The colonial gaze

Baghdad (1928), made by British Instructional Films, from http://colonialfilm.org.uk

Colonial Film: Moving Images of the British Empire is a newly-published website supplying information on films about the British colonies. How quaint that sounds. But for a large part of the twentieth-century (and therefore for a large part of the time that there have been motion picture films) the British Empire and its aftermath was assiduously documented on film, dramatised on film, and film traffic between the colonies was much debated and legislated over.

The result is a substantial archive of film about the Empire that is no more which has become a rich source for socio-politcal historians as well as film historians with an interest beyond the familiar. It was to serve such an audience that the Colonial Film project was established, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and organised by Birkbeck College and University College London in partnership with three film archives: the BFI National Archive, the Imperial War Museum, and the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.

The chief result of this three-year project is the website, at the heart of which is a database of some 6,000 colonial films, taken from the records of the three archives. A lot of these records are available elsewhere i.e. on the databases of the BFI and the IWM, but there is obviously some convenience in bringing them together under this particular subject. The project researchers have added a great deal of background information for some the films, beyond the shotlists that the archives previously produced (some of them typed by these very fingers, a number of moons ago), including ‘context’ and ‘analysis’ sections, which put the films in a modern perspective. The project has also digitised and made available online some 150 titles.

The Stoll Film Company’s Nionga (1925)

The films catalogued range in date from Arrivée d’un train à Melbourne (1896) to RAF Gibraltar Flight Safety Commercials (2005). Our interest, as always, is in the silent film material, and of those 6,000 around 750 are from the silent era, and 32 are available to view online. The films described included actualities, newsreels, drama-documentaries, travelogues, industrial films and fiction films, all evidence of the abiding interest the Empire had for British filmmakers and (to a degree) British audiences.

What I want to highlight here are the films that are available to view, because they are fine collection in themselves. The site comes with some impressive searching tools, including an interactive map of the world for searching by country, and searching by theme (“Empire and Administration, Empire and Development, Empire and Education, Empire and Health, Empire and Independence …”), production company, genre and event. The advanced search option lets you select by date range and narrow searches down to films you can view, so select 1896-1929 and tick the box that says “show only works with videos” and there you are.

Among the treasures to view are three silent feature films, examples of the remarkable (and curiously British) mini-genre of dramas set in far-flung lands (usually Africa) featuring native performers. There is Palaver: A Romance of Northern Nigeria (1928), made by Geoffrey Barkas for British Instructional Films (“Filmed amongst the Sura and Angas people of the Bauchi Plateau in Northern Nigeria, where the rivalry between a British District Officer and a tin miner leads to war”); the Stoll Film Company’s Nionga (1925) (“Nionga, a chieftain’s daughter, is induced by a vindictive witch-doctor to persuade her betrothed lover, Kasari, to plot the destruction of a neighbouring tribe”), for which the filmmaker is not known; and Stampede (1930), made by the adventurers Majour Court Treatt and his wife Stella, filmed in the Sudan (“The film tells the story of Boru, adopted into the ‘Habbania’ tribe after his mother is killed by a lion, who grows up with the Sheikh’s son, Nikitu”).

One watches these curious mixtures of travelogue, ethnography and melodrama with both fascination and bemusement, the latter because to is hard to see how they were ever viewed as commercial propositions. The films attempt to be liberating in how they tell stories of African life with African performers, but the colonialist attitude is revealed in patronising titles, the portrayal of Africans as impressionable and child-like, and the choice presented of good (because paternalist) and bad (because they lead Africans astray) whites in Palaver. Nionga has an all-African cast and so offers the opportunity for a fresh point of view, but titles promising a drama of “a crude life of simple people” and “a glimpse into the minds of Savages” demonstrate that the film is constructed entirely from a Western White point of view. Stampede (which has a music track and commentary) was made by travel filmmakers who added a fictionalised element because it was the only way for them to produce a commercial film. In the end one watches these films not for the dramas imposed upon the performers but for the incidental details of African life that the dramas cannot entirely obscure.

Montego Bay to Williamsfield, Jamaica (1913)

There are other short fiction films: the resoundingly gung-ho How a British Bulldog Saved the Union Jack (1906) and Edison’s drama of the Indian ‘Mutiny’, The Relief of Lucknow (1912). Among the non-fiction films and such gems as the Charles Urban Trading COmpany’s A Trip through British North Borneo (1907); British Instructional Film’s engrossing West Africa Calling (1927); another BIF travelogue of particular interest today, Baghdad (1928); Gaumont’s spectacular record of the 1911 Delhi Durbar ceremonies marking the coronation of King George V; and another Charles Urban production, the Kineto company’s Montego Bay to Williamsfield, Jamaica (1913), a subject apparently filmed in both Kinemacolor and monochrome (alas, only the monochrome survives).

This is an impressive resource, though some are going to find it frustrating to be faced with so many catalogue descriptions that aren’t accompanied by the films themselves. Other might find the contextualisation are little heavy on the political correctness, anxious that we should only interpret these films in the correct way. Ultimately most are not going to be interested in the lessons – either those imparted by the original colonialist filmmakers, or those deduced by modern commentators from a post-colonial point of view. It’s what we are allowed to see of the people, the landscapes, the industries, the townscapes that lingers in the mind. The camera came to observe and report back, but what endures are the individuality and dignity of its subjects and the difference of their cultural milieu. The camera ultimately serves them.

Go explore.

Carl Davis and The Gold Rush

Here’s news of a special screening of Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush on 3 January 2011 at the Royal Festival Hall in London, with Carl Davis conducting the Philharmonia Orchestra in his reconstruction of Chaplin’s own score:

The Philharmonia Orchestra, conducted by Carl Davis, plays a live accompaniment to Charlie Chaplin’s silent film The Gold Rush in this special performance at The Royal Festival Hall on 3 January 2011, as part of the Southbank Centre’s Christmas season.

Featuring Chaplin in his quintessential Little Tramp role, the film was described by The New York Times upon its 1925 release as ‘a comedy with streaks of poetry, pathos, tenderness, linked with brusqueness and boisterousness … the outstanding gem of all Chaplin’s pictures’. The Gold Rush is one of Chaplin’s most perfectly accomplished films. Though he was often changeable in his affections for his own work, he would often declare that of all his films, this was the one by which he would most wish to be remembered.

Chaplin reconstructed the film in 1942 upon the advent of sound to the cinema, removing scenes (most famously eliminating a kiss with the leading lady at the end so as not to upset his wife!) and recording a musical score, which was nominated for Academy Awards.

This concert revisits the original 1925 comic masterpiece, with a score reconstructed and conducted by Carl Davis, who accessed archives of Chaplin’s meticulous notes and found sketches of music for the removed scenes.
It is ten years since The Gold Rush was last performed in London, also at the Royal Festival Hall.

Carl Davis (CBE) was born in New York in 1936 and came to the UK in 1960. Davis is a true music-maker and all-round musician, as both conductor and composer. He has changed the face of concerts as we know them, making classical music both accessible and varied and is a consummate showman and a first rate entertainer. His career has spanned many genres, from silent film performances to his incredible popular themed concerts such as ”An Evening with James Bond” and “Oscar Winners”. He is perhaps most well known for his music for television including the series The World At War, BBC’s Pride & Prejudice and Cranford, ITV’s Goodnight Mr. Tom, and the award winning film, The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

Davis has also been the driving force behind reinventing the silent movie for a new generation. Following his work on Thames Television’s 1980 “Hollywood – A Celebration of the Silent Film” series, he created the classic and much-lauded five hour symphonic score for Abel Gance’s 1927 silent epic “Napoleon”. Since then, he has written or reconstructed scores for some of the most famous pre-talkies such as “The Phantom of the Opera” and “The Iron Mask”, as well as many of Chaplin’s most famous movies such as “The Kid”, “Modern Times” and “The Rink” which have been performed all over the world.

Monday 3 January 2011, Royal Festival Hall, 7pm
Carl Davis, conductor
Philharmonia Orchestra
Charlie Chaplin The Gold Rush
Tickets: £20–£45
Ticket Office: 0871 663 2500
Online booking: www.southbankcentre.co.uk

More information and booking details (including some pricey tickets folks, but heck, it’s near Christmas) on the South Bank Centre site.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven

Donald Sosin rehearsing before a screening at the Giornate del Cinema Muto, Pordenone

We’ve reached the penultimate report of the 2010 Giornate del Cinema Muto, and while I was strolling about the streets and blustery sea-front of Trieste, our anonymous reporter, known only as The Mysterious X, was on the spot at Pordenone to provide this account of the goings-on of Friday 8 October:


A quick scurry from the hotel, via the cafe for a quick espresso doppio, and to grab a bottle of mineral water for the cinema; for starting at 9.00am, we had the latest instalment from the Shochiko strand of the Giornate, Wakamono Yo Naze Naku Ka (Japan 1930) (Why Do You Cry Youngsters?).

By this stage of the Giornate we had discerned that Shochiku specialised in contemporary dramas of 30’s Japanese life, and particularly the culture clashes generated by modern western influences, seemingly largely from Hollywood, with the more traditional Japanese moral codes. And with a pacing that could be described as languid … and this film was no exception to the established trend. But intriguingly, the clash here, although along generational lines within a family, does not happen in quite the expected way. We meet the family – widowed father, son and daughter, happy and traditional in
outlook; until the father decides to remarry … his new, somewhat younger bride is a Modern Girl, with Modern Outlook and Modern Interests … a panning shot of the spines of the books she has brought to the house reveal titles of works of sexual psychology, shocking to the late teenaged children … Freudian, indeed. After episodes of increasing friction, the children flee the nest and set up house in a poorer neighbourhood, next to a family whose father is in the process of selling his pretty daughter into the sex trade.

All beautifully staged, and shot (although the picture quality is occasionally marred by print damage; not nitrate decomp I don’t think, but many of the Japanese films this week displayed the same type of damage, the effect it has is of watching a film through a sooty snowstorm) but the themes were becoming familiar; in a way these films were becoming as interesting in the anthropological sense, as we learned through the week how the dress codes worked, the significance of whether a suit or kimono was being worn to work, whether the suited man would change into kimono at home or not, which clothing denoted which level of the strict hierarchy in the Japanese sex trade, from Geisha, to dance hostess, to club
girl, to streetwalker … because representatives from the industry appeared in nearly all the films we saw. Not mentioning the curious – to western eyes of 2010 – 1930’s Japanese ideas of private and public morality. What constituted a happy or just ending in a Shochiku film seldom matched our modern Hollywood sensibilities. But, hey, we come here to learn … and the length and pacing of these films encourages the audience to think as we watch.

Mie Yamashita, who had played exceptionally beautifully to the Japanese films all week, had returned home by this point, so bravely stepping into the pit for this 3¼ hour marathon was our very own Stephen Horne, flute at hand, performing beautifully as ever, his style (and his partial use of the flute) certainly suiting Japanese silents.

Out into the noonday sun; as interested as I am in early cinema, I didn’t fancy half an hour of medical films, recording injuries, conditions and experiments in treatment, just before lunch [shame – Ed.]…

It’s been a bit of a challenge finding illustrations for this post, so I’ve given up looking for film stills and here’s a modern-day photograph of a harsh Caucasian landscape instead …

But back straight after, for Giuli (USSR/Georgia 1927) a Georgian rural drama directed by Lev Push and Nikolai Shengelaya, and set in the wild rocky Caucasus, where semi-nomadic clans survive by sheep-herding, and live with their own strict codes of behaviour, and feuds simmer deeply. Giuli is the daughter of an elderly shepherd, who promises her in marriage to the local (and equally elderly) clan chief … whereas she is in love with a more lowly, but virile, handsome etc. shepherd.

If the plot is hackneyed, and pretty much interchangeable with films about any society and at most times, this film was unmissable due to the spectacular cinematography of director-to-be Kalatazov, the use of the harsh Caucasian landscape, and the equally rocky and craggy
faces of the cast; the elderly males crevassed with wrinkles, the younger men with the most incredible aquiline profiles, spectacular moustaches and jutting chins, but with the humanity of the central performances giving heart to the film. All told a welcome antidote to the propagandistic films of the Soviet era, which personally leave me quite cold.

One of the highlights of the last few Giornates has been the series of films, discovered in Tasmania and preserved by the Australian national film archive, representing the repertoire of the Edwardian-era Corrick family’s touring cinema show, a mixture of self-made films, and those imported from Europe and the US. This latest batch – and we are promised that there is more to come – were every bit as interesting as those shown in previous years.

The programme started with the state funeral of New Zealand Premier Richard Seddon, the man who managed to keep New Zealand politically independent from Australia, and a huge figure in New Zealand’s politics. Shot by a local cameraman in the style of state funeral films everywhere, this also gave a tantalising glimpse of Edwardian Wellington as the cortege passes. Next up was what appeared to be a film recording a vaudeville stage act; Bicyclette Presentee En Liberte (1906) featured, in a proscenium setting, two gentlemen – twins, possibly – and their performing bicycle; that is, the bicycle performed while the men watched, one assumes by wires, but if so, very well hidden. There followed a short moral tale, The Waif and The Statue (UK 1907) directed by Walter Booth; a homeless starving girl is rejected at a church door; she shelters from the snow under a statue of Hope – which magically comes to life and finds her a benefactor to give her a safe home. Similar in style to some Edison films I’ve seen, the special effects are very well handled, and nicely played in a tableau-like manner … I wouldn’t be at all surprised to find that this started life as a lantern-slide series. Back to France, and Chasse De Sanglier (Wild Boar Hunt) (France 1904) a seemingly heavily staged representation of hunting wild boar with dogs … Le Diner Du 9 (Dinner on the Ninth) (France 1909) was more amusing – a comedy of manners – which had the luxury of 10 minutes to develop in – where the confusion over dinner dates combined with the need to keep face, means the lead character (played by Charles Prince) ends up having three dinners that night … and in houses where the host was not expecting a guest. Nicely subtle, and not at all broad, very little that could be described as slapstick; quite sophisticated for an ’09 film comedy, possibly betraying its origins as a stage play of the era. Deux Braves Coeurs (Two Brave Men) (France 1909) was in contrast a less sophisticated mini-melodrama of civil war and self-sacrifice; following that were two similar films of a river-borne procession in Burma, filmed and distributed by Charles Urban; and Edwin S. Porter’s Life of a Cowboy (1906) which, apart from a final sequence that seemed to come from another drama entirely, was seemingly a filmed version of sketches and scenes performed by a Wild West Show of the time; if you read the posters or adverts of the shows from the era, then every little vignette – Rowdies making a greenhorn dance, Indians attacking a stagecoach, lasso tricks … all present and correct, and no interlinking plot whatsoever. Les Fleurs Animées (France 1906) was another extravaganza of hand-colouring and special effects from Pathé and the works of Segundo De Chomon; here anthropomorphic flowers take revenge on a man responsible for the destruction of a flower bed.

Festival-goers at the Posta café doing what festival-goers like to do best

The programme finished with a film not from The Corrick Collection, but a new discovery by and from a private archive in London; Those Jersey Cowpunchers (US 1911) – or rather, and unfortunately, the first reel of two – is a comedy from Nestor, one of the real Hollywood pioneer outfits, and supposedly based on their experiences in trying to make westerns; in the film, the Billiken company head west from their New Jersey studio to make use of western locations and personnel, only to find there are no real cowboys left … they are all in the movies now; they wire back to base, to send some Eastern actors to play the roles; said actors are just applying their awful ‘Indian’ make ups when reel one finishes … it may just be that we are thus cheated of a delicious satire on early Hollywood racial stereotyping … we may never know …

After a quick break, another new discovery being introduced to the World … Die Waffen der Jugend (Germany 1912), and much anticipated as this three-reel comedy was the directorial debut of Robert ‘Caligari’ Wiene; and it really didn’t disappoint; the youth of the title is a headstrong, tomboyish daughter of a middle-class father who can no longer cope with her; he packs her off to boarding school where she remains a handful; a midnight mandolin recital is one thing, but getting into a fight with a fellow inmate and drawing a clasp knife from her stocking top … is another. Eventually she makes her escape in the traditional sheet-rope manner, and wanders the streets of the local town … wherein she draws the attentions of two criminal beggars, squatting in a dingy basement. They induce her to come with them, and keep her prisoner … which is their big mistake. In a Stockholm-syndrome-in-reverse scenario, in an effort to please her, the criminals smarten themselves up, clean up the basement, and eventually when she is found by the police and reunited with Father, decide to go straight and, much to their own horror, accept a job offer from him. A delightful, energetic and downright funny film; highly accomplished for a directorial debut, and with a superb performance from Gertrud Grabner as the beggars’ teenage nemesis; if IMDb is to be believed, this was the second – and final – film of her career … the internet fails to reveal what became of her. In its small understated way, one of the films of this year’s Giornate.

Skipping a modern documentary on Kalatozov, the director of The Cranes Are Flying but also masterful silent-era cinematographer for an extended dinner break, and brace myself for the evening events; the prizegivings, and sponsors speeches, before the spectacle that is Doug Fairbanks’ Robin Hood. The speeches from the sponsors and local dignitaries were succinct, and made welcome noises about their continued support, financial and moral, for the continuance of the Giornate; times are harder in Italy than in some other countries, and events on the level of Pordenone and Bologna do not come cheaply; I trust these people do actually realise how much they are doing for film culture in Europe and the World, and how grateful we are that they continue to support the events. Inevitably, given the brevity of the above, the presentation of the Prix Jean Mitry did drag on a bit; a shame as the recipients, André Gaudreault and Riccardo Redi are deserved recipients, and made good speeches; it was their introductions to the audience by the presenters that were overlong, and not entirely necessary; surely a written tribute and career overview could have been printed in the catalogue instead? A quick presentation to the Haghefilm/Selznick School Fellowship recipient Karin Carlson, was followed by the two films she had restored; two 1910 Essanay one-reel comedies, Mulcahy’s Raid and A College Chicken; both sprightly films, surviving in excellent picture quality if possibly missing some frames, Mulcahy’s Raid is the tale of a stereotypical Irish American cop enlisting passing actors to round up an illegal gambling den; A College Chicken was the tale of a stolen chicken passing through various hands before ending up as a contraband dorm feast at a co-ed private school. A little amuse-bouche for the main course to follow.

Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (1922)

Robin Hood (USA 1922); starring Douglas Fairbanks. On paper, what could possibly be a greater combination of star and vehicle? And yet … it doesn’t quite live up to its potential. It’s beautifully shot, the grandeur of the sets is stunning, the stunts are phenomenal, Doug is Doug .. .but we do have to wade through some stodge to get to the meat. It’s a full hour before we reach Sherwood Forest; the Merry Men are in place, there is none of the delineations of their characters that we get in the Errol Flynn version … but a load of exposition on how much King Richard and Maid Marian are in love with Robin Hood … honestly, sections could be retitled as a bisexual love triangle. Which would make an interesting film, but it was not what we were as an audience turning up for, in 2010 any more than 1922.

Even the spectacular sets were underutilised; is it me being fanciful speculating that the makers of the later Flynn version saw the former version’s immense spiral staircase and wondered why a duel wasn’t being fought there? The Rathbone/Flynn duel was iconic, the set for it was built in ’22 … but with no fight. If it sounds like I’m criticising a 1922 film for not being a 1938 film, perhaps you’re right; but I do find it surprising that Doug Fairbanks, of all people, could lose sight of what made his earlier films so captivating and so popular, and blow the opportunity the subject afforded. At 2¼ hours, the film is 45 minutes too long, and while in ’22 there could be an excuse for thinking longer = better, it needed someone taking Fairbanks aside – and it must have been him making the artistic decisions – and suggesting heavy cuts. Fairbanks did, I think, learn the lesson … his later adventures are far more taut and packed with action … but the definitive telling of the tale, using lessons learnt from the ’22 film, would be in three-strip
Technicolor and not tinted and toned.

The final show, more French clowns, letters O-S – yes, they were being shown alphabetically by character name all week – started
around an hour after the scheduled time, around ten to midnight; sadly, this was also the showcase for the aspirants from the Piano
Masterclasses that had been running all week. Obviously this was not deliberate, but neither was it fair … I believe some thought has to be
given to avoiding a future repetition, as it was simply too late in the day for most of the potential audience. I know it was for me.


Thanks once again, Mysterious. Some food for thought there. I did actually return from Trieste for the Corrick film show because it included one (not two as billed) of Charles Urban’s films of Burma from 1903, part of a series of films shot by H.M. Lomas for Urban none of which was known to survive before now. Unfortunately it hasn’t proved possible as yet to match the film (which shows a succession of richly-decorated boats, some of them bearing Western tourists, being rowed along a wide river) to any title from the Urban catalogue.

The final day’s report will follow soon.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day six

Pordenone at night

Thursday 7 October loomed, and your scribe was packing his bags. I had decided that five days in Pordenone at the Giornate del Cinema Muto was enough for me this year, and I was heading off to spend a couple of days in beautiful Trieste. But I could not do so without having set in place plans to ensure that the Bioscope could provide its habitual comprehensive coverage of the festival. You may remember that last year, when I didn’t attend the Giornate, the Bioscope reports were written by an anonymous reporter, subsequently dubbed The Mysterious X. Happily X was at the festival this year and just as keen to pick up the quill pen once again, while just as insistent on maintaining his anonymity. And, by a remarkale coincidence, the first film he reports on is a Benjamin Christensen masterpiece, the film the great director made after producing The Mysterious X … spooky, eh?


Bright and early – well, early – to the Verdi for a film I had anticipated since seeing it had been programmed; Hævnens Nat (Denmark 1916) (Blind Justice) an early feature directed by Benjamin Christensen; Pordenone in the past has given me a taste for Scandinavian silents; on the whole, the lighting and camera techniques seem to me, to have been way in advance of the rest of the world … and one sequence in particular in this thriller demonstrated that to me yet again.

After a strange prologue where we see the director demonstrating an illuminated model of the house where the main action of the film is to take place, we’re into the action; Strongman John is on the run, for a crime he didn’t commit and with his very young son; hiding out in a barn, he decides to try and steal milk from the main house, but is discovered by the young daughter of the family; he explains the situation, and persuades her not to betray him … but the awakened father forces the story out of her, John is captured while vowing revenge, and jailed …

Hævnens Nat (1916), with director Benjamin Christensen playing Strongman John, from http://www.dfi.dk

Fifteen years later, John has suffered physically and psychologically inside the prison, but is now out; naively, even unknowingly, he falls in with a gang of burglars intent on robbing the same house … fifteen years on, the girl is married and now the mistress of the house with a young family … in his confused state, John starts to exact his revenge, not knowing that one of the children is his now-adopted son …

The setting of the film – an ornately reproduced and highly realistic mansion, as introduced proudly at the start – almost becomes a character within it; while light and airy during the day, it seems both claustrophobic and yet flimsily undefendable as night falls and menace lurks. The bravura sequence occurs at the point where the invader spies the young woman through the keyhole; we see it from his point of view, the young girl vignetted, deep focus, within the ornate Edwardian escutcheon, the layers of the lock’s mechanism visible; she senses the viewer’s presence and moves out of shot … seconds later the keyhole cover is slid across our view from her side of the door. We cut to a view of the room’s interior … the woman seemingly
paralysed with fear; the camera slowly tracks back, initially revealing the french windows we are looking through … and then the silhouetted shape of the hulking intruder, seeing the same thing … and those french windows look so fragile now …

It’s a powerful shot now; through the use of imaginative sets, superb lighting and a dramatic camera move, the audience is utterly involved in the menace at work … in the voyeuristic sense, and in the complete powerlessness of our situation as an audience, let alone the situation of the girl in the room … it would be impressive in a film made ten or
twenty years later; stunning in a film of 1916. I won’t reveal the ending; that would spoil things for you if you have yet to see the film; if not screening near you, it’s available on DVD from the Danish Film Institute with a Neil Brand piano score.

Shingun (1930), from http://www.cinetecadelfriuli.org/gcm

Straight on into the next film in the Shochiku strand of Japanese dramas, Shingun (Japan 1930) (Marching On) … in the programme billed as being the Japanese near-equivalent, and inspired by, Wings and The Big Parade … well, up to a point … it starts delightfully; a farmer’s boy, obsessed with his balsa-and-paper flying models and with dreams of real aircraft, develops a friendship with the daughter of the local squire, who introduces the lad to her pilot brother and his flying officer friends; through hard work, and despite the handicap of a lowly class status, he eventually succeeds in qualifying as a pilot and joining the air force. So far, so good, a peacetime Wings story, a cute cross-class nascent love story developing through fine performances by the two leads; Denmei Suzuki and Kinuyo Tanaka were becoming old friends to us by now … the pairing obviously a prized asset to the studio. But right at this point the film takes the most sinister turn, particularly with the hindsight of history. “Is War Likely??” asks a title (I may be paraphrasing, but not wildly) “Yes, Japan has suffered enough indignities” and so we march into the final third of the film …

Well, from here, The Big Parade or Wings, it ain’t. The film-makers might well have seen them, but failed to learn much from them in how to construct either feasible aerial or battlefield sequences. Unlike Wings, the aerial sequences are constructed from a combination of appalling model work – honestly, they look like they were shot using the boy’s balsa models from the start of the film – and laughably bad back projection, as the gunner from a doomed plane passes vital strategic information to another by wing walking and handing it to his opposite number … our farmboy hero. Inevitably, this second plane, piloted by the girl’s brother, is brought down into the battlefield – full of shellfire but little else – but look! A convenient Harley Davidson and sidecar for our hero to requisition, and to load his wounded friend into … after a few minutes bouncing around the field – if the pilot wasn’t seriously injured before, he would be now – they get caught in an explosion, and the bike wrecked … but look!! A convenient horse, grazing in a contented manner, but about to get a rude shock as two airmen clamber on board to complete their getaway … except more shrapnel comes their way, and the horse is abandoned … but look!!! A convenient artillery tractor, abandoned in full working order, it seems, and our heroes complete their escape to safety at around 1½ miles per hour … the strategic information is delivered to the relevant Colonel, the battle is heroically won, etc. Which would be fairly hilarious, except for the nagging thought that the massive amount of military hardware on and personnel on screen, supplied by the Japanese army, are rehearsals for the invasion of Manchuria that would happen within the year. If a silent film with such a nationalistic propaganda theme existed from, say, Germany in 1938, would it be shown with such alacrity? I wonder … anyway, it could have been a great film; it started with real charm, but it did seem as if the film was kidnapped by a propaganda ministry two-thirds of the way through.

The film screened after lunch, Bukhta Merti (USSR 1926) (Death Bay), was an Abram Room-directed film set in the Russian Navy at the time of the Russian Civil War, and described by Ian Christie in the catalogue as a “Propagandist adventure story” … well, I had just sat through one of those, so I gave it a rest, and decided a Spritz Aperol in the Italian sunshine, and a bit of a natter with like-minded people held more appeal. These things happen on the Thursdays, I find … shamingly, I enjoyed the chatting so much that I decided to forego the Jonathan Dennis lecture, given by former Channel Four supremo Jeremy Isaacs, and the man who green-lit Kevin Brownlow’s Hollywood series; for which the world remains grateful; on the basis that he had given a talk locally and recently, so I felt no desire to hear it again; a mistake, as this was a totally different event, and took the form (I was told subsequently) of an extended tribute to Kevin Brownlow, David Gill, and the making of Hollywood; that I would loved to have seen. A mistake on my part … these things, too, happen on Thursdays …

But no missing the night’s big event; the farewell performance of Laura Minici Zotti and her magic lantern show La Grande Arte della Luce e dell’Ombra (The Great Art of Light and Shadow), culled from the enormous collection she has established at her museum in Padua, the Museo del Precinema; the transportation of priceless fragile glass slides no longer being a good idea; Madame Zotti acts as lanternist herself (resplendent in a late-Victorian blue-black shot-silk evening dress, bustle and all) while a lecturer read from the stage; the Verdi had been heavily adapted to enable the lantern to display on the cinema screen, which looked fine from where I was sat, but I did wonder quite how much some people saw from their positions, what with the Verdi’s sightlines.

The show was terrific; the slides spectacular, particularly those examples where, by use of fades, daytime scenes transform to night as we watch; not to mention special slides designed to hold live insects, and live small fish, swimming across the screen … extraordinary. The stalwart of every magic lantern show I’ve ever seen seem to be the kaleidoscopic slides … here they were spellbinding; we really were getting the highlights of the collection. If there was one slight personal disappointment, it was that it was presented very much as a history lecture … which is fine as an approach, obviously; but I was hoping for a recreation of a big magic lantern show of the era, and that wasn’t quite what we saw. But what we saw was unforgettable too.

There was then a fair gap in the programme as the Verdi was turned back into its cinema format, ready for the late screening of more of the 1910’s French comedy shorts … so I took in some air, honestly meaning to take in the second half of the set which included some Max Linder … and possibly the 1hr 37m Shochiku drama Kinkanshoku (Japan 1934) (Eclipse) due to start at 11.20pm … but I failed you. I feel deeply ashamed …


No shame, please, Mysterious. I haven’t made it to a late screening at Pordenone for years now. Many thanks for an attentive and illuminating account. The report on Friday’s offerings will follow soon (hopefully with just as many eye-catching ellipses, semi-colons and classy use of words like ‘escutcheon’).

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day five
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Pordenone diary 2010 – day five

Seating in the Verdi theatre, Pordenone

Let’s talk about seats. Given the amount of time that filmgoers spend sitting down to watch films, it surprising that the objects on which they rest while doing so seldom get discussed. Yet what the seating is and how it is arranged bear significantly upon our enjoyment of what is on the screen. I have sat on wooden chairs, benches, stone steps, sofas, armchairs, velvet plush seating, church pews and grass to watch silent films. At the Zancanaro theatre in Sacile, which was home to the Giornate del Cinema Muto for a few years, the seating was admirably comfortable so long as you were not much more than five-and-a-half-feet tall. For anyone of my height, you practically had to stretch yourself over three rows and to do so in an upper tier to avoid those neighbours who might quite reasonably object to such a display.

The seats under discussion here are those at the Verdi theatre in Pordenone. They are particularly comfortable seats. You could go a long way before finding better, and they could have been designed specifically to support the earnest silent film enthusiast determined to make it through three hours of the next Japanese film and being able to walk away afterwards. But then there is the matter of arrangement, and here is where the Verdi has its critics, certainly among film followers. The theatre was not designed for cinema screenings. This is most obvious in the first circle, where the central portion of seats has to be covered up because the heads of the audience would get in the way of the projector beam. But it is the sight-lines that cause the most comment. It’s not a matter that bothers me that much – I have an odd preference for looking at films from the periphery – but many want to have an optimum view of the screen wherever they choose to sit, and here the Verdi comes up short. So there is great competition for favourite seats, and festival regulars tend to occupy the same section of the theatre year after year. There is the front row crew (earnestly taking notes on every film), those who like to stretch their legs over the gap between rows midway up the stalls, those happiest to look down from the first circle (like yours truly, always seated front row, penultimate seat to the right as you face the screen), and the upper circle afficionados who look to escape the madding crowd (and hello to the cheery bunch of American students who occupied the central portion of the upper tier and whose enthusiasm for all that the festival had to offer was a delight to witness). As with any public space, the Verdi is wonderful for people watching.

Choosing your favourite seat at the Verdi

And so, after all that talk of seats, we turn to a different sort of furniture with the first film on Wednesday 6 October, Tretya Meshchanskaya (USSR 1927), known in English as Bed and Sofa. Directed by Abram Room, this gained much notoriety on its release for its frank depiction of a ménage à trois between a building worker, his bored wife, and his printer friend who is invited to stay in their Moscow apartment. Its piquant polygamous set-up, the uncritical acceptance of sexual relations outside marriage, and discussion of abortion make the film strikingly modern in tone (Jules et Jim without the savoir faire), but what really fascinates is the background detail and the attention to the minutiae of life. There is the vividness of everyday life on the Moscow streets, and the absorbing clutter of the apartment with its nick-nacks, pictures, the Stalin calendar, the curtain dividing one couple from the other man, and of course the bed and sofa. The film also allowed space for its characters to be seen thinking, engaging in the mundane. Though in the end the ménage à trois itself felt too forced, what remained with you was the sense of a film true to life as seen and felt.

Another Room film followed, Yevrei Na Zemle (Jews on the Land) (USSR 1927), a documentary on Jewish resettlements in a stark, flat, tree-less Crimea whose impact wasn’t what it might have been because the Russian titles weren’t translated, which meant we missed the reportedly light-hearted tone that they took.

I decided not to sit through Rejin (Japan 1930) (The Belle), which tipped the scales at a mere 158 minutes this time, but the print was poor and I reckoned my eyes needed a rest. After a mooch around Pordenone and conversations at the Posta, I returned in the afternoon for one of the great treats (for me) of the festival, a series of films made in Madagascar in 1898 (images from Cinémathèque française site). As someone who thought he knew film from the 1890s pretty thoroughly, news of a filmmaker from this period entirely new to the history books was thrilling in itself. Louis Tinayre was a French artist with a fascinting personal history (his parents were Communards). He made a speciality of paintings as reportage. He travelled with a French military force to Madagascar in 1895 when an uprising was being quelled and was fascinated by the country. He returned later in the year to make sketches and photographs, then again in 1898 to work on a giant panorama of the surrender of the town of Antananarivo which he exhibited at the Paris Exposition in 1900. But he didn’t just take his brush and canvas – he brought with him a Lumière Cinématographe.

How and why he obtained the camera is not known – he may have been filming scenes to aid his work on the panorama. Eighteen films have survived, having been presented to the Cinémathèque française by the filmmaker’s grandson in 2009. They are thrilling to see. Artfully composed, they show Madgascan people at work in fields, road building, going to market, going about their daily drudgery. We were shown thirteen of the eighteen, with these titles:

  • Chantier de terrassement à Marorangotra [Construction of terraces at Marorangotra]
  • Femmes chargeés montant et descendant une colline [Laden women going up and down a hill]
  • Environs de Tananarive. Marché à Alatsinainy [Environs of Antananarivo, capital of Madagascar. Market at Alatsinainy]
  • Labour de rizières par les boeufs [Ploughing in the paddy fields with oxen]
  • Chantier d’empierrement à Marorangotra [Constructing a road at Marorangotra]
  • Vallée [Valley]
  • Forge malgache à Marorangotra [Malagasy forge at Marorangotra]
  • La route d’Ambohimanara. Un jour de marché à Tananarive [The Ambohimanara road. A market day in Antananarivo]
  • Labour de rizières à l’Angady [Ploughing the paddy fields at Angady]
  • L’artère principale du marché à Tananarive [The main road of the market at Antananarivo]
  • Jeunes garçons fabriquant des briques [Boys making clay bricks]
  • Femmes transportant paniers près d’un ruisseau [Women carrying baskets near a stream]
  • Hommes travaillant sur un chantier [Men working on a construction]

The people were all shown in mid-distance, with never a glimpse of a face, mere figures in a landscape (possibly supporting the panorama thesis) though always displaying movement. It was the colonial gaze par excellence. The films (in wonderfully sharp prints) were utterly compelling, just to be seeing so far back, images from a remote land being filmed for the first time, revealing landscapes and customs that were centuries old and were now captured in motion. An added bonus was that the films were accompanied by Touve Ratovondrahety, a Malagasy himself, who played piano and sang Madagascan songs. The happy sense of homeland rediscovered was palpable.

Some Pordenone regulars may mutter at these early films and hanker for the emotional journey that the feature film offers, but for others the rare chance to see the early films is why we want to be there. And so we moved to the latest installment of the Corrick Collection, a remarkable collection of films from the mid to late 1900s amassed by an Australian family of touring entertainers, and now featured over a number of Giornates. The films were introduced by festival director David Robinson, who comitted an engaging faux pas when he announced the award of some medal to the New Zealand film archive for its work in preserving the collection, an award that was diplomatically collected by the National Film and Sound Archive of Australia, which cares for the films.

The films were the usual marvellous mix. Among the stand-out titles were Le Singe Adam (France 1909), one of the most memorable films of the whole festival, in which a trained baboon imitated the actions of its trainer to an extraordinary degree that divided up the audience equally into amused and disturbed; an unidentified British film given the title The Arrested Tricar (GB c.1905) in which three boys steal a motorcar which eludes them and drives off by itself; Don Quixote (France 1904) a meticulously recreated set of scenes by Pathé including windmills that turned into giants and an impressive alternating between studio and open-air setting, all rounded off with the habitual appearance by the Pathé dancing girls; Le Sculpteur Express (France 1907), an unusual variation on the familiar ‘lightning sketch’ form of early film, here shown a sculptor making clay faces at speed; and the delightful A Winter Straw Ride (USA 1906) showing a bobsleigh journey through the show with beautiful scenic effects.

No Rastro Do Eldorado (The Silence of the Amazon), from http://www.cinemateca.gov.br

Farsangi mámor (Hungary 1921) was a three-minute fragment of an otherwise lost Hungarian feature film which was identified after stills were published on the Lost Films site. This was followed by No Rastro Do Eldorado (Brazil 1925) (The Silence of the Amazon), a return visit to the Brazilian jungle. The film was made by Silvino Santos and documented the travels of American geographer Alexander Hamilton Rice as he mapped areas of the Amazon. The film’s presentation was unusual – there were no intertitles, instead we got a somewhat breathy female live commentary taken from Rice’s own accounts of the expedition, plus a creative multi-instrumentalist who played electronica, clarinet, percussion and guitar. Rice’s words revealed a superior attitude towards the native peoples which jarred somewhat with the poetic delivery. The film was profficient at best (though the aerial views were stunning), but the print – which was supplied by the Brazilians but came via the BFI National Archive – was awful, with very poor definition. I just hope negative material survives and that someone can try and produce something a good deal sharper.

Marizza, from http://www.ilgazzettino.it

The Giornate likes to reserve the special treats for the evening shows, and pride of place went to a thirteen-minute, seventeen-second fragment of an otherwise lost feature film, Marizza, Genannt die Schmuggler-Madonna (Germany 1921-22). The reason this was so special was because the director was F.W. Murnau. The fragment survives with Italian titles in a tinted print. It would be easy to read too much into this early work of a master, and to be honest I wonder how many would detect Murnau’s hand in a tale of a bewitching gypsy loved by a customs officer and an elegant gentleman. However, even as an anonymous fragment you would have noted the adroit handling and keen eye for the right image. It looked like we were going to get Carmen in the countryside, then all too quickly it was gone and mere speculation remained.

Next up was one of the festival special musical events, with two French films accompanied by Maud Nelissen (piano), Lucio Degani (violin) and Francesco Ferrarini (‘cello). First up, shown to Yves de la Casinière’s original score, was Alberto Cavalcanti’s Rien Que Les Heures (France 1926). This venerable classic of the avant garde is an odd, beguiling work which gives an oblique view of life in Paris, mixing documentary shots with dramatised sequences. It sometimes gets labelled with the city symphonies, but it could have been set in any town or city. As the the title suggest, its real concern is time and its passing, which is the best of themes for a work of art. I’ve seen it many times and don’t think I will ever tire of it.

Next, and last for me that day, was Germaine Dulac’s La Folie des Vaillants (France 1926). I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this. It was a feminist gypsy drama of sorts (gypsies featured strongly at the Giornate), which emphasised feeling over such trivial matters as acting and plot (a Gorky story). Unfortunately acting and plot are just what audiences look out for to anchor themselves, and the film’s technical limitations distracted from the filmmaker’s symbolic intentions. Also it’s hard these days to take gypsies as the epitome of social freedom in the way that Dulac (and Murnau) did in the 1920s. So it didn’t quite work for me, but it was graced by a quite superb score from the Maud Nelissen trio – the music from the festival that I’d most want to hear again.

And then I slipped away, into the balmy night.

Pordenone diary 2010 – day one
Pordenone diary 2010 – day two
Pordenone diary 2010 – day three
Pordenone diary 2010 – day four
Pordenone diary 2010 – day six
Pordenone diary 2010 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2010 – day eight

Blackmail at the Barbican

Extract from Neil Brand’s orchestra score of Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail

Your scribe journeyed last night to the vasty cavern that is London’s Barbican Hall to witness something of a landmark event – the first British silent drama to be newly scored for full orchestra since the advent of the sound film. The film was Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (1929), the score was by Neil Brand, the orchestrator and conductor was Timothy Brock, and the music was played by the BBC Symphony Orchestra. (The qualification of ‘silent drama’ needs to be added, because the documentary The Battle of the Somme (1916) was given the full orchestral treatment back in 2006, with score by Laura Rossi, played by the Philharmonia Orchestra at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in London.)

Blackmail has a place in every film history book as the ‘first’ British sound film (it all depends on how you define things as to whether you agree with that or not), but a silent film version was made virtually the same time and with almost the same cast, for all those cinemas that had yet to convert to sound. For many years the silent version was forgotten about, but screenings in recent years have brought it increasing recognition, to the point where we are ready to agree with Hitchcock himself that the film is superior to the sound version. Whether it is Hitchcock’s best silent film is a matter for debate, but it certainly shows his mastery of the silent film form. It flows along with an easy, artful flow; it is choc-a-bloc full of memorable pictorial compositions; and it sets up complexities of relationships and moral dilemmas that make one disappointed when the film ends relatively tamely, albeit with hero and heroine nurturing their guilty secret that is left strikingly unresolved.

Anyway, back to the show, which was pretty much a triumph. Neil Brand’s score is lush and loud, filled with a tense energy and engrossing musical ideas. It was not an obviously ‘silent era’ score but instead consciously echoed the Hitchcock scores of later years from Bernard Hermann and Miklós Rózsa. It was knowing in other respects, with some great musical jokes such as the Alfred Hitchcock Presents theme when Hitch makes his customary cameo, as a passenger on an Underground train, or the introduction of the Dixon of Dock Green theme tune (for our younger and non-British readers, this was a British TV series of yesteryear with a rather cosy view of policing). The orchestra was on fine form, indeed enjoying itself, while conductor Brock had to demonstrate pin-point precision to make sure the orchestra hit its cues for such key points as door bells ringing, or laughter-like sounds when the creepy painting of the jester is shown.

Anny Ondra as Alice White in Blackmail

The score for Blackmail was commissioned and premiered at Il Cinema Ritrovato in Bologna in 2008 and it has taken two years of pleading and negotiating to get it shown in London, for which Neil deserves quite as much praise as he does for having written the score in the first place. A debate which took place after the screening, with Neil, Timothy Brock, the BFI’s silent film curator Bryony Dixon, and omnipresent film guru Ian Christie, raised some interesting issues but didn’t quite address the matter of whether this would be both the first and the last British silent drama with full orchestra score to be shown since the silent era. Will other films follow?

The screening had been enthusiastically introduced by film critic (and occasional silent film accompanist) Mark Kermode, who called for more British silent films to be seen, pointing out the great work that the BFI has done in championing this largely forgotten corner of film history. The idea of a full orchestral score for any British silent would have seemed ridiculous only a few years ago. Now a growing wave of critical interest has provided us with a number of strong candidates: Shooting Stars, Underground, Piccadilly, Moulin Rouge, Hindle Wakes, The First Born, A Cottage on Dartmoor, The Lodger, The Ring and several more.

I’m not particularly a fan of orchestral scores for silent film myself. I prefer the improvising pianist or the small ensemble. But the big gesture brings in the big audiences. Although the Barbican Hall wasn’t completely full last night, it was fairly full, and there were several hundred people there who would never have seen a silent film with live orchestra before – or indeed with any form of music – and a good many of them had been made enthusiastic converts to the cause, to judge from the applause and the conversations I overheard afterwards.

The Carl Davis scores to Photoplay prints of the 1980s were media events. They generated popular interest and a general understanding of what silent films could be. They created a momentum which drove support for silent films, though that momentum has died down in recent years. Unfortunately orchestral presentations do not come cheap, and silent film screenings are viewed as a risk by programmers outside of specialist cinematheques. But it only takes one or two successful events to build up audience understanding and a thirst for more. The idea of rediscovering unknown British silents films, of reclaiming a neglected history, has strong appeal. Blackmail could point the way forward – because the audience is there.

The silent Blackmail is available on DVD from Arthaus in Germany. (Not with the Neil Brand score, fairly obviously)