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Soviet cinema

Instant expert: Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

Name: Man with a Movie Camera

Date: 1929

So is this like Buster Keaton’s The Cameraman? Well yes a little, but mostly, very much no.

Not a comedy then? Not American either, it’s a Soviet documentary, a City Symphony in fact.

I know about those – which city does it portray? Erm. Moscow, Kharkov and Kiev. And Odessa. But you’re not always sure which is which.

A fake then? No, it’s art.

Which means it’s not a factual film at all? Well that is a tricky question. A group of Sight & Sound critics recently voted it the greatest documentary of all time. So that’s that, but I’d argue it isn’t really a documentary at all. As is often the case, I agree with David Cairns, who calls it a “Non-fiction Film Thing” in a new video essay.

That is not so catchy. How about just “Film” then? The stated intent of Man With a Movie Camera was to make a film that owed nothing to the other arts, literature, theatre, painting. Check out the opening intertitle. “This new experimentation work by Kino-Eye is directed towards the creation of an authentically international absolute language of cinema – ABSOLUTE KINOGRAPHY.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)

That sounds amazing. It is, full of astonishing cinematic tricks and playful philosophizing and passion. It is the most filmic of films and you should watch it, which is kinda the point of this conversation.

You always have an ulterior motive. Yes, I am sneaky that way. Man With A Movie Camera, my forgetful friend, was released last year in the cinema and on Blu-ray – my review is here.

I’ll read that later, I’m really busy. Asking silly questions must take up a good deal of your time. The TL;DR version of that review is that the cinema release of the movie was great, a gleaming restoration with a dazzling score by the Alloy Orchestra, but the Blu-ray release was not quite up to the same standard (although fans of the Michael Nyman score might overlook that).

I’ve missed my chance then. No. There is a new Blu-ray of Man With a Movie Camera in the shops – and it is the theatrical version that knocked my socks off last year. Put simply I recommend that you buy this version, from Masters of Cinema, forthwith, without delay.

Anything else to sweeten the deal before payday? LOTS. The aforementioned video essay by Davis Cairns and Timo Langer, and the not insubstantial matter of four of Vertov’s other important works (Kino-Eye, Kino-Pravda #21, Enthusiasm, Three Songs about Lenin). Plus an audio commentary by Adrian Martin, an interview with Ian Christie, a booklet crammed with treats from the archives. And a very nice box.

91ZcGd1Z1KL._SL1500_

You can read more about the Masters of Cinema release here and buy it from lots of places including here.

Electric Eisenstein: the Kino Klassika Foundation

Battleship Potemkin at the Electric Cinema, Notting Hill
Battleship Potemkin at the Electric Cinema, Notting Hill

Last night I went to a silent film screening that was the very definition of upscale. It was strictly by-invitation-only I am afraid, but well worth reporting back from.

I spent the evening at the beautiful Electric Cinema in Notting Hill, courtesy of the Kino Klassika Foundation. It was a very glamorous affair and I won’t deny that there were canapés and saucers of champagne to kick off proceedings, and very nice too, but the centrepiece of the night was a screening of Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, accompanied by Stephen Horne and Jeffrey Davenport. During the film, eloquently introduced by Ian Christie, the glasses were set down and the audience, as far as I could tell, were rapt, transported by the movie.

Battleship Potemkin at the Electric Cinema, Notting Hill
Battleship Potemkin at the Electric Cinema, Notting Hill

In fact it was wonderful to talk to the guests at the screening, some of whom had never seen the film in full before, others who had very evocative memories of watching Potemkin at home or school as children in the former Soviet Union. This week, the film was screening as art, rather then propaganda.

And that’s the point really. The Kino Klassika Foundation threw this shindig because it has big plans for Sergei Eisenstein, including an exhibition of the director’s drawings at GRAD, called Unexpected Eisenstein, a book, and app and a series of film screenings around the country. We’ll be hearing more from Kino Klassika in the coming year, as the Eisenstein in England project is unveiled. Meanwhile, you can visit the charity’s website to find out more, or perhap even make a donation.

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8

The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Photoplay Productions
The Phantom of the Opera (1925). Photoplay Productions

At the end of life death is a departure; but at life’s beginning a departure is a death – Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

Back home, when they ask me what I saw at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, I will have to confess that yes, indeed, I did see a woman tied to the train tracks this year. All their suspicions will be confirmed, although you and I will know that the scene in question was part of Kinokariera Zvonaria (A Bell-Ringer’s Film Career, 1927), a Russian spoof of the movie business. But if they don’t know that women being tied to the train tracks isn’t really a silent cinema staple, then they may not be familiar with Soviet comedy. Which I would say is a shame, although my favourite of this strand this year remains Dva Druga, Model I Poodruga. This breezy two-reeler was a sweet thing, with a reluctant star being caught in the snare of a travelling film company, whose motto was the less-than-inspiring: “Don’t waste film. Be economical.” A shocking waste of film that closes the movie elicited groans from the audience in Cinemazero – talk about singing to the choir.

KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

KINOKARIERA ZVORNAIA (URSS 1927). Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

The feature-length comedy on Saturday morning was less successful for me – mostly because it was quite hard to follow. In Serotsa I Dollary (Hearts and Dollars, 1924), mistaken identities complicated the central gag of a well-to-do American girl making her way in Russia. Familiar “types” from Soviet comedy abounded, but I couldn’t quite key in to this one, sadly.

We saw more westerners adrift in eastern parts with a film only recently made available again: Tod Browning’s opium-trade drama Drifting (1923). Priscilla Dean plays Cassie, the “poppy princess”, a opium dealer fallen on hard times in China, no doubt partly because her companion Molly has been getting high on the supply. Wallace Beery is her accomplice-cum-rival. Matt Moore is the American captain sent to China to put an end to the drugs trade, and as so often is the case, Anna May Wong is criminally underused as a local girl setting her cap at him. Set down on paper this looks like fiery stuff, and it is in parts, but the original story (in which Cassie has an even older career on the side) has been toned down, and the presentation of what remains is rather coy. There is an unexpected role for a cute tot, a small boy who belongs to an unseen missionary family, and it’s all very smartly shot and brightly tinted. Not everyone was as keen as I was on this one, but hey, we all get to be an outlier sometimes. Drifting was elevated hugely also by a superb accompaniment by Stephen Horne, who brilliantly caught the atmosphere of revolt threatened by the locals banging “sinister and solemn” drums in the background.

Wolf Song (1929) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
Wolf Song (1929) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA

We travelled way out west again after lunch, for another assignation with Victor Fleming. After a tantalising trailer for the lost film The Way of All Flesh, starring Emil Jannings, we were spoiled with a screening of Wolf Song (1929). This movie, a red-blooded western romance between trapper Sam (Gary Cooper) and a young Mexican woman called Lola (Lupe Vélez) was powerful stuff. Sam is torn between the lure of the mountain trail and his love for Lola, between the call of the “wolf song” and marital bliss. But what bliss! This is the kind of movie that reminds you that all silent cinema is effectively pre-code. The affair between the two leads is passionate, and there is enough steamy eye contact, questionable imagery and plimming bosoms to mist up your spectacles before you swoon at the sheer beauty of it. Cooper and Vélez are simply gorgeous leads, and if you haven’t heard about Cooper’s nude bathing scene in this film, well that would explain why you weren’t at the Giornate today. Seriously, though, this is the sort of film that reveals exactly why Hollywood was called a dream factory – it’s a collective fantasy, played out 10ft tall. Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 8”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 3

DVA DRUGA, MODEL I PODRUGA (KANITEL S MASHINKOI / NEOBYCHAINYE PRIKLIUCHENIIA AKHOVA I MAKHOVA) (URSS 1928) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow
DVA DRUGA, MODEL I PODRUGA (KANITEL S MASHINKOI / NEOBYCHAINYE PRIKLIUCHENIIA AKHOVA I MAKHOVA) (URSS 1928) Gosfilmofond of Russia, Moscow

Of what does a revolt consist? Of everything and nothing, a spring slowly released, a fire suddenly breaking out, force operating at random, passing breeze

– Victor Hugo, Les Misérables

On a gloriously sunny day in northern Italy (and I do mean glorious) there is nothing to be done except to duck into a dark theatre and watch Soviet cinema, right? Right? Well, that’s how we roll here in Pordenone. Today I expected  to be dominated by the screening of Eisenstein’s monumental October (1928), but as ever, the Giornate caught me by surprise. My day began with a simply stunning, and very refreshing Soviet comedy. Just as last year, the Russian Laughter strand is shaping up to be one of my favourites. And it ended with a Japanese film that I feared I wouldn’t get the most out of. Perhaps I didn’t, but I did love it all the same,

Back to Russia. That comedy, Dva Druga, Model I Podruga (Two Friends, a Model and a Girlfriend, 1928) was a real sparkler: it was gorgeously photographed, with sunlight dappling the river our heroes were pootling along, and brightly funny too. Unlike pure slapstick affairs, the comedy here was largely contained in the composition rather than the action – it was, if this is a thing, pictorially funny. Like a newspaper cartoon. Our heroes, the two friends, are seemingly daft soap factory workers who invent a machine, a contraption really, for making packing crates. They think it will increase efficiency at the factory (a noble Soviet aim, for sure) but their villainous overseer disagrees – they’re paid to work, not invent. In the end, the pals, a girl who has run away from her fiancee and this crazy “model” must travel to the big city by river to prove its worth. Endless fun, visually inventive at every turn, and so gentle it undercuts all one’s preconceptions of Soviet bombast at once. Please take any chance you get to see this one.

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

But if you ordered bombast, today delivered. A two-hour-plus silent movie is a weighty proposition to be honest, but October, with its “catalogue of inventions” is so dazzling, energetic, ferocious and breathtakingly geometric that it feels more like a weekend than a month. Eisenstein’s document of the Russian revolution screened in the Canon Revisited strand, and it is certainly a film that repays the revisiting. Today we were especially lucky to have Günter Buchwald and Frank Bockius in the orchestra pit – performing a stirring score that was no doubt an exhausting feat. I am continually dumbfounded to find that some people are immune to this rousing strain of cinema. These Soviet classics were an early staging post on my route into exploring the silents. I came to them well before the Hollywood films, and they constantly define for me what silent cinema can achieve, which is to say what cinema in total can achieve. So there. The raising of the bridge sequence in October never fails to stop me in my tracks – from the naked viciousness of the bourgeoisie to the white horse martyred several feet above the Neva. And that poor young girl’s trailing hair … As the film continues there is far more to savour than I could even hint at here. The Women’s Death Battalion could furnish several blogposts of political-sexual analysis by themselves. By the time it was over I was ready to storm the palace of silent cinema and loot for more such treasures.

A Fool and his Money (1912) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA
A Fool and his Money (1912) Library of Congress Packard Campus for Audio Visual Conservation, Culpeper, VA

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2015: Pordenone post No 3”

Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control

The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)
The Man with a Movie Camera (1929)

As of next week, Man With a Movie Camera could be coming to a big screen, or a Blu-ray machine, near you. And there’s always a good reason to watch Man With a Movie Camera again. First, because it’s such a stunning film: exhilarating, avant-garde and witty. And second, because each time you do, you’ll grapple with the questions it throws at you again – and just possibly come up with different conclusions. This magnificent movie may be a film studies set text, but it defies attempts at explanation, and in fact, it has a unique way of wriggling out of any category you might try to impose on it. Recently crowned top documentary of all time, it is also an experimental art film. It appears to be a City Symphony but it is a fraudulent one – filmed in three cities and naming none of them. Its absurdities of composition and action make the audience think of comedy, even cartoons and its trick cuts and frame manipulation are closer to animation than conventional film-making.

If I could rechristen this film as its director did himself when he went from plain David Kaufman to the far more evocative Dziga Vertov, I would call it Woman with a Moviola. The new name would be in honour of Yelizaveta Svilova, who edited the film with Vertov, and whom we see stitching together frames midway through the film. The man of the title clambers, and tilts and gets where the action is, that’s for sure, as any camera operator should do. But the magic of this film is in its elaborate construction, its celebration of those arts that are purely cinematic – not offcuts from other media. As Roger Ebert said when he reviewed the film in 2009: “It’s what you do after you have your frames that makes it cinema.”

Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Man With a Movie Camera (1929)
Svilova is also arguably the least well-known of the “council of three” comprising herself, her husband Vertov and his brother-cinematographer Mikhail Kaufman. And it seems appropriate to the film’s perversities to proclaim her the heroine: at this point, perhaps, the only way to look at Vertov’s film is sideways.

Continue reading “Man With a Movie Camera review: montage spinning out of control”

Book now for the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2015

Lillian Gish in Annie Laurie (1927)
Lillian Gish in Annie Laurie (1927)

The fifth instalment of Scotland’s only silent movie festival announces its programme today – and judging by previous years, you should start snapping up tickets straight away (tickets go on sale today, 10 February 2015, at noon). The Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema takes place in Bo’ness, a small town tucked away on the banks of the Firth of Forth in Falkirk, Scotland. Bo’ness has a stunning vintage cinema, the Hippodrome, which has been restored to its 1920s glory, and each year hosts of a celebration of the silent era that is as welcoming as it is wide-ranging.

HippFest celebrates its fifth birthday in style with three major World Premiere Festival Commissions, a pop-up cinema at Bo’ness & Kinneil Railway, the chance to discover forgotten stars Colleen Moore and Eric Campbell and get hands-on with a series of workshops and interactive events covering everything from beatboxing to Joan Crawford’s favourite dinner party recipes.

You can find all the information about the festival, and how to book tickets for the events, on the festival website here. You can also follow the festival on Facebook and Twitter. This year’s event runs from 18-22 March 2015 and below I have picked out some highlights from the programme. I have to say I am pretty excited.

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)
  • The Friday night gala screening will be the hilarious Synthetic Sin, starring Colleen Moore. There’s a dress code ladies and gents – flapper glamour! Neil Brand will accompany on piano and some silent movie blogger or other will be introducing the film …
  • “The Film Explainer” Andy Cannon will perform alongside extracts from Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, along with musicians Wendy Weatherby and Frank McLaughlin.

Continue reading “Book now for the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema 2015”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4

The New Janitor (1914)
Charlie Chaplin in The New Janitor (1914)

Charlie Chaplin is in the house. Naturally, this being his centenary year and all. Naturally, also, he is speaking Japanese. Because all the characters in Charlie Chaplin films speak Japanese – to a Japanese-speaking audience that is. And also to us lucky types in Pordenone tonight who saw a programme of Chaplin shorts with the accompaniment of Benshi Ichiro Kataoka along with Gunter Büchwald and Frank Bockius. Clearly they had all been in cahoots and the riotous combination of voice and music was expertly judged. A little Benshi can go a long way with me, but that’s how it’s meant to be I think: exuberance squared. The Japanese movie fragment that preceded the Chaplins, Kenka Yasubei (Hot-Tempered Yasubei, 1928) was an inspired choice – all the brawling and boozing of three or four Keystones packed into a frenetic half hour.

Pansidong (1927)
Pansidong (1927)

There was yet more exuberance to come at the end of the evening with Pansidong (The Spider Cave, Darwin Dan, 1927). This Chinese silent, once thought lost but recently rediscovered in Oslo, was introduced charmingly by the director’s grandson, who was seeing it for the first time tonight. I hope he enjoyed as much as I did: it was a silken concoction laced with surprises in which a glamorous girl gang of “spider-women” entrap a monk in their cave, among the spirits. There’s magic, and swordfighting, and some very witty subtitles. Mie Yanashita accompanied tightly on the piano and percussion, including a clattering cymbal that made many of us jump – right on the nose of that wedding-night moment.

Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)
Keller-Dorian: Film Gaufré: Sonia Delaunay (1925)

But it’s not time for bed quite yet. Here’s what else happened today. The short version: lots. I’m going to begin with something really quite beautiful. Several things in fact.

The leopard-skin trim on a Paul Poiret evening coat, scarlet fireworks in a sea-green night sky, vicious yellow flames engulfing a city tenement, a bowl of fresh oranges amid Sonia Delaunay’s sumptuous Orphist designs, gold sequins twinkling on a chorus line and a freshly dyed sugar-pink frock: the first shorts programme in the Dawn of Technicolor strand was a many-splendoured thing. Many different colour processes were on display from Kelley Colour to hand colouring to Natural Color to … far too many to name here. But this was as entertaining as it was instructional, and all beautifully and kaleidoscopically accompanied by Stephen Horne on piano, flute, accordion, and xylophone … at least. Married in Hollywood, the parting shot, was a Multicolor finale from a lost black-and-white sound feature. It must have been an impressive technical achievement, but it was also incredibly cheesy. Quattro formaggi.

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 4”

Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 3

Synthetic Sin (1929)
Synthetic Sin (1929)

Colleen Moore, first among flappers, is so universally adored among the silent cinema crowd that she can get away with anything. Case in point: today’s screening of the irrepressible Synthetic Sin (1929), in which La Moore plays an aspiring actress whose talents lie further towards comedy than tragedy. So much so that she interrupts a dance show to perform a wigglesome, gigglesome routine of her own … in blackface. She wins the crowd in the movie, and perhaps a little more guardedly she repeated the trick in Teatro Verdi today. You can’t edit the past, and you can’t deny the crowd-pulling power of Colleen Moore.

Synthetic Sin was a winner today, a restoration courtesy of the Vitaphone project; this film has been primped back to its best, and even comes with a snippet of its original sound-on-disc score. That blackface moment wasn’t only thing that was “of its time” about the movie, but Moore’s personality, and charm, and sheer comic talent brook no obstacles. An early scene in which she mimics “Paderewski playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude” was far funnier than such a skit had any right to be. A thunderous round of applause ensued, from a live audience 85 years too late to catch the real thing.

The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)
The Tailor from Torzhok (1925)

But Moore only arrived four screenings into the day. We’re calling this a Manic Monday, with three heavyweight movies in the morning alone: two Barrymores (Ethel and Lionel) and a treat from the Russian Laughter strand: Zakroischchik iz Torzhka (The Tailor from Torzhok, Yakov Protazanov, 1925).

Yes, the name of the Russian Laughter strand has raised some sniggers in the hotel corridors and café terraces of Pordenone already, but we don’t listen to haters here at Silent London. And we’re right, as usual, because The Tailor from Torzhok was a hoot. This is Soviet cinema’s first feature-length comedy, and it’s definitely western-style in its reliance on physical stunts and romance. It was intended to promote the state lottery, but enjoyably not a single likable character gives two figs for the lotto – the government bond is sold on, rejected, crumpled and, ahem, fixed to the wall with nasal mucus. Ick. Great comic work from Igor Illiinsky in the lead role, whether pratfalling or winningly rubbing shoulders with his pretty miss.

Continue reading “Le Giornate del Cinema Muto 2014: Pordenone post No 3”

Kino/Film: Soviet Posters of the Silent Screen at GRAD Gallery: review

This is a guest post for Silent London by Amy Sargeant, author of British Cinema: a Critical History (BFI, 2005).

As with recent exhibitions of the photography, typography and graphic design work of Aleksandr Rodchenko (at the Hayward in 2008 and at Tate Modern in 2009), it is gratifying to see the Gallery for Russian Arts and Design, London, introducing a new generation to the stunning power and exuberance of Soviet film posters. This show reinforces an impression that disorientation and montage were methodically deployed across a number of design practices to arresting and persuasive effect. The respect for this work accorded by contemporary critics is acknowledged by the GRAD show’s inclusion of an advertisement for the 1926 Second Exhibition of Film Posters: people came to recognise the monograms of “named” designers; the dedication of artists to public art was officially celebrated and promoted.

The largest collection of Soviet film posters, to my knowledge, is held by the Russian State Library in Moscow, deposited as a consequence of copyright requirements. Unfortunately, in many instances, little is known about the commissioning process, nor the circumstances and extent of information supplied to designers at the time the posters were produced concerning the films advertised. To those of us familiar with the Moscow archive, the range of formats will come as no surprise – nor will the anonymity of some designers. For visitors acquainted with glossy, flat, reproductions of posters in such coffee-table compilations as Susan Pack’s Film Posters of the Russian Avant-Garde (Taschen, 1995), the raw texture of the lithographs on display will serve as a reminder of the technical constraints under which the work was produced. Photogravure and modern offset printing came to Russia only late in the 1920s. Offprints of the posters are here available as postcards or at A3 (£25) and a1 (£60). Posters, I recall, were a great hit at the British Council’s Yuri Gagarin installation.

The GRAD show, drawn from two private collections mostly of the monogrammed variety – the Stenberg Brothers feature prominently), alongside readily identifiable excerpts from films: Dziga Vertov’s Man with a Movie Camera (1929) and Victor Turin’s Turksib (1929) sit alongside Vsevolod Pudovkin’s Chess Fever (1924) and Storm over Asia (1928); an excerpt from Pudovkin’s The End of St Petersburg (1927) is accompanied by posters by Izrail Bograd and Semyon Semyonov-Menes for the same film (both featuring the monumental equestrian statue of Alexander III – as it appears in the film). An “Avrora” sailor’s hat-band, in a section of a Stenbergs’ hoarding, is sufficient to evoke Eisenstein’s October (1927).

The show confirms an appetite on the part of Soviet audiences for cinematic entertainments tragic, dramatic and comedic. The Stenbergs’ poster for Aleksandr Ivanovskii’s The Decembrists (1926) demonstrates the Soviet regime’s concern to establish precedents in Russian history for the October Revolution. There is also ample evidence of the export of American and European films to Russia in the post-Revolutionary period, likely to receive a welcome reception: for instance, Murnau’s Der letzte Mann (1924), significantly known in Russia as A Man and a Livery, is represented by Emil Jannings proudly standing foreground in his preposterously braided hotel commissionaire’s uniform, with, in the background, the shadowy, hunched figure he is destined  to become once retired to the hotel’s basement washroom.

The show’s thin catalogue (overpriced at £25) includes short essays by co-curator Lutz Becker and co-editor Alexandra Chiriac. The former covers key aspects of art school training, film production and distribution; the latter pays obeisance to Walter Benjamin (the 1926-27) Moscow Diary and 1936 essay The Work of Art in the Age of its Technical Reproducibility) while, sadly, failing to counter Benjamin’s uninformed estimation of the talents of Igor Ilinskii, undeservedly reported as “an inscrupulous and inept imitator of Chaplin”. Russian audiences appreciated Ilinskii as one of their finest actors, on stage and screen. An appendix outlines the education, careers and varied output of the designers recognised.

I look forward to GRAD’s coming exhibitions, notably its 2014 summer show of Soviet textiles.

By Amy Sargeant

The Kino/Film exhibition continues at the GRAD gallery until 29 March 2014

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