Iceland digitised

Advertisement for The Prodigal Son (Glafaði sonurinn) in the icelandic newspaper Lögberg, 17 January 1924

Here’s a new and interesting challenge for the dedicated silent film researcher with a world view – Icelandic newspapers. is a digital library of the printed cultural heritage as preserved in newspapers and periodicals of the Faroe Islands, Greenland and Iceland. It brings together the collections of the National Library of the Faroe Islands, the National and Public Library of Greenland and the National and University Library of Iceland. It’s an ongoing project, but there are already nearly three-and-a-half million digitised documents on the site.

So what is there on film? Well, this is where the challenge comes in, because Icelandic is not one of the easier texts to navigate, and because I really only know one thing about Iceland and silent film, which is that it was the location for one of the longest, and most tedious, British films ever made, The Prodigal Son (1923), directed by A.E. Coleby, produced by Stoll, starring Stewart Rome and based on a novel by Hall Caine. In its fullest version the film was 18,454 feet in length, running to some four-and-a-half hours of screen time. I am one of the few who has actually sat through what survives of this film – the BFI has a version at a trim 9,118 feet – which it still took two long afternoons to get through. Funereal in pace, grimly histrionic, leadenly directed and singularly inept in its failure to make any creative use of its Icelandic settings, it is near the top of my top ten worst ever screen experiences. But it was made in Iceland, so what can we find about it in the Icelandic press of the time?

And the answer is quite a lot. Typing in “prodigal son” (in quotes) into brings up sixty-nine results, which it helpfully subdivides into decades, so you can instantly see that there are twenty-four hits from 1920-29 (and it then further subdividies these by individual years). You also quickly see that the film’s title in Icelandic was Glataði sonurinn. There are pieces on its production in 1922, its release in 1924, and its reissue (to something around 6,000 feet) in 1929. There are no photographs, but there are advertisements, you are able to gain enough of an idea about its importance and impact.

Varied film offerings advertised in Morgunblaðið, 22 September 1928

The presentation is excellent, with guidelines available in English. The search results given you a link to the title of the individual newspaper page, a line of text in which the search term appears, the date and page reference. Clicking on the link gives you a calendar (enabling you to browse adjacent issues), and a PDF of the full newspaper page with your search term highlighted. Thereafter it does depend on how strong your Icelandic is, but searching on some popular film names gives an indication of exposure and popularity – 547 hits for Chaplin between 1910 and 1929, 200 for Pickford, 272 for Fairbanks, 41 for Max Linder, and so on. Such hits usually lead you to advertisements for cinema programmes, so you can readly pick up an idea of what was being shown and when. Or just type in kvikmynd (film). It is possible to view text only (there’s a Text button on the left-hand column), so you can copy and paste text into Google Translate or whatever and get a rough idea of what’s going on.

There was a small Icelandic film industry in the silent era. The first films (actualities) were made in 1906, the same year that the Reykjavik Cinema Theatre was established. The first locally-produced fiction film was Ævintýri Jóns og Gvendar (The Adventures of Jon and Gvendur) (1923), directed by Loftur Guðmundsson. A feature film, Saga Borgaraettarinnar (Sons of the Soil), was made in Iceland in 1920, but it was a Danish production by Nordisk films (Iceland did not become completely independent of Denmark until 1944). However, there doesn’t seem to have been a whole lot more that was produced for several years thereafter, so Icelandic cinema for our period chiefly means exhibition, for which there is plenty to discover here. All in all, is well worth investigating for the bold and adventurous among you. Go explore.

Wara Wara

Trailer for the restored Wara Wara

Those who bemoan lost silent films, particularly in a national context, might like to consider the situation in Bolivia. Just the one silent fiction film survives of those (admittedly few) made in Bolivia, and that was only discovered in 1989. In that year sixty-three cans of nitrate film were found in a trunk in the basement of a house in La Paz. The films were the work of José Maria Velasco Maidana, all made between 1925 and 1930. Among the reels was Wara Wara, Bolivia’s sole surviving silent feature film.

Wara Wara was released in 1930, and in the form that survives it runs for 69 minutes (at 24 fps). It was directed by Maidana for Urania Film, and starred Juanita Taillansier, Martha de Velasco, Arturo Borda and Emmo Reyes. The film is based on the novel La voz de la quena by Antonio Diaz Villamil, and is set during invasion of the Inca kingdom by the Spanish conquistadors in the 16th century. Here’s the plot summary (adapted courtesy of the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso site and Google Translate):

The peaceful kingdom of Hatun Colla is invaded by an army of Spanish conquistadors who destroy villages and kill its leader Calicuma and his wife Nitaya. In the chaos, the high priest Huillac Huma saves the princess Wara Wara and take her through secret passages into a cave in the mountains. In this hideway he masses an army of natives with the hope of eventually defeating the Spaniards. One day, Captain Tristan de la Vega, the head of a small force of Spaniards, arrives in the vicinity of the hideway. In the ensuing battle Captain Tristan ends up protecting Wara Wara and is wounded. She leads him into the hideaway and tends to his wounds. They fall in love and dream of a life together. But Huillac Huma and the other tribespeople would rather see Wara Wara dead than have her become an ally of the invaders. The couple are left to starve, but they are saved and are ready to begin a new life.

The restoration of the film has taken twenty years. It was originally copied onto acetate film stock in Germany, but reconstructing the film as released was a painstaking process involving considerable investigation of primary sources. A digital restoration was undertaken by the L’immagine Ritrovata in Bologna, Italy in 2009. The restored film was shown at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in July and at the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso in August. It was given its official re-release in Bolivia on 23 September.

Trailer highlighting the restoration work done on Wara Wara

The film’s director José Maria Velasco Maidana (1899?-1989) was a notable composer and conductor as well as filmmaker. He is known in music circles for his ballets and symphonic works, a number of which embrace national/native themes. He was married to the American artist Dorothy Hood. He took up film in 1925 at the very start of Bolivian fiction film production. Films had been shown in Bolivia since 1897, but exhibition was dominated by North American product, and aside from some short actualities in the teens national film production did not begin until 1923, with the first fiction feature, Pedro Sambarino’s Corazón Aymara made in 1925. It was followed later that year by Maidana’s La profecía del lago, which was promptly banned by the local censor because it featured the love between a native man and a white woman. He formed his own production company, Urania, and made Wara Wara (1930) and Hacia la Gloria (1931), as well as various documentary shorts, before returning to music.

To judge from the clips available on the two trailers have have been issued, Wara Wara looks to be fascinating in detail and competent in construction, even if its epic ambitions were probably constrained by cost. There are some strong visual compositions, including a shadow puppet sequence. More than that I cannot say with only a trailer to go on, but certainly what is there whets the appetite for more – let’s hope for a local DVD release, given its great importance to Bolivian cinema.

There’s more information (in Spanish) on the Cinemateca Boliviana site and in the Jornada Brasileira de Cinema Silencioso 2010 catalogue.

A book has been written on the restoration by filmmaker Fernando Vargas Villazon, Wara Wara. La reconstrucción de una película perdida.

Information on silent films in Latin America generally can be found at Thomas Böhnke’s highly recommended Der Stummfilm in Lateinamerika site (in German), which includes a section on silent film in Bolivia (acknowledgements to Böhnke for his Nitrateville post about the film).

A dot so small

Time to return to the art of silent film today, and this truly remarkable short film made by Ed Patterson and Will Studd at Aardman Animation. Entitled Dot, it tells of the struggles of the 9mm high Dot in her microscopic world. The remarkableness comes in that 9mm. The film was shot using a Nokia N8 12 megapixel camera with Carl Zeiss lens and a microscopic attachment entitled the CellScope, invented by Professor Daniel Fletcher, which is usually used for medical analysis.

The film set was no more than a metre and a half long, and the objects were all painted under a microscope animated using tweezers. Dot herself was converted from drawings to a series of 3D object by use of Rapid Prototyping 3D printing technology that uses a computer-generated model of an object or character and then prints it in full 3D using a plastic resin material.

The film which has been widely acclaimed for its smallest and its ingenuity, but should receive additional praise here for its wordless, impeccably visual storytelling.

And here’s how it was done:

The running man

It is perhaps the most iconic of all photographic images. Eadweard Muybridge‘s running man (he made several photographic sequences of a man running, but I’m thinking of the one illustrated here) conjures up the very idea of photography. It has captured the instant, has brought a moment out of its specific time into all time. We can hear the click of the shutter. It is one of a sequence of twelve, any one of which can seen as representative, as all document the same action, but the point where both legs leave the air is the most quintessentially photographic. It is the image for which photography was made.

It is the point where the nineteenth century turns into the modern age. It doesn’t just offer a view of the past – it makes the past coterminous with us. He started running in 1887 and he is running still in 2010. The plain background accentuates the timelessness, leaving us nothing to contemplate save bare, unaccommodated man. It sums up who we are: hurtling forward from who knows where to who knows where, yet never really going anywhere. It simultaneously celebrates and laughs at progress.

The image has classical resonances. There is an echo of Ancient Greek statuary and the Olympic ideal, but the stronger echo is with Leonardo dan Vinci’s ‘Vitruvian Man‘ or the ‘Proportions of Man’, the idealised, perfectly proportioned figure inscribed within a circle and a square. Muybridge’s man, similarly ideally proportioned, is inscribed within a square. And Da Vinci’s image has an intimation of motion about it – the figure’s body is static but there are two sets of arms and two sets of legs, indicating that idealised man can only be revealed in movement. I run therefore I am.

The image is about time itself. Just as in times past a skull might be used as a memento mori, a means for the observer to contemplate the death that must come to us all, the running man obliges us to contemplate the ceaseless flow of time. The image seeks to defeat time by capturing the moment – the science of sequence photography that Muybridge inspired was called chronophotography, which means ‘picturing time’. A photograph does not capture time in any actual sense; it is a chemical (or now digital) illusion. But it does capture the idea of time, a thing for contemplation.

The image also represents the historical moment between the still image and the motion picture. Muybridge was interested in dissecting motion by capturing that which could not be detected by the naked eye, namely the individual elements of motion. He was not trying to create motion pictures (though he did experiment with these as a sideline). Motion pictures do not reveal the invisible as such; they replicate visible reality. But Muybridge’s vision and technical accomplishment led the way to motion pictures as others built on the logic of what he had established. It is right that he is the usual starting point for histories of film.

The running man is also telling us a story. One of the most engrossing elements of the Muybridge exhibition currently on show at Tate Britain is how it leads us to imagine Muybridge playing out the psychodrama in his head following his acquittal for the murder of his wife’s lover (and she died soon after). Much has been made of the women in his sequence photographs, shown as they are in submissive, playful, dancing, teasing, eroticised or domestic roles. The men, however, are all going somewhere, doing physical, masculine things – lifting, wrestling, throwing, marching, chopping, running. Muybridge himself appears (naked) in some sequences, and just as we can see all of the women in the photographs as Flora Muybridge, so all the men are Eadweard Muybridge, emblematised as the man running for the sake of running, wanting to be doing something that it is good for man to be seen doing, without really knowing why.

Then there is athletics itself. This is not just an image of a man out of time. It is a photograph, or a set of photographs, of an athlete. Competitive sports became hugely important in the late nineteenth century, and in 1878 Muybridge photographed members of the San Francisco Olympic Club. In 1884 he started work at the University of Pennsylvania, producing hundreds of photographic sequences, many of them showing athletes from the university. American universities were hotbeds of the new enthusiasm for sports, and sport was becoming an important expression of what it meant to be a (male) American. The running man is someone who ran with a purpose, who knew what it meant to run.

The sequence photographs of the running man did not come out of nowhere. Produced as part of Muybridge’s Animal Locomotion series (1887), they came as the culmination of an exceptional career in photography. As the exhibition makes clear, Muybridge was a photographer of considerable accomplishments long before he started photographing galloping horses and running men. His work ranged from stereoscopes (3D images) to extraordinary panoramas. He was a photographer of landscapes and cityscapes, always able to capture something beyond the mere replication of a reality. Even before he began his motion studies in the late 1870s he was revealing something of the mystery of time and motion in his work. The necessarily long exposures that came with wet plate photography meant that the apparent instant is really a record of the passage of seconds. The passing of time is reflected in the stillness.

The running man as an instantly recognisable symbol of what it is to be human is a part of modern culture. The man running ever forwards yet getting nowhere has been used in pop videos such as Talking Heads’ Road to Nowhere and U2’s Lemon. Videos inspired by Muybridge’s work, often inspired by the figure running endlessly against a black background with white lines, can be found all over such sites as YouTube and Vimeo, as modern artists demonstrate a compulsion to revisit his vision. Muybridge sequences have been used on posters, book covers, murals, television trailers and T-shirts. The running man even runs endlessly across twelve frames on the lenticular ruler I bought at the exhibition.

And then there is the science. For all that we can philosophise about time, or see the image(s) as depicting a crisis in the idea of masculinity, or see them for the inspiration they gave to artists such as Duchamp, Bacon and Twombly (and Muybridge wanted to inspire artists), the running man and all the other Animal Locomotion sequences were commissioned by a body of scientists. The University of Pennsylvania paid him $40,000 to undertake work of a scientific character, and the committee than oversaw his work included an anatomist, a neurologist and a physiologist. The running man was there to be studied. He was demonstrating the processes of human motion, revealing action and musculature as it had not been possible to show before. The white grid on the black background is there for scientific reasons: to gain the measure of a man.

The running man is not a complete work in itself. It/he is part of Plate 62 of Animal Locomotion; one of twelve images taken in succession (plus another twelve images giving a side-on view of the same action). It is one twelfth of a work that one cannot ever pin down. Looking at the twelve images in sequence does not really tell us what the work signifies; looking at one of the images does not give us the full work; looking at the sequence animated falsifies what Muybridge tried to achieve. And the man did not run forever, as the animations suggest. He ran from one end of the track to another. Then he stopped. Muybridge’s work is endlessly mysterious to contemplate.

The Muybridge exhibition at the Tate is a marvellous experience, and you should go if you can. It covers every aspect of his remarkable career, clearly explained and illuminatingly displayed. There are his haunting images of the Yosemite, the breathtaking panoramas of San Francisco, hypnotically beautiful cyanotypes (the blue-toned contact proofs from which published collotypes were made), and a Zoopraxiscope projector with which he exhibited proto-animation ‘films’ on disc based on his photographic sequences. A little more context, in the form of the works of his peers and those he has influenced, would have been welcome, but of his work there can be no complaint. OK, perhaps just one. In the exhibition there is no Plate 62. There is Plate 63, in which the same athlete runs a little faster, and not quite as iconically (he leans forward too much). The quintessential Muybridgean image isn’t there.

AFI Catalog Silent Film database

We are still ploughing our way through online catalogues and databases for silent film. Next up is the AFI Catalog Silent Film database. The American Film Institute Catalog of Feature Films is a series of catalogues that document the American film. The project began in the late 1960s, with the printed volumes covering decades (with a couple of exceptions), starting with 1921-1930, published in 1971. Subsequently the AFI issued volumes for 1961-1970 (in 1976), 1911-1920 (1988), 1931-1940 (1993), 1893-1910 (1995), 1941-1950 (1997) and Within Our Gates: Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 (1997). Publication of further printed volumes has now stopped (it was just too expensive), and all subsequent records (for the 1950s and some of the 1970s, with a few star titles from the 2000s) have been added to the online version of the catalogue.

The Catalog is a stupendous achievement, one where the AFI’s team got better as they went along, so the volumes for the 1930s and 40s are extraordinarily rich in the detail they provide. The earlier volumes were less thorough in their cataloguing, and the 1960s volume is unusual in that it includes all films released in the USA as opposed to produced in the USA, on account of the large number of co-productions. In 1997 the online edition was published, with the inestimable advantage of bringing all of the titles (some 50,000 of them) into one place. The full database is normally accessible to AFI members only or through the paid service ProQuest, but currently the entire catalogue is open to all. Use it while you can. However, from the outset the AFI decided to make a portion of the database freely available, namely the 25,000 films originally covered by the three volumes for the silent period 1893-1930, and will presumably continue to do so. And’s that’s what we’ll cover here.

The information is uneven because the original volumes are uneven. The 1921-1930 volume, first in the series, covers feature films only – that is, films of four reels or 4,000 feet in length or 40 minutes long (to use the AFI’s own definition). The 1893-1910 volume covers the pre-feature film era and includes every kind of film, fiction and non-fiction. The 1911-1920 volume follows the 1920s volume in concentrating on feature films, so there are no short films despite their high level of production at this time. For example, if you search under ‘Charlie Chaplin’ for the teens you will only get Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Carmen and the compilation films in which he appeared (the absence of Shoulder Arms is a puzzle, however).

Theere is a simple search option (which nevertheless lets you filter requests by title, personal name, character name, genre, summary and others) and a thorough advanced search option. The records give cast, role, credits, release date, duration in feet and reels, physical properties, genre terms and subject terms – all of which are hyperlinked for cross-searching with other records, so you can discover, for instance, how many 7-reel films were produced (3,409), how many films starred Richard Barthelmess (57), how many films featured dogs (457), and how many horror films were made (just 10 for the silent period). There is a plot summary, notes, bibiliographical sources, and information on availability on DVD and VHS (possibly not completely up-to-date, especially since Laserdisc availability is also given). When you first come to a record, do note that you only get partial details at first, and you need to click on Display Movie Detail to see the full details.

The 1893-1910 records do not offer so much detail, taken as they are from copyright records for the most part, often with little more information available than title, production company and date. Some records from this period are fuller, but they seldom have cast details, and plot summaries are rare. It should also be noted that access for some titles from the 1893-1910 period is restricted to AFI members if you use the silent film database, but are available if you search through the unified catalogue, which as we’ve said is currently open to all – but won’t stay that way.

Also to be noted is that films for African-American audiences which were not always covered in great detail in the 1920s volume are given in greater detail here, benefitting from the boom in research in the area in recent years and the publication of the Ethnicity in American Feature Films, 1911-1960 volume of the AFI Catalog, whose relevant records have been added to the silent film database. Finally, do note that not only are short films missing from 1911 onwards, but that the AFI has not included newsreels or magazine series. They are promised for one day, but as always they have been left til last.

And so as we move well into the seventh week of Catalogue Month, the AFI Catalog has been added to the growing list of resources included in the Catalogues and Databases section of the Bioscope Library. Though it is highly pleasurable to handle the printed volumes themselves, which are handsome, weighty productions, nothing can beat the convenience or cross-linking of the online version. The AFI Catalog does aim to be definitive, though some titles are known to be missing, and there are inevitable small errors in credits and descriptions. Also, and disappointingly, the notorious fake record that the AFI included in the teens volume, for a feature film of bizarre plot and ludicrously named actors, entitled Marooned Souls, is not given on the online version. The intention was supposedly to catch out those who might copy out its records wholesale, but beyond wanting to catching out plagiarists I think they just did it for fun.

Chaplin returns to Waterville

A new comedy film festival has been announced, named after Charlie Chaplin. The Charlie Chaplin Comedy Film Festival is intended to be an annual event held in Waterville, Kerry, Ireland. The first such festival will be 25-29 August 2011. Waterville was a favourite holiday location for the Chaplins, and a statue of Chaplin stands there (one of a number of statues of Chaplin around the world, as documented in an earlier post).

There isn’t much in the way of details about the contents of the festival as yet, but it will feature new films and be competitive (with the awards to be known as ‘charlies’), while its patron is Chaplin’s daughter Josephine. However, one does worry a little about a festival which has trouble spelling Chaplin’s name – until it was changed in the past day or two, the website’s banner was proudly announcing the Charlie Chaplain Comedy Film Festival. Ouch.

Image from Wikimedia Commons

Sound Workshop

Adding a soundtrack to Les Kiriki – Acrobates japonais (1907) with Sound Workshop

Now this is fun. Europa Film Treasures, the online collection of film titles from archives across Europe created by Lobster Film Productions has introduced a new online tool, Sound Workshop, with which you can produce your own soundtrack for one of their silent films.

The site (developed in partnership with Court-Circuit, an Arte programme dedicated to short films) is a free service that offers you clips from seven films on the Europa Film Treasures site. You can then select from a wide range of sounds (under four categories: cartoon, sound effects machine, natural or science fiction), music (three ragtime tracks only) or sounds that you have uploaded yourself (if you have registered with the site). Sounds available include birds singing, car horns, percussion instruments, water running, whizzes and whooshes, fire alarms, telephones, doors opening, boings and crashes. Having made your selection, you are presented with a sound mixing page (see above) where you can drag and drop your sounds onto three tracks. Anyone can select the sounds and play back the finished video, but only registered users can save the results and have it made available on the site’s gallery.

The Bioscope had a go with a short sequence from Les Kiriki – Acrobates japonais (1907), a marvellous trick film with gorgeous stencil colour by Segundo de Chomón featuring a troupe of acrobats achieving impossible feats. My efforts aren’t going to put any silent film musician out of a job, but you’ll get the idea (it’s listed under Urbanora), or test out the interesting range of efforts from other users available on the gallery and add comments if you feel so inclined.

Should you want to have a go yourself, do note that the films take a little while to load before you can start playing with them. You can test the sounds beforehand by clicking (and holding down the click) on the arrows for each sound option, and having played back the results you can re-edit before recording. When you have made a recording it doesn’t appear automatically on the site – it took some hours for my video to be published, probably because I created it late in the evening. It appears that the work is done by real humans (‘your results will be put online by our team soon’ it says when you have clicked ‘record’), which seems bizarrely laborious in this day and age. Also I submitted more than one video, but only one made it to the gallery. It all feels a little bit uncertain.

Sound Workshop is a bright idea, if a little creaky in execution. Nevertheless, praise is due once again to the consistently imaginative folk at Lobster for coming up with a new way to engage audiences with silent films and to demonstrate just what new opportunities exist for such content once it exists in digital form and online.

Popular Science

Popular Science looks forward to the talkies in October 1922

Another day, another digitised journal. This time it is Popular Science, the American science and technology journal which has been reporting on scientific developments for a general audience since 1872 (when it was Popular Science Monthly). The journal went online in 1999 and has now gone a step further by putting its entire 138-year archive online as well, and all freely available.

It is a simple resource to use – just a search box (there is no advanced search though advanced features for searching and browsing are promised for the future), and then the list of results. This gives the date of the monthly issue and the page on which the search term can be found (which will be highlighted in yellow on the page itself). Clicking on the link takes you to the specific page, and if you want to browse the issue further you simply have to scroll up or down. The instructions promise a magnifying glass controls to zoom in and out on the page, but this seems only to be available on the Google Books version, where there entire run of the journal can also be found. There is no option for copying text or downloading the documents.

So, using our regular test search term, ‘kinetoscope’ what do we get? There are ten hits, the earliest a passing mention among a list of Edison inventions in January 1895, then a proper description in May 1896, a detailed article and well-illustrated on the new science of motion pictures in general from December 1897, then mentions in March 1905, October 1913, and retrospective mentions in later issues. Other keywords that yield useful results include ‘cinematograph’, ‘kinematograph’, ‘movie’, and ‘motion picture’. There are articles on film production, motion picture technology (cameras, projectors, lighting, sound technology as in the article illustrated above) and experiments using film. There are also several articles on pre-cinema technologies and the work of chronophotographers such as Eadweard Muybridge and E.J. Marey.

The articles are usually illustrated, and in keeping with the journal’s mission the explanations are clear and useful. The older articles (pre-1914) tend to be longer and more scholarly in tone; the later pieces are shorter and more populist in nature. It’s a fine resource, easy to use, and of value both for the intrinsic information offered and for insights into how the new science of motion picture film was viewed and explained to a particular, educated audience. Go explore.

Blogging the silents

Coming attraction slide for Peaks of Destiny (Der Heilige Berg or The Holy Mountain, Germany 1926), from Starts Thursday!

I was doing a bit of tidying up of the links on the right-hand column, and when I came to the blogs I noticed that a number of those listed there haven’t been updated for a while. It’s a bit of a slog keeping up-to-date with a blog (believe me), but blogs can go through fallow periods and then revive, so I won’t be removing any for the links just yet.

But what I have also noticed is a number of new blogs on silent films have been turning up. And so here’s a round-up of the best of silent film blogs old (but still active) and new that you are warmly encouraged to follow.

  • Cartoons on Film
    Tom Stathes’ blog is dedicated to ‘musings, studying, and collecting of early animated film’, though it is not updated as often as it used to be.
  • Cinegraphica
    An authoritative and well-illustrated blog on early cinema technology, written in Dutch but with English translations.
  • Cine Silente Mexicano
    A scholarly blog (in Spanish) on silent cinema in Mexico, written by Luis Recillas Enecoiz.
  • The Dorothy Gish Project
    Recently-launched blog by Donna Hill on the other Gish sister, which will document the writing of a new biography.
  • Edna’s Place
    Linda Wada’s entertaining blog on Edna Purviance also covers Chaplin subjects and silent cinema in general and is consistently informative.
  • Emma Heslewood’s Blog
    Heslewood is Keeper of History at the Harris Museum & Art Gallery, Preston, and her blog documents research into local filmmaker and film businessman Will Onda.
  • The Faux Charlot
    A fascinating photo blog on those around the world who have dressed up Charlie Chaplin’s ‘tramp’ character.
  • Ferdinand Von Galitzien
    Quite unique. Reviews of silents films (some familiar, some fabuously obscure) undertaken by a ‘German count’, written with insight and exquisite comic style.
  • Fisherscircle
    Media historian David Fisher blogs on early film and related media. A shame that he cannot post more often.
  • Louise Brooks Society
    Thomas Gladysz’s discursive, exhaustive blog on Louise Brooks, her films and her times.
  • Mack Sennett
    Billed as ‘A Celebration of the King of Comedy and his Studio, Films and Comedians’, knowledgeably written by Brent E. Walker, author of Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory.
  • Muy Blog
    Stephen Herbert’s admirable blog on photographer and founding father of motion pictures Eadweard Muybridge is both reportage and research in action, as new discoveries mingle with alerts to new events, publications, online resources and much more.
  • Observations on film art
    David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson’s blog on film art and film style is in a different league to the rest of us and is helping to rewrite how film studies can be done. Its frequent investigations into silent film subjects (often in the context of later film style) are essential reading.
  • Recanto Silente
    Good-looking general blog on silent cinema, written by David Holm, in Galician.
  • Ritrovati Restaurati Invisibli
    One of a number of authoritative blogs and websites on Italian silent cinema (all in Italian) maintained by the prodigious Teresa Antolin.
  • Silent Film Festival Blog
    The San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s blog covers silent film news in general as well as the festival and it has become an essential information source in just a short period.
  • Silent Film Music
    Silent film musician Ben Model’s entertaining blog including video blogging with reports on the festivals at which he plays.
  • Silent film music and other sounding off
    If only silent film musician Donald Sosin were able to sound off a little more often.
  • The Silent Movie Blog
    Christopher Snowden’s witty, mischievous blog draws on an extensive personal archive of stills and film journals to relate an alternative history of American silent film.
  • Silent Volume
    Engaging personal reviews of silent films by Chris Edwards.
  • Starts Thursday!
    This is a joy. Rob Byrne’s subject, the glass lantern slides that promoted coming attractions in cinemas from the silent era well into the sound era, takes a seemingly narrow subject and produces riches. Beautifully illustrated and unobtrusively knowledgeable.
  • Stummfilm-blog
    A bit quiet at the moment, but previously a very useful information source on silent film in German (the site is in German) and elsewhere.

There are many more silent film blogs, or part-silent, part-talkie blogs, than these, but these are mostly all being kept up-to-date, and they each stand out for their individual style and effective use of the blog form. If you have favourites of your own that should be added to the list, please say.

Frankenstein versus Dracula

Sometimes circumstances throw up the perfect title for a blog post, and you just have to run with it. And what if circumstances were then to put a cherry on it by bringing together two of the Bioscope’s favourite musicians in an unexpected coming together of jazz, outré electric guitar and silent film? Well, that’s what we’ve got with the news that trumpeter Dave Douglas and guitarist Gary Lucas will be appearing not alongside one another but in competition at this year’s London Jazz Festival, as they present their respective musical takes on the Frankenstein and Dracula stories. The event is billed as Frankenstein V Dracula: Gary Lucas plays Dracula > Dave Douglas & Keystone re-imagines Frankenstein, and it takes place at the Queen Elizabeth Hall at the South Bank Centre, London, on 21 November 2010.

Dave Douglas (left) and Gary Lucas, from

Dave Douglas‘s adventures in silent film have been documented by the Bioscope on several occasions. One of the many outlets for his musical energies is the group Keystone, which as its name might suggest takes its inspiration from American silent comedy, though the music tends more towards ‘inspired by’ rather than serving as conventional accompaniments to the films of Arbuckle and Keaton that have formed the basis of Keystone forays so far. Douglas’ experimental leanings and use of turntables might not be everyone’s idea of silent film (or jazz, for that matter), but all I can say is that you just have to witness it live when it all makes sense.

Keystone embraces silents overall rather that just the Mack Sennett studio, and Douglas’ latest Keystone project ventures into modern silents, while coinciding with the centenary of notable silent horror film. Spark of Being is a re-imagining of the Frankenstein story that he has devised with experimental filmmaker Bill Morrison (he of the acclaimed Decasia, a haunting art film made out of decaying nitrate clips of silent films). Their project appears in the centenary year of the 1910 Edison Frankenstein film, and they initially considered calling their work Frankenstein: The First 100 Years. The Edison film is a legend in film collecting circles after the one surviving copy was jealously guarded by the late Alois Dettlaff for many years. When Dettlaff finally made the film available to all there was astonishment at how accomplished, indeed horrific it was – a tour de force of the imagination. Charles Ogle plays the monster, the director was J. Searle Dawley, and you can view it on the Internet Archive (ripped from a DVD, so we won’t be embedding it, but it’s there so you are going to find it anyway).

Trailer for the Spark of Being project

Spark of Being started out as an event at Stanford University in April this year. Morrison worked with new, archival, and ‘distressed’ footage, while Douglas and his band supplied the score. The music has now been issued as a single and boxed set CD, and there is the live show with music and film featuring at the London Jazz Festival (and across Europe throughout November).

Gary Lucas is a rock guitarist with avant garde leanings (he started out playing with Captain Beefheart). He has accompanied silent films on several occasions, most notably for The Golem, which he has taken around the world. Other silents given the Lucas treatment (which veers between ambient sounds and dazzling pyrotechnics) are The Unholy Three, J’Accuse and his Sounds of the Surreal set (three films by Clair, Leger and Starewicz). For the London Jazz Festvial his choice isn’t a silent, but it is virtually so. It is the celebrated Spanish version of Tod Browning’s 1931 Dracula, which was discovered in Cuba in the 1980s. Made at night at the same time, on the same set and with the same script as the Bela Lugosi version, the film was directed by George Melford and stars Carlos Villarias as Dracula and Lupita Tovar as Eva.

Gary Lucas accompanies the Spanish-language Dracula (1931) at the Havana Film Festival, 11 December 2009

Though the film has Spanish dialogue, there are long stretches where it is effectively silent, giving Lucas ample space in which to introduce his score, which he has been touring since 2009. The London event will feature Lucas and Dracula first (18:00-19:45), then Douglas and Spark of Being (20:05-21:30). The event is being produced in association with BBC3, so presumably we can look forward to some form of television broadcast as well. At any rate, a gobsmacked Bioscope will be there.

There is more information on both projects at the Dave Douglas and Gary Lucas websites.