Forever laughing

Poster for The Plank (1967 version), from bbc.co.uk

So farewell then to Eric Sykes, one of Britain’s best loved funny men. He was a natural comic performer, generally playing someone confident that he knew what he was doing while demonstrating time and again that he had no reason to be so, best exemplified by the long-running TV sitcom Sykes. He was also one of the most talented comic writers of his time, writing for Educating Archie, Tony Hancock, The Goons, Frankie Howerd and his own shows.

Like many of his generation of comedians, he had an immense affection and respect for the great silent comedians. Some, such as Bob Monkhouse and Michel Bentine, presented compilations of silent comedies on television to bring them to new audiences. Others, such as Ronnie Barker (with A Home of Your Own, Futtock’s End, The Picnic, By the Sea), Benny Hill (The Waiters, Eddie in August), and in recent years Paul Merton, David Schneider (Uncle Max) and Rowan Atkinson (Mr Bean) have continued the tradition, with varying degrees of homage to the past – and with varying success.

Eric Sykes made a number of silent, or near-silent slapstick comedies, of which the most famous and still fondly loved is The Plank, of which three versions were made. It started out as a wordless, black-and-white episode of his BBC TV series Sykes and a …, the episode being Sykes and a Plank (tx. 3 March 1964), in which the two protganists were Sykes and regular co-star Hattie Jacques. In 1967 Sykes remade it as a 54-minute colour cinema release, co-starring himself and Tommy Cooper. This was then re-released in 1974 cut to 45 minutes, before a third version (30mins) was made for Thames Television in 1979, with Arthur Lowe replacing Cooper. It is the 1967 film that is the most familiar.

Sykes (who lived in a silent world himself – he was almost completely deaf) made other silent shorts for cinema and television: Rhubarb (1969, remade as Rhubarb, Rhubarb in 1980) in which the characters utter just the one word (guess what it is), It’s Your Move (1969, remade in 1982), Mr H is Late (1988) and The Big Freeze (1993) among them. But it is The Plank that has retained a classic status of a kind. The story is simple – two builders purchase a floorboard for the house they are working on, and encounter all manner of hazards trying to transport it across town. Judged by the standards of the comedy greats of the 1920s, it is average stuff, but Sykes and Cooper have the right deadpan delivery in the face of absurdity, and in its scenario of an inanimate object geting the better of two men it merits some comparison with Laurel and Hardy’s travails with a piano in The Music Box. The simple plank (much like the large plane of glass) is a silent comedy staple in any case. The twist is that here the plank gets star billing (literally so in the 1967 film’s opening credits).

The Plank and its creator show a continuity of laughter down the years. Slapstick itself no longer has the popular appeal that it once enjoyed, but Chaplin, Keaton, Lloyd et al (themselves inspired by an earlier generation of theatre comics) inspired the next generation of comedians such as Eric Sykes who flourished on radio and television, whose works then made the next generation laugh when young and inspired them to make others laugh in their own time (as the many affectionate tributes to Sykes from today’s comedians has demonstrate). It’s a continuous process of inheritance and gratitude. Comedy dates, but laughter is eternal. Thank you Eric.

Portrait of an invisible man

Dai Vaughan, from Vertigo magazine

There have been many warm tributes recently to the late Andrew Sarris, the great film critic. Sarris was renowned for his advocacy of the auteur theory, in which the director of a film is judged to be its primary author when considering a film’s status as a work of art. Not all film directors can be auteurs, however, or so the argument goes – it is predominantly an elite whose distinctive stamp marks out those films that are truly great.

Well, may be so, but if there are film auteurs out there I do not think that they have always to be directors, or creators of fiction films, or indeed exclusively filmmakers. A case in point is the late Dai Vaughan, who died last month, to somewhat less recognition from the film world. Vaughan was a film artist – or perhaps more properly an artist who worked within film – whose commitment to that art was every bit as notable as a Hitchcock, a Ford or a Hawks. But Vaughan was a documentary film editor, and consequently an invisible man, to use the phrase that employed for his outstanding study of the editor behind Humphrey Jennings’ documentaries, Stewart McAllister, Portrait of an Invisible Man (1983).

Dai Vaughan (1933-2012) worked in the heart of film for over thirty years. He discovered the medium at the National Film Theatre in London in the 1950s, and joined the London Film of School Technique, going on to make films for the Labour Party, including the documentary Gala Day (1963) and a number of party political broadcasts. Establishing himself as a documentary film editor, he worked on some of the most notable British television series of the 60s and 70s: Granada’s social affairs World in Action and the great anthropological Disappearing World, the BBC’s arts series Omnibus and Roger Graef’s pioneering fly-on-the-wall series The Space Between Words (1972) and Decision (1975-76).

Vaughan’s social and political commitment, and his deep interest in how film can document, came out equally in his films and in his writings. His study of Stewart McAllister (practically his alter ego) is an inspired recovery of a lost life and a buried art, demonstrating as it does with what subtle artistry McAllister turned the wartime documentary inspirations of Humphrey Jennings into such exceptional works of arts as Listen to Britain and Fires were Started. However his greatest work is a collection of essays, For Documentary (1999). Were I to be restricted to just ten books on film in my library, then For Documentary would be one of them; and were I then only allowed to keep one, For Documentary might be it. For ideas that grip you and stay with you, fine style, knowledge based on practical experience and depth of undertanding, there is little in the field that surpasses it.

The book covers such subjects as ethnographic film, films of the Olympic Games, fabriciation in documentary and a prescient essay from 1994 on the digital image bringing about the death of cinema. But my favourite piece, and the reason for writing about Vaughan in a blog concerned with silent cinema is the opening essay, ‘Let there be Lumière’.

This exquisite piece of writing is concerned about the beginnings of cinema, specficially that extraordinary moment at which point cinema came into being, something which for Vaughan is equivalent to “what happened to the universe in the first microseconds after the big bang”. Vaughan analyses one film in particular, the Lumières’ Barque sortant du port (A Boat Leaving Harbour) (1895), a film whose mysterious beauty Vaughan unpicks by reference to its absolute spontaneity, a moment on film before film understood itself to be an art, before the arts of fiction (and of editing) intruded, before rules are introduced that make the mysteries of film comprehensible. He writes (also referring to the fascination leaves moving in the background had for audiences of the the first Lumière films):

As audiences settle for appearances, according film’s images the status of dream or fantasy whose links with a prior world are assumed to have been severed if they ever existed, film falls into place as a signifying system whose articulations may grow ever more complex. True, the movement of leaves remains unpredictable; but we know that, with the endless possibility of retakes open to the filmmaker, what was unplanned is nevertheless what has been chosen: and the spontaneous is subsumed into the enunciated. Even in documentary, which seeks to respect the provenance of its images, they are bent inexorably to foreign purpose. The “big bang” leaves only a murmur of background radiation, detectable whenever someone decides that a film will gain in realism by being shot on “real” locations or where the verisimilitude of a Western is enhanced, momentarily, by the unscripted whinny of a horse.

A Boat Leaving Harbour begins without purpose and ends without conclusion, its actors drawn into the contingency of events. Successive viewings serve only to stress its pathetic brevity as a fragment of human experience. It survives as a reminder of that moment when the question of spontaneity was posed and not yet found to be insoluble: when cinema seemed free, not only of its proper connotations, but of the threat of its absorption into meanings beyond it. Here is the secret of its beauty. The promise of this film remains untarnished because it is a promise which can never be kept: a promise whose every fulfilment is also its betrayal.

‘Let there be Lumière’ is a standard text on some film studies courses, and it has been much quoted down the years since it was first written in 1991. Yet its insights remain as fresh as ever, and its analysis of the workings of the first films as hypnotically entrancing as the endlessly watchable Barque sortant du port.

You can find the full essay reproduced on World Cat, but I warmly recommed the complete book. Vaughan knew his silent films, and throws in references to E.J. Marey, Laurel and Hardy, The Battle of the Somme and Charles Urban, alongside such diverse artists (film and non-film) as Federico Fellini, Adrian Cowell, David Hockney and Dorothy Richardson. Film for Vaughan is related to everything else in our culture, and all that we are may be illuminated through film.

Vaughan was also a poet and an experimental novelist, who with works such as Cloud Chamber, Moritur and Totes Meer, explored the mysteries of recovering the past in a form profoundly analogous with that of the filmmaker (the protagonist of Moritur is a film editor). As filmmaker, editor, essayist, reviewer, critic, novelist and poet, Vaughan’s work was consistent, interconnected, profound, auteurist.

(Examples of Dai Vaughan’s writings for Vertigo Magazine can be found online at http://www.closeupfilmcentre.com/library/dossiers/dai-vaughan.)

Tears from laughter

“This merriment dangling from terror…”: Harold Lloyd in Safety Last

The death has been announced of the Polish poet and Nobel prizewinner Wisława Szymborska. Her best-known connection with film is her poem ‘Love at First Sight’, which is believed to have been the inspiration for Krysztof Kieslowski’s film Three Colours: Red. However, in the same 1993 collection, The End and the Beginning, there is another Szymborska poem, ‘Slapstick’, which wryly considers silent film comedy as a metaphor for the human condition. We have reproduced this poem on the Bioscope before now, but it’s such a favourite of mine that I’m taking the liberty of posting it here once again on this sad occasion.

If there are angels,
I doubt they read
our novels
concerning thwarted hopes.

I’m afraid, alas,
they never touch the poems
that bear our grudges against the world.

The rantings and railings
of our plays
must drive them, I suspect,
to distraction.

Off-duty, between angelic -
i.e. inhuman – occupations,
they watch instead
our slapstick
from the age of silent film.

To our dirge wailers,
garment renders,
and teeth gnashers,
they prefer, I suppose,
that poor devil
who grabs the drowning man by his toupee
or, starving, devours his own shoelaces
with gusto.

From the waist up, starch and aspirations;
below, a startled mouse
runs down his trousers.
I’m sure
that’s what they call real entertainment.

A crazy chase in circles
ends up pursuing the pursuer.
The light at the end of the tunnel
turns out to be a tiger’s eye.
A hundred disasters
mean a hundred cosmic somersaults
turned over a hundred abysses.

If there are angels,
they must, I hope,
find this convincing,
this merriment dangling from terror,
not even crying Save me Save me
since all of this takes place in silence.

I can even imagine
that they clap their wings
and tears run from their eyes
from laughter, if nothing else.

I can warmly recommend Szymborska’s poetry in general – gentle, witty, accessible and wise. Her New and Collected Poems are published by Roundhouse, and there’s a fine Selected Poems published by Faber.

Frederica Sagor Maas RIP

Frederica Sagor Maas, from the front cover to her autobiography

No one cares about a screenwriter. It’s brutal, but it’s true. They toil away at a keyboard for months, then see their precious work mangled and abused in its conversion to the screen. They are unwelcome on the set. Their brightest ideas get attributed to the director, their sharpest lines end up credited to some dumb actor. Frequently they get dropped from the credits entirely, particularly when they have undertaken essential remedial work on someone else’s botched script that needs urgent surgery. No one writes books about them, no one studies them, film history ignores them.

That’s how it is with screenwriters, and how it has always been. It certainly how Frederica Sagor Maas recorded it, one of the pioneers of Hollywood screenwriting who lived more than three times longer than the silent era itself, finally passing away last week at the remarkable age of 111. At the sprightly age of 99 she published a memoir, The Shocking Miss Pilgrim: A Writer in Early Hollywood, having been encouraged to do by Kevin Brownlow. It is no rose-tinted autobiography. She was contemptuous of the film industry and some of its most vaunted figures (Irving Thalberg, Louis B. Mayer), finding Hollywood corrupt, debauched and dishonest. Her cynicism was undoubtedly accentuated by years of seeing the her work and that of her co-writer husband Ernest Maas unacknowledged, plagiarised or rejected. A difficult time in the 1950s being investigated by the FBI for alleged communist sympathies can’t have helped much either.

She was born in 1900, the child of Russian emigrants to the USA, studied journalism at Columbia University, and joined Universal Pictures in New York as an assistant story editor, aged 20. She moved to Hollywood and Preferred Pictures in 1923, later working for Universal Pictures, MGM, Fox and Paramount. Films she wrote included Flesh and the Devil (1926) with Greta Garbo, His Secretary (1925) and The Waning Sex (1926) with Norma Shearer, The Plastic Age (1925) with Clara Bow, and Rolled Stockings (1927) with Louise Brooks. Much of her work (as it appeared on the screen) is now lost, while other work never went acknowledged in the first place.

Work dried up in the sound era, with the film The Shocking Miss Pilgrim (1946), based on a story with serious interest in the issues of women and work by Frederica and her husband, turned into a silly musical rather summing up her film industry experience. So she became an insurance adjuster instead, and said if she’d had her time again she would never have gone into the movies.

Is that true? Probably not. You don’t stick at a business for thirty years without feeling some sort of commitment to it, and the passing of time can sour memories just as it can sugar the memories of others. At any rate, her memoir is of particular value for providing an insight into Hollywood’s silent heyday from the perspective of someone who had experienced the changes of a century and found herself writing for a 21st century audience which likes its histories to have warts. It would have been a different book if written at another time.

There are obituaties for Frederica Sagor Maas in the San Francisco Examiner, Hollywood Reporter and Los Angeles Times. Her passing leaves perhaps just the former child stars Diana Serra Cary (Baby Peggy) and Mickey Rooney as the living survivors of the silent era. Judging from Maas’s view of Hollywood, ‘survivor’ is the appropriate word.

Looking back on 2011

News in 2011, clockwise from top left: The White Shadow, The Artist, A Trip to the Moon in colour, Brides of Sulu

And so we come to the end of another year, and for the Bioscope it is time to look back on another year reporting on the world of early and silent film. Over the twelve months we have written some 180 posts posts, or well nigh 100,000 words, documenting a year that has been as eventful a one for silent films as we can remember, chiefly due to the timeless 150-year-old Georges Méliès and to the popular discovery of the modern silent film thanks to The Artist. So let’s look back on 2011.

Ben Kingsley as Georges Méliès in Hugo

Georges Méliès has been the man of the year. Things kicked off in May with the premiere at Cannes of the coloured version of Le voyage dans la lune / A Trip to the Moon (1902), marvellously, indeed miraculously restored by Lobster Films. The film has been given five star publicity treatment, with an excellent promotional book, a new score by French band Air which has upset some but pleased us when we saw it at Pordenone, a documentary The Extraordinary Voyage, and the use of clips from the film in Hugo, released in November. For, yes, the other big event in Méliès’ 150th year was Martin Scorsese’s 3D version of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel The Invention of Hugo Cabret, in which Méliès is a leading character. Ben Kingsley bring the man convincingly to life, and the film thrillingly recreates the Méliès studio as it pleads for us all to understand our film history. The Bioscope thought the rest of the film was pretty dire, to be honest, though in this it seems to be in a minority. But just because a film pleads the cause of film doesn’t make it a good film …

And there was more from Georges, with his great-great-grandaughter Pauline Duclaud-Lacoste Méliès producing an official website, Matthew Solomon’s edited volume Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination: Georges Méliès’s Trip to the Moon (with DVD extra), a conference that took place in July, and a three-disc DVD set from Studio Canal.

For the Bioscope itself things have been eventful. In January we thought a bit about changing the site radically, then thought better of this. There was our move to New Bioscope Towers in May, the addition of a Bioscope Vimeo channel for videos we embed from that excellent site, and the recent introduction of our daily news service courtesy of Scoop It! We kicked off the year with a post on the centenary of the ever-topical Siege of Sidney Street, an important event in newsreel history, and ended it with another major news event now largely forgotten, the Delhi Durbar. Anarchists win out over imperialists is the verdict of history.

Asta Nielsen in Hamlet

We were blessed with a number of great DVD and Blu-Ray releases, with multi-DVD and boxed sets being very much in favour. Among those that caught the eye and emptied the wallet were Edition Filmmuseum’s Max Davidson Comedies, the same company’s collection of early film and magic lantern slide sets Screening the Poor and the National Film Preservation Foundation’s five disc set Treasures 5: The West, 1898-1938. Individual release of the year was Edition Filmmuseum’s Hamlet (Germany 1920), with Asta Nielsen and a fine new music score (Flicker Alley’s Norwegian surprise Laila just loses out because theatre organ scores cause us deep pain).

We recently produced a round-up of the best silent film publications of 2011, including such titles as Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films, Andrew Shail’s Reading the Cinematograph: The Cinema in British Short Fiction 1896-1912 and John Bengston’s Silent Visions: Discovering Early Hollywood and New York Through the Films of Harold Lloyd. But we should note also Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend, which has made quite an impact in the USA, though we’ve not read it ourselves as yet.

There were all the usual festivals, with Bologna championing Conrad Veidt, Boris Barnet and Alice Guy, and Pordenone giving us Soviets, Soviet Georgians, polar explorers and Michael Curtiz. We produced our traditional detailed diaries for each of the eight days of the festival. But it was particularly pleasing to see new ventures turning up, including the Hippodrome Festival of Silent Cinema in Scotland, which launched in February and is due back in 2012. Babylon Kino in Berlin continued to make programming waves with its complete Chaplin retropective in July. Sadly, the hardy annual Slapsticon was cancelled this year – we hope it returns in a healthy state next year.

The Artist (yet again)

2011 was the year when the modern silent film hit the headlines, the The Artist enchanting all-comers at Cannes and now being touted for the Academy Award best picture. We have lost count of the number of articles written recently about a revival of interest in silent films, and their superiority in so many respects to the films of today. Jaded eyes are looking back to a (supposedly) gentler age, it seems. We’ve not seen it yet, so judgement is reserved for the time being. Here, we’ve long championed the modern silent, though our March post on Mr Bean was one of the least-read that we’ve penned in some while.

Among the year’s conferences on silent film themes there was the First International Berkeley Conference on Silent Cinema held in February; the Construction of News in Early Cinema in Girona in March, which we attended and from which we first experimented with live blogging; the opportunistically themed The Second Birth of Cinema: A Centenary Conference held in Newcastle, UK in July; and Importing Asta Nielsen: Cinema-Going and the Making of the Star System in the Early 1910s, held in Frankfurt in September.

In the blogging world, sadly we said goodbye to Christopher Snowden’s The Silent Movie Blog in February – a reminder that we bloggers are mostly doing this for love, but time and its many demands do sometimes call us away to do other things. However, we said hello to John Bengston’s very welcome Silent Locations, on the real locations behind the great silent comedies. Interesting new websites inclued Roland-François Lack’s visually stunning and intellectually intriguing The Cine-Tourist, and the Turconi Project, a collection of digitised frames for early silents collected by the Swiss priest Joseph Joye.

The Bioscope always has a keen eye for new online research resources, and this was a year when portals that bring together several databases started to dominate the landscape. The single institution is no longer in a position to pronounce itself to be the repository of all knowledge; in the digital age we are seeing supra-institutional models emerging. Those we commented on included the Canadiana Discovery Portal, the UK research services Connected Histories and JISC Media Hub, UK film’s archives’ Search Your Film Archives, and the directory of world archives ArchiveGrid. We made a special feature of the European Film Gateway, from whose launch event we blogged live and (hopefully) in lively fashion.

Images of Tacita Dean’s artwork ‘Film’ at Tate Modern

We also speculated here and there on the future of film archives in this digital age, particularly when we attended the Screening the Future event in Hilversum in March, and then the UK Screen Heritage Strategy, whose various outputs were announced in September. We mused upon media and history when we attended the Iamhist conference in Copenhagen (it’s been a jet-setting year), philosophizing on the role of historians in making history in another bout of live blogging (something we hope to pursue further in 2012). 2011 was the year when everyone wrote their obituaries for celluloid. The Bioscope sat on the fence when considering the issue in November, on the occasion of Tacita Dean’s installation ‘Film’ at Tate Modern – but its face was looking out towards digital.

Significant web video sources launched this year included the idiosyncractic YouTube channel of Huntley Film Archives, the Swedish Filmarkivet.se, the Thanhouser film company’s Vimeo channel, and George Eastman House’s online cinematheque; while we delighted in some of the ingenious one-second videos produced for a Montblanc watches competition in November.

It was a year when digitised film journals made a huge leap forward, from occasional sighting to major player in the online film research world, with the official launch of the Media History Digital Library. Its outputs led to Bioscope reports on film industry year books, seven years of Film Daily (1922-1929) and the MHDL itself. “This is the new research library” we said, and we think we’re right. Another important new online resource was the Swiss journal Kinema, for the period 1913-1919.

It has also been a year in which 3D encroached itself upon the silent film world. The aforementioned Hugo somewhat alarmingly gives us not only Méliès films in 3D, but those of the Lumière brothers, and film of First World War soldiers (colourised to boot). The clock-face sequence from Harold Lloyd’s Safety Last (also featured in Hugo) was converted to 3D and colourised, much to some people’s disgust; while news in November that Chaplin’s films were to be converted into 3D for a documentary alarmed and intrigued in equal measure.

The Soldier’s Courtship

Film discovery of the year? The one that grabbed all the headlines – though many of them were misleading ones – was The White Shadow (1923), three reels of which turned up in New Zealand. Normally an incomplete British silent directed by Graham Cutts wouldn’t set too many pulses running, but it was assistant director Alfred Hitchcock who attracted all the attention. Too many journalists and bloggers put the story ahead of the history, though one does understand why. But for us the year’s top discovery was Robert Paul’s The Soldier’s Courtship (1896), the first British fiction film made for projection, which was uncovered in Rome and unveiled in Pordenone. It may be just a minute long, but it is a perky delight, with a great history behind its production and restoration.

Another discovery was not of a lost film but rather a buried one. Philippine archivists found that an obscure mid-1930s American B-feature, Brides of Sulu, was in all probability made out of one, if not two, otherwise lost Philippines silents, Princess Tarhata and The Moro Pirate. No Philippine silent fiction film was known have survived before now, which makes this a particularly happy discovery, shown at Manila’s International Silent film Festival in August. The Bioscope post and its comments unravel the mystery.

Among the year’s film restorations, those that caught the eye were those that were most keenly promoted using online media. They included The First Born (UK 1928), Ernst Lubistch’s Das Weib des Pharao (Germany 1922) and the Pola Negri star vehicle Mania (Germany 1918).

Some interesting news items throughout the year included the discovery of unique (?) film of the Ballet Russes in the British Pathé archive in February; in April Google added a ‘1911’ button to YouTube to let users ‘age’ their videos by 100 years (a joke that backfired somewhat) then in the same month gave us a faux Chaplin film as its logo for the day; in May the much-hyped film discovery Zepped (a 1916 animation with some Chaplin outtakes) was put up for auction in hope of a six-figure sum, which to few people’s surprise it signally failed to achieve; and in July there was the discovery of a large collection of generic silent film scores in Birmingham Library.

Barbara Kent

And we said goodbye to some people. The main person we lost from the silent era itself was Barbara Kent, star of Flesh and the Devil and Lonesome, who made it to 103. Others whose parting we noted were the scholar Miriam Hansen; social critic and author of the novel Flicker Theodore Roszak; the founder of Project Gutenberg, Michael Hart; and the essayist and cinéaste Gilbert Adair.

Finally, there were those ruminative or informational Bioscope posts which we found it interesting to compile over the year. They include a survey of cricket and silent film; thoughts on colour and early cinema; a survey of digitised newspaper collections, an investigation into the little-known history of the cinema-novel, the simple but so inventive Phonotrope animations of Jim Le Fevre and others, thoughts on the not-so-new notion of 48 frames per second, the amateur productions of Dorothea Mitchell, the first aviation films, on silent films shown silently, and on videos of the brain activity of those who have been watching films.

As always, we continue to range widely in our themes and interests, seeing silent cinema not just for its own sake but as a means to look out upon the world in general. “A view of life or survey of life” is how the dictionary defines the word ‘bioscope’ in its original use. We aim to continue doing so in 2012.

On first looking into Chaplin’s humour

Gilbert Adair, from Time Out

The death was announced last week of Gilbert Adair, the essayist, critic, screenwriter and novelist. He was aged 66. Adair’s talent was wide-ranging, with much of it touching on cinema. He was a cinéaste to his fingertips. He wrote the critical history Hollywood’s Vietnam and Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, wrote the novels Love and Death on Long Island and The Holy Innocents which were turned into films (the latter as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), wrote film scripts for Raoul Ruiz, and wrote many essays, reviews and thought pieces on film.

It is his essays, collected in volumes with mocking titles such as Surfing the Zeitgeist and The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, that have long been favourites of mine. Though he never quite attained the originality or depth of insight shown by the French writers (Barthes, Derrida and co) whose work he deeply admired, his essays touch omnivorously on so many aspects of modern life, with never a dull sentence and many a true observation. He weaves in films, and that includes silent films, in his survey of our times with knowing enthusiasm, and by way of a tribute I’m going to reproduce part of his 1985 essay ‘On first looking into Chaplin’s humour’ (a typically knowing and punning Adair title). This takes on the Chaplin vs Keaton debate with imaginative style. Keaton, for Adair, was ‘an aristocrat’ (you will have to read the full essay to judge why he thinks so); Chaplin stood for something else.

Charlies Chaplin remains, in his posterity, what he never ceased to be in his lifetime: a maverick, a dissident, a mischief-maker. Persecuted for almost six decades by the self-appointed arbiters of moral, political and ideological orthodoxies, he now finds himself posthumously assailed in the one category in which one had always supposed him to be impregnable: the aesthetic. For his detractors, apparently, Chaplin usurped the rank once universally accorded him as the century’s supreme clown. Not only are his films politically naive, flawed by an excess of pathos and not all that funny (sic), he himself was a boorish, mean-minded man, ungenerous ‘to a fault’ and consumed by jealousy of his co-performers … There even exists a suitable candidate for the pedestal from which Chaplin will be ejected when the dismantling of his reputation is complete: Buster Keaton … Yet Chaplin’s achievement seems to me a living model for our impoverished contemporary cinema; so that I would like to propose, not a theory (I am far too partial and subjective for a theorist’s severities), but, at least, an accessible back door or tradesman’s entrance into his deceptively transparent oeuvre …

The Immigrant, … one of his earliest masterpieces, is as good a point as any for my modest thesis. Chaplin, it should be recalled, himself had entered the United States as an immigrant Englishman; and, in his autobiography, he would savour the poverty he had suffered as an infant with an almost parodially Dickensian relish. On the other hand, he was soon to become the cinema’s single most prominent luminary, and as such was assuredly familiar with Soviet propaganda classics and the warped and jagged creations of German Expressionism. What he absorbed from the latter movement, however, was not the signifier – weird perspectives, evilly brewing shadows and all – but the signified, the thing filmed: the ghetto. Chaplin was, and stayed, the film-maker of the ghetto experience; of, in a word, dirt.

‘Dirt’, as a suffusive visual odour, so to speak – the scurfy piggishness of Stroheim, of Buñuel in his Mexican period, of the French directors Clouzot and Duvivier on occasions – is a filmic configuration for which the cinema would seem to have lost the formula. The ‘sordid’ it knows how to film (Raging Bull, La Lune dans le caniveau), if by that we understand either flamboyant putrefaction or a rafish, idealized, strobe-lit squalor … But, in Chaplin’s films, certainly up to Limelight, the sets are (or impress one as) grimy, the very light is filtered through the clinging, festering haze of the slums – and in a sense unintended by his critics, they stink. And Charlie himself? Naturally, he stinks. How could the paradigmatic ‘little man’ not do so? Crudely phrased, one’s apprehension of gamey underclothes is often quite overwhelming; and a reader tempted to dismiss such a contention as altogether uncouth and trivial might be reminded that, technically, underclothes constitute an immanent kind of off-screen space and may therefore be regarded as a minor aesthetic parameter (as indeed was the case with Stroheim’s fabled and finicky vestimentary perfectionism).

… It was from this total identification with the lumpenproletariat, with the material and physical realities of its quotidian existence, that Chaplin’s admittedly sometimes off-putting sainthood derives. Keaton was a great artist, to be sure, and his niche in the history of cinema is an elevated one; but Chaplin belongs to history itself.

The essay is reproduced in his 1986 collection, Myths & Memories, which I warmly recommend.

Time Out has a touching tribute to Gilbert Adair, written by Geoff Andrew.

In praise of Project Gutenberg

The sad news was reported last week of the death of Michael Hart, the founder of Project Gutenberg. Where the original Johannes Gutenberg, it is argued, manufactured the first printed book, Michael Hart invented the e-book. In 1971 he first typed out the Declaration of Independence on his university’s mainframe computer, and so began one of the world wide web’s greatest creations, a couple of decades before the web itself existed. Hart had created the electronic form of a printed text, but much more than that he saw the potential of creating a vast repository of freely-available texts, open to all.

His was an invention not only made for the Internet, but one which in a profound way helped inspire its ideals. One of the first things anyone learned about once they had logged on in those pioneering mid-1990s days was that there was this wonderful, altruistic project to make available the world’s public domain texts. Nor was it just one man with a keyboard, but rather a growing band of volunteers were giving up their time to type, proof-read, check OCR and present texts to the rest of the world simply because it was a noble thing to do. This, we learned, was what the Internet and the world wide web were all about – knowledge freely shared by all.

Many others have followed where Hart led, with the Internet Archive making available many of the same texts, Google now digitising out-of-copyright texts on a gigantic scale, and Amazon working hard to overturn centuries of reading practice with the Kindle e-book reader. But Project Gutenberg ploughs on, now with 36,000 books available, plus tens of thousands more through its affailiate organisations. Here at the Bioscope we have from time to time noted important texts in our field which have been made available by Gutenberg; they are described in the Bioscope Library. Below is a list of these and some of the other silent film-related books available on Project Gutenberg. The best thing you can do, by way of tribute to Hart’s great work, is to download and read at least one.

  • ‘Victor Appleton’, The Moving Picture Boys on the War Front (1918)
    One of a series of children’s adventure stories featuring the daring exploits of cameramen, a number of which feature on Gutenberg.
  • J. Berg Esenwein and Arthur Leeds, Writing the Photoplay (1919) [orig. 1913]
    A standard guide to writing a screenplay.
  • Frank Lewis Dyer and Thomas Commerford Martin, Edison: His Life and Inventions (1929)
    Early biography of the inventor of the Kinetoscope.
  • Arnold Fredericks [Frederic Arnold Kummer], The Film of Fear (1917)
    Thriller novel with a film background.
  • Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915) [1922 revision]
    Classic, poetical study of the motion picture as an art form.
  • Geoffrey H. Malins, How I Filmed the War (1920)
    Classic account of an official cinematographer’s experiences of filming in the First World War.
  • Brander Matthews, ‘The Kinetoscope of Time’ in Tales of Fantasy and Fact (1896)
    Book of short stories with hauting tale inspired by the Kinetoscope.
  • Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (1916)
    Generally considered the first serious work of film theory.
  • E. Phillips Oppenheim, The Cinema Murder (1917)
    British detective story with an American motion picture background.
  • Luigi Pirandello, Shoot! (si gira) (1927) [orig. 1915] [from Project Gutenberg Australia]
    Pirandello’s satirical novel about a cinematographer who is also an absurdist writer.
  • Jose Maria Rivera, Cinematografo (1920)
    A play (written in Tagalog) about the popularity of cinema in Filipino society.
  • Harry Leon Wilson, Merton of the Movies (1919)
    Celebrated comic novel about a terrible movie actor who is cast for laughs while he thinks he is playing in straight drama.

Thank you Michael Hart and all the volunteers at Project Gutenberg.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 27

Frame grab from the trailer for Martin Scorsese’s Hugo

Some weeks we’re not sure what to put in the Bioscope newsreel, and some weeks we’re just overwhelmed with how alive our dead medium continues to be. And that’s when we’ve set aside the news, already reported, of the first appearance on American screens of the full restored Napoléon with Carl Davis score, next year. So, after a gap of a few weeks while we were away on our travels, here’s some of the news in silent films now.

Hugo trailer
Martin Scorsese, as you may know, is making a film of Brian Selznick’s children’s novel, The Invention of Hugh Cabret, in which Georges Méliès is a central character. During production the film has been known as Hugo Cabret, but clearly that was too much for Disney’s marketing people, and now it’s just known as Hugo. The first trailer is out, and – guess what – it looks like a Disney children’s film. But some enticing recreations of Georges Méliès’ film and stage productions, as the image above shows, should draw us in to see when the time comes. Read more.

Silent film scores galore
An extraordinary treasure trove of silent film scores has been unearthed by Birmingham city council (in the UK) in its music library. There are around 500 scores in a collection which has lain in a basement for decades. Chiefly examples of generic scores for stock scenes (chases, mystery scenes, people in peril etc.), many are scores for small orchestras of between seven and eleven players. They appear to have been collected by touring musical directors, who went from cinema to cinema rather than work for just the one venue. We will have more on this amazing discovery and its importance for silent film history in due course. Read more.

Theodore Roszak RIP
The social critic, academic and novelist Theodore Roszak has died. Best known for coining the phrase ‘counter culture’ in his 1968 work The Making of a Counter Culture, he was also an ardent film fan and wrote one of the best of all film-themed novels, Flicker, a dark and imaginatively far-fetched work which revolves around the mysterious figure of Max Castle, B-movie horror film maker in the 1940s and reveals an extraordinary alternate history of Hollywood from the silent period onwards. Read more.

San Francisco silents
The San Francisco Silent Film Festival is running as we type. Highlights include a solo electric guitar acompaniment by Giovanni Spinelli to Sunrise: A Story of Two Humans (there’s an extract from a documentary on the scoring of the film here), He Who Gets Slapped, I Was Born But…, Marlene Dietrich in The Woman Men Yearn For, and the ubiquitous The Great White Silence. Read more.

Paintings of cinemas
One of the blogs the Bioscope likes to read when it feels the need to stir the brain cells a bit is Nick Redfern’s thought-provoking Research into Film. Normally his subject is analytical studies of films, but he has put up a delightful post exhibiting paintings of cinemas and their audiences by contemporary artists. Do take a look. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Bioscope Newsreel no. 22

United States Food Administration cinema slide from World War One, from Starts Thursday!

Jackie Cooper
Another child star of the silent era has died. Jackie Cooper, who made his first film in 1925 aged three, did not suffer the fate of many child stars in having a an adulthood of disappointing anonymity. Instead after success in the Our Gang series, he continued as a top performer throughout the 1930s, moved on to acting with success on stage and TV, then turned TV executive, won a couple of Emmys for directing, and returned to the screen as the newspaper editor in the Superman films. He died aged 88. Read more.

In competition
A late addition to the films in competition in Cannes has been announced – and it’s a silent film. The Artist, directed by Michel Hazanavicius, is described as a ‘silent black-and-white period piece about the rise of a young actress and simultaneous fall from grace of a silent movie star around the time that “talking pictures” started being made’. It stars Jean Dujardin, Bérénice Bejo, James Cromwell and John Goodman. Read more (and see clips with interviews – in French – here).

Class, silents and the public sphere
Acknowledgments to the Illuminations blog for this link to a lengthy and engrossing article by Stephen J. Ross (author of Working-Class Hollywood) on class and politics in silent film, first published in 2003. Ross notes: “Between 1905 and April 1917, when American entry into World War I altered the movie industry and the politics of its films in dramatic ways, producers released at least 274 labor-capital productions. Of the 244 films whose political perspectives could be accurately determined, 112 (46 %) were liberal, 82 (34 %) conservative, 22 (9 %) anti-authoritarian, 17 (7 %) populist, and 11 (4 %) radical”. Read more.

Propaganda between reels
A favourite blog of the Bioscope is Starts Thursday!, in which Rob Byrne covers the glass lantern slides that promoted coming attractions in cinemas from the silent era (and beyond). His latest post is a very informative guest piece by PhD candidate Krystina Benson on the American government’s propaganda campagin during WWI one, including its use of film, all handsomely and illuminatingly illustrated by Byrne’s slides. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Bioscope Newsreel no. 12

People on Sunday (Menschen am Sonntag)

Killruddery Film Festival
Ireland’s Killruddery Film Festival, with its strong emphasis on silent film, returns 10-13 March 2011 and the programme has just been announced. Highlights include The O’Kalems in Ireland, La Roue, White Shadows in the South Seas, 7th Heaven, Early Masterpieces of the Avant Garde, The Garden of Eden, Regeneration, People on Sunday and Ireland’s Other Silent Film Heritage (the Irish in Early Hollywood), an illustrated lecture by Kevin Brownlow. Read more.

Kansas Silent Film Festival
The annual Kansas Silent Film Festival takes place 25-27 February 2011. Highlights include David Shepard speaking on Chaplin at Keystone, Speedy, Chang, The Circus, The Last Command, A Thief Catcher, 7th Heaven and Wings. Special guest will be Harold lloyd expert Annette D’Agonstino Llloyd. Read more.

Q&A with film scholar Frank Kessler
On Cinespect, there’s a thoughtful interview with Frank Kessler, early film historian, sometime Bioscope contributor, and all round good chap, discussing issues in media historiography and the trick film by way of Christian Metz and Georges Méliès. Read more.

How to be a motion picture director
Dan North’s rather fine Spectacular Attractions blog offers unusual advice from Marshall Neilan in 1925 on how to be a motion picture director. “How should a director act in public?” “Like a nut or like an owl. Both methods have proved successful. By no means act normal”. Read more.

BBC permanent
It hasn’t much to do with silent films, but the BBC’s quiet announcement of a change in the Service Licence for its TV channel BBC4 and radio channels Radio 3 and Radio 4 is highly significant for access to audio-visual archives online. All three will now all have the the ability to offer programming on-demand for an unlimited period after broadcast, instead of the limited period at present. This is the start of something big – the permanent online archive for broadcast content. Keep watching. Read more.

‘Til next time.

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 305 other followers