Journal of Film Preservation

Journal of Film Preservation

Journal of Film Preservation, from http://www.fiafnet.org

FIAF, the International Federation of Film Archives, “brings together institutions dedicated to rescuing films both as cultural heritage and as historical documents”. You can find details of the 120 or so institutions from sixty-five countries which belong to FIAF on its multilingual site, as well as standards documentation, news, projects and information on FIAF’s various specialised commissions.

The site also has details of FIAF publications, which include its Journal of Film Preservation. The journal covers theoretical and technical aspects of moving image archival activities, with plenty of information on silent film, which has always been a favoured area of the national film archives. It’s a very good publication, which is not much known about outside the film archiving profession. The journal is published twice a year, and one year after publication is made freely available on the FIAF site.

So there are currently twenty issues of the journal, from 1995 onwards, which can be downloaded from the site in PDF format. Here’s a guide to some of the articles worth looking out for:

  • No. 52 (Apr 1996) – Brian Taves on the work on undersea cinematography pioneer James Ernest Williamson, who made Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea in 1916
  • No. 53 (Nov 1996) – Luke McKernan (yours truly) on programming a season of Victorian cinema (i.e. film to 1901) at the National Film Theatre
  • No. 54 (Apr 1997) – Richard Brown on the copyright records for early British films found in the then Public Record Office (now The National Archives)
  • No. 60/61 (Jul 2000) – Alfonso del Amo on the history of celluloid
  • No. 62 (Apr 2001) – Brian Taves on Michael (Jules) Verne, who both wrote novels in his famous father’s name, and then proceeded to film them
  • No. 64 (Apr 2002) – Sarah Ziebell Mann on the creation of the Treasures from the Film Archives database of early silent short fiction films around the world
  • No. 65 (Dec 2002) – Yoshiro Irie on the question of film speeds of Japanese silent films
  • No. 69 (May 2005) – Thomas C. Christensen on efforts to recover and restore the films of Asta Nielsen
  • No. 70 (Nov 2005) – Tiago Baptista on restoring the early surgical films of Eugène-Louis Doyen
  • No. 72 (Nov 2006) – Steven Higgins on avant garde cinema of the 1920s and 1930s

And much, much more. A fair bit of it is rather more technical than the general reader requires, but most articles combine the practical with the historical in engrossing fashion, and the illustrations are excellent (and rare). The Bioscope will be following up some of the themes above in future posts.

Odd links

Anyone hoping to use the right-hand column links on The Bioscope may notice that they are all in the wrong categories. This is a general problem across WordPress which their brightest minds are at this very moment trying to fix. So, normal service to be resumed as soon as possible.

australianscreen

australianscreen is a first-rate educational website created by the Australian Film Comission, with material from the National Sound and Film Archive, the National Archives of Australia and others.

The site features contains information about, and in many cases excerpts from, a wide selection of Australian feature films, documentaries, television programmes, newsreels, short films, animations, and home-movies produced over the last 100 years, all freely available. It is searchable in a variety of forms, but the broad categories are Feature Films, Documentaries, Television programmes, Short films, Home movies, Newsreels, Advertisements, Other historical footage, Sponsored films, and Short features. Frustratingly, there seems to be no way of search on viewable material alone [correection, there’s something viewable for every title – see Comments], but there is plenty on offer, including MP4 files for download (subject to agreeing to their terms and conditions).

Story of the Kelly Gang

The Story of the kelly Gang, from http://australianscreen.com.au

There is a lot of silent film on view, with helpful contextualising material. Among Feature Films, there are sequences from the world’s first narrative feature film The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906), and two other renowned Australian silents, The Sentimental Bloke (1919) and On Our Selection (1920). Among Documentaries there are such gems as Marvellous Melbourne: Queen City of the South (c.1910) and a Pathé documentary on the making of the newspaper The Sydney Morning Herald (1911). Look out also for Endurance (1933), the sound film version of the film originally shot by Frank Hurley of Ernest Shackleton’s 1914-1916 Trans-Antarctic expedition.

Darwin

Darwin c.1926, from http://australianscreen.com.au

And there’s more. The Newsreels section has extensive material from Australasian Gazette, dating from 1911 onwards. In Other historical footage, look out for Marius Sestier and Walter Barnett’s film of the Melbourne Cup horse race in 1896, one of the first films made in Australia, a parade of Australian troops going off to the Boer War in 1899, filmed by Frederick Wills and Henry Mobsby, and footage of Darwin in 1926 which includes sequences showing the Chinese community.

It’s a marvellous resource, oriented for schools use but of interest to anyone. It’s so clearly laid out and expressed. Go explore.

Border Crossings: Rethinking Early Cinema

And another conference coming up. Border Crossings: Rethinking Early Cinema is taking place 9 February 2008 at the Film Studies department, University of California, Berkeley. There isn’t a conference web page that I can find, but here’s the details of the call for papers – deadline 1 October:

This conference attempts to map cultural travel in silent film. We invite papers on topics which address the mobile nature of silent film. Panels will draw attention to cinematic forms or practices fueled by different forms of international exchange. To this end, papers that approach the specific co-ordinates of silent film – its new forms of visual address, display, and narrative form from a comparative perspective will be given preference.

The attempt will be to track the exportation and intake of a single moving image technology, the cinema, across nations. We seek to open up a critical space to observe the particular ways in which cinema, conceived as a “traveling technology”, understands pleasure, self, world, nation and collectivity. The conference asks but is not limited to the following questions: how did popular silent film proliferate? Which legal systems encouraged the spread of silent cinema? How might the relationship between nation and silent film be characterized? Is “nation” more easily imagined in sound cinema? Which cultural forms, stars, or cinematic genres traveled easily, and which not?

Pleae send a 500 word abstract and a brief vita to rethinking.early.cinema_at_gmail.com. The deadline for sending proposals is Oct 1, 2007.

Conference Organizers:
Anupama Kapse and Laura Horak
Film Studies, University of California, Berkeley
7408 Dwinelle Hall #2670
University of California
Berkeley, CA 94720-2670

Lots of deep questions that you probably hadn’t ever thought of asking.

Women and the Silent Screen V

The year wanes, darkness falls earlier, 2008 diaries are in the shops, and academics are looking to a new year and coming up with conferences. And so we have first news of the Fifth International Women and the Silent Screen Conference, to be held at Stockholm University, Sweden, 11–13 June 2008. Previously held at Utrecht, Santa Cruz, Montreal and Guadalajara, the conference promises a combination of archival screenings, keynote addresses and scholarly panels, on the theme of women and cinema during the first four decades of film history; that is, women as directors, screenwriters, producers, actors and filmgoers.

There’s a call for papers, which asks for abstracts of 200–300 words, together with a paper title and a two-line biographical statement, to be submitted by 15 December 2007, to wss@mail.film.su.se. More details (in English as well as Swedish) on the conference website.

The Cameraman’s Revenge

I’ve written before of those points where my interests in silents and modern jazz/avant garde music match. One particular hero is the American guitarist Gary Lucas, whose extraordinary accompaniment to a scene from Der Golem has already appeared on The Bioscope.

I’ve just found on his website another silent film with his accompaniment. He had a touring show, Sounds of the Surreal, which presents his live accompaniment to Rene Clair’s Entr’acte (1924), Fernand Leger’s Ballet Mecanique (1924), and Ladislaw Starewicz’s The Cameraman’s Revenge (1912), which available as a QuickTime file on his site.

The Cameraman’s Revenge

The Cameraman’s Revenge, from http://www.garylucas.com

Ladislaw Starewicz (1882-1965) is one of cinema’s true originals. His passion was entomology. He was taken on by the Russian company Khanzhonkov as a designer, and turned to directing model animation in 1912. His extraordinary idea was to build on his hobby by animating insects with stop-motion photography, in parodies of human activity. The Cameraman’s Revenge (or Mest’ kinematografičeskogo operatora) is his best-known film from this period, where a bettle and a grasshopper both pursue a dragonfly dancer, and the envious grasshopper captures evidence of a romantic tryst between the pair on his motion picture camera. It is one of the damnednest things you ever saw.

He made several other such stop-motion and animated films, including The Ant and the Grasshopper, Insects’ Aviation Week and Voyage to the Moon. In the 1920 Starewicz moved to France, where he won increased fame for animated films such as La voix du rossignol (1923), Amour noir et amour blanc (1928) and the feature-length Le roman de Renard (1928-39), all produced with dogged independence.

To be honest, the Gary Lucas score, with National steel guitar, doesn’t connect much with the action, and the version online is incomplete, missing the conclusion where the grasshopper’s film is shown. Nevertheless, it’s worth checking out just for being so odd, and selections of Starewicz’s films happily are available on DVD.

Celebrating Toronto

I reported a while back on the Cinema by Citizens: Celebrating the City initiative from the Toronto Urban Film Festival (TUFF), which invited people to submit silent, one-minute videos on a range of urban themes. The festival is currently running, and the sixty winning films are now being exhibited online (all via YouTube). I’ve skimmed through several, and the quality is very high. I rather like this one, My Beautiful City, by Nadia Tan and Maya Bankovic:

Sample the others on the TUFF site or via their YouTube page.

The silent film pianist speaks

OK, back to some semblance of normality after all that mayhem. There’s a good interview with silent film pianist Neil Brand, originally published in The Scotsman, 6 August 2007, that’s just been made available online. Here’s the start of it:

I’m sat, listening to Neil Brand expound upon the history of silent film, when he glances over, across the hotel lobby and acknowledges his principal ally in reviving interest in the works of Chaplin, Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy. Without breaking stride, Paul Merton sallies on past and announces “don’t believe a word”.

As a jobbing silent pianist, and by that I mean he’s constantly being invited to perform at the world’s most prestigious film festivals, Brand routinely eschews words for eloquent arrangements of music. Yet as someone whose career spans from before the talkies to the present day, at least according to definitive internet movie website IMDB, which eerily traces the 49-year-old’s collaborations back to the 1910s, the composer, actor and dramatist can’t half talk a fascinating history.

The previous day at a nearby cinema, I’d witnessed him score a restored print of Buster Keaton’s classic The General and heard Merton, for whose Silent Clowns TV show and live performances Brand played piano, chuckling at a film he’s undoubtedly seen tens of times, if not more. Like many in the audience I suspect, I was initially distracted by the novelty of this bespectacled chap at the piano, though after a while I ceased to notice even his distressingly bright shirt. A significant factor in this was obviously Keaton’s consummate physical performance, but another was the cocooning insulation of the accompanying music.

“It’s odd,” Brand reflects. “What you tend to find is that most audiences, for the first five or ten minutes, they’re mentally struggling with the fact that they’re watching a film and can’t hear anything else. Then something just clicks, I don’t know what it is that pulls them in.

Hmm, that sounds like one of Neil’s shirts alright. Follow the rest of the interview on the Future Movies site.

And see how the Internet Movie Database indeed traces Neil’s career from the present day back to the 1910s…

Slapstick, European-style – part 4

Slapstick Blog-a-Thon

We conclude our survey of European pre-WWI film comedy for the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon with a look at the comedy troupe, Les Pouics.

Les who? The Pouics are little known as a name now, but they were France’s version of the Keystone Cops – their predecessors, in fact, since the group was formed in 1910, two years before the Keystone company was created. They were formed by the director Jean Durand, who joined the Gaumont company in 1910 as its director of comedy films. He quickly established a troupe of comedy performers with the necessary talents to help feed the conveyer-belt system of one-reel film production, as audiences worldwide demanded their weekly dose of comedy. Les Pouics, or Les Pouites (‘bedbugs’), on occasion billed under this name, supplied a team of comedians with precise acrobatic and pantomimic skills, suitable for all occasions, and with more than a gift for chaos.

Onésime et le Dromadaire

Onésime et le dromadaire (1914)

We know the names of several of Les Pouics. Most notable at the time was Ernest Bourbon, who starred in Gaumont comedies 1912-14 as Onésime, films whose penchant for arresting absurdity (camels in living rooms) endeared him to the Surrealists. A Pouic who would work with the Surrealists directly was Gaston Modot. Just another member of the comic team when he first worked for Durand in 1910, Modot appeared in many Onésime and Calino films, before enjoying a notable acting career over many years, working for Abel Gance, René Clair, Marcel Carné (Les Enfants du Paradis), Jean Renoir (La Règle du Jeu) and Luis Buñuel in L’Age D’Or. Other Pouics included Clément Migé, already well-known as Calino, Lucien Bataille, who played the comic character Zigoto (1911-1912), Jeanne-Marie Laurent and Paulos.

Les Pouics were recruited from circus and music hall backgrounds, and specialised in organised mayhem, a wholesale onslaught upon normality. Things existed only that they might be destroyed. Some indication of their working methods can be found in a rare interview with veterans of the troupe reproduced in Georges Sadoul’s Historie Général du Cinéma (1951):

Jean Durand: The set was built on a platform, three metres high, supported by complicated arrangement of beams. On top of that we would build a salon, with sofas, piano, furniture, the whole lot. At a whistle, the stagehands would release the beams. The whole lot would collapse into the room built underneath.

Gaston Modot: Under the floor there would be a ceiling. The fellows and the furniture would crash through it. It was rather like playing water polo. Everyone marked his man. You would say: ‘I’ll take the wardrobe and you the sideboard, and you the seat with the old lady on it’.

Durand: In the salon there would usually be a very proper gentleman who had his top hat on. He would always get the piano. Of course there would be a few newspapers in the hat as protection.

Modot: And those great three-tier scafolds, like we built in Saintes-Maries-de-la-Mer. We’d say, you fall in the mortar, me in the lime and him in the bucket. A motorbike would come and hurl the scafold in the air. We would all fall wherever we had to. It was quite natural for professionals.

Ah, those were the days, when all an actor had to protect him from a falling piano was a top hat with some newspaper stuffed into it.

There was much about Les Pouics that makes one think of the comedy troupe of lasting fame, the Keystone Cops, who created chaos not quite so violent but with the same love of mishap and logical absurdity. But in the fate of the two troupes we see summed up the two histories of slapstick comedy in Europe and America. The European (specifically the French and Italian) comedy of the pre-World War One era, with its roots in the circus, music halls and café concert, delighted audiences around the world but always had an air of the Old World about it. It satirised modernity but was simultaneously at a remove from it. It employed trick effects, magic, and fantasy, a cinema of attractions. The American comic models that were to succeed them, as the war destroyed much of the European companies’ traditional business, were slicker, faster, technically far more accomplished, and imbued with an irresistible flavour of the New World.

So there is a lost world charm about the European comedies of Max, Cretinetti, Onésime, Calino, Kri Kri, Bout-de-Zan, Bébé, Rosalie, Robinet, Little Moritz and Rigadin. Much of the happy spirit, the undying charm of early cinema can be found in their spirited productions, churned out professionally week after week. So many now are lost, just as their reputations have faded, but there are more than enough surviving titles lurking in the archives that really deserve to be brought away from the sole attentions of the specialist and taken to a wider audience. We would all gain a better sense of early film history. And we’d laugh our socks off as well.

This mini-series owes much to the researches of others, especially Richard Abel, Aldo Bernardini, Ivo Blom, David Robinson, and the catalogues of the Pordenone Silent Film Festival.

Slapstick, European-style – part 3

Slapstick Blog-a-Thon

The third part of The Bioscope’s contribution to the Slapstick Blog-a-Thon continues to look at the less familiar side of silent film comedy, that which flourished in Europe (especially France and Italy) before the First World War. Today we round up our survey of the star performers of the period by name-checking some of the other comedians of the period, as a reference source, and as encouragement for anyone to find out more – certainly to see them if you can.

Little Moritz aime Rosalie

Little Moritz aime Rosalie (1911), from Richard Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town

Pacifico Aquilanti – Italian comedian who played Coco (1909-?) for the Cines company, as a response to the success of André Deed’s Cretinetti at Itala.

Lucien Bataille – Gaumont comedian, whose Zigoto character (1911-1912) spoofed the popular detective films of the period; then became Casimir for Eclair (1913-1914).

Paul Bertho – French comedian who created two comic personas for Lux: Patouillard (known as Bill in Britain and the USA), and Gavroche (1912-1914).

Roméo Bosetti – early example of a named comedy series performer, he played the character Roméo for Gaumont (1907-1908), for whom he went on to be a prolific comedy director, before being lured away by Pathé.

Ernest Bourbon – French comedian, adept at combining elegance with acrobatics, who starred in the popular Onésime series (1912-1914) for Gaumont, occasionally being partnered with Calino.

Sarah Duhamel – a former child performer of wide girth who enjoyed much success as Rosalie (1911-1912) for Pathé, in which she was often partnered with Little Moritz. She subsequently played as Pétronille for Eclair (1913-1914).

Marcel Fabre – Spanish clown who worked in France for Eclair and Pathé before moving to Italy with the Ambrosio company and creating the Robinet character (1911-1914), in which he was regularly partnered by Nilde Baracchi as Robinette. His character was known as Tweedledum in Britain and the USA.

Tommy Footit – son of a famous nineteenth-century clown, George Footit (English, but found fame in France), who starred as Tommy for Eclair in 1911.

Raymond Frau – French comedian who established the comic character Kri Kri for the Italian company Cines (known as Bloomer in Britain). In 1916 he returned to France and created the Dandy character for Eclair.

Lea Giunchi – Italian comedienne who played comic foil to Tontolini (played by her brother-in-law, Ferdinando Guillaume) and Kri Kri, but also starred in the Lea series (1911-1914) for Cines. Her son, Eraldo Guillaume, was a child comedian for Cines, Cinessino.

Ferdinando Guillaume – Italian comedian from a circus family who appeared as Tontolini (Jenkins in Britain and USA) for Cines 1909-1911, then as Polidor for Pasquali. Directed many of his films. In later life appeared in a number of Fellini films.

Ernst Lubitsch – one of the great directorial talents in cinema history, Lubitsch began his film career as an actor and made comedies in the character of Meyer (1913-1914)

Clément Migé – French comedian who starred in an early Gaumont comic series, as Calino (1909-1913), a series which demonstrated notable comic invention and delight in chaos. For a short period a rival Calino series was produced by Pathé.

Léonce Perret – a performer and then an important director for Gaumont, he made some sophisticated comic films using the character name Léonce (1912-1914). His comic foil partner was often Suzanne Grandais. He moved to the USA as a director in 1917, returning to France in 1921 to continue a successful career than lasted until his death in 1935.

Moritz Schwartz – diminutive German comedian who played Little Moritz for Pathé (1911-1912), a highly popular series in its time. He was partnered romantically with Sarah Duhamel’s Rosalie for a number of films.

Alma Taylor and Chrissie White – English stars of the Hepworth company’s series of Tilly films (1910-1915), playing gleefully anarchic teenagers (Unity More played Tilly in the first film in the series), as well as many other shorts (dramatic and comic) before both went on to continued success as adults in British feature films.

Ernesto Vaser – Italian performer promoted as the Ambrosio company’s answer to Cretinetti, under the name Fricot (1909-1912?).

And there were so many others, including some female comedians whose character role we know (Cunégonde, Léontine) but not the performers’ names, alas. Countries other than France and Italy produced similar comic series, but these two countries dominated the field – nationally and internationally – up to the First World War. A new kind of comedy was already emerging in America, and would dominate the field in the post-war era.

To find out more, the best place is Richard Abel (ed.), Encyclopedia of Early Cinema (2005), from where much of the information above was taken, especially the entry Comic Series written by David Robinson. Robinson also wrote two classic articles for Sight and Sound, ‘The Italian Comedy’ (Spring 1986) and ‘Rise and Fall of the Clowns’ (Summer 1987), which are wonderfully evocative. An excellent source of detailed information on the French comedians, focussing on extant prints, is Richard Abel’s The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (1994).

Online, there’s a good article by film historian Ivo Blom on the Italian comedians, ‘All the Same or Strategies of Difference. Early Italian Comedy in International Perspective’. And this section from the 2002 Pordenone Silent Film Festival catalogue, for a season of ‘Funny Women’, has information on Sarah Duhamel, Lea Giunchi, Alma Taylor, Chrissie White, and Suzanne Grandais.

Maybe a little more tomorrow…