as performed by OSP (the Orchestra of St Paul’s) and their conductor Ben Palmer. Says Palmer: “It’s always a thrill to bring a new piece to life, but this promises to be an unusually interesting collaboration for OSP. We’re very excited to be premiering James McWilliam’s fantastic music for LONDON SYMPHONY, especially at the iconic Barbican Centre”.

The screening will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Barrett, McWilliam, Palmer and London history specialist Mark Rowland, chairman of Footprints of London. It will also mark the opening of the Barbican’s autumn ‘Silent Film and Live Music’ series. Tickets can now be purchased here: https://www.barbican.org.uk/film/event-detail.asp?id=21462.

After this special launch event, LONDON SYMPHONY will tour around a number of carefully selected venues throughout the UK, including conventional cinema spaces and alternative spaces such as a Parish Church and a Buddhist Meditation Centre. “In many ways,” says Barrett, “LONDON SYMPHONY is a community project, and we hope to bring it directly into those communities during our release”.

Photograph: Alex Barrett
Photograph: Alex Barrett

Roy Budd’s Phantom of the Opera score premieres at the London Coliseum

Jazz musician and composer Roy Budd was well known for his film scores, for popular movies including Get Carter, but one of his compositions has never seen the light of day. In 1993, Budd was due to premiere his symphonic score for the classic silent film The Phantom of the Opera, but just a few weeks before the screening, he died suddenly, from a brain haemorrhage. Budd was just 46 years old. The screening was cancelled and Budd’s score has never been played in public, but it will finally get its belated premiere this year, on 8 October 2017.

A self-taught pianist and child prodigy, Budd performed his first concert at The London Coliseum in 1953 at six years of age and went on to perform with stars such as Aretha Franklin, Bob Hope, and Antonio Carlos Jobin as well as scoring 40 feature films. In 1989 Budd acquired an original 35mm film print to the 1925 silent film Phantom of the Opera from a collector. He restored the film to its full glory using an experimental two colour process and original tints from the film’s original release. Budd completed a full orchestral score for the film using an 84-piece orchestra and recorded this with the Luxembourg Symphony Orchestra. In 1993, with five weeks to go before a London premiere and European tour, Budd suffered a brain hemorrhage and passed away at just 46 years of age.   

This is an exciting match of venue and film, before we even get on to the score. Imagine the thrill of seeing The Phantom of the Opera in a beautiful opera house – the Coliseum in Covent Garden no less. Hold on to your seats, and watch the chandeliers, because Lon Chaney’s phantom will take to the stage at the home of the English National Opera.

Phantom.jpg

Budd’s score, which was described by Geoff Brown of the Times as “succulent” will be performed by the Docklands Sinfonia Orchestra and conducted by Spencer Down. This is a very special premiere, in a prestigious venue, of a long-anticipated piece of music.

Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

Update: Mystery solved! The truth about Charlie Chaplin and Universal

The Mail on Sunday ran a news story about Charlie Chaplin last weekend. I missed it at the time, but the story came to my attention when it was featured on Have I Got News For You (for non-Brits, that’s a satirical news quiz on the BBC). Panellist Paul Merton, who knows a thing or two about Chaplin, pulled quite a face when he heard it. You may too, when you read on.

The story, written by David Wigg, who seems to be an occasional correspondent for the Daily Mail and Mail on Sunday, mostly on showbiz stories, is about a set of correspondence from 1912. The papers were discovered in the archive of the Grand Order of Water Rats, and concern one of the society’s most famous members, Charlie Chaplin.

The story goes, and please put down your tea before continuing, that Charlie Austin of the Water Rats, well-connected in London theatre circles, had recommended Chaplin to the Universal film studio in America. The executives there wanted to replace Buster Keaton, as he had become far too demanding. A reply from Universal voices several concerns about Austin’s suggestion of Chaplin as a potential film star. He would, the letter says, have to change his appearance, his act and his name. The year, I remind you, is 1912.

The studio wrote: ‘The moustache must go and Chaplin will have to change name. Too easily confused with another comic Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.’

The memo added: ‘Please send in new ideas and new name in case tests are successful. Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English Music Hall stages but for mass audience we must try to avoid offending people who are bow- legged or cripples. DO NOT let him over-act. Try other hats and caps, possibly even beret.’

Hold up. Yes, I know.

In a further letter, Austin says that Chaplin “strongly objects” to changing his makeup and style (as if he has discussed the offer with the actor). Undeterred, Universal pays for Chaplin to travel to the US for a screen test in January 1913, but finds him to be unsuitable for screen work even though he apparently changed his “act” for the occasion:

Universal’s verdict was scathing: ‘Test unsatisfactory. Very bland style, no personality and too short. Please keep looking for comics. Keaton becoming impossible.’

It’s a classic story of the star who got away, like Dick Rowe turning down the Beatles, or that possibly apocryphal MGM screen test for Fred Astaire, which summarised: “Can’t act. Can’t sing. Slightly bald. Can dance a little.” It also paints an unattractive picture of Hollywood types as both absurdly politically correct (concerns about mocking “cripples”) and either anti-Semitic or at least worried about pandering to that prejudice. It’s fun to look back with hindsight at fools in days gone by who couldn’t appreciate the talent that is clear to us now.

But if you have any knowledge of the facts of Chaplin’s life or of early Hollywood, this story is pretty much bilge from beginning to end – with just a smear of truth to make it believable. It’s almost impossible to know where to start with this nonsense. But let’s begin with this:

Continue reading Fact-checking a story about Charlie Chaplin, Universal and Buster Keaton

Sound Barrier: Mindhorn & The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

This episode of the Sound Barrier features two druggy and slightly dim detectives. We’re talking about Julian Barratt’s absurdly funny TV spoof Mindhorn and the cult favourite that is The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916), starring Douglas Fairbanks as sleuth Coke Ennyday. We talk about outrageous accents, preposterous plasticine, obscene graffiti and excessive amounts of cocaine.

Sound Barrier: Mindhorn & The Mystery of the Leaping Fish (1916)

In the studio, I am joined as ever by Peter Baran, and also by special guest Julian Coleman (you can follow him on Twitter here).

The Silent London Podcast is also available on iTunes and Stitcher. If you like what you hear, please subscribe and leave a rating or review too. The podcast is presented in association with SOAS radio by Peter Baran and Pamela Hutchinson.

If you want to get in touch with us about anything you hear on the podcast then you can post a comment below, or tweet @silentlondon.

The next episode of Sound Barrier will appear in a fortnight’s time. We’ll announce the films for the next podcast about a week before it launches, so you can watch what we’re watching.
Silent London in no way, not even with a wink, endorses the consumption of illegal narcotics. We prefer the consumption of Class-A silent movies.

The Lodger at Yorkshire Silent Film Festival: Neil Brand’s score completes a classic

This is a guest post for Silent London by Sheldon Hall, senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University, who writes and lectures on film and television

 

Of the nine silent features made by Alfred Hitchcock, it was his third, The Lodger, that most clearly set the pattern for the director’s future career. As it’s about the hunt for a serial killer, it’s also the one that most anticipates future trends in popular culture. The BFI Archive’s beautiful restoration, undertaken as part of its ‘Hitchcock Nine’ project, was first presented five years ago with musical accompaniment that remains a subject of debate. But in the year marking the ninetieth anniversary since the original release (produced in 1926, it sat on the shelf for six months after trade previews), the film has finally been given the presentation it deserves with the world premiere of Neil Brand’s new score.

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This screening, in a pristine amber-and-blue-tinted 35mm print, launched the second annual Yorkshire Silent Film Festival on 5 May 2017 at the Grade II-listed Abbeydale Picture House in Sheffield. The cinema was built as a suburban picture palace in 1920 and officially closed in 1975; but it has been rescued from the threat of development and is now in the charge of a trust. The Abbeydale is the venue for a three-day weekend of screenings at the start of the month-long YSFF and attracted a healthy opening-night audience of over 200 to the re-seated stalls area, packing the house.

The Lodger (1927)
The Lodger (1927)

My own take on the film itself is somewhat perverse: I think the hero did it. (He did in the book by Marie Belloc Lowndes, based on Jack the Ripper.) Ivor Novello plays the mysterious lodger, who takes upstairs rooms in a family home during a wave of killings of blonde women. The murderer always leaves a note, signed “The Avenger” and marked by a triangle. In his lodgings, Novello keeps a map of the triangular area in which the bodies have been found and falls for his landlady’s blonde daughter, Daisy (June Tripp), whose suitor is a dullard police detective (Malcolm Keen) on the killer’s trail.

The Lodger (1927)

Continue reading The Lodger at Yorkshire Silent Film Festival: Neil Brand’s score completes a classic

Sarah Duhamel, rebellious clown of French silent comedy

This is a guest post for Silent London by Jonathan Wakeham, the co-founder and programer of the LOCO London Comedy Film Festival, the 6th edition of which takes place at BFI Southbank 4-7 May 2017. Find out more at locofilmfestival.com.

We’re all familiar with the iconography of male silent comedy stars: Harold Lloyd’s glasses, Chaplin’s cane or Laurel and Hardy’s signature hats. They are brands as recognisable as Hitchcock’s silhouette, and they make the same promise: a guarantee of entertainment.

But there’s no equivalent female brand: no icon that’s known the world over. That’s not because there were no women silent comedy stars. Women such as Louise Fadenza, Mabel Normand, Marion Davies, Sybil Seeley and more were big names in their day. Florence Turner — “the Vitagraph girl” — was the biggest box-office draw of her era, and arguably the first true movie star.

But although they drew huge audiences there was, from the beginning, a doubtfulness about women becoming comedy stars. Part of this came from a tradition that defined comedy as inherently male; the French philosopher Henri Bergson declared in 1900 that “laughter has no greater foe than emotion … highly emotional souls in whom every event would be sentimentally prolonged and re-echoed, would neither know nor understand laughter”.

rosalie

Continue reading Sarah Duhamel, rebellious clown of French silent comedy

The Great Train Robbery’s parting shot

Jean-Luc Godard felt film-makers should be free to rearrange the beginning, middle and end of their scenarios. In 1903, Edwin S Porter left it to the projectionist. Scene 14 of his The Great Train Robbery, according to the sales catalogue, “can be used either to begin the subject or to end it, as the operator may choose”.

The Great Train Robbery is one of cinema’s earliest westerns, and something of a breakthrough in the development of narrative film editing. Porter’s ten-minute movie cuts between simultaneous action in different locations, more economically than in his previous work The Life of an American Fireman (1902), and the drama gains urgency from its use of location shooting, camera movement and frequent eruptions of violence. It is based a true story from 1900, when Butch Cassidy’s Hole in the Wall gang hijacked a train on the Union Pacific Railroad. The outlaws steal the mail and rob the passengers, exploding a safe and killing three men in the process. In real life, the Hole in the Wall Gang evaded capture that day, but in Porter’s film a posse of locals pursue the bandits on horseback, track them to a hideout in the woods and kill them in a shootout.

In scene 14, actor Justus D Barnes, who plays a member of the film’s bandit crew, faces the camera square-on, draws his revolver and fires six times in the direction of audience. With the gun’s chamber empty, he continues to squeeze the trigger, suggesting carelessness, desperation or an overzealous kill impulse. His impassive face suggests the last option is correct. The intended effect, according to the catalogue, which is what we have in lieu of a screenplay, is that Barnes is firing “point-blank at each individual in the audience”. It’s an especially violent act, both in real terms, and cinematic ones. The narrative momentum of the film is cast aside, then the fourth wall of the screen is broken by his gaze, only to be further ruptured by his bullets. Placed at the opening of the film, it might act as a trailer for the shoot-’em-up action to come. As a coda, it’s a warning to the audience that it’s a wild world out there, and the violence continues even after the case in the film’s title has been closed.

Joe Pesci in Goodfellas (1990)

That’s perhaps why the version of the film that has been handed down to us places Barnes at the end, a jolt of terror as disconcerting as a hand bursting from a grave. Martin Scorsese borrowed the shot for the ending of Goodfellas (1990), submerging a trigger-happy Joe Pesci into Ray Liotta’s farewell to “the life”. In that film, the bullets can be read as an assassination threat (Liotta’s Henry Hill has ratted out his fellow wise guys to the FBI) or a guilty conscience, troubling the protagonist with memories of past bloody deeds. But just as in Porter’s film, Scorsese is addressing the audience, not the internal logic of the film. With these gunshots, Goodfellas acknowledges its place in the history of the cinema’s glamorisation of violence, a process that comes full circle when Hill’s closing monologue states that gangsters were “treated like movie-stars with muscle”.

But what does Scene 14 do for The Great Train Robbery? Porter is serving his audience the thrill of screen violence two ways. The portrait of Barnes in character (perhaps a reference to a Wanted poster) is a remnant of the Cinema of Attractions, but within a narrative film. In order to contain all the action in the frame of a mostly fixed camera, The Great Train Robbery relies on long shots, often with the outlaws’ backs to the camera, so we can see their crimes as they commit them. Scene 14 adds spectacle to the storytelling, and character too. That sales catalogue bills it as a ”life-size picture”, but on even the scantiest Nickelodeon screen, it would be far bigger than that. It gives us a long cool look at one of the outlaws before he fires, and then reveals his face again and again as the smoke from each gunshot disperses.

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There’s another moment of spectacle in the film, a saloon scene in which the Wyoming locals perform a conventional group dance, and then a flashy “tenderfoot” routine, with “Broncho Billy” Anderson picking up his toes to avoid gunfire (there’s a nod to this Western turn in Goodfellas also, when Pesci’s character yells “I’m the Oklahoma Kid!” and shoots at Spider’s feet). The dance sequence serves as an introduction to the good guys who will chase the robbers down; a messenger interrupts the jig to share the news of the robbery.

If you compare these two pauses in the narrative pace of The Great Train Robbery, logic would dictate that Scene 14 should open the film, by way of announcing the gang. But in this early film, the trailblazer for so many movie westerns to come, narrative sense comes second to the thrill of action. The posse may have defeated the bandits, but as Barnes keeps firing the myth of the outlaw endures.

2016-02-14-endings

The Informer DVD/Blu review: twists and turns on the mean streets of Dublin

The Informer truly put the “international” into British International Pictures. This film, shot entirely in the Elstree studios in 1929, was adapted from an Irish novel, directed by a German, and starred a Swedish man and a Hungarian woman. As far as in-front-of-the-camera talent goes, this is exactly the kind of international collaboration that would perish with the coming of sound. Behind the scenes, British studios would only welcome in more European personnel through the 1930s, though sadly for the worst of reasons.

So The Informer is a movie on the cusp – geographically and historically. It’s fitting then that it was filmed in both silent and sound versions. The BFI restored the talkie Informer a while back, but in 2016, the silent version got the full makeover treatment, and was presented as the London Film Festival Archive Gala with a new score by Garth Knox.

 

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And thank goodness it did, because, whether you have seen the stilted and shaky sound version or not, the silent Informer is a breath of fresh air. This is a truly accomplished late silent drama, with a graceful moving camera and fine performances, and all that emotion is heightened by slinky black shadows and high-angled shots that recall director Arthur Robison’s achievements in German Expressionism (you may have seen Warning Shadows, 1923). The story may be set in early 1920s Dublin, but this vampiric treatment suits it perfectly. Liam O’Flaherty pictured his moody thriller being made into a German film when it was still words on a page.

In this taut, cat-and-mouse thriller, Lars Hanson plays Gypo Nolan, one of a disintegrating band of Irish revolutionaries, who tips off the police to the whereabouts of his exiled comrade, Francis, played by Carl Harbord. Famed vamp star Lya de Putti plays the woman they both love. The story plays out in the mean streets of Dublin – there’s a claustrophobic sense of place as we feel that the characters are trapped in the city streets by their ideals as much as by their betrayals. But this city could also be any city where the people and the police are at odds. It could be Weimar Berlin, for example. And it’s uncannily like the crime-infested LA of 1940s film noir. Those shadows get everywhere.

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Hollywood E17: the studios beyond the fog zone

First things first – you’re all invited to a bank holiday Monday party! Some friends of mine, based in London’s most happening* postcode of E17 will be unveiling a plaque on 1 May 2017 to celebrate a slice of suburban London’s silent movie history. And you should be there!

Walthamstow was home to several movie studios in the silent era – Precision, British & Colonial, Broadwest and I. B. Davidson all had their premises on these streets. Why? Because silent film producers loved to shoot in the suburbs, beyond the “fog zone” of central London, where the air was muggy, and apparently the movie-savvy punters would try to get their faces on camera. But they liked to stay close enough to Theatreland that their actors could get back to work after shooting finished.

And yes, Walthamstow has always been super cool.

So on 1 May, actor Paul McGann (who you may know is a bit of a silent film fan) will be unveiling a special blue plaque to mark the sites of the Precision studios, and he says: “I am proud to be associated with this event to give the deserved recognition to the silent film pioneers of the last century.” There will be more plaques to follow, marking the site of each studio.

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Two-for-one special offer on tickets to India on Film at BFI Southbank

The BFI’s mega India on Film season kicks off this month and continues all year. The season culminates (for us early cinephiles at least) in this year’s London Film Festival Archive Gala, which will be the sumptuous silent drama Shiraz (1928), at the Barbican on 14 October 2017, beautifully restored with a brand-new score by Anoushka Shankar.

But before all that, there are plenty of films to be getting on with, and if you’d like to take advantage of a two-for-one ticket offer for the films showing at BFI Southbank in the India on Film season, step this way …

Simply quote INDIA241 when booking on line, in person or over the phone to claim the offer. Only valid for all films and events in the BFI’s India On Film season in 2017.

Please note that this ticket offer does NOT include the Archive Gala.

The first silent morsels that caught my eye in the season are a couple of talks on Saturday 20 May 2017:

The first of those talks concludes with a screening of Raja Harishchandra – a rarely seen film from 1913, and the earliest extant Indian movie. To find out a little more about the making of this film, and early Indian cinema in general, why not read a little feature I wrote for the Guardian in 2013, to mark the Centenary of Bollywood’?

If you can’t make it to BFI Southbank this year, look out for screenings of Shiraz around the country after the Archive Gala, and check out the India on Film collection on BFI Player.

 

The Goddess (1934) DVD review: gossip is a fearful thing

Ruan Lingyu appeared in her first film in 1927, aged 16. In 1935, she took her own life, just over a month before her 25th birthday. In that short time, she had appeared in many Chinese silent films and become one of the country’s best known actresses. Today she is celebrated for her delicately nuanced performances in those films that survive – she has been called the “Chinese Garbo”. However, if you’ve seen Stanley Kwan’s 1992 film Center Stage say, you will also know about the troubles Lingyu encountered, and the events leading up to her shocking suicide.

Lingyu’s private life shouldn’t concern us now, any more than in 1935, but when you watch The Goddess, a stunning Chinese silent film and one of the last she made, it is difficult not to make a link between the actress and the character she plays. Lingyu’s suicide note (which may have been forged) famously read “gossip is a fearful thing”, and her early death came after she had been monstered by the press over her love life. In The Goddess, Lingyu plays another woman devastated by malicious gossip. But it’s important not to take this comparison too far – the chatter of small-minded women is not the worst of her character’s problems.

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The Goddess (1934)

The first thing to know about this film, which is every bit as beautiful and tragic as its star, is that “goddess” was a Chinese slang term for a prostitute, perhaps a slightly ironic one. Lingyu’s character embodies the perceived contradictions in that name: she is a loving mother who supports her son by nightly sex work. The crib is in the centre of her home, and her garish cheong sams are hanging on the wall. The nameless heroine has the misfortune of running into the house of a sleazy gambler, “The Boss”, when fleeing the police one night. From that moment one, her decides to exploit her, taking her earnings on the threat of harming her son. When the “goddess” attempts to send her son to school, the other mothers soon catch on to the way she earns her money, and complain to the principal, which is when our heroine faces the worst crisis of all.

Prostitution was rife in China in the 1930s and The Goddess’s story would not have been unusual. Many women were forced by poverty or trafficking into a career that was both illegal and made them vulnerable to pimps and clients – some of whom might be beasts like the Boss. If they aspired to a better, safer, more respectable life, the taint of sex work could hamper their efforts – which this film illustrates. The Goddess doesn’t feel like a campaigning film, despite a rousing speech made by the school principal, and you may feel let down by the ending. But this is a humane and very moving film – who knows whether it may have changed a few attitudes in its time?

The Goddess (1934)
The Goddess (1934)

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Sound Barrier: Neruda & The Beloved Rogue (1927)

In episode two of the Sound Barrier podcast we wax poetic, with two films about poets – specifically poets in exile. The two films we will discuss – one new release and one silent classic – are Pablo Larrain’s Neruda and The Beloved Rogue (1927) starring John Barrymore. The two films may appear to be very different, but they have a lot in common, as we discover …

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