The 846th opinion

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.

Cheerio.

Luke

The greatest

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 cinephile 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?

1. Vertigo
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)

10. 8½
Federico Fellini, 1963 (64 votes)

11. Battleship Potemkin
Sergei Eisenstein, 1925 (63 votes)

12. L’Atalante
Jean Vigo, 1934 (58 votes)

13. Breathless
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)

17= Persona
Ingmar Bergman, 1966 (48 votes)

19. Mirror
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1974 (47 votes)

20. Singin’ in the Rain
Stanley Donen & Gene Kelly, 1951 (46 votes)

21= L’avventura
Michelangelo Antonioni, 1960 (43 votes)

21= Le Mépris
Jean-Luc Godard, 1963 (43 votes)

21= The Godfather
Francis Ford Coppola, 1972 (43 votes)

24= Ordet
Carl Dreyer, 1955 (42 votes)

24= In the Mood for Love
Wong Kar-Wai, 2000 (42 votes)

26= Rashomon
Kurosawa Akira, 1950 (41 votes)

26= Andrei Rublev
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1966 (41 votes)

28. Mulholland Dr.
David Lynch, 2001 (40 votes)

29= Stalker
Andrei Tarkovsky, 1979 (39 votes)

29= Shoah
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)

35= Metropolis
Fritz Lang, 1927 (34 votes)

35= Psycho
Alfred Hitchcock, 1960 (34 votes)

35= Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce 1080 Bruxelles
Chantal Akerman, 1975 (34 votes)

35= Sátántangó
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)

42= Gertrud
Carl Dreyer, 1964 (31 votes)

42= Pierrot le fou
Jean-Luc Godard, 1965 (31 votes)

42= Play Time
Jacques Tati, 1967 (31 votes)

42= Close-Up
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)

You too can be a silent film director

When the Silent Film Director app for the iPhone was released a year or so ago, we noted it in passing and gave it no further thought. Just another gimmicky smartphone app – in this case one which converted your videos into faux silents with sepia tone, scratches and intertitles – and not likely to make much of an impact.

Well, a year or so on, and Silent Film Director has turned out to be a cult hit. More thought has gone into to development than you might have expected, with respected silent film musician Ben Model serving as consultant. News stories regularly come down the wires that indicate its growing popularity, demonstrated not least by the number of videos produced in the format which are to be found on YouTube. Most are pretty much what you would expect, inconsequential home movies with a dash of tomfoolery, but there is clearly something about the time travel effect that converting 2012 into 1922 at the push of a button that appeals, and which has played its part, we suspect, in the increased appreciation of silent film generally which we cannot help but notice.

Some day someone will be able to write a thesis on the connection between The Artist and Silent Film Director in relation to the rebirth of silent films, but meanwhile things have come to their logical conclusion and we have the first iPhone Silent Film Festival, put on by MacPhun, the developers of Silent Film Director. Budding Hazanaviciuses have until May 28th to submit a video of up to three minutes in length, using the app. The rules are simple, and supplied in suitable style:

You don’t have to shoot your film with your iPhone, just use the app to edit and upload the results. The competition is open to anyone worldwide. Winners will be announced on June 1st, and there are weekly winners as well, with prizes including tickets to see Napoleon in San Francisco, which is commendably imaginative of them. You can view the videos on the Silent Film Director YouTube channel, from which we have picked the video at the top of this post because (a) it’s the first silent film we’ve seen with Barack Obama; (b) by who knows what design there happens to be a poster for The Cabinet of Dr Caligari in the background; (c) the footage is taken from 24-hour channel Russia Today, of all sources; and (d) it’s quite fun (the music is from that regular source for silent film music online, Incompetech.com).

(Apologies for the reduced activity from The Bioscope of late. We are busy with other matters, though we try to keep the news service active. Plus we’re working on one of those long posts which require far too much research.)

Just a second

A Eye for Details, by Wim Wenders, from The Beauty of a Second

How short can a film be and still be a film? We had a discussion here a little while ago on a seven frame fragment of an 1897 film, and whether it still counted as a lost film or not. Compared to seven frames, a whole second of film may seem practically epic, and one second is the length of the films currently on show at The Beauty of a Second.

This is a competition website, launched by Montblanc, a producer of watches and other fine goods, to mark the invention 190 years ago of the chronograph, a pocket watch accurate to one fifth of a second. The competition invites any interested to film anything, just so long as the subject is precisely one second long (and in 16:9 format).

The competition has been running since September 23rd, and is divided into three rounds, with the current one open from November 16th to December 13th, should you wish to participate. The 20 videos in each round that get the most votes from people visiting the site go through to a final, which is to be judged by none other than Wim Wenders. Wenders is also the judge for a side competition to create a playlist out of the submitted videos (for 2 to 60 seconds long), adding a soundtrack from the Montblanc audio library.

It’s a beautifully designed site, with the videos artfully arranged around a clockface. You can view the videos individually or as a set, which as each one last a second may be preferable. Though some have sounds, even music in one or two cases, most are silent, and I think we can see this as yet another instance of modern silent artistry. Because while most of the videos are essentially snapshots with a wobble, more than a few of the videos do artfully catch the eye in the instant that they have in which to do so.

I warmly recommend browsing through the main competitition entries and the playlists, though if the number of seconds you can spare is few, then you should go to the Inspiration section, where a number of model one-second videos are on show to demonstrate what can be done. Some of these are made by Wenders himself, and are a delight – see for example his film An Eye for Details, in which a woman turns her head, with her eyes coming briefly into focus (literally for a split-second) before going out of focus once more. It is witty, observant, a hymn to the instant.

It would good to see other filmmakers of note presented with such a challenge. I expect it is an idea that someone else will pick up on, in time.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 24

Jean Dujardin and Uggy share the acting honours in The Artist

Things are still unsettled here at New Bioscope Towers, what with so much stuff still in boxes and electrical matters needing to be sorted out, but your scribe will for a while rest upon a handy packing case and record for you some of the news items from the world of silents this week (and the week before).

Best film dog
As many of you will know now, the modern day silent film The Artist did not win the Palm d’Or at Cannes, though it was a close run thing. Jean Dujardin did pick up the award for best actor, but probably a little closer to the Bioscope’s heart was the announcement of the Palm Dog – an unofficial award for the best performance by a dog in a film shown at Cannes – which went to Uggy, a Jack Russell member of the cast of The Artist. Uggy’s performance has been variously described as “stunning”, “stand out” and “the finest in the 11 year history of the Palm Dog”. Read more.

The world remembers part 1
UNESCO’s Memory of the World programme highlights important documentary heritage artefacts from around the world, and as we have reported before now, a few films have been included so far. Newly inscribed on the register is the important Desmet collection of films, company documents, posters and film stills from the 1910s, submitted by the EYE Film Institute in Amsterdam(formerly the Nederlands Filmmuseum). Also inscribed in 2011, by the Russian Federation, is Tolstoy’s Personal Library and Manuscripts, Photo and Film Collection. I wasn’t aware Tolstoy had a personal film collection – as we have noted before, he was no lover of the medium. We will have to find out more. Read more.

The world remembers part 2
But there are also national registers, and new to the UK Memory of the World register is the extraordinary Mitchell & Kenyon collection of some 800 films from the Edwardian era, mostly actualties depicting lives in English and Irish working towns. Congratulations to the BFI National Archive which cares for the collection and successfully argued for the collection’s inclusion on the UK register (along with the GPO Film Unit collection of the 1930s). Read more.

Tuff times ahead
Toronto’s annual festial of modern, one-minute long silent films is open for entries once more. Describing itself as ‘the world’s only true “underground” film festival’, films submitted and selected get to reach over 1.3 million daily commuters who ride the Toronto subway system. The event takes place 9-18 September 2011 and this year’s guest judge is Atom Egoyan. The deadline for submissions is 15 July. You can see past award winners on TUFF’s Vimeo site – and the standard is high. Read more.

The genius of Buster
A thoughtful and observant article by Jana Prikyl on Buster Keaton has been published in The New York Review of Books to coincide with the screening of twelve feature-length and twelve short films by Buster Keaton, at Film Forum, New York City, 23 May – 8 August 2011. The essay covers Kino’s recent DVD and Blu-Ray releases, the Brownlow/Gill documentary A Hard Act to Follow, Kevin W. Sweeney’s Buster Keaton: Interviews, and James L. Neibaur’s The Fall of Buster Keaton: His Films for M-G-M, Educational Pictures, and Columbia. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Bioscope Newsreel no. 23

Trailer for The Artist

Well, these are busy times, aren’t they? Much interest has been aroused by the news of the colour version of A Trip to the Moon and the release online of Film Daily 1922-1929 (from which the Bioscope has learned that there is nothing quite like having the words ‘film’ and ‘daily’ in a blog post title for attracting spam). But what else has been happening in the silent film world?

Weinstein picks The Artist
There’s been a lot of interest suddenly in the modern-day silent film The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, which as we reported last week was a late entry into competition at Cannes. Clearly some think quite highly of this A Star is Born-like tale of one star on the rise and another on the wane at the time of the crossover from silent to sound films. Now we learn that the sharp-eyed Harvey Weinstein has bought the film and clearly sees an unusual hit in the making. It certainly looks quite something from the trailer and the stills. So will we be seeing a silent film in contention come Oscar time? Read more.

FOCAL restoration awards
Silent film restorations scored twice at this week’s FOCAL International Awards. The awards, which celebrate the best work in the commercial footage business (chiefly in the UK), include awards for archive restorations which have grown in prominence particularly since Martin Scorsese won last year for the restoration of The Red Shoes. This year’s award for best single title went to the BFI’s exceptional work on The Great White Silence (1924), documenting the Scott Antarctic expedition, which beat strong silent competition from the new version of Metropolis. The award for best restoration project went to Lobster Films’ revelatory The Chaplin Keystone Project (a four-disc DVD set), which the French firm undertook with the BFI and Cineteca di Bologna. Read more.

The Great White Silence hits the road
Recently garlanded with a FOCAL restoration award, as noted above, The Great White Silence is being released across the UK by the BFI from next Friday. Featuring a new score (which might possibly divide opinion) from new score by Simon Fisher Turner, the film of the British Antarctic Expedition (1910-1913), filmed by Herbert Ponting, will be on release up to mid-July, while DVD and Blu-Ray will be released in June. Following on from the success of the re-release of Metropolis, this seems evidence of growing public a public taste for silents, which we hope we hope will be encouraged further. Read more.

Ammunition smuggling on the Mexican border
There hasn’t been much of chance before now to draw your attention to Cine Silente Mexicano, a fine blog which happens to be in Spanish. But for its most recent post it has turned to English to tell the genuinely fascinating story of Ammunition Smuggling on the Mexican Border (1914), a three-reel docudrama (now lost, alas) which recreated a clash between Sherrif Buck (who played himself) and gun smuggling revolutionaries. The post was written by Scott Simmon, via the The 7th Orphan Film Symposium. Read more.

Chaplin’s car
Fancy driving away with a piece of film history? You’ve got until May 15th to put in a bid on eBay for Charlie Chaplin’s 1929 Pierce Arrow dual-cowl phaeton convertible, Model 143. The current bid is for $88,100.00, but the reserve has not been met yet. Now’s your chance. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Kraszna-Krausz award

Warm congratulations to Matthew Solomon and University of Illinois Press for his book Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, which has just won the Best Moving Image Book Award at the prestigious Kraszna-Krausz Foundation book awards. The biennial awards, established through a bequest by Andor Kraszna-Krausz, the founder of Focal Press, recognise books on the moving image and photography that have made original and lasting educational, professional, historical and cultural contributions to the field.

Disappearing Tricks, as previously reported on by the Bioscope, revisits the golden age of both theatrical magic and silent film to reveal how professional magicians shaped the early history of cinema. The judges of the 2011 competition, Hugh Hudson, Peter Bradshaw and Sir Christopher Frayling said about Disappearing Tricks:

A fascinating enquiry into the early history of film, especially as it involved magicians and magic tricks. Matthew Solomon explores spiritualism and suspension of disbelief in a compelling investigation of the integration of cinema into mainstream entertainment.

So an important vote for publication on silent film, which joins previous such winners of the award, Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences by Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939 by Ruth Vasey, Hollywood’s Overseas Campaign: The North Atlantic Movie Trade, 1920-1950 by Ian Jarvie, and Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney by Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman. Ours are the best form of movies and the best books about movies, clearly.

Matthew Solomon’s latest book, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination, on Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, was published recently.

Looking back on 2010

Lillian Gish knows just what it’s like in north Kent, from Way Down East

The snows of winter are piling up in fantastic drifts about the portals of Bioscope Towers. Icy blasts find their way through every crack and cranny. Outside, civilization grinds to a glacial halt, and the end of the year now beckons. In the relative warmth of the Bioscope scriptorium, I’ve been thinking it would be a good idea to look back on what happened in the world of silent film over 2010. So here’s a recap of highlights from the past twelve months, as reported on the Bioscope (and in a few other places) – silent memories to warm us all.

There were three really big stories in 2010. For many of us, the most welcome news story of this or any other year was the honorary Oscar that went to Kevin Brownlow for a lifetime dedicated to the cause of silent films. The restored Metropolis had its premiere in a wintry Berlin in February. It has now been screened acround the world and issued on DVD and Blu-Ray. And there was the sensational discovery by Paul E. Gierucki of A Thief Catcher, a previously unknown appearance by Chaplin in a 1914 Keystone film, which was premiered at Slapsticon in June.

It was an important year for digitised documents in our field. David Pierce’s innovative Media History Digital Library project promises to digitise many key journals, having made a good start with some issues of Photoplay. The Bioscope marked this firstly by a post rounding up silent film journals online and then by creating a new section which documents all silent film journals now available in this way. A large number of film and equipment catalogues were made available on the Cinémathèque française’s Bibliothèque numérique du cinéma. Among the books which became newly-available for free online we had Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment, and the invaluable Kinematograph Year Book for 1914.

Among the year’s restorations, particularly notable were Bolivia’s only surviving silent drama, Wara Wara, in September, while in October the UK’s major silent restoration was The Great White Silence, documenting the doomed Scott Antarctic expedition.

We said goodbye to a number of silent film enthusiasts and performers. Particularly mourned in Britain was Dave Berry, the great historian of Welsh cinema and a friend to many. Those who also left us included Dorothy Janis (who starred in The Pagan opposite Ramon Novarro); film restorer and silent film technology expert Karl Malkames; the uncategorisable F. Gwynplaine Macintyre; and film archivist Sam Kula. One whose passing the Bioscope neglected to note was child star Baby Marie Osborne, who made her film debut aged three, saw her starring career end at the age of eight, then had a further ninety-one years to look back on it all.

Arctic conditions in Rochester uncannily replicated in Georges Méliès’ A la Conquête du Pôle (1912)

On the DVD and Blu-Ray front, Flicker Alley followed up its 2008 5-disc DVD set of Georges Méliès with a sixth disc, Georges Méliès Encore, which added 26 titles not on the main set (plus two by Segundo de Chomón in the Méliès style). It then gave us the 4-DVD set Chaplin at Keystone. Criterion excelled itself by issuing a three-film set of Von Sternberg films: Underworld (1927), The Last Command (1928) and The Docks of New York (1928). Other notable releases (aside from Metropolis, already mentioned) were Flicker Alley’s Chicago (1927) and An Italian Straw Hat (1927), Kino’s Talmadge sisters set (Constance and Norma), the Norwegian Film Institute’s Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition (1910-1912) and Il Cinema Ritrovato’s Cento anni fa: Attrici comiche e suffragette 1910-1914 / Comic Actresses and Suffragettes 1910-1914, while the Bioscope’s pick of the growing number of Blu-Ray releases is F.W. Murnau’s City Girl (1930), released by Eureka. But possibly the disc release of the year was the BFI’s Secrets of Nature, revealing the hypnotic marvels of natural history filmmaking in the 1920s and 30s – a bold and eye-opening release.

New websites turned up in 2010 that have enriched our understanding of the field. The Danish Film Institute at long last published its Carl Th. Dreyer site, which turned out to be well worth the wait. Pianist and film historian Neil Brand published archival materials relating to silent film music on his site The Originals; the Pordenone silent film festival produced a database of films shown in past festivals; the daughters of Naldi gave us the fine Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp site; while Kevin Brownlow’s Photoplay Productions finally took the plunge and published its first ever website.

The crew for Alfred Hitchcock’s The Mountain Eagle, ready for anything the elements can throw at them

Among film discoveries, in March we learned of the discovery of Australia’s earliest surviving film, the Lumière film Patineur Grotesque (possibly October 1896); in June we heard about a major collection of American silents discovered in New Zealand; and digital copies of ten American silents held in the Russian film archive were donated to the Library of Congress in October. That same month the Pordenone silent film festival unveiled the tantalising surviving frgament of F.W. Murnau’s Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (1921-22). There was also time for films not yet discovered, as the BFI issued its Most Wanted list of lost films, most of them silents, while it also launched an appeal to ‘save the Hitchcock 9” (i.e. his nine surviving silents).

The online silent video hit of the year was quite unexpected: Cecil Hepworth’s Alice in Wonderland (1903) went viral after the release of the Tim Burton film of Lewis Carroll’s story. It has had nearly a million views since February and generated a fascinating discussion on this site. Notable online video publications included UCLA’s Silent Animation site; three Mexican feature films: Tepeyac (1917), El tren fantasma (1927) and El puño de hierro (1927); and the eye-opening Colonial Films, with dramas made in Africa, contentious documentaries and precious news footage.

2010 was undoubtedly the year of Eadweard Muybridge. There was a major exhibition of the photographer’s work at Tate Britain and another at Kingston Museum (both still running), publications including a new biography by Marta Braun, while Kingston produced a website dedicated to him. He also featured in the British Library’s Points of View photography exhibition. There was also controversy about the authorship of some of Muybridge’s earliest photographs, and a somewhat disappointing BBC documentary. In 2010 there was no avoiding Eadweard Muybridge. Now will the proposed feature film of his life get made?

Ernest Shackleton’s ship Endurance trapped in the Medway ice, from South (1919)

It was an interesting year for novel musical accompaniment to silents: we had silent film with guitars at the New York Guitar Festival; and with accordions at Vienna’s Akkordeon festival. But musical event of the year had to be Neil Brand’s symphonic score for Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), given its UK premiere in November.

Noteworthy festivals (beyond the hardy annuals of Pordenone, Bologna, Cinecon etc) included the huge programme of early ‘short’ films at the International Short Film Festival at Oberhausen in April/May; and an equally epic survey of Suffragette films in Berlin in September; while the British Silent Film Festival soldierly on bravely despite the unexpected intervention of an Icelandic volcano.

On the conference side of things, major events were the Domitor conference, Beyond the Screen: Institutions, Networks and Publics of Early Cinema, held in Toronto in June; the Sixth International Women and Film History Conference, held in Bologna also in June; and Charlie in the Heartland: An International Charlie Chaplin Conference, held in Zanesville, Ohio in October.

It wasn’t a great year for silent films on British TV (when is it ever?), but the eccentric Paul Merton’s Weird and Wonderful World of Early Cinema at least generated a lot of debate, while in the US sound pioneer Eugene Lauste was the subject of PBS’s History Detectives. Paul Merton was also involved in an unfortunate spat with the Slapstick festival in Bristol in January over who did or did not invite Merton to headline the festival.

The art of the silent film carried on into today with the feature film Louis (about Louis Armstrong’s childhood), and the silent documentary feature How I Filmed the War. Of the various online modern silent shorts featured over the year, the Bioscope’s favourite was Aardman Animation’s microscopic stop-frame animation film Dot.

Charlie Chaplin contemplates the sad collapse of Southeastern railways, after just a few flakes of snow, from The Gold Rush

What else happened? Oscar Micheaux made it onto a stamp. We marked the centenary of the British newsreel in June. In October Louise Brooks’ journals were opened by George Eastman House, after twenty-five years under lock and key. Lobster Films discovered that it is possible to view some Georges Méliès films in 3D.

And, finally, there have been a few favourite Bioscope posts (i.e. favourites of mine) that I’ll give you the opportunity to visit again: a survey of lost films; an exhaustively researched three-part post on Alfred Dreyfus and film; the history of the first Japanese dramatic film told through a postcard; and Derek Mahon’s poetic tribute to Robert Flaherty.

It’s been quite a year, but what I haven’t covered here is books, largely because the Bioscope has been a bit neglectful when it comes to noting new publications. So that can be the subject of another post, timed for when you’ll be looking for just the right thing on which to spend those Christmas book tokens. Just as soon as we can clear the snow from our front doors.

And one more snowy silent – Abel Gance’s Napoléon recreates the current scene outside Rochester castle, from http://annhardingstreasures.blogspot.com

Kevin Brownlow honoured

From right to left, Kevin Brownlow, Francis Ford Coppola and Eli Wallach posing after the Governors Awards held by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, 13 November 2010. From Reuters

Warm congratulations to Kevin Brownlow on his receipt last night of an honorary Academy Award for his work in documenting and preserving the films of the silent era.

Brownlow received his award alongside Francis Ford Coppola (receiving the Irving G. Thalberg Award) and actor Eli Wallach at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual annual Governors Awards ceremony. Jean-Luc Godard was also given an honorary award but declined to turn up. Hollywood luminaries such as Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Annette Bening, Oliver Stone, Kevin Spacey and Robert De Niro were in the audience. There are reports on BBC News, Reuters, Entertainment Weekly and the New York Times.

Coppola has gained the all the notices, but Brownlow’s achievement is the real headline news – for silent films, film preservation, the historiography of cinema, and for British cinema – and of course for himself. Kevin took the opportunity to lecture his audience on how American copyright laws had made his work more difficult, while also celebrating the artistry of the filmmakers who made Hollywood the cultural and commercial powerhouse that it remains.

If you are keen to find out more about Brownlow’s career as filmmaker, writer, programme maker and preservationist, I warmly recommend an interview with Brownlow conducted by Ann Harding in 2008, originally published in French but now re-published in English on her excellent blog, Ann Harding’s Treasures:

Update:
AMPAS has published videos of tributes paid to Kevin Brownlow and Kevin’s acceptance speech at the Governors Award ceremony:

There’s also a biography with filmography and a ‘did you know’ on Kevin Brownlow on the AMPAS site.

Kevin Brownlow accepting his award, from oscars.org

Tuff times are here again

“emBodying Toronto” by Joyce Wong and Sonia Hong, 1st Place Winner at TUFF 2009

TUFF is the annuel Toronto Urban Film Festival, which has the noble ambition of showing new silent films to the commuters of Toronto. The festival, which takes place 10-19 September 2010, comprises an urban-themed programme of new one-minute silent films, which run repeatedly on the ONESTOP digital network of over 270 platform screens on fifty subway platforms of the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) for ten days, reaching 1.3 million daily commuters. The top three films of the festival are chosen by a guest jury and guest judge; this year the judge is director, producer and screenwriter Deepa Mehta. The festival is now in its fourth year.

TUFF films on exhibition on a Toronto subway platform

TUFF is open to Canadian and international submissions by video artists, filmmakers – trained and untrained – animators and ‘urbanites’ with cameras or video-capable mobile devices. Filmmakers are asked to submit one-minute silent videos addressing one of seven themes: Urban Encounters; Urban Diversity; Urban Journeys; Urban Imaginary; Urban Natural; Urban Secrets; and Urban Ideas. Only the leading entrants in each category get to be screened on the TTC, from the hundreds of submissions made each year. The winning videos in each category from 2009 are now available to view on the TUFF site or on the festival’s YouTube channel (including entries from previous years).

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