Tag Archives: silent film

LFF review: Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928) with Anoushka Shankar

Saturday night’s London Film Festival Archive Gala was an extraordinary experience. Regularly a highlight of the silent film year, previous galas have showcased glistening restorations of old and faded movies paired with fresh scores of mostly excellent quality. This year’s event was an exercise in enchanted restoration – with makeover and music transforming a simple film into something entirely wonderful.

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Shiraz: A Romance of India was an Indian/British/German co-production from the late silent era. You might know two more films by the director Franz Osten: A Throw of Dice and Light of Asia. Shiraz is a shamelessly romantic and fairly romanticised, telling of the love affair honoured by one the most beautiful mausoleum in the world, the Taj Mahal in Agra.

Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Shiraz (Himansu Rai, who also produced the film) is a humble, but exceptionally talented potter, who has a deep love for his adopted sister Selima. When Selima (Enakshi Rama Rau) grows up, she is sold as a slave into the royal court and they are separated. What’s more, a love affair slowly begins to spark between Selima and Prince Khurram (Charu Roy) … Meanwhile, general’s daughter Dalia (Seeta Devi) is plotting to get her own hands on the prince.

Himansu Rai (Shiraz) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Himansu Rai (Shiraz) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

The story may seem paper-thin, but it has a beautiful surface. The romantic leads are very sweet, with the halting love story between Selima and the Prince always believable and Devi delightfully minxy. The location backdrops of the mountains and palaces are ravishing – a testament to the art direction of Promode Nath and cinematography by Henry Harris and Emil Schünemann that makes the most of natural light.

Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Seeta Devi (Dalia) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

The action sequence that opens the film, with a caravan raided on its way across the desert, leaving the baby Selima behind, is brilliantly staged. Frequent cuts to her nurse anxiously peeking out at the incoming danger ramp up the tension.There are moments of violence elsewhere too, notably two gruesome threats lobbied at Shiraz himself – the “elephant’s foot” moment caused many in the audience to audibly gasp, and understandably so. It’s a fairly dark story, in truth, with poison, plotting, torture, vengeance, heartbreak and loss on the cards for our group of amorous young things. If you know anything about Indian film, you may be surprised that the lovers share a passionate clinch – and they do.

 

 

Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) and Charu Roy (Prince Khurram, later Shah Jahan) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) and Charu Roy (Prince Khurram, later Shah Jahan) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

With such a beautiful film, the restoration work has its chance to shine. Working from an original copy of the film, the BFI has removed scratches, blotches, tremors and flickers, leaving Shiraz unblemished, stable and luminous. Watching the film, simply gazing at it, was a pure pleasure. A fairytale such as this repays the polish.

Himansu Rai (Shiraz) and Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Himansu Rai (Shiraz) and Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)

Performing alongside the film, however, was an ensemble led by Anoushka Shankar playing a sensational new score that she had composed for the film. At this gala, the standing ovation was no mere matter of politeness. Multilayered, pulsing with energy, weaving a selection of Indian and European instruments together with, I think, a foley track, Shankar’s score invigorated the film and hinted at its own “fusion” history as a co-production. Shankar’s sitar playing alone was pretty exceptional, but the score overall was one of the best I have ever heard by a non-specialist.

Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography
Anoushka Shankar accompanies Shiraz: A Romance of India at the BFI London Film Festival Archive Gala. Credit: Darren Brade Photography

After its triumphant premiere in London, we can expect to see Shiraz in cinemas and on Blu-ray in January 2018 – I’ll bring you more news on that when I have it. Plus you can catch it, with piano accompaniment by John Sweeney, at the Cambridge Film Festival this month. 

The BFI has more ambitious plans for Shiraz though, and both film and score will be embarking on a short Indian tour in November, in partnership with the British Council:

  • 1 November: Hyderabad International Convention Centre, Hyderabad
  • 3 November: Kala Mandir, Kolkata
  • 4 November: Siri Fort Auditorium, New Delhi
  • 5 November: Sri Shanmukhananda Chandrasekarendra Saraswathi Auditorium , Mumbai
Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
Enakshi Rama Rau (Selima, later Mumtaz Mahal) in Shiraz: A Romance of India (1928, BFI National Archive)
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‘Rhythm, rhythm and pure rhythm above all’: How Edmund Meisel scored Eisenstein’s October

This is a guest post for Silent London by John Leman Riley, a writer and editor, specialising in Eastern European culture, and film sound.

Film theory is usually visually driven, and the Soviet kind – with its emphasis on editing – especially so. And since the theorisers were often directors, they are better known than the men (and, inevitably, they were almost always men) who argued about the music. So much so that the best-known Soviet film-sound-theory text is 1928’s A Statement by Eisenstein, Pudovkin and Alexandrov (“on Sound” is often added to translations to clarify the subject). With its dream of asynchronous, anti-realistic sound, it was an idealistic text, and its ideas would never be fully followed through.

But beyond that is a huge bibliography of articles, pamphlets and books about the aesthetics of film music, and the competing technologies being developed for synchronised sound. The critical tracts were often written by properly trained musicians with practical experience in the cinema but their writings are rarely translated, and remain largely unknown outside Russia.

Sergei Eisenstein
Sergei Eisenstein

What were these competing theories about film music? Nowadays, we tend to look at the degree to which the music reflects and reinforces the images but, as A Statement argues, it could counter them. And there was a third option: the music could go its own way, fitting the film where it touched. This approach was taken by a Kiev cinema whose 60-piece orchestra simply played Tchaikovsky symphonies regardless of what was on screen, which must have made for some bizarre audiovisual moments! How successful these approaches were depended to some degree on whether the film was being accompanied by a composed score, a selection from albums or improvisation (what composer-critic Leonid Sabaneyev – a regular film-music critic – called “tasteless vamping”).

But today we’re discussing October, so we’ll go back to Eisenstein. His writings are polymathic: I opened a random page to find references to and quotes from Gounod, Bach, Tolstoy’s War and Peace, Dickens’ Hard Times, Pushkin’s The Bronze Horseman and The Little House at Kolomna, and Dumas père in a discussion of structure, movement and the visualisation of non-visual phenomena. Unsurprising then, that he put some thought to film music (or rather, as A Statement showed, film sound). Indeed, the audiovisual was a topic with which he had long been obsessed.

battleshippotemkin
Battleship Potemkin (1925)

Continue reading ‘Rhythm, rhythm and pure rhythm above all’: How Edmund Meisel scored Eisenstein’s October

Silent films at the Cambridge Film Festival 2017: the movies men yearn for

Silent Londoners are an erudite group, and no doubt we’re all regularly found in halls of academe, talking loftily of theories and histories, of books and poems and one-reel Snub Pollard movies. But even though we’re such scholars, we could all do with a trip to Cambridge this month to complete our silent film education.

The Cambridge Film Festival is one of the best regular film festivals in the country for silents, and this year, the programme of early film is full of surprises, and wonderful music. Here’s what you should be looking out for.

Ivan Mosjoukine in The Loves of Casanova (1927)
Ivan Mosjoukine in The Loves of Casanova (1927)

 

 

The Cambridge Film Festival runs from 19-26 October 2017. Read more here.

 

 

LFF review: Little Veronika (Innocence, 1930)

I first heard Robert Land’s name earlier this year. The context was: “Robert Land … ever heard of him?” I hadn’t, of course. But suddenly Land was in sight everywhere: films of his played at Bologna and there was a very informative piece on this Austrian-Czech director in Sight & Sound. At Ritrovato, I saw the rather plodding comedy I Kiss your Hand, Madame (1927), starring Marlene Dietrich, but I missed the screening of the rather better regarded Little Veronika (1929) and worried that I had made an error.

Hurrah for the Archives strand at London Film Festival, which brought the new restoration of Little Veronika to my doorstep today, on 35mm with live accompaniment of the highest quality from John Sweeney. Made around the same time, and for the same production company, as Pandora’s Box, and more to the point, Diary of a Lost Girl, Little Veronika is a short, sharp tale of rustic innocence in peril.

Kleine Veronika (1929)
Kleine Veronika (1929)

Little Veronika (played by Käthe von Nagy, an experienced, if young, actress) lives with her family in the Tyorl, caring for furred creatures, being polite to the neighbours and doing her chores like the good girl she promises to be. She goes to Vienna to visit her glamorous Aunt Rosie (Maly Delshaft, the wife in Varieté), who has grown impressively wealthy and well-dressed in her decade in the capital. Aunt Rosie has slinky lingerie and lives in a big house with several other women. You’d have to be as innocent as Veronika not to know what’s going on, how Aunt Rosie earns her money, or what plans her new friends have for her future.

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Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 8

Can you believe it? It seems like only a week ago I’d never seen a French western or become intimately acquainted with The Island Girl. Our “week of miracles” is over, but the last programme delivered a fitting send-off.

When it’s the final day of the festival, the Teatro Verdi is required for orchestra rehearsals, so the Pordenauts have a change of scenery – we troop a scant 10 minutes up the road to the local arthouse cinema, Cinemazero. Little did I know, this morning, that it would be a journey to the dark side, and also from (not quite) sublime to the ridiculous.

ANNA-LIISA (FI 1922) Credit:  National Audiovisual Institute, Finland
ANNA-LIISA (FI 1922) Credit: National Audiovisual Institute, Finland

The Finnish film in the Scandinavian strand today was Anna-Liisa (1922), a rather harrowing adaptation of a stage play. The subject was infanticide, and by implication, rape. “Quiet and timid” Anna-Liisa is engaged to sweet Johannes and about to make it official – she’s spinning the thread for her wedding dress, he wants to publish the banns – but the mother of local boy Mikko is having none of that. She remembers helping Anna-Liisa to dispose of the evidence of the “bond” that exists between the girl and her son. Very, very not pleasant, and somehow not quite as dramatic as one might expect from the material, but nicely done, if occasionally awkwardly staged, and gorgeously accompanied by Gabriel Thibaudeau.

SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (US 1929) Credit: Cineteca Italiana, Milano
SEVEN FOOTPRINTS TO SATAN (US 1929) Credit: Cineteca Italiana, Milano

Daan ven den Hurk was at the keys for the next film, which was an entirely different kettle of flying fish: Benjamin Christensen’s Seven Footprints to Satan (1929) was a surreal hoot from start to finish, populated by dwarves, monkey men, heavily browed housekeepers and an escaped gorilla. All of them simply having a James Whale of a time. It is best summed up here by the estimable Mark Fuller:

Think Thelma Todd and Creighton Hale in a house of horrors, beset on all sides by the henchmen and handmaidens of Satan and the fruit of the feverish imaginations of all concerned. This was a grab-bag of characters and tropes from several different horror movies, most of which had not been made yet.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 8

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 7

“Why are your thoughts in America when you tell me your heart is in Italy?” Well, Theda Bara, since you ask, it’s because the Giornate showed a mid-period silent American classic on Friday night. A Fool There Was (1915), or as I prefer to call it, The Cabinet of Dr Libido, is a bizarre film, by turns prosaic and ethereal. The plot is slight, but the imagery is immense, with Bara as an especially vampirish vamp, her long dark hair framing a milk-white face in the most demonic way. She can bat away a revolver with a rose and drive a man to distraction with a glimpse of ankle or shoulder – these are superpowers, not seduction techniques. No wonder the image of Fox’s foxy lady endures even when so many of her films are lost, burned up in the heat of her own fiery screen presence. And as silents go, A Fool There Was has great words, not least in the recurring appearance of Kipling’s ‘The Vampire’, but in a few killer lines of dialogue, one of you which you already know is going to appear below. And speaking to the film as well as for it, tonight, we had a brilliant new score written by Philip Carli and played by a quintet, which kept pace with the film’s many twists and dramatic moments and also added some much-needed nuance, as in the heartbreaking scene in New York traffic when Schuyler ignores his own daughter’s pleas, so engrossed is he in his new paramour’s charms.

A FOOL THERE WAS (US 1915) Credit: The Museum of Modern Art, New York
A FOOL THERE WAS (US 1915) Credit: The Museum of Modern Art, New York

After Theda Bara, Hollywood turned to Pola Negri for a more authentically exotic vamp, although a more romantic one too. So it was fitting that one of her early German films, Mania (1918) closed the evening’s viewing. I’ve written about that one before, a couple of times, so I skipped it tonight.

THORA VAN DEKEN (SE 1920) Credit: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm
THORA VAN DEKEN (SE 1920) Credit: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm

But it was a great day for strong leading women, from a selection of cheeky Nasty Women shorts (I loved Lea causing havoc in an office full of besotted men) and beyond. We had the rich, psychological drama Thora Van Dekan (John W Brunius, 1920), for example – a story of a woman trying to protect her daughter’s inheritance from her wayward ex-husband, in the face of opposition and judgment in her village. Pauline Brunius is hypnotic in the lead role as a spiky, often unlikeable, singleminded and clearly emotionally brutalised woman trying to do her best by her child. This was a sombre piece, all the more so with Maud Nelissen’s downbeat improvisation, and just the sort of thing that nestles into your brain cavities and makes itself at home for days.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 7

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 6

It was auteur day at Pordenone, with works by three silent master-directors scattered nonchalantly through the programme: Ozu, Murnau and Dreyer. But auteurism is anachronistic to silent cinema and anathema to many early film aficionados, so fittingly some of my favourite screenings today fell far from the canon.

UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow 
UN DUEL APRÈS LE BAL (FR 1902) Credit: Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

One of the best things I saw all week was Valentine Robert’s presentation of Tableaux Vivants in the early cinema strand. This was something very special indeed – like a video essay, but more expansive. The idea was simple: popular paintings were projected on screen before early films that mimicked their compositions. The effect was spectacular though, and very illuminating about narrative and visual culture in the early film period. As this presentation made clear, many narrative films at this time were also adaptations of images associated with historical, literary and biblical narratives, rather than the story themselves. Or both, at least. Erotic films too, as you might imagine, took their cues from paintings and sculptures. The care and detail in this presentation was very impressive and all served the argument beautifully. All this as well as Stephen Horne’s gorgeous accompaniment for a long, and very varied presentation, comprising 30-plus films and many more art works.

The double-bill of German films this afternoon featured some very familiar names. First there was Der Golem. No, not the 1920 one, but the 1915 original, long thought almost entirely lost. The bad news is that it is still lost, but some more fragments have been discovered and spliced together with titles to form something that is not really a film, but rather a suggestion of one. In this kinda prequel Paul Wegener’s clay man comes to life brilliantly and with just the most tender and slender of movements. Other scenes reinforce the sense that James Whale’s Frankenstein would be nothing without this silent-era antecedent. Utterly fascinating.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 6

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 5

To reverse the usual order of proceedings, let’s start with the music, not the movies. This morning, in a Pordenone first for me, I attended one of the masterclasses AKA a crash course in silent film accompaniment, from the professionals, for the benefit of the Giornate audience and two very talented students. This was a fun session, led by Neil Brand and Gabriel Thibaudeau (with a little light heckling from Philip Carli and John Sweeney), who put Richard Siedhoff and Bryson Kemp through their paces with the help of some carefully chosen film clips.

Louise Brooks drops by the masterclass to help Neil Brand teach silent film accompaniment #GCM36

A post shared by pam_hutch (@pam_hutch) on

Their instructions were wise, inspired, and stricter than I expected. Also quite bizarre. At one point a student was required to play to The General in the style of Wagner, and then with an added Bossanova rhythm. Another was asked to score the same film just on one bass note, and then to perform a “one-fingered love song”. Don’t google that last one, I fear you might end up somewhere untoward. From the secrets of playing ice, say, or heroism, but with fear, or without patriotism, to the use and abuse of musical cliché and the “toolbox” with which an accompanist can suddenly summons bells, trains, or even China, this was invaluable advice. Brand’s exercise in reading a film, guessing where the narrative and the characters will go next (Beggars of Life was the chosen example), was useful for us critics and punters too.

SAMMELT KNOCHEN! (DE 1918) Credit: Lobster Films, Paris
SAMMELT KNOCHEN! (DE 1918) Credit: Lobster Films, Paris

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 5

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 4

If you are the kind of fool who thinks a programme of Soviet travelogues sounds a bit dry, then you are the same kind of fool as I am. However – as I once advised on this site, when you’re at Pordenone watch one thing that scares you everyday. So I was in the Verdi for the 9am travelogues and boy was I smug about it afterwards. Pamir. Krishna Mira (The Roof of the World, Vladimir Yerofeyev, 1927) was an absolutely fascinating journey through remote mountainous Kyrgyzstan, with just the right balance of intriguing domestic minutiae and awe-inspiring geographical grandeur. One series of intertitles pithily explained: “The women do all the chores … the men mostly do nothing … Occasionally they go hunting.” Actually, there was more to it than that. The men also whittle, weave, smoke opium, traverse perilous mountain passes and even perform very watchable partner dances in costume: the horse and the rider, the old man and the young girl, the fox and the marmot.

SOV_3_PAM
Photographed in regions where the air is so thin that water boils at 86 degrees Celsius or so cold that film itself can freeze, this can’t have been an easy documentary to shoot, but if offers a vision of another world, and now, I would guess, one that is almost entirely lost. I am sure that Günter Buchwald’s meticulous accompaniment on piano and violin was key to the success of this screening, providing a silk thread through the film’s essentially episodic structure.

From raw ethnography to dream-factory fantasy, with another parcel of early Euro westerns. These are rather slight things, but the devil, or rather the joy, is in the detail. Le Railway de la Mort (Jean Durand, 1912) was a kind of compact Greed – no, really, with a not dissimilar ending, augmented by a ferocious, red-tinted explosion. And before that, a series of train stunts that Hollywood, in any era, would have been proud of. In Italian western Nel Paese dell’Oro (1914) the star was not a gunslinger, but Toby the faithful dog, who helped to build barricades, did his level best to throttle the villain, and even rescued a lost tot from kidnappers and cold water, Rescued by Rover style. A canine who can.

SHIMA NO MUSUME (JP 1933) Credit: National Film Center, Tokyo / Shochiku
SHIMA NO MUSUME (JP 1933) Credit: National Film Center, Tokyo / Shochiku

Happily, I had the chance to return to Shima No Musume this lunchtime and what a pleasure it was. This melancholic drama is a little like a Japanese Borzage movie, with an unrepentantly sorrowful conclusion. Suffering is a woman’s lot, so just tough it out for the sake of your loved ones, be they living or dead. Sensitive performances, sharp dialogue, nuanced photography … such a surprise that it was one of four films rushed out to capitalise on a surprise hit single, and such a shame that the director, Hotei Nomura, a Japanese film pioneer, died a year later.

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 4

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 3

Louise Brooks is everywhere this year, not least here at the Giornate, where she adorns tote bags, mugs, programmes, T-shirts and even the festival office. The reason for the Louise love-in is that the Verdi welcomed a snippet of previously thought lost Brooks footage tonight – a few minutes of the Raymond Hatton-Wallace Beery comedy Now We’re in the Air, featuring Brooks as twins. I saw this footage at San Francisco earlier in the year. There is little to it, and Hatton and Beery are as unfunny a comic pairing as you may have already heard, but Brooks is beyond elegant, despite the material. And perhaps I did find it a little sparkier second time round.

It’s frustrating to see those two clutzes hogging the screentime while Brooksie stands idly by. At one point she is giving it her best pout-and-shout, basically rehearsing her Lulu as she rebels against her dodgy boss, but the scene is so poorly blocked she is hardly visible behind the villain in a top hat and cape. A certain kid of person would take this as a cue to rant about the limited opportunities for women in Hollywood both now and 90 years ago. I am that kind of person, but I’ll spare you.

However, if you’re familiar with Pandora’s Box, you may get a little thrill from her appearance in this film. A publicity still of Brooks in costume for this film is used in the scene where the Egyptian bids for Lulu in the casino boat. Far more wholesome in this context, but some would say about as funny.

THE RECKLESS AGE (US 1924) Credit: Bison Archives/Marc Wanamaker
THE RECKLESS AGE (US 1924) Credit: Bison Archives/Marc Wanamaker

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 3

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 2

Any day that closes with a Pola Negri film is a good day, and Sunday was a very good day. La Negri, my personal favourite silent movie star and the owner of the best peepers in the pictures, bar none, features in three films in the official Giornate programme this year (plus a schools matinee of The Wildcat). I knew artistic director Jay Weissberg was a fan, but well, consider me chuffed.

Tonight’s Negri film was Der Gelbe Schein (1918), often known as The Yellow Ticket. Negri plays a young medical student with a melodramatically plotted backstory that slowly unfurls as the film progresses. Suffice it to say that aside from some nice location shooting in Warsaw and the very striking image of a champagne glass full of coins in a brothel scene, this film lives and dies by Negri’s mesmeric performance. She radiates emotion, from those incredible eyes to her fluid posture, and even this early in her career she has the “star quality” that divides actors from icons. We saw the film tonight with a klezmer-tinged folky score from Alicia Svigals that worked very well, giving he melodrama enough room to breathe and softening the edges of a film in which structure runs the risk of overwhelming character.

Back to the beginning, though, and there is nothing like breathing fresh mountain air first thing in the morning. While Pordenone may not be as rural as all that, we were in the hills today, with A Norway Lass (1919), part of the Swedish Challenge strand. No one I spoke to denied that this film proceeded at a sedate, almost glacial pace, but all agreed also that it was astonishingly beautiful, romantic, inventive, charming and felt far more advanced than many 1919 movies. Two youngsters on neighbouring farms fall in love, but he, Thorgbjorn (Lars Hanson) is a hothead and so she, Synnöve (Karin Molander) must wait for him to grow and earn her love. Although, he’s clearly a good guy from the start, and sometimes it seemed as if the more passionate relationship was that between Synnöve and Thorgbjorn’s sister Ingrid (see below), especially when they danced in the high pasture. An excellent portrayal here of a slow-burning romance set in a place torn between puritanism and paganism, with contrasting Midsummer rituals. Also, a rather mischievous, gargoyle-faced young farmhand was busy persuading Thorgbjorn of the existence of a troll family in the valley (cue excellent inserted troll feasts) when he was the only goblin in sight and all too human at that.

SYNNÖVE SOLBAKKEN (SE 1919) Credit: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm
SYNNÖVE SOLBAKKEN (SE 1919) Credit: Svenska Filminstitutet, Stockholm

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 2

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 1

The Brits are coming! Where have I heard that before? Hmmm… Anyway, it seems there is a UK invasion of Pordenone this year, with what looks like a bigger than usual home crowd in attendance already. And a British movie on the first day! After a journey that involved a plane, a train, an automobile, and a bus, I am part of that merry band. Jubilations, I even made it into the Verdi for the first film of the festival, which doesn’t always happen.

And that film was … 3 Days to Live (Tom Gibson, 1924). This was a pacey, if hokey melodrama, hinging on some awful foreign types manipulating the stock market in San Francisco and driving good men to suicide. Yes, it was not very 2017. It was more like 1917, or earlier, racial politics wise (see 1915’s The Cheat, for example), and definitely not a classic, though it had effective moments. A series of three closeups of a woman’s tapping feet, twisting hands and mobile face when she was waiting for her boyfriend to ask her father that question, was one. Another was a set of dissolves between empty rooms in an abandoned house. In such highlights we might detect the hand of youthful assistant director, editor and title writer Frank Capra. Or perhaps not – will we ever know?

I had to miss most of a package of early French Westerns. Yes, French Westerns. Just when you think you have seen it all … I did see Le Revolver Matrimonial (Jean Durand, 1912) thought. This was sweet ersatz Americana trifle in which Arizona Bill woos wealthy Maud (un homme in drag) and must lasso a sympathetic pastor to seal the union. There’s romance for you.

The Scapegrace (Edwin J Collins, 1913) finished the set. This was a British two-reeler though, and I expected Brian Aherne on his hobby horse a la Shooting Stars, but realism prevailed, to a point. This was a sprightly if slightly directionless drama in which black sheep Jack flees to the Yukon to escape his gambling debts and mend his ways. He finds, gold, a girl and forgiveness from his father so all’s well that ends, you know. And The Scapegrace was a Cricks studio production so that makes Croydon the wild frontier … I guess.

L’AUTRE AILE (FR 1924).jpg
L’Autre Aile (1924) Credit: Cinématheque Française, Paris

Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2017: Pordenone post No 1

Watch, read, repeat: Pandora’s Box at the pictures

A few weeks ago I brought you news about a release date for my book on Pandora’s Box. In that post I also promised you some news about opportunities to see the film too. Here we go …

In case you are wondering, this is the correct order of business, in my humble opinion: watch the film, then read the book, then watch the film again. Repeat as required and enjoy!

So I have a few dates and venues confirmed, where you can come along, watch the film, with an introduction or Q&A from moi, and if you feel so inclined, buy a copy of the book (very reasonably priced, lots of pictures). It would be great to see some Silent Londoners in the audience. As more dates are arranged, I’ll add them to this post, but as ever, pay attention to the Silent London social media channels to get the breaking news.

So far, ALL these screenings are 35mm projections with live musical accompaniment. Because if a thing is worth doing, it’s worth doing properly. And seeing Pandora’s Box on the big screen is definitely a thing worth doing.

  • 19th November 2017: NFT1, BFI Southbank, London: 35mm projection, introduction, live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney, book launch. Book tickets here from 3 October on.
  • 24th November 2017: Cube Cinema, Bristol: 35mm projection, introduction, live piano accompaniment by John Sweeney. Book tickets here.
  • 3rd December 2017: Phoenix Cinema, Finchley, London: 35mm projection, introduction, live accompaniment by Stephen Horne. Book tickets here.

 

There are at least two more dates to be announced and yes, they are further north than these three. Watch this space for details …

 

 

 

The Champion review: hooray for Fort Lee

Before Hollywood became the heart of the American film industry, New Jersey was studio city. About 20 miles from West Orange, where Thomas Edison’s famous Black Maria swiveled to catch the light in the 1890s, the town of Fort Lee became the site of DW Griffith’s acting debut in 1908, and the birth of movie mammoths now known as Universal, MGM and 20Th Century Fox.

Now, to best understand the history of Fort Lee, and its importance to the US film business, you should read Richard Koszarski’s 2005 book Fort Lee: The Film Town. This DVD set from Milestone, The Champion: A story of American’s first film town, could work either as a companion to that volume, or as the best kind of introduction to the subject. Whatever you have or haven’t read, this set represents an exceptionally entertaining way to potter around movie history for three hours.

The Champion Studio under construction

Continue reading The Champion review: hooray for Fort Lee

Are you ready for the 19th British Silent Film Festival?

Well, are you? Time is rushing by. Summer has barely ended, the LFF programme is out, the Pordenone programme will be released soon and the 19th British Silent Film Festival kicks off next week. Next week!

The festival runs 13-17 September 2017 at the Phoenix Arts Centre in Leicester and each day or five-day pass covers you for lunch as well as every screening on that date.The full timetable for the festival is online here.  You can book here and let all your friends know you are attending by clicking on the Facebook event.

To get you up to speed on what to expect in Leicester, the festival* has been posting blogs on the festival site. Yes, silent film blogging is all the rage now. Here are all the posts so far:

And don’t forget to follow the festival on social media: Twitter and Facebook for more updates for news during the festival itself.

See you in Leicester!

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Competition: Win tickets for The Phantom of the Opera at the Coliseum

Competition time! I hope you’re feeling lucky, because I have a very special prize to give away. You may remember reading on these pages about a screening of silent classic The Phantom of the Opera coming up in London. Not just any screening, but the premiere of Roy Budd’s symphonic score for the film, at the Coliseum opera house in London. Sadly, composer Budd died just before the planned premiere of the score in 1993. But now, more than 20 years later, his music can take its place alongside this beautiful, chilling silent film from 1925.

The even better news for one of you is that I have a pair of tickets to give away to this special event, which takes place on 8 October 2017.

To win a pair of tickets for this prestigious screening, just send the answer to this question to silentlondontickets@gmail.com by midnight on 19 September 2017.

Lon Chaney was known as ‘The man of a thousand … ‘what?

A) Eyes

B) Miles

C) Faces

Good luck! The winner be chosen at random from the correct answers and will be notified by email. 

  • You can find out more, and book tickets for The Phantom of the Opera, here.

London Film Festival 2017: the silent preview

The cat is out of the bag. The programme for the 61st London Film Festival has been announced and there is only one question on our lips: “Got any silents?” The answer is …

Shiraz (1928)

First things first, we already knew that this year’s LFF Archive Gala would be Shiraz, a sumptuous late-silent Indo-German production, which relates the romantic story behind the building of the Taj Mahal. This gorgeous film, freshly restored by the BFI,  will be accompanied by a new score, composed by Anoushka Shankar. The gala screening takes place on 14 October 2017 at the Barbican and tickets are already on sale now. Read more here. And why not book a ticket here too?

Plays: 14 October 2017, Barbican

Continue reading London Film Festival 2017: the silent preview

A Page of Madness: a masterpiece of Japanese avant-garde silent cinema

Here’s something you don’t see very often. Screenings of silent films crop on this page quite often, but there is no other silent film like this one. A Page of Madness is a brilliantly dazzling, utterly uncategorisable Japanese silent from 1926, one that was thought lost for years, and now that it has been found, seems to belong to no time at all, past or future. There’s a very rare, and beautifully curated, screening of the film coming up soon, in London, so read on.

Here’s Michael Atkinson’s introduction to his excellent essay on the film for this year’s San Francisco Silent Film Festival:

“When’s the last time you were surprised by a silent film? Impressed, dazzled, yes, but genuinely surprised? You’d think by 2017, with all the silent-era history scholarship behind us, that authentic, mutant-DNA “Holy Crap” moments would be rare on the ground, and, of course, they are. But there’s no amount of buckling up that can prepare a well-versed silent cinephile for the utter unheralded weirdness of Teinosuke Kinugasa’s A Page of Madness (Kurutta Ichipeiji). Scan the sacred texts, from Paul Rotha onward—it’s not there, as if it were a disturbing dream filmgoers may’ve thought they’d had, fleeting but creepy, after a big meal and too much wine.”

Intrigued, eh?

A Page of Madness has often been compared to The Cabinet of Caligari – thanks to its fragmented flashback narrative and haunting, stylised design. In fact, Teinosuke Kinugasa’s masterpiece is a kind of Japanese Expressionist film, whose artifice helps to expose emotional truths. It is really, a story of insanity, love and loss, about a man who takes a job at a mental asylum to be close to his wife, who is a patient there. It may well be inspired a little by FW Murnau’s The Last Laugh, and like that film, it doesn’t rely on intertitles. There is just one caption card here. When the film was screened in Japan on its original release, it would have been accompanied by a benshi narrator, who would attempt to draw out the narrative, or at least accompany the audience on this strange journey. This London screening will honour that tradition.

A Page of Madness (1926)
A Page of Madness (1926)

The Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental  Film Festival will screen A Page of Madness on 24 September at King’s College London. The film will be shown on film, from a 35mm print, and will be accompanied by Benshi Tomoko Komura (who performs in English) as well as musicians Clive Bell, Sylvia Hallett and Keiko Kitamura offering a live score on the shakuhachi, piano and koto.

The film will be introduced on video by Professor Aaron Gerow, the author of the definitive book on A Page of Madness and will be followed by a panel discussion. I am honoured to be part of that panel, along with Japanese cinema expert Jasper Sharp and Tomoko Komura.

You can book tickets herePlease don’t miss out, on what promises to be a very special evening.

1917, 1927, 2017: Kino Klassika presents October at the Barbican

For other people, anniversaries are a good excuse for a party. For Silent Londoners, they’re a great excuse for a screening. You will have noticed by now that 2017 marks 100 years since the Russian Revolution – there have been exhibitions, books and screenings all year. The year isn’t over yet though. There’s another event coming up in October that is more epic than the rest.

October you say? Yes, that October. On 26 October this year, Kino Klassika and the London Symphony Orchestra present Sergei Eisenstein’s masterpiece October at the Barbican Centre. This 1927 film charts, in its own often creative but always thrilling manner, the events of October 1917: the famous “10 days that shook the world” in which the Bolsheviks revolted against the Provisional Government, marched on St Petersburg, stormed the Winter Palace and prepared to build a new Soviet state.

It’s a magnificent, riveting film, thanks to Eisenstein’s electric direction – and the fact that the authorities gave him the run of the city to make it. You may already know the famous, actually quite harrowing, bridge sequence – but if you don’t, no spoilers here.

October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna
October (1928). Collection Austrian Film Museum, Vienna

If you have seen October before bear in mind that the film was banned in England and not shown here until 1934 – in fact there are still many censored versions going the rounds. This screening is the real deal, and not only is the film itself complete, it will be accompanied by Edmund Meisel’s original score, reconstructed by the Munich Film Museum and the European Film Philharmonic, and played by the London Symphony Orchestra. Not a night to be missed, if you possibly can. October still represents a dazzling highpoint of cinematic experimentation and sheer excitement.

Read more

 

 

Sound Barrier: A Ghost Story (2017) & The Phantom Carriage (1921)

A spooky double-bill for our eighth Sound Barrier podcast: A Ghost Story, David Lowery’s high-threadcount, high-concept tale of love and loss, and The Phantom Carriage, Victor Sjöström’s long, dark night of the soul.

Sound Barrier: A Ghost Story (2017) & The Phantom Carriage (1921)

FYI the song you can hear in the trailer for A Ghost Story throughout the podcast is I Get Overwhelmed by Dark Rooms – it’s the song that Casey Affleck’s character writes and records in the film. But movies lie to you.

 

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.