Tag Archives: silent film

Discovering lost films in fin-de-siècle flipbooks: Léon Beaulieu and Georges Méliès

TL;DR: book news, see below.

True confession: in 2019, I fell in love with some flipbooks. It was at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco, where so many good things happen, and the flipbooks in question were animated and projected on the big screen. I saw them many hundreds of times their real size, but perhaps that reflected their significance.

Here’s what I wrote for Criterion on the plane home:

“My favorite restoration of the festival didn’t involve film at all, but some miniature ephemera, which were perhaps imperfect as moving images, but seductively tactile, and fragile, as artifacts. Festival president and film restorer Robert Byrne and French scholar Thierry Lecointe have been studying a collection of paper-and-card flip books from the late 1890s, produced by a man named Léon Beaulieu. Containing just a few brief seconds from a film, these are the unforeseen missing link between early cinema and modern GIFs. It seems that Parisian Beaulieu had a checkered life, finding himself frequently in trouble with the law, and these flip books may well be bootlegs of sorts, reproducing scenes from early films from the Gaumont and Edison companies, and some by Georges Méliès. Some of the films captured here in a few brief images are lost in any other form, and the process of identifying them all involved meticulous study of background décor and objects.”

The digitised, animated flipbooks I was watching were one outcome of an international film-history detective story. I 2013 Paris-based film scholar Thierry Lecointe began investigating a flipbook attributed to one Léon Beaulieu that might, just possibly, have been made from a few frames of a long-thought-lost Georges Méliès film…

Continue reading Discovering lost films in fin-de-siècle flipbooks: Léon Beaulieu and Georges Méliès

LFF Review: The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1929)

This is a guest post for Silent London by writer/director Alex Barrett. You can watch The Cheaters as part of the London Film Festival until 1pm on Wednesday 14 October.

Following on from the excellent livestreams they’ve been presenting on their YouTube channel throughout the lockdown period, the fine folks at the Kennington Bioscope have partnered with the London Film Festival to showcase The Cheaters (1930) in the aptly named Treasures strand. A rare silent film from Australia, it is the only surviving feature made by the McDonagh sisters – writer/director Paulette, actress Isabel (aka Marie Lorraine) and art director Phyllis.

Continue reading LFF Review: The Cheaters (Paulette McDonagh, 1929)

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

The last night of Pordenone is always bittersweet – the fun is over for another year. There are bags to be packed and it’s time to make one’s journey home, marathons and rail strikes permitting.

The same melancholy accompanied the closing of the 39th Limited Edition, but there’s a note of triumph too. The online version snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, you might say. Fewer films, of course, and none of the bonhomie that brews in the Verdi and the Posta, but something else. A celebration of the global silent film community.

The Giornate welcomed twice as many accredited delegates as usual this year. Many of those will be people who can’t usually travel to Italy, but perhaps there are some among them who might visit for the first time in person next year – the dates are 2-9 October 2021 people, mark it in your diaries. The Limited Edition has been a great advertisement for the real deal.

Day Eight

Three things I can’t resist: a film about a ballerina, a Nordisk romantic drama from the early teens, and accompaniment by John Sweeney. So although I had an elsewhere to be on Saturday, I raced home to catch up with Balletten Datter (Holger-Madsen, 1913). German dancer Rita Sacchetto, known for her Tanzbilder dance interpretations of famous works of art, plays Odette, a feted ballerina who gives up the stage to marry a count. But the footlights are calling, and jealousy is festering between her titled husband and her dance director …

The absolute highlight was a solo scene in which Sacchetto plays dressup in her old stage gear in front of the mirror. A joyous diva moment, thrilling acted and deftly staged of course. This was, I fear, a silly film. But I loved it and the Danish Film Archive is to be credited for its recent swath of first-rate digital restorations, and for making them so accessible in this of all years. Sweeney, of course, did us proud with a film that swung between on and off-stage sequences – he made it all feel like a dance.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 7

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 6

By Friday night of Pordenone the cracks are usually beginning to show: sleep deprivation, caffeine addiction and FilmFair splurge-shopping. Are we holding up better or worse in this Limited Edition year? Hydrating, taking regular screen breaks and a minimum of 30 minutes of exercise a day? No, me neither. In fact I am just warming up, and I could handle a silent movie show every night please, for at least a month.

Day Seven

A showstopper of a masterclass today, as the multi-instrumentalists assembled: Gunther Buchwald, Stephen Horne and Frank Bockius. Another double book presentation too, and the announcement of the Jean Mitry prize, but all roads lead to Mary Pickford here on Silent London. And A Romance of the Redwoods, courtesy Cecil B DeMille and Jeanie MacPherson in 1917.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 6

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 5

Did you spend your Thursday evening straying with Brigitte Helm? I hope so …

Day Six

GW Pabst’s Abwege (1928) is, as Jay mentioned in his intro, a certain thread of what we think of when we imagine Weimar cinema. Not the exoticism of Expressionism of high-concept fiction, nor the relentless realism of Street Films, but a sampler of the era’s endless fetisished culture. This is a tale of infidelity, intrigue, independence and the famous temptations of the Berlin nightlife in the 1920s.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 5

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4

Now remind me, did I mention already that I was in Athens recently? Yes, Athens, the cradle of western civilisation. Well I was. And today I returned there via the magic of silent cinema …

Day Five

But first, an audience with the maestro. I was lucky enough to catch the masterclass today and so I spent a happy hour listening to Mr Neil Brand discussing his career and approach to silent cinema accompaniment. His explanation of how to read a scene backs up my theory that the musicians have all the best critical insights when it comes to silent cinema. It’s all about close reading, and rolling with the narrative punches. Still, catch up with this for yourself if you can – Neil has far more interesting things to say than I do.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 4

Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 3

Today’s trip to Pordenone should probably have been made available on the National Health, pandemic or no pandemic. In times of stress, laughter is the best medicine, after all.

Day Four

A real treat this afternoon before the films began was the masterclass of masterclasses. John Sweeney hosted a roundtable conversation between some of the Giornate’s wonderful accompanists: Philip Carli, José María Serralde Ruiz, Daan ven den Hurk and Mauro Colombis. Lots of insights here into writing, recording and improvising silent cinema scores, and I really like the way that Pordenone has incorporated live events into the online limited edition, and especially the sense of collegiate conversation, and the sharing of expertise that characterises a week in the Verdi. This was a superb example of that. Do catch up if you can, if only to understand why John and Philip have such an aversion to thinking of rabbits, or squirrels.

Continue reading Giornate journal 2020: Pordenone post No 3

In-camera kings: The VFX magic of Georges Méliès and early trick filmmakers

So I learned about something new today. Have you heard of the Instagram “VFX magicians”? These are visual effects whizzes who post short videos to Instagram (also TikTok, and once upon a time Vine) that are digitally manipulated to create illusions, or magic tricks, you might say. Zach King is one of the most famous, a 30-year-old “internet personality, filmmaker, and illusionist based in Los Angeles” according to Wikipedia, whose content is appealing whimsical and really quite slick.

He first became known for a 2011 YouTube video of kittens fighting with lightsabers. Last December, a video he posted of himself apparently riding a broomstick got 2.1 billion views on TikTok. In four days.

As baffling as King’s digital sleights of hand appear to be, there is something familiar about his work. Essentially, they are trick films, and excellent ones too.

Continue reading In-camera kings: The VFX magic of Georges Méliès and early trick filmmakers

Abwege (1928): delirious dissolution in the Weimar nightlife

Abwege, otherwise known as Crisis, or The Devious Path, is streaming as part of the 2020 Limited Edition Pordenone Silent Film Festival. You can sign up here – tickets start at €9.90.

Abwege, GW Pabst’s 1928 film about the descent of one respectable married woman into the depth of the notorious Weimar nightlife is one of the unmissable titles in the programme, and it will be available for 24 hours from Thursday 8 October, with musical accompaniment by Mauro Colombis. You can explore the rest of the programme online.

Pabst was born in Austria in 1885. He started out in the theatre, an actor turned director who only began making films in 1923 at the age of 37. He soon became known as an actor’s director, and especially an actress’s director. His 1925 film The Joyless Street, for example, starred both the Danish diva Asta Nielsen and a then little-known Greta Garbo. He also made two films with the iconic Louise Brooks. But Brigitte Helm, the star of Abwege, was the special one for him.

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News in brief: Festivals and stars

No time to blog today but there is NEWS to share. So here goes, welcome to Silent London’s News in Brief column.

• The virtual Pordenone lineup is live now! Laurel and Hardy, Brigitte Helm, Sessue Hayakawa, Ruan Lingyu! And all your favourite Pordenone musicians. Tickets for the whole shebang start at €9.90, and go on sale next week.

• The London Film Festival lineup is also live now, and the screenings will be more accessible this year. The big silent film this year is Paulette McDonagh’s The Cheaters, restored by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, and co-presented by the wonderful Kennington Bioscope. Cyrus Gabrysch will provide the accompaniment and you’ll be able to catch the film on the BFI Player.

• I appeared on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour this morning, to talk about Olive Thomas, who died 100 years ago tomorrow.

• Exciting news from Denmark, where an exhibition devoted to Asta Nielsen will run from the end of October to the middle of next August. More on this soon …

I will have more news to share soon. Exciting news!

• Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #4: a long weekend online

If I were in a Pollyanna frame of mind, I could argue that it was my good fortune to be in cloudy England and not sunny Italy when contemplating spending the bank holiday weekend indoors. I promise you I did some bank holiday-ish things in between films, but I wasn’t going to miss out on virtual Il Cinema Ritrovato. There are a few things more important than movies, but not many.

It was a fine weekend at the sofa-festival. For one thing, on Friday night we announced the winners of the DVD awards, after meeting to discuss the candidates on Zoom earlier in the week (rather than over lunch in Bologna as is customary, but roll on next year).

And then there were the movies. A film such as the recently found and restored Chess of the Wind (Mohammad Reza Aslani, 1976) from Iran really exemplifies all that ‘s so great about this festival, and indeed Cineteca di Bologna and The Film Foundation too. And there was a killer silent feature too, my most anticipated film of the virtual festival: Paul Leni’s Waxworks (1924), brilliantly restored from the BFI’s nitrate print.

So let’s begin.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #4: a long weekend online

Tenet (2020): the oldest special effect in the world

I think this blogpost contains spoilers, but it’s very hard to tell.

Christopher Nolan’s new film is notoriously complex, or perhaps just convoluted. I say that because although I wasn’t always ready to answer probing questions on either the plot or the physics that propelled it, I was fascinated by Tenet’s central use of the simplest, and most effective weapon in the filmmaker’s arsenal: the rewind.

Film is a time-based medium, which is always played forwards but can be recorded backwards. And at the heart of Tenet, this is all there is: film moving backwards and forwards. This being a Nolan blockbuster, we know it was actually shot on film, which makes it extra satisfying. Tenet calls the rewind “negative entropy” and so would you if you were making a multimillion-dollar movie.

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Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #3: courtrooms and circuses

Simple maths question for you? How long does it take to watch an 85-minute movie? If I had answered “85 minutes” this morning I would have been wide of the mark. It took me more like 140 minutes to get through an at-home screening of Marco Ferreri’s brilliant military satire Donne e Soldati (1955).

That time lag is on me, and my susceptibility to drop what I am doing when a piece of work comes through on email, on the fact that I was doing a load of laundry, that I made coffee and that the postman knocked twice (well, this is a movie blog). I’m not proud of it, and I need to try harder (other screenings today were far less interrupted). I am beyond grateful to Il Cinema Ritrovato for organising this online companion to the festival, so I promise I will get better at tricking myself I am in the Cinema Jolly, and not my front room.

Today’s films were excellent and Donne e Soldati is one of my top recommendations from the fest so far. Away from Ferreri’s medieval siege, we had law courts and circuses galore today. So the question of the day is, I guess, if you absolutely had to be cross-examined under oath, would you rather that Henry Fonda or Mae West was doing the questioning? Be careful, anything you say may be used against you … etc etc.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #3: courtrooms and circuses

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #2: Wish you were here

Day Two of Il Cinema Ritrovato, in this sala at least, was filled with cinematographic splendour, and I am not just talking about Mr Grant’s dimple.

Today we’re dividing the films geographically rather than by era. Don’t @ me, I don’t make the rules. Well, I do make the rules but a) I make them up as I go along, b) I am usually too busy watching films to reply to constructive criticism.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #2: Wish you were here

Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #1: Have fun, honey bunch

Finally, east London has a world-class archive film festival. Almost.

Il Cinema Ritrovato has shifted a little in time and (virtual) space this year, for reasons I am sure you all understand. The postponed festival is now going ahead in Bologna, Italy, IRL but in late August rather than late June. However, for reasons that are slightly more obscure, I am not there. I am at home in east London, with a laptop, a projector and a white wall. And high hopes. I have very high hopes.

Although I am very sad not to be taking part in the living breathing festival this year but I am determined to make the most of my streaming pass. I intended to clear the week of work as much as possible, but the very second that the first virtual event began, I found myself in an actual cinema, in Soho, for a press screening. Still, the clever people at Ritrovato allow 24 hours for you to catch up with each screening, so as soon as I got home, I was ready to get started.

Continue reading Home Cinema Ritrovato 2020 #1: Have fun, honey bunch

Hollywood history: Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd Alley

Quick question. Can you remember March 2020? Me neither. Far too long ago.

So, a few things have happened since then, but at the beginning of March I reported for the Guardian on film historian John Bengtson’s campaign to have one alley in Hollywood renamed in honour of Chaplin, Keaton and Lloyd, who all shot famous scenes there. When I wrote the piece, I hoped to be visiting the alley to see it for myself quite soon. Now there’s a bad joke.

The point is, that the campaign continues, and gathers support. Also, I wanted to share this video John has made that sums up the importance of the alley rather smartly. Why share, give it a thumbs-up, or just enjoy the gags?

 

  • Find out more about John’s campaign here.
  • On a not-entirely-related topic, did you know that you can watch Il Cinema Ritrovato from home this year? Sign up here for a streaming pass.
  • Eureka releases another great Buster Keaton box set next week, comprising College, Our Hospitality and Go West.
  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page.

 

New York, New York: Spike Lee’s quarantine city symphony

A few days ago, Spike Lee premiered his latest movie. Not Da Five Bloods, coming to Netflix next month, without stopping at Cannes, but a three-minute movie he unveiled on Instagram called New York, New York. Lee calls his film “a love letter to [the city’s] people. Plain and simple”. But it’s not as plain and simple as all that.

Although, the film is only three and a half minutes long, I’m calling it a city symphony, and here’s why. For one thing, the movie is cut to music, Frank Sinatra singing the familiar song ‘New York, New York’ – and Lee’s montage is always on point.

Continue reading New York, New York: Spike Lee’s quarantine city symphony

Dispatches from lockdown: BFI Japan, Women Make Film and other stories

The first rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club. The second rule of Blog Club is that you don’t talk about Blog Club because Blog Club doesn’t exist. But if there were more rules, and indeed a club in the first place, round about number five I reckon would be this: “Don’t write a blogpost apologising for having not posted in a while.” Why? Because people have more important things to think about? Probably. But also because in this case it’s not hard to guess why I haven’t been Silent Londoning so much. We’re all in the same boat. But only I am in blog club. Because I made it up. And frankly even I haven’t paid my subs in a while.

This post, however, brings you NEWS. So let’s begin.

  • Japanese silents to come. The BFI’s new blockbuster season for 2020 was to be Japan: Over 100 Years of Japanese Cinema. And it still is. Instead of launching the season in cinemas and then transferring it over to the BFI Player, and Blu-rays etc, the BFI is flipping the model, shifting the paradigm and generally “doing a 2020”. So the season has begun in the digital realm, and while we are promised benshi screenings in the future (yay!), for now there is a feast of Japanese cinema to enjoy on the BFI Player, including one of Ozu’s best, the silent film I Was Born, But … (1932). To be fair, this one was already on there, but you need no excuse to watch it. It’s perfect. Treat yourself. And watch out for more to come. Also forthcoming are such archive treats., including gems from “the BFI National Archive’s significant collection of early films of Japan dating back to 1894, including travelogues, home movies and newsreels, offering audiences a rare chance to see how European and Japanese filmmakers captured life in Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries”. I’m intrigued!

  • Women Make Film. Next Monday sees the launch of Mark Cousins’s epic 14-hour documentary about female filmmakers, Women Make Film. It’s an alternative history of cinema, entirely peopled by brilliant, creative and often sadly forgotten women. If you’re a silent cinema fan (and just on a limb here, but I reckon you must be), this story may sound familiar, but Cousins and his researchers have gone deep, and there is plenty here that was new to me. Read Kate Muir’s great piece for the Guardian to get a flavour of what’s involved. Then sit back, stream and prepare to have your mind expanded. Refreshingly, it’s not chronological, so even silent film purists will find points of interest throughout: look out familiar names such as Germaine Dulac, Lois Weber, Alice Guy-Blaché, Paulette McDonagh and Olga Preobrazhenskaya. The whole thing is going up on the BFI Player in five blocks, starting on 18 May.

  • Silent cinema watch parties. They are everywhere. Ben Model’s Silent Comedy Watch Party has been enlivening Sunday afternoons (his time) and evenings (ours) for a few weeks now. And now the Kennington Bioscope has opened its YouTube channel and its first silent film and live music screening was a roaring success. Subscribe for more: their next screening is Wednesday at 7.30pm. The Netherlands Silent Film Festival event on Friday night was a blast too, making the most of the live-chat facility. Belgium’s Cinemathek is doing something on Thursday afternoons. Frankly I am astonished, heartened and tickled pink by the ingenuity, and the hard work that goes into these.
  • More streaming silents than you can shake a stick at … You will not run short of films to watch. The perspicacious Silent Film Calendar site is posting a link to an online silent every day. The Cinémathèque Française, The San Francisco Silent Film Festival and more are all uploading silents for you to watch online, making old posts like this rapidly obsolete. I am a big fan of the Eye Filmmuseum YouTube channel, specifically its Bits and Pieces strand.

  • Cancellations and postponements. Not such happy news here. Sadly Hippfest has had to cancel its postponed October event, though San Francisco Silent Film Festival is still promising us a raincheck in November. Il Cinema Ritrovato says its festival is postponed (dates TBA) and Pordenone promises an announcement by the end of the month. Perhaps we have to come up with a snappy way to say it’s very sad, but we understand and we support the organisers in their new plans while appreciating how very difficult it is for them and everyone involved. Or just to say that, with proper pauses for breath, because we really mean it. Love to all our festival friends.
  • The Fall is on Mubi. Watch Jonathan Glazer’s horror short here, and and read my review from last year here.
  • From the Department of WTF. The Neural Networks guy keeps upscaling early films, and at this point it is just funny to me. The Roundhay Garden Scene!
  • What have I been up to in lockdown? Lots of things, some of which I sadly can’t share with you yet, including a BIG EARLY FILM THING I can’t wait to share. But do sign up to Sight & Sound’s Weekly Film Bulletin, if you haven’t already. And the second edition of my Pandora’s Box BFI Film Classic comes out on 28 May, if the previous artwork had not persuaded you, perhaps. I have been on the radio a bit, recording from home, and this show was particularly good fun. You can find me on this box set talking about Jean Arthur too.

 

  • Silent London will always be free to all readers. If you enjoy checking in with the site, including reports from silent film festivals, features and reviews, please consider shouting me a coffee on my Ko-Fi page

 

 

 

 

 

Silent lockdown: where to get your early cinema fix online

Last week, I recommended a new Buster Keaton box set. Well, there’s an evergreen sentiment. I remain a devotee of physical media (and in the interests of full disclosure, also make part of my living from it), but I realise it’s getting a little trickier for people to get hold of news discs right now, whether that’s because of distribution difficulties or lack of funds. I hear you.

So with that in mind, I wrote this feature for the BFI website all about where to stream silent movies. Continue reading Silent lockdown: where to get your early cinema fix online

Buster Keaton: 3 Films review: discs the doctors would order

How are you doing? You can be honest here, you’re among pals. It’s a bit difficult out there these days isn’t it? Whether you’re out on the front line (thank you, THANK YOU), out-of-work, homeworking or home-schooling, life is stressful at the moment. Apparently we’re all either filling our time or switching off at night by streaming more than ever. Why not? There are some great resources out there for watching silents online (and more from me on this anon), but streaming is not the only fruit.

If you still have some pennies to spare in the age of lockdown, don’t forget that physical media is your best friend. Silents on Blu-ray (or DVD) won’t disappear at the whim of the rights-holder, or glitch or go lo-res every time your bandwidth gets overloaded by your flatmate’s Zoom cocktails or your kids’ homework chats. Not only that, but the best discs coming out these days are packed with commentaries and extras that celebrate the film and will expand your knowledge in the most entertaining way. Continue reading Buster Keaton: 3 Films review: discs the doctors would order