Napoléon vu par Kevin Brownlow

Vladimir Roudenko as the young Napoléon

Back in November 2010 the silent film historian and restorer Kevin Brownlow was deservedly given an honorary Academy Award. He received his award at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences’ annual Governors Awards ceremony alongside two other noteworthy film figures, Francies Ford Coppola and Eli Wallach (Jean-Luc Godard was also given an honorary Award, but naturally he declined to turn up).

One imagines that the conversation between Brownlow and Coppola turned toward Napoléon, the epic 1927 film by Abel Gance which Brownlow had dedicated his life towards restoring, and which Coppola had presented in the USA back in 1981 in a re-edited restoration with a score by his father, Carmine Coppola. Perhaps while clutching their statuettes they decided that the time had come to end the block on any screening of the film in the States that did not feature the Coppola score, which for thirty years had prevented American film enthusiasts from seeing the film in form in which Brownlow had restored – and was continuing to restore, since the film had grown longer in the intervening years, had had its colour tinting and toning restored, and of course came with Carl Davis’ famous (and ever-expanding) score. It was time for Napoléon to return to America.

The real Napoléon helped build America, of course. When he was planning to invade England in 1803, and in need of funds, he approached the American negotiators hoping to purchase New Orleans for $10M (this at a time when large parts of North America was still owned by the French) and instead offered them the whole of Louisiana for $15M. It was one of the biggest land bargains in history, and helped make the United States become what it is today. And Napoléon failed to invade England.

Maybe Abel Gance would have got round to including the Louisiana Purchase as part of the six films he dreamed of making about Napoléon. He would certainly have been reluctant to leave out any detail of the Emperor’s life if it revealed the mark that he had made upon history. Gance’s astonishing, preposterous ambition was indeed to make six lengthy films documenting the life of the Emperor, a project he began in 1925. Of course he did not have the financing in place for six films, not even for one at first, but after his original financiers failed him Gance found from a Russian, Jacques Grinieff, sufficient to complete film number one, which took Napoléon from childhood, through the French revolution, to his invasion of Italy.

The nine-image pillow fight from Napoléon, from the Smithsonian’s Reel Culture blog

The film, full title Napoléon Vu par Abel Gance, premiered at the Paris Opéra on 7 April 1927. It ran for three-and-a-half hours, with a score by Arthur Honegger; later a six-and-a-half-hour version was screened, though Gance’s original cut is said to have been nine hours. A film at such a length would always have struggled to find screenings, and the film was cut down into a variety of shorter, increasingly incomprehensible versions. Its commercial fate, and the arrival of sound, condemned Gance’s six-film dreams to dust (though his script for part six, Napoléon in exile on St Helena, was filmed in 1929 by Lupu Pick in Germany as Napoléon auf St Helena).

Time moves on, and in 1955 a 76-year-old Abel Gance turned up at the British Film Institute in London. Happily the distinguished elderly filmmaker was recognised, but then Deputy Curator Liam O’Leary did an extraordinary thing. He called for a 17-year-old boy to meet M. Gance (his mother had to telephone him at school when he was in the middle of an exam), since he was known to be an enthusiast for the man’s work. It’s hard to imagine such an occurence today, but back in 1955 that was how Kevin Brownlow first met Abel Gance, and it set in train a mission by the young man to restore Napoléon (which he’d first encountered on 9.5mm when aged 15) and with it the reputation of a by then forgotten master of the silent cinema. (The Ann Harding’s Treasures blog has an interview with Brownlow where he recalls the anecdote).

Abel Gance and Kevin Brownlow

The history of Napoléon’s restoration has been amply documented, not least by Kevin Brownlow himself in his book Napoleon. The restoration premiered in 1979 at the Telluride Film Festival, Colorado, with Gance in attendance (he died in 1981, aged 92). It was in 1980, with funding from Thames Television in the UK, that Napoléon made it full impact, when it was presented in London, at four hours and 50 minutes in length and with a score by Carl Davis. Its effect on audiences was cataclymsic (I was a little too young to be aware of all this, and only caught up with Napoléon on television a few years later). The film was a bravura advertisement for all that the camera could do. With its rapid editing, hand-held (and horse-back held) camera shots, super-impositions on a phantasmagoric scale, camera effects adopted from the avant garde, startling camera angles, above all its multiple screen effects (at one point – a pillow fight – the screen divides into nine separate, interelated images), culminating in the overpowering Polyvision triple-screen effect at the end of the film as Napoléon leads his army into Italy, it was one of the most powerful demonstrations of cinematic imagination that many in the audience had seen. It was as revolutionary in theme (it covers the French revolution, of course) as it was in technique, so that the two became as one. It did not only restore Napoléon and the reputation of Abel Gance; to a considerable extent it helped restore the silent film as an art form. We were all made to see what Kevin Brownlow had always believed.

Time moves on again, and screenings of Napoléon have become increasingly rare, owing as much to the compleixites of rights issues as the expense of putting on a film, at such a length, with full orchestra, and requiring an 85-foot-wide screen for the climax. A generation or more of silent film fans has grown up without having seen Napoléon, save for a rather lame VHS and DVD version with the Carmine Coppola score which lessened Gance’s reputation rather than enhanced it. In 2000 Brownlow unveiled the film’s colour tinting and toning for the first time at a UK screening at the Royal Festival Hall. It was now a shade over five-and-a-half hours long. It was last screened in the UK in 2004.

Building the support system for the screening at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, from http://www.mercuynews.com

And so to 2012, and the long-running and sometimes bitter battle which had kept the full Napoléon from American screens came to an end with the film’s screening at the 3,000-seat Paramount Theatre, Oakland, San Francisco on 24 and 25 March (with further screenings scheduled for 31 March and 1 April). The film is five-and-a-half long (at 20fps), calling for lunch and two refreshment breaks along the way. Carl Davis conducted the 46-piece Oakland East Bay Symphony orchestra. The whole thing has cost some $700,000 to put on – and they’re probably going to lose money on it (the screenings have not been complete sell-outs…)

The reactions have begun with ecstatic, and then worked their way up from that. There are vivid reviews by Kenneth Turan in the Los Angeles Times and by Mick LaSalle for the San Francisco Chronicle. Manohla Dargis in the New York Times gives a good account of the film’s and the film restoration’s histories. The San Francisco Silent Film Festival, hosts for the screenings, provides a handy set of FAQs (from which we learn that there is not to be a DVD or Blu-Ray release – not until someone invents Polyvision TV screens, it would seem). MercuryNews.com has a photo slideshow of preparations for the screening at the Paramount Theatre. The Mubi Notebook has helpfully collected together and summarised the main web celebrations of the film’s screenings. And Carl Davis has provided a diary of his experiences on his website.

Napoléon is more than a restoration, indeed it is more of a re-creation, an attempt by Brownlow to build ever closer to that original conception of the film, to re-enter the mind of Abel Gance. There have been so many versions of the film (Gance tinkered with his film for years, much as Brownlow would then do), it would be hard to point to any one that would be definitive. Is the longest version the best? Of course not – at least, not necessarily so – but that doesn’t seem to be the point. It is the quest that matters, quite as much as whatever stage the film may have reached at its successive screenings. The auteur was once Abel Gance; now the auteur is Kevin Brownlow.

It is rumoured that Napoléon may now be coming to the Royal Festival Hall in London in November 2013. Perhaps it will be longer still (a further restoration is rumoured). Perhaps some have started queuing already. It has been twelve years since I last saw the film, and I have to admit that at the time I was impressed, but not overwhelmed. I found the film to be a technical showcase with plenty of felicities but without much real insight, and with an indifferent central performance from Albért Dieudonné (the boy Napoléon is played by Vladimir Roudenko, who is much better). Style alone is not greatness, though it may be great to watch. I hope I get the chance to see the film once more and to find myself proven wrong. I hope everyone gets a chance to see it.

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.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day four

Audience in the Teatro Verdi awaiting the screening of Le Voyage dans la lune in colour, David Robinson (far right) introducing

The days go by, as they tend to do, and here I am on my last day in Pordenone, with the Giornate del Cinema Muto only halfway through. Never fear, there is cover organised, and for the four remaining days you will be getting reports from the Bioscope’s anonymous but observant and eloquent co-reporter, the Mysterious X. But it is Tuesday 4 October, and I am up with the lark once more, ready as soon as the doors of the Verdi opening for our first films films of the day – and what a marvellous start it is.

We begin, as we have each day, with a Disney Laugh-o-Gram. Puss in Boots (USA 1922) is great fun, never more so than when Puss goes to the cinema to see ‘Rudolph Vaselino’. It is filmed with zip and zest and a gag in every shot, though somebody should have told Walt that he had used the joke about eight of a cat’s lives floating up from its prone body a few times too often – it’s the third time we’ve seen it this week.

Next, two films in the Treasures of the West strand, both of them gems. Deschutes Driftwood (USA 1916) is an Educational Films production from the time when they made educational film, not the comedies for which they later became famous. The film follows a hobo (‘Walter’) as he travels along the Deschutes river, Oregon, hoping from train to train as a succession of authorities move him on. It is half a scenic (a phantom ride from a tramp’s point of view) and half a melancholy disquisition on a rootless life. It seems informed by a sensibility years ahead of its time, even if it is not strictly sympathetic towards its stubborn hero. Stephen Horne gives a sensitive accompaniment on piano an accordion, and this wistful, unexpected 11-minute film is for me the hit of the festival so far.

Or at least until the next film to be shown. Now, if you are introducing someone to the delights of the silent cinema for the first time, what would you encourage them to see? Metropolis, maybe? Pandora’s Box or The General probably. Well it’s always good to see a classic, but somehow classics stand alone and tell you more about themselves than they do about the medium to which they belong. If I were introducing someone to silents, I might prefer a film of more modest ambition, but one which nevertheless demonstrates through subtle artistry a particular understanding of human things, one that shows off the medium to its greater advantage. A film such as The Lady of the Dugout (USA 1918).

The Lady of the Dugout, with (L-R) Frank Jennings, Al Jennings, Corinne Grant and Ben Alexander, from http://www.filmpreservation.org

The Lady of the Dugout was produced, co-written by and stars Al Jennings, a sometime small-town lawyer, turned outlaw, turned evangelist (after a spell in prison and a presidential pardon). The film documents a tale from his time as an outlaw, heading the Jennings gang alongside his brother Frank (who like Al plays himself in the film) in the late 1890s. It’s a Robin Hood-style story, in which the Jennings brothers come across a deserted wife and child in a wretched dugout home (literally a hole in the ground with a roof over it), living in the middle of nowhere and without food. They come to her rescue (using money from one of their robberies), then when her brutal husband returns they take her to her middle-class family home, where her once unforgiving father now takes her back.

The story is engrossing, and the insight it gives into a frontier life where dreams have turned sour is a special one. There is an authenticity in locale, in the weatherbeaten looks of the Jennings brothers, in the action (a particularly convincing, almost matter-of-fact bank robbery), in manner and in human feeling. The film develops not out of the demands of story but out of circumstance, character and a true moral sense. The director was W.S. Van Dyke, and I can’t think of a better-handled silent film. It’s low-key, it doesn’t touch on any grand themes (though forgiveness, which is what it is ultimately about, is a noble theme), but it is about things that matter and people that we care for. You feel that nothing stood in the way of the filmmakers being able to tell the story exactly in the way that they wanted to (its sympathetic view of the outlaw life is extraordinary). It’s hard to believe that a film of such easy naturalism was made only four years after The Birth of a Nation. Only an over-cute child, and for this screening a poor quality DVD-R after the DigiBeta wouldn’t play, let things down. It’s on the new Treasures of the West DVD – please see it.

We return to The Canon Revisited, the strand of silent classics that the Giornate feels we need to see again to see how well they stand up in modern times, but which many of us are not too sure we’d ever heard of. Certainly one senses few in the audience could tell you much about director Fridrikh Ermler and would have to confess that they are seeing Oblomok Imperii (Fragment of an Empire) (USSR 1929) for the first time. Few would deny its position of greatness by the end of it, however. This is quite an extraordinary film. Its subject is a shell-shocked soldier, Filimonov (mesmerisingly played with wide-eyed puzzlement by Fedor Nikitin), who loses his memory at the end of the First World War, gradually regaining it four years later, when he discovers a very different country to the one he thought he knew. The buildings have changed, manners have changed, most significantly there are now no masters – he, like everyone else, is the master now.

Except that things are not quite like that, and this is where the film’s startling satirical power lies. Filimonov embraces socialism, but finds that many in this so-called new society have not given up on the old, bad ways, in particular the party apparatchik who has married Filimonov’s wife. Ermler recognises the private face of the USSR behind the public facade, and that all is not yet well, or as some would have things be, because people will be people. Ultimately the film is conflicted in the lessons it wants to draw from Filimonov’s experience, the eye for truth coming up against idealism and ideology. It is dispiriting when Filimonov, whom we have come to like greatly, turns to the camera at the end of the film and says (through intertitles), “No, it is not the end – there’s a great deal yet to be done, comrades”. Of course it is the only ending that could be expected, given the political climate, but the film has shown a much more interesting and plausible world, and it is remarkable that he was allowed to do so as much as he did. A few years later, there would have been no chance of anyone making such a questioning piece of cinema.

The film is technically dazzling, particularly some hallucinatory flashbacks, including a war scene where Filimonov encounters a German soldier played by the same actor. The opening is particularly arresting – a soldier lying close to death amid typhoid-ridden corpses, desperate to quench his thirst, sees a nearby dog with her puppies, is suckled by the dog, then someone comes up and shoots the dog, before Filimonov rescues the soldier (whom he meets later in the film). This traumatic scenario is recalled throughout the film. It is impressions like these of the past that continue to haunt the USSR, Ermler seems to be suggesting. Society may think of utopias, but the mind has other ideas.

Praise, by the way, is due to John Sweeney for his spirited accompaniment, in particular a moment of sheer genius when a balaika band appeared on screen (John not having seen the film beforehand) and he instantly produces the sounds of balaikas on the piano. We really are blessed at Pordenone by some outstandingly skilled, imaginative musicians.

Collegium audience learning about The Soldier’s Courtship

I head to join the Collegium, a sort of school for budding film archivists and scholars which the festival hosts. In practice this means a series of presentations relating to films and themes from the festival. I’m here to see the presentation by the Cineteca Nazionale and restoration specilaists Omnimago on The Soldier’s Courtship, the 1896 British film we saw yesterday. this is a fascinating mixture of historical investigation and technical exposition. The film has been held by the Cineteca for many years under a generic title and was only identified recently. At 80ft it is double the legnth of a standard Robert Paul film of the period, and Paul had problems showing it initially as his projector could not cope. Paul’s catalogue offers the film in two parts, though it is hard to say where the join could have been. As well as the 35mm film they held, the restorers also made use of the fragment from the film held by the National Media Museum in Bradford and a Filoscope flipbook of the film. There were signs of retouching in the print, possibly done in 1900, and there was further retouching done for the digital restoration, where damaged sections were papered over by clean sections from other frames (they wonder out loud whether they have over-restored to some degree – the purists might have been reassured by the sight of more blotches). One wishes Paul could have seen the extraordinary lengths to which we can now go to return a one-minute film to pristine state – electron microscope analysis, Diamant software, SCANITY film processing, Photoshop treatment of individual frames. We can make the past look so much better, the further in time we retreat from it.

I miss the afternoon’s screenings of Thanhouser films, being preoccupied by work matters (from which there is never any real escape) but fortunately I have notes from The Mysterious X, who was there, and reports thus:

First up post-lunch was a session of Thanhouser films, curated and presented by Ned Thanhouser, starting with four one-reelers: Uncle’s Namesakes (USA 1913) was a blast; a father of twin girls deceives their rich British-based uncle, who wanted the offspring to carry his name, into thinking they were twin boys; an inheritance is at stake. But Uncle rumbles the situation and decides to pay a visit … Petticoat Camp (USA 1912) was a delightful proto-feminist comedy over job demarcation on a camping holiday, and the strike and walkout that follows. An Elusive Diamond (USA 1914) was the tale of jewel thieves outwitted by the quick thinking of the young lady they target. Their One Love (USA 1915) was a US Civil War tale of twin girls whose childhood playmate grows up to go to war. David Copperfield (USA 1911) was a three-reel adaptation; based visually, as so many adaptations are, on the Phiz illustrations. It rolled along nicely, but suffered a little in comparisom to the slightly later, more energetic one-reelers.

I don’t know enough to say if these films are entirely representative of the Thanhouser output, or if Ned Thanhouser has (understandably) cherry-picked the very best of what survives; but if they are, or even close to it, what a studio that must have been. All the films featured excellent staging and use of locations, some finely sensitive acting – only slightly broad in the comedy; and notably good, involving roles for the women to get their teeth into. Their One Love featured a charming passage-of-time device; a calendar on a desk is not unusual … having a miniature becloaked Father Time walk onto the desk to rip pages off the calendar is a tad more ambitious. And the lighting and special effects used during the battle sequence were exceptional; not the epic spread of Griffith’s cast of thousands, but intelligent use of less generous resources to great result. Playing the piano for these was the always excellent Phil Carli, but here seeming absolutely in his element with these cracking little films. As always happens somewhen during the Giornate, I really feel the need to explore further; to the Thanhouser website on my return home.

Serge Bromberg of Lobster Films interviewed about the colour restoration of Georges Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune (“The Avatar of its day”), with clips from the film itself (without the Air soundtrack)

The evening show commences, and the theatre, with all four tiers full, is a-buzz with excitement. It is not the main feature that is causing such fervour, but the short that precedes it – the colour restoration of Georges Méliès’ La Voyage dans la lune (1902), undoubtedly the most familiar of all early films, now to be seen as none of us has seen it in a hundred years. Festival director David Robinson introduces Serge Bromberg and Eric Lange from Lobster Films, who have restored the film. Their plan is to make prints available in each of the major film archives around the world, while popularising their discovery by making it accessible to new audiences – people who “don’t know anything about anything”, in Bromberg’s somewhat unfortunate phrase. A significant element of the popularisation has been the decision to give the film a soundtrack written by vogue-ish French group Air, about which they seem a little ashamed and which Robinson introduces with apprehension, telling the audience (which is trembling in its seats in fear at this rude intrusion of the 21st century) that maybe they can screen the film later in the festival with traditional piano, which won’t upset anyone.

And then the film screening, and a pounding beat from the start probably comfirms the audience’s worst fears. Well, all I can say is that if silent films can’t stand up to 21st century treatment then there may be no good reason for continuing with them at all. And the Air soundtrack is a triumph. I don’t think I have heard a better modern accompaniment to a silent film. It is electro-pop with occasional diversions into odd noises, even background talk, with each scene given a different musical treatment, the musicians having noticeably picked up on various visual cues, such as the hammering of workmen when the rocket is being constructed. There is great variety, yet each element combines to make the harmonious whole, with a rousing stomp for the film’s triumphal finish that continues over the credits. The colour definition varies quite a bit throughout the film, but what comes over with great clarity is that this was always a film meant to be shown in colour – in truth, we haven’t seen Le Voyage dans la lune properly until now. Colour and music combine naturally to accentuate the film’s huge inventiveness. And David Robinson did have the good grace to say afterwards that he thought they’d actually made quite a good job of the music. Indeed they have. I hope it is enough to give the film the theatrical screenings that have been talked about (maybe accompanying Martin Scorsese’s Hugo, which features Méliès as a character?). It is a triumph in every degree.

OK, follow that. Well, what could? We do have Shinel (The Overcoat) (USSR 1926), another FEKS production from Grigori Kosintsev and Leonid Trauberg, a classic of sorts, though instead of Shostakovich’s music we get Maud Nelissen and trio playing her score to the film. I would happily listen to the music again, but not see the film again. Indeed for quite some time I listen only to the music and ignore the film entirely. Based on Gogol’s short story and avant garde in treatment, it goes on and on, seemingly without purpose. Why do people move and gesture with such meaningless slowness? What is the point of it all? When will anything happen of any significance? Why should we care? An old print does not help matters, and all in all this was a very odd choice for one of the prestige evening screening. Shinel feels lost to another age; Le Voyage dans la lune feels like it belongs to today.

The last film of the evening is Az utolsó hajnal (The Last Dawn) (Hungary 1917), directed by Michael Curtiz (as he would become). This was a pleasant surprise. I have been expecting something far cruder in technique and performance than that which we get. The film is sophisticated in performance and polished in technique, if wordy and frankly at times a bit above itself. It concerns a world-weary upper class man who decides to commit suicide, after insuring his life, to help a friend escape debts. The film makes something of a misjudgement when it moves to India (not an easy place to recreate in Hungary on a limited budget), then becomes intriguing when the man does indeed kill himself with the help of a mysterious Indian friend. This takes us greatly by surprise, but not nearly as much as when the Indian whips off his beard and reveals himself to be a relative of the man who appeared earlier in the film and who has actually ensured that the poison he has taken will not kill him. Much applause from the audience at a corny trick well executed. An enjoyable film, if a long long way away from Casablanca.

And that is Pordenone for me this year. I must return to London to deal with assorted pressing matters. I have enjoyed the Giornate, particularly the screenings today, though the feeling is (and others seem to share this) that it hasn’t quite hit the heights too often. Perhaps the Mysterious X, who takes over this diary for day five, will see things differently. We shall see.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

The glamour of restoration

Miles Mander and Madeleine Carroll in The First Born (1928), from http://www.bfi.org.uk/lff

Silent film restorations, they seem to be everywhere at the moment, pitched ever more as gorgeous attractions whose time has come. They have (re)premieres, they are presented as works restored to life, as somehow belonging as much to our time as the time in which they were made. Maybe it’s the tinting and toning, maybe it’s the orchestral scores, maybe it’s just the hype – but they have glamour.

It is certainly striking to see a silent film restoration among one of the star attractions in the London Film Festival programme, and a British silent that few will have heard of to boot. The First Born (1928) is a film well worthy of the honour, however; indeed it is a rather better film than the festival blurb might suggest, whose attempts to sell it to a modern audience include comparisons with the TV series Downton Abbey and an invitation to consider how far the action on the screen mirrors the private lives of its stars. There are better reasons to see it than those – it is sophisticated, subtle, mature in theme and and bold in technique, perhaps what Mauritz Stiller might have made had he been in Britain rather than Sweden. It was directed by Miles Mander, and stars he and Madeleine Carroll in a tale of marital disharmony. The BFI’s copy of the film has long suffered from a missing ending, but additional footage has been uncovered to complete what should now gain the acclaim it deserves as a masterpiece. Stephen Horne has produced a new score, and it screens at the LFF on October 20th.

The LFF has a regular ‘Treasures from the Archives’ section, showing the pick of the world’s film restorations, and the silent selections this year are Clarence Brown’s The Goose Woman (USA 1925); Mikhail Kalatosov’s visually extraordinary The Nail in the Boot (USSR 1931) paired with Lois Weber’s powerful tale of urban poverty, Shoes (USA 1916); and a selection from the Wonderful London series of travelogues from 1924, made by Frank Miller and Harry B. Parkinson, a hack director of humblest ambition who just for this series found the technique to match the theme and produced some hauntingly simple vignettes of London life. Well worth catching.

Another restoration grabbing our attention, not least through the strategy of a stylish web presentation, including the above trailer, is Ernst Lubistch’s The Loves of Pharoah (Das Weib des Pharao) (Germany 1922). Those who associate Lubitsch solely with sly, visually witty social comedies, and going to find The Loves of Pharoah something of a shock. It is a grand epic of the old school, with scenery-chewing performances from Emil Jannings and Paul Wegener, and literally a cast of thousands for some spectacular crowd scenes. Though it has its silly side, and not much of a story for one will care about, it is a film to see for the handling of scale and just a sense, now and then, that maybe Ancient Egypt was exactly like this. It was the last film Lubitsch made in Germany before he went over to the United States and he truly went to town, building what looks like an entire Egyptian city (complete with full-sized Sphinx) on the outskirts of Berlin.

For years the film has existed only in an incomplete form, but the bringing together of prints in the USA (George Eastman House) and Russia has allowed the reconstruction of almost the entire film, complete with the original score by Eduard Künneke. The digital restoration has been undertaken by Alpha-Omega, who previously worked on the digital restoration of Metropolis. The film will have its German premiere at the Neues Museum in Berlin on 17 September, with a TV broadcast on ARTE on 26 September. The US premiere will be at the Egyptian Theater on Hollywood Boulevard in Los Angeles on 18 October, and a DVD and Blu-Ray release will then follow. More information is available, in English and German, on the Alpha-Omega site.

A third restoration doing the rounds, and with not just a trailer but a website to champion its importance is Mania, or, to give it its full title, Mania: The History of a Cigarette Factory Worker (Mania: Die Geschichte einer Zigarettenarbeiterin) (Germany 1918), Mania being the central character’s name. The great appeal here is that the film stars Pola Negri, the Polish vamp, shortly on her way to Hollywood to add a dash of pre-Garbo European glamour and mystique to American screens.

The film has been restored by the Filmoteka Narodowa in Poland and had a screening last night in Paris and has other lined up in Madrid, London (the Barbican on 13 October), Kiev and Berlin, with orchestral score, details of which are on the website. The trailer hasn’t been cut together all that well, but more than enough reason to see it is supplied by an enthusiastic account of the film in The Guardian. It was written by Pamela Hutchinson of the highly commendable Silent London blog, and is nicely observant when it comes to pinpointing Negri’s talent and appeal.

Napoléon in the USA

The composer Carl Davis has announced on his website that the full restoration of Abel Gance’s Napoléon (1927), with his symphonic score, will receive its US premiere in March 2012. As Davis notes, “a 32 year odyssey has been achieved”, since there has been a battle between rival restorations and scores of the film, with a re-edited version with score by the late Carmine Coppola (father of Francis Ford Coppola) that was exhibited in the USA in 1981 effectively keeping out the full Kevin Brownlow restoration, with all of the material he has found since 1981 (now 332 minutes in total), and Carl Davis score.

Without knowing any of the details, clearly peace has broken out (might Kevin and Francis had a chat about things when they each were awarded honorary Academy Awards last year?). There is a triumphalist trailer for the film on the TCM site which states that, courtesy of the San Francisco Silent Film Festival (and American Zoetrope, and The Film Preserve, and Photoplay Productions, and the BFI) the film will screen at the Paramount Theatre, Oakland, San Francisco, with the music played by the Oakland East Bay Symphony. There will be four performances only.

We will add more information as and when we find it.

Meanwhile, start queuing now …

Bioscope Newsreel no. 23

Trailer for The Artist

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Til next time!

The Moon is yellow

The colour version of Georges Méliès’ Le voyage dans la lune (1902), from http://www.technicolorfilmfoundation.org

May 11 sees the unveiling at the Cannes Film Festival of what may be the film restoration to beat all other film restorations – the colour version of Georges MélièsLe voyage dans la lune (A Trip to the Moon) (1902). Its recovery is little short of miraculous.

The most iconic of all early films is known to so many, if only for the shot of the rocket going into the Moon’s eye, but no-one since 1902 has seen in its hand-painted colour form (see the Bioscope’s 2008 post Painted by hand for a short history of this early method of colouring films). Méliès was able to supply coloured versions of his films, at double the price of black-and-white, but until 1993 no coloured copy of La voyage dans la lune was known to survive. Then a print was discovered by the Filmoteca de Catalunya in Barcelona among a collection of 200 early films, but unfortunately in a state of total decomposition – or so it was thought.

Lobster Films in Paris learned of the print’s existence and arranged an exchange with the Filmoteca for a lost Segundo de Chomón film in their collection. The deal was done, and Lobster examined their purchase:

Inside, there was a 35mm film on which we could distinguish some of the first film images framed by the small perforations characteristic of early films. Unfortunately, our round reel looked more like a ring of wood, such was the extent to which decomposition had transformed the originally supple film into a rigid, compact mass. We decided to consult several specialist laboratories. Their diagnosis was irrevocable: the copy was lost.

http://www.technicolorfilmfoundation.org

But undaunted, and with great patience, they started to unwind the film frame by frame. They discovered that the images were not stuck to one another – only the sides of the images had decomposed and had melded together. There was a glimmer of hope.

We progressed centimetre by centimetre, taking out entire strips of film at a time but often in small fragments. Sometimes the image had disappeared. It took several weeks to uncover the quasi-totality of the images. The reel, now unwound, was still extremely fragile. In its condition, it was unthinkable that we could use wet-gate step printing, the only technique that would enable the images to be copied again onto a new film before they could be restored. We had two options. Either we tried to give the film back its original flexibility so that it could be duplicated, or we photographed each image using an animation stand, but at the risk of breaking the film.

They decided on the first option, which demanded chemical treatment which would render the film pliable for a period, but which would hasten its decomposition thereafter. The work was undertaken by Haghefilm in the Netherlands, who after months of work managed to transfer around a third of the film onto internegative stock. The remainder of the film could not be copied and was now in a highly brittle state. These remaining 5,000 frames (out of a total of 13,375) were photographed individually in 2000 using a 3M pixel digital camera, work which took a year to complete.

Then they had to wait ten years, for technology to catch up with what was required next and for the money to be put in place to complete the restoration. This came about in 2010 thanks support from the Groupama Gan Foundation for Cinema and the Technicolor Foundation for Cinema Heritage. The film now existed in partial internegative form and in different digital file formats at different resolutions, some digitally scanned from the photochemical restoration, some digital images from the 5,000 individual images, many in an incomplete or broken form. It was a huge organisational challenge, as Technicolor’s Tom Burton explains:

Because the digitization took place over a period of years in different physical locations and different technical environments, utilizing dissimilar gear, the resulting data was not natively organized into a sequentially numbered image order. Each digitization session generated its own naming convention and frame numbering protocol … Several versions of some shots had been created as a result of the separate capture sessions. And due to variations in the specific conditions and equipment used in each digitizing session, the files differed greatly from one another in color, density, size, sharpness and position – it was becoming clear that integrating them into a seamless stream of matching images was to be a challenge of extremely large proportions.

Technicolor sorted out the jigsaw puzzle, re-rendered the files as DPX files, then undertook the process of reconstruction the film with reference to an HDCAM version of a black-and-white print of the film provided by the Méliès family, matching it up frame by frame. Much more then followed to clean, stabilise, grade and render the finished film, filling in colours where these were missing with reference to the use of those colours elsewhere in the film, then time-converting it to the original speed of 14fps. The entire restoration project cost 400,000 euros – for a 14-minute film.

http://www.technicolorfilmfoundation.org

And so we come to 2011 (the 150th anniversary of Georges Méliès’ birth) and the restored film’s presentation at Cannes on May 11. It will be presented with a new soundtrack by the vogue-ish French duo Air. The Technicolor Film Foundation has information on the project on its website, including a truly fabulous 192-page PDF book La couleur retrouvée du Voyage dans la Lune / A Trip to the Moon Back in color, in French and English, on Georges Méliès, his career, his methods, the film and its restoration. It is gorgeously illustrated, and serves as a first-rate guide to the special genius of Méliès. I strongly recommend it. It is free to download (the booklet itself is available at Cannes, but apparently it is not going to be on sale generally). A copy has been placed in the Bioscope Library. All illustrations and quotations in this post come from the book.

The Bioscope will pick up on such reports as it can find about the film’s Cannes screening, and any news of screenings thereafter. It will feature at other festivals, but how widely it will get shown further after that (e.g. if there is to be a DVD or Blu-Ray release) has not been said as yet. However, film, digital cinema and HD release versions have been produced.

http://www.technicolorfilmfoundation.org

This is turning out to be the year of Georges Méliès. As well as the colour restoration of Le voyage dans la lune (1902), this month sees the publication of Matthew Solomon’s book on the film, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination. Then at the end of 2011 we will have Martin Scorsese’s Hugo Cabret, his adaptation (in 3D) of Brian Selznick’s children’s book The Invention of Hugo Cabret which features Georges Méliès as a central character. Méliès is played by Ben Kingsley, and the cast includes Sacha Baron Cohen, Jude Law, Asa Butterfield and Chloë Moretz. M. Méliès is about to go global.

Looking back on 2010

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Brownlow honoured

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Brownlow accepting his award, from oscars.org

The great white silence

Trailer for the BFI National Archive restoration of The Great White Silence

Last night I attended the premiere of The Great White Silence at the London Film Festival. The Great White Silence is a documentary feature, released in 1924, which documents the expedition of Captain Robert Falcon Scott to reach the South Pole. He of course failed, and died with four companions on his wretched journey back from the Pole, having discovered that he had been beaten into second place by Roald Amundsen’s Norwegian party.

But Scott had romance on his side. He left behind a diary of exceptional artistry and poignancy, which helped enshrine his legend and turn vainglorious failure into the epitome of noble, patriotic self-sacrifice. And he had ensured that future generations would become engrossed in his story through what they could see as well as what they could read. Herbert Ponting (1870-1935) was taken on as expedition photographer and cinematographer, both for documentary purposes and because the sale of photographic and cinema rights helped pay for the expedition (40% of the profits from the films’ exhibition went to the expedition, 40% to the Gaumont company for producing and distributing the film, and 20% to Ponting).

Ponting was a still photographer of renown, who had done notable work in Japan. But he had never handled a cine camera before. He turned out to be a cinematographer of uncommon ability. Kevin Brownlow pays him the highest of accolades in The War the West and the Wilderness by comparing his work that Mary Pickford’s cinematographer:

Herbert Ponting was to the expedition film what Charles Rosher was to the feature picture – a photographer and cinematographer of unparalleled artistry.

Herbert Ponting achieved work that was exceptional in every degree. It was exceptional in image quality, exceptional in the way it overcame the difficulties of filming in extreme conditions when cinema technology was still in its infancy, exceptional as a documentary record.

Iconic image of the Terra Nova, from The Great White Silence

The BFI National Film Archive has restored the 1924 feature because the footage no longer survives in the original forms in which it was released. The release structure of Ponting’s films was determined by the nature of the expedition and a need to keep up audience interest over the two years that the expedition would take. Ponting joined Scott’s ship the Terra Nova in New Zealand in November 1910. He took an initial 15,000 feet of negative film with him, along with Prestwich and Newman Sinclair cine cameras (the latter’s manufacturer Arthur S. Newman gave Ponting intensive instruction in its use, and added special ebonite fittings to prevent Ponting’s fingers from freezing to the camera). He shot and developed 8,000 feet of this on site (Cape Evans) before the Terra Nova returned to New Zealand in January 1911. This film was delivered to Britain, and edited by Gaumont into a 2,000 foot release (lasting around 30 minutes) entitled With Captain Scott, R.N. to the South Pole. This was first exhibited in November 1911. Ponting’s second batch of film was released by Gaumont as the ‘second series’ of With Captain Scott R.N. to the South Pole, into two 1,500 foot parts, first shown in September and October 1912 respectively, and which featured the final scenes of the polar party, included sequences where they demonstrated sledge-hauling and life inside their tent. By this time Scott and his final polar party were all dead, and news of Amundsen’s success in reaching the pole first dented the film’s commercial appeal. One of the most haunting passages of The Great White Silence is where four of the final five-man party illustrate how they were going to journey across the ice, including scenes of them huddled together for warmth in a tent. Scott, Birdy Bowers, Edward Wilson and Edgar Evans – but not Titus Oates – all appear in a sequence which was produced in anticipation of triumph but now looks like an uncanny intimation of their fate.

The tent scene from The Great White Silence, with (left to right) Evans, Bowers, Wilson and Scott

The bodies were discovered in November 1912 and the news reached the outside world in February 1913. Ponting then began to devote his life to the promotion of the Scott legend, and to the recouping of his investment, because in 1914 he purchased all rights in the film from Gaumont for £5,000. This he did against a waning audience interest, and much of the bitterness that Ponting was to feel in his latter years was due to the public’s insufficient awe at a story which he progressively built up and romanticised, as the Scott story evolved into myth. The films were re-edited and released in 1913, after Scott’s death had been reported, as The Undying Story of Captain Scott.

Ponting then lectured with the films constantly, giving a Royal Command performance in May 1914, where King George V declared that:

I wish that every British boy could see this film. The story should be known to all the youth of the Nation, for it will help to foster the spirit of adventure on which the Empire was founded.

He continued to show his films throughout the First World War, emphasising the call to patriotic sacrifice, but now to dwindling audiences. In 1924 Ponting re-edited the films once more as a feature-length documentary, The Great White Silence, which followed on from the 1921 publication of his book The Great White South. The film was 7,000 feet long (around two hours in length), and released by the New Era company. Reviews were complimentary, marvelling at the hardships endured, and praising both the film’s patriotic virtues and “extremely clever studies of Antarctic life”, while pointing out (a little meanly) that the final scenes were, of necessity, heavily dependent on still pictures, diagrams and intertitles. Scott’s adventures were already of another age, and the film was not a notable success.

Ponting failed in his subsequent attempts to sell his films to the nation, an appropriate film archiving body not existing at that time, and in 1933 he produced a sound version of his films, now entitled 90º South, released by New Era once again, and whittled down to 75mins. Ponting himself provided the film’s commentary, and years of lecturing to these images tell in his polished and succinct words. This time the reviews were more enthusiastic, as reviewers newly aware of the documentary as an art form rightly praised Ponting’s artistry.

90º South is the form in which we have been familiar with the footage in recent years, because the BFI did not have a complete viewing print of The Great White Silence. But with material from a release print held in the Netherlands, and with reference to Ponting’s uncut footage, an exceptional restoration has been produced. The images really do look like they were shot yesterday. The clarity of the faces of the explorers – Wilson, Evans, Bowers, Oates and the rest – is a revelation. The grading is a tour de force. Perhaps most notable is the colour tinting, introduced digitally by following Ponting’s own instructions (written onto gaps in the original footage), which results in the familiar polar scenes unfolding in strange, otherwordly amber, blues and greens. We see the familiar anew.

The film itself is not a documentary as we now expect. It was probably released by Ponting because he had been encouraged by the success of Robert Flaherty’s Nanook of the North (1922), but if that film ushered in the new form of documentary filmmaking, Ponting’s film is the ultimate expression of an older form of documentary, one with its roots in the magic lantern lecture. Ponting was a practiced lantern lecturer before he joined Scott, and entertained the expedition party with lantern shows during the Antarctic winter. Throughout his work on the Scott expedition, Ponting imagined how he would present such scenes to an audience back home, and selected, composed and arranged his material accordingly. This included a marked emphasis on animals, particularly penguins (inevitably), to what seems to us the surprising detriment of the human story, but Pointing knew his market and he balances his material admirably. Certainly the 2010 audience seemed as engrossed in seals, penguins, killer whales and skuas, and as susceptible to their anthropomorphic appeal, as those in 1912.

Herbert Ponting giving a magic lantern show on his Japanese travels for members of the Scott expedition

Once Scott had died and Ponting went on the road with the films, he lectured to them – and his hundreds of still photographs – literally hundreds of times. This experience is readily evident in The Great White Silence. The intertitles chat to us in familiar style; Ponting (the titles are written as though it is he speaking to us) points out things for us to look at, his words guide our eyes and our thoughts. He knew how to engage an audience, and he suceeded all over again in 2010. The film is a mixture of footage, photographs and intertitles, and is in effect a lecturer’s show with his words transferred to the intertitles. The slideshow effect reaches its height in the last half hour of the film, when there is no more footage (because Ponting did not travel with Scott into the Antarctic interior) and so all that he can use are photographs, passages from Scott’s diaries, and quaint but moving model animations showing ant-like sledges moving over the polar wastes. Scott’s diaries have barely lost their power to move even in this cynical age, and the film’s ending left the audience breathless, the final scenes accentuated by a solo voice singing ‘Abide with me’.

Ah yes, the music. The film was accompanied by a ‘soundscape’ by composer Simon Fisher Turner which combined strings (more plucked and scraped than bowed) with electronica, gramophone recordings from the time, recordings of banjo music, Terry Riley-ish sequenced keyboard music, singing, and at one disconcerting point a modern voice speaking in Scott’s hut from earlier this year. You can experience some of the electronica on the YouTube clip at the top of this post. The ‘music’ was clearly greatly appreciated by many in the audience, so I shall refrain from commenting as severely as I might. I shall say just this – the point of musical accompaniment for a silent film is to draw attention to the film, not to draw attention to the music. I’m all for imaginative forms of silent film presentation, but last night’s accompaniment drew far too much attention to itself.

The Great White Silence is going to be given the works when it comes to exhibition. A DVD and Blu-Ray release is planned for next year, it will be screened on the Discovery channel, and it is going to get a theatrical release in the UK. So, amazingly, we will have had Metropolis screened in many UK cinemas in 2010, and The Great White Silence at your local fleapit (who knows?) in 2011. These are remarkable times for silents, and The Great White Silence is a remarkable film. See it if you can – you are certainly going to be presented with every opportunity to do so.

The BFI Live channel has a fascinating short documentary on the technicalities of the film’s restoration. (It’s also available on yourdiscovery.com)

Some of the text of this post is adapted from an essay I wrote, The Great White Silence: Antarctic Exploration and Film’, in South: The Race to the Pole (London: National Maritime Museum, 2000).

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