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.
Rowan Atkinson joins Chariots of Fire, from bbc.co.uk
Things are a little quiet at the moment here at Bioscope Towers as all at the scriptorium down their quill pens to follow the London Olympic Games. If we’re not transfixed by our TV screen, then we will be at the Games themselves, and so silent films will probably take a back seat for a while. If you saw the extraordinary ‘Isles of Wonder’ opening ceremony extravaganza devised by filmmaker Danny Boyle you may have spotted its two silent films references: a couple of clips from City Lights during a British film history montage, and (tangentially) Rowan Atkinson in Mr Bean mode playing keyboards for the Chariots of Fire music and winning the race on the sands from Hugh Hudson’s film.
I’ve written some thoughts on the inspiration for the opening ceremony provided by documentary filmmaker Humphrey Jennings over on the Moving Image blog that I write all too occasionally for the British Library: Pandaemonium and the Isles of Wonder.
As for silent films and the Olympic Games, do check out the Bioscope’s updated survey of Olympic film 1900-1928: Let the Games begin.
The Bioscope has just played host to its 1,000,000th visitor. It’s strange – I don’t feel quite as thrilled as I did when the site first passed the 10,000 barrier, but those were different days. Anyway, thank you to all those who have played their part in boosting the statistics. We aim to please.
By way of marking the milestone, we have a poem. Every now and then the Bioscope likes to bring you examples of poems inspired in one way or another by silent cinema, but here is the first poem that I’ve come across that is actually entitled ‘Silent Cinema’. It was written (date uncertain) by A.S.J. Tessimond (1902-1962), a minor British poet whose reputation has grown somewhat of late, and whose wry poem on Charlie Chaplin we reproduced here a few years ago. He wrote in particular of life in the city (chiefly London) and of the moments of illumination that touch humdrum lives.
‘Silent Cinema’ is a mysterious work. It’s not about film in the expected sense at all. Instead it seems to be trying to capture the impression of light on the screen, on the faces of the audience, and in the mind’s eye. It marries light with ideas of flora and music, and what the poet actually meant by calling the poem ‘Silent Cinema’ I don’t know (see his poem ‘Cinema Screen‘ for its similar use of imagery and ideas). But he has seen things differently, and we’re always going to champion that.
Light you have sung:
opalescent, iridescent, wineclouded,
barred and fenced with darkness,
furred with darkness (velvet
Brittle arpeggios of light,
light long wave upon wave,
pressing our eyelids backwards,
liht slow-opening a flower
(fire-rose), light unpetalling,
dusting with flakes of pollen
our upturned faces
Rondo of light on waves,
scherzo of light on leaves,
light webbed by wings to a wild toccata,
counterpoint – fugue – of light
Birth of light
blurring dark’s mirror
Death of light
broad slow fans
The Wayback Machine page for The Silent Film Bookshelf
We’ve been having a bit of a spring clean at New Bioscope Towers. We know that one of the features of the site that people seems to value is the lengthy lists of links in handy categories which are provided down the right-hand side (unless you are consulting the mobile version, in which case the links are at the bottom of your screen after much scrolling downwards). The problem with so many links is that a fair number change or in some cases disappear entirely, and they have to be updated every now and then (the links in the Bioscope posts themselves seldom get updated – they have to remain what they were at the time of publication, though changes are sometimes noted in the comments).
So what of the websites that have vanished? So, such as some minor blogs and discussion forums, we simply wave farewell to, and leave it at that. Others contained important information, and should not be allowed to disappear any more than we would let a book or a film disappear from an archive. Web archiving is becoming all the more important to libraries around the world, and of course we have the pioneering and now vast resource that is the Internet Archive‘s Wayback Machine. And so, four years after we last conducted a survey of lost websites, here are some of the sites formerly listed by the Bioscope but still discoverable in some form via the Internet Archive. All links are to the Internet Archive version rather than the original site, and you will need to use the IA’s calendar to selected those days on which a snapshot archive record of the site was made.
- Ariel Cinematographica Register
Pete Ariel’s huge German-language listing (no illustrations) of makes of cinematographic equipment, including many early models (also available in a book version).
- Arthur Dulay
Site dedicated to Arthur Oswald Dulay, British silent film accompanist of another age, with photos, sound files and film clips. In its latter days the site turned into a discussion forum (with no discusions) so check its record from 2009 and before to find the full site.
- BuechereiWiki Film Search
This superb set of links created by a German librarian on where to buy films and videos on DVD worldwide still exists, but is now hidden with password access only. Happily, earlier versions (2011 and before) can be found on the IA. A first-rate reference source.
- Dark Screens
Ironically, this website on lost cinemas of South London is now lost itself. It lists many cinemas from the area, with mini-histories, map references and general links on cinema history. Best checked on the IA from 2010 and before.
- Gorgeous George O’Brien
The star of Sunrise and other Fox dramas was the subject of this fan site, which has useful biographical information even if its many images are no longer traceable.
- The Georges Melies Database
There are no websites that really do George Méliès justice, but this Geocities site did at least have a useful filmography and basic background information.
- Ruan Lingyu
Another Geocities site, this time dedicated to the great Chinese silent film actress Ruan Lingyu, who committed suicide at the height of her fame. A bit limited in construction, but with some handy biographical information and photos including her funeral.
- The Silent Cinema Bookshelf
Though it had not been updated since 1999, David Pierce’s curated selection of original documents on the silent film era was one of the outstanding websites in our field. It has gone now, apparently because the host site cinemaweb.com no longer exists, but the texts can all be found on the IA (including Gene Gauntier’s memoirs, figures on top-grossing silents, articles on silent film music, D.W. Griffith, the making of The Covered Wagon, and film financing, and documentation on silent film speeds including Kevin Brownlow’s much-cited ‘What Was the Right Speed?’). There’s a Bioscope guide to the site here.
The domain name is still active (amusingly under offer as The Dabara.net) but until a year or so ago this was a tribute site devoted to actress Theda Bara, with biography, filmography and photo gallery.
Other sites I have been unable to trace on the Internet Archive. The really handy Paimann’s Filmlisten, a listing of from an Austrian film review journal 1916-1956, which gave all film releases in Austria, has its front page on the IA but no actual list. Does anyone know what has happened to its online version?
Other sites have had names changed, or have been absorbed within other sites. These changes are now reflected in the Bioscope’s links. Do let me know of any dead links that you find.
The Bioscope meets YouTube
You may have noticed that we have a new address. I don’t mean the Bioscope’s physical location, which of course remains the ivy-clad fastness that is New Bioscope Towers, but rather its web address. After too long a wait, we have finally ditched the annoying ‘bioscopic’ and the WordPress.com and switched the domain to http://thebioscope.net. All old links will still take you to the site as it now is, but I hope it will now be a little clearer who we are and what we’re about. This is all part of a rolling programme of changes to the site to make sure it stays in tip-top shape.
To mark the occasion, a rather odd short video, which comes from a pair of Indian design students, Ashis Panday & Ankkit Modi, who have created a Bioscope for the YouTube age. As regulars will know, we are interested in the Bioscopes still to be found in India (and in other Asian countries, I am given to understand) which tour from town to town supplying peepshow views of film clips for children. One or two of these shows, which are managed by itinerant bioscopewallahs, feature original film projectors from the 1900s. This art work (or part of an art work) has taken YouTube videos and stitched them together in a random sequence. The video doesn’t really make it clear what is happening, but we like the concept even if the actuality may be lacking.
For earlier posts on bioscopewallahs, see Salim Baba – http://thebioscope.net/2010/09/07/salim-baba/, Prakash Travelling Cinema – http://thebioscope.net/2007/08/26/prakash-travelling-cinema/ and The Last Bioscopewallah – http://thebioscope.net/2009/09/16/the-last-bioscopewallah/.
The Bioscope is five years old today, and it’s time for a change. We have had the same template all that time, and though it had its plain virtues I’ve wanted for a while to give the site a fresh look, while not upsetting the general balance of things too greatly. So here is the new look.
As you will see, we have the same name, the same subtitle, the same banner, and the same features (with a few tweaks) down the right-hand side. The search box is now positioned top left. The top menu has been simplified. Instead of the old Calendar, Conferences and Festivals sections, there is now an Events section (which is the renamed Calendar) with sub-menus for Conferences and Festivals. So no information has been lost, indeed the Conferences section now has a (hopefully) handy listing of past conferences with links.
The Library section remains as before, with main part a listing on freely available e-books on silent film, and sub-categories for Catalogues and Databases, Directories and Journals also available online, now with a clearer drop-down menu to guide you to the right section.
Other changes will be made over the next few weeks as I get used to the template and maybe make a few small cosmetic changes. I’m aware that the FAQ section is in needed of a refresh, and I also need to check all of the links on the righ-hand column, a number of which are now defunct.
If you are new to the Bioscope, then a particular welcome to you. This is a website (in the form of a blog) dedicated to providing information on early and silent film. We range widely in our interests, from pre-cinema technologies through to the modern silent film today, with strong emphases on research and online resources. There is an overview of the site on the About page, which includes a lsting of some of the key informational posts we have produced in the past. Browsing through some of these will give you an idea of what we’re about. We also have a Twitter feed, Flickr site, YouTube channel, a Vimeo channel and a daily news service (courtesy of Scoop it).
It’s been an interesting five years, during which I have written enough words to fill five books – which is both worrying and heartening. Sometimes I wonder at all this energy devoted to the ephemeral online world, but then I reason that each new post gets more views per day than most of the academic papers I have written have had readers over years, which must mean something. And then I do have my moments when I wonder what the point of it all is, indeed why the focus on silent films when there are other things in this world that divert me quite as much, and at such times I have thought of closing the site down. But then someone makes a comment saying that they like a particular post, or I meet someone at some film event who says how the find the Bioscope useful, and I realise I must press on.
So thank you, gentle readers. Do let me know your thoughts about the new site. It should look better on today’s bigger screens (though I am defiantly holding on to my Academy ratio laptop for as long as I can), and there small additions like the email and print options which I hope will be useful. I am always open to suggestions for new features, subjects of posts, events to promote (with a tendency towards the international), and resources to highlight. I don’t know if the Bioscope will continue for another five years, but the next target is a million visitors, which all being well we should attain some time later this year.
So we press on.
The Topical Budget newsreel shows Amy Johnson returning home to Britain following her epic solo flight to Australia
I will be close to the end of my Australian jaunt by now (he said, typing this on January 15th), and to finish things off, here’s a set of links to past posts on things Australian, which do demonstrate that we’ve been giving some attention to its silent film heritage over the past few years.
- Things Australian no. 2 (25 Jan 2011) – on the first Australian films and the research of Tony Martin-Jones.
- Things Australian no. 1 – The Marvellous Corricks (23 Jan 2011) – on the Corrick family on entertainers and their collection of early films.
- Discovering Australian (and beyond) (31 May 2009) – on the exceptional Australian SBDS portal (now known as Trove) which points the way to online research libraries in the future.
- For your selection (8 Aug 2008) – researching Australian newspapers online.
- God’s soliders (3 Nov 2011) – the pioneering use of film in Australia by the Salvation Army (updated for no. 4 in this Australian Journey series).
- Three types of authenticity (29 Oct 2009) – thought on the Douglas Mawson Antarctic expedition of 1912-13 and the differences between its original film record (shot by Frank Hurley) and television today.
- australianscreen (14 Sep 2007) – on the silent films to be found on this excellent educational website.
- Diaries of a working man (16 Aug 2007) – on the charming diaries, available online, of post office clerk Alexander Goodall who witnessed the arrival of the Kinetoscope and the Cinematograph in Australia in 1895-97.
The Bioscope is going to be a little on the quiet side for the next couple of weeks, as I am heading off for Australia for a wedding, and don’t expect have much opportunity for blogging while I’m there.
However, to ensure that you are not left staring forlornly at the same post for a fortnight, I have set up some mini-posts (bloglets) which have been programmed to appear automatically at two-day intervals, each featuring an Australian-themed video with a bit of background information.
See you all again soon – and many congratulations of course to Liz and Dave.