The Silent London End of Year Poll was never going to rival the ones you read in Sight & Sound and the broadsheets, I suppose. But I was heartened that so many of you did respond to my call for the best silent film show of 2010 – and fascinated by your choices, too. The big surprise was that no one mentioned Metropolis. There were a few votes for freshly restored Chaplin films, one for Natalie Clein’s sensitive cello score for The Temptress at Kings Place in May, a tantalising description of Stephen Horne’s soundtrack to La Princess Mandane as “genius” from Pam Cook on Twitter, a shout-out for the witty The Golden Butterfly (both shown as part of the Fashion in Film festival) and a “riotous” village-hall screening of Seven Chances (1925). Luke McKernan picked two films, both of which he described as “wildly obscure”: an anthropological documentary called Rituals and Festivals of the Borôro that screened at Pordenone and another vote for Stephen Horne, with his reconstruction of the score for The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917). Not seen those? Never mind – I’m sure you’ll sympathise with McKernan’s conclusion that the first film: “reminded me of why film is the most compelling medium, and silent film especially so”. But finally, with a whopping two votes (one on Twitter and another by email), the winner is the East End Film Festival’s screening of Hitchcock’s The Lodger, soundtracked by Minima. Congratulations – I was there as well and I thought it was a marvellous evening.
Crystal Palace Pictures is a thriving local film society, which shows a film every other Thursday on a 17ft screen in the Gipsy Hill Tavern, near Gipsy Hill station. Residents of Crystal Palace are currently embroiled in a long-running campaign for a cinema, so it’s good to see that there is an alternative in the local area. Ideally, there would be room for both, but until then, Crystal Palace Pictures is doing sterling work, showing a hugely diverse range of films.
You undoubtedly know The Bisocope, an exhaustive, eloquent blog about everything related to silent film, and much more besides. If by some chance you aren’t already familiar with the site, you can expect to lose the next few hours to exploring its scholarly articles. Enjoy. However, I wanted to draw your attention to one particular post, which will definitely be of interest, and may also have the power to change your holiday plans. The Bioscope has compiled a calendar of the 2011’s silent film festivals – from Kansas to Finland. The list includes some very exciting events and all of them are worthy of your support. You can find the post here – but if you find yourself buying plane tickets, don’t blame me, blame The Bisocope.
Due to technical difficulties, the screening of The Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915) at the BFI Southbank on 24 January has been cancelled, but it will be rescheduled for later in the year. Hopefully, the rearranged screening will also benefit from an introduction from Kevin Brownlow as originally planned. Of course, we’ll pass on the details as soon we know more.
Look what I found tucked into my copy of Shakespeare on Silent Film: A Strange Eventful History by Robert Hamilton Ball. It’s not a “vintage” postcard, but was bought for me by relatives on holiday in Berlin when I was writing a dissertation on silent Shakespeare. Asta Nielsen as Hamlet also graces the cover of the book, and looking at these pictures again I am reminded why I am so excited about the BFI screening of Hamlet next week. I’ve not seen this 1920 film directed by Sven Gade before, as it was not available on DVD when I was at university, and it still isn’t.
The BFI screening will be a chance to see a restored print of the film, and this event was also to be the premiere of a new score by Claire van Kampen – but unfortunately, that is no longer the case. However, I’m sure that Neil Brand’s improvised piano accompaniment will be up to his usual high standards.
Hamilton Ball says of the film that: “by adaptation and acting appropriate to pictures in motion, the least Shakespearean Hamlet becomes the best Hamlet film in the silent era”. He also quotes from a contemporary review in the periodical Exceptional Photoplays:
Rare is it indeed to see so complete a suggestion of all physical means – appearance, gesture, even the movement of an eye-lid – to the sheer art of showing forth the soul of a character as that which Asta Nielsen accomplishes in her role of Hamlet … For here is a woman whose like we have not on our own screen. Asta Nielsen’s art is a mature art that makes the curly headed girlies and painted hussies and tear-drenched mothers of most of our native film dramas as fantastic for adult consumption as a reading diet restricted to the Elsie books and Mother Goose … It is well … to put Shakespeare resolutely out of mind in seeing this production and take it on its own merits, though that is a mental feat made harder than it need have been by the frequent use of Shakespeare’s words in subtitles … Taken all in all, Hamlet reaches a level not often seen in our motion pictures.
Hamlet (1920) screens at the BFI Southbank on 27 January at 6.45pm. There are still a few tickets available here.
You may be interested in a piece I wrote for the Spectator’s Touching From a Distance arts blog last week. It’s a general introduction to where you can see silent films in London, and a few highlights of the forthcoming year. Here it is.
Carl Davis is back, with the Philharmonia Orchestra, at the Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, to perform his score for The Phantom of the Opera (1925). You’ll be pleased to know that this film, which stars Lon Chaney, and the score, have nothing at all to do with Andrew Lloyd Webber.
More than 80 years after its première, Lon Chaney’s extraordinary performance as the Phantom – a crazed escapee from Devil’s Island, formerly imprisoned in a torture chamber on the site of the Paris opera – still has the power to shock; and the film is also notable for its sumptuous set-piece scenes, including a masked Ball in which the Phantom appears as the Red Death on the Grand Stairway.
The Phantom of the Opera screens at 3pm on 27 March 2011. Tickets range from £8-£38 and are available here.
In 2011, many people use Hollywood as a synonym for the film industry as a whole, but in the early days of cinema, California was a long distance from the heart of the action. Hollywood – the Prequel traces the geographical shifts of the silent film industry across Europe – at different times, Britain, France, Denmark and Italy could all claim to be the centre of the cinematographic world. This absorbing documentary is presented by Francine Stock and features contributions from film historians including Kevin Brownlow, Ian Christie, Kristin Thompson, Neil Brand (with his piano) and Frank Gray. The experts take a chronological approach to early cinema, but focus on different genres in turn:
If you think the stick-em-up, the rom-com and the sword-and-sandal epic began life in the United States, then think again. The French gave the world a kinetic form of film comedy, and not only did the Danes perfect the art of the thriller, they gave the world its first bona fide movie star, Asta Nielsen, who scandalised cinema-goers everywhere with her erotic dance in 1910’s The Abyss.
Following on from February’s double-bill of Berlin, Symphony of a City and Manhatta, the Barbican brings us a triple-bill of films about French cities. The second City Symphony event comprises À Propos de Nice (Jean Vigo, 1929), Rien Que Les Heures (Alberto Cavalcanti, 1926) and Paris Qui Dort (René Clair, 1923), with piano accompaniment from Neil Brand.
Vigo’s dawn-to-dusk documentary uses montage to celebrate the vitality of Nice, but also to highlight social divides in the glamorous resort. Cavalvanti’s Paris film Rien Que Les Heures is an experimental attempt to paint a real portrait of the city, as opposed to the gloss of paintings and picture postcards. In René Clair’s surreal Paris Qui Dort, a Parisian is shocked to discover that everyone in the city has fallen into a trance – apart from him.
The City Symphony – Part 2 is on Sunday 13 March at 4pm. Tickets are available from the Barbican website and box office on 0845 120 7500. The third event in the strand, a screening of Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929), will take place on 29 May. Details to follow.
There are several interesting events lined up in the first half of the year at the Cinema Museum in Kennington. The first one to catch our eye is a screening of archive films and London Film School students’ responses called Exotic Europe. There will be a chance to see restored travelogue films from the Exotic Europe project, dating from between 1909 and 1921, and then to watch the students’ filmed responses, which they will introduce themselves. After the screenings, there will be a Q&A.
Exotic Europe is at the Cinema Museum on 14 January at 7pm. For more details, check out the Cinema Museum website.
The February silent film at the Prince Charles Cinema in London is well worth a watch. The group Minima, who have written and performed scores for several silent films, will accompany Aelita: Queen of Mars (1924) at the PCC on 24 February. You might have seen this show at the BFI last year, but if you missed it then, this is a great opportunity.
The film is a piece of Soviet science-fiction, with fantastic constructivist sets and costumes. The hero of the film, Los, travels to Mars, where he will lead a popular revolution against the planet’s ruling class, with the help of queen Aelita, who has fallen in love with him. But all is not quite as it seems …
Minima have soundtracked Nosferatu, The Cabinet of Dr Caligari and The Lodger, among others. If you’re a fan of their scores, you might enjoy this interview with Alex Hogg from the band, in which he talks about how they set about scoring a silent film:
Films from the 1920s have a different pace, and for the uninitiated it can be hard work, so a contemporary interpretation by musicians can really help. You can make people laugh, cry and jump out of their seats but we only do this in the name of accompanying the film and helping people to watch the film.
Aelita: Queen of Mars is screened on 24 February at 8.45pm. Tickets are £10 or £6 for members and you can buy them here.
Going to the chapel and we’re, gonna get mar-ar-arried … Silent London loves a good wedding, and the Branchage Proposes Marriage night in Shoreditch on Wednesday is definitely an event worthy of a new hat. This is a festival-crossover, hosted by the Branchage (pronouned Bron-carge) Film Festival as part of the London Short Film Festival. The night promises everything you would expect at a wedding: cake, a string quartet, a DJ, even Uncle Dennis (AKA comedy writer Freddy Syborn) telling jokes.
From Kusturica-esque gypsy weddings to lavish Royal Affairs; dazzling Bollywood affairs to a quickie in Las Vegas; all wedding ceremonies have their own theatricality. Branchage will be exploring the spectacular traditions and superstitious customs of weddings in an evening of silent film, performance, found footage, music and surreal wedding treats. Pull up a pew to hear something old and something new, all brought together with live-scoring from classical and contemporary folk musicians, as well as some found footage.
So, what will the film screenings be? Well, Branchage obviously doesn’t want to let the groom see the wedding dress before the big day, so they are keeping their cards close to their chest. However, they have revealed that they will be showing comedy short His Wooden Wedding (1925) directed by Leo McCarey and starring Charley Chase, accompanied by James Keay on the piano. Duo Plaster of Paris are also slated to appear “scoring a wedding vignette”, which might be found footage … or it might not.
Full details are available on the Branchage website here. Branchage Proposes Marriage is at 7pm on 12 January, at Shoreditch Church. As far I know there’s no wedding list, but tickets are £10 and they’re available from See Tickets.
Well, I couldn’t be certain initially, but now all is clear. Adrian Utley from Portishead and Will Gregory from Goldfrapp will be performing their score for Dreyer’s magnificent film The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928) in London this summer. The show is scheduled for Sunday 24 July 2011, as part of the I’ll Be Your Mirror festival at Alexandra Palace, which is curated by Portishead. The full lineup (such as it is, so far) is here and tickets, including single Sunday tickets (£63.15) are available here. The initial blurb for the festival promised a cinema – so would it be too much to hope that there will be further silent film screenings at the festival? Possibly.
If we have our way, silent film is only going to get bigger in 2011. There are lots of great screenings coming up in London and elsewhere and it feels like there is a lot of enthusiasm out there for this fantastic art form.
It doesn’t take a crystal ball to predict that Battleship Potemkin, in its new restored 35mm print, courtesy of Kino International, will be the big silent film hit of the year. I have watched this great film more times than I care to remember but I will inevitably be back in the cinema to watch it this year. If I’m honest, I prefer to go to one-off events with live music rather than to listen to a recorded soundtrack, but if this re-release gets more people watching Battleship Potemkin, and stimulates their interest in silent cinema, it’s all good with me. Continue reading Silent film in 2011 – a new vintage trend?
There is an interesting article by the composer Carl Davis about Charlie Chaplin in the Guardian Review today. In the piece, he talks about how he came to piece together the original score for The Gold Rush, which he will conduct at the Royal Festival Hall on 3 January.
I was allowed into the vaults under the Alps near Geneva where all the materials of Chaplin’s working life are kept. There I examined the boxes containing the sketches and materials used for the 1942 revision. I found the sources of the pieces I could only guess at, as well as sketches for sequences that were in the 1925 version but cut in 1942.
Tickets for The Gold Rush are available here. Plus, for a limited time only, you can get a 20% discount if you call the box office (0844 847 9910) and quote ‘London Film Museum’.
It’s New Year’s Eve, so it’s time to get your dancing shoes on. Here’s a little cinematic inspiration for those of you anticipating a “foxtrot epidemic” tonight, courtesy of Ernst Lubitsch’s The Oyster Princess (1919). Happy New Year, everyone!
It’s all about the archives this February at BFI Southbank. The stand-out feature for us is What Next? (1928) directed by and starring Londoner Walter Forde. Encouragingly, this film was recently discovered as a result of the BFI’s Most Wanted project, which searches for lost films. Forde, born in Lambeth in 1898, started out in musical halls before becoming a popular film comedian, then gradually moved into directing. What Next? is described as a”cheerful farce” and features a “deranged archaeologist” chasing our hapless hero around a museum at night in pursuit of a valuable Egyptian candlestick. As a bonus feature there’s a short film, Walter the Sleuth (1927). Both films are, of course, accompanied by live piano.
What Next? is screened in NFT2 on Wednesday 2 February at 6.10pm and will be introduced by a curator of the BFI archive.
There are also archival treasures to be found in the Tales From the Shipyard season, which opens with a compilation launch event on 7 February. At that event, and on 17 February as part of the A Ship is Born in Belfast programme, you can see footage from 1910 of the SS Olympic, which was the Titanic’s sister ship.
The Tales from the Shipyard launch event is on Monday 7 February in NFT1 at 6.20pm
A Ship is Born in Belfast is on Thursday 17 February in NFT2 at 8.30pm.
The most intriguing item is a talk on 19 February called The Tragic Launch of HMS Albion. Film-maker Patrick Keillor will be joined by the BFI’s Bryony Dixon, John Graves from the National Maritime Museum and London historian Chris Ellmers to discuss the terrible events of 21 June 1898. On that day, the battleship HMS Albion was christened, but as it entered the Thames, a wave caused a platform bearing spectators to collapse, and 34 people were drowned. The ship’s launch and the subsequent disaster were being filmed – so the debate will cover the ethics of documentary film-making, as well as providing historical context.
The Tragic Launch of HMS Albion is on 19 February from 11am to 4pm in NFT3 and tickets are £5
The BFI’s Tales From the Shipyard DVD will be released on 14 February.
This tale of two cities is a very cool way to spend a Sunday afternoon. The classic Berlin: Symphony of a City (1927) montage documentary directed by Walter Ruttmann is paired with a film that partly inspired it: Manhatta (1921), based on Walt Whitman’s poem Mannahatta. Both films create portraits of cities rather than character-driven narratives. It’s an idea that’s radical even now, and both of these films are beautiful works of modernism. What better to watch in the sleek 60s architecture of an arts centre in the east end of London?
Accompaniment for the films comes from the saxophone and keyboards of German group Reflektor2. The duo, Jan Kopinski and Steve Iliffe, toured the UK last year with a live score for Der Golem (1920) and have written scores for many other silent films.
Berlin, Symphony of a City and Manhatta screen at 4pm on 6 February 2011. Tickets are £10.50 full price but £8.50 online and less for concessions. They’re available here.
There are a heck of a lot of end-of-year lists floating around at the moment. But most of them are dominated by talkies. To rectify this, allow me to present The Silent London End of Year Poll. I’m looking for the best silent film show of the year – anywhere in the world. And I’d like your help.
If you love going to watch silent films with live music then there have been ample opportunities to indulge your passion this year. The scene is thriving in London, not that we wouldn’t like to see more screenings. And my Twitter spies tell me that from New York to Paris to California to Sussex people are enjoying silent cinema shows of all kinds. So what has been your personal highlight of 2010? The show that introduced you to silent film or reinvigorated your appreciation of it? A new film or musician that blew you away – or a classic done just right?
Consider this a teaser trailer. The British Silent Film Festival returns to the Barbican in April – and some of the screenings have already been announced. The theme is Going to the Movies: Music, Sound and the British Silent Film – no great surprise, as the festival is presented in partnership with the Sounds of Early Cinema in Britain project. As well as lectures and clip shows, five standalone film screenings are listed:
- Beau Geste (1926)
Hollywood director Herbert Brenon’s adaptation of the best-selling British adventure story about the Foreign Legion starring the quintessentially English Ronald Colman.
- Twinkletoes (1926)
US director Charles Brabin’s take on the British music hall starring Hollywood’s favourite flapper Colleen Moore.
- Lonesome (1928)
Paul Fejos’s brilliant part-talkie where dialogue was introduced as a novelty in this story of two lonely people trying to find love in New York. The film features a fantastic jazz-fuelled parade in Coney Island.
- Morozko (1925)
Yu Zhelyabuzhsky’s rarely seen Soviet fantasy about a stepdaughter who is driven out to face the spirit of winter is here presented with its original music score rediscovered and reconstructed for orchestra. Presented in conjunction with Sounds of Early Cinema Conference.
- I Was Born But … (1932)
Ozu’s classic family comedy marks the very end of the silent period. As one of the greatest silent films ever made, it is screened here to celebrate the artistic excellence which the silent cinema had achieved.
So, clearly the festival is not limited to British films, and with several compilation programmes, including New Discoveries in British Silent Film – there is lots to look forward to. The promise of an orchestral score for Morozko is intriguing, as is the Ozu film, which will surely be very popular. As soon as we know more, such as accompanists and individual dates, we’ll post it here. Until then, read the Bisocope’s post about the festival here, and consider your appetite well and truly whetted.
The 14th British Silent Film Festival takes place from Thursday 7 April to Sunday 10 April at the Barbican Arts Centre, London.