Passio at Tribeca

Paolo Cherchi Usai’s modern silent film Passio, comprising found footage put to a score by Arvo Pärt, continues to make a considerable impact with the few screenings that it has had so far. It has now received its American premiere at the the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine in Manhattan, as part of the Tribeca Film Festival. This is the blurb from the festival programme:

Arvo Pärt’s 1982 “Passio,” based on the Passion in St. John’s Gospel, has been called one of the last masterpieces of 20th-century Music. Now it has inspired a silent film by Paolo Cherchi Usai. Together, they comprise a profoundly moving, unforgettable “oratorio for moving image and sound,” and a dramatic, often unsettling meditation on the very act of seeing.

The poet Rika Lesser once wrote to Pärt, “Yours is the only music I’ve ever wanted to live inside. Sometimes I wish that the music would stop, congeal, erect a lasting structure around me, one that would silently vibrate and, resonating, enclose me.” We are honored to be presenting this extraordinary work in two of our own city’s most magnificent “lasting structures,” the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine (Friday, April 27 and Saturday, April 28) and Trinity Church, Wall Street (Sunday, April 29). This will be only the second time—the first was in Adelaide, Australia in February of this year—the work has been presented accompanied by live music.

Paolo Cherchi Usai is one of the world’s most respected film historians and scholars. With Passio, he has drawn on his immense knowledge of world cinema to create a stunning and revelatory film of surprising emotional and narrative power, one that explores the impending crisis of visual culture and its reflection in politics and society. Its disturbing images, drawn from a century of filmmaking, are woven into a tapestry of mysterious beauty and violence. This not a pleasing or easy film to watch. It is an impossible film to forget.

    “In the 1970’s, an engraved disc was sent out on one of the Voyager missions which left the solar system, and is headed for deep space since then. The disc contains our human existence in shorthand: a man and a woman saluting the aliens out there, a schematic depiction of our solar system, and Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” After having seen Cherchi Usai’s Passio, I think the experiment must now be repeated. If a similar mission is planned for the future, I propose that NASA launches this masterpiece into outer space.”

    Werner Herzog

Cherchi Usai does not want the film to be distributed conventionally in cinemas, nor to have a DVD release. He has also destroyed the negative. Just seven prints exist, for screening with live orchestra and chorus. Catch it when you can. Maybe in outer space.

Hopwood’s Living Pictures


Another addition to the Bioscope Library. Henry Hopwood (1866-1919) was Custodian in the Library of the Patent Office in Chancery Lane, London. His Living Pictures is a comprehensive history and handbook on the technology of the new science of motion pictures, published first in 1899 and then in a revised edition by his colleague R.B. Foster in 1915. It is a thorough, knowledgable account of the subject, based around patent applications, but expressed in an engaging and sometimes philosophical style which makes it a pleasure to read today. It still used as a standard reference source.The 1915 revision is available for downloading from the Intenet Archive in DjVu (16MB), PDF (45MB) and TXT (570KB) formats.

The Wonderful World of Albert Kahn


Autochrome of a fringe-maker in Galway, Ireland during May 1913 © Musée Albert Kahn

The BBC4 Edwardians season has just shown part one of a nine-part series on the remarkable Albert Kahn collection of early colour photographs and actuality films, taken from Kahn’s Archives de la Planete. Kahn was a millionaire Parisian banker who decided to create a visual record of the world in the early twentieth century using the new Autochrome photograph process invited by the Lumière brothers (also inventors of the Cinématographe, of course). He sent photographers to over 50 countries. They took more than 72,000 colour pictures and around 100 hours of (monochrome) film footage, recording sights and scenes across the world in an unprecedented documentary exercise.

The first four parts are being shown under the slightly misleading title of The Edwardians in Colour. The remaining five parts will feature in a future set of programmes on the 1920s.

Update: For background information on Albert Kahn, and links to various sources, see the Seaching for Albert Kahn post on this blog.

Tom Fletcher remembers

Posting that item on Norman Studios and the black cinema of the silent era reminded me of a passage in a book that I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to tell someone about. Tom Fletcher’s The Tom Fletcher Story: 100 Years of the Negro in Show Business (1954) is a classic memoir that has been much-plundered by musical theatre historians, but I don’t know how many film historians know of this passage which records the experience of two black actors at the Edison film company in the early 1900s:

When the flickers, or moving pictures, were developed along around 1900, my partner, Al Bailey, and I got leading comedy parts. The studio was on 22nd Street, between Broadway and Fourth Avenue. I was the talent scout for the colored people. There were no “types,” just colored men, women and children. Bailey and I did parts in the pictures that today would pay no less than four figures weekly, but we didn’t take it seriously. To us it was just something that would never get any place.

You never heard the words “lights,” “action,” “camera,” “roll ’em,” or “cut” which are so common today. There were no script writers, no make-up artists, just one man, everybody called him Mr. Porter, and I never took time to find out his first name, who placed you in your positions and gave you your actions, lit the scene and then turned the camera. His assistant was a fellow named Gilroy whom everyone called Gil. When we went on location it was to North Asbury Park, about the best place around New York for the purpose. The trees, gardens and farms gave just the right atmosphere.

At the end of each day Gilroy would hand me the money to pay off. I am not quite sure but I think it was three dollars a day for each of the people. Bailey and I got eight dollars each. We all considered it a lot of fun with pay. Vaudeville, private parties, music and show business kept me too busy to pay any real attention to the moving picture business.

Porter is of course Edwin S. Porter; Gilroy is his assistant William J. Gilroy. Fletcher’s less than awe-struck view of the early film business is illuminating, and shows how for most stage performers the new medium was a minor curiosity with little bearing on their professional lives except that the extra money was welcome. Is this a unique memoir for black performers in film at such an early date? I don’t know.

I first found the passage in Thomas L. Riis, Just Before Jazz: Black Musical Theater in New York, 1890 to 1915 (1989), which is an excellent, instructive history in itself, with wonderful illustrations.

It doesn’t show Edison films such as Tom Fletcher appeared in, but the Black Film Center/Archive site has some QuickTime clips of African-American performers (and some white actors in blackface) from the 1890s. The Uncle Tom Cabin’s & American Culture site has a huge range of information about the many expressions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, including the history behind the 1903 Edison film Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with QuickTime video clips of this and subsequent film versions from the silent era. The lead parts in the 1903 film are played by white actors in black face; the black performers are all extras.

Pordenone Collegium


An invitation has been published for students to attend the Collegium at this year’s silent film festival at Pordenone, Italy, which takes place 6-13 October. There are twelve spaces available, an applicants should notmally be aged under 30 and pursuing education in cinema in one form or other. The aim of the Collegium is the engage the students in a programme of activity that takes full advantage of the expertise of archivists, musicians and film historians on hand at the world’s premiere silent film festival . Those attending are given free hotel accommodation and breakfast during the week, but are responsible for their own travel arrangements, meals, and all other expenses.

There are further details on the festival website. The deadline for applications is 27 May. Papers from previous Collegiums (Collegia?) can be found on the Film Intelligence site (talking of which, it’s high time that site got updated).

Restoring Norman Studios

The Flying Ace

A project is underway to restore the Norman Studios in Jacksonville, Florida, as the Jacksonville Silent Film Museum at Norman Studios. The Norman Studios, run by Richard Norman, are most notable in silent film history for being where a number of feature films and shorts with all-black cast and crews were made during the 1920s. Only one title now survives, The Flying Ace (1926).

The studio complex still remains. A project to restore it begins next month and is due for completion in 2008. There’s background history on filming at Norman Studios and Jacksonville in general on the planned museum’s website, plus some terrific posters. The history of early black cinema has been much investigated of late, particularly the work of Oscar Micheaux, and the handful of surviving films given public screenings. The key source for finding out more is Pearl Bowser, Jane Gaines and Charles Musser’s Oscar Micheaux and His Circle: African-American Filmmaking and Race Cinema of the Silent Era (2001).

Paul Merton on tour

Paul Merton

[Note: This is the 2008 tour – for the 2009 tour dates, click here]

These are the dates I’ve traced for Paul Merton’s Silent Clowns show, which will be touring the country later this year when his book Silent Comedy is published. The links are to booking details at each of the venues. I’ll add more if I find them (there are 22 dates in all). Neil Brand will be providing the piano accompaniment.

10 November – Warwick Arts Centre
11 November – The Anvil, Basingstoke
13 November – Cambridge Corn Exchange
14 November – St David’s Hall, Cardiff
16 November – Assembly Hall, Tunbridge Wells
17 November – Cheltenham Town Hall
18 November – Hackney Empire, London
20 November – The Royal Centre, Nottingham
21 November – Bournemouth International Centre
23 November – St George’s Hall, Bradford
24 November – Buxton Opera House
25 November – The Hexagon, Reading
27 November – Plymouth Pavilions
28 November – Royal and Derngate, Northampton
30 November – De Montfort Hall, Loughborough
1 December – The Lowry, Salford
2 December – Royal Liverpool Philharmonic
3 December – Villa Marina, Douglas, Isle of Man
5 December – Portsmouth Guidhall
7 December – Perth Theatre and Concert Hall
8 December – Caird Hall, Dundee
9 December – Aberdeen Music Hall

As the blurb says, “The funniest silent comedians of the 1920’s on a big, big screen with live accompaniment from the wonderful Neil Brand. Paul introduces a selection of clips from stars such as Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Roscoe Arbuckle and Charley Chase. Finishing fantastically with a complete showing of a silent comedy masterpiece. Guaranteed to rock the house with laughter.”

Update: The list of dates above is now complete. Download the promo leaflet here (PDF).

U.S. Government Enters Film Industry

The U.S. Government began its entrance into the motion picture industry as early (if not earlier) as 1908. Early on, Government agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, the U.S. Army Signal Corps, the Bureau of Reclamation and others began their foray into this arena. In the beginning, Government offices relied on outside commercial studios for their productions, but early on they realized in order to control costs, maintain creative control and eventually set up their own distribution systems, it was in their best interests to set up their own production units.

The Department of Agriculture began producing films officially as a motion picture unit late in 1913. They had even purchased processing equipment and cameras and had the first Government motion picture lab initially hidden away in an 8 x 12 room as it had yet to be funded. In 1917 the U.S. Signal Corps began training soldiers in cinematography at Columbia University in New York. The U.S. Reclamation Service (Department of the Interior) began filming in 1908-09 using the medium to document their efforts in irrigation in the Midwest. The list goes on and on: the Bureau of War Risk Insurance , the National Forest Service, Bureau of Mines, etc. all utilized this medium in an effort to educate and inform the masses. It is a long neglected segment of film history which is well worth a new look.



The Cineteca di Bologna in Italy is hosting Chapliniana between 1 June and 30 October 2007. This major celebration of Chaplin’s life and work will comprise an exhibition, Chaplin e l’Immagine (Chaplin in Pictures), at the Sala Borsa, Bologna; live orchestral screenings of The Chaplin Revue, City Lights, The Kid, Modern Times, The Gold Rush, The Circus and A Woman of Paris to be performed in Piazza Maggiore and the Teatro Communale during the summer evenings; and the majority of Chaplin’s films will be screened during this period, particularly during the Cinema Ritrovato film festival June 30-7 July 2007. The Cineteca is also working on the Chaplin Archive Database, which is logging the cataloguing, digitisation and preservation of the huge Charlie Chaplin paper archive.

There’s a Chapliniana site registered but nothing is on it as yet. 2007 is the thirtieth anniversary of Chaplin’s death, and a major revival of interest in his work and socio-cultural significance seems to be underway.

Update: The Chapliniana site is now active, and full of details, all of it in Italian.