Welcome to the Bioscope, a blog on early and silent cinema which was published between February 2007 and August 2012. The Bioscope is no longer being added to or updated, but is being kept as an online archive. There are nearly 1,400 posts on all aspects of silent film history and research for you to browse. We hope you will find it useful.
Roundhay Garden Scene
Years ago, when I first discovered films, and I started to absorb all the information that I could from guides and reference books, I came across the Sight and Sound ten-yearly lists of the greatest films ever made, as voted for by an august group of film critics. There was a sense of awe at titles I had yet to see, such as Citizen Kane, Bicycles Thieves, Ugetsu Monogatari or Battleship Potemkin, and fascination as how changing tastes brought new films into favour and old certainities fall away with each decade’s new choices.
In 1982 I eagerly devoured what was the fourth to be held, where Citizen Kane retained its top place (I had seen it by then and respected it deeply), followed by La Règle du jeu, Seven Samurai, Singin’ in the Rain, and so on. I naturally thought of what my own top ten would be and wondered if anyone would ever seek out my opinion – unlikely since I had neither the ambition or ability to be a film critic.
But time moves on in strange ways, and Sight and Sound has tried to widen its net to get away from the choices of an elite, til by 2012 they invited a thousand people who write about or work with film, not just in books, the newspapers and film journals but on blogs and other online outlets. And so it was that the email came through, with these words:
I would like to invite you to take part in the 2012 poll. We realise that this is not the easiest of tasks, but we want you to know that this is a major worldwide endeavour that will help us all to remind people of film’s rich history and to refine what we mean by the best of cinema.
Please draw up a list of ten films only, in order of preference or, if you’d rather, alphabetically. The order does not matter to the voting system – we will allot one vote only to each of your ten films. We also invite you to add a short commentary after the list explaining why you have chosen the films in your top ten.
As for what we mean by ‘Greatest’, we leave that open to your
interpretation. You might choose the ten films you feel are most important to film history, or the ten that represent the aesthetic pinnacles of achievement, or indeed the ten films that have had the biggest impact on your own view of cinema.
But how sad, because after thirty odd years of following films closely, I no longer had much belief on interest in ‘best’ films nor that much interest in film as art. But I wasn’t going to say no. So I wrote back with my ‘top ten’ (in chronological order) with an afterword that said what I thought about the whole process. Here’s what I wrote:
- Roundhay Garden Scene (Louis Augustin Aimé Le Prince, 1888)
- Le village de Namo – Panorama pris d’une chaise à porteurs (Gabriel Veyre, 1900)
- The Big Swallow (James Williamson, 1901)
- L’aveugle de Jérusalem (Louis Feuillade, 1909)
- The Battle of the Somme (J.B. McDowell, Geoffrey Malins, 1916)
- The Lady of the Dugout (W.S. Van Dyke, 1918)
- Spare Time (Humphrey Jennings, 1939)
- Free Radicals (Len Lye, 1958)
- Topsy-Turvy (Mike Leigh, 1999)
- Me at the Zoo (Yakov Lapitsky, 2005)
I no longer know what makes a great film, nor how a film can stay great, since so many that I once revered have dulled through familiarity, while others previously spurned when seen again startle with unexpected brilliance. The films I have chosen are not so much the ‘best’ as films that I could not imagine being done any better. Each is innovatory in its own way, which may explain the bias towards early films – all the good ideas were fresh then. The earliest title in my selection is a motion picture older than film itself, ushering in a new way of seeing the world. The newest is the first title to appear on YouTube, the symbolic moment when the medium reinvented itself beyond ‘film’.
Le Prince’s 1888 record of his family playing around in their garden does indeed precede the medium of film (it was shot on photo-sensitised paper). It seems to me to do what the moving image does best, at the very beginnings of what came to be called film. The film by Lumière cameraman Gabriel Veyre is a breathtaking reverse tracking shot taken in a Vietnamese village in 1900 (you can see in on the Gabriel Veyre website) – a superb demonstration of documentary imagination. The Big Swallow is film’s wittiest comment on itself, in which the irate subject of a film swallows the cameraman. L’aveugle de Jérusalem, an imaginary parable, is an obscure choice, though Feuillade is a celebrated enough name. But for me it is the perfectly constructed one-reeler, which I have praised here before now.
The documentary The Battle of the Somme made a greater social impact in its day than probably any film since (in Britain at least) and though more shocking films of war have been made since, as I wrote in my review of its DVD release, “it is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.” The unaffectedly authentic western The Lady of the Dugout has also been lauded here before now – in its modest way it is the model of what a silent feature film (or any feature film) can be.
Spare Time is an artful yet genuine record of people at leisure, profoundly sympathetic towards people of all kinds, delighting in scenes of ordinary living in a way that film does best (but not nearly enough). Free Radicals is pure avant garde, from the exuberant Len Lye, the most free of all filmmakers. Topsy-Turvy is a token film from today, but its marriage of precise historical recreation with truth about human loves and follies seems to me to be perfectly done. And then Me at the Zoo (which I write about on my Moving Image blog) takes us back to Le Prince in a way, demonstrating how the moving image medium delights in almost nothing at all, just movement itself. And it is the point where film ends, and something else takes over.
Me at the Zoo
You can find my choices along with the 845 others on the BFI’s Sight and Sound poll pages. But seeing what I wrote, and thinking why I wrote it, has made me decide that it’s time to call a halt to writing about film, at least for the time being, and in this form. I’ve been writing for the Bioscope for just over five years, and I’ve probably said all I want to say about silent films. It’s become a chore, and I want to be doing other things.
So as of now there will be no more new writing on The Bioscope. It will stay online, because the intention was for it to be an archive of lasting value, and the links will stay on the right-hand side, but over the next couple of days I’ll be removing news of festivals and conferences and shutting down the Scoop-it news service and Twitter account. I’ll also be shutting down comments.
Thank you all old friends and new for having read the blog over these past five years, and for often having said such kind thing about it. But it’s time to move on to the next venture, whatever that might be.
One of the very first scholarly theses to be written about the cinema, Emilie Altenloh’s Zur Soziologie des Kino: Die Kino-Unternehmung und die Sozialen Schichten Ihrer Besucher (A Sociology of the Cinema) (1914) has proven to be of lasting worth. Altenloh’s study of the habits of cinemagoers in Mannheim, Germany has greatly grown in reputation in recent years, partly because her interest in the social drivers behind the popularity of cinema anticipate modern interests and concerns, and partly because of the increase in studies of cinema as social space generally.
So it is welcome that the German publishing initiative KINtop (which produces both volumes of essays and single volume studies) has republished Zur Soziologie des Kino together with background articles on Altenloh, the influence on her of sociologist Alfred Weber, cinema in Mannheim in 1912/13 (the period of her study), and the rediscovery of her study since the 1970s and the great influence that it has had since. The study and accompanying articles are in German, but for English readers you can find part of the essay published as ‘A Sociology of the Cinema: the Audience,’ in Screen, vol. 42 no. 3, Autumn 2001. The original German text can also be found online via the Massenmedien.de site. It is in two parts: part 1 on production; part 2 on audiences and reception.
Emilie-Kiep Altenloh (1888-1985) was a politician and economist with strong social welfare interests, who served in the Bundestag 1961-1965. She conducted her famous study for her doctoral dissertation (University of Heidelberg), inviting 2,400 cinema-goers in Mannheim to fill in questionnaires as to their gender, age, social standing, marital status, employment, religious persuasion, politics and filmgoing habits. It is not an extensive questionnaire, and its preoccupation with class (specifically trying to understand the behaviour of the working classes) is typical of the time. But Altenloh has a sharp economist’s eye for the industrial structures and the profound relationship between producer and consumer that underpinned cinema, while dispaying great interest in (and sympathy for) the audiences themselves. She frets over evidence of a lack of political engagement, and worries over how much the cinema may or may nor contribute to an increase in musical taste – typical concerns of her class and trade – but the picture her text supplies of society responding to cinema, and reflected through cinema, is a powerful one.
There were other studies of the cinema by sociologists at this time, though few have the depth of understanding Altenloh shows, and too many reveal strong prejudice against a working class wasting time which could be more profitably spent in art galleries or public parks. Examples covered in these pages before now (and the original texts of which can be found for online) are:
- George Esdras Bevans, How workingmen spend their time (1913)
- The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917)
- John J. Phelan, Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio (1919)
- Donald Young, Motion Pictures: A Study in Social Legislation (1922)
- Cyril Burt, The Young Delinquent (1925)
- Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (1929)
- Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (1933)
An edition of La Reclam Cine from 1926
We have another silent film journal freely available online for you. It’s only the second journal from Spain for our period that we’ve come across, Le Reclam Cine, which was a bi-monthly supplement of a Valencia newspaper La Reclam, and first issued in January 1926. It contains news and commentary on film and theatre in Spain (centred on Valencia), with European and American film news as well, written in Spanish of course. To browse the issues, click on the Issues box at the foot of the page linked above – this taks you to the individal issues, which can be viewed as individual PDF page or else the entire issue can be downloaded. There is word-searching, and you can view thumbnails of each page (handy for locating in on photographs and advertisements).
It’s not clear how long the supplement was published, but five issues from January to May 1926 are available from the Biblioteca Nationale de Espana’s Hemeroteca Digital digitsed newspapers site, part of the larger Hispanic Digital Library. This is a national digital collection I’d not encountered before, and for Spanish speakers it looks to be an exceptional resource. It contains a huge range of digitised journals and newspapers dating 1683-1993, all of them word-, country- and date-searchable, and though all of the documents are of course in Spanish there are search guidelines in English, and the site is easy to navigate. Cinema subjects appear with great frequency among the general journals and newspapers on the site. Our standard test search term ‘kinetoscope’ yields 6 hits, ‘bioscope’ 108, ‘charlie chaplin’ 676, and ‘cinematográfica’ 18,389. Each search results brings up a record for the relevant issues and that section of the uncorrected OCR text containing the search term. Couldn’t be easier, and plenty to discover.
The Bioscope’s full list of silent film journals available online is at
Ir a explorar.
Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans (1927), scientifically proven to be the fifth best film ever made
As possibly the entire world now knows (and maybe a few cinephiles Martians as well), the great film in the world ever made is Vertigo. No, I don’t believe it, either, but that’s what 846 of the world’s estemeed film critics have collectively decided should come top of the venerable ten-yearly Sight and Sound poll (first held in 1952) of the greatest films ever made.
Now it so happens that yours truly was one of those 846, but what I voted for will be the subject of another post, when the voting records of all 846 get published online later this month. Suffice to say that none of my choices appeared in the top fifty, nor I suspect will they be found in the top 1,000 – but then I didn’t pick a ten ‘best’ in any case. When young and keen and still discovering film I thought top tens and such like were a terrific idea. Now they seem to be an antiquated and irrelevant folly. However, we can at least be pleased at the recognition silent films still receive among film critics, with three silents in the top ten and a goodly representation among the top fifty. Indeed, silent films would appear to be commanding increasing respect, with films such as Sunrise and Man with a Movie Camera leaping up from where they charted in 2002. Silent film looks enocuragingly healthy in 2012.
Anyway, here is the list, for your delectation. Argue with the choices you may well do, but that will only demonstrate that you feel that there is such a thing as a best film ever, or a top ten films ever. Do you really believe that?
Alfred Hitchcock, 1958 (191 votes)
2. Citizen Kane
Orson Welles, 1941 (157 votes)
3. Tokyo Story
Ozu Yasujiro, 1953 (107 votes)
4. La Règle du jeu
Jean Renoir, 1939 (100 votes)
5. Sunrise: A Song of Two Humans
FW Murnau, 1927 (93 votes)
6. 2001: A Space Odyssey
Stanley Kubrick, 1968 (90 votes)
7. The Searchers
John Ford, 1956 (78 votes)
8. Man with a Movie Camera
Dziga Vertov, 1939 (68 votes)
9. The Passion of Joan of Arc
Carl Dreyer, 1927 (65 votes)
Federico Fellini, 1963 (64 votes)
11. Battleship Potemkin
Sergei Eisenstein, 1925 (63 votes)
Jean Vigo, 1934 (58 votes)
Jean-Luc Godard, 1960 (57 votes)
14. Apocalypse Now
Francis Ford Coppola, 1979 (53 votes)
15. Late Spring
Ozu Yasujiro, 1949 (50 votes)
16. Au hasard Balthazar
Robert Bresson, 1966 (49 votes)
17= Seven Samurai
Kurosawa Akira, 1954 (48 votes)
Ingmar Bergman, 1966 (48 votes)
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974 (47 votes)
20. Singin’ in the Rain
Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951 (46 votes)
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 (43 votes)
21= Le Mépris
Jean-Luc Godard, 1963 (43 votes)
21= The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 (43 votes)
Carl Dreyer, 1955 (42 votes)
24= In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-Wai, 2000 (42 votes)
Kurosawa Akira, 1950 (41 votes)
26= Andrei Rublev
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966 (41 votes)
28. Mulholland Dr.
David Lynch, 2001 (40 votes)
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979 (39 votes)
Claude Lanzmann, 1985 (39 votes)
31= The Godfather Part II
Francis Ford Coppola, 1974 (38 votes)
31= Taxi Driver
Martin Scorsese, 1976 (38 votes)
33. Bicycle Thieves
Vittoria De Sica, 1948 (37 votes)
34. The General
Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926 (35 votes)
Fritz Lang, 1927 (34 votes)
Alfred Hitchcock, 1960 (34 votes)
35= Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles
Chantal Akerman, 1975 (34 votes)
Béla Tarr, 1994 (34 votes)
39= The 400 Blows
François Truffaut, 1959 (33 votes)
39= La dolce vita
Federico Fellini, 1960 (33 votes)
41. Journey to Italy
Roberto Rossellini, 1954 (32 votes)
42= Pather Panchali
Satyajit Ray, 1955 (31 votes)
42= Some Like It Hot
Billy Wilder, 1959 (31 votes)
Carl Dreyer, 1964 (31 votes)
42= Pierrot le fou
Jean-Luc Godard, 1965 (31 votes)
42= Play Time
Jacques Tati, 1967 (31 votes)
Abbas Kiarostami, 1990 (31 votes)
48= The Battle of Algiers
Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966 (30 votes)
48= Histoire(s) du cinéma
Jean-Luc Godard, 1998 (30 votes)
50= City Lights
Charlie Chaplin, 1931 (29 votes)
50= Ugetsu monogatari
Mizoguchi Kenji, 1953 (29 votes)
50= La Jetée
Chris Marker, 1962 (29 votes)