The Pirate King

Well, there I was, thinking to put together another Bioscope newsreel, and struggling to dig up news stories that wouldn’t better served as full posts, when I came across what I think is a first. It’s the first promotional video that I’ve come across for a book on silent films. If you don’t know, publishers are becoming increasingly keen to produce what are effectively trailers for the books they publish, which can feature author interviews, extracts being read out, or sometimes scenes being dramatised. It’s a whole genre to itself, and you just hope that some archivist somewhere is collecting them all.

Most of these videos are for fictional works, and that’s the case with Pirate King (I can hear the cries of disappointment that it is not some severe tome on Deleuzean film theory that has been given the video promo treatment). No, Pirate King is the latest production from American novelist Laurie R. King, who writes novels in which Sherlock Holmes works alongside his wife Mary Russell, an undercover detective. No, you won’t find her in the Arthur Conan Doyle works, but King has imagined that Holmes had retired to the Sussex Downs after His Last Bow and met the 16-year-old Russell in 1915, when he was aged 54. Well, of course.

Pirate King is the eleventh in this series, and this time Mary and Sherlock becomes involved in the murky world of British silent films of the 1920s. The Pirate King is a film producer with a criminal past, named Randolph Flytte, a sort of English Erich von Stroheim, who is making a film of The Pirates of Penzance in Portgual and Morocco. And then real pirates get involved.

Alas, the author has missed the chance to produce something with added complexity, because of course there was an extensive series of short films based on the Holmes stories filmed at Stoll Film Studios in the early 1920s, many directed by Maruice Elvey, with Eille Norwood as one of the best screen Sherlocks there has been. There’s a whole Bioscope post on the history of Conan Doyle’s works and the silent screen, if you want to know more. What fun it would have been had Sherlock and Mary had their mystery to solve amid the film company filming one of his adventures. It would have been a whole lot more plausible than pirates or indeed a British cinema of the period with anything like someone like Erich von Stroheim beside the camera. Indeed, a missed chance.

You can read extracts on Laurie R. King’s website, from which you may also learn that the renowned Portguese Poet Fernando Pessoa is also a character, and that either the author or her web manager can’t spell D’Oyly Carte. And there’s an interview with King, focussing on the film side of things (about which she doesn’t appear to know a great deal, though she does note the existence of Sherlock Jr.) done by Thomas Gladysz for his SFGate blog.

Sunbeam variations

Kristin Thompson has written a fine post on the blog she shares with David Bordwell about a singularly inventive video by a Spanish student, Aitor Gametxo. He has taken D.W. Griffith’s little-known film Sunbeam (1912), which takes place in a tenement building on multiple floors and rooms, and arranged the scenes that take place in each room in a grid format, so that what takes place in the upstairs room on the left occurs on the upper left-hand corner of the screen, and so on. The performers then move in and out of the spaces, respecting Griffith’s editing ploys.

The result is as delightful as it is informative. I’m not going to go into the fine details of Griffith’s handling of simultaneous action or his intuitive understanding of naturalistic film cutting, because others – such Thompson or video essay enthusiast Kevin B. Lee – can do so very much better than I. I’m just doing what Thompson asks, which is to help spread the word about an imaginative piece of film analysis and a rather beautiful piece of work in itself, reminiscent in its way of Mike Figgis’ four-screen Timecode or the celebrated multi-roomed HBO promo video Voyeur.

Aitor Gametxo’s visual exposition of Griffith’s artistry is an object lesson in understanding how some silent films (indeed other films) work. It is one of a growing number of video essays to be found online, particularly on the Vimeo site, which film scholar Catherine Grant, of the Film Studies for Free blog, has been gathering together under the Audiovisualcy channel. Such essays analyse film texts in video form, making their arguments by illustrations from the films themselves, in a variety of often highly creative ways. What is noticeable is that none of the essays she has uncovered so far, with the one exception of Variation: The Sunbeam, David W. Griffith, 1912, is devoted to a silent film. I’ve gone looking for examples and not found them. Why is this? Are silent films insufficiently understood as being a part of film studies? Do the films not interest students and lecturers as much as they might? Do they lack the sense of cool that may come from deconstructing the cinema of today?

Or will the reimagining of Sunbeam help inspire further such investigations into early film form and strategies?

Heritage matters

If someone offered you £25M to save the nation’s moving image heritage, what would you say, and how would you spend it?

Both questions are worth considering, because the first answer is that you couldn’t save the nation’s moving image heritage with ten times that amount, so you need more. In fact, when the UK’s public sector moving archives (excluding Scotland and Wales) were offered round about this sum four years ago from the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, it was less than they had originally asked for. The pitch had been for twice that amount, but funders love to give you just that little bit less than you asked for and see how well you do with that.

So you’ve got less than you hoped, and now you have to spend it. Of course you have to spend it against an argument presented to your funder, the argument here being a strategy in support of the UK’s screen heritage, which would help stabilise an unsteady and certainly underfunded sector. There were four ‘investment’ aims” to the strategy:

  • Securing the National Collection
    Capital works to extend and improve BFI storage facilities with appropriate conditions to safeguard the collection.
  • Revitalising the Regions
    Nomination of key collections in the English Regions, leading to improved plans for their preservation and access.
  • Delivering Digital Access
    Extending online access to the Nation’s screen heritage, through collection cross-searching and digitisation.
  • Demonstrating Educational Value
    Identifying, developing and evaluating effective use of screen heritage material within learning environments.

Four years on, and ‘demonstrating educational value’ rather got lost in the mix, but significant achievements have been made under the main three categories, and yesterday at the BFI Southbank they were announced to an invited audience. The Bioscope (naturally) was there.

It was a curious evening, which began with a clip shown from David Lean’s own 70mm print of Lawrence of Arabia, inelegantly cut off just as it was getting interesting, then effusive words in praise of film as a medium to inspire, move, inform, entertain, engage and so on. The main business, however, said little about the feature film and focussed chiefly on amateur and documentary film, stressing their special capacity for capturing human experience and strongly suggesting that the film history we have is a greatly inadequate one. We know a lot about a few films, said speaker Frank Gray of Screen Archive South East, and know next to nothing about a huge number of other films that lie in archives, demanding discovery, interpretation and sharing.

We heard from the people at the BFI who have steered the strategy, with head of collection and information Ruth Kelly doing a fine turn explaining the necessities of film preservation and even managing to make database management sound interesting. A panel session stressed the great value of archive film for an understanding of history and society, and the notable achievement of the strategy in getting so many film archives to work together for a common aim (how many other sectors could boast such co-operation?). The convenor, Francine Stock, suggested that what was being argued for archive film went a good way beyond nostalgia, but unfortunately we were then shown clips from the shamelessly nostalgic BBC series Reel History of Britain, first broadcast yesterday, which shows archive films being taken around the UK and projected to weeping audiences. Though it is always moving to see someone old see themselves when young, or a parent or grandparent when young, there is so much more to the medium than this. The series bombards you with the same emotional manipulation again and again. A wasted opportunity.

The BFI Master Film Store

But how did they spend the £25M (or £22.8M as it has boiled down to)? The greater proportion of it (£12M) went on building a new master film store for the BFI, though its facilities will be available for other archives as well. This is going to take the nation’s moving image heritage and keep it cold and dry (minus 5 degrees and 35% relative humidity, to be precise). As Ruth Kelly explained, a few years ago the BFI discovered that the traditional preservation model of copying from one film onto new stock was no longer sustainable, because the amount of films on the verge of deterioration was outstripping the resources available to manage it. The solution was to keep the films at a cold enough temperature to ensure that the process of decay was halted. You don’t copy, you freeze. It seems an obvious, economical solution now, but when first proposed it caused huge controversy, with the BFI attacked on all sides, and a secret online group formed to try and save the BFI from itself. How foolish that all seems now.

The master film store is being built at Gaydon in Warwickshire, and there’s a video guide to it on the BBC news site, with Ruth Kelly telling us the difference between nitrate, acetate and polyester, and showing us round.

Officially launched yesterday was another key output of the Screen Heritage Strategy, a union search facility enabling you to search across the databases of eleven film archives in one go. Entitled Search Your Film Archives, it has already been reported on by the Bioscope, and favourably. The idea is that the search mechanism will appear on the websites of each of the participating archives, so their users can find what’s held locally and nationally in the same place. It also links you to some 3,000 online videos on their websites of the respective archives. Search Your Film Archives is a good first step, and will get better in time. It is actually of huge significance as the potential platform for a new kind of national archive, one that is shared by partner institutions, who will eventually enjoy common preservation, digitisation, discovery and distribution services. This is what is interesting about Screen Heritage UK – it has seen that the answer to stablising film archives is to change the way they work, to change what an archive means. We are not there yet, certainly, but the desirable model is becoming clearer.

The Search Your Film Archives search facility on the London Screen Archives website, showing how users can either search across the LSA database or all databases

There will be more from the BFI on the database front soon. Their filmographic database is available online, but there is a separate technical database (known to its friends as TecRec) which tells you what materials they hold on each title. After years of trying, they have finally managed to marry up the two databases, which will be published as one under the name CID (Collections Information Database) very soon. It boasts an “innovative hierarchical data structure” based on the new European metadata standard for cinematographic works, CEN EN 15907. More on that when it appears.

And there there the regions. The UK has a number of film archives operating in the public sector. As well as the nationals (BFI, Scotland, Wales, Imperial War Museum) then are a number of archives representing the English regions, and having them work alongside the BFI through something like Search Your Film Archives or the Reel History of Britain TV series is wonderful to see. The regionals have each been pursuing their own Screen Heritage-funded projects, the outcomes of which will be announced in due course. As an example on the innovative approach to archive film being taken by such institutions, consider the Yorkshire Film Archive’s Memory Bank project, which is developing therapeutic uses for archive film footage in dementia, residential and domiciliary care settings. We’ll report on what has been achieved by these other archives with the Screen Heritage funds in another post.

Reel History of Britain is itself an outcome of the Screen Heritage project, though whether it is ‘revitalising the regions’ or ‘delivering digital access’ is not very clear. It’s putting films from the 1900s onwards onto the screen (that’s your token mention of silents in this post), under themes such as Evacuation, Teenagers, Slums, and Package Holidays. It features presenter Melvyn Bragg going about the UK in a mobile cinema and showing people films of themselves or their locality from the past. It revels in the coup of uncovering the descendants of people in archive films, delighting in the thrill of recognition, that tingle up the spine we get when we see that what the film depicts really happened and has its living connection with us today. It runs daily for 20 episodes, and some of the films featured just as clips will be shown in their entirety on the BFI’s Reel History site, which is a welcome innovation. If only a little more imagination and innovation had gone into the programmes themselves…

And, finally, there’s the BFI’s new digital delivery platform still in test mode, so it’s called BFI Beta, which is serving as the online to a lot of this activity. My, they have been busy.

So there’s an exciting future for film archives, but it’s really only a part of the picture for archives overall. Roly Keating, Director of Archive Content at the BBC, was on the panel last night. He pointed out that there had been a lot of talk about ‘film’, but that a screen heritage meant TV content too, and TV archives need to consider how they can likewise work together to enable greater care, discovery and sharing. But then he pointed out that moving images are just one digital object among many, and the real prize will be establishing shared systems in which films, books, images, manuscripts, sounds, websites, and anything else that contains knowledge can be found together. Some are already thinking along these lines (see Europeana or Trove, both covered by the Bioscope). The BBC is too, in most interesting ways. That’s where film belongs. The new film history is just history, with film in it.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 30

Mural of Lillian Gish on the wall of a pump station at Massillon, Ohio, from

Hi folks, and welcome to the latest issue of the Bioscope’s erratically published but lovingly composed newsreel, mopping up for you some of the more diverting news stories of the week on silent film.

More on Brides of Sulu
A few weeks we published a post on Brides of Sulu, a supposedly American film from the mid-1930s which probably took footage from an Philippine silent fiction film (possibly two) and added an American commentary. All Philippine silent film production was believed to be lost, so this is an exciting discovery, and it was naturally a highlight at Manila’s recent International Silent Film Festival. If you read comments to the original Bioscope post you can find extra information from the grandson of the film’s lead actor, ‘Eduardo de Castro’ (real name Marvin Gardner). Or there’s an informative piece in the Philippine Daily Inquirer on the research involved – though I think the director was not the Philippine José Nepomuceno but rather American silent film veteran Jack Nelson. But the journalist has read the Bioscope, which is grand. Read more.

The day the laughter stopped
A feature film adaptation of David Yallop’s account of the Fatty Arbuckle case, The Day the Laughter Stopped, is in development. The film is scheduled to star Eric Stonestreet and will be a telefilm made for HBO. Will silent cinema’s pre-eminent tragic tale make a successful transference to the screen? With Barry Levinson as director, we must hope at least for a thoughtful interpretation. Read more.

Lillian at the pump station
Massillon, Ohio artist Scot Phillips has created a mural featuring Lillian Gish at the junction between Lillian Gish Boulevard and Route 21, unromantically painted on a west-facing wall of a pump station next to the Tuscarawas River. The silent film star grew up in Massillon, hence the mural and the road. It took him all summer. Read more.

Telluride coup
What are the two most discussed silent films of 2011? They must be Michel Hazanavicius’ modern silent The Artist, and the colour restoration of George Méliès’ A Trip to the Moon. So hats off to the Telluride Film Festival for bringing the two together in one of the more imaginative programming coups of the year. And they are playing at the Abel Gance Open Air Cinema … Read more.

The story of film
Mark Cousins’ book The Story of Film (2006) is a pretty good and impressively wide-ranging generally history of the medium. It’s now been turned into a 15-part television series showing in the UK on Channel 4’s offshoot channel More4 from tomorrow. Expect to see silent films given their fair due (says the press release of episode one, “Filmed in the buildings where the first movies were made, it shows that ideas and passion have always driven film, more than money and marketing”). What you don’t expect to see is a UK television channel go so far as to show a silent film itself, but – incredible to relate – Film4 is showing Orphans of the Storm on 6 September to accompany the Cousins series. Read more.

‘Til next time!