Tag Archives: silent film

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.

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

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

Toute la Mémoire du Monde: the experiment of silent cinema

I said something a little flippant in a Q&A once. OK, more than once, but let’s just talk about this one time. The occasion was a screening of A Page of Madness (1926) as part of the Japanese Avant-Garde and Experimental Film Festival, and I was responding to a comment about experimental silent film, and whether there was anything out there in the same vein as the movie we had just seen. According to the notes of Dr Lawrence Napper, I said “when you’re talking about silent cinema, you’re talking about the first four decades of film history, so in a way it’s all experimental, you can show almost anything”.

So much, so overstated. But there’s a truth there, to my credit.

Yes, being a movie pioneer means experimenting – and the history of cinema is the history of innovations and new ideas, from close-ups to Cinerama, montage editing to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When these innovations still seem new, or when they didn’t last, we can call them experiments. Continue reading Toute la Mémoire du Monde: the experiment of silent cinema

In memoriam: Diana Serra Cary AKA Baby Peggy, 1918-2020 – ‘Million Dollar Baby’ and last living silent film star

Sad news today. Baby Peggy, the last of the surviging silent film stars, has died aged 101. She was born Peggy Jean Montgomery in San Diego on 29 October 1918 and she died on 24 February 2020, 400 miles away in Gustine, California.

She was a star before she was even two years old, starting out as a cute dimpled co-star for Brownie the Wonder Dog, before going on to play the lead in around 150 comedy shorts and features. She was an unforgettable presence on screen: dimpled, diminutive and delightful – one of the youngest and most brilliant of child stars. And she really was a star, the “Million Dollar Baby”.

Long after her own days as a silent film star were over, she was a writer and an advocate not just for the silent era but for the rights of child performers. It had never been an easy life being a toddler-actress, far from it, and on 14 February this year, she gave an interview to Silence is Platinum in which she said this:

People asked me in my teens how I could remember anything about making films and I said I remembered everything about making them. I never had any problem with that, but many child stars had that denial thing. They didn’t want people to think they started out like that. Many times, and I did it too, I ended up denying that I had ever been in movies … There are so many sad stories, it was overwhelming. Sometimes when I go to sleep at night, I think about them, and the most depressing ones are the ones that shouldn’t have gotten mixed up in it. They paid a terrible price for it. To me, they were all cautionary tales. Perhaps I assumed it because I lived it. Not all of my stories are negative, but the one you get caught in is a negative story.”

We owe her a tremendous debt of gratitude, not just for her wonderful films and her fantastic comedy, but for her memories, which she put to good use, even though many of them were traumatic.

My Sight & Sound obituary for Baby Peggy is online here. We will all remember her, her work, and her beautiful smile, very fondly.

Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth in Captain January (1924)
Baby Peggy and Hobart Bosworth in Captain January (1924)

  • The 2013 TCM documentary Baby Peggy: The Elephant in the Room is available on DVD from Milestone, with a selection of her films, including Captain January (1924)
  • The Family Secret (1924) has also been released on disc by Undercrank Productions, with more of her short films and some archive footage.
  • 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

California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Could there be a finer thought in a grey week such as this one than a burst of California sunshine? Maybe there’s one, the gilded interior of the Castro Theatre in the heart of San Francisco, which truly has to be seen to be believed.

What I’m driving at is the fact that Early Bird Passes for the San Francisco Silent Film Festival are on sale now, and it’s a very wonderful event indeed. If you’ve never been before, see below everything you need to know (that I know) about this welcoming, and rather glitzy, event in northern California.

This year is the 25th anniversary of the festival, and they are promising great things, not least a long-awaited restoration of Erich von Stroheim’s Foolish Wives, undertaken in collaboration with MOMA New York, accompanied by members of the Oakland Symphony, playing a new score commissioned by Timothy Brock. The rest of the programme will be announced on 24 March. Continue reading California dreamin’: A beginner’s guide to the San Francisco Silent Film Festival

Train in vain

We’ll never know whether people fled from the screen when they saw the Lumière brothers’ film of a train arriving in La Ciotat station. We do know now that it wasn’t among the very first films they showed at that famous occasion on 28 December 1895 and that when they did make it they were trying to achieve a kind of stereoscopic effect – a train that looks like it is going to leap off the screen.

The implication is they were trying to impress, to go one better than the original impact achieved by their first screening of moving pictures. Continue reading Train in vain

Hippfest 2020: the lineup has landed

Happy 10th birthday to our favourite friends north of the border, The Hippodrome Silent Film Festival! This annual Bo’ness bonanza of silent cinematic goodness has pulled out several stops for its 10th anniversary edition, which runs from 18-22 March 2020, and features great movies, brilliant musicians, special guests and apparently, a barrage of custard pies.

Continue reading Hippfest 2020: the lineup has landed

The Silent London Poll of 2019: The Winners

Happy new decade Silent Londoners! Let’s kick off the Twenties with a party shall we? A Silent London Poll-Winners’ Party. You know the drill by now, these prizes go to the best of the past year in silent film, as voted for by YOU. With that said, I will starting handing out the gongs immediately

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  1. Best DVD/Blu-ray of 2019

This was a very popular winner – the Eureka/Masters of Cinema DVD/Blu release of the magnificent Der Golem was by far your favourite disc of the year. The package comprises a beautiful restoration of the movie, accompanied by a choice of great scores and a feast of insightful extras. An excellent choice. I reviewed this release in more detail in the January 2020 edition of Sight & Sound.

  • Honourable mention: Fragment of an Empire (Flicker Alley)

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  1. Best Theatrical Release of 2019

Go, Golem! The expressionist classic was your classic for the best theatrical release of the year, as this sumptuous restoration played several dates around the world. I saw it in NFT1 in the summer and I am not sure I have recovered yet.

Bait-1

  1. Best Modern Silent of 2019

It may not BE silent but it WAS shot silent, as forthcoming screenings with live musical accompaniment are sure to emphasise – Mark Jenkin’s brilliant Cornish drama Bait was your favourite modern silent of the year.

  • Read: My review of Bait
  • Honourable mention: A Shaun the Sheep Movie: Farmageddon, of course!

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2019: The Winners

The Silent London Poll of 2019: vote now!

It’s election week here in the UK, and while I know the decision is easier for some of us than others, voting in a new government is always a serious business. So why not distract yourself from all that by using your franchise to support silent cinema as well? I can’t make many promises, but I can assure you that voting in the Silent London Poll is more fun than a General Election debate.

NOT ONLY THAT, BUT A PRIZE!

Yes, if you vote in the poll you can enter a prize draw to win a copy of 30-Second Cinema, the movie book I edited this year. Please note that this prize draw is open to UK residents only.

Tonka of the Gallows (1930)
Tonka of the Gallows (1930)

Continue reading The Silent London Poll of 2019: vote now!

Silent film: coming soon to a laptop near you

The weekend is nearly upon us and it promises to be cold and damp. Normally I would advise you to go to the cinema, wouldn’t I? I stand by that. There are plenty of shows on in Scotland this weekend, and Londoners can go to see Stephen Horne and Martin Pyne accompany Alraune at the Barbican this Sunday.

But if you can’t find a silent film screening near you and instead you’d rather curl up inside with a hot water bottle and your broadband connection, there are some silent films playing inside your computer that you won’t want to miss.

  • The Danish Film Institute has done a wonderful thing – digitised its entire surviving silent film heritage and put it online at Stumfilm.dk, where you can stream it for zero krone. Yes, and many of the films have music and English subtitles too. There is so much here to enjoy, including Pat & Patachon. I was quite taken with the copious amounts of Asta Nielsen available, and AW Sandberg’s The Golden Clown from 1926 – but then I barely scratched the surface.
  • Consider this one of your semi-regular reminders to check out the BFI Player again, because it seems like new silent films arrive there all the time. In particular, may I draw your attention to the new Robert Paul collection, celebrating his 130th anniversary, which includes some of his less well-known works. Not to mention the rest of the epic Victorian collection. If you’re a Paul fan (and of course you are), don’t miss the opening of the RW Paul exhibition at the National Science and Media Museum in Bradford on 22 November. Another date for your early film diary: the Ernest Lindgren lecture on 10 December at BFI Southbank remembers the pioneering film preservation work of Harold Brown.
  • Of course there’s always the Orphan Works on the BFI YouTube channel for all you international readers.
  • Pop over the the Eye Film Museum YouTube channel to check out the Jean Desmet Collection – currently containing 370 films, many with English subtitles. New titles are added every Thursday!
  • Highlights of the fantastic Kino Lorber Women Film Pioneers box set curated by Shelley Stamp are on Netflix in the UK, and many other countries too.
  • US readers can find a variety of silents, including Chaplin features, when they subscribe to the Criterion Channel
  • And next month, from 14 December, you’ll be able to see the lustrous new restoration of Maurice Tourneur’s The Broken Butterfly (1919) on the Film Foundation website.

Where else do you – legally – watch silent films online? Archive.org? Kanopy? Feel free to share any great finds in the comments.

  • 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

The Fall: Jonathan Glazer’s impossible monsters

This post is humbly submitted to the Shadowplay Project Fear Blogathon. Happy Halloween!

“Fantasy abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters: united with her (reason), she (fantasy) is the mother of the arts and the origin of their marvels.”

That’s the motto attached to Francisco Goya’s etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, which is also one of the inspirations for an utterly disturbing new dialogue-free film. Jonathan Glazer’s The Fall (2019) screened on BBC2 on 10pm on Sunday, unannounced in the listings, and at a selection of cinemas across the country. It’s a scant seven minutes of unnamed horror – a mob, a victim, an escape attempt – soundtracked by an eerie score from Mica Levi.

Talking to the Guardian’s Catherine Shoard, Glazer named his other inspirations as Goya’s Disasters of War pictures, some lines by Bertolt Brecht (“In the dark times / Will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing / About the dark times.”) and a snapshot of Eric and Donald Trump Jr hunting big game. It’s no coincidence, surely, that Glazer is currently working on a feature-length film set in the Auschwitz concentration camp, based on Martin Amis’s The Zone of Interest. Continue reading The Fall: Jonathan Glazer’s impossible monsters

Competition: win Carl Davis’s Intolerance score on CD

Competition time! Answer one easy question and you could win a copy of Carl Davis’s stunning score for DW Griffith’s Intolerance (1916) on a shiny new CD – there are five copies waiting for a new home here at Silent London HQ.

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An epic film demands an epic score and Carl Davis’s music, originally created for the Thames Silents presentation of the film in 1986, certainly rises to the challenge of DW Griifith’s monumental movie.

“Scoring Intolerance poses two distinct problems for the composer,” says Davis. “The first is to establish the four distinct stories in their precise periods. The second, to help the film present those stories as having one theme i.e. the destructive power of intolerance upon individual people and the civilisations they live in. Therefore, I decided that I would use a large orchestra with certain features that would allow me to characterise each narrative. Continue reading Competition: win Carl Davis’s Intolerance score on CD

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7

“You must go to the KiPho!” That was the message of the morning, where KiPho means cinema: kino + photografie. It takes a certain frame of mind to rise early in the morning to learn “how to be modern” from films that are nearly a century old, but here in Pordenone it seems perfectly natural. So today’s Weimar shorts selection began with Kipho, AKA Film from 1925, a speedy run-through of the medium to that point, flipbooks and all. That was followed by the most bizarre, and brilliant, ad for a motor show I have ever seen (featuring a martian, fallen to Earth and revived with lager, and that was just the start of it), some tips on kitchen design and lighting and a couple of comical films offering hygiene advice. And that’s how to be modern.

This concoction of the weird and the well-meaning was followed by Cecil B DeMille’s 1916 epic Joan the Woman, starring opera singer Geraldine Farrar, gorgeously accompanied by Philip Carli. All 11 reels unspooled today, although I confess that I couldn’t stay for all of them, which is a shame as what I saw was h-y-p-n-o-t-i-c. Continue reading Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2019: Pordenone Post No 7