Silent cinema

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:
light
opalescent, iridescent, wineclouded,
shadowlaced, hyaline,
barred and fenced with darkness,
furred with darkness (velvet
dust-bloom-delicate), light
prismed, imprisoned,
plumed, inwoven

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
slight white
breath
blurring dark’s mirror

Death of light
flight
as night’s
broad slow fans
close

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.

The woman who did not care

A fool there was and he made his prayer
(Even as you or I!)
To a rag and a bone and a hank of hair,
(We called her the woman who did not care),
But the fool he called her his lady fair -
(Even as you or I!)

Rudyard Kipling’s 1897 poem The Vampire (said to have been inspired by a painting of the same name by Philip Burne-Jones) has been hugely influential. It took a piece of Eastern European folklore which had had been popularised in Victorian literature and applied it to a new kind of woman whose sexual adventurous caused alarm and thrill in equal measure. The vampire came to films in 1913 with Robert Vignola’s The Vampire, starring Alice Hollister, but it was A Fool There Was (1915), which took its name from the first line of Kipling’s poem (by way of a play by Porter Emerson Browne), that stamped the idea of the vamp (and then the verb to vamp) on the consciousness of a generation.

The star of A Fool There Was was Theda Bara, and in her wake followed a number of screen vamps, each driving men mad and giving not a damn. Among them were Valeska Suratt, Olga Petrova, Musidora, Pola Negri, Helen Gardner, Louise Glaum, Dagmar Godowsky and Virginia Pearson. Lesser known than some of these, yet with perhaps a greater cult, is Nita Naldi, now the subject of a new website, Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp.

She was born Mary Dooley in Harlem, New York in 1894, into a “solidly blue collar, devoutly Catholic, and upwardly mobile” family. The family hit hard times, and Mary took to the stage, developing an exotic persona (Spanish or Italian according to whim). She took her name name from actress Maria Rosa Naldi, who she described as her sister for many years thereafter. She developed her vamp persona in assorted variety shows, including working for Florenz Ziegfeld. She got her first named screen role in 1920 in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, worked hard for a time for both screen and stage as she built up her name, then got her big break playing opposite Rudolph Valentino in Blood and Sand (1922). As the Nita Naldi site says, in its characteristically keen style:

Nita, cast as fire-breathing man-eater Doña Sol, executes her signature role with a gleam in her eye and all the gusto she can muster. She swans about in outré ensembles, ogles Valentino and every other male in the film suggestively, wears a series of harebrained hats (one, a favorite here at Naldi HQ, is festooned with grapes), yawns as her victim dramatically perishes in front of her, and generally refuses to behave. It was not a role for Lillian Gish – but it suited Nita down to the ground.

Paramount awarded her a five-year contract and several nondescript titles followed (Anna Ascends, You Can’t Fool Your Wife, Lawful Larceny, Glimpses of the Moon, Don’t Call it Love, and The Breaking Point). She starred opposite Valentino again in A Sainted Devil and Cobra, but her star was on the wane, chiefly it seems because of a weight problem, though stories of heavy drinking and unclear sexuality probably didn’t help matters. As with many American stars on the way down, she sought work in Europe, and one of her last film roles was to play a non-vampish schoolteacher in Alfred Hitchcock’s lost film The Mountain Eagle (1925). She returned to the stage, married a wealthy man who promptly lost all his money in the Depression, soldiered on after his death maintaining the social life of a one-time film star, and died in straitened circumstances in 1961.

Nita Naldi, from ‘The Viewpoints of a Vamp’, Picture Show, December 1, 1923

It’s a not untypical tale of a screen performer’s rise and fall, but what makes Nita Naldi such an interesting, and now cultish figure is her intelligence, wit, style and devil-may-care attitude to life. She vamped on-screen and she vamped off-screen. Two of her fervent acolytes, Donna L. Hill and Joan Myers, members of the splendidly named ‘Daughters of Naldi’, plus auxiliary ‘daughter’ Christopher S. Connelly, have produced this excellent tribute site. It comprises a full biography, photo-gallery (divided up by film), ephemera section (photoplay books, articles etc.), filmography, stageography, a handy guide to vamping (Lesson 1: Lure the victim; Lesson 2: Assume the position; Lesson 3: Bite! Truly, Madly, Deeply!; Lesson 4: Celebrate!) and a Nita Naldi Cocktail.

Some of the exceptional material here is quite well hidden. The Daughters of Naldi have taken particular care over researching biographical material, including lengthy trawls through censuses, shipping records, naturalisation records and the like, and wherever US public domain laws allow, they have made available copies of the original documents in their notes and references section, with hyperlinks to PDFs. Similarly the articles, filmography and stageography sections have a number of valuable documents available in PDF format. Just look out for the hyperlinks.

Nita Naldi, Silent Vamp demonstrates that film history research can and should be fun. The research has been rigorous but the style is knowingly playful. More material is promised, including essays, more photographs and more biographical information – because many questions remain and the search must go on.

Well done to all concerned.

A perfect light

Robert Flaherty filming Nanook of the North

The relief to be out of the sun,
To have come north once more
To my islands of dark ore
Where winter is so long
Only a little light
Gets through, and that perfect.

I think this is my favourite film poem. It’s not immediately obvious that it is about film; for that you need its title and subtitle: “Epitaph for Robert Flaherty (after reading The Innocent Eye, by Arthur Calder-Marshall, in Montreal, Canada)”. It was written by the Irish poet Derek Mahon and first published in 1968 in his collection Night-Crossing (the long subtitle appeared later). It is the last two lines that are so acute: “Only a little light/Gets through, and that perfect”. Is there a better, more poetically concise summation of photographic art?

Though the poem is called an epitaph, it gives the impression of being the thoughts of Robert Flaherty, while at the same time Derek Mahon himself. The location is similarly ambiguous. Mahon references Canada in the subtitle, and with the mention of the north, “dark ore” and the long winter it seems he is thinking of the Arctic wastes where Flaherty first filmed in 1913 (on the Belcher Islands of Hudson Bay). Although Flaherty had gone out the as a prospector (for iron ore) he became fascinated by the Inuit people and was encouraged to operate a motion picture camera by the railroad entrepreneur William Mackenzie who had sponsored the prospecting work. He was dissatisfied with the results (and lost much of what he had filmed in a fire) and returned in 1920 to northern Quebec to film what became Nanook of the North (1922), a study of the lives of the Inuit and the founding statement of the art of documentary.

But Mahon the Irishman and Flaherty the Irish-American are just as much thinking of Aran, the island location of Flaherty’s 1934 documentary, Man of Aran (a sound film, but one that was shot silent). The Aran Islands, in Galway Bay, contain no dark ore, but Mahon is thinking of that deep vein of timeless culture (or an idea of that culture) that has drawn so many artists, Flaherty among them. His film notoriously documents a romantic idea of Aran, with the islanders being encouraged to recreate cultural practics (such as the shark hunt) which they had not followed for decades. For Flaherty, literal truth is less important than elemental truth.

Man of Aran, from moma.org

So, is the island of the poem in Hudson Bay or Galway Bay? The volume in which ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’ appears, Night-Crossing contains a second poem, ‘Recalling Aran’), while the two poems are book-ended by ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April on Toronto Island’, showing how the poet has purposefully mixed up thoughts of home and abroad. But the poem is an epitaph, and consequently about death (“out of the sun”), the island therefore being not so much an actual place as an idea of death as Ultima Thule – “death as the terminal island … with the island as ultimate art” as Edna Longley describes it), the place at the edge of the world (to give the title of another film made about remote lives).

The dilemma for the ethnographic filmmaker has always been that the camera they take with them – the symbol of modern civilization – helps bring about the destruction of that which it seeks to record (“Each man kills the thing he loves”, as another Irishman put it). Flaherty’s solution was to record the dream rather than the actuality – the idea of a pure, remote culture, rather than the compromised reality. He filmed with a poet’s eye. Derek Mahon responds with a poet’s appreciation of the filmmaker’s quest, equating the escape from the remorseless advance of the modern with the capture, out of the dark, of that elusive, perfect light.

Trailer for A Boatload of Wild Irishmen

Robert Flaherty is the subject of a new feature-length documentary, A Boatload of Wild Irishmen, directed by Mac Dara O’Curraidhin and written by Brian Winston. I ‘ve not seen it yet and don’t know if it will get shown beyond the festival circuit, but the trailer certainly whets the appetite, both to see the films again (Louisiana Story – such a beautiful film) and to learn more about a filmmaker whose vision is still so inspirational for anyone seeking out the dark ore of why it is we want to film the world at all.

Arthur Calder-Marshall’s classic biography of Flaherty, The Innocent Eye is available on the Internet Archive, and will be placed forthwith in the Bioscope Library. Nanook of the North is available on DVD from Criterion. Man of Aran is not currently available on DVD, but used copies can be easily found. Derek Mahon’s Night-Crossings is out of print, but ‘Epitaph for Robert Flaherty’, ‘Recalling Aran’ (later retitled as ‘Thinking of Inishere in Cambridge, Massachusetts’), ‘Canadian Pacific’ and ‘April in Toronto Island’ can all be found in his Collected Poems.

My Bioscope

My thanks go to Matthew Solomon, author of the recently published Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century for bringing this poem to my attention. The heartfelt piece is from the Warwick Trading Company’s Cinematograph and Bioscope Magazine, May 1906:

I trouble not, nor fret,
But have unbounded hope,
With me there’s no regret,
Whilst I’ve my Bioscope.

Whatever comes or goes,
There’s nothing makes me mope;
I feel I have no foes,
When I’ve a Bioscope.

What cares may come, through fate,
I with them all will cope,
They trouble not my pate,
Whilst I’ve my Bioscope.

Warwick. Without apologies to the others

True doubtless for the projector that Warwick marketed, but hopefully no less true for this blog (which is shaping up to enjoy its highest ever monthly viewing figures, for which much thanks to all).

(And for those who are concerned about these things, our logo shows a Warwick Bioscope projector c.1900)

A war film

From time to time the Bioscope lifts its eyes from the screen, looks wistfully out of the window, and turns its mind to poetry. And when it does so it adds another poem to the select list of those works which touch upon the subject of silent film.

I’m ashamed to say that ‘A War Film’ is a poem that is new to me, though I now discover that it is a much-anthologised and popular work. It was written by Teresa Hooley (1888-1973), a British poet from Derbyshire who in private life went under the name of Mrs Frank Butler. The fascination behind ‘A War Film’ is her reaction to seeing a film of the First World War, and then trying to determine which film it was:

I saw,
With a catch of the breath and the heart’s uplifting,
Sorrow and pride, the “week’s great draw” –
The Mons Retreat;
The “Old Contemptibles” who fought, and died,
The horror and the anguish and the glory.
As in a dream,
Still hearing machine-guns rattle and shells scream,
I came out into the street.

When the day was done,
My little son
Wondered at bath-time why I kissed him so,
Naked upon my knee.
How could he know
The sudden terror that assaulted me? …
The body I had borne
Nine moons beneath my heart,
A part of me …
If, someday,
It should be taken away
To war. Tortured. Torn.
Slain.
Rotting in No Man’s Land, out in the rain –
My little son …
Yet all those men had mothers, every one.

How should he know
Why I kissed and kissed and kissed him, crooning his name?
He thought that I was daft.
He thought it was a game,
And laughed, and laughed.

The event to which she refers, the British retreat from Mons in Belgium, took place in August-September 1914. However, there was no film made about the retreat at the time, as officially-sanctioned films of the war were not being produced at this date, and in any case no film at this date or later in the war would have included the word ‘retreat’ in its title. So commentators have speculated that the film could be The Battle of the Somme, made in 1916, or one of the other British official war films. However it would seem unlikely that the poet would confused Mons with the Somme, and a more likely candidate is the 1926 film Mons, made by British Instructional Films. BIF produced a series of dramatised documentaries in the 1920s which recreated key conflicts from the First World War. The films (all feature-length bar the first) were The Battle of Jutland (1921), Armageddon (1923), Zeebrugge (1924), Ypres (1925), Mons (1926) and The Battles of Coronel and Falkland Islands (1927). They were all produced by H. (Harry) Bruce Woolfe, generally with Army or Admirality assistance, and combined official actuality films of the war with recreations, models and animated maps. The films gained the remarkable triple of popular, critical and official acclaim, and while they were characterised by a certain amount of dogged literalism, the best sequences merit comparison with the Soviet documentaries of the twenties. Many a dramatised scene from them has ended up being used in television documentaries which take the scenes to show actual warfare. Mons itself was directed by Walter Summers and was given the re-issue title of The Retreat from Mons, which adds further credence to the theory that it was the film that triggered the poem.

It is unclear when Hooley wrote ‘A War Film’, though it was first published in 1927 in her volume Songs of all Seasons, which again suggests the 1926 film is the right one. That would make her reaction to the film one of the fear of another war that would engulf her child rather than a war that was then raging. Its tone is in any case a retrospective one – few on the home front thought of corpses rotting in No Man’s Land in 1914. Such grim visions came to haunt the public only as the war dragged on and as the enormity of the sacrifice made shook society in the years immediately after the war.

It would take cinema a while before it felt able to depict the war in terms of futility. Ironically, Mons the film was a sober minded drama-documentary with more of a mind to demonstrate military procedure and heroic achievement than to make its audience think of the horror and anguish. Hooley’s poem was perhaps inspired not so much by the film she saw as by the memories it triggered. It was a silent film, after all – no machine-guns rattled and no shells screamed. Hooley saw the film in her mind, while a plainer account unspooled itself on the screen.

Mons is held by the BFI National Archive and in incomplete form by the Imperial War Museum. You can get an idea of the BIF style, however, by seeing Ypres, which is available to view from the British Pathe website (the link is to reel one of seven on the site).

The dead

All images in this post are frame grabs from the DVD of The Battle of the Somme (1916)

Is it right to let us see men dying? Yes. Is it a sacrilege? No. If our spirit be purged of curiosity and purified with awe the sight is hallowed. There is no sacrilege if we are fit for the seeing … I say it is regenerative and resurrective for us to see war stripped bare. Heaven knows that we need the supreme katharsis, the ultimate cleansing. We grow indifferent too quickly … These are dreadful sights but their dreadfulness is as wholesome as Tolstoy’s ‘War and Peace’. It shakes the kaleidoscope of war into human reality … I say that these pictures are good for us.

Those words were written by James Douglas in The Star (25 September 1916, p. 2). He was reacting to a screening of the film The Battle of the Somme, a film whose impact upon audiences was unprecedented and – it could be argued – has never been repeated. Douglas, like many commentators, was trying to rationalise what he saw, to express the meaning and to find justification for a film whose stark images of the war that was still raging shocked audiences into a realisation of sacrifice and death. It was the images of death in the film that so disturbed many. If soldiers were not shown being killed (and some apparently were), then every face that stared at the camera was likewise facing death. The audience had been made witness to this, complicit in the soldiers’ fate.

While some called for the film not to be shown, for most it was justified, to the point of becoming almost a moral obligation. Through watching The Battle of the Somme, they gained a sense of the enormity of what troops in their name were undergoing, what the sacrifice (the optimum word) was that army and nation were making. Douglas’ evocation of religious feeling put the film in terms that many would understand. It is not a pure reaction to the film itself – that is not possible. Instead he saw the film through his own thoughts on the meaning of war. Any image, any film, is identified by us through expectations and understandings that are informed by time, place and culture. The Battle of the Somme in 1916 was a different film to The Battle of the Somme in 2008.

This we can now judge through the release of the film for the first time on DVD, produced by the Imperial War Museum, whose archive preserves the film. Alert to the complexities of authenticity, the IWM presents the film in a form that encourages us to question how we see what we see. Firstly, the film (for which no original negative survives) has undergone a digital restoration which has brought out details which were hitherto obscured. Even for those familiar with the film (and all of us must be familiar with it to some extent, given the widespread use of sequences from the film in television documentaries etc.), it is like seeing the film anew. But the major coup is the music. We are given two music tracks. One is a modern score by Laura Rossi, a symphonic work for full orchestra. The other is a recreation by Stephen Horne of a likely original score, taken from a contemporary cue sheet which suggested the sort of musical passages musicians might want to adopt in accompanying the film in 1916.

The latter will amaze many. Jaunty marches and popular airs accompany scenes of troops marching to the killing fields of the Somme, the scenes of battle and their aftermath. What were they thinking of in 1916? It is a complicated question to answer. Partly the musicians of the time were responding to what might have seemed just another war actuality film, which required patriotic accompaniment. But also the audience of the time saw heroism and uplift where we, after almost a century of awful contemplation of the futility of that war, bolstered by poems, novels and films, see something profoundly pitiable. It is with consciousness of such modern expectations, but equally with a sense of being true to the film’s original vision, that Rossi supplies a rich, subtle and binding score that connects 2008 to 1916. Which of these two very different scores will you prefer to listen to, and why? Or might your preferred option be to witness the film in silence?

The digital restoration, which allows us to see so much, is perhaps most striking when it comes to the famous ‘over the top’ sequence. This is the part of the film that will be most familiar. It is shown on television (at least in the UK) every time a shot is needed to evoke the First World War. Troops clamber over the top of a slope, then march slowly over barbed wire away from the camera, a couple of men falling down as they do so, shot dead.

Oh God, they’re dead!

a woman is reported to have exclaimed in a cinema showing the film, and it was this sequence that aroused the greatest comment at the time, the greatest need to explain the film’s significance. But they were not dead. As is now known, the sequence is a fake, set up in a trench mortar battery school some time afterwards, simply because the actual scenes taken of troops going over the top were deemed disappointing. At the time, no one knew of this subterfuge, and as far as reception is concerned, it did not matter. People believed they were witnessing death on screen; and producers and exhibitors felt this to be an acceptable thing to show. Which you may think is extraordinary.

What seldom gets shown on television is the shot that immediately follows the ‘over the top’ sequence in the film. This shows genuine footage of troops going over the top. But we see them only in the far distance. The cameramen (there were just two, J.B. McDowell and Geoffrey Malins, who shot both ‘over the top’ sequences) were greatly restricted in what they could shoot. Their hand-cranked cameras had single 50mm lenses with poor depth of field, they had no telephoto lenses, the orthochromatic film stock was slow, making filming action in the distance or in poor light difficult. But there was also military control and official censorship, each preventing them from filming anything other than officially-sanctioned images. And there was the danger. The most obvious indication of the ‘fake’ nature of the first sequence is that the cameraman would have been in absolute peril of his life had it been genuine. But for the above shot, Malins is a long way off, and far in the distance we can just pick out tiny figures on the horizon – British troops, coming over the top and marching into no-man’s land. Looking closer into the middle ground, the digital restoration now reveals to us a sight not previously detected in the film: a number of troops proceeding leftwards, one or two of whom fall down. Oh God, they’re dead.

Do we want to look that closely? Can they really seem dead when viewed at such a distance? Is the death we seek not in the falling bodies, or even in the corpses seen later in the film, but rather in the eyes of the still living, whose fate awaits them, and who are all dead now of course. That was a line the film historian Denis Gifford would sometimes come out with when we were in the basement theatre at the British Film Institute, watching some collection of British silent shorts. The figures would parade to and fro, some of whom he knew, having interviewed them in the 1960s, but then that sad moment of realisation:

They’re all dead now, of course.

This is a poignancy that seems particularly linked to the non-fiction film. Dramatic films, of whatever age, are attempting to entertain. Either they do or they don’t. But the film of actuality trades on the depiction of life, and then the distance created by time. This was recognised even in 1916. Sir Henry Newbolt wrote a poem inspired by the experience of watching the film, entitled ‘The War Films’, but made memorable by its opening line:

O living pictures of the dead,
O songs without a sound,
O fellowship whose phantom tread
Hallows a phantom ground —
How in a gleam have these revealed
The faith we had not found.

The Battle of the Somme captures the point of loss, the ghosts on the screen, the living pictures of the dead. Of course it is a deeply partial record. It shows no real fighting beyond shellfire, no serious injuries, no pain, little hatred (look for the shove that one British soldier gives to a captured German who stumbles past him). And of course it shows only the Allied point of view (the Germans would respond with their own film, Bei unseren Helden an der Somme, in 1917). But we recognise it for what it is able to show, not for what it leaves out. It is a profoundly memorably expression of the hopes and fears of its age.

The Battle of the Somme was filmed by Malins and McDowell, two experienced newsreel cameramen, who knew well how to capture plain packages of actuality. McDowell was the senior of the two, who ran his own film company (British & Colonial). Malins had been filming on the war front for longer, and is the better known, not least for his somewhat vainglorious memoir, How I Filmed the War (available from The Internet Archive). Malins co-edited the film with Charles Urban, to whom credit should be given for seeing that the footage Malins and McDowell has shot would work best at feature length, rather than as a series of ten-minute shorts which had been the practice up til then. His vision gave the film the presence it needed to capture the audience that it found. The producer was William Jury, and the film was made for the British Topical Committee for War Films, a trade body working under War Office sanction, which would be replaced by the War Office Cinematograph Committee once the film started to enjoy huge success. It has been estimated that it was seen by 20,000,000 people in the UK in six weeks – almost half the population.

The DVD comes with the alternative music scores, commentaries, interviews with archivists and musicians, and five ‘missing’ scenes and fragments. We do not know what the original The Battle of the Somme was like exactly; the version that survives was re-edited, and the footage used in multiple other films, during and after the war. Rather than insert these extra scenes where it is not quite certain they should go, the IWM has chosen to present these (without music) separately. There is a booklet as well, with information on the film’s production, reception, restoration and particularly its music. A website, www.iwm.org.uk/somme-film, will provide viewing notes, additional information, suggestions for further reading and teaching resources. It is a magnificent achievement, one whose influence on research, teaching and the appreciation of First World War history is likely to be considerable. The only possible disappointment is the menu, which simply divides the film into its five parts, where a more detailed use of chapters could have helpfully guided researchers to particular points of action, regiments, location etc.

More will follow. The booklet notes the publication next year of Alastair H. Fraser, Andrew Robertshaw, and Steve Roberts’ Ghosts on the Somme, a book which analyses the film in great detail, overturning some of the traditional understanding of who filmed what, which regiments are shown, and which locations are featured, while confirming that the vast majority of the film is genuine actuality. There is still more to be discovered about The Battle of the Somme. It is a film we will have to return to, again and again.

The DVD is available from the Imperial War Museum Shop (Region 0, PAL, duration 74 mins with 58 mins extras).

A CD of Laura Rossi’s score is available from Virtuosa Records.

On the weekend of 15/16 November 2008 there will be two screenings of the film at the IWM in London, the ‘original’ score on Saturday, the Rossi score (not played live) on the Sunday. Both screenings are free, and start at 14.00.

The Battle of the Somme has been recognised by UNESCO by being accepted for inscription on its Memory of the World register.

If there are angels

The Gold Rush

Too many things happening and too little time is leaving the Bioscope a little neglected of late, for which apologies. The colour series will return, and some more substantial posts, once I’ve got some other things out of the way. But in the meanwhile, let us have a cultural interlude. It has been too long since we had a poem for your delectation, so here is a particular favourite: Polish poet and Nobel Prize winner Wisława Szymborska‘s 1993 poem, ‘Slapstick':

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.

From The End and the Beginning (1993), trans. Stanisław Barańczak and Clare Cavanagh

As the shoelace-devouring Chaplin put it (at least I think it was him), ‘life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot’. It all depends where you are standing, and who is observing.

God kicks our backsides

It’s been a while since we had any poetry on The Bioscope. While browsing through the fine Old Poetry site, I came across by A.S.J. Tessimond (1902-1962), a British Imagist poet whose name, I’m ashamed to say, I’d not come across before now. This poem of his, entitled ‘Chaplin’, dates from 1934. It rather appeals to me:

The sun, a heavy spider, spins in the thirsty sky.
The wind hides under cactus leaves, in doorway corners. Only the wry

Small shadow accompanies Hamlet-Petrouchka’s march – the slight
Wry sniggering shadow in front of the morning, turning at noon, behind towards night.

The plumed cavalcade has passed to tomorrow, is lost again;
But the wisecrack-mask, the quick-flick-fanfare of the cane remain.

Diminuendo of footsteps even is done:
Only remain, Don Quixote, hat, cane, smile and sun.

Goliaths fall to our sling, but craftier fates than these
Lie ambushed – malice of open manholes, strings in the dark and falling trees.

God kicks our backsides, scatters peel on the smoothest stair;
And towering centaurs steal the tulip lips, the aureoled hair,

While we, craned from the gallery, throw our cardboard flowers
And our feet jerk to tunes not played for ours.

Not just Chaplin as beleaguered everyman, but Chaplin as Don Quixote, the person we all might actually be but would never want to be. Now that I like (though it’s a conceit that has occured to others). There are more of Tessimond’s poems on The Filter^ blog.

Alas, poor Bunny

John Bunny

A few years ago, I was sent a catalogue by the photographic agency, Corbis. Among its many images denoting emotions, there was one of a portly, middle-aged man with bright beaming face, categorised under something like ‘surprise’ or ‘happiness’. The person had no further identification. The photograph was of John Bunny, once arguably the most popular and recognised person worldwide, now reduced to complete anonymity.

I can’t find the photograph now on the Corbis web site (which does have one picture of Bunny identified as him). So maybe someone discovered the injustice. I hope so. For John Bunny really was the most popular of silent stars in his day, and the way in which his popularity has so dramatically faded ought to be a lesson to anyone whose head gets turned by the notion of celebrity.

John Bunny (1863?-1915) was the son of a British naval officer who settled in New York, where his son ran away from home to join a minstrel show and then became a stage actor and director. In 1910 he turned to the movies, joining the Vitagraph Company, and almost instantly became a star. He portrayed a rotund, merry, earthy figure, whose genial manner and aptitude for comic characterisation, sometimes touched with pathos, endeared him to millions. He appeared in over 200 shorts between 1910-1914, with such titles as Bunny Buys a Harem, And His Wife Came Back and Bunny’s Honeymoon. He was often teamed with the comically angular Flora Finch. He made some films in Britain in 1913, including Pickwick Papers (he was a natural Mr Pickwick), scenes from which were filmed just around the corner from where I am typing this now. His death in 1915 made headlines around the world.

Why mention Bunny now? Simply because of yesterday’s post with the Vachel Lindsay poems, for there is one last poem by Lindsay on the film stars of the early cinema period which I haven’t given you as yet. It’s the second part of a two-part sequence, the first of which commememorates the actor Edwin Booth, renowned for his performance as Hamlet. For the second part, Lindsay laments the death of John Bunny as if he were Yorick, Hamlet’s fool:

John Bunny, Motion Picture Comedian

In which he is remembered in similitude, by reference to Yorick, the king’s jester, who died when Hamlet and Ophelia were children

Yorick is dead. Boy Hamlet walks forlorn
Beneath the battlements of Elsinore.
Where are those oddities and capers now
That used to “set the table on a roar”?

And do his bauble-bells beyond the clouds
Ring out, and shake with mirth the planets bright?
No doubt he brings the blessed dead good cheer,
But silence broods on Elsinore tonight.

That little elf, Ophelia, eight years old,
Upon her battered doll’s staunch bosom weeps.
(“O best of men, that wove glad fairy-tales.”)
With tear-burned face, at last the darling sleeps.

Hamlet himself could not give cheer or help,
Though firm and brave, with his boy-face controlled.
For every game they started out to play
Yorick invented, in the days of old.

The times are out of joint! O cursed spite!
The noble jester Yorick comes no more.
And Hamlet hides his tears in boyish pride
By some lone turret-stair of Elsinore.

Bunny died of liver failure on 26 April 1915. Today, only a handful of his films survive: A Cure for Pokeritis, Bunny at the Derby, The Pickwick Papers, Bunny all at Sea, Her Crowning Glory, The Wooing of Winifred, and a few more. In truth, his real comic appeal died with him, and it is worth seeing Bunny at Sea for its scenes taken on board a ship where real life passengers laugh delightedly at Bunny’s antics, giving us some indications of the roots of his popular appeal.

Vachel Lindsay wrote evocatively of the first Bunny picture that he saw:

It is a story of high life below stairs. The hero is the butler at a governor’s reception. John Bunny’s work as this man is a delightful piece of acting. The servants are growing tipsier downstairs, but the more afraid of the chief functionary every time he appears, frozen into sobriety by his glance. At the last moment this god of the basement catches them at their worst and gives them a condescending but forgiving smile. The lid comes off completely. He himself has been imbibing. His surviving dignity in waiting on the governor’s guests is worthy of Goldsmith and Sheridan. The film should be reissued in time as a Bunny memoiral.

Whichever title it might be, it’s a lost film now…

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