Pordenone diary 2011 – day two

The top of the Teatro Verdi, Pordenone

Domenica. Dawn. The sun is already beating down warmly as we head out after breakfast for a long’s day’s viewing. It may be like high summer outside, but we are scheduled to spent most of it in a darkened theatre, absorbed in the extraordinarily various worlds of silent cinema revealed in day two of the Giornate del Cinema Muto. So let the adventure begin.

Some years ago the festival put on a notable programme of silent Walt Disney films, starting with the Alice comedies. In 2011 we go back further, to Uncle Walt’s first-ever films, the Laugh-o-Grams series. In 1920 Disney was a 19-year-old commercial artist working for an advertising company in Kansas City. He approached a local exhibitor, Frank Newman, with the idea of producing a cartoon filler for Newman’s cinema chain. This first film, Newman Laugh-o-Gram (USA 1921), is a rudimentary but spirited local newsreel, starting with live film of Disney himself at his desk, then turning to comic comments on local issues (crime, fashions, the state of the roads), done as lightning sketches except for a final item when there is genuine animation – one of the few examples in his entire oeuvre done by Disney alone. The Laugh-o-Gram series would continue for another two years, but Disney shifted from newsreel to modernised fables, and these are what we are to see throughout the Giornate.

Next up, The Race to the Pole. The Giornate’s Antarctic exploration strand is to give us two programmes of short films and two documentary features over the week, covering Man’s urgent quest to explore Antarctica and to become the first to reach the South Pole. I am reminded of Raymond Durgnat’s withering four-word assessment of the 1953 documentary The Conquest of Everest – “as if it mattered”. Well, of course it didn’t really matter, and despite much insistence (some of it sincere) that they were heading south for the best of scientific purposes, so much of this activity was vaingorious, driven by national pride and a quest for personal glory by some of exploration’s most stubborn – but also most interesting – men.

We will be seeing the two most stubborn and most interesting of them all, Robert Falcon Scott and Ernest Shackleton, later in the week. This morning we have a collection of shorts which shows just how much polar activity there was worldwide, and how popular films were of such expeditions (the films often having been made in the hope that their commercial success would help offset expedition expenses). First up is The Scottish Antarctic Expedition (GB 1902-04), briefly documenting William Spiers Bruce’s scrupulously scientific expedition to Antarctica. Bruce captured ice floating by and a penguin rookery before his camera jammed – just enough to give us two emblematic shots which will now recur in all the other Antarctic films we are to see.

Ernest Shackleton appears, albeit only as a dot on the horizon, in Depature of the British Antarctic Expedition from Lyttleton N.Z. 1st Jan. 1908 (New Zealand 1908). This newsreel shows Shackleton’s ship Nimrod sailing south, waved goodbye by excited crowds and followed by a flotilla of ships. Shackleton would get to within 97 miles of the Pole before being forced to return.

Sledging into the distance, from Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12

The explorer who first made it furthest south was of course Roald Amundsen. Thanks to its recent DVD release and recognition by UNESCO’s Memory of the World Register, Roald Amundsens Sydpolsferd 1910-12 (Roald Amundsen’s South Pole Expedition) (Norway 1912) has become not only familiar but iconic, after years when the only familiar Anatarctic exploration images were those taken of Scott and Shackleton. Filmed by Amundsen himself and Kristan Prestrud, the sixteen-minute film does not reached the aesthetic heights achieved by Herbert Ponting (for Scott) or Frank Hurley (for Shackleton), but its matter-of-factness echoes the clear-headed, sensible – and of course successful – approach undertaken by the Norwegians. On two occasions the images haunt us – where a silhouetted Norwegian with pipe comically confronts an emperor penguin, and towards the end when their sledges pulled by dogs disappear into the white dstance, heading away from us as they move to the top of the frame and the camera remains fixed.

However, though the print was poor, the film of the programme for me is Nihon Nankyoku Tanken (Japan 1912). It was crowded in Antarctica around 1910-1912. There were expeditions from Britain, Australian, Norway and Japan. The latter, led by Lieutenant Nobu Shirase mostly explored the coastal areas and did not make any attempt on the Pole, but they were excitedly acclaimed as heroes on their return, and the film is constructed as a paean to noble endeavour, with a strong nationalist tone, glorifying what were really relatively humble achievements. “Japan has left its imprint on the Antarctic continent”, it boasts. It is also interesting for the opening scenes where we are shown the equipment, and then each of the members of the expedition, with their names. No other polar exploration film of the period does this, amazingly enough, given the huge human interest in such adventures. It even names the ship’s accountant. The footage on the ice, shot by Yasunao Taizumi, is not particularly impressively, but fascinatingly the catalogue notes by leading polar film authority Jan Anders Diesen reveal that some of the footage, showing four men pulling a sledge and pitching a tent, does not feature the type of sledge used by Shirase’s expedition. There is a possibility that these shots could come from the otherwise lost film of Shackleton’s 1907-09 Nimrod expedition, which was being sold by Gaumont in 1909. It would be wonderful if this could be confirmed.

A newsreel follows, Pathé’s Animated Gazette no. 140 (UK 1911) which has a brief item of the dogs used in Douglas Mawson’s expedition, included among such delightful newsreel mundanities as ship launches, parades, and Kingston regatta. Mawson, who led Australian’s Antarctic expedition (previously described on the Bioscope), took with him the photographer Frank Hurley, who was still learning his craft as a polar filmmaker and would go on to greater things working with Ernest Shackleton. Nevertheless, the two sequences from Mawson’s surviving films, shown as [The Film of the Mawson Australasian Expedition] (Australia 1911-12), demonstrate great skill and enterprise from Hurley, particularly in a sequence where the explorers venture out into a fierce wind yet Hurley’s camera remains steady throughout, his sense of composition acute. Mawson’s films were presented in lecture format over 1914-16 and lecture scripts survive. The National Film and Sound Archive of Australia are reconstructing the films in their lecture format, and we see the films intercut with slides (which do indeed slide in an out as they would have been shown at the time) and commentary (recorded by Quentin Tournor) and no music. It is instrutive and effective, and there needs to be more of this sort of archaeological reconstruction of the lecture films of the period, because some of the most popular ‘films’ of our period were actually multimedia amalgamations – films, slides, music, commentary – in a form which we could say was more televisual than cinematic. Neil Brand and I had a stab at it recreating part of With Allenby in Egypt and Lawrence in Arabia (1919), but the Mawson’s scripts seem to have the crucial details of what film clip and what slide goes where. And so do any other such lecture film scripts survive?

Anyway, the polar film programme part 1 has been excellent, and it is interesting to see it watched by a full and attentive audience. Only a few years ago a programme of non-fiction films might be guaranteed to empty the Verdi, but good programming and supporting information is paying off.

Betty Amman in Asphalt, from http://www.film-daily.com

The Giornate’s Canon Revisited strand brings back classics for re-evaluation. There are times when the majority of us are left scratching our heads because we have not heard of said classics, it being a long time since we last read The Film Till Now. But we have all heard of Joe May’s Asphalt (Germany 1929) and we sit back in expectation of a treat. And we are not disappointed. It is as classic as they come. It sets up the city street setting with polished skill, gradually leading us into the life of a young traffic policeman with doting parents who captures a woman jewel thief only to be seduced by her. Her lover then returns, the young man kills him by accident in a fight, but (somewhat improbably) he avoids imprisonment when she turns honest for the first time and says that the killing was self-defence, and that she is guilty of the jewel theft. But the story is not the point – it is the truthfulness to the way people act out their lives before one another, the truthfulness of the policeman’s spoken and unspoken understanding of things in the scenes with his parents. It is a film that finds out all the shades of grey between good and bad. An exceptional film, given an appropriately nuanced piano accompaniment by Gabriel Thibaudeau which was much applauded.

And then it is back to Georgia for Mzago da Gela (Georgia SSR 1934, though made in 1930), another film directed by Lev Push, this time in collaboration with Shalva Khuskivadze. This shows the remote Khevsur people, whose exotic mountainside lives are interrupted by visting tourists who bring with them a magical invention, radio. A young couple, recently married, react differently to this insight into modernity. She leaves for the big city of Tiblisi; he stays behind and broods, before going to look for her. The scenes of the two of them in traditional costume wandering lost through the modern town with everyone staring at them turn the film from drama into documentary. Then, alas, the propaganda takes over, because they have to be seen to both embrace the forward-looking Soviet Union, so she runs a dairy and he becomes a radio engineer. A free film would have been able to explore the tensions between the traditional and the modern with greater richness.

Goodness, it is only midday. We break for lunch, rejoicing in the warmth, then return for two Italian dramas. Il Veleno delle Parole (Italy 1913) is a tale of slander and innocence, quite competently done, but La Serpe (Italy 1920) is an over-wrought bore, with Francesca Bertini putting on the diva mannerisms when that style of performance was some years out of date. Italian films sadly lost their way in the 1920s; they try so hard and achieve so little.

The Giornate has been encouraging local schools to contribute music scores to silents and then perform them to us, so we get American comedies with recorders, percussion, sound effects and the teacher playing the piano and it all works rather well. Disney’s Oh Teacher! (USA 1927), featuring Oswald the Lucky Rabbit was nicely done, and Buster Keaton’s The Electric House (USA 1922) was fun, once they’d got the DVD working (a really indistinct image, alas). It’s a curious film, not quite understanding what this new phenomenon of electricity is (by mistake Buster gets to wire up someone’s home electrically and all of the gadgets go haywire when a real electrical engineer takes his revenge), not sufficiently consistent in the gags it draws from the situation.

Then we get SpilimBrass, a five-piece brass ensemble playing to Chalie Chaplin’s The Adventurer (USA 1917) and Easy Street (USA 1917). They are excellent – spiritied, witty, and perfectly attuned to the needs of the films. The Adventurer must be the perfect comedy; Easy Street is not so funny (what film so honest about violence, poverty and degradation could be?) but it packs in more human observation in twenty minutes than some social historians have achieved in a lifetime.

We decide to forgo a modern documentary on Hungarian cinema and stumble out into the early evening for supper. The third and final screening session of this long day begins at 8.30, and the Verdi is full as everyone eagerly awaits the headline attraction. Firstly we get another Disney Laugh-o-Gram, Little Red Riding Hood (USA 19220, a rudimentary but nevertheless delightful modernisation of the fairy tale. There are quite a lot of repeated actions and other such animation short-cuts, but we can see Walt and his team learning their craft and enjoying doing so. A Hole in the Bucket (USA 2010) is one of the modern silent shorts that the Giornate generously finds space for, though the results tend to be mixed. American film student Rex Harsin has developed a Chaplin-like character he calls Purdie. Alas he does not have Chaplin’s years of experience on the variety stage before he ever stepped in front of a camera. No one laughs.

The Better Man (USA 1912) is a routine Vitagraph Western, most interesting for being one of the horde of American films repatriated from New Zealand and for having the money for its restoration provided by the For the Love of Film blogathon, which gets a welcome mention in the credits.

Clara Bow says come hither, in Mantrap

And then the crowd get what they having been looking forward to all day, Mantrap (USA 1926), starring Clara Blow. It is being shown as part of the Treasures of the West strand, marking the recent 5-DVD set release of films on Western themes by the National Film Preservation Foundation. Mantrap is probably Clara Bow’s best film, despite the silly story and unlikely setting (she marries dull hulk Ernest Torrence and joins in the Canadian wilderness with no one to talk to except Percy Marmont). The camera loves her, and she loves the camera, never more so than for the iconic shot where she beckons Marmont (and by implication all of us watching) with her curled finger. It’s not much of a film, to be honest; a good cast is given too little to do, wisecracking intertitles becomes wearisome after a while, and its teasing attempt at challenging conventional morality when Clara cheerfully ditches her husband for Marmont is squashed when she returns to Torrence as the dutiful wife, after a breezy spell in Minneapolis. It could have been a proto-feminist film, but it’s Victor Fleming directing, and it isn’t.

The parting of the Red Sea in Die Sklavenkönigin, a screengrab from Nitrateville

Phew, it’s been a long day. Nineteen films, three of them features, and now here’s a fourth to round off the day. Another strand at the Giornate is Before Curtiz, the films the great Michael Curtiz made before he went to Hollywood, when he was Mihály Kertész from Hungary. I’ve long wanted to see Die Sklavenkönigin (Moon of Israel) (Austria 1924), not least for its British connection since it was part-funded by British company Stoll Film Studios, with H. Rider Haggard writing the intertitles for what was an adaptation of his novel Moon of Israel. Alas, the old saying ‘A Stoll film is a dull film’ never rang truer. It’s a tale of the Israelites in slavery in Egypt being led to freedom by Moses, though the lead figure is an Israelite slave girl with Mosaic-like authority who falls in love with an Egyptian prince.

Because it says so in the film histories then I have to accept it must be partially true, but I really do find it hard to credit that Maria Corda was ever popular. Plain, heavily-built, and as lacking in star quality as she is in any acting ability, she kills the film stone dead. Yet it apparently was designed as a star vehicle on acount of her great popularity with German and Austrian auiences following the films she had made with husband Alexander Korda. Her co-star, the Chilean Adelqui Millar, is no less wooden, though having seen the ludicrous hairstyle devised for him by the wardrobe department, perhaps he just gave up from the start and was merely grateful for the cheque at the end of it. There is some interest in how the Jews are presented not entirely sympathetically, with their tendency to violence contrasting with the gentle Egyptian prince who becomes Pharoah, and the parting of the Red Sea is genuinely impressive – achieved, the catalogue tells us, “by combining double exposure of the negative with an ingenious mechanical device that launched 50 cubic metres of water over a scale model”. In the end Corda has to die to avoid the a-historical embarassment of a Jew married to an Egyptian pharoah. A film more endured than enjoyed.

It’s been a long day; it’s been a long post. Look out for the report from day three, when we shall encounter an underground printing press, bourgeois Japanese insects, a kiss on the roof of the Alhambra, and the woman who painted a famous red flag.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

Bioscope Newsreel no. 33

While we continue to compile the Pordenone diaries (which is no light task), here’s the latest edition of our regular newsreel, which today has a special publications theme this time around, noting some of the new books on silent film published recently.

Early cinema today
Early Cinema Today: The Art of Programming and Live Performance, edited by Martin Loiperdinger, published by John Libbeyis the first in a series of studies in early cinema issued by KINtop. KINtop’s publications to date have been predominantly in German, so this marks an interesting and welcome depature. The volume reviews recent work in programming early cinema, from the Crazy Cinématographe shows to Mariann Lewinsky’s A Hundred Years Ago programmes at Bologna. Read more.

But let’s not overlook German language works. Claus Tieber’s Stummfilmdramaturgie: Erzählweisen des amerikanischen Feature Films 1917-1927, published by LIt Verlag, is a study of modes of narration in American silent cinema 1917-1927, and sets out to challenge accepted notions of classical Hollywood cinema. Read more.

Emerald illusions
Gary D. Rhodes’s Emerald Illusions: The Irish in Early American Cinema, published by Irish Academic Press, is based on his doctoral thesis and provides what he calls the first history of pre-cinema and the Irish in America. So its subject is not Irish film as commonly studied but rather the rich theme of the portrayal of the Irish in American film and pre-film stagings, as he looks back to the magic lantern and the variety stage, and covers non-fiction films as well as fiction. Read more.

Cinema audiences and modernity
Cinema Audiences and Modernity: An Introduction is edited by Daniel Biltereyst, Richard Maltby and Philippe Meers, and published by Routledge. It brings together papers on cinema-going in Europe first given at the 2007 ‘Glow in their Eyes‘ conference. This is the second volume of papers to be published from the conference, the first (by the same editors), Explorations in New Cinema History: Approaches and Case Studies having been published earlier this year. Read more.

‘Til next time!

Staging illusions


Staging Illusion: Digital and Cultural Fantasy is a two-day conference taking place 8-9 December 2011 at the University of Sussex, whose themes, while not directly referencing silent cinema, are highly relevant to it. So here’s the conference blurb:

Staging Illusion: Digital and Cultural Fantasy,
December 8th and 9th, University of Sussex

Keynote speakers: Professor Vanessa Toulmin (Director of the National Fairground Archive), Dr Sarah Kember (Goldsmiths) and Professor Sally R Munt (Director of the Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies).

Plenary speakers: Dr Astrid Ensslin (Bangor), Dr Melanie Chan (Leeds Met), Professor Nicholas Till (Sussex), and Dr Jo Machon (Brunel).

Sussex Centre for Cultural Studies & the Centre for Material Digital Culture present:

From magicians and mediums to immersive media, and from the circus to cyborgs, the celebration and/or mistrust of illusion has been a central theme across a range of cultures. Notions of fakery and deception remind us that our identities that are performative. The figure of the ‘mark’ of the fairground scam remains culturally ubiquitous, perhaps more so than ever, in an era of (post) mechanical reproduction. Is new technology a flight from the real or merely a continuation of older cultural forms? Is it necessary, or even possible, to define reality in relation to the illusory? What realms of ‘otherness’ remain to be embraced? This international conference will discuss staged illusions across a spectrum of historical, geographical and cultural contexts, featuring original and exciting papers and performances.

Panels interrogate staging illusion from diverse perspectives, including: 3D cinema, the paranormal, the music hall, digital trickery, the fairground, magicians and illusionists, theatre, science, the museum, the magic of cinema, the gothic, digital gaming, social networking, the circus, advertising, illusory bodies and genders, theme parks and digital animation. Over two days the conference will also showcase illusory performance pieces, installations and magic.

Panel speakers so far confirmed: Jon Armstrong, Adam Bee, Victoria Byard, Diane Carr, Eleanor Dare, Cristina Miranda de Almeida with Matteo Ciastellardi, Lane DeNicola, Yael Friedman, Aristea Fotopoulou, Kate Genevieve, Jonathan Gilhooly, Dr Rachael Grew, Birgitta Hosea, Jacqueline Hylkema, Jane Insley, Lewis Johnson, Laura Ellen Joyce, Frances A. Kamm, Ewan Kirkland, Chara Lewis with Kristin Mojsiewicz & Anneke Pettican, Liang-Wen Lin, Joe Marshall, John Carter McKnight, Jenny Munro, Constantino Oliva, Professor Deborah Philips, Burcu Yasemin Şeyben, Jayne Sheridan, Peter Sillett, Frances Smith, Marian St. Laurent, Nozomi Uematsu, Owen Weetch, John Wills.

No programme as yet, but registration is now open, with the cost £190 (£85 for students). There’s a downloadable booking form on the conference site, and you can follow developments on the conference blog or via its Twitter feed.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day one

Festival-goers in the foyer of the Verdi theatre for the Giornate del Cinema Muto

Here we are again in Pordenone. It’s a pleasing, unostentatious town on the Venetian plain, to the north-west of Italy, population around 50,000, and not to be found in many guidebooks. There’s just the one scenic street likely to attract the day-tripper, the Corso Vittorio Emanuele II, but it’s a place whose quiet pleasures become all the more apparent if you stay for a while. Say, at a silent film festival.

So we are at the thirtieth Giornate del Cinema Muto, and if you think it’s a wonder that after thirty years they still have something new to show, well we learn in the festival catalogue that there are some 50,000 silent films held in FIAF archives and Pordenone has so far shown 6,658 of them, so we’ve a way to go yet, and the Giornate is right to pursue its policies of comprehensiveness, discovery and pushing back the boundaries. At Pordenone, silent films are always going forward, never standing still.

So we fly in via Trieste (such glorious, glorious views over Venice), a route taken by surprisingly few festival-goers, so that the three of us on the flight headed for the Giornate are treated to a festival car. For a moment, when I see my name held up on a card in the airport I think that perhaps the festival is so in awe of these Pordenone diaries that we produce each year that they have laid on a courtesy car for our special benefit. But the car is for the rather more deserving pianist John Sweeney, and thus we arrive in Pordenone in comfort and warm sunshine at four in the afternoon.

We register, and discover to our dismay that the festival catalogue has been delayed and will not be available until Tuesday. Much wailing and gnashing of teeth (inwardly at least), and we abandon plans to blog daily from the festival because the catalogue’s detailed background information is essential if we are to provide you with a solid reference work as opposed to mere impressionism. We check in at the ever-reliable Park Hotel, then head back to the centre of town and into the Verdi theatre to catch our first films (which have been screening since 14:30). A slight contretemps occurs when the Verdi staff refuse to let us into the upper floor where we prefer to sit (because the ground floor seats are not yet filled up), but we are philosophical about this, eventually.

Into the auditorium, and our first film is not one for the frivolous. The Doomed (Gantsirluni) (Georgia SSR 1930) is directed by the Georgian Lev Push, one of last year’s festival’s discoveries. The feature-length film concerns a mutiny among Russian troops in France following the October 1917 revolution. It starts with Kino-Pravda-style newsreel intercut with sloganeering, then turns into drama, with the pained faces of the mutinous soldiers in their barracks, their faces shown in the uncompromising, epic light that so characterises Soviet filmmaking of the period. I struggle to resolve the dehumanized presentation with the human fellow feeling it strives to evoke, but others find the film technically impressive.

Luisella and Raffaele Viviani (centre) in Un Amore Selvaggio (1912), from http://archiviteatro.napolibeniculturali.it/teatroViviani.html

More to my taste is Un Amore Selvaggio (Italy 1912), part of the festival’s Italy: Restrospect and Discovery strand. This is a hoot. It stars what are clearly a stage duo, bringing their larger-than-life stage personas to the screen. The duo are brother and sister Luisella and Raffaele Viviani, Neapolitan stage actors who specialise in native dramas of grimy realism and high passion, usally directed by Raffaele. It is the only one of their three films to survive. Here they play a Sicilian brother and sister in a drama of intense revenge, where she asks her brother to kill a farm owner who has rejected her advances because she is his social inferior, only preventing him from doing so when she changes her mind. Never have eyes rolled so much, arms waved so passionately, nor hair been pulled back so constantly. Yet it is not comical; rather it jolts the audience out of complacency, showing an edgier form of early cinema than we usually experience out of the comparatively milder stage traditions of northern Europe and America. When Raffaele looks like he wants to fight, he sems more than ready to deal in real blows; when Luisella wants you killed, the audience starts worrying for you.

One fascinating minor detail. The sister in Un Amore Viaggio tries to poison a female rival by dipping sulphur matches into her drink. We learn that a Hungarian film shown earlier in the day (presumably A Tolonc) features exactly the same strategy. It doesn’t work for Luisella – her would-be victim merely puts down the drink because it tastes funny. Did poisoning by matches ever work? Was it common?

More high passion follows. The title of Più che la morte (Italy 1912) translates as ‘worse than death’ (all of the films at Pordenone come with titles projected beneath the screen translated into English and Italian). The name of the director of this Cines historical drama is not known, which is a great shame, because he demonstrates eye-catching technical skill, with dramatic foregrounding of characters and striking use of lateral camera movement. Our hero (in some nineteenth-century setting) betrays some friends to save his wife from torture by the police. His friends are his friends no longer. They tie him to a post, and through two sets of windows he sees his wife and child trapped in a room which is then set on fire. Nice framing of the inset background action we tell ourselves, while shivering at the horror and wondering at the mind who made such an entertainment.

Più che la morte is one of a number of films shown at the Giornate from the Desmet collection of the Netherlands EYE Film Institute. The collection of Dutch cinema owner and film distributor Jean Desmet was recently inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, one of the few films or film collections on the prestigious register, and an interesting example of one country championing the preservation of the cultural artefacts of others, since few of the Desmet films are Dutch.

The evening’s festival treat is Novi Vavilon (New Babylon) (USSR 1929), part of the Shostakovich & FEKS strand, of which more in a later diary. The film is screened to Shostakovich’s score played by the FVG Mitteleuropa Orchestra, but these grand occasions (and the demand that you take a particular seat) are not to our taste, so we retire for the evening.

This year’s Giornate is seeing greater coverage online than seems to have been the case before. There is the Giornate’s Twitter account, finally leaping into life, and a wide selection of photographs on its Flickr account, from which photographs of day one are here. There are also videos from their YouTube channel, some of which we shall embed here for the days where they belong.

Stay tuned for the Bioscope’s Pordenone diary day two, when we shall bring you the earliest Disney cartoon, Japanese polar explorers, the parting of the Red Sea, and Georgian peasant radio enthusiasts.

Pordenone diary 2011 – day two
Pordenone diary 2011 – day three
Pordenone diary 2011 – day four
Pordenone diary 2011 – day five
Pordenone diary 2011 – day six
Pordenone diary 2011 – day seven
Pordenone diary 2011 – day eight

Poverty on screen 1880-1914

Comment les pauvres mangent à Paris / How the Poor Dine in Paris (Pathé 1910), from the Screening the Poor DVD

Recently we reviewed the the double-DVD release from Edition Filmmuseum, Screening the Poor 1888-1914, which innovatively brings together early films and magic lantern sets on the theme of poverty. Now the DVD release and the Screen1900 Project at the University of Trier which encouraged it have led to a conference taking place 1-3 December at the German Historical Institute in London. The title of the conference is ‘Screen Culture and the Social Question: Poverty on Screen 1880-1914’, and the convenors are Professor Dr. Andreas Gestrich (GHIL) and Dr Ludwig Vogl-Bienek (University of Trier). Here are the descriptive blurb and preliminary programme:

This conference will bring together different international research approaches looking at how the optical lantern (‘art of projection’) and cinematography were used in the context of the Social Question around 1900. The media history relevance of the Social Question to the establishment of these new visual media has hardly so far been examined. Nor have these media been critically investigated as social history sources. The conference aims to make a fundamental contribution towards establishing an innovative field of research in the area where social history and media history overlap.

The rapid success of ‘cinematography’ at the beginning of the twentieth century owed much to what was known as the ‘art of projection’. The screen became firmly established as a part of international cultural life in the second half of the nineteenth century by the ‘art of projection’. The enormous creative potential of these new visual media in public performances was used not only for commercial purposes, but also for events in areas such as education, religion, and social policy.

The interdisciplinary comparison will discuss the state of research on the motifs, production, dissemination, and reception of the projection media in the field of poor relief and social policy. Different methodological concepts will be introduced for researching the performative potential of existing scripts and artefacts (glass slides, films, projectors). In addition, projects editing sources will be presented, and new processes for digitally reproducing and documenting historical sources and artefacts will be discussed.

Preliminary Conference Programme

Thursday, 1 December 2011:


Welcome and Introduction
Andreas Gestrich (German Historical Institute London) and Ludwig Vogl-Bienek (University of Trier)

14:30 – 17:00
Panel 1: Screen Culture and the Public Sphere – Historic Context and Social Impact 1880 – 1914
Chair: Ian Christie (London)
Martin Loiperdinger (Trier): The Social Impact of Screen Culture 1880 – 1914.
Stephen Bottomore (Bangkok): The Lantern and Early Film for Social and Political Uses.

15:30 – 16:00 Coffee Break

16:00 – 17:00 Comment and Discussion Panel 1
Comment by Andreas Gestrich (London)

17:15 – 19:00
Road Show: Approaches to the Hidden History of Screen Culture
Frank Gray (Brighton): The Lucerna Network for the History of Projection.
Ine van Dooren (Brighton): Archiving and preserving lantern slides and related resources.
Richard Crangle (Exeter): Digitizing the History of Screen Culture: The Lucerna Database.

Friday, 2 December 2011:

09:30 – 12:30
Panel 2: Raising Public Awareness for the Living Conditions in Slums and Tenements
Chair: Clemens Zimmermann (Saarbrücken)
Ludwig Vogl-Bienek (Trier): Slum Life and Living Conditions of the Poor in Fictional and Documentary Lantern Slide Sets.
Joss Marsh (Bloomington) / David Francis (Bloomington): “Poetry of Poverty” – The Magic Lantern and the Ballads of George R. Sims.
Bonnie Yochelson (New York): Jacob Riis, His Photographs, and Poverty in New York, 1888-1914.

11:00 – 11:30 Coffee Break

11:30 – 12:30
Comment and Discussion Panel 2
Comment by tbc

12:30 – 14:00 Lunch Break

14:00 – 17:00
Panel 3 – Education and Entertainment for the Poor – the Use of Lantern Shows and Early Films by Charity Organisations
Chair: Ine van Dooren (Brighton)
Karen Eifler (Trier): Free Meals and Lantern Shows: Charitable Events in Great Britain and Germany.
Judith Thissen (Utrecht): Educating Moyshe: Jewish Socialists, Gentile Entertainments, and the Future of the Jewish Immigrant Masses in America.
Caroline Henkes (Trier): Early Christmas Films in the Tradition of the Magic Lantern.

15:30 – 16:00 Coffee Break

16:00 – 17:00 Comment and Discussion Panel 3
Comment by Frank Gray (Brighton)

19:00 tbc

Evening Programme at The Foundling Museum:
A festive and true-made Victorian Magic Lantern Show for the deserving poor of London”
by Mervyn Heard with Juliette Harcourt (recitation and song) and Stephen Horne (piano)

Saturday, 3 December 2011:

09:00 – 12:00
Panel 4 – Social Prevention with the Aid of the Screen and Exhibitions
Chair: Richard Crangle (Exeter)
Annemarie McAllister (Preston): The Promotion of Temperance by means of the Magic Lantern.
Marina Dahlquist (Göteborg): Health Entrepreneurs: American Screen Practices in the 1910s.
Michelle Lamuniere (Harvard University): From Jacob Riis’s Lantern Slide Presentations to Harvard University’s Social Museum.

10:30 – 11:00 Coffee Break

11:00 – 12:00 Comment and Discussion Panel 4
Comment by Scott Curtis (Evanston)
12:00 – 13:00
Closing Remarks and General Discussion
Chair: Andreas Gestrich
Closing Remarks by Ian Christie (London) and Clemens Zimmermann (Saarbrücken)

Spaces are limited (with all those speakers they can’t have much space left) and those interested to register should contact the organisers via this link.

Bioscope Newsreel no. 32

Carla Laemmle and Gary Busey, from Hollywood Reporter

Here in the scriptorium at New Bioscope Towers we’re setting the staff to transcribing our scarcely decipherable notes made in the dark (of course) at the Pordenone Silent Film Festival, in readiness for the first of our diary reports – we hope not to keep you waiting too long. Meanwhile, other events have been taking place in the world of silent film. These are five of them.

Carla’s second century
Carla Laemmle, niece of Universal Pictures founder Carl Laemmle, has will be 102 on October 20th, and is not just one of the few silent film performers still alive, but very probably the only one still acting. She appeared as a prima ballerina in The Phantom of the Opera (1925) and plays alongsde Gary Busey in the forthcoming feature Mansion of Blood. Read more.

A dog’s life
The silent star of the moment, however, has four legs. Susan Orlean’s cultural history Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend has gained much acclaim and aroused new interest in silent cinema’s leading canine star. The book tells a “powerfully moving story of Rin Tin Tin’s journey from orphaned puppy to movie star and international icon”, telling a history that is as much about American entertainment and society as it is about the dog. Read more.

Silent cinema and the secrets of London
The Daily Telegraph site has a thoughtful article by Neil Brand on his experience of London through the medium of silent film and his music accompaniments, from Siege of Sidney Street newsreels, to Alfred Hitchcock’s The Lodger, to his own orchestral score for Anthony Asquith’s Underground (premiered on October 5th at the Barbican). Read more.

Louis Louis
Louis, Dan Pritzker’s modern silent film on the childhood of Louis Armstrong, with Wynton Marsalis’ jazz score, has its European debut on 13 November, as part of the London Jazz Festival, at the Barbican (again). Marsalis himself won’t be there, but the eight-piece group, led by trombonist Wycliffe Gordon, includes saxophonist Wes Anderson, and drummer Herlin Riley. Tickets are now on sale. Read more.

La Parade est passée
One of the quite essential silent film books, Kevin Brownlow’s 1968 The Parade’s Gone By, is to be published in French for the first time. Its translator is Christine Leteux, the knowledgeable soul behind the highly commendable Ann Harding’s Treasures blog. It is to be published by Acte Sud/Institut Lumière on 19 October (according to Amazon.fr). Brownlow himself is a guest of honour at the Lumière 2011 film festival in Lyon this week, marking the publication of his book. Read more.

‘Til next time!

New site for Domitor / Nouveau site Web pour Domitor


Well, we’re back from Pordenone, sadly before the silent film festival itself is over, but pressing matters called us back. But there is plenty to report on, starting with the news of a new website for Domitor, the international association dedicated to the study of early cinema.

This is very welcome because Domitor, while being an organisation notable for its dedication towards the early part of the twentieth century, has been slower to grasp the opportunities – indeed necessities – of the twenty-first. The old website suffered from an antiquated look and a severe lack of updating, indeed a severe lack of any reason for anyone interested in early cinema to visit it. Hopefully the new site is indication of a change of policy, bringing news, resources and exchange of knowledge online.

Domitor (the names comes from that suggested by the father of the Lumière brothers for their projector) was founded in 1985 at the Pordenone festival, where it holds a meeting each year. It organises a biennial conference on aspects of early cinema, the first having taken place in Quebec in 1990 and the next to be held in Brighton in June 2012, on the theme ‘Performing new media, 1890-1915‘. Most of the papers presented at its conferences have been published in anthologies or special-issue volumes, details of which can be found on the site. They are essential for following trends in early cinema scholarship. There are some 300 members from over 30 countries, and all business is conducted in English and French.

The website tells you about the organisation, its conferences and publications, information on how to become a member, with a resources page covering recent publications and bibliography of members’ writings, a DVD Database, a news page, and an archive all promised for later. There is also a list of links. Sadly for the bilingualists, the French section of the site is not up yet (it’s expected in April 2012). Let’s hope the site grows as it has the potential to grow.

Pordenone pause

We have a small problem. I’m here in very sunny Pordenone, regular faces and new faces abound, familiar haunts are all inviting, silent films from around the world are unspooling before our lucky eyes. One thing is missing however. A catalogue. The immensely detailed, informative and authoritative catalogue that the silent film festival produces each year is not ready yet. Indeed we hear that it may not be completed, printed and handed to us until Wednesday, but which time this festival-goer will have gone home.

This rather spoils the plan of having daily reports for you, because I’m not always going to know what it is that I’ve seen. In particular some of the Soviet and Georgian films lined up are not going to make much sense without explanatory notes. I don’t want to write reports giving general impressions of films for which I can only give titles, date and director. A little bit of background knowledge is essential. So unless a miracle occurs, we’re going to have to abandon the on-the-spot diary plans. Which is a shame. But when you have a day like today, when you have not one but two films with scenes featuring someone trying to poison others by placing match-heads (with sulphur) into their drinks, then you want the world to know who did such deeds, and to say so with authority. At the moment all I can tell you is that, as a strategy, it doesn’t work too well. And a 1912 Italian film with translated title Worse than Death, with striking compositions, lateral camera movement and a denouement that startlingly lived up to the promise of its title. We must report all this, but report it well. Which will be on our return.

Update: I’ve learned the catalogue is now online. Managing all this through my phone is going to be a bit tricky, however, so I’ll keep to reports when I get back.