Bioscope Newsreel no. 21

The Odessa Steps sequence from Battleship Potemkin (perhaps the Michael Bay widescreen version?). From Obsessed with Film

Returning from their Easter break, the Bioscope editorial team has been scouring the wires for the latest news on all things silent. Here’s what they have dredged up.

Defending D.W.
Peter Bogdanovich, who maintains a rather good blog with the uncomplicated name of Bogdanovich, writes in eloquent defence of D.W. Griffith in particular and against revisionist history in general. His argument is that the racist nature of The Birth of a Nation should not be allowed to blind us to Griffith’s status as an humane artist overall and as an influence on so many great filmmakers. Read more.

Potemkin sails again
The British Film Institute is releasing a newly-restored copy of Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin (with Edmund Meisel’s original score) in some UK cinemas from today. Obsessed with Film enthuses about the film’s popular appeal: “The 71-minute silent film has found itself tagged uncomfortably as an art picture, forever doomed as a source of study and academia. In actuality, it’s a roaring epic, the kind of film that Michael Bay might lay awake at night thinking about, pondering the possibility of a full-on remake”. Hmm, slightly worrying food for thought. Read more.

The political power of Francis X. Bushman
An article from the National Journal on the political power of celebrities comes up with the surprise information that where Bono treads today, silent star Francis X. Bushman once trod before. Bushman was apparently told by President William Howard Taft that he envied the love of people that Bushman enjoyed. Bushman doesn’t make the NJ’s list of the twenty most politically-influential celebrities, however – the only person to have appeared in silents who does is John Wayne. Read more.

Dreyer on Blu-Ray
It’s high time the Bioscope updated its list of silents on Blu-Ray, but it’s getting difficult to keep up. Just announced by the Danish Film Institute is a Blu-Ray release of Carl Th. Dreyer’s Love One Another (Die Gezeichneten) (1922) and The Bride of Glomdal (Glomdalsbruden) (1926), with piano scores by Ronen Thalmay. Intertitles are in Danish and English, and the films are being made available on DVD as well. Read more.

The dying Keaton
How many dance pieces have been produced about silent film stars who weren’t Charlie Chaplin? Not many I think, but this week Chicago Dance Crash and Culture Shock Chicago have come up with The Trials of Busta Keaton (now there’s a bold re-spelling to bring a star of yesteryear to a new audience), which documents the fading of Keaton’s career and his sad attempts to recapture his past. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Kraszna-Krausz award

Warm congratulations to Matthew Solomon and University of Illinois Press for his book Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century, which has just won the Best Moving Image Book Award at the prestigious Kraszna-Krausz Foundation book awards. The biennial awards, established through a bequest by Andor Kraszna-Krausz, the founder of Focal Press, recognise books on the moving image and photography that have made original and lasting educational, professional, historical and cultural contributions to the field.

Disappearing Tricks, as previously reported on by the Bioscope, revisits the golden age of both theatrical magic and silent film to reveal how professional magicians shaped the early history of cinema. The judges of the 2011 competition, Hugh Hudson, Peter Bradshaw and Sir Christopher Frayling said about Disappearing Tricks:

A fascinating enquiry into the early history of film, especially as it involved magicians and magic tricks. Matthew Solomon explores spiritualism and suspension of disbelief in a compelling investigation of the integration of cinema into mainstream entertainment.

So an important vote for publication on silent film, which joins previous such winners of the award, Writing Himself into History: Oscar Micheaux, His Silent Films and His Audiences by Pearl Bowser and Louise Spence, The World According to Hollywood, 1918-1939 by Ruth Vasey, Hollywood’s Overseas Campaign: The North Atlantic Movie Trade, 1920-1950 by Ian Jarvie, and Walt in Wonderland: The Silent Films of Walt Disney by Russell Merritt and J.B. Kaufman. Ours are the best form of movies and the best books about movies, clearly.

Matthew Solomon’s latest book, Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination, on Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, was published recently.

The one-stop-shop

Midland Electric Theatre, Babbington Lane, Derby, from Picture the Past, available via JISC MediaHub

Another day, another federated database. The latest offering is JISC MediaHub, which is a bringing together of a number of digital multimedia resources, many of which have been made available individually to UK higher education users by the Joint Information Systems Committee, often under institutional subscription only. Edinburgh University’s EDINA are the people who have put it all together, though all of the original digitising, describing and contextualising has been done by other hands. The resources include Film and Sound Online, NewsFilm Online (previously reviewed by the Bioscope), Spoken Word, Getty, AP Archive and several more.

JISC MediaHub brings all these together in one searchable form, allowing you to refine searches by video, image or sound (the three types featured), and by restricted or unrestricted content – so some of the content is open to all. It is clear to use, though personally I find the design on the busy side and the way descriptions pop up to the side of records a bit off-putting. Further tools and features are promised with later releases. MediaHub began in 2005 as a portal project entitled Visual and Sound Materials and has take quite a while to get to this form. It is to be hoped that it achieves its aim of increasing scholarly use of audiovisual media by making it easier to find high value content all in one place, rather than a set of disparate services. Whether researchers need (or, let’s face it, deserve) to find everything handily in one place is a matter for debate, but that’s the way things are being pushed – so it’s not really up for debate at all. You have all the advantages of the one-stop-shop, and all the disadvantages of content taken out of its curated context (though MediaHub does point researchers back to the original source website).

So, what can we find for our area of silent films, either among the restricted content (if we’re in a subscribing UK higher education institution or have password access to some other sites) or unrestricted (the rest of you)? Well, there’s quite a lot. Under content restricted to educational users only, there is a significant number of films from the Imperial War Museum covering the First World War, including the feature films The Battle of the Somme, The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks, and The Battle of Arras, along with other documentary and propaganda films made by British official film outfits. There are also IWM film clips which are available to all included on another resource, the First World War Poetry Digital Archive.

There is a considerable amount of news footage from the ITN collection (NewsFilm Online, originally created by the British Universities Film & Video Council), which includes practically the entire surviving archive of the Gaumont Graphic silent newsreel (1911-1932), with its marvellously rich recod of life, events and manners over two decades. There are also silent films on medical subjects in the Wellcome Trust collection, including the renowed War Neuroses, on the treatment of shell-shock (see the earlier Bioscope post on this), and titles such as Frontal Rhinoplasty and Epidemic Encephalitis, which you tend not to find in standard silent filmographies.

MediaHub search results for ‘Ancre’, showing photographs and film clips from both restricted and open collections

Among the unrestricted content there is the Open Video Project, itself a collection of freely-available online video collections which include a number of early Edison productions (and reviewed previously on the Bioscope); and Culture Grid, a collection cultural objects from UK collections with many photographs that relate to cinema – particularly cinema buildings themselves (type in ‘cinematograph’, ‘bioscope’ or ‘electric theatre’ for some interesting results, such as the image at the top of this post).

There is much more on film outside of silent film. Among the restricted collections are the ETV collection of Soviet and left-wing films, social conscience documentaries and feature films from Amber Films, the Films of Scotland series of documentaries, clips from the Getty collection of stock footage, news footage from Associated Press, and films on archaeology, medicine, chemistry etc., with other collections under negotiation, notably the Royal Mail Film Classics collection (Night Mail and such like). Among the film content that is free to all there is ARKive (footage of endangered species).

All in all it’s a remarkable, if equally curious collection of stuff. There are hundreds of thousands of objects available (around 90,000 being film items), but the randomness of some of the collections gives a sense of lucky dip about the whole research process. You don’t know what you are going to find – and if you are looking for something specific you’re as likely to be disappointed as not – but what you do find is bound to intrigue, and hopefully to encourage scholars to come back for more. The great advantage for those in UK HE is that the restricted content is licensed for them to download and re-use, and that (I can tell you) has taken a lot of neogiating to achieve, and not a little expenditure as well.

For the rest of us, it’s a bit like peering in at the window of a toyshop when you haven’t got any pocket money. It would of course be so much better of all of this content was freely available to everyone, to do what they wanted with it in an entirely open fashion. But that’s not going to happen (yet), and much of this content has only been made available in this way because it can be restricted to educational users under careful licence conditions. So lucky you if you’re a UK student. Now go out and make use of it.

Bologna 2011

Conrad Veidt features on the poster for this year’s Il Cinema Ritrovato

Bologna, Italy is home to one of the world’s leading festival of archive and restored films, Il Cinema Ritrovato. The festival always includes a strong representation of silent films, which are enriched all the more for being exhibited alongside films from later periods. This year’s festival takes place 25 June-2 July, and the main themes have been announced. Below are the blurbs supplied so far for those sections with silent films included.

Howard Hawks
After Frank Capra and John Ford, this year’s big retrospective offers up spectacular editions of early works and later masterpieces by Howard Hawks, the genuine auteur of American film, the “great craftsman” whose stature as a maestro was affirmed by Cahiers in the 50s and a person who influenced the creation of the Hollywood myth as much as the same Ford and Hitchcock. Hawks who challenged and transcended every production condition, Hawks friend to Hemingway, Hawks narrator of the most memorable and ambiguous male relationships in film history, Hawks inventor of a powerful new American female archetype, Hawks relentless creator of his own legend, Hawks who in fifty years covered every genre of film without losing his grip on his incomparable style. We will show all Hawks’s silent films available today (Fig Leaves, The Cradle Snatchers, Paid to Love, A Girl in Every Port, Fazil, Trent’s Last Case) and many sound films from the 30s, starting with his first The Dawn Patrol from 1930 to Barbary Coast from 1935, rare flicks such as Criminal Code, The Crowd Roars, Tiger Shark and milestones of gangster movie and screwball comedy genres such as Scarface, Shame of a Nation and Twentieth Century. And that’s not all; we are working on showing Hawks classics that are the height of their genre and continue to be a thrilling visual adventure, from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes to The Big Sleep. “The evidence on the screen is the proof of Hawks’s genius” wrote Jacques Rivette in 1953. Watch it, and watch it again.

Conrad Veidt, from Caligari to Casablanca
After years of research, this year’s festival will be the one which finally pays tribute to Conrad Veidt, the great actor of silent German film, the sublime mask of expressionism. The “strange creature” of The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari lent his long face with throbbing veins to Wiene, Oswald, Pabst and Leni in various films of the 20s, before leaving Nazi Germany in 1934 and starting an English career that reached its apex with director Michael Powell (The Thief of Baghdad). Veidt’s career and life came to an end in America, where he acted in a few militant anti-Nazi films but is best known for his role as Major Heinrich Strasser, shot dead in the final scene of Casablanca.

Alice Guy: Tribute to a Pioneer of Cinema
Alice Guy Blaché’s story is like no other in the history of moving images: a woman and pioneering filmmaker, Alice was at the forefront of the technological, industrial, and cultural changes that made cinema the new form of mass-media entertainment. From early sound technology, like Gaumont’s Chronophone synchronized sound system, to her American production adventure with Solax (1910-1914), from distribution with the U.S. Amusement Corporation (1916) to feature length films such as The Ocean Waif (1916), Alice Guy participated in every aspect of the evolving motion picture business, adapting to new developments and challenges. Although Alice Guy is most celebrated as the first woman director in film history, this achievement only scratches the surface of her vast accomplishments. She paved the way for women as creative professionals and as powerful agents of economic and social change. Our program features a selection of films produced by Alice Guy’s American company Solax as well as early films she directed at Gaumont and a feature film she made as an independent working in the U.S. industry.

Boris Barnet, Poetic Visions of Everyday Life
Our vast tribute to Boris Barnet spans from early Soviet cinema to the 1960s. Barnet debuted as an actor in the legendary Mister Vest by Kulešov before beginning his career as a director. Refusing to yield to genre formulas, Barnet was all but completely ignored by the mainstream and received off and on criticism. Surrounded by great “revolutionary” filmmakers, the work of this artist faded into the background. Today, however, Barnet is considered one of the most interesting and pioneering directors of classic Soviet film for his narrative style that balances lyricism, irony, spontaneity and drama in a constant dialogue between playground and reality. A view of the world and of humanity that we discover following the “Barnetian” hero from everyday adventures in silent films from the 1920s to Barnet’s final intimist works Alenka (1961) and Polustanok (The Whistle Stop, 1965), interspersed with masterpieces, such as Okraina (The Outskirts, 1933), about the Great War at the turn of the Revolution, and the surreal U samogo sinego morja (By the Bluest of Seas, 1934). Other works include Staryj naezdnik (The Old Jockey), a 1940 comedy that was dear to the director but was banned until 1959, films made during the war between 1941 and 1944, and Podvig razvedčika (Secret Agent, 1947) in which Barnet also acts, admirably playing a German official.

Progetto Chaplin
Here we are pleased to announce some of the programs of the ten year project Progetto Chaplin: Kate Guyonvarch and the author Lisa Stein will present the new biography Syd Chaplin, a unique portrait of Sydney Chaplin’s life and art that also sheds light on unexplored areas of Charlie’s career (the presentation will feature a screening of rare home movies); finally two ‘four-hand’ dossiers: one with Kevin Brownlow dedicated to Eddie Sutherland (director, actor, assistant director to Chaplin in A Woman of Paris and The Gold Rush) also featuring a selection of his silent and sound films; and the other with David Robinson will explore, through the analysis of the archival drafts, Chaplin’s script of The Great Dictator.

Bologna is releasing more information on the festival in advance than is usually the case, which is welcome, and it promises in its next newsletter that there will be information on two further sections, Recovered and Restored, Searching for the color of film and the hardy annual 100 years ago: the films of 1911. Additionally there is a programme strand At the Heart of 20th Century: Socialism between Fear and Utopia, which doesn’t mention any silents, but could conceivably include some, and the evening open-air screenings in the Piazza Maggiore, which will include Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger’s The Thief of Bagdad (1940), Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976), and America America by Elia Kazan (1963).

Information on the festival (in Italian and English), including locations, hotels and extensive details of past festivals are available on the Il Cinema Ritrovato site. And we’ll have more on the colour and 1911 programmes as and when they appear.

Hot off the presses

We had a previous post where we alerted readers to upcoming publications in the area of silent film, and it seemed to be quite well received, so here’s another look into the crystal ball at some of the books scheduled for 2011:

Fantastic Voyages of the Cinematic Imagination looks highly welcome. It is written by Matthew Solomon, author of the excellent Disappearing Tricks: Silent Film, Houdini, and the New Magic of the Twentieth Century. His new book, published by State University of New York Press, concentrates on Georges Méliès’ Trip to the Moon, the key fantastical film of the silent era (and one of the most important of all science fiction films). It places the film in the context of histories of techology, film history, the avant garde, Méliès’ own history, and more. It’s a great idea for a book and I hope to review here in due course.

Soon to be published by Anthem Press is The Diaries of Frank Hurley 1912-1941, edited by Robert Dixon and Christopher Lee. Frank Hurley was the photographer and cinematographer for the Antarctic expedition of Douglas Mawson and most famously Ernest Shackleton. He went on to be an official war cameraman on the Western Front and in the Near East, then in the 1920s directed ethnographic dramas such as Pearls and Savages. Onlt short passages of his diaries (which cover all of this period and more) have been published up to now, and this illustrated edition will cast new light on a filmmaker who images alone among the most eloquent (and most arduously achieved) of their time. In October Anthem will publish Robert Dixon’s Photography, Early Cinema and Colonial Modernity: Frank Hurley’s Synchronized Lecture Entertainments which sounds like an important recognition that artists such as Hurley did not produce films so much as multimedia entertainments, combining film, images, music and commentary.

June sees the publication by the BFI of Bryony Dixon’s 100 Silent Films. This is one of a series of BFI books in which 100 essential titles in any given genre (Westerns, Anime, Shakespeare Films, Road Movies etc) are described in pithy, accessible form. The latest is this volume by the BFI’s silent film curator, which will feature one hundred key films of the silent period from a variety of countries, genres and directors, and will doubtless generate much argument as to what should or should not have been included, while being a highly welcome first port of call for anyone discovering silent films. Again, it should be reviewed here in due course.

British Silent Cinema and the Great War will be published by Palgrave Macmillan in August. Edited by Michael Hammond and Michael Williams, it is appearing ahead of what is going to be a huge number of texts marking the centenary of the First World War, now just three years away. It covers the complex relationship between British film and the British experience of the war, and is indicative of how confident and sophisticated the discussion of British silent cinema has become in recent years – a far cry from the corner of silent film history that scarcely dared speak its name not so long ago.

The University of California Press is publishing Twilight of the Idols: Hollywood and the Human Sciences in 1920s America by Mark Lynn Anderson. The book looks at the position of silent films stars – particularly Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, and Mabel Normand – and how they shapred ideas of personality and human conduct. As the publishers’ blurb puts it, “Anderson looks at motion picture stars who embodied various forms of deviance – narcotic addiction, criminality, sexual perversion, and racial indeterminacy. He considers how the studios profited from popularizing ideas about deviance, and how the debates generated by the early Hollywood scandals continue to affect our notions of personality, sexuality, and public morals”. So, stuff we’ve heard before, but also stuff that people are going to keep on and keep on reading.

Flickers of Desire: Movie Stars of the 1910s by Jennifer M. Bean is published by Rutgers University Press in August. The blurb states: “The conjunction of the terms “movie” and “star” was inconceivable prior to the 1910s. Flickers of Desire explores the emergence of this mass cultural phenomenon, asking how and why a cinema that did not even run screen credits developed so quickly into a venue in which performers became the American film industry’s most lucrative mode of product individuation. Contributors chart the rise of American cinema’s first galaxy of stars through a variety of archival sources – newspaper columns, popular journals, fan magazines, cartoons, dolls, postcards, scrapbooks, personal letters, limericks, and dances.” Perfomers covered include Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Pearl White, Sessue Hayakawa, Theda Bara, George Beban and G. M. Anderson.

Nina Baburina’s The Silent Film Poster 1908-1934 is published in July by Art-Rodnik. The book is a little more specific that the title might suggest, being an illustrated study of the Russian film poster. It traces the history from a 1908 poster from Stenka Razin designed by Paul Assaturov in the style of “ancient naive Russian imagery” to an advertisement for a silent movie by Yuri Pimenov from 1934, through 161 full-page repductions. The artists featured include Alexandro Rodchenko, the Stenberg Brothers, Jacob Ruklevski, Nikolai Prusakov and Alexander Naumov, and naturally enough it covers the pre-Soviet as well as the Soviet era, and both Russian/Soviet and foreign films.

If you know of more that are coming up, do add them to the comments.

Omar and his Skyhook

Well, the the sun is shining down brightly on Bioscope Towers, and as Easter arrives the editorial team is downing tools for a while and warming itself in the ornamental gardens in the company of friends and family.

During this short break in service, here’s a modern silent for you, made by Douglas Purver in 2009. Produced in a style that makes one think of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland, it demonstrates a kind of magical filmmaking that an audience back in 1911 would recognise, could we but send the film back 100 years. That makes it something of a rarity among modern silents, most of which would doubtless baffle the audiences of those times. Just a shame about the unnecessary faux scratches. Films weren’t like that in 1911; at least, not when they started out.

So, enjoy, and we’ll return in a few days’ time.

The second longest film in the world

Well here’s something I didn’t know before – the world’s second-longest film is a silent film. Indeed, until it was beaten by the compellingly-titled Modern Times Forever (Stora Enso Building, Helsinki) only this year, which weighs in at a daunting 240 hours, Cinématon by the French experimental filmmaker Gérard Courant was the longest film in the world, at 156 hours, or six days twelve hours.

Courant has been making the film for thirty-three years. He started making it in 1978 and is still being added to, so he could yet catch up once more with his rival. It’s not a narrative film, indeed it’s not really a single film but rather a series of unedited silent portraits (cinématons) of people, each of which is three minutes and 25 seconds long, shot on Super 8 film. To date there are 2,350 of them. Courant says he only intended to shoot 100 but the idea was so popular that he just kept on going.

The subjects range from the famous to the unknown. Included among the former are Jean-Luc Godard, Sam Fuller, Maurice Pialat, Wim Wnders, Sandrine Bonnaire, Terry Gilliam, Joseph Losey and Roberto Benigni. A number are available to view on Courant’s website, while others (appaently with the filmmaker’s blessing), appear on YouTube. They are silent films, and Courant has said he prefers silent movies “because of their power to convey strong emotions and connect with the audiences”. Whether you connect in an emotionally strong way with the film of Godard below, for example, may be open to question. It is typical of the series, where the subject, shown in close-up, simply sits before the camera. Many subject look self-conscious, uncertain of what to do, of how to fill the time.

Jean-Luc Godard, Cinématon #106, filmed 22 February 1981

The ‘film’ has been screened in its entirety on a number of occasions, each time getting longer of course, most recently at the Microscope Gallery, New York in 2010, and sequences are currently being featured at the Gulf Film Festival.

French critic Jacques Kermabon wrote this about the series in 1983:

Le Cinématon renoue avec la vocation originelle du cinématographe, émerveillé par la reproduction du mouvement et la possibilité de conserver la trace d’une existence. L’émotion naît de découvrir au cinéma la palpitation d’un corps: respiration, clignements d’yeux, hochements de tête. Tout est enregistré sans possibilité de reprise : les gestes manqués, les maladresses, les hésitations … Tout un corpus gestuel, honni du cinéma traditionnel, est ainsi exhibé, rendant caduque la notion de réalisme dans le cinéma de fiction. La pellicule a impressionné le souvenir de 3 minutes 20 d’existence. Elle restitue dans sa pesanteur, le temps qui est passé un jour. « La mort au travail », disait Cocteau du cinéma.

The original vocation of cinema? Well there is something of the Lumières about the exercise – single shot films, each of identical length, arranged in series, records of seeming plain reality that become anything but because the camera was there. And yet it is the negation of cinema, because fundamentally cinema takes you somewhere (a characteristic of every Lumière film) while Cinématon takes you nowhere. Whether you spent three minutes 25 seconds watching it or six-and-a-half days would probably make no difference. But cinema overall would be the poorer without such grandes folie.

There is to be a retrospective of Courant’s work at La Cinémathèque de Bourgogne in October or November of this year, and the Cinémathèque’s website is currently screening one cinématon per week.

The place of the past

Venice, California today and inset the same location as featured in Kid Auto Races at Venice, Cal. (1914), from a PowerPoint presentation of famous Chaplin filming locations on

John Bengtson is the author of Silent Traces, Silent Echoes, and Silent Visions, three books which take a fresh look at classic silent comedy films by revisting their locations today. Traces covers the films of Charlie Chaplin; Echoes covers Buster Keaton; and Visions (published May 2011) covers Harold Lloyd. The publications have gained much praise for their novel, illuminating approach to film history and simply because they are such a delight to look at.

Bengtson has now gone online with Silent Locations, a blog that promises to cover ‘Chaplin-Keaton-Lloyd film locations (and more)’. It’s early days for the site as yet, but already there are some fascinating then-and-now photographs for films of each of the three stars, with instructive background information on location and production, plus the promise of other kinds of content to follow. For example, there is a downloadable PowerPoint presentation on classic Chaplin locations, with a frame still from the film inset within a photograph of the location today, which is as beautiful as it is informative. It’s going to be a site to keep an eye on.

We can be so engrossed in what we see on the screen that we can forget that there is more to the movies than stars and stories. Every film made is a time capsule. The way people look, dress, talk, interact with one another, the social assumptions that are made, the places they live in, visit, work in, the functions and histories of those places, the transport they use, their hopes, fears, loves and hatreds. Few history books are able to pack in as much as a film does, if we are prepared to look.

This was the great theme of the late Colin Sorensen, museum curator and cultural historian. In building up the modern collection at the Museum of London, he became fascinated by film’s capacity to impart the history of London. By this he didn’t just mean documentaries, but more particularly fiction films, because of their frequently deeper resonances. Films show both a literal and an imaginary past. There are actual locations and buildings still standing or now lost, of course, and Sorensen was very good at pointing out buildings shown standing in films that exist no more, so that the film becomes a precious record of a place’s appearance and social functions. But film is also a dream of how people imagined the city was, and embeds a rich set of associations with other histories. As he wrote in his book London on Film (1996):

This unique accumulation of insight and information, of fact and fantasy, has created a vast resource for the study and appreciation of London. It offers us a largely unprobed field for a new kind of urban archaeology: the archaeology of recorded action rather than of surviving artefact.

It was Colin’s great frustration that he could mostly only present his ideas through still images, and that even when a film was running he could not find the means to fix associations between what was on the screen and the links he detected with other histories that lay in his head (he might have been able to do so much more with today’s computer software). It isn’t that films belong in the museum so much as films are a museum – it’s just that we so seldom take the time to look at them in that way.

London (1926), from London on Film

See, for example, this still from the lost British film London, directed by Herbert Wilcox in 1926, which comes from London on Film. It’s a studio setting, but a precisely recreated one of a part of London life that once was. He writes:

The ebb and flow of city life continues throughout the day and night. Paths cross and the diverge as people go their different ways … [T]he coffee stall, now a vanishing feature of London life, once provided a unique meeting place where people of all types and classes rubbed shoulders for a few moments, refreshing themselves with a drink and a sandwich.

So the setting has a historical, symbolic and practical function – the latter being that it makes for a good point at which to bring together disparate characters, and one with strong character recognition. Of course, there is much more. There are the dowdly, well-worn clothes of the Londoners. Everyone wears hats, all the man have buttoned-up shirts with ties. There is the stall itself (evidently horse-drawn even though this is the 1920s), its pavement location, its wares and its advertisements. But also running through the image is a history of British filmmaking, from the assertive Britishness of the film’s title, to the contrary fact that the lead performer is an American (Dorothy Gish, on the left), typical of many an American star with a career on the wane being snapped up on the cheap by a British studio. But she is a Gish sister, so embedded in her image is a whole history of narrative cinema that comes out of D.W. Griffith. And London was based on the London stories of Thomas Burke, another of whose novels inspired Broken Blossoms). Or we can just look at the coffee cups and think that, apart from the size of the cups, maybe there’s not that much about London life that has changed after all.

John Bengtson has done an excellent job showing how traces of the past exist in the locations of today, and by showing past and present side by side he makes us think historically. But it’s not just the stills but the films themselves that we need to annotate in a far richer form than we have achieved so far. Film’s special capacity for encapsulating times past and creating associations between where we are now and where we once were needs not just to be acknowledged but to be documented. Otherwise the history will be lost.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 20

Well, it’s all been happening in the land of the silents. Here’s your latest edition of the Bioscope Newsreel, rounding up some of the news stories from the week, starting with what might just turn out to become the most watched silent film ever …

Doodling with Chaplin
We kick off with Charlie Chaplin’s 122nd birthday, which Google has commemorated in distinctive fashion by making a Chaplin video its Google logo (or doodle) for the day (strictly speaking, for 36 hours). It is the first time the Google logo has been a live-action video, and it is most elegantly done. It’s not Chaplin himself, alas – instead we get a so-so pastiche, starring members of the Google Doodle team, including Mike Dutton as Chaplin. The background to the video is given on the Google blog. Read more.

Top 50 lost films
The idea of lost films is endlessly engrossing, and listing those films believed lost that one would most like to see is many a film fan’s favourite parlour game. In 2008 the Film Threat site gave us a list of 50 top lost films it would most like to see, and now it has returned with another 50. Most of them are silents, and there are some obscure but knowledgeable choices among them. Tsunekichi Shibata’s Tokyo’s Ginza District (1898), anyone? The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ One Hundred Years of Mormonism (1913)? Or the clever-clever choice of Olives and their Oil (1914) the other half of the split reel on which Chaplin’s Kid Auto Races at Venice was released. Read more.

Gorgeous George
There’s a (fairly) new website published, dedicated to George O’Brien, star of Fox silents, and a screen history immortal for his presence in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise. Entitled Gorgeous George O’Brien, it comes with biography, photos, articles and filmography. Read more.

Silent Britain
The British Silent Film Festival recently took place. The Bioscope was only there for a short while, but the Dumdidumdum tumblr has some short reports, and Pamela Hutchinson of the lively Silent London blog has written a thoughtful, historically informed piece on the festival and silent film music for The Guardian. Read more.

An understanding
And finally, it doesn’t have much to do with silents directly, but anyone interested in film, research and digital opportunities should take note of the news that the British Film Institute and the British Library have signed a memorandum of understanding, with the intention of increasing “public, professional and research access to audiovisual and broadcast content and integrating it with other knowledge collections”. I write about this on my other, somewhat disused blog, Moving Image. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Pure motion

Slate for Peter Jackson’s production of The Hobbit, showing the 48 frames per second rate. From Jackson’s Facebook page

Here are two quotations. The first is from 1891:

My idea was to take a series of instantaneous photographs of motions so rapidly that in the reproduction the photographic representatives become resolved into a pure motion, instead of a series of jerks. The kinetograph takes a series of forty-six photographs in one second and keeps it up as long as desired. It starts, moves, stops, uncloses the shutter, takes a photogaph, and starts on, forty-six times a second. The result when reproduced is a pure motion.

The second is from 2011:

The key thing to understand is that this process requires both shooting and projecting at 48 fps, rather than the usual 24 fps … So the result looks like normal speed, but the image has hugely enhanced clarity and smoothness. Looking at 24 frames every second may seem ok … but there is often quite a lot of blur in each frame, during fast movements, and if the camera is moving around quickly, the image can judder or “strobe.”

Quote number one comes from Thomas Edison, at a time when he and his team were still at the experimental stage of development for a motion picture camera (and the means to exhibit the results). Quote number two comes from Peter Jackson, writing about his production of The Hobbit on Facebook. Jackson’s announcement has generated a lot of interest. He goes on to say:

It looks much more lifelike, and it is much easier to watch, especially in 3-D. We’ve been watching HOBBIT tests and dailies at 48 fps now for several months, and we often sit through two hours worth of footage without getting any eye strain from the 3-D. It looks great, and we’ve actually become used to it now, to the point that other film experiences look a little primitive.

He points out that 24 frames per second – the speed at which films are shots and projected – was determined in the late 1920s as the standard for shooting sound films, probably because it was the minimum speed from which audio fidelity could be gained from the first optical sound tracks, and because a minimum figure would help save on expensive film stock (the faster the speed film went through the camera, the more stock was used up, of course). Films don’t have to run at a particular speed. So long as the frequency is above a threshhold sufficient to generate the illusion of movement – somewhere around 12 frames per second is the minimum – you can have as rapid a frame rate as your technology can bear.

In the silent era, frame speeds generally ranged from 14 fps to 24 fps (sometimes more), and got progressively faster from the earliest years up to the late 1920s. This, however, is a gross simplification, and something of a hotly contested area, particularly when it comes to projecting silents today or presenting them on DVD. I’m not going to wade into that debate. Suffice to say that films could be projected at speeds different to those in which they were shot; indeed different parts of films could be shot at different speeds, and projected at different speeds; and what a producer or cinematographer hoped for, and what was actually practiced in the cinemas were not necessarily always the same thing. Many silent films were exhibited at speeds far faster than those at which they were shot, sometimes because they were comedies or thrillers that benefitted from such treatment, but often simply because exhibitors could squeeze in more film into a show if they showed the films more quickly than their makers intended.

What I am pointing out is that there is nothing new about film speeds above 24 fps, and that the silent era was not simply about a gradual climb in speed from the 1890s to the 1920s. Right at the start of motion pictures Thomas Edison was setting 46 fps as the ideal, fearing that at anything less there would be troublesome flicker. His aim was pure motion, much as Peter Jackson now dreams of, and at much the same speed.

However, although Edison and his chief motion picture engineer William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson often spoke of achieving 40 to 46 fps in the early 1890s, they seldom if ever achieved it. The need for lighting of sufficient brilliance meant that only filming in bright sunshine would be suitable, and the wear and tear on the machinery had to be considerable. The Black Maria studio devised by Dickson for shooting the first Kinetoscope films did use sunlight (from a gap in the roof, with the studio revolving to catch the moving sun) but he shot the films at between 30 and 40 fps, and probably nearer to 30 most of the time. Such films are frequently shown today at no faster than 24 fps, which is why so many early Edison films look like they were shot in slow motion. See Blacksmith Shop (1895) on the British Pathe site for an example of an Edison film shown too slowly, and the examples of early Edison films on the Library of Congress’ YouTube playlist for how they should look.

Edison was not alone in going for the highest frame rate possible. The Mutoscope and Biograph Company (of which Dickson was a founder director) produced films from 1896 with a motor-driven camera that could vary in speed but which generally operated at 30 fps. My not entirely scientific memory from having viewed a lot of these is that the American Biograph productions of 1896-97 were shot at 30 fps and above, but that subsequent Biograph productions of the 1890s in Europe and the USA look ‘natural’ at 24 fps. Higher speeds were also required for some early colour systems. Kinemacolor (1908) required a speed of at least 30 fps, because of its successive red-green frames (i.e. two frames in succession supplied a single colour image on the screen) while Gaumont’s Chronochrome (1911), a three-colour red-green-blue successive frame system, demanded 48 fps. And scientific experimenters working with high-speed techniques for analysing subjects such as animal motion or ballistics were able to achieve filming speeds of 100,000 fps by the mid-1920s (e.g. Lucien Bull).

The essential place to go from an understanding on film speeds in the silent era is Kevin Brownlow’s renowned essay, ‘Silent Films: What Was the Right Speed?‘, written in 1980 for Sight and Sound and made available through David Pierce’s indispensible Silent Film Bookshelf site, which also reproduces a number of articles from the time on the vexed issues of correct shooting and projecting speeds. See, for example, what Brownlow writes about instructions supplied by D.W. Griffith for a 1914 film:

His instructions for Home Sweet Home (1914) recommended 16 minutes for the first reel (16.6 fps), 14-15 minutes for the second (17.8-19 fps), and 13-14 for each of the other reels (19-20.5 fps). ‘The last reel, however, should be run slowly from the beginning of the allegorical part to the end’ (Moving Picture World, 20 June 1914 p. 652). ‘The projectionist,’ said Griffith, ‘in a large measure is compelled to redirect the photoplay.’

Brownlow discusses Edison and Biograph in his wide-ranging essay, but for a more detailed investigation, see Paul Spehr’s recent biography, The Man Who Made Movies: W.K.L. Dickson (see Exposure, rate of, in the index).

And so we wait for Peter Jackson to bring motion pictures back to that pitch of pure motion that Thomas Edison had decided was essential 120 years ago.