Girona mini-diary no. 2

Hmm, this smartphone idea isn´t working too well… No matter, the hotel PC can come to the rescue. So here are some quick notes on today´s proceedings at the Origins of News in Early Cinema seminar in Girona. I´ll list each speaker, and summarise what they said.

Rafael F. Tranche (Universidad Complutense de Madrid) Atracciones, actualidad y noticiarios: la información como espectáculo – keynote address on newsreels in general, noting how they were a means to bring together pre-existing genres into one flexible format.

The Public Wanted News: Programming the Biograph, 1896-1908. Paul Spehr – handsomely illustrated talk on the Biograph’s news operations and how what they did is best understood by knowing about the newspaper practice they worked alongside.

L’actualitat al catàleg Pathé (1897-1908). Daniel Pitarch – current affairs films in their catalogues, with the confusion of categories (where to put news?) brightly illustrated with coloured graphs.

La imatge tòpica d’Espanya als films de Pathé i Gaumont. M. Magdalena Brotons i Capó – clichéd images of Spain in early films. So many Carmens.

Creating an event out of nothing happening. An exploration of the category event through tourist imagery of the Zuiderzee region (The Netherlands), 1874-1914. Sarah Dellmann – the challenge of making a non-event an attraction.

Before the speech, then the image: the comment of the nonfiction film in Italy. Luca Mazzei – lots of interesting evidence from Italian books and journals on the evidence for how non-fiction films were received by audiences.

Stephen Bottomore Filming and ‘Faking’ a News Event – The
Coronation of Edward VII (1902) – Keynote paper on Charles Urban and Georges Méliès´celebrated ´preconstruction´of King Edward VII´s coronation, produced before the event took place.

Actualidad reconstruida y reconstrucción de la actualidad. El caso de “Asesinato y entierro de Canalejas”. Begoña Soto y Encarni Rus – I didn´t quite pick up on the story of this piece of 1912 archival film that now only existed in a contested 1957 version, but it occasioned much debate among the Spanish.

Actualitats reconstruïdes: del museu del cera als fake. El cas de l’erupció volcànica del Mont Pelée (Georges Méliès, 1902) com a punt de confluència. Marta Sureda – Georges Méliès again, recreating the volcanic eruption at Martinique, influenced by wax museums, dioramas and journal illustrations.

What’s in a name? The Russo-Japanese/Japanese-Russian War. Dafna Ruppin – a good paper on Dutch responses to the Russo-Japanese War film – or should be that Japanese-Russo? Interesting thoughts about the power of words over images.

El cinema d’animació dels primers temps i la reconstrucció de l’actualitat: el cas de l’enfonsament del Lusitània. Núria Nadal – Winsor McCay´s animation film about the sinking of the Lusitania in World War One still has the power to shock.

Presentation of the book-DVD Segundo de Chomón 1903-1912. The
fantasy film and the book Segundo de Chomón. El cinema de la fascinació by Esteve Riambau, Filmoteca de Catalunya, and Joan M. Minguet, writer. – The excellent DVD has already been covered by the Bioscope; a review of the book will follow soon

OK, that´s enough for today. So much talk of fakes in actuality films when such reconstructions were really doing no more than a line-drawn illustration in a newspaper might do as opposed to a photograph. The second and final day´s report will follow tomorrow.

Girona mini-diary no. 1

Such is the international jet-setting life that the silent film blogger must now come to expect that I find myself overseas once more, this time in Girona, Spain. I’m here for a two-day seminar, The Construction of News in Early Cinema. The seminar is being organised by the Museu del Cinema (right), the University of Girona, and the Spanish Ministry of Science & Innovation Project. It is one in a series on the origins and history of cinema that have run here for a few years now. It’s an honour to be invited, and it’s an interesting line-up of speakers and themes. I’m without my laptop, but I have come armed with smartphone and a WordPress app. So can I add to the blog from here? Well, yes I can, only the keyboard is not conducive to lengthy ramblings, so I am going to post some mini-diary entries, as an experiment.

So I’m here, it’s a fine city, it´s been a fine evening, and I´ve just come from supper with fellow speakers Charles Musser and Stephen Bottomore, plus a genial collection of Spanish film professors. More on the morrow.

Being Bean

The Trouble with Mr Bean (1992) (you will have to go to the Mr Bean YouTube site to view the video)

Rather by accident, I saw the feature film Mr Bean’s Holiday yesterday. Catching the opening credits while channel-hopping, I imagined that I’d stay with it for a few minutes and ended up, well, almost captivated. It’s a well-constructed comedy about Mr Bean’s haphazadous trip through France in the company of a lost child. It adroitly develops its situations with logical illogicality, and boasts a great comic turn by Willem Dafoe as a film director of stupendous pretentiousness. I’ve never been a particular fan of Bean, though given his position as the leading modern silent (or semi-silent) figure on the screen today, I have felt before now that the Bioscope should devote some space to the phenomenon. Because Mr Bean has been a worldwide phenomenon, and the interesting thing is to try and work out why.

There can be few who have not been exposed to Mr Bean in one form or another, but just to recap: the character is played by British comedian Rowan Atkinson, and has antecedents in various gauche figures that Atkinson has played in comedy routines throughout his career. Mr Bean was originally a television series in the UK, broadcast by ITV. The first episode was broadcast 1 January 1990, and there were thirteen half-hour episodes made 1900-1995, a fourteenth being released on video only. They attracted considerable audiences at home as well as being sold to nearly 250 territories worldwide, the word being spread in part by exposure on airlines. Two feature films, Bean (1997) and Mr Bean’s Holiday (2007), have been made, and a spin-off 26-episode animated series (2002).

Mr Bean himself is a social misfit. Habitually dressed in tweed jacket and tie, he is like some figure from an earlier age – the dingy, repressed 1950s – somehow thrust into our modern times (the TV series opens with Bean falling to ground down a shaft of light, as though an alien figure or someone who has time-travelled). He approaches the challenges of the modern world with resourceful ignorance. The simplest of activities, like going to the shops or a trip to the dentist, become extraordinary challenges through Bean’s stubborn obliviousness to the obvious, coupled with his ingenious (though completely unnecessary) tactics for getting round such obstacles. Unaware of the social niceties, Bean is pure selfishness. He will always take advantage of others and is wholly insensitive to anyone else’s situation. There is a nasty side to him.

Bean’s approach in life is to proceed in a straight line where anyone else would turn corners. This is exemplified literally on two occasions in Mr Bean’s Holiday. Firstly Bean, having arrived in Paris, gets a wrong taxi and finds himself on the outskirts at La Défense rather than the Gare du Lyon. So he gets out his compass and walks back in a straight line, through shops and restaurants, over busy crossroads, causing mayhem along the way while never looking up from his compass. And of course he gets to his destination. Then, at the end of the film, when he sees the beach at Cannes he has been trying to get to all film, he walks in a straight line, again head down, concentrating solely on his compass, and avoids falling from his first storey position by walking down a line of vehicles arranged side by side which conveniently have formed themselves into steps. It’s a gag worthy of Keaton.

But should Mr Bean be mentioned in the same sentence as Buster Keaton? He is a silent comedian, for the most part, occasionally reverting to some mumbled words. The Bean programmes and films are weakest where they require dialogue to explain situations (which makes the 1997 feature film Bean particularly poor, because it spends so much time trying to explain Bean and the situations he creates). Mr Bean’s Holiday succeeds because almost all of the gags are visual ones, not least because the action takes place in France and Bean only knows three words of French (Oui, Non and … Gracias). So it is silent comedy, and with a worldwide appeal to a degree built on that form of comedy that needs no translation and can appeal to all.

The Return of Mr Bean (1990) (you will have to go to the Mr Bean YouTube site to view the video)

But is he as good as Keaton, or Chaplin, or Lloyd or any of the 1920s master of the art? Well, no and yes. He is not the same as Keaton and his ilk, but then he is not of their age and he is doing different things. The fact that he is different does not mean that he is unworthy of consideration as ‘silent’ comic figure of importance. There is not the craft that one sees in the finest of the silent era comedians, a craft built up through years spent on the variety stage and then honed through the studio expertise of Keystone, Roach et al. But there is craft there, and the gags are not pastiches of 1920s comedies (the failing of many a would-be modern slapstick comedy) but of their time – and skilfully so. Take a look at The Return of Mr Bean above. Watch the brief, single-shot sequence (at 4.34) where Bean goes up an escalator and see with what skill the camera is in just the right place to makes his ascent feel funny even when he seems to be doing something entirely normal; then, when they have got us laughing at the obvious, we are caught by surprise as Bean is held up at the top of the escalator by the heels of his shoes.

This is a great visual gag, but it’s a gag that comes out of a present-day situation and is grounded in character. Someone else wouldn’t be so funny in the same situation. It is his innocence of any of the lessons of common experience that makes us laugh as soon as we see him approach any common situation, because we know that he will be unable to face the ordinary in an ordinary way. There is laughter in the anticipation, and then laughter at the surprise of the execution.

So there is craft there, and some real if variable visual wit. But another issue is human appeal. The great silent comedians were both misfits and Everyman figures at the same time. They were beset by misfortunes that could happen to any of us. Bean’s misfortunes are his own. They usually, and credibly, get the girl. Bean lives alone, and the occasional appearance of a girlfriend in the TV series leaves us flummoxed by the sheer unlikelihood of it (still more the attraction that he may have for Emma de Caunes in Mr Bean’s Holiday). Bean is not like us but rather the complete opposite of us (or at least we hope so). Keaton, Lloyd et al are sympathetic characters; Bean is wholly unsympathetic. We never feel sorry for him, even if we are happy enough for him to win in the end.

Proceeding in a straight line, from Mr Bean’s Holiday, image from

What is this the secret to his worldwide popularity? There seems to be more that such audiences recognise than simply his obtuse reactions to the everyday. It may lie in his Britishness – Mr Bean certainly has become associated by many non-British audiences with a certain supposed type of uptight Englishman abroad: over-dressed, inhibited, and as inept with people as he is with any language other than his own (see Patrick Barkham’s 2007 article on this in The Guardian). But Mr Bean was initially a huge hit on UK television, and we’re not that fond of laughing at ourselves in a way that others may be laughing at us.

Instead I think it’s got something to do with Mr Bean being perversely smarter than us. He is unfettered by the habits and mores that control our lives, making us laugh at ourselves just as much as we laugh at him. His lateral approaches to life’s hazards (such as the scene in The Trouble with Mr Bean where he dresses himself while driving a car because he is late for an appointment) mock us for being so constrained by lack of imagination when faced with everyday problems. In an odd way, we would all like to be like Mr Bean for his absence of social constraints – while at the same time hugely grateful that we are not anything like him at all.

Rowan Atkinson has noted the influence of Jacques Tati on the character (a gag when Bean cycles past a bunch of racing cyclists in Mr Bean’s Holiday is lifted from Jour de fête). There are certainly some parallels between two. They are both innocents abroad devising their own ways of overcoming modern life’s complexities. Both are silent comedians in a sound world, caught out of time. But Bean has nothing of Tati’s grace. This may have something to do with the televisual nature of his comedy, or simply that we live in a graceless age. Whatever the reason, there is craft but not art in Mr Bean; it does not uplift us, or make us feel that there is a better life out there somewhere. Yet equally it does not operate much as satire. It is hard to say what it is, if we do not learn from it.

Yet there are lessons to be learned. I’ve been scouring Google Scholar for academic papers on Mr Bean and I can find none that consider the films or programmes as art, but several that use the series as illustration of social situations, to measure responses to humour, or to study cognition. Mr Bean clearly serves as something that is emblematic of the human condition. This, however, is where I have had a problem with Bean up til now. He does not seem to be one of us. Not just his eccentric behaviour, but Atkinson’s taste for face-pulling take the character beyond a point where he can be recognisable as a human being. And yet the key to laughter is recognition, and Mr Bean makes the world laugh (Mr Bean’s Holiday grossed $230 worldwide). Mr Bean is what we become when we lose our humanity. The cause of our laughter may be relief.

There is an official Mr Bean website and a Mr Bean YouTube channel with full episodes of the live-action television series and the animated cartoon series.

The O’Kalems

Trailer for Blazing the Trail

Blazing the Trail is the title of a new documentary about the New York film company Kalem in Ireland. Kalem was founded in 1907 by George Kleine, Samuel Long and Frank Marion (K-L-M, see?). One of the major American film producers of the silent period, one of their directors, Sidney Olcott, was of Irish descent, and he took a company of players to Ireland in 1910.

Basing themselves in Co. Kerry, the company shot fiction films with strong Irish themes and extensive use of Irish locations. Initially they made The Lad from Old Ireland (1910) [extant] plus a number of travel and scenic films. Such was the success of the fiction film that Olcott returned with a larger company the following year. Among the performers were Gene Gauntier (lead actress and scenarist), Robert Vignola, Jack P. McGowran and Alice Hollister. For this second phase they settled in the village of Beaufort and made the following fiction films (as well some non-fiction) (links are to their entries on the Irish Film & TV Research Online database):

It is generally argued that the object was to make films that would appeal to the Irish-American audience in America, though the films were just as much intended for the general audience. Nevertheless, they made for a distinctive body of work with strong themes of nation, history and landscape, earning them the nickname the O’Kalems. Olcott and Gauntier returned to Ireland in 1913 after leaving Kalem with the Gene Gauntier Feature Players, then Olcott came back again in 1914, hoping to set up a permament studio at Beaufort. The First World War intervened, and this enterprising chapter in Irish (or Irish-American) film history came to a close.

The Gene Gauntier Feature Players made this titles in Ireland:

Sidney Olcott made two further films in Ireland in 1914, released by Lubin:

The films and their story have long attracted interest, for their position in Irish film and for their romantic nationalism. The latest such is Blazing the Trail, written and directed by American academic Peter Flynn, an 86-minute documentary which takes its title from Gene Gauntier’s series of autobiographical articles written for Woman’s Home Companion in 1928/29. It has been produced in conjunction with the Irish Film Institute and is to be released on DVD this summer together with all extant Kalem Irish films. The film is screening tomorrow at the Boston Irish Film Festival (of which Flynn is co-founder and co-director) and recently opened the Killruddery Film Festival. The Boston website has background information on the film, a trailer (see above) and sample clips.

Kalem’s Rory O’More (1911), which tells of Irishman O’More at the time of the 1798 rebellion, pursued by British soldiers. From Irish Film & TV Research Online

Gene Gauntier’s series of autobiographical articles (or at least the first seven) is available from The Silent Bookshelf.

There is a website dedicated to Sidney Olcott – please note it is in French.

On silent film in Ireland generally, see Denis Condon’s Early Irish Cinema 1895-1921.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 18

The Ten Commandments (1923), from DVD Talk

Chinese American
The Chinese Film Forum UK is a network based in Manchester, UK that exists for the research and promotion of transnational Chinese film. It organises regular film screenings at the Cornerhouse in Manchester, and in early April there are some silent films: Piccadilly (GB 1929), staring Ann May Wong (5 April); a talk, ‘Beyond Dragon Ladies and Butterflies: Anna May Wong’s Stardom’, given by Mina Suder (5 April); and The Curse of Quon Gwon (US 1916-17), the earliest known example of Chinese-American filmmaking, shown as a double bill with the documentary Hollywood Chinese (US 2008), which looks at the ways the Chinese have been imagined in Hollywood movies, from silents to contemporary cinema (12 April). Read more.

The Ten Commandments – and The Ten Commandments
We must be grateful for our silents where we can find them, and sometimes they turn up on the extras rather than as the main attraction. So it is that Paramount’s six-disc (count’ em) limited edition Blu-Ray release of Cecil B. de Mille’s The Ten Commandments (1956) includes his 1923 The Ten Commandments, with extras all of its own – audio commentary, hand-tinted footage and a two-strip Technicolor sequence. Read more.

Thanhouser – it’s official
The Bioscope somewhat jumped the gun when we announced that the Thanhouser collection of films was appearing online (via Vimeo), but now the news is official, and you can find a list of all the films, with supporting information (and an invitation to help support their online access with PayPal donations) on the Thanhouser site. Read more.

London matters
London Rediscovered is a one-day event on programming and presenting archive films of London, from silents to today, with talks by Patrick Russell (Curator of non-fiction at the BFI), Luke McKernan (a mere blogger), filmmaker Ron Peck, London Screen Archives’ Angela English, and Ian Christie, director of the London Screen Study Collection, curator and film historian. It takes place 29 March at Birkbeck College. Read more.

Last of the silents?
Who will be the last person living who was a silent film performer? Mickey Rooney, who appeared in ‘Mickey McGuire’ silent comedy shorts from 1927, is still with us, but the way she’s going it could well be the indefatigable Diana Serra Cary, who made her first film at the age of two in 1921, under the name Baby Peggy. The Los Angeles Times has an illuminating interview with her, which concludes with the family tragedy that followed when her fame slipped away. “I could never be important to my father again after I became ‘me.'” Read more.

And then there was Laila

Hot on the heels of the exciting news of Kino’s Gaumont Treasures vol. 2 release comes what should be one of the silent feature film DVD releases of the year. Regulars will know that the Bioscope was mightily impressed by the Norwegian film Laila (1929) when it was shown at Pordenone in 2008. Now it is to be released by Flicker Alley on 11 April, and I can only say that every good silent home should have one. It’s a bold move by the American label to release a silent that isn’t a part of the canon and isn’t covered in any film history outside of Scandanavia. But I think word of mouth is going to do the trick and justify their faith in the film.

Directed by the Danish-German George Schnéevoigt (best known as a cinematographer), the film was digitally restored by the Norwegian Film Institute in 2006. If you will forgive me, I can do no better (and it’s a lot quicker) if I repeat the words that I wrote on seeing the film two and a half years ago:

The rediscovery that sent us out into the streets, if not with the intention of dragging in passers-by then certainly floating on air, was unexpected. Laila (1929) is a late Norwegian silent, a daunting 165 minutes long. Expectations were not high from those like me who knew little of this period of Norwegian cinema, though the presence of George Schnéevoigt, cinematographer on a number of Carl Th. Dreyer film, as director, had aroused curiosity.

So, we’re amid the snowy wastes of Norway, at some time in the past. It’s nighttime. Merchant Lind and his wife are being drawn by dog sleigh through the snow, taking their baby daughter Laila to her christening. A pack of wolves attackes them. In the frantic chase, the baby falls out of her sleigh. With the dawn, they seek desperately for the child, only to find an empty papoose. The child must have been devoured by the wolves. But the baby had been found by Jåmpa, the wild-looking servant of the wealthy Lapp Aslag Laagje, whose wife is childless. They decide to adopt the child, but then learn of her true identity. Sorrowfully, they return Laila to her true parents. But then her parents die of the plague …

We were gripped, and we stayed gripped throughout, as this immaculately-paced drama in the remotest of landscapes held you like only the best of silent films can. Exoticism was certainly part of the appeal – age-old, etched faces, rampaging wolves (running over the camera at one point), clashes between Lapps and Norwegians (disparagingly referred to by the former as ‘daros’), some fine ski-ing, and an awful lot of reindeer. Lying just underneath the narrative was a miscenegation theme, as the grown-up Laila (brightly played by Mona Mårtenson), kept in ignorance of her Norwegian parentage, is brought up to expect marriage to Laagje’s foster son Mellet. The film seeks to rescue her from this fate, preferring that she marry instead her first cousin, Anders Lind (Harald Schwenzen), who ends up rescuing her at the altar in a satisfyingly dramatic conclusion, thanks to an intervention from Jåmpa (Trygve Larssen), who puts Laila’s happiness above loyalty to his master (and gets savaged by a pack of wolves for his pains).

This was a work on both an intimate and an epic scale (it is based on a novel by J.A. Friis), excellently played in a fine naturalistic style by all concerned. It was good human drama. It’s hard to make a dull-looking film when you have so much snow to work with, and Schnéevoigt did not fluff a single scene … Fresh, unusual and soundly executed throughout, Laila was the outstanding feature film of the Giornate.

I hope that’s whetted your appetite. You won’t be disappointed.

France’s finest

Kino Lorber are releasing a second DVD set of Gaumont films. The first, Gaumont Treasures vol. 1(1897-1913), featured films made by Alice Guy, Louis Feuillade, and Léonce Perret, and was effectively a cut-down version of a deluxe box set issued by Gaumont in France. Now Gaumont Treasures vol. 2, 1908-1916 is to be released on 19 April, featuring the work of Emile Cohl, Jean Durand and Jacques Feyder. Again it is based on a more extensive French original release (six discs), but the Kino release alone looks sensational – three discs, just under 600 minutes of film, and containing some of the most creative films of the early cinema period. Cohl was the first master of the animated film, Durand produced surrealist comedies and adventure dramas, and Feyder made films of surpassing elegance and wit. There are works from other filmmakers, examples of synchrononised sound films (Phonoscenes) and examples of Chronochrome, Gaumont’s hauntingly beautiful three-colour process.

This is the full list of films (English titles only):

DVD 1: Emile Cohl
Fantasmagoria (1908, 2 min.)
The Puppet’s Nightmare (1908, 2 min.)
Drama at the Puppets’ House (1908, 3 min.)
The Magic Hoop (1908, 5 min.)
The Little Soldier Who Became a God (1908, 4 min.)
The Boutdebois Brothers (1908, 2 min.)
Transfigurations (1909, 6 min.)
Let’s Be Sporty (1909, 5 min.)
Japanese Fantasy (1909, 1 min.)
The Happy Microbes (1909, 4 min.)
Modern Education (1909, 3 min.)
The Living Fan (1909, 4 min.)
Spanish Clair de Lune (1909, 4 min.)
The Next Door Neighbors (1909, 4 min.)
Crowns (1909, 5 min.)
Delicate Porcelains (1909, 3 min.)
Monsieur Clown Among the Lilliputians(1909, 4 min.)
Comic Mutations (1909, 3 min.)
Matrimonial Shoes (1909, 5 min.)
The Enchanted Spectacles (1909, 5 min.)
Affairs of the Heart (1909, 4 min.)
Floral Frameworks (1910, 5 min.)
The Smile-o-Scope (1910, 5 min.)
Childish Dreams (1910, 5 min.)
En Route (1910, 6 min.)
The Mind of the Café Waiter (1910, 5 min.)
Master of a Fashionable Game (1910, 4 min.)
Petit Chantecler (1910, 7 min.)
The Twelve Labors of Hercules (1910, 7 min.)
Petit Faust (1910, 5 min.)
The Neo-Impressionist Painter (1910, 6 min.)
The Four Little Tailors (1910, 7 min.)
Art’s Infancy (1910, 4 min.)
The Mysterious Fine Arts (1910, 5 min.)
The Persistent Salesman (1910, 8 min.)
A History of Hats (1910, 5 min.)
Nothing Is Impossible for Man (1910, 6 min.)
Mr. Crack (1910, 5 min.)
Bébé’s Masterpiece (1910, 4 min.)
Music-mania (1910, 5 min.)

Original music by Bernard Lubat

DVD 2: Jean Durand
Calino’s Baptism (1911, 3 min.)
Calino Wants to Be a Cowboy (1911, 6 min.)
Zigoto and the Affair of the Necklace (1911, 8 min.)
Calino the Love Tamer (1912, 6 min.)
Zigoto’s Outing With Friends (1912, 5 min.)
Oxford vs. Martiques (1912, 4 min.)
Onésime Goes to Hell (1912, 7 min.)
Calino, Station Master (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime, Clockmaker (1912, 5 min.)
Onésime vs. Onésime (1912, 8 min.)
Zigoto Drives a Locomotive (1912, 6 min.)
Onésime Gets Maried … So Does Calino (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime: Calino’s Inheritance (1913, 1 min.)
Onésime Loves Animals (1913, 6 min.)
Onésime, Tamer of Men and Horses (1913, 13 min.)
Onésime and the Heart of a Gypsy (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime, You’ll Get Married … or Else! (1913, 7 min.)
Onésime’s Theatrical Debut (1913, 10 min.)
Onésime’s Family Drama (1914, 7 min.)

The Railway of Death (1912, 17 min.)
Burning Heart: An Indian Tale (1912, 13 min.)
Under the Claw (1912, 25 min.)

Jean Durand 1882-1946
Mini-documentary, written by Pierre Philippe, recounting the career of filmmaker Jean Durand through photographs and film clips.

Music by Patrick Laviosa

DVD 3: Jacques Feyder and the Early Masters of French Cinema
Heads … and Women Who Use Them (1916, 36 min.)
Friendly Advice (1916, 16 min.)*
Biscot on the Wrong Floor (1916, 15 min.)*
The Long Arm of the Law (1909, 7 min.)
The Barges (1911, 10 min.)**
La Marseillaise (1912, 10 min.)
A Drama of the Air (1913, 17 min.)
Child’s Play (1913, 12 min.)
Feet and Hands (1915, 17 min.)
A Factory Drama (1912, 13 min.)
The Pavements of Paris (1912, 13 min.)
The Fairy’s Farewell (n.d., 25 sec.)

Music by Patrick Laviosa, Ben Model (*), and Didier Goret (**)


Three early synchronized-sound musical shorts: “Anna qu’est-ce quet’attends?,” “Chemineau chemine,” and “Le Mouchoir rouge de Cholet”

Actualities that reveal the workings of Gaumont, including footage of founder Leon Gaumont demonstrating the operation of a motion picture camera, a hand-crank viewing device, a zoetrope, and dignitaries touring the Gaumont Studios

Excerpts of Gaumont’s revolutionary full-color film process

This is a sensational collection. Here is the infant cinema already able to hold its held up as a mature medium, capable of displaying artistry of the highest order. With this and volume one of Gaumont Treasures, plus Flicker Alley’s five disc set of the works of Georges Méliès (plus an ‘encore‘ sixth disc), and the recent Spanish release of a Segundo de Chomón DVD set, we are astonishingly blessed with DVD releases of early French cinema. And there will be more – a four-disc set of the works of Albert Capellani, another director of style and vision, is promised by Pathé in May.


Bioscope Newsreel no. 17


How can it be Friday again? Where are the days going to? Has there been any news? – I mean silent news of course, news of the inconsequential, non-life-threatening kind. Well, here’s some.

Sound of Silent Film Festival
Chicago’s Sound of Silent Film Festival describes itself “the only film festival that features modern silent films screened to live music, composed especially for the films by Chicago composers”. The festival includes works by Martin Scorsese (his bloody 1967 short film The Big Shave), Gus Van Sant, Manoel de Oliveira (the only living director to have made a silent film the first time around), Manga creator Osama Tezuka and a horror comedy created especially for the festival, which takes place April 1-3 at the Chopin Theatre. Read more.

Dante on DVD
Early Italian filmmakers loved the classics and loved spectacle. Both come together in L’inferno (1911), one of several bold attempts to put Dante on screen, notorious for its nudity, acclaimed for its Doré-inspired visual imagination and ingenious effects. It has been released on DVD by the Cineteca Bologna’s as part of its Cento anni fa series. An earlier DVD release had a score by Tangerine Dream which dividied opinion; this release comes with ambient sounds composed by Edison Studio and a piano score by Marco Dalpane. Read more.

Festival du film muet
Switzerland’s silent film festival (every country should have one) takes place in Servion, 24-27 March. Foolish Wives, Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde, Swiss title Der Bergführer, and Seven Chances are the films on show. Read more.

Toronto goes to hell
And there’s another silent film festival, this time in Toronto, taking place 30 March-7 April. Now in its second year, festival highlights include another Italian vision of hell, Maciste all’Inferno (1926), King Vidor’s The Jack Knife Man (1920), Clara Bow in It (1927), and – from the infernal regions once more – F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1927). Read more.

‘Til next time!

Welcome to the machine

Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision, Hilversum

There are times – usually in the daylight hours – when your scribe turns his attention away from silent films and earns his daily crust working as the moving image curator at a well-known national library. As such I get involved in broader matters to do with the study, care and availability of the medium, and it was with this particular hat on that I attended Screening the Future 2011: New Strategies and Challenges in Audiovisual Archiving, held this week in Hilversum, the Netherlands.

Did it have anything to do with silent films? Well, yes, in the general sense of planning for the future care of the moving image heritage. And there were issues raised, and matters to contemplate, which I think would be worth sharing. So here goes.

The event was organised by PrestoPrime and PrestoCentre, interlinked projects funded by the European Union as part of a decade-long programme looking at how film and broadcast archives should plan for the future by sharing knowledge of best practice. In particular the aim is to prepare these archives for the inevitable digital future. The conference was held at the architecturally stunning Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision (Beeld en Geluid), located in Hilversum’s Media Park – the archive of Dutch television and radio located next door to its main broadcasters and producers.

Film vaults at the Netherlands Institute for Sound and Vision

The conference was clearly popular, as they could have sold twice the number of tickets that they did. Attendees were split roughly 50/50 into archivists looking for the best way to manage their holdings, and vendors anxious to sell them the products and services to enable them to do so. There were some starry speakers: Antoine Aubert from Google; Internet Archive founder Brewster Kahle; film preservationist Jim Lindner of Media Matters; James Snyder, Senior Systems Administrator at the at Library of Congress’ National Audio-Visual Conservation Center; BBC Senior Research Engineer Richard Wright; digital video archiving guru Jeff Ubois; Daniel Teruggi, head of France’s Institut National de l’Audiovisuel; and Javier Hernandez Ros, Head of Unit Cultural Heritage and Technology Enhanced Learning at the European Commission.

We were there to discuss such big questions as What are we preserving? How can we fund our future? Where do archives meet IT? How will we keep our archives in good shape? and (painful as it is to write) How can we valorise our archives? A lot of the argument was inspired by a recent report, The New Renaissance, by the EU body Comité des Sages, which was published in January 2011. The report comes with a fascinating appendix, The Cost of Digitising Europe’s Cultural Heritage, prepared by Nick Poole of the Collection Trust. The report looks at the costs of digitising audiovisual collections, including the variables and the scales involved, comparing such costs with other things the EU member states might want to spend their money on. We are told that the total cost of digitising the cultural material in the EU (i.e. libraries, museums, national archives and AV collections) would be €105.31bn, of which AV collections alone would be €4.94bn. We are asked to consider the price of one Joint Strike Fighter (a fighter aircraft), which comes to €147.41m (excluding annual maintenance costs). For that money you could instead be

  • Digitising 1m individual books if the majority of Digitisation is done in-house
  • Digitising 1.67m books if the Digitisation is outsourced
  • Digitising 2.42m books under a Public Private Partnership
  • Digitising 96,789 rare books, manuscripts and incunabula
  • Digitising 29.5m historic photographs
  • Digitising 1.83m man-made artefacts in museums
  • Digitising 2.02m natural artefacts in museums
  • Digitising 36.85m pages of archival records
  • Digitising 2.4m hours of audio material
  • Digitising 0.34m hours of video
  • Digitising 0.09m hours of film

Europe being a peace-loving continent, and moreover a continent generally in favour of state funding, there were many who wanted to divert funds from the air forces to digitising our cultural heritage, so the €100bn figure was much bandied about. Brewster Kahle of the Internet Archive was scathing about this, pointing out just how many millions of film, sounds, websites and book titles his organisation has been able to make available for free online for a fraction of the sums being advocated by the Europeans. It all seemed so easy, if you apply Kahle’s ingenious lateral thinking and bold attitude towards copyright laws as presently constituted. The audience at Hilversum was torn between its free spirit aspirations and its dismay at Kahle’s seeming indifference towards rules of ownership that public sector institutions and broadcast archives are bound to observe.

Brewster Kahle taunts the archivists of Europe

Is Kahle a rogue, or a right-minded libertarian? Were his detractors in the audience only seeing the bars of the cage while he sees the gaps in between? That’s for others to debate. Instead, I was interested in the vision of archives that was being to presented to us. In times past, a conference about archives would have touched on the care of film stock, film handling skills, cultural priorities, aesthetics, and so on. We understood that we were talking about a craft, as well as all the economics and politics. But in Hilversum we heard speaker after speaker talk about project plans, workflows, metadata, file formats, wrappers, bit rot, master files and proxies, scalability, checksums, fixity checks, terabytes, petabytes (1,000 terabytes) and exabytes (1,000 petabytes). It was all about feeding the machine, the machine that the audiovisual archiving world is turning into as we put in analogue on a mass scale at one end and spit out digital files at the other. James Snyder from the Library of Congress told us that, in the future, we would have to eliminate humans from the process as much as possible (humans create errors), adding that

We are the last generation to have worked with analogue in the production environment. The next will have to be taught.

Gradually the pieces of the audiovisual archiving puzzle are coming together. You have the object to be digitised, the metadata standardised, the workflows agreed, the file formats accepted, the systems built, the processes understood and agreed internationally. And if you don’t spend all your money on jet fighters, you may even to be able to pay for it.

The future of film archiving is rows and rows of servers, nurturing digital files forever. Once you have digitised, that’s not the end of it. New formats and standards keep on coming in, and you have to migrate what you have digitised on a regular basis to ensure you’re not losing anything, maybe every 5-7 years re-digitising from your master files, so the machine will keep churning away, into infinity.

The love of the medium will be gone. The physical sense of the medium will vanish. Archivists will no longer be craftsmen or women, they will be process managers. Arguments in favour of supporting moving image preservation (which will be a never-ending procedure) will be harder to make to politicians and funders, because there will be nothing with any romance to show them, except those rows and rows of whirring machines – and what can be shown on the screen itself. We’ll still have that. And access will be sensational. We’ll have everything available one day: every extant silent, every feature film, every TV programme imaginable, every YouTube video, all probably accessible at the touch of a icon on your smartphone. But the medium itself, and the archive profession that exists to preserve its value for the future, will have lost not a little of its soul. I guess it’s the price we pay for finally coming up with the perfect archive.

Inside the National Audio-Visual Conservation Center, from

Update: Videos of the entire conference are now available from the PrestoCentre website. Brewster Kahle’s presentation is on the 14 March video (go to 3 hours 15 minutes into the video). James Snyder’s presentation is on the 15 March video, at the beginning.

Thanhouser on Vimeo

As many will know, the name of the Thanhouser Film Company – a mid-ranking American company of the early cinema period – has been kept very much alive by the efforts of the Thanhouser family, with DVD releases, research and publications. Now Ned Thanhouser has gone one step further by releasing a number of Thanhouser films previously available on DVD through the Vimeo online video site.

Above, for example, is the famous The Evidence of the Film (1913). Discovered in 1999 on the floor of a Montana projection booth, it is a crime tale typical of the period made especially fascinating on acount of its filmmaking background. It has acquired the status of a classic, and in 2001 was selected inclusion in the National Film Registry by the National Film Preservation Board of the Library of Congress. It comes with original music composed and performed by Ray Brubacher.

Some fifty videos have been made available on the Thanhouser Vimeo channel over the past few weeks. They include The Voice of Conscience (1912), the five-reeler Woman in White (1917) based on Wilkie Collins’ novel, the Wagner-based Tannhäuser (1913), She (1911) with Marguerite Snow and James Cruze, a number of Shakespeare titles including The Winter’s Tale (1910), Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde (1912) with James Cruze in the dual role, and perhaps the most celebrated of all Thanhouser films, The Cry of the Children (1912), on child labour reform, which uses an Elizabeth Barrett Browning poem (Thanhouser was notable for its dedication towards the literary classics) to highlight the wretched living and working conditions of the contemporary poor.

Each of the videos comes with informative but not too extensive background notes, and all in all this is a bold and welcome move on Thanhouser’s part. Quite probably it’s a reaction to the several examples of these films which can be found on YouTube, which have been ripped from the DVD releases by other hands. Far better, of course, that the videos come from a legitimate source, and hopefully it will help promote DVD sales in any case and further the preservation and promotional work of the Thanhouser Company Film Preservation, Inc.

Update: There is now a page on the Thanhouser site which lists all 56 films, provides links to the videos, and supplies useful background notes. See